Friday, August 29, 2008

Intermissionary Position

I'm off to Köln/Cologne for a couple of days to visit the chocolate museum and compare moustaches with Holger Czukay.

Next week: the Libertarian VS Lapsed Marxist death-match continues, plus homemade speaker-endurance tests!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sub Pop

Recently, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a surprising number of those rarest of musical jewels: stuff I'd never heard before. Obviously, this isn't to say they've never alighted upon the ears of another human in history - were that the case, how would I have found 'em? But let's be honest, someone else passing you some tunes is never as satisfying as excavating something yourself.

The great danger of crate-digging is that a record would be valued strictly because of its obscurity. This (along with its equally-evil twin, Popism) replaces any aesthetic considerations with cut-throat market ideology. There's a Sophie's Choice in approaching music strictly as a consumer: either the log-hollow pretension of the DJ who announces (to no one in particular) the "first UK spin!" of some forgetabbly muddy funk 45, or Girl Talk.

It's hardly controversial to note that some pop music is popular for good reason, and much obscure music is obscure for good reason. Less baffling than when something good goes unnoticed, though, is when something without popular appeal is popular nonetheless. I'm not talking about Timbaland's continued ubiquity despite the series of gold-leafed turds he's been handing his audience; booty-shakers three bottles of "woooo!" into their Saturday night are hardly going to care whether it's Madonna, Nicole Sherzinger, or Aaliyah cooing at 120dB. No, I'm talking about Jandek becoming standard on student pub jukeboxes; about Les Rallizes Denudes' swampy second-rate psychedelia getting glowing reviews on Pitchfork; about any band in the Nuggets collections singled out as geniuses despite the stylistic anonymity that earned their inclusion in the boxset in the first place.

In some cases, like Wesley Willis or Daniel Johnston, the story is too good to ignore. In others, a ridiculous name that goes viral as a punchline (!!!) is all the PR a band needs - or, for an unlucky few like Holy Fuck, all the PR a band doesn't need. Or (adopting squirrely Robert Downey Jr. voice) here's a theory, I'm just gonna throw it out there... maybe people are lot more sophisticated than the RIAA and Clear Channel give them credit for; maybe there's a reason Revolver, not A Hard Day's Night, is routinely cited as the greatest rock album ever; maybe something broader than rotation on 120 Minutes put Sonic Youth in arenas during the '90s.

Of course, the Smithsonian Institute ain't big enough to archive all the music that is, en fin, fucking ridiculous. Some white-label singles aren't worth spinning, and not every Italian horror soundtrack is worth sampling. But the sick joy to be found in dead-baby jokes and episodes of COPS is also in listening to people that should never have been sat in front of a microphone. (Hello, Liam Gallagher!) People stop more often to study a dead bird than to smell the roses.

Accordingly, here's a hodge-podge of some of the more peculiar curios in my collection; some of them are fresh discoveries, but most have been just weird enough to be worth hauling halfway around the world with me. A couple of tracks have been edited, 'cuz seriously, you don't need a quarter-hour of Gracious! quoting Beethoven and relating some thuggish reverie. Click on the mix title to download.

Less Allegro More Retardo

1. T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo - "Intro" (00:00)
2. Jackie Wilson & LaVern Baker - "Think Twice" (Alt. take; 00:11)
3. Klaus Doldinger - "Sitar Beat" (02:40)
4. The Bangers - "Baby Let Me Bang Your Box" (04:04)
5. Chinga Chavin - "Asshole From El Paso" (06:37)
6. Merv Griffin - "Have a Nice Trip" (11:19)
7. Cookie Monster - "Cookie Disco" (13:31)
8. Ray Sanders & Friends - "Karate" (15:35)
9. Alex Chilton - "Girl After Girl" (17:48)
10. Unknown - "Big Al's Country Bus" (20:06)
11. Boredoms - "Which Doo Yoo Like?" (22:15)
12. Machida Machizo - "心臓賭博" (24:09)
13. Plywood 3/4 - "Travailler Dans l'Beurre" (25:48)
14. Brainticket - "The Space Between" (27:46)
15. Les Baxter - "The Devil's Witchcraft" (30:43)
16. Ging Nang Boyz - "あの娘に1ミリでもちょっかいかけたら殺す" (32:39)
17. Tony Lowry - "Screw On the Loose" (36:44)
18. Marvin Pontiac - "Bring Me Rocks" (37:43)
19. Sex - "I Had to Rape Her" (41:13)
20. The Brainbombs - "Lipstick On My Dick" (45:23)
21. William Trytel - "Saw Theme" (49:55)
22. Apryl Fool - "The Lost Mother Land (Part 1)" (50:33)
23. Gracious! - "Dream" (55:55)
24. Dark - "R.C. 8" (57:51)
25. Aphrodite's Child - "Infinity Symbol" (59:47)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

'Cuz Everybody Hates a Tourist

So much is written about the foreigner's experience of Japan (guilty as charged) that it appears to be an inexhaustible entertainment cottage industry - if only it weren't for such a small, self-selecting, and narcissistic audience that creates both demand and supply. What makes so little of it actually worth reading is a pervasive & unapologetic Orientalism, be it fawning Japanophilia or precipice-racist censure, that very few people can - and even fewer do - call "bullshit" on (R.I.P. Westerner's Fear of Neon Sign).

