Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Lightning In a Bubble

I, like every other self-respecting music nerd, spent last week devouring reviews of the ATP NY festival, if only to reaffirm the consensus that Kevin Shields is the supreme conjurer of megadecibel dark winds. (Survey says: hells yeah!) By most accounts, the rest of the line-up also acquit themselves admirably - though having Bob Mould (playing old Hüsker Dü songs), Trail of Dead, Dino Jr., and Mogwai on the same night seems redundant.

I'm in the enviable position of having seen almost all the bands on the bill of which I'm particularly fond. (Om and Harmonia, I'll hunt you down one day.) One band my 20-yr-old self would've drawn blood to see was Lightning Bolt, but in the years since I've actually passed up every chance I've had. It wasn't the numbing homogeneity their music betrays over several albums, nor was it part of some larger aesthetic shift in my listening habits. So why couldn't I be arsed to see one of the hot-shit live acts of the new millenium? It has something to do with Amy Phillips' impression of LB's Saturday night ATP set:
As usual, Lightning Bolt set up on the floor rather than the stage. As usual, it was only the most aggressive people who got to actually see Lightning Bolt. I've been to a handful of Lightning Bolt shows, and I've never been able to see more than the tops of Brian Chippendale's and Brian Gibson's heads. This time was no different. I think I counted maybe three girls inside the inner circle of normally wimpy dudes getting their slamdance douchebag on. Lightning Bolt's set was the one time during the entire weekend that ATP NY didn't feel like a happy, inclusive community.
Let's repeat those last seven words for emphasis: didn't feel like a happy, inclusive community. But isn't the point of their in-audience positioning to pulverise the fourth wall, to dynamite the pedestal upon which performers loom over their audience? Yes, but it also serves to construct an entirely different kind of barrier.

Despite its proclaimed rejections of heirarchy & social barriers, hipsterism is a cultural economy wherein exclusivity is the only currency. Now that post-modernism has melted the distinction between High and Low Art, and that the Information Age has made the very notion of obscurity obsolete, there aren't stylistic criteria which cleanly cleave Hip from Square. Power electribalists Fuck Buttons idolise Leonard Cohen and Li'l Wayne's favourite musical act is Nirvana, and if there's some aesthetic standard to be gleaned from that, you're a finer taxonomist than I. No, hipsters function more like shambolic Freemasons: membership seems predicated upon a Gordian knot of social vagueries, when in fact it's a paranoid mafioso clique linked by vouchsafed familiarity and mutually benefical services rendered. Besides endorsement from a reputable member, a prospective inductee must also complete the studied self-integration process described by Dr. L. Ron Bumquist in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
If he figures out what is "happening," he can rise one notch - and become Hip. Then if he can convince himself to approve of what is "happening," then he becomes Groovy. And after that, he can actually raise himself to the rank of Cool. He can become one of those... cool guys.
And what is the key to being able to decode, accept, and successfully navigate such arcane, unrooted etiquette? Proximity. If you're not literally in, then you are doomed to being out. Which is exactly what happens at a Lightning Bolt show, a veritable diorama of hipster social structure.

The on-the-floor set-up is a bold rebuff of the "straight world," the hipster mission statement physically manifest: any two square meters of pavement is a performance space! Refuse the plastic idolatry of the stage! No guest-list gladhanding or AmEx Black card privilege will land you in the front row, because floor plans be damned! We are all part of the same sweaty embrace! But what is populist in its pretense is exclusive in its practice. The full thrall of sound & sight is enjoyed by only the elect few - that is, the scene players already aware of the ritual's conformation who jockey the most aggressively for position. Physically walled off by the corona of the crowd, those at a distance are left to piece together some sad shred of enjoyment from whatever sonic & visual scraps escape the ecstatic nucleus. Is it supposed to sound so muddy? What was churning within that sea of heads? What am I missing? These can only be answered with that most segregative of rejoinders: "If you have to ask, you'll never know." And you'll never know because you're not allowed.

There are other ways of hacking the stale environment of the stage without bisecting (and thus stratifying) the audience the way Lightning Bolt does. The champions of performance-environment deconstruction were (are?) Baltimore rawk situationists Oxes. Though they mounted their onstage wood crates ironically to exaggerate the distance between them and the audience ("when hardcore bands had been playing on the floor, staying low"), this actually made it easier for everyone in the venue to see the band, creating a reverse panopticon that the barstool-warmers & short people at the back undoubtedly appreciated. Also, their wireless guitar rigs allowed them to invade the audience, pinballing about the room, hurdling the soundboard, mounting audience members, and swiping cigarettes. This preemptive & improvised "audience participation" was far more intuitive & honest than, say, Tim Harrington's practiced prop-comedy schtick.

Hip-hop also offers different ways of approaching the stage. Though regional snobbery can quickly become grating, an MC's focus on their local social reality necessarily means their music is in rooted in their community. For all of hip-hop's narcissistic self-aggrandizement, the music only rings true if it's reflective of some collective experience. That's why it's never just a solo artist onstage: as corny a carnival barker as a hype-man can be, he's there because the star MC and his friends are there to convey their message together. When was the last time a member of the Wu-Tang Clan appeared alone? Like they said, "We gonna swarm!"

Similarly, the best battle-rapping can't rely on a vast vocabulary alone. The victor is most often whoever can appeal the most effectively to the audience, converting the crowd from objective spectators to a united front in the war of words. That the MC is onstage becomes irrelevant, because the audience is right there with them: they got his back.

Even certain arena tours attempt to create a more communal vibe when artists perform in the round, which (partially) eliminates the ostracisation felt by those audience members at the back of the arena. Such a circular setup is more inclusive than the rectangular yawn of every outdoor festival, which invariably feels less like a collective fête than (in the words of Jarvis Cocker) "just 20,000 people standing in a field." Funny how you can lop off the last two zeros of that number and experience the exact same sentiment against the back wall of a Lightning Bolt gig.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sing a Song of Simians

So apparently the guys behind Gorillaz are back with... Monkey. I'm already looking forward to hearing Marmoset. Basically, Damon Albarn was like, "Blimey! A 1000-page novel about a supernatural chimp running around feudal China! Sounds like an opera to me!" (People seem to have that reaction to almost anything these days.) So he got Jamie Hewlett and Chinese director Chen Shi-Zeng to stage said opera, pizzazzified the tunes to be palatable to skeptical pop consumers (as well as to market the Beijing Olympics), and it hit #5 on the UK album charts, so well done indeed.

But slow down a second: a doorstop-sized novel about a magic monkey? You bet! One of the pillars of China's literary heritage, Journey to the West (西游记) is probably better known by its common English title, Monkey. (Good job, lads, took a lot of time to come up with that one, eh?) Finding its roots in millenium-old Buddhist & Taoist folklore, the epic narrative was anonymously published in the late 16th century and credited retroactively to poet Wu Cheng-En. It possesses a canonical importance equivalent to the Iliad and Odyssey in the West, and boasts more than a few of the same narrative features: instructional pop-ins by dead souls? Check. A kingdom unfathomably run by matriarchy? Check. Attempted seduction by grotesque beast-woman hybrids? Check, except now they're arachnids instead of predatory waterfowl.

The story itself? Well, over the course of 100 chapters, the titular simian, Sun Wukong, races through the three-act rise/fall/redemption arc before becoming the disciple of Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang (a.k.a. Tripitaka, as he is known in most English translations). Together with the literally-nicknamed Pigsy and Sandy Priest, they travel with the sun to fetch the Theraveda Buddhist sutras from India, for the benefit of the Chinese people. And, as they do in folktales, they live happily ever after.

