Tuesday, November 23, 2010

If I should die before I wake, would I really notice?

The only thing worse than a dude with a Napoleon complex is a senile megalomaniac and his son the shaved Ewok with both a Napoleon complex and a rusting Soviet arsenal at their command.

I suppose it bears remarking that the neighbours are having a moment. What's the odd artillery shell between (bitter, estranged) brothers, right? Well, now that the global balance of power is - regionally, if not nationally - up for grabs, no government wants to look soft, especially when their assailant is the maniacal, mangy village idiot starved halfway to madness. So, in the international game of King of the Hill, soft power & compromise take a backseat to saloon diplomacy, which is unhelpful to those of us who wish neither to be shot or blown up, nor to shoot or blow up other people.

But I'll be damned surprised if this fracas leads to war. North Korea's only ally is China, while South Korea have been occupied by an American military presence for over fifty years. Both China and the U.S. stand to lose their asses if Sino-American relations turn actively antagonistic: how could American remain in China's financial pocket if Americans stop buying all the cheap shit the Chinese manufacture, which in turn fosters the economic growth that allows China to buy up U.S. debt? Who would want to disturb that glorious Moebius-strip of bitter commercial codependency?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

We Mean It, Man

I must be more obtuse (or idealistic?) than I expected, 'cuz I didn't realize that some people were genuinely perturbed by Odd Future's patently sociopathic content. The self-styled vanguardistes at the Village Voice - surely eager to spare their liberal patrons' delicate sensibilities - are now sweating the same stale vapors that a musical group heralds the collapse of decent society by advocating "abominable acts of murder, kidnapping, blasphemy, and rape." Granted, unlike most previous musical Horsemen of the Apocalypse (cf Elvis, Black Sabbath, Prince), Odd Future do actually rap about murder, kidnapping, and rape. But many of the same writers who are now concern-trolling Odd Future were, mere months ago, performing the most absurd moral Chinese algebra to justify M.I.A.'s nebulously pro-terrorist politics. What, has months of midterm-fueled Tea Party xenophobia impoverished everyone's sense of humour?

One of the base assumptions seems to be that Tyler the Creator & Co. misunderstand their own malevolence - which is just silly. Tyler closes the second track on Bastard with the deadpan punchline, "As you can tell by listening to this record, I was probably angry... I didn't mean to offend anyone. Alright, I'm lying!" Odd Future are keenly aware of structural violence in the same way that Nick Sylvester claimed M.I.A. is: anyone who emblazons "Fuck 'Em All" atop of photo of Mussolini understands that vindictive, solipsistic cultural works buttress a coercive, bulldozer politics.

What's missing from the conversation is context. The surreal pranksterism of their videos and the deliberately repulsive content of their lyrics suggest that Odd Future are the first all-Troll hip-hop group, and by Troll logic, any reaction is better than none. You find them a hilarious shot in the arm of hip-hop dulled by materialism and "keeping it street"? They win. You find them a horrific example of cultural necrosis? They win. It just happens that bad reactions are way easier to elicit than good ones.

One of the weaker defenses of Odd Future's content is that they haven't really raped, kidnapped, or killed anyone, but this confuses talking about something with encouraging it. Odd Future's members seem more keen on gross-out contests, skateboarding, and generally fuckin' around than committing felonies. As Sean Fennessey noted in his Pitchfork profile of the group, "How far will you go to make someone laugh is a standard in the ritual emptiness of teenage life." Boredom & isolation as a bottomless well of artistic inspiration has produced music as brilliant as it is variegated: Iggy Pop's The Idiot, most of Elliott Smith's catalogue, Fugazi's Steady Diet of Nothing. Much closer to Odd Future's idiom are Norwegian scum-rockers Brainbombs, whose singularly obscene work (sample song title: "Lipstick On My Dick") is a testament to the cabin-fever psychosis of Nordic winters.

Which brings us to another Norwegian band, Burzum. Varg Vikernes' one-man black metal act has become the litmus test for disassociating an artist from their art, as demonstrated in the Village Voice article mentioned at the top. But the analogy between Odd Future and Burzum is grossly insulting: the former is a bunch of teenagers flipping polite society the bird (i.e. doing what teenagers do), the latter is a convicted murderer and avowed white-supremacist Pagan theocrat. There is nothing to suggest that Odd Future are anything other than punk brats being punk brats, and rapping about terrible things is a far remove from being the kind of loathsome cur that Vikernes truly is.

Some may detect the whiff of hypocrisy in shrugging off Odd Future's repellent rhymes when I took M.I.A. to task for having "renovated 'not meaning it' from an emergency exit to a revolving door." There is, however, a difference. Maya Arulpragasam insists (at length & ad nauseum) that she is a political artist who stands for something, yet she resists explicitly political interpretations of her work because advocating suicide bombing is not a good look for a pop star. But what does Odd Future stand for? By all appearances, nothing. They're hedonist pranksters who offer a purely negative worldview that's breathtaking in its viciousness. And here, the precise mistake most people make is to cleave content from style, artist from art: the very fact that we, the audience, simultaneously enjoy and are disgusted is what we need to investigate. As Zach Baron points out in his Voice article, "What artists like Odd Future... do, maybe, is venture where other people won't and there start considering all sorts of human behavior we would prefer not to think of as possible. But it is possible."

