Nobody touches the top strings of a guitar like PJ Harvey. She built most of her first two albums on those low notes, whether strummed or plucked, whether paired with the high girlish end of her voice or her unexpectedly low range, whether played in a punk frenzy or a in a kind of walking blues, whether on their own or combined with a band.
Those albums, Dry and Rid of Me, were the soundtrack of my early 1990s, along with her even more stripped-down 4-Track Demos. Their raw sound helped me through a very painful breakup that structured my whole decade. To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?, helped too, but their sound was more complex and more radio-friendly (the first even yielded a minor hit, “Down by the Water;” by that point she was using other instruments to provide a low rumble to back up her chant of “Big fish little fish swimming in the water/Come back here man give me my daughter”).
On her earliest albums, Harvey played those top two strings like she was picking a scab. The sounds she made produced precisely the pleasure in pain you wanted to feel during the self-pitying stage of a breakup. And when she sang lines like “I’ll make you lick my injuries,” she made you feel that pain even more. Her songs hurt. And that was good.
So when I saw that an old and dear friend who doesn’t post on Facebook much had put up this video of Björk and PJ Harvey performing “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” at the 1994 Brit Awards, I clicked eagerly. I wasn’t consciously hoping to flash back to those long-ago feelings, though there may be something in the fact that the friend who posted the video was around during that long-ago mess. Rather, hearing some sounds that would evoke strong feelings seemed a good way to escape from the present for a moment, in particular, right then, from an afternoon of meetings and reading e-mails about my university’s efforts to undermine its employees’ health care coverage. ( “I Can’t Get No/Health Insurance” could have been both a local and a national protest song this past week, at least before the House Republicans cannibalized themselves at the last minute. And it scans.)
Unlike for most of my friends (and many contributors to Avidly), for me there’s very rarely new music that helps me figure out how I’m feeling about the present — which is what I take “getting us through” to mean. I find solace by looking backward, identifying a feeling that I know a movie or image or especially song will provoke, and then testing it to see if it feels adequate to the political catastrophe of the present. This approach may not work for everyone, but it’s worth a try. I guess that what I was going for, when I clicked the video link.
To be fully honest, though, I also clicked because I was always a little bit in love with PJ Harvey — and she’s still hard to resist. There was something scary about her, certainly, but fear also resonated with the relationship that had just ended when I first listened to her. That combination of feelings, love and fear, was familiar and strangely comforting. A small and slim but not frail woman who could go on stage and croon and scream in rage and power, while picking obsessively at those guitar strings, played to way too many of my fantasies.
Including, maybe especially, fantasies of identification. Really, there is nothing I’d have liked more than to be PJ Harvey on that stage. And what completely won me over was when a friend who had auditioned to be in her touring band told me about a brief note that she had left him about where to go for the audition. Turned out her signature — Polly Jean — was decorated with little hearts. In any other context, I’d find that unbearable. Coming from PJ Harvey, those hearts seemed so incongruous as to be irresistible. That was when I knew I couldn’t be her: I would never have thought of that myself.
Years later, just as I began a new relationship that I now know signaled my emergence from slow-moving personal trauma, I finally got to see PJ Harvey in concert. That show got tied to some much more public trauma, because it took place on September 13, 2001. I’d spent the previous two days avoiding any feelings about what had just happened. I knew intellectually that — as the cliché went — the world had just changed. I knew that there was no way the U.S. state would not unleash unspeakable horror on the world in revenge for what had just happened. I knew that soon we’d make everyone lick our injuries. But I hadn’t felt much, mostly because my new girlfriend was from New York City and was emotionally devastated by what was happening in her home town. When someone I’m with gets very emotional, I go flat. Sometimes that means I’m holding things together so I can help; sometimes it’s just a reaction-formation; sometimes it’s a bit of both. But that’s what I was doing.
Since planes weren’t flying on those days, it was a surprise that PJ Harvey got herself and her band to the Riviera Theatre in Chicago, a short walk from my apartment. She got there even though the last gig she’d played was in Washington, DC on the night of September 10, and even though she won the UK’s Mercury Music Prize on the 11th. So I went with my friend Louise, because neither my new girlfriend nor Louise’s husband liked Harvey. The tour featured music from her most recent album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, and the show opened with “This Mess We’re In,” which on the album starts not with her voice but with Thom Yorke singing
Can you hear them?
