Is violence sexy? Is the prospect of putting an end to the culmination of thousands of years of genetic advancement appealing or even arousing? Most people would be quick to answer no and for good reason. Inflicting pain on others for pleasure is by definition a gruesome trade, one that is as vile as perhaps anything else on this planet of ours. And yet it is one that is so deeply rooted in our history and our present. On their most recent album Kill for Love, the Chromatics seek to answer that question. The title track of that album is not just one of the best songs of 2012, but also a thesis statement bent on exploring the relationship between said killing and said love.
While the rest of the Chromatic’s discography lacks this give and take relationship between love and violence, there is a consistent aesthetic that stretches across all of their albums. It can even be seen in Jewel’s other projects such as Glass Candy, if not to a lesser extent. This aesthetic conjures images; images of fast cars in the nighttime, images of neon signs and back alleys that you would have to be insane or desperate to venture down, images of insanity and desperation. At their best the Chromatics drag you into that world, kicking you out the door of some convertible into the dim light of a streetlamp.
Here, we hope to explore that world; to turn off the dazzling neon and hold it up to the scrutinous light of analysis. Never to date have I had an easier time in selecting two non-musical artists/works of art for comparison. Both works feel as if they visit different neighborhoods of the same dark city. And while the similarities between the aesthetics of this band and these two works are perhaps obvious, by teasing apart what makes these works different perhaps we can come closer to answering that first question, whether or not the act of taking life is in fact connected to its genesis.
Hotline Miami (Videogame by Dennaton Games)
Your DeLorean, your varsity jacket, your bloodstained animal mask. Everything feels right. Kicking down the door, you knock some nameless white suit punk to the ground, you bash his head into the floor before he can recover. He has friends and here they come. You pick up the piece of pipe that he was holding and throw it across the room into the face of another unsuspecting and unnamed thug. One more door, one more thug, this time he gets the jump on you. You bleed out on the carpet. This is Hotline Miami, and as you kick the door in for the umpteenth time, you think to yourself this time I will be ready. This time it will be different.
Hotline Miami is a bloodbath. We live in a world in which most games limit their violence to how well their game engines can represent it to the player. Hotline Miami is a completely different animal or perhaps it just wears a different animal mask. The amount of violence that can be portrayed by animated blood splatter and pixilated bodies stacked on top of each other would previously have been not only impossible in the eyes of most game designers but also unwanted in the eyes of the American public.
Whether or not Hotline Miami is violent or not is hardly up for debate, and it certainly is not the purpose of bringing it up here. In terms of the comparison, it would be incredibly easy to point out that its soundtrack is comprised of the same type of techno-synth that comprises the Chromatics’ musical styling, but the connection between The Chromatics and Hotline Miami runs deeper than that. They evoke the same world, the same types of characters, the same cars, and the same darkness. In fact the similarities between both entities are so much in line with each other that it is likely that striking differences between them will be more worthwhile.
To start, one main difference between the world of Hotline Miami and the Chromatics are the characters that traverse both. Both are ambiguous, whether it is their motivations or their stories, even their appearances are for the most part left to the imagination of the consumer. The difference, while there are plenty, lies most obviously in gender. The Chromatics are fronted by a woman of course, Ruth Radalet, who traverses the world of fast love and even faster death with disturbing grace. Her crooning melodious voice floats above the fray of the moody electronics with ease. Coupled with the violent imagery conjured by the songs and a few gender ambiguous tracks, Radalet comes across as someone who is perhaps as grizzled as the unnamed Hotline Miami protagonist.
The protagonist of Hotline Miami on the other hand, and I use the word protagonist loosely, is a different story. While calling the seamless murder of twenty to thirty crooks graceful would not be totally unwarranted, having to watch this guy fail anywhere from fifty to two hundred times per level is less then idyllic. There is perhaps only one human moment throughout the whole story of Hotline Miami, and it happens after the first kill. The protagonist bashes in the head of a homeless man in an alleyway. He is overcome with his emotions and vomits them out.
