Friday, December 11, 2009

A thesis for this blog?

I was listening today to the Eno-Fripp collaboration "No Pussyfooting," and thinking, "wow this really sounds like Kraftwerk." And it seems to me that for nearly 100% of the music-discussing world, liking this album and liking Kraftwerk would go hand in hand.

You can imagine the conversation in the record store.

"I've enjoyed other Eno albums, but I don't really like King Crimson. Is this good?"
"Yeah. Do you like Kraftwerk?"
"Of course."
"You'll like this. It sounds like Kraftwerk."

Which... it does. But I guess I want to say, there is NOTHING to like about (or "in") this similarity.

I've made this argument elsewhere, but no art should ever be evaluated on its *premise*. The Mona Lisa-- on paper, it's not so great. Blade Runner *should* be a great movie, instead it is boring and anti-profound.

The great hardcore band Black Flag realized this early on, changing their sound drastically and frequently in order to keep one step ahead of their own influence in the American punk scene. Only a crazy person would say, "You'll like My War. It sounds like Nervous Breakdown." They don't "sound alike." On the other hand, these two great achievements in American music are much more similar than Eno-Fripp & Kraftwerk, which are only apparently similar.

It should be possible to like 99 records in a genre without it being a foregone conclusion that one will like the identical-sounding 100th record. I am using mostly musical examples, because, to take literature for an example, only unserious readers (like "consumers" of any mystery novel) are so faithful to a given genre. But even children did not go for just every single Harry Potter rip-off which was flung at the market after the success of J.K. Rowling's novels.

I happen to like both Eno-Fripp & Kraftwerk. But this is (or should be) completely contingent, unrelated-- or else it is not real taste. Taken to its logical conclusion, genres would disappear completely as an indicator of taste. This should happen. Liking Led Zeppelin should be as much a predictor of liking Deep Purple as it is a predictor of liking Debussy.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

How to review hip-hop

What first occurs to me about how to review hip-hop albums is that there is an entire tradition, both of the music, and of reviewing it--which gives little guidance. Hip-hop record reviews are often like Jack Kerouac's prose in On the Road: the writers try to approximate the musical style under consideration. I, on the other hand, feel that a rap album should be reviewed in exactly the same fashion as a death metal album.

Now, that is the long and the short of it. "How often will I listen to this? Is it memorable or paradigm-shifting? How many good songs are there in ratio to bad songs?" THESE are the questions. But I suspect my readers will not be satisfied without some examples.

Here is a sample of a small section of a (Clipse) review from the blog "Hip Hop Isn't Dead"

This song, recorded late in the game because those crackers that weren't playing fair at Jive didn't hear a single when an early version of Hell Hath No Fury was turned it, is now infamous because Pharrell made the mistake of selling the beat to Foxy Brown... Somewhere there's a rumored version of this song featuring Foxy Brown and Slim Thug's exact-same chorus: I would love to hear that one day for comparison's sake. Whatever happened to the Clipse's promised remix to this song that was supposed to feature Foxy, a compromise that was made to appease Shawn Carter?

Now, I have earlier and often made the claim that albums should be considered in two ways: first, sub specie aeterni, i.e. as close as possible to their "objective" importance and greatness, and secondly, in pragmatic terms: how often I listen to something. "Whatever happened to the promised remix of this song?" i.e.--- obsessive blogging-as-journalism and gossip mill, has nothing to do with either criteria. This might be interesting, but it has nothing to do with a record review, or with the quality of a song. Only the most perverse alchemy could transform hype or gossip or blogging into listening experience. It simply can't be done.

Here are a few reviews of Lil Wayne's last album:
Hip Hop Isn't Dead
Rolling Stone

Now, to evaluate these, we need to go over what should be said about this album. It didn't age well; it is too long; 2/3 of the songs are bad; the remix of "Lollipop" was better than the album version; the Carter 2 was better; the Leak EP was better; Lil Wayne is best when there are no guests and no choruses--when he is just let loose over a beat. Well.. there's your review. Look over the reviews from its contemporary moment (last year) and I think you'll see that they all miss this basic summary.

Why is that? Why do album reviews (and, e.g., death metal is just as bad about this as hip hop) miss the question of listenability? Because they focus on "scene" components--dissing producers, sorting through hype, settling feuds, taking sides in a historical continuum, worrying about who is biting whom, evaluating egos, considering and being frustrated by popularity, and of course the highly contentious world of beat-making. Other genres have analogous problems. It simply doesn't matter to whether the music is good or not, but it is unavoidable in music journalism which "belongs" to a scene.

More from "Hip Hop Isn't Dead" (dot blogspot...)

Did Icarus and Redman have a falling out that I'm not aware of? That's the only reason I can think of that justifies Ready Roc's new position as go-to weed carrier and kidney donor alongside Meth's longtime candle warmer Streetlife.

That is from a TRACK review.


As fans of music, we are capable of telling whether a song is good or not, whether we enjoyed an album or not, whether a record works or doesn't or is just background music that will never become another "Daily Operations" or "Illmatic." And because these are the ways that fans approach music, it is also what a review should address.

See also my fake review of a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah song for an example of how to review music.

