Sunday, December 25, 2011

It's Jesus' Birthday!

He has risen! Well, it looks like something's a-risin' at any rate...

All the best to ye & y'all's, people of earth. Shalom aleichem & A-Salamu Alaykum as well.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Half-Hearted Attempt at Genuine Enjoyment

As the recently-late, formerly great Christopher Hitchens once said, travel - contrary to popular belief - narrows the mind, in that it diminishes difference & spotlights repetition. So it is with the touring musician: the more gigs you play, the more other bands you see, the more other bands you talk about and listen to... the more everything starts to sound the same. This is why so many stalwart musicians are crusty chauvinists guarding the carved-in-stone conventions of their respective genre: they've had to retreat to only the most elemental, primordial iteration of what they love(d) about music to feed whatever flagging enthusiasm they have left for the art form.

The point is that I'm a very tough motherfucker to impress. In the past, this was largely thanks to arrogance (and still is to no small degree), though by now I've logged enough hours as a listener, enough miles as a working musician, and enough hearing damage as an audio engineer that I'm rarely - if ever - surprised. Of course, I still want to be surprised, and seek it like a fiend. On the odd occasion I am surprised, it's not the shock of the new, but the unexpected re-appearance of some estranged sonic friend. No wonder all the contemporary bands that push all my buttons are older dudes who've been stubbornly strumming away since my formative, sponge-brained adolescence in the mid-'90s. Vaz produced one of the gnarliest rock records of the year, Chartreuse Bull, but they're veterans of the hallowed, harrowing Amphetamine Reptile roster. The Psychic Paramount are the most instrumentally enthralling band on the planet, but that is certainly because guitarist Drew St. Ivany and bassist Ben Armstrong have spent almost twenty years in the art-rock trenches. Meanwhile, the inimitable Metatron from Maryland, Daniel Higgs, might as well be one of my parents' old art-school buddies.

The good news, though, is that excellent music continues to be made, and in greater volume that I have time to attend. Some of this year's more experimental releases (e.g. Roly Porter's Aftertime and The Haxan Cloak's gorgeously glacial eponymous debut) were gripping textural explorations that demonstrated an intense, detail-oriented approach to composition - though I still prefer artists whose focus is wide enough to encompass the whole forest, not just the peeling bark of a single birch.

Another Year, Another Holler

1. The Skull Defekts feat. Daniel Higgs - "Peer Amid"
2. Young Widows - "In and Out of Lightness"
3. Action Bronson & Statik Selektah - "Silk White"
4. Tom Waits - "Talking At the Same Time"
5. Obake - "The Omega Point"
6. The Haxan Cloak - "Burning Torches of Despair"
7. The Psychic Paramount - "DDB"
8. Roly Porter - "Corrin"
9. Vaz - "The 2nd"
10. YAMANTAKA//SONIC TITAN - "Reverse Crystal//Murder of a Spider"

Then, of course, there is the record collection. Now that my wife is as avid a crate-digger as I am, we've fast run out of shelf space and now our floor is disappearing almost as quickly. A great many (if not most) of our acquisitions this year have been '60s and '70s Italian soundtracks and funk bibelots, since it's a musical area we enjoy equally. Sure, most of it is breezy & cosmopolitan, much to my wife's pleasure, but there's plenty of strange sound-mass strings & free-jazz bass spazzery to keep an avant-gardiste prick like myself happy. Anyway, here's a few of the tunes that earned the heaviest rotation on our turntable this year...

Fine Vinyl

1. Piero Umiliani - "Le Raggaze Dell'Arcipelago"
2. Ennio Morricone - "Trafelato"
3. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - "She Fell Away"
4. Scott Walker - "Rosemary"
5. Buck 65 - "Up the Middle"
6. Roots Manuva - "Witness (One Hope)"
7. I Marc 4 - "Hyde Park"
8. Googoosh - "Shekayat"
9. Piero Piccioni - "Traffic Boom"
10. Main - "Flametracer"

Monday, December 19, 2011

Like Flies

Well, the second-craziest despot to rule a third-world autocracy has become the newest member in Ozymandias' Infernal Big Band. That is, he's dead. Neither will he be missed, nor will anyone hesitate to celebrate his demotion to mere worm-meal as Jong-Il's death is unencumbered by gruesome criminal circumstance. Good ol' fashioned natural causes as opposed to, say, occupational hazard.

That being said, given that no one has the slightest notion what North Korea's contingency plan was once Dear Leader slipped this mortal coil, I'm suddenly very happy to be exiting the Orient for the next few weeks...

Monday, November 21, 2011

What Lack Dooms a Movement?

Is it imagination? Foresight? Self-understanding? Some combination of all of the above? Roll the tape!

First, let's jump to around the 22:20 mark to hear 1960s commune member Molly Hollenbach describe the bold, egalitarian social experiment in her own words:
We didn't use the word "system" but we very much thought of the whole group, of ourselves as connected - that there was a group sense, a group feeling. That was our whole purpose: to be fully connected to each other and to have this group sense of the organism of the many who act as one. ...It would be like a dance, where we're creating a new kind of society, freeing each person to be fully themselves in the group. But we're all affecting each other at all times, like an organism of many who act as one.
Now let's skip ahead again to about 54:15 to hear what happened to these hierarchically-flat proto-societies:
[The communes] all failed. Most lasted no more than three years, some for less than six months, and what tore them all apart was the very thing that was supposed to have been banished: power. The commune members discovered that some people were more free than others. Strong personalities came to dominate the weaker members of the group, but the rules of the self-organizing system refused to allow any organized opposition to this oppression.
Molly Hollenbach elaborates:
...The very rules that kind of set up this egalitarian group resulted in the opposite of the dream. They resulted in creating a hierarchical structure in which some could be dominant over others... because everyone is not equally powerful in their voice against one other person.
This returns us to that Baudrillardian place wherein desire and power are interchangeable, and therefore desire has no place in the schema of power. The personal is the political, but not in the sense usually meant.

But before we disappear up the simulacrum of our own post-structuralist ass, what does this mean for the Occupy movement? Well... how about this?

Ergo, may I now suggest that we stop applauding the movement merely for making us feel good about ourselves and finally focus on the more concrete issue of achieving results?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Identity Crisis

Well, I went off the grid for a few days, only to return to concerted attempts to shut down the #Occupy encampments across the world. These efforts range from the civilly legal (as in Vancouver) to the heavy-handed & legally gray (in New York City) to the unconscionably brutal (in Berkeley, California). Though these developments threaten the very existence of movement, I've sufficient faith - however slight - that the protesters will not go gentle in that good night. I began typing up the following spiel late last week, and have completed it on the assumption that the Occupations will survive well beyond this week...

