Sunday, February 26, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple ~ A Clockwork Orange: A Prophetic and Violent Masterpiece

From City Journal

When, as a medical student, I emerged from the cinema having watched Stanley Kubrick’s controversial film of A Clockwork Orange, I was astonished and horrified to see a group of young men outside dressed up as droogs, the story’s adolescent thugs who delighted in what they called “ultra-violence.”

The film had been controversial in Britain; its detractors, who wanted it banned, charged that it glamorized and thereby promoted violence. The young men dressed as droogs seemed to confirm the charge, though of course it is one thing to imitate a form of dress and quite another to imitate behavior. Still, even a merely sartorial identification with psychopathic violence shocked me, for it implied an imaginative sympathy with such violence; and seeing those young men outside the theater was my first intimation that art, literature, and ideas might have profound—and not necessarily favorable—social consequences. A year later, a group of young men raped a 17-year-old girl in Britain as they sang “Singing in the Rain,” a real-life replay of one of the film’s most notorious scenes.

The author of the book, Anthony Burgess, a polymath who once wrote five novels in a year, came to dislike this particular work intensely, not because of any practical harm to society that the film version of it might have caused but because he did not want to go down in literary history as the author of a book made famous, or notorious, by a movie. Irrespective of the value of his other work, however, A Clockwork Orange remains a novel of immense power. Linguistically inventive, socially prophetic, and philosophically profound, it comes very close to being a work of genius.

The story, set in the England of the near future (the book was published in 1962), is simple. The narrator, Alex, a precocious 15-year-old psychopath who has no feeling for others, leads a small gang in many acts of gratuitous, and much enjoyed, violence. Eventually, caught after a murder, he goes to prison, where—after another murder—the authorities offer to release him if he submits to a form of aversive conditioning against violence called the Ludovico Method. On his release, however, he attempts suicide by jumping out of a window, receiving a head injury that undoes his conditioning against violence. Once more he becomes the leader of a gang.

In the final chapter of the book’s British version, Alex again rejects violence, this time because he discovers within himself, spontaneously, a source of human tenderness that makes him want to settle down and have a baby. In the American edition—which Stanley Kubrick used—this last chapter is missing: Alex is not redeemed a second time, but returns, apparently once and for all, to the enjoyment of arbitrary and antisocial violence. In this instance, it is the British who were the optimists and the Americans the pessimists: Burgess’s American publisher, wanting the book to end unhappily, omitted the last chapter.

Burgess had been a schoolteacher (like William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies) and evidently sensed a stirring of revolt among the youth of his country and elsewhere in the West, a revolt with which—as a deeply unconventional man who felt himself to be an outsider however wealthy or famous he became, and who drank deep at the well of resentment as well as of spirituous liquors—he felt some sympathy and might even have helped in a small way to foment. And yet, as a man who was also deeply steeped in literary culture and tradition, he understood the importance of the shift of cultural authority from the old to the young and was very far from sanguine about its effects. He thought that the shift would lead to a hell on earth and the destruction of all that he valued.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Vanity Laissez-Faire: Time for the Last Post

From FT.Com

On a winter-cold morning last autumn, before the leaves could summon up the energy to burn and fall, the barbarians entered the gate. A group of feisty young writers, known only to millions of readers by their blog names - Gawker, Gizmodo, Wonkette and Defamer - were in a soigne studio in New York’s Chelsea district to be photographed for the February issue of Vanity Fair magazine.

They represented the cream of Gawker Media - a mini-empire of clever, gossip-driven blogs launched in 2003 by Nick Denton, a former reporter for the Financial Times. But they were also emissaries from the blogging hordes, a raffish army of citizen journalists bent on overthrowing the old guard of the US media.

The irony was sweet: Gawker was supposed to make fun of this kind of inside-the-establishment posing. But the victory was sweeter: it was a signal moment, a benediction from a magazine that, more than any other, has become the plush chronicler of the celebrity establishment. As Vanity Fair put it in the story that accompanied the photo-spread, “With a combination of smart-ass writing and low subject matter folded into crisply designed sites, the Gawker gang is bringing some wit and nasty fun to a dour decade.” The upstart press of the 21st century seemed to have truly arrived.

Gawker made itself known early in its life when its first editor, Elizabeth Spiers, a former equity analyst, scored a frank interview with a young woman working on Wall Street, about the poor customer service ethics of cocaine dealers - an acute problem, apparently, for high-finance slaves pulling all-nighters during tax season.

“The perfect coke dealer would be like a dad,” she said: an immigrant putting his six kids through college, someone who wouldn’t muck you around. This was not the sort of information you were likely to get in The New York Times.

Gawker’s Washington DC outpost “Wonkette” scored a bigger coup when its editor, Ana Marie Cox, wrote about “Washingtonienne”, a 26-year-old Republican staffer pseudonymously blogging about her multiple sexual liaisons, including one with a married Bush administration official who gave her an envelope filled with cash in gratitude. Readers quickly worked out who the staffer, Jessica Cutler, was sleeping with, helped by the fact that Cutler - who has often spoken to the media of her 140-plus IQ - referred to her paramours using their real initials.

Buttoned-down Washington was horrified. Cutler was fired for misusing her office computer, but promptly got a six-figure book deal and an invitation to pose for Playboy in time for the 2004 election, which she accepted. As she memorably told The Washington Post, “Everyone should have a blog. It’s the most democratic thing ever.” And, indeed, having a blog seemed to be the quickest way to fame in a country obsessed with fortune.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Edward Jay Epstein ~ The Oscar Deception: Art Flicks Make Beautiful Decoys


The 78th Academy Awards, with its scripted speeches by stars, tearful acceptances, eulogies, red-carpet celebrity fashion show, and gold-dipped statuettes, has the same mission that it did when Louis B. Mayer convinced the other studio moguls to create the event in 1927: "establish the industry in the public's mind as a respectable institution." Now, televised by ABC in dazzling high-definition color, the evening-long informational will further the long-standing myth that Hollywood is in the business of making great—and original—movies.

This illusion, like all successful deceptions, requires misdirecting the audience's attention from reality to a few brilliant aberrations. Take this year's Best Picture nominations: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Munich, and Good Night, and Good Luck. What all of these films have in common is that they have virtually nothing to do with the real business of the Hollywood studios. For Hollywood to choose them as a public display of its virtue is almost as absurd as international oil companies presenting awards to avant-garde artists who happen to paint in oil. Just as Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, and British Petroleum do not make their living from oil paint (which, after all, is typically not made from crude), Hollywood studios do not make money from producing (or distributing) the occasional art or social-commentary movie.

In fact, the movie business is no longer about making movies. It is about creating properties—including TV programs, cartoons, videos, and games—that can serve as licensing platforms for a multitude of markets. For the first 20 years of the Academy Awards, the movie business was entirely about movies. Two-thirds of Americans went to a movie in an average week, and all the studios' earnings came from the proceeds of the tickets sold at movie houses. But that was "BT," before the advent of television in the late 1940s. Once people could watch sports, game shows, and movies at home for free, most of the habitual audience disappeared. By the late 1970s, U.S. movie theaters, which had sold 4.8 billion tickets in 1948, sold only 1 billion. Hollywood, on the verge of financial ruin, had no choice but reinvent itself.