My contention: gossip and name-dropping will never be a substitute for finding out whether a record is a classic, a near-classic, merely forgettable, or deserving of our contempt. That all pertains to the music; reviews (done poorly) thus date much worse than the albums themselves. This is of course as true for Bruce Springsteen (whose "9/11" album was received in a way completely detached from whether it had songs as good as his earlier work) as for Jay-Z.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Alternate Canon for Film

I saw The Red Shoes at Film Forum the other day, in a new print, and it occurred to me that possibly I was watching the greatest movie of all time. This signals to my brain: "Yes, but on what criteria?" And the answer is something like: "pure filmmaking," or "movie magic," etc. etc. But what I mean I think is better expressed in my favorite format: the list.

The Red Shoes
Gone with the Wind
Lawrence of Arabia
Napoleon (1927)
Wizard of Oz
Ben-Hur (1959)
Citizen Kane
War & Peace (1967)
The Leopard
Modern Times
Juliet of the Spirits
Birth of a Nation
The Conformist
Lola Montes
West Side Story
2001: A Space Odyssey

Now, usually, these are not my actual favorites, nor my actual "Best" or "Most Important" films. But in all of these movies is a shocking, almost superhuman visual creativity and ambition. The colors of Gone with the Wind, the chariot race in Ben-Hur, the communicative silences of 2001, the sets in the Wizard of Oz, the choreography of West Side Story... Here I am breaking from my usual plot-centered valuations. It is a truism of course that the greatest auteurs (in film and literature) are often masters of BOTH detail and grand plan. Tolstoy and Proust in literature, and at least all of the historical epics listed above, are gigantic in scope and breathtaking in particular scenes.

One problem with this list: it is much less "art house" than my tastes really are, and considerably more Hollywood. Of the great art house directors, Fellini is the most in this line. Bergman, Kurosawa, Renoir, Lang, are obviously virtuosos and there is probably room in here for some of their more extravagant work. The New Wave is usually too cramped. Truffaut's best work, but even Rashomon or The Seventh Seal, are STILL not Gone with The Wind, if you see what I mean.

One movie that probably *does* belong here is actually one I disliked a great deal: Marketa Lazarova, a Czech black and white epic that was visually stunning from start to finish. Since it was so boring, it is disqualified as being (in another way) unwatchable. That Bergman never made a movie as "beautiful" as this one is obviously more instructive about what Bergman WAS doing, what kind of magic he *was* after, than in any way a negative remark about him.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Indie Rock and You

What is it LIKE to enjoy a piece of music? This is what I want to know from a record review. Obviously, the very worst reviews of music are those that just talk about the lyrics, but from an intellectual standpoint, just as bad is the pretentious claim that reviews should "tell us what the music sounds like." Well, nothing could be more idiotic while sounding like a reasonable demand.

There is a rave review for the new GIRLS album, up on Pitchfork. Here is the part where they tell you what the music sounds like:

Musically, Album is mostly sunny Beach Boys pastiche, but it's not the kajillionth indie attempt at orchestral Pet Sounds majesty. Rather, it's simple and forthright early Beach Boys stuff: compact guitar-jangles, sha-la-la harmonies, muffled heartbeat drums. It sounds great. And even though it has a basic core sound, Album manages to cover a lot of aesthetic ground in its 44 minutes. Without being showy about it, they swing from rushing power-pop to acoustic campfire laments to "Morning Light", which is one of the most fully realized slices of shoegaze revivalism I've heard in years. If they'd made an entire album of songs like "Morning Light", Girls would be getting a ton of blog love, but they decided to go for something at once messier and simpler. And they're getting a ton of blog love anyway.

There's a pillowy quality to many of the sounds on Album, but this isn't lo-fi or glo-fi or whatever. Rather, every little production flourish is so much a part of the whole that you don't notice it until the 10th or 15th listen. On "Lust for Life", for instance, there's a melodica that bubbles up on the second half. "Big Bad Mean Motherfucker" is joyous beach-party stuff, but there's a beautifully discordant guitar solo in there. "Hellhole Ratrace" builds to an epic guitar whoosh halfway through its seven minutes, but the beat's hammer never quite falls; the drums stay just slightly off. The guitars on "Lauren Marie" twang like Duane Eddy's. All this stuff functions like the sleigh bells on Liz Phair's "Fuck and Run": subtle little intuitive details that you might never notice but that add to the devastating whole. The canniness of Album's production choices and the scuzzy depression of the lyrics and the gut-level songwriting instincts, along with everything else about the record, add up to something elusive and fascinating-- maybe even heartbreaking.

Now, that is really specific. A true description of what this album sounds like. But what remains to be pointed out is the deep irrelevance of "sounding like..." The guitars on "Lauren Marie" twang like Duane Eddy's--you don't say?? Does that mean any song will mean anything to me on first listen, on twelfth listen, in ten years? No matter how precise the description of the sound, I actually have no idea what it is like to *enjoy* this record. I only know what it is like to have *heard* this record.

Do the songs get under your skin? Do you find yourself singing them in the shower? Do you find little parts to memorize and play over and over? Or is it the sequencing? How does the filler fit in with the singles? Does it play best in short doses or all the way through? Might it be best to listen to this in the car or while doing the dishes?

Without being too autobiographical, the reviewer should tell me these things. For example, let me review an indie rock song for you. This is how it's done. This is a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah song from a few years ago.

Although much of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's sound (slurred, slightly precious, affected vocals and droopy, woozy guitar) will be familiar to fans of indie rock--most recently in Modest Mouse's stirring late-career hit "Float On"--the layering of synthesizers over a predominantly bass-driven melody reminds me of nothing more than prime New Order. Meaning, if there is something like a canon of crowd-pleasers and genuine HITS in indie rock, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have tapped into this tradition. Nothing I think could be more profoundly uncool than such a move: it's like writing a poem with T.S. Eliot as your major influence, emulating The Godfather in film, or saying your favorite music is Mozart. The "cool" thing is secretly the artistic position which cuts out a certain portion of the audience in advance, the art that is less ambitious but which has obvious allusions instead. CYHSY are truly embarrassing, because they seemingly did not get this memo. On the contrary, they quietly have gone about the business of writing a song that is outstanding beyond its years: like "Sweet Child o' Mine" on Guns 'n Roses' debut album, it seems impossible that a young band could have produced such an obvious classic. CYHSY don't try to write "the perfect pop song" as though that were just the code for certain moves: they understand that "the perfect pop song" has a *unique* energy, not just the bland moodlessness of power-pop. And unlike the Jesus & Mary Chain-influenced groups that would come after, in the Brooklyn noise-pop wave of 2008, CYHSY have mastered dynamics, and... musicianship! In conclusion, that this is perfect car-commercial music is not to be doubted; but that something this propulsive and memorable is never to be produced by abstract and merely stylistic concerns, but only by real uninhibited creativity, is equally testified to in this little gem.

(In conclusion to this post, though, you will note that Pitchfork's review of the GIRLS album is different from my review of this CYHSY song, not just because the writing is different, but because no one could ever write such a thing of the boring, tepid, and suffocatingly-constrained mannerisms of GIRLS.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Spectator (UK) list of 50 Greatest Films

reposted from

This list is not outrageously wrong, but it has too many movies that are questionable as to whether they are even GOOD, much less great: #1 Night of the Hunter, #17 Blade Runner, and #50 Out of the Past, are all deeply problematic films. Interesting? Yes. But the "best movies" should only include GOOD movies, which these films are not. More discussion to come (including my list).

And no list with Citizen Kane at #14 (!!!!!!), or a David Lean film which is maybe only his 5th best film can be right. Still, some great and inspired picks here: Earrings of Madame de..., Rio Bravo, Barry Lyndon, Killer of Sheep, M, Manhattan. Fellini at #43 is painful to read, though... I guess these are the times we live in.

1. The Night of the Hunter, Laughton

2. Apocalypse Now, Coppola
3. Sunrise, Murnau
4. Black Narcissus, Powell & Pressburger
5. L'avventura, Antonioni
6. The Searchers, Ford
7. The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles
8. The Seventh Seal , Bergman
9. L'atalante, Vigo
10. Rio Bravo, Hawks
11. The Godfather: Part I and Part II, Coppola
12. The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer
13. La Grande Illusion, Renoir
14. Citizen Kane, Welles
15. The Scarlett Empress, von Sternberg
16. Tokyo Story, Ozu
17. Blade Runner, Ridley Scott
18. Rear Window, Hitchcock
19. Point Blank, Boorman
20. The Red Shoes, Powell & Pressburger
21. The Earrings of Madame de..., Ophuls
22. Shadows, Cassavetes
23. Pickpocket, Bresson
24. Viridiana, Bunuel
25. Barry Lyndon, Kubrick
26. City Lights, Chaplin
27. Pierrot le Fou, Godard
28. Sunset Boulevard, Wilder
29. Notorious, Hitchcock
30. M, Lang
31. The Roaring Twenties, Walsh
32. Singin' in the Rain, Donen and Kelly
33. The Long Day Closes, Davies
34. Killer of Sheep, Burnett
35. Gun Crazy, Lewis
36. Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky
37. Taxi Driver, Scorsese
38. The 400 Blows, Truffaut
39. Pulp Fiction, Tarantino
40. Kind Hearts and Coronets, Hamer
41. In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-Wai
42. Sullivan's Travels, Sturges
43. 8 1/2, Fellini
44. Pinocchio, Disney
45. Great Expectations, Lean
46. Rome, Open City, Rossellini
47. Duck Soup, McCarey
48. Jaws, Spielberg
49. Manhattan, Allen
50. Out of the Past, Tourneur

Thursday, July 30, 2009

3 reviews of the Fucked Up album from last year

Last year, I wrote a review of the Fucked Up album that was published online somewhere, but now it is time to compare *that* review (in its structure and criteria) with *other* reviews of the same record (ignoring things like "positivity" or what the record is "really" like).

Here's my version:
Being a long-time fan of hardcore punk, I have watched Fucked Up's ascent with great interest, from their first US tour, playing in a store-front in Bushwick, to the promotional frenzy that recently culminated in a 12-hour performance (stunt) and this album being reviewed in the hallowed pages of the NY Times. And there is literally nothing interesting to be said about Fucked Up's transformation from a Poison Idea-styled punk band--who gained notoriety by releasing 2-song singles in a genre (hardcore) that tends to cram a dozen songs onto a 7"--into a double-album-releasing band with flutes, choirs, and the rest. Nothing interesting to be said, for two reasons: 1) viewed sub specie aeterni, no one really cares about "transitions," we care about albums: are they good? will we want to listen to them often?, and the whole "evolution" of a band involves this very suspect metaphysics of locating a sound in its infancy, tracing it into the present, or seeing what elements were discarded to pave the way for success and breakthrough. And, 2) this record is not all that interesting. If you recall some of Black Metal's "ambient" experiments, which could only be astonishing and beautiful to the most genre-bound hesher, Fucked Up obviously are banking on a surprise factor that has no real payoff--"oh my god they have flutes!"

Whenever I don't like a band, I explain, fake-apologetically, "Well, you know me, I like the Kinks, so..."--as though I didn't want to wade in too deep, and really I wasn't qualified, but rather naive and would stick with what I knew. What this formulation means, of course, is that I like music that gets stuck in your head. Not "pop music," necessarily--probably everyone has had Mozart and Wagner stuck in their head, and probably Celtic Frost and the Bad Brains can be just as catchy. But the essential thing is that music be memorable. This is why any focus on production, who's doing the back-up vocals, lyrical themes, and extraneous instrumental touches, really misses the point--we listen to music to rock out to *parts* that we remember and like. And Fucked Up used to be really good at this. Like most music nowadays, this new album is not catchy, but it is full of parts. What the noodling, build-ups, repetitions, and whatnot are *doing* while not being catchy, is anyone's guess. The best bands at creating interesting little parts are Metallica, the Clash, and the Kinks--and on their last album, Fucked Up were in this tradition. This record is a bit like Napoleon's 1813 campaigns in Germany: although incorporating many different elements (Napoleon at Leipzig relied on allied troops from all over Europe), ultimately the strategy relies on bulk and an unimaginatively straight-forward attack, and, well, if you aren't up on your history, you can Wikipedia "Battle of the Nations" to see how this record succeeds. In short, if there is some ambition to ambient jamming that Fucked Up want to pursue, if they can make it interesting, I will follow a song full of neat parts to the ends of the earth, but you cannot dress up the plodding and unmemorable songs here. A record should be judged not by its scope or ambitions but by how often, over the years, one will listen to it. Even with the greatest enthusiasm or curiosity or goodwill, "The Chemistry of Common Life" is not a record that demands or rewards much time on your turntable. (emphasis mine)

Here are some key phrases from the Pitchfork review:

shimmering overdubs, fractured harmonies, almost tactile in its texture, bongo-laced, refreshing take on religion.

One reads this review in vain if searching for questions like, "Is this record catchy?" or "Will I enjoy listening to this?" or (more profoundly) "Am I *supposed* to enjoy listening to this?"

From the Dusted review, we learn helpfully that the album, on the most basic level--the combination of instruments--does not work: The disparity between these vocals and every other element on the record never gets easy to process, even on multiple listens. In a way, that should be the end of the review: except that the reviewer obviously feels that this "dissonance" (my term) might in some back-door way be incorporated into the form... which is already to give up the game, critically speaking. It's like staring at an all-white canvas and wondering whether it is "art" or not---instead of the more incisive point of view: IF THIS IS ART, WHAT DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH ME? And with the best artists (cited above--the Kinks, Metallica, previous releases by Fucked Up), the answer to this question is a no-brainer. While the Dusted reviewer realizes that what is being attempted by the album is a kind of synthesis of disparate elements into a Leviathan, what is left out by her review is whether there is any PURPOSE to such a synthesis.

What we like about a style or a genre is not *within* that style or genre. The tragedy of current tastes is to confuse these two things--the appeal of an album with the contingent trappings in which it occurs--to behave as though what made Black Flag Black Flag, what made the Velvet Underground the Velvet Underground, what made your favorite band your favorite band--to behave as though this were some algorithm of a style. And both the reviews I cited have been hoodwinked into a fixation ON this style, rather than on the (proper) fixation: is this catchy? am I enjoying this? what is the purpose of this?, etc.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Disgusting idiocy

NY Times article in which a bunch of people pretend to be "really excited" for the 1990s culture of their youths, even though this includes such unwatchable nonsense as Saved by the Bell and unlistenable garbage as Britney Spears

Frankly, this is a low point. What is represents is this: people who DON'T have taste now recollecting fondly the time when NO ONE has taste (when you are are 13). Also, these references (they are little more than that) are truly the lowest common denominator (in a non-pejorative sense). *Everyone* of a certain demographic COULD have this conversation:
"Remember the ______?" with obligatory reply, "Yeah, that was so awesome; they should bring that back."

Features such nuggets of wisdom as "Buying my first Discman was huge," and “'I miss VHS tapes,' he said."

No one *really* misses VHS tapes. What's next? Fond memories of New Coke?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A tired plea for an "overlooked genius"

In 2009, it is so completely established, conventional, and even academically-approved to "elevate" a "genre writer" (H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain) to the status of "high" literature, that the gesture itself has completely lost the counterintuitive wink which surely began this retrospective-canonizing project in the first place.

And yet, undaunted by the banality of this "reversal," here is an article in which the NY Times Magazine makes a plea for one Jack Vance, "overlooked" science fiction writer.

We are told that he is as good as: Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Jane Austen, Henry James, Proust, Poe-- that his being-American (instead of being from some fashionable Romance tradition) may also have contributed to his unsexiness, in addition to the perceived silliness of the genre fiction he writes.

Let me respond to this in bullet points, since my overall response is probably too predictable to readers of this blog.
  • I for one am completely unimpressed by the blurbing this article heavily relies on, especially that of Michael Chabon (who cares?!), and quite nonplussed by the praise of Neil Gaimon. This name-dropping is also a phantom punch, as the completely banal rhetoric here is (as always) "Your favorite writer's favorite writer." But what sick mind takes any interest in Michael Chabon's literary heroes?
  • In order for this enterprise to succeed, the literary worthiness of Vance's output needs to be conveyed by some demonstration (plot summaries, interesting features, some indelible character). But, sadly, Vance doesn't really *do* these things: elaborate architecture of a fictional universe (he lacks Tolkien's “impulse to synthesize a mythology for a culture"); "Intricate plotting is not Vance’s forte"; etc.
  • So what DOES this literary genius do well? Evidently he turns a phrase nicely (this appears to be about all). OK, so show me some nice turns of phrase. The article instead gives instance of some completely pedestrian and irritating writing.
If I am going to believe that someone is as good as Proust, James, Austen, or Borges, then I would expect better writing than THIS:

“ ‘I can resolve your perplexity,’ said Fianosther. ‘Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but first I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.’

‘No need,’ said Cugel. ‘My interest was cursory.’ ”

Let me give a counter-example of good writing. It is the first paragraph of Joseph Conrad's "Outcast of the Islands," which is itself rather a bad novel. But it suffices here, and you will see that I'm not trying to overawe you with a big "name" like Moby-Dick, War and Peace, David Copperfield. Just read until you see my point.

When he stepped off the straight and narrow path of his peculiar honesty, it was with an inward assertion of unflinching resolve to fall back again into the monotonous but safe stride of virtue as soon as his little excursion into the wayside quagmires had produced the desired effect. It was going to be a short episode—a sentence in brackets, so to speak—in the flowing tale of his life: a thing of no moment, to be done unwillingly, yet neatly, and to be quickly forgotten. He imagined that he could go on afterwards looking at the sunshine, enjoying the shade, breathing in the perfume of flowers in the small garden before his house. He fancied that nothing would be changed, that he would be able as heretofore to tyrannize good-humouredly over his half-caste wife, to notice with tender contempt his pale yellow child, to patronize loftily his dark-skinned brother-in-law, who loved pink neckties and wore patent-leather boots on his little feet, and was so humble before the white husband of the lucky sister. Those were the delights of his life, and he was unable to conceive that the moral significance of any act of his could interfere with the very nature of things, could dim the light of the sun, could destroy the perfume of the flowers, the submission of his wife, the smile of his child, the awe-struck respect of Leonard da Souza and of all the Da Souza family. That family's admiration was the great luxury of his life. It rounded and completed his existence in a perpetual assurance of unquestionable superiority. He loved to breathe the coarse incense they offered before the shrine of the successful white man; the man that had done them the honour to marry their daughter, sister, cousin; the rising man sure to climb very high; the confidential clerk of Hudig & Co. They were a numerous and an unclean crowd, living in ruined bamboo houses, surrounded by neglected compounds, on the outskirts of Macassar. He kept them at arm's length and even further off, perhaps, having no illusions as to their worth. They were a half-caste, lazy lot, and he saw them as they were—ragged, lean, unwashed, undersized men of various ages, shuffling about aimlessly in slippers; motionless old women who looked like monstrous bags of pink calico stuffed with shapeless lumps of fat, and deposited askew upon decaying rattan chairs in shady corners of dusty verandahs; young women, slim and yellow, big-eyed, long-haired, moving languidly amongst the dirt and rubbish of their dwellings as if every step they took was going to be their very last. He heard their shrill quarrellings, the squalling of their children, the grunting of their pigs; he smelt the odours of the heaps of garbage in their courtyards: and he was greatly disgusted.
  • This is a fairly obvious point, but in order for some genre fiction (and really, Conrad IS this in his early works) to be as "great" as the High Literary canon, some example of it has to be already have been canonized. For example, Poe. Now, Poe *has* been thoroughly canonized. The problem for Vance's reputation is that this was, for Poe, instantaneous. Charles Baudelaire, the high poet of French modernity, translated and advocated for Poe near-contemporaneously. Conrad, too, was apparently of the same "height" as James and Madox Ford. Not so for Vance (or Lovecraft, or Chandler, or Cain, or Dick).
  • What do we have here, then? ANYTHING BUT a "raising to the level of..." (Hemingway, Proust, Austen). Instead, if you follow the rhetoric closely, what is being advocated for is a second, subsidiary, parasitical canon. A "low" canon, if you will. Let's imagine for a second that this Vance character is as good as this article says--though I am not at all persuaded that he is even as good as Frank Herbert or Ray Bradbury (writers I dislike). That is still a very long way from being "as good as" Henry James; in fact, that is an insane proposition. The only thing conceivable is that Vance might stand, in relation to other sci-fi writers, analogously to James' standing in relation to literary fiction in general. And thus, at the level of what already exists as a concept for everyone: the "classics of popular fiction": Tolkien, CS Lewis, Patrick O'Brian, Elmore Leonard, Philip K Dick.
My overarching point here is, no one is going to confuse this writer who cannot a) create vast, intricate fictional mythologies, nor b) craft a memorable plot, nor c) write a citable example of interesting dialogue-- that a writer who cannot do any of these things is not susceptible to confusion with Borges, Poe, or (let's say) Balzac's fantasy works. That is to say, not susceptible with the "greats" of world literature. It IS possible (though, in this case, unlikely), that he may be confused with Ray Bradbury, Ursula K LeGuin, Robert Heinlein... but merely this list of names shows that it is a CONSTITUTIVE PRETENSION of science fiction to be regarded in this way. That is to say, that this very tired and played-out "revisiting" of a science fiction writer who deserves to be regarded as more thoughtful than mere genre fiction.... this is what science fiction, with its allegories and cultishness, is all about from the start.

In other words, the question this NY Times article begs is the *undifferentiated* "canonical status" of a Raymond Chandler, operating on a transitive confusion... "If this writer is as good as Raymond Chandler, and I seem to have heard somewhere that Raymond Chandler is 'now' canonical.... then Jack Vance must be as great as Proust!"

And this line of thought is precisely as idiotic as I have just indicated. If you are unconvinced, please reread the above comparison of his prose with Conrad's. And remember the #1 principle of all my contentions: that the "great" does not have FEWER pleasures to offer than the "popular", but greater, richer, and more substantial in every way. And the attempt to pass off unsophisticated genre fiction AS sophisticated will only ever fool, well... you know.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

the hubris of the mediocre

I know a lot of people who make music, work at record labels, art galleries, work in publishing, are artists, are getting MFAs, etc. Most interesting people in NYC are involved in some sort of cultural production.

At the risk, therefore, of offending everyone I know, I would like to urge people to disassociate themselves from mediocre creative production, and to really (at whatever cost) aim for something monumental, lasting, and interesting.

Take, for instance, the tragedies of the Roman playwright and philosopher Seneca. He is well-known as a prominent Stoic, but it might also be said that his plays are the most famous and well-regarded of ~ 1500 years of western literature, in the period between Euripides and Shakespeare. And yet you could hardly persuade anyone to READ Seneca today.

This makes it seem like we have very high criteria for art: the best tragedies of 15 centuries are not good enough for our discriminating tastes! Nothing could be further from the truth.

I don't want to wage a smear campaign on any band or writer in particular: but I think our criteria for judgment are all fucked up. All our judgments revolve around whether we LIKE something, or whether it it is WORTH seeing/paying $ for/attending---i.e. held up against other uses of our money and time. And so, an album may be "worth" the 3 cappuccinos which one foregoes purchasing in order to buy, and 2 hours of a movie/show may be "better spent" than sitting at home---- but these are not the right questions, if one is honest about things. In any case, no director ever tried to get a film made on THESE grounds. The right questions are: will this last? SHOULD this last? (sub specie aeterni)

Masterpieces are unfashionable. No one will ever make a film like "Gone with the Wind" again, not because they will try and fail, but because no attempt will be made. But I would trade the entire decade of films 1999-2009 for "Gone with the Wind", and feel that I was getting a good bargain. What we have today is a lack of ambition, of the "good enough." In short, art today is terrible.

To quote Ezra Pound, speaking of Thomas Hardy: "When we, if we live long enough, come to estimate the 'poetry of the period,' against Hardy's 600 pages we will put *what*?" Now I like some current things: the White Stripes, Bob Dylan, Darkthrone, the Dardenne Brothers, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers--to name a few. But look at this Ezra Pound quote again: obviously the answer to his question is "Ezra Pound." But what about today? Is there ANY poet of the stature of Hardy or Pound? Wouldn't you be mortally embarrassed to have to defend any answer??

The title here is "the hubris of the mediocre": wouldn't you, shouldn't you, oughtn't you--oughtn't anyone be mortally embarrassed to bring into the world, a world with more GREAT novels than hardly anyone can read! a world already graced with the complete works of Balzac, Proust, Dostoyevsky, and Shakespeare--which could keeep anyone busy for some time!!----oughtn't anyone be mortally embarrassed to write their short stories and throw them onto this pile? Most people can't find the time for CHAUCER, and yet your short story is really going to compete for my time? Think of the Flaubert novels you would never read (Salammbo, Bouvard and Pecuchet)---and yet your little novella is hardly by a Flaubert, now is it? This is the real definition of hubris!

How many albums/paintings/novels does one really have time for in life? Write something better than the "Purgatorio" (which no one reads) and I'll gladly read it; paint something better than one of Raphael's more-forgettable Madonnas, and I'll attend the opening; record a record better than Dylan's outtakes, and I'll buy it.

Probably 1% of all this year's artistic production will have any interest in 20 years. And yet EVERYTHING produced today demands my attention. So, if you make art, make it for the ages: if you *don't* think you are better than Seneca, ask why anyone would want your art to enter the world, as though it were superior to 15 centuries of western literature!!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Zola & the contemporary arts

I dislike Emile Zola; his novels bore me. Nonetheless, his talent is undoubtedly a WRITERLY talent. Let's see what I mean. This is from 1880's Nana:

The "Petite Duchesse" was being rehearsed at the Varietes. The first act had just been carefully gone through, and the second was about to begin. Seated in old armchairs in front of the stage, Fauchery and Bordenave were discussing various points while the prompter, Father Cossard, a little humpbacked man perched on a straw-bottomed chair, was turning over the pages of the manuscript, a pencil between his lips.