The greatest threat to any movement that is not fascist in nature is itself. The greatest threat to the #Occupy movement is not the conceited scorn of Reichwing TV pundits, nor the rubber bullets & billy-clubs of the Oakland police, but the yawning void where its ideological & strategic nucleus should be. By its desire to be omnivorously inclusive & inoffensive, the movement has voluntarily sacrificed almost all political radicality: it refuses grand statements, hamstrings direct engagement, and declines to make transformative demands. This timidity has left the movement exposed to an influential, charismatic element that will - for better or worse - come to define the movement itself.

While I've a grudging respect for the hacktivist swarm Anonymous, I can't say I particularly trust them. I don't trust acephalic crowds in general. "People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can't trust people." Especially people who've chosen, as their anarchosyndicalist hood ornament, the corporate depiction of a mercenary Papist who attempted to establish an English theocracy. Well thought out, indeed.

At the same time, I think the power & influence of Anonymous as a sociopolitical actor is vastly overstated. That's not gloating on my part: I'm sympathetic to many of Anonymous' operations and wish them greater success against bigots, child predators, and oppressive regimes. But despite their best efforts, Scientology, Bank of America, Koch Industries, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Robert Mugabe, and Bashar al-Assad are all going strong. Also, last month's abortive dust-up with barbarous Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas proved that Anonymous balks (sensibly) at crossing the line where Situationist prankterism ends and shit gets really, really real.

Still, where ever someone flips the bird to the Powers That Be, Anonymous will appear post-haste. Their stylized Guy Fawkes masks are the most recognizable non-textual symbol of the Occupy movement, inspiring numerous think pieces on the polysterene disguise. The masks serve to unify an operation that is polyglot, decentralized, and manifold in its provincial complaints - which is both beneficial and detrimental to the movement. Symbolically, the mask creates a sense of international solidarity amongst the protesters. But in a practical context, the masks encourage & enable deindividuation.

For those of you who haven't the time to peruse works of Philip Zimbardo, I'd point you to Derren Brown's recent special, The Game Show, a succinct & dismaying experiment in mob mentality. As Brown explains:
[Deindividuation] is what happens when people become anonymous members of a crowd, which allows them to behave in a way that goes against their moral code. It's a large part of what turns normal people into internet bullies, rioters, football hooligans, and encourages reality TV audiences to victimize contestants.
This deconstruction of a subject's sense of personal responsibility begins as the individual becomes physically subsumed in a large group, and is aggravated by even the simplest disguising of their personal features - say, a black hoodie, bandana mask, or the plastic semblance of Guy Fawkes.

Obviously, this poses a very big problem for those within the Occupy movement who want to keep their disobedience civil. By having tacitly joined forces with Anonymous, and for having allowed the porcelain-toned moustachioed trickster to become the movement archetype, Occupy has made a bargain that Faust would find foolishly short-sighted: Occupy have embraced the very element most likely to engage in the "irresponsible", "reckless", "anti-social" behavior that would cost the movement the majority-approval it so desperately craves. I'm not talking about the errant asshole who can be purged or pacified by some new-age group-hug intervention; I'm not even saying the loudest mouth wins the argument. I'm saying that within the movement is a subsect that can - autonomously, collectively, and suddenly - react in a manner at odds with group consensus.

Lest anyone fear I'm exaggerating the hooliganish potential of Anonymous in the context of popular protest, I refer you to this trailer for the upcoming documentary on hacktivism's reigning cabal which deliberately and repeatedly mixes & matches images of "orthodox" Fawkes-masked Anonymous members and Black Bloc anarcho-delinquents. Evidently, even to their ostensible supporters & media boosters, the two are interchangeable.

Now, I'm not saying that Anonymous' volatility & potential for hard resistance are a bad thing. As Disaster Notes explained earlier, it's still very early days for Occupy yet it's already minimizing its more radical ententes in favour of some latté-hipster version of Satyagraha. In light of recent developments, the movement's apparent commitment to moderation could very well prove suicidal. Several weeks ago, the Oakland PD's attack on protesters was a one-off aberration after six peaceful & dignified weeks, allowing Occupiers to feel smug with the relative ease of their success thus far:
While the cops may have the guns I think they’re starting to realize they don’t have the power - they’re on the wrong side of history. When they start seeing their neighbors, children and parents standing in the front lines of the OWS movement, their loyalties will shift and shift swiftly.
But now the riot gear's out, court injunctions are flying, and the streets are foggy with tear gas and pepper spray. It would behoove the #Occupy movement to remember that it's up against the full authoritarian might of oligarchs who start wars to boost their GDP, cheered by a complicit media and a frighteningly large portion of the selfish, consumerist public. Unleashing Anonymous & the Black Bloc may be a PR nightmare - Occupy's "nuclear option" - but it's an option the movement needs available to them.

The perennial exemplar of successful civil disobedience is Mohandas Gandhi's struggle for Indian independence, but what's often forgotten is that along the way there were not only arrests & usual brutality directed at protesters, but whole campaigns of violent harassment and murder. Not to mention that Gandhi's nonviolent efforts were reinforced & underscored by many acts of violent revolt against state authority. Consequently, neither side can claim victory by their efforts alone, nor could either have succeeded without the effective support of the other. The de facto slogan of every popular uprising is that famous quote apocryphally attributed to Gandhi:
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
It would appear that Occupy has graduated to the stage wherein they are being fought. As unpalatable as Anonymous & the Black Bloc may be to the more genteel members of the movement, it may serve them well to have comrades who are more than willing to fight back.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Now Showing: Tragedy! Coming Soon: Farce!

I realize it's a bit cheap of me to take pot-shots at the Occupy movement from the comfort of my boho-Tokyo bunker, so it was instructive to read Disaster Notes' cautiously pessimistic perspective from inside Occupy Austin. Not that I take any particular joy in knowing that the Occupations are as meekly reformist & restrictively managerial as I suspected. If you too are concerned that the ossified moralism of the Occupation's milquetoast middle-mass threatens the very "diversity of tactics" they claim to embrace, then Disaster Notes' full critique of General Assemblies is required reading.

In parallel, the dubiously-monikered Alphonse Van Worden attacks the current formulation of Occupation demands, neutered of their inflammatory potential, now mere eunuchs attending to the upkeep of the status quo:
That the demands conspicuously reject proposed mention of humanity’s rights, democracy, justice, and politely refuse any language that might bring to mind the ruling class’ lawlessness, barbarism and mercilessness, tends to nudge the discourse in the most dangerous direction, toward the legitimisation and indeed inevtiabilisation of reaction and toward faciliating the project of containing this revolt in the guise (flimsy enough, and usually disavowed) of securing some concrete gains while the getting is good.

