I don’t understand Ke$ha. The excellent Steve Hely tells me on twitter that she received a near-perfect score on her SATs. And from this we derive that there is perhaps more to her fame than the NPR Culturetopia theory that “Tik Tok” is popular because it sounds enough like songs you actually like. Something more than the aura of popularity must be at play here. Perhaps some sort of diabolical plot to take over the world? As the WaPo wrote:

Shtick always has a limited shelf life, but a singer shrewd enough to rankle so many eardrums while tickling so many more doesn’t seem capable of vanishing quickly. We may find Ke$ha passed out in America’s front yard for many mornings to come.

But if such a diabolical plot is afoot (and it seems far more likely than Senator James Inhofe’s theory that Global Warming is a vast conspiracy perpetrated by the UN and IPCC, aided and abetted by NOAA, NASA, the US Military and the Oil Companies), there has to be a reason. Thankfully, she’s grown markedly more political these last few days, renewing the global push for an ethos of “keeping it real.”

Yes, it seems that she’s decided to speak out against her one-time friend Britney Spears, SLAMMING her for lip synching last year in Australia (this makes her about as punctual as Yesterday’s Salad), saying “When I am singing, I may sound s–t sometimes, but at least you’ll know I’m singing.”

(This is actually a pretty good burn.)

But what’s really the issue here is corruption. Ke$ha’s call is just like those of the tea party. She’s another person furious at the establishment, angry that they’ve gotten there by claiming to be something other than who they are. It’s a call for values. Incoherent and at times unlistenable, it’s classic paranoid style. Or something.

Return of the Repressed

February 19, 2010

I was really into Hi-Fi audio in high school. I never had enough money to build a system of my own (though I did invest in a pretty decent Dolby Digital 5.1 system for DVDs), but I always romanticized building a Hi-Fi and looked into component parts. Then I got an iPod and I learned to stop worrying about quality of the recordings. Who needs an album to sound good when you can so easily switch to the next?

Then a few weeks ago I bought a record player. I haven’t had one in over a decade and I’d forgotten that they really are a more inviting way to listen to music. I’d wanted one the last few years, yet somehow never got around to it, but a little bit of extra cash inspired me (I can still hear president Bush telling me to go out and spend to save America). I love it. Even playing LPs through my computer with not-so-good speakers was an improvement over mp3s of the same songs.

And just like that, I started to rediscover my inner audiophile and started pouring over blogs and magazines trying to learn about components. I inhaled pages and pages worth of “The Audiophiliac” and stereophile features. I developed a bad case of commodity fetishism and knew that I would have to buy something reasonable now to stem the chances of a real malady.

For purposes of convenience, I was going to incorporate a computer into whatever system I bought. Would I need a DAC? These didn’t even exist the last time I cared about audio. I started having dreams about the miniwatt tube amplifier. It’s insanely low-priced and small enough for my space. I’d need to get some decent speakers to go with it, but given the inherent limitations of the amp, I wasn’t going to need something so extravagant; just some decent bookshelf speakers.

But the more I read, the more I started to want products I didn’t think that I needed, like Sony’s new $100 HD radio. The price is right, but the only radio I really listen to is Pandora. Sure, if I bought the tube amp I might listen to the HD radio, but that’s still a $100 guess. No, I have to think about what I do right now. And the best solution was to spend a reasonable amount of money (200) on a reasonable product: the Audioengine a2 powered bookshelf speakers. After doing research, it seemed like the worst case scenario would be a great set of computer speakers. I was comfortable with that.

Thankfully, we aren’t talking about worst case scenarios. The speakers are small and beautifully designed, and the audio sounds incredibly smooth. I bought the vinyl of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and listened to it over the RCA jacks, bypassing the computer altogether, and was shocked at the difference. There’s a luxurious quality to Jeff Mangum’s voice that I’d never heard on the CD or mp3. There’s a palpable emotion to his singing that’s reflected in any format, but listening to an LP through good speakers let me into some of the delicacy and, yes, heightened the spirituality. Distortion took on a musical quality, and I started to recognize so much moreĀ  instrumentality in the ethereal background noise. I was hearing something new.

Perversely, it makes me want a new tube amplifier even more. Mal du phonograph indeed. I’ll let you know as soon as I get one.

Caught for the weekend in the bemused city of Washington DC, I found myself lamenting the real lack of hipsters in this over the top, 9-5, working ethic community. This lack occasioned me to question the long standing lament among Columbia University types and other yuppie inhabitants or rather hipster loathing hipsters against this edgy population and may have inspired me to become an ethnographer, chasing down this rare population on the outskirts of civilization, those brave pioneers of gentrification.

