Photo © 2019 by Cindy Elizabeth.
Michael Love’s Gon’ Head And Put Your Records On: A Conversation
April 21, 2019 for FUSEBOX FESTIVAL
By Neon Queen Collective (Jessi DiTillio, Kaila Schedeen, Phillip Townsend)
Jessi: It’s April 21st, the last day of Fusebox, and we, Neon Queen Collective, have gathered here to discuss Michael Love’s recent performance, Gon’ Head and Put Your Records On!
Phillip: I saw some clips of Michael J. Love’s rehearsals on Instagram in preparation for this performance, but his artistry blew my mind in person. Especially with the music that is so familiar to me–well, it’s of my sister’s generation, but it’s music that I grew up listening to. Hearing that music and seeing tap dance set to it was incredible for me.
I grew up watching Savion Glover in the 90s, and prior to his work tap had always been set to like this like, jazzy, vaudeville type music, but this felt very fresh. The performance struck me and I was confronted with the dynamism of tap. I was reminded that tap is an evolutionary genre of dance, moving from minstrelsy, to vaudeville, and to jazz. Savion Glover brought it so hard with rise of R&B and Hip-Hop. But now, we’ve got something new, with Beyoncé, and pop music, and all these other contemporary references that came up during his performance.
Jessi: When I read about Michael Love’s performance before seeing it, I think I expected something like what Savion Glover did in Bamboozled, subverting the historical roots of minstrelsy in the form, and reclaiming it for new purposes. But actually seeing it, that reference felt less relevant to me, and I became more interested in his connection to this aesthetic strategy Beyoncé is also using in Homecoming–of harnessing the sounds produced by the body while dancing and using them as a mode of communication and expression. For some reason, I had never connected stepping with tap before in my mind, but when I was watching Michael Love, I was really struck by this parallel practice of using your body as an instrument, and the rhythmic, syncopation of the dance.
The way Michael Love dances… it’s like his feet, or the whole lower half of his body has that tight perfection of Homecoming, perfectly choreographed and polished. But then there seemed to be a kind of looseness in his upper body that was really pleasurable and relaxing and felt much more like he was letting his feet move him. It seemed like he was in the moment in a way that I really enjoyed.
Phillip: So the difference I see between Michael Love and Beyoncé is they’re coming out of these two different dance traditions– Beyoncé is looking at Greek steppers, and this shit is supposed to be super tight, super choreographed. It’s a form of percussive dance where people are using their whole damn bodies as instruments, it’s a mixture of footsteps, spoken word, and hand claps. The shit looks more like military formations than anything. Everybody’s doing the same thing and there isn’t this lax, looseness of the body with Greek performance. It is very much supposed to be a regimented, stiff thing, right? It’s not supposed to be loose. Michael Love is not in step with anyone else but himself. What he does appears to be liberating.
Kaila: It felt very liberating. It felt to me like Love’s style of dance was freedom making–and it wasn’t that it wasn’t difficult of course. You could see the toll that the dance took on his body over the course of the performance. There was one point towards the middle of it when he had been moving for a long time and he was back-lit, and you could see the sweat just dripping off of him. It was just such an intense physical exertion that he was going through. But it felt to me like that exertion was generative for him. It was always in response to these intense moments of identity formation that he was thinking through, and using dance to transform into spaces for positive creation in his life.
Phillip: You know what, that reminds me of when you look at tap of earlier periods, tappers are always smiling, they’re so happy, and they’re all dressed in tuxedos. Or think of Gregory Hines tap-dancing in jeans. It seems like it’s so pleasurable, and you don’t see that perspiration. You don’t see the intensity because it just seems effortless and seamless. And with this performance, it was very raw. And you know this guy is putting his body through a lot. It was visceral.
Jessi: Yes, it felt like you were witnessing this intense absorption in the body that was a kind of reprieve from the different chapters, in between the tap segments, that were more verbal, or engaging with popular culture imagery.
