Sunday, October 19, 2008

I was just talking to my mom on the phone...

So here I am listening to Mahler, my room smells like cat food, 2/3 of my bed is covered in notebooks and shoes...

And I'm talking on the phone to my mother, and I ask if she's going to see the Oliver Stone movie "W."

Now, no one has taken a less sophisticated or more vitriolic stance towards George W. Bush than my mother. She hisses him. She thinks he is "stupid." She has not done her homework, and everything he has done seems to her thoroughly "Republican"--even while he has been isolating himself from his own party with his positions on, for example, immigration. My mother's view of George Bush could not be more ill-informed or more partial.

And yet, as a good Christian bourgeois, my mother tells me that she had been hesitant about seeing the Oliver Stone movie, until she heard that it was "more balanced" than one might have thought.

If anything exemplifies the moral bankruptcy of "tolerance" and "understanding," it is this superficial desire to see even war-mongers and sponsors of crimes-against-humanity (like George Bush) as "having a story" that can be presented in a "balanced" and "even-handed" manner.

This is ideology in its clearest form. Balanced. Non-partisan. We present, you decide. Both sides of the story. Explanations based on childhood biography. Surprisingly fair.

My mother, who says she was wary of a film that would be a "hatchet job," is glad to hear that the film is "fair." But what *objective judgment* demands IS a hatchet job. Nothing could be more fair than a devastating, informed, and merciless hatchet job on Bush as president and man. There *are* political nuances to Bush, which my mother and other Democrats have not noticed, and which should be emphasized against the moral-superiority of bourgeois liberal "Blue State" partisans. There are also personal qualifications that should be insisted upon--the man is most likely *not* "an idiot" in the usual sense of the term, as my parents have always insisted. Does that make him more scrupulous? No. More dangerous? Perhaps. But all of that gets lost in the "night in which all cows are black" of his famed stupidity.

In short, what is "fair" in judgment has nothing in common with what is "fair" in the minds of the middle-class who have always encouraged us as children to share, say nothing if we don't have something nice to say, and that everyone is good at something. That their world is run as amoral thievery on all levels is nothing to be "considerate" of. [Please note this post has nothing to say about the film itself, but is ONLY concerned with the critical reception which praises its "even-handedness."]

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

sub specie aeterni

Rolling Stone used to (and may still) have an inset feature on classic bands in their reviews section, where you could read a brief bio of a group and also see an overview of their discography, wherein you would learn that, say, "London Calling" or "Houses of the Holy" were (surprise!) 5 star albums. Meaning, of course, not that Rolling Stone had given these albums five stars upon their release, but that *with hindsight*, these were impeccable and classic albums. A bit of a cop-out, from my perspective of really disliking Rolling Stone, but certainly the correct way of thinking of reviews. The only catch is, we can't always wait 20 years to find out if an album is good or not.

So: there is the "present moment" of a review, in two senses: for the "contemporary musical context" in which an album is released, and also the present moment of the listener's always-developing taste. As a 16 year old and huge fan of Black Flag, I was in no position to appreciate a timeless classic like Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush." In this respect, the "hindsight" can only be my *future* appreciation of a work, which is as imperceptible to me as its value to posterity.

The only ideal review is one that reviews the album "in-itself" or "for us" (Hegel), i.e. "sub specie aeterni" (Spinoza)--from the viewpoint of eternity, or as considered "timelessly" and with everything known.

This is not usually possible, for obvious reasons. What is possible? Well, the exact opposite. Not at all an "objective" appreciation, but the completely subjective and pragmatic one. I have a perfect test question. "How many times do you think you will listen to this record?" A "five-star" record would be the most-listened to, a four-star less listened to, etc. until the 1-star record would be the 1 or 2-listen album. By "pragmatic," I mean not treating the quality of a record as something existing IN it, and that will emerge with time (like a meaning), but only in the sense of its tool for us (as giving enjoyment).

Bad reviews confuse these two positions.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

People and Ideas

There is a considerable misunderstanding of human beings that arises in America every 4 years. Around election time, a bystander could almost be led to believe that people (voters) have competing and well-thought-out views on complex issues such as the economy and world affairs.

To avoid the liberal error, which is that "*we* have thought through these things, and *they* are content to watch NASCAR and follow their religious leaders," I want immediately to say, this is how things should be. People do not have coherent world-views. 

This, of course, is what Marx means by "ideology" and Gramsci by "common sense"--there are NOT competing and fleshed-out conceptions of the world competing with each other, at least not among persons who are not professional ideologues, pundits, academics, politicians, etc. If there were, the "spectrum" idea of our political parties ("Obama is moving to the center in recent speeches") would fall apart immediately: a spectrum is only slightly more sophisticated at representing complex ideas than our binary political-party system is. Although I will concede that a number of issues, in their party-affiliations, have become hypostatized in clusters of "sites of real struggle"--for instance, the affinity of Black voters with the Democratic party is more or less correct, where their voting for Republicans would be sheer madness.

But I don't want to talk about politics. That is just an example. I want to demolish the idea that people for the most part "have ideas" or "hold positions" or even "act in their self-interest." Aristotle has an interesting idea that knowing something, really knowing it, is the same as knowing its cause: in this sense, I completely reject the idea that persons "know what they think" about things. 

If I didn't have to go buy some clothes right now, I would call Freud into this discussion as well. Needless to say, for me the meaning of life is to "find out what I think about things."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Hating on Manohla Dargis

Could Manohla Dargis try any harder to show that she has read some Philip Roth novel? (No great accomplishment, really, in itself.) It's bizarrely tasteless, and so insistent that it almost feels high-concept. Roth, after all, is not Shakespeare, and so many films are adapted from novels that this is a strange one to single out for a book report. I'm a bit embarrassed for her.

This is all from a MOVIE review:

The book is fascinating and repellent, more admirable than likable, a fusion of early Roth (sex) and late Roth (death). 

In the novel Kepesh is pathetic and self-loathing, but perversely enthralling because Mr. Roth's prose is. 

...the humiliating revelations that, in the novel, Kepesh ritualistically bathes in. 

