Archive for December, 2005

More Music

Friday, December 30th, 2005

Ted’s top 10 “world music” choices reminds me that I forgot all about Mutamassik, Konono No 1, and Balkan Beat Box when I made my own Top Ten list.

Pop Conference

Monday, December 26th, 2005

The Pop Music Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle is one of the best conferences I have ever been to — I’ve gone for three of the four yearly conferences so far. It’s great because you get a whole group of people who are really passionate about talking and thinking about popular music, and because the mixture of academics and music journalists leads to talks and discussions that are far more interesting than you would get from either group alone.

The theme for next year’s conference is: “”Ain’t That a Shame”: Loving Music in the Shadow of Doubt.” (You can read the details of the Call For Papers on the site). Anyway, here’s my 250-word proposal for the conference (I don’t think I will hear whether or not I’ve been accepted until February or so):

What Will the Neighbors Say?: Girls Aloud, the Blogosphere, and Me

My most embarrassing musical enthusiasm is undoubtedly my passion for Girls Aloud. This is not just because the Girls embody “sexy” female stereotypes so tiredly stereotypical that it’s hard to imagine anyone over the age of 12 lusting after or identifying with them; nor even because the group was created on a reality TV show so crass as to make American Idol seem positively authentic in comparison. But also because Girls Aloud, although a bit hit in the UK, have not been marketed or released in the US, which means that my American fan appreciation of them is entirely mediated through the Web. I have little real sense of the cultural and media context in which Girls Aloud operate. While I think their music is great on purely pop-formalist grounds, I remain unable to place them as cultural icons. Girls Aloud are sufficiently bizarre and extreme, at least in the displaced way I apprehend them, that they seem not to take one obvious side in the old pop vs. authenticity debate, but to displace the terms of dispute altogether. I remain suspended between the various bloggers’ estimations of them I have read, ranging from Tim of The Wrong Side of Capitalism, who asserts that “Girls Aloud create a genuine crack in bourgeois ideology,” to Simon Reynolds in his blissblog, who sneers that “even their most passionate and unstintingly analytical fans cannot distinguish between the girls’ voices on record (although some seem to be able to tell them apart okay as fantasy fuckmates).” My talk is an attempt to work through these confusions.

Music Top Ten

Saturday, December 24th, 2005

So here’s my top ten albums list for 2005. Usual caveats apply (there are lots of things I haven’t heard that I well might like if I did; I can’t always remember if something came out this past year or earlier; I might well feel differently tomorrow than I do today; etc.).

  1. M.I.A., Arular. After all the controversy, still the best beats of the year.
  2. Kevin Blechdom, Eat My Heart Out, which I just wrote about yesterday.
  3. Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out. Unearthly.
  4. Missy Elliott, The Cookbook. Missy in her commercially-calculated, humdrum, unambitious middling range (as I said here) is still superior to most rappers at their best.
  5. R. Kelly, Trapped in the Closet 1-12. I know the songs weren’t released together as an album — though they were as a DVD — but this musically minimal melodrama is so ridiculously over-the-top and go-for-broke crazy, how can I not love it?
  6. Lady Sovereign, Vertically Challenged. I adore the S-O-V and her demented, tough, and smart-alecky ways. So I have to list this EP, even though the versions of the songs, in this her first American release, are inferior to the UK versions I originally downloaded as mp3s (not to mention that some of her best stuff, like “Sad-Ass Strippah,” probably the most brilliant and vicious diss ever recorded, is not included here).
  7. Fannypack, See You Next Thursday. I can’t understand why this group isn’t more popular. I find their Miami-bass-goes-Brooklyn (with a touch of ESG down from the Bronx) synthesized music, and their sassy, cartoonish, jail-bait girl vocalists, irresistible.
  8. Vex’d, Degenerate. It’s strange channeling these new London sounds — grime and dubstep, though I know there are also other names — entirely through the blogosphere, without access to the scene in any more direct way. In any case, I find these doom-laden instrumentals quite haunting. (Doom-laden isn’t quite the right word, since “doom” implies finality, but the sense that there could be an end is precisely what this dark music denies us).
  9. Four Tet, Everything Ecstatic. Quite different in feel from his previous album — this one is more propulsive, less (seemingly) “organic” — but none of the other electronic-music-without-vocals that I’ve heard this year is anywhere near as metamorphic and light- and open-sounding (not to use the obvious cue of the title and say, ecstatic).
  10. Miranda Lambert, Kerosene. I don’t listen much to country, and basically I don’t get country at all, but nonetheless I find a lot of this oddly compelling.

