New collaborators delve into what's behind their single "Shop 'Til U Drop"
Photo by Dylan Pearce
“Your journey towards pleasure has just begun!” proclaims NYC’s Jennifer Vanilla, with all the confidence of a high-performing salesperson, near the end of her latest work, a collaboration with Baltimore’s Sitcom.
The alter-ego of Ava Luna’s Becca Kauffman, Jennifer Vanilla is a public access TV talk show host, pop singer, dancer, and all-around inspiring multi-media performer. Sitcom is a project more squarely focused on music, but similarly incorporates performance and humor in a way that makes them a highly compatible creative pair.
“Shop Til U Drop” is their meta-commentary on the new forms of retail therapy that surround us in today’s content-obsessed society. “Invest in yourself and you will be content obsessed / love yourself like you love your products and process,” they offer in harmony, like two motivational speaker-singers, over soft but sprightly synth-pop.
Jennifer Vanilla and Sitcom are on tour together this weekend. Surrounding the single and the shows, we worked together to create this digital page of content discussing commodity fetishism, self-help, The Mall Of Jennifer, confusion, uncertainty, and more.
LIZ PELLY: A collaboration between Sitcom and Jennifer Vanilla seems to make perfect sense! How did the collaboration come to be and what are some inherent commonalities between your work?
JAKE: Well, we first caught a glimpse of each other a year ago when I opened for Becca’s band, Ava Luna. Actually, at Comet Ping Pong, where y’all can see us on Sunday. And when I saw them perform I could sort of just could see a collaboration looking real good. You sort of just recognize your musical kin when you see it. Maybe it’s something about the way we look at the audience when we sing.
BECCA: Yes, as soon as I saw the way Sitcom looked at the crowd, I knew he and Jennifer would be bosom buddies—I trust the performer with the gaze that is fixed, knowing, and aware. But first, I needed to architect a meeting between the two. So I invited Jake to be a special guest on the monthly performance series I produce at my local watering hole in Ridgewood, Queens, “Jennifer Vanilla: Live at the Bar.” He was a hit, obviously, and the two hit it off. When, months later, we both got on the bill to open for the public access television soldier David Liebe Hart, it seemed the perfect opportunity to make something together.
In my mind, Sitcom and Jennifer are both, in their own way, motivational court jesters who help clarify and perhaps alter emotional and social frameworks via our own public folly. We play out/play into/play with these basic human needs and drives using performance avatars as a conduit to create a novel social circumstance that can produce change—a shift in environment, a bond through shared experience, a comfortable and elective collective intimacy. This is what I personally define as a L.A.R.P., or Live Action Role Play, a kind of social practice in relational aesthetics. A Jennifer Vanilla show is theater, sure, but it undeniably takes place in, and morphs, reality. It uses the social circumstance as material, and performance as the tool, to construct an aspirational environment of Jennifer’s design. And once we shift reality, anything can happen! It’s a hack to make way for new possibilities.
The narrative of “Shop Til U Drop” takes place within the Jennifer Department Store. In your mind do you envision what that place looks and feels like? And if so can you describe the Jennifer Department Store?
JAKE: I think Becca has a clearer vision for this.
BECCA: Jennifer Department Store is one of many Jennifer stores located inside the Mall of Jennifer, which also houses Jennifer’s Mirror, Jennifer Vanilla T-Shirt Factory, and Jennifer’s Comfort Zone. It is a brick and mortar palace of commerce that looks very much like the now-abandoned shopping malls of 1980’s and 90’s America. The Mall of Jennifer embraces the therapeutic social aspects of traditional, IRL commerce and conceives of money as a type of healthy energy whose sole utility is to facilitate human exchanges in support of a balanced life. The PR team borrows substantially from familiar templates of commercial language and promotional tactics, but here, the product being encouraged is personal and interpersonal experience: exchange, interaction, and engagement. But of course, the business model isn’t totally innocent; regardless of the intent, by appropriating that manipulative sales voice, we are still working with the dark arts of capitalism—counting on the problematic “unfinishedness” of the shopper.
And so, the Mall of Jennifer poses services whose usefulness can only exist inside the fantasy world of Jennifer (though some of these have been LARPed into reality via “content” I’ve created). Jennifer’s Mirror offers a variety of services committed to one’s jennifering: ponytail appraisal, infinite braid development, selfie-reflection. Jennifer Vanilla T-Shirt Factory is the birthplace of the Jennifer Vanilla T-Shirt, a one of a kind, hand-jennifered piece of wearable merchandise that touts a uniquely true and useful jenniferism (Best Jennifer Forever, I Believe in Jennifer, Just Say Jennifer!, What Would Jennifer Do?). If you’re feeling overwhelmed by options, you can step into Jennifer’s Comfort Zone, where a calming soundtrack of neverending laughter and standing ovations will reset your nervous system. Also in the program is guided movement (waving, handshaking, taking bows), a special seminar on encore delivery, and a very successful workshop back by popular demand, Accepting Accolades.
You describe this collab as alluding to the “internet-era’s particular brand of content fetishism” which is very interesting to me. Can you explain what exactly you mean by that? How do you see the internet-era’s specific brand of content fetishism affecting music?