Though the 5.4 billion of us who aren't Chinese can be forgiven for our unfamiliarity with the tale, it's actually been a remarkably popular cultural reference point since its first Occidental publication in the 1942. In China, it's a perennially popular stage production and has spawned at least a dozen films, the most recent of which starred Jet Li and Jackie Chan (a Hollywood blockbuster is currently in preproduction, with Will Smith rumoured to play Tripitaka). Proto-ambient prog-rockers Jade Warrior peppered their albums with references to the story, including song titles like "Water-Curtain Cave" and "The Mountain of Flowers and Fruit". British and Japanese men pushing 40 probably recall the surprise TV hit of the late-'70s, Monkey Magic. Even otaku mainstay Dragonball was conceived as a liberal adaptation, though that pretense was swiftly defenestrated.

So am I recommending Journey to the West as essential to your post-globalisation edification, or as some Rosetta Stone for primate-oriented global junk-culture? Nah. Bottom-line, Journey to the West is handicapped by that same Achilles' heel as all those other big, important books written before paper replaced papyrus: bad writing.

The narrative sputters with the start-stop-stall rhythm of someone making it all up as they go along. There are innumerable passages fattened with pointless kipple, to the effect of:
And Xuanzang knelt by his mother, his hands folded piously within the folds of his robe. "But mother," he said, as he knelt, "how did you come to recognize me as a man for you have not seen me since I was but a baby?"

"My son," said the mother to her son who now knelt by her side, "I despaired that I would not recognize you as a man for not having seen you since you were but a baby. In my despair I decided that I must mark you, so as to recognize you as a man, and thus bit off the last knuckle of your baby toe so that when I saw you as a man I would recognize you by the absence of the last knuckle on your baby toe."

And mother and son embraced, and there was much rejoicing.
This, of course, after a good half-page was already spent in chapter 8 describing the foresight of such knuckle-severing as it happened. Yeesh.

And then, when it comes to the fantastic blood-fountain battle scenes and magical invocations, they race by with less detail than an AP report of some tribal melee consigned to a sidebar on page 14:
And Monkey and Erlang Shen clashed with a ferocity that cannot possibly be imagined, let alone described, until Erlang Shen was exhausted and Monkey returned victorious to the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.

Then his monkey minions threw a feast, and there was much rejoicing.
Boo. Disappointing. (Dept. of CYA: lest an overzealous Chinese literature major accuse me of mangling the text, the above passages are not quoted from the story; it's called parody, people.)

As a final illustration of how lopsided the story is, please note that chapters 13-99 document the quintet's travels from China to Vulture Peak in India to obtain the sutras, and chapter 100 - the final chapter - describes not only the whole journey back, but also the protagonists' divine recompense in (I shit you not) various bureaucratic posts in Heaven.

A grimly comic footnote about Journey to the West's enduring popularity in China is that Sun Wukong/Monkey was frequently cited by Mao Zedong as a role model for "his fearlessness in thinking, doing work, striving for the objective and extricating China from poverty." Right. A workshy, megalomaniacal chimp prone to hissy fits, who declared war on Heaven for being fired from his post as holy horse-groom for incompetence; who cut such a swath across the celestial palace that Buddha himself imprisoned him under a mountain for five centuries; who only submitted to Tripitaka after being strapped to some alchemical electroshock torture-halo - a good role model. That's like Lenin citing Gogol's madman diarist as an exemplary Bolshevik.

And you already thought Mao was fucked in the head, eh?

So why did I slog through this absurd & seemingly slap-dash epic? Well, aside from a lot of enjoyable picaresque, the friend who lent me the book pitched it as "the story of a flying warrior-monkey whose divine title is Great Sage - Equal of Heaven." Not a hard sell when it's presented as such. Of course, whenever I started skimming pages or furrowing my brow at particularly awkward passages, I kept the issue of translation in mind. Perhaps I was handed the Ford Edsel of English editions, and doubtlessly the cadence gets dismembered when removed from its mother tongue.

That being said, if you've got the time to learn classical Chinese and read a hundred-chapter Lord of the Sutras, get back to me about how that worked out.

Retroreferential Postscript: You know how "Paper Planes" by M.I.A. struck me as the anthem not of third-world animus but of illiquid asset robber barons? Called it. Hoodies with Saturday night specials aren't the only ones who use terror to ply people from their wallets.

The truly maddening thing about the bailout is how close we are to flipping the script in a sweeping way: if only Congress & the Senate looked ex-Goldman Sachs man Paulson in the eye and said, "Yeah, we've got your $700 billion, but this ain't a bailout, this is a buyout. They had their chance and blew it big-time, so no, they can't have their company back once we've resurrected it." But no, instead the gov't is acting like lax parents whose shithead sixteen-year-old just totaled the minivan; shrugging that "kids will be kids," they hand the budding sociopath the AmEx card to rent a car so he can still get around.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mass Self-Deception at the C*cks*ck*rs' Ball

At the risk of crossing the number-of-mentions-per-month threshold into scuzzball stalker territory, one reason I enjoy 30 Rock is I find a certain emotional resonance with Liz Lemon (Tina Fey's onscreen alter-ego), and no, it's not just because of the glasses, pointy beak, and addiction to crap snacks. It's her wastrel, dimwit boyfriend, Dennis.

I mean this metaphorically, of course, lest my wife acquaint my face with a frying pan. The preamble proceeds: in the episode "The Break-Up" (duh), Liz' good instincts to cast off this gel-haired goon are thwarted by her peers' insistence that he's eminently likable, a go-getter, or at worst a slight dunce with the noblest of intentions. Naturally, Liz knows the truth about this selfish, stagey, table-turning, tumid, semi-literate simian with a double-digit IQ - yet she can't deny there's something mawkishly irresistible about him. (Speaking of "hate sex"...)

So it is, ladies & gentlemen, with how I regard, am repusled by, yet invariably attentive towards the contemporary pop underground.

"Oh boy," you say. "Thar he blows again..." Well, if you're familiar enough with my tendency towards muckraking cult-crit that it's become eye-rollingly predictable, what are you hanging around for? Fuck off, go back to reading the Gawker subsidiary that matches your wardrobe and feeling intellectually smug, dig?

Anyway... it's very easy to adopt a Shopenhauerian stance regarding both politics and pop culture: things began badly and are only getting worse. Most people convince themselves there came nothing new under the sun past the time they turned 30. This self-conscious narrowing of scope is as conservative as creationism: there was a divine genesis from which all current forms came and have since remain unchanged, or at least unimproved. Certainly, almost everything has its antecedents, but to reduce recent artists to second-hand reiterations (Burial of Massive Attack, Scratch Acid of Johnny Cash, etc.) betrays an incredibly coarse, glaucomal "appreciation" of the arts.

Yet, measured against the fossil record, there's very little to suggest any quantifiable evolution going on. I don't mean there's a creative permafrost (there ain't even a tundral permafrost these days) and nothing is happening. But tweaks, updates, variations, imitations, and minor refinements have taken the place of face-slapping flashes of genius - and this is most obvious when we look at how far from the center the "fringe" currently extends.

Devendra Banhart, for example, is the closest candidate to filling the scuffed leather shoes of Captain Beefheart: king of the madcap primitivists, a mercurial shaman born of some Martian swamp. But compared to the junkyard tornadoes Beefheart used to conjure, Banhart sounds as straight as John Denver. There's a similar dearth of new ideas amongst highbrow bohemians: whereas fashion-conscious dandies of the past (Jacques Dutronc, Paul Weller, etc.) polished their edge to a stainless steel gleam, current fops like Amanda Palmer or Jeremy Jay affect antique poses so preciously they gut their inspirations of the reckless fervor that made them bold in the first place.

