I’m counting out time,
Got the whole thing down by numbers…
Got my finger on the button…
Sure, I’ll do this first person, as if speaking for a “we.” By doing so, I open it to an intractable vulnerability. You may not identify with it. You may think it foreign or strange. You may think it objectionable, disgusting, sexist, or whatever. But I’m betting some of you won’t. I’m betting some of you will recognize bits and pieces of yourselves, or maybe even more than that.
Sexuality was a topic that wasn’t really broached directly in my youth. We imagined that our parents had no idea how much we knew and did. We certainly didn’t imagine what our parents actually had known and done, even before we were born, which was, like, before creation. There were books to be read, if parents or nineteen sixties librarians allowed it, or if we managed to read them anyway, as we often did. There was that polite near-silence among the “adults,” to be filled with contraband Playboy and Penthouse magazines. There was that huge freaking mess of an ethical minefield where religious and moral expectations and performances made a strange shadow within which all sorts of things happened anyway, sometimes not reflected upon, or sometimes endlessly analyzed in a language that many of us would later recognize when Bill Clinton got caught in public (as my mother used to say, “in front of God and everybody!”) apparently trying to make out what ‘is’ is.
Sometimes when you hear a song, it’s as if you already know it very well. That was me and “Counting Out Time.” By the time I was initiated into the symbolic world of The Lamb, I was definitely a boy who was resting for his testing. I knew what was meant by “digesting every word the experts say.” I knew what Gabriel meant by “mankind handkinds.” I’m strongly inclined to say that it was the first song on The Lamb that I REALLY understood. I certainly felt like I understood it. As adolescence progressed, it felt more and more like a chapter in my own story, including the disappointment and questioning.
It’s worth remembering how much it felt like my own story, precisely because of its just-so blend of a happy, upbeat sense of discovery with a dark, foreboding sense of objectification and abuse of women. It’s worth pausing to study on its unapologetic privileging of male libido and its frankly expressed hope for an algorithm with which to elicit desired female response. Hegel’s ideas regarding the importance of “lordship and bondage” find a musical conduit here, more subtle and deep than the more famous take by Cheap Trick: “I want you to want me.” There was an uncanny waffling in that desire between the hope of dominance and forced (“automatic”?) submission on the one hand, and the hope of voluntary giving of self on the other. “Just lie there still, and I’ll get you turned on just fine.”
The song is a profoundly deep meditation on a profoundly shallow gaze (regard) of a middle twentieth century pubescent male and his object, in precisely the Freudian sense of “object.” Ah yes, I already did suggest that we might make a visit to Dr. Freud, but in this look I am only making an initial entry into the space of sexuality, and sexuality (like religion, evoked last time) will from now on be a constant companion. But the point of this entry is the uncanniness, the discomfort, the vacillation between desire and disgust. In my own case, I know that a twisted and destructive savor of sexuality haunted my adolescence, like an abusive partner that I would not leave, but would return to again and again.
In order to understand the comical but revelatory character of the other sexual images in The Lamb, even more important than a predictable Freudward nod, I would argue, is that we have a feel for the current running through it that is palpably misogynist on its face, and perhaps deeply misanthropic at its core. It should remind us of the discomfort that arises when we realize that Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” both is and is not about sex (and, for that matter, religion as well).
Some of you may have some other route to the sort of discomfort that I am calling for here, but I suspect that something like the route I have traced here is familiar to many. The allusion above to Hegel suggests the notion that there is something painfully paradoxical at the center of human desire, made most palpable in its sexual manifestations. The suggestion that arises here is that a desire with no possible fulfillment, an incoherent desire, might be a part of what I am.
There is more to come, but listen from there for a while if you can stand it.