It's one thing when a foreigner as integrated & respected as Alex Kerr produces a polemic as parti-pris-yet-insurgent as Dogs and Demons. It's a whole different rice-ball when a whistle-stop national audit is extrapolated into a crazed indictment of an entire country, its people, history, and culture, as in A.A. Gill's "Mad In Japan" (an essay from his 2002 travelogue, recently revisited by Fucked Gaijin).

Now, I'm not interested in crafting a densely-referenced rebuttal. I'll not even say Gill is 100% wrong: contemporary Japanese culture is nothing if not absurd, and his first impression of Kyoto ("an ugly sprawl of low-rise confusion") mirrored mine. What sickens me most about this bog-roll scrawl is that this is what travel-writing has been reduced to: a gonzo rendering of Bill Bryson's bemused kvetching, fattened by the splenetic supremacy that rancorous harpies like Michael Savage have made their calling card. The only alternative seems to be self-reflexive reductivism, the kind Christopher Hitchens acerbically noted in P.J. O'Rourke's dull tendency to be reminded, where ever he traveled, only of southern California. Either way, people seem hell-bent on convincing themselves they're better off at home. Hollywood (ever the dead skin flaking off of culture's scrotum) is a gleeful co-conspirator, shitting out a steady stream of "noble savage" adventure films (The Last Samurai, The Kingdom) and gornographic exploitation flicks set in exotic locales (Hostel, Turistas).

I'm not asking everyone who comments on foreign countries to heed Chomsky & Zinn's example of following every outward-aimed incrimination with encyclopaedic self-criticism. Not every Chinese commentator need express contrition for the 49 to 78 million people killed under Mao Zedong's regime, nor must every British cultural critic supplicate themselves for their past imperialism (or even their current societal shortcomings). Hell, it can be very well amusing to read something as glibly beserk as
Japan is a lunatic asylum built on a hideous history, vile philosophy and straitjacket culture.
But instead of prosaic slapstick, this is the standard for Gill's intercultural (dis)engagment. This isn't travel writing, this the red-faced bleating of some astigmatic git who'd likely take the Racial Pixie sketch at face value. Lunatics haven't their own nation (island or other) yet, but apparently they can get publishing deals no problem.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Machine Demands a Sacrifice

I'll be the first to testify that music's quantum leaps are often contingent on new gear. We'd be stuck in the stone age were it not for multitrack recording and amplifiers; Hendrix couldn't have happened without the wah-wah pedal; Eno and his Kraut contemporaries would have been useless without synthesizer modules; New Order (and new wave in general) were midwifed by sequencers; hip-hop production wouldn't have grown beyond beat-juggling without samplers; and pretty much any music that thoroughly melted our snyapses over the past decade was created on a computer.

But in the past few years, music tech innovation has become stagnant - that is, beyond higher bitrates and simulating all the old gear. The obvious consequence is - for all the refining, tweaking, expanding, contracting, mixing, and matching that's happened in the Izz-'00s - not one new sound has been bestowed upon us by Apollo. For sure, a number of the old hats that have been dusted off are well worth the renewed attention, and there's been some big-brained reframing of otherwise-dehumanising tech-cultural phenomena. But how many times will people sit through Cheap Trick covers played on Gameboys before they hunger for something surprising instead of merely clever?

But I'm not pulling some cranky-grandpa, "Everythin' After Muh Birth Is Fer Shit" schtick (not today, at any rate). No, I'm here to rip on gear, ladies and gentlemen. So be warned: if you don't dig on audial mechanics, well, you're Pee-Wee and you just hitched a ride with Large Marge.

Unlike everything else in the global Ponzi scheme called "civilization," technology is downwardly-mobile. It's invariably born of some secret military agenda too depraved to fathom; it subsequently becomes the latest in conspicuous consumption, as sported by Manhattan penthouse-dwelling financiers/S&M freaks and Saudi oil magnates; fifteen years later, it's being either sold only at Value Village or fished out of the Payatas. Witness the VCR: originally an über-high-tech storage device within the US Defense Dept., it quickly was adopted by rich Baby Hueys as a convenient, portable means of showing skin flicks at parties, and finally it was marketed (for more or less the same purpose) to loners & shut-ins living in their parents' basements the world over. Need I invoke The Internet as retread of precisely the same? The pattern holds: (1) shadowy military-industrial conception; (2) exploited by salacious Master of the Universe greed-huns; (3) commodified & sold to anti-social bedroom-dwellers.

So it is with much music gear. The Pentagon is developing some new USW, or Exxon/Mobil is scanning for Texas Tea in Tahiti, and they inadvertantly produce the audio-software equivalent of cellophane; meanwhile, Cher can't hold a pitch and Trent Reznor wants full production capacity within the pajama-clad comfort of the green room. Solutions to their respective problems are concocted, and once the novelty has faded, gravity drags the price down within reach of every music-hobbyist mug with a home computer.