The worst consequence of Pop gaining an -ism is rhythmic & diatonic conservatism, lumping listeners with unreconstructed mediocrity like the Arcade Fire, Spoon, and (yeah, I don't like the Beach Boys) Panda Bear. The Brooklyn duo High Places make for a concise case study: while taking advantage of digitech convenience and flexing their musical literacy (from twee no-wavers Ponytail to metal mathlete Mick Barr), their trifecta of musical perfection is Joni Mitchell, Canned Heat, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. That's right, folks, the vanguard is Dad Rock. Fukuyama was right, there was no one to fool us again after the Who; I'm going to put on The Idiot and find a bit of rope.

And what of the ruckus-bringers, the riot-starters like Les Savy Fav, Jay Reatard, or Team Robespierre? They're the musical equivalent of Dane Cook: so much energy is spent gurning and swinging the microphone about, they all but forget to, y'know, practice their craft. Is it asking too much that musicians take the time to sculpt songs and hone their instrumental skills? I get that the vibe is more party than Berklee, and there's similarly little to enjoy attending one of The Mars Volta's finger-sports decathlons. But remember how awesome At The Drive-In were? Or Fishbone? Fu-fuckin'-gazi?

The worst consequence of Rock gaining an -ism is that its symbolic ossification was contingent on physical signifiers (amps, guitars, long faces, bottles of Jack) yet somehow not on its sole ideological constant: anti-authoritarian rebellion. As tiresome and often empty as flipping the bird may be, it's still a more noble gesture than simply gettin' fucked up and trolling for tail. (Of course, even Dionysian dissolution is a kick to the crotch of pedantic moralism.) More enervating than the lack of a hook to hang your trucker hat on is the cottonweight frivolity of bands like the DeathSet and Crystal Antlers. It's all Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs and Saturday morning, which is great if you've succumbed to the Peter Pan syndrome epizootic. But for we who actually enjoy adulthood & thematic complexity, the kindergarten giddiness give us glucose gut-rot.

Given that the world woke up last week to the biggest financial crisis in history, this may sound like sniping over the tune Nero's fiddling. Well, Jane Dark recently asked, "What will be the soundtrack of capital's auto-da-fé?" She suggested M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," but its "bona-fide hustla" braggardy about taking money at gunpoint sounds to me like the ethos of the former Masters of the Universe whose stock-born clout has swiftly deflated like a flan in the cupboard. Alternately, Owen offered Disco Inferno's "Summer's Last Sound," whereas I personally have been spinning the Fall's "Hexen Definitive - Strife Knot." But those songs are respectively 17 and 25 years old; who among the current crop have captured the zeitgeist in song?

No one. There's no contemporary update of "What's Going On" or "Fight the Power," no Sign O' the Times. Instead, we've got "A Milli," the Louis Vuitton Don, models with guitars in flagrante inferno, and 18 records worth of black-matte dinner music by Trent Reznor. As refreshing as wading into a "warm spot" in a public swimming pool.

And it won't get any better in the forseeable future. Now that the internet is the matrix through which all music is mediated, word-of-mouth and performance residencies have been replaced by blog chatter and webcasts, chewed & spit out by the gears of multinational media conglomerates. Even the most dick-swinging party banter about bands is more vital & provocative than anything aggregated by the Hype Machine. (Seriously, did you see the Pitchfork review of the new Mogwai LP? Someone shat on a thesaurus and left it aflame on Stuart Braithwaite's front porch.) Not that the contemporary "counterculture" has any interest in disentangling themselves from the cultural-industrial complex. Quite the opposite, in fact, given how gleefully they weave themselves amongst the cogs.

As quaint & potentially archaic as the Sell-Out = Bad dogma may appear, it's still applicable within the digital paradigm. Market your music via MySpace or A&M - Vivendi still owns your ass. Build schools in Liberia with your corporate-party paycheck - your good deed was funded by profits stolen from Southeast Asian sweatshop labourers. The MSM doesn't care if your appearance represents some ironic exploitation of capital's mouthpiece - they only care that they sell more advertising space. You can't shake the Devil's hand and say you're only kidding.

(For a far more eloquent examination of the entertainment industry's corrosive assimilation & capitalist brainwashing, please read Theodor Adorno's genius essay "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception", of which I was reminded last week by Offnotesnotes and really would've done well to remember more about during the discussion about Music Industry 2.0's gluttony for cut-rate adequacy - man, my memory is for shit.)

My one hope is that My Bloody Valentine's live reintroduction will ingnite a few epiphanies. Perhaps some people with put down the laptops and eschew softsynth code-topiary, turning their focus to an intimacy with hardware and air sculpture. Perhaps people will finally tire of that delay-pedal patchwork-pillow ambience, cranking up the volume not as an end unto itself but as tool of sensual engagement. Perhaps TV On the Radio will finally stop fucking around and get their live act together, given that Shields & Co. have no trouble translating three years & a quarter-million quid worth of studio-time in concert.

Or who knows, maybe we'll get a bunch of dull pedal-junkie somanauts (because Slowdive wasn't boring enough the first time around), a growing legion of tone-deaf amplitude-obsessives (because why should A Place To Bury Strangers be the only ones not to learn from Lightning Bolt's mistakes), and retentive tech-heads who sap any jouissance out of live performance painstakingly reproducing their studio creations. Fuckin' hell, make me deaf now.

On that note, here's the misanthropic MP3 mix, as promised last week. Click on the title to download, and get to mean-muggin'.

We Are Not Your Friends

1. The Clovers - "The Rotten Cocksucker's Ball" (00:00)
2. Drive Like Jehu - "Caress" (01:16)
3. Rapeman - "Steak and Black Onions" (04:32)
4. Cody Chesnutt - "War Between the Sexes" (07:17)
5. Mu - "Jealous Kids" (08:53)
6. The Monks - "I Hate You" (14:17)
8. Pissed Jeans - "People Person" (17:47)
9. PJ Harvey - "Is That All There Is?" (22:42)
10. Brian Eno - "Baby's On Fire" (27:41)
11. The Birthday Party - "6 Inch Gold Blade" (32:57)
12. Ministry - "So What" (36:08)
13. Electric Wizard - "We Hate You" (41:23)
14. N.W.A. - "Straight Outta Compton" (46:15)
15. Guns 'N' Roses - "Doubletalkin' Jive" (50:26)
16. The Velvet Underground - "Who Loves the Sun" (52:58)
17. The Billy Nayer Show - "Billy's" (55:46)
18. Frank Zappa - "Broken Hearts Are For Assholes" (58:45)
19. The Brainbombs - "Stupid and Weak" (01:02:27)
20. The Fall - "Hexen Definitive - Strife Knot" (01:07:08)
21. The Jesus & Mary Chain - "I Hate Rock 'n' Roll" (01:13:59)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Insert Goliath Analogy Here

Well, the Large Hadron Collider has already broken down, but a blackhole opened up on our planet this week anyway!

As new media-savvy, well-equipped, and omnisciently hip as the new robber-barons may be, apparently none of them are down with the Wu: protect ya neck, for fuck sake. They didn't, and evidently the world as we knew it ended not in September 2001, but in September 2008.

Appropriating the words of Eddie Izzard, "It's the cutting edge of politics in a very, extraordinarily boring way." No one I know (or at least care about) changed their plans this week: groceries were bought, laundry was done, Columbo reruns were watched, even as financiers wept on Canary Wharf or quietly shat themselves behind Rockefeller Plaza.

But never has there been as theoretically exciting & confused a time in my life. Suddenly, my bickering over the insignificance of that 3.3% GDP bump is hardly dogmatic contrarianism. Small-gov't enthusiasts, who very recently equated taxation with "confiscation at gunpoint," swiftly adopted an oddly zen-like, self-nullifying stance towards their tax dollars. There's an astounding amount of invigorating chatter about not only the pragmatic positives of public ownership, but also the fundamental inviability of neoliberalism. And as "deregulation" entered the breakfast-talk lexicon of America, Obama jumped back into the lead.

