Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bourgeois Art Threat

The great confluence of posts about creativity, class, and the "creative class" continues, though so far circumstance has conspired to keep me too busy to compose a proper reply. In the interim, here's a mix of music about class tension, the offspring of the obscene embrace between art & commerce. Not insignificantly, a number of the songs most declaratively aligned with the Working Man are by people who've assuredly never felt the sting of sweat in their eyes if not under stage-lights. A few of the acts - the JSBX, the Dandies, and of course the Shat - damn near disappear up their own asses in acts of self-satirisation. Meanwhile, for all their Fela-esque anti-capital populism, The 3rd Generation Band were actually the official Ghanaian state police band - but of course, capital adopting anti-establishment postures is as old as the rebel yell itself.

Also occupying my headspace: a couple of recent posts over at I Cite mentioned the difficulty of creating consensus, a difficulty aptly demonstrated by others who smugly self-paralyse with ping-pong rhetoric and infinite regresses. Discussions of the Symbolic with neither the Imaginary nor the Real and a theory of "progressive" tourism aside... One of the problems facing post-modern politics is that there isn't an ideology, that is neither essentially nihilist nor religious, which accepts that people just don't get along - that in all likelihood, we hate each other. In spite of this being a fundamental consideration of Enlightenment philosophy, there seems to be not the barest bones of any progressive agenda that incorporates a status quo of everyone hating each other's guts. This is not a new problem, as I certainly wouldn't be the lone member of a previously-proposed People Who Hate People Party...

Middle Class Revolt
(click on the title to download)

1. Tricky - "Money Greedy" (00:00)
2. The Fall - "Prole Art Threat" (05:24)
3. The 3rd Generation Band - "Because of Money" (07:18)
4. Pete Wiggins - "I Don't Work For a Living" (13:07)
5. The Wu-Tang Clan - "C.R.E.A.M." (16:08)
6. The Constantines - "Working Full-Time" (19:57)
7. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - "Sweat" (23:51)
8. Talking Heads - "Found a Job" (26:51)
9. The Beastie Boys - "Mark On the Bus" (31:42)
10. XTC - "Day In Day Out" (32:36)
11. Public Image Ltd. - "Careering" (35:41)
12. Fugazi - "Five Corporations" (40:09)
13. Buck 65 - "In Every Dream Home There Is a Heartache" (Roxy Music cover; 42:25)
14. Wiliam Shatner feat. Joe Jackson - "Common People" (Pulp cover; 46:55)
15. The Dandy Warhols - "Bohemian Like You" (51:25)
16. Tom Waits - "Heigh Ho" (54:54)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Everybody Else Is Doing It So I Won't

I'm all for a little bloody-minded contrarianism now and then, even if it involves backlash against the new Batman movie, but if it can't be done with the minor courtesy of spoiler warnings, the kid gloves are off. David Cox' humourless dismissal of The Dark Knight has so ruined my morning that I was halfway to titling this post "David Cox is a twat" just to cool my blood.

Like every salaried hack, Cox doesn't even treat his readers to moderately imaginative writing. This aloof exercise in simplistic indignation stumbles right out of the gate, under a title unduly pleased with itself as a bad pun built on cheap consonance and sort-of synonyms. This is followed by a pre-critiqued laundry list of the objects he'll be examining, a cheat-sheet so we can keep up with him - a device as tired and condescending as beginning a trailer with, "In a world..."

The central conceit of Cox' article (that the film wrongly denies any moral authority in the War On Terror) is awkwardly incorrect. He's right in his analysis ("the distinction between good and evil has evaporated") but wrong in his condemnation thereof, not the least because Cox seems to have missed the past seven years. He posits the Joker as Osama bin Laden's onscreen incarnation, and makes 9/11 - but no subsequent events - the moral climate in which all decisions are made. If these cinematic metaphors don't bear up under scrutiny, it's because they're the wrong metaphors to be inferred. When Cox scolds the film's apparent moral ambiguity towards such things as mutually-assured destruction, extraordinary rendition, and total surveillance, he does so with a hubris that ignores that our own governments are engaged in exactly those things. The film is explicitly post-9/11 in its ideology, necessarily acknowledging our betrayal of our principles in their own name. We "have become a monster out [our] very excessive attachment with seeing Evil everywhere and fighting it." If the Joker is an imperfect stand-in for the "boringly purposeful" bin Laden of September 11, 2001, then the Joker is a perfect stand-in for bin Laden as he currently exists in our imaginations: an indefatiguable trickster, a walking embodiment of an anarchistic sadomasochism, an "evil-doer."

For a man who makes his living in the media, Cox is surprisingly unsophisticated in his interpretation of the film: that by presenting the collapse of moral authority, the film endorses it. Yes, let's take everything at face-value, shall we? (This could explain why Cox apparently thinks we occidentals are still possessed of some unimpeachable sense of right-and-wrong: because, after all, we say so!) Of course, if the anomic aside of "Cool, man!" is Cox' idea of piquant "irony," then he's measurably forty-some years behind the curve on symbollic literacy. Sure enough, solemnly intoning that "without morality, there can be no saviours," Cox makes clear his preference for the ol' "Boy Scouts in blue," two-dimensional propaganda for a grey-less worldview. This is the same brand of escapism that led Depression-era audiences to sympathise with unrepentantly spoiled debutantes and dandies: when reality gets ugly, flee into an anaesthetising fantasy anthithetical to real life. But should he find his own enjoyment interrupted, Cox ought to be angry at our governing bodies, not grease-painted fictional action figures, for casting "a smokescreen behind which... some kind of coherent whole can be persistently ducked."

Of course, I might be demanding too much of Cox. We're dealing with a man who fell head over heels for a Francophone exercise in Ed Burns-esque provincial romanticism. Perhaps Cox is just grumpy while he waits for Flash Of Genius, that heart-rending David-&-Goliath allegory balanced upon legal appeals over the patent for friggin' windshield wipers.

