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by Rob Horning

30 Jan 2009

The GDP figures for the fourth quarter of 2008 are something I’ve never seen as an adult—a decline in growth of 3.8 percent (the number is by no means final either, and is susceptible to being revised later). It’s hard to cheerlead the economy with numbers like these, but The NYT gamely tries with its headline (“Steep Slide in U.S. Economy, but Not as Dire as Forecast “) which stands in stark contrast with the lede:

The United States economy shrank at its fastest pace in a quarter century from October through December, the government reported on Friday, in the broadest accounting yet of the toll of the credit crisis. Consumer spending and business investment all but disappeared, and economists said the painful contraction was likely to continue at an alarming pace well into the summer.

Felix Salmon thinks the timid consumer has become the new normal:

I don’t see any sign of a recovery any time soon: America’s culture of competitive consumption has disappeared entirely, and it’s not coming back.
I walked past a brand-new high-end casual menswear store last night, and it struck home to me how much things have changed in the past few months. It was always a bit weird that anybody would pay hundreds of dollars for a flannel shirt, but somehow, such shops managed to survive during the boom years. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the owner today, though, or even in the years to come, should the store survive that long.

Merrill Lynch analyst David Rosenberg (who has been calling a consumer-led recession for a while) has a similar view in this dire commentary. He argues that the debt overhang from the boom must be eliminated before there is a recovery. Consumers, therefore, will be forced to save rather than spend. Rosenberg goes further and posits a lingering shift in consumer mentality (at least for baby boomers) that outlasts this necessary debt elimination:

in this post-bubble, mean-reverting process, the ability for policymakers to re-create the credit cycle, reinflate asset values and ignite a consumer-led recovery is going to be thwarted by secular changes in attitudes towards credit, savings, discretionary spending and homeownership. In other words, even after enough debt is paid off, the baby boomers’ spending years will be focused on putting their money in the coffee can.

Rosenberg elaborates on the “secular change” in consumption habits he expects, the shift from frivolity to frugality (already a popular theme in the mainstream press).

There are lags between changes in household net worth and changes in consumer spending patterns, and the $13 trillion loss to-date is a harbinger for sustained consumer spending contraction in coming years. The reason for the lags is because households only change their behavior after a shock, negative or positive, if it is considered to be permanent or at least semi-permanent. For example, the institutional changes over the decades in 401k plans and matched employer pension contributions helped reduce the steady 10-12% savings rate of the 1950, 60s and 70s down to 8% by the late 1980s. But it was the increased boomer reliance on asset inflation for savings rather than organic income that drove the savings rate down to 2% by the time the dot-com boom was in full swing in the late 1990s.

If Salmon is right about the end of the hundred dollar flannel shirt, then maybe this depression thing really isn’t all bad. But will the same marketing ideology merely be used to promote something cheaper for the time being? I’d expect the consumerist ideology to be more tenacious than that—when we can’t spend, we don’t immediately adapt to that new reality; we just experience want more painfully. We probably haven’t been in a depression mind-set long enough for our consumer behavior to change in a fundamental way and are still in the lag period Rosenberg mentions. Collectively, American consumers could be overreacting in the short term, cutting back like crazy with the assurance that we can resume spending stronger than ever when the storm passes. (Kind of like trying to catch up on sleep all at once on Saturday rather than changing one’s habits to get more sleep every night.)

Rosenberg suggests we may well come to accept our reduced means as a permanent condition just as economic trends are reversing, causing our recession mentality to persevere and act as an added drag on recovery. BUt virtually every form of public discourse is aligned against that possibility; the commercial media may be too robust to ever allow us to resign ourselves complacently to a penny-pinching mentality.

