Saturday, December 29, 2007

Top 10 Lists

Let's take a look at several top ten lists.
Time magazine 1
Time magazine 2
Entertainment Weekly 1 and 2
The Onion

I am not going to agree/disagree with these lists (how boring!), but I want to see if we can find some idea of the cultural logic that generates them.

Here's a summary:
Movies that were voted #1:
No Country for Old Men (4)
I'm not There (1)
Michael Clayton (1)
There Will be Blood (2)

The most common (composite) list would be, in no order:
No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, I'm not There, No End in Sight, Once, Zodiac, Sweeney Todd, Michael Clayton, Atonement, and Persepolis. (Possibly The Lives of Others and the Assassination of Jesse James would be in the last spot.)

The most interesting aspect is (you'll notice there is more than one list for each publication) how the lists from one publication mirror each other fairly closely. Time Magazine liked In The Valley of Elah, a film which appeared on none of the other lists; there is a near-consensus at the Onion on the top two spots.

But there is remarkably little agreement past No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood: films I've never heard of, films I saw that were mediocre, films I saw that were horrible, films you couldn't have paid me to see, that strange breed of film that is only made to win Oscars, etc.

Here's what we'll want to think about:
* The difference between the critics' lists and the Oscar/Golden Globe lists.
* The kind of movie that only exists in the universe of these top ten lists.
* Why there are hardly any comedies on these lists.

Here are a few examples of films that seemingly exist only to compete for Oscars: The Aviator, Master and Commander, The Hours, For a Few Good Men, American Beauty, Apollo 13. (Possibly the best example in recent memory, though, is The Good Shepherd.) It seems incomprehensible that these films were extraordinary or watchable in any year. Let's be serious for a moment. I've seen all those movies. They are all garbage. And yet there appears to be something mystical about a certain class of movie--respectability, seriousness, the holy grail of "character development".

Let Michael Clayton stand in for this entire class. If you prefer, I think you could use Atonement (haven't seen it yet). In my mind, these films exist only to indicate whether people have any taste or not. Michael Clayton was an unenjoyable would-be "guilty pleasure" for me, and yet a "real" movie to critics. A quick look at Roger Ebert's list (which has Juno at number 1!!!!) finds a whole slew of these movies: The Great Debaters, Into the Wild, and The Kite Runner. Without having seen these movies, let me say: I HAVE SEEN THESE MOVIES.

But of an entirely different class are the strange movies that creep into top ten lists (Ebert's list being the exception): The Assassination of Jesse James got nearly universal "meh" reviews when it came out, and yet has pulled ahead (on reconsideration, I suppose) of many better-reviewed films; Superbad, Knocked Up, and Grindhouse all made it onto a list or two; Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, director of Showgirls) made it onto three lists!!

Here's the best I can do: when we are listing our favorites, we include some weird things we don't expect anyone else would like, and yet our collective imagination of what everyone will agree is the best is wildly boring and crappy. Perhaps a critic really enjoyed Black Book or Juno, but when we make the awards lists, Atonement seems like a better "use" of one's voice. Why throw away your vote?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Conversations with My Parents

Have had two interesting conversations with my dad in the past couple of days (being at home for christmas), of which the main lesson is, everything looks like a platitude until you restate your interpretation of an example as opposed to someone else's interpretation of the same.

Discussion 1 was me explaining my understanding of Hegel's historical aesthetics (through a somewhat marxist lens). Of course such a general discussion instantly falls into platitudes, if there aren't examples. My dad summarized what I was saying as, "everything happens in cycles," while I precisely meant the *opposite*. For instance, here will no more be a re-vival of American poetry than of Italian fresco painting. My main point was how naive it is to think that art occurs as spontaneous appearances by "talented" or "inspired" individuals. Is it a coincidence that Shakespeare and Virgil were writing at the peak of their respective cultures? Or that Socrates, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus were all alive at the same time? One either has to admit something about history and culture (i.e. advance a theory about aesthetics) or else be left with the idiotic explanation that these geniuses all "happened" to be born in the same place at around the same time.

It is extremely naive, I argued, to think that the preeminence of cinema in narrative art precludes or is siphoning off artists from producing great novels. Would it, I asked, make any sense to imagine that there are people living who *could* be producing Gothic Cathedrals, if only left to their own devices, and that they are being "siphoned off" by some other media?


The second conversation was today, on the very "dad" topic of Stevie Ray Vaughan. To my readers, this is a slam-dunk, of course, but here is what came out of it.

The "bluesman" is a kind of "mythology" in the Roland Barthes sense. Like all mythologies, the naturalness, the authenticity, the "type" is crucial. Stevie Ray has to appear "from out of nowhere" (and of course I can't argue that he planned his own early death). I was arguing that SRV is a "regression," a nostalgiac retrenchment that simultaneously masks the black origins of the music he plays.

Take the White Stripes as a counter-example. The White Stripes make no effort to look the part. They dress like idiots. They are, essentially, the second coming of Led Zeppelin. But compare them to the other second coming of Led Zeppelin, the Black Crowes (or Guns 'N Roses)--you could look at a picture of these bands and see what they are trying to sound like; that sound is entirely nostalgiac: one can imagine that Led Zeppelin have "come back to life" in these look alikes. With the White Stripes, there is no naturalness to their resemblence to Led Zeppelin: it is entirely a fanboy worship that makes no attempt to *be the real deal.*

In this way, the White Stripes continue the deconstruction of the "authentic" that Bob Dylan began when he abandoned his folk-troubador persona and migrated, first into rock, and then into country music. Fools, at the time, were shocked that he was not really politically committed and folksy. But by the time he appears on the cover of Nashville Skyline in a cowboy hat, no one could have thought he was trying to deceive them into thinking, this is what Bob Dylan "really" is.

This is taken further by the Velvet Underground. Basically, their greatest accomplishment is in taking the blues of Highway 61 Revisited and deconstructing it further: "Sister Ray" is basically Dylan's version of the blues, taken to its logical extreme. But, even less than Dylan do the VU "pose" as authentic bluesmen. Both Dylan and Lou Reed are playing the blues in "bad faith"--the organ is pasted on, the riffs are retreads, the redundancy exaggerated.

When my father tells me that SRV "breathed new life into the blues," what is ostensibly an interpretation is really just self-identification. As in my post about Radiohead and Wes Anderson, you think you are telling me what your opinion on art is, and all you are telling me is what age you are. To say that one thinks SRV is an innovator and took Hendrix to the next level, only enters my ears as "I am a father."

If you have read Barthes' Mythologies, I don't need to "give" that style of interpretation for Stevie Ray Vaughan here; it writes itself. But I am most proud for convincing my father on the point that everything Vaughan did was already accomplished by Eric Clapton on Cream's version of "Crossroads."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Victor Hugo, hélas!

In a poll of French literary figures, Andre Gide responded to the question, "Who is the greatest French poet?" with "Victor Hugo, alas!"

I can barely imagine a more interesting answer. More on this later.

Friday, November 30, 2007

For pondering, with future resolution

How is it that, in an age of ipods, ringtones, and general crush felt on our attention spans, the most immediately identifiable aspect of popular music today is anything but the classic pop HOOK, which makes an attempt at immediacy and attention-grabbing, but rather the monotony and repetition of PRODUCTION, often unchanged for the entire song?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

"I'm Not There": new Bob Dylan pseudo-bio-pic

A film by, for, and about douchebags.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Albert Ayler Documentary @ Anthology

Last week I went to see My Name is Albert Ayler at Anthology Film Archives. It is a Swedish-made documentary about the American free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, best known for his short time in Coltrane's later bands, and for his album Spiritual Unity, a landmark in Free Jazz.

A theme running throughout the movie is that there is some kind of timeline by which radical music gets eventually appreciated. For his entire career, it seems, Ayler's shocking and annoying music was far more popular in Europe than in America, where his bands often struggled to get by. And the interviews from the time are peppered with statements like, "If they don't appreciate it now, they will," while at the same time, there is no idea that Ayler *ever* got his due. His family, shown in the film, are certainly not living off royalties.

It is hopelessly to be trapped in the 1960s to imagine that we exist on a trajectory of progress, of innovation in music (or anything). The 1960s always will be more radical than what follows. It is not that this period opened the door of total freedom, from which we have all proceeded, expanding and taking ever further the ideas of that time. Instead, we have retrenched, and the least creative effort that can be made is in trying to resuscitate that explosion.