At the very least, America's unimpeachable economic power is a thing of the past. Central banks dumped near-unprecedented sums of cash in a bid to build domestic stability, which may kick-start a feeding frenzy upon the American market by foreign entities. Around Deutsche-way, for example, the chairman of insurance giant Allianz (flush from its recent sale of Dresdner Bank) was quoted last week as saying, "From what I see of some of our competitors in the US, this is not a bad time to look at the US market." With the recent merger of its four biggest banks into a mere two - with assets among them topping €3.3 trillion - the world's No. 3 economy has players positioned to place Germany higher upon the economic podium. European bank champ Alessandro Profumo, for one, welcomed the news: "A market with fewer competitors is more profitable."

Of course, nevermind that Profumo was ignoring the 9,000 pink-slips passed out during the Commerzbank-Dresdner merger, a universally-puffing CPI, and that his fellow Italians pay the steepest bank fees in Europe - he said the above before the financial shitstorm. We've all seen now what happens when all the eggs are in one basket (or, rather, the eggs are on layaway with extortive API and have already been promised to several other baskets at the same time).

An ironic postscript to this week's dramatic developments: the most expensive condo in Canada just went on the market, for a handsome $30 million (yes, that's CDN, but if you've checked the exchange rates, the Yankees can't pay that price in pocket change anymore). A common criticism of late-stage capitalism is that it engenders inequity; to be sure, the wealth gap has been growing (an average top 1% household is worth 190 times a median household) as fast as social mobility has been slowing. As the in media explodum bubble swelled over the past decade, the growing number of occupants of said bubble greeted these critiques with a shrug and a wag of the middle finger. Now that their portfolios have been flushed and their penthouse dreams all towering infernos, maybe we can stop pretending poverty is a personal shortcoming, eh?

Out! Of! Step!

Okay, as much as I dug Jem Cohen's Fugazi documentary, its "portrait-gallery" framing of the band as Instruments of the People dragged it perceptibly close to hagiography. In the decade since, between American Hardcore and endless Glenn E. Friedman pictorial tributes, harDCore had become as historicised as possible... until now.


Some unbelievably bad geek-rapper from Milwaukee told me about this back in June. Forgive my skepticism, but I didn't think (at the time) I could take a 98lb. punching-bag who made his stage entrance in a Hulk Hogan crop-top to the tune of Cheap Trick's "Surrender" at his word. Evidently I was wrong.

Say it with me now: I can't keep up, I can't keep up, I can't keep up...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pop the cork and join the chorus!

Well, never have my own words tasted so succulent. As I was writing about unwarranted hostility and being "in an uncharacteristically conciliatory mood," the Lehman Brothers financial-services firm filed for the biggest bankruptcy in American history - and the crowd goes wild! Now the word is that the US gub'mint is about to pull AIG off the ledge and wrap it in an $85 billion security blanket to avoid an immediate sequel. I suppose one $691 billion giant biting the dust will have to do for our September dose of schadenfreude. I wonder if, once I roll my wagon eastward at year's end, I won't be followed by hordes of refugee financiers and carpetbaggers flying the flag of F.I.L.T.H. - "failed in London, try Hong Kong."

As good a sarcastic chuckle as this has been, there is a shadow cast across our little anti-capital celebration, as a grim spectre was invoked on the campaign trail. Eric Rauchway knows the seance:
Responding to the collapse of several major investment banks this week, John McCain reassured us, "I think still -- the fundamentals of our economy are strong." That move comes from an old playbook: On Oct. 25, 1929, Herbert Hoover declared, "The fundamental business of the country, that is the production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis."
As Ezra Klein duly elaborated, "This is a guy who has said, proudly, 'I'm always for less regulation' and ...who, three years ago, wanted to turn Social Security over to Wall Street." And should you, even for a moment, find yourself deaf to the echo of Hoover, I'd point you in the direction of Lenin's Tomb for a swift reminder: "This crisis is rooted in the fundamentals."

Anyway, my modest goal for the week is to make a mix of musical misanthropy before I'm back off to Berlin. Currently in the capital is an art exhibition called Exactitudes, "a taxonomy-in-progress of street style," according to Momus. In spite of my sartorial ineptitude, I actually fit into one of the project's tidy tribal pigeonholes - archetype #19, Vagabonds, within which I am frighteningly similar to this guy. Were he wearing a John Lennon mask, he'd be a friggin' dead-ringer. Ignoring that whittling the breadth of the human guise to 96 "tribes" is still woefully insufficient (I know about three people who could conceivably be found in the Exactitudes chart), I'm a little disturbed by how the project casts appearance as an elected self-symbolisation, not as a product of circumstance & lifestyle. As though everyone from the religious devout to trustafarians, from yuppies to genuine street people, put equal consideration & effort into how they present themselves - and have access to the same kinds of tools & accessories to sculpt their exteriors. This looks awfully like more condescending poorism, though since it's billed as an "art exhibition" instead of a glossy multipage advert, I doubt it'll ignite the appropriate level of ire.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Confluence of Hostilities

Last Thursday, I thought a simple, unadorned post of Laurie Anderson's eerie "O Superman" would be enough to mark that ugly anniversary. I thought - for once - I'd play it mature, tasteful, restrained, understated; I was almost proud for having pulled it off.

And then I had to spoil it all by idly clicking around. Tripping my hair-trigger temper (that would qualify me for the Republican candidacy), I immediately set about compiling a deliberately tasteless mix - some N.O.U. "Target USA" here, a li'l Cassetteboy there, topped off with a little BJM for good measure. But little by little, my rage dissipated between constant dashes to & from the Mr. Coffee in the kitchen. Who, precisely, was I exacting some psychic revenge upon? What would this achieve, other than making myself smug for my detached political superiority and trivially diverse music collection? By the time it came to master the mix, I felt appropriately like just another dickhead with a digital soapbox.

In an election year, it's easy to become prone to hysteria and overreaction - especially when some man-size dress-up doll has swiftly castrated liberals' momentum and lent reactionaries some inauthentic-yet-iron-thick deniability. The growing dread is that November 4th will soundly prove H.L. Mencken's cynical theorem "that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

(By Steve Bell of the Guardian)

At which point, there will be plenty of time for spittle-drenched diatribes about what a buncha blinkered rubes the American people are. But over the past week or so, I've seen enough misdirected hostility & troglodytic prejudice to have put me in an uncharacteristically conciliatory mood.

A friend of mine recently related that his own German students admit that, while exemplary as tourists abroad, Germans can be less than culturally accommodating at home - to which I'll testify.* Any derision I'd received in the past, I was willing to chalk up to the country's reputed wooden stoicism, but within a single three-day span last week, I'd found myself:
  1. having not only to delineate the difference between Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, but defend East Asians in general as having souls to a self-professed "hippie chick."
  2. arguing that, biological complications aside, gay couples should have the right to raise a child. (This, I might add, to a divorced man who has adolescent offspring he sees maybe annually.)
  3. being tongue-lashed by a cop for not speaking proper German when I was attempting to report some domestic violence in a neighbouring apartment.
Speaking of pigs, the most bemusing facet of "Palinoia" is her sex-symbol status. Her austere sense of dress coupled with her enthusiasm for firearms fits very neatly into every neocon's fiendish, two-faced S&M fantasy: a Madonna as magistrate & mother, and an M-16-toting minx in the marital bed. Meanwhile, confused confessions of attraction from the left probably owe a lot to the recent near-ubiquity of that other auburn-haired, bespectacled boss-lady, Tina Fey. I'll cop to Ms. Fey being the closest thing I've had to a celebrity crush since Melissa Auf Der Mauer** way back in high school; so I'm biased when I'd say the resemblance, though inescapable, is... er, charitable. But the brain-VS-loins cage-match has since been inflamed, as Fey's uncannily accurate impression of Palin on the season premiere of SNL "supercharged both the 'rah rah 9/11 boom bah' and the 'hate-fuck' sides of America’s collective brain" (to borrow the words of the Onion AV Club).