The studios simply followed their audiences home. To do this, they first repackaged the movies shown at theaters Pied Piper-style by making movies that visually appealed mainly to children and teenagers and then recycled them into home products, including DVDs, TV shows, games, and toys, which, in 2005, produced more than 86 percent of their revenues. In this business model, alas, art, literary, and social-commentary movies are marginalized, since they cannot be either turned into licensing franchises or used to lure huge opening-week audiences to theaters. (Even Steven Spielberg's Munich attracted only a trickle—less than 1 million people—in its opening week compared with the flood—17 million people—for the opening of George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode 3—Revenge of the Sith.) And, as satisfying as these art films may be to directors, writers, actors, and producers, they do not lend themselves to sequels, prequels, or other licensable properties. They do, however, perform one function very well: acting as decoys at Hollywood's annual celebration of itself.
Edward Jay Epstein


Monday, February 20, 2006

Peter Biskind ~ Reconstructing Woody

From Vanity Fair

Allen has become an artist without honor in his own country—not, unfortunately, an anomalous situation. Many of his heroes have shared this fate. Akira Kurosawa found it nearly impossible to obtain Japanese financing in the twilight of his career; feeling himself shabbily treated by the Swedish government for a few years in the 1970s, Ingmar Bergman refused to make pictures in his homeland; and in two of the most egregious American examples, Charlie Chaplin found it expedient to leave the country altogether in the early 1950s, one step ahead of Red-hunting squads baying at his heels, while Orson Welles in his later years was reduced to shilling for Gallo wine. Still, one would hope that in most countries a national treasure like Allen, especially one who toils in a profession wherein selling or burning out is an all too common occupational hazard, would be showered with distinctions, lionized, and fêted.

After all, Allen's body of work is without precedent in quality and quantity, not measured against just other American filmmakers but worldwide. At the risk of hyperbole, or of sounding like a lunatic, it could be said that there is no such thing as a bad Woody Allen film—weaker ones, certainly, pictures that do not work consistently from beginning to end, comedies that aren't quite funny enough, dramas that are solemn and lugubrious, but never a stupid picture, one that is begging to be walked out on. Even his aesthetically unsuccessful films are better than most of the pictures that come out of Hollywood. If you play the parlor game How Few Outstanding Films Are Necessary to Create the Reputation for Being a Great Director, you arrive at a surprisingly low number. Look at some of Allen's contemporaries: Bob Rafelson, one (Five Easy Pieces); Peter Bogdanovich, two (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon); William Friedkin, two (The French Connection, The Exorcist); Robert Altman, four (M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player); and so on. Even Allen's beloved François Truffaut directed only three masterpieces, all early in his career: The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and Shoot the Piano Player. By this standard, Allen is an auteur among auteurs. Among his 35 films, there are a good 10 that can hold their own against any of those just mentioned: Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Bullets over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry, and now Match Point, not to mention a slew of very good second-tier films and one-offs, such as "Oedipus Wrecks," the only true gem in the anthology film New York Stories.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Greg Tate ~ The Color of Money

From The Nation

All of these books are as much about politics as popular culture and the art of the MC--not to mention his cousins the break dancer, the turntablist and the spray-can artist. This will surprise no one who knows that black art, black pop and black politics have long been intertwined modes of resistance in the African diaspora, from the coded liberation theology of plantation spirituals to the oppositional wit of Delta blues, New Orleans jazz, swing, bebop, Motown and Stax soul, free jazz, funk, black rock, salsa and reggae. Reading these books about hip-hop can provoke a sense of nostalgia and paradox for someone like this writer, who has watched and occasionally abetted the light-speed journey hip-hop has made in less than twenty years from folk culture to commercial subculture to global youth culture to global capitalist marketing tool. The nostalgia derives from a pronounced sense of loss, the kind former Black Panther Elaine Brown captured in the title of her memoir, A Taste of Power. The moment when we held that power on our own terms, when hip-hop was considered mad-scary, dangerous and actionable by Congress and national law-enforcement agencies, has turned to dust--or, more accurately, the fool's gold of nouveau bling fortunes. The paradox comes from feeling that hip-hop was sooo twentieth century, so prefigurative and definitive of the late century, and yet just as full of portent for our twenty-first-century nervous systems. Our current vision of the millennium--that of a world rocked by organized terror, cybernetic capitalism and creativity, and a growing antidemocratic apparatus of policing and surveillance--is the world hip-hop has been reporting on since the early 1980s.

How and why hip-hop predicted today's cultural politics is the bailiwick of Jeff Chang's tour de force chronicle Can't Stop Won't Stop. Chang is a widely published journalist and activist based in the Bay Area, and his writing cogently and elegantly combines street reportage, music criticism, mother wit, semiotics and political analysis. As you'd expect, he begins his tale in the Bronx. What's surprising is that it opens not with Zulu Nation founder and hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa but with Yankee Reggie Jackson, the roaring antiracist mouth of the 1977 World Series, whom Chang identifies as an outspoken Bronx-based black pop icon of the day. As Chang observes, what made the South Bronx what it was back in the day--a crucible of Afro-diasporic rage, rampage and culture--were the projects, that archipelago of isolated sky-rise housing prisons to which black and Latino populations had been relocated by Robert Moses.

Any hip-hop fan with an old-school issue of The Source knows that before there was hip-hop there were gangs, and that Bambaataa (a k a Bam) was a major player in both. But Chang digs deeper, taking us back to the summer of 1971, when gang leader Benjamin Melendez and friends--members of the legendary crews the Ghetto Brothers, Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads--tried to mediate a peace accord and become community power brokers at City Hall. (Their failure and destruction as a result of forces both external and internecine mirror those of the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party, and later efforts on the part of Bloods and Crips, Jim Brown and Minister Louis Farrakhan in LA after the Rodney King rebellion.) Their example, a rechanneling of gang fervor and flavor toward constructive communalism, set the stage for the sonic revolution launched by legendary DJ Kool Herc.

Herc, a Jamaican transplant who struggled to lose his island accent and become a homeboy, re-created the kind of massive sound systems that had dominated the fervent ghetto culture of his Caribbean years. Of hip-hop's four celebrated elements, three--break dancing, rapping and turntabling--pretty much began at Herc's parties. The fourth element, graffiti, or graf (also known as spray-can art or aerosol painting or simply writing), had a parallel history, Chang reveals, in the multiethnic, cross-class, interborough, interstate East Coast youth-culture scene. That history would eerily and errantly predict hip-hop's ability to dissolve social and geographic boundaries among diverse young'uns with style and rebellious comradery.

Chang's incisive portrait of Bambaataa locates the source of hip-hop's current global outreach in the incipient Pan-Afrikanism of Bam's adolescence. That collective vision of Africans at home and abroad drew not only on his folks' admiration for Marcus Garvey but on the warrior tactics he'd observed in the 1964 Michael Caine film Zulu, the doctrines of the Nation of Islam (an active presence in the projects) and a trip to Africa he made after winning a high school essay contest. Extraordinarily prophetic, Bam sensed that hip-hop would attain global significance at a time when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who would become the world's first hip-hop supergroup, declined a recording offer in the late 1970s because they felt no one would pay to hear some guys talk over a record. Flash was hardly alone in his bleak and, as it turned out, utterly mistaken analysis of hip-hop's creative possibilities and market potential. In fact, as late as the mid-'90s hip-hop was still considered a fad.