This, of course, is completely counter to the baby-boomer narrative, whereby our victory in the Cold War, scientific progress, the smaller and smaller size of our cell phones, all suppose an equivalent in cultural progress (which is nowhere to be found).

Enough about that. The most important idea in the Ayler film is that Ayler himself was always exploring new sounds. He was on the move: from the unpleasant, blasting, and soulful music of Spiritual Unity, to the larger group with his brother Donald and a violinist, to a kind of rock/r'n'b experiment (which evidently was disastrously unpopular). The same can be seen in Ornette Coleman's career, too: the incorporation of every possible new element to try out a sound. And the idea for Ayler was that the audience would somehow "catch up," that American audiences would at some definite point arrive at the appreciation held by Swedish and Danish audiences. But, there is equally an emphasis on the necessity for learning to listen. One has to figure out how to approach this music that does anything but beckon one to approach. The real lesson about free jazz, for me, (and obviously I don't know anything), is not objective--how the bands work without confinement or composition--but rather subjective--how do I get rid of my set ways of listening to music? how do I get past the confinement of the categories by which I hear everyday music? Precisely the idea isn't how to somehow turn it into something acceptable, something that can fall back into modes of understanding we already possess. Free jazz confronts the non-free listener with a severe epistemological question, or demand: hear differently. What is necessary is a deconstruction of the terms by which western music has been constructed as natural; one that I am not at all interested in embarking upon, or even in reading!

So, that all could be said about free jazz, and would leave out the important moment in black consciousness that it represented, as well as somehow implying that free jazz has anything to do with any identical-sounding music made today, because the whole point is that this was an open field, and these artists moved very quickly. What I am more interested in is the way that, for myself at least (but I hardly think just for myself), we really do ourselves a disservice, not by having this kind of openness in our understandings.

I am proposing a kind of mobile synecdoche: free jazz is a moment in the development of jazz, but at the same time it recapitulates the open-ended development of jazz (roughly) as a whole--increasing improvisation, smaller groups, less danceable--as well as its restlessness. Exactly so, one's own encounter with *any* music is an encounter wherein one can only affirm one's restlessness or settledness. Not that everyone has to like free jazz, but I hardly think it is a matter of "personal taste" when someone doesn't. I don't even know that I do in a way that anyone would respect or give credit for, but it is NO COINCIDENCE AT ALL that bourgeois white America, the most settled society ever known, did not "go for" Albert Ayler. And as it begins to look like there is no "right side of history" to be argued here, and as I want to be a good Hegelian, I will just refuse to be settled in that particular way, in every encounter, so far as I can.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Shitty Movie Review

New York Times review of "Fred Claus"

Not a "review of a shitty movie," although that is also undoubtedly the case. Manohla Dargis trashes the movie, sure, but spends about 1/2 the review acting as though this movie were a waste of talent.

Mainly it's a lackadaisical mess, though one graced with welcome talent, including Paul Giamatti and Miranda Richardson. (Here's hoping these indie stalwarts pocketed decent studio checks for keeping their gifts in idle.)

Let's look at the facts here. Paul Giamatti has been in the following movies:
  • Shoot 'em Up (an action film bomb with Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci)
  • The Nannie Diaries
  • Lady in the Water (the most recent M. Night Shyamalan film, starring in which puts Mr. Giamatti in a class with Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson)
  • The Ant Bully (a computer-animation bomb that made back less than half its $50 million budget)
  • Cinderella Man (a film so uninteresting to the public that the studio offered to PAY audiences their money back if they were dissatisfied)
The only reason, then, that Paul Giamatti is not the biggest name in Hollywood, its biggest star, the farthest thing possible from an "indie stalwart," is that EVERY MAJOR, BIG BUDGET FILM HE MAKES IS A COMPLETE DISASTER AND FLOP. His "successes" were in movies like Sideways, a film universally reviled by anyone who does not do all their shopping at Whole Foods, and American Splendor. But his list of embarrassments stretches back further than those successes: Storytelling, a masturbatory Todd Solondz film that no one liked; and an astonishing number of small parts on major blockbusters:
  • Big Momma's House
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • My Best Friend's Wedding
as well as some less-popular Hollywood fare:
  • Planet of the Apes (remake)
  • Donnie Brasco (a great film, but released in a February and so denied any Oscar glory)
  • Duets (a Gwenyth Paltrow vehicle with Huey Lewis)
That is to say, an honest appraisal of Paul Giamatti's career shows that he has been in almost more terrible films than any living person, excepting Angelina Jolie, that in his early career he was a mainstay of smaller roles in extremely big-budget films, and that after his success as the star of two "indie" movies, has continued to act in extremely large-budget films, only with zero success and (now) zero credibility.

Rather than saying, "I'm so surprised that this independent film stalwart, this rock of taste and integrity, Paul Giamatti, has sunk to starring in Fred Clause" (Dargis, paraphrased), what any reasonable person should say is, "I'm surprised this annoying character actor, having signed on to whatever project came his way for his entire career up to the present, an undiscriminating hack, should have happened to make two well-respected (but uninteresting, pretentious) independent films at some point in the early 2000s."

Thus, the most insulting part is *not* buying into the hype of Oscar-Winner Paul Giamatti, but:
  • believing there is anything noble about making garbage like Sideways or Storytelling
  • hoping that Paul Giamatti "pocketed [a] decent studio check" for his work here. THAT'S ALL HE DOES. He pockets decent studio checks like it was going out of style. The man was in the Frankie Muniz vehicle Big Fat Liar, for fuck's sake!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Books that Changed My Life

The NY-based literary magazine N+1 recently put out a pamphlet for first-year college students, entitled "What We Should Have Known: Two Discussion," compiling two pointless and rambling, rather sophomoric panel discussions about college and what one should get out of college.

Why anyone should care what these people think is one question, and I could cite several completely arrogant and pretentious moments in this text, but for the most part it is completely banal and full of platitudes: "You shouldn't read fancy critical theory just because it's fashionable." "I wish I'd had the sense that history was still ongoing." "I'm sounding very postmodern right now." "So you have to add Gandhi to the list..." "Back then, I was going to be a poet." In short, a bad conversation that I would have been bummed out to overhear, and am disappointed to see published.

But the most annoying part (besides the name-dropping), is the bullshit "Books that Changed My Life" lists. They follow a fairly set pattern. One or two books of philosophy, Eric Hobsbawm, one or two books of "literary essays," and some 20th century fiction or short stories. A couple classics (Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare) and filled in by totally pretentious, random dinner-party books.

David Copperfield is one of my favorite novels, but I have NO CLUE what it means to say, "It changed my life." It didn't, and I don't see how it could possibly.

So, here are authors, not books (less pretentious?), who have changed my life:
  • Karl Marx
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Roland Barthes
  • Martin Heidegger
  • Jacques Derrida
  • Noam Chomsky
  • GFW Hegel
  • Marcel Proust
  • Michel Foucault
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Plato
  • Franz Fanon
A list you may as well title, "Books My Father Has Not Read." The idea of a book changing my life can only mean that it changes my *ideas* about the world. Every author on that list stresses the unmasking of ideology, of the appearance of the world, of the bourgeois order, of the thoughts we were brought up with, of how things seem, of common sense, of strict eternal definitions (here I except Plato), and stresses the endless need for reflection, analysis, and reconsideration of how things, so various and motivated, came to be presented as the bland "order of things." Proust is on there because his account of human erotic relations is to me the most convincing, and Plato for his insistence on thought and the deception of appearances. While I have learned a great deal from fiction in my life, I cannot say that even a deeply inspiring book like Middlemarch has "changed my life."

The list may seem like a "Great Books" list. I want to say, it is the opposite of the prevalent American idea that "everything I know I learned in kindergarten"; that I am very unsatisfied by the view of the world that was handed to me by my upbringing, and that everything important in my thought has come in the form of these revelatory ideas which have turned on their head the conceptions I was most comfortable with while growing up. And I am very unembarrassed by this list, although Chomsky is a cheese, and Plato is "obvious."

In any case, this list is a list of most white men; it is either very unpretentious or extremely pretentious (somewhat along the lines of declaring the Iliad to be my favorite book, as opposed to (n+1) Finnegan's Wake or Donald Barthelme). Anyways, so this is an honest list and everyone should read these books. I can recommend some other good books, too.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A fundamental philosophical question about culture and value

From "We Who are Dark," a work on Black solidarity by Harvard Professor Tommie Shelby:

Should a person value the elements of a culture because they are intrinsically or instrumentally valuable; or rather, should she value them because they are components of her culture--that is, because she is black and because these elements are part of a black culture?

