"Your features are intensifying:" Dancing-Plus-Rapping with Ben Kassoy

Plus a couple new shows and a soft announcement!

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Howdy, Sternal Journalists,

As you know from my constant pestering, I’ve been performing again (In fact, I have one next Sunday). Here’s me getting ready for one of those past shows:

A post shared by Julian M. Stern (@julianmstern)

As you can certainly see, I’m performing one of my 5-7 hit songs, “The Ballad of Poop Train Girl.” As you can maybe see, I’m not totally confident in what I’m doing with my body in this performance. Sure, I threw a spin in there, but did I really think a spin should go there? You can’t tell, or—way more importantly—I can’t tell.

The lyrics for these songs are very ambitious and seared into my brain such that some poor nursing aid in the year 2076 is going to have to stare into my deep, empty 88-year-old eyes to figure out whether I need to be wheeled to the bathroom or not; but will also be regaled with a word perfect rendition of Poop Train Girl seventeen times a day.

But, even after years of performing some of them, and especially after a couple pandemic years of not performing them, I always feel like my feet and my hips and my everything-below-the-neck are desperately checking their notes for a game plan that I forgot to write.

I’ve always wondered whether I needed to be doing more, less, or different with my performative movements during songs, so after one of my shows last week, I called up my friend Ben Kassoy to chat about how to (or whether to) overcome this choreo-conundrum.

Ben is a poet, a writer, a dancer, and the type of person to say “I don’t know if this will be helpful for the interview” before casually walking you through an organizing principle for the entire conversation you’re about to have. In short, he is exactly who I needed to talk to.

I hope you enjoy the resulting conversation (edited for clarity and brevity) half as much as I enjoy any time Ben and I talk:


JS: I've seen a lot of celebrities recently. I saw Lil Nas X two weeks ago.

BK: Oh really? Where? 

JS: He was on a bus. 

BK: [Laughs] You saw Lil Nas X on a bus?

JS: You know the Star Tours double decker buses?

BK: Sure. 

JS: So a couple weeks ago, his song Industry Baby with Jack Harlow went number one. And to celebrate, he rented out an entire Star Tours bus and just rode it around town with his friends.

I was driving down Melrose, and I saw a bunch of people dancing on top of a Star Tours bus. They were in the pink surgical outfits from the Industry Baby video, and I thought, "Oh, look. There's some people doing a Halloween thing."

And then I looked closer. The bus was going under a low-hanging tree, and the guy in front was doing a Matrix limbo move to fit under the tree, and as all of that was happening, I was like, "Wait, that is Little Nas X."

BK: Wow. What a place, what a time.

JS: This actually perfectly segues into what I wanted to talk to you about.

BK: I was just thinking about Lil Nas X in the last few minutes since you told me we were going to do this interview, so we're on the same wavelength here.

JS: Totally. Wonderful.

So I've asked you here today because (a) you are a dancer, (b) you are a creative and a creative problem solver, and (c) you saw me perform two of my songs live on Tuesday.

But a concept that I want to sort of shove in here is that, a while back, when my friends would come see me perform—even if it went really well—I would be like, "Ok, ok, I know you loved it. But what can I do better? Tell me the parts you didn't like." 

And I realized after a while, that that wasn't fair to people who were really just trying to come and enjoy. Yes, they were trying to support their friend, but they were also trying to come and enjoy my show. So by asking them to highlight the parts that they thought were lacking, I was kind of ruining the experience for them.

So I try not to do that anymore, but I do still really value the opinions of my friends. And so this is my attempt to—rather than say, “Tell me what you didn't like”— to come to you with something that I know that I'm trying to build on and strengthen in my repertoire and see if it gives you any ideas.

And so that thing is:

I like my songs, I like doing them, but sometimes when I'm up there, I recognize that I don't really have a plan for what I'm doing with my body. And I thought you might have thoughts on all of that.

Do you?

BK: First of all: long time, reader firs time caller, big fan, flattered to be here. I also wanna say that I am gonna have to do this interview as a total lay person, and just fan of you and fan of performance, and not from a perspective of a dancer slash performer.

Because I feel like dancing while you're not singing feels like a totally different thing. It's not like “dancing” plus “rapping: equals “dancing-and-rapping.” It's just a whole different thing that's so far outside my level of comfort. Mostly because I can't sing or rap.

