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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Though both actions have been temporarily stalled, in New York and Chicago, various govt bureaucracies are trying to shut down music spaces, yet again.  For NYC, the notable Union Hall in Brooklyn (which hosts Bloodshot Records annual BBQ) is being threatened by a community board whose effort is spearheaded by another club owner with conflicting interests.  In Chicago, the city council was trying to over-regulate the clubs there and make it even harder to keep any music establishment operating until the club owners got the ear of an alderman- also see this fine Sun-Times article about the situation..  With live shows being one of the few parts of the music biz not hit badly by the online phenom, you’d think that the labels, unions and other parts of the biz with a vested interest would step up to the plate and help but it ain’t happening, as least yet.


Another trend that should shake anyone’s faith in the biz even further is that a pair of seemingly unstoppable forces are starting to wane.  Not only is American Idol losing it audience along with many other TV programs (though Idol obviously didn’t suffer directly from the recent writers’ strike) but now the vaunted social networking behemoths are losing ad money.  As the NY Post article notes, “while the weak economy is partly to blame, the bigger problem facing social networks is they’re still trying to figure out what kinds of advertising will work on their sites.” 


If Simon Cowell’s baby and Rupert Murdoch’s baby don’t keep breathing life into the music biz, what are they gonna rely on to keep them going otherwise?  I guess that blogs and underground trading communities are gonna have to take up the slack.  Fans have certainly carved out their own DIY niches for themselves so why needs the big guys to lead ‘em around by the nose?


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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On the internet, displaying our musical taste has become easy to the point of being virtually automatic. Social networking sites, with searchable lists of our preferences, seem expressly designed for the purpose. And if we so choose, we can let people eavesdrop on what we are listening to through our computer at any time, or broadcast it like we are our own personal radio station. But in the real world, our options are more limited. We can drive around with our car stereos blaring, wear conspicuous T-shirts, spend a lot of time in clubs. Or we can hang around in the right record stores.


I used to go to record stores a lot—nearly every day, in fact. But then slowly my visits tapered off, and finally I stopped going altogether. Internet distribution and home-digital-copying technology is part of the explanation for this, but it’s not what I think of. Instead, I remember the last time I was in a real record store: in 2001, a place called the Sound Garden in Baltimore. Surrounded by the posters for bands I hadn’t heard of, and struggling to concentrate while atonal music blared through the loudspeakers, I skulked in the aisles, hyperaware of the clerks’ scowling stares and frequently jostled by the much younger customers around me. Intermittently I would flip through rows of discs, but it was a rote gesture to make myself feel less conspicuous. I had no particular hope of finding anything, and beyond that, I felt like I wasn’t supposed to.


The extreme discomfort I was experiencing didn’t seem accidental. Rather, a nondescript guy in his thirties like me in the store probably jeopardized its appeal with the younger, more spendthrift demographic it was after, so it had concocted the perfect blend of sensory irritations to drive people like me out—like that device that emits a high-pitched squeal to repel teenagers, only in reverse. So in other words, like any luxury retailer, the record store was shopping for the right sort of customer and sought to discourage those who would compromise the image the store sought to convey—that it was place where young, cool people congregated, traded information, and escaped from the plastic mainstream represented by people who looked and felt like I did. On that day in Baltimore, it dawned on me that record stores don’t sell music, they sell a lifestyle.


Of course, the same is true not just of music retailers, but consumer capitalism as a whole. Virtually every company tries to associate its products with intangible desires and aspirations a consumer might have, as these are inexhaustible and are only temporarily sated by the act of shopping. No amount of Newport cigarettes will make you feel “Alive with pleasure” once and for all. You have to keep buying them in search of that elusive jouissance.