I’m in New York
No need for words now
We sit in silence
Of course, in concert she sang it herself. Even though she’d released the song almost a year earlier, and even though she had opened the September 10 show with the same song, it felt as if she had written it in the past two days and that she was singing it for the first time. I wept, for the dead and for the dead we all knew would follow. And I’d swear — and Louise agrees — so did virtually the entire crowd at the Riviera. It was collective and public mourning, which is also and always a kind of solace.
In short, PJ Harvey is for me a soundtrack for both public and private catastrophes.
So, last week, when I saw the video link, I clicked. And PJ Harvey touched those two top strings, just like she did on her albums that meant the most to me. What came out of her guitar lacked any hint of the perfect riff that makes the original Stones song jump out of the speakers into your ears, that you never forget even if ultimately you love Bowie’s effort to outdo that riff in “Rebel Rebel” even more. Instead, from Harvey: just a strum, repeated as incessantly as the Stones riff, but in a way that at first might have been any of those 4-track demos.
And then she sings the opening chorus just like she’s playing the guitar: unmodulated, using very few notes. Flattened, like my own response to disaster can be. Some of the cadence of Jagger’s singing is there — and the brilliance of the vocals in that song is almost all about cadence — but no more than a hint of the melody. Where Jagger just slightly bends the note in each word (sing “I can’t get no” and you’ll do it yourself), Harvey sings them almost without expression. And where Jagger’s lack of satisfaction is about desire — signaled in the way each “And I try” is higher in pitch — Harvey sings each one exactly the same, conveying repetition without Jagger’s mounting urgency.
Getting no satisfaction isn’t a surprise to Harvey as it is to Jagger; it’s just a constant state, a fact. That difference is gendered, to be sure. But it’s also a historical difference between the 1960s and the 1990s…and the late 2010s. Neither Mick Jagger nor PJ Harvey had Donald Trump to sing about. But it’s Harvey’s flattened version that seems up to the task of the now.
But just when you think it’s going to be all about flat affect, the camera pulls back and reveals Björk standing next to Harvey on the stage, playing on some tiny keyboard instrument that’s attached to her mike stand, and joining in, at least an octave higher, with the chorus’s concluding “I can’t get no……no no no.”
Someone else writing this essay could write its opening section about Björk, and put PJ Harvey in the background. But I have no significant emotional response to Björk, and I never have. I admire her artistry and her penchant for experimentation. Her look — the whole range of looks she’s had — are all intriguingly weird. And I think she has one of the most powerful voices in popular music. I hear the beauty of what she does, but I don’t feel it. All the signifiers of passion are there in her singing and her songs, but I never quite know what the passion is about. And I have no memories attached to her.
So for me this is an odd pairing. Not as odd as what the Brits originally planned for the 1994 ceremony: Rolling Stone later quoted Björk as saying the organizers wanted her paired with Meat Loaf, and Harvey to duet with Jamiroquai. I doubt we’d be sharing videos of either of those collaborations 23 years later.
For a viewer like me who is focused on Harvey, what Björk does is draw her singing partner out of flatness, into a higher range, toward expressivity. Or really, they call that out in one another. Björk’s high harmony seems merely pretty at first, a pleasant contrast with Harvey’s more soulful voice, and whatever she’s singing during the first part of the first verse works that way too. But listen to what happens just after their voices rejoin at “useless information,” when Harvey sings “fire my imagination:” Harvey’s voice catches fire indeed. That’s the moment the video will hook you.
And from then on, the performance offers release after release. The “Satisfaction” riff emerges from Björk’s keyboard; Harvey’s hand finally reaches for the other strings on the guitar. The two women belt out lyrics with abandon: Mick Jagger never sang “Can’t you see I’m on a losing streak!” with such passion. For the first time ever, I’m completely won over by Björk. The vocal stylings that too often seem pointlessly showy here dance around Harvey’s more restrained voice, and the wide-mouthed joy on her face is not just contagious; it’s exhilarating. The camera is right to cut to Björk’s stomping boot; it’s a synecdoche for how her whole body is moving to the song, which has an irresistible beat even without a rhythm section.
I don’t know exactly what it is about this video — why it so powerfully functions to counteract this moment’s often overwhelming sense of dread. Maybe it has something to do with how these powerful women, right next to each other, never look at each other. Not a glance. They’re each in the song; they’re in perfect sync; they don’t need to check in. They’re each doing their own musical, physical, affective thing: in black, with red hearts in their hair. They’re in formation. That kind of connection — like its political correlative — is a kind of satisfaction we can get.
Glenn Hendler’s aim is true