Most disturbing in all this, though, is the peak in his libindal scrapbook Cox offers us when expressing shock & disappointment at seeing "Maggie Gyllenhaal drained, astonishingly, of sex-appeal." Great, thanks for that, Davey-boy, now we can all imagine your unsypathetic mastiff/headmaster pout drooling salaciously as Maggie crawls around in a pantsuit-and-leather-leash combo. Nevermind that most of my friends and I always saw Gyllenhaal as a pleasantly unglamourous indie everygirl instead of some ur-sexual goddess. Perhaps Cox is a textbook pervert who willingly accepts any actor, in a role signified as "sexy"/sexual, as innately "sexy"/sexual.

Can we please hand Anna Pickard all the Guardian's AV coverage already?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Green Light/Red Light

There's only so far I can wander into the debate about minimal techno's lack of a certain sumbitch, because I'm in no way qualified: I don't dance, I hate clubs, and the last self-advertisedly "electronic" album I bought* was Amon Tobin's Supermodified. (My one snidely brief salvo: why listen to something labeled "minimal" then complain about its flatness?) But in his reading of minimal techno as a symptom of Berlin's - and perhaps Germany's - cultural listlessness, Mark K-Punk nailed it:
Berlin has in many ways become a capital of deterritorialized culture, a base for DJs and curators whose jetsetting lifestyle is indeed a "bizarre phenomenon". If hauntology depends upon the way that very specific places – Burial's South London Boroughs, for instance – are stained with particular times, then the affect that underlies minimal might be characterised as nomadalgia: a lack of sense of place, a drift through club or salon spaces that, like franchise coffee bars, could be anywhere.
Quite possibly as he was writing this, a British friend and I were busy slagging off Germany for not incubating any place-specific cultural idiosyncracies; there is nothing being created here that is innately of here, that couldn't be found in any number of other cities. I've met my fair share of creative types around both Berlin and Hamburg, but they're all either transients or have their ambitions and attentions focused elsewhere. Berlin in particular functions less as an artistic cauldron than a boho crossroads, a city-sized airport lounge where people encounter each other, debate ideas, exchange contacts, and then hustle off to where ever the real action is.

The Berlin mythology that seduces so many (Bowie & Pop, the Birthday Party, Blixa Bargeld, and Bruno Ganz with wings) was founded on an antagonism that no longer exists. Following the collapse of communism, it seems Germany swapped its aphasia for amnesia, forgetting how to speak as Germans, opting instead to speak as Europeans. Combine this erosion of self with the gentrification forced by an influx of "international 'creatives'," attracted to Berlin's cheap rents and scuzzy cachet (now minus any genuine danger) - that makes for one anonymously monochromatic playground. If this could be anywhere, then why be here?

* * *

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, an unexpectedly melodramatic exchange over at The End Times has Dan apparently "consider[ing] packing it all in." I'll assume the best: that this is a sarcastic jab at the defensive hysteria into which the conversation descended. As self-aware and ludicrously well-read as he is, surely Dan's not going to close up shop because of one dilettante with all the good grace, objective reason, and eloquence of a teenager who discovered Sylvia Plath and Garden State at the same time.

Nor should my second comment be misread as some P.C. plea for civility & offensensitivity. Wasting as much time I do online, I see way too many comment threads descend into coke-head-aggressive lobotomite name-calling of the "Fuck you!"/"No, fuck you!" variety. Reading Dan's deletion of the controversial link and denial of an ad hominem attack, it was refreshing to see someone who'll cool the rhetoric and commit to common courtesy to keep the conversation going while leaving identity out of it, in hopes that it doesn't come to shrill Stuart Smalley-esque self-affirmation and oblivious hypocrisy (e.g. "I'm hurt!"/"I'm strong!" and "I'm classless!"/"So what if I'm bourgeois?").

Didn't work that time, though, did it? Better luck tomorrow, Dan.

(*) Despite being a laptop musician, Tim Hecker's music is sufficiently vague, degraded, hauntological that I'd shelve him between Philip Jeck and My Bloody Valentine, not alongside Hawtin or RIchard D. James.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


What does it mean for Tricky to say, "Remember, boy, you're a superstar," in the age of Guitar Hero?

The other day, I was knee-deep in another diatribe about the dire state of music, how progress has been replaced with pastiche and rehash, and I demanded some manner of explanation from my friend. He pointed to the decline of the recording industry - which isn't to say he's pining for the days of mafioso maneuvering and the artist-as-indentured-servant. The Big Four's throne is eroding not because people can get music for free, but because people don't really need music any more.

As a collectively-accessible storehouse/exhalation of lust, fear, anger, joy, desire, excess, lack, whatever: pop isn't insufficient, it simply isn't needed. The quest for communion over shared aesthetic tastes, the osmosis of the zietgeist over the airwaves, and (most importantly) the unrequited idolatry of pervert rock stars... This is all archaic in the age of MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and Guitar Hero. As encouraged and enacted by the parade of role-playing mediocrity on American Idol and its bottom-feeding spawn, the brave new wired world is less an information superhighway than a panoptical full-length mirror. Everyone can be the star of their own ipsocentric universe, smiling for the cameraphone, applauding their vlogged views as both pundit and audience, investing pale karaoke pageantry with the same vigor once reserved for the original object or event.

Perhaps contemporary pop's greatest mistake is its relentless effort both to mystify and demystify. Some artists, like Daft Punk or Animal Collective, concertedly create a folklore out of cosmic debris; others, like Kanye West or Bradford Cox, "just wanna be real as much as possible" and are exhaustively confessional, barely stopping short of blogging their bowel-movements. Yet there's an undeniable sense in Animal Collective and Cox being good friends: "Keeping It Real"-style demystification is simply "brutilitarian" antiglam, which itself is a form of mystification. Whatever the method's style, the end result is that the persona surpasses the music as the artist's essential product. Every action or utterance by an artist is an expression of a marketing campaign for themselves, not their art.

