Brandy’s album Full Moon was released in 2002, the year before Mark Leckey’s video Parade. In this seminal work, Brandy pioneered a vocal recording style that layered and overlapped her voice, a ‘vocal bible’ that continues to influence musicians and producers. This was towards the bitter end of the era of genre, before new modes of circulation pretty much finally effected the joyful boundary collapse of genres that is the condition of the contemporary, i.e. the condition in which contemporaneity is the only condition, and its reach is expansive. The proliferation of mediation has defeated medium specificity, and blurred the distinction (the class distinction, the formal distinction) between, say, R&B and electronica, or video art and the music video.
I remember it like this because in 2003 I was un-ironically into Destiny’s Child and Craig David, stranded among friends who thought that the talent of a musician could be measured by how few people listened to them. I had sneaked into the end of rave’s heyday, a tall girl with fake ID, but I didn’t like it there – Ecstasy didn’t work on me, or maybe ecstasy didn’t work on me. Pop, too popular for my friends, became a private pleasure. Even today, this is how I most like to listen to music: one song at a time, over and over again, preferably while running, dancing or biking. Sometimes in moments of particular need, I listen to music on headphones in bed in the dark. The world rises out of and falls back into the hole of my big opaque head, which the music makes partly translucent.
A small controversy arose in 2013 when Solange Knowles mentioned ‘deep Brandy album cuts’ on Twitter and white male music journalists mocked her, perhaps because they are afraid of the collapse of distinctions (gender, race, genre): Brandy can’t have deep cuts, Brandy can’t be a Real Musician. These journalists are dicks but no matter how low I mix them in my mind, they haunt me; they are my people too, contextually if not electively. The music of the black diaspora is the not-even-secret heart of dance music. As cultural appropriation debates indicate, read with care, blackness is a kind of culture-laundering global network in itself: its drowned birth in a rootless everywhere renders it an overlapping echo-chamber of contestations and ironic or iron attempts at self-identity. The news isn’t all good; Solange wrote on Twitter: ‘The music business was built brick by brick off the backs, shoulders, heart ache and pain, of black people, and everyone is just exhausted.’
Everyone is exhausted. Mark Leckey’s head is between ours and Brandy’s, but we’re pleased to see her anyway. Her voice is more intimate than virtuosic: her voice is like the face of someone whose beauty, because dissimilar to beauty’s branded image, seems to everyone like they are the only one to have noticed it. The most common adjectives appended to Brandy’s vocal style are ‘husky’ and ‘distinctive’. Her voice seems like an accident, a gift, but not the kind of nature-defying gift that attracts the ambivalent or even malevolent attention of the gods, like Whitney Houston’s did. (Houston mentored Brandy, who calls Houston ‘the reason that I sing’. Brandy, according to an NBC news item, ‘has one of the last messages ever delivered by Whitney Houston – but she’s not telling anyone what it says’: a handwritten note Houston pressed into Brandy’s hand in Los Angeles shortly before she died. As Brandy’s Facebook page reveals, Brandy has vivid dreams of Houston to this day.) Brandy’s voice was not out of reach of the everyday but at a slight angle to it, and her production style reveals a kind of anti-virtuosity. The singular voice becomes many; it attempts to shrug off its distinction by cushioning itself in itself. Brandy said of the vocal tracks in Full Moon, in a recent interview: ‘I was really into stacking my vocals and harmonies. Coming out of everywhere with vocals. I wanted to get the full experience of my vocals. That’s what I was trying to do with my sound.’
In another interview, on performing: ‘All 19 of my personalities come out on stage.’
In the same interview, seconds later, on her hair: ‘It feels good to be different sometimes, and not be afraid to embrace the freedom of being fifteen or sixteen different people.’
Whitney Houston talked about wanting a second self, someone to carry the weight of people’s expectations for her. Brandy is not Houston; an interviewer tells her, in a piece published in Saint Heron: ‘we’ve always kind of viewed you as the left of centre or the more abstract girl. You were always extremely soulful from day one, yet there was always something alien about you but never alienating.’ Brandy responds: ‘As a young girl I didn’t really know who I was. I didn’t really have a sense of self. I knew what my talent was. I knew I believed in the gift, but I didn’t really know who I was as a person.’ The gift was of the world, but the self could not be found there. The gift was a vessel that the world fell through.
