True Love Will Find Daniel Johnston in the End (on Your iPhone)
Quinn Miller / Hampshire College

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A Daniel Johnston “Hi How Are You?” on a street corner in Austin, TX

A short two months ago, my iPod Touch device was in disuse, and I never expected to play a video game again. Things changed with the release of Hi, How Are You, an iPhone application based on the work of Daniel Johnston, a cult artist who hit the Austin, Texas music scene in the 1980s and still tours, supported by family members who sell his drawings for up to $2,500 a pop. I had not saved anyone onscreen since Princess Toadstool in the original Super Mario Brothers, but suddenly I was back trafficking in digital damsels, intent on passing all twenty-six levels in order to liberate Johnston’s true love from the devil. The game is not a faithful translation of the artist’s repertoire, given its traditional guy-rescues-girl plot, but this archaic convention unexpectedly complements important themes in Johnston’s songs and drawings, including the sexual politics of courtship and hopeless devotion.

Johnston recounts his history with the “Hi, How Are You” phrase in “Grievances,” a song in which the protagonist learns that most people consider passion a distraction and commits himself to pursuing love even though he knows he may never be with the person he wants most. As the story goes, Johnston fell for a woman named Laurie in art school. She soon married a mortician-in-training, and Johnston saw her hanging up coats at her husband’s father’s funeral parlor while attending a service. He recalls, “As I walked in, I said, ‘Hi, How are you?’ and I shook her hand. I looked behind her and there was an empty casket and I just thought, ‘Well, I’m just gonna crawl in there.’” As he sings in “Grievances,” “I saw you at the funeral
/ You were standing there like a temple
/ I said “Hi, how are you, hello” /
And I pulled up a casket and crawled in.” Johnston ended up staying there, and singing about Laurie in “a thousand songs,” as he put it, or for “a thousand years,” according to one lyric. As an interviewee in Jeff Feuerzeig’s 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston said, “he really liked that event even though it causes him great pain.”

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MlT6jX4l_w[/youtube]

Johnston’s voice continues to emanate from the place of “Grievances’” punch line and is chronically misunderstood, mostly because of critics’ hang-ups about his bipolar diagnosis.1 Fixating on archetypes of good and evil and true love, fans and reporters overlook Johnston’s interest in “impossible love” (as one song is called) and his self-reflexivity about what it means muse on love as a man presumed mentally unstable. Importantly, Johnston believes that “true love will find you in the end,” rather than the other way around, and he has long been aware that intense affection creeps women out. Instead of a knight in shinning armor he is a proud pest, a shameless, inescapably morbid, and highly self-conscious romantic who pursues love in the present by processing how he lost it in the past.

Hi, How Are You creators Steve Broumley and Peter Franco eschew this complexity, cutting the darker elements from upbeat songs to construct a happy-go-lucky soundtrack. A video game requires high-energy music and an adventure with enemies, assistants, and someone to save. Like many critics preoccupied with platitudes about unrequited love when it comes to Johnston’s work, Broumley and Franco rewrite his requiem as a “quest for true love.”2 This narrative fits video game conventions, as well as unspoken understandings of the artist as a doped-up would-be stalker. According to one reviewer, Johnston’s work “is still rooted in the adolescent male fantasies that have populated gaming for years.”3 From this point of view, Johnston’s drawings are the “perfect fodder” for an video game not because they complicate the damsel in distress story, but because its lopsided set-up makes the question of unwanted advances seem moot. As GamesRadar critic Shane Patterson explains, some players equate a rescue plot with sexual consent, seeing a girl character’s onscreen presence as a promise that she “will screw [his] brains out” when he wins.4 Similarly, in Hi, How Are You, saving Laurie constitutes a happy ending rather than an action potentially warranting a restraining order.

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One of Daniel Johnston’s drawings

While the game egregiously misrepresents ideas about love in Johnston’s work, his humorous and direct sensibility shines through, not least because players gain access to original art by completing tasks. When you push every block in a level over the edge, for example, you unlock “Love is Real,” a picture of a dazed figure saying, “Whatever it’s really cool and like wow you know what I mean.” Irony frames Johnston’s depictions of his desires in many of these drawings, given that his commentary on love both affirms his devotion to Laurie and doubles as a response to listeners who dismiss his emotional spectacle as the “endearingly naïve” psychotic symptoms of a “man-child.”5 In actuality, the artist’s exploration of the ethical questions raised by a permanent crush and his multi-layered awareness of how ambiguities in sexual pursuit are exacerbated by conventional gender roles and hetero norms set him apart from better paid pop stars who sing about imaginary relationships with women they barely know. (The song “Devinare,” for example, briefly riffs on the quintessential love-as-surveillance song, “Every Breath You Take,” by The Police.)