In other words, we may never reach the soul-searching stage, in which we reject the entire set of social relations that can produce a $100 flannel shirt or makes $300 jeans seem normal. It may be easier simply to suspend our consumerist hopes, manifest in so much of the material belongings that surround us, rather than interrogate those hopes and reject them for a new way of life. The competition that had been taken place through consuming has shifted to a more fundamental level—for now we are competing to hold on to jobs. Maintaining what we had already achieved will probably feel like relative progress. But the useless ethic of status competition and possessive individualism, the endless war of all against all that capitalism breeds as an inevitable by-product, won’t disappear. We are still likely to regard any cooperation brought on by hard times as a type of humiliation, even if we are grateful.

Consumerist society has for too long emphasized possessions as the route to social recognition, not collaboration. The tangibility of objects seems to substantiate the argument—the inarguable presence of more stuff seems to testify to a richer life, and marketing gives all that stuff rich meanings and fully developed fantasies we can readily enter into vicariously. And our ability to soberly question consumerism’s role in our lives is hampered not only by our hedonism (the familiar and common-sense-seeming logic of “more is better”) but by the persuasion industry’s relentless collective efforts to invalidate ways of life that are not reliant on consuming products. Lifestyle magazines and the styles sections in newspapers help by making frugality into a trend that is marked by buying certain products and shopping at certain stores. The underlying message: We can spend less but remain consumers. So we don’t need to fear.

Taking its cue from the press, the ad business will try to sell us anticonsumer goods, goods that paradoxically promise to fit in to our new recession-minded lifestyle. This not only helps ad firms continue to sell ads in a downmarket, but also helps ads maintain their prominence in the sum of our daily thinking. Ads preserve a lever in our minds, so they can reorient us to luxury when the time comes. Then it will be morning in America all over again.

by Sarah Zupko

30 Jan 2009

Lafayette Afro-Rock Band was a funk band formed in the US that moved to France in the early 1970s. Not really fitting into the soul scene of their time, they were subsequently discovered by rappers and their beats deployed by heavyweights such as Jay-Z, Public Enemy, and Wu-Tang Clan. Strut Records is re-releasing an out-of-print collection of their work on February 17th titled Darkest Light: The Best of Lafayette Afro-Rock Band.

Lafayette Afro Rock Band
Time Will Tell [MP3]
     

by Bill Gibron

30 Jan 2009

It happens every year. Even with the experience of 200+ theatrical releases (and resulting reviews), we can’t get to everything in a wholly timely fashion. Sometimes, it’s an issue of region. Not every critic lives in a metropolitan hotbed like NYC or LA. In other circumstances, it’s a question of priority. Some titles are just more important than others. Over the next two weeks, we here at SE&L hope to remedy some of our 2008 slights. First up, an incredible animated documentary, the last of the Holocaust themed films from the year, and yet another masterpiece from Mike Leigh. So let’s indulge in a little ‘Leftoverture’, shall we? It’s got to be better that what’s playing at the local Cineplex:


Happy-Go-Lucky [rating: 9]

Like anyone given over to giggling more than griping, Poppy - and as an indirect result, Happy-Go-Lucky - slowly becomes addictive.

Poppy is what you would call “self-contained”. She exists within her own unique little universe, content to be a free thinking, free spirited 30 year old independent. She doesn’t balk at the thought of home and family, but finds the liberated looseness of her current life far more fulfilling. She adores her flatmate Zoe, defends her sister Suzy, dotes on the students in her elementary school class, and engulfs life with a kind of zeal matched only by her desire to do the same for others. Unfortunately, Poppy lives in post-millennial London, a city of dark secrets and even darker people. Still, as the star of Mike Leigh’s magnificent Happy-Go-Lucky, she’s always going to try and connect. It’s the reaction from those she’s reaching out to that’s far more telling.  read full review…


Waltz with Bashir [rating: 8]

Waltz with Bashir (is) the best of all possible documentaries - wildly entertaining, keenly informative, and wholly unforgettable.

It’s an exercise in memory, an attempt to recall the unfathomable and unimaginable. It’s animation taking the place of atrocity, the literal spoils of war witnessed in stylized, striking visuals. It’s the story of men who would rather forget, of a time two decades before when the Middle East was measured by chest-pumping challenges and baffling back and forth advances. It’s a documentary and a denouncement, an explanation and an exaggeration - and in the end, it’s one of 2008’s best films, a wildly inventive and shockingly effective cartoon trance that takes us deep into the heart of human darkness and then delves even deeper. read full review…


Defiance [rating: 6]

Defiance is without a doubt the best of the Holocaust themed films from 2008. Unfortunately, that may be faint praise indeed.

The Holocaust remains, for all intents and purposes, the ultimate expression of evil in our lifetime. Outside the obvious elements of genocide and the organized political support for same, the inherent concept that human beings could actually do something like this to each other resonates as the most shocking sentiment of all. So naturally, any story about the struggle against such unfathomable wickedness immediately gets out attention. We don’t really care about the details or the factual fallacies. We just want vengeance, and it better be more than a mere ‘eye for an eye’. When he stumbled upon the story of the Bielski Brothers, Jewish rebels that saved thousand of their fellow persecuted peoples in 1940s Belarus, filmmaker Edward Zwick must have realized he had the makings of one of the most important World War II films ever. Unfortunately, Defiance misses its major opportunities, focusing instead on ancillary issues unimportant to the final cause.  read full review…

by Jer Fairall

30 Jan 2009

Always timely and occasionally kooky, Neil Young has both covered in his latest single, the title track for his upcoming, uh, electric-car-themed concept album Fork in the Road. The record drops on March 31 (why not wait the extra three weeks and release it on Earth Day?), but until then, enjoy the song’s no-budget video, complete with Neil on air guitar and a none-too-subtle (as if anything else about the song is) iPod joke.

by Mike Deane

30 Jan 2009

Once CHANDRA had toured their EP, it was decided that Chandra should be backed by other teenagers. So, with Diserio and Alexander in tow, the Chandra Dimension was born.  The Chandra Dimension consisted of Chandra, a 12-year-old on keys,a 17-year-old on bass, and a 14-year-old on drums. The Chandra Dimension recorded an EP that was not released until last year when both the original CHANDRA EP and The Chandra Dimension EP were re-released as a single album by Cantor Records (you can listen to minute-long clips at Other Music)

The Chandra Dimension EP differs somewhat from the CHANDRA EP, but shares many of the first EP’s salient characteristics.  Opener, “Get It Out of Your System”, begins energetically and seems more streamlined than the previous EP; trebly guitar is featured more prominently and Chandra’s voice is more commanding.  Other than that there is still the dissonant-yet-melodic keys and dancey bass line backed by disco drums.  The chorus is excellent with a vocal line that constantly changes emphases, spinning around and leaving the listener disoriented but satisfied.  The live claps on this song add a level of childish excitement as they are weak-sounding and are obviously the product of children’s hands.

The third song, “Something”, follows in the same vein with interesting layers of instruments, a great bass line and more prominently featured guitar.  Chandra’s voice on this shows mature detachment and defeatism.  Though there is childishness in lines like “There’s nothing you can do about teachers”, there are startlingly precocious lines like “There’s nothing you can do about the evolution of the world / There’s nothing you can do about politics, it’s absurd” and “What about suicide? / Don’t you think we’ve tried? / It was a lie, you were right.”  The punctuating keyboards and guitar drive home every line by, the now, 14-year-old Chandra. 

Though Chandra’s youth makes these recordings that much more interesting, they stand alone as wonderful outsider disco compositions.  The fact that the lyrics were written and sung by a 12-year-old adds a layer of interest to the story, but if you didn’t know it the fact probably would not cross your mind.  A singular entity in the post-punk world, CHANDRA and the Chandra Dimension made NYC relics that stand alone in their composition and background story. 

Chandra Oppenheim gave up music after the Chandra Dimension, and perhaps it was for the best; with only eight songs (and a couple of unreleased songs that will show up soon enough) there’s not a blemish on her record.  Still, it gives rise to the question: If she was outdoing so many adults at 12, what would she have been doing at 20?

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