 It shares some of the book's dialogue...

 a spiky, claustrophobic, insistently impolite novel...

the book's blunt force, its beautiful sentences, flashes of genius and spleen.

the novel's furious bite.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

"They do not know it, but they are doing it"

Stuff White People Like is a well-known blog that I have just recently started looking at. Let me give you my take on it, but first (to situate my originality), here is what some idiots had to say:

Here's a stupid article about it:
new republic

"If there's one thing white people really like, it's pretending to poke fun at themselves while actually being allowed to feel superior."

and here's another:

The author has received "hate mail accusing him of racist stereotyping."

The site is genius not because it is "so funny" (the writing is quite poor, actually) nor because it is "true" (being told that I like coffee and sweaters is "true" only in the most minimal way) . I see it rather as a continuation of Roland Barthes' brilliant semiological study of French culture, Mythologies--with "white people" here substituting for Barthes' (white) French bourgeoisie.

The "insight" that the site is about "yuppies" rather than about *all* white people is hardly an insight at all. THAT IS THE JOKE, if there is one. Which is to say, that is the logic of ideology: having two last names, for instance, is "invisible" within a certain class. The idea that it is something someone "likes" and similar to t-shirts or liking Barack Obama *is* the joke. "Having two last names" or "knowing what's best for poor people" are not likes and dislikes--they are truly invisible to the white urban bourgeoisie. The making-explicit of these phenomena as if they were all the same is the entire enterprise. The idea that white people "like" waiting a long time to get a table at a restaurant, and "like" threatening to move to Canada--this is the joke. We don't "like" it: we aren't even aware that we are doing it. (Marx's definition of ideology)

White people:

Saturday, June 28, 2008

another Vampire Weekend post

The last post about this indie-rock quartet was well-received, so I'll venture another opinion.

Vampire Weekend are a concept act about *not* wearing tight jeans in 2007-08.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

70s Albums

So, I have a problem with organizing my music-listening. I don't have a great deal of time to really "sit down with" my records, because I don't listen to music while I read, and when I'm not at home reading I like to be out doin' thangs or watching movies.

My procedure for a long time was to have a pile of "recently listened to/new" records out in front of my turntable, but this ended up being unmanageable. Then, for a while, I tried to restrict the number of records that were "out" at any given time to a dozen, which were to be played into the ground before moving to the next group. But, like the strange movies that work their way to the top of your netflix queue, it is hard to plan out in advance what albums you will want to hear a week from now.

My solution now is to only listen to records from the 1970s. I have already broken this rule from the start by listening to Led Zeppelin "I," Isaac Hayes "Hot Buttered Soul," and King Crimson "In the Court of the Crimson King," all from 1969. But we know deep down those are really 70s albums, because they are such 70s artists and in such 70s genres.

* * * *

Some time ago, Pitchfork Media published a list of the top 100 albums from the 1970s. I am planning to make my own list when I'm done with all this, but for now I would like to do a "reading" of the Pitchfork list, which can be found here pt 1 and here pt 2.

Negatively speaking, there are some gross errors here. The Sex Pistols album is wildly underrated (at #51), while the CBGB scene (Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, Suicide) and post-punk are overrated. This is in line with the entire project's favoring of the "artsy." Most egregiously, Black Sabbath is completely absent, as is Bob Marley. There are countless inexplicable exclusions.

Positively (that is, descriptively), the list's unbelievable pretension in what got included is unmistakable: as much Krautrock and glam as possible, Brian Eno and David Bowie everywhere, while the genres of reggae, soul, jazz, and funk are represented by mere touchstones. The most cliche thing possible would be to cry "hipster!" and "pretentious!" at these values. That is mistaken. Highly overrating Sly and the Family Stone is not a "hipster" move. The earnest inclusion of several Led Zeppelin albums is not "pretentious" in itself. What is pretentious is the split desire to produce a list by and for indie-rock (pitchfork's readership) and at the same time to make grand pronouncements about the place of Funkadelic in 70s culture. Which is to say, the list is more embarrassing to the extent that it steps *outside* its hipsterism and private tastes. For instance, is Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions" REALLY the only Stevie Wonder album superior to David Bowie's "Aladdin Sane"?? I wonder if there is a single person on earth who would assert that in a non-list form.

A GREAT list has its own logic--it makes you forget what has been left off. You grow to understand what the criteria were. This list is awful, because of the striking, striking confusion of putting a Sly and the Family Stone album at #4, and the only Marvin Gaye album at #49 (by contrast, Rolling Stone has this album as the #1 album of this decade!). A really really good list should be so well-conceived that in re-making or re-working it, you accidentally just repeat it while you think you are disagreeing with it. Like, it forces you to say, "The Beatles *really are* the best band"--for instance. Or, any list of the greatest novels that has Madame Bovary or Moby Dick at the top of the list is obviously throwing down a gauntlet.

Another type of great list is the list of albums that looks like a person's real private taste. The Pushead list of the 100 best punk records of the 1980s is an excellent example of this. It is bizarre and I disagree with a great deal of it, but it is *honest* and seemingly responsive only to internal criteria. Nothing is included for the sake of representing something else.

But let me tell you what I most like about lists. We are all inclined in our personal recommendations and on our myspace pages to represent our tastes a certain way. But the Beatles really are the best band. And it is important once in a while to have some perspective as regards what is "great" and a "must-buy." It is easy to say that something is fantastic when it is not being compared to anything else, but when held up against, say, James Brown's "The Payback," that is usually much harder to assert.

In any case, here is my preliminary top 10 list (before I've done a lot of listening to my pile of 70s albums)--with pitchfork placement in parentheses.