Hip-hop's commercial breakthrough came in 1979, with the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." The extended version, as Public Enemy's Chuck D recalls in Chang's book, achieved the improbable feat of condensing the energy and excitement of an all-night hip-hop party into fifteen minutes. Once the genie was out of the bottle, an industry was born. Its meteoric rise dovetailed with Reaganomics; Iran/contra; crack; MTV; Spike, Nike and Mike; run, Jesse, run; Farrakhan at Madison Square Garden; and the hate-crime demonstrations that defined New York's racial politics in the '80s--a first phase that could be said to have culminated on that April day in 1992 when the Rodney King verdict came down and NWA's "fuck tha police" became more than a catchy chorus composed in honor of police chief Daryl Gates's private army SWAT.

In his subchapters on Public Enemy and Ice Cube, Chang lays bare the giddy hopes and inherent instability of a politics built upon African-American invention, Black Nationalist poetics, lighthearted locker-room misogyny, lumpen-proletariat rabble-rousing, Jew-baiting, youthful exuberance, climbing the Billboard charts and selling your soul for malt liquor endorsements. Hip-hop's other epic tale of mutually assured self-destruction, that of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, is strangely given short shrift by Chang. Yet their murders at the hands of what we now heavily suspect were gang and police operatives speak volumes about how life decimated art as hip-hop's success moved it from the radical fringe to a ravenous corporate mainstream that came with real gangsters in tow. Chang attributes hip-hop's loss of innocence and its declining political advocacy to censorship as much as commodification. After the dual attacks on NWA and Ice T initiated by national police organizations and Tipper Gore's PMRC, corporate labels shied away from hip-hop in its more militant incarnations.

The surgical separation of hip-hop and politics effected by its insertion into the mainstream has had a wounding but not dispiriting effect on hip-hop activist-intellectuals of color like Chang. Like him, many of them have carried the political passions engendered by agitprop avatars PE, KRS-One and NWA into adulthood, academia and street action on both coasts. It may be for this reason that Chang ends his book in 2000, with a report on a live hip-hop rally against Proposition 21, the draconian Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act. That demonstration culminated in a rainbow coalition of black, brown, yellow and white fists raised to the sky against the powers that be--clearly meant as an antidote to the hypersexual, ultraviolent image that commercial hip-hop cultivates today, partly in service to its corporate masters. This parting shot from life before Bush also allows Chang to skirt the obvious question that hip-hop politics, like all progressive movements, faces in the wake of 9/11--how to utilize its cultural and technological savvy to awaken the digitally narcotized and dramatically intensify the terms of American political debate.

In a landscape where thoughts of grand action are overwhelmed by fears of what Bush, Blair and bin Laden might do tomorrow and how Fox will spin it for the masses, the notion that today's machine-programmed hip-hop nation will once again sing of fighting the power can seem quite quixotic. But as Bakari Kitwana argues in Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, there is an organizing potential in the interracial millennium generation for whom hip-hop is still a centrifugal force, and who continue to draw sustenance from those aspects of hip-hop that aren't corporate controlled. Kitwana, a former editor at The Source, is the author of The Rap on Gangsta Rap and the Hip Hop Generation. He was also co-founder of the National Hip Hop Political Convention, established in part as a response to what some saw as the co-optation of hip-hop activism by Russell Simmons's Summit Action Network. In many ways Kitwana's title is misleading, since the book is largely about the potential for future coalition-building among hip-hop activists across class and age lines. Despite its promise of prescriptions, it's a reflection on the hip-hop progressive's internal strife rather than a battle plan, proving that hip-hop activism already suffers from that uneasy middle-age condition common to the left, whose time and energy are vitiated as much by the war within as by the war without.

S. Craig Watkins's Hip Hop Matters covers everything from hip-hop's relationship to the 1990s war on youth civil liberties that emerged in various California crime bills, to the emergence of Detroit's Kwame Kilpatrick as the nation's first self-proclaimed hip-hop mayor, to Sean "Puffy" Combs's glammed-out Vote or Die youth registration drive in 2004. If Chang's book is the best to date on hip-hop's social, political and aesthetic history, Watkins's study is the best yet on the hip-hop industry. Watkins has provided nothing less than a political economy of hip-hop, one that doesn't shy away from the dirty business hip-hop has become--especially as the shift from selling dope beats and rhymes to the selling of ass and overpriced leisurewear became the movement's primary (and, not incidentally, most lucrative) focus. He's also attentive to the way hip-hop was affected by the appalling rates of incarceration and AIDS in black communities.

People tend to get a bit heated if you don't distinguish between hip-hop and the hip-hop industry. What's often forgotten is that hip-hop used the evil empire of the industry to further its own ends--subverting the mechanisms and formulas of pop to forge platinum hits with little or no airplay, music video or promotion--as witness the rise of Public Enemy. But hip-hop also paid a price for the ticket of inclusion. By making a devil's bargain with hyper-capitalism, hip-hop lost not only its freedom of speech but its powers of speech: the gift it once had to artfully and hypnotically articulate the social fallout from public policies that have consigned one in ten Americans to poverty. Watkins adeptly frames and critiques the gulf that hip-hop's ascension to a $12 billion-a-year market has inevitably opened between urban reality and hip-hop-derived ghetto fantasies like the Xbox game Grand Theft Auto.

One day a book will be written about the continuities between the Harlem Renaissance era, the Black Arts Movement and hip-hop. When that epic gets written, one of its ur-texts will be The Black Arts Movement. James Edward Smethurst's scholarship makes it abundantly clear that the precedent for cutting-edge African-American musical and poetic forms and politics was established, respectively, by Langston Hughes in the 1920s, Richard Wright in the '40s and Amiri Baraka in the '60s; the book also reminds us that, as with hip-hop, the center of gravity of the black radical cultural movements of the '60s swung from the North to the West Coast to the South. As it happens, the Black Arts Movement came into being between 1965 and 1973, when much of the first hip-hop generation was busy being born. The question of who belongs to that generation is up for grabs--many of the founding fathers, like Herc and Bambaataa, were born in the late '50s, while its core audience today was born between the mid-'70s and early '80s. Most of the hip-hop audience barely (if ever) experienced it as a radicalizing political force, and for new listeners it's merely another Internet menu item.

My own definition of a hip-hop generation is generous and circumspect: anyone who between the years 1977 and 1998 caught the fever for the flavor of the culture, and believed it was going to change the world against the naysayers and nabobs who thought it wouldn't last. For a brief moment we got to stand on top of the mountain and pop Cristal or organic cranberry juice, as the case might be, when it did bum-rush the record industry. Where we are now is somewhere on the other side of that mountain--a place where the big question on the table for hip-hop's progressive wing is whether a generation that came to politics through a pop-music subculture can continue to run with that subculture at a time when politics is increasingly defined by what the right does with military power rather than by what oppositional citizens do with their own.