The more specifically tailored and ornately detailed an artist's identity becomes, the less empty space there is in which the audience can resonate with the artist. The most enduring & indelible legends of pop are such because of their ambiguity. How deep were Led Zeppelin's dalliances with black magic and mudsharks? What was Kevin Shields thinking during the three years it took to make Loveless? Who knows? Which is exactly the point: in those blank margins, the listener can articulate their relationship to the artist. These days, every artist write-up is so heavily footnoted (often so referential because they have nothing new to say) that the page is already full, no room to respond or reflect.

Writing nine years ago, Zizek already identified cyperspace's founding myth - the promise of a Global Village - as just that: a myth.
...What effectively happens is that we are bombarded with the multitude of messages belonging to inconsistent and incompatible universes — instead of the Global Village, the big Other, we get the multitude of "small others," of tribal particular identifications at our choice.
Individuals create ever-more elaborate online shrines to themselves, while filtering content to whatever crumbs do not clash with their constructions. These "small others" simultaneously proliferate and shrink in their specific scope, chipping away any intuitive sense of community until understanding is so rare that it appears more conspiracy than compassion. More and more of the rest of the world necessarily appears psychotic to any one person.

This is not a new point: Mark K-Punk has written probingly about modern youth's possession by depressive-compulsive hedonism, a desperate pleasure-hunt to fill their unnameable emptiness that leads to the hollow make-believe of MyFace, Rock Band 2, and the like. (Mark has dubbed these electronic IVs of fantasy "The OediPod," one of the better buzzwords I've heard since "-izzle" became a suffix.) There is also something larger at work. Rather than a simple swap of EMI for iTunes or Sony/BMG for Google, the sacrifice of the music industry to the ascendence of Web 2.0 marks a behemoth victory for capital. As the internet can amplify negligible differences into flamewar-worthy impasses, the Global Village has managed to divide and conquer itself, placing greater emphasis on bitchy bulletin-board retorts than building a progressive consensus. Capital is being fed by our infighting. What remains to be seen is if the Captains of Industry will score the truly horrifying hat-trick of resurrecting the old media industry while tightening its chokehold on the new one.

So how does Mr. Adrian Thaws figure into all this? I recall an interview on Canada's MuchMusic around the time of Angels With Dirty Faces (named after the classic Cagney mobster movie), wherein Tricky was queried about "urban" music's fascination with the antisocial & criminal element. I'm paraphrasing through the cobwebs of a decade-old memory, but he said (more or less):
Growing up in the ghetto, the only people who got out of the ghetto were gangsters and drug dealers. So those were my heroes growing up.
Aside from explaining the now for-granted characteristics of "ghetto" culture (paranoia from being constantly surveiled by police, the romanticising of strongmen, etc.), this speaks volumes about the types who would succeed according to the rules of capital. Also, amid the ruckus over Knowle West Boy, The End Times reminded himself (and us) of Tricky's role as class antagonist during a lengthy rumination on the socioeconomic tension he (Dan) endures as a bookstore wage-slave. Evidently, a hefty psychic tax has been exacted upon him by
the middle-class-and-over customers... [who] never once tak[e] pity on a face prematurely aged by harassment, as all working-class faces seem to be, but feel that they have to treat you like a piece of shit, and that you should be thankful for the privilege of even speaking to them.
I sympathise. My wife spent quite some time in the same gig, and my incumbency as a record store clerk forms the bulk of my CV. (My professional history gets no more glamourous either, with one fleeting exception from which I was ultimately sacked.) But before I raise my fist in solidarity with service industry drones everywhere, let's be clear about one thing: working in a bookstore is considerably different than working in a Chinese coal mine, Alberta oil rig, north Atlantic fishing trawler, Vietnamese sweatshop, or African diamond mine. Across the spectrum of employment, working retail ranks as pretty damned easy, comfortable, and safe - sufficiently so that I hesitate to designate it blue-collar.

Nonetheless, anyone who's ever worked in the service industry would affirm the presence of a seemingly inherent antagonism between the customers and the staff. The political persuasion of the antognism, however, is elusive. Retail work seems to be a Rorschach test for this fundamental antagonism's ideological framework: it can be racial, a Nietzschean upstairs/downstairs dynamic, the classic religious condescension which endorses the wealth of faith alone, or (in Dan's Case) black-and-white Marxian class struggle. Though the antagonism's nature is not given, its presence is - in every exchange, eye-roll, request, sneer, smile, and sale.

Since the predominant context of human interaction is within the work environment, the political vagueness of the interaction allows any ideology to be adopted as a basically-true filter through which to view all interaction. Of course, to adopt an ideology immediately disavows its exceptions, only hardening our opposition from the Other while doing the individual no justice. As Carl Jung put it more concisely than I can, "While reflecting an indisputable aspect of reality, it can falsify the actual truth in a most misleading way." More useful references for the antagonistic dynamic might be the Stanford prison experiment or the Milgram experiment, in terms of the persecutive nature of demands by authority. Again, this is not to dramatise the service industry as the frontlines of an epic battle for humanity's soul. But to frame the antagonism psychologically makes it a human problem, as opposed to a product of the necessarily dehumanising will to power of capital.

Does this complicate the issue? Almost certainly - but then, when has getting along with people ever been easy?

On another front of the class war: Ladies and gentlemen and fair folk in between... In a discovery that will be rivalled only by the eventual detection of the Higgs Boson, I have stumbled upon the single most pretentious and precious band name ever: To Kill A Petty Bourgeoisie. No, I'm not fucking around. They are beyond parody, people. A coed duo dressed all Derelicte, doing a digi-glitchy update on 4AD's glacial, gothy art-rock with the (somewhat tone-deaf) lady cooing into cavernous reverb, complete with a David Lynchian video whose self-important vapidity means it blows its load only a third of the way through the interminable seven-goddamn-minute runtime. The music crosses from tastefully minimalist to totally blank, from emotional coldness to zombiefied void - probably to avoid the embarrassment risked in articulating a position.

