Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Lowest Common Denominator Is the Biggest Factor

As anyone with even a few cilia tuned to international affairs knows, the U.S. midterm elections are upon us with all the thunderous fusillade & megadecibel hysteria of a civil war. It's a minor miracle that, in the American electoral process, no one actually ends up dead.

The consensus narrative of 2010 has thus far been: Americans of every political persuasion are unimpressed with the first two years of Obama's administration. Progressives feel that the President has failed to deliver on the promises of his campaign. Conservatives are convinced that the country is on the bullet-train to Soviet hell. Moderates have, by all appearances, vanished from the political landscape. The consequence of the left's disillusionment and the right's white-hot ire (and it is very white) is that the Republicans will reclaim control of the House and, perhaps, the Senate.

Of course, as history suggests, this familiar tune may have a surprise coda. The past couple of weeks have produced more "October Surprises" than a pumpkin patch laden with landmines. NPR arguably served conservatives their own Shirley Sherrod when they fired Juan Williams. Alaska Tea Partier Joe Miller is quickly slipping off the ballot, either due to his security detail's brownshirt-style bullying or his apparent inability to grow a proper beard. Meanwhile, Gawker's muckraking exposé on Christine O'Donnell's hypocritical pecadillos has both infuriated the right and disgusted the left, with little time allowed to gauge which way the fallout will gust.

The true terror is that the American left is caught between Scylla - a Republican Congress that will attempt to roll back over a century of social progress - and Charybdis - armed revolt by reactionaries who confuse an electoral setback with tyranny. Beyond any American election in the modern era, right-wing violence has move beyond the rhetorical to the literal, including voter intimidation and physical assaults upon journalists and private citizens. Several Republican candidates have even advocated armed insurrection against the federal government if the election does not tilt in their favour. This more than anything should motivate moderates and progressives alike to pursue their primary legal protection against subjugation: to vote.

Democracy is nothing if not imperfect, as it swaps more stratified forms of tyranny with that of the majority. The fundamental mistake the Democratic Party has made is to believe that they can control a two-party system by compromising with their opponents instead of winning their active support. Obviously, not everyone will be satisfied with a single party's platform, but the Republican's success stems from their talent at convincing people whose lives Republicans are actively destroying that the Grand Ol' Party represents their interests. So what is their secret?

Allow me to introduce you to Malcolm Tucker, Director of Communications in the BBC sitcom The Thick of It. As the Prime Minister's enforcer, Tucker is a parliamentary Svengali of such partisan drive and profane thuggery that he makes Rahm Emanuel look like Mr. Rogers. If there's anyone - fictional or otherwise - with the sang froid and killer instinct to produce a desired political effect, it's Tucker. So heed what he said during the British electoral campaign earlier this year:
Frankly, I think you're getting the wrong advice on the debates... Most people are not going to see these Bestivals of bore. After all, with the 478 debate rules in place they're going to have all the drama of three middle-aged guys fencing with limp dicks. The only ones watching are going to be the pointless bastards who already know what they think.

We need to get to the people who only hear the rumours. Bottom feeders who get their views via the quotes from the models in the Daily Star. Van drivers who guard their vast ignorance with concealed Stanley knives. Businessmen who like to expose their self-aggrandising cynicism to schoolgirls on the Thameslink. These dumb motherfuckers are the battlefield. Shitheels. Dunderheads. People who when you talk to them it's like shouting through six pieces of double glazing. Potheads, cider drinkers, kids who don't know who Thatcher was and think the NHS grew on a big fucking NHS tree. Wankers. People who count to 11 using their 10 fingers and their head and still get it wrong. This is who we have to get to via the debates. So we are going to have to shout extremely fucking loud.
Now, substitute a few proper nouns in the above paragraph - swap "the Thameslink" for "Pennsylvania Turnpike", "Thatcher" for "Nixon", and "the NHS" for "Social Security" - and the same is absolutely, unequivocally true for America. Electoral success stands on the shoulders of envious, ill-informed, bored morons who've scarcely been outside their own zip-code, who can't find the next county on a map, who can't distinguish between opinion and fact, and who prefer scapegoats to solutions.