Tangentially, it was at the same party where I was called to argue that gays & Asians are people too that I inadvertently introduced both "hate sex" and "grudge fuck" to a friend's vocabulary. Though the concept of grudge-fucking put her right off, she immediately took an interest in "hate sex" and, ex-psych major that she is, asked me to expound. I began by reciting from memory - as best I could - this personal ad from Craigslist. (The cherry on top: "Your pictures get my smarmy pretension.") As best I could explain it, "hate sex" is the better of the two viscerally-exorcismic responses to someone utterly repellent; the other response, naturally, is violence.

While this reasonably sated her curiosity, my friend wanted an illustration more concrete than some idealised personal-ad respondent; Palin (having just won the Veep nom) was the obvious exemplar, though I hastened to endorse Dana Perino as my political siren du choix.

Most terrifying is that the American election won't be a potentially historic ideological battle, but a libidinal referendum.

(*) - Obviously, this isn't making a blanket statement about Germans being latent racists. C'mon, I'm not dumb enough to fall into that hypocrisy. The degree of icy aloofness (with regard to casual social interaction) also varies rather wildly from city to city: Berliners tend to be more forgiving regarding language, and Kölners are so damned cheerful I wonder if the Rhine is dosed with Prozac.

(**) - Yes, I wrote & recorded this when I was 16. That's my buddy Dan singing.

Friday, September 12, 2008

I Prefer Not To

Jane Dark's recent meditation on voter-abstinence echoed something I wrote a year ago: defined purely by what it doesn't do, non-participation gives body to the absence of a good reason to participate, and (quoting myself) "there is no room for rationalisation, appeasement, evasion, obfuscation, or half-assing in a void." There are always a thousand reasons not to do something, but doing something only needs one good reason to recommend it; if that singular profactory reason remains elusive, well - there's no good reason to do it, so why do it? As everyone's favourite funktacular walking disaster once said, "I never just did things just to have something to do... I got a little more sense than that!"

Of course, voting within the context of American politics is a coin-toss wherein the coin is replaced with a Moebius strip; it's the spin of a blueblood Wheel of Fortune on the ball-bearings of buzzwords, greased by archaic demographic alliances, the two possible outcomes Jackpot or Bankrupt (not including the $300 "stimulus cheque" consolation prize). Serendipitously, Benjamin of No Useless Leniency recently published quite the post tackling the Lesser of Two Evils, as informed by Eyal Weizman and Immanuel Wallerstein. The truly heinous feature of a dilemma, wherein "no refusal of the terms of the situation is allowed," is that
when it comes to the calculation of consequences these are cut-out of the temporal flow. Each incident of calculation is treated anew, as if the previous accumulation of violence had not happened, and the future implications are also strictly delimited. The injunction is always “choose now!”, hence the attraction of the usual “ticking bomb” scenario.
The only context in which picking the lesser of two evils might produce a striking outcome is within the temporal flow. Over the course of a couple decades, judicious & careful compromises (that is, making damn sure the truly lesser evil is chosen) can gradually effect a sea change - "the patient work of political education," as Benjamin wrote, "even if the rewards are not immediate."

But not only does the American election cycle not operate along such a timeline, the Democratic party seems incapable of thinking in anything other than the "ticking timebomb" context. This is obviously abetted by the Rube Goldberg hypemachine of 24-hour newsfeeds and viral memes. Even so, it's as though nothing has been learned by the Republicans' generation-long gestation into the porcine behemoth that rules from inside the Beltway. Their view was sufficiently long that they were willing to suffer many a defeat (e.g. the Democratically-dominated Congress of the Reagan era) along the way; the Democrats and their supporters, on the other hand, soil themselves at the slightest setback and have already begun offering prehumous repentances & electoral eulogies. Even worse, if Obamania does fizzle and dissipate like an Alka-Seltzer belch, the only thing sweeping about the Democratic party's apparent future strategy will be itself into the dustpan of failed political parties. Are these jelly-skeleton'd realpoliticos possessed of some fatalist Morriseyan melancholy or what?

Of course, as a Canuck who forfeited his Green Card, I'm part of the global 80% whose opinion is worth bupkis. There's plenty of good-faith grassroots agitation on behalf of Obama, but had even the most aggressive tactics been employed before the primaries, it's too small a time-frame to complete "the patient work of political education." (Especially when you consider that, historically, African-American politicians fare better in advanced polls than they do in the actual election.)

So - fuck it. I'm going to take the above advice from Chappelle-as-Rick-James and try to unwind for the weekend. I almost blew a gasket yesterday at the ever-rising tide of online idiocy (details forthcoming in the near future), and if Friday night ain't right for a little mindless self-indulgence, then I quit this stupid specie.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

They're American planes...

Exit Only

I recently made use of my insomnia to take in this debate from last year between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D'Souza. As hard as it is to forgive Hitchens his last seven years of White Man's Burden-esque bullying, he's still got the sharpest knives in the antitheist butcher's block. (Unlike Richard Dawkins, whose utopian faith that humans are perfectable mirrors that of his targets; or Sam Harris, who - unlike Hitchens - makes time in his book to advocate the nuclear extermination of Islam.)

Meanwhile, D'Souza appears to have taken the same mail-order public speaking course as my elementary school principal: his head mechanically ping-ponging like a lawn sprinkler, D'Souza over-enunciates in a torpid lilt as though the audience hasn't yet learned to tie their own shoes. That this mental mosquito armed with cherry-picked evidence is not only a Stanford prof, but a leading intellectual among the American chattering class makes me want to award Russell Brand the MSNBC anchor's chair and promptly hang myself.

Given that almost every word D'Souza utters is easily rebuttable, I'm not typing the X-hundred pages of blogspace required for a complete evisceration of his idiotic demagoguery. I'll leave it to you to decide if (a) watching a fundie and an antitheist catfight on C-Span is worth 90 minutes of your life, and (b) it would be better painstakingly to refute every straw man and tautology D'Souza burps out or just sock him in the throat. Here are the highlights for those not quite curious enough to be arsed watching:
  • Hitchens has achieved a Howard Stern-circa-'85 anti-fame, judging by the number of people who attend his talks just to cheer on whatever faith-enthusiast he's facing off against.
  • Jump ahead to part 7, around the 7:00 mark, and dig on the more-books-than-brains pseud (in a trucker shirt!) who couldn't find a way of asking, "Ex nihilo, nihil fit - yes or no?", that took under a minute.
  • Immediately following, the next question inadvertantly revealed a great deal about the fickleness of the "faithful," as Hitchens was asked by a Tongan gentleman, "What do you have to offer us as an atheist?" Put another way: I'm willing to trade up, so what's in it for me?
That last point hung neatly on a thread that ran throughout the debate. If what people tell the Pew Research Center can be trusted, athiests are the most disliked constituency in America. If you compiled a one-sheet of the false accusations & hysterical indictments made against atheists and replaced the proper noun with "Jew," you'd Godwin yourself faster than you could say "shemozzle." The faithful constantly prod athiests to prove their core contention - that is, to prove a negative, despite the fact that (as Hitchens said) if atheists are right, "the world looks how it would look without god."

The crux of the theist/atheist battle is faith: those with see it as their greatest virtue, while those without see it as the worst kind of wish-thinking. The problem of faith, of course, is that it's as unprovable as god's inexistence. Consequently, the defensiveness often exhibited by the faithful in debate can be read as the nagging ache of the phantasmic/fantastic doubt: "What if we ARE wrong?"