I mean, look at 'em - is that 100% class warrior or what? The only thing saving this band from being a pitch(fork)-perfect Brooklyn Vegan Spinal Tap is that they live in Minneapolis instead of Bed-Stuy.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

...Until the Worst of All Happens

Not to be all Chicken Little, but:

The Death of Free Internet: Imminent

The Orphan Works Act: Your Work Will No Longer Be Yours

The Middle Class: Going, Going...

Habeas Corpus: ...Gone!

But at least, uh, if there's no internet, it'll be harder to steal people's creative work... right?

This Just In: More Bad News!

Charm City lost a true original: DJ K-Swift, R.I.P.

But hey, at least someone out there is owning up to the horror they unleashed.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Some of Its Parts

As much as I'd like to, I can't quite share such enthusiasm about One Day As a Lion, the new Zack De La Rocha/Jon Theodore collabo. Part of it is that Theodore sits on the same shelf in my mind as Danny Elfman, under the label of Betrayal & Heartbreak: Theodore's spitfire salsa rhythms were my favourite feature of the first Mars Volta record - until I found out that the most batshit beats (e.g. "Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)") were, in fact, written by Theodore's predecessor and fomer Laddio Bolocko skinsman, Blake Felming.

Although I never enjoyed Rage Against the Machine enough to own any of their records... c'mon, how could you physiologically not enjoy 'em? They groove like a reducto ad absurdum James Brown rhythm section with an estrogen deficiency. Not liking Rage is like not liking "Smokestack Lightning" or "Bustin' Loose": you're either overthinking things by a light year or two, or you're missing both your adrenal and pituitary glands.

That being said, the humourless militancy of Rage's music robbed it of that quicksilver instability that made other "soundtrack[s] to revolution" seem like a credible threat. Even the Red Hot Chili Peppers (MkII) sounded more dynamic in all their libidinal silliness. (The two bands had something deeper in common than making funk march lockstep: I can't imagine the military imagery in the "Suck My Kiss" video was accidental.) And like Dominic, as a guitarist I resent Tom Morello for getting all the credit that his pedalboard deserved.

De La Rocha's sandpapered bark was the most intriguing, infectiously feral aspect of the band. But given such an ascetic musical frame to work within, De La Rocha could only paint in violent contrasts of black and white - rhythmically, timbrally, thematically. Which is why I loved At The Drive-In so much: stentorian dead-ringer Cedric Bixler recast De La Rocha's hyena howl amidst ambitiously mercurial music so powerful that, briefly, everyone believed that this band was going to save rock 'n' roll. (Aside to everyone: how'd that work out for ya?)

And here our story comes full circle: the afro'd constituents of ATDI famously went on to become an effects-addled obscurantist Sanata for the emo epoch, with Jon Theodore as their stickman for several years. And now he's in One Days As a Lion.

From an initial listen, I already like ODAAL more than RATM. Theodore's drumming boasts a sinewy finesse that Brad Wilk couldn't match, and De La Rocha's refined his flow, packing more surprising rhymes and sophisticated rhythms. (So that puts him where, say, Mos Def was ten years ago.) But it still feels a little stiff and stripped bare compared to what it could be...

...And was for one explosive single. De La Rocha struck the perfect balance between feral freak-out and sonic complexity with the lone released result of his collaboration with Trent Reznor, "We Want It All". While not especially mathy by any measure, the song wove a thick tapestry of clashing metallic timbres and suitably tribal battery. As is Reznor's specialty, the technical meticulousness of the tones only served to underscore the muscle-car motorik of the song - and what thunder firing from all cylinders. Think Fugazi covering Sly & the Family Stone, or (indeed) Cedric Bixler & Tricky reimagining My Life In the Bush of Ghosts.

Fuckin' awesome.

Of course, if that song's maximalist mayhem is a single aberration within a fifteen-year-plus catalogue of minimalist hard funk, perhaps De La Rocha is not the man I should rely to point me towards my desired musical horizon.

Tangential Postscript: Carl's suspicion "that people are only pretending NOT to like stuff like Faith No More and RATM" seems dead-on to me, if only because I can't fathom from whence comes the vitriol directed at such bands by the hipoisie. Rage often get bagged out not because of the band, but because of that constant Fight Club-wannabe meathead jock contingent of their audience. Unfortunate but understandable. But FNM frontman Mike Patton seems to be a favourite target for the most spiteful comment-thread shit-talking. Why? What the hell has he done wrong? I'm no blindly devoted fanboy; I sold back my copy of the Maldoror album lickety-spit, and Peeping Tom was unrepentently corny. But why do they all hate him so?

Friday, July 18, 2008

I Will Possess Your Soul

I heard it in a shop two days ago, then as a ringtone this morning, and now I've had the bloody Death Cab For Cutie single stuck in my head all day. I thought, perhaps, perusing the video might fish out the earworm; it did, but now I'm even angrier than I was before. It's bad enough to be haunted by what sounds like Coldplay's Starbucks-ready rendition (read: neutering) of "Death Valley '69" with a full five-minute preamble of deathly undynamic M.O.R. motorik. But fear not, good friends, because not only does the video not cut the anodyne intro, but it slaps atop it a montage of some pallid mannequin being manifestly unmoved by great scenery around the globe.

Is this Death Cab's tribute to jetlag-addled noninteractive vacationing in the Scarlett Johannsen vein? More indie Orientalism posing as pancultural, One World group hug? Or conversely, an anti-Othering attempt to flatten the globe by demonstrating how to be bored anywhere? A music clip that can be cynically edited into a 30-second commercial that appeals to local narcissism worldwide to make fat mad stacks for Atlantic Records? Who cares?

A better question: why do I care about such milquetoast post-emo pop when it has no function in my life?

Short answer: I don't.

Long answer: I care that it's occupied my consciousness for the better part of a day because I couldn't escape it in the public sphere. I care because it horrifies me to think that every single square inch or second of media that I absorb has been bought, paid for, done as a favour, scratched someone's back, and/or is a single battle in a larger war to possess me and my wallet. There is no such thing as a coincidence, and nothing is so iconoclastic or esoteric it can't be commodified. Lest I be accused of being some music industry incarnation of A Scanner Darkly's Barris, here it is straight from the horse's mouth: these whore-clown huns of universal pillage are out to get you. In a civilization where Starbucks (again) sells a selection of Sonic Youth favourites, it's not merely a matter of having test-marketed tripe shoved down our throats by the Big Four. I'd be no happier if I heard Rick Froberg hollering at me in the frozen food section.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Magnet School of Rock

An eminently punchable face if ever there was...