So excited about "American Gangster"!!

  • Right now I am in the middle of watching an actually just-plain-crappy French film by Robert Bresson, called "Pickpocket." It's boring, the narration is intrusive, there is no music, and the plot is straight out of Dostoyevsky but without any pathos. In short, a BAD film. Nonetheless, this is probably the only time you'll ever hear it described as such. It's foreign, the DVD is on Criterion, the director is famous, the style is noir-ish but tasteful, etc. But it *is* crappy. I think our judgments are so OFF that this distinction ("What is a bad film?") is actually lost, non-existent, when it comes to a respectable, obscure foreign crime film.
  • There are a lot of people in the world with bad taste. It may have been suggested to them that this is out of line with standards of good taste (they prefer "The Notebook" to "Fanny and Alexander"), but I want to suggest that NO ONE *actually* thinks they have "bad taste." At most, when it comes to this question, we (people) can only "agree to disagree."
  • Is it true to say that something A is "more famous" than something else B, if knowing A requires a special knowledge? So, is it true to say that Lip Cream are one of the most famous Japanese hardcore bands, when it is far MORE likely that some flash-in-the-pan nowadays Japanese band who just happened to tour, are much better-known?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Death Metal v. Black Metal (a reversal of opinion)

I wish this to be the definitive statement on this opposition.

Like the Renaissance as compared with the Enlightenment, here the question will be, who betrayed what? when? and when may we say that the character of the epoch was completely undermined or reversed?

A Brief History
Black metal and death metal, although no one knows it, "died" at the same time (in terms of the most famous bands, in America, retrospectively). The ends of both genres coincide; do their beginnings?

The first Death Metal bands of any importance are Death and Morbid Angel. [Obscurity counts for nothing in this argument.] The first Black Metal bands of note are Bathory and Celtic Frost. Thus, put crudely, Death Metal is originally an American genre, and Black Metal a European one. [Exceptions can be found even in this early history.]

However, both Bathory and Celtic Frost developed away from their early, raw aesthetic towards more pretentious and complicated art-metal: Bathory with 20-minute ballads about viking conquests, and Celtic Frost with violin-accompaniments of Baudelaire's poetry. (no shit) Thus, Black Metal was immediately moved away-from by its inventors. The early aesthetic was developed, more or less simultaneously, by more extreme groups such as Beherit, Sarcafago, Blasphemy, Mayhem, and Von. The most famous "intervention" in Black Metal, though, was by the Norwegian Death Metal band, Darkthrone. Jettisoning members who wanted to play the technical Death Metal of their first album, Soulside Journey, Darkthrone decidedly rejected all their talent and instead meticulously "played dumb," aiming for the sounds of early Bathory and Celtic Frost. Thus, the real invention of modern Black Metal already consists of a re-opening of a formative aesthetic moment.

The single albums which, from my viewpoint, announce the death of these genres are, Slaughter of the Soul (1995) by At the Gates, a melodic pop-punk record masquerading as Death Metal, and Panzerfaust (also 1995) by Darkthrone, the first definitive retreat of this band to "merely" playing Celtic Frost riffs. Both these death knells have been springboards for hundreds of crap bands who did not "get" it.

The Definitive Statement on the Question
Undoubtedly Darkthrone were correct in abandoning Death Metal in 1991. Just as certain is the genius of Darkthrone's later career, which approaches a hardcore punk sound and is less and less "serious." It is supremely important that Darkthrone have always been 1) ironic, despite their extreme dedication, and 2) regressive.

There are several epochal developments in rock music: Bob Dylan going electric, Sergeant Pepper, The Stooges' Fun House, Kraut Rock, and the consolidation of Punk by the Ramones. In punk, the decisive trinity is The Ramones, Black Flag, and Discharge. In Black Metal, Celtic Frost and Bathory (I believe that Bathory "contains" Venom) are IT. Within this binary is everything necessary for the sound. But the genre has been completely taken over by adjectives, rather than influence. Rather than the incredible, unfathomable development at the core of the sound, the invention of Black Metal has been rendered a mere aesthetic, a production trick, turning Bathory's sound, which was a very close thing indeed, into a "given." What is necessary is to THINK the bizarre, extreme, tasteless, uncompromising, excrescent, juvenile extremism of Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, and Bathory, not to take these sounds as "early" or "undeveloped" or "primitive" in the teleological sense.

What then, of Death Metal?
When I was younger, Death Metal struck me as the last refuge of D&D-playing virgins, who practiced their instruments as a form of masturbation, perfecting a style that was "needlessly technical," and ultimately just playing for other techies. I'm not sure that that is entirely wrong. But now I see it as the most straightforward honesty. The premise is, "Do you like our riffs? Was that solo perfect enough? Could this have been heavier or more interesting somehow?" THE IDEA IS PERFECTION, even quantifiable perfection. That may be dumb, but it is a meritocracy. The best bands are the most well-regarded. Respect is key. The whole thing is very "male" and analytical. That is, extremely unironic.

I said earlier that I much admired Darkthrone's irony. I see this as a very strategic, "theatrical" mode which they pioneered. Members of Darkthrone never killed anyone, burned churches, were "truly" racists, or shot themselves. My favorite anecdote about Norwegian Black Metal is where an interviewer reminds a Black Metaller that Venom were largely joking, to which the metaller responds, "In Norway, we choose to think otherwise." This is irony. But "taking something seriously that should not be" is a matter of positioning, if one is smart enough, and of "sincerity," if one is stupid. Obviously Burzum and Darkthrone fall in the former camp, and Mayhem in the latter.

Why can one NOT "choose to think otherwise" about Venom in after 1995? For one, the genius of Darkthrone, by getting there first, made evident the gap between the second wave of Black Metal, and its mythical origins. By taking the irony SO FAR, the game was "up"; the mock-seriousness exposed its target too much. And so Darkthrone, having achieved all they could, began their long retreat. And Mayhem self-destructed. Burzum went to jail. Emperor drastically changed their sound in a more "prog" direction. Immortal took on a huge Morbid Angel influence. Graveland began to explore the later meanderings of Bathory. Ulver, never a raw band, hardly a metal band, released the ultimate ironic Black Metal record, the supreme Nattens Madrigal, a completely technical achievement of the lowest-fi possible sound. "Symphonic" Black Metal became very popular. etc. etc.

Fast forward twelve years. Black Metal in America has fallen in with the "noise" scene, the ultimate in baseless pretension and image-jocking. Death Metal is absolutely dead. If you see here that I am only repeating the RUSH v. SONIC YOUTH debate printed below, you are correct. Here, Rush are Death Metal, embarrassingly outdated, and Sonic Youth are the endless pretension of post-1995 Black Metal: its limited releases, its "mystery," its redundantly "shocking" aesthetic, its disingenuousness.

Death Metal has no interesting history. Nowadays Black Metal, however, in its haste, neglects everything but the most sensational, misleading aspects of its origins.

*[When I say irony, I mean it in the most exact way, not in the loose sense of today's youths and nervous self-doubters.]

"The Opposite of Punk"

[something i wrote a while ago. soon to come: a similar article about death metal and black metal that will be the ultimate statement of my aesthetics]

You know, I don't want to talk about Rush too much, b/c I don't want to come across as some sort of geek glued to the internet, but I think by now it is a truism that Rush are the "opposite of punk." Mention Rush to any one, really, but any punk in particular, and they will immediately say "that band sucks," etc. Now, I probably wouldn't be into Rush if I wasn't already into Judas Priest, which was a taste a long time in acquiring itself.

But anyways, I always say that Sonic Youth are the "opposite of punk." Rush aren't out to impress anyone or come across as rock stars. They have washing machines on stage. They are the ugliest people in the world. The drummer writes the lyrics, which tend to be pretentious, unwieldy, and kind of prosey, but which are at least never filler or an afterthought. They are a real unit, and if there are some individual show-off parts, at least they share them equally. People probably think that because Rush have 20-minute songs, that they descend into endless noodling. Never, really. Rush 's songs are sort of like The Who "A Quick One While He's Away"-- series of riffs and parts with hooks, and not just pointless jams. They cover Yardbirds songs (badly), which could not be less cool for them to do. They have an ANIMATED RAPPING SKELETON sing one part of a song on a giant video screen in their set ("roll the bones"). Now, Rush ARE NOT PUNK, but I don't think they are its opposite either.