Neither Chang, Kitwana nor Watkins discusses Iraq, 9/11 or the Patriot Act, or how any contemporary discussions around race and racism must include South America, Asia and the Middle East. Du Bois's observation that the problem of the twentieth century was the color line still stands for the twenty-first. But the hip-hop generation's notion of American racial politics is in need of a little post-9/11, post-Patriot Act color correction. Kitwana and his cohorts envisioned a hip-hop-generation takeover of the Democratic Party during the last election's youth-voter efforts. Romantic as that was, today's progressive politics have never hurt from a blushing ardor for the sleeping dragon of people's power. And if hip-hop culture, more politically asleep now than ever before, can produce a few more active dreamers with the wit, realism and enthusiasm of Chang, Kitwana and Watkins, progressive politics might not have to seem as Jurassic as the Bushies have made it appear to America's vast, Twin Tower-traumatized daydream nation.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

Sinatra & Jobim

Video footage of Sinatra and Jobim performing Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars (Corcovado), Change Partners, I Concentrate on You & The Girl From Ipanema (Garrota de Ipanema) from their sublime collaboration "Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim":

Frank Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim

Frank Sinatra: Singing from Beyond the Grave

From The Independent

Nostalgia and technology have brought Frank Sinatra back into fashion. Supremely great popular singer though he was, that may not be a good thing. All those Rat Pack retrospectives, whether theatrical recreations or repackaged CDs, play to an idea of early 1960s sophistication that was superficial at the time and is rather embarrassing now. They concentrate on the booze, the womanising or at least the talk of womanising), the Las Vegas high-rolling, and the stagy camaraderie, rather than on what was important: the Kennedy-era liberalism (apparently racist jokes by or about Sammy Davis Jnr were quite liberating in their day) and, most of all, the music.

When, in the middle of one of those Clan shindigs, Sinatra goes into a solo song, whether a curt, commanding "Luck Be a Lady" or a yearning soaring "I Have Dreamed", the mood changes; we are somewhere else, and so is he. It seems that he can't help himself; suddenly, he's concentrating. In between, though he may be the master of these revels, he seems out of place. Compared to Davis and Dean Martin, both natural clowns, he seems forced in his banter and somewhat surly; on screen he could be a compelling if stylised actor, but in what is supposed to be his natural habitat, carousing with his buddies, he is heavy-handed, something between a grouch and a bully. Maybe this is the real Sinatra, but it's a reality one would rather not know about.

In all probability, it's just one of many real Sinatras. I have my doubts about the super-hologram version of Sinatra that's about to open at the London Palladium, though they have less to do with my feelings about Sinatra than with my feelings about the theatre. But at least the director, David Leveaux, seems in interviews to have a genuine feeling for his subject; he has summed up Sinatra's artistry by saying that "his relationship with song was conversational yet deeply musical" and his fascination by saying that "it is impossible not to get personal with Sinatra because he is certainly going to get personal with you."

Personal and yet impersonal; or perhaps, super-personal. The great paradox of Sinatra is that he brings to his songs a unique inescapable personality and temperament - not to mention a tumultuous and controversial biography, of which his public is thoroughly aware - and yet puts all this at the service of his material. He disappears into the music, and then reappears in what I can only call purified form. He sheds, for the duration, everything that isn't pertinent to the song, or at least to his interpretation of the song. (His conception of "Let's Face the Music and Dance" is different from Fred Astaire's; come to that, his conception of "The Song Is You" in the 1980s is different from his idea of the same song in the 1940s.)

Part of this has to do with the fanatical precision of his diction. He sings consonants. He sings "Night and Day", where everyone else sings "Nightanday". It sounds like Sinatra, because nobody else does that, but at the same time it's copybook Cole Porter. This is what the man wrote; this is what you are going to hear. And there is, always, the implication that you have never really heard it before. The fusion of arrogance and humility is unique, and irresistible.

As a singer, Sinatra is a great actor. He expresses himself but at one remove, through a text. And just as great English actors define themselves through their performances of the greatest English plays, finding their own voices through the formal challenges of Shakespearean verse, so the great American singers are recognised by their treatment of the great American songs; they, too, have to make an artificial form sound natural, and more exhilaratingly natural precisely because of the artifice.

And Sinatra has an advantage over Gielgud and Olivier; he was there when the tradition was coming into being. He grew up with it; by the time he started seriously singing, in the 1940s, the repertoire - Gershwin and Porter and Arlen and Mercer and Rodgers and Hart - was already half-formed. He helped to codify it. It's an astonishing body of work that has gone in and out of style but has never gone away. It is in fashion now, and identified with Sinatra, even though many other fine singers have performed it. When a Rod Stewart or a Michael Bublé records an album of standards, it's hard to say whether they are doing it because they want to be Sinatra and therefore sing those songs, or because they want to sing the songs and so cannot help but ape Sinatra.

They, like Rat Pack imitators and enthusiasts, can only sound superficial because they have, as actors say, no centre. They either show off or are dull; either way, they think it's about them. Sinatra didn't sing about himself, he sang from himself, and it's a distinction I'd stand by, though I think some of his more bellicose fans might have trouble telling the difference.

There are of course songs in which Sinatra sounds directly autobiographical - charmingly in "Nancy", unbearably in "My Way" - but they're a minority. And even "Nancy" is as concerned as much with itemising his daughter's qualities as with expressing her father's feelings. For the most apart Sinatra is singing about common experience, or occasionally about a very particular other experience; we assume that he is drawing on similar experiences of his own but we have no proof and we don't need it. It's showbiz lore that his bruising relationship with Ava Gardner in the 1950s informs In the Wee Small Hours, his first great ballad album, but you don't have to have heard that to be moved by the music. There's no self-pity in his singing of "Glad to Be Unhappy" or "Last Night when We Were Young", just wry, searching, majestically structured readings of magnificent songs. Read up on Sinatra's actual behaviour at the time, and it's a lot less ennobling, a lot more self-indulgent. But one is in the past, the other is for ever.

This insight, this dramatic quality, grew with time. Sinatra's career falls into four periods, in each of which he was affiliated with a different record company. As boy-singer for the Tommy Dorsey orchestra on RCA, he sounds appealing but callow, additionally constrained both by the big-band format and by most of the songs. His contemporaries were struck by his apparent belief in his material (we, who are used to hearing him sing as though he means it, tend to take it for granted), and by the sheer tender beauty of the voice. That we can still hear, as we also can, in his pop-idol years with Columbia. The warmth on these is overwhelming; so is the vulnerability that makes his performance of "Someone to Watch Over Me" something like definitive.

These were the years of the string-laden, swoon-inducing Sinatra. He wasn't yet a swinger, at least not in the musical sense. To listen to his impeccably cheerful version of the light-hearted "Five Minutes More", one of the biggest hits he ever had, is to be surprised by the chances for rhythmic variation that he passes up, missed opportunities that he was to repair when he re-recorded the song in the 1950s for Capitol.

The Capitol years were, by common consent, his finest. They offer the best of both worlds, the charm and the vocal bloom of the preceding period offset by a new rhythmic variation and a fierce intelligence. His technical and interpretative mastery are in perfect sync. He seems to revel in taking the measure of classic song after classic song. This, not coincidentally, was the age of the LP; singers who were more than cabaret cultists had the chance to explore the catalogue and, on occasion, to add to it. These were the years of his unsurpassably melancholy "One for My Baby" and his unsurpassably happy "You Make Me Feel so Young". The last stage began in the 1960s when he started his own company, Reprise, which he quickly sold but for which he continued to record. There was no immediate break in style but the voice became grittier and, if anything, more interesting.