Once again, the Baltimore City Paper just cranked out their annual Big Music Issue. How things change: my last article for them (one of the Big Music Issue '05 cover stories) examined why a city with such a perennially fecund underground escaped any larger notice for so long; now, not only does Charm City sport one of the highest municipal musical profiles in America, but there's an even a eulogy for the passing of the DC scene, that former Spindletop of East Coast cred.

Were the wit a bit dryer in Baltimore, I could already see the column space dedicated to dissecting the two cities' Revenge of the Nerds-type role-reversal: the brooding high-school chick-magnet, all James Dean cool, (Washington, DC) is showing wrinkles and has coagulated into a curmudgeon, while his nerdy, hyperactive younger brother (Baltimore) has matured into a cultural Galapagos, and now everyone wants to hear his weirdo ramblings.

Instead, we're treated to the same smug, Love-Me-But-Leave-Me-Alone solipsism displayed by every two-(million)-bit whore hounded by the paparazzi. Now that the underdog's been pronounced prime pedigree, the City Paper staff have grown more & more accustomed to spitting invective at "woefully misinformed out-of-state writer[s] extolling our city as the promised land of American pop music" (as though this is somehow objectionable), going so far as to call them "carpetbagging Baltimore boosters."

When I mentioned this to one of my Atlanta-bred cousins, he damn near spit out his beer. "They call them carpetbaggers?! Do they know what that means?"

It's a frightfully loaded term that harbours no small amount of hate, though I'm willing to guess the young (maybe?) writers who toss it around so casually haven't a broad enough awareness of the word's history, and are just flexing their thesaurus. But if they're fully aware of the word's weight? That lands them in the tar pits of hypocrisy mighty quickly: how embarrassing it must be that about 8 out of every 10 bands under the Baltimore brand aren't native Baltimoreans. Ponytail, The Death Set, Ecstatic Sunshine, and the don of ADHD, Dan Deacon, are all out-of-towners.

Shameful, Baltimore. Shameful. Let a bunch of SUNY Purchase art students do all the work, BELIEVing more in the city's vitality than the city itself, and jaded homeboys take the credit. Pathetic.

Oh, wait! Sorry: Beach House! Yeah, totally the keystone of the scene. (Nods off)

So then where are all the real Baltimore bands at? Brooklyn.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Bearder, The Weirder

A couple of nights ago, I saw a few bands back amongst the entropic environs of Hafenklang. It was my consolation prize for not being able to afford a sojourn to the Supersonic Festival, as all three acts are playing said festival and were three of the four acts I wanted to see. (The fourth being The Heads. Already seen Battles and Dälek, and as much as I fuckin' adore Harmonia and Earth's albums, I imagine that live they're duller than a box of unsharpened pencils.)

First up were Parts & Labour, a fun but uncompelling indie-kraut-pop band from (surprise!) Brooklyn who overuse "Silver Rocket"-style freakouts to bookend their tunes. They were followed by revitalized barroom doomsters Harvey Milk and inimitable decon-pigfuck-tionists Oxbow.

Anyway, before I spent an hour-plus not daring to take my eyes off Eugene Robinson (never turn your back on a man dancing with a knife tucked into his underwear), I was pleasantly surprised that Harvey Milk have doubled their rumble by recruiting Joe Preston to play guitar. What struck me immediately was how uncannily Preston recalled another balding, bearded sideman to a death-obsessed cult act: Warren Ellis. In fact, the two look like semi-feral, reclusive twins that used to be neighbours (physically and figuratively) with Ted Kaczynski. As archetypes of appearance, they're readymade antagonists for some film that splits the difference between Deliverance and Evil Dead. Ellis is the squirrely sadist who mutters and fidgets, while Preston looms Sphinx-like over Ellis' shoulder, the hulking promise of god's full wrath.

Warren Ellis (Photo by Wally G)

Joe Preston (Photo by Lolitanie)

Maybe they should give Daniel Higgs a call and start a haircore/New Beard America supergroup!

(L)Ibid(inal) Postscript: Really? No one has any strip-music recommendations? I'm not asking to be referred to your favourite Gold Club employee, for Pete's sake. Oh well. Silly me, imagining that anyone had interest in music, dancing, or people taking their clothes off.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

In Search of Fantasmic Coordinates

In a fit of nostalgia piqued by my Fourth of July mix, Th' Wife & I dusted off the Soundgarden catalogue and debated at length if the songs have been dated only by Chris Cornell's operatic caterwaul. I'd say so: the only things differentiating, say, "Limo Wreck" from the diamonds in the latter-day stoner-rock rough are (a) the teeth-grittingly crisp snare, and (b) that it's sung in neither a dozy one-octave moan, nor a Cookie Monster growl.

But the perennial relevance of sludge-blues post-Sabbath riffery isn't the point. While listening to the afore-mentioned song, my wife mentioned that it'd be perfect "stripper music." Huh? I thought miserablist hard rock was the soundtrack to garnment-relief only in certain niche clubs on the Reeperbahn or shameless subcultural caricatures like Doom Generation. But my wife insisted that hard rock is the pole-dancer's primary musical resource. (Not that she'd know firsthand, I'd should add.)

I conceded that the sledgehammer-subtle simian chest-thumping of Kid Rock, Nickelback, or Creed would make sense in stripclubs with stages wreathed in chickenwire, frequented by dudes who sport unironic moustaches and think Belgian beer makes you gay. By that standard, Motley Crue, Whitesnake, and Van Halen make stripperific music too.

So let's go one step beyond the machismo of Diamond Dave, via the fretboard fireworks of Eddie: skipping the Zeuhlish intro, could "YYZ" by Rush make a good stripper song? Hell no, said my wife.