Sonic Youth, on the other hand, *are* the opposite of punk: rock stars trying to pass off a jam band with endless wankage as something new and experimental, name-dropping every new trend like vampires hoping to suck the cool out of every fad. Unless age is prohibiting them, they have always tried to be these ironic sex symbols, and there is something 100x more offensive about Sonic Youth being on a major label than Rush (who are certainly really really really into capitalism---as huge fans of Ayn Rand, natch). The other day I heard some 90s sonic youth song in a record store, and I wasn't sure what it was, but I thought it was a new Strokes song (The Strokes, by the way, who are nothing but what they claim to be). It wasn't until Thurston's voice sunk in that I guessed what it probably was.

Ultimately, though, I think this is a personality thing. Rush are never going to win anyone's respect on the logic of The Emperor's New Clothes. They are universally lambasted, and not even all that much misunderstood. They sound (mostly) like what you think they do. On the other hand, this is EXACTLY what sonic youth (and yeah, a lot of other bands/people/art/literature) is trying to do--catch that doubt in your mind when you wonder if maybe YOU are missing it, and trust that maybe Thurston Moore knows better than you on this one. I don't know if anyone still listens to Noise (since Jessica Hopper "exposed" that genre as being "anti-fat") but basically this should apply to that music's brief reign as well.

Maybe it's too much to ask that Rush "deserve your respect," but I think having probably the best rock bassist AND the best rock drummer in the same band, and having had *any* success, given their inexplicable aesthetic and obvious deterrents, is worthy at least of notice, and not likely to recur in the '06. So yeah, thurston hearts the who.

***final word on this:
In an interview I did with Hellnation, the guitarist wisely pointed
out that "No one ever got laid by buying a Hellnation record." I'd
like to think this is true for Rush, at least since 1982. Rush are
just a few ugly guys banging out their brand of music for their fans,
who tend to be middle aged computer nerds and men with ponytails.
Sonic Youth want to be the soundtrack to your next drunk/coked-up fuck
at a loft party thrown by some magazine, and I dunno...I bet they
wouldn't even try to deny it. Too bad it wouldn't even be a good
soundtrack, either. Might I suggest The Cure "17 Seconds" instead?
ps: or The Band
pps: but not slayer

Friday, October 12, 2007

Two Questions

1. What do Radiohead and Wes Anderson have in common?
Because this band and this filmmaker not only share an audience, and both have high-profile new releases out now, these are good examples of a common phenomenon that I have noticed. Let's call it the "The Best Art Was Made at Precisely the Moment I First Became Aware of Art Syndrome." In a larger field (of everything coming out) this draws a veil over that art produced *immediately prior* to one perking up one's ears-- a veil that extends backward until the moment when things can be safely seen as canonized. My personal example would be, I have zero interest in hardcore that came out in America between 1986 and 2000. This is famously a "dark ages" of US hardcore, but the famous bands (The Pist, Los Crudos, Talk is Poison, Econochrist, Aus Rotten) are still well-loved, and in a way this period still defines the way American hardcore looks on itself, before the explosion of international influences brought about by Tragedy in the early 2000s, and before the much-lamented "thrash revival." Which is only to say, my "blindspot" corresponds to an actual crappy period of that art form, but I will be the first to assert that I have never been generous to bands who were playing immediately before my interest in hardcore.

That is for an entire field. For the specific career, being encountered as "contemporary," one's age is all-important. The important years for this are like, 16, 22, and 30. When I was 16, Weezer had not yet released their Green Album. Woody Allen was still starring in his own movies, Shania Twain was the biggest thing in the world, etc.

So, I saw Rushmore in theaters when I was 15 (the same age as the main character). This seems a completely different experience from seeing Darjeeling Limited when I am 24, or renting Bottle Rocket and watching it alone at my parent's house when I was 17. In a way, then, I don't care (although I will still ask) what someone's favorite Wes Anderson movie is. But it is no different from asking how old they are (unless, which is so rare, one thinks that a person has real taste).

I haven't cared about Radiohead since I was 17. I bought (and was very excited about) Kid A but not Amnesiac (six months later). I don't know the songs off that later album, I've never really heard it, and I certainly have not heard their 2003 album. And although I think that "they suck," if their records prior-to-my-being-17 came on, I would probably not mind at all. But, because I could never hear their subsequent albums with any kind of anticipation (ie: patience), it is unlikely I will ever sit through a latter-day Radiohead song with any kind of attention.

That is just to add to the list of ways that opinions and taste have none of the absolute or *even* "subjective" force we like to imagine. One doesn't like these films or records based on the quality of those things, but rather overwhelmingly as a factor of the time when one encountered them.

(This applies only to contemporary careers. Something like On the Road, encountered retrospectively, must be read at the age of 15, but posthumous reputation has a vaccinating effect; we know what not to read, we know which are the most famous works, the manner of appreciation has already been codified.)

2. Where does bourgeois appreciation draw the line in an artist's career?
Now, in direct but not substantive contradiction to what I just said, I want to argue that the white educated bourgeois is always willing to draw a line in an artist's career--not with respect to the age of the audience, but concerning experimentation.

Take this example: the phenomenon of "Banned Books Week," "Banned Books" tables at Barnes and Noble, where banned books are valorized as heroic, righteous, challenging, sophisticated, forward-looking, etc. No one today would think of banning Madame Bovary. Nonetheless, books are banned every day in America, usually by prudish Christians in middle-American school districts, without having read said books.

This hypocrisy, applied to an artist's career, means that an earlier work that has been assimilated will always be canonized before difficult, "later" work. The best example is John Coltrane, whose Giant Steps and A Love Supreme are highly rated and coffee-shop favorites, but the line is drawn when he "starts to get really weird." See the new Ben Ratliff book on Coltrane, "The Evolution of a Sound," for a great analysis of the reception of Coltrane's later albums.

This also manifests in tropes about "maturity" and "development" of an aesthetic. Like, when you see Metallica's Black Album rated higher than their thrash metal albums, as if the effort that went into dumbing down their complex and technical metal into simple butt-rock was "maturity" itself.

So, Ulysses but not Finnegan's Wake. Kind of Blue but not Jack Johnson. La Dolce Vita but not Juliet of the Spirits.

Or, to make my point explicit (regarding the bourgeois), any black recording artist prior to making any political statement unfavorable to white people, but *not* the same artist afterwards (they're so extreme!). Cf: Lauryn Hill.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Favorite Books

I have a more substantial post coming up, but I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I have been re-reading a few favorites in school.
  1. The Iliad
  2. The Odyssey
  3. Oedipus Rex
  4. Hamlet
  5. Paradise Lost
  6. The Inferno
  7. Moby-Dick
  8. Swann's Way
  9. Middlemarch
  10. David Copperfield
  11. War and Peace
  12. Madame Bovary
  13. Tristram Shandy
  14. Emma
  15. 100 Years of Solitude
  16. Great Expectations
  17. Macbeth
  18. Portrait of a Lady
  19. Absalom, Absalom!
  20. The Great Gatsby
  21. Beowulf
  22. Charterhouse of Parma
  23. The Trial
  24. Crime and Punishment
  25. King Lear
  26. The Red and the Black
  27. The Good Soldier
  28. Pride and Prejudice
  29. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  30. The Brothers Karamazov
  31. Wings of the Dove
  32. Love in the Time of Cholera
  33. The Castle
  34. Antigone
  35. Borges' Collected Fictions
  36. The Guermantes Way
  37. Persuasion
  38. Cities of the Plain
  39. Jude the Obscure
  40. Wuthering Heights
  41. Sound and the Fury
  42. Tropic of Cancer
  43. In a Budding Grove
  44. Richard III
  45. Heart of Darkness
  46. Things Fall Apart
  47. Man and Superman
  48. The Old Man and the Sea
  49. Lolita
  50. Tess of the D'urbervilles
  51. Bleak House
  52. Huckleberry Finn
  53. Grapes of Wrath
  54. The Fall
  55. Nightwood
  56. Henry V
  57. The Stranger
  58. Our Mutual Friend
  59. Dubliners
  60. Lord Jim
  61. Le Morte D'Arthur
  62. Julius Caesar
  63. The Pickwick Papers
  64. Dead Souls
  65. Pere Goriot
  66. Animal Farm
  67. Disgrace
  68. Of Mice and Men
  69. Naked Lunch
  70. Vanity Fair
  71. Siddhartha
  72. Austerlitz
  73. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
  74. The Count of Monte Cristo
  75. For Whom the Bell Tolls
  76. The Scarlet Letter
  77. L'Assomoir
  78. The Song of Roland
  79. Notes from the Underground
  80. Fifth Business
  81. Romeo and Juliet
  82. Tom Sawyer
  83. The Maltese Falcon
  84. 1984
  85. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  86. The Secret Agent
  87. Elective Affinities
  88. Sense and Sensibility
  89. The Moonstone
  90. Catch 22
  91. Barchester Towers
  92. The Monk
  93. All Quiet on the Western Front
  94. Edwin Mullhouse
  95. The Long Goodbye
  96. Mrs. Dalloway
  97. Washington Square
  98. Mansfield Park
  99. New Grub Street
  100. The Sun Also Rises

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I have a vexed relationship with compilations--box sets, mix tapes, et al. We are talking about music here---it would be nearly impossible to "compile" Anna Karenina or L'Avventura--easy to consume in its individual unit, the song.