"Well, what are they waiting for?" cried Bordenave on a sudden, tapping the floor savagely with his heavy cane. "Barillot, why don't they begin?"

"It's Monsieur Bosc that has disappeared," replied Barillot, who was acting as second stage manager.'

Then there arose a tempest, and everybody shouted for Bosc while Bordenave swore.

"Always the same thing, by God! It's all very well ringing for 'em: they're always where they've no business to be. And then they grumble when they're kept till after four o'clock."

But Bosc just then came in with supreme tranquillity.

"Eh? What? What do they want me for? Oh, it's my turn! You ought to have said so. All right! Simonne gives the cue: 'Here are the guests,' and I come in. Which way must I come in?"

"Through the door, of course," cried Fauchery in great exasperation.

"Yes, but where is the door?"

At this Bordenave fell upon Barillot and once more set to work swearing and hammering the boards with his cane.

"By God! I said a chair was to be put there to stand for the door, and every day we have to get it done again. Barillot! Where's Barillot? Another of 'em! Why, they're all going!"

Nevertheless, Barillot came and planted the chair down in person, mutely weathering the storm as he did so. And the rehearsal began again. 


At this point, while the rehearsal was dragging monotonously on, Fauchery suddenly jumped from his chair. He had restrained himself up to that moment, but now his nerves got the better of him.

"That's not it!" he cried.

The actors paused awkwardly enough while Fontan sneered and asked in his most contemptuous voice:

"Eh? What's not it? Who's not doing it right?"

"Nobody is! You're quite wrong, quite wrong!" continued Fauchery, and, gesticulating wildly, he came striding over the stage and began himself to act the scene.

"Now look here, you Fontan, do please comprehend the way Tardiveau gets packed off. You must lean forward like this in order to catch hold of the duchess. And then you, Rose, must change your position like that but not too soon--only when you hear the kiss."

He broke off and in the heat of explanation shouted to Cossard:

"Geraldine, give the kiss! Loudly, so that it may be heard!"

Father Cossard turned toward Bosc and smacked his lips vigorously.

"Good! That's the kiss," said Fauchery triumphantly. "Once more; let's have it once more. Now you see, Rose, I've had time to move, and then I give a little cry--so: 'Oh, she's given him a kiss.' But before I do that, Tardiveau must go up the stage. D'you hear, Fontan? You go up. Come, let's try it again, all together."

The actors continued the scene again, but Fontan played his part with such an ill grace that they made no sort of progress. Twice Fauchery had to repeat his explanation, each time acting it out with more warmth than before. The actors listened to him with melancholy faces, gazed momentarily at one another, as though he had asked them to walk on their heads, and then awkwardly essayed the passage, only to pull up short directly afterward, looking as stiff as puppets whose strings have just been snapped.

"No, it beats me; I can't understand it," said Fontan at length, speaking in the insolent manner peculiar to him.

Bordenave had never once opened his lips. He had slipped quite down in his armchair, so that only the top of his hat was now visible in the doubtful flicker of the gaslight on the stand. His cane had fallen from his grasp and lay slantwise across his waistcoat. Indeed, he seemed to be asleep. But suddenly he sat bolt upright.

"It's idiotic, my boy," he announced quietly to Fauchery.

"What d'you mean, idiotic?" cried the author, growing very pale. "It's you that are the idiot, my dear boy!"

Bordenave began to get angry at once. He repeated the word "idiotic" and, seeking a more forcible expression, hit upon "imbecile" and "damned foolish." The public would hiss, and the act would never be finished! And when Fauchery, without, indeed, being very deeply wounded by these big phrases, which always recurred when a new piece was being put on, grew savage and called the other a brute, Bordenave went beyond all bounds, brandished his cane in the air, snorted like a bull and shouted:

"Good God! Why the hell can't you shut up? We've lost a quarter of an hour over this folly. Yes, folly! There's no sense in it. And it's so simple, after all's said and done! You, Fontan, mustn't move. You, Rose, must make your little movement, just that, no more; d'ye see? And then you come down. Now then, let's get it done this day. Give the kiss, Cossard."

Then ensued confusion. The scene went no better than before. Bordenave, in his turn, showed them how to act it about as gracefully as an elephant might have done, while Fauchery sneered and shrugged pityingly. After that Fontan put his word in, and even Bosc made so bold as to give advice. Rose, thoroughly tired out, had ended by sitting down on the chair which indicated the door. No one knew where they had got to, and by way of finish to it all Simonne made a premature entry, under the impression that her cue had been given her, and arrived amid the confusion. 


Zola is a master of this kind of scene: the confused, the tedious, the pompous, the hoarse-with-shouting, pettiness, the difficulty of managing different egos, the frustrating, the not-worthwhile. 

Completely wonderful, acutely observed elements:

  • The title, "The Little Duchess": surely there have been dozens of boring comedies with this title. Its mediocrity is guaranteed and inborn.
  • Having the hunchback prompt-reader read the role of the courtesan during rehearsal, complete with kisses!
  • The *absence* of the chair used to stand in for the door through which the actors enter the scene.
  • "Rose, thoroughly tired out, had ended by sitting down on the chair which indicated the door."
  • The number of missed cues, while tedious, is effective at producing the "confusion" and racket which Zola is aiming at.
Now, this is just an example that jumped out at me recently. It's not the greatest writing ever. But the man was MEANT TO BE A WRITER. He is funny, versatile, effective at different "voices" and tones, gives a scene well, can be deadpan, "shows" rather than tells, but with a certain irony, etc. This is Zola.