This question of being wrong - of acting irrationally, of inherent inconsistency - is far from some faith-specific quirk: it's the very keystone of ideology. As Žižek would say, it's one of "these unknown knowns, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to." Another possibility is that someone would know damn well they're wrong, but continues unabashed - in which case, we're dealing not with an ideologue but a fetishist. But in either case (aware that they're wrong, or unaware that they're wrong), people live as if they were right. Which is bloody infuriating.

I've recently been engaged in some old-school correspondence with my grandfather, next to whom it's very easy to feel stupid. But I was thrilled to recognise this sentiment in his last letter:
[Deconstructionists] remind me of when I was studying political philosophy away back at Cape Town University after WW2, and there was one guy who was a Marxist and had the answer for everything. I'd be sitting trying to worry out my understanding of some writer - Hobbes, Marx, Hegel, or whoever - while this guy always had the answer - THE answer, from his comfortable Marxist standpoint. In fact I had, and have, a lot of time for Marx' analysis, but also some doubts. I used to envy that guy in a way, for his certainty, his lack of doubt.
This is precisely why I'm such a fan of Žižek, "an improvising philosopher, rather than a composer of philosophy," as it was put over at Endschwindet und Verghet. Hokey though his billing as "the Elvis of cultural theory" is, it's perfectly apt: a populist, ad-hoc repackaging of ideas derived as much from junk culture as from "authentic" sources. Being the toe-dipping philosophical hobbyist that I am, I'm considerably more comfortable with this frothing goofball than amongst the button-down self-seriousness of "authoritative" intellectuals. There's an ease in an enthusiastic sloppiness that can readily result in error that can't be found in obscurantist efforts at some abstract infallibility.

My growing distaste for any ideological orthodoxy stems not a little from the now-deafening furor about carbon footprints, eco-friendly food, renewable energy, etc. Suffocating under so many mixed messages about how best not to be a wasteful bastard, there festers a guilt so bottomless that, were it a combustible semi-solid, our energy needs could be filled forever. Of course, this guilt is precisely the consumer impetus that capital breathes, eats, and shits. That our problems can be solved by consuming less, consuming ethically, but consuming nonetheless is a dangerously brilliant bit of three-card-monte. As K-Punk put it recently, "the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief;" all they do depend on is "a subject who is open to all kinds of fluctuating identities and who is therefore ready to be plugged into every commodity." (That's Dany-Robert Dufour via Jodi Dean.) And once again, the most confounding aspect of this ethical hedonism is its certainty, the smug self-assuredness that drops the curtain on the conclusive truth that All Your Carbon Are Belong To Capital.

Like my grandfather, while I do somewhat envy the womb-like warmth of self-delusion, I've always kept Orwell's caution against all True Believers close to my heart. Even in the instances where I agree with the essence of someone's stance, I find it slightly sociopathic if they're not even dimly aware of contradiction or insufficiency - in which case, I see fit to invoke the eternal words of the Dude:
I'm not saying you're wrong, Walter... you're just an asshole.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

No Future If...

A McCain-Palin victory would tell the world in loud, unequivocative terms, "Fuck you."

Jonathan Freedland predicts a much louder, uglier, more vitriolic reply of, "No, fuck YOU."

(Just in case anyone thought saying, "Everybody except US citizens should elect the American government", was strictly well-humoured hyperbole.)

Monday, September 08, 2008

Collapsing New Buildings

At this rate, anyone else wanna take bets on how long it is before Mr. Hatherly
(a) starts slurring at Quinlan Terry, "Fuck off, I'm forty years younger than you - I've got my whole life ahead of me..."

(b) gets a bit big-headed about his photo essays and, at the first whiff of impeachment, begins typing so fucking hard he might break his fucking Mac book Air!!!!!

(c) implodes under the weight of both public expectation and his own potential, the epitaph on his unfinished legacy: "I'm not for sale."
Let's set the over/under at five weeks, shall we?

Friday, September 05, 2008

Your Product Sucks

Offnotesnotes runs with my riff on the democratising/emancipatory effect of downwardly-mobile music tech, albeit with a few stumbles: I'd say the mystical patina of live performance began to flake much earlier, with the introduction of radio; and thanks to the magic of VST orchestras, note-perfect recreations of Beethoven symphonies are a few (thousand) mouse-clicks away, no session musicians required. But the real problems arise when someone named Benjamin joins the conversation:
With the emancipation of specific artistic practices from the service of ritual, the opportunities for exhibiting their products increase.
Italics included, by the way. Now, it's very telling that the word "product" is used in place of "art," or even "work." Do I detect the foul stench of commercial over artistic interests? Indeed, "the trend has been toward greater economy, portability, and accessibility," but none of that has anything to do with innovation, emotional resonance, intellectual stimulation, or any other quality of good art. Certainly, "a panel painting can be exhibited more easily than the mosaic or fresco which preceded it," but does its ease of transport & display necessarily make the panel painting better art than the mosaic or fresco? Obviously, that's a subjective judgment dependent on the pieces in question. But the implication seems to be that the piece with greater commercial potential is de facto "better." This is a vivid example of how capital poisons not only the public perception of art, but the creation thereof.

The machinery of the music industry has always been sufficiently difficult to navigate that restless effort was required of anyone serious about their career. Even novelty acts like The Fugs or Blowfly had to work and tour their asses off to get anywhere. This, ironically, meant that major labels were more willing to gamble on weird acts: as laziness threshed the wheat from the chaff, if an act came calling, Verve or A&M could safely bet that these cats took their music seriously - no matter how freakish they may have been.

Not only the blessing, but the curse of digital media's democratising effect is that now even the most hopeless layabouts and half-talented wannabes can foist their creations upon the public. Consider that there are currently 8 million-odd musical acts on MySpace. Now, let's say that your assessment of bands according to your particular aesthetic considerations assumes a normal distribution: a very few are solid-gold genius, a very few are unmitigated dogshit, and there's a whole lotta half-baked twaddle in the middle. So, if you hit 100 different shows in your hometown, 2 would be be a religious experience, 14 would be worth the cover charge, 68 would be forgettably pleasant, 14 more should have ended after the first song, and 2 bands ought to have their hands cut off and larynx removed.

Now move back onto MySpace and apply the empirical rule. Of those 8 million music sites, 160,000 are actually damned good (and are probably the "official" pages of already-established acts we know & love - including the dead ones like Raymond Scott). Another 160,000 are the kind of barrel-scraping excrement that occasionally goes viral for how stratospherically bad it is (see: Mickey Avalon). But waddling in the middle is a mountainous five million four hundred and forty thousand artist pages that are just kinda... there. Sure, Parts & Labour are unimportant fun, and Blaqstarr is at least better than Flo Rida, but how much of this cut-rate competent fluff do you have to wade through to get to some next-level shit?

Obviously, a lot.

Bitching about the abominable state of music probably began when the second caveman who started banging sticks together was dismissed as a pale imitation of the first. Rock is dead, hip-hop is dead, r'n'b sucks, country is horseshit - we've all heard it before, and the rejoinder remains the same: the good stuff is out there, the trick is finding it. The difference now is that we're so inundated by the deluge of digitally-peddled pop-crap that it requires a monk's patience and God's time to dig deep enough to hit diamonds.
"Evil is not in the extremes - it's in the middle mass."
There was a serendipity in the near-simultaneous 1998 release of two documentaries about two critically-canonised bands - Meeting People Is Easy, about Radiohead, and Instrument, about Fugazi. The former captured Radiohead touring the globe in support of their 8.4 million-selling masterpiece, OK Computer, and hating every second of it. The latter was a decade-spanning survey of an independent slash-and-churn post-hardcore band, who never charted higher than #126 on the Billboard charts, but by all appearances were diggin' the shit out of it. The contrast suggested most obviously that artists fare better (at least mentally) to struggle autonomously, rather than shake hands with a Mephistophelean corporate handler. But the Damascus moment comes in Instrument, when Guy Picciotto is waxing belligerent about Fugazi's anti-commercial M.O.:
It's more important that [our music] exists in a forum that people are comfortable with - and more importantly, that we're comfortable with - and people are invited to participate, but not forced, and not have it crammed down their throats with someone mouthing off every goddamn five minutes about how unbelievably great our new album is, or exactly what all our lyrics mean.
In other words, the primary purpose of art is not finding an audience, but existing on its own terms, to which the nature & size of the audience are subordinate. The great mistake made by all artists seduced by the possibilities offered by digital media is that the questions of distribution & presentation becomes a consideration within the creative process. No doubt, the constant connectivity of contemporary culture sands down idiosyncrasies, replaces grit with glam, tethers artists into a creative topiary, and leads to the kind of source-anonymity/nomadalgia that remodels individual artists into mere artistic archetypes - the middle mass.