Bunker mentality is less a hazard than a virtue for audio engineers; no work will get done if you're off to the pub for a pint with your mates every evening. Yet, working in the analog domain, a concentrated engagement of the physical environment is necessary: in moving mics, tweaking knobs, and patching in compressors, you're literally sculpting the air. But audio software removes even this interaction. Instead, you're hunched over a keyboard, rotting your retinas as you atrophy into a six-foot slug like the space jockey in Alien. I'll not deny that the democratising aspect of cheap(er), accessible recording programs has been a boon to many a poor musician; I certainly wouldn't have been able to crank out as many albums worth of material as I have without such software. But in exchange for not having to head down to the local studio and fork over a small fortune, the surfeit of options audio software provides is too much of a good thing.

Allow me to introduce my pet peeve du jour - amp-emulating plug-ins. Now, recording a guitar (or bass) directly into a computer produces a tone not unlike a baloney-on-Wonder Bread sandwich: flabby, spongy, shapeless. Enter amp-emulation: these plug-ins simulate the timbral muscle of a proper amplifier & speaker cabinet. Quelle grande convenience, oui? Wrong. Now I've got to wade through the digital facsimiles of over a dozen amp heads, twenty speaker cabinets, five different mic models (each of which can be "placed" in a half-dozen different positions), and god knows how many stomp-boxes, effects processors, and outboard units. Make-do pragmatism isn't even possible, because there are no restrictions of choice. Whereas twenty minutes of painstaking knob-twisting and mic placement with the tangible tools would have sufficed, whole hours are flushed away taming the shrieking midrange of a wholesaler's supply of amplifiers that aren't even there.

Paradoxically, this surplus of options permits laziness as easily as it paralyses. Want your guit-box to have that Green Day grit? Well, click on that preset labeled "American Idiot" and shazam! Want the snare to pop with the sinewy warmth of a $3000 tube compressor? Just load up that Renaissance digital compressor and schmapow! Who cares if you can't tell the difference between an SM57 and a C414? To paraphrase Dave Chappelle: you graduated with a B.A. in English lit and you don't have to take shit from nobody!

I'm far from alone in finding it incredibly difficult to connect viscerally with much contemporary music, and I often wonder if this is because it's music from sources that don't physically exist. As my friend Jonny put it, "It tickles your cerebral membrane without really penetrating to that animal core - like drinking a Coke when a nice glass of water would have done." If anything explains the perennial appeal of the clattering wood and clanging steel, it's Iggy Pop's indelible axiom:
Speakers push they air, and push me too.
This was one of the things that hit me so hard (literally) when I saw My Bloody Valentine: for all of Kevin Shields' clinical studio tinkering to hand-craft that hurricane smear of sounds, that is how the band actually sounded. Four shabby mammals with standard-issue instruments, conjuring a sonic maelstrom like aurora borealis setting a forest ablaze. Not a laptop in sight.

As many reasons are there are to dislike indie demagogue Steve Albini, it's damned hard to find fault with his analog-purist philosophy that a recording should be a document of how a band sounds, nothing more, nothing less. Again, I'd be a hypocrite if I were as quick to dismiss digital software's benefits as him, but I'll gladly second the words emblazoned across the back cover of Big Black's last album: Fuck digital.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Been a Long Time

I've got a lot of reading to catch up on. Just as a long-simmering threat exploded into the most imporant geopolitical moment of the past five years, a deadline of which I was previously not told was unceremoniously shat upon me. Consequently, I spent the past week hiding in my headphones, wrestling with amp-emulator plug-ins (spiking 110Hz and 2.7kHz does not a Marshall stack make!) and trying to turn what was a snare drum from a timbale back into a snare drum.

Mercifully, my ears were well-tuned to my clients' particular idiom: I've recently been digging deep into the annals of sweaty, hirsute rawk. Once the whole Adbusters hipster debacle had saturated the blogosphere, I desperately needed to hear some music whose sincerity ripped straight past try-hard into the epically ersatz - and what music better exemplifies balls-out self-belief than vintage heavy metal?

Prog rock. The only thing that trumps a Rayon-locked dude with a Les Paul is a Rayon-locked dude with a Les Paul singing about extraterrestrial dragons.

What's long fascinated me most about pre-thrash heavy metal is its utterly junior-high male mindset. Here's the lay of the land: smoking pot, super heroes, and a cryptomystical obsession with death and Satan. These may seem like quaint and hokey enthusiasms in the era of phonecams and the Nintendo Wii, but throw out every gadget with a microprocessor and see what else there is to do when posessed of that restive adolescent essence. If humour rears its head (and it rarely does), it's typically sophomoric. If a girl enters the picture, it's framed in the same manner that a hormonally hysterical boy would gaze cautiously at the creatures on the other side of the cafeteria: there walks some unfathomable succubus or unattainable Venus! Which is actually the best argument against anointing Led Zeppelin the original heavy metal band: they may have sung songs about Vikings and Tolkien characters, but they also dared vocalise something approximating adult sexuality as opposed to, well, this.

