Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hermeneutic Hem & Haw

Boredom is time's parasite, suckling & growing stronger in tandem with its host. Boredom is the devil on time's shoulder, advocate of ill deeds for the sake of novelty. In its unending quest for surprise & sensation, the human brain finds a special joy in complication and, unfortunately, the greatest trick boredom plays upon the conscious is making convolution almost indistinguishable from experimentation & exploration.

This is the boondoggle of cultural theory: where does purposeful deconstruction end and abstract masturbation begin? Beyond what boundary does analysis dissolve into self-serving shit-talking?

The more time spent pursuing a given subject, connections will be made to, and curiosity will be invested in, tangential areas of interest. I've yet to meet a graphic designer who wasn't also an impeccable dresser, or an archeologist who preferred the confines of the classroom to digging in the dirt. This is how hobbies become careers and how nerds become critics & cultural theorists.

Post-modernism was given popular currency by Generation-Xers who made a fetish of their mass-media-steeped childhoods. More recently, the portmanteau hauntology has been claimed by counter-cultural early adopters in England, as it invokes a spectral, analog, left-leaning potential they glimpsed during their childhoods, subsequently trampled under thirty years of digital & neoliberal hegemony. Meanwhile, the current proliferation of horror-movie & black-metal theory is the obvious product of an early-'90s adolescence locked in basement bedrooms, losing sleep to John Carpenter flicks & Cannibal Corpse albums.

But at what point do the questions become excessive? Is Watchmen actually just fairly crap science fiction? Is The Big Lebowski really "about" anything? Wasn't G.G. Allin just a raging asshole? "Sometimes a pig is just a pig."

This month, I'm working on the sound design & musical score for a zombie movie by some friends of mine. Brief mention of this endeavor prompted an acquaintance to wax philosophic about how Japanese horror films, with their ubiquitous onryō, attest to a culture irredeemably haunted by a past from which it's been traumatically severed. By the time he unfurled his interpretation of Versus as an elegy for bushido, I had to meekly explain that, actually, the film I'm working on is just a slapstick punch-up between zombies having a picnic.

But I'm more often on the receiving end of such conversational shut-downs. My latest micro-screed about The Arcade Fire caught the attention of a former high-school classmate, who closed a decade-plus gap in correspondence with the following communiqué:
don't you think you're getting a little old for this "my opinion is the only opinion" crap?
Clearly, she's never heard of Robert Christgau. But to be fair, why would a margin-walker like myself care about mainstream rock stars receiving mainstream acclaim? As I elaborated in the comment thread, my problem specifically with The Arcade Fire has to do with their histrionic populism & pseudo-dissident posturing. Their pose as a "true alternative," as an irreverent fringe element convinces their audience that they - both the band and its fan base - are far more artistically fearless & politically radical than they actually are. The Arcade Fire are musical Soma, tethering listeners' imaginations to a beige middleground.

Mind you, the audience often doesn't care to be fooled into thinking themselves audacious or unconventional - they're perfectly happy with a toe-tappin' beat and a karaoke chorus, thank you very much. It'd be silly to expect dogmatic vanguardism of everyone, given that most people have concerns more pressing than music. It's disappointing, though, to see those who have as much as (if not more than) I invested in music being lazy as listeners to the point of belittling the sonically inquisitive. I was surprised, for example, to see Simon Reynolds chuck the following barb at cult icon Scott Walker:
I thought, yes, yes, a campaign petitioning Walker to stop recording angst-wracked avant-garde Masterpieces (that you never feel like playing) and write/sing/release an actual, you know, tune
...which is a silly complaint, not the least because we already know what Scott Walker courting the mainstream, dutifully trend-hopping, adopting & discarding musical personae, would sound like: David Bowie. And is anyone particularly pleased with the self-impersonating mediocrity into which Bowie and so many other over-50 rockers settled? Worse still, what sadist would doom Walker to spend his autumn years grudgingly running through the Belgian bagatelle "Jackie" for the millionth time? (Besides Marc Almond, of course.)

I also feel there's a slight double-standard at work, hinging on the Scott Walker brand. Let's imagine The Drift had been released as the new Swans album, exchanging Walker's honeyed croon for Michael Gira's croakier baritone. Walker's always been framed as a wounded bourgeois romantic and consequently never had much rebel cachet, whereas Gira has long been cast as one of rock's great primitivists. Thus, my guess is that those who wish Walker hadn't stretched conventions any further than "Plastic Palace People" would absolutely puke superlatives over The Drift, were it released under the Swans imprimatur.