Stupid people aren't a political hazard to be mitigated. These dumb motherfuckers are the battlefield.

The brilliant sleight-of-hand that the Republicans have performed is that they've courted a fearful middle class & a devastated working class with snappy slogans, straw-man whipping boys, and provincial snobbery. It's not that the Democrats are short on examples of how Republicans fuck over every American making under a quarter-million per year, but that the Democrats refuse the political potential of angry voters. Ironically, it's the Democrats - not Republicans - who have ignored the real political effects of class resentment, and thus have ceded the power of America's underclass to the worst colporteurs of xenophobia, superstition, paranoia, and hysteria.

The Democratic Party failed to understand that it's better to have knee-jerking mobs shouting with you rather than against you, and they are shouting extremely fucking loud. If the Democrats lose this coming Tuesday, they'll only have themselves to blame for it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

If I could be, for only an hour...

Well, it's Hallowe'en weekend. If you're a foreigner in Tokyo, this means partying hard on the Yamanote train with a bunch of other white people, though in recent years these impromptu costumed hullabaloos have drawn fire from not only embarrassed foreigners but an increasingly strident hard-right. Personally, I'm not particularly bothered. The Yamanote parties are hardly a utopian T.A.Z. and combating xenophobia doesn't begin by dressing up like Borat and acting like a douche; yet it hardly bears complaining that the train transforms into a mobile drunk tank on October 31 - as opposed to any other night.

Of course, people everywhere concoct all manner of fanciful excuse for the explicit purpose of playing the fool in public. Such saturnalia are exhaust valves for the populace's pent-up frustration & compounded stress, which otherwise might be channeled into some kind of radical political expression - and we certainly can't have that! So when Japanese wag their fingers at an American holiday that is little more than culturally-sanctioned juvenile terrorism, lest they forget they spend summertime getting drunk & playing with explosives.

Really, though, to be content with such intermittent tomfoolery is missing the big picture. Just become a musician. Then you can act like a complete asshole 'round the clock and get paid for it!

Then again, musicians are often as discontent to be themselves as anyone else. (Even moreso in some instances.) This is why the musical masquerade of cover songs is impossible to resist. Yes indeed, it makes good P.R. to associate yourself with an established act, not to mention trumpet your own impeccable taste. But no one's ever kicked out a Jimi Hendrix or Stooges cover who didn't want to be Jimi or Iggy (who also wanted little more than to be their respective heroes). Hell, some bands make entire careers out of hollow impersonations of their idols. As an audience, we owe thanks to those talented few who only unveil their influences occasionally & purposefully.

So instead of the usual ghosts 'n' ghoulies Hallowe'en mix (which you can grab here if you really want), here's an amusing selection of musicians playing at being other people. Click on the mix title to download.

In a Stupid-Ass Way

1. Scott Walker - "Jackie"
2. Tricky - "Lyrics of Fury"
3. Teddy and His Patches - "Suzy Creamcheese"
4. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown - "I Put a Spell On You"
5. The Fall - "Mr. Pharmacist"
6. The Toreno Brass - "Eleanor Rigby"
7. Sonic Youth - "My New House"
8. The Wooden Glass feat. Billy Wooten - "In the Rain"
9. Melvins - "Going Blind"
10. Dick Hyman - "Green Onions"
11. Shirley Bassey - "Light My Fire"
12. The Chico Magnetic Band - "Crosstown Traffic"
13. La Tia Leonor Y Sus Sobrinos - "Marcha a la Turca"
14. Alex Chilton - "Jumpin' Jack Flash"
15. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - "Wanted Man"
16. Pavement - "The Classical"
17. Faith No More - "Easy"
18. Martin Denny - "Midnight Cowboy"

Friday, October 15, 2010

Seize the Meme!

For once in my damn life, I appear to have nailed the zeitgeist: the "sell-out" debates of yore are back in full swing. And about a decade too late, if the current cultural climate is as sapped & shit-stained as it appears. Oh, and for all those poptimists who endorse crowdsourcing and believe equally in the integrity of democracy and market forces: welcome to your logical extreme! Choke on it, you beige-minded wretches.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bad Music, Worse Politics

They say "never judge a book by its cover," but what about judging a book by its pull-quotes and endorsements? A single-sentence excerpt from Meghan McCain's book is sufficient to see it's utter shite, and I certainly won't need to read anything that makes it onto either Oprah or Glenn Beck's book lists.