In the introduction to Rat Salad, Paul Wilkinson parallels the history of rock with an average human lifespan: from its goofy insouscience in the '50s, across its mercurial adolescence in the '60s, through the barn-burning death of innocence manifested as the late-'70s punk shitfit, and finally slouching into the slick, careerist adulthood of the '80s. Based on such a timeline, the blossoming of prog rock as a technical & thematic maturation of early metal would correspond to the naive hubris of a first-year philosophy major who's just read Beyond Good and Evil, Siddartha, and/or The Simulacra for the first time. The clumsy gumbo of half-baked New Ageism, cherry-picked Oriental religion, and modernist philosophy; the use of fantastic narrative to make some profound (if foggy) point; the unflinching self-seriousness with which the discourse it carried out - why, it's as though those insufferable freshmen Know-It-Alls you sat behind in the lecture hall started a band!

The student analogy also underscores the class difference between much early metal and first-wave prog: while Black Sabbath were a blue-collar bunch from dingy Birmingham, Genesis were posh Charterhouse schoolboys. Though technical prowess is a prime directive in both genres, it's born of very different social instincts: in metal, of the working-class pride of a well-honed skill; in prog, of an indulgent, academic studiousness. The socioeconomic gap can also account for the lyrical thematic differences between metal (pulpy fantasy and B-movie theology) and prog (packed full of highbrow allusions to psychoanalysis, cultural theory, and philosophy).

Of course, with a little persistence and practice, some of these arrogant geeks actually progress (what is the parent word of "Prog" anyway?) into more difficult, exploratory realms. Their employ of philosophical themes graduates from toe-dipping to something more thorough; their inquisitive disposition often makes them early-adopters of new technology; the best even succeed in breaking new ground.

This creative questing is, of course, not without its pitfalls. Curiosity can still kill the cat, and what we need isn't always more technology. But better to look foolish and take risks than rest on someone else's laurels and give up even trying.

Anyway, click on the mix title to download. If we use Wilkinson's rock lifeline, this mix (at one song per year) would trace some young fellow's development from age 13 through 23. Or something like that.

Hard, Heavy, Heady

1. Fuzzy Duck - "A Word Form Big D" (00:00)
2. May Blitz - "Snakes and Ladders" (01:32)
3. Black Sabbath - "The Wizard" (05:58)
4. Sir Lord Baltimore - "Hell Hound" (10:16)
5. Warhorse - "Vulture Blood" (13:32)
6. Colosseum - "The Machine Demands a Sacrifice" (18:35)
7. Heldon - "Standby" (21:50)
8. Tool - "The Grudge" (35:52)
9. Magma - "Mekanik Zain" (Live; 44:15)
10. King Crimson - "Indiscipline" (01:00:18)

Monday, August 18, 2008

End On End

That I'm posting this four days post-facto only extends my reputation as a master of delayed reaction (my excuse comes later), but as soon as I thought the discussion had ground to a halt, K-Punk enters the fray to heap disdain upon disdain upon disdain upon the Adbusters anti-hipster "Jeremiad." More specifically, Mark slaps around Momus' defense of the amoebic subculture, taking particular note (as I did) of Momus' seconding ex-Vice-roi Gavin McInnes' schoolyard dismissal of hipsters' critics ("chubby bloggers who... are just so mad at these young kids for going out and getting wasted and having fun and being fashionable"). However, Mark rather oddly misreads this remark, proclaiming
I would say the opposite: the problem with "hipsters" is precisely that they are pathologically well-adjusted, untroubled by sexual anxieties or financial worries.
Uh... well, yes, that is precisely the problem with hipsters, no argument there, but this in fact is in firm agreement with McInnes' assessment of anti-hipster sentiment. Minus the "chubby blogger" snipe, of course.

But this puzzling misstep aside, Mark gets it absolutely right and cuts to the chase far quicker than I did: that such blasé hedonism & luxuriant narcissism can't possibly produce any worthwhile art. "The very seamlessness," Mark writes, "of these unalienated, guilt-free lives leaves no material for sublimation." Which, again, would put us in agreement with McInnes: yes, we are angry with these kids for getting wasted, having fun, and being fashionable because their vapid bacchanalia will give birth to sweet fuck all.
The Gavin McInnes' quote presupposes that resentment against the Last Boys and Girls is somehow illegitimate. But it strikes me as a classic case of good resentment - precisely the kind of resentment that, unlike the hipster's studied weltschmerz, could motivate the production of interesting art and culture.
That is the 24-karat nugget of Mark's piece: "When youth culture was interesting it was because of alienation, not pleasure-seeking." Lack, want, frustration, anger, resentment - these are the tools of anyone seriously intent on ripping open a seam and seeing what spills out.

Douglas Haddow's article was hardly a groundbreaking bit of sociocultural journalism. It was badly written, researched worse, and (by the twist-ending switch from third- to first-person) percolating with histrionic self-loathing. But the sensational headline - "The Dead End of Western Civilization" - is a succinctly perfect damning of hipsterism's artistic sterility. So, being fairly confident that we can write off hipsterism as a source of sublimation, where do we turn? Mark suggests that "Metal, Goth and even, God help us, Emo, are still animated and enervated by that sense of abandonment and maladjustment." I'd add Punk to that list, though I'd consider this list a registry of foregone opportunities. Any revolutionary potential these subcultures once possessed has long since ossified into stylistic orthodoxies as uninnovative as hipsterism's gluttonous nihilism. Even Emo, by a decade the baby of the subcultures, has become so conservatively defined that it can be legally targeted with laser-accuracy by culture-warriors in the Duma. Absent the presence of some supermassive oppositional Other, what is rebelled against becomes smaller and more localised, eventually winnowing subcultures into sectarian bickering ("Death to false metal," East Coast/West Coast, etc.). The revolutionary impetus is replaced by codifying an aesthetic.

