Born in Israel and currently residing in London, Anat Ben-David is a performance artist in a pop star’s clothing. Virtual Leisure, her first album, doesn’t point out the contradictions and continuities between these two roles, opting instead to inhabit them: These tracks constantly, insinuatingly ask us to interrogate her role as performer rather than simply presenting it as a natural fact.
In this sense, the album’s title track — which also appeared on the superb 2006 Chicks on Speed compilation, Girl Monster — is at the heart of what makes this album worth your time. On the one hand, it’s a clever take on the way the Internet constantly works to convert leisure time into labor time, but on the other, it’s a song embodying the triumph of the reality of the Virtual over “virtual reality.” Slavoj Zizek, in an essay on Gilles Deleuze, outlines what this distinction might mean: “Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing its experience in an artificial medium. The reality of the Virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the Virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences.”
This is one explanation why listeners who take Virtual Leisure at face value do so at their own risk. Songs are basically slogans animated by epileptic electro, and Ben-David has a knack for letting whipcrack negations or utter nonsense hang thick in the air, offering nothing resembling explanation or context. The music itself is a chunky stew of discarded styles: hair-metal guitar stabs, rinky-dink digital hardcore beats and assorted GarageBand ornamentation that worm their way into and out of genres with equal facility.
The biggest problem here is Ben-David’s singing, which manages — particularly on tossed-off tracks like “Mild Wind,” with its chorus of “People made of people, people made of Starbucks,” and “Robot Kid,” in which Ben-David literally whinnies — to be strident and aloof at the same time.
But the void left by Ben-David’s aggressively undisciplined vocal delivery points to the album’s most consistent redeeming feature, one that’s no less problematic than the (to put it generously) uneven quality of the music. That redemption comes from the fact that we, as listeners, having been trained to deal with pop music made by artists as a thing unto itself — the deadly serious investigation into the mechanics of the culture industry and so forth, which I described/subscribed to earlier on — and yet Anat Ben-David thwarts our expectations at every turn. In the process, she manages to make music that’s frivolous (and subversive) in a way that “earnest” music — most indie rock or ascetic minimal techno — would not allow itself to be.
The flipside of this constant lightness is that it also allows for the album’s more conventionally beautiful moments to be genuinely surprising. This is what’s up with “Wise Man,” the album’s young punks anthem, or the strangely moving “Ikea” — ranking alongside the title track as the album’s best moment — a genuinely epic love song for a modular generation, which makes a novel connection between modular furniture and our generation’s courtship rituals. But this isn’t to lose sight of the fact that certain songs, like the grating “El-No,” are abject failures from any perspective.
Approaching Virtual Leisure with a generous dollop of patience, we can’t forget that Ben-David is putting a lot at stake by going all in for lightness — I can’t think of a position that’s more degraded in contemporary music. On the other hand, the art world has known for years that there’s more to art than pleasure, so Ben-David’s recalcitrance here toward the big Other of pop music is not as novel as it might seem at first.
If you’re willing to take a little self-flagellation with your music and are looking for skepticism beyond Radiohead’s worried lullabies, Virtual Leisure provides food for thought. In fleeting glimpses, of course.