Now at the start, these demands were proposed alongside a list of demands for an end to the state’s violence and terrorising and lawlesness and debt amnesty. That these didn’t make the cut is very signficant, and shows how “compromise” can transform a radical agenda not into a reformist one but into a reactionary gain for the ruling class.
On an immediate, practical, and modest scale, all of this suggests that perhaps the most appropriate slogan for the Occupiers is - with minor amendment to an existing favourite - "Citizens United will never be defeated!"

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Neither a Conquest, Nor a Vocation

Almost two months have passed since the inception of Occupy Wall Street, which is more than enough time for everyone to take sides according to whether or not they sympathize with anti-corporate collectivism. Thus far, public opinion (though hardly unanimous) is more supportive of OWS than its Old Testament-meets-Wall Street libertarian dopplegängers, the Tea Party. This is meaningful because OWS and the Tea Party cannot be arbitrarily substituted for one another. True, they're both nominally anti-establishment populist uprisings, but that's as revealing as remarking that Jim Jarmusch and Chris Columbus are both successful caucasoid filmmakers from Ohio. Only the most facile & disingenuous among the commentariat pretend there's meaningful similarity between OWS and the Tea Party - a comparison so paper-thin that it can be debunked in about nine bullet-points augmented by flashy graphics.

Objectively, OWS is far easier to sympathize with than the Tea Party, and not simply because the former has refused the latter's embarrassing reliance on Nazi similes and racist imagery. The Occupiers themselves sympathize with the unemployed, the indebted, the working poor, and struggling families around the world, whereas the Tea Party sympathize with precisely no one. Their philosophy is equal parts Horatio Alger & avarice; they've infamously bayed for the blood of the incarcerated & the infirm; and the bootstrap-pulling pugnacity of the "We Are the 53%" blog reads like a suicide pact with the free market, inadvertantly highlighting the very tragic inequities that OWS seeks to correct.

So at the risk of surrendering to these Fountainhead-cases enslaved by Stockholm Syndrome to capitalist rapacity, why can't I offer my full endorsement to the #Occupy movement?

So far, I've been conspicuously silent about Occupy Wall Street, both online and off. After all, it's difficult to debate tactics & policy when there's little evidence or exercise of either: the very term "movement" implies momentum and direction, neither of which OWS has. The fraternal occupations that have sprouted around America & across the Atlantic are growth, for sure, but less snowballing locomotion than an entropic clustering of mass. The greater the Occupiers' numbers (or the greater the appearance of their numbers), the safer & more attractive it is for others to join their ranks. The Japanese have a saying: the more people running a red light, the less there is to fear. (Evidently, the Japanese have been to Baltimore.)

For all the attention & swelling attendance, I suspect the reason OWS has yet to win the majority's support is because it appears as a closed operation. It doesn't matter how inclusive the message or sentiment is when the Occupation is conducted via theatrical arcana and insular code: anyone who doesn't understand the symbolism of wiggling fingers, doesn't know what a "human microphone" is, or doesn't understand why the Occupiers keep throwing up Jay-Z's hand-sign is definitively outside the movement. I understand that creating rituals & codes are integral to a group's cohesion & identity. It's also what cults do precisely because of the divisive, exclusionary function those rituals & codes serve. Stephen Colbert's "field report" on Occupy Wall Street demonstrated this: relatively straightforward questions, refracted through the liturgical jargon of the "movement," became an impenetrable fog of Newspeak that failed to address such simple concerns as what's on the agenda.

Colbert too noted that they "seem like a cult."

Dogged adherence to process is proof of both an abiding civility and an intolerance for radicalism. For a "movement" that doesn't want to recreate the flaws of corporate hegemony, they've taken very quickly to restrictive & stifling discursive codes. In fact, this legislative orthodoxy explains the lack of any specific, articulable demands: as a heterogeneous assembly, the Occupiers refuse to presume any one demand would be adequately representative of, or beneficial to, each of the participants. Tasks are delegated, but representation never exceeds the level of the individual. They've even formed caucuses to promote "marginalized voices" within the "movement." As though the plutocrats give a shit about the diversity of their serfs. Patient acknowledgment of every demographic peculiarity looks good on the recruitment pamphlet, but it's arboreal taxonomy at the expense of the forest. If no collective action can presume to demonstrate the communal will, then the Occupy "movement" is merely a motley form of group therapy, the scattershot yawp of recession-scarred consumers.

When Colbert asked (with uncharacteristic earnestness) how he could be part of Occupy Wall Street, Justin Wedes replied, "You need to come down to the park, Stephen... you need to make your voice heard." Well, to stand & be counted is only an effective political act in a representative democracy, which America absolutely is not. (To say nothing of the likes of Harper, Cameron, Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Putin, or whoever the Japanese Prime Minister is today.) Has the "movement" already left no room for invention, adaptation, or a more aggressive engagement against capitalism? To wit, the Occupiers have issued a blanket condemnation not of corporations as malignant entities, but of the defacement or destruction of corporate property - reifying the very system the Occupiers claim to challenge!

I understand that it's too much to ask that someone had a readymade wholesale ideology with which to replace capitalism. But if we make no demands, then we can expect to make no progress either. What's essential is the exercise of imagination beyond what is expedient, practical, or indeed attainable. If we refuse to take "no" for an answer, then we have to ask questions that cannot be answered thusly. Naturally, we don't want our goals reappropriated & assimilated by capitalism as it reforms & resurrects itself in response to the current crisis. But this, Howard Zinn would remind us, is a dilemma that leftists has faced before:
It is hard to say how many Socialists saw clearly how useful reform was to capitalism, but in 1912, a left-wing Socialist from Conneticut, Robert LaMonte... suggested that progressives would work for reforms, but Socialists must make only "impossible demands," which would reveal the limitations of the reformers. (A People's History of the United States, p.354)
That is, of course, assuming that Occupy Wall Street are sufficiently radical or ambitious to want something other than merely a kinder, cuddlier form of global capitalism.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Another Other

Today, walking home across western Tokyo, I strode past a pentagenarian Japanese man who was speaking heatedly with his elder friend on a quiet residential corner when suddenly, the man wheeled around, pointed at me and began barking, "Jew! Jew! Jew!"

This took me aback, not only because I've neither seen nor heard of such open antisemitism in Japan, but especially because I'm not Jewish.

What a schmuck.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Making a Killing

Death, it's been noted, is no surprise. And on a planet packed with 123 people per square mile, the numbers dropping by the day are dizzying. Still, it feels like I wake every other day to find some globally-important figure has slipped - or been shoved off - this mortal coil. A Saudi prince here, an asshole billionaire there. But I was thoroughly unprepared to begin Friday being gawked at by Qaddafi's droopy kabuki corpse-maw. Put me right off the strawberry yogurt I was eating for breakfast.

