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20 May 2011

The eternal quest for the perfect sound, pt. 2

Wise men came bearing strange gifts dressed in rags & speaking in tongues.

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29 November 2010

2010: The year freak-folk went electric?

The end of the equation comes after the jump.

Sufjan Stevens’ “Too Much”

+

Iron & Wine’s “Walking Far From Home”

=

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10 November 2010

Brief thought on political art: Houellebecq, Bob Dylan, Kaiser Permanente, Shepard Fairey and the possibility of making a difference

I won’t pretend like I trust or respect political art. I think it’s inherrently suspect. Which is not to say that art cannot have a powerful galvanizing effect on politics, or that it cannot be great art.

My problem with political art is not qualitative; it’s that political art is destined to become logically incoherent in the long run.

Political situations are fixed in time; history only sort of repeats itself. Art, by contrast, should be eternal; music lasts even as the interpretations of a given piece of music change and shift; in fact, I’d argue music’s meaning should be allowed to shift over time. Viz:

Frankly, the use of the archtypical protest song — Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin‘” — in an advertisement for insurance company Kaiser Permanente does offend my sense of propriety in a fairly intense way. But the question of whether it truly ruins or modifies the meaning and significance of the song is much more complicated. Dylan’s position within & belief in the protest movement of the 1960s was at least partially opportunistic; the most important aspect of his participation in the protest movement was that it helped align his art with the interests and experiences of his generation; and, circa the 21st century, what is more aligned with the interests of his generation than health insurance?

In any case, this brings me back to Michel Houellebecq who I was quoting here just the other day. I’ll make no great claims about his art. I’ve only read a couple of his novels; I was intrigued by them but I can’t say they struck a particularly deep chord in terms of their poetry or artistic resonance. But the thematic resonance = wow. This guy has thought deeply about the ailments of our age and, in many ways, he’s got our number.

Does he understand the joys of our age? I’m less certain of that… Anyhoo, without further adieu (that’s French!), here’s another great passage from his interview with The Paris Review.

    Interviewer: What is your concept of the possibility of love between a man and a woman?

    Houellebecq: I’d say that the question whether love still exists plays the same role in my novels as the question of God’s existence in Dostoyevsky.

    Interviewer: Love may no longer exist?

    Houellebecq: That’s the question of the moment.

    Interviewer: And what caused its disappearance?

    Houellebecq: The materialist idea that we are alone, we live alone and we die alone. That’s not very compatible with love.

    Interviewer: Your last novel, The Possibility of an Island, ends in a desolate world populated by solitary clones. What made you imagine this grim future in which humans are cloned before they reach middle age?

    Houellebecq: I am persuaded that feminism is not at the root of political correctness. The actual source is much nastier and dares not speak its name, which is simply hatred for old people. The question of domination between mean and women is relatively secondary — important but still secondary — compared to what I tried to capture in this novel, which is that we are now trapped in a world of kids. Old kids. The disappearance of patrimonial transmission means that an old guy today is just a useless ruin. The thing we value most of all is youth, which means that life automatically becomes depressing, because life consists, on the whole, of getting old.

(Image at the top of this post via Kotaku. It’s by Shepard Fairey. It’s for a video game called Civilization Revolution.)

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12 October 2010

Video art post-Gaga: Short attention span snippets on Kanye, Bjork, Bob Dylan, NIN & ICP

It used to be easy to understand the difference between Pop Music and Art Music. Pop Music was awesome (but kind of slight) and Art Music was awesome (but kind of tedious).

No longer.

Since the emergence of Lady Gaga and her ilk, it’s become harder and harder to determine the line between Art & Pop, between high culture and low culture and, yes, even between live and Memorex. The latest instance?

Well, okay, it’s not strictly true that Kanye and Gaga have changed the world as we know it. (Though yes when I read Kanye’s Twitter feed I feel he consistently threatens to reverse the polarity of the cosmos. In a good way.)