Musical taste can serve as a litmus test of someone's general character. This sounds like a dangerous and smug generalization, but think of it - have you ever met someone who preferred Yoko Ono to the Beatles who wasn't an insufferable prick? Similarly, is it ever a surprise when a hidebound fan of only hardcore punk or heavy metal turns out to be a socially-conservative reactionary? Music is not some autonomous miracle that happens by fluke. Music is dependent on context for meaning and is the direct product of human intervention - even if that intervention is the simple act of listening. (This is how John Cage could find musicality in the traditionally "non-musical.") To both the composer and the audience, music is never politically neutral.

This is why I'm such a staunch defender of indie dogmatists like Steve Albini, and why I'm very skeptical of populism, both musical and political: it discourages radicalism, sanctions tyranny of the majority, and buttresses the status quo. Unhesitant endorsement of pop music applauds the commodification of art and abets the homogenization of culture by consumerist capitalism. The gluttony of the indiscriminate listener enhances the neo-liberal fantasy of infinite abundance. Several years ago, Rob Horning outlined the fundamental danger of then-ascendant "poptimism":
It doesn’t really matter who likes what specifically; what matters are the means by which the big players seek to control the entertainment market... In capitalist society, culture is business, one that’s always trying to expand. Nice of the poptopian to do the marketers work for them and expand the reach and provide the ideological justification for the hegemony of the big commercial music manufacturers.
So much of the vitriol aimed at Albini over the past week has little to do with the substance of his argument and more to do with him "being a jerk." This would suggest that, instead of disagreeing with Albini, many people are merely upset that he's infringing on their guilt-free enjoyment of consumer culture. Tom Ewing (author of, appropriately, Pitchfork's Poptimist column) parodies Albini's contempt for the fashion industry by suggesting what Albini's rendering of soccer might look like:
“It’s just 22 men chasing a leather ball around!”
Reductive and contemptuous, perhaps, but also 100% accurate. Again, the implication is that the exploitation of an insecure public and the predation upon art by capital is not nearly as offensive as being a buzzkill asshole. What matters not is critiquing and defending against market forces; what matters is letting everyone be into what they're into and, y'know, having fun!

Let me be clear, there are larger real-world consequences to poptimism's timid egalitarianism. Mike Barthel was among the many who, without challenging Albini's position, dismissed the attacks upon fashion and Sonic Youth's Faustian bargain as "stupid shit." Less than a week later, Barthel posted an op-ed at The Awl about Glenn Beck's autodidact schtick:
In terms of motivation, liberals' demands that the unpleasant parts of American history be taught in schools is no different from conservatives' insistence that they be expunged: both want the story told as they see it so that children will grow up sympathetic to their view of the world. Of course, liberals have the advantage in this case of wanting things to be revealing, rather than concealing. But that doesn't make our intentions any nobler, particularly.
And voila, in one simple extension of political logic, it's no more noble to fight for truth & accountability than it is to whitewash history in the name of imperialist nationalism. Because apparently it's better to tolerate jingoism and ignorance than to be an asshole and call people out on those things.

Whatever happened to "keeping keen the blade of one's dissatisfaction"?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shigeru Miyamoto's Sleeper Cells

Hey, remember "math rock"? That gallingly clinical tag, inescapable in the late-'90s, used to describe any band that studiously avoided regular time signatures? Bands like Don Caballero and Oxes who camouflaged their geeky adoration of finger-sports athletics (e.g. King Crimson, Rush) by wreathing it in spasmic fury?

I don't know if it's just the particular idiom that my band finds itself in, but there seems to be an irrational number of math rock bands in Japan. Now, we're not math rock: all of our songs are in 4/4 or 3/4 and there's not any instrumental breaks that could possibly be confused for a Magma homage. But most of the bands we play with are math rock bands - abrupt tempo shifts, asymmetrical time signatures, technically-demanding guitar runs, etc. This is only odd because math rock's heyday in the west came to a close almost a decade ago, as technical puissance was reclaimed by metal-derived genres and indie kids became more concerned with texture & danceability. Why has math rock refused to fade in Japan?

