Sunday, December 12, 2004

Critical Essay 2: "Confessional Autobiography: Ushering in old theories in new guises"

Confessional Autobiography: Ushering in old theories in new guises

Usher is a perfect subject for hip-hop critical literature: primarily because his music is filled with real sentiment, if sometimes iced with unseemly sentimentality; secondarily because he is artistically, perhaps literarily, aware. Artistically, the lyrics and structure of the album especially show a high degree of deliberate crafting. Literarily, in embarking upon a work so deeply personal and self-exploratory, Patton had done his background reading on how to confess, and the album is filled with references, some conscious, most subconscious and unconscious, to earlier big hitters in the confessional autobiography-tradition.

In titling his work simply Confessions, Patton is continuing in the illustrious vein of such big hitters as Augustine and Rousseau. Like both, he is grappling with the Kantian dialectic between desire and duty; for these passionate men, personal morality lies between burning, uncontrollable desires and opposing, demanding senses of duty. Where Usher moves away from this tradition of self-examination is in his exclusive emphasis on morality in sexual relationships, whereas the earlier thinkers, although realising that morality is recognised only in relation to others, still concentrated far more on the self.

Yet whilst Patton’s journey is built around talking “about the issues men deal with (in relationships)”[1], his approach to this is strictly autobiographically confessional, not general, abstract or allegorical. What takes him closest to the confessional tradition is his examination of the process and the resultant product. Rousseau especially was aware whilst writing his remarkable Confessions of two major issues surrounding such retrospective autobiographical works.

Firstly, in looking back on events, distortion and anachronisation are inerascible. It is impossible for any human being to remember events a) without distortion and b) without bias, both developed by subsequent events. ‘Confession’ implies telling the truth, but may in fact lead to telling lies, especially as the Subconscious is involved in dictating what is remembered as the truth and how. This is something not tackled by Usher. His motives during confessing are left lyrically untouched. Although using real life events as his segue into Confessions, the lyrics either attempt to completely recreate them ("Confessions Part I"), avoiding the need for layers of post-facto textual distortion, or simply give the events as facts, dealing then with the current resultant feelings (such as in "Truth Hurts"); past infidelities are made clear, but not extensively described. Usher’s primary focus is not on the process of remembering or the nature of truth, and because of this, his Confessions are much lighter and more immediately emotionally powerful than Rousseau’s. The listening audience is not forced to ask themselves every five minutes about the artist’s memory of events or his relation of them. This is not to say that we do not think about whether Usher’s Subconscious is distorting events, but it is not such an issue as to become the primary point of discussion; in Rousseau’s Confessions II, his self-justifying distortion practically becomes the subject matter, fuelled by his awareness of it.

However, the second important Rousseauian issue is tackled head on: namely, motives for confessing. Patton is, by not overtly drawing attention to his own memory and narrativisation, sidestepping the issue of truth in autobiography, but he is dealing with his motivations for this soul-searching. This bears several parallels to Augustine and the French thinker. Confessing for Usher, a committed Christian, is a near-religious act, and so the question is not whether he is telling the truth or not – we are supposed to take for granted that he is to the best of his ability - but why he feels compelled to tell this truth, and what he hopes to gain from doing so.

Usher is conscious of several of the (often conflicting) motives confesseurs are subject to. He recognises the actual selfishness that a supposedly altruistic confession may reveal: telling your girlfriend that you cheated on her may make you look like a man and make you feel less guilty, but it hurts her like hell. He is also aware of the moral highground a confession can bestow: if you have been cheating on your girlfriend, just own up to some other shit and she’ll never suspect a thing. He is consistently and insistently concerned, however, with healthiest side of confession: the added self-knowledge and wisdom that owning up to past misdemeanours offers. Yet all three of these strands of motivation are well explored by Usher, and it is a credit to him that, even after repeated listens, the album still does not definitively propagate any one motivation. The primarily religious confesseur like Augustine plumps for the third, morally defensible motivation for his work to the exclusion of all others, whilst the overly-complex self-deluding Rousseau does the same. Both refuse to a large extent to admit the weakness of an action that requires, on the face of things, so much strength.

