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25 July 2011

Amy Winehouse at 27: M.I.A. & magical thinking

Don’t burn that image of her casual, sloppy brilliance into your mind when remembering Amy Winehouse. Instead remember this one:

M.I.A.’s predilection for inserting herself into debates she has no place in is annoying. Her music is not. And here’s her tribute to Amy Winehouse, an unreleased demo called “27,” one in which her two cents actually seems well-deserved. And, one has to believe, heartfelt.

It includes these lyrics:

said your all mouth and no brains
all rock stars go to heaven
you said you’ll be dead at 27 seven

So it is, in a way, a tribute to the 27 club. Though let’s be honest these lyrics from later on in the song ring even truer than that phenomenon:

you blew that money on a mountain of drugs
and staged your self a bed in

Elliott Smith died at age 34. Rick James died at age 56. 27 is a magic age for rock star death if, for no other reason, people have rarely developed enough good judgement by that age to let self-preservation triumph over the acquisition of new experience. If I recall numerous conversations with friends looking to “settle down” with a mate, 27 is also the age floor many people observe when looking for a life partner. (Obligatory shout-out to those enjoying newly legalized gay marriage in New York State yesterday. Beware the pitfalls, friends!)

Anyway, the sooner we begin attributing death to something other than a mystical kind of numerology, the better off we’ll be.

Bye Amy.
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Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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21 April 2010

Antimodernity, M.I.A.’s viral marketing effort, a Wall Street Journal book review & a Spider-Man t-shirt on a kid from Southeast Asia: a short attention span essay on Authenticity aka “I have the pussy, so I make the rules”

We live in an era of blogs, tweets, aggregators, and Fox News. It’s quite easy to exist in an ideological/cultural/sociological/psychographic bubble of your own making–one that entirely reinforces your existing systems of belief. That’s why I start every morning with the Wall Street Journal. If you are on the liberal side of the spectrum like myself; if you cast a skeptical eye at capitalism; well, then Karl Rove’s columns will do a better job of waking you up in the morning than a cup of strong coffee and a smack in the face.

I was quite pleased, then, when I tripped across this most excellent review of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax by one Paul Beston who, if the internet is to be trusted, has affiliations with the conservative American Spectator and the foggier “individual responsibility” mandate of the Manhattan Institute. (In other words, he’s the kind of dude I wouldn’t seek out to add to my reading list.)

Here’s an extended excerpt–about half the review. It crystallizes a lot of the devil’s advocate notions I’ve developed while living here in Brooklyn (aka authenticity ground zero) the past several years, then advances them several yards down the ideological football field:

    …Mr. Potter notes that the search for authenticity often ends up as a status seeking game.

    Authenticity, Mr. Potter writes, is “a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it.” By competing against one another to see who is more authentic, he says, we just become bigger phonies than we were before. The local-food trend illustrates what Mr. Potter calls “conspicuous authenticity,” by which the well-heeled embark on a “perpetual coolhunt,” whether it is for authentic jeans, pristine vacation spots or mud flooring, part of the “natural building” movement. The overarching goal is less to possess the thing itself than to make a claim to refined taste and moral superiority.

    But the authenticity fixation, according to Mr. Potter, goes deeper than consumer choices. It is the culprit, for instance, behind “a debased political culture dominated by negative advertising and character assassination.” Political candidates are always selling their own sincerity, so that any crack in the facade (never too hard to find) launches a hundred attack ads. Taken to its darkest extremes, obsessive authenticity can become deadly, as in the case of Islamic fundamentalism or the hyper-nationalist authenticity of fascism. Less toxic, but more common, is the craving for authenticity among those in the West who see a market economy and consumer culture as sterile and false — inauthentic, in other words — and who defend the world’s most repressive cultures, looking past their brutality to admire their resistance to modernity.

    It is the disillusionment with modernity, Mr. Potter maintains that underlines the authenticity quest. When man was preoccupied with finding food and appeasing capricious gods, he didn’t have the time or inclination to ask whether he had “sold out” for an easy paycheck or failed to align himself with some abstract ideal of the “authentic” life. But then science made the formerly mystical cosmos explainable, and a spread of democratic ideas, in politics and markets alike, made food and freedom more broadly shared. The result was “a new kind of society and, inevitably, a new kind of person,” Mr. Potter writes, one more given to looking within for meaning and not liking what he found there. The individual’s own self-definition filled the gap left by faith and authority.

    Mr. Potter anoints Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century philosopher, as the godfather of the authenticity quest. His famous “state of nature” was a fantasy of authenticity, an idea of man’s existence before society. Mr. Potter argues that Rousseau used the state-of-nature concept as a “regulative ideal” by which to measure how far we had strayed from a lost harmony.

    Rousseau’s “antimodern tunnel vision,” Mr. Potter says, can be found in various modern forms: in the views of the American Transcendentalists of the 19th century and the counterculture heroes of the 1960s, for instance; or in such gloomy social critics as Al Gore and Prince Charles and alarmists like James Howard Kunstler. [Don’t be intimidated, I had to look this one up too.-ed] These antimodern voices, and others, represent what Mr. Potter calls “the authenticity hoax in full throat: a dopey nostalgia for a non-existent past, a one-sided suspicion of the modern world, and a stagnant and reactionary politics masquerading as something personally meaningful and socially progressive.”

In other words, ouch, say the locavores.

I agree, though, the guy has a point. What’s authentic is a Cambodian child wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt because those are the cast offs sent from the west and available to be worn. Image via Osmosus.

