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Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009

The great Smokey Robinson joins Elvis Costello for the final episode of the first season of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, airing tonight at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel. Costello, wowed by the Motown singer-songwriter’s presence, remarks that if Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Groucho Marx all walked onto the stage, he wouldn’t be more thrilled. For his part, Robinson doesn’t disappoint. He holds court with great stories about meeting Berry Gordy for the first time, writing and recording songs for the original Motown roster, and watching on, dumbfounded, as Ray Charles wrote spontaneous arrangements for “Bad Girl” during his first performance at the Apollo Theater. In fact, Robinson keeps Costello silent for extended periods of time, which, if you’ve been watching this series from the beginning, ain’t no easy task.


Speaking of the Apollo Theater, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the entire season of Spectacle has been filmed at the legendary Harlem venue—the very place where, as Robinson notes, Ella Fitzgerald won an amateur singing competition as a teenager. Having Robinson as a guest on Spectacle, in a room that has historic significance for 20th century American R&B, is especially notable; his presence and desire to bring the conversation back to where they’re sitting makes the Apollo a more integral piece of the program.


There are performances here, as usual: Costello and his band play a few off-beat Robinson compositions, like “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”, while Robinson sings a snippet of “The Tracks of My Tears” and duets with Costello on “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”. But it’s the conversation here that really turns up the heat. The two get talking about love as the championing emotion in Robinson’s body of work, and Robinson, noting that the greatest hate is created by equally devout love, gets into an impassioned discussion about how prejudice is the most “absurd” of human emotions. It’s hard to watch this exchange, Robinson staring intensely into Costello’s eyes while Costello silently takes it all in, and not think about Costello’s infamous 1979 near-career-ending incident at a Holiday Inn in Ohio. I don’t mean to suggest that Robinson is confronting Costello here, nor do I think that Costello needs to be confronted, but the combined history of the venue with personal histories makes for some fascinating subtext.


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Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the point I was trying to make at the end of the previous post. My dissatisfaction ties in with my thinking about Ryan Avent’s point in this post responding to criticism of Richard Florida’s recent Atlantic article about the future of the “creative class.” Avent is puzzled by the objection to fashion-oriented innovation, regarding them as cultural goods, and concludes that “Cultural goods aren’t just a nice by-product of a modern economy. They’re the very justification for it.” In other words, the reason we care at all about economic growth is to expand the quality of life, which is expressed through the ability for we in the ordinary classes to afford the ever more innovative and creative commodities made by the creative class. Avent writes, “Efficient technologies are nice, in no small part, because they allow us to cheaply or sustainably use electronics, either to work more productively (in order to spend on those frou-frout consumption goods) or to directly consume entertainment (like television or video games, which contain disturbingly high levels of frou-frou design, music, and narrative).”


I don’t agree with this assessment of the effects of technology. In my view, technology seems to accelerate the rate at which we consume (while affecting the personality changes to facilitate this acceleration) so that the cycle of exchange can spin more rapidly, allowing producers to realize profit at a faster rate. Technology is like financial leverage, only on the variable of time. Without any malice, with nothing but the best intentions of bringing something new and captivating into the world, the “creative class” aids this acceleration by fueling the fashion cycle and shortening it to accommodate more trends, more memes, more retro recoveries, more design accoutrements, more obsolescence. The creative class are by definition artists who have bent their talents to commercial purposes; thus, the cultural goods they produce tend not to satisfy “real” wants in those who consume them; instead the consumption of these goods may be a defensive measure to preserve one’s place on the cool continuum, to signal one’s ability to keep up or keep ahead. Even if real pleasure is derived from these cultural goods, it often comes compromised—the pleasure is imbued with positionality; it is often the pleasure of knowing more than others, of social superiority, which can mask itself in aesthetics. The relation between the creative-class cultural good producer and the consumer is not analogous to the relation between artist and audience. The latter is gratuitous; the former serves an ineluctable socioeconomic purpose.


Another problem with the creative class is that they are making cultural goods that are designed to in part supplant the creativity of the people who consume them; they abet the idea that sheer ownership of tastefully curated goods is an expression of creativity, taking us off the hook for actually doing anything more, for actually realizing our own creativity through more elaborate activity, through meaningful work undertaken seriously and ultimately geared toward adding to society’s aesthetic wealth. But currently, the creative class monopolizes that process, and the ideology of cool, urban living being central to its productivity helps preserve that monopoly.