Hotline Miami banks on some of the same techniques that The Chromatics and other musicians employ. Mainly, by not revealing details such as background and appearance, the consumer is left to project their own motivations and feelings onto the characters. So when a player has their character smash a head in for no particular reason, it is not a stretch to think that the character is acting for the same reason that the player is, for pleasure. While true for all games, it is especially so when you consider how hazy the details are in a game like Hotline Miami. Here lies the main difference between Hotline Miami and The Chromatics; where video-gamers act out of boredom or for an immersive experience, the music listener’s experience is far more passive.
Passivity however is not the only difference. When combined with the fact that the music of The Chromatics is emotionally driven and is far less the blank slate that Hotline Miami is, listening to the Chromatics and playing Hotline Miami can be a very different emotional experience. No two Hotline Miami players will likely have the same experience, whereas the Chromatic’s listener shares the same emotional experience with all other people who turn the record on. So when Rabalet describes smothering someone with a pillow on Kill for Love, that strikes a chord with the listener that they can experience over and over again.
If you were to graph conveyed emotion and violence, the music of the Chromatics and Hotline Miami could not possibly be further from each other. Drive on the other hand would be pretty close to the center of that graph. Ryan Gosling’s character is exactly what I imagine the character from Hotline Miami is like. He is cold, awkward, detached. But underneath that is emotion, a wellspring of it that at its core is what calls the character to arms. In this way, it is not all that difficult to consider Drive to be some sort of combination of Hotline Miami and Kill for Love.
To reassess the first proposed question, Drive is incredibly sexy and incredibly violent. Fast cars, fast women, slick tunes, Ryan Gosling; it’s a winning combination. In the movie, Ryan Gosling’s character who is a stuntman moonlighting as a getaway driver, ends up doing a job helping the husband of the girl he falls in love with. Where the act of revenge killings makes Gosling seem very attractive to the girl he loves, they also drive an emotional wedge between them. Gosling cannot form a real bond with her simply because of how focused his work makes him. Not only does Gosling come across as sexy because of his looks and his illegal acts, but also because of his emotional depth.
Now in relation to the Chromatics, the connection here is obvious. Of course the film features music by the band and a whole soundtrack of music that takes inspiration from the band. The way it combines violence and emotional vulnerability is rather similar to the overall tone of Kill for Love. Even deeper, the narrative arcs of both works are also similar. In fact It is not all that difficult to imagine the song Kill for Love playing as Ryan Gosling drives off into the night at the end of the film.
There are differences between the two, and whether or not those differences are just the result of different mediums is difficult to say. Whereas The Chromatics and music in general allows the listener to fill in the details not explicitly stated in the lyrics, Drive is very explicit in how it takes Ryan Gosling and makes him into a killer. A real turning point for me is when Gosling and the woman he loves is approached by a killer while they are both in an elevator. Gosling embraces the girl in a kiss to hide his face, only to turn around and get the jump on the thug and kick his head in. Literally, kick his head in. There is a wonderful moment in which the crunching noises made by Gosling’s boot switches to a nauseatingly satisfying squishing one. The man is dead, but Gosling persists in kicking his face. Gosling straddles the line between protector and murderer with great tact.
The music of the Chromatics is of course not without its subtitles, but really it is disadvantaged by its medium in terms of its ability to tell a cohesive story. There are certainly albums that do try to tell stories, but Kill for Love and Night Drive aren’t among them. Both of those are beautiful records, beautiful in some of the same ways that Drive is, but without the same story telling nuances that great movies have.
Have you ever been to Miami? Where you alive in the eighties? Have you ever moonlighted as a getaway driver? The Chromatics and the makers of Drive and Hotline Miami are probably hoping that you haven’t. Imagine Middle Earth and the multitude of works that involve settings similar but different to Middle Earth. To people like Johnny Jewel, the eighties and Miami are Middle Earth, and while it may bear some resemblance to reality, the fact of the matter is that reality just doesn’t matter. The world of the Chromatics is a fantasy, but it is a fantasy that I would gladly enter. And while the streets are dark, Drive and the Chromatics and Hotline Miami have taught me something; that there is no ill in the world that a night drive cannot solve. So wanna go for a ride?