Eat My Heart Out

Saturday, December 24th, 2005

I’ve been listening a lot to — OK, I’ve developed a minor obsession with — Kevin Blechdom‘s album Eat My Heart Out (iTunes) (you can also buy un-DRMed mp3s of the album from Bleep).

The songs in Eat My Heart Out seem to tell the story of an unhappy love affair: they are about being in love, trying to get over a disappointed love, being dumped and not being able to stand it, hating the person you love because he dumped you, wanting revenge, pleading to be taken back, resolving to forget him and get on with your life, not being able to forget him and get on with your life, reveling in abjection, rejecting abjection and finding strength in yourself, realizing that he wasn’t worthy of you, and so on, and so on — only in no particular narrative order. There are 19 songs in 39 minutes; individual songs range in length from 0:19 to 3:19. It feels like they just come pouring out, breathlessly, one after another, in manic, hysterical confusion. Most of the songs are fast, though a few are slow; some are harshly dissonant, but most of them sound harmonically and melodically familiar, as if turns of melody everybody knows, cliches of pop music, in great variety, have come pouring out, only somewhat distorted, and also carnivalesque, as if they had been filtered through an alien consciousness that didn’t quite “get” human emotions. Or perhaps a better description would be that it’s like children’s music from Hell, pounding away on a toy piano (though I think the instrumentation is actually all or mostly electronic) — but anyway, the music is perversely upbeat and cheerful even as it is recounting nightmares, there are these simple little bouncy, dancelike refrains cycling over and over, layer over layer, except that often the music changes tack radically in mid-song. There’s also something a bit childlike, or perhaps better naive, about Kevin’s voice, I mean naive in the way she modulates from one passion to another without any sort of transition or attempt at plausibility in the shifts, sort of like she’s singing an opera (or a movie soundtrack) whose arias are all melodramatic, and out of proportion with the feelings they recount, with heartfelt choruses and everything, but not logically connected in any way. One moment she’s sounds like she’s hyperventilating, screaming/crying, “I love you from the heart, so fuck you!!”; the next she sounds like she is gleefully reciting some twisted nursery rhyme. The effect is that of something almost naked in its intensity, and yet something totally theatrical and made up, at the same time; crediting the album with either sincerity or irony — or trying to distinguish between the two — would seem to be utterly beside the point. The rush from one song, one mood, to the next, is so frantic, and so unmediated, that it is almost as if all the attitudes, all the affects, all the possibilities, all the stages of a failed relationship, somehow coexisted simultaneously. I’ve often written about how the theatricality of melodrama makes emotions seem “real” precisely because they are distanced by being placed “in quotation marks.” I don’t quite know how to formulate this, but Eat My Heart Out seems to me like the exact inverse of melodrama, as if all its emotions seem formally patterned and aesthetically distanced, a detached and cynical game of some sort, precisely because they are so raw and immediate at the same time. If that makes any sense at all? This music is doing very strange things to my head, and I can’t stop listening to it.

Jameson on science fiction

Thursday, December 15th, 2005

My review of Fredric Jameson’s new book, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, is finally in print (and online here) in The Stranger.

More Alex Cox

Tuesday, December 13th, 2005

Alex Cox‘s most recently completed film is I’m a Juvenile Delinquent — Jail Me!, a short (about 40 minutes) made for the BBC, on which it was shown, amazingly, as a children’s show. The DVD is available for purchase direct from Cox’s website.

I’m a Juvenile Delinquent — Jail Me! is a sardonic little parable about the rise and fall of a “reality show” in which a bunch of juveniles commit crimes (vandalism, robbery, etc) on camera. We move outward from the show itself, to the people creating the show, to “on-the-street” interviews with viewers, to the larger forces (media, police, government, etc.) that determine the show’s success and faillure. The show’s hosts/presenters/producers are a pair of obnoxious frat-boy types (or whatever the British equivalent is); they exploit the kids featured in the program, but get into trouble themselves over questions of the show’s “morality,” until they come up with the brilliant, “competitive” solution of a final episode in which four of the show’s five juvenile delinquents are sent to jail, while the fifth one gets a shot at pop stardom. And it spirals out from there, to involve the entire British pomp-and-circumstance class structure, with rapacious American corporations waiting in the wings.

