Thursday, January 31, 2008

When Signifiers Attack!

Southern racists adopt "Canadian" as euphemism for the N-word.

...following which, the first obvious question would be, "What if they're talking about a black person from Canada?" Read through the gargantuan comments thread, as there are a few interesting exchanges and anecdotes. My personal favourite:
Here's a new euphemism for ya:

Southern Racists = Americans

How'dya like them apples?

People in Glass Co-Ops

The only rehearsal space I could afford

So there's this band called Vampire Weekend that has a great many people chattering - as much about the band's moneyed background as their music. This could be because their totally inoccuous album has all the visceral impact of a wet fart: even Pitchfork's fawning bestowment of BNM admitted, "The result being not 'this is mind-blowing,' or 'this is catchy,' but 'I have listened to this, straight through, four times a day for the past month.'"

But let's get real, kids: this is a classic disruption of enjoyment. No longer can we pretend to be a bunch of starving, societally-neglected, scratchin'-and-survivin' outcasts - not when indie's new It Boys prance about in Ralph Lauren with Ivy League degrees tucked underarm. The cat's out of the bag. I won't mention exactly how many pampered private school brats are in Brooklyn bands, if only to spare their audience grossly feigning shock. But seriously, who the hell imagined anyone other than a clan of trustafarians could afford a loft in Williamsburg?
"These are some African statues. I don't really fuck with Africa, 'cuz people are starving to death, and that ain't baller to me."
~Dave Chappelle

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Whatever Blogging

It struck me as serendipitous that Jodi should start examining "whatever-being" and Dominic would pontificate about Facebook at roughly the same time. Though totally unrelated conversationally, the two seemed to struggle with similar issues: identification, assimilation, emancipation.

Unless I'm mistaken, Dominic was responding to Tom Hodgkinson's online tirade against the pernicious politics & invasive motives behind Facebook. But rather than debate whether Facebook is a corporatist surveillance tool, Dominic took this as a given and argued that we'd do better to:
"Forget Facebook. Facebook is not what the internet should be. It is the internet redesigned by people who want information to be owned, and specifically owned by them. It is the internet enclosed, territorialized, packaged up and sold off. The internet for dummies... Facebook is to the real internet as those Vtech 'laptop' toys for children are to real laptops. It’s a cheat, a con, a distraction. It gives you nothing you don’t already have..."
Evidently, Dominic regards Facebook much in the same way that I, as a musician, regard Guitar Hero: a cheap substitute for those gumptionless nitwits & corporate prey who want everything cheap, wrapped in plastic, and now. To use Facebook is to be shortchanged on the emancipatory power of being online.

Meanwhile, Jodi was sharing some reactions to Dominic Pettman's Love and Other Technologies, specifically engaging his idea of "whatever-being": to co-exist with other individuals based on an "inessential commonality," a kind of universal dissimilarity. As Jodi explains it:
"Whatever beings don't consist in anything in particular, anything essential. Their associations don't presuppose bases in anything typically associated with essential human being. The coming community, then, is not an association of citizens. Nor is it a tribe or religion. I would guess that common history is also out as a basis, insofar as the problem is with the need to establish a basis for commonality. So, what then, is whatever being?"
(Emphasis mine) I'm far from qualified to answer this question, not having read Pettman (nor Agamben, nor Deleuze, upon whom Pettman draws heavily), but what is the internet good for if not wild speculation & epistemological overreach? I imagine that Whatever-Being isn't too far off from Dominic's online utopia: an aether through which people float frictionless, shaved of superficially-defining characteristics, and where communication flows in an unmediated, omnidirectional fashion. In other words, imagine the Acropolis with scramble suits.

I have myself experienced a kind of Whatever-Being living abroad. Racist (or at least racialist) attitudes around the world tend to be most discriminating when cleaving Us from Those Almost But Not Quite Us (e.g. Chinese VS. Japanese); meanwhile, every other alien demographic is patched together into a large, indistinct Other. Believe it or not, American-style racism is relatively sophisticated & worldly, with its myriad of epithets and polyethnic artillery of stereotypes. Most other countries where I've lived have simply lumped all foreigners into a single group, which can only be defined by a single negative characteristic: "We are all not Ghanaian" or "We are all not Japanese." This produced an odd fellowship amongst us Auslanders, given that the only thing we have in common is that we have nothing in common. If that ain't "inessential commonality," I don't know what is.