1the stooges- fun house (12)
2bob dylan- blood on the tracks (5)
3the ramones- ramones (23)
4david bowie- ziggy stardust (81)
5sex pistols- never mind the bollocks (51)
6stevie wonder- talking book (--)
7led zeppelin- 4 (7)
8judas priest- sad wings of destiny (--)
9bob marley- catch a fire (--)
10neil young- after the gold rush (99)

My inclusion of judas priest is the only one i think is "non-canonical"--but I think if one subtracts the entire subsequent history of metal from this album, it is truly the culmination of led zeppelin, glam, and black sabbath, i.e. a masterwork.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Let's admit we (you) made a mistake

Look, America. No one has tricked us except for ourselves. In reviews of the new Marky Mark film--oops, the new Donnie Wahlberg film--oops, le nouveau film de M. Night Shyamalan, nearly every critic unleashes all they've got of mockery and cynicism. Rating a terrible 20% at Rotten Tomatoes (and an even worse score among respectable "top" critics), "The Happening" is sure to bomb and may just put an end to Mr. Shyamalan's Hollywood career. Opening this weekend, it's up against an Incredible Hulk movie, but sadly--very sadly--it cannot pose as the "intelligent alternative" to the Hulk, since by all accounts, it is just as retarded.

My contention: it's not that this person's films have gotten worse. Rather, we have become increasingly aware of how hacky and boring and pretentious and badly-scripted, etc. they were in the first place. There is a handy graph of this data on Rotten Tomatoes, but here are the ratings scores for his films (in chronological order):

Sixth Sense: 84
Unbreakable: 68
Signs: 74
The Village: 43
Lady in the Water: 24
The Happening: 20

I saw the first four of those when they came out (I love movies). At the time, I too felt that Unbreakable was stylish but boring; Signs was stylish but dumb; and The Village was stylish but truly retarded. Lady in the Water starred my least favorite actor Paul Giamatti, so I didn't go see it, and who knows about the Happening. Sure it *sounds* bad. 

So, it does indeed seem like this man's films get progressively worse. But I saw The Sixth Sense recently: IT IS HORRIBLE. Easily as bad/dumb as any of those other movies. And once one feels this way, it does not at all incline one to think, "Well his second and third movies were also, y'know, kind of good." Once the first illusion is dissolved, his films certainly do not look like a steady decline

>Epistemologically, what we have hear is a randomly arranged pile of equivalently-bad films. By "random" I mean that their chronology is irrelevant on video store shelves, and in terms of absolute quality-evaluations. The *illusion* of a decline (i.e. the illusion of an initial quality) only spells out our obvious biases and desires: we wanted these movies to be good, and we kept on wanting that even when they weren't. Each time that they weren't good, we pretended that it was the fault of the object (of our criticism), when really they are all the same. Our "disappointment" in Mr. Shyamalan was really guilt at an initial mistake that we could not admit and therefore had to keep repeating

So, while I cannot defend these shitty movies, I make two charges: that everyone had a serious lapse in judgment as regards The Sixth Sense (and to a lesser degree his other positively-reviewed films); and that the venom spat at his newest work should really be turned towards reviewers themselves for encouraging him in the first place and not admitting their complicity in this pretentious, bombastic career.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

New Weezer Video

The video for the new Weezer song is a series of references to popular youtube phenomena (or what wikipedia calls "internet memes"). Most often, Weezer has (somehow!) gotten these losers to reprise their 3-minutes-of-fame-grabbing appearance in the video for this song, singing along or dancing, etc. Other times, the members of Weezer themselves are impersonating famous videos.

I'll be honest, I didn't "get" 80% of the references. I'll be more honest, whenever someone shows you a viral internet video, it's always really really embarrassing for that person. They are sitting next to you, saying, "yeah---oh wait here's the best part" and looking at you with this stupid grin. After you smile a little, out of pity, they say something dumb like, "well it was pretty funny the first time." Anyways, I looked up every reference made in this video, and the original youtube videos often had 20 million views, without ever being something weird or very funny. In short, I am shocked at our nation's sense of what constitutes "OMG you have to see this." Then again, I don't work in an office any more, so I am a bit removed from all this.

But even lamer is the "after-life" of the people who appear in these videos. Here they are in a Weezer video, which is a HUGE step up from the internet. But... don't they know... that they are popular in the first place for being wildly embarrassing? I contend that they don't. I mean, I don't think it is possible for someone to think that. A famously bad American Idol contestant from several years ago released an album to capitalize on his massive exposure. The question of whether he thought "he could really sing" or not is academic--his biggest mistake was thinking anyone would find him funny for a 45 minute CD. The Weezer video is funny (no, it's not, but we'll get to that) because it keeps the references short, they make the people recognizable (if you have seen their videos in the first place), and they pretend there is NO after-life for these people at all. They are here to "do their one thing." Which is all we want them to do.

What's sad is that people don't know what makes them funny in the first place. To ever read an interview with someone whose popularity was a fluke, and hear them describing their "new projects," is heart-breaking. You just wish someone would tell them, "We don't care about you now. Go back to where you came from." And I like the Weezer video's spirit in pretending that, wait, we actually like these people, they seem fun, let's all celebrate them one more time.

The reason, however, that the Weezer video is not "funny" is because... well, in what way could it be funny? I'm familiar with the concept of the joke, and there are a couple here, sure. But the majority of the youtube allusions can only be called "funny" if by that you mean "referential." Perhaps you thought someone doing something on video was funny--but does that carry over to watching them sing or dance along to a Weezer song? You can imagine millions of people seeing this video and saying, "Oh that's so funny, how did they get all those people to sing along? Do you think they used CGI or that they *really* had them all there?" etc. Where "funny" in this sentence means something like:
-not condescending to me
-expensively edited
-containing references understandable by me
-in front of me right now

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Austin: In League with the NY Times

"Oh, you lived in Austin? It's supposed to be really cool there."
"It's not."
"Oh, but I heard it was."
"It's not."
"Hm. See, I heard it was."
"It's not."
"Really, though, I think it must be."
"It's not."
"That's so strange, because there's no way that it's not cool there."

Sometimes it feels like I'm the only person in New York not enamored of the medium-sized, traffic-congested, isolated, provincial, cheap, politically-deranged, and culturally self-absorbed capital of Texas. Not that everyone has been there. Although the worst barista at my local coffee shop is from there. He wears sandals. He mentions being from Austin as though *that* were his job. I wish he would learn what pumpernickel was instead.