There are several things that make math rock particularly appealing to guitar-oriented acts in their early-to-mid twenties. The first is its emphasis on technique; unless the intention is keeping it simple-stoopid, there's a genuine satisfaction in mastery of an instrument. The second is that there was significant crossover between math rock and emo; the semi-hysteric emotional mode of many late-teenagers and college kids is attracted to garment-rending catharsis (especially in a country as emotionally muted as Japan). Finally, when bucking musical convention is as easy as dropping an extra beat into a measure, math rock affords the easy illusion of doing something different - even if the genre's decades-old touchstones have become canonical.

Still, something about Japanese math rock doesn't sit well with me. It's a little too crisp in its execution and too rigorously diatonic. The western push towards deconstruction is being countered by some exacting pull from another source - but what? I couldn't tell from whence came this Will To Order until this weekend, when I noticed something curious on another band's merch table: a toy bank in the shape of a Nintendo Famicon.

I've a friend who's the kind of geek that hunts down audio rips of old video game music. The past several times I've been over to his apartment, he's had the Mega Man soundtrack bumping in the background. Given the poxy sonic palette of 8-bit FM synthesis, old-school video game composers such as Koji Kondo used every compositional trick available to create dynamic scores: chromatic counterpoint, syncopation, abrupt tempo shifts, asymmetrical time signatures... hey, wait a minute.

So that's where all these bands picked up their proclivity for epic melodies, Dorian arpeggios, and unnecessary 3-over-2 rhythmic juxtaposition! For every hour spent listening to The Dismemberment Plan, these kids probably spent two sat in front of a video game console. This is the kind of organic synthesis that so many western bands strive for and fail at miserably, coming off instead as so much embarrassing po-mo pastiche. And to think I was dismissing the Japanese bands as stiff, studenty knock-offs of Sunny Day Real Estate - which isn't to say that I like this music any more than I did last week, but at least I'm not baffled by its very existence.

I'll leave you with a couple of concrete examples. Exhibit A is the band we played with in Nagoya on Friday night, the incomprehensibly-named Mudy On The 昨晩.

Exhibit B, the "energy zone" theme from the Nintendo Entertainment System game Contra.

Non-sequitorial postscript: Corporate apologist Eric Harvey takes his "pragmatism" to the big leagues.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

In the Logic of the Market, the Market Is Always Right

Providing context for the Albini/Sonic Youth controversy, Eric Harvey has a very interesting history of Sonic Youth's business dealings with labels minor and major. Most valuable is the reminder that, as businesses in the '80s, indie labels were hardly a utopian refuge from blood-sucking behemoth corporate culture. For sure, Dischord and Touch & Go were famously equitable with their artists while totally disavowing commercial ambition, but they were - and remain - the exception. Meanwhile, I've yet to find anyone that has a kind word to say about the likes of SST's Greg Ginn or Homestead's Barry Tenenbaum. (British indie labels seem to have been less regularly corrupt.) As Harvey says, "Who wouldn’t, in the early 90s, want to be able to make music for a living, with health care, while working right alongside one’s trustworthy indie pals?"

That said, I take serious issue with Harvey's argument once he moves beyond historical summary. First is his contention that "there’s an actual Main Stream into which bands are able to steer their ships" is an "ill-founded idea." In the age of the internet, that may be true: the only extant "underground" is just the shit people aren't listening to, as opposed to a separate, self-contained culture. But this is only true within the past decade. Does Harvey honestly believe that people going to Einstürzende Neubauten or Nation of Ulysses gigs and people buying Avalon or Achtung Baby were operating within the same social context?