Johnston’s departure from the traditional unrequited love narrative is evident in the queer temporality of his work. When he sings, “We were in love forever,” for example, he is not describing a moment in time when two people felt as if they would always be in love, but instead a personal sense that experiencing love for someone—no matter how long ago—actually constitutes being in love with them forever, both in that moment and beyond. Likewise, Johnston flouts social prescriptions to “move on” in the song “Thrill,” attributing a present liveness to the effects of falling in love in the past (She was the one I chose
/ At very first sight”) and of having committed himself to processing that love (“Oh what a dream it was / A realistic dream”), singing “You are everything I ever imagined so far.” This outlook resonates throughout the game, in mundane elements like losing lives. Johnston clearly plans to die in the throes of a decades-old, one-sided love affair, and his avatar’s tendency to get killed during play recalls song lyrics and drawings about death (“I’m already dead and I already died”; “There’s Nothing Like Life After Death”) that relate to his vision of love. You “die” in most video games, but the mechanics of re-materializing with as many new lives as you need takes on odd significance here. After completing the “Time Bandit” achievement, for example, one of Johnston’s more morose figures commands, “Die 3 times,” which is inevitably a low figure.

By that point, the heroine caged in flames appears less like a prize than an image of love as a “cool” and “dangerous” “nuisance”—thoughts voiced in the game’s art library. In one piece, titled “Let Love Live Try to Love Again,” a woman tells a figure down on one knee, “Leave me alone.” While it is hardly apparent in the world of Hi, How Are You, Johnston generally recognizes women’s ability to say what they want, if only by dwelling on his own rejection. In the game, Laurie is presented as a standard reward for completing a mission, but more complex ideas about loyalty and seduction resonate throughout. Pulling up speech bubbles with slogans like “Love is dirt and worms love it” on your iPhone continues to draw out ironies from Johnston’s funeral lore, so much so that when a bright red heart encircles your avatar and his “princess” in the game’s final vignette, Johnston’s promise that “true love will find you in the end” may seem downright chivalrous.

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NOTES

  1. Pitchfork reviewer Jason Nickey is an exception. He writes, “The fact is, Johnston’s mental illness does not make up his central characteristic as a songwriter, though it does color it significantly.” Jason Nickey, Pitchfork October 1, 2001 []
  2. Jon Jordan, “Dr Fun Fun on making the Daniel Johnston-inspired “Hi, How Are You”: Replicating marker artwork and the Quest for True Love” Pocket Gamer June 10, 2009. . []
  3. John Glover, “Interview: The Developers and Daniel Johnston” Finger Gaming November 5, 2009 . []
  4. Shane Patterson, “Top 7… Blue Ball Moments: The Game May Be Over, But Where’s Our Happy Ending?” GamesRadar US []
  5. Jane Oriel, “Hi, How Are You? DiS Meets Daniel Johnston, Drowned in Sound July 23, 2007 ; Randy Kennedy, “A Brain on Fire, Spreading to Phones” The New York Times
    September 28, 2009 < http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/29/arts/design/29john.html>. []

4 comments

  • Meghan Sutherland

    Quinn– Thanks so much for this wonderful essay. It is not only beautifully written, and thus a substantial philosophical reflection on the ironies of romance and its politics; it also gives us an important reminder that the age of small tech will only manage to kill off the aesthetic dimension of the image if we let it. Which is to say, if we stop talking about the latter’s specificity and allow the discourses of both heterosexual courtship and technological triviality already applied to it speak on its behalf. You not only made me get out my old Daniel Johnston records; you restored my faith in the aesthetic possibilities of a technological object whose potential for reducing the image to a totally productive icon of time-killing “communication” frankly frightens me.

  • Great discussion of DJ and one that takes up the difficult task of rescuing his avant-queer “outsider” status from the usual bi-polar nutz “outsider” status typically assigned to him.

    I think there is another current running through his work (and probably not in the iPhone app as well!) that is about the “sublime” in its most straight-forward sense. Behind all the songs about Laurie and the idea of “Impossible Love” there is also the refusal to settle for the diminished emotional–affective–aesthetic life that we are so encouraged to settle for in our daily lives. In this sense I think “Laurie” became a place-holder long ago for the idea of surrendering completely to the sublime (either as a fading memory or as a goal that will not be compromised). I guess this makes chasing Laurie through various levels of a video game while riding the bus to work all that more ironic!

