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July 19, 2011

Book Notes - Melissa Febos ("Whip Smart")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Melissa Febos explores her struggles with addiction vividly and honestly in her memoir Whip Smart. This tale of addiction and working as a professional dominatrix could easily have taken a sensationalistic route, but Febos's straightforward writing style and cutting insights into sexual politics and her own psychology make this both fascinating and relatable to everyone.

At The Daily Beast David Goodwillie wrote of the book:

""Febos can really write, and it is the narrative voice she inhabits, at once honest and dispassionate, curious and even idealistic, that turns a timeworn story into a smart, provocative thrill-ride of a book…For all its jaw-dropping shock value...Whip Smart is, in the end, a treatise on the psychology of sex and power, subversion and submission—humanity."

In her own words, here is Melissa Febos's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, Whip Smart: The True Story of a Secret Life:

I used to have a right song for everything. First kiss songs, walking to the subway songs, smoking on the fire escape songs, and yes, spanking songs. The right song snares a memory, and saves it for those moments, years later, when you need to be reminded of how it felt to be in love, or New York at nineteen, or a latex full-body catsuit. The publication of my memoir, Whip Smart (about my stint as a professional dominatrix and heroin addict), was an excoriating experience of its own, time-capsulated in its own roster of songs. But music was as integral to my sessions as a domme as it was to my sessions writing a book about them. There are some songs that work as soundtracks for verbal humiliation and nipple torture (PJ Harvey, Nick Cave), and some that don't (They Might Be Giants? tUnE-yArDs?), and there is a balance one needs to strike between the music you torture to, and the music you go home to. On the eve of Whip Smart's paperback release, here is a list of songs that will forever evoke the smell of Lysol Antibacterial Spray, economy tubs of lubricant, leather, sex, and loneliness.

1. "Abbaon Fat Track" - Tricky

I listened to Maxinquaye in sessions a lot, and for that reason, I haven't been able to listen to it since. Some kinds of nostalgia are slow to develop. Like #4, this track was an ideal hybrid of sexy and menacing. Though, I have to admit, when he whispers, "I'll fuck you in the ass, just for a laugh," it always used to embarrass me a little, even while I was actually doing just that to my clients, and laughing as per their requests. It really does take a good girl to get off on doing some of those very bad things—and some kinds of innocence are slow to fade.

2. "Love Hurts" - Kim Deal & Bob Pollard

I listened to this stripped down, plaintive cover (written by Boudleaux Bryant, and first released by the Everly Bros in 1960) so many times, back when I was caught in the daily grind of inflicting hurt that had little to do with love. Now, sometimes when it comes on shuffle, I think it's sort of a boring song. Love hurts, huh? "Love is like a stove, it burns you when it's hot," huh? Shouldn't I, as a writer, cringe at this? NO. It's a great song, and a fucking brilliant rendition. I dare you to go listen to it and argue otherwise. Because you know what? Love does hurt. And, "I've really learned a lot." From love, from dressing up like the evil queen in Snow White and administering enemas to half of Wall Street, from the arduous and gut-wrenching process of telling the truth about the things of which I was least proud. Writing this book (that is, writing a book) taught me, better than any dominatrix, how to "take a lot of pain." Sometimes, "economy of language" (as Strunk and White called it) is where it's at. Most often, in fact.

3. "Rid Of Me" - PJ Harvey

This song (or really, anything off of Rid Of Me) fits onto just about any playlist I could ever devise. Needless to say, it nails exactly the feeling I could get sometimes, when "with the right tools and my hands' intuition, everything else could just fall away, and I would be pure motion, pure drive. Maybe love isn't the word for how I felt about it, but one just as strong." Put less lyrically – sessioning to her really got me in the succubus mood. You know, the old "I'm going to wreck your life, and you are going to thank me" sort of day.

When I'm 60, and my (hypothetical) kids are listening to pop songs that were all written on cell phones, will they hear PJ Harvey the way I heard Don Henley in my parents' station wagon (that is, with eye-rolls)? Hard to imagine, but probably. Idiots.

4. "Easy Muffin" - Amon Tobin

This album (Bricolage) was in heavy rotation for all four years I worked at the dungeon, and typified the most agreeable sort of soundtrack for sessions: ambient, spooky, sexy, unobtrusive—unlikely to break the spell of a fantasy enactment, the trance of the hour's narrative. The clients never complained about Tobin, like they would sometimes about soundtracks more in the vein of #3. For comparable reasons, this is also often the genre of music I listen to while writing—a different kind of trance, but equally delicate.

5. "Stagger Lee"- Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Never was psychopathy so cool as in this song. Nick Cave has mellowed with age in a way that comfortingly parallels my own tastes. But back then (and in years before I ever picked up a whip), this was the jam. Perhaps for obvious reasons, dissociation held a certain allure for me during my tenure as a torturer. Not that I wanted the freedom to boundlessly hurt others (it was only ever fun when they liked it), as the "bad motherfucker" killing-machine protagonist of this song does, but rather the freedom to subject myself to anything with impunity: drugs, secrecy, the worlds of strangers' fantasies. Turns out, I couldn't. Not forever, anyway.

6. "Succexy" - Metric

In 2003, when this song came out, it was near the end of Bush's first term, and that of my first domming phase—the pink cloud. That is to say, things had gotten kind of ugly. I was in a haze, then—intoxicating and slippery—and this song reminded me what it was like to care about other things, to exist in a world beyond the rooms of the dungeon, fantasy, and my own anxiety. On March 19, the US invaded Iraq, and on Feb 15, over 100,000 people protested at the UN, including many of my friends. Me? I was working, appropriating the "enhanced interrogation techniques" Bush so championed.

7. "Revolver" - Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan

Ballad Of the Broken Seas – the debut album of these two Belle and Sebastian and Queens of the Stone Age veterans reminded me of Nick Cave, but was a softer kind of noir, and would have been great for sessioning, but it came out too late. Instead, I wrote the essay that turned into Whip Smart listening to this song in particular. Lyrics comparing heartache to "a mouthful of rain," and elusive references to a missing person felt just right, since the process of penning that experience was very much a process of sleuthing for myself, and gulping acid mouthfuls, however poetic.

8. The Lake - Antony & The Johnsons

This EP came out in 2004, and promptly broke my heart into a million pieces. I was in the painful wrenching phase of leaving something that doesn't want to let you go, that a part of you fears you cannot live without. That is, a job and a person. Antony's adaptation of Poe's poem pierced right into the center of how I felt that year—the glory and terror of letting go, acknowledging the beauty of what I'd experienced, and the fact that the time had come to walk toward the next thing, however frightening in its mystery. "My infant spirit would awake/To the terror of the lone lake./Yet that terror was not fright--/But a tremulous delight,/And a feeling undefin'd,/Springing from a darken'd mind." (I don't think he was talking about infantalism, but other kinds of transformation.)

Melissa Febos and Whip Smart: The True Story of a Secret Life links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
video trailer for the book

AGNI review
Economist review
ELLE review
Jigsawdust review
Kirkus Reviews review
LiteraryMinded review
On My Bookshelf... review
Publishers Weekly review
Reading with Sea review
Time Out New York review

BlackBook interview with the author
The Daily Beast profile of the author
Fresh Air interview with the author
The Frisky interview with the author
Huffington Post essay by the author
New York Magazine interview with the author
Paper Cuts playlist by the author
Sadie interview with the author
Time interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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