Why would DC benefit from a formidable hipster population? The answers are obvious. Firstly, there is a dramatic ebb and flow in the street traffic that parallels those who have jobs. For example, at 1:00 on a Friday I was the only one out jogging (Although we know hipsters do not jog, it is often the case that hipster associates, or more correctly, prey, tend to jog, see theburg.com). Were it the case that hipsters inhabited this city, I would doubtless not be alone. Washington DC also has a formidable racial barrier, as neighborhoods swing quickly from one extreme to another. Hipsters in their search for authenticity would serve to bridge the gap between particular communities and would doubtless spur local business in areas that are not dominated by the neo-fascist array of Starbucks-Caribou Coffee-Starbucks. Finally, there is an implicit lack of bars in DC, and those that there are tend to be occupied by unironic consumers of sports culture or Goths or suits. While bars tailored to specific communities are an essential function of city life, condescension and secret authentic cool places that no one else really knows anything about are prerequisites for urban life as it was meant to be led (see Cicero Ad Fam 82.5 where he talks about a new Cretan cookshop that he discovered before Crassus). Our nation must have a capital which can meet this need.

Presidents Then and Now

March 19, 2008

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Barack Obama minister controversy. There are multiple issues here that deserve consideration: 1) can a person belong to a religious community without agreeing with everything the spiritual leader says; 2) should we be held accountable for the views of our leaders; 3) do personal relationships transcend ideology? None of these will be treated here. In fact, the whole premise of the controversy is false; as we all know, Barack Obama is a crypto-muslim. Therefore the views of “his” Christian pastor are meaningless. It’s all an act.

But lost amidst the transformation of the presidential circus from a hootenanny to a hullabaloo is the release of a new The Presidents of the United States of America album. As in 1996, The Presidents decided to have their new album coincide with the US elections. That album, II is an excellent album with an incredible A-Side and brilliantly nonsensical lyrics. The greatest example of this is “Twig” by Chris Ballew and Beck, a perfect storm of lyrical daff (old English root, cf “daffy”). For example:

“You paint a monkey gold, let him loose downtown
You start him with a smile, he’ll come back with a frown”

While I’m not really sure what the lines are supposed to mean in a grand sense, they have an inner narrative logic that makes them work. Why should a monkey be satisfied in gold paint? This idea of inner-narrativity was later perfected by the President’s frontman Chris Ballew in his solo project “The Giraffes.” From, “Ghost of a Bad Friend”:

Check out that bunny with the sick fat tumor
Busy ducking punches and dodgin dirty rumors
Evening magazine shows up at his hole
And catches that bunny with the money that he stole
Can’t find an explanation for the way
He got rich as a rabbit in a day

Here Ballew exploits his inner-narrativity to collapse it. The verse begins in an animal world, a familiar motif in Ballew’s lyrics. As in a fable, the Bunny is endowed with certain human characteristics. It lives in a world where Evening Magazines will show up at his hole. But as soon as the world is constructed, Ballew destablizes it. The rabbit “can’t find an explanation for the way/He got rich as a rabbit in a day.” He’s still just a rabbit, no matter how personified he may be, and rabbits can’t get rich that fast. This, by the way, is similar to one of my favourite lyrical techniques: literalizing metaphors. As in this great Destroyer line, “Tried to summon up the spirits/live on Face the Nation/But the Port Authority’s just taxed incantations”

All this said, the new Presidents of the United States of America album, “These are the Good Times People,” is borderline terrible. I should have known from the over-emphatic nature of the title that these would not, in fact, be good times. I just never expected them to be so bad. Ballew’s still singing songs about animals, but now the songs are only about animals. No lyrical or musical complexity. The last album saw the Presidents successfully move in the direction of a standard, “non-gimmicky” rock group with even its most quirky song, “Some Postman,” being incredibly rational, only with a more interesting premise. The album also showed the band’s improving ability to craft narrative as in, “Shreds of Boa.” “These are the Good Times People” is a regression from the last album, the bands worst—worse than “Pure Frosting” which wasn’t even a real album—and, ironically, in their blatant disregard for the reality of the situation, their failures now mirror those of our current President. I only hope the band does some honest soul searching, rather than removing all dissidents from office and minimizing their voices.

I had been planning on penning a piece about the new Presidents of the United States of America album before real-life interrupted. A friend of mine died tragically today. All deaths are tragedies, but this one was made all the worse for its randomness. An accident. A truck. He was one of the most welcoming people I’d ever met, and one of the smartest. Grad school is a place that encourages people to isolate themselves and to stay away from others. But that wasn’t my friend. We never talked about a lot of things even though we talked about a lot. I found out tonight that he used to write for The Forward but he never talked about it with me, nor did I ever talk to him about my various writings, no matter how insignificant they might have been, even though I always dreamed of inviting him to contribute to the Salad or to our as yet unprinted print companion, Fortnightly Salad. He was a man of diverse interests, and in tribute I’d like to mention two of them, two poets: Saul Tchernichovsky and They Might Be Giants.