If the whole album is called Confessions, it is in a few of the most memorable lines, however, that all of the above can be collated and examined. Confessions Part 1 and Confessions Part 2, the names conceivably taken from the identical titles of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s works, offer some rich veins of confessional-motivational difficulty.

In the opening skit, Usher introduces the work as a confession. “This is us, these are my confessions…” He immediately links the act of confessing to a relationship; for this artist, confession is not so much a Freudian examination of one’s own psychology, rather a traditional admission of wrongdoing toward another party. Rousseau and Augustine, whilst not shying away from the admitting, will concentrate on the self-examining. Usher is taking the word ‘confession’ back to it best-known religious context[2], confessing not his own psyche, but his misdemeanours.

‘Confession’ of this type is a very Catholic tradition, and it is a doctrinal and theological minefield; I readily acknowledge that many Catholics, and people of a less cynical bent concerning human motivations than me, will disagree with much of the following analysis. Usually carried out to a priest, who acts in this respect as a kind of conduit to God, Catholics believe that, as sinners, humans must confess their sins to receive divine clemency. This stems from their strong belief in original sin: humans are born as sinners and will die as sinners, and must admit thus. Confession is the act of consciously assuming one’s status as a sinner, accepting the associated guilt, and begging for the forgiveness that is at the heart of the Christian message. Basically, man is a weak sinner, and is predestined to be so: he must therefore accept his inability not to do wrong, and confess when he does.

This idea that humans are hard-wired to sin was in fact a major tenet of Augustine’s philosophy that he articulated in his own Confessions: “Give me chastity and continence, just not now”. He sees God as a force who offers with the right hand the ability to be virtuous, but foists with the left the inability not to be vicious. Usher does the same. The Augustinian argument, when extended through to Usher’s sexual relationship subject-matter, says that not only can men not resist the temptation to adultery, but are in fact constructed to give in to it by their creator. The first song on the album is a bombastic statement of this weakness, as in “Yeah!” the artist shows his inability to resist the temptations of female flesh:

Because I don't know if I take that chance just where it's gonna lead,But what I do know is the way she dance makes shorty alright with me.The way she get low,I'm like yeah, just work that out for me.She asked for one more dance and I'm like yeah,
How the hell am I supposed to leave? [i]

The scene is a nightclub. The song itself is the acknowledged ‘club hit’ from the album, made partly to ensure sales to those who dance on the kind of night out that Usher is describing: “art imitates life in Confessions”[3]. The lyrics describe a woman dancing in this club in a sexually provocative manner (“get low”, “work that out”), and Usher describes his inability to resist it: with such a fine specimen of womanhood on show, how indeed is he supposed to deny himself? Semantically, the title “Yeah” functions here as an acceptance, an affirmation, and even a celebration of man’s inability to resist sexual temptation. Even at this early stage of the album, the “Intro” has made the listener aware of the omnipresent “us” with which the work will deal, and so “supposed to leave” here indicates that Usher’s desire for the club-woman is trammelled by his duty to another: the problems of sin and confession start here at the coalface of the Kantian dialectic.

That Usher, in good Catholic style, gives in to this vicious temptation is made clear. In the song itself, Ludacris’ irresistibly cheeky, unashamed verse indicates precisely “where it’s gonna lead”: “So gimme the women and it’ll be off with their clothes/ Bend over to the front, and touch your toes”. The sexual connotations here do not need clarification. The album’s structure also contributes to showing the ineluctability of sin. The following song immediately focuses on the consequences of the night before, Usher’s partner having left him precisely because of the kind of shenanigans so luridly described by Luda’: “Mmmm, you gonna want me back”. Throughout the album, this use of the Augustinian ‘original sin’ argument will be a cornerstone for the songster: his Confessions will be based on the idea that their corresponding sins are unavoidable. In the manner described by Kant, Usher suffers because his strong sexual desires for women in general (made most clear in “Yeah!”, “Bad Girl” and the deliciously dirty “That’s what it’s made for”) conflict with his deep affection and reverence for one woman in particular (“Burn”, “Superstar” and “Do it to me”). Much of the real feeling I find in the album comes from this dichotomy; on their own, songs like “Superstar” are in danger of being unforgivably schmaltzy: juxtaposed with tracks like “Caught up”, they take on deeper significance. This is where the structuring of Confessions, placing these pieces consecutively to aid the comparison, is so artistic.