I usually phrase my vexation in terms of my being "an album guy." I have always been frustrated by soundtracks, uncompiled singles, and greatest hits. I want everything to be Rubber Soul (the US version): thirty minutes long, no filler, catchy, smart.

One early appeal of punk music for me (which was later extended, even more exaggeratedly, into my interest in hardcore) was the promise of NO FILLER. Granted, every song might sound the same, but there was no chance of a "Revolution 9," or even of songs decidedly a cut below. Or so it seemed to me then. [This is how one would advertise the Ramones of course--all their songs sound the same---but in reality they have a thousand sound-alike "misses" whose failings would be hard to pin down.] One could almost advance this formula: the more sound-alike the songs on an album, the more likely that any given song will succeed, but the less likely that any one song will stand above the others. So: the more coherent, easily-apprehensible, and individualized the songs are on an album, the harder it is to not fuck up. This is why Sergeant Pepper's is so acclaimed--not that it is the best album, but that probably no one will ever write such a diffuse, quirky, song-by-song-by-song success again. I mean, go ahead and try.

Anyways, I'm a Rubber Soul man myself. And I hope that explains my dislike of compilations.

No? That's unclear?

Let's describe an album, the kind of album that I like. We'll use Rubber Soul, but I also could mean Velvet Underground or Harvest or Closer or Highway 61 Revisited or Between the Buttons or Ziggy Stardust or Pornography or Transilvanian Hunger . (see how I don't name the artists? It's called being pretentious.)
  • While all the songs may not sound "the same," they are definitely in a style distinguishable from the band's other work in a loose sense. Perhaps a song or two could drift over to another record, but in general the record has a "feel" that is cohesive. So, "I'm Looking Through You" would not belong on Revolver.
  • There's no filler. I happen to prefer the shorter US version on Capitol Records, without "Drive My Car" or "Nowhere Man," two obtrusive singles, and also missing "What Goes On" and "If I Needed Someone," two great songs. But "It's Only Love" and "I've Just Seen a Face" belong more than any of the above-mentioned songs, excepting "If I Needed Someone," a sorely-missed omission. Nonetheless, even with this shuffling about, none of the players are "filler."
  • I hate to use vague terms like "creativity" and "personality," but in this sense I mean these words *against* terms like "experimentation." Rubber Soul is certainly not pushing any envelopes, but it is exploring, nonetheless. Folk-rock, in its humble way, and within extremely commercial confines, allows a great deal of interesting, inimitable song-writing, without treading old ground or engaging in exercises. It is meant to be listened to by other human beings, and so has a personable, charming quality that is never condescending. Can you say all that about the last record you bought? (And while I do enjoy a lot of stand-off-ish music, I have to say that I find it increasingly irksome. Not that [and only an idiot, a real dolt, would get this from what I'm writing, but here's your warning]-- not that I am advocating a general "pop" aesthetic, but wouldn't all music be better if an imagined listener were kept in mind? And that is far from a "general" listener, but I do mean a listener and not merely a bundle of appreciations. That is, I emphasize the aural here. A "listener" and not a "record buyer."
This leaves a couple of things to say about compilations. 1) I *would* rather listen to the crappy, Johnny Cash duet of "Girl from the North Country" on Nashville Skyline as an album track than, say, "Quinn the Eskimo" as a "Greatest Hit." 2) There is (as always) the problem of genre here. Soul, reggae, rap, "KBD," are all singles genres not given to producing records like the ones I described above. So, Cam'ron is not going to produce a concept record any time soon, but Green Day and My Chemical Romance both put out concept records recently---and that is within pop-punk!! (Although maybe the most famous pop-punk record is a singles compilation, The Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady. Nonetheless, their albums do meet my criteria.) Jazz, metal, rock/pop, Finnish hardcore: these are all album genres (and not at all times). And obviously some kind of compilation is necessary for 60s girl groups: many did not release full-lengths, and even the best groups (The Supremes) put out abysmal full-lengths.

I don't intend to do a sociology of youth culture, and I have discussed one aspect of this argument previously (as "ipodization"). But if many compilations (Greatest Hits, anything you would order from TV or buy at a truck stop) serve as introductions or mixtapes to the unpretentious consumer, and some box sets are merely everything by an artist, there is a certain market for compilations of obscurities, rarities. Take any of the Soul Jazz compilations. None of these is a "good introduction" to the represented genre, except in a sonic sense: that is, you may learn what Roots Reggae sounds like, but the *most* famous artists are excluded. The best example of this is that Big Apple Rapping does not have the Sugar Hill Gang song--whereas any mainstream "New York Rap 1979-82" comp or box set certainly would (just look at the No Thanks! tracklist).

When it comes to representing whole genres, scenes, movements, or moments, the album in the sense I described above is worthless. It leaves too many holes (many great artists never get around to putting out albums). But also worthless, in any sense other than the synecdochic, are the kind of scatter-shot compilations (usually of "rarities" as opposed to "hits") that come out on vinyl and are pitched to, basically, me. Here I can only say, these records (examples 1, 2, 3, 4) make me nervous. I like these records, it's cool when people play them for me, I enjoy purchasing them, but the very specter of the infinite capacity of unseen tastemakers to cull from an inaccessible (to me) archive, spinning out innumerable such "volumes"--- it terrifies me, even as it drains my bank account. And I just want to run to my room and put on My War.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Hitler's Record Collection

If you click on this link, you will read a very silly article about the recent coming-to-light of Hitler's record library, saved by Russian officers at the end of World War II. The main contention of the article is this:

The pillaged recordings, taken by a Red Army officer after Berlin fell in May 1945, show that Hitler was a hypocrite as well as a monster.

This rests on the following contradiction:
1) Hitler forbade his followers to listen to anything other than German composers. Even jazz was banned as "negro swamp music" and orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic were forbidden from playing anything other than Teutonic classics. The rest Hitler labelled "sub-human music."
2) But the discovery of the recordings of Russians and Jews show that Hitler did not practice what he preached to his people.

In the most obvious way, Hitler does not need this very mild character assassination. Moreover, I don't even see the apparent contradiction.

1) In Nazi ideology, "Russians and Jews" is hardly an umbrella category as used in this article.
2) Thus, we see Tchaikovsky (Russian) but NOT Mendelssohn or Mahler (Jews).
3) There is no demonstration in the article that Hitler was even being hypocritical (its main claim): he only (informally?) prohibited "his followers" (what category is that??) from listening to Jewish and Russian music. And when? During the non-aggression pact with Russia? The article's main point about Jews is that these records had Jewish soloists playing on them--- ought he to have exhaustively researched this before having his secretary buy his albums? I hardly see how this qualifies as hypocrisy (a charge we hardly need lay at Hitler's door).
4) Hitler's comment on jazz music is a complete non-starter: there is no jazz in his collection. Further, OF COURSE THE BERLIN PHILHARMONIC IS NOT GOING TO PLAY JAZZ MUSIC.