But then I start to question if this "coming community" of Whatever-Beings that Pettman foretells is a good thing or not. Though I personally enjoyed the arm's length at which I was kept living in Japan*, I didn't enjoy the fact that the objective distance was the result of dehumanizing foreigners. Whatever-Being seems like a label to slap on anyone who exhibits no characteristics that are considered important - a dangerous, post-ideological Othering to ghettoize anyone found to be unamenable. Defining "whatever-being" is scarcely less difficult than defining what it means to be human, since (as Jodi said) Whatever-Being isn't based "in anything typically associated with essential human being." So is a Whatever-Being, by definition, not human? I can far too easily hear the term being used in some mass-murderous thug's self-defense.

Going back to Dominic's enthusiasm for the internet's emancipatory potential, the truth is that everything online is mediated. The internet does not exist of its own accord, nor out of our collective will; it is 100% man-made and procured from other people. From the machine on which I'm typing, through the cable & modem to which it's connected, to the wires that run from my phone jack to who-knows-where, every step of this journey has been purchased. For the time being, we can revel in our online anonymity, adjusting the resolution on our scramble suits as we see fit; we can mock the poor fools on Facebook, who have to narrowly define themselves according to multiple-choice questions selected & designed by some online overseer. But every day, there are calls for more control of internet activity from people in high places. It could be that the only "whatever" we'll find ourselves being is a shrug of indifference personified, as a citizen of a corporate surveillance state.

*Here in Germany, people are superficially more tolerant & inclusive than in Japan (given its larger immigrant population), but don't expect to be treated like anything less than a lobotomite if you don't speak the language.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Hello Blue Monday!

I love it when circumstantial sociology spares me embarrassment. Back in the day (October, to be exact), I concoted a Hallowe'en mix that abandoned the typical "Ghosts 'n' Goblins 'n' Ghouls" subject matter for cutthroat existential dread. I happened to be in the Wednesday of my homeless period, and consequently was feeling a little emotionally moribund. Of course, being homeless & locked out of my Blogger account, I was also unable to post the mix in time for the (un)holiday. Crap.

But now, in dark midwinter depths, as longfaced SAD-sufferers somnambulate through the post-holiday doldrums, along comes this loaf of half-baked social science declaring today the Official Most Depressing Day of the Year! Hey, a doctor said so, so it has to be true, right?

Even if it's not strictly true, the mood from here in dusky, drizzly Hamburg is certainly appropriate to the material. Click on the title to download the mix...

The End of Day

1. Public Image Ltd. - "Theme" (00:00)
2. Sonic Youth - "Death Valley '69" (09:00)
3. Tom Waits - "November" (13:58)
4. Mr. Bungle - "Everyone I Went to High School With Is Dead" (16:49)
5. Slint - "Nosferatu Man" (19:33)
6. Brian Eno - "Dead Finks Don't Talk" (24:44)
7. Acid Mothers Temple - "Dead Man Is Smoking" (28:43)
8. Joy Division - "Dead Souls" (36:56)
9. Lungfish - "Eternal Nightfall" (41:46)
10. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - "From Her to Eternity" Live in Berlin '87 (44:22)
11. Gyorgy Ligeti - "Requiem" (48:55)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Finally, a product for me!

I believe every word this woman just said - because it's exactly what I wanted to hear. Seriously, though, it's been a bit since I last saw a good rollickin' rock show. Were I not gonna be abroad on a production gig, I'd most definitely check out CoCoComa's hot mess when they hit Hamburg.

In the meantime, Tom Hodgkinson's anti-Facebook polemic has evidently rattled a few cages and produced an interesting array of reactions (some forward-thinking, others less so). I'm trying to string together a few words about it meself, and there's another MP3 mix on the horizon, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Some while back, Infinite Thought expressed a combination of concern and digust over the “pyjamasation” of the West. IT saw the constant push towards increasingly casual clothing, the kowtowing to King T-Shirt-&-Sneaker-Combo, as an emotionally-crippling nostalgia for childhood: that carefree era before monkey suits & high heels. Yes, it’s bad to see a bulbous-bellied babyboomer in bermuda shorts sipping a juicebox – but is it worse when it’s a twenty-five-year-old?