So given the Patton makes clear that sin for him to a part of life, what does this say about his motivations for confessing? “Confessions (Interlude)” makes clear one of them:

Every time I was in L.A. I was with my ex-girlfriend,
Every time you called I told you,"Baby I'm workin’" (No!)
I was out doin’ my dirt (Oh!)
Wasn't thinkin' 'bout you gettin' hurt.
I was hand in hand in the Beverly Center, like man,
Not givin' a damn who sees me.
So gone (I know)
So wrong (Just listen)
Ac’in' like I didn’t have you sittin' at home,
Thinkin' about me,
Bein' the good girl that you are,
But you prob’ly believe you got a good man,
A man that would never do the things I'm about to tell you I've done
Brace yourself: it ain't good
But it would be even worse if you heard this from somebody else (Oh no…)
I know you hate me,
I know I hurt you,
But there's more -

In the opening lines of this half-sung/half-spoken, breathless and atmospheric confession, Usher does not spare his girlfriend the gory details. Each line stabs like a knife at the heart of trust that connected them, the harsh “No!” and “Oh!” underlining the pain he is causing. He speeds through the lines, aware that they are horrific, but feels the need to confess these actions: “Just listen”. In comparing his own reprehensible behaviour (“out doin’ my dirt”) to her praiseworthy conduct (“sittin’ at home… bein’ the good girl”), Usher is highlighting his own guilt, and his need to confess. Although his desperation to confess is made clear by his frantic hurrying of the lines, his motives remain unclear. Essentially, if all of this is so bad, why is he telling his girlfriend about it? Whatever it is that he has done wrong, one motive for his telling her is clear: a combination of virtuous honesty and unfortunate necessity: “It would be even worse if you heard this from somebody else”. Primary motivation: the hitherto secret ‘dirt’ is about to get spread, and both for personal honour, and because all hope of concealment is lost anyway, Usher resolves to tell all.

This speech is preceded on the album by the recreation of a call in which Usher learns that he has got his girl-on-the-side pregnant, although the listener is unaware of this exact detail until the following track, “Confessions Part 2”:

These are my confessions
Just when I thought I said all I can say,
My chick-on-the-side said she got one on the way
These are my confessions
Man, I'm throwed and I don’t know what to do,
I guess I gotta give you part two of my confessions
If I'm gonna tell it then I gotta tell it all,
Damn near cried when I got that phone call,
I'm so dumb and I don't know what to do
But to give you part two of my confessions

The passage is a masterpiece because it offers conflicting and contradictory hints at a range of the different motivations behind the admission, simultaneously peeling back and covering up glimpses of a psychology of confession. “Man, I’m throwed and I don’t know what to do, I guess I gotta…” shows the complexity of the emotions involved; as we have been made aware, Usher knows the act of confession will be unpleasant for him and her, but he feels he has no choice. Once again, the language of obligation comes up (“gotta”), and he feels a duty towards his girlfriend to be truthful with her. Similarly, not being a man of half-measures, the songster opts for the in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound school of confession. Once again this draws on the Catholic idea that we are all sinners in the eyes of God, and God’s eyes are pretty much everywhere. Honesty, if it is not to be a pale mockery of itself, must be complete. Secondary motivation: due to his belief in God and Christian doctrine, his sense of self-worth and of moral obligation to the girl, and his respect and love for her, Usher feels he must spill the beans, however painfully hot they may be.