    Your essay made me think about links between DJ and the similar manic/queer/sublime energy in a film like “Heavenly Creatures.” It’s manifestly about a queer relationship, but even more central I think is its elegy for the loss of adolescent creative/emotional life–the sense of the sublime that precedes and is generally annihilated by the quotidian concerns of the adult world. There’s a similar vibe in “Ghost World” as Enid and Rebecca grow apart–Enid committed to remaining an aesthete and Rebecca simply wanting a better apartment (and of course Seymour is DJ turned cynic). This dynamic also informs Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Housekeeping.”

    There is a danger in that reading, I suppose, of reverting to Freud’s location of queerness in latency and regression–but to me that only props up the boring legitimacy of aesthetic/emotional life under heteronormativity. In DJ’s world, love should be “mad” or it isn’t really love and life should have real “beauty” or it isn’t worth living. Those sentiments pervade much popular culture, obviously, but in such an impoverished, degraded form as to have become essentially meaningless–The genius of DJ’s craft (and I agree, not his “craziness”) is his ability to rekindle the sense that, even in the face of seemingly unrelenting adversity and humiliation, the sublime will “find you in the end.” I guess the question is whether or not it can do so on an iPhone…

  • A very thoughtful and enjoyable article….

  • Jeffrey: It may seem that Johnston’s obsessing about love masks the intensity of his work, but in my opinion these queer and sublime currents are identical, and I think the self-reflexivity about his position as an artist actively fends off the sense that Laurie is a placeholder for something more profound. With respect to the game, it is truly remarkable, actually, to be found by true love as a DJ doppelganger, particularly if you know the music and are harboring an incapacitating crush on someone. Following from this, I wonder if the “ironies of romance and politics,” as Meghan puts it, actually lie in how seamlessly a person could tap into the sublime via Hi, How Are You on their way to work. Just imagine an office husband or wife there waiting for them.

    Thanks for raising those points about the adolescent rebellion/”arrested development” discourse on queerness. I generally agree, although I’m as interested in understanding the price you pay for choosing not to give up specific passions, such as past, present, and future crushes, as I am in reviving adolescent intensity for people who have lost it. I also want to point out that the manic investment mode you outline may be particularly limiting in Johnston’s case, given that his state of mind has been so affected by his forced institutionalization and the medication he has to take, which he has said makes it difficult for him to write the way he used to. In any case, I fear that emphasis on the age dynamic underestimates the self-destructive dimensions of the pursuit of the everyday sublime in a culture that rewards cliche demonstrations of love while punishing those who honor its complexities. Grown up or not, getting over it supposedly pays off.

    As a side note, I am a bit irked by the notion that it’s difficult to write the way I did about Johnston, as I worry it implies that the reading I offered is at some degree removed from a more conventional interpretation. It would have been harder for me to present a standard take on Johnston; I doubt I could. I know you wrote that the column’s “avant-queer” argument accomplished a difficult task as part of a compliment, but it seems to suggest a kind of counter interpretation that isn’t in the piece. This rankles for a number of reasons, not least because the essay addresses gender relations in straight romance (albeit with respect to queer as well as heterosexual subjects and moments when they may merge). This is a central aspect of the critique that is liable to be ignored if the discussion is chalked up in the queer column. I want to stress both that Johnston’s work, which I take cues from in the analysis, was already queer before I came along, and that my column is–quite candidly and unambiguously–about straight relations and straight styles of courtship, romance, and sex. It may be partly queer to pose the question How straight is straight culture? but the fact that the content of the answer may not be queer at all is crucial to take into consideration, particularly in keeping a focus on sexism and sexual harassment in heterosexual contexts.

    Meghan: I find your comment exciting and appreciate its call to arms, although as far as I can tell the Guerrilla Girls’ critique of gallery culture already takes care of the museum applications available for the iPhone–the first place I turned for more art on my iTouch. I’m not sure if runaway assumptions about the hetero-aesthetics of “small tech” are propped up more by botched attempts at iPHone art outlets or by the lack of art-oriented programs for mobile devices (particularly vis-a-vis the prominence of straight porn-style programs, like the Playboy application). As it happens, the Hi, How Are You game’s recent update, which added new levels and an iTunes store synch feature last month, highlighted the device’s tendency to trivialize even its sideways works of interest in this area. As if to scare us away from further thought on iPhone aesthetics, the update forced the Johnston avatars into Santa gear, including seemingly irremovable Santa hats for the frog, box, and cube figures you control, and a full-on Santa suit for the miniature Daniel. I don’t know that it killed the aesthetic dimension of Hi, How Are You, but it sure finished off my desire to explore it, as well as my drive to intervene in its cultural life as a straight and mindless video game. Hooray for YouTube’s experimental film catalog, which shines on the iPhone.

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