Now, to the point I was trying to make yesterday. The internet, originally, was heralded as a medium that could threaten the creative class’s monopoly, undermine the networks they thrive in and open up creative and rewarding social production to a much broader swathe of society. If you buy into a Marxian utopian vision, this is ultimately what socialism is about—overcoming the division of labor so that each person can realize their full potentialities in socially necessary and recognized work. The distinction between creative work and drudgery would be effaced. We all would have the opportunity for meaningful work and for society, in some way, to recognize our creative efforts—wages would in essence be replaced by this creative fulfillment and recognition. This is utopian, of course, but if a “progressive” movement means anything, the end of alienation is what it would be progressing toward.


Paradoxically, we all need a sympathetic community within which to realize our individuality. Isolated, we are ciphers, even to ourselves; only as a social being do we know ourselves and become aware of how we are fulfilling our capabilities. Consumerism functions primarily by isolating us, offering us products for our self-realization in lieu of that community. These ultimately fail, leaving us with a sense that our identities are unstable, tenuous. Our connection to the community that buoys us is obscured.


If we are all to be creative and be recognized for it, we need an audience attuned to our own idiosyncratic creative production, which would thrive in a more or less pure form since it wouldn’t need to be commercially viable or compete economically with other creations. The internet seems to be the technological development that could facilitate these microaudiences, and the proselytizers of the various forms of social media seem to have this in mind in their encomiums. Our social networks can potentially become the infrastructure for these the appreciative microaudiences, who will celebrate our pure expressions of our creative self (presuming these expressions can be transmitted digitally). We could be famous to fifteen people instead of for fifteen minutes. (Someone else must have used that line before.) 


But therein lies the problem—the very notion of fame. If we pursue fame as it is currently constituted in any way, our practice devolves into the familiar forms of reification, alienation, profit maximization. We replace the pleasure of the activity of work in itself with fantasies about the outcome, the rewards we imagine we’ll reap in measurable notoriety. Hence, social networks don’t make for microaudiences then; they seem to function like any other consumer product that caters to our fantasy life—in this case, the fantasy serviced is that of our being celebrities like the stars in whose lives we participate vicariously through gossip and well-attenuated entertainment product. Now we can emulate them in a subtler way, by trying to maximize our social reach by amassing friends or followers and imagining they are hanging on our every update.


Of course we disavow such fantasy overtly, but it’s there, fueling the drive to inform on ourselves in Twitter posts. The internet hasn’t only fostered microaudiences; alongside that possibility has sprung up its neutralizing antithesis, the impossible dream of a mass audience for everyone, for ourselves. Pursuing that dream nullifies the benefits that might come from a nurturing microaudience; it is a return to isolation, a retreat into vicarious fantasy rather than a shoring up of our presence in a community. To chase that mass audience, one must adopt the commercial and entrepreneurial strategies of honing in on the common denominator. With that we are back in the realm of the creative class, and its commercial yardsticks and its competitive prerogative, its defense of its fiefdom of cool, defined as the latest novelty others can be seen chasing. To dissolve the creative class into a universal creativity, the tyranny of “cool”—fashion as a mass-market business; trendspotting as an entrepreneurial vocation; friendship as a quantitative measure; influence as and end in itself—must be abolished.


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Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009
Unlike comic book superheroes, Slumdog hit a bit closer under our bellies with our eyes wide shut. Yet, now that “we” have had our eyes opened, will “we” place Third World poverty into another, more entertaining box?

On the eve of this year’s Oscars, Aakar Patel’s ridiculous article appeared in the Sunday edition of the Wall Street Journal’s India’s version, Mint. “Why Slumdog Millionaire is Unbelievable” came out in Saturday 21, February’s Mint Lounge section, and basically said that Slumdog was far-fetched because poor people don’t have “dignity,” that dignity is an “intellectual” pursuit, and “the poor” aren’t interested in learning. The man even wrote, “those who have spoken to the poor will notice the glaze over their eyes. There is no curiosity in the nature of the world, because it has already revealed itself to them in full.” Well, the kids under the flyover near my house are high, many sniffing something as simple as everyday glue, which would explain the glazed over look. Mr. Patel goes on to say that “we” cannot afford to have compassion for poverty and “the poor” because “it would be intolerable for us to live, surrounded by such sorrow.”