Phillip: I liked the part in between where the three people came out and they were…I don’t know how to describe it, but they were articulating ways in which Black people are accosted for being different. It’s about being skinny, about being gay, being Black, “being white” as a Black person. Then the way that with his music and tap that he’s thinking about subverting these things and not letting other people’s opinions be the thing that prevent him from chasing his dream.
Kaila: It was interesting to me because I didn’t get as much of that clear correlation. It’s unclear to me whether it’s him as Michael Love, or whether it’s a series of personas that he’s playing, because of that kind of temporal disjunction of him tap dancing in the current moment, but to a lot of these older songs. The whole aesthetic of the thing was very seventies disco. So to me, it felt like it was a continuous struggle that he was referencing. There were specific moments and things from his childhood that he was thinking through in dancing, but it was also related to contemporary moments in his life and things that he is noticing in pop culture across time. That seemed to be the whole point of bringing up the memes at the end- referencing today and how he is taking in discourses around identity, and Black womanhood specifically.
Phillip: But also Black malehood.
Kaila: Yeah, and how those things are tied together, and how they don’t have to be oppositional.
Phillip: Right. Instantly I pictured myself in my dining room dancing to this music, being as free and flaming as I wanted it to be. And it seemed like, you know how you watch those movies when people are sitting in their attics watching old childhood footage of things on like, eight millimeter film or something? That’s what this felt like to me. Like I was watching my youth unfold in front of my eyes because the music was so familiar, and the movements of his body were so free and liberating. I saw myself in that performance.
Kaila: That’s interesting though, because something I was thinking as I was sitting there about the differences in the way you interpret a performance like that based on your age and your experiences. Because I was not alive in the eighties, so those earlier songs that were playing, that music is not part of my repertoire.
Phillip: You should check it out.
Kaila: Yes. I want to now!
Jessi: There was a part when they were all singing along to Solange and Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu, and that for me was a moment where I was like, okay, now I can sing along with all these songs. Like, I’m in my own time zone. And that clip of Nicki Minaj…
Phillip: I watched that documentary of her and you know, I’ve trashed her a lot over the past couple months, because I’m like, who is this person? Why has she become this mean person? But I’m also thinking about the way she talks about what she will and won’t accept and I can imagine the pressure she must be under with the rise of Cardi B. That’s probably why we haven’t seen her a lot- she’s probably being offered pickle juice right now and she’s refusing to take that shit.
Jessi: I hadn’t even thought about that- what happens to Nicki in a world of Cardi B?
Phillip: She’s refusing to drink pickle juice, and sitting it out.
Kaila: I agree. Those moments were more accessible to me. But to me the lack of accessibility based on just not being alive, and not being able to read some of those references, didn’t affect my ability to connect with Michael Love’s interpretation of those moments. It didn’t feel like I needed to understand it. I needed to understand his interpretation of those things. I was just so captivated by him the entire time. It wasn’t only that he was going through this intense physical exertion- I could see this sort of internal transformation that was happening too as he was contemplating all of these things in his life that have helped to create the person that he is.
Phillip: Talk about a creator! Michael created his own sound for many of the pieces during the performances. Using just a loop station, he created amazing beats. His rhythmic tap, which emphasizes percussion, is so ingenious, especially his use of laughter as percussion. I think of laughter as something that is fleeting and not percussive; however, he transforms it into a marker for him to respond to.
Kaila: Yes, it was this beautiful layering that happened on top of the laughter. As he was recording, he added new steps to layer on top of the track. The laughter became more and more distant and then eventually, unimportant. At some point you couldn’t hear it at all. But it’s interesting because I’ve never seen a loop station used for dance. Sound was an interesting part of the performance. There was this interesting blending that was happening, this visceral aural quality of the performance. The intensity of the sound of his steps and the loudness of it was at some points almost overwhelming.