It was a long period, which went to schizophrenic extremes. At its crassest there was "My Way", ill-written and bombastic, which unhappily still counts for many people as his identity-song. It gets, anachronistically, into all the Rat Pack tributes; my opinion of the Palladium show will rocket up if they have the guts to leave it out. It's not just that it's a terrible song; it's that its blatancy is a direct contradiction of everything that the true, subtle Sinatra is about.

But there were compensations. He took the measure of genuinely dramatic pieces like "Ol' Man River" and the "Soliloquy" from Carousel, songs he had sung in the 1940s when he neither the depth of voice nor of sensibility to do them justice. "Ol' Man River" is a triumph of imaginative empathy; he isn't black, it's decades since he's been downtrodden, but he gets inside the song and its bleak message ("tired of livin' and feared of dyin'") of universal suffering. He had maybe his finest hour recording a bossa nova album - a style he'd never sung before - with Antonio Carlos Jobim. He takes it over, or let it takes him over. On one track, "Dindi", you can actually hear him being humbled, amazed by the mysterious beauty of the song. This is a pop singer? He sounds like the wisest, most compassionate man you ever met.

As a person Sinatra was at his most appealing when acknowledging contradictions and obligations. ("I've been over-rewarded in my life and that's the truth." "An over-privileged adult ought to do something to help under-privileged children". "Whatever else has been said about me is unimportant; when I sing, I believe I'm honest"). Most of us are capable of both good and bad behaviour, but his position gave him more scope in both directions; my own guess is that, even outside music, he did more good in the world than harm. But it's the music that counts; 60 years of self-expression that mostly transcended self and still have the power to touch.

Robert Cushman


A Retort to Carly Simon Regarding Her Charges of Vanity

from McSweeney's via 3QuarksDaily
Dear Carly,

Nice song. Wow, you really stuck it to me, eh? Yes, ma'am.

Jesus, you are one bitter woman, Carly Simon.

Listen, I'm pretty busy right now with high-profile meetings and social engagements, but there were things I simply could not let stand.

First of all, that party took place on a yacht. So the way I walked in was perfectly appropriate. In fact, there is a certain way that one is expected to conduct oneself in such a situation. I could explain but I doubt you're interested. As for the apricot scarf and the tilted hat, again, perfectly appropriate for a maritime soiree. Look it up. I'm sorry you had a problem with that. Funny, there were plenty of girls that night who certainly had no quarrel.

Secondly, yes, I went up to Saratoga for an important horserace. And yes, my horse won, thanks to years of training and the hard work of all the people involved. Is this a bad thing? And yes, I did take the jet to Nova Scotia. I would do it again in an instant. Have you ever seen the total eclipse of the sun, Carly? It's one of the most amazing natural phenomena one could witness, so, if I have the means to see it, I don't see that as vanity, I see it as being fully alive. I also took 35 orphans up there with me, free of charge, but there's nothing about that in your song. All right, I didn't really do that. But I thought about it and that's what matters.

Third, pursuant to your charge that I was with an "underworld spy," I can't discuss that. But I am known to spend time with wives of close friends. And what do I do with said women, Carly? Talk. Have tea. Catch a movie or attend a polo match. These women's husbands are entertainers and travel quite a bit, so I spend time with them, because that's what friends do. And sometimes I have sex with them. But not as often as you might think.
More here

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Random Transmissions 12: Steven Wright

Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.

A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.

Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it.

I stayed up all night playing poker with tarot cards.I got a full house and four people died.

It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to have to paint it.

The other day, I was walking my dog around my building...on the ledge. Some people are afraid of heights. Not me, I'm afraid of widths.

I know the guy who writes all those bumper stickers. He hates New York.

A beautiful woman moved in next door. So I went over and returned a cup of sugar. "You didn't borrow this." "I will."

The Bermuda Triangle got tired of warm weather. It moved to Alaska. Now Santa Claus is missing.

I went to a fancy french restaurant called "Deja Vu." The headwaiter said, "Don't I know you?"

I put instant coffee in a microwave oven and almost went back in time.

A friend of mine once sent me a post card with a picture of the entire planet Earth taken from space. On the back it said, "Wish you were here."

They say we're 98% water. We're that close to drowning. . . . [picks up his glass of water from the stool] . . . I like to live on the edge. . . .

I went to a restaurant that serves "breakfast at any time". So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.

I worked in a health food store once. A guy came in and asked me, "If I melt dry ice, can I take a bath without getting wet?"

Yesterday I parked my car in a tow-away zone...when I came back the entire area was missing.

Last night somebody broke into my apartment and replaced everything with exact duplicates... When I pointed it out to my roommate, he said, 'Do I know you?'

My mechanic told me, "I couldn't repair your brakes, so I made your horn louder."

You can't have everything. Where would you put it?

I finally got around to reading the dictionary. Turns out the zebra did it.

Isn't Disney World a people trap operated by a mouse?

The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

This girl told me she was a nymphomaniac but was only attracted to Jewish cowboys... I said, 'Pleased to meet you. My name is Bucky Goldstein.'

Depression is merely anger without enthusiasm.

I almost had a psychic girlfriend but she left me before we met.

OK, so what's the speed of dark?

A friend of mine is into Voodoo Acupuncture. You don't have to go. You'll just be walking down the street and . . . ooooohhhhhh, that's much better.

If you must choose between two evils, pick the one you've never tried before.

If at first you don't succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.

Sorry . . . my mind was wandering . . . One time it went all the way to Venus and ordered a meal I couldn't pay for.

Right now I'm having amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I've forgotten this before.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Bernard-Henri Lévy ~ A Letter to the American Left


Nothing made a more lasting impression during my journey through America than the semi-comatose state in which I found the American left.

I know, of course, that the term "left" does not have the same meaning and ramifications here that it does in France.

And I cannot count how many times I was told there has never been an authentic "left" in the United States, in the European sense.

But at the end of the day, my progressive friends, you may coin ideas in whichever way you like. The fact is: You do have a right. This right, in large part thanks to its neoconservative battalion, has brought about an ideological transformation that is both substantial and striking.

And the fact is that nothing remotely like it has taken shape on the other side--to the contrary, through the looking glass of the American "left" lies a desert of sorts, a deafening silence, a cosmic ideological void that, for a reader of Whitman or Thoreau, is thoroughly enigmatic. The 60-year-old "young" Democrats who have desperately clung to the old formulas of the Kennedy era; the folks of who have been so great at enlisting people in the electoral lists, at protesting against the war in Iraq and, finally, at helping to revitalize politics but whom I heard in Berkeley, like Puritans of a new sort, treating the lapses of a libertine President as quasi-equivalent to the neo-McCarthyism of his fiercest political rivals; the anti-Republican strategists confessing they had never set foot in one of those neo-evangelical mega-churches that are the ultimate (and most Machiavellian) laboratories of the "enemy," staring in disbelief when I say I've spent quite some time exploring them; ex-candidate Kerry, whom I met in Washington a few weeks after his defeat, haggard, ghostly, faintly whispering in my ear: "If you hear anything about those 50,000 votes in Ohio, let me know"; the supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton who, when I questioned them on how exactly they planned to wage the battle of ideas, casually replied they had to win the battle of money first, and who, when I persisted in asking what the money was meant for, what projects it would fuel, responded like fundraising automatons gone mad: "to raise more money"; and then, perhaps more than anything else, when it comes to the lifeblood of the left, the writers and artists, the men and women who fashion public opinion, the intellectuals--I found a curious lifelessness, a peculiar streak of timidity or irritability, when confronted with so many seething issues that in principle ought to keep them as firmly mobilized as the Iraq War or the so-called "American Empire" (the denunciation of which is, sadly, all that remains when they have nothing left to say).

