Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An Honest, Straightforward Entreaty

So there's this website you might have seen 'round, Chunklet, that hits like a bucket of ice water to the smug, disaffected face of indie culture. (They also kick a little dirt at those feckless twee ninnies for good measure.) The point is they're hilarious, and actually fine people aside, playing the invaluable role of subcultural gadfly.

And they're putting out a new book! I managed to blag my way on board as a contributor, so when you sit down with your copy of The Indie Cred Test, I am among those administering the exam. No favouritism, either.

But first we've got to get the book out, and so we humbly ask that you donate towards the book's publication at Kickstarter. I know times are tough and you were really saving for that box set of the complete first season of Glee or whatever, but please. If you want to demonstrate your support for talented, whip-smart writers in a rapidly withering, calcifying literary environment, please contribute what you can.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Played By the Game

There's one born every minute:
Pitchfork originally ranked Little Earthquakes [by Tori Amos] as the eighth-best album of the 1990s, but when they revised the list a few years later, it was left off entirely. So maybe the listmaking process is democratic, and the site’s staff/aesthetic changed, but surely good music is inherent?
Surely good music is inherent? Why yes, of course it is my dear! And surely Obama will withdraw from Afghanistan by year's end, divert military spending towards creating a "green energy" infrastructure, create tax incentives for weatherizing* one's house, repeal all of Bush's (and Clinton's) tax cuts, declare amnesty for illegal immigrants currently in the U.S., close Guantanamo, create thousands of new jobs in the administration of a national healthcare program, muzzle the dogs baying for Julian Assange's blood, and charge Michelle Bachmann & Rick Perry with treason.

Because surely doing the right thing is inherent?

(*) - So Blogger's auto-spellcheck finds no fault with "weatherizing", but it always lights up under "healthcare" and "commodification", because obviously those words ought not exist.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why So Serious?

Feign outrage! Set phasers to "troll"! Clothe your indignation in inanity! A Pitchfork feature has prompted online controversy and lively debate! (Vomits in overreactive excitement)

Actually, for once the conversation isn't about how hard a certain review pandered, or trainspotting the number of Bon Iver headlines in a single week, or if the Vampire Weekend cover girl is "tappable." Barthel and Abebe are using the Top Videos of the 1990s countdown as a cultural weathervane, examining the balance of sincerity-VS-irony. While any discussion of irony/"irony" will be, to a certain extent, frustrating and inconclusive, Abebe's made the valuable point that Aught-style irony is fundamentally different from '90s irony.

The distinction is fundamentally the same as that which separates two styles of post-modernism: retro-necro pastiche and hauntology (which respectively resemble '00s and '90s irony). Both employ a knowing referentiality, and thus are formally similar, yet they express very different relationships to the contemporary mainstream: the former revels in artifice and built-in obsolescence, mischievously celebrating a culture whose facades are its substance; the latter mourns the same condition, pining for alternate paths not taken and now impossible. The latter understands the emptiness behind the facade is not an erasure of taboos, not some fissure into a realm of anarchic hedonia - it is existential abjection.

Now, to rephrase in slightly more useful terms... Aught-style irony is (was?) all about arrow-straight citation, expressing uncynical affection and even reverence for its references. A commentary-free pop-cultural patchwork of purely aesthetic concerns. Abebe offers Weezer's "Buddy Holly" video as an early specimen, though I'd say this "pointless, morbid game of references and sarcasm that never actually says anything" was first fully articulated on Odelay! by Beck.*

However, '90s irony was born of disgust at the flattening-out of culture, at the commodification of fringe elements, and at the realization that so many of our memories & developmental milestones were cooked up by some Madison avenue huckster. When Nirvana appeared with natty suits & blinky innocence for the "In Bloom" video, of course they were having a dig at the geeky politesse of rock's infancy. But more importantly, they were saying, "Okay, we're on Geffen, we're on MTV, we've been swallowed by the monoculture. We might as well be the fucking Dave Clark Five with a fuzzbox."