In short, it must have been a slow news day for these items to cause a stir:
  • Hitler owned no music by Jewish composers
  • Hitler listened to Tchaikovsky

I include this here because this is a blog about taste, under which "record collections" certainly fall, but clearly I intend something else here as well (as perhaps indicated in the last post, about race and taste). What impulse is behind the charge of "hypocrisy" in this innocuous and obvious event? I offer the following:
  • A relentless fascination with the unfathomable "personal life" of Adolf Hitler (in which we would trace his dubious lineage, his pathetic artistic aspirations, his perverted love life, and all other character assassination---again, complete overkill that leads to garbage like Norman Mailer's recent novel): the worst kind of historical investigation.
  • A strange desire which apparently cannot be helped to retroactively impose multiculturalism on a cultural climate that would not have comprehended it. Should this backwards, militaristic hick from Austria have listened to jazz music? To satisfy whom??? Surely the wry, misleading journalist of 2007 would not have been satisfied.
  • On the most banal level, a strange project to suggest the irresistible appeal of the censored, the banned, the underground, even when it (Tchaikovsky, banned Jewish composers) is music 90% of Americans would be unable to distinguish from Wagner. That is to say, the most insipid liberal self-congratulation on our openness and belief in the aesthetically subversive.
  • Finally, the bizarre double project of multiculturalism, which comes out in this article in strange ways: 1) to relativize and "tolerate" the culturally other, and 2) to make them "just like ourselves." AND most strangely, to bring HITLER into this project!!! So that he evidently could not resist the cultural products of the racially-other and against his better judgment indulged in these verboten albums. But doesn't this (perversely) make Hitler "human" and "tolerant"? (if we grant, which I don't, the premise of the article). For, if anything, making Hitler into a hypocrite here also makes him out to be lazily tolerant and lax on his dogma of anti-semitism.
In short, this is not just bad writing, boring, and astonishingly stupid, it is also offensively wrong-headed and finally makes of HITLER someone more or less "tolerant" and covertly multiculturalist!!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Race and Taste

Here are two recent articles/reviews on this topic:
NY Times article on "nerds"
Shit-Fi review of "Vikings Invasion"

The unifying element of these two pieces is the idea that "cool"* can somehow be routed through an exclusively white cultural space--- one not premised on exploitation of black culture. Both punks and nerds are "traitors" to whiteness and the appropriation upon which "white youth cultures are founded" (Times).

The problem, of course, is that hyper-whiteness, or a total avoidance of other cultures, despite its neurotic apologism and OCD-style guilt avoidance, LOOKS a lot like cultural segregation. If punk is "honest" because it doesn't mimic black musicians in the manner of Mick Jagger, it is also disengaged from interaction with black people in America. Because punks tend to be middle-class white males, and black people tend to be neither middle-class white males nor punks, the "honesty" of distancing oneself from the (musical) culture of black America is itself an exercise of privilege that applauds itself while merely retreating into itself, reifying (albeit while ironizing) "whiteness."

[I should add that the Times article is extremely embarrassing, references phenomena that I have a hard time believing ("Saying 'blood' in lieu of 'friend'"), and makes no mention of Jews. Is not the supreme American nerd Woody Allen? Is "Whiteness" a category I am supposed to understand? Certainly the KKK is not "nerdy."]

Stuart Schrader's (who, I should say, is not without his nerdish qualities) review of a bootleg of a Swedish 70s hard-rock band thankfully is more about taste than identity, but also seems unable to overcome this central problem: Neither the appropriation of, nor the avoidance of, black cultural paradigms, is any indication of one's attitudes towards race. Let's pose this in terms of Mick Jagger and Kraftwerk. (We can also tie this to the other article, Jagger being clearly not-a-nerd and Kraftwerk obviously being nerds). Plenty of whack, probably-racist suburban frat boys listen to the Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Red Hot Chili Peppers (white people) AND rap music (mostly black performers). THIS MEANS NOTHING. It has, of course, to be situated in mainstream culture and all its impossible-to-calculate determinations. No one would assert that listening to rap music means anyone has a more sympathetic or accurate idea of Black America. (Enter the phenomenon of the suburban "wigger," about which someone needs to write a book right away! I'm not joking.) The question seems to be, "If backwards, racist frat boys can listen to rap and black music with no shame of appropriation, *is it only this appropriation* that makes me unwilling to also listen to this music?" Mr. Schrader locates a foundational discomfort he feels about the blues. He wants to be "honest" and to be free from appropriating black culture, but sense that there is something else (an "essentializing imagination," I'll call it) that is part of that discomfort. I think there is no need to distinguish, psychically, between the two.

Are the Rolling Stones "based on cultural theft"? If you answer yes, you have to say the same about the entire history of art, a series of unacknowledged influences, appropriations, and even actual theft. To show the stakes of this answer, we then would have to re-assert the tired claim that RAP MUSIC is also "based on theft" (even more literally) because of its use of samples, which has been repudiated repeatedly.

There are experts who may want to chime in, but the very IDEA of artistic theft is a fairly-recent white capitalist notion of ownership that broadly corresponds to the idea of ownership-of-land which was used to "steal" our country from the native population. That is, the idea of ownership and the practice of theft go hand in hand. Thus, perhaps the *most "white" behavior* evidenced by these nerds is their reification of cultural property and intellectual copyright.

* on the idea of "cool," I think even hyper-nerds and the scroungiest punk are operating with an idea of cool, of social approval and distinction within their communities. That "nerd" is the opposite of the cool kid has never been tenable: Buddy Holly, Alan Ginsberg, Elvis Costello being the most obvious rebuttals. The nerd is cool within a certain framework. Thus, I think the article about nerds IS ultimately about a "cool whiteness," despite all of its protests contrariwise.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Ipods and genres, pt. 2

However, it is NOT the case that, given the circumstances under which we listen to music--brief, out of context, digital--that easily-digestible pop music will inevitably triumph, just because it is most convenient. Granted, one can hardly listen to Wagner on the subway, but I propose the following:

Following my argument, there would be two types of music: accessible (we'll say) and inaccessible. Under the former category, all "hits" and forms of pop music. Basically, what one could play in an H&M. And in the latter category, cerebral and difficult music, that requires spending time with, etc.

But here is the important part: once you have assimilated, memorized, accustomed yourself to a piece of difficult music (or a fairly uniform genre), that music BECOMES accessible. The experience of listening to something already "processed" is separated by an abyss from the experience of unfamiliar ears.

Even the most abrasive, complicated, or retarded music, once it is entirely-expected, might as well be pop music.

I can imagine some exceptions to this: a perennially-difficult work or group, unable to be completely assimilated..... as well as a series of assimilations and rediscoveries of a single work in the course of a lifetime of listening, but those are separate topics.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Ipods and genres

A couple of my punk friends recently got ipods, and I delicately was trying to ask them, "Do you really listen to punk on your ipod?" Because I don't.

What does it mean to say you like some art? At any given point in one's biography, one may very well not like an album or movie that later will become a defining favorite. One doesn't want to listen to Marvin Gaye while having sex (that would be monstrously lame in 2007), but maybe that is great cleaning-around-the-house music. Or, let's put it this way: where do you hear music first? and where do you listen to music?

Most people don't buy a great number of records unheard, on a whim, or even on recommendations. The radio, mp3 blogs, podcasts, parties, jukeboxes, Starbucks, DJ nights, live shows, and myspace are where most people hear about (new) music. Not me (I read record reviews for at least an hour a day)--but you can see that these are split between social and asocial types. And I would argue, the situation in which you hear music cannot be overstated. A lot of really "difficult" records rely on privacy and a lot of time--like the Minutemen's Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat; other records just leap out of whatever sound-space they are in and grab you--say, Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder they Come," or Poison Idea's Feel the Darkness.

[You can see why The Velvet Underground remain the smartest band of all time. Their eponymous first album splits between, on one hand, immediate rockers ("There She Goes Again"), sweet melodies ("Sunday Morning," "Femme Fatale"), and Dylan-esque contemporary folk-rock fare ("Waiting for My Man," "Run Run Run"), and on the other hand, difficult brooding set-pieces ("Heroin," "Venus in Furs," and "The Black Angel's Death Song"). This division is completely turned on its head on White Light White Heat, of course; the softer songs are infinitely weirder than the straight-forward but unbearably-loud rockers: nothing is easy to digest. Of course it all still "works" more than any attempted-pop record.]

Point being, listening to punk on an ipod is ineffectual. Hardcore already sounds like the subway and street noise--the vocals are usually mixed low, there are no dynamics, etc. Ipods are fucking MADE for Morrissey, though. (And rap, soul, and any pre-Hendrix rock: any really vocal-heavy music, basically). Not jazz, really. Obviously not metal :(

This seems more pertinent the more I think about it. Because very few people just sit in their rooms alone, undistracted by the internet, and just stare at the wall while listening to an album. As if hardcore, metal, free jazz, Wagner, et al, weren't unlikeable enough, they require such specific settings to absorb.