The silhouetted head in Mark Leckey’s video is singular; it obstructs the view, or frames it from the centre. In a review for frieze, Mark Beasley said of the artist’s GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction (2010): ‘Rather than remaining on the surface, Leckey disappears behind the digital surface.’ I like this bad sentence: the repetition of ‘surface’ is clumsy, and ‘behind’ is weird to me; I would have gone for ‘beneath’. The sentence is bad in the interesting way that sentences get bad when they give up the idea that compositional perfection of whatever kind, and an access to truth of whatever kind, might in any way be the same thing. The sentence is burdened by two surfaces standing side by side, one obscuring the other: The Surface and The Digital Surface. The digital surface does not index another surface. The non-digital surface cannot acknowledge its digital cousin.
Multi-track recording spatially reconceives the multiplicity of different instruments, beats, and vocals as layers. Each element can be recorded separately, then multiplied or laid one on top of the other, in a collage effect that gives an illusion of depth by singling out each element into perfect, maximal shallowness. The first methods of multi-track recording relied on loops of tape that moved in circles, but as the analogue became fully digital, the circle flattened out into a line: the circle of the playback spool was only the outer shell or the necessary vehicle for the tape’s linearity, now explicitly revealed in editing software that allows audio and video material to be edited in layered timelines. This layering has auditory and visual effects that replicate the software: a figure superimposed over an image of Brandy from the cover of Full Moon was never in the image’s presence in real life, if there can be said to be a ‘real life’ of images, just as Brandy’s fifteen or sixteen or nineteen selves never spoke back and forth across each other like they do on Full Moon. Leckey, on his collage films: ‘I’ll go through hundreds of pieces of footage. Getting towards evoking something that feels close to that experience, or something that resonates with it. These words are wrong.’
‘Timelines are not without a history themselves,’ I read in a book called Cartographies of Time that I found at a friend of a friend’s house while thinking about Brandy’s many voices, her overlapping selves and times. We were talking about institutions, about if falling outside them or flailing within them is a principled choice or a symptom: the answer, as always, was ‘both, neither’. I flip through the book, looking for Brandy.
What is notable about the function of the timeline in modernity is that it operates so seamlessly in the graphic background, organizing and structuring other forms of graphic representation, as if it weren’t even there […] the timeline plays a special role: it appears as a graphic instantiation of history itself. We think of the timeline not as a technical achievement in graphic design, but as the bare remainder when everything else has been scraped away.
What remains when everything else has been scraped away? Brandy, in an interview with Complex Magazine: ‘I don’t think it’s hard to be honest. I think it’s just hard to be a type of honest. It’s hard to tell the whole truth. You know? You’re telling the truth, but not the entire truth. It’s hard to break through and just say everything. I think that’s what’s hard.’
The editing timeline aims to be comprehensive, to keep everything in mind. Unlike its predecessors, digital editing is non-destructive, non-linear: each file remains in perfect condition, however you found it, no matter what you do to it. In that sense, time can be reversed, or, more than that, things that happen are also not happening, or could have not happened, or the conditional weighs on them, distorts them. In that sense, nothing ever closes up behind you. I think this non-destructive method is like writing, because writing leaves language intact behind it. The archaic method of editing referenced as razor tools or clips in software such as Avid or Premiere is nothing like writing; introduced once to an old-fashioned editing machine, I was so preoccupied by the finality of the cut (so unlike the endless repetitions of Final Cut) that I could hardly manage to loop the tape through its supports.
It’s wrong, it’s invasive, to worry for Brandy, visibly fragile in a video interview, eyes huge and bright with loss (with my own projections/fantasies of loss, perhaps), to worry for her in her dreams of Whitney Houston, to hope that they find solace in each other there, on the dream timeline where we living and we dead can blur and fade into each other.
‘I’ve been through a lot,’ Brandy tells Popsugar magazine. ‘A lot of ups, a lot of downs. But over the last couple of years, I went through so much. It felt like I lived like four lives in the last three years.’ If one voice can sing three or four harmonies at once, why can’t a woman who brought her multiplicity to her music live more than one life and outlive all of them? Capitalism is a double logic of scarcity and abundance, each leveraged against the other; to reflect this dyad, the pop star, especially the black female pop star, has to die and survive, die and survive, and the urban dandies and early adopters who are not her, who do not live as her, pick her up as ornament and costume.
I think that’s what’s hard. I think what’s hard is to keep all your selves with you, or if not with you exactly then somewhere in the mix: not to wince away from the histories inscribed in you, but not to get bogged down in them either, to avoid nostalgia as much as false hope… some kind of perfect mix…