For an outside observer it is passing strange, for instance, that a number of progressives needed, by their own admission, to wait for Hurricane Katrina before they got indignant about, or even learned about, the sheer scale of the outrageous poverty blighting American cities.

For a European intellectual used to the battlefield of ideas, it is simply incomprehensible that more voices weren't raised long ago, in the name of no less than the force of "the Enlightenment," to denounce the ridiculous fraud of the anti-Darwinian supporters of "intelligent design."

And what about the death penalty? How can it be that there isn't yet, within the political parties, especially the Democratic Party--which everyone knows will never budge on the question without decisive internal pressure--a trend of opinion calling for the abolition of this civilized barbarity?

And Guantánamo? And Abu Ghraib? And the special prisons in Central Europe, those areas where the rule of law no longer applies? I know, of course, that the press has denounced them. I know you have journalists who, in a matter of days, accomplished what our French press still hasn't finished forty years after our Algerian War. But since when does the press excuse citizens from their political duties? Why haven't we heard from more intellectuals like Susan Sontag--or even Gore Vidal and Tony Kushner (with whom I disagree on most other grounds) on this vexed and vital issue? And what should we make of that handful of individuals who, after September 11, launched the debate about the circumstances in which torture might suddenly be justified?

And I'm not even talking about Bush. I won't even mention Bush's gross lies about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, except for the sake of assembling the conclusive evidence. I know, of course, that you denounce him--but mechanically, I am almost tempted to say ritualistically. And yet the United States nearly impeached Nixon because he had spied on his enemies and lied. They impeached Clinton for a venial lie about inappropriate conduct. How is it, then, that it took so long to draw a parallel between those lies and a lie about which the least you can say is that its consequences were anything but venial? How is it that so few "public intellectuals" have been found, within the confines of this formidable, impetuous American democracy, who can bring up the idea of impeaching George Bush for lying?

More here

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn

In an essay called “The American Vice,” Will Self speaks to the “moral displacement” of modern cinema—which is far different from the viewer’s perspective on, say, Guernica. Of the scene in Reservoir Dogs in which a sadist exuberantly mutilates a bound policeman, Self writes, “We lose sight of whose exact POV we are inhabiting. The sadist who is doing the torturing? The policeman? The incapacitated accomplice? It is this vacillation in POV that forces the sinister card of complicity upon the viewer. For in such a situation the auteur is either abdicating—or more likely foisting—the moral responsibility for what is being depicted onscreen from himself to the viewer.”

That’s a tough charge—and the issue of where the spectator’s sympathies lie at violent movies has always been a complicated one. But there’s no doubt that something has changed in the past few decades. Serial killers occupy a huge—and disproportionate—share of our cultural imagination: As potential victims, we fear them, yet we also seek to identify with their power. A key archetype is Will Graham in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon—a genius serial-killer tracker because he can walk through grisly crime scenes and project himself into the killers’ heads. He’s both the instrument of justice and the empathic consumer of torture porn.

Fear supplants empathy and makes us all potential torturers, doesn’t it? Post-9/11, we’ve engaged in a national debate about the morality of torture, fueled by horrifying pictures of manifestly decent men and women (some of them, anyway) enacting brutal scenarios of domination at Abu Ghraib. And a large segment of the population evidently has no problem with this. Our righteousness is buoyed by propaganda like the TV series 24, which devoted an entire season to justifying torture in the name of an imminent threat: a nuclear missile en route to a major city. Who do you want defending America? Kiefer Sutherland or terrorist-employed civil-liberties lawyers?
David Edelstein

More here

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Walking the Line: Musical Doppelgangers

In Beyond The Sea, Kevin Spacey sang Bobby Darin's greatest hits. Sadly, Mr. Spacey couldn't swing if you nailed him to a pendulum. In Walk The Line, however, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon were so good at impersonating Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash that they should go on tour.

In Ray, Jamie Foxx, wisely, let Ray Charles sing the songs, but, ironically, the actor re-recorded the "sample" from I Got a Woman used in Kanye West's hit Golddigger. For many younger people, their introduction to Charles' song will be via musical doppelganger Foxx's imitation of it. This is one step beyond the cover version: covers are clearly imitative, but samples suggest authenticity. In Golddigger, the "original" is a fake.

Genetically-modified, retro-engineered, faux-authenticity is the latest stage of musical evolution. Budding singer Foxx is probably cheaper to sample than Ray Charles and he's certainly sexier. Johnny and June had their appeal, for sure, but Joaquin and Reese are an altogether prettier proposition for the pop market. Pop prefers photegenic cyphers to careworn and characterful originators. Pity Brad Pitt can't croon. Then again, neither can Bob Dylan.

John Allen Paulos and The Mathematics of Wiretapping

Several hundred years ago Benjamin Franklin remarked "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither." That sentiment still resonates today.

Irrespective of the matter of illegality (such mundane legal "minutiae" as the NSA's failure to obtain FISA warrants, blatant violation of Fourth Amendment..), there are more pragmatic considerations concerning the efficacy of the stategy.

JS Mill's "harm principle" has always enjoyed axiomatic status within the so-called "liberal democracies", though the damage caused by the shape-shifting "War on Terror" is not merely collateral: one of it's key strategies is to "attack our enemies" by undermining the liberal and democratic natures of our own societies.

Like a punch-drunk Jake LaMotta, the guiding principle of the paranoid, bellicose, burnt-out doppelgangers masquerading as the liberal democracies seems to be: "If in doubt, attack ourselves."

Still, for the benefit of those recalcitrant idealists who purport to attach some significance to the "harm principle", we might as well elucidate it:

the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will , is to prevent harm to others.

The question, as always, is where to strike the balance: how much use (or abuse) of executive power is required to prevent how much reasonably foreseeable harm. Presumably, the power wielded should be proportionate to the harm prevented? It's also implicit that it should be precise rather than indiscriminate (since power wielded over the innocent doesn't prevent harm -- such misdirected power is, logically, harmful in itself).

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos observes:

Defenders of these governmental intrusions generally point to the threat that terrorists' access to international telecommunications channels.... There is a trade-off, they intone, between liberty and security.

This is, of course, true in a general sense, but what I find interesting is that so many of the defenders of these policies would never make similar arguments in other contexts, say about the need to limit unfettered access to handguns.

The second amendment stipulating that the "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed" is interpreted so literally that it has led, in part, to almost 400 of my fellow Philadelphians (and nearly 12,000 people nationally) being killed last year by guns — not by terrorists, not by porn addicts, but by hot-headed people with guns. Some have even argued we all have a right to own machine guns.

Why are these unrelenting deaths by handguns not considered a matter of national security requiring a minuscule loss of liberty in the form of stricter gun laws? And why, to cite another example, is limiting environmental extravagance not considered a matter of national security requiring a minuscule loss of liberty in the form of more energy-efficient vehicles?

