Project Miranda July

Miranda July is teaching me enunciation over e-mail. Turns out I have a tendency to pronounce tender like dander and heart like hurt. Both words are part of a song she is helping me write: “(I Heart) Miranda July.”

Collaboration with fans is not new to July, who relishes inter­activity in everything, including sculpture. She once did an entire art project, Learning to Love You More, that consisted of her giving cryptic assignments to her online audience (No. 9: “Draw a constellation of someone’s freckles.” No. 68: “Feel the news”).

Except I am not exactly a fan. A few years ago, as it happens, I wrote a mocking disco number called “Miranda July.” Here is the bridge: “I’m like a real-life Amélie / A girl Roberto ­Benigni / A sweet anomaly / A straight Sleater-Kinney / You have the right to refuse / Your attention, your patronage / But everything you say / Will be used in a sound collage.” In homage to British songwriter Luke Haines’s “Death of Sarah Lucas,” I then went on to switch personas and claim to have “hurt Miranda July / I wounded her like a fawn / And watched the pain in her eyes.”

Listen: Michael Idov’s Original “Miranda July”Michael Idov, “Miranda July” AudioPlayer.embed(“audioplayer_1”, { soundFile: “”, titles: “Miranda July”, artists: “Michael Idov”, autostart: “no” });

Threats of bodily harm aside, the truth is, I don’t hate July. The song was more of a goof on the tremulous defenselessness of her persona. Still, it wasn’t exactly a paean.

The 37-year-old July is a performance artist, a best-selling short-story author, and a filmmaker whose first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. Throughout all her projects, the fragile, manga-eyed July weaves a single sensibility—endlessly empathetic, feminist, and, while often funny, wholly and utterly unironic. This openness makes her something of an Internet lightning rod, her every project and utterance seized upon by the digital hordes. Fans see her work, whatever form it takes, as true and pure. Detractors find it twee and smirkingly bohemian. She is, as successful eccentrics tend to be, adored and hated with equal fervor.

July’s new film, The Future, is set to open next month; it’s about an artistic couple whose relationship unravels when they adopt a sick cat. The cat talks. So does, at some point, the moon. Despite all these trappings, The Future is dark, tough, and ­observant: July’s character keeps making pathetic YouTube dance videos, dreaming of a viral hit. Her boyfriend frets about turning 35 and whether the cat (read baby) would keep him from his dreams. It all struck home in more ways than I care to recount. And so a bizarre idea was born: to ask July herself to help me rewrite the glibly offending song as a mea culpa. In the process, I would learn a little about the artist’s methods, and she would get to test the central tenet of her art: that openness and honest emotion trump cleverness and snark.

To my shock, July unblinkingly accepted the offer. She even added that “the original song … did capture some things about me,” which I found almost impossibly gracious. “I’m just having to really objectify myself here,” she wrote, “which, lucky for us, is something I’m used to doing. But please know this is just one side of me. The other side thinks this is all pretty weird.”

July and I agreed to collaborate on the lyrics. My band, Friends of the Oval, would then record the song, after which July would film herself listening to it and contributing her part: spoken commentary—and a maracas solo. July approached the latter as sincerely as anyone has ever approached a maracas solo. She even auditioned a pair of maracas for me: “They are more decorative than professional, don’t seem very loud to me,” she e-mailed from L.A. “Do you think I need to get more real ones?”

The gist of the lyrics, we had decided, would be my grudging confession of love for the artist. The original song started with the faux-simpering “(I Heart) Miranda July”; now the idea was to make the sentiment real. July suggested adding “I really actually do.” The second half of the verse snapped on like a magnet to a fridge: “The song before was a lie / The song right here is all true.”

My first attempt at repentance was a bit tone-deaf, relying on my usual kind of intellectual wankery instead of real emotion. “Some things we don’t understand / And never talk about / To save the lachrymal gland / An extra workout,” I wrote, paraphrasing the title of July’s performance piece that gave rise to The Future. “I think it might even be a better song if the lyrics are simple,” my partner gently offered.

“The future’s almost now,” I wrote in response. “I’m 34 and change / It’s good say it out loud / If I’m ever going to change / Now is the time.” Begun as a lark, the project was, indeed, turning into a kind of confession. Plus, I managed to rhyme change with change. “So cool!” wrote July in response, her grace now bordering on charity. “This should be your job always.” Eventually, I found it in myself to address head-on the underlying reason for the first song: envy. “I stay in bed with the flu / No one belongs here more / She has a camera crew / She has a Caméra d’Or / And what have I? / Miranda July.” Writing it felt good. Maybe there was something to this honesty thing.

With the lyrics done, I went to work with Friends of the Oval’s producer David Mason in his Brooklyn studio. The first version of “(I Heart) Miranda July” was not a big departure from the original, musically speaking—a dark, squelchy dance track driven by a distorted bass line. It sounded kind of aggressive and very, shall we say, male. July hated it. Working against the clock (she was due to fly to Australia the following morning), we tried the opposite approach: quiet lo-fi pop. Mason picked up a drum pad and tapped out a tinny, Tinkertoy rhythm, to which we added a vaguely bossa nova bass. Next morning, a Vimeo link waited in my in-box.

The video, which I had assumed would just be Miranda July in headphones, is a full-fledged mini performance piece. July starts with her back to the camera, leafing through Tolstoy; as the song goes on, she fiddles with a DVD, drinks water, eats dried pineapple, rolls her eyes at certain lines, and offers deadpan interjections. She’s inside the music and outside of it at the same time, dipping in and out as she pleases, making the fabric of the song look pliable, as if it were interactive and you could do the same. In other words, it is a Miranda July project; I have been erased from it with one blink of her eyelashes. It is the ultimate revenge of an artist on a hack. Her maracas work isn’t bad either.

Project Miranda July