More recently on Jodi Dean’s Zizektacular blog, there was a conversation (apparently since deleted?) about the etiquette of stupid questions – that not calling a spade a spade serves only to coddle and infantilize students. Something I didn’t mention at the time, but now wish to address is: what about giving the audience what it wants?

There seems to be a depressing epidemic of Peter Pan syndrome sweeping the West. It’s plain to see in mainstream culture: just catch My Super Sweet Sixteen on MTV. Yes, I know their target is that patented teen/“tween” demographic, but then tell me from whence come all these foghorn-mouthed narcissists in their early/mid-twenties who star in those other obscene “reality”/lifestyle shows. (Speaking of the convergence of the imaginary and the Real…) For further evidence, please note the popularity of Dane Cook, Family Guy, the films of Judd Apatow, etc.

More disturbing to me is the prevalence in the underground – the supposed haven of the media-saavy, the convention-snubbing, the culturally curious, the aesthetically-sophisticated, weirdos, freaks, and progressives – of a pervasive, escapist infantilism. I’m very tempted to lay the blame at the feet of my favourite whipping boys, Animal Collective. Their music is kindergarten-teacher chipper, their voices like an animated musical, their subject matter twee and nonsensical. (What the shit is a “Peacebone” anyway?) None of which is by accident: the lads have admitted that “Magic and childhood and music-making are three things that just have a way of coming together, at least for us.”

But it’s giving them too much credit to claim they single-handedly invoked a sea-change in underground rock. Perhaps the problem is future shock. Those in their mid-to-late-twenties are the last generation to have come of age before MP3s, reality TV, blogs, and YouTube – which means we were the last generation whose pop culture lingered long enough to foster an emotional attachment, before the instant obsolescence of the information age. Now, all our childhood idols are being stripped (or stripping themselves) of their mystique: Satan’s minion, Glenn Danzig, self-caricatures on Cartoon Network; Ice Cube takes Disneyesque doofus dad roles even Eddie Murphey (no longer delerious, just desperate) would turn down; Ah-nold swapped his cinematic cool for political capital. MTV’s aforementioned reality shows are the worst offenders, having reduced modern Hercules Terry “Hulk” Hogan, alpha-thug Xzibit, and the Prince of Darkness, Ozzy Osbourne, to domestic rubes. It’s the yin-and-yang of reality TV: if normal people can be celebrities, then it works both ways. But the result of this urge towards excessive self-revelation is that super-human mythos is impossible to maintain.

Which brings us to Pitchfork-approved party-starters & professional man-children Dan Deacon and Girl Talk.

Deacon’s latest release is the Ultimate Reality DVD, a dizzying video mash-up of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s filmography (by Jimmy Joe Roche) set to a day-glo symphony of Nintendo-style synth squiggles. Deacon & Roche’s mission is plain-stated: to pass off their "psychedelic subversive conceptual Mash-Up" as "a mandala projected from the third eye of suburban back yards, cracked drive ways, and dusty VCR's.. the dawn of this post-postmodern age" – that is, to reconstruct their shattered modern American folklore by regressing to the wide-eyed wonder of a six-year-old sat in front of the TV. They want to enjoy the full thrall of unmitigated fantasy, and Superman can only exist if you believe a man can fly, so it’s back under the blankey we hide. Sure enough, fellow Wham City citizen Jim "Grgl" has remarked that Deacon’s appeal is that "he really lets them feel like infants."

Meanwhile, ex-tourmate Greg “Girl Talk” Gillis is the thousand-samples-per-minute king of mash-ups. His brand of regurgitated hip-hop comes bite-sized and aims for the ass, never the head or the chest. Consequently, he’s been accused of robbing hip-hop of its essential anti-authoritarian aggression. But this isn’t censorship for the sake of dance-floor levity; this is a studious whitewashing (no pun intended) of hip-hop’s history, a self-induced amnesia to forget the threat ever existed. Gillis has no doubt seen The Wizard of Oz: once the curtain is pulled back, the man behind it can’t escape his own smallness. Eminem’s won an Oscar, Ice Cube can make a whole movie without capping a single motherfucker, and Snoop’s encouraged an arena to “give it up for the Bedwetters.” It’s damned hard to recall what danger they ever posed. Rather than deal with disillusionment, Gillis prefers to reimagine hip-hop as a foot-stomping LP pile-up that bids no more than to bust a move.