A friend who's been following the above furor agreed that the debate too often turned towards specific signifiers, accessories, fashions - a tunnel-vision that not only misses the bigger point, but gets really dull very quickly. In declarative all-caps, my friend wrote to me, "ANY FUTURE CONVERSATION MUST BE ABOUT THE THINGS WHICH ARE AT STAKE." This is the best tactic, as it keeps to focus above petty symbols and stylistic bias. No taxonomic nitpicking, no trend-oriented trainspotting. The revolution will not be symbolised.

"If you're out there, and you're beautiful, maybe you're cute... there's more of us ugly motherfuckers than you."
~Frank Zappa
Non-sequitorial Postscript: David Berman of the Silver Jews perfects the art of talking too much about your own art and makes the curious claim that he titled his new album What Is Not But Could Be If because "the language that looks really plain on the album is actually completely Google-pure." You sure about that, Dave?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hip Is Not a Four-Letter Word (But Boho Is)

Well, about ten days have passed since the initial publication of the infamous Adbusters article; this lapse, translated from real-time, equals about 2.3 years of online-time. (Not insignificantly, this is the same ratio of Earth-time to Uranus-time.) Netizens ripped through the article like Norman Bates in a Bed, Bath, & Beyond, and I myself bore witness to about a half-dozen discussions in various bars. By now, the thematic terrain has been torn up and left as barren as the Somme - but that ain't gonna stop me from having one last waltz through the minefield.

Within a certain online cul-de-sac, the Adbusters article couldn't come at a better time, following a sudden flush of posts about how at-least-middle-class "creatives" have franchised a butterknife-dull brand of bohemianism. Both Simon Reynolds and Phillip Sherburne connected the dots between this nuevo-cosmo sprawl and the HUAC-like hysteria over hipsterism by way of one Mr. Nick Currie.
Momus... with his nomadic lifestyle and restlessly mobile aesthetic, his Japanophilia and his privileging of the faux/unrooted/"superflat", was very much a pioneer, an early settler on this post-geographical "terrain".
His CV bullet-pointed with such po-mo touchstones as Shibuya-kei,, and Vice Magazine, few are better qualified than Momus to comment on all things au current. Indeed, his response did not disappoint, lambasting the article's theatrical tone ("Haddow comes over all purple, all 6th form apocalyptic") and its ankle-deep cultural analysis ("Haddow fails to get down to the serious business of art criticsm"). But the most fascinating moment of Momus' rebuttal is when he agrees
with my former boss at Vice, Gavin McInnes, when he says that disdain of hip subculture tends to come from "chubby bloggers who aren't getting laid", people who are "just so mad at these young kids for going out and getting wasted and having fun and being fashionable".
This accord, between the dialectical and juvenile fronts against anti-hipsterism, is key in understanding anti-anti-hipsterism. (If there's such thing as pro-hipsterism, it's a better-kept secret than Merchandise 7X.) Momus has made a career of being the token outsider, an arch-Orientalist in a mobile bubble; meanwhile, McInnes (an anti-immigration activist with a history of racist outbursts) did more to define the parameters of irony in indie culture than anyone since Stephen Malkmus. In short, they are both Other-ers of the first order.

In spite of the avant-garde associations with the word, Hip rarely debuts any new ideas these days. (We'll come back to the this.) Instead, it traffics almost exclusively in irony, manifested typically as either hostile mockery, or deconstructive play-acting. Either way, the relationships created are oppositional, across lines of generation, gender, class, and race. But there's nothing ideological about these oppositional positions. Take everyone's favourite polyglot performer, Mathangi "M.I.A." Arulpragasam, for example. She named her debut after her Tamil Tiger father's nom-de-guerre, and her current single's chorus is a bald endorsement of armed robbery. She's posed herself as the voice of the developing world's vengeful animus - at least to the extent that everyone else agreed upon her role as such. Yet this former St. Martin's College film student panders to Western pop-cultural hegemony by relying heavily indie-orthodox samples (the Clash, the Pixies, etc.); she likewise denies supporting violence under any circumstance. Indeed, this is already several years after Robert Christgau succinctly argued against expecting a coherent political agenda, much less a revolutionary one, from a pop star - and yet his reasoning demands that the audience be possessed of a normative psychopathy:
The decoratively arrayed, pastel-washed tigers, soldiers, guns, armored vehicles, and fleeing civilians that bedeck her album are images, not propaganda...
Just images. See? Nothing to get frazzled over. Naturally, that a signifier is hollow to some doesn't mean that it's universally null & void. Momus himself made this point in his riposte to Adbusters:
I'm sure that somewhere, as we speak, a Shining Path Maoist is being sold a Shining Path Maoist t-shirt via AdSense, thanks to a link between Shining Path Maoist keywords and Shining Path Maoist products being marketed in his area. This does not, however, invalidate the politics or philosophy of Shining Path Maoism. It just gives him the chance to proclaim what he believes in via a t-shirt, should he so desire.
By extension, anyone might buy a copy of Kala not because it's got a good beat, but because they want to express their hatred of Sinhalese Buddhists over the stereo at a house party. Call it Che Shirt Syndrome: as commodified and mediated by capital, all symbols are sold to one of two customers - either the True Believer, or the cultural scavenger who can afford such whimsically purposeless purchases.