Surveying the online reaction, I was pleased to see the relative restraint across social media, as braying gaiety over Qaddafi's death was kept to a minimum. Given that Qaddafi was directly, provably responsible for more deaths & acts of international terrorism (cf. the Abu Salim massacre, Pan Am flights 103 and 73, UTA Flight 772, the 1986 La Belle bombing) than Osama Bin Laden was, I'd like to think that everyone had sobered up since the bloodlusty celebrations of Bin Laden's murder. Oh, I'd like to think that, but let's not be naïve - fewer people remember, and fewer still care, about Qaddafi's towering bodycount.

What jubilant chest-thumping there was came overwhelmingly from the liberal media - that is, the meager 10% of the media that actually is liberal. Most visibly, Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart attacked Republicans for refusing President Obama any credit for Qaddafi's demise. Of course, Olbermann & Stewart are correct that when, for example, Marco Rubio applauds the British & French for leading the charge into Libya, the GOP are playing politics by cynical omission, rather than giving credit where it is, in fact, due. But for men who built careers lambasting the illegal brutality of the last administration, Olbermann & Stewart - not to mention their acolytes - are unnervingly comfortable with the fact that their Nobel Laureate President's greatest legacy may very well be, in Stewart's own words, "his ability to rain targeted death from the sky." I can only imagine the righteous tongue-lashing Olbermann & Stewart would have given Bush when he signed Executive Order 13477, which restored the Libyan government's immunity from pending & future terrorism-related lawsuits. But in the mafioso logic of American exceptionalism, there's always room for another murder, as long as our guy is pulling the trigger.

It's this smug, fickle partisanship that makes our elected leaders so depressingly fungible. Meet the new boss...

Same as the old boss.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Déja-Vu Times Two

Both of the following albums were released in 1969, one in March, the other in November.

Care to guess which one came first? Here's a hint: one was a meticulously constructed masterpiece of elegiac beauty, and the other an anonymously cookie-cutter rehash of sub-Sly Stone funk with a snare sound thin enough to give your eardrum papercuts.

Also, listening to good ol' Bullhead earlier today, I'd forgotten how bald a ripoff of "It's Shoved" was Nirvana's "Milk It". Still, Grohl was about the only drummer whose "bigness" could match - even occasionally exceed - Dale Crover's.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Post-Alarm Call

In this world, the one thing that's never in short supply is outrage. An endless parade of idiocy & atrocity is never further away than your TV set, and is sometimes as close as outside your window. This is honestly among the reasons for my recent "sabbatical": between the Libyan civil war; the ongoing atrocities in Syria; the latest terrorist attack in Mogadishu; fresh unrest in Egypt; the Monsoon-induced flooding that has claimed hundreds of lives in Pakistan, Thailand, and Vietnam; the ascension of the latest feckless whipping-boy to the Japanese Prime Minister's seat; Rick Perry's impression of a yo-yo; and, I dunno, Beyoncé plagiarizing avant-garde European choreography, I was stricken by total outrage-option-paralysis. So many things to be angry about, so little time!

In context of the true horrors listed above, that the theatrical reaction to Steve Jobs' death finally drew me back to my keyboard proves it's always the little straws that break the camel's back. I find some small comfort in knowing that I'm not alone.

But between every shiny, bloody distraction, it's too easy to forget that in much of the world, the dull struggle of daily life is still a struggle. Yesterday marked the seven-month anniversary of the March 11 disaster here in Japan. Months may as well be millennia in the 24-hour hypecycle, so even the domestic Japanese media has turned their attention away from those still stricken in Tohoku, as Takao Yamada angrily noted in the Mainichi on Monday:
Of utmost urgency now are the evacuation of children, decontamination, and the installation of becquerel monitors to measure radiation levels in food. But meanwhile, in Tokyo, we're talking about economic growth and the export of nuclear technology, as if what's going on in Fukushima is somehow irrelevant to us. That, I believe, is simply wrong.
To that end, I'm currently attempting to assemble a short radio documentary about the recovery effort in Tohoku.

This is where I need your help.

Since I'm pitching the documentary to a Canadian broadcaster, the piece needs to focus on Canadian citizens who live & work in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures - those places hardest hit by the catastrophe. I want to focus not only on the disaster itself, but also its long-term & still-felt effects, the reconstruction & return to something like "normality", and governmental response to the disaster. That last notion could be, I think, the most instructive on how to proceed in Tohoku and future crises: not only are the Japanese generally dissatisfied with how their own government has reacted, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that Canadian citizens felt more or less abandoned by their own government during a moment of desperate need. It's easy to see why, given that the bulk of the Canadian government's support to Japan was not monetary, or even military, but "moral".

So far, though, I've had little luck in finding anyone willing to speak about their experiences. If any of you reading this, through however many degrees of separation, know a Canuck in northern Japan who might be interested in sharing their experiences, please have them contact me by the e-mail address in the upper-right of this blog (under my profile pic). I'd be most grateful for their conversation.

In the meantime, it warrants mention that a friend & I organized a noise-improv gig back in March to benefit friends of ours up north. A recording of that show is available as a paid download, with all proceeds continuing to Red Cross Japan & other local charities involved in the recovery effort. As an album, it doesn't make for particularly easy listening, but these days, very little in Japan comes easily.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

We Are All Big Brother

As my existence in meatspace has elaborated & unfolded into an every-wider array of activities & obligations, I've felt less guilty for letting this space lapse into occasional torpor. There's always some guilt, given that I know there are a few kind individuals on the other side of the internet who actually pay attention to, think about, and even respond to my self-indulgent wortschwall. I honestly enjoy their participation and so feel neglectful, even ungrateful, whenever my side of the conversation slips into silence.

Some of my friends - real friends, not "friends" or Friends™ - ask why it's been so long since I last posted regularly on this blog, to which I can only reply, "Because I'm talking to you right fucking now!" Point taken, they suggest that perhaps I sign up for Twitter or Tumblr and start "microblogging" if full essays are too burdensome. But I find that thinking & conversing in bite-sized nuggets leads to a kind of mental constipation. Besides, I don't have a cellphone (the ultimate act of roguish delinquency here in Japan) to enable such incessant content-regurgitation.

So reality took precedence over my online presence for the past couple of months. A significant factor was that my band's current effort to release a record had turned into a blunder-plagued clusterfuck. (You know you're in trouble when your contact at the record-pressing plant is an accountant, not a technician.) But the bulk of my time offline has been on the road: my band has played more shows over the preceding month than we did all of last year. However, it wasn't simply that incessant touring kept me away from the computer and that explains my absence; there was a particular phenomenon recurrent on the road that made me want as much distance from cyberspace as I could get.

Over the past two years in Japan, Twitter has gone from marginal novelty to ubiquitous modus vivendi: the estimated number of Japanese "tweeters" exploded from a mere 200,000 in January '09 to over 16 million by August '10. Japan holds the current record of 6,939 "tweets-per-second" and sends around 14% of all "tweets" despite comprising only 8% of Twitter's user base.