What’s really brilliant about I’m a Juvenile Delinquent — Jail Me! is the way that the entire film (and not just the show-within-the-film) is shot in a trash-TV exploitative style, with lots of closeups, wobbly cameras, quick transitions, cheapo digital effects, bits from blurry surveillance footage, etc. There is no distinction between the “reality show” itself and the surrounding footage narrating its history. So we get the sense of how the entire society has become televisualized. Video is more real than anything else; it is conterminous with all of social space. And the critique of television — at one point there is even a scene of (the real) George Galloway denouncing the (fictional) reality show — is itself folded back into television. There is no moral high ground, and there is no Outside. A grim conclusion, but an all too accurate one.

Three Businessmen

Saturday, December 10th, 2005

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Alex Cox is one of the best and most interesting — and also one of the most underappreciated and underrated — film directors currently working. I just saw his 1998 film Three Businessmen, which was quite wonderful (even if not quite reaching the sublime heights of Revengers Tragedy).

Three Businessmen is about two businessmen — a loud and vulgar, obnoxiously extroverted American (Miguel Sandoval) and a dour, depressive, introverted Brit (played by Cox himself) — who wander through (initially) Liverpool one night, looking for (and never quite finding) a meal. (The third businessman doesn’t show up until nearly the end). The movie mostly consists of their conversation (banter, argument, pontification, etc.) on subjects ranging from the virtues of different drinks, to the loyalty of dogs, to how the new electronic media are changing commerce. The cinematography is almost entirely long shots — though occasionally the camera tracks in towards the protagonists. The effect is mostly comic and absurdist, but in an extremely dry, distanced, and understated way. Subtle incongruities abound. At one early point, the protagonists are wandering through what is evidently a depressed, broken-down, impoverished neighborhood, when they suddenly stumble upon a large and brightly-lit Mercedes showroom. They go to a bar and ask about this. The woman behind the bar tells them that it’s for drug dealers. But they prefer to believe a fellow drinker who assures them that the city is being revitalized, thanks to miles and miles of fiber-optic cable, and the Mercedes showroom is due to the new business activity pouring in. As they continue to wander, things become stranger: every time our protagonists take public transportation (a bus, a subway, a ferry, a taxi, etc) they find themselves in a different world city (Rotterdam, Tokyo, Hong Kong, etc). Watching the film, it took me a while to realize how something was amiss (i.e. there couldn’t be that large a Japanese restaurant district in Liverpool…).

The film could be seen as an exploration of opposed, American vs. British, character types: a deconstruction of the cliches of both nationalities. But in addition, our protagonists — not corporate management types, but small, independent businessmen (both currently art dealers, but previously involved in real estate and other ventures) — are in fact wandering through the “space of flows” of postmodern, transnational finance capital: something that neither they, nor we the viewers, are entirely able to grasp or understand — it’s a space, as Fredric Jameson wrote, that can’t be “represented” in conventional ways, and needs a new form of “cognitive mapping.” Except that, at the very end of the movie — no, I won’t give this largely plotless film’s one plot twist away. I’ll just say that the film starts with the grandiose, faux-classical architecture of central Liverpool, a heritage from the 19th century, when Britain ruled the world, and the city was one of the world’s major ports and industrial centers — in sharp contrast to its present depressed squalor; and it ends in the deserts of Mexico, with a vague hope of redemption from the infernal cycles of capital…

Homecoming

Sunday, December 4th, 2005

Joe Dante’s Homecoming, shown tonight on Showtime as part of their current Masters of Horror series, is a great zombie B-movie, and a wonderful little bit of agitprop about the Iraq War. When a Cindy Sheehan-like mother of a soldier dead in the War asks what her son died for, a sanctimonious White House speechwriter responds that if he had one wish, it would be that her son could come back to tell her of the importance of the cause for which he gave his life. And the speechwriter gets his wish: all the soldiers dead in the war awaken as zombies… only they’ve come back, not to bless the President’s policies, but to vote him out of office. And though all the dead soldiers want is to express their opinions through the ballot box, the situation escalates after the President wins re-election by fixing the results in Ohio and Florida…

There’s not that much, really, to say about the movie. Homecoming doesn’t go for subtlety. It is tight, direct, on the mark, and well focused in all its details. There are some good zombie scenes, and I especially enjoyed the satirical sequences involving sleazy characters who are obvious analogues of Karl Rove and Ann Coulter. It’s great that a movie like this was able to get on the air (albeit only on premium cable). It’s an emotionally satisfying revenge fantasy, a neat reversal of the propaganda that we are usually fed about the war.