That is, to either the ideologue, or the bourgeois hipster.

A twentysomething in a Che shirt may qualify themselves as a revolutionary Marxist, but until they grab an AK, storm the streets of São Paulo, and fight to nationalise Brazil's $517 billion industrial sector, then the symbol remains unfulfilled, necessarily empty. The now-intrinsic vacuity of bohemianism is a consequence of it being reduced to a spin-cycle of pop symbolic flotsam with a shrinking circumference. (The current sample-rate of the nostalgia feedback loop is down to a mere five years.) Very telling is that many discussions, both online and off, of the Adbusters article were petty turf wars over specific objects like the fixed-gear bike. I've no doubt that the fixed-gear bike is of great importance to anarchosyndicalist eco-activists, but if their only place in the conversation is as a rhetorical prop and not a participant, of what use is the bike beyond a stylish accessory? If artifice is its own reward, then there's no argument to be had. But the pretense that there's a bigger point has little to recommend it.

This debate is by no means new, and hipsters have been subject to ridicule by their own for decades. One Brooklyn Vegan commenter cited Marcel Duchamp's 1913 Armory Show as an early example of such infighting (though it was Wallace Stevens, not William Carlos Willams, who played Duchamp's nemesis). There's also been an implacable parade of slumming rich kids, from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker up through Lou Reed to Lee Ranaldo and Gerard Cosloy. However, a crucial (if arguable) distinction between the hipoisie of generations past and now is that, before, some genuine sacrifice of comfort & entitlement was required to live down on the street - which isn't to deny that it's always been true that, "if you called your dad, he could stop it all." But there now exists an infrastructure, social and physical, to comfortably accomodate any & all who can afford to exile themselves from the straight world. And it's that word - comfort - which presents the biggest problem: its presence is anathema to art. As Leslie Feist recently put it:
Comfort is comfortable - there is no need to circumnavigate. Once you stretch your mind out to get around something, as it pulls apart, you see stuff in the cracks - things you wouldn't glimpse otherwise.
Contemporary boho inharmony has apparent little to do with dialectical self-critique. Rather, it's the sound of a corrosive boredom, of deracinated dilettantes whose ennui has metastasised into cannibalism. Make no mistake, their complaints emanate from the elevated strata of society. Whenever Pitchfork is derided as a Cliff Notes of Cool for dumb kids in Des Moines, or when Momus describes "the general population, which schlepps about in jeans and listens to shapeless, floppy music and sleepwalks through shapeless, floppy jobs" - there is no disguising the sneering, priggish contempt for the lower & working classes. I'd almost admire the gall with which Momus lets the cat out of the bag, comparing hipsters to "chivalric aristocrats," were he not so astonishingly smug and condescending.

Which brings us full-circle to the debate about minimal techno. What struck me as the key phrase at the time was this observation by Owen Hatherly:
One often got the sense... that whatever was happening, it didn't really matter, nothing was at stake.
In light of conversations since, this would be the keystone of anti-hipster sentiment: above and beyond all else, hipsters are inconsequential and ineffectual. Momus (again) has a point in remarking that "maybe this 'smashing' [of conventions] has always been mostly gestural," but wouldn't it be better if a gesture were revolutionary as opposed to self-consciously empty? Shouldn't there be a more noble goal than staying one step ahead of the advertising agencies by ceaselessly subdividing into smaller & smaller subcultural cliques? Or does "what's at stake" have be of greater urgency than something gestural? Does the cold hand of actual catastrophe have to slap us across the face before we become bold? Because, right now, there's a whole lotta standing around and talking shit behind each other's backs - which is hardly the recipe for refinement, let alone revolution. "When," Christopher Hitchens once wrote, "a precious and irreplaceable word like 'irony' has become a lazy synonym for 'anomie,' there is scant room for originality."

Friday, August 08, 2008


A couple of days ago, the popular expat-in-the-Orient blog 不良外人 (a.k.a. Furyogaijin, a.k.a. Fucked Foreigner) excavated a talkshow excerpt of military history enthusiasts dressed in Nazi regalia. As the doe-eyed, helium-voiced hobbyist insists his fetish is pure fashion, a panel of international Japanese residents rips into him for being so blind to the substance behind the symbols. The end of the clip is particularly surreal: one of the exiting hobbyists taunts the audience by snapping off a quick sieg-heil salute (disproving his claimed ignorance), prompting an enraged Frenchman to spring from his seat with intent of something stronger than a verbal reprimand. After he's physically dragged back to his chair, a German (!) panelist admonishes the Frenchman for overreacting, saying, "It's just a symbol, it's okay!"