A few things here: First, poverty does not exclude people from experiencing happiness, or even cultivating “dignity,” for that matter. Secondly, not all privileged people find compassion intolerable. Third of all, I am generally suspicious when writers are too presumptuous to unpack “we,” which usually leads me to think even more critically about how it is used. There is no “we” when Mr. Patel says: “The poor are rejected in India for their condition.” Well, do “we” reject them? He then says, “It is an existence of eternal reaction. Constant hunger and helplessness.” Are “the poor” reacting to us? Have “we” starved them or somehow exploited them in ways so morally indefensible? Moreover, have “we” perpetrated “incident upon humiliating incident,” against the so-called helpless poor? Have “we” done this? Has our lack of compassion lead to mainstream trashing of Slumdog, with the only benefit that “we” can now use “slumdog” in mixed, polite, politically correct company?


It is true that “we” were the bad people in the film. We were the schoolteachers that beat kids over the head. We were the mute-witnessed that stood by while mobs slaughtered communities, while authorities stood by. We rolled up our car windows when beggars approached at intersections. We were the game-show host, taking each and every chance to humiliate the “slumdog”, a word said repeatedly like a hissing snake. We were commuters on the train watching a group of goons assault a young girl, grabbing her by her hair and dragging her into a car. We were the citizens who tolerate torture by water-boarding and electrocution. We did not even see “the poor” as people. Indeed, Slumdog was hard for us to watch.


Alternatively, we might dare to base our actions-whatever they may be- on compassion and recognizing that everyone has the right and potential for dignity. The Dalai Lama says, “Everything interdependent, interconnected. If you harm others, you get suffering. If you help others, you get benefit.” It is my own lack of humanity that blinds me from seeing the dignity in any other, and that causes suffering.


The Mint article makes some pretty shady analogies that “we” relatively privileged people often employ to speak about those who have less than we do. We use these excuses to convince ourselves that we deserve what we have, as if by birthright. Patel continues: “The single most important fact of poverty is the loss of dignity in the individual. The Indian knows this. The poor are actually second-rate human beings. Their existence is like that of animals: Their concerns are all immediate because that is the only level at which life engages them.” I disagree. I think that lacking compassion is a greater loss of dignity. This loss of dignity allows us to characterize others as “second-rate,” which justifies why “we” treat them as we do. It is really a lack of compassion for the self, however, that allows us to believe that sheer compassion makes life intolerable. Perhaps Danny Boyle believes that even in India, compassion cultivates tolerance.


Popularity and Appropriation


Following the eight trophy triumph of Slumdog Millionaire, it is important to establish tools for critical introspection now, before the wave of appropriated images flushes the so-called free market. Like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song ushered in a wave of cultural retaliation, so too might the popularity of Slumdog lead to more cultural appropriation, lest we start with respect for diversity in the compassionate, salad-bowl sense.


An entire genre of film resulted in the 70’s in response to demands and petite advances in empowered representation of Blacks in mainstream films. Blaxploitation as a genre spawned from MGM Film Studio’s appropriation of Black filmmakers’ leading characters in works written and produced by African-Americans such as Melvin Van Peebles. In fact, in 1970 Peebles wrote, produced and directed two feature films: Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song. Peebles starred in the latter, in which his son Mario also made his child-acting debut. The crust of it is that Van Peebles’ main protagonist had a personal vendetta against racialized oppression and (white) supremacy. Taking plugs at ‘the man’ turned out to be a major undertone of Van Peebles’ films. His films typically depict the rage of Black heroes against ‘the man’ (read: Establishment), particularly as this is articulated through racism and classism. Barring how narrowly gender is represented, like Sweetback, Slumdog uniquely centers upon non-elites, from a non-elite perspective. In both cases, all of the elite folks in the film were villains, including folks like me in the case of Slumdog; I simply roll up the windshield each time I pass under the flyover near my house where plenty of street children hustle and reside.


Slumdog made no focus of the elite, or Aakar Patel’s presumptuous “we.” Rather, the film critiqued systematic oppression and chronic poverty by its own virtue. Again, Slumdog portrayed us with great clarity as mute-witnesses to all sorts of oppression and exploitation happening in the so-called under-bellies of every urban space on this planet to one degree or another. This is even the critique of the Batman franchise, especially The Dark Knight and Batman Begins. Understandably, critiquing bourgeois society is met with bourgeois retaliation like Mr. Patel’s remarks perpetuating the “myth of meritocracy”. Unlike comic book superheroes, Slumdog hit a bit closer under our bellies with our eyes wide shut. Yet, now that “we” have had our eyes opened, will “we” place Third World poverty into another, more entertaining box?


