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Mansplaining: On Breaking Up Under Pressure

[Oh, hey, guess what atrocities are coming up this week? I mean, aside from personal atrocities and all. Yes, in honor of all the various Valentine’s Day Massacres that are no doubt occurring as we speak, it’s Break-Up Music week at the Tiger Beatdown. Today’s guest post is by the lovely – and manly! – B. Michael.]

Break-up songs trade on a particularly gossamer-like, complex alchemy. To wit, one of my top-five break-up songs is Xiu Xiu’s cover of Queen’s “Under Pressure.”

Consider: I, a young, upbeatbeat heterosexual male am in love with a song authored by famously gay band Queen as interpreted by famously gay band Xiu Xiu (from an album named “Women As Lovers”) featuring the famously sad Michael Gira, whom I can’t stand on his own. The more interesting parts of the song — how some (relatively) slight dissonance serves to create by underlying the most beautifully melodic parts; the chiming guitar work reminiscent of U2; how that bass line, which is more of a punchline now, holds up as an enduring cultural artifact — these parts pale in the face of the most interesting thing about the song: “Under Pressure,” as I understand it, sounds like a simpering break-up song couched in a plea for universal human empathy, but countenanced thus it serves only as an atavistic, selfish, decidedly unKierkegaardian denigration of love as such.

Coz Love’s Such An Old Fashioned Word And

On the face of it, we’re trained culturally to consider most any instantiation of love as a pure and holy thing. It’s all Plato’s fault. Twenty-four hundred years ago he wrote a play where one character said to another character that an unseen character told him that we love people because we see in them some larger-than-us sort of appeal that transcends any one person’s desire for physical gratification. That is, there is to love an end larger than getting off. That end is the appropriately named the Good. We have been stuck with the idea that Love comports itself toward the Good ever since, which is why we put up with Sawyer making those stupid faces when he thinks of Juliet; why people still have on their walls posters of Leonardo di Caprio and Juliet; and why in ninth grade everyone reads Romeo and Juliet. Love is a considered as a moral end.

But let us not ignore for the moment that the whole love-is-the-most-easily-accessible-means-to-the-Good-for-humans thing occurs in what authorities these days would consider thinly veiled NAMBLA propaganda. Which, sure, sounds bad. Luckily for them, the Greeks are now more known for going to war over a woman (very manly) than the one guy winning that war for his not-so-secretly gay lover (yuck). But considering the entire modern notion of love as a pretense for grown men to romance young men┬ábegins to get us to the problem with “Under Pressure” and break-up songs in general. It (they) are very clearly manipulative occasions for considering yourself a pilgrim of love, ie, a traveller on the high road toward the Good. And this detour — the break-up — is but an obstacle on your own personal and constant path to moral edification. Contrast this ideality with the reality: You used to have sex on the regular with someone who put up with your bullshit emotional hangups, occasionally cooked or paid for dinner, and listened to you complain about your coworkers’ flatulence. Break-up songs are eo ipso bullshit because they provoke a catharsis that’s simply not merited. What’s so great about love in the first place?

Love Dares You To Change Our Way Of Caring About Ourselves

“Under Pressure” is, essentially, one of the greatest break-up songs ever written, though, and it invokes a notion of love that is both emotionally resonant and true-seeming. The world is a terrible place. Life is really hard. Having friends and lovers takes the edge off. Loving relationships force you to consider your own motives and to empathize with others. It all seems right and good. Therefore, why don’t we get back together, the song asks. And this is where I have a problem with the song. It feels too good. It’s too easy. I am a love masochist. The fact that we need to give love one more chance makes me suspicious. What happened? Did we get overwhelmed by the enormity of existence? Did the brutality of everyday living dull our care? Was our love so even that we became inured to it?

I suspect our rupture was of simpler and more self-preserving motives. “Is it any less difficult for lovers? / But they keep on using each other to hide their own fate.” The problem is is that there is a (supposed) moral function of love and then there is a practical function of love, and the one is used to justify the continuation of the other. By writing a truly beautiful love song — one approaching the sort of transcendence you only expect to find in particularly grueling physical experiences, abstract expressionist paintings, or Michael Bay films — Queen almost ruins the whole enterprise. Because love is something good and noble. And ineluctable.

When I’m going through a particularly savage break-up, I want Raymond Carver. I want Liz Phair. I want the number one greatest break-up song in the world.

Give me specifics. You drink too much. I cheated. I hate your family. You find my personality repulsive. I don’t want to hear about how love is what makes us consider one another as human beings (which is true) or about how love is stepped on and denigrated but it’s actually the greatest thing in the world (also true). Right now all I want to do is fuck you and hate you and just be with you for one more day no matter what it takes. Because that is pathetic. And love is not pathetic.