Now, following their defeat, both Germany and Japan were culturally reindoctrinated and forced into schizoaffective reconstruction by a foreign occupier. The significant difference is that, in Germany, the reindoctrination became the keystone of domestic policy; Japan, on the other hand, has remained at best unrepentant, at worst revisionist with regard to its crimes during WWII. Yet, in spite of these opposite approaches to ingesting (or not) history, hard-right & fascist movements persist in both nations in apparently equal measure. It's harder to track the prevalence of hardcore nationalist & xenophobic group in Japan, if only because there are no "hate crimes" from which to derive statistics. But Japanese fascists (uyoku dantai) are boisterous and blustering enough that they'd needn't turn to violence to influence the nation's internal dialogue. Meanwhile, their German counterparts appear to have been gaining ground with each year since reunification: not only are racists attacks reaching record numbers (to the point of becoming a permenant fixture of quotidian life in some parts of Germany), but neo-Nazis are a growing presence in legitimately-elected governing bodies.

A climate of general intercultural ignorance in both countries works very much in favour of these fascists - but, of course, intercultural ignorance is the stock-in-trade of xenophobes worldwide. But if forced to pick between Germany and Japan the country with the greater potential for a racially harmonious future, I'd say: Japan. This is not to excuse the obvious extant problems (not the least of which are the racist cops), especially in light of Japan's minuscule foreign population (approx. 1.6%) and its extensive history of deliberate isolationism. But Japanese nationalists aren't even the looniest goons in the neighbourhood. The irony is that Japan's lack of contrition for its wartime acts has produced a particularly spineless, neutered stripe of nationalism. Not facing the active popular & institutional opposition that, say, the NPD does means that the uyoku dantai are never forced to exercise any real conviction in the face of adversity. It's the same brand of laziness afforded to Manchester United or NY Yankees fans: when there's no serious opposition, nothing need be sacrificed to the cause. On the other hand, German fascists, racists, and nationalists are as opposed a constituency as it's possible to be (without resorting to crimes against humanity, that is) - and still they persist with psychotically deep-seated defiance and dangerous dedication.

(Also, Japanese fascists are pussies. Seriously. I've had my picture taken striking goofy poses next to them, which earned me a bunch of red-faced rhetoric over the lance-voix but nothing more. It was also two years in Japan before I'd met a foreigner who'd been physically attacked simply because they were foreign - as opposed to five days in Germany. But would I pull the same goading pranksterism on Deutsche skinheads? Hell no.)

There's a grim punchline to all this. Japan is likely the only country where someone strutting around dressed as an SS officer could (maybe) convincingly argue that they're doing so apolitically - not that I'd excuse it. As po-mo manifest, Japan specializes in deconstructing, (mis)appropriating, and refracting symbols. (This is doubtless one reason for the anemic nature of its "hardcore" nationalism: the icons & figureheads of imperial Japan have seen their substance either rotted or gutted.) While European cultures similarly disbelieve in a symbol carrying any innate power, there's a reinvestment in reappropriated symbols here that gives them (often terrible) new life and new meaning. Thus, witness the German neo-Nazi incorporation of the Japanese imperial flag into its design arsenal (skip to the 3:48 mark for a full view). Of course, this is hardly a huge twist, though even if it were strange, strange bedfellows are scarcely so strange under closer scrutiny. I wonder what Momus would make of this...

Speaking of whom, I realize that a full week has already passed since the Adbusters bourgeois-boho flamewar came and went like a five-alarm fire in a toilet-paper factory, but I've been slowly tacking away at some kind of a thoughtful response. Extend your attention spans, and your patience will be rewarded, my friends.

* * *

Elsewhere online, Alan "I Started A Joke" McGee waited out the initial wave MBV-mania before reiterating his too-cool-for-shoegaze contempt for Kevin Shields & Co. In a MySpace bulletin, McGee wrote:

Finally got time to listen to it and it's even better than the last two Mogwai albums which to me have both been wonderful... Their [sic] is a beautiful irony that the ''nostalgic cabaret'' that is my bloody valentine are throwing at people in 2008 gets critical acclaim in the easily pleased UK press with MBV still playing the exact same set they did 20 years ago and the only trick Kevin Shields has anymore in 2008 is actual volume and double extra pa to numb you and zero new songs.

Hear the new Mogwai record it's beautiful.Mogwai are 2008 My bloody valentine were a joke signing in 1991 maybe they got better..
Maybe as a token of gratitude, Mogwai can hire McGee a proofreader. Nevermind that to hail the genius of Mogwai in 2008 is as bold & iconoclastic as to do the same for, say, Echo & the Bunnymen in 1988. This flailing contrarianism is to be expected of an aging, conservative rockist. Given that, in signing Oasis, McGee may have single-handedly launched the reactionary atavism of Britpop; in that regard, it makes sense that he'd hate something as blurrily sublime and genre-obscuring as Loveless (to say nothing of the macho posturing that he sank a quarter-million quid into a "joke"). I'd even be willing to take him at his word, had he not allowed himself the pusillanimous emergency exit, "Maybe they got better..."

