SXSW: Anonymous Club – The Fuzzy Enigma of Courtney Barnett

The most rock and roll thing Courtney Barnett does is that she doesn’t do anything rock and roll. Laconic, fuzzy, and murmuring, she presents herself as a writer first. Not so much over it but knowing that the small things don’t matter. Realizing that the small details of her writing, the points of brutal specificity, say enough. She doesn’t really have to share her process. It’s evident in the songs. She is evident in the songs. Her worldview is evident in the songs. Take a listen and know what she thinks. The best thing an artist can do, when given such a profile as Anonymous Club, is to reluctantly accept that window into their soul. If the albums say enough, what more do we need of her? We need her to be the way we think about her.

That’s the quasi-celebrity contract. Show up, not quite as you are, but as you’re expected to be. Courtney Barnett is reluctant to be filmed. Her music arises from that distinct phase of ’90s rock but her attitude also suits the era. It’s funny, the way Courtney Barnett might think it’s funny, to have a whole documentary devoted to her not quite playing the game. Just her existing between sets — sometimes she sits and thinks and sometimes she just sits — and the most amusing thing for her to be is mortified and reticent to be filmed. That is rock and roll, truly.

It doesn’t seem to be a stroke of ego. It doesn’t seem to be really anything at all. She’s being filmed… simply functioning and living a life she might not have chosen. It doesn’t suit her. It rarely suits the good ones. That’s how an artist keeps going the way they have always been: not making more of their recognition than anyone else would do.

Does Anonymous Club give us much insight into her thoughts? Absolutely not. We may walk away with less than we think we knew. Somehow, that is perfectly measured. We see songs come together. They already sound beautiful, in their early stages or fully formed. We see a denial of the acclaim that has come her way, not in any narcissistic way that poses a denial of self, but in a way where the artist doesn’t buy into her own bullshit. And it’s all really sweet.

The film does change partway through. She begins to acknowledge director Danny Cohen. She talks to the camera, just a little. Asks the directors thoughts about guitars used and whether it’s annoying or not to play an Encore. The veil lifts, only briefly, to experience what someone must be like outside their music and our built up mythologies about how they’re meant to act. Just enough to see someone but not enough to reverse the course of the documentary.

The director will not press the issue. Courtney Barnett certainly won’t press the issue. The documentary will remain antithetical to the normal course of how these things usually go. It will play, lightly and gingerly, in that space of the rock and roll documentary, without committing to any of its tropes, without signaling any diverting ups and downs and without ruining the illusion of our relationship to a great source of modern music. It’s better if the artist remains enigmatic. In that way, you are getting exactly what you want, and nothing else. Rock and roll without ornamentation. Every bit as pure, uncomplicated, and confidently reserved as the artist’s catalogue. Well judged, either by accident or deterministic result.


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