Fair enough; perhaps that's a bit too distant from the id. Back to Soundgarden: evidently, not all their material makes a woman want to take her clothes off. "My Wave," for example, is too stiff-legged and asymmetrical to be sensual. It's the songs with more syrupy tempos and serpentine riffs that, e.g. "Mailman," that fit the bill.

Ah, I see the orthodoxy: stoner rock. But as I subjected my wife to a trawl through my music collection, the issue only became more clouded, and I couldn't quite find the thread that led to a surefire stripper hit.
~Kyuss - Yes, striptacular.
~Queens Of the Stone Age - Nope. Wait, what?! "Too dry, too much in the head and not the hips," apparently. I suppose I can see that: the woman is literally thrown away in the first verse, and Josh Homme is more concerned that he/we (?) "believe it in [his/our] head," but in neither the heart nor the loins.
~Rob Zombie - Yes. We're back on track. This makes sense, 'cuz it's basically a disco beat with monotonous metal guitars. By that standard, Rammstein would also work (which I find a little unsettling) yet, for reasons that escape me, Ministry would not.
~UFOMammut - "Oh, yeah, totally." Wow. This isn't just chewing on a freshly-harvested adrenaline gland, this is sexy? I'm either thrilled or terrified.
~Black Sabbath - No, and for the same reason that QOTSA didn't qualify: this is unfeeling, adolescent alienation, all male mushaburui isolated from a sensualizing female touch. It's there from the first line: "Finished with my woman 'cuz she couldn't help me with my mind." The song actually banishes the female to remain rooted in the unphysical male psyche.
~Sleep - Yes, but their appeal would be more "boutique."
~Om - Nope.
~Melvins - Maybe?
~Zoroaster - Meh.
~Boris - Uh-uh. Who could dance to this, other than spazzes or zombies?
My wife said, "It's not so much a matter of being sexy as being stripperful."* I smell a doctoral thesis somewhere in here. Of course, because of my familiarity with heavy guitar rock in general, I can start to sense the inarticulable subtleties that cleave strip-worthy stoner rock from not. But, taking a step back out of my element: beyond blaring Marshall stacks and a slamming rhythm section, what do Kid Rock and Whitesnake have in common with each other, let alone Soundgarden or Kyuss? And what makes them "good" stripper music?

A brief scan of various Yahoo! Answers surveys and a Maxim online list offered no new leads, only the usual suspects: Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Guns N Roses, "Closer," and yes, Motley Crue, Whitesnake, and Kid Rock. There's the occasional stripclub DJ frontiersman who'll be so bold as to spin Tricky, Lovage, or the Kills, but this appears to be far from the norm.

The crux of my conundrum is: in what way does glam-metal & arena-rock enable the fantasmic element essential to enjoying a stripclub? How does "Welcome To the Jungle" fit into the sexual psyche? Actually - does it? Could it be that so many people find stripclubs depressing and/or pathetic because it's been erroneously assumed that the absurd debauchery of, say, Tommy Lee's lovelife is what we want?

I should confess that I've never actually been to a stripclub, for two key reasons: (1) nowhere in my sexual psyche is there a place where I empty my wallet to watch young(ish) women desperately disrobe, and (2) I came of age in Baltimore. Have you ever been to The Block? Since I didn't wanna get shot for looking at the wrong guy, stabbed with a dirty hypodermic needle, or catch VD by simply breathing in the wrong direction, I stayed far, far away from such establishments.

Of course, it wouldn't do to ignore the other genre that looms large over stripclub playlists: r'n'b-inflected hip-hop (or is that hip-hop-inflected r'n'b?). It's immediately a more intuitive choice, given that it aims to induce hip-shaking and not head-banging. But as the "playa" has gradually supplanted the "gangsta" as hip-hop's dominant mythological figure, much hip-hop & r'n'b seems to be tailored specifically for stripclubs, as opposed to nightclubs in general.

This is much to the chagrin of, amongst others, a good friend of ours. "I am so sick of music telling me, as a woman, what to do," she's said on a few occasions. "I'm not getting low, shaking, dropping, or spreading a damn thing. Why don't you show me what you can do, punk?" She's taken a vow of dancefloor abstinence until a time when the YinYang Twins are plowed into the landflow of embarrassing pop-cultural mistakes. (I'm sure she'd be appalled at how frequently the YingYang Twins are cited as exemplary stripping music on this Yahoo! Answers thread.)

The manner in which contemporary hip-hop & r'n'b unfurl their cartoonishly lurid & utterly unironic sexual fantasia is remarkably similar to how glam-metal & arena-rock do it. I find such self-seriousness both comical and repugnant; there is nothing fantastic in it for me, only confusion. (But then, nothing gets me in the mood like the live Birthday Party LP, so there's no accounting for taste.) Consequently, I need some assistance in locating the fantasmic coordinates of this... "good" stripper music.

SO... what is good stripper music, and (if I may be so bold) why?

(*) As quickly as she can hit the nail on the head, my wife can also infinitely complicate the issue, as she did when noting the cultural bridges between stripper music and (1) "trucker music," and (2) redneck arena-rock anthems. As ugly as it is to contemplate, perhaps American sexual nirvana is some combination of a baseball cap with a Confederate flag, No-Doze, and some chick jumping out of her overalls.

Monday, July 07, 2008

What Do Unicorns, the Tooth Fairy, and a Good Start To the Week Have in Common?