Which is where slack comes in. Were it not for that sloppy scoffing not-giving-a-shit, '90s irony would be nothing but more mawkish referentiality. But these artists had come from an audience that was too savvy to fall for Bill Bernbach's thimblerig and were well aware that any conventional success meant assimilation. Resistance was futile, but at least they could demonstrate an awareness of their own appropriation instead of appearing as guileless rubes (or worse, brass ring-snatching apostates). Slack signified that these artists neither cared for nor sought mainstream approval. The Malkmusian smirk was the last, best defense against total co-option.

This indifference against the machine is the earnestness that Abebe sees underlying '90s irony, "irony to communicate completely earnest things, that the audience would receive completely in earnest." The problem - that is, the transposition of '90s irony into '00s irony - is that the mainstream absorbed the medium without the message. It became a cheap trick to pile up pop-cultural detritus while completely ignoring the gestures of subcultural revolt. Perhaps the resurgent sincerity of the past decade was in reaction to the mainstreaming of snarky pastiche - and yet, if audiences are now attuned to endlessly floating signifiers taken with shakers of salt, this would result in more distance and less earnestness than in the '90s. Sincerity cannot survive as such if it's perceived ironically, and consequently it's become a simple affectation, mere aesthetic, just another branding tactic - like lo-fi or slack.** I accept Abebe's point that "you’d have to be a lot more committal to front Fischerspooner than to front a grunge band!" But to call electroclash "almost tragically sincere" begs the question: sincere about what? Fischerspooner et al. (and indeed many of today's most "earnest" acts) didn't offer sincerity, they performed "sincerity" - a gestural sincerity, an aestheticization of sincerity. Again, this only serves to underscore the subtextual vacuity of today's culture.

Remember the Lollapalooza-spoofing episode of The Simpsons?
Gen-Xer 1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool.
Gen-Xer 2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Gen-Xer 1: I don't even know anymore.
Finally, Abebe is rightfully wary of remembering the '90s as a ten-year sneer: "They seemed, as a young person, strikingly earnest and optimistic, especially around Earth Day." Political causes of every possible persuasion - from global warming to AIDS awareness - sprouting like dandelions in the wake of "PC" fatuity. And of course, this was the decade that gave us emo, "conscious" hip-hop, and the testosterone-soaked confessionals of nü-metal.

(*) - In film, the blame falls squarely at the feet of Tarantino.
(**) - No matter how ratty your hair or anemic your stated ambition, you ain't slacking if you have a booking agent before your first tour.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My Father Will Guide Me Up Nick Cave's Back Catalogue

So the new Swans album sounds like The Bad Seeds circa '93 fronted by Pete Seeger's evil twin. Given that The Bad Seeds themselves are evermore merely pub-rock for English lit majors, this is very very nice. Slightly disappointing that it ain't Filth Deux: The Rebludgeoning, though we all knew it wouldn't be.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Shitting On Political Romanticism Is Fun!

Given the name-recognition that Armando Iannucci has most deservedly won in the UK, this is addressed more towards all North American armchair political strategists...

I ain't asking you to flush your principles or become so ruthlessly realpolitikal that you make Rahm Emmanuel look like Bob Ross. But if you want to know how the game is really played, you need to watch The Thick of It RIGHT NOW.

So if you're in it not to win it, but genuinely to make a difference for the benefit of humankind, understand that this is the level of PR opportunism, ideological schizophrenia, and sailor-mouthed sociopathy that you're up against.

Good luck! You'll fucking need it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Odds 'N' Sods

Just a few non-sequitors strung together to retune my synapses to typing-mode...

An oft-forgotten and neglected stop on the Yamanote beltway is Uguisudani (鴬谷), or "Valley of the Nightengales" - an appropriate name for a labyrinthine pit of iniquity populated largely by ladies of the night. Nestled within the neon smog is a claustrophobic music club called What's Up, a ramshackle dive whose construction-site decor reminded me of Toronto's Bovine Sex Club. I played an improv gig there last night with some friends. The music most often split the difference between post-rock cathartic crescendos and jam-bandy noodling - at least until the last set, when the whole thing went full-tilt-boogie batshit a la Acid Mothers Temple, complete with barefoot vixen writhing around the stage. Mercifully the "key" had become completely unhinged by the time I'd broken two strings and was struggling to play anything other than echoplexed banshee squall.