Not only a specific setting (absolute silence) for being able to hear the music, but also a specific mode of listening (complete attention) to get the music. A hardcore song is so compressed-- over very quickly, unrepetitive, and reliant on the listener to fill in a lot of gaps--that you really have to pay attention or else it becomes one big blur. (On top of already *sounding* the grating whir of a lawnmower).

Basically, music in 2007, when we all have ipods, listen to music on crappy laptop speakers, download and then only listen to 30 seconds of an mp3 before we delete an album, etc, means not only that we listen to music and buy music in different ways, but that whole genres no longer make sense. Music has to be so immediate, repetitive, unquirky, streamlined, etc. in order to grab even die-hard fans (we are the most inundated and over-burdened of all!), while casual fans have everything made so easy for them that they will rarely think, "Oh, listening to all 18 minutes of 'Sister Ray' will make this go by a lot faster!"

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Further Adventures in Taste

This blog contends that there is no taste that is "essential" to a person. All tastes are contingent. (See previous posts for some complications of this.)

This is seemingly self-evident from the degree to which people's love of Bukowski, Godard, Kurt Vonnegut, etc. directly correspond to the age of their first encounter. I could never argue that I "would always have loved" this or that, since, had I been of a different age when I first read/saw/heard something, it may have seemed entirely otherwise.

This is why aesthetic "close-mindedness" is so unconvincing. No one is born with their tastes, whether in favorite foods, their "type" of sexual partner, or favorite records: we are subject to so many determinants, familial, social, developmental, accidental, economic, that it is a mixture of wild arrogance and extreme self-effacement to imagine that one's tastes (principles, etc.) are not entirely a construct. A construct not entirely of our making, of course, but even a radical self-remaking cannot escape precisely what it is reacting against (and probably within).

What is frustrating, then, is the almost-unavoidable illusion that one is fundamentally this or that sort of person. In a previous post, I defined the canon as the transcendent version of this illusion: a taste for Shakespeare is still historically/linguistically contingent, and yet it cannot be imagined otherwise in any real time. On the other hand, my 17th century self certainly would have paled at hearing even Buddy Holly. What is real and more or less "one's own" is one's methodology of taste. But I refuse to admit (what culture is constantly demanding--from homophobic genetic pseudopsychology to identity-cultures) that anyone is "the sort of person" for any aesthetic particularity.

For instance, being a fan of punk music, I could easily despise Brian Eno's Ambient records outright on a number of grounds. And, in fact, I don't much care for those records. But if I bought Music For Airports and took it home, listened to it while getting ready for bed, I'm sure it would be fine. And there certainly are things I have come to prefer in music (songs, for one) that these records lack. But I would never say, 1) that I never would like such a thing, even if statistically I probably won't ever get around to it, or 2) that it has anything to do with some ME outside of what I have gone out of my way to be. Tastes are fundamentally "meta"--about themselves.

While some stuff is obvious garbage, this judgment cannot be rooted in a subject as such, but only in a force-field (of tastes, values) that conjures up that subject.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Pretty much any aesthetic topic, if you push it in the right direction, "really gets at the heart of what this blog is about," but let me relate an anecdote that really gets at the heart of what this blog is about.

When I was in high school, my friend Jeff and I were getting into punk and hardcore together.

[Brief aside: In a way, here we get to the heart of my whole aesthetic experience. On one hand, few things (Proust comes to mind) will ever be as rewarding as the experience of getting into punk, for me. On the other hand, I have become a complete junkie for "getting into things" in the hope of recapturing those ecstatic months/years. So, the irony is, I love something SO MUCH that I am always trying to find that joy in something else. C'est moi.]

We knew there was this band Napalm Death, who were maybe the fastest, heaviest, craziest band--but we had never heard them. Their name certainly was cool. So, using Jeff's dad's computer, we "downloaded" a clip of a song from a Napalm Death fan website. This was before Napster or anything, but because the average Napalm Death song is like 45 seconds, I think we were able to listen to a sizable part of a few songs.

I didn't really get it. They sounded weird. And probably a year or so went by until I ended up buying their second album. I am now completely familiar with this band's discography, they are one of my favorites, etc. And I can say, without any exaggeration, that my recollection of how they sounded bears no resemblance to any actual Napalm Death song.

We have a word for experiencing something that does not exist: "imagination." I imagined all the music I heard that day. My recollection does not correspond to whatever real songs were played over those speakers, or any music played over any speakers, ever. When I play this band today, I ALWAYS try to hear what it was that I heard the first time, but it simply is not there. The experience was completely imaginative. Or so you would think, except that I would bet $$ that Jeff heard the exact same (unreal) thing. We were listening to the same bands at the time, and were equally unprepared for Napalm Death, and had about the same reaction. We agreed that it was very fast, very heavy, and yet decidedly "off." That is, we were more confused than brutalized.

Stanley Fish writes about "interpretive communities." I would go back even one further, and posit a community of apprehension. This would largely be in the realm of imagination, of filtering new phenomena through tastes we have already developed, and expectations we can rely on.

In short, this "experience" (hallucination) is all I think about. The great irony is, while I didn't like what I "heard" that day, I am confident that if I heard anything *now* that sounded like that (which Napalm Death certainly don't), they would be my favorite band.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Canon

Here are some upcoming topics:
* Cult films/cult records
* Books/films you "had to see in high school"

Here's something I wrote down on a receipt in the subway the other day (no shit). Additions to the receipt-manuscript are in brackets:

If the materialist subject cannot be said to be adequately represented by the transitory and socially-determined fashions (intellectual, religious, or otherwise) of the day---say, if we were Greeks, we would wear Togas instead of tight jeans [Therefore our fashion cannot be said to say anything about us without relating it to a moment and its cultural field. It seems for a moment that there is nothing to "anchor" us to ourselves as existing in some metaphysical personhood; ie: our feelings of identity would be illusory and merely/entirely historically contingent.

Thus the terror of the elementary school alternative-history version of World War II: "If we had lost to the Nazis, we would all be speaking German right now." But, see, would that really be US? I mean, the same US? So my 8-year-old thinking ran.]

However, THE CANON comes to the rescue, presenting itself as a function of what would be true for this subject at any time, and so regardless of time. Sophocles is always great because of who I essentially am. So, when we say that some [work of] art is timeless, we mean this over and against the concerns of any given (historical) present concerns--ie: the particular determinations of the subject beholden to the ephemera of history.

Thus, the canon (understood in this way) is both oriented towards a set of "pasts" [with their own determinations] and constitutes a kind of permanent avant-garde in advance of its future appropriation. One would always be a Shakespeare fan, even if we dressed in metallic future-suits and ate food in pill-form: [the classic work is "outside of time" not in some mystical/bourgeois way but so that the subject might be as well.]

Friday, June 1, 2007

Contemporary Art: Uninformed Musings

My critique of contemporary art is necessarily a bit uninformed. Nonetheless, I think we can proceed.

The visual arts are dictated by a different set of concerns than those that determine, say, fiction. Not unimportantly, it takes much less time to encounter a painting in a gallery than to read a novel. Visual art is more like lyric poetry in this sense.

The consequence of this, or perhaps the cause, is a (perceived) emphasis on reception and background. If the art is only in front of you for a short time, 1) why put years of work into it? and 2) the more "portable" the ideas behind the work need to be.

This viewpoint is the opposite of what might otherwise be thought of as typical of the art of the last century. I am saying, rather than "Art for Art's sake," that the concept has trumped form: that contemporary art is foremost an auto-critique of the possibilities of art and representation. The production of temporary art has become or threatens to become, merely a subset of art criticism.

Art for Art's sake I can understand. However, I find it difficult to move into so-called "conceptual art," not because I don't "get" it, but because I get it all too well and find the detour an uninteresting one. I must concede, some ideas are best expressed visually (or dramatically, or lyrically)--conceptual art is not inherently redundant. But don't we all feel that the idea behind a work all too often might have been detached and summarized for us--in short, for us to "get"--without the need for bad art? Once comprehension of a meta-critique becomes the criteria for an aesthetics, comprehensibility dethrones subtlety and the meta-critique seems pointed at all too easy targets.

Postmodern thought and aesthetics is often ridiculed for its "interrogations," "interventions" and "problematizing." I have to agree with this ridicule, without being so naive as to ask that art (or criticism) communicate Great Truths to us as their sole aim. Rather, I would ask that the meta-critique have an argument. Contemporary art seems less to have opened up an unending dialectical self-interrogation than to have run upon a kind of neurotic "block" that gets less interesting every year.