Will we see a slew of “Third World” exploitation films, forgetting that ‘third’ in this instance means ‘non-aligned’ and not ‘less than’. Getting back to Slumdog, “third” as it pertains to “Third World” certainly does not mean “second-rate human beings.” That perspective gives way to charity, like the actor who played the game-show host donating his earnings from Slumdog to “the poor.”  While worthwhile, charity is incomplete, for money is not the only answer. Moreover, charity has more to do with the giver than the receiver. Despite any temporary rapture money may impart, its effect tends not to endure.


Charity strokes First World egos (and perhaps ambitions of Mint’s readership), justifying our own power, privilege and wealth, as well as “their” oppression. “Without changing structures of domination, we leave in place the culture of lovelessness,” says radical feminist bell hooks. A very real ideological commitment towards domination reproduces and aptly reflects oppression in popular culture, which in the modern day means consumption. Colluding with this culture of domination, for example, Black actors are lured by Hollywood’s money to play minstrel-like, Magic Negro characters, sealing their own oppression. In this new millennium, will “we” break or perpetuate this cycle lovelessness? On the other hand, “love,” says bell hooks, “is especially available to is because it is a non-market value.”


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Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009
“Try it one mo’ time,” Tina says after Ike sucks and slurps salaciously into the mic. This was 1969, and according to her memoirs, they were thick in domestic abuse. Looking at Ike and Tina through these lenses, one wonders what kind of leash Ike is tugging.

When is the last time you listened to a song for the first time and said Damn! That’s what I said when I recently heard Tina Turner sing I’ve Been Loving You too Long. The song is vaguely familiar. Otis Redding popularized the song enough for regular radio play in 1965.


“Sock it to me baby,” Tina moans, then shouts at the top of her register. The concluding riffs of this song are chilling and can make any listener stop dead in their tracks. Wikipedia has dissected the track and revealed the lyrics to Ike and Tina’s “provocative, seductive conclusion of the song.” The Wiki article largely refers to live performances where, Tina is “handling the microphone in a raunchy way.” Indeed, the YouTube performances of this song do tend towards the perverse. It isn’t that Tina slides her extended fingers up and down the stiff microphone that makes this performance so perverse. Rather, it is the love and abandon. She is ready to give up each and everything for this man.


“You got what I want,” Ike says in his deep base voice on a microphone from behind. Somehow, his heavy handedness even pours through onto the stage. Noticeably, the Ikettes continue with their sharp moves, despite this song neither having any doo-wop type back-up chants, nor hefty call and response sequences like YOU bend over, lemme see YOU shake it like a tail feather! The band is meticulously on beat and key. It’s just Ike on his bass guitar, roaming the stage and then ever so often materializing over the speakers giving commands. He’s the man!


He grins slyly after spitting each of his lyrics while Tina responds, again grasping the mic and stand as if imitating something intimate. In one scene, Ike nearly chides at the audience after giggling is overheard in response to his feigned crooning. He’s really hamming it up in a way that so starkly contrasts the seriousness that Tina is bringing in the forefront, grunting and moaning like lovemaking. He looks like a dry pimp getting his rocks off. The overall scene betrays any sincerity towards the woman that stands before him abandoning her whole life for his sake. He seems none too gracious for this sacrifice, and that’s what makes the live performance so chilling and perverse.


“Try it one mo’ time,” Tina says after Ike sucks and slurps salaciously into the mic. This was 1969, and according to her memoirs, they were thick in domestic abuse. Ike was tapping that ass on the regular. Interviews from the movie-makers upon the release of her biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It, claimed that the film version totally tones down Ike’s abusive talk, insults, beatings and marital rape of Tina.


Looking at Ike and Tina through these lenses, one wonders what kind of leash Ike is tugging. Was their apparent bond really bondage? Was Ike’s mojo so tough that Tina really was A Fool in Love? Was it evidence that they suffered from the Stockholm Syndrome, where captives and captors share a tie through the mutual experience of trauma? Were these live performances part of Ike’s brainwashing of Tina, wrecking her self-esteem right before our eyes? In other performances, Tina has visible bruises and an eyelid or two is swollen shut. Were crowds and teams of screaming fans obvious at the time? Elsewhere, Tina shouts: Here are my lips, you take ‘em, you made them, do as you wish. You use ‘em, abuse em, I’ll be your witch! Ike and Tina’s repertoire is thick with lyrics talking about how his love’s got her chained- anyway he wants her. On a certain level most of their lyrics consisted of this pitiful kind of love, the sort for which one mourns more than celebrates.