I understand that New York is stressful, and that also it is so great here that we have to (in bad faith) "really like" some other place that is secretly crappy so that we look all the better by comparison, but take a look at today's NY Times. Two (2) articles about Austin: 1) an indie film is opening in Austin instead of NY or LA. 2) The "Texas Hill Country" is the #1 place to visit this summer.

First off... "ooooh, an *indie* film." Indie, like organic, is one of those scams of capitalism and reification by which buying something is neat because it supports some supposedly noble venture. Austin is a real home of independent film, because of the number of college students and the University's film school. All I have to say about this is that when Bergman's last, magnificent film Sarabande played in Austin, there was one other person in the audience the night I saw it. Austin is not a town of film-lovers. It is just full of young people who don't work.

As far as the travel article, which begins "Who needs Europe?", viz. when Austin and the surrounding area is so wonderful, my only response is something like, "You fucking idiots." If the scorching heat, computer-industry yuppies, pretentious backwoods foodie-ism, and hicks hicks hicks are a substitute for Europe, really I don't see why sniffing glue is not a "travel destination" for the NY Times. It is equally disorientingly shitty, but at least you won't have 5 days left of it after you realize what a bad decision you made.

Oh and the other day this fat girl I met was telling me she wanted to move to Marfa, TX. That's not in Austin, but I still felt like I was on crazy pills. Honey, they don't have an Urban Outfitters there.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


One of the more illuminating conceptions of taste I have heard is a description my friend (with a mixture of condescension, appreciation, and vanity) applies to people's unique constellations of interests, the conceit of a town. For me, "Parkerville"--for someone else, let's imagine "Megan City" and "Larry Town."

The idea is, there are certain interests we have that are irreducibly particular to us: when we mention them, we are alienating people. What we find important or think to be famous, is actually peculiar and local. These interests weird people out and our very much strictly for us.

I like a few things about this. 1) It doesn't rule out shared, overlapping, universally agreed-upon tastes. Not everything someone likes is "within their jurisdiction." 2) It allows us to describe the interests of boring people or people with bad tastes in a more interesting way. Is there not an *interesting* (or bizarre) ur-phenomena at the root of even the most pedestrian tastes? 3) It allows us to think of people's appreciations as being never-neutral. What someone likes about the Godfather, let's say, might be completely determined by their weird local feelings.

I don't want to talk about real people who aren't me. So I'll give examples from myself:

For myself: VH1 "pop-up video"; Lord of the Rings RISK; Sergeant York; Everybody Loves Raymond; The Song of Roland; D'Aulaire's book of Norse myths; mediocre Swedish hardcore; biographies of Napoleon; the fourth Danzig solo album; etc.

Is it not true in some way that in our adult lives we are merely playing dress-up with our 10th-grade self?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Some more thoughts on Guns 'N Roses

Sometimes, of course, I feel like I am the only person who knows what "filler" is. There are probably about 5 good double-albums in the history of music, but with every 74-minute CD being reviewed with a very blind eye turned towards about 30 of those minutes, "filler" seems like a dirty word for reviewers and fans to throw around. Filler is really the elephant in the room, though, which is really evident if you buy vinyl and not just cds or mp3s. 

Now, the most filler-stuffed albums of all time are the double-double Use Your Illusion LPs. Over 140 minutes! What's bizarre, though, is that the filer works in precisely the opposite way that one would expect. "Sure," you are thinking, "Appetite for Destruction was a great album, but once they turned to all those piano-ballads and 8-minute songs, they just couldn't hack it."

The opposite is true. There is only one really long song on Use Your Illusion I. It is the best song. What really goes wrong wrong wrong is the number of Aerosmith-y, hard-rockin' tunes that precisely try to conjure up the first Guns 'n Roses album. In other words, their "experimentation" works, and their "sticking-to-what-they-know" does not work. The problem is not that the band "lost their touch" but that they did not go far enough. 

This is not an important point, but as more and more people just don't listen to albums or don't know what they are talking about, the real character of "artistic objects" becomes veiled by circulating idle-talk with no clue. 

(These albums are bad, still, though. Everyone is right about that.)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Long Songs

This is a post about giving people what they want in musical form.

Most hardcore bands can't write any song over four minutes without feeling that they have achieved "epic" status, with all the trappings of a sword and sandals film: long boring stretches, needless ornamentation, pretentiousness, cellos, overtures, spoken-word sections, etc. It is moronic. Compare with the metal band Darkthrone, who probably have never written a song under four minutes, but who don't bother to fill up that time with any trappings or even more than a couple of riffs. Which is to say, the punk motivation for writing a long song has never been clear to me, as punk is so devoid of emotional content and dynamics (the elements which power Meat Loaf through all of his long songs). 

Tragedy understand this perfectly. None of the songs on their last album are over 3:30. 

On their last album, Fucked Up had nine songs over five minutes (compared with, say, four on the Wu-Tang album 36 Chambers). In retrospect, the problem with Hidden World is not the length of the songs, but that it is hard to remember *either* differences between the songs, or different parts within any given song. That sounds like a crippling problem, but that the record succeeds at all given this sameness is quite an accomplishment. Over an hour of mid-tempo, strumming hardcore should be way worse than this. I credit the proliferation of "neat parts" and the band's refusal of boring intros (rather, they tend to stretch out the conclusion of a song, once your interest is already held). 

In contrast, I give you the monumentally boring diptych Guns and Roses released in 1991, Use Your Illusion I & II. These records are a real mess. But there are some real gems, almost all of them incredibly long, Zeppelin-esque monsters that truly pay their way: "November Rain" and "Estranged" being the best examples. Unlike Fucked Up's songs, you can tell right away "oh, this is not going to end for a while"---orchestration, pianos, no verse-chorus structure, guitar solos early and often. 

I want to really draw your attention to these songs, though. They are long and boring, but they earn it with HUGE parts. On the album as a whole, Guns and Roses are excessive and  over-indulgent, but one's patience is very much repaid when they succeed. The show-stopper moments in "November Rain" and "Estranged" are not mild pleasures--these are hooks big enough to hang a buffalo on. 