The return journey from the gig revealed that it was a strange Sunday night all around: a shirtless white man was engaged in a screaming match with several police officers at Ikebukuro station, and as I strode home there were several EMTs scrubbing spots of blood off the sidewalk outside my local station. No other indication as to what had happened.

Meanwhile, the local discount dry-goods-'n'-liquor store has stepped their game up by installing a Muzak system. But instead of golden-age easy listening or chirpy contemporary pop, they've decided that ragtime is the ideal soundtrack to purchasing overstock pasta and almost-expired yogurt. The juxtaposition between jaunty Scott Joplin tunes and the defeated ennui of the staff is cartoonishly tragicomic.

Finally, during our jaunt around northern Japan, my wife & I suddenly began communicating almost exclusively via daft slang. We're fairly fond of odd turns of phrase (e.g. "gong show" for a chaotic or unfortunate event) but it was a little strange to find ourselves quoting Gucci Mane or Dizzy Rascal ("Blüd! Kin ya heeya them sah-rens coomin?") on an hourly basis. Perhaps all that sulfur at Osorezan strangled our grey matter a bit.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Straight To Hell

Yes, I'm going to Hell. Literally: I'm trekking northward towards Osorezan, traditionally regarded as the Japanese gates of Hell. Here's how famed hiker Alan Booth assessed the place:
Osorezan is the most disquieting place I have ever visited. Of course the temple and the lanterns and the eyeless figures were shaped and placed here for a human purpose. We know their dates and the names of the priests who built them, and we know the uses to which they are put. Still, this easy knowledge is belied by their power to intimidate and to awe. Like the yellow stream and the Pond of Blood and the silent trees on the road over the mountain, they are awesome because there is an old god in them - a dusty, crouching, terrible god who does not often reveal himself in the world.
There are places infinitely more disquieting that Booth hadn't visited, say Liberia or the Aral Sea. But coming from a man who put one of the planet's most geographically diverse countries underfoot, such superlatives wouldn't come unearned. In fact, Booth's three-page description of Osorezan's ashen solitude was the primary inspiration for my trip. Whether you're gothy pseudo-nihilist or post-New Age Ouroborosian, any place styled as the underworld's welcome mat sounds damned intriguing. And the Pond of Blood? Talk about awesome! Sounds like a Cannibal Corpse song title. My morbidly-curious inner adolescent is already throwing devil horns in the air.

But it's a damned long train ride up to Aomori from Tokyo. I've already got my reading material sorted (cheers, Ben & Michael!) and have patched together a playlist that complements the rhythmic thrum of the rails, as well as the foggy sense of expectation when having a wander. Hopefully, this will make up for the conspicuous silence of the next two weeks. Enjoy, and click on the mix title to download.

Bulldozer Market

1. Circle - "Andexelt"
2. Serena Maneesh - "I Just Want To See Your Face"
3. Suicide - "Girl"
4. Wirtschaftswunder - "Patre Del Mondo"
5. Moebius & Beerbohm - "Subito"
6. Mayyors - "Ghost Punch"
7. Sonic Youth - "Tremens"
8. Mort Garson - "The Unexplained"
9. Fantastikoi Hxoi - "Na Exeis Ta Panta"
10. Boredoms - "San"
11. Laddio Bolocko - "As If By Remote"
12. Electric Sandwich - "China"
13. Scorpio Tube - "Yellow Listen"
14. Polvo - "City Birds"
15. My Bloody Valentine - "Bilinda Song"
16. The Oscillation - "Respond In Silence"
17. The Stranglers - "Meninblack"
18. The Fall - "Fantastic Life" (Live)
19. The Brian Jonestown Massacre - "Origin of Love"

Tangential Postscript: Desperate for more of my acerbic bon môts while I'm away? I've got a new article (about an old complaint) up on the Mute Magazine website, filed vaguely inappropriately in the "news & analysis" section.