This can produce some peculiar social dynamics in the "real" world. I've lost count of how often I find myself sat at a table, surrounded by friends, utterly ignored as they, every one of 'em, thumb-tap away on their Twitter accounts to tell thousands of anonymous voyeurs what a kick-ass time we're all having "together."

But that's simply a dull annoyance. What I find disturbing is, thanks to the Japanese fondness for interminate & omnivorous tweeting, I've been assimilated into the Twitterverse without even trying. This past July, I was chatting with some acquaintances after a show in Nagoya. In the midst of the usual catch-up chit-chat, one of them asked me, "So how did you like your lunch? It looked super-American!"

I didn't quite understand. "Super-American?"

"Yeah, you know - your wife prepared you a lunchbox with pizza and a green apple. That's a totally American thing to eat for lunch; Japanese would never eat pizza for lunch!"

My initial offense at being mistaken for an American was very quickly overcome by befuddled panic: how did they, a relative stranger, know what I'd eaten for lunch in such detail? Yes, I had eaten pizza & a green apple that my wife had stuffed into tupperware for me, but I'd done so sat under a tree in a rest area 120 miles away from Nagoya in the company of only my band's bassist...

Then it hit me. "Ken put a picture of my lunch on Twitter, didn't he?"

This was only first of what have become regular intrusions on my quotidian activities that I'd like to think were autonomous & anonymous. Last week, I arrive in Nara after an overnight drive to discover that a fellow traveler had shared a snapshot of my slumbering form with his 1,500 Twitter followers. This isn't to say that on-the-road naps & snacks are embarrassing in & of themselves, but it's upsetting that even such boring & inconsequential activities cannot escape the all-seeing eye of the electronic multitude.

The obsequious cliché is that if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear, but the nefarious implication therein is that if you did have something to hide, you wouldn't be able to. The flipside of the superficial "empowerment" of social media's self-expressive potential is that it creates a volunteer surveillance state. There is no need for informants, spies, or state-sponsored treachery when citizens opt-in to the Panopticon - a truth sadly demonstrated by how the Iranian government turned the 2009 "Twitter Revolution" against itself in its crackdown upon self-documenting dissidents.

Insofar as "rights" are merely privileges bestowed by the state upon its subjects, privilege cannot exist except in contrast with its opposite, penury. As Jean Baudrillard argued in The Consumer Society, "rights" become legally sanctified only at the point that they become recognizable by their punctuated & selective absence:
This whole phenomenon, which seems to express a general individual and collective advance, rewarded in the end with embodiment in institutions, is ambiguous in its meaning and one might, as it were, see it as representing quite the opposite: there is no right to space until there no longer is space for everyone, and until space and silence are the privilege of some at the expense of others. Just as there was no `right to property' until there was no longer land for everyone and there was no right to work until work became, within the framework of the division of labour, an exchangeable commodity, i.e. one which no longer belonged specifically to individuals.
This is certainly why arguments about the "right to privacy" have become more commonplace & heated concomitant with the rise of the internet & global telecommunications. As opposed to privacy of physical property (the long-enshrined fundament of liberal democracy), privacy of deed & thought are of greater value & concern the more impossible they become under the ever-widening purview of the self-imposed surveillance state.

To the extent that I expose myself online, I may be justifiably subject to ridicule, argument, censure, or acclaim much the same as I may be for picking a fight in a convenience store, being a drunken lech at a wedding reception, or helping an old lady cross the street. We're judged by our public performance, online and off. What has changed is that I - we - no longer have control over which aspects of our lives are subject to public scrutiny, because even if I choose not to broadcast a certain deed or thought across the internet, I cannot stop my friends/"friends"/Friends™ from doing just that.

Friday, October 07, 2011

iCame, iSaw, iConquered

Come December, I'll be curious to see whose death ends up earning more year-in-review ink: that of Osama Bin Laden or Steve Jobs. For now, I just feel bad that Bert Jansch was robbed of his last moment in the spotlight.

The only thing I feel about Jobs' sudden passing is surprise at how quickly it followed his resignation as Apple's CEO. Perhaps this is another instance of how intimately entwined are sense of purpose and will to live. Jack Layton, for example, took the New Democratic Party of Canada from a marginal parliamentary presence to the official opposition in a single election and was dead within a couple of months. Even T.E. Lawrence - a man whose feats of endurance & military daring read like pulp fantasy - was scarcely two months into his retirement when he met an ignominious end in a minor traffic accident.

Beyond that pseudo-philosophical chinstroke... so what? Can't say I particularly care. But judged by the online tsunami of farcical grief, I am starkly in the minority. So maudlin & wracked is the tenor of the bereaved I'd have thought that all these people were personal friends of Steve Jobs, that he'd brought them chicken soup on a cold November night, that he'd awarded their kids college scholarships, that he'd given sight to their blinded-by-moonshine great aunt.

But no, they are not a one his friend. They aren't Steve Jobs' acquaintances, they're his customers, his consumers.

Lest we forget that Apple is a corporate behemoth whose liquidity exceeds that of even the world's largest national economy. Lest we forget that Apple is a technocratic Goliath which dodges corporate taxes and whose idea of "healthcare coverage" extends to suicide-prevention nets but barely any further. Unlike his oft-maligned doppleganger, Steve Jobs is not a philanthropist - he's a corporate padrino whose brilliance lies less in innovation than elaboration & refinement - making borrowed ideas better. Apple's very first personal computers (the Lisa and the Macintosh) were little more than liberal imitations of the Xerox Alto. Similarly, Jobs did not invent a GUI platform to (re-)distribute digitized music, but he did figure out how to monetize one.

The true genius of Jobs was his aestheticization of appliances. He transformed utilitarian machines into the fully syntactic symbols of a lifestyle; his public-relations alchemy made technological amenities into elite totems. Between his products & his customers, Jobs fostered not just a relation but a relationship - a transubstantiation presented literally in those anthropomorphic "I'm a Mac" TV ads.

At least the UK got to watch the guys from Peep Show make smug pricks of themselves.

Anyway, this explains why Jobs' death is a big deal beyond the business section. A man like Philo T. Farnsworth arguably had a more revolutionary effect on daily life, but Steve Jobs was a man with whom people felt they had a personal relationship, a friend who had enriched their lives & enabled them to unleash their expressive potential. It's no exaggeration to say Jobs' death has elicited a despair whose scale and substance are equivalent to - perhaps even greater than - the passing of the Pope. Within a mere hour of the news, floral tributes were piling up outside Apple stores the world over. Social media was more choked with endless inspirational quotes than a Deepak Chopra book. The grief was so sensational it would've been considered too stagy for a Broadway musical.