So regardless of what we buy, the process of buying itself may be where we derive the most satisfaction, the moment where we indulge most deeply in the fantasy of who the product will allow us to become. This makes where we buy crucially important, which is likely why we are often so sentimental about places like independent bookstores and record stores. Where we buy something supplies a lasting context for how we consume it. When I graduated from the Listening Booth at the local mall to Sounds, on St. Marks Place in New York City, I felt as though my tastes had matured and become more sophisticated overnight. Even though chances were good that I could have found that same XTC record at the mall, buying it downtown felt completely different, and it certainly changed how much I enjoyed it and even what it sounded like to me. (How else could I have found Oranges and Lemons to be edgy rather than derivative?)


What we were after in buying records at record stores was the lifestyle embodied in them; when they disappear, as they have begun to (as this New York Times article notes), it will be harder to recapture that feeling. But then, if that feeling was important enough in the first place, the stores wouldn’t be threatened now, I guess. But I think the confusion between the supposed integrity of the product—the alleged greatness of the music itself, stripped of context—and the ephemeral nature of trying to capture a piece of a trend-driven lifestyle by shopping led customers to believe that it was worthwhile, a bargain even, to get the music without the context by downloading it online. They were confused about why they were buying music in the first place.


Only when it’s too late for record stores will customers realize what they have lost—that they don’t want a mountain of music; they want recognition for being in a certain place vis a vis the zeitgeist.


Perhaps consumers have moved on already and are purchasing their lifestyle experience from some other outlet. Music-as-identity-indicator may have ceased to be relevant to them. Perhaps henceforth, subcultures will be formed along other lines.


Where does that leave “true music fans” who profess to want music as music? When record stores are gone and perhaps replaced with subscription services, will music itself be easier to appreciate in and of itself? Or stripped of its context, will it seem emptier than ever, each song seeming even more interchangeable with all the other songs out there waiting to be downloaded.


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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Wednesday, a legitimate ‘weak’ day here at Short Ends & Leader. Today’s crappy effort is an appalling chick flick that gives gender issues a very bad rap.


Rebecca, Laura, and Jennifer are three college friends who are just now facing the cruel, calculating nature of life outside school. The fact that they graduated some seven years before apparently means nothing to their sorority sisterhood. Each has hooked up with a guy who really freaks out their female intuition.


Laura thinks her husband is an immature, cheating louse. She leaves him only to discover he has depleted their credit cards (to the tune of $47,000) and screws anything that moves. Rebecca is turning 30 and her free-spirit sexuality is starting to stink like old hashish. She is sleeping with an older man who has an unnatural obsession with his always scantily clad teenage daughter. Jennifer, on the other hand, is married to a rich attorney and has a lovely little daughter. But she apparently gets a little too toddler tantric at time, so she robs the rough trade cradle outside of high schools and bangs the acne out of them in hotel rooms.


Between Laura’s emotional breakdowns, Jennifer’s sexual suicides, and Rebecca’s incest inquest, these gals maintain a pretty heavy emotional social calendar. When Jennifer abandons her family for life as a streetwalker, her educated friends go running to the rescue. Will they locate the MBA madam (yes, BJ, Jenny went to graduate school) or are they destined to simply sit down and cry until the Mascara smears in telltale pools around their pre-plastic surgery cheeks?


Go ahead: call me an insensitive male chauvinist pig. Brand me with testosterone and serve me up, Neanderthal style. Heck, just go ahead and call me what I am - a man! But this critic did not get Mascara, not one mind-numbing, pre-menstrual moaning minute of it. Imagine a version of Lilith Fair with only Tori Amos playing atonal songs about her vagina. Picture yourself wedged between Ani DiFranco arguing with the Indigo Girls at a fundraiser for breast cancer awareness. Jeez, if you’re married, just think of any completely pointless argument you’ve had with your spouse, and Mascara will pretty much match it for cockamamie Kabala crapola.


