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3 January 2011

Michael Jackson vs. Kanye West vs. Quincy Jones: a short attention span essay on pop history, real history & their relation to “blood & treasure”

I. THE BASICS

So you’ve heard Kanye West talking shit like he’s the next Michael Jackson, no? If not try this one on for size: “As far as rapping goes, how can I say this? Jordan, Michael Jackson – it’s what I do.”

His attempts to insert himself in a royal lineage are subtle, no?

Well, actually no, he’s not being subtle at all. One of the primary tenants in Kanye’s five-point plan to achieve greatness is his understanding that subtlety has no place in pop.

Here’s why.

1. Big H history is a matter of large forces — war, disaster, fortunes gained & lost. It is not determined by the people (as one of 2010’s dead would have us believe); rather it is determined by the fate of a nation’s “blood & treasure,” that poetic dyad which legacy-minded presidents and statesmen use to make war sound noble & necessary. It is a game of unimaginable resources; of living and dying; of a cast of thousands.

2. Pop history, by contrast, is a fickle bitch. It is usually a matter of memories (feeble ones incapacitated by the pop cult triad of sex & drugs & rock’n’roll); it is a matter of insistence via memoirs which depict all the fair weather friendships & alliances made in a pop art career; it is a matter of shadowy aesthetic influences cast forward arbitrarily a generation or two past their moment of initial fashionability. It’s a story of whispers, rumors and cross-generational games of telephone. Pop history may not be determined by the people, but it’s certainly chronicled in outlets like People (which, come to think of it, sorta does a guy like historian Howard Zinn proud).

At their best, pop stars learn a way to make their pop historicizing meld into real history. Read more »

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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25 November 2010

Thxgiving, 3 portraits, pointless anecdote


Five years ago was a crazy time. Lots of artists I knew on the cusp of this and that. Above is one of the boys, below is ma’ boy, and after the jump is the boy — all of them in photos from half a decade ago, long before anyone cared.

The reason they do it is not for thanks. It’s for something else…

And what I’m here to do now is say thanks, for the opportunity to follow a creative path in life. Please use this opportunity to do the same, k?

I think of today, Thanksgiving, as the only real American holiday. When I was a kid of 5 and 10 years old, the crew I rolled with — if you’d call it that — was heterodox to the point of Little Rascals-like absurdity, well, a sort of dark absurdity. There was an Italian kid who got beat by his father; a Sikh Indian kid, turban and all; another white ethnic kid of uncertain derivation whose dad worked on an assembly line and blew his money gambling in Atlantic City; and an African-American Jahovah’s Witness kid named Clifton.

As I recall, even Clifton got to celebrate Thanksgiving. (Halloween & birthdays he sat out.) And there’s something very wonderful about that.
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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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Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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2 August 2010

Kanye West on the underground, great pain & Renaissance painting

Say what you will about Kanye being a douchebag occasionally.

…but he also gives great Twit. And he is, right here, right now, onto some next level shit.

    “Great art comes from pain”

True enough.

    “I forget the word but there’s people throughout history that there responsibility is to be conveyors of truth onto next generations — there’s a word for that type of person — and I feel like I’m type of person that needs to carry on the truth that needs to tell the story not his story, to tell the story. It’s like Raphael painting Jesus’s wife knowing that the pope would have his head.”

Okay now.

    “It takes so much for a me or an Eminem or you know, to come back and embrace and say, you know what, but we have to deliver this on a major level to make a difference. It’s just such a shame that all your favorite artists are so underground. It’s like not cool for no one to hear shit anymore. And that’s the hipster justification of failure.”

Yes yes yes!

More importantly he is wearing some very nice suits. And I hear his forthcoming album is going to have some trippy collaborators from “the underground” which will blow our minds.

Follow him now.
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21 January 2010

Aziz Ansari vs. Kanye West

The difference between comedians & musicians is a matter of self-esteem. I’m not sure who has more, and who has less.

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