I don't know if this is helpful for you for the interview at all, but I was thinking about the different ways that dancing and having some vocal performance come together:

  • there are singers who don't dance at all; 

  • and then there are singers like Prince or like James Brown who do a combination of singing by themselves, with choreography with their band members—other people with instruments;

  • and then there are a lot of pop stars and the Megan Thee Stallions of the world who sing or rap, and then dance with backup dancers.

And Lil Nas X does [the latter]. It’s interesting that a lot of women performers and women MCs incorporate dancing with backup dancers, where guy rappers seem to do that way less. Lil Nas X does it, although he's in so many genres. And I guess Will Smith did that. And maybe that's one of the reasons he had so much popular appeal, but also one of the reasons he gets less credit as a rapper. Because he was more like a pop star than an actual MC.

I'm not answering any questions.

JS: [Laughs]

BK: I guess, in my mind, I'm trying to break down and understand what category your performance is in, to see what kind of precedent there is and who does it well and who doesn't. To maybe work together to triangulate some different inspiration or a template for what you could do.

JS: Well, I think the reason I was thinking about Lil Nas X is because I—of late—have been thinking a lot about Jack Harlow, who was brought even further into stardom by Lil Nas X for the song they have together, “Industry Baby.”

And Jack Harlow is a rapping rapper. He's just rapping. But I think I still count what he does as dancing. It's kind of just jumping around, but I bet it is choreographed to some degree.

There's clearly some confidence, and some intention to the way that it's done, so that when he's performing Industry Baby at the VMA's, most of Lil Nas X's part is a big choreographed dance number:

But then then Jack comes in and it doesn't feel out of place:

He's not just standing still, he is moving. And dance is creative movement. Right? I guess that's a question: What do you consider dance?

BK: I love it. I'm glad that you said "creative movement." Creative movement seems like a definition to me. In fact, my very first dance class when I was four years old was called "Creative Movement." It was one of the best classes, and best names of a class, that I ever took.

So creative movement works for me. But you're right. I guess in my mind, I was distinguishing between—at the VMA performance—what Lil Nas X was doing as dancing and what Jack Harlow does as just kind of stage presence. And I think they are different in some ways, but maybe there's more overlap than I was giving it credit for. 

JS: I think stage presence is really the thing. I'm not trying to do what Lil Nas X or Megan Thee Stallion or Cardi B are doing. I'm trying to do what Jack Harlow is able to do. Maybe it's not just Jack Harlow. I bet if we watched Ed Sheehan performing, he probably knows what to do. 

Because I also think, if you're like, “I"m just gonna stand here and emote and not try to move my body too much,” there's probably a right way to do that and a wrong way to do it.

BK: Right, that's interesting. Because there are some performers—MCs and across genres—that have a stillness to them. And in some ways, the stillness, the lack of movement, is a choice because it sets the mood and shines more of a spotlight on the feeling of the song, or the lyrics of the song, or what have you. That's an intentional choice. 

Whereas some performers—I'm thinking about Lorde, who is sort of celebrated for having unique and free-flowing dancing during her performances—

—or David Byrne. Talking heads are interesting because some of what Talking Heads does is actually highly choreographed. It's almost like Prince, where all the band members are in this highly choreographed routine. 

But then sometimes, it's David Byrne just like whirling around and—it's almost like the strangeness of his music is sort of like incarnate in the movements:

JS: So take the show you saw this week: I performed the Animorphs Rap, and the Ballad of Poop Train Girl. And, though they're both quintessentially Julian, the Animorphs song is something that I wrote in probably 2014, based heartbreak rap songs that would have been on the radio around 2011-2013. And the Ballad of Poop Train Girl is closer to something you would have heard on country radio any time after 2005. It's bro country at its essence. 

So those are going to have different stage presences; those genres have different stage presences. But I'm performing them back to back. And I think I’m figuring out maybe that there's an identity crisis in my presentation of those types of songs. 

BK: I don't know if there's an identity crisis. You obviously put a ton of intentionality into the lyrics. Maybe it's just putting that same kind of intentionality behind the stage presence and the visual elements of it.

Because I think what you're saying is, with Jack Harlow, it seems natural. But it's also probably highly choreographed and highly intentional. And whereas you've been extremely intentional about the lyrics, it seems like with the visual performance aspect, you haven't given as much thought to the way those two things fit together.

So this is me being like "You should think about that!" And you're like, "Yeah, I'm interviewing you. That's literally what we're talking about." And I'm like "Great idea!"

JS: [Laughs] No, but I think we are narrowing in. A comedy friend of mine saw Poop Train Girl for the first time last week, and he was like, "I can't believe you're able to memorize all of those words."