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15 January 2010

Wonky spiritual reggae: a short attention span essay about Zomby, fractal geometry, dubstep & some adherents and ancestors I can really get behind

I like new sounds.

I only really like new sounds, however, when they are encased in a structure that propels them — be it a folk music architecture of repetitive and/or shopworn patterns; composed music’s cerebral, considered developments; or a dance music’s tension and release model.

I dislike music that prides itself solely on being free jazz, experimental, avant-garde classical. That’s the equivalent of priding yourself on “being fun at parties.” (What do you do when the party ends and it’s time to do household chores or eat breakfast?) The real problem with music that is insistently & exclusively devoted to extremity, however, is that it’s rarely fun enough to give me a reason to put it on. I don’t know about you but I’m a busy guy. For music to work well, I need to desire it, I need to want to put it on while doing other things: the laundry, for example, or cooking. Folk, composition & dance structures are like spoons full of sugar that make the medicine go down.

I think this ethic of mine as being somewhat au courant, even. It sort of echoes the current vogue for sustainability: Everyone and everything should have multiple uses, expansive comfort zones, real utility. When slaughtering a pig, the bladder should be saved to make sausage, the skin can be turned into cowboy boots. Don’t buy disposable clothes. Don’t take that filmsy, black, plastic shopping bag.

Similarly, I believe the music we advocate should work well on headphones and as ringtones and in a room filled with pleasant company (or, well, okay, unpleasant company, too — I’m cool with that).

You may disagree with the killing of a pig part, but with the rest I think most sane humans would agree.

I disagree with the pursuit of a perpetual avant-garde. Especially when it comes to individual artists seeking eternal progress within the scope of a single career. This is, in part, a Darwinian notion. Unless you’re a creationist you’d never expect an amoeba, in the span of its life, to sprout legs. Nor would you expect a dinosaur to grow wings, or an ape to change the cut of it’s jib, the bulge of its jaw.

Why, then, do some musicians think it’s a realistic life goal to do more than find the natural limits of their individual creativity? to do more than find the secret sound of their unchained heart? to discover anything more than the vibration that they were meant to make?

At best humankind is a bell not the clocktower. You can stand on the shoulders of giants. But after puberty — short the intervention of drugs or science — it’s very hard to grow.

Speaking of which, let’s start talking about the exciting & “mysterious” (aka “trying real hard to be…”) UK electronic musician named Zomby. His music is my favorite kind: a new sound housed in an old kind of building. The critic Simon Reynolds places his music in a genre those taxonomy-obsessed Brits have created called “wonky.” In his least Rock Critic-like moment, he blames the sound on drugs in the same way that baseball Mark McGuire blamed his drug use on the sports culture of the 1990s. Here’s the clip:

    Then again, “wonky” does happen to be street slang for ketamine (see also “wonky donkey,” which plays on the notion that the drug is used by veterinary surgeons as an anaesthetic for horses). And how about the fact that Zomby is the name of the genre’s leading producer, while “zombies” is the most common description of K-heads made by people who deplore the drug’s effect on the vibe in clubs? Just coincidences, maybe. Still, even if it is a myth, like the connection between jungle and crack you heard a lot about in 1993, it’s a revealing one. Rumours are social facts in themselves.

Want to test his thesis for yourself. Well, here is a second jam from our friend Zomby. How does it make you feel?


RE: mystery
Well we are, for example, made to understand that this is a picture of the artist (via photographer Sidney Lo): zomby

Okay then, fair enough. I doubt he gets his morning coffee dressed like that, but there’s no doubt people are as authentically excited by his sound as I am.

As well, I am excited about the larger movement dubbed “dubstep” of which Zomby is part. He’s put most of his records out on the scene’s most noted label Hyperdub. And the “wonky” genre that Reynolds places him in is actually a subgenre. Here’s another track which foregrounds where all the dub talk comes from:


It’s a scene poised for a mainstream breakthrough which, when it happens, will very likely sound something like this just leaked song by M.I.A. which was produced by Rusko:


Reynolds describes the “wonky” sound as taking “dubstep’s rhythmic grid and scrawled woozily all over it with fluorescent marker pens” — though “woozily scrawled flourescent rhythmic grid” sort of gets at the defining characteristic that makes me like a lot of the dubstep I’ve been hearing. To me it sounds something like spiritual contemporary reggae — mixing up the echoing beats & samples of Jamaican music and turning those iterations in on their head in technicolor spirals until what you have sounds less like a lazy day smoking joints than an evening of studying Mandelbrot sets on a dance floor:



Though I am not much for the power of da club I like it.

So, what is it that I’m hearing in this music? Well, recall that the most fascinating thing about fractal geometry is not the multi-colored neon in the computer models which illustrate it, and which have previously decorated Grateful Dead albums and the homes of potheads everywhere. Rather, the most fascinating thing about fractal geometry is its applications for understanding nature. Image of this Romanesco cauliflower via the UMass Boston computer science department website; images of leaves via me:


berlin11 berlin10 berlin13

I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more about Zomby in the US now that Animal Collective have featured him on the cover of their guest edited issue of The Fader.

As for next steps to digging this kind of music? Might I recommend the work of fellow travelers from Los Angeles like Flying Lotus (whose connection is explicit having released material on the Hyperdub label), and J. Dilla (who is more of an ancestor, having passed away in 2006). As befits two African-American residents of Los Angeles, both are more rooted in hip-hop than Britain’s tradition of abstract dance music. But the whole lot of it = excellent.



Mia Doi Todd (remixed by Flying Lotus) “MY ROOM IS WHITE”

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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