It sounds like this will end up with me saying that bands should "stick to what they are good at" (punk bands to short songs, bands with big pretensions to long songs), but really that is such a false distinction. That is why I introduced Fucked Up earlier. THEY ARE NOT GOOD AT WRITING LONG SONGS. Their album is just a bunch of short songs stretched out. And it's not a problem at all, because those songs are good. 

Many are familiar with Nietzsche's idea of the eternal return. Let me phrase it this way: would you rather spend your life listening (over and over) to a mediocre set of four two-minute hardcore songs, or one 9-minute monster with a lot of cool parts? 

It is harder and more worthwhile to try to write one good 8 minute song than it is to write a 2 minute song. If you can't do it (like Fucked Up), fake it. You'll impress people. If you genuinely can't do it, your 2-minute songs probably aren't so hot anyways. Or, I dunno---string a bunch of short songs together, like The Who and The Beatles, and pretend they are a "suite." But I don't go for this low-stakes business. (The real enemy of this post is Jay Reatard.) 

I also love short songs. But the pleasures should not be of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it variety. Give me something "to be intense upon" (Keats). Once you've done that, I'll forgive any  amount of cello.

Or let me be *very* blunt: why don't we measure our enjoyment of music by how much pleasure it gives us? This post would be proposing a pleasure-per-minute ratio that would judge very harshly a great deal of music that, by other standards, has a lot of capital or allegedly succeeds (though without giving pleasure).

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Opera: Some Boring Thoughts

For those of you who felt that a blog post comparing hardcore/punk/indie shows to the opera was 1) inevitable, 2) sure to be boring, and 3) already sufficiently "previewed" in real-life conversation, feel free to tune out. You are probably dating me or hear enough of my opinions as it is. 

For the rest of you, this comparison is sure to be invigorating and off-the-wall. 

When one goes to the opera, one expects a great deal:
*a return on the outlay of money for tickets, in the form of world-class singing and staging
*good acoustics
*a bunch of old New Yorkers who will cough and rustle paper for the entire performance
*many guaranteed "highlights" interspersed among boring plot-advancement
*everything going off "without a hitch"
*established and world-renowned classics of the genre, confirmed by generations of fans 
*showmanship, performance, excellence
*socializing optional
*class anxiety

When one goes to a "show" in Brooklyn, one ought to be prepared for:

*milling about and preening by people not really there to see the band(s)
*many people only there to see one band: their friends' band
*sound difficulties, bad sound
*unprofessional performance, drunkenness
*sets that go on for too long
*unpleasant social interactions with people you didn't know still lived here
*bands whose raison d'etre seems to be free drinks/getting laid/being talked-about
*no one even pretends that the goal is to give a memorable evening of entertainment

Now, I have seen some great shows in my life: but many of those were bands from Japan (with a completely different idea of performance than ours), and many of the others irregular "DIY" shows in basements, laundry rooms, etc.--no one was there for the ambience. On the other end of the spectrum, nearly every stadium-rock concert I've seen has been great: Judas Priest, John Fogerty, etc. 

The problem, then, seems to be somewhere in the middle. A show so desperate to exist that it needs to take place in a laundry room, stands a fair chance of being good. A major concert with hundreds of staffers and million-dollar sounds, will probably be OK. It is almost a certainty that "some band" playing the Cakeshop, however, will suck hard. 

Here I hope the opera comparison is useful. No one goes to hear a Mozart opera and walks away without having heard some astonishing and catchy tunes. And yet it is common in the extreme that your friends' band will play a show where, granted, the instrumentation may be fine, you may "like" the music for what that is worth, but the "take away" is nothing. A week later, you have forgotten who played completely. Only the ubiquitousness and incessant hyping of bar and club shows could produce their current dominance. No opera could be staged without a good chance of success, without elaborate composition that would ensure periodic engagement. No such "screening process" is necessary for a band to play their shitty set-list, however. 

I could go on, but you take my point. "Shows" are a waste of money. The music scene in (your town) is a cluster fuck. If only bands worth seeing played shows, there would be 1/30th the number of shows there are now. The question no artist seems to ask is, "Will anyone care that we wrote these songs, five months from now?" 

And to the reply that this is all an obvious point, I rejoin: is it? Then why is it that I am perpetually told that I "should come out" to X show; that it "will be fun," that Y band "is pretty good"? If I don't hear these phrases a single time this summer, then I will admit this point was obvious and unnecessary. Meanwhile, you will find me at home with my records or in line for rush orchestra seats.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Please see an article I wrote about punk and politics, now posted at Shit-Fi.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

* Yesterday went to the Guggenheim, where Cai Guo-Qiang has taken up nearly the entire space of the museum with seven or eight gigantic pieces. This is not a "review" blog by any means, and certainly not one interested in contemporary art, so let me brief. The successful pieces are not "about" what the plaques and commentaries say they are about. The successful pieces (a stampede of stuffed wolves, a wrecked boat full of broken plates, stuffed tigers with arrows in them, a cascade of cars taking up the empty vertical middle of the museum) are successful insofar as they solve the problem of medium in art. Neither painting, nor sculpture, nor graffiti, nor computer, nor video---the genre is completely uncertain, except for the useless term "installation." Sounds simple enough. But I would go on to say that the unsuccessful pieces are precisely those that dwell too much on medium: clay figures in various states of construction, so that sometimes the wire frame is visible; the scattering of sketches and left-over construction material within the space; a prolonged meditation on gunpowder as a medium. This stuff doesn't work-- gunpowder still has to do *something* when used in lieu of paint. On the other hand, there isn't a whole lot one could do with 80 stuffed wolves that could go wrong, or that could be repeated. One mass stuffed-wolf artwork is probably all we will ever need. Ditto for the boat full of plates. The need to repeatedly employ gunpowder is a weakness of the artist, and not an interesting one. The problematic of medium is only solved when it is presented as solved, not when subjected to a number of works "thinking through" how to employ a medium. Which is all to say, aren't we all tired of the "meta"?

* How does one stand in front of a work of art like Courbet's "Origin of the World?" Essentially a frontal view of a woman's genitalia, "head on" as it were, the artwork is interesting for several reasons. For one, the body appears virtually inanimate. Second, the face is covered. Third, the painting was owned at one point by Jacques Lacan. Fourth, the painting bears a thematic and visual resemblance to Courbet's other series of painting about "origins," those depicting the origins of rivers (usually also pointing towards some sylvan cavern). It is my contention, that in 2008, no one attending the Met will be "shocked" by this painting. Further, that many clichés will be spouted in front of it. Many a dolt will inform their date that it is "strange how unsexual it is," not realizing that they are saying anything about sex itself. Or, on the other hand (but not necessarily out of different mouths!) the contradictory cliché that there is some innate beauty in the female genitalia. This one is particularly tired. For the Greeks, of course, art was a great opportunity to represent male genitals, and this ideal was re-born in, among other works, Michelangelo's David. Only in our pedantic and "sexually liberated" culture has it become fashionable to be squeamish and retarded about how "ugly" male genitals are. The genius of Courbet's painting is to silence all clichés by showing the thing "as it is." The intelligent response can ONLY be, "Well...when you put it that way..." In other words, nothing is idealized and decorated more than the object of sexual desire qua female body. The exposure of and stripping away of these idealizations is simultaneously wildly misogynist (in the "girls are gross" sense), and also very radical. Art, should, at its best, show us what it is we "really" want, and catch us in the act of not-seeing-it-at-first. Nothing can be less productive than imagining that the object of desire (here, woman) is innately this or that (beautiful, sexy). What is interesting is how we come to desire and idealize something that is itself not very appealing, rather than trying to assert (as exemplified in the feminist book Cunt) that there is something mystical and beautiful (Jungian, let's face it) about the feminine. And in this sense Courbet will probably always be ahead of the clichéd bores who treat sex (and therefore beauty) as something we are "born" in relation to.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Why I Don't Trust Anyone

When reissue label Light in the Attic re-released the first two Betty Davis albums last year, they did something very stupid. They only did CDs. Some genius, noticing this, immediately bootlegged the things on vinyl (which I bought). Now, in early 2008, about 10 months after the CDs came out, the label has gotten wise and has pressed the albums on wax (with nicer packaging and bonus 7"s).

For a split second, I thought: "wouldn't it be nice to have these beautifully packaged, legit LPs?" But, you know what? These records actually are not that great. Now, let me tell you my one insight into human nature: everyone thinks the thing that only they know about, or only they have, is much better than it really is. Extremely rare is the "long-lost masterpiece" that lives up to the hype. We were all much more excited about "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" before they, you know, really existed.

Luckily, there is a built-in psychological counter-action to the deflationary effect of finding out something does not live up to its hype. This is the joy of tastemaking: "You've got to hear it!" When something is in the vaults, this enthusiasm belongs to the few; when something finally comes out, we all get to join in. "Is it as good as everyone says?" "Yeah! It's great!"

How am I to tell whether a new discovery is truly great or only marginal? One would think we could rely upon reviews, but this turns out to be the least-reliable sphere of all. What we need is historical perspective and a kind of long-term judgment. It is not accidental that these things are lacking in American culture.

Here's a good write up about the disappointment of hearing Betty Davis' albums re-issued:

"Her music is a lot more fun to read about than listen to."

"She was, point blank, an awful singer."

"The vocals might matter less if the music were consistently inspired. But few of Davis' grooves really stick. Partly you can blame the singer: Davis often ignored the beat entirely."

"Claims that her albums belong in the first rank of the funk pantheon are deluded. Such claims aren't unprecedented, of course. Think of the mid-'90s vogue for exotica, fueled by CD reissues of forgotten kitsch by Esquivel and Les Baxter, or of R&B/rock guitarist Shuggie Otis, who in 1974 made a wan little album called Inspiration Information that was hailed as a lost masterwork by dint of a 2001 reissue on David Byrne's label, Luaka Bop. That Esquivel, Otis, and Davis became their seasons' misguided icons of lost virtue isn't something we should hold against them. Their tepid music, though, is something else."

What I like about this write-up is the historical perspective, which is two-fold: 1) What we might call a canon of funk music, against which Betty Davis can be judged as a quality, and 2) a remembrance of other hyped "lost gems," the fate of which can now be viewed serenely.

The #1 thing that happens in a record store in NYC in 2008 is that someone recommends to me a reissue of a record I was not previously aware of. Some of these records will be fantastic (the Roky Erickson "Evil One" 2xLP), some of them will be just fine (the Betty Davis albums), and some of them I will listen to once and file away (oh how many!).

The point being, we all would rather "discover" a mediocre $18.99 reissue than buy the $3 Stevie Wonder album which towers above it. Myself included. This might be taken as the central question of this blog in its entirety.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Herbie Hancock wins Grammy

The NY Times reported the other day on Herbie Hancock winning the Grammy for Best Album.

Well, yeah, who fucking cares?

This award ceremony is 1000x worse than the Oscars (which we love/hate), and a recent list of winners of this same award is embarrassing and will be included without discussion.

The Dixie Chicks' "political" album, U2's second "comeback" album, a Ray Charles posthumous duets album, the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (!), and a Celine Dion record. The only real records to win in recent years: Outkast, Bob Dylan, Lauryn Hill.

The article points out that only Getz/Gilberto, the best-selling jazz album of all time, has ever been both a Grammy winner and a jazz record. No Coltrane. No Miles Davis. And no 60s Herbie Hancock. Certainly no jazz musician to come up *after* Coltrane. Whether this is making-up for that, we cannot tell.

Simply put, whom the Grammy goes to tells us nothing. Not about what is good, not about what is deserving, not about what is popular. It tells us only who won an arbitrary vote by out-of-touch I-don't-know-whos. Even the most clueless non-music-fan knows that Radiohead are the most *important* rock band of the last 15 years. Yet Steely Dan beats them out for the Grammy. You couldn't pay me to listen to either of those bands, but my point is, the Grammy is a barometer of precisely nothing.

Less interesting than anything, of course, would be a debate about whether this win was "deserved" or not, or who else should have one. Let's not dirty ourselves with that. Do, however, check out the jaw-droppingly-irrelevant list of past winners.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Vinyl Mythology

A couple of weeks ago, an indie rock band appeared on the David Letterman program to play a song from their new album. When Dave announced them, and the song they were playing, "off of their new record, _________", he held up, instead of the familiar promo CD, a vinyl LP. "Look at the size of this CD!"

Let's be extremely naive for a moment. What is accomplished by presenting an LP instead of a CD?

The dumbest thing
we can think of would be that the album is *not* available on CD, but only on vinyl. Fans will have to purchase a turntable to play it! Well, clearly that is not the case. If the promo is meant to indicate the primary method of distribution for the album (obviously the initial intent of holding it up: see, this is what it looks like, go buy it), then Dave would have to hold up an mp3.

Still playing dumb, we have to remark on Dave's feigned surprise. In a scripted routine, he is shocked at the "size of this CD," but then Paul Schaeffer reminds him that it is vinyl, as though Dave didn't purchase vinyl albums for thirty years. That is, the (rather bad) joke is on our having forgotten that these things exist, or more likely, on a feeling of having-seen-something-like-that-somewhere-before.

What is really going on, however, is that you are being paid a compliment. "You, dear consumer, you know what's it like, being a cool white kid. These old fogeys don't understand you. But you are cool enough, we can let you in on a secret. But the secret is already us, our music. We mutually recognize each other. You know our code, and we know you are the right person to hazard this antique medium to listen to us."

Undoubtedly this is a fairly broad compliment. One does not have to own a record player to feel it (as I said, the mp3 will surely be the primary method of distribution here)--one merely has to feel special for having this piece of large plastic signify a historically-determined distinction. In the 1970s, holding up an LP would mean nothing. In the 1990s, it would only have been confusing. But in 2008, when Radiohead are releasing albums on the internet, it means something else.

An anecdote: when I first started buying records in 2001, everyone always asked me if I "scratched," that is, if I did hip-hop DJing. This was the only imaginable use for albums. Now, everyone knows that certain genres (with their own class base) will have this medium available to purchase. It is a loss leader. Vinyl is several times more expensive to produce than compact discs, but the assumption is that those who purchase it will spread the word, and act as tastemakers. They will review it, blog about it, etc. If you see the disconnect here: the person buying the *more* antiquated medium is likely *more* plugged in to the internet and advanced forms of "viral" marketing. Vinyl is a viral marketing tool.

Reading Roland Barthes' "Mythologies," one learns a great deal about the unarticulated, subtle, pervasive, and inscrutable judgments of bourgeois society, the basis of which is obscured by "ideology" but which is always the means of production and class structure. I forget if Barthes is this explicit, but he knew all this. The point to make here is that "vinyl" as a signifier in this instance can only work if it indicates the opposite of its latent message: "You are part of an exclusive club." As I wrote in a previous post, "indie is the new name for the million-seller." The omphalos, or navel, of this mass of significations, is the bourgeoisie's own myth of itself: bohemian, cultured, elite, "knowing." And it rests on the assumption (counter to the surprise of Dave or the limited nature of the vinyl pressing) that this signification *be understood.* No one will ask the buyer of this album "if they scratch."

Monday, January 21, 2008

Here's a False Problem

Two recent articles on the soundtrack to the film Juno: one in a horrible free magazine "The L" and one in the NY Times .

Sample quotes from "The L":
I've always taken the stance that "indie" is, in fact, an aesthetic sensibility. And what's so striking about Juno is that they straight-up fucking mangled that shit in the film, with all the retardo dialogue, yet they managed to nail it on the soundtrack.

I'm afraid the backlash against things like Juno or the Decembrists is causing people to abandon the ideals we've all grown up with, possibly just for the sake of being contrarians.

and some complaints about "indie, the marketing niche" rather than production or aesthetic.

Let me deal with this one summarily. The distinction between production and aesthetic is a false distinction. There is no "outside" the marketing niche.

Sample quotes from the Times:
At the same time the indie soundtrack has come into its own as a stable, if modest, seller. Directors like Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums") established the type with a mix of new independent music and older rarities, and in 2004 "Garden State" accelerated the trend by highlighting the indie band the Shins. One of their songs, Natalie Portman's character promised in the film, will "change your life, I swear."

"They have the ability to be ironic and sincere at the same time," he said. "You believe the love, the sentiment in everything they're saying, even though they're being crass or they're joking around."

[I myself "seem to choke back" vomit reading this]
Ms. Dawson closed her eyes and squinted as she sang, and although she made her share of wisecracks, she also seemed to choke back tears when pleading with her fans not to abandon her. "Just treat me normal, please," she said. After her last song she announced: "People who have to leave, leave fast. People who don't, get in a circle and hold hands." She walked into the middle of the circle and began to swirl it closely around her: a full-audience group hug.

OK, the point here isn't that "Ms. Dawson" is exceptionally crappy and embarrassing. But really aren't we tired of the image of the artist bewildered by a success they didn't desire? Is anything more warmed-over? I have to give a great deal of credit to Cat Power here (whose songs also appear on the soundtrack, natch), for not giving in to the invitation of fame to publicly-worry-about-fame. "Ms. Dawson," like many of the neurotics to be found on the NY subway, cannot help giving us her every thought in song--her music is a breathless, music-less rush of inanity--and now cannot help but turn her performances into introverted worry-fests. The worst part is that I would very much *like* to say, no one goes to concerts to hear the artists wring their hands in between songs about their personal lives, but.... fans of this music probably do go to shows for that reason. They are on a first name basis (which this blog is NOT) with "Ms. Dawson."

To clarify, briefly, the relation between the two articles--or, to solve the problem of one with the problem of the other:
is there any more palpable demonstration of the false problem of production/aesthetic than seeing this overgrown child crying onstage about how much money she is making?

Indie exists. It is not an aesthetic, however, nor is there a divide between "authentic" indie and some insidious "marketing niche" version. "Indie" IS the new name for the million-seller. Don't stay awake nights worrying about it.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Why didn't I listen to Johnny Rotten?

