This album is a mine field for a male reviewer, but Disembodied is also one of the strangest releases of the year, and one of the most relevant. So let’s get the concept out first: volunteers across the female spectrum were invited to wear a data-collecting ring while bringing themselves to orgasm.
Already ~ what are you thinking? Our responses will say a lot about who we are. One cannot help but think about sex because this is about sex. But it also tackles deeper themes. Jen Kutler‘s experiment is to try to de-contextualize sex, “to discover the amount of separation required to de-objectify a feminine spectrum body.” Okay, still thinking about sex. Male here.
For the prurient, there are no sighs, no moans, few tracks that build to anything but a quiet climax. The rings emit only spreadsheet data, which is translated to MIDI and given a new synthetic voice. Those who want audible orgasms in their music will need to turn elsewhere. Donna Summer’s full-length “Love to Love You Baby” is the best (or worst) example: an album I was embarrassed to find in my father’s collection, but to be fair, he was embarrassed that I found it as well. Disembodied calls to mind all the cheap ways in which female orgasms have been used in popular music, ostensibly as percussion or texture but all too often in objectifying fashion. This leads to a different question: why are there so few male-oriented orgasms in popular music (and no, we’re not demanding them)?
To answer Kutler’s question, the music is, in the artist’s own words, “successfully un-sexy.” There’s just no way these sounds would make a normal person think of sex, much less of objectification. But add the press release, and the names of twelve female-identifying subjects, and something changes. This is where the strangeness really begins. Here’s Sofy Yuditskaya. We don’t see her, but we know what she was just doing; and she also has a personality. What are we thinking now? As for me, I’m comparing the twelve tracks, trying to figure out which ones are my favorites and why, assigning traits to the music (my expected job), and thinking about what each woman might be like. On the brighter side, I’m thinking about personalities. Mostly. Do the liner notes defeat the experiment?
*sound of reviewer stepping on land mine*
The music is surprisingly good, especially given the fact that the music isn’t really the point. “Rena Anakwe” sounds like a tropical vacation, with waves. Distant song visits “Stephanie Germaine” like a fond memory. The aforementioned “Sofy Yudiskaya” seems to be surrounded by polite morning birds, cooing tranquility and peace, while Kutler’s self-titled piece includes a dog barking at a bird, conjuring images of a bucolic backyard. “Amelia Moon” touches on dark ambience, even goth, which makes the moniker seem surprisingly prescient. “Jenn Grossman” is the most exciting, throwing musical caution to the wind. This piece does come to a (musical) climax, which makes sense for a closing selection, though it also reveals judgment on the part of the sequencer. Are these women like their tracks? The temptation is to believe that they are; their most appealing characteristics are portrayed as internal rather than external.
A sobering call is planted in the middle of track six, as a first responder expresses concern about a female who is “trying to jump.” The world is intruding, but it must intrude. The #MeToo movement is for real: most of our world is male-dominated, and the objectification of women leads to acts of rape, abuse and murder. All too often, the victim is blamed, and whenever a victim is not believed ~ or is otherwise invalidated ~ there seems to be no hope.
As Kutler has worked in this field for a while (her last project involved a vibrator), the feedback she receives is often far from polite. And yet, she dares. Political discussions of female sexuality tend to come from the male perspective: men making rules about abortion, about marriage, about clothing, all while claiming to protect and honor women. Kutler’s art demands reaction and invites reflection. Will we engage with these ideas? Will we examine our own perspectives? We can look at the surface of the release ~ hey, it’s an album about masturbation! ~ and miss the entire point, just as we do when we say things like, damn, she’s hot! Or we can approach with humility and try to learn something big that might end up bettering the world. (Richard Allen)