Artful pop stars appeared long before Gaga and Kanye came along. The popwerks of Bjork, Nine Inch Nails and Bob Dylan, to cite three examples, were powerfully intertwined with the larger world of the Arts — be they ripping off the work of “real” artists like Joel Peter-Witkin

NIN’s “Closer” by Mark Romanek

Or providing a forum for the emergence of other fellow creators…

Bjork’s “Triumph of a Heart” by Spike Jonze

Bjork’s “All is Full of Love” by Chris Cunningham

Bjork’s “Wanderlust” by Encyclopedia Pictura

Or, in the case of Bob Dylan, well, just allowing someone to be Bob Dylan…

Gaga, however, is something new. She’s too popular to be an arty favorite; she’s too arty to be a popular favorite in the traditional sense of the word. One part Madonna, one part Matthew Barney, all Gagamtkunstwerk, she doesn’t seem to care that, by definition, someone as popular as she is, is actually allowed to embrace stupidity more than she does. It’s always been the way of popular musicians to become idiots as they became really, truly popular. In fact, we’ve come to think of it as something of a God Given Right. Our most famous pop musicians are simply expected to become paranoid weirdos.

So why is it that Lady Gaga only seems to get sharper?

Part of it, I think, is that her music is, at best, sort of extraneous. At worst, my evaluation is that it’s is so clearly inferior to her co-branding & presentation that I wonder if & hope that she’ll transcend the need to make music at all. The sounds she makes (literally) are insignificant compared to the sound she makes (metaphorically).

It’s this over/under, best/worst evaluation of her which makes her so interesting. Pop musicians in the 20th century often struggled with the fact that they were popular for things other than their music. This conundrum became increasingly more fraught with the rise of music video. Remember when it was said that the video star would kill the radio star?

In other words, the visual would defeat the aural! Earaches would be masked by eye candy! This was cause for electrified, robot-age anxiety!

Now with Gaga, pop stars can revel in what they always wanted to be. Which is simply famous. Full stop. And guess what, dudes, there are many other “artists” crowding in to achieve the distinction of capturing this particular brass ring — achieving the nadir-slash-apotheosis of video stardom:

But, really, is this a race to the bottom? Or are we just redefining which particular ceiling this most popular of arts is trying to push against? Are we shifting from a world of Popular Music vs. Art Music competing in the marketplace, to Art and Pop joining as one to create a new kind of marketplace for Culture. No art. No pop.

One more video after the jump. To end things on a positive note…
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17 May 2010

Sam Lipsyte’s America. ALSO, how Woody Allen, Bob Dylan & LCD Soundsystem approach American decadence with a similar sense of humor.


Image of Sam Lipsyte with son via Flickr.

I’ve been a huge fan of New York novelist Sam Lipsyte since reading his pretty much unimpeachable 2004 novel Homeland. His new novel, The Ask, is that rare bit of fiction whose publication I anticipated eagerly.

His work is laugh-out-loud funny — rare for the pinched world of literary fiction — but also on the pulsebeat of culture. His punchlines are not only humor for the sake of humor; they are the horrified, cackling, self-conscious crack-up of an insightful artist who understands that laughter is, perhaps, the best reaction an intelligent citizen can have in the face of our culture’s decadent decline. Viz Woody Allen’s New York films of the 1970s, Bob Dylan’s increasingly ridiculous culture-bombing gambits, and whatever it is that LCD Soundsystem are doing these days. Some illustrations, below:

Woody Allen’s coke scene in Annie Hall

Bob Dylan’s Victoria’s Secret advert

LCD Soundsystem’s “Drunk Girls” video by Spike Jonze

Unfortunately I don’t think Lipsyte’s new book coheres in the same way as Homeland did. The Ask lacks both a convincing plot and the devastatingly clever literary conceit that elevated that book. (Homeland took the form of inappropriate, intimate letters to a high school alumni newsletter, 20 years after graduation.) And, finally, this new book’s conclusions are depressing in a way that seemed more exhausted than insightful. It’s as if Lipsyte was so tired of living with these characters he preferred they collapse at the end of the book rather than come upon some germ of real truth or real meaning.

That said, I never stopped laughing and you will be hard pressed to find new piece of fiction that better investigates matters that actually reflect and refract what’s going on in our culture today. Read more »

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