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Ken Ehrlich

Ken Ehrlich is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. His work on political struggles, history and the built environment has been presented at The Orange County Museum of Art, LACMA, The Hammer Museum, and Museo Carillo Gil, among many others. He is the editor of Art, Architecture, Pedagogy: Experiments in Learning and co-editor of the Surface Tension book series published by Errant Bodies Press. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and in the Department of Art at U.C. Riverside.

"The Twang of Melancholic Masculinity: Vulnerability and Pathos in Honky Tonk"
Growing up in northern New Mexico, I encountered honky tonk, classic country and tex mex blasting out of truck windows and in high school gyms, usually at a distance. It was music that drifted across the peculiar class and racial dynamics of those touristy landscapes so saturated with narratives of conquest, redemption and the sublime. Was honky tonk settler music? To whom did it belong? This was not music that played in my own home and it ended up as the ambient soundtrack to my childhood and teen years, often as subject of derision and even mockery. For many years, my own standard teenage response to the often asked question of what kind of music do you like was “everything but country.” Only much later did I come to appreciate the sound in all of its complexity.

The sound of honky tonk as it appears in the canon of country music displays what I want to call a melancholic masculinity in ballads and tragic tunes, displaying forms of vulnerability that seem distinct from the cliched image of the macho, hard drinking cowboy image sometimes associated with the genre. This softer side of masculine performance is less a distinction than the flip side of the same coin, fleshing out narratives of men desperately in need. Yearning for possession - of women, property and money and of things ineffable (control of their own feelings perhaps), the melancholy sounds of the country ballads are consistent with settler colonial goals and logic: namely, the right and deliverance of all things to the white men who seek them out.

Writing about the masculine subject as figured in honky tonk, I also want to complicate the men that appear in these songs by thinking about the site of the border in the music of Flaco Jimenez, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. How do the notions of exile and diaspora construct forms of idealized masculine identity? How does the landscape function as a metaphor of longing and despair? Does the honky tonk sound re-produce forms of yearning that are both anchored to and that depart from easily identifiable forms of masculinity?

My Speakers Sessions

Friday, April 27

5:45pm PDT