But memorizing the words isn't the risky part for me. The risky part is that I'm doing it with a backing track, and if I make one mistake, then I might not be able to proceed. I might have to start all over again.

So I don't have, in the way I do when I'm doing stand up, the ability to read the energy. So I just forge ahead.

But with the stage presence as we're calling it, I sort of do need to read the energy of the room. 

BK: That's interesting. The beat and the lyrics are a forgone conclusion, but your physical manifestations, your physical energy, because it's variable, it's hard to think about it when you’re doing all that other math at the same time.

Two other sort of miscellaneous thoughts that I just had. One is that everyone at the VMAs who was watching “Industry Baby” knew the lyrics and knew the song and they were familiar with it.

Whereas a lot of times when you're performing these songs, people aren't familiar with the lyrics, so you're doing so much work to try to express these very funny and clever and nuanced and fast messages. 

And the audience is doing the same amount of work to try and keep up with them, because they're fascinated, impressed, amused, and they love it. And everyone is really intently trying to keep up with that.

All that's to say is I think it sort of goes back to the lyrics part where your'e trying really hard to do the lyrics, everyone else is trying to keep up with the lyrics, and maybe that just sort of deprioritizes the physical part of it.

I also wonder—this is a separate thought—what would happen if you just, off the top of your head, took Poop Train, and took Animorphs, and thought about five artists who have a similar style, or who you wanted to emulate, and just watched a performance of each of them. And took some notes on what the common denominators were, and what you notice specifically looking at artists who were performing these same kinds of songs.

JS: That's incredible advice, and exactly why I asked you about this. It also is me coming to you and saying "Hey, how can I be better at performing these? How can I make these songs more match the performance style that they should be?” And you're saying "I don't fuckin' know. Go watch a Keith Urban video." [Laughs]

BK: [Laughs] That's exactly right. Yeah, like I'm sure the Rascal Flatts would be able to weigh in on this.

JS: I think it's like attorneys general? So it's The Rascals Flatt.

BK: The Rascals Flatt. That's my mistake. If you include this in the interview, please include a “[sic].” That's on me.

JS: I absolutely will. The thing you brought up about Lorde is interesting because I remember seeing her, but I also remember seeing Alanis Morisette when I was 19. She had a similar sort of vibe where I was like "Why does this lady look so crazy?"

I think it took years and probably me seeing Lorde perform live to realize, "Oh no, this is intentional, and there's something fun about this mania." 

I wonder whether I could do something like that, or if it's better for me to really try to use whatever the genre that the song is borrowing from.

It's almost like maybe there's too much going on. [Laughs]

BK: There is a lot going on on stage with you already, because your stage presence is very strong. There is something kind of intense or maniacal. There’s something in Poop Train when you go into the voice of the poop monster—is that what it is?

JS: Yeah, I mean: Poop Demon, Poop Monster, Poop Train Girl, it's all the same. 

BK: Yeah. It's clear that you shifted characters there. So you are intentional with it for sure. I think about—going back to stand up for a second—I think about John Mulaney's most recent special Kid Gorgeous at Radio City Music Hall.

He's just one guy on a stage, and the stage is so huge. And he is clearly choreographing his movement. He's running around, jumping. And he's not a physical comedian really by any means. But he's clearly said, "Okay, this is the place that I'm in and the space that I have to fill," and he clearly choreographed that, and rehearsed it just as much as he did with the spoken material.

So part of it is about the space and the place that you're in. And part of it I guess also is doing exactly what you're doing, and then just workshopping it.

JS: That makes sense. It also makes me think about how I will happily go up with only the beginning of a joke thinking, "the beginning of this joke makes a lot of sense to me and I don't totally know the ending of it, but I'm gonna try it."

But I've never though, "Hey, take the first four bars of the Animorphs rap. Try to figure out what you would wanna do with your body, and the next time you perform it, make sure you do that and then don't worry as much about the rest of it.”

I think because the lyrics feel so set, I think of it as one big unit. I don't think of the song in pieces anymore because it's been so long since I committed it to memory. 

BK: Mmhm. I also wonder... sometimes in classes, we'd have to tell a story or take on a character. Like "Now everyone is a bird; think of what kind of bird you are." Or whatever it is, and you really had to take on a character in a very specific way.

And because everything in Animorphs is so visual, I wonder if—not like every time you mention an animal, you have to have a trunk—but I do wonder if there is something that would sort of solve the issue of you not knowing exactly what to do, and also enhance the audience's understanding, where your movements were helping to tell the story. Maybe that would be corny.