But I can’t discuss these two clowns without immediately recalling an Onion headline: “Adulthood Spent Satisfying Childhood Desires.” What kind of sociopath wants to return to a time when the Tooth Fairy was real, or dancing like a drunk giraffe qualified as rebellion? What kind of art forgoes insight and enrichment for sugar-coated regression? My digust with Animal Collective, Deacon, and Gillis (among others) springs from the same roots as Dean’s contempt for indulging stupid questions: that it shields us not only from discomfort, but the truth.

Yes, rock has always suffered from developmental self-arrest. But rock is most rewarding when it transcends simple-minded black/white contrarianism and reckless hedonism. (Anyone who disagrees would probably argue that Meet the Beatles and Pablo Honey are better albums than Revolver and OK Computer, and fuck that.) This isn’t some condescending aesthetic privy only to the old & busted. When I was 19, I bought the buzzed-about sophomore record by …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. I sold it back three days later, ‘cuz I already owned Bad Moon Rising. But what conclusively killed my enjoyment of the record was the ersatz anthem “A Perfect Teenagehood.” Here were grown-ass men in their late-mid-twenties, still pissed at their parents and shrieking “FUCK YOU!” ad nauseum like petulent pubescents. This music was emotionally retarded – and I was still a teenager at the time.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Rearview Ear, Or: What Didn't Suck in '07

It’s that time of year! Everyone, set sail across the ocean of cyber-soapboxes and offer hyperbolic-yet-half-assed rationalizations for whatever records turned your crank over the past 12-month period! Huzzah for the forced fossilization of personal opinion!

Having ignaminiously slunk out of the music press over a year ago, I’m mercifully exempt from pleading with people to believe my banter about why Artist X is on some, as they say, Crucial Shit. All the better for not having done my homework: I still haven’t heard Kala, American Gangster, Curtis, or Graduation beyond whatever video’s in immediate rotation; I was achingly underwhelmed by a grab-bag of MP3s by Deerhunter, Grizzly Bear, the Celebration, Yeasayer*, the Black Lips, and other hippy-happy blog-buzzees and subsequently ignored their releases utterly. But scanning the scant smattering of CDs I actually bought this year, I grew suspicious: have my tastes started to ossify into crusty “specialization?” Has my record collection become self-copulating? My year-end toppers are a line-up of the usual suspects: angular, Amphetamine Reptilian rock; smarmy, satiric singers; epic instrumental workouts – same ol’ shit as the past five years. Dare I ask myself the same question at every year’s end: am I losing my edge?

Which begs another question: the edge of what? A knife, a cliff, or a ballpit at Chuck E. Cheese’s? I honestly can’t tell, looking at the parade of technicolour banality and melodic doldrums marching across MTV & the Forkcast. The truth is that The Edge is not only a pathetically mediocre guitarist, but the very concept is suburban high-school insecurity, the bourgeois delusion that life is perfectable via checklists. An analogy: I’ve met a number of people whose travel C.V. dwarfs mine, but very rarely did they earn anything more substantive than a few snapshots and superficial observations – the typically incurious narcissism of backpackers who “do” countries and spend most of their travels drinking with other foreigners. I may not have hit as many countries, but I always prefer to linger and learn the layout of a town, to wander the streets and absorb the flavour of the place so I can relate the experience beyond a binary Pass/Fail mark. So I haven’t been to Thailand or Bali, but I can give fifty reasons why the city of Nanchang sucks.

I hadn’t realized how far from the rat race I’d strolled until I almost relapsed. Early this summer, while enjoying the rare luxury of a lazy day in western China, I was reading the about the current listening index of Battles (one of maybe 3 bands I’m actually kinda jealous of musically) over at the Wal-Mart of Indieness. Well, I almost spit blood when Tyondai Braxton leaked what had been my under-lock-and-key musical secret of this decade: Nino Rota’s score to Fellini’s Il Casanova. Fan-fuckin’-tastic, now every sweater-vested scenester would be name-dropping one of my treasured audial experiences like a back-biting housewife comparing brands of toaster oven. True, I could console myself with the fact that I was still several years ahead of the curve, but relief only came when a friend reminded me, “You’re not even on the curve. So the record will be on some hipness index by which some smug little shit will size up other people at his favourite bar for the next little while. In another year, you’ll still be listening to it while they’ve run along to the new flavour, trying to convince themselves it really matters the way Rihanna or the Klaxons ‘matter’ now, like Ashanti and the Strokes five years ago.”