I also suspect one of the reasons that Reynolds dislikes Scott Walker's recent work is that it's "inside baseball": the only people who will listen to a song from the perspective of Mussolini's dead mistress are the kind of people who actively seek such esoterica. Put another way: the only people who listen to Einstürzende Neubauten are the ones who can spell the band's name. Junk culture, on the other hand, can potentially infect a larger audience than any deliberately high-minded art-house fare. Most people don't know what "post-serialist composition" is, but many of them have heard it in The Shining, Shutter Island, even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

This is why junk culture is such a potent target for criticism. Art is never apolitical, ergo within even the most apparently banal & crass cultural detritus lurk multiple meanings & encrypted themes. Critical overreach can imbue easily-dismissed dreck with radical portent, as in Zizek's famous rendering of They Live! as covert Marxist screed. Intellectual rigor can also guard against more dangerous & reactionary subtexts: the Saw series, for example, was clearly an attempt to anesthetize American audiences to scenes of gruesome torture so that when Abu Ghraib blew up, it was met with raised eyebrows instead of shrieking outrage.

Critical overreach will not always produce useful or true results, but critical underreach never will. The only caveat is to temper evaluative exercise with a healthy heap of self-skepticism. As I've mentioned before, obscurantist indulgence is often a smokescreen for personal fancy, "a far more noble & ego-inflating position for a writer, rather than have to admit that, for reasons as inarticulable & irrational as emotions, they just don't dig something."

Monday, February 14, 2011

To the Delight of Caucasian Dullards Everywhere

Well, look who took home top prize at the music industry's annual closed-circle-jerk. Doubtlessly, such an achievement by a 1.3 million-selling band that has licensed its songs to major corporations, has performed at private functions for political insiders, and whose record label doesn't happen to have a corporate parent, will be hailed as another culture-industry equivalent to David taking down Goliath. Backslaps all around, you smug pricks!

Honestly, who is excited by this band any more? Scratch that - who ever thought an anemic, sphincter-clenching hybrid of "Once In a Lifetime" and "Born To Run" was a good idea? I swear, anyone thrilled by the Arcade Fire's coronation at the Cocksucker's Ball is such a boring, beige-souled, conservative bastard that they'd have similarly picked Tom Jones' "Green, Green Grass of Home" over anything off Revolver for Record of the Year 1966.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011


And I thought the Super Bowl was Imperial America's own Nürnberg pageant even before I saw Fergie's absurd technotopian S&M outfit.

Fourth-and-ten macht frei!

In an unrelated story, I found the most perfectly succinct encapsulation of indie culture's nostalgic self-cannibalization:
Damn it I miss the 90's. I need to move to portland.
Commenting on this video, naturally. And evidently feeling no shame in re-viewing the most embarrassing & amateur music video by revered countercultural icons since "Dancing In the Street".

Oh, and why no long-form rants or raves recently? Honestly, the still-unfolding situation in Egypt is crushing my mind grapes, and there's already enough analysis - both good and batshit lunatic - to choke a pelican. Meditating upon (speaking of embarrassment) Jesus Jones' "Right Here, Right Now", Simon Reynolds addressed the awkwardness of watching the gears of history shift from a safe seat on the sofa:
he sings "right here right now, there is no other place I want to be"

but "right here" = sat on a sofa, in front of a screen

what's changed in the 20 years since that song is that the real-time mediation of politics has been amped up so drastically that there's an even more electrifying and involving illusion of witnessing History

which is where the temptation to pontificate comes in... because to analyse and "take a position" seems active, a contribution of some kind
...which, of course, it bloody well isn't. I'm not dodging American-made tear gas canisters whilst dragging armed goons off their camels; I'm sitting in a heated apartment wondering which Nick Cave record I want to listen to next. I'm in greater danger of being hit by a North Korean nuke than of being trampled in an anti-government riot. I'm sitting pretty. The temptation to pontificate is only so seductive because it involves no actual risk on my part. So I'm keeping my mouth fucking shut.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Gip, Gip, Hooray!

In (dis)honour of what would've been Ronnie's centennial, please take note of Tim Kreider's reflections upon Reagan's passing in 2004:
If there was any justice in this world his Presidential Library would contain nothing but boys' adventure books and bad cowboy movies, and the only things named after him would be shopping malls and Potter's Fields. Let the earth where he is buried be seeded with salt.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Today's Aphorism

Anyone who complains that their "tweet" was misread, has misread Twitter altogether.