JS: Yeah, just talking to you, I'm realizing how many of the tools I normally use on things that I'm writing or creating that I'm not using in solving this problem. 

Like turning things way up and seeing where the limit is that makes people start to be like, "What the fuck is going on?" 

And that’s another thing. With jokes, there's the built in metric: when people laugh, it's good; when people don't laugh (and I wanted them to), then I need to change something.

But when I'm performing a song, sometimes people are laughing, but sometimes they're just kind of staring at me, shocked. Which I take to still be good? [Laughs] And sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. And you've got me wondering whether trying to do too much of this stuff would distract people from the lyrics.

BK: Something else that we haven't talked too much about is the face, the facial aspect of this. I think it’s a really key part, maybe even more important than the body. Because, when people are trying to look at the lyrics, they're looking at your face and looking at your mouth. 

JS: Totally.

BK: And, I think kind of inherently, you have an intensity. You have a natural intensity to your face which gets more intense as you perform, partially because you're into the performance, but also partially maybe because of breath.

So sometimes it feels like your face is intensifying, your features are intensifying, there's maybe even a neck vein—which I think speaks to maybe how jacked your upper body is—and sometimes your face even gets red, which may be a gasping for breath thing. So I also wonder if there's something to be said for being intentional about your face.

JS: I know exactly the neck vein you're talking about. And my face does get red a lot.

BK: I think sometimes that shock is that… sometimes I  look at your face, and I think "Julian is getting really intense, really into this right now." And in some ways, that's effective, but maybe in some ways, it's heightening the intensity of performance in a way that you may or may not want to.

The Animorphs rap is funny for a lot of reasons: It's this nostalgic anachronism; and the fact that you clearly go so deep on it and have so many obscure references; and it's impressive that you can rap about all this.

But the basis of what's actually funny about it is you're taking this very earnest, real thing—a heartbreak or a breakup—and talking about in the context of something that has really nothing to do with it.

So I wonder where in the performance you kind of calibrate the seriousness of it. How do you calibrate the emotions of it so it serves what's sort of unexpected or funny about it? And doesn't work against or oversell those parts?

JS: Yeah, totally. I feel like this conversation has given me a lot to think about. At this point now, you've given me:

  • Go watch artists that I actually wanna be like. See what they do, see what the commonalities are;

  • break things down into pieces—specifically into arcs the same way that I would a joke or a story—and

  • make sure that my face isn't scaring people. [Laughs]

BK: [Laughs] That's right, that's right. 


Again, I really loved having this conversation. I hope it gave you some things to think about in terms of solving creative blocks in your life, or maybe just bringing some creative movement into it! I know I can’t wait to milk the “Find 5 artists who I want to emulate the performances of” for a future Sternal Journal. And now for…

Recommendations

Jimmy. Poem. Read this one-minute-read-time poem by today’s guest, Ben Kassoy! In classic Ben fashion, I felt, I thought, and just when I least expected, I laughed. Big.

Stath Lets Flats Season 3. Television. I may or may not know a way to see it outside of the UK. If I do, I can confirm that Stath having a daughter is one of the greatest things to happen to the show, and not only because one of the episode titles is “An Incredibly Young Woman.”

HBO’s Succession Podcast. Podcast. If you’re loving Season 3 as much as I am, then you’ll love recapping it every week with good-cause-mean-lady Kara Swisher.

The Witch. Movie. This 2015 horror film set in 1630s New England is most impressive in that it feel like it was made by and for people in the 1630s. No allegories for modern society here, we’re actually some pilgrims who are terrified of witches.


A Quick Note

And finally—especially if you’re reading this far—I wanted to let you know that I’ve set up paid subscriptions for the Sternal Journal. That being said, nothing at the Sternal Journal will ever be behind a paywall (or if it is one day down the line, I have no plans for it now).

Rather than peppering paid subscribers with extra e-mails for signing up for a seven-dollar-a-month (or seventy-dollar-a-year) subscription, these subscriptions would give me the ability to scrap a little bit less and spend a bit more time on tending to (and spell-checking) the Sternal Journal.

I’m pretty confident that nobody will feel pressured to sign up for a paid subscription (especially one that doesn’t give you anything you can’t get for free) if they don’t have the means or desire to, but just in case, please never feel pressure and always feel free to cancel your subscription for any reason at all!

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Alrighty! Until next week, much love!

Julian