This movie is so in touch with its feminine side that the Divinyls are suing for copyright infringement. Now, perhaps this burly bag of snips and snails was not the intended audience for this exercise in estrogen and completely non-erotic gal-on-gal bonding. After all, they say men are from Mars and women hate penis. That would explain the alien ass gas, indecipherable suffragette stool samples that come pouring out of our lead lassies’ mouths. The girls of Mascara speak in Oprah-ready sound bites and live lives filled with every feminine hot button nightmare, from abuse and betrayal to boyfriends who have sex with their teenage daughters. About the only anti-social agenda points not experienced by our everyday ladies are female circumcision and bisexual lesbian experimentation.
Mascara is a movie that wants to say something deep and profound about young women in a society that has convoluted the rules as to what makes them female. It ends up being a poor woman’s Sex in the City, with tract housing and the Galleria substituting for material girl Manhattan.


Part of the problem is filmmaker (?) Linda Kandel’s horrible direction. After watching 30 minutes of her nervous, constantly in motion camera work, you’ll swear that she and her cinematographer suffer from ADD, St. Vitus Dance, and reverse motion sickness. The Blair Witch Project didn’t have this much Panaflex pandemonium going in its hand-held hurricane. With every shot, every edit, the frame and composition are in motion. Pan camera to the right. Move frame up and to the left. Dolly past a couple as they walk down the street. Perhaps she is trying to baffle us with visual tricks to keep us from focusing on her less than laptop screenplay that substitutes symptoms for statements.


But Kandel also can’t handle her actors. You have to wonder who Ione Skye screwed over during her Tinseltown tenure to have such a horrible voodoo curse thrust upon her once-promising career. The formerly transcendent talent plays a human hippie version of the null set so blankly that she threatens to supernova and implode into a black hole, taking the rest of the movie with her. Not that Duran’s Duran, Amanda De Cadenet, is any more lively. So disconnected that telephone operators should be standing by to warn you she’s not in service, her unhappy whore housewife is all blank stares and empty gesture. She does have one scene of quiet dignity though: depressed after having sex with a punky teenager, she sits buck naked in the shower, water running over her shoulders as she gobbles a plate of meatballs and drinks red wine from the bottle. The fact that she goes off to sell her cookies as a high-class call girl is not as shocking as the idea that, somewhere along her selfish slide into sex for cash, she got married and had a kid.


About the only convincing acting turn comes at the accent of Lumi Cavazos, who personifies the complete and utter simp magnificently. Unfortunately, this means we are treated to 90 minutes of watching an ill-natured doormat get shat upon by the world until, through the magical healing powers of childbirth, she and all our other characters are rehabilitated and cured.


Indeed, the big problem with Mascara is that it wants to tackle every woman’s issue all at once. This overstuffed film plays like a four-year course in gender issues crammed into a single butt-sagging final exam. In the plot are scenes/allusions to sexual battery, assault, date rape, statutory rape, incest, physical abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, abandonment, adultery, pedophilia, suicide, mental illness, substance abuse, prostitution, death, familial dysfunction, and bad acting classes. You could survey a women’s prison for six months and not find this many maladjusted, misguided females or omnipresent social ills.


There is nothing realistic about a single character going through 50 of Dr. Laura’s 100 stupid things women do before said female reaches 30, and yet we are supposed to believe that every pseudo-psychological struggle that a human can go through just so happens to occur to all of these idiots in six months of their life. These women aren’t victims so much as they are communicable carriers of interpersonal trauma. And using biology, the instinctual makeup of the female body to reproduce as a life-righting ritual, is cheap and far too simplistic. If all of life’s big-ticket traumas could be cured with a deep breath and a push of placenta, criminologists would be hiring midwives to help solve serial murders.


Mascara is a chick flick that out distances Lifetime and Oxygen in the communal crisis arena. These ladies really do suffer for their lack of a Y chromosome, and just our luck they have a hyperactive camera around to catch their agony for posterity.


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Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Video game trailers are becoming more and more important to the success of the games they depict. What are the best ones you've seen this year?

Having been the one to plaster the trailers at the bottom of the game reviews you’ve been reading on PopMatters for the last year and a half or so, I’ve had the privilege to watch hundreds of these game trailers over that time.  Given the increasing prevalence of YouTube, Google Video, and more specialized spots like the aptly named GameTrailers, the videogame trailer has become as important as the movie trailer in their respective media arenas.


As it turns out, they have awards (“Golden Trailers”) for game trailers!  This is a fact of the industry that I had no idea existed until I got an e-mail announcing the winner of this year’s award:


Yes, “Medal of Homer” actually beat out the Halo 3 “Believe” ads, which is actually pretty incredible for the folks at Hammer Creative, who made the thing. 


The leading contender so far this year?  I’ve seen some excellent trailers for Super Smash Bros. Brawl, GTA IV, and even Persona 3, but the leader in this particular race right now has to be Metal Gear Solid 4, for a trailer that’s less than 48 hours old.  The reason?  The mere presence of Don LaFontaine, a.k.a. “The Movie Voiceover Guy”, elevates pretty much any trailer to must-watch status (a fact not lost on Sega, who actually hired him for Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games), and the sheer drama of Metal Gear Solid 4 only adds to the weight.  Here it is:


 


Hell yes!  Whoo!  When the end of it—that “...but Courage is SOLID” part—happens, I want to get up and cheer like a 14-year-old who just watched Saw.  It’s so, so cheesy, but it’s so earnest about it as to actually be kind of endearing.  And AWESOME.  Have you seen anything better?  Pop it in the comments.  I wanna see.


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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Do you own more than one copy of a certain title? Was it an accidental purchase - you didn’t realize you already had it in your collection - or did you pick the spare up because it was more special - newer, fancier, hard-bound - than your first copy?


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I’ve always been a Jane Austen fan, and Pride & Prejudice holds a special place in my heart. A few years ago for my birthday I was surprised to receive a beautiful red hard-bound copy with gilded edges and gold embossed print on the spine. Printed in my birth year, no less. It was gorgeous, and brand spanking new, by the look of it. The same day, I was doubly surprised to receive a lovely used copy of the same book, bound in green with marbled endpapers and a perfectly fitted box that held the book tidily inside. Suddenly I seemed to have a small but growing collection of Pride & Prejudice, and I didn’t mind at all!


I’ve never sat down and read either of those beautiful copies, preferring to use a beat up paperback version if I want to reread it. Having them on my shelf, however, is comforting in some odd way, like keeping love tokens around even after a relationship has ended.


More recently I seem to have entered into a different sort of affair. I’ve been on the lookout for a complete set of Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). I’ve picked up a couple of battered paperback copies of the first installment, ‘Swann’s Way’, but never managed to find a complete set without shelling out for a brand new one. I was much more interested in a used edition – especially as most readers don’t admit to getting past the first section without superhuman effort.


In the library where I work we have been culling the collection, and every week I lug a box or two of fresh withdrawn books to the High School teacher’s room to be picked over and eventually carted down to the Middle School office in hopes that some of them will be taken by folks who can continue using them; this also cuts down on how much I have to eventually carry out to the recycling dumpster.


Early on in the effort, I brought a new batch up to the teacher’s room and noticed that the previous week’s box was gone entirely. An enterprising teacher had nicked it to be used as a doorstop down the hall, and also I suspect she hoped her students might be interested in some of the titles. Looking around the room, I spotted a random box on top of an old rundown fridge in the corner, and it looked like it might have books in it. Lifting it down from its perch I found that it was a box of withdrawn books from the previous school year’s rejects, neglected and un-recycled.


After a moment’s perusal I spotted the first volume in a two book edition of Proust’s masterpiece. Though I already possessed two paperback copies of mostly the same material, and was missing the second half, I was elated. Minutes later when discussing the contents of the box with my fellow librarians I was astonished to flip over an unidentified volume and find that it was the second book in the set. A matched hard-bound pair!


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For several years I’ve been looking out for a complete set of Proust. Finally it was discovered, withdrawn from the High School collection for the sin of not being checked out in a decade and not being a part of the current curriculum, only to sit in a hot stuffy school teacher’s room for an extra year, and finally to be discovered by accident by someone willing to take them home and dust them off and cherish them. The icing on the cake was the price: free.


Do you have a book collection? What is the best find you’ve had?


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