The Circle of Life in Mary J. Blige & Ronaldo Wilson

by on Nov.20, 2010

One of the great things about the “Circle of Life” envisioned in The Lion King is the scene’s emotional pornography.  Like the Child is unabashedly privileged, even exalted, since Simba the lion cub is at the center of the circle.  There’s something kitschy, manipulative, and therefore incredibly stirring about his suspension over a precipice.  The animals act more human that we do in our supposed baby-worship.  One user on YouTube comments:  “it’s strange how these seemingly ‘simple cartoons’ conveyed so much more depth and essential human feelings and truths than these crappy live-action shows with ‘real people’ nowadays do…”  The heavenly lights beaming down are the punch line, for me, though I don’t know whether to laugh like Lee Edelman or cry like a soccer mom.

And yet, for all of the scene’s pronatalism, signs of death multiply.  Look at all those blank-faced zebra waiting to be gobbled up.  The whole ritual insists on life’s precariousness, the old baboon and fragile cub positioned at the very edge of the rock.

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Despite or because of its self-negating title, Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama” generates emotional excess more pointedly.  The song actually samples the theme of the Young and the Restless!  Consider the bridge at 2:10 in this clip of Blige at the Grammy’s:

I once saw a drag performance of this song in Bushwick, a mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhood in Brooklyn, and one of the poorest overall in NYC (of course now increasingly populated by hipsters).  The performance was at a nonprofit organization called Make the Road.  I remember the performer gyrating and gesticulating just as Blige does.  Black bodies performing, each of them, to use Joyelle’s term, “bad copies” of something else, whether a soap opera filled with white people or an R&B singer of the opposite sex.  But these are also bodies channeling very real material conditions.  Blige actually shades her eyes to look at the audience as the song climaxes, fucking with that auratic, depoliticizing distance we somehow still cherish in American poetry when she sings, “You demons getting out of my face.”  The drag performer in Bushwick achieved a similar effect.  Something about being queer in that neighborhood and beyond—in that intersection of race, class, and sexuality—irrupted through the line “I’m tired of all this drama.”  The performer rescued the song’s piano refrain from the embroidery of daytime television.

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I’m interested in writing and art that does this.  That deploys sentimentality, ideology, and artifice not so much to ironize and perform—real drama, as Blige reminds us, ultimately isn’t funny or cute—but to amplify vulnerability.  When self-shattering becomes “the opposite of narcissism, in a way” because it leads to “other-shattering” (Halberstam).

Like when Ronaldo Wilson’s “The Black Object’s Catalyst” asks, “What if your face were stripped away from this house?  Would you remember red:  the hummingbird’s throat?”

Or, in “The Black Object’s Elasticity,” “What I want is to extend from one decay to another—beer breath to yellow teeth to his eyes sunk to hurt.”

Even just those two titles do the work I’m trying to describe here, jumping from cataclysm to elasticity along with the poems’ switched pronouns.  Wilson’s speaker enacts a self-dissolution so political it has to spill over the page, his poems inviting and violating us in a properly promiscuous circle of life.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. iNewYorker

    That performance made me cry. The first time anyone of such artistic value has done.

  2. Joyelle McSweeney

    Is the circle of life also the circle of death? That is, is life also the bad copy of, the drag show, the minstrel show, of death, AND/or (by which I mean ‘and’) vice versa? Is the gentrified neighborhood the bad copy of the non-gentrified neighborhood, and/or vice versa? In the nineties, when a Kinkos moved in you knew there were students around– not any more. Then ‘Makin’ copies’ became that annoying SNL actor’s catchphrase, emblematizing the repetition and content-less-ness of office work…

  3. Lucas

    iNewYorker, have you read the article in the NEW YORKER about Blige? it might make you rethink her powers: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2008/02/11/080211crmu_music_frerejones

    Talk about self-shattering: “Of her 2002 performance at the Grammys, where she vanquished her demons in a gold lamé jacket and pants, stomping (and, at one point, squatting) her way through a rendition of “No More Drama,” she said, “It may have looked like I was there, but I wasn’t. . . . I was, like, ‘Who is that?’”

    Joyelle,

    I want to say it’s more circle of life for some, more circle of death for others. But both gentrified and non-gentrified neighborhoods are pretty rotten copies of the American dream.

    L