Against this backdrop, the latest essay on Adam Curtis' blog made for some serendipitous reading: in his endless trawl of audio-visual archives, Curtis has managed to trace the evolution of demonstrative emotion on TV. Within barely a generation between the '50s and '70s, spilling one's guts on air went from being anathema - "shameful agony" - to the necessary signifier of human authenticity. This sentimental overflow has become a carved-in-stone commandment not only of broadcast media, but of western social relations in general. However, Curtis warns that this hysterical style of emotional "authenticity" may actually be anything but:
There is a creeping sense of someone pretending to have the emotions that are expected of them. And in this way hiding their true feelings even further below the surface. Or maybe the truth is even more disturbing - that there are lots of things that people live through and experience that they just don't have emotions about.
As irrational psychic ephemera, emotions are difficult to understand and even harder to reproduce convincingly - particularly positive, sympathetic emotions. This is why tearful confessions & expectorating fist-fights became mainstays of daytime television far earlier than the joyful hug-orgies & triumphal backslapping of more recent shows like The Amazing Race or American Idol. So how did gushing exuberance become part of the public's expressive mode? Curtis points to the rise of "self-help" and collaborative craft shows like Trading Spaces and its British counterpart, Changing Rooms:
I think the man that really brought the hug into British television in a big way was the producer Peter Bazalgette. His genius was to spot that the idea of transforming yourself as a person could be intimately linked to transforming the things around you - starting with the rooms in your house.

I think the first real hugs of these kind began in the series Changing Rooms in the mid 90s.

The original revolutionary idea had been that by changing yourself emotionally as a person you would then change society. Bazalgette created an easier and quicker variation. By simply changing the physical things around you - you could then change your inner feelings and became a better and more expressive human being.

Wallpaper as redemption.
Steve Jobs understood this perfectly. By emphasizing his products' artful design, and by casting them as tools of creative composition, Jobs enabled his consumers to feel they were more fully-realized, expressive individuals thanks to him.

What I find disturbing is that, by surrounding themselves with beautiful expensive objects that encourage a melodramatic solipsism, people are encouraged to construct & occupy their own private fantasy wherein the crueler aspects of reality are not allowed. No one wants to feel bad. No one wants to struggle with criticism, dissent, violence, or acrimony. This relentlessly positive self-regard creates the illusion of a cozy but false consensus: by engaging only with the familiar & agreeable, we diminish our ability to cope with difference. Think different, but not so different that it unsettles you.

This is why there is no such thing as a "Dislike" button.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

It Lives!

About to haul this donkey-cart of ill-begotten thoughts back onto the trail and keep moving. Please excuse the cobwebs.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Adieu to the Bon Jack

A sad day for Canada as the country loses its finest politician & a genuinely decent human being aside: rest in peace, Jack Layton.

Meanwhile, Muammar Gaddafi: still not fucking dead. Where indeed is the justice in this cockamamie punchline of a world.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hiding In Plane Sight

The second I go off the grid, several new holes erupt in civilization's creaky, buckled hull. A delusional white supremacist single-handedly shell-shocks Norway; England explodes; and Malawi - my parents' current place of residence - takes a big, bloody stride towards becoming yet another penny-ante despotism. And to think my greatest personal concern for the past three weeks has been a single sickly bat fluttering about the rafters of a drafty cabin in rural Nova Scotia.

I'm going to have to work overtime upon my return to Tokyo to tap out appropriate responses to all of the above (not to mention my recent take-down of John Maus has unexpected renewed relevance and could benefit from further examination). For now, though, it's 1:14am in Vancouver and my wife is pleading with me to turn out the lights, so I'll leave you with an ornery screed I sent a friend from within the grey bowels of the San Francisco airport...

Well, instead of an 8-hour layover in your fair local airport, our inbound flight was 3 hours late and consequently we're stuck in the terminal without any open amenities or services and - because this is fucking California - nowhere to smoke. Fer chrissakes, if I could either smoke or get a cup of coffee, I wouldn't be one wry comment away from a Chris Benoit-class air-rage episode.

At least there's free wi-fi, so I thought I'd wax insomniac a bit about the flight into San Francisco tonight. Good god, it was sold-out economy cabin of living clichés. You'd couldn't have written a harder-stereotyped cross-section of the Bay Area populace. Towards the front of the cabin was a twentysomething black dude reppin' Oakland a bit too hard; also, the long-suffering wife of some Silicon Valley luminary was struggling to corral a newborn & a vaguely bratty toddler. (How do I know she was married to a tech-head? Who else would put an iPod on her infant, an iPad in the hands of a 4-year-old, and not stop talking ever on her fucking iPhone?) In front of me where two late-'30s first-time parents percolating with excessive pride in their bulge-eyed free-range baby which made disturbingly animalistic noises and was mostly charming until he shat himself with an hour left in the flight.

I was sat next to a young Russian blonde who was reading a book titled Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? and, despite being on the chapter about "Managing Social Distance", totally blanked me the whole flight. She had a mole like an anti-melanoma PSA behind her right shoulder. Two rows behind were a couple who weren't really a couple, having just met each other in the departure lounge, and broadcast the arc of their burgeoning flirt-friendship in loud, smug conversation. She actually hissed at the TV screens during the welcome message from United's new CEO, before going on at length about (despite "not really being into nationalism") responsibly representing her country & her gender during her Peace Corps stint in southern Ghana. He reciprocated with anecdotes of his time in Beijing. He was wearing these glasses. By the time the plane had landed, the two had moved on to lovingly (if critically) describing their parents and talking about their "really, like, totally healthy" relationship with their mother's French lesbian partner.

Currently sat amongst a planeful of furious passengers awaiting their connection to Dallas-Ft. Worth. I'm going in search of coffee somewhere in this Dantean mezzanine.

Friday, July 22, 2011

In Collusion With Virgin Trains

Everyone laughs at that perennially-quoted quip from The Big Lebowski - you know the one, The Dude's weary reprimand that "You're not wrong, Walter, you're just an asshole." Everyone laughs. But a few among us wish Walter would've shot back at Lebowski: "Yeah? So?"

A happy-49th tip of my hat to six-string strangler, sound engineer, and celebrated food blogger Steve Albini, a man whose initials might as well be embroidered on my own bag of tricks. May cultural politesse continue to tremble in his presence.

Friday, July 15, 2011

I'm In a Good Mood Today

How good? This good.

Speaking of musicians who got sleeve-tattoos of their influences yet were "ferociously and utterly contemporary"...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Looking For a Spectrum Within a Singularity

Since Ariel Pink loudly shat himself onstage earlier this year, the hipoisie have turned their attention to his former collaborator (and philosophy prof - bonus points!) John Maus. It came as no surprise that Pitchfork yawped and I yawned at Maus' latest release for more or less the same reasons: coyly blurring the borders between "Top 40 cheese [and] ironic cool"; using his academic stature to silhouette otherwise vague & swampy songwriting; and an album title that sounds like a try-hard undergrad thesis that would prompt derisive laughter before being suffocated in red ink.