Tchernichovsky was a man of the Hebrew renaissance. In my mind, Tchernichovsky, even more than Bialik, was the Hebrew renaissance. He translated the classics into Hebrew, be they from English (Longfellow) or from Greek (the Iliad). He made everything into Hebrew culture, and made world culture a part of the Hebrew rebirth. He even tried to turn the country around him into Hebrew culture, writing such “Canaanite poems” as “My Astarte.” My friend wrote his thesis about Tchernichovsky and his research cuts infinitely deeper than my curt introductory remarks. For me Tchernichovsky is a street more than a poet, an intersection with Bialik and Allenby, and a place of overpriced cafes. Somehow his words became history, became reality, an unbelievable feat.

For a different view on history, consider They Might Be Giant’s “Purple Toupee.” The song is a brilliant reworking of twentieth-century history, a comic inversion of the inversions in society. For me, the song is incapsulated by the brilliant line, “I shouted out, free the Expo 67!” One 60’s event so quickly turned into another. But for my friend the best line was, “Now I’m very big, I’m a big important man.” I never figured out why. Was it the double assertion? The posturing? Or just the great vocal inflections? I’ll never know, but I’ll always wonder.

It’s been well documented that road movies are fundamentally about the social impermanence of their protagonists. In that regards, Into the Wild doesn’t offer anything resembling a corrective, but a simple addition: our protagonist isn’t even socially impermanent, he’s socially intolerant. While this isn’t necessarily the movie’s problem per se, (it’s more a problem of mimetic verisimilitude) it’s certainly problematic for the movie. The protagonist is completely unrelatable in his extremism. I don’t think there’s a single american male who doesn’t have some sense of wanderlust. The idea of travel is a mythic part of our American culture; it’s our manifest destiny. In Into the Wild, the protagonist’s quest for the wild is beyond finding himself within our society (experiencing the road and various types of peoplehood), it’s about completely escaping human society. Our protagonist’s belief that his selfhood is to be found in complete isolation is the movie’s biggest detriment. Not only is his supposition wrong, it makes for a frustrating movie.

The protagonist, ably played by Emile Hirsch, is a young radical, coc9af1363ada08faebaedf010_aa240_l.jpgmpletely disillusioned with the falsehoods of society. Or, SOCIETY! as it’s expressed in the movie’s most memorable scene. Hirsch’s McCandless is a bright young Emory graduate. From what we know, he is an A student with a proclivity towards late 80s social-conscious-intellectual trends (legal implications of Nelson Mandela, colonialism in Africa, et. al). He’s also incredibly well-versed in American literature, and he frequently intersperses his dialogue with quotes from his favorite authors. Not surprisingly, they include Leo Tolstoy, Jack London, and Henry David Thoreau. And therein lies the rub: as we all know, Thoreau was a cheat [sic]. He sent his laundry home to his mother, and he frequently entertained company at Walden. Our protagonist should have known that he would need contact with others and that he couldn’t rely solely on his devices. Also, as an educated young man, he should have learned that man is a social animal. Relating to the other is in our blood, even if you don’t buy into the lord-bondsman dialectic.

Oddly, in removing society from the equation Into the Wild loses the sense of travelogue. Places become meaningless. Only the destination, Alaska, has any real meaning for McCandless; everything else is prelude. This is the antithesis of Kerouac’s dictum: it’s not the journey but the destination. And in removing the place we lose everything so interesting about the road: the discovery of the self through our encounter of the unexpected. The bizarre richness of America, the, “zoo in Indiana where a large troop of monkeys lived on concrete replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship. Billions of dead, or halfdead, fish-smelling May flies in every window of every eating place all along a dreary sandy shore.” Lolita really is the best American road novel.

The movie is, not surprisingly, most interesting when McCandless interacts with other people. Vince Vaughn does a yeoman’s job playing a subdued version of Vince Vaughn, and in so doing indicates that the filmmakers might have recognized the absurdity of a film where the main character spends so much time alone, a challenge at times handled better than other. All of the supporting characters are very good, especially Catherine Keener and the aforementioned Vaughn. The landscape is beautiful and at times stirring–especially when accompanied by Eddie Vedder. Sean Penn certainly knows how to handle his actors. Read the rest of this entry »