I’ve Been Loving You too Long. was originally released on their ’68 Outta Season album, which the website Discogs gives a measly two and a half stars, noting “there’s a lot of very ordinary, rote blues on tap”. Perhaps this is one of those rare instances where anthologies give us a needed break. Therefore, The Soul Anthology has to be one of the greatest releases of modern times. Anthologies are like cherry picking, allowing us to reject and delve into any rhetorical fodder at will. From this perspective, I’ve Been Loving You too Long. is one song better heard than seen.


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Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009
The people who stand to be fascinated by Flannery O'Connor's distinctly uneventful life are the very people who might be enlightened by reading about it: writers.

Of few writers can it more accurately be said that it is the work, not the life, that matters…That O’Connor was one of the great writers of the 20th century is now beyond argument.


What he said. He being Jonathan Yardley, writing in Sunday’s Washington Post (farewell Book World, hello expanded Arts & Living section) about Brad Gooch’s new bio of Flannery O’Connor here.


While I’m not certain that we need a 448-page biography of Flannery O’Connor, I’m not certain that we need another biography of any writer, no matter how many pages. Actually, that’s not fair. Who buys these types of books, after all, but people who have already read all (or most) of the works written by the author being dissected (within these books that are equal parts operating table and shrink’s couch). Still, I could probably be forgiven for making the unoriginal observation, again, that we exist in an era where the life too often outweighs the work.


Wait. The preceding paragraph, while applicable to most writers, does not apply to O’Connor. In point of fact, if there is any writer I would care to read about, and learn from, it would be her. Not surprisingly, her unwavering allegiance to her craft leaves little to the imagination: she wrote, she talked about writing, she thought about writing and she wrote about writing. Allegedly, she ate and slept on occasion. “In my stories is where I live,” she said, a statement applicable on a variety of levels. And so, the people who stand to be fascinated by this distinctly uneventful life are the very people who might be enlightened by reading about it: writers. O’Connor’s life, and her monk-like approach to her vocation could and should be a study guide for all aspiring scribblers. Never mind that dedication like hers is probably impossible to imitate today because of all the noise, electronic and digital, distracting us. There is also the inconsiderable reality that her work is inimitable. The style, the substance, the entire package is pretty much unparalleled in American letters.


I tend to feel uncomfortable throwing the G word around, unless I’m speaking about jazz musicians. But if any writer in the last 100 years could be called a genius, O’Connor is near the top of the short list. She did not manage to write the great American novel (though she may well have, had Lupus not stopped her at the insultingly young age of 45), but her best collected stories go toe-to-toe with any of the great white males (and females for that matter). She also happened to approach perfection on at least three occasions, with “Revelation”, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”. It is the last of these three that most people know; like Beethoven’s Fifth and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, its ubiquity tends to diminish its actual import: it’s even better than most people realize (and most people, if for no other reason than that they are told, recognize these things as immortal).


What O’Connor manages to do, in less than twenty pages, is nail the essence of what Dostoyevsky and, to a lesser extent, Tolstoy grappled with in their biggest (and sometimes bloated) novels: the nature of man, the existence of God, the possibility of Grace and the symbiotic tension between violence and love. When The Misfit declares (ironically, truthfully) “It’s no real pleasure in life”, he is (O’Connor is) expressing, in remarkably succinct fashion, the fundamental philosophical and literary dilemma, post-Descartes. Beyond whether God exists (Tolstoy) or why God torments us (Dostoyevsky), and right to the heart of the matter: we may betray God, but God betrayed us first.


Anyway, O’Connor remains somewhat of a conundrum: one can learn a great deal by studying her stories. Has any other writer so consistently applied mechanical precision with such emotional heft? Has any other writer wrestled with the so-called big issues without using stick figures or preachy didactics? Take “Revelation”, for instance: O’Connor fits class issues, southern identity dilemmas, religious fervor, old-school bigotry and redemption into one story. In fact, she pretty much pulls it off on a single page (and that last page not only invokes, but obliges the use of such otherwise unforgivable words as “haunting”, “chilling” and “moving”). This type of writing, needless to say, is inspiring but is also intimidating. My initial (and in many cases, ongoing) reaction to reading an O’Connor story is to ask, in awe, “How did she do that?”


Yet aside from the singular example she sets, what is one, living today, to take from her hermetic life style in terms of practical application? Probably the same thing one might take from any worthwhile practitioner: whatever one can. It’s that simple, and it’s that unfathomable. For starters, one could be heartened (or, more likely, devastated) by the fact that even our greatest artists often struggle, and realize that the life they embark upon is likely to be painful and unprofitable. “What first stuns the young writer emerging from college,” she wrote in 1948, “is that there is no clear-cut road for him to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process, lifelong and lonesome.” What she said.


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