Friday, August 06, 2010

In Which the Author Questions If Anyone Knows What the Fuck They're Talking About

From Sean Fennessey's review of the new Queens of the Stone Age reissue:
Studied repetition and precision are unlikely virtues for weedheads...

I understand the resistance to speaking of music as though it were autonomous, and that every review must now adhere to a metanarrative of some sort, but come on. You can't just ignore shit 'cuz it conflicts with your "angle."

In Which Accusations of Fascism Are Made Without Trying to Sound Too Alarmist

Amidst the hullabaloo over (and from) "Dred Scott Republicans," almost all of the dialogue - whether for or against the 14th Amendment - has centered around Section 1's endowment of citizenship to any & all born on American soil. That is, the 14th Amendment is the latest locus of the debate about immigration (explicitly) and ethnicity (implicitly).

But, er... how come apparently no one else is disturbed that Republicans want to repeal the very section of the very amendment that guarantees equal protection under the law?!?
Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Don't Call It a Comeback

I get why The Arcade Fire are popular. Compositional adequacy; stylized histrionics; ethnic unaesthetization (read: being really white); vapidly populist gestures; arena-ready shout-along choruses. They're the beige middle point at which everyone's Venn diagram intersects, appealing in the same way that McDonald's french fries are: a very convincing facsimile of an enjoyable, nourishing experience that in fact is slowly rotting you from the inside out.

To put it mildly, I've always fucking hated The Arcade Fire. They're responsible for much of what I find repugnant & regressive about the state of contemporary "indie" music. Aside from legitimating the thin-windpiped kicked-turkey warble as a singing style, The Funeral as a subcultural Damascene moment cemented the supremacy of emotive peacockery & sartorial savvy over composition & ingenuity. Obviously, that's not to say the display of genuine emotion in music is bad full-stop; almost any audience would elect honest expression over clinical technique. But really meaning it is a tired Get Out Of Jail Free card for people without anything to say musically. It also drops the bar to such limbo-champion lows that, compared to The Arcade Fire's oikish anthems, middlebrow avant-pseuds like The Dirty Projectors can legitimately be called "progressive" or "daring".

Fer chrissakes, The Arcade Fire's new album is called, and about, The Suburbs - sociocultural territory so well-trodden (by everyone from Jonathan Richman and Penelope Spheeris to Eric Bogosian and The Kids In The Hall) that it needs to be repaved. In fact, bashing suburbia for its well-to-do WASPiness is so tired a trope that it's no longer even accurate: America's suburbs are in fact becoming more ethically diverse and poorer than its metropolitan centres.

(And I presume The Arcade Fire are indeed talking about North American suburbs, given that bourgeois sprawl peppered with above-ground pools and Buicks never really appeared anywhere else.)

None of this has stopped the greater part of the music press from wetting themselves in excitement over the new album. I should've put money on the predication I made to some friends that Pitchfork - who over the years have invested a considerable amount of their brand authority in The Arcade Fire - would give The Suburbs "nothing less than an 8.3 but no more than an 8.9!" Where's a bookie when you need one?

I find consolation in the somewhat-muted grumblings of fellow naysayers like Mike Barthel, who expertly skewered The Arcade Fire's disproportionate sense of struggle against repression:
The insistence among large swaths of the voting public that they are in some vague way oppressed is one of the cancers of American politics, and the fact that this music meant for the emotional state of a high school sophomore has resonated so widely is incredibly depressing.
A number of people have said Barthel is taking the record too literally, sung as it is "from the persepective" of suburban-dwelling teens. This, however, assumes that it's fine for teenagers growing up in relatively problem-free (if somewhat sterile) environments to be self-pitying little shits who privilege their own measly inconveniences over the actual problems of far-less-fortunate people whom they scarcely - if ever - encounter.

And if indeed The Suburbs is the ventriloquised ennui of adolescents, isn't it a bit sad, or disturbing, or both that a band of adults identifies so intimately with such unripened narcissism?