I'm not Catholic, so why do I insist on beginning every day with merciless psychic self-flagellation like this? Nothing prepares you to finish that first cuppa coffee and face the world like:
Global mitigation [of climate change, fossil-fuel consumption, and imbalanced, unsustainable development] ...would be tacitly abandoned (as, to some extent, it already has been) in favor of accelerated investment in selective adaptation for Earth's first-class passengers. ... If this seems unduly apocalyptic, consider that most climate models project impacts that will uncannily reinforce the present geography of inequality. ...The current ruthless competition between energy and food markets, amplified by international speculation in commodities and agricultural land, is only a modest portent of the chaos that could soon grow exponentially from the convergence of resource depletion, intractable inequality, and climate change. The real danger is that human solidarity itself, like a West Antarctic ice shelf, will suddenly fracture and shatter into a thousand shards.
"If this seems unduly apocalyptic," he says. The true horror is that it never does. These kinds of articles evoke a soulquake the magnitude of which I never feel when reading about good ol' fashioned murder, war, crimes against humanity, or even a single natural disaster. Because these kinds of articles are a meticulous mesh of every apocalyptic fear, self-identified moral shortcoming, and paralysing neurosis a human can have: class guilt; the hollowness of good intentions; the futility of good deeds; binarily symbiotic twin lifestyles of (1) victimhood & (2) exploitation or an accessory thereof; every filmic nightmare from 28 Days Later to Mad Max becoming a reality (coupled with the sneaking suspicion that you wouldn't cut it as either Cilian Murphey or Mel Gibson); and all Four Horsemen riding through for good measure.

And of those offering solutions (and not merely pointing to the myriad portents of DOOM), it's hard to delineate between bold, outside-the-box thinking and batshit lunacy. Seriously, how dire a sign is it that a proposal initially submitted as satire a mere three years ago is now being peddled as po-faced pragmatism? Our species is careening towards one of the two fundamental options posted by that extraterrestrial trio.

Anyway... a couple of days ago, a friend forwarded me this speech by Herbert Meyer, out of the sneaking suspicion that it was, in common parlance, bullshit. Indeed it was, as I outlined in an e-mail that bears re-printing here. It's hardly my most eloquent & exhaustively researched rebuttal, but that's hardly ever the case with e-mails hammered out after midnight. Begin transmission:

[Meyer's speech is] interesting & provocative, for sure, but it's mostly bullshit. The only thing the guy gets indisputably right is the grim prognosis for the Japanese economy based on its aging demographics & resistance to increased immigration. To take a closer look at the issues...

1. The War in Iraq

No, the war is not fucking going well. By any standard. From the $3 trillion price tag, to a minimum of 100,000 dead Iraqis; from the neglect of the Afghan war (which just passed the Iraq war in monthly casualties for the first time in May), to the skyrocketing rate of terrorist activity with the war as an excuse; from the total depletion of America's global political capital, to the increased prestige Iran has enjoyed strictly out of saying, "I told you so..."

Obama as president is possibly the best thing that could happen for US-Iranian relations: if Obama follows through on his promise of an open dialogue with Iran, then Ahmadinejad is robbed of his "Great Satan" boogieman. (Never mind that Ahmadinejad has no say in Iran's foreign policy and thus isn't the threat he's made out to be - America needs its own boogieman, after all, and bin Laden's no good, because to invoke his name would only remind the public that he's not been captured.)

As for the threat posed by radical Islam... I quote Carlin: "Certain groups of people - Muslim fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, and just plain guys from Montana - are going to continue to make life in this country very interesting for a long time." The fact is that Christian fundies pose a more direct threat to the civil liberties of any American citizen than some Koran-thumping fist-shaker. But then, I believe to be religious at all is to be radical in a dangerous way.

2. China

Don't believe the hype about China being the next global hegemon. It's a country that was overpopulated to begin with (fuckin' Mao) and has since lost a half-billion of its agricultural workforce to cities with incomplete infrastructures and no effective environmental controls. Then factor in a burgeoning middle-class that's driving the prices of life's essentials out of the reach of the massive working & poor classes in both China and its neighbouring new kid on the G8(+), India. The countries won't be able to support their own bulk.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing: do we want the next superpower to be a country that has managed to combine the worst elements of capitalism and totalitarianism? People who believe the "free market" will literally bring freedom with it obviously don't understand that the market needn't be free if one entity owns the whole fuckin' market.

3. Demographics & Birth Rates

This is where I start to see "culture," "Juedo-Christianity," "birthrates," etc. as coded language for outright racism. Meyer is half-right when he says a spike in anti-Semitism indicates a perfect storm of political instability & economic struggle; the other half of the truth is that general xenophobia - not just anti-Semitism - rise rapidly during troubled times.

Hence, the recent anti-Roma riots in Italy and refugee camp slaughters in South Africa. Meanwhile, hate crimes against Latino-Americans have increased over the past year as Neocons use the illegal immigration issue to galvanize their (bigoted) voting block. They pulled this same stunt in '04 screaming bloody hell over gay marriage.

In fact, far from diluting or swallowing their "host" culture, there's much evidence to indicate that immigrants assimilate faster & more completely today than ever before. This precisely why, when Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck talk about undocumented workers or how Germany will be "a Muslim nation" in fifteen years, all I hear is thinly-veiled WASP-supremacy.

Another question is whether the goal of culture is to preserve & maintain certain linguistic/behavioral/religious/culinary dogma; or if it's to be a fluid, organic, evolving fusion of diverse influences. I'd argue ardently for the latter, but that's a whole doctoral thesis, so I'll save it for later.

Meanwhile - what the fuck was that about euthanasia becoming "popular" throughout Europe? On what fucking evidence can he make that claim? And high birth rates in the developing world are nothing to laud. In India, for example, of the 26 million children born annually, 2.1 million will die before they reach the age of five. Of the surivors, over 26% will live in poverty, which is set at a standard of living under $0.40/day. Boy, I bet they're thrilled to know they're out-breeding those smug Occidental motherfuckers!

4. American Business

For starters, I hardly see how the cost of benefits, healthcare, insurance, etc. becoming the individual responsibility of every worker will benefit the economy. It's one thing if white collar middle managers, lawyers, and investment bankers can afford to opt out of & in to whatever coverage & benefits they like, but how will service industry staff & blue collar workers (nevermind the invisible keystone of undocumented workers) possibly afford it?