Since the release of my last album, I've been asked innumerable times if I was going to tour to support it. As it stands, I don't have a band, and so would be forced to resort to backing tracks. (And since I don't do folk, it would be necessary to flesh out the sound.) Ignoring that I find laptop-oriented shows to be less a live experience than a sleeping aid, I refuse to do this because it's not how I intend the music to be presented. Is this the right choice? Perhaps not according to my bank account, but I'd prefer not have been dishonest with - or to - my art.

Update (12 hours later): Oh, that was Walter Benjamin, eh? Well then... that doesn't actually change anything. It's worth noting that, from the start, Offnotesnotes and I have been kind of talking past each other: he's been considering the sociopolitical ramifications of digitally-mediated communication, whereas I've been venting about the effect it has on the art itself. Yes, it'd obviously be silly to complain about the Frankfurt School as art critics. Yet at the same time, to focus on the media through which art is communicated (as I argued above) misses the fuckin' point of the art itself. I wouldn't look to political theorists to influence my creative philosophy for the same reason that people don't take Bono seriously on economics. As noble as Benjamin's fervor may be regarding the enhanced mobility of "de-ritualised" art, to consider capital at all (even as a purely corruptive Big Other) within the act of creation pollutes the process. Again, the use of the word "product" betrays a conception of art as little more than a commercial unit.

The necessary malevolence of capital's influence upon art clearly wasn't lost on the Frankfurt School. In Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno suggested that a film that satisfied the plethora of moralist nitpicking enforced by the Hays Office could indeed be made - so long as the Hays Office didn't exist in the first place. This could be in line with what Benjamin was suggesting was beneficial about separating art from ritual, in that art could be created independent of whatever authority oversaw said ritual. The same potential exists in the portability & accessibility of digital media - that an artist can work with total autonomy - but the problem is that artists' behaviour has swung in the opposite direction: towards total self-subjugation to the frothing "marketplace of ideas," one eye on the canvas, the other on the hustle.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

More Blogging About Buildings and Sound

It's been quite a busy week, hasn't it? The Democratic convention wrapped up, Putin continued coaxing heat from long-cold embers, Japan lost its second prime minister in as many years, New Orleans was struck by a dreadful deja-vu, Thailand's esteem as a vacationer's paradise plummeted, and (as Salon.com put it) Hurricane Bristol hit Minnesota. As the above links give away, I've been listening to an inordinate amount of Nick Cave because his dank, sleazy Jeremiads seem well-suited to the atmosphere. But I'm not interested in talking about Nick Cave today.

My friend JD is a devotee of '70s big-band funk & r'n'b - the Gap Band, Chic, P-Funk, and the like. Last week, he noted that (outside the state fair circuit) this species of act has gone extinct, and wondered aloud why this happened. The easy answer is that their moment in the sun had expired and they had to hang up their sequined jumpsuits. But that's as intellectually satisfying as saying 9/11 happened because They Hate Our Freedom.

A better explanation would be an economic one. The ascension of hip-hop in the late '70s was nothing less than the first homemade-music revolution: no longer was it necessary to have bulky amps, prohibitively priced instruments, PA, or (often the most troublesome variable) a secure practice space. If there was a turntable in the household, there was the sole necessary musical tool. By tapping into a streetlight's electricity, a home stereo could turn a park or street corner into a music venue as MCs battled unamplified in public.

This phenomenon grew exponentially and across genres with the advent of samplers, 4-track cassette recorders, and laptop computers equipped with a plethora of user-friendly software. In The Psychic Soviet, Ian Svenonius argued that a housing crunch exacerbated the trend towards smaller ensembles and amateur production. Following the urban blights of the 1980s, the forces of gentrification launched a full-scale invasion of major cities in the 1990s, leading to vanishing vacancy rates and skyrocketing rents. When a basement efficiency is costing upwards of 60% of your income, you can't afford to be concerned about practice space - you make the most of what you've got.

There's also the social element to consider. Bands are considered creatively compromising by, uh, everyone who's ever been in a band, which is why they all break up, spin off, or implode. The chance to be the lone (wo)man on the mic, solo and center-stage, is irresistible to the ego. As a matter of format, hip-hop is a soloist's idiom. Particularly gifted - or at least bankable - MCs can have their pick of the production litter while remaining the locus of attention, if only because they're the sole constant over the course of a whole album. Conversely, a skilled producer also adept at rhyming can run the whole show unfettered by conflicting opinions.

Also, though there's an unmatched magic in the balance of multiple strong personalities, every additional person in a creative venture represents a risk. At best, they're an extra voice in the conversation, but at worst they're a liability - a truth clear to those familiar with Professor Griff of Public Enemy, The Game, or, heck, Scott Weiland.

Having taken extensive notes, the rock underground (Jacking black culture since 1951!) has produced its own reconstitutions of the above creative considerations. Electroclash, mash-ups, chiptune, hardware-free solid-state techno, whatever the fuck it is village idiot Dan Deacon does - these are all self-produced, small-ensemble subgenres born of cost-efficient equipment and claustrophobic spaces. But unlike hip-hop, they're also tainted by the nebbish indie insistence upon an intrinsic smallness of the music; when made, grand gestures and spectacle invariably wink so hard the irony drips out like crocodile tears.

And so begins the bitter expostulatory portion of the essay! Following the analogous relationship between religion and music, I'd define myself as a kind of gnostic pentecostal; my philosophy is antithetical to Momus' anti-metaphysical "superflat" nihilism. Consequently, I find that the deconstructive materialism of much indie rock misses the whole point, smirking itself into an artistic Limbo instead of shooting the moon with the crosshairs on Heaven. There's little solace in hip-hop either, but for an entirely different reason: I find the human voice to be an invasive, traumatic presence. Card-carrying Lacanian Slavoj Žižek put it in layman's terms in his Pervert's Guide to Cinema:
Voice is not an organic part of the human body, it is coming from somewhere in-between your body. Whenever we talk to another person, there is always this minimum of ventriloquist effect, as if some foreign power took possession... It is as if we are expecting the famous scene from Ridley Scott's Alien to repeat itself. As if we have just waited for some terrifying, alien, evil-looking small animal to jump out.
In that regard, most of my favourite vocalists are pointedly unpleasant, exaggerating their assaultive presence within the music: David Yow, Mark E. Smith, El-P, early Nick Cave. (He made it into the conversation after all!) If only because their skills are rooted in street-corner braggadocio, most MCs have no interest in psychically unsettling the listener. They opt instead for either political discomfort (considerably easier to dismiss), or paying tribute to their own boundless star-power.

Though this comes as no suprise given how often I refer to His Worship Kevin Shields, the music I find most effective is a pan-sensual miasma, a syrupy narcosis, or a searing hail of sonic shrapnel. It boasts mass and velocity, but of a mercurial, chaotic sort. The music that ultimately means anything to me is an audial short-circuit to Stendhal Syndrome - immersive, overwhelming, yet organic. Being a mechanical artifice, the digital is incapable of transcendence. As noted last week, "Events that don't happen in air have no medium for existence, sounds made in a totally digital environment are effectively stillborn" - or, more horrifying, undead. But, stripped of digital alchemy, it becomes very difficult to produce music capable of sensory overload as a solo act.