Yet we may be inclined to seek other motives here, indeed the text asks that we do so. His tacit, subtextual argument for confessing is that, although it will cause her pain to hear it, he will feel better for saying it; it is undeniably selfish. “I don’t know what to do but to give you…my confessions”, he confesses. In other words, his own inertia and foolishness are contributing factors to the pain he is putting the girl through with his blow-by-blow account, and he hopes that, in clearing the air, however nastily, he will be in better frame of mind. There is also the more pragmatic, but no less selfish idea, that they’re relationship might be saved. In the breakdown at the end of the song, Usher cheekily pre-empts: “I hope you can accept the fact that I’m man enough to tell you this, and hopefully you’ll give me another chance”.

Usher’s great achievement in this song is to leave us in no doubt that he feels he must confess, and that he doing a fundamentally right action in doing so, but also to let us know that he is aware of the selfishness inherent in the enterprise. So despite the self-righteous tone of lines like “Now this gon’ be the hardest thing I think I ever had to do…” and “I hope you can accept… that I’m man enough to tell you this…”, Usher demonstrates an understated realisation that it may not actually be very ‘man’ of him to confess:

She opened up the door and didn’t wanna come near me,
I’m saying ‘why’ baby baby, please, baby…

The attentive listener may think that I am wrong. Surely the above line demonstrates that Usher is unaware of the pain his confession is causing, and is simply being self-justificatory in the extreme, concentrating on the difficulty he is going through in confessing. In the song “Confessions Part 2”, the listener may well have a point, but once again, the artistic construction of the album renders much of the contrast and contradiction that makes it such an interesting listen. “Truth Hurts” is a natural follow on from this track in the sense that it deals with the consequences of confession, acknowledging the selfish side of recounting to someone your crimes against them as a means to assuaging conscience. Once again, Usher waits for the breakdown to make this clear:

Truth is, I got the secret I’ve keeping from you baby
I’ve been blaming you when I’m the one that’s doing wrong,
I’m’a go on: my guilty conscience is the reason I wrote this song.

Here we have Usher confessing about the nature and motivation of his confession. This is totally contradictory to “Confessions Part 2”, where the confession is religious: man the sinner admits his status as such and begs forgiveness, showing his virtue precisely by admitting to his vice. In “Truth Hurts”, Usher writes about confession as a more cynically selfish strategy: despite his accusing his lover of infidelity and demanding a confession from her, he ends the song on a breakdown where he confesses, and admits that his ‘guilty conscience’ is at play, not his sense of honour, manliness, or religious-moral conviction.

This is the most interesting feature of Confessions, this Rousseauian self-justification mixed with self-contradiction. Usher seems to be essentially an Augustinian, accepting, and revelling in, his pre-programmed propensity to sin – here, adultery -; he thus takes an Augustinian attitude to confession, a religious idea that admitting equals absolution. As much as this simplistic and sometimes hurtful cycle of sin/confession/sin/confession/sin is offered as a model for life, Usher is careful not to exclude the less poetic side of things: the doctrine of original sin and its resulting arguments as outlined above are nicely thought out, but do not make the consequences of his actions and subsequent graphic confessions any less hurtful. That this one album can support a whole range of moral motivations for the act of confession is impressive, and it does so primarily by its juxtaposition of songs.

The separation of the sides of the arguments into opposing songs (“Confessions Part 2” vs. “Truth Hurts” or “Yeah!” vs. “Superstar”) allows Usher to manifest the contradictions inherent in human nature to the full: one minute, he is totally self-assured and self-righteous, the next, completely overcome by self-doubt and self-loathing. And as much as this album is about relationships, “about us” as the “Intro” reminds us, it is about the self, because as Usher shows us, we find out about ourselves only in relation to others, we define our morals only in interaction with others, between our own desires and imposed duties. In terms of Kantian dialectics, Patton shows instinctive understanding far outstripping most people I have ever met.

[2] There are three religious definitions of the word in English:
1. A formal declaration of sins
2. A religious group sharing beliefs
3. A declaration of beliefs and doctrines
Usher is primarily concerned with the first definition.
[i] All lyrics from own transcriptions, consulting for comparison and ideas.


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