The other day, I was killing time in St. Mark's Books, and looking for a book on Wagner in the music section. Not finding that, I pulled out a book called The Punk Rock Book of Lists to kill some time waiting for a friend. The book is uninteresting and stupid for a number of reasons I won't go into, but one caught my eye. It was a list Johnny Rotten (né Lydon) had given in a 1976 radio interview, of his 20 favorite songs, or of 20 songs that had influenced the Sex Pistols, something like that.

Okay, as a list it did not make me rethink my position on Johnny Rotten (a prick) or the Sex Pistols' influences (as the list really had little to do with their sound). But I thought, "My God, this list would be a perfect list of hipster tastes even today!" The list is basically: T. Rex, the Velvet Underground, some Krautrock, some reggae, some other glam, some absolute name-dropping. 

So here are several possible directions I could take, apropos this description so far:
*What did it mean for the early punks to be much more interested in dub and krautrock than in the obvious precursors to their sound? (or to claim to be so)
*How is it that in 30 years, this list has not aged *at all*: someone with this taste today would still be far out front.
*How is it that I did not ever, in the throes of my Sex Pistols fandom, wonder what Johnny Rotten listened to, and then explore that? Instead of listening to Can and Junior Murvin, I took the Sex Pistols and ran towards boring things like MDC and TSOL. 

Obviously the question about myself holds the most interest.  As a huge fan of the Sex Pistols, I naturally got into The Clash, The Damned, the Ramones--and also their immediate predecessors, the Stooges, the MC5. But would I at all have been receptive to being told that Johnny Rotten really listened to reggae and krautrock? And why not?

For me, reggae meant two things to me when I was 15--either Bob Marley or some kind of ska. Both were for losers, Bob Marley's "Legend" being a kind of perennial pothead jam, and ska then enjoying a white revival. Certainly I knew (from the Clash) that early punks were reggae fans, but in my mind, that had to be a mistake. They couldn't be serious. 

More depressingly, my development of taste in music, which I have worked very hard upon, in a way has been contained by what my favorite band (when I was 15) *already knew*. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, a shortcut was available for me the whole time, and I was always more or less ignoring that knowledge while circling around towards it. It's enough to take one down a notch in being self-impressed. 

Of course, not only would I have not understood Krautrock (which I still am not crazy about) when I was 15, but I'm not sure that it would have gotten me anywhere. The young always fall prey to the boring. For instance, I *liked* the Birthday Party always, but I *loved* Sleater-Kinney. With Krautrock, it would have been the same, and if I had followed Johnny Rotten's tastes into Can, I probably would still have come out listening to something boring and more juvenile, like indie rock. Probably it is inevitable that we have bad taste first: that we will reject any help, fall into boring traps, and not even understand our final destination when it appears to us as a shortcut.  So, to the question, "mightn't it have been possible for me to like cool music when I was 15, if only I had followed the advice of my then-favorite band?"--the answer is almost certainly "no." No one can like good music when they are 15.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Darkthrone "F.O.A.D." album review

On one hand, this is the most accomplished guitar-oriented album of 2007, and on the other hand, the gatefold of the LP jacket is a giant photograph of a forest scene obscured by a can of Heineken and someone's knee. No attempt is made to hide that Fenriz is a total douchebag (his thanks list is about 40 times longer than his bandmate's); the album cover is horrible; the album title is worse; the song "Canadian Metal" is unforgivable garbage; it's barely a metal album, even less a black metal album.

The most notable two things about this album, aside from all those appalling negatives, is the painfully-apparent desire to broadcast how into punk the band now is: the single for the album had a Testors cover; they cite Poison Idea, the English Dogs, and Amebix, and Fenriz is wearing a World Burns to Death t-shirt---all this from a band that previously was the most rabidly "orthodox" black metallers! The second thing is that Fenriz, the drummer, now sings on nearly all the songs which he writes (where previously Nocturno Culto, the guitarist, did ALL the vocals).

Everything I've said up to now makes it sound like a completely different band than that which recorded the sparse and ultra-monochrome Under a Funeral Moon.

That is not at all the case, though. This is classic Darkthrone. Or classic Celtic Frost, depending on how well you understand Darkthrone. It's true that Celtic Frost released a "comeback" album this year, titled Monotheist, but the best Celtic Frost album of every year since 1991 has been recorded by the band Darkthrone (or more recently by High On Fire).

Darkthrone were already releasing "hardcore"-style records on the album Hate Them, but it is only recently that this has become full-on crusty gutter sleaze. All the songs written by Fenriz are ludicrous, punked-out "rockers," while the biggest irony is that the most "Darkthrone-sounding" songs are all written by the band member who did NOT write their classic albums. See?

Ok. So. Surface: black metal album by respected and original black metal band Darkthrone. Inside: cheesy slow rock album. Surface: cheesy rock album. Inside: insidious Celtic Frost influence. Surface: Celtic Frost influence taken to ridiculous extreme. Inside: bizarre regression to riffs from their 3rd album. Surface: Return to sounds from their 3rd album. Inside: 3rd album already a rip-off of Celtic Frost. Surface: lifelong debt to Celtic Frost. Inside: This debt split into a schizophrenic songwriting labor that isolates the two ways that the Celtic Frost influence operates on their sound. Surface: songwriting labor split, vocal duties split. Inside: most ridiculous sonic aspect of new album is not this division, but rather the numerous and not-at-all-"metal" guitar solos on every track.

In conclusion, this has to be a concept album about irony and presentation. We might even say it is about what happens when the most "true" black metal band starts spelling it "tr00." But the real joke is on the listeners (the same fools who were left in the dust when Dylan went electric) who did not see this irony as quintessential (no shit) to Panzerfaust or in the band's originary moment, the abandonment of death metal on their second album.

last note: Fenriz's vocals are so unsettlingly bad, until you realize that they are exactly splitting the difference between Tom G. Warrior (Celtic Frost) and Cronos (Venom)--essentially an impersonation. I would love to say that one's appreciation of the album rests on whether one likes "Canadian Metal" or not, but I don't pass that test myself, so...