And so, for all the squabbles, cramped quarters, and clumsy stacks of equipment... we're back in a big room, full of hotheaded humans, armed with steel, wood, and speakers.

By the way, the next time Earth, Wind & Fire come to your town, check 'em out. I hear they're still able to kill it. Click on the mix title to download.

Sensory Overloud

1. Ashra - "77 Slightly Delayed" (00:00)
2. Can - "Oh Yeah" (06:31)
3. Fugazi - "Steady Diet" (13:45)
4. The Jesus & Mary Chain - "Upside Down" (17:23)
5. Faust - "Krautrock" (20:16)
6. Brian Eno - "Here Come the Warm Jets" (27:45)
7. Tim Hecker - "Blood Rainbow" (31:30)
8. Jonny Greenwood - "Henry Plainview" (35:19)
9. My Bloody Valentine - "All I Need" (35:48)
10. Sonic Youth - "Eric's Trip" (38:47)
11. Tricky - "Christiansands" (42:32)
12. Fela Kuti - "Roforofo Fight" (46:11)
13. Boredoms - "Super Going" (53:57)
14. The Psychic Paramount - "Gamelan Into the Mink Supernatural" (01:05:56)
15. The Beatles - "Tomorrow Never Knows" (01:15:48)

Non-Sequitorial Postscript: Well, a pity - looks like we no longer live "in a whurruld..."

Monday, September 01, 2008

Classical Liberal VS Lapsed Marxist: Round II (and III)

Once again, Andrew Stevens and I rampaged through Micah Tillman's site with as much wrath and little regard for our environs as Godzilla and Mothra - this time about the comparative collateral damage between Capitalism and Marxism. In the interest of allowing ourselves to stretch out conversationally, I've dragged the discourse back over here. One quick reassurance a la Bill Hicks to everyone rolling their eyes at political cockfighting: don't worry, there's more music-nerd snark on the way.
Any “statistical grudge match” with any kind of intellectual honesty would be forced to conclude that Marxism caused vastly more premature deaths than capitalism ever has. I can only assume that your claim is going to be that capitalist countries cause life expectancies to fall somehow, since a mere body count won’t even get you close.
"A mere body count"... ah, how we value life in the free world! But no, I wasn't referring to life expectancies. Of course, even that isn't an airtight argument for the free market, not the least because most of the countries with greater life expectancies than the US (Japan, Iceland, Sweden, Canada, etc.) have market regulations that would be decried as draconian on Wall Street. The chief difficulty in comparing body-counts between Capitalism and Marxism is that no one has ever been killed in the name of Capitalism as such. Whereas the enforcers and executioners of Communist regimes dispatched dissidents and undesirables under the flutter of red flags, no tanks or helmets have ever been decorated with dollar-sign decals. So it's a delicate yet arbitrary judgment as to how many deaths are on capital's tab. Those who've died of famine or a toxic environment as a result of exploitive trade practices? The victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre? The 2 million dead of the Korean war? The 6 million of the Vietnam war? The minimum hundred-thousand of the current Iraq war? The 8 million slaves who died en route to the Americas, to say nothing of the untold millions killed during the procurement of the surviving 11 millions slaves shipped west?
I think it is quite appropriate to measure how good a government is by how few people it gratuitously slaughters.
Well, it's obviously a handy criterion, but if that becomes the chief consideration of a government's worth, that's bloody pathetic (no pun intended). What about access to healthcare? Education? Low unemployment rolls and CPI? No? I'd think that quality of life would be a greater consolation than a simple shurg, "Well, at least the prime minister ain't no Ismail Enver."
...Experiments [in competing ideologies] were East Germany/West Germany, North Korea/South Korea, and arguably Hong Kong/China. In each one of these experiments, the regimes in question started with similar resources and similar, if not identical, cultures.
As "laboratory experiments," these qualify as incredibly sloppy science. Not only had Hong Kong been a British concession for over a century by the time Mao Zedong consolidated power in 1949, but to think a country as expansive & ethnically diverse as China was (or is) even vaguely homogeneous is ignorant. Meanwhile, in Korea, there was violent agitation by left-leaning activists in the south following WWII; had the US not ditched the Moscow Accords and helped install Yi Seungman (a thug who embezzled over $20 million in gov't funds and died in exile) and subsequently reinforced his flagging defenses, Korea very well may have been reunified by Kim Il-Sung. (Kim, of course, was a unimaginative, waffling narcissist responsible for the deaths of 1.6 million of his countrymen.) West and East Germany are the closest to "control" groups by which to compare the success of competing ideologies. Nevertheless, the Soviet "scorched earth" war tactics and its extra-aggressive dismantling of German industry (to compensate for the USSR's desperate economic situation and staggering loss of 26 million lives) bequeathed the GDR a far more tenuous socioeconomic foundation than the West, and a consequent, inherent resentment of its foreign overseer.

Though it goes without saying, I am not an apologist for Mao, Stalin, the Stassi, or Juche. But throughout the Cold War, the single answer to the myriad problems of Communism was: capitalism. And still, the single answer to the myriad problems of Western capitalist hegemony is: more capitalism! As jaded as I may be regarding humans' collective discipline or reason, this as a prescription is, well, insufficient.

Round 3

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Stevens was (again) the sole respondent to my questions regarding whether or not the US is in a recession. I felt compelled to comment not the least because the cited source of "good news" was walking mental laxative Jonah Goldberg, and Tillman seems to take his sources at face-value. A great many people (Tillman included) received the news the 3.3% bump in the US GDP as though it was some ad infinitum forecast of the country's economic health - forgetting about those stimulus cheques and White House Press Secretary Dana Perino's caveat, "No one is doing a victory dance." Mr. Stevens was right to articulate the value of imputed income, though I wasn't so much arguing against its inclusion in the equation as encouraging statistical scrutiny. Take the unemployment rate for example: officially 5.7%, it rises to around 9% once "discouraged" workers, "marginally attached" workers, and involuntary part-timers are included. But then factor in those on Social Security, disability, etc. who've been "bought off the unemployment rolls" and the number crawls closer to 12%. There are other concerning facts to consider: construction continued to hit the brakes at a current rate of almost 16%, and after-tax corporate profits fell by 3.8% after a single-point gain in the first three months of 2008.

The slight skip in GDP is obviously good news, but it'd be foolhardy to dismiss the "doomsayers" so quickly. The benefit of being Chicken Little is that, if you're wrong - hey, no problem! But given that 97% of consensus forecasts in the 1990s failed to predict some sixty different national recessions, perhaps "permabears" like Dr. Nouriel Roubini aren't quite the marketplace miserablists they appear to be.

Owing to Mr. Stevens' relative online anonymity, I initially wondered if I was debating either a veteran business journalist or the star of Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction. No such luck: he's a midwestern economist, judging by his extensive font of financial know-how (not to mention haughty asides deriding "non-economists"). As such, that he indulges an autodidact muso in lengthy exchanges seems explicable only because they take place on "his" turf. Nonetheless, I appreciate that he's the only one who deems my ideas worthy of rebutting on Tillman's site, where my minority opinions (however carefully worded) have apparently earned me troll status. No great loss, though, as that site disappears increasingly up its own skyward nose. Tillman's monocular political skepticism and dull predilection towards grammatical fundamentalism make him sound ever more like the idiot who looks at the finger, not the moon at which the finger points. As much as Mr. Stevens and I may differ in our ideological orientation, his readiness to have an concerted discussion is most welcome.