* * *

So it's 88 Boadrum day. I don't actually care, and not for the knee-jerk anti-appropriative reason. Honestly, the Boredoms fuckin' bore me these days - which sounds silly, since they've been doing the same orthodox drum-circle schtick for the better part of a decade now. But please, examine Exhibit A, followed by Exhibit B and tell me that Seiichi Yamamoto's meteoric guitar doesn't make all the difference.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Boors

A great debt is owed to perennial shot-caller J-Hop for helping disseminate this bit of brilliant digital detritus:

Like his brother-in-knuckle-scraping-arms Liam Gallagher, Diamond Dave operates as a William of Ocham for the jet(trash)-set: he's a perpetual-motion machine of flapping gums so incapable of complex thought that he's able only to express the elemental truth; everything else, being more complicated, could only cause him confusion. (Perhaps that's why DLR's hair looks so fried: he blew a synapse discussing mechanical royalties with Mo Ostin?)

No, I'm not taking the piss. I defy you to find a single false statement issued from his shit-eating grin. Let's pick it apart, shall we?
Van Halen music, heavy metal music, any kind of rock music, is what I like to call "high-velocity folk music."
Consider (as we've done before) that, essentially, folk music is anecdotal narrative or reductive personal expression wrapped around simple, uncluttered chord structures that resonates upon some universal truth. Well, isn't that precisely what Van Halen in their prime produced? Who hasn't jumped, run with the devil, been hot for teacher, or, uh, fallen under the control of Manuel Noriega?

Taken as a general statement, it's true that heavy metal fulfilled the same role that campfire acoustic singalongs did a hundred years prior. Certainly, upon closer examination of niche subgenres, not many people would say the songs of Cannibal Corpse, Gorgoroth, or Dragonforce speak directly to/of them. But across the broader sweep of metal - from "Paranoid" to "Aces of Spades", from "Welcome To the Jungle" to "Midlife Crisis" - it's easy enough to find some empathetic resonance therein.
I look at heavy metal music - Van Halen's brand, rather, of heavy metal music - as a combination of religion and hockey.
Again, dead on. Consider the intricate weave of metaphysical devotion and gaudy materialist ceremony, the relation to a higher spirit through annointed spokesmen (yes, spokesmen), the large celebratory gatherings of the faithful to behave in manners unbecoming of their quotidian reality - and then consider the presence of large, sweaty, swearing men with an emphasis on indelicate, antagonistic contact. Ian Svenonius has written far more exhaustively on the parallels between rock and religion, but it bears remembering that sports occupy the same place in a great many people's lives.
We had to get into a band because we are this way... I have successfully turned "monkey hour" into a career.
A band as a synergistic culmination of personalities; to play music as a means of personal psychic reconstitution; making art as an end unto itself as opposed to a single facet of some larger marketing campaign for one's career as a public persona... how bloody tragic is it that these now seem like quaint idealisms, delusional romantic fantasies? That it should be expressed so succinctly by David Lee Roth of all people is, as they say, a head-fuck.

Meanwhile, his "monkey hour" anecdote is a perfect example of precisely why I regard the psychiatric industry as fascistic and dehumanising.
Style is not to be confused with Class. A Mercedes Benz is Class, because it represents money. However, chili dogs have absolutely no Class, but a great deal of Style. Punk rock, new wave, whatever you have, reggae, rastafari haircuts, what-have-you, are all different kinds of Styles. None of them, however, have any Class - I got class.
Ladies and gentlemen, Professor Roth's 15-second summation of the ontology of capital! Assuming it's true that chili dogs got mad style, Style would be the more desirable of the two characteristics: Style implies a kind of substantive polysensual engagement, an experience that diversifies (or even gives body to) reality's symbolic framework. Class, on the other hand, is symbolic of a single substantive quality: economic power. For those who would question Roth's claim to Class in view of his squalid apartment, recall his analogy between music religion; consider the decidedly unglamorous daily lifestyle of the average priest, contrasted with the elaborate pomp & circumstance of his rituals before his flock. There exists the same degree of difference between Roth's life on and off the road.

There's no question, DLR does have Class, in spite of the frat-house squalor of his apartment: he was (and is again) the face & voice of a band that has sold over 80 million albums to date - a distinction shared by only about a hundred other musical artists in history. Among the many bands that can't match Van Halen's account balance is, ironically, the act that best signifies the detached superficiality and bland "good taste" of Class in the 1980s: Roxy Music. Consider that, as Roth was giving this interview, Roxy Music were recording Avalon, the summa of vapid yuppie sumptuousness. I wonder if it frustrated Bryan Ferry that, after his studious & painstaking adoption of all the hollow affectations of wealth & privilege, that he was lumped into the same club as this dandelion-haired yahoo. Ferry may have sported all the appropriate symbols, but Roth had the substance.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Mixed Media

So: which is it, lads? Is it "false to frame the biofuel debate as a choice between people or SUVs," or is it literally a choice between "a Prius hybrid on a trip from San Francisco to San Diego and back... [or] feed[ing] a person for a year"? Having enjoyed not one, but two burgers of locally-raised red meat last night, is my moral credit as bad as someone who commutes downtown from Bergedorf in a Beemer, or, alternatively, who sups on tofu flown in from Japan and Pink Lady apples? Are we trapped between complicity in the deaths of either up to 150,000 Iraqis or at least 130,000 Burmese?

Please note, naturally, that all four articles linked above were published via the same website. It's very hard to move forward when you're not sure which direction to face.