"MELODRAMA IS THE NEW NEW SINCERITY": Carina Finn on Lana Del Ray, Chelsey Minnis and Melodrama

by on Jun.18, 2012

MELODRAMA IS THE NEW NEW SINCERITY (why bratty ingénues are better at it than everybody else).
By Carina Finn

There are a couple of things that I love without question or reserve and these things include melodramatic angsty girl-pop, anything that pouts, and the poetry of Chelsey Minnis.

I recently illegally army-crawled onto a roof wearing a brightly colored vintage silk neckerchief as a mask with a bunch of other poets who were also wearing masks. Two of these ladies are considered to be highly intelligent, respected members of various literary/academic communities. Basically what we did was lie on the roof singing Lana del Rey songs until everybody else left. A week earlier I had seen another very smart literary lady do a plainclothes burlesque routine to an acoustic violin rendition of the LDR song, Blue Jeans, and it was one of the best poems I have ever seen.

One of the things I think people who have a problem with CM’s work have a problem with is the fact that her poems are unapologetically melodramatic. Zirconia doesn’t have any blurbs; a very bratty move for a first book. Bad Bad begins with a treatise on why poetry is essentially retarded (as in, literally, the Merriam-Webster definition: slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress). Zirconia very blatantly points out the fundamental structural problems that accompany “being a contemporary poet,” ie., living in POEMLAND, but it does so via a series of baroque mini-arias with costume changes in the middle of every scene, on a stage covered in hot pink faux-fur.

Then of course there’s the fact that CM published three books then peac’d and refused to engage with the scene. And LDR is 25 and already giving us what seems like the “late work” of a precocious and prolific starlet who’s been on the scene for years. Like Basquiat, who is a total brat and an ingénue even though he’s hetero and a boy, these artists have opinions about their mediums and contexts and are going to say so; and they are GOING to be dramatic about it.

What makes melodrama the new new sincerity is that it encompasses all other modes of sincerity with a self-awareness that doesn’t try to be “transparent” – it really is what it’s performing. So when LDR pouts and coos, “DO YOU THINK WE’LL BE IN LOVE FOREVER?” she isn’t trying to make a coy gesture to rope-in the addressee to her tempest-trap of girlish insincerity, she really really wants to know if he think’s they’ll be in love forever because right now, at the moment of utterance, she can’t fathom anything else, and this issue is her greatest concern.

And when CM says “It hurts like a puff sleeve dress on a child prostitute,” it’s because that is what it’s really like, and there is no other way to say it. Her signature “this is like that” construction is an exercise in simile that is both ultra-transparent and extremely dense; like Bishop says in her poem about metaphor, “cold dark deep and absolutely clear.” CM and LDR’s melodramatic tendencies are not trying to obscure or costume anything – they are being absolutely clear.

Of course it takes a kind of recklessness and a sense of a-temporality in order to execute this kind of gesture, a rakishness that comes maybe only with youth or a sense that one not entirely accountable for their deeds; sincerity might be a crime but it’s forgivable, kids say the darndest things, etc. What gives ingénues their agency is that they are never really responsible for what they do – any independent act is always outside of any given structure of discipline because of implicit patronage. To use Basquiat as an example, again, he got away with being an enfant terrible because White Corporate American Art felt somehow responsible for his well being. Similarly, CM and LDR use their hyper-feminine affect to indicate that they are transgressing with the understanding that they will be forgiven, because you have to forgive a pouty girl in a dress.

And before every feminist on the planet strings me up by my satin sash, I don’t mean that women should or must be apologetic and cute, but it’s a proven and time-tested tactic of the ingénue. There is an exchange of power already implicit in the gesture itself; you leverage your abjection so you can be ruthlessly honest. That’s what Battiness, a fundamental quality of most (but not all) ingénues, is all about – it’s saying exactly what you want to say when you want to say it in the manner most appealing at that exact second. Or, as Chelsey Minnis says, “Don’t try to walk away from a little girl like me!”