Loss of liberty and privacy, if legally sanctioned and absolutely necessary (and this is a huge and unfulfilled "if"), should at least result in some good. A serious problem with massive, untargeted and illegal wiretaps...., however, is that they'd likely be ineffective. The volume of the information generated by them would make it essentially impossible to follow up on the "leads" generated. There isn't the manpower to investigate more than a tiny fraction of them in real time.

Yet another problem is the perennial problem of false positives (about which I wrote...when the Total Information Awareness program was being considered). Even if an accurate profile of potential terrorists is drawn, the fact that such a vanishingly small percentage of us are terrorists means that the vast majority of the people investigated will be innocent.

Even if the probability that the purported terrorist profile is accurate were an astonishing 99 percent (if someone has terrorist ties, the profile will pick him or her out 99 percent of the time, and, for ease of computation, if someone does not have such ties, the profile will pick him or her out only 1 percent of the time), most of the hits would be false positives.

For illustration, let's further assume that one out of a million American residents has terrorist ties — that's approximately 300 people — and the profile will pick out 99 percent, or 297 of them. Great. But what of the approximately 300 million innocent Americans? The profile will also pick out 1 percent of them, "only" 3 million false positives, innocent people who will be caught up in a Kafkaesque dragnet.

It should be reiterated that such broad scale wiretapping.... is not only of questionable legality if not downright unconstitutional, but it is also ineffective and a waste of resources. Terrorism is a problem, but so are handguns, health care, the deficit, the environment, education, and a host of other issues that are more important to our personal and, I think, our national security.

More here

Penn Jillette: The magician-comedian-writer's secrets revealed!

From via 3QuarksDaily

Penn Jillette's place in show business is less as a magician or comedian than as a thinker. A very deep thinker. Consider The Aristocrats, the 2005 documentary he made with his friend Paul Provenza. The movie emerged out of a series of late-night discussions between Jillette and Provenza, in which the pair would sit in restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip, gulping decaffeinated coffee and discussing (to borrow Jillette's phrase) "the most pretentious shit possible." For example? "We talk an awful lot about whether you have to stop at libertarianism or go on to anarchocapitalism," Jillette said the other day. Luckily, Jillette and Provenza steered themselves away from anarchocapitalism (Death to Aristocrats?) and toward the science of dirty jokes. Out popped The Aristocrats, which had a small theatrical release but ignited a cultural interest in filth. (The new DVD hovers near the top of the sales charts.) If The Aristocrats was a celebration of bawdy free expression and the vanishing art of joke-telling, it was also a celebration of Penn Jillette's peculiar worldview—something like the academic art known as radical deconstruction.

Jillette would make for an odd academic. Standing 6 foot 6 inches, wearing his hair in a ponytail, he looks like a man who spends a great deal of his time in a bowling alley. His formal education after high school consists of a stint at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. Yet his snarling stage persona, which is like a sideshow hustler crossed with an insult comic, hides a surprisingly inquisitive mind. The magic act he has performed for two decades with Teller, his mute sidekick, is a comic deconstruction of the magic show. Penn and Teller have billed their act as the "magic show for people who hate magic." No adult, they said, believes that a magician could levitate or pass cards through the palms of his hand—to pretend otherwise is an insult to the audience. So Penn and Teller explain how they perform all their tricks, trusting that the audience will appreciate their consummate skill. They still play six nights a week at the Rio in Las Vegas, and, as Jillette has been known to say about the show, "The question we want you to ask yourself is not how we do these tricks but why we do them."

Bryan Curtis

more here

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Graeme Jamieson ~ Fieldmouse

Where the sharp leaves whish

Beyond the plough-turned furrows

In the black dirt of the hedgerow

Beneath the storm’s grave tail

That is where I mark and mourn

My terrain’s drifted fable

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Slim Shady Essay: The Psychological Craftsmanship of Marshall Bruce Mathers III

As an aficionado of old school and underground hip-hop, I'm no fan of Eminem's zeitgeist-reflecting, casually misanthropic, trailer trash aesthetic, but Robert Christgau's excellent Slim Shady Essay presents an articulate summation of the case for the defence. In a medium predicated upon authenticity (or at least the illusion of it), Eminem's ostentatious inauthenticity varnishes his misogynistic, homophobic oeuvre with a patina of postmodern sophistication. If Eminem started out as a brash Benny Blanco to Tarantino's Carlito Brigante, he quickly eclipsed the latter's status as popular culture's pre-eminent peddler of ironic pornography. Now Eminem has "retired" at the top, we await his reivention and, perhaps, the return of a "rejuvenated, rehabilitated and reassimilated" artist.

An excerpt from Christgau's essay follows:

From The Believer

When hip-hop scribes try to explain Slim Shady to the condescending, they generally cite seminal gangstas N.W.A and the Geto Boys. But though these groups were certainly provocateurs—N.W.A greatly overstated their eagerness to break the law, and the Geto Boys trumped them by mixing in slasher-flick shock-horror—their personas, as groups and individual rappers, had one layer. The trickiest thing about them they shared with every other rapper who ever ran afoul of the thought police: a bare-faced willingness to tell a core constituency that their particular rap flava “represented” “reality,” which most in their hoods would scornfully deny, while indignantly informing anyone who accused them of inciting violence and such that their songs weren’t sermons, G-d damn it, but stories, no endorsement implied—as Foucault might put it, representations. These cheap and apparently contradictory claims have their truth quotient, and both work for Eminem. But a more precise precedent for Slim Shady is the Gravediggaz, who stuck their heads out in 1994, when Prince Paul of Stetsasonic/De La Soul and Wu-Tang Clanner RZA—both of whom also generated other fronts, as in the meta-ironically multicultural Handsome Boy Modeling School and the sexist excuse for a man that is Bobby Digital—joined Fruitkwan and Poetic to demonstrate that the ghetto was grislier than any horror movie: “So you wanna die, commit suicide / Dial 1-800-CYANIDE line / Far as life, yo it ain’t worth it / Put a rope around your neck and jerk it.” By the time Shady erupted, former Ultramagnetic MC Kool Keith had gone underground under such aliases as Dr. Dooom and Dr. Octagon, as had former KMD brother Zev Love X, aka MF Doom, Viktor Vaughn, and King Geedorah.

As usual in hip-hop, this formal innovation originated with African-Americans. But unlike the Missy-slims-down, alternative-Andre-3000 persona tweaks with which pop icons pursue longevity, the illing alter ego is an underground move for black rappers, whereas the white rappers who are such embarrassingly big deals in undie-rap are into bad poetry, social protest, and woe-is-me. Slim Shady trumped both alternatives. Extreme though his tales and rhetoric were, there was nothing sci-fi or “horrorcore” about him; he was understood—by his intended audience, not the moralizers he outraged so efficiently—as a projection of Marshall Mathers’s antisocial impulses. But far from self-expression, this triumph of the id was a fabrication—a cross between Cartman of South Park and what biographer Anthony Bozza calls an “avenging angel.” And though I wish I didn’t feel obliged to explain so late in the game, Eminem’s audience got this. There are always nuts who’ll believe what they want to believe, and Moby wasn’t nuts to observe: “I’m thirty-five. I can understand the ambiguity and the irony. Nine- and ten-year-olds cannot.” But Stan’s little brother notwithstanding, neither was Eminem ironic to claim that his music wasn’t intended for nine-year-olds. Twelve-year-olds are different—in these media-saturated times, hip to jokes their elders just don’t get.