Why Can’t We Give Love One More Chance

Meaning is (roughly) use. If “Under Pressure” — or any break-up song — is the ladder you climb up and subsequently knock over in order to reach a higher level of edification and understanding, then so much the better for you. If it’s what you listen to on repeat for days while thinking about how if only she would come back to you then you would be a better human being and life could be good again, then to you sir or madame I say No. Stop it. The way in which “Under Pressure” is one of the best break-up songs is because it (ideally) makes you realize that there is more to love than physical gratification and emotional comfort. It forces you to be honest with yourself. Love is how you should feel with regard to everyone. You should love your farting coworkers, five and dime novelists, and even Republicans. It also means that you shouldn’t be so in love with yourself. You don’t get a song all to yourself about how terrible you feel and how much you want to die. You don’t deserve the opportunity to feel bad for yourself, because life is hard and people love you and need you, too. People seem to commonly link love and hate, and hate is accepted as an appropriate substitute when love evacuates a space, but “Under Pressure” dares you to fill that vacuum with more love. Ultimately, it’s about choosing love as a mode of being despite knowing that love between people basically sucks. It is the rare break-up song that avoids wretchedness. It’s the optimistic, rise-from-the-ashes type that pulls you up without putting anyone down.

[B. Michael web 2.0s at The Cost of B. Michael‘s Truly Epic Shit and various things linked from there.]


  1. Gnatalby wrote:

    I am in favor of many of the sentiments in this post, but ye-ouch, that cover is just… not pleasant on the ears.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  2. samanthab wrote:

    Where the f is David Bowie in all of this? You’ve disappeared his song credit. And what Gnatalby said.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  3. misha mishap wrote:

    it was a dialogue not a play. and what, no reference to Hegel’s loved & beloved?! geez louise.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 6:12 am | Permalink
  4. Kay wrote:

    Well the vocals aren’t pleasant. Lovely guitars though, and they do change the song in the way BMichael described I think. Neat.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  5. Dear B. Michael,

    That was atrocious. Please don’t write words on the Internet ever again. I am aware that standards for doing so have been lax since forever, but a rudimentary understanding of the concepts of “shame” and “basic decency” would have prevented you from posting this rambling pile of nothing in public.

    I hate you,
    saddest borg

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  6. Sady wrote:

    Hey – on my way out of town, so don’t really have time for a huge Internet moment, but. So far all I’m getting re: this reaction is (a) one person e-mailing me to say there should not be a dude posting on a ladyblog, (b) one objection to “mansplaining” in the headline, and (c) the saddest (and kind of prickiest) borg. Can folks e-mail me please to say specifically where this is coming from? I may not have a chance to get to everything right away but I’d appreciate getting something more specific than angry borg people and ladies who don’t care for dudes on lady blogs. And I ask

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  7. Maura wrote:

    I’m just confused by Under Pressure being a break-up song, but maybe there’s something I don’t know. Also, Xiu Xui’s version hurt my ears, which is why I turned it off after 20 seconds.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink
  8. Sady wrote:

    … This out of the genuine desire to do a better job. So, you know, if there are political objections or what, those objections exist b/c I fucked up + failed to read closely. Please forgive crappy phone typing also.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  9. Sady wrote:

    Okay! I am back from the FUCKING PLANE where I wrote that last comment because folks were getting buck wild. And here is my considered thought: if you’re not into weird and noisy indie bands nobody knows covering old-school rock that everybody knows, that’s cool! I myself like Boredoms shows, so I am kind of down with dissonance and weird voices and noisiness. We’re covering five different artists! Very different from each other in all respects! You might not like all the songs we are about to play!

    If you are not into me posting guest posts from peeps who volunteered to help me out during Cover My Ass While I Don’t Post Week / Themed Guest Post Week, or if you are not down with that SPECIFICALLY if those people happen to be dudes… too bad, I guess? The one e-mail on the subject managed to be really nasty without actually raising any (ANY) questions as to content (in fact, the lady admitted she hadn’t read the piece, which: way to validate your own perspective, there).

    If you do have actual issues with the content or style of this specific post, please do engage. We have a long history of contentious but not dickish or snide engagement over here, around disagreements, and I’d like to think we are all grown-ups and can handle. If you don’t actually say anything but “I didn’t like this,” we can’t exactly discuss, at all, can we?

