australia / gift / privilege / race

PJ Harvey and the BFS

No, not a 50ft Queenie/Roald Dahl mashup, but a marshalling of a delightful device invented by Deborah M. Withers – that of the Bushian Feminine Subject, or BFS, in her Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory.

Withers uses the BFS to work through Kate Bush’s oeuvre, paying particular attention to Bush’s creative labours around gender, sexuality and race. It’s the way Withers draws out the tropes of Englishness and whiteness that I’m pondering, particularly in light of PJ Harvey’s forthcoming album, Let England Shake. The title track and two others are on the interwebs: The Last Living Rose, and Written on the Forehead.

As Withers writes, the BFS goes from The Kick Inside – where (like Harvey in Dry and Rid of Me mode) “she draws upon the female body but crucially is not reduced to it. She uses that body to generate difference” – to Lionheart, where she “articulates a specific allegiance to England … she resides within a territory.” (54). Lionheart‘s references to a ye olde pastoral idyll and heroic monarchy could well “[appeal] to the people who felt the traditional English ways of life are under threat” – a posture that is no less dangerous 32 years later.

1978’s Lionheart is juxtaposed with 1982’s The Dreaming, in which Withers suggests that the BFS has a traumatic confrontation with the complicity of Englishness and whiteness in genocidal violence. In the video for Sat in Your Lap (track 6), the BFS places the dunce cap alongside the Klan hat, suggesting a critical “connection between whiteness and stupidity” (88).

The Dreaming, as title, is itself a reference to The Dreaming and The Dreamtime in Aboriginal ways of knowing and being. The song refers to the British (read: English) colonisation of Australia, and the attempt to destroy Indigenous peoples and cultures. However, to my mind Bush fails where Withers suggests she succeeds in “not [perpetuating] colonial sterotypes” (90), because the horribly racist Rolf Harris plays the didgeridoo on the title track. Epic fail.

Bush’s construction of the “Aborigine” is echoed in another iconic English act, Pulp, led by another beloved “British pop dandy”. What is all this amongst my very favourite music? The inheritance of white ethnicities: the Sheela-Na-Gigs and the teakettles as well as the domination of difference and the fields of blood. It’s the atmosphere. No going back to Constantinople. But sovereignty still exercised, despite claiming to have cut off the head of the king.

I went to see Peter Hook and Friends. I felt completely overcome with emotion (and more than a little like a man who had been rocking out to Joy Division since 1978*) when Hook finished the set with the words “this is a gift, from me – to you”, and then ripped into Love will Tear Us Apart. Imagine being able to give a gift like that, I thought. And it was a gift. But gifts, as I should know by now, are impure things.

*item: I’m a woman who was born in 1980. In deep-suburban Adelaide. Who once bought a Jeremy Jordan cassingle with her own money.


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