JAKE: It is most likely linked to Karl Marx’s commodity fetishism, which suggests that human relationships, under capitalism, are defined with economics at the center. Content is our current commodity. Everyone is now trading on attention rather than on actual objects. And we’re defining our value through attention. Your attention, for your brand and to other brands, is more important than your money or even to the content itself. It leads to money, sure, but attention is more flexible and more useful right now. It is specific to how the internet has shifted culture in the last couple years. Before it seemed like content would lead back to some sort of product or vessel, but this, in a way, has evaporated. The content is the vessel and it buys us all more attention. So there is just this steady stream of content and everyone is just skimming through it deciding what gets to the next level. The music industry was affected real early on by this and I feel like other industries are just going to follow that path. It’s even beyond if music should be free or not. All music should be free, but I’m not even sure how much longer the album cycle is going to make sense. I think albums make a good container. However, the album is becoming irrelevant again. Musicians have to enter this steady stream of releasing content or getting attention in order to build a brand, to leverage that brand. It’s almost nauseating and I think it’s hard to pull off well. I don’t mean to appear cynical. This is just the way it seems the game is being played right now. And I don’t think the one before this was any better and I’m sure the next one will be just the same.
BECCA: Yes to what Jake said. Attention is the new business model: our currency is ourselves, self-made, coherently conceptualized, and packaged in ways that are attuned to the fastest technological medium at hand. We’re all our own business models.
I think it relates to the fact that the way we engage in commerce now is distinctly asocial compared to the way it was traditionally carried out. In-person human interaction is no longer an inevitable part of the process. Human representation, in commercials and advertisements, is still crucial– instructional– but shopping doesn’t accomplish everything that it used to. There are far fewer “centers,” as in shopping centers, physical sites of congregation. Malls used to be like churches. Shopping is still religion, though. It is just a much more solitary practice now. And while it has always appealed to the lonely as a remedy, the social bonds it produces are different now. Or, they appear in a different order and in a different place (the internet). We shop alone, but then we feel compelled to share the vital steps of the process– unboxings, product reviews, tutorials. It’s still social engagement, but mediated in a new, nonphysical space. “Content” is how we bridge the gap between the physical and the nonphysical now.
Question for Jennifer Vanilla: one of my favorite parts of your live show is when you read self-help guides, and this song definitely channels that energy: “invest in! yourself! and you will be! what you want to!” What initially drew you to incorporate this element of your performance?
BECCA: I’ve always been drawn to self-help, because, as it turns out, I require a lot of it. I’m attracted to that place where the upswing in self-improvement content in our culture converged with the production of cassette tapes as a consumer medium. For me that junction is an aesthetic and pop-historical sweet spot: a snapshot of the systems that were introduced and developed at a certain place in history, some in genuine earnest, to mediate life and personal experience. A lot of these methods — health ideologies, fitness concepts — of course got swallowed whole by capitalism, and now they’re just another thing to “buy” into, literally. And their buyability legitimizes them in the eyes of many. But then there are some perspectives that circumvented this franchising or never took off in the same way. The self-help text I perform in my live show is from an obscure book written in 1981 called, Do It! Stop Procrastinating, by James R. Sherman, PhD. It was written before the internet. There’s a heartfelt autobiographical introduction at the beginning of the book: after the author stopped procrastinating, he started his own self-publishing firm and went on to write an entire series of self-improvement books– Patience Pays Off, No More Mistakes, Farewell to Fear, Be a Winner. He was really on a roll. I like paying attention to the personal narrative illustrated in his output. It’s one more indication that we’re not alone in our inner struggles. One of the hardest things to do is ask for help, or admit that you need it. It may feel indulgent or embarrassing– no one can know that you “need work.” At the same time, we as a culture are obsessed with improving. But admitting imperfection feels almost shameful, something that you should do in private, secretly gobbling up all this corny literature to get your life in order. I incorporate self-help into Jennifer Vanilla’s world to do my part in making this process public. Jennifer is all about transparency in fallibility, owning up to her imperfections as they reveal themselves– that’s part of the joke.
Question for Sitcom: one line that you sing in the song is, “Spending money to make money / dress the part to be something / but I feel so disgusting / discuss the economy.” This line seems to kind of speak to the narrative of “Shop til U Drop” as a whole, like this endless loop of consumerism and searching for meaning. Did anything in particular make you want to write a song about these ideas in 2017?
JAKE: When I got out of school, about a year ago, I decided I’d like to be a musician more than just as a hobby. This is something I had to admit to myself. I wrote ‘Shop Til U Drop’ right as I started pursuing a music career, which I’m still at the beginning of. I watch a lot of motivational speeches online and I really do mean “invest in yourself”. I know the song seems sarcastic, but I think sarcasm is just a tool used to get away with the truth. There’s a lot of emotional and financial labor that is necessary to get to brief moments of clarity. And I act as if I could obtain clarity but there is really nothing to obtain. I’m on this endless loop, trying to fill a void or validate myself. And occasionally, it feels like I’m climbing up some ladder of success and everything is panning out. However, this clarity is always fleeting and the void re-emerges. This loop can be overwhelming, but it’s apart of the whole thing. You sort of just have to ride it out and let the work guide you. Those lyrics are followed up with “smile amongst uncertainty” and I think this sums up what I mean. Invest in yourself even though it is all uncertain where it might lead, and greet this uncertainty with optimism and work.
Catch the duo on tour:
9/15 Philadelphia, PA @ PhilaMOCA w/David Liebe Hart
9/16 Baltimore, MD @ New America w/Bobbi Rush and Anna K. Crooks
9/17 Washington, D.C. @ Comet Ping Pong w/NappyNappa