I’ll drink to that. Happy New Year. (Click on the mix title to download.)

A Baker’s Dozen From ‘07

1. The Heads – “Your Monkey Is My Master” (from Under the Stress of a Headlong Dive, 00:00)
2. Feist – “My Moon My Man” (from The Reminder, 01:46)
3. Tarentel – “Dreamtigers” (from Ghetto Beats From the Surface of the Sun, 05:05)
4. Jarvis Cocker – “Running the World” (from Jarvis, 08:11)
5. Patton Oswalt – “Alternate Earth” (from Werewolves & Lollipops, 12:48)
6. The Horrors – “Count In Fives” (from Strange House, 13:57)
7. Bachi Da Pietra – “Altri Guastri” (from Non Io, 17:09)
8. Battles – “TIJ” (from Mirrored, 21:10)
9. Grinderman – “Grinderman” (from, you guessed it, Grinderman, 28:10)
10. Pissed Jeans – “Bad Wind” (from Hope For Men, 32:34)
11. Qui – “Belt” (from Love’s Miracle, 35:37)
12. The Brian Jonestown Massacre – “Golden Frost” (leaked rough mix, 40:23)
13. White Rainbow – “Waves” (from Prism of Eternal Now, 44:05)
14. Acid Mothers Temple – “Crystal Pyramid Under the Stars” (from Crystal Pyramid Under the Stars, 48:05)

And to give credit where credit is due, here's a handful of tracks from older albums that opened up my audial horizons over the past year...

Why You Gotta Keep Bringin’ Up Old Shit?

1. The Psychic Paramount – “Perpignan Pt. 1” (from Live 2002: The Franco-Italian Tour, 00:00)
2. Sonic Youth – “White Kross” (recorded live 1990, 02:23)
3. El-P – “Deep Space 9mm” (from Fantastic Damage, 05:05)
4. The Brian Jonestown Massacre – “If Love Is the Drug…” (single, 08:46)
5. Magma – “Zombie Dance” (from Üdü Wüdü, 12:39)
6. Selda – “Yaylalar” (from Selda, 16:54)
7. Machida – “Doteraiyara” (from どてらい奴ら, 20:39)
8. The Fall – “Wings” (from Perverted By Language, 23:57)
9. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – “Write a Song” (from The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, 28:20)
10. Meiko Kaji – “Jin’s Blues” (from 梶芽衣子全曲集, 30:11)
11. The Billy Nayer Show – “Only I Can Save the World” (from Return to Brigadoon, 33:42)
12. Radiohead – “In Limbo” (from Kid A, 36:30)
13. SunnO))) – “Orthodox Caveman” (from Black One, 39:47)
14. Angelo Badalamentani – “The Pink Room” (from the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me OST, 46:01)
15. The Skatalites, “Herb Man Dub” (50:01)
16. Laddio Bolocko – “The Going Gong” (from The Life and Times of Laddio Bolocko, 53:12)
17. Ween - “The Stallion Pt. 2” (from The Pod, 01:03:05)

I asked my friend James Marshall if he thought the current dismal state of music was likely to improve. “No,” he said. “It’s got to get worse, because everybody’s into their own thing and doesn’t wanna know. Pretty soon every band will have no more than three fans, and nobody will have even any friends. Then after that you’ll start resenting the other guy because he likes the same thing you like: it’s your turf! How dare he encroach? So then people will start killing each other for appropriating each other’s musical tastes and thus infringing on the neighbor’s hipness space. How can you be smug about being the only person in the world cool enough to appreciate some piece of New Wave shit, or a blues band or arcane jazz artist for that matter, if you find out somebody else likes it? Don’t dare tell ‘em! Don’t even tell your wife or girlfriend! Keep it safe inside your Walkman!”
~Lester Bangs, from “Bad Taste Is Timeless”

*Full disclosure: Two of these dudes and I started our first band ever together. It admittedly makes it a little hard to take someone’s art seriously when you can remember them covering Weezer back in 8th grade.