In short: we get it. Give us something more. I think it would not be inappropriate at this moment to mention (ie: demand a return to) a "pleasure of the text" in visual arts.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

"How to Read"

Nick Hornby recently wrote this article called "How to Read." It's a quick read, but it's basic points are these:
  • Reading is for pleasure. Therefore, people should read what gives them pleasure, instead of racking their brains trying to slog through "important" books or supposed "classics" that they don't enjoy. Life is short.
Oh, well, there would be more bullet-points, but actually Hornby's argument stops there, more or less. Within the piece is, covertly, a theory of the novel: transparency into a world and its characters, whom the reader is made to care about. So, Hornby's champion is Dickens, rather than Henry James. Oh, fuck, let's just name opaque novelists with unlikeable characters: James, Flaubert, Conrad, Faulkner, Madox Ford, Woolf...

So, predictably, behind this argument for practical "simplicity" is an exclusion, a prohibition on difficulty which is reproduced in the argument: read for pleasure. Supposedly, difficulty is not pleasurable. Anyone who has ever, uh...done anything will tell you otherwise. The JOY of finishing a difficult novel is not to be underrated, and not merely in the sense of relief.

My argument, if you know me, is extremely predictable: in music, I refuse to believe that the bottom, root pleasure of music is the "pure pop song," which all the variations, experimentations, and genres we wade through are just complications and disguises for 3-minute pop gems. Similarly, I reject the idea that "plot" or "caring about characters" is the BASE LINE of literary enjoyment. If I agreed with that, Hornby would be right. Pleasure would be, ultimately, the same thing for everyone, only in more and less sophisticated versions. Literature would be like alcohol: some people might prefer chardonnay, others Pabst Blue Ribbon, but the root pleasure (getting drunk) would be the same, even if some aficionados veered into wine snobbery and pretended it were otherwise.

The best example for me will be Nabokov (and therefore, covertly, Proust, you see): Nabokov's novels are written in exactly the prose that Hornby deplores: "Prose that draws attention to itself." Moreover, the plot and characters of Nabokov novels cannot be said to be their main selling points. Further still, Nabokov is not a novelist you can just pick up and go. He is difficult, allusive, and benefits greatly from the reader knowing a great many conventions and references and maneuvers that will be played with, undermined, and exploited by Nabokov. It is an aesthetic enjoyment, rather than a mimetic one. And this pleasure is like the pleasure of exercising, of building muscles or generally improving at something.

Hornby's discussion is facile because the ability to take readerly pleasure changes over time, and not just with the seasons, but with one's readings, and in response to difficulty and challenges. Anyone who has read Roland Barthes' Pleasure of the Text will have noticed that this "pleasure" is far from uniform to every text (reading Zola versus Robbe-Grillet is Barthes' great example), and is a pleasure honed over a lifetime of difficult and introspective reading.

Hornby is arguing for a path of least resistance. Enjoy! (says the superego). I hope my rebuttal is clear: no one is born being a "certain kind of reader," as Hornby's article repeatedly implies; if someone enjoys Tolstoy, it is not because they are simply that kind of person, but because they have probably suffered and been bored and had to look things up, and wondered about putting it down---and that could all happen just reading War and Peace. On the other hand, there is no greater pleasure than reading War and Peace. It's fucking good. I would say, not despite, but *because* the novel is not unmitigatedly "pleasurable," determines its greatness. The Novel, Lukacs reminds us, is the aestheticization of its own problematic. And, so, the greatest novels tend to be, well...problematic.

As for Hornby's specious conflation of entertainment novels with difficult ones (I imagine Nostromo), it is no wonder that he "begs" us to put down novels that are "making us weep with the effort of reading them." By defining books as purely ENTERTAINMENT, Hornby essentially has made his entire argument. Why, indeed, struggle to entertain yourself? But it's so stupid, because even in classic fiction, the most "entertaining" novels (Mathew Lewis' The Monk), which make no demands on the reader, are ultimately forgettable. And I should stop here before I go into a long thing about Freud and cathexis and circuits of pleasure, but let's just say that if you believe Hornsby, you cannot also believe that crossword puzzles are fun. After all, they can be frustrating.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Herzog at Film Forum

The past week, I have been going to Film Forum's series of Werner Herzog documentaries. On Tuesday, I saw his 1994 film The Transformation of the World into Music, about the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth.

The most immediately interesting aspect of this film is that, where most documentaries (and Herzog's normal procedure) approach the subject as an outsider, even an ethnographer, throughout this film Herzog is simultaneously engaged in filming and in staging his own version of Wagner's Lohengrin.

This outside/inside binary is not interesting to me as an abstract dilemma faced by the instantiation of the camera--no, nothing like that. The absence of any outside is exactly pertinent to our discussion of taste. (Although, to be clever, I could point out the film's almost total lack of "exterior" shots; Bayreuth's rehearsal rooms are its whole world.) Because Wagner is such a polarizing artistic figure, often polarizing within a single person (see: Nietzsche), there is certainly a "cult" aspect to his work and following--a definite gap between the devotee and the puzzled outsider who does not see what all the fuss is about.

A recurrent motif in the film is that every single person involved in production, even down to the theater's fire sergeant, knows every word and melody of Wagner by heart. This allows for very short rehearsal times, but there are also intimations that this shared love is shielding Wagner from something: the ignorance of critics, anxieties about his music being co-opted by the Nazis (ie: whether this co-opting was somehow allowed or inherent in the music or in Wagner), and even the press of the cult upon the Bayreuth site as a destination for a pilgrimage.

[At one point, in staging Lohengrin, Herzog wants to play up the druidical cult-site that is the setting of the play, and surround the opera house with gigantic monoliths and have lasers shoot out of the building for hundreds of miles to other cult sites. I wonder how "knowing" this intention was, because the present direction of Bayreuth, under Wolfgang Wagner, is so opposed to such a "cult" and insists that everything must be INSIDE the opera house: that is where the staging takes place. But the cult scene has always-already infiltrated Wagner--the massive druidical stones are part of Lohengrin, and Bayreuth can never be "just" an opera house anyways.]

I am an outsider as regards Wagner. I don't get it. And this made the film all the more interesting, because I am such a card-carrying Proust aficionado---Proust, who is no stranger to Wagner! And the film is a kind of bizarro version of my embryonic fantasy of a world of Proust lovers, where every reference would land squarely, and scarcely another author would ever be mentioned. And in Herzog's film, you get this, and--here's the genius of it-- there is nothing creepy about it at all. Because it is about insiders shot from the inside, it is a film we might say, lacking distance, even as its subject is that very proximity. The total experience, therefore, is of having wandered into an alien world invisibly, and without crisis.

And so I would conclude that this is a film about the possibility of irony.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Well, here we are on the internet. You probably have a few other windows open: the New York Times, your email, the weather, and probably some kind of social-networking site (myspace, friendster, even a dating site). These sites are used for a great many things: pedophiles, spam, hyping shitty bands, seeing what your friends are up to, etc. For me, they are only about one thing: my lists of favorite movies, books, and films.

One glance at these enumerations of one's tastes immediately brings a charge of disingenuousness. One is far more likely to list Army of Shadows as one's favorite movie than the actually-superior The Godfather, or to treat one's tastes synecdochically, letting one more obscure noir stand in for a broader affection that "covers" the "obvious" but excluded Maltese Falcon.

This gets to the heart of the matter. "Taste" is for public consumption. And the very compulsion to take a lie-detector to people proclaiming Battleship Potemkin as their favorite film, is a misguided one. There IS authentic enjoyment. Aesthetic critiques are possible. However, the presentation of taste and one's actual (gustatory) taste, in their social articulations, become as indistinguishable from one another as the laws of chance and determination in Borges' "Lottery in Babylon."

What we propose is a sociology of these processes. There are apparent seams, paradoxes, glaring but unreproachable flaws, compulsions, and genius maneuvers everywhere in this field. We will cover literature, film, music, the notion of "hipsters," and New York in general.

More soon. For now, I should say that, if this blog were to have a reading list, it would be as follows (and I have not read these books, so we could get up a kind of discussion if we chose):
Immanuel Kant "Critique of the Power of Judgment"
Joseph Litvak "Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel"
Roland Barthes "The Fashion System"
Pierre Bourdieu "Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste"