Victoria Bergsman and her solo venture Taken by Trees took over the Knitting Factory Brooklyn Wednesday night, playing songs mostly from their 2009 release, East of Eden. Celebrated for its effortless synthesis of Pakistani Sufi melodies and the best of minimalist Swedish indie pop, it is a refreshingly diverse yet accessible record and one of last year’s best. Performed live, however, Eden’s precise and fluid rhythmic layers lost their form while its hypnotic melodies were reduced to a few unbalanced instruments and Bergsman’s melancholy voice. More than anything the show was completely devoid of energy. Beginning with a screening of a short film by Marcus Soderlund, “Taweel Safar-The Long Journey”, the group then performed several upbeat tracks from Eden, like “To Lose Someone” and the Animal Collective cover “My Boys”. But Bergsman was so listless while gently tapping her tambourine, and beyond simply exuding seriousness, that she appeared more indifferent to their set than those loudly talking over the music at the bar. Most of the time it was best to just close one’s eyes, listen, and replay Soderlund’s images in one’s mind.
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Like most of the comics I have been discussing, Prime #1 is no different, in that I was too young to remember the impact it had on the comic industry. I only remember the characters and stories themselves. Strangely, I do not remember how I came across Prime #1.
Wallace Stevens’s poem “Study of Two Pears” is, as the title suggests, a description of a painting of two pears. The poem carefully describes the composition of this painting and the shapes and colors that the painting contains. It also suggests that the painting is so clearly rendered that the images of the pears can not be interpreted as anything but what they are intended to represent: “The pears are not viols,/Nudes or bottles./They resemble nothing else.” However, as the first line implies the poem is intended as an “opusculum paedagogum” or a “little bit of instruction”. Thus, despite its mostly descriptive qualities, interestingly the closing lines of the poem suggest that what this well described still life teaches is how framing an image is authoritarian in nature: “The pears are not seen/As the observer wills” (”Study of Two Pears”, Poetry Foundation), implying that the choice of how a subject is seen is derived from the design of the work’s creator, its author.
This kind of authoritarianism, the ability to control what is seen or how we are to know a subject, though, is implied in some way in the way that we conceive of authorship in the first place. The word authority is derived from auctoritas, which among other things suggests “influence” and “command,” and from autorite, “a book or quotation that settles an argument” (Douglas Harper, “authority”, Online Etymology Dictionary). We think of artists, like authors, as those who influence how we see things, and as Stevens implies about visual authorship or artistry, they do when they command what we see through drawing a line.
A similar claim might be made about the author of a novel that chooses the details that we are intended to “see” as they set a scene for us. The claim may be somewhat more difficult in fiction, though, in which visualizing details might allow for a degree of subjectivity or misinterpretation. We might imagine how some details might appear if the author has not specified them. However, it is, indeed more difficult to make the claim about the authority of visual arts in that it is very difficult to make your eyes “see” something that isn’t there.
(Try it – imagine that there is a frog sitting on the edge of your computer screen. Now, believe it, really believe it. Tricky, no?).
Nevertheless, Stevens point may still be relevant in general about authorship, since even in written fiction, the author is at least “drawing the eye” to see details that approximate his or her own version of reality. “Seeing” the New York skyline over the shoulder of Odysseus is imaginatively possible, I guess. However, when you are reading The Odyssey closely, I would think that you are probably more likely visualizing that Cyclops that Homer told you was there. Authors, then, at least “frame” the world to some degree, and through observation of what they have chosen for us to see, we (and our imaginative faculties) become subject to their influence.
Interestingly, by their very nature, video games appear to be a more democratic medium than many others. While similar claims can be made about the “authority” of game designers in generating worlds for the player to view, nevertheless, the kind of authority that the film camera might have in choosing the subject matter for a viewer to focus on for a particular scene or that the literary author might have in setting a scene by telling the reader what details to focus on in it is less present and tyrannical in most games. While I might be limited to viewing a suburban neighborhood in The Sims, because some of the tools of authority have been loaned out to me, the camera and building and purchasing tools, I can choose how to see the scene and add or subtract elements in the scene in a way that even literary fiction does not provide. These changes are not merely imaginary, they make me complicit in authorship itself, adding and subtracting from a fictive and viewable reality in a substantial way that is not merely imaginative. Video games challenge “author”-ity because they don’t force us into the “frame” of the author.
The game is often, at least in part, seen as the observer wills.
I was just wondering how it is that doom rock bands from Sweden can get away with giving themselves elegantly concise names like “Witchcraft” and “Graveyard,” while bands in the U.S. feel obliged to come up with something (usually outlandish or unwieldy) that is not already taken on MySpace. And voilà, this WSJ piece comes down the pike about how difficult it supposedly is to name your band. It seems true that a cursory search will reveal that what you thought was a great, original idea was already thought up and acted upon by someone else. (I am still sad that both Black Horse Pike and White Horse Pike have MySpace pages.) It’s enough to make you pine for the legendary days of local garage-band scenes, where every township could have its own group called the Outsiders.
But really, this is not that huge of a problem. The Awl does a good job saying what needs to be said about the piece.
I mean, how hard is it to come up with a unique band name? Armed with only Google, a rhyming dictionary, and an urgency to get a post done, I challenged myself to come up with ten new group monikers for which there were no registered alternatives. It took three minutes.
The list he comes up with is worth clicking through to check out.
All that said, the matter of a band name isn’t something insignificant. It’s arguably as important as the music itself. There are lots and lots of bands, and if some can be ruled out by virtue of having terrible names, then they will be. Rare are the bands that are better than their names: Spoon is the only one I can think of off the top of my head right now. But legion are the bands with bad names that stink.
If you are a Backstreet Boy, what’s the only thing worse than waking up with a throbbing headache, stuffy nose, sore throat and every other symptom that can be associated with a day-ruining case of the common cold? Having to be interviewed by someone with the exact same condition.
But that’s what happened when I spoke with A.J. McLean, the shades-wearing, hat-donning, sometimes bearded badass of the group. “Oh, I’ve seen better days,” he mumbled over the phone an in almost inaudible tone after I initially asked him how he was doing. As it turned out, he probably wasn’t faking, either. Later that day, wire services blew up with reports that fellow Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell had been diagnosed with H1N1, more commonly known as the Swine Flu. As a result, the group was forced to cancel various promotional appearances throughout New York City that were centered around the release of its new album, This Is Us. It was yet another obstacle on the way back to the top for one of the biggest pop groups of all time. That’s okay, though. It’s not like these boys haven’t been faced with adversity before.
Remember the Lou Pearlman situation? You know, the impossibly greedy manager that tried to use the group for all it was worth before heading to prison on conspiracy and money laundering convictions? How about when McLean himself admitted to his stunning drug abuse habit, and went on national television to confront it? Or even when Kevin Richardson, a longtime member of the group, decided he wanted to distance himself from the band, leaving to “pursue other interests in his life?”
Like I said, a little case of the sniffles, and hell, even the occasional case of H1N1 couldn’t bring these guys down. Not after nearly two decades of rollercoaster ups and downs.
“You have to stay positive,” McLean told me when I asked him about how any group could survive in today’s ever-changing, fickle world of pop music. “(If we were starting over again) we’d have to know to set goals. It has to be difficult for new artists. But after all this time, we have learned that we have to stay true to ourselves. You just can’t let anything or anyone get in the way of who you are.”
Who are the Backstreet Boys these days, anyway? The group opted for live instrumentation and Adult Contemporary dominance with 2005’s Never Gone. That acoustic/piano driven style continued for the most part with 2007’s Unbreakable. But now, in 2009, what exactly is the sound the four-part band is attempting to achieve with its latest release, This Is Us?
Well, for starters the band recruited top-notch hip hop collaborators such as Lil Wayne, Jim Jonsin and T-Pain to help craft the album. And while other pop mega-producers like One Republic’s Ryan Tedder and the legendary Max Martin offered a hand, McLean is quick to point out the difference between the group’s past experiences making a record with that of their latest.
“We had a real interesting team of people to work with for this record,” McLean said. “We had a lot of hip hop cats come in, so it was different. In the end, it worked out perfectly, though. We couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out.”
How it turned out is decidedly more mature than ever before. The acoustic guitars have been ditched for the most part, and the electro-fied beats that helped propel them into legendary status in the mid-1990s return on This Is Us. Why the group sounds more grown-up than ever, though, has nothing to do with its sound. That aspect can be attributed to lyrics that see the Boys in a new light.
A song like “PDA,” with its aggressively sexy feel and suggestive verse, is the perfect example. “Kissing and touching with my hands all over your booty,” sets the lyrical tone for a record that clearly isn’t aimed at the 14-to-16-year-old demographic the pop stars once famously aimed for with songs like “As Long As You Love Me,” and “Larger Than Life.”
“Lyrically, we aren’t kids anymore,” McLean told me. “It’s not like we can’t talk about booties. We wanted to push the envelope with this new record, and I think we did that.”
Pushing the envelope is not a foreign concept for McLean. Clearly the bad boy of the group, the singer cemented his reputation when he checked into rehab in 2001 for cocaine abuse and alcoholism. If that wasn’t enough, earlier this year, TMZ reported that McLean’s sobriety was in doubt after video surfaced of him appearing intoxicated.
Realizing his reputation precedes him almost anywhere he goes, McLean noted that he understands he is the “rocker” of the group. Though he has a soft spot for rhythm & blues music (Prince and Teddy Pendergrass, to be exact), he explained that he’s not like the other guys for more than one reason.
“I’m the kind of guy who grew up listening to Three Dog Night and Lynyrd Skynyrd,” he said. “A lot of the other guys aren’t really into that kind of stuff. Right now, the new Muse record is phenomenal. They will definitely break in the states soon enough. The other guys (in the band) tend to go with the catchier stuff, but I’m a rocker. That’s what I bring to the group.”
What the group plans to bring to the public is a tour supporting This Is Us. The tour, set to stretch across nearly the entire globe, is something McLean is especially excited about.
“It’s going to be an amazing show,” he said as his voice perked up from the sickness he was battling. “Each show is going to be like a live movie. It’s something the fans have never seen before - like a rock opera. We plan on going for about an hour and 45 minutes each night and doing around eight of the 12 songs from the new record, along with a bunch of the classics. Everybody’s going to love it. We are really, really excited about it.”
So with a new album, a new tour and a rejuvenated attitude toward his group’s career, McLean’s head cold seemed to be the last thing on his mind as our conversation wound down.
“We are going back to the old Backstreet Boys sound on this record,” he said before taking a few seconds to let out some coughs and a muted sniffle. “I think people are going to see what we have become. This album is a declaration of who we really are.”
// Moving Pixels
"Our foray into the adventure-game-style version of the Borderlands continues.READ the article