Like so many of his '80s-pop-pilfering peers, Maus' reviews are peppered with allusions - which is unavoidable, given how openly derivative Maus' music is. For example, both the song & video for his "Believer" single are basically Spectrum's "How You Satisfy Me" if Pete Kember had handed vocal duties off to Ian McCulloch. But as Adam Harper has pointed out, Maus is not only apologetic but proud of resurrecting bygone sounds:
I don't see this as a returning, I see this as a palette that we have to work with. These sounds are part of the vernacular. I resist this idea that we somehow move on to 'better' sounds. It's not about nostalgia or some kind of remembering, at least not consciously for me; it's what the work necessitates.

...I think it's supremely contemporary to use these so called 'nostalgic' effects, in the sense of the contemporary being out of joint with the moment in some way.
Which begs the question of when the contemporary has been anything other than "out of joint." This is one of problems I have with the hauntology "movement" (I suppose "stasis" would be a more appropriate term): it's indistinguishable from stock post-modernism in its cherry-picked anachronism, and suggests that the march of history was, until recently, a linear narrative untroubled by cataclysm, disruption, sudden exits, and unexpected entrances. Time is more wrinkled than Rupert Murdoch's brow; history is a slapdash patchwork of unmatched epochs; the contemporary has always been out of joint. The difference is that now we've the time, access, and materials to retreat from the future's shock-&-awe into the warm embrace of nostalgia.

But I agree wholeheartedly that we don't necessarily "move on to 'better' sounds" and that the past bequeaths artifacts & ideas that "warrant exploration right now, here, today." But Maus is being too generous in describing '80s synth-pop as a "palette." Imagining an Alesis drum machine & Yamaha DX-7 constitute a "palette" is as coarse and reductive as remembering the 1950s as America's Golden Age while conveniently forgetting segregation, patriarchy, the Korean War, and McCarthyism. It's not a palette, it's a colour.

If Maus and others wished to be heard as anything other than nostalgic tribute acts, they'll have to far less conservative in their pillage of the past. There have been musicians (e.g. Public Enemy or Amon Tobin) whose music has been constructed solely of samples, of existent material, of second-hand semiotics, yet has sounded ferociously and utterly contemporary. This is because they imposed no limits upon their source material: if it sounded good, it was fair game. Panning for gold across every decade and genre, then melting it down into a single white-hot mass - that is what made their music so unmistakably immediate: a total implosion of temporality. However, once too much attention or emphasis is put upon any particular source of antiquated inspiration, the trap of retro-referentiality has sunken its teeth into you.

Man, I'd better post something about music I enjoy soon, otherwise everyone's going to think my sole preoccupation is shitting on other people's enthusiasm.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy Something Something

I know there's some epochal event being celebrated today... but for the life of me I can't remember what it is. The Bolshevik murder of Tsar Nicholas II?

No, that's not right. The opening of the Tuskeegee Institute? The birth of the Crab Nebula? The ascension of the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire?

Oh! Silly me, how could I possibly have been so mistaken. Happy 201st Anniversary of the French Occupation of Amsterdam, everyone! Cassez-vous, the Dutch!

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Phoning It In

The overwrought pageantry that passes for political punditry is so hackneyed & calculated, it's a wonder anyone pretends to be surprised anymore. Everyone so desperately admires & awaits a Howard Beale or Barry Champlain moment, forgetting (or ignoring) how expertly stage-managed & corralled by corporate interests those fictional "mavericks" were. Thus audience & broadcaster alike have managed to turn yet another non-event - Glenn Beck's exit from the Fox News network - into frothing political scopophilia.

Personally, I could give a fuck, not the least because I live outside America and have no TV or radio. More importantly, Beck himself is not special: his is a role to be filled by whatever appropriately attention-hungry ex-cokehead lunges hardest towards the microphone. But, as I explained last month in an e-mail to a friend, I'd had an appalling premonition about Beck's next step:
Beck can get the fuck off the air already. The only thing I'm worried about now is that, for his next act, he'll undergo some histrionic "crisis of faith" in the conservative movement and refashion himself into a pseudo-libertarian leftist and everyone will eat that shit right up. Don't think it can't happen! Ariana Huffington pulled off that stunt with startling efficacy (though I believe she's far more sincere than Beck has ever been).
But surely such a mawkish turn would be so transparent & tacky, no one would fall for it, right? I mean, come on. Yet, yet, yet, as I click across to Crooks & Liars this morning, what do I see atop the front page?
Beck on Republicans: 'I hate them'
Well, stomp on frogs 'n' shove a crowbar up mah nose! Who'da fucking thunk it. As good forgive-and-forget liberals, we should presently, if prudently, embrace the Fox News rodeo clown, not only for his dubious disillusionment with both mainstream political parties, but because Beck is (now) solidly against extraordinary rendition:
"Ghost planes - we're picking people up in the middle of the night. We're saying talk to us or we're going to drop you off over in Egypt. That's insane... We don't stand for anything."
Beck is unconvinced of the efficacy of state-sponsored kidnapping & torture (for which legal repercussions have just been forever swept off the table). Welcome to the club, buddy! Everyone against zapping civilians' scrotii with car batteries gets a gold star! If you disapprove of kidnapping, you get a cookie! How about this: as long as we're doling out special credit for shit you're supposed to do, can I get extra sprinkles on my sundae given that I've resisted the temptation to chainsaw off my neighbour's head & fuck his wife?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Just One More Thing...

Generally, I'm suspicious of people who are diligent in cataloging the birthdays & deaths of the better-known among us. It betrays an insipid nostalgia and a cloying, desperate hope that they themselves will one day be remembered fondly & eulogized flatteringly. Death: get over it, eh? But at the risk of hypocrisy, I can't allow this to slip by unnoticed...

Fare thee well, Peter Falk. I can't convey with any dignity or elegance how much I genuinely fucking love Columbo. I've not been so mortified since Patrick McGoohan's passing.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Solitaire With a Deck of Fifty-One

Hey, why haven't you been writing anything on your blog recently?

Uh... wait, you actually read my blog?

Well, yeah, it was kinda interesting back during that whole earthquake/tsunami clusterfuckalypse. Not to mention you're one of the top hits on Google searches for "I Hate Animal Collective", "lonesome cosmonaut", and "Thijs Van Leer".* But you've more or less vanished recently, what's up?

