Synesthesia - Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl

On March 7, 2016

Synesthesia is a cognitive condition where one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway (totally lifted that straight from Wikipedia), like sounds and colors. This is our column where we make playlists for comic books.

Emily Aster sold half her her personality to the King Behind the Screen in exchange for power and a new image. All she had to do was become two-dimensional. Eight years later, the other half comes back for revenge, and Emily finds herself banished to 80’s music video hell. Thus begins the final chapter of Phonogram, The Immaterial Girl. Read it, even if you’ve never read Phonogram before. All three volumes are good places to start, and this one might even be the most accessible and self-contained of the three.

In the first issue, Emily proclaims “The record is irrelevant, the video overpowers and overwrites it. It is magnificent, it is sublime. Yet simultaneously it is a corruption. It is an annihilation. Power and transcendence… With a cost. The power of specificity with the cost of specificity.” I thought that making a Phonogram playlist would be a corruption, or an annihilation of the joy that comes from picking through the myriad music references in the comic. Do I really need to make a playlist that ends with Bowie’s “Lazarus” to point out how positively eerie the cover and subject matter of the final issue is? No. Do I want to make a playlist of every Los Campesinos! song referenced in issue #4? Yes, but that’s beside the point. In the end, I decided the best way to do this was to keep it personal, and share some of my favorite songs that The Immaterial Girl moved me towards. It’s my personal Phonogram playlist, with the power of my personality at the cost of my personality.

"Not In Love" - Crystal Castles (ft. Robert Smith): When Robert Smith coos “I’m not in love” over Crystal Castles’ storm of '80s synthesizers distorted by 30 years of electronic entropy, it feels like he’s trapped. The first thirty-million times that I listened to this song, I thought it was a break-up anthem, but the more he repeats it, the less it feels like he’s convincing himself that he’s not in love with someone, and more like he’s lamenting that, at his age, he’s not in love with anyone. He has no partner. I have reason to believe that this is one of the unspoken catalysts for Emily’s identity crisis.

"Body Double" - Lushlife & CSLSX: Another example of taking the sounds pioneered in the '80s, and warping them into something that sounds like it only could have been made in this decade. Lushlife glides over a hazy, gradually swelling synthesizer texture that fades away when it needs to, and grows euphoric before you realize that it’s pulling your emotions like strings.

"Heart Factory" - Sleater-Kinney: This feels like the sounds of Claire bursting out of the box that she put half of herself into when she made her deal with the King Behind the Screen. When Corin yells “I’m not just made of parts,” it reminds me of the two parts that Claire felt she needed to separate into in order to gain a powerful identity.

"Fading Vibes" - Les Savy Fav: Beyond music, Phonogram is mainly concerned with aging, as well as how the music that provides entries to those memories ages with us. Most vibrations fade immediately, but with a little bit of power, they can be forced to continue for as long as the input power does. They might even resonate to peak amplitudes. But power, electrical, mechanical, social or magical won’t last forever, either. “Someone’s on the other line, and they’re calling for my soul.”

"Kill V. Maim" - Grimes: Oh Emily, did you think Claire was just going to play nice? “You gave up being good when you declared a state of WARRRRR.” I also find it interesting that, before the deal, it seemed that Claire was a timid, dark, melancholy individual individual, but eight years later, this half of her is the one with the penchant to “B-E-H-A-V-E aggressive.” Makes me think that her power was there all along, it just took a minor identity crisis (or eight years of listening to "Take on Me" and "Material Girl" on repeat) to manifest itself. Also, special shouts out to Grimes for her WicDiv #14 cover. It’s so deliciously demented.

"Fluorescent Adolescent" - Arctic Monkeys: “You used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your nightdress.” The flippant lovers Alex Turner (along with his girlfriend at the time, Johanna Bennett, who earned a co-writing credit) describes in this song remind me of the two sides of Emily/Claire’s personality at war here, and the underlying sadness and uncertainty in the future beneath it all. “The best you ever had is just a memory…”  Also, this song is here partially because of the Arctic Monkeys dig in the first issue of The Singles Club.

"Unsatisfied" - The Replacements: There are a lot of reasons for one to be unsatisfied with their image. Sometimes the mirror isn’t flattering. Sometimes we don’t live up to our lofty expectations. Sometimes we can't ignore our unflattering angles. Sometimes all of that is bullshit and we need to get out of our heads and just keep doing the things that we do best. When Paul Westerberg shouts “Look me in the eye and tell me, that I’m satisfied,” he might be admitting defeat, but only for a moment. The Replacements wouldn’t be such a great band if Paul and the gang were easily satisfied, because sometimes that dissatisfaction is the fuel that makes us better than The Adversary.

The Pains of Being... - Chumped: Laura and Lloyd were my two favorite characters in the Singles Club, and their clash in issue #4 made for my favorite single issue of 2015 (not just because of the Scott Pilgrim parody, or myriad Los Campesinos! references, though both helped). “We get older. Time moves faster. You stay the same.” I think it’s fitting that our two star-crossed haters finally found solace in their common ground, even if it’s common contempt.

"The Sea Is a Good Place to Think of the Future"- Los Campesinos!: In piece about Phonogram a few months back, I spoke on how much this band meant to me at a specific time in my life, and how they will always have a special place in my heart and mind, even if they never mean that much to me again. This is one of my favorite songs of theirs, with one of their best song titles (that’s saying something).

"Call Your Girlfriend" - Robyn: I’ll forego the minor plot relation that justifies my choice of this song for the sake of character arcs, and instead point you in the direction of the music video. If you haven’t seen it, put down the comic, turn off the playlist, hit up YouTube, and watch it seven times in a row.

"Favourite Color" - Carly Rae Jepsen: Sure, this song is obviously about falling in love with someone so much that you melt into them when you make out “like it’s the end of the world,” but what about self love? What about the duality of Emily/Claire? For the most of the comic, she is wearing clothes that are either black or white, but at the end, once the two sides of her personality have settled into one, she is wearing a pink shirt. What if that’s her favo(u)rite color? What if it’s the first time she’s had a favorite color in a while?

"I’m Not Part of Me" - Cloud Nothings: Earlier in the story, Emily remarks to herself “Mirrors are no longer your friend,” and it made me think to who I see when I look into the mirror. There is a good chance that whoever I see looks slightly different than what others see when they see me without a reflection. I’m not sure how close each of these versions of me are to the real me, but I am sure that my true personality is somewhere at the center of it all, even if that center warps and changes as I age. “I’m not you. You’re a part of me.” We are all the man (or woman) in the mirror, but if you don’t like who you see, you can always try to change, just like Emily decides as this story ends.  Just don't, you know, sell your soul to do so.

"My Sweet Friend" - Allo Darlin’: “My sweet friend and I go to the park on the day a famous pop star died and we sit there ‘til after dark.” This sounds like Kohl and Emily’s (presumably) final meeting, except they are in a cafe in the rain, not the park after dark. I’d also like to use this song to say thank you to Phonogram, and its creators. “You said ‘A record is not just a record, records can hold memories. All these records sound the same to me and I’m full up with memory.’” This story is over, but the music isn't, and I’ll find plenty of memories to fill up the universe in between my ears, even if I need to find more room to store all my records.

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