Take, on the other hand, contemporary arts. Writing, music, painting, etc. How many MFA students are trying to write their little stories for a magazine right now, with no innate skill at the "little touches" which Zola brings to his novel? How many musicians with a mere workmanlike uncatchiness and/or a laborious pretentiousness in creating "soundscapes" with none of the UNDERSTANDING OF EFFECT which, say, Wagner brings? How many artists without the flair for the something-memorable which (to mix genres) is evident from the *very first line* of Rimbaud's "Season in Hell"??

What I want from art: the production of ARTISTS, of persons for whom their expression in artistic form is a kind of "first language," with a skill at dynamics, comedy, effects, pace. In music, think of The Clash, the melancholy of the album "London Calling"; in literature, Conrad's improbable comedy of errors,  "The Secret Agent," and in cinema, Howard Hawks' dialogue. These are all form-specific, but the creators' "knack" is evident--they are creating something for us; pacing, tone, dynamics, pastiche, comedy-- I am also thinking of the name "Proust."

Friday, April 3, 2009

"Misfits Fan"

Although everyone knows that the Misfits are "officially" my favorite band, when others are pondering my existence, they don't stop and ask what this means. Because, if initially the Misfits were only catchy, spooky, and had a cool image, in the years of shaping my taste and having my interests find over and over again the greatness of the music, they have come to embody several important principals of my aesthetics. I don't have time right now to go into all of this, but one principal will suffice.

The Misfits are masters of pastiche.

That this is most evidently borrowed from The Ramones, and secondarily from the MC5 and the New York Dolls, only shows what a crucial part of early punk pastiche was. The second New York Dolls album is my favorite of the two, because of its extreme use of pastiche in nearly every track; ditto for the second MC5 record. With the Ramones, one often feels that the previous twenty years of pop music have been thrown in a blender or a Ramones-o-matic and have been spit out as 3-chord punk, but bearing the trace of their origin. To call the Ramones "essentially a pop band" or to overstate the Phil Spector quality of their music, however, is to 1) brutally misunderstand the group, and 2) miss out on the element of *pastiche*.

The greatest rock pastiche is still The Who's "A Quick One While He's Away," immortalized on the Rushmore soundtrack. What style is not given the briefest possible coverage over this 9 minute track? And, album-wise, this is the great accomplishment of the Beatles White Album, the b-side of Abbey Road, and Let it Be. A mention should also be made of the Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons and the Kinks, especially on their greatest albums, "Face to Face," Something Else," "Arthur," and "Village Green Preservation Society."

This is the heritage which the Misfits take up, which sadly has *not* been taken up by many subsequent punk bands. I am thinking especially of songs like "Teenagers from Mars," "In the Doorway," "Theme for a Jackal," "Braineaters," "London Dungeon," "Rat Fink," and so forth.

I have always been against reducing the Misfits to "the spooky Ramones," and for this I point the listener to songs which are more-than-obviously playing with the Ramones formula: "Angelfuck," "Attitude," and "She."

In any case, this is to suggest another Adventure in Listening; compare the Misfits with the Who, Monty Python, and the Simpsons, and I believe they will stand out even more from their contemporaries, and from the humorless and redundant music of today.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Is Seattle really *this* embarrassing?

NY Times article

From an article on a Seattle pastor, who reconciles "Calvinism" (a doctrine that preaches that nothing we do on earth matters for our salvation, which is predetermined) with, uh, some stuff done on earth (wearing a skull t-shirt!!).

That there will always be some WILDLY uncool "cool" Christian dude ("Hey guys do you like PEARL JAM?") with facial hair is such a given, it doesn't require any commentary. So, when you are reading this Times article, prepare for some surprises as you try to stomach the suggestion that THESE things are "edgy":

  • "a black skateboarder's jacket and skull T-shirt"
  • " 'the cussing pastor' "
  • "fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock"
  • "his taste for vintage baseball caps"
  • "members say their favorite movie isn't "Amazing Grace" or "The Chronicles of Narnia" — it's "Fight Club." "
  • "The front desk, black and slick, looked as if it ought to offer lattes rather than Bibles and membership pamphlets."
  • "retro T-shirts and [...] intimidating facial hair"
  • "the worship band was warming up for an hour of hymns with Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." "
Basically, here is an article the entire subject of which is this "bad boy" preacher, but not a single word suggesting that, if you knew this person, he would be the lamest guy you knew. Vintage baseball caps! Bruce Springsteen! Bad facial hair!! This image is so ludicrously uncool, it's hard to stifle your laughter as the author of the article treats these cultural signifiers of regular dude-ness as though it were 1991. Is a latte some kind of satanic marker that I'm unaware of?

Here is the most embarrassing thing you'll hear someone say this week, but it's even more embarrassing printed in an article about how tough and renegade the speaker is:

'He came to admire Martin Luther, the vulgar, beer-swilling theological rebel who sparked the Reformation. "I found him to be something of a mentor," Driscoll says. "I didn't have all the baggage he did. But you can see him with a quill in one hand and a drink in the other. He married a brewer and renegade nun. His story is kind of indie rock."'

Yikes! This Martin Luther guy is even cooler than Joey Lawrence!