Well, I've been busy. Most of May was recording, then it was mixing, and now it's back to gigging. I'm spending my birthday playing some nicotine-tarred, beer-stank basement outside an American military base. Which has a certain unshaven charm to it, but I'd rather just stay at home, eat some cake, and listen to this Harmonia record my wife got me. Then play it backwards to see if there's any discernable dissemblance.

That's your excuse? Two months of near total silence because you're playing with microphones and compressors? Dude, Steve motherfuckin' Albini has engineered over a thousand records and he still finds time for a food blog.

Yeah, well, that's why he's Steve Albini and I'm not. Besides, when it came time to mix my own band's album, no one had a clue what they wanted it to sound like - roomy & loose? Cold & claustrophobic? Aspirationally big? It was a long road with many detours and much backtracking.

Why not write about the whole process of making an album then?

No. Certainly not before the album's actually out. The only thing duller than specialized tech-talk is when there isn't even any music to supplement the conversation.

So that's really it, you've just been locked indoors de-essing vocals and tweaking spring reverb for six weeks?

And look how stir-crazy it's made me: I've started thinking in duologue with some phantasmic other! But recently, I also finished reading a couple of books about the internet's oppressive demand for participation and its dilution of politics. Hell, Adam Curtis just aired a new documentary series about that very subject.

That was pretty good. Except for the second episode, it lacked the narrative cohesion of his earlier work, but they can't all be home runs.

Ain't that the truth.

So you've been a bit put off of self-important polemics & pop-cultural diatribes?

I mean, how much can I really contribute to the juvenile snickering or Malcolm Tuckerish political spinning of Weinergate?

I will, however, say this about last week's riot in Vancouver: watching the chaos unfurl on live TV, it was striking that news anchors repeatedly referred to the drunken miscreants as "protestors". Protesting what? That Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo played with all the skill of three pool noodles roped together? I don't know if it was an unfortunate tongue-slip or deliberate semiotic sculpture, but either way, it's disturbing to see that "protest" being impoverished as a legitimate tool of political struggle by directly associating the word with boozy troglodytes burning cars and smashing storefronts.

Sure enough, slanderous suggestions that the chaos was in fact an opportunist operation by the Black Bloc have proven completely false: it was the work of a bunch of beer-soaked bourgeois kids who were looking for an excuse to explode.

It's interesting to see the role social media played in the riot: on one hand, the mere presence of hundreds of gawkers wielding iPhone cameras must have egged on the more ambitiously destructive delinquents; on the other, the excess of close-range documentation did away with the anonymity of the crowd, effectively unmasking & shaming those who did the most damage. Do you think-

Look, that's a topic that absolutely merits more discussion, but I've gotta pack my gear for the gig tonight.

Okay, go on then. Well, come back soon and keep writing. If nothing else, you need the mental exercise if you're spending so much time locked indoors away from summer's swelter. Oh, and happy birthday!


* - I'm not making this up.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Not All Thoughts Turn To Words

Curious seekers that they are, musicians' creative intentions often bleed into other idioms, and then the trouble starts. Even backed by the full might of the publicity machine, few musicians are admired for their literary prowess, thespian skill, or political acumen. For every Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson, or Peter Garrett, there's a thousand Nikki Sixxes, Mariah Careys, or Bonos. The sense of entitlement that follows massive success in a specific field is the most obvious motivation for these multimedia misadventures, but it's also partially a problem of genre: rock & pop are deliberately simplistic & populist forms that often discourage experimentation or analysis. The purposeful, studious effort required to excel in any art form is likely onerous to anyone who just wants to rock.

Sometimes it works the other way: skills cultivated within a certain musical style translate well into other milieus. It's no surprise that as skilled a lyricist as Jay-Z is a decent author & thoughtful commentator; similarly, since hip-hop is all about embodying a persona, MCs often make far more convincing actors (e.g. Ice Cube, Mos Def) than musicians of other genres (e.g. Jack White, Jon Bon Jovi, Sting, etc) - though I imagine anyone who saw Get Rich Or Die Trying or How High would beg to differ.

It may be expecting too much for successful musicians to be skilled in other artistic forms. It's a reasonable assumption that someone chooses a specific mode of communication because it comes the most naturally to them. As the art most directly related to pure sensation, music is an expression of the inarticulable. Perhaps that's why the majority of musicians flex all the verbal dexterity & rapier wit of Koko the gorilla after chugging a handle of cheap Vodka.

I'd prefer artists were at least as lucid as their audience in discussing their art. Unfortunately, there's little in a musician's quotidian routine that would necessarily encourage aesthetic, philosophical, or political inquiry. The internet is an infinitely resonant echo chamber, packed with pop-cultural detritus, from which any musician can hand-pick a grab-bag of references & aesthetic allusions without having to confront said references' original context. Consequently, Lady Gaga can name-drop Andy Warhol & Nietzsche all she likes, but her "smartest" song is barely equivalent to forebear David Bowie's dumbest.

More importantly, the current means of recording have placed an undue emphasis upon the production - as opposed to the composition - of music. As digital technology has made world-class recording tools accessible to the masses, professional recording studios with veteran engineers have become frivolous luxury. So musicians must now craft their own sound-worlds from scratch, unaided, even if they've never so much as plugged in a microphone before. The fashion in which their music is captured & represented is arguably of greater concern than even songwriting.

This, unfortunately, leads to amateurish & underachieving performances of amateurish & underachieving tunes, because it's the only music that withstands amateurish & underachieving recordings. The post-JAMC lo-fi rock 'n' roll revival has been fueled by the fact that it's the only full-band sub-genre that doesn't sound like shit recorded one track at a time using only an SM57. I'd also argue the availability & ease of sequencing & sampling software like Fruity Loops has inculcated the moronic anti-lyricism so prevalent in contemporary hip-hop. Lo-fi, once an obstacle to be surmounted, has become a nostalgic aesthetic retreat for the musically unambitious.

This isn't to say that seasoned engineers make excellent musical directors. Gear-heads are notoriously coarse in their appreciation of aesthetics, since they can find something equally praise-worthy in either Pet Sounds (nice doubling of the piano & accordian!) or Linkin Park (excellent gating on the guitars!). But the musician-engineer relationship provided a valuable & effective division of labour: the musicians were left to focus on their artistic vision, unperturbed by technical considerations, and engineers employed their scientific savvy to faithfully capture & frame the musicians' sound-world.

Obviously, much of the best music is a synthesis songwriting and production, but it's almost never the result of vague intuition or ham-fisted fuckin' around. Those leading lights equally famed for their musical and technical prowess - Quincy Jones, Brian Eno, Steve Albini - began as musicians and gradually developed their own production styles by being inquisitive, assimilating experience, and spending a lot of time in studios. It's precisely because of their intellectual curiosity that polymaths not only craft some of the most interesting music, but are more engaging in discussion. Intellectual laziness breeds artistic laziness, which in turn spawns boring albums and bad interviews.