25 comments for this entry:
  1. Mike Young

    I like this direction of the “sincerity” discussion. Have you ever read David Larsen’s THE THORN, which has an essay in it called “On MELODRAMA”? K. Silem Mohammad made me read it in college 6 years ago, and I still remember it. It discusses the “accusation” of melodrama as a “vehicle for social shaming” (as Kasey puts it here: http://jacketmagazine.com/33/humpo-discussion.shtml).

    Here’s an excerpt and some relation of that essay to Bollywood/divas by Nada Gordon: http://autretalk.blogspot.com/2010/02/melodrama.html.

    Feel like the pop culture relationship between divas and ingénues is interesting.

  2. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    this is why we’re friends.

  3. becca

    Battiness or Brattiness? (Last paragraph.) If it’s a typo it’s a damned good one!

  4. Kent Johnson

    Speaking of: What ever happened to the much-trumpeted “forthcoming” Flarf Anthology? Is that still in the works, does anyone know? And if not, does anyone know anything about the why not? I’d been asked by a magazine to write a review of the book, and for considerable pay, dammit, but then suddenly the Flarfists, along with all their melodramatic claims to being the new Red avant-wedge, seemed to go *poof* and all talk of this “imminent” tome stopped. I think it’s easily been a full year since I’ve even seen or heard the word Flarf mentioned!

    Was the Flarf program perhaps dissolved, in the sense of exhaustion and surrender, into Conceptual writing? Or into, even, the New Sincerity? Or perhaps the group collectively decided to go underground for a prolonged period with the idea of creating gossip and intrigue (in which case I’m only falling into the trap)? Seriously, I’m curious, if anyone has info on the dark mystery of it.

  5. Ana Bozicevic

    Oh good, thank you! Overshare or undershare — or ideally both at once.

  6. Kent Johnson

    To be clear, my “Speaking of” is referencing Mike Young’s above mention of prominent Flarf figures.

    Though I wonder if the notion of “melodrama” connects to Flarf “affect” no less than it would to the New Sincerity, as Johannes has it. Though in the former case the melodrama was often produced through the voices of casually ridiculed others…

  7. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    I wondered the same thing as becca and had the same reaction.

    I am interested in what relationship exists between the ingenue, adolescent or enfant terrible’s melodrama and the diva’s melodrama. I don’t think it is necessarily a coincidence that soap operas pivot around both. How does Margo Channing interace with Carina’s Eve?

  8. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    (…and I do think the diva is sincerely melodramatic/melodramatically sincere. C.C. Bloom feels things. Deeply).

  9. Joyelle McSweeney

    Carina, I’m dazzled and made woozy by this. Love it. Also love watching the Blue Jeans video again. The reanimation of the ‘richlady/pool boy trope’ vs the Lana’s wig/hair trope– which will win? When her hair floats on the water and that’s all that can be seen of her, I feel like her hair ‘wins’ the video.

    Ok, joking aside, I’m really interested in your argument and what you say specifically about the ingenue’s temporal economy, wherein right now = till the end of time. The present moment is eternal, fungible. It cannot end by the next moment arriving. It can only end in death, and is probably also proceeded by death (this is also the plot of many of LDR’s songs).

    I think this temporal aspect links it to TJY’s questions about soap operas and drama queens/divas. The soap opera is also an interesting temporality. Since wealth and inheritance are always important, it *should be* important that a past-present-future lineage assert itself,reproductive futurity, etc. However, in a soap opear, the future can never be secured, that’s the whole plot. Things keep intervening to keep reproductive futurity from arriving– brides are kidnapped at the altar, babies switched, doppelganger twins arrive, amnesia, split personality, returns from the dead, surprise paternity/maternity, botched adoptions (!) as well as mundane adultery and murder, and the diva writing all these alternating plotlines into the show (while wearing wigs) which keep the reprouctive futurity and the happy ending from arriving. In place of the two hour cinematic story arc, the soap opera just comes back at the same friggin time every day, forever, cause and effect is either drastically distended or abandoned, and when it is cancelled, it goes into repeats. So this is an abnormal model of time– it won’t grow up and have normal babies, instead it bursts a million monster-off spring,and all from the wardrobe (not the body) of the diva. Plus her wigs.