The fundamental difference between Harvey and Albini is that the former believes the whole point of making music is to be heard by the widest audience possible. To wit:
Distribution and promotion is the key here. Indie labels used to suck at it, but in 2010, they’re really amazingly good at it, and they’re not shy about partnering with corporations like Warner to gain access to their monopoly on big box stores. And thankfully, it seems, the vast majority of indie fans... don’t care.
Anyone who praises "the usefulness of major corporations" sees music as little other than a commodity and is a foot soldier for cultural homogeneity. Albini, on the other hand, views music as a communicative mode, an expression of a localized cultural identity, a sonic individuation. What bothers Albini about corporate encroachment is not merely the crass desperation & hucksterism of marketing & promotion, but how it corrupts the very creative process. As he explained in a superb interview with Ian Svenonius:
Whenever [bands] start making decisions based on their anticipation of the future response from the outside world, then they're talking out their ass and they're making decisions based on a fear of a future reprisal or something...

A lot of the music industry sees the record as the object, like the record is the thing. And if you have to fuck with the band a little bit to make the record good, that's okay, 'cuz that's what we're selling... But if you compromise the band for the sake of the shows, or the sake of the records, then you're fucking with the business. That's the franchise right there.
This returns us to Albini's very purposeful separation between his work (engineering) and his art. As everyone knows, Albini is rather mercenary in who he'll record: anyone. But Shellac is infuriatingly uncompromising as a group of artists. They refuse the record-release-tour-repeat hamster wheel, turn down more shows than they play, and rigorously limit their public exposure. To someone like Harvey, whose musical philosophy is a synthesis of populism & capitalism, of course Albini comes off as provincial and exclusive. It simply means that he and Harvey have essentially different understandings of music's purpose.

But personally, I think Albini is right and Harvey is wrong. The very benefit Sonic Youth won with their major label deal - "We’re able to work 24 hours a day at making music" - is impossible in the internet-oriented music industry, because it forces bands to operate first & foremost as a business concern with the music itself reduced to mere product. The ultimate evil of disintegrating the divide between underground & mainstream culture is that D.I.Y. becomes unworkable and collusion with corporate interests is forced. When any band with a Bandcamp page can reasonably entertain dreams of making fat mad stacks of a Honda TV ad license, musicians are attempting to realize Bowie-sized commercial ambitions on a Black Flag-sized budget. In the old-school punk paradigm, being in complete control of production/distribution/promotion, while not easy, was more manageable because winning over the world was not the point. No one was hoping to headline Madison Square Gardens. But now, every band hanging onto the long tail is baited by the corrupt conflation of making music with making a living. Ultimately, both these musicians and the music itself will suffer.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

A Messenger Who Shoots Back

One of the most oft-quoted lines from The Big Lebowski is The Dude's last-ditch retort to Walter: "You're not wrong, Walter, you're just an asshole." Lord knows I've been slapped with that rejoinder many a time. Just this weekend, a friend and I were arguing, basically, over whether or not such a thing as "black music" exists, and he said, "Look, I know what you're saying, and I can't quite disagree with it, but goddamn I want to punch you in the fucking face!"

But I digress. What's really fascinating about The Dude's retort is how dramatically its sense is changed by reversing the sentence structure: "You're an asshole, but you're not wrong." It's no longer a statement of bare tolerance of some dunderhead's invective; it's grudging acquiescence to the fact that someone thoroughly unlikeable has made an incontestable argument. It's a less-condescending version of the old "broken clock" saw, and - to me - not a bad rhetorical position to be in at all.

Steve Albini is a man whose whole public persona hinges on being this asshole-who's-not-wrong. He's clearly unconcerned with whether or not people "like" him, though he's rarely been prone to the kind of cartoonish abuse Tesco Vee used to heap upon the world at large. So it should come as no surprise that I woke up today to find see the following headlines around the interwebs:
Etc. etc. etc. It's not that Albini thinks Sonic Youth are a shitty band or a bunch of poseurs. ("I still consider them friends and their music has its own integrity.") Rather, Albini thinks that, by signing with a major label, Sonic Youth "became a foot soldier for [mainstream] culture's encroachment into my neck of the woods by acting as scouts." Sonic Youth lowered the drawbridge for the commercial huns and led to "a corruption of a perfectly valid, well-oiled music scene."