Jessi: I had the privilege of sitting in the front row and I had my feet on the boards and it was vibrating in sync with his tap. So I was able to experience the dance bodily, which was both exciting and kind of vulnerable. The part in the beginning you mentioned earlier, when the other three performers [William Kachi, Taji Senior, and Khali Sykes] were all hurling insults, was especially intense to witness from the front row. All of the things that they were speaking about: from your lips, to your affect, to your hair, to the tone of your skin, and these comments all punctuated by collective laughing. The performers were able to transform in a flash, from second to second they seemed to transform identities to reflect all these different personas with their own form of social judgement. And they accomplished that transformation so subtly, without doing anything overly dramatic but just using tiny shifts in the way that they were speaking and holding themselves
Phillip: Very virtuosic.
Jessi: Yes, super virtuosic. Sitting there in the front row, having those insults hurled in my direction was tough, because it put me in the physical space of being the recipient of those attacks. I felt both in and out of my body, I was on the verge of tears and I was holding onto my seat for dear life.
Phillip: That part of the performance was so familiar to me. To be called gay, told that you speak so differently, even though I don’t think I do, was just…it felt very personal to me. I was overwhelmed, but in a good way though. I felt like my story was being told in a way that I don’t have the ability to tell it.
Jessi: That’s beautiful.
Kaila: I think that’s a hallmark of good performance. It mutates for every person in the audience and it means different things to each person sitting there. And it doesn’t mean that it’s less or more to any one person, but I think that the fact that it’s able to speak so deeply to his own experiences, and also to yours, Phillip, and even a little bit to mine in the sense of like growing up and not feeling like I fit in because of like the way my body looked, and being larger than other people. It also felt very real to me in that moment, and it was just a beautiful way of drawing people in.
Phillip: Jessi, I like the example you gave of your feet being on the board. It makes me think of this word that we’ve been using studying affect and photography. Haptic. This subsystem of non-language communication which conveys meaning through physical contact and in this instance, tap.
Jessi: I also think the size of that performance space was very nice, it created a real sense of intimacy.
Kaila: Going into it, I had heard that it was a really small space. I thought that was kind of sad because the number of people that were going to be able to experience Michael’s performance was going to be very limited. But I thought it was a really wonderfully intimate space. And it forced us all to be in close company with everyone else. Not just with Michael, but with those sitting next to you, which seemed like a really important way to draw people in and develop a closeness with the audience.
Phillip: It is a very different experience. It felt right. I don’t even have words for it, but it seemed like a rarity. In the art world, these moments don’t really happen that often. Over the years, I’ve been to a lot of performances, and rarely are you afforded the opportunity to sit in a room with only 30 or 40 people. The space that Michael created allowed us- well, those of us who grew up listening to that music and it being nostalgic- to be vulnerable. Listen, I would not shed a tear in a space of 20,000 people, but I felt comfortable enough to do that in a space with 30 people. You know what I mean? It seemed like a space where he could explore his vulnerabilities and you could identify and contemplate your vulnerabilities too.
Jessi: I went to see Adrienne Truscott last night and she had this bit in it that was really funny about like trying to figure out whether she was a comedian or a feminist performance artist. And she said when you’re a comedian and it’s going well, your audiences get bigger and bigger and your venues get bigger and bigger over time and that’s how you know you’re doing well. But if you’re a feminist performance artist and you’re doing it right, your audience is gonna get smaller and smaller.
Kaila: I would definitely describe Michael Love as a feminist performance artist. There was so much love and acknowledgement throughout the performance, especially towards the Black women in his life, both that he knew personally, and those that he sees out in the world that inspire him.
Phillip: It seemed like a performance of self-care, too. When you think about all those video clips of people talking about their limits, what they will take and what they won’t take and how you must look out for yourself. Especially the Nicki Minaj clip when she is refusing to accept less that what she thinks she’s worth, or “pickle juice” as she calls it. It was really her saying, “I have to look out and care for myself” and it seemed like that was one of the underlying tenets of the performance. Hell, the title of the performance is Gon’ Head Put Your Records On!, which comes from that fabulous Corinne Bailey Rae song.
Kaila: I was singing that in my head when I got in!
Phillip: And that song was really about you loving yourself and finding some kind of peace and serenity and stability in your life. Living your best life, whatever that looks like.
NQC: [singing] Gon’, put your records on…