  10. Johannes

    Yes, LDR’s songs almost always seem sung from 1) beyond the grave or 2) to a dead lover. Even when the songs are supposedly not. The music is so densely atmospheric, like the soundtrack to a noir movie, which she then summarizes in the lyric. But it’s that noir atmosphere that you always know the young girl cannot survive. She has to die. Thus also why the vocals sound “dead” except in the little demonic outbursts (notably our daughter Sinead’s favorite parts when she sings them: “I’m crazy…. I’m your little starlet, harlot” etc).


  11. Elisa

    I love Chelsey Minnis’s poetry and its over-the-top melodrama. But I’m not sure about this: “CM and LDR’s melodramatic tendencies are not trying to obscure or costume anything – they are being absolutely clear.” It seems to me that Minnis’s poetry is all about costume, dressing up, playtime, theater. A celebration of silliness, of the tantrum. I’m not sure what we gain by calling it transparent or sincere.

  12. Joyelle McSweeney

    I had a thought similar to Elisa’s– but my thinking was that the costuming is an insistence on the artificial (like colorful cupcakes or ‘glitter drums’) by which the girl who is supposed to have no intellectual property can claim some property with her ridiculousness. So it’s overt, maybe, rather than clear or transparent, because glittered or candy colored, both artificial and sincere. For me personally sincere is an artificial term– it doesn’t come into my head when thinking about writing or art except when people bring it up, and then I’m interested in it. I remember Linus’s search for the most sincere pumpkin patch, tho…

  13. drew

    in response to joyelle, i like what you say about the broken temporal patterns of lineage in soap operas. to maybe expand a little on the diva’s role, the diva is the ultimate temporal disruption / lineage destroyer. implicit in the diva’s power is the power to dismantle what is happening at a whim, to have it replaced by the diva’s desire. “i must have it and i must have it now” destroys any possible safe patterning / temporal lineages because the diva must be satisfied or else. but the diva is never satisfied, and so desire subsumes any possibility of stability (which is part of what we love).

  14. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    Joyelle — Yes, totally, soaps represent a hyper-heteronormativity that is destabilized and disrupted at every turn, and gothic soaps like Dark Shadows or True Blood just make the implicit explicit.

    Elisa, is earnest a more workable word for you than sincere? That is what that theater, camp and joyful artifice are for me, they are hyper-earnest, and that is what makes them feel quite distinct from the stereotypical pomo gen x irony A D has been characterizing the ‘new sincerity’ (a formation I dont really have any investment in) as reacting against.

  15. Elisa

    Joyelle, agreed, I don’t usually think about whether or not art is sincere when I’m experiencing it; or maybe it’s better to say I only notice “sincerity” when the art is not very good. Obvious sincerity feels somehow amateurish, like I want whatever the art is doing to _transcend_ the sincere/fake binary.

    It’s also true that we live in a world full of fake things that are real. Glitter and cupcakes don’t occur in nature but we can make them. So it’s easy to get trapped in an infinite regression (if everything is real, is everything sincere?). On Twitter last week someone said “All poems are sincere.” I hope that’s true, then we don’t have to talk about it anymore.

  16. niina

    I would agree with Elisa and Joyelle in that the costume and play in Minnis’s work is very intentional. I would go on to add that I see the glitz and artifice giving the narrator room to hold a deathly seriousness behind it all. In Poemland, the fun and the sordid appear together, but not in tragic victimizing juxtaposition (never that!), which to me means that they’re space-giving and, yes, calculated acts. The connection is so there between CM’s and LDR’s work but in both cases, the calculation drives the work away from sincerity, I think.

  17. Elisa

    Hey, TJY,

    “Earnest” is almost as tricky as “sincere.” I mean there is camp/theater and then there’s camp/theater. I think we need to be able to distinguish differences in tone between say, Glee and Poemland. Both campy and theatrical, but I’d call Glee much more earnest. Poemland is joyful and playful but also, I think, dark and twisted in ways that Glee (or a lot of Broadway-style theater) is usually not.