Secondly, Meyer is correct that statistics (and especially how the media report them) regarding the economy can be misleading. True, if the GM cafeteria staff switched affiliations to Marriott, the headlines would probably cry over lost manufacturing jobs and not new service industry jobs. What Meyer conspicuously avoids mentioning is how the White House has tampered with definitions, demographics, and criteria over the past 40 years to create a wholly misleading portrait of the US economy. For example, if inflation were measured using criteria in place prior to the Reagan administration, it would sit not at the "official" estimate of 4%, but at a whopping 12%. Similarly, the Bureau of Labour Statistics estimated January 2008 unemployment at 5.2% - but once you expand the definition of "unemployed" to what it meant before Clinton tampered with it, the actual rate is closer to 9%. And that still doesn't include anyone on disability.

Kevin Phillips wrote a brilliant piece summarizing the spin-doctoring of the American economy in last month's Harper's, but he discusses it at some length in this video.

...So there you have it. Not that I particularly expected some rational truth out of a professional spook. Those guys have a nationalist fervor that rivals the Pope's religious rigor - and since the Devil can quote scripture, they've no qualms mobilizing the profane in the defense of the sacred.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Smallpox Champions: US of A!

Doubtlessly, y'all have already seen it, but I'll be damned if it doesn't sum it all up better than I could:
Baseball, Apple Pie, and Kicking Your Fucking Ass: 21 Hilariously Hyperbolic Pro-America Songs
Courtesy of the Onion AV Club. Elsewhere on the interwebs, there's plenty of Third Eye-squeegeeing material by a few dead heroes on the last great global hegemon.

And should I ever feel that nine years wasn't enough, a quick visit to this Wal-Mart of thundering idiocy will convince me I needn't accrue any more time there. (It's kind of impressive, actually: shorthand to the worst ontological tautology, blinkered self-certainty, and broadsword-subtle analysis you can find in the body politic of America.)

Enjoy your barbecues and fireworks!

(Click on the title below to download.)

Seventeen Gun Salute

1. Beauty Pill - "Goodnight For Real" (00:00)
2. Outkast - "Gasoline Dreams" (04:49)
3. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - "Tupelo" (08:07)
4. The Black Lips - "O Katrina!" (13:10)
5. Brian Eno & David Byrne - "America Is Waiting" (15:55)
6. Soul Coughing - "Misinformed" (19:22)
7. Charles Mingus - "Fable of Faubus" (22:41)
8. Frank Zappa & Captain Beefheart - "200 Years Old" (30:51)
9. Patton Oswalt - "America Has Spoken" (35:10)
10. Public Enemy - "Welcome To the Terrordome" (37:52)
11. Cody Chesnutt - "Boylife In America" (43:17)
12. Fugazi - "Smallpox Champion" (45:32)
13. Nation of Ulysses - "You're My Miss Washington DC" (49:20)
14. Rufus Wainwright - "Going To a Town" (51:42)
15. Q And Not U - "Kiss Distinctly American" (55:42)
16. Soundgarden - "4th of July" (01:00:47)
17. The Fall - "New Puritan" Peel Session (01:05:54)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Playing At VS Being: a Dosser

S F/J just posted what is probably not only the most succinct encapsulation of the blogosphere, but of my goddamned generation:
“I was new to New York and scared, so I drank too much and met someone.”
But since no one rides for free: could it be that, for all his cultural acumen, Sasha actually has seriously shit taste in music?

Elsewhere, Obama recently updated & appended his campaign slogan to: Change You Can Believe In, Or Your Ass Is Fired, Heathen. Brilliant. Thanks for vindicating every ugly, cynical molecule in me. What remains fascinating about Obama, though, is his ability to enchant or enrage people across the political spectrum all at once: even as he disillusions secular-humanists like myself by doing the above, he'll bitch-slap social conservatives with the harsh possibility that maybe, just maybe, they're bigots. About the only thing Peter Wehner gets right in his op-ed is that
the original conceit of the Obama candidacy–that he is an agent of “change” who will “turn the page” on the “old politics” and act as a uniquely unifying figure in American politics–looks more and more absurd.
Indeed, Obama sports a political scramble suit, being whatever to whomever, a chameleonic candidate who recalls the other great bullshit artist of our era, Bill Clinton. But on the bright side, at least that means he's electable!

And to those harping on Obama's smoking habit as though it were some festering wound upon his soul (as oppose to his lungs)... I presume "recovered" addicts or straight-edge health enthusiasts are preferable in all cases? Okay, yes, I just Godwin'd myself, but honestly, stop flexing your vindictive puritanism for a moment and take a studious look in the mirror.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

O Canada!

Last year, I spent the day of my nation's birth strolling semi-aimlessly around my former Toronto stomping grounds. The graffitti had changed, most of the old haunts remained, and my convulsively (in)viable old employers finally shuttered its doors for good. It was refreshing to breathe some of that (fairly pungent) southern Ontarian air again.

This year, I'll be dining on leftover birthday cake, taking a few online quizzes (19 of 20! Damn you, William Lyon Mackenzie King!), and cruising YouTube for clips from Kids In the Hall, but in my perennial quest to prove that there's more to Canadian music than Bryan Adams and Avril Lavigne...

The Constantines

I still get goosebumps recalling when I saw their inaugural Lee's Palace performace. They've yet to match their end-to-end burner of a debut, but can still outrock the rest.

Death From Above 1979

Yeah, I called them "Polite-ning Bolt" too, but let's face it: they planted a lot of greasy, scuzzerific seeds that are still only starting to flower.

The Sebutones (no relation)

Oh, shit, Canadians do hip-hop too? As anyone who bugged out over that last Cadence Weapon record will tell you: yeah. And a lot of it's pretty damned good, too.

The Tragically Hip

Trad pub-rock though they may be (with the notable exception of Day For Night's dark, earthy psychedelia), Gordon Downie is the poet laureate of Canadiana. Thanks again - and always - to my Dad for taking me to see them in some Baltimore dive when I was thirteen.


Yeah, you knew this was coming. Suck it. This rocks.

Hang on a minute - did I really manage to make some kind of a Canuck Top 5 that utterly omitted Montreal? Don't think that wasn't intentional. I mean, I love that city as much as anyone but... c'mon.