Art as abreaction, discussing the unspeakable. As a friend of mine recently said of Dario Argento's Profondo Rosso, when the hatchet drops and the music kicks in Super Fly-style, it's more thrilling than chilling because the buzz comes from identifying with the killer instead of the victim. Despite this, Argento obviously does not advocate cutting up strangers, and so the question is returned to the audience: why do we enjoy watching it onscreen? Like Baron, I've got no stomach for torture-porn, which clearly casts us in the minority of Western movie-goers, yet the same question I ask myself watching Profondo Rosso can be asked of any Saw series fan: why do you enjoy watching it onscreen?

Musicians are in an odd place compared with other artists, in that so often what they speak of is assumed to be a direct expression of their true intentions or feelings. But there is no evidence that Odd Future sincerely countenance rape any more than, say, Gaspar Noé. If an artist is a genuinely terrible person or an exponent of profanation, the conversation is necessarily about them and why they do/say terrible things. But in the case of Odd Future or Argento or Noé, there is no disassociation between artist & art necessary because they are not meant to be taken at face-value. The error is to scrutinize why Odd Future rap about rape when, really, we should be examining why we like listening to them rap about it.

Monday, November 08, 2010

But that joke isn't funny anymore...

Possibly the strangest consequence of a twenty-four-hour infotainment cycle is that it's mobilized the infinite monkey theorem: all that round-the-clock, Quixotic, chaotic, vanity-pressed, niche-filling flotsam multiplied by the power of the internet means that sometimes, what was once an absurdist brain-fart will be made a reality. Our Everest-sized trashmound of pop-cultural ephemera is performing a cold reading on the future and it's bound to score the occasional hit.

For example, it's often claimed that Mark E. Smith is psychic, having predicted (among other things) the 1982 Guatemalan coup and the IRA bombing of Manchester City Centre in 1996. But after thirtysome years of packing thousand-word screeds into three-minute post-punk morsels, it'd be utterly baffling if none of Smith's words proved prescient. A kind of counter-clairvoyance, that would be.

So it's less appropriate to say Monty Python predicted the Tea Party than to say Cleese's anti-Communist freakout simply crystallizes the American conservative's most consistent style of paranoia of the past (yikes) sixty years. Granted, the resemblance between Glenn Beck and Dave Foley's "right-wing paranoid reactionary" is eerie, since it extends beyond content into cadence & rhetorical style. But surely between the combined archives of Kids In the Hall, SNL, SCTV, Fridays, and This Hour Has 22 Minutes there would be at least a single sketch starring a jeremiad-spouting jingoist?

But the MADtv sketch below is graying my hair - not the least because it's MADtv yet is actually damned funny. This is a particularly chilling example of something that was once patently screwball mutating into de facto plain-statement: 2000's most repellent, line-stepping satire (listen to those "boos!") is 2010's Republican populism. Again, I'm not saying Nicole Sullivan & her co-writers are psychic. It's just impressive when people continue to surprise you, albeit in the worst way possible.

(Hat-tip to FARK. There, Drew, are ya happy?)

Thursday, November 04, 2010


The bugbear of every audio engineer is a problematic sonic wobble called "phase cancellation": when two identical soundwaves are a half-cycle out of sync, one soundwave peaks exactly when the second craters, thus negating each other and producing silence.

This is a handy visual for thinking about the results of the U.S. midterm election. The outcome could've been worse for the Democrats and better for the Republicans; control of Congress is now split between the two parties; and voter sentiment towards each is more tepid than day-old banana pudding. All this signifying nothing, nada, niente, null will get done. Each party can spend the next two years accomplishing absolute bupkiss whilst blaming the other guys for blocking every bill that hits the floor. Victory and defeat nipping at each other's asses in the kind of Moebius-like cycle only quantum physicists can explain. Champagne for everyone on K Street!

I highly recommend Richard Seymour's class-oriented dissection of how rigidly inert the political status quo will remain in the wake of the mid-terms. His writing is crisp, his conclusions rational yet depressingly predictable: the GOP is the party of the obscenely wealthy; the Tea Party has mobilized a pathetically minute minority of xenophobes within the white working class; Democrats are supported by a middle-class too terrified of losing their luxury goods to attack the American power structure; and in the absence of a political party that truly reflects their own interests, the working class overwhelmingly opt not to vote (thus reinforcing the two ruling parties' misconception that they alone represent the electorate).

In other news about people who don't fucking get it, FARK founder Drew Curtis blasted Jon Stewart for failing to properly credit news aggregator Reddit.com for drumming up support for the Rally To Restore Banality. But it quickly became clear that no one cared about a pissing contest between a Viacom employee and Condé Nast's IT department, and all was forgiven post-haste. However, in both his initial rant & his grudging "s'all good," Curtis accused The Daily Show and The Colbert Report of failing to cite FARK as a source for much of the material they lampoon:
Am I'm butthurt about not getting mentioned on the Daily Show? After 10 years, yes I am. Do they owe me? No. Is it common courtesy to do it once in awhile? Yes. Is that what this is all about then? No.
At least he got it right that TDS owes him nothing and that proper citation is not what it's all about. But evidently, Curtis doesn't understand how the internet works: what matters is not who is communicating, or even what is being communicated, but the act of communicating itself. This is the greatest relay network in human history; individual nodes don't matter. Surely Curtis wouldn't argue that an individual gear-tooth is significant compared with the smooth & steady operation of the machine as a whole. Yes, a bad gear will gum up the works, but then it gets replaced, as surely as Facebook swallowed MySpace's clientele and as quickly as I can find a video that was taken off YouTube over on Megavideo or Daily Motion.

The machine speeds on well-oiled and without a care for its cogs. Because if our corporate overlords can't control the content that we cough up, they can at least make sure we're not making any money off it.