    On that note, if you are The Saddest Borg:

    Dear The Saddest Borg,

    Please fuck right off at your nearest possible convenience. You are so over the line that I doubt you even recognize that there was a line to cross. I have read your very exciting Livejournal, and am aware that you consider yourself interested in feminism. Would it interest you to know that feminism has a stance on outright verbal abuse, which is that it is bad? I know, I know: how could we expect you to thoughtfully CRITIQUE the piece, when you could just write “I hate you” and hopefully hurt a stranger’s feelings? One would think that a rudimentary understanding of the concepts “shame” and “basic decency” would prevent you from revealing that you’re the sort of person who likes to shit on people for fun on the Internet. HOWEVER! I don’t know how your comment got past moderation, and I have considered deleting it, but I think it will be nice for the world to have a record of your punk-ass behavior on my personal blog. If you can wise up and act like a grown person, we’re not banning you. But we DON’T DO THIS HERE. Your comment lacked wit, insight, BASIC POINTS: it was just verbal abuse, and you need to be ashamed of yourself promptly. Please think twice before ever posting words on the Internet again, because you seem not to be able to use them like a fucking grown-up.

    I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion,


    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  10. Samantha b. wrote:

    Is Xiu Xiu obscure? My problem with them is that they are too pleasant, and I hate pleasant, musically-speaking. On the other hand, I do quite like the notion of the atypical love song that pulls one up instead of pulling another down (and it’s really beautifully argued for here,) so there you go, I can even tolerate a little of the musically pleasant.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  11. Sady wrote:

    @Samantha b: I don’t know? I know a lot of people who know them, but I don’t know everybody who reads this blog. So someone was like, “is it possible people don’t know the band?” And I was like, MAYBE.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  12. BMICHAEL wrote:

    Oh my gosh. I thought that the borg person at first was someone I knew IRL. Looked at the LJ–whew (sweat off brow wiping sound).

    Thank you for the nice comments. I can only add that I wasn’t sure if we could embed an MP3. This YouTube version is a little noisy. If you want to listen to a cleaner-sounding version, check this out

    I think Xiu Xiu is widely known by people who know them and unheard of by people who don’t know them, if that makes sense, to be tautological.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  13. Sady wrote:

    Also, I think we should add that the “Mansplaining” joke was mine? For the longest time, I had joked that if I ever had a guest blogger or co-blogger who was a dude, I’d require the post headlines to be prefaced “MANSPLANATION.” Should have thought about how that would come off a little harder, I guess!

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  14. Maura wrote:

    Should have thought about how that would come off a little harder, I guess!

    I don’t think so, but that could be because I thought it was funny.

    RE:Xiu Xiu, I’m one of those people who’s never heard of them, therefore I don’t know them. But I’m not averse to hearing new bands, because then I can be one of those people who knows about them because she’s heard of them. (I seriously love how you explained that BMichael)

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  15. minniethemoocha wrote:

    And here I was thinking that “Under Pressure” was about a call to collective sympathy if in fact empathy was not possible In Such Times.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 1:09 am | Permalink
  16. Scott wrote:

    Put me down as someone who doesn’t know who/what Xiu Xiu is.

    But if that cover is an indication, I don’t feel like I’m missing much.

    No problems with the writing, though. Mr. B. Michael, please continue your craft.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  17. Alex wrote:

    Yeah, I don’t really hear it as a break-up song at all.

    I always heard it as: the world is hard and fucked-up. You can look away, but that hurts more. The person we damage the most by not loving is ourself. Sure, the love we share with others is imperfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than becoming a self-loathing robot.

    To me, it’s a call to not shy away from the world but to embrace it, pain and all.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  18. Sady wrote:

    @Alex: Well, I think it’s a unique read. And I think you can define “break-up song” as either “song written about a break-up” or “song you use during a break-up.” For example, right now I’m reading “Positively 4th Street” as a break-up song. Whereas it’s actually one of the Dylan songs you can ascribe a concrete, specific meaning to, and even point out the song it was written in response to – “Morgan the Pirate” by Richard and Mimi Farina – and it is most certainly not a song about a break-up, unless you count breaking up with a musical scene or a movement. But that doesn’t mean it hits me any differently. And I think “why can’t we give love one more chance” or “this is our last dance” could very reasonably be read as statements of personal, not universal love. And I get feeling like a break-up is a symptom of people’s universal failure to care for each other when they need it most. So, yeah: once a song gets to you, it belongs to you, and it doesn’t necessarily matter what Queen or David Bowie (or Xiu Xiu!) think it means.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  19. Sady,

    I apologize for being out of line. I admit that I wasn’t really expecting for the comment to go through moderation, because it was a ridiculously huge asshole move.

    I stand by the spirit of what I said; I think this post is an unfortunate accident on your otherwise awesome blog. I wanted to chew B. Michael out for posting it, and harshly, but I should have done that in a more civil way, and I certainly did not intend to criticise or upset you in any way, direct or indirect.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 9:00 pm | Permalink
  20. orestes wrote:

    Pfft, Xiu Xiu. Clearly this is the best version of Under Pressure;

    Sunday, February 14, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

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  1. uberVU - social comments on Friday, February 12, 2010 at 7:01 am

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by bmichael: On Xiu Xiu’s “Under Pressure,” love, and the break-up song at Tiger Beatdown!

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