  18. Carina

    I’m going to address what I meant to “accomplish,” I guess, by calling CM’s costumes not-costumes via an anecdote from my Saturday night. On Saturday night I played a music show in midtown. When I play music in public and also “in real life” I generally wear giant hairbows and thigh-high fishnets and neon. a very jaded music-industry type was talking to me about my marketability as comparable to cyndi lauper and note that my outfit was: “a getup” & that he’d seen every kind. but it’s not a getup or a costume, it’s how I actually dress; sometimes. What we get out of calling a costume transparent is the same satisfaction one gets from watching an interview with Ke$ha. I do think there’s a fine line between sincerity and earnestness but I don’t think that one cannot be both earnest and sincere, and in fact earnestness itself is a kind of melodrama. certainly Rachel from Glee feels about the business of musical theater similar to the way Poemland’s speaker feels about po-biz.

    I want to write more about TJY & JMSs brilliant comments on time, death, & divas, but I have to go to work now, so I’ll do that later.

  19. David B. Applegate

    This may be tangential but I wanted to chime in with a different perspective on soap operas and poetry which comes from Leslie Scalapino. She writes:

    “There is something interesting about the serial form, almost as if it were soap opera. Except I hate
    soap operas and I never look at them. But it’s the idea that something could go on and then start again and keep going, and it would always reproduce some of the information that’s core information so that you could come into it at any point. It implies that there’s no end to this and also that people are attending to very intricate but essentially delicate, small things that they’re doing. There’s something about that that’s satisfying, but definitely not at all satisfying in soap operas.”

    So even if it is abnormal and produces monsters, a soap opera is still unflaggingly banal in the repetition of its core information. This strikes me as very similar to what Johannes wrote re: Minnis / Reines / Glenum, that their work enacts “a self-consciously played-out shock, what happens to shock after the shock, almost a kind of boredom.” Every poem (episode) a costume change, a monster, etc. So whether this work is ‘hyper-earnest’ or ‘stereotypical pomo gen x irony’ seems beside the point; the continual flux flattens out into a white noise, a played-out shock, a kind of boredom.

  20. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    I actually find Glee too snotty and mean-spirited to be camp, it’s one of the reasons I turned away from it pretty early. I don’t think I like Ryan Murphy very much.

  21. Nada

    The Flarf Anthology is stymied for a couple of reasons: one is that the publisher was, and perhaps still is, dealing with an illness in the family. The other is, of course, marital discord and disintegration amongst the editors. The last I heard, we were waiting for an updated introduction from one of the editors – the one I don’t speak to. The document actually exists, in electronic form, in near-final version, but the exigencies of life have intervened in unpleasant ways. So Kent, you know, you can stop being so scrappy for once, if you like.

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  23. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    Please don’t take this the wrong way, but is part of what makes LDR’s music “melodrama” in the interesting sense that the music is so godawful bad? That’s not meant as an insult, really, because it could certainly be by intention. And I’d be the last to say that godawful bad music is necessarily a problem.

  24. Kent Johnson

    Nada, I honestly didn’t know anything about the book and was curious about its fate. I’m glad it’s still promised to appear. Flarf triggered lots of talk and argument, and so it’s good there will be an “anthology record” of its works and (I believe?) critical writings. The phenomenon’s poetic moment does seem to have passed, in definite senses, but no doubt there will be people reflecting on its works and sociology down the road. Will keep an eye out, then.

  25. Marie MFA

    Tao Lin, Lana Del Ray, and Chelsey Minnis are my three favorite artists. Thank you for posting this.

    And LDR reads poetry: “She said that the poetry of Walt Whitman and Alan Ginsberg were her biggest inspirations. She added: “I do enjoy reading, I read the same things over and over again. I really like certain passages out of Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ and Ginsberg has a poem called ‘Howl’, and both of those writers are like my first and last inspirations, the first people I saw that made their words really electric and come alive off the page, really visual writers.”


    LDR’s Hollywood Sadcore seems somewhere in between Chelsey Minnis’s “yandere” and Tao Lin’s “non-emo.” All three are geniuses, though.