Eminem was unusually ambitious for an unknown rapper—contacts were handed not a tape of Infinite but a vinyl pressing. He had a right, though, because he was also unusually gifted—as an artist. Richard Kim’s 2001 description of Eminem as a “brillian[t]… businessman” who “recognizes that pain and negativity, of the white male variety particularly, still sell” credits him with a commercial shrewdness that ranks low among his talents if it exists at all. Slim Shady was devised as a coherent frame for Eminem’s intoxicated wordplay, trebly articulation, pop beats, and irrepressible sense of humor. He targeted not the latecoming adults who thrilled to 8 Mile but, how about that, rap fans—in addition to hip-hop’s core demographic, meaning adolescents young and old, the adepts, aesthetes, hustlers, small-time bizzers, and other cognoscenti who frequent the venues where hip-hop wannabes battle and entertain. When Dr. Dre called Eminem up, it was a bigger break than he’d had the arrogance to angle for.

Too much is made of Eminem’s debt to Dre, whose weed-thugs-n-jeepbeats The Chronic changed hip-hop permanently and for the worse in 1993. Musically, Dre is a decisive but intermittent presence, overseeing just eleven tracks on Eminem’s first three albums and eight more on his fourth and supposedly worst. These include such crucial songs as “Guilty Conscience,” “Role Model,” “Kill You,” “The Real Slim Shady,” “Mosh,” “Rain Man,” the transcendent “My Dad’s Gone Crazy,” and the unprecedented “My Name Is.” But they do not include the equally impressive “97’ Bonnie and Clyde,” “My Fault,” “Cum on Everybody,” “The Way I Am,” “Stan,” “Kim,” “Criminal,” “White America,” “Square Dance,” or “Like Toy Soldiers.” Dre’s greatest gift to Eminem (for which he was soon reimbursed, then repaid with interest when Eminem reeled in 50 Cent) was credibility. For all the scare talk about the white takeover of an African-American genre—beefed up early by the rise of fellow Detroiter Kid Rock, who soon went swamp-rock, and late by his profit-taking enemies at The Source—Eminem’s skin color was initially a negative. The white fans who dominate the hip-hop underground are all too eager to cheer their own, but the white guys who follow mainstream hip-hop are buying blackness. They see rappers as romantic outlaws who know how to handle themselves—and their women—in a hostile world. Only after he’d convinced them did his whiteness became an advantage, as The Eminem Show’s “White America” famously explains: “Let’s do the math / If I was black I would’ve sold half.”

But that was later, when Eminem was servicing the rock audience his rap audience evolved into after “My Name Is” made his name pop. With its addictive Dre loop, catchy-funny chorus, turf-claiming scratches, sotto voce backtalk, and he-fuck-da-police-in-different-voices, Slim Shady’s greatest hit was radio-ready froth as Cartoon Network comedy routine—a joke Lynne Cheney herself could recognize if not enjoy as such. Yet like many jokes, it is antisocial. Its offensive content—“stick nine-inch nails through my eyelids,” “rip Pamela Lee’s tits off,” “stuck my dick in the tip cup,” “Put a bulletproof vest on and shoot myself in the head”—announces its evil intent in the voice of a high-pitched pitch man addressing his target demographic with a simple, damning “Hi kids! Do you like violence?” (In the video, “violence” becomes bizarro-funk nerds “Primus” and Lee’s “tits” become the so much less sadistic “lips”; in an AC/DC-hooked mixtape version, “In a spaceship while they screaming at me ‘Let’s just be friends’” becomes the far nastier, and wittier, “Raping lesbians while they screaming at me ‘Let’s just be friends.’”) Key line: “God sent me [in the video, ‘Dre sent me’] to piss the world off.” Key point: romanticize this, wiggers. Maybe you believe those tales of big gats and bigger dicks; maybe sometimes they’re true. But this isn’t. This is a verbal construct. And the construction worker is just like you.

Cut to “Role Model,” aka “Just Like Me,” because the title, which cites the “Do I look like a motherfucking role model?” of Ice Cube’s N.W.A days, never surfaces in a song whose unobtrusive Dre-beat stays well underneath the lyric and whose chorus goes: “I slap women and eat ’shrooms then OD / Now don’t you wanna grow up and be just like me?” Sexual and drug abuse are barely the beginning, of course—in this song Slim Shady, for it is he, admits or claims uncountable unspeakable acts that, not to worry, no sane fan would imitate. Too bad you can’t expect any mass of fans to prove uniformly sane, but you can’t blame the white boy for that, can you? But wait: “How the fuck can I be white, I don’t even exist.” So before you take him literally, ponder this credo: “I’m not a player just a ill rhyme sayer.”

Robert Christgau
More here

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Langston Hughes ~ Motto

I stay cool, and dig all jive,

That's the way I stay alive.

My motto, as I live and learn, is

Dig and be dug, in return.

Graeme Jamieson ~ State of the Nation: Sock on the Nose

Forgive me for sounding off here, but I almost choked on my French Toast this morning, when old wide-eyes himself claimed Iran was “a nation now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people...”

The irony was lost, perhaps, on Dick Cheney and Dennis Hastert, the President’s sphinx-like pillars of immunity. For me, their very presence was nothing short of menacing, peering out at the servile self-seekers, the earnest and the favor-winners, ready to scowl-out any dissenters to death, not glory, like something out of The NeverEnding Story.

For the most part, it looked like a hokey game of Stand Up Sit Down, led in the main by those two bullyboy backstops, and some strategically-positioned hawks around the room. Only, no particular face was looking anything short of grey (or shady), apart from Dubya, who seemed ripsnortingly mischievous – no doubt knowing it was Brown Nose Day – as those narrowing-eyes flitted from teleprompter to teleprompter, back and forth, to and fro – watch them roll! – to Cards A, B and C ad nauseum. While these realities took hold, the peanutless gallery looked cold and beaten, as the old room "warmed" to that familiarly pounding funk of tedious Texan heating.

I still won’t feel sorry for the American People. They elected him. By and large. I feel sorry for the other village, the one called "Carriage". I almost feel sorry for myself, my people, and their country's arranged marriage. I may feel sorrier for his high school girlfriends too, knowing now, as I do, what it feels like to be fucked, while the hunk in front of me is counting backwards in his head. The only consolation I have, of course, is that he was building up to the word “egregious” and not some pulsing fit of exaltation, in its stead.

As a matter of fact, wouldn’t it have been lovely to see something approaching that? Spare me the stretch, when I suggest that a virtual ejaculation would have made for far more freakin' phantasmagorical headlines than any far-out claims of a three-quarter reduction in oil-seduction (particularly in Algeria, Angola, Canada, Libya, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, the UK, Venezuela, and importantly, the good old Virgin Islands' Zwart Goud Union Fête).

Seriously, where are the great men of our times? Where are our Lincolns, our Luther Kings, the men and women who write these things?

Surely, in Y2W6, we deserve more? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I dug the closing parley, the references to the Big Easy, and even “our greatness is not measured in luxuries,” but surely, surely we were witness to the very purest and polarist opposite of spontaneity, delivered with no real tinge of personality, no urgent tenor of agency, and no tangible statement of sincerity?