There's already been some considerable discussion here about Sonic Youth's "curatorial" stance, and ultimately I think they played that role well. Other bands who crossed over (e.g. Nirvana) made token gestures towards their underground peers by wearing T-shirts or name-dropping in interviews, but few were as urgent in championing music's margins as Sonic Youth. Had they not signed to Geffen, some other band would've torn a wormhole between the under- and above-ground; the commercial incursion into indie music would happen sooner or later. I think Sonic Youth understood this and worked to foster a more faithful relationship between the audience and underground music, a relationship that could've easily been superficial, fickle, and fleeting. As I wrote before:
The problem, then, is not of revolutionary intent or lack thereof, but of what if the revolution succeeds? As pure as it may be then to wipe one's hands, declare the job done, and ride off into the sunset, this leaves the freshly razed ground at the mercy of tyrants & thugs - be it Stalin or the Universal Music Group. Not to forfeit what was fought for requires the victors to become stewards of the movement - in artistic terms, curators. Though this role is frequently disdained for plasticising new forms and jealously protecting legacies, good curators use their seniority to support & shepherd younger artists flush with potential. Even if popular taste swings away, a safe haven for bold thinkers & iconoclasts will have been carved out, with nothing ceded for the sake of fame or money.
Where I think Albini is absolutely right in his criticism is that Sonic Youth "[took] a lot of people who didn't have aspirations or ambitions and encouraged them to be part of the mainstream music industry." In the sleeve photos for Goo (SY's first album for Geffen) and the video for "Kool Thing", the band adopted the glam-trash strut and Ray Ban-shaded thousand-yard stare of marquee-topping Rock Stars. It was clearly an ironic goof, laughing at the hilarity that a band once described as "pigfucker rock" were being ushered into the megawatt glare of mainstream success. But Albini identified the dangerous ambiguity of this stance in an interview last year:
If you see it as somewhat of an irony that someone from your background would be in the mainstream, you’re more inclined to participate in it. My experience has been that the more comfortable that outsiders get saying and doing stupid shit, the more the ironic distance narrows. And the ironic distance eventually narrows to a point of nothing. Then you have this sort of ascendancy where something from the underground, by ironically adopting the mannerisms of the mainstream, becomes the mainstream.

And there’s an ironic defense that people use who want to maintain some perspective on themselves of being outside of mainstream culture that allows them to do crass, gross, grasping things with the idea that “it’s O.K. because it’s me doing it because I’m doing it for all the right reasons. I’m doing it for our team” as it were. That’s the point when the ironic distance narrows and the person becomes the thing he was previously a parody of.
The immediate rebuttal that pretty much everyone has slung at Albini is that he engineered some of "alternative" rock's major-backed breakthrough albums, both good (PJ Harvey's Rid of Me) and bad (Bush's Razorblade Suitcase). Pitchfork writer Ryan Dombal snickers, "Perhaps he never cashed those checks?" But this cuts right to the heart of why Albini qualifies himself as an engineer, not a producer. Whereas a producer coaxes & sculpt the music to elicit a desired emotional response, an engineer must simply document a band with maximum fidelity. Any engineer worth their fee will have a workmanlike, time-to-make-the-donuts approach, because they are a technician, not an artist. Whether or not the band is any good (let alone "cool") is not Albini's problem. He isn't there to fuss over lyrics, make the chorus "pop", or tighten the drummer up with Beat Detective; he's there to capture a band's performance as transparently & truthfully as possible. If the chorus ain't catchy, if the tempo wobbles a few b.p.m., if the guitarist's tone is like an electric baloney sandwich pumped through a 10" thrift-store Squire amp, that's on the band, not Albini.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Remote Psychoanalysis

First, it was three of the 9/11 hijackers, now it's a whole bunch of Mumbai wannabes. What exactly is it about Hamburg that apparently produces terrorists?

I believe I have the answer. It's not that the city is a magnet for, and provides cover to, religious fundamentalists intent on loosing bloody mayhem. As a former Hamburg resident myself, I just think these dudes are fucking bored. Hell, after five months of freezing rain, I was ready to stab a motherfucker on the Reeperbahn just to switch things up.