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Friday, Jan 5, 2007

For them that’s interested, the Idolator poll is now out, which supplements (or supplants if you like) the upcoming Pazz and Jop poll from the Village Voice.  Other than the results (which not surprisingly weren’t very surprising), the most notable part of it was compiler Michaelangelo Matos’ essay where he revealed Village Voice media’s battle with him:


“New Times—excuse me, Village Voice Media—certainly thought so. Within hours of the poll’s announcement, the chain’s head music editor, the Houston Press’s John Lomax, issued an edict declaring that VVM employees were “not, under any circumstances, [to] contribute to the Idolator poll,” a move that lessened our ranks by somewhere between 50 and 70 ballots. Free speech issues aside, I’d have liked to get those folks in, and acutely missed a handful I count as friends. Still, the 507 voters who came through despite ridiculous email problems (an oversized number of invitees never received ballots, thanks to a combination of overzealous spam filtering and a subject line that included the word “Jackin’”) kept me busy enough. So did extending the deadline twice. VVM, meanwhile, explicitly banned my byline from City Pages, the Minneapolis weekly where I began my writing career. That probably evened things, since the one Jackin’ Pop category that didn’t originate with Pazz & Jop was swiped and/or inspired in part by CP’s annual “Artist of the Year” feature.”


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Friday, Jan 5, 2007

Sometimes friends ask me what music I’ve been listening to, and I always feel lame when I tell them, “Justin Timberlake.” I put a brave face on it and try to make no big deal out of it, change the subject. I certainly don’t expect anyone to congratulate me for it, as pop-oriented music critics some times seem to expect in their columns when they present their embrace of top 40 as some kind of radical position, as if they’d just endorsed Lyndon LaRouche for president or something. My suspicion is the vast majority of pop-music consumers are not especially reflexive about their tastes and enjoy music that much more for it. They are operating from pure praxis; whatever rationale drives their taste has become completely automatic. Of course, some assume that means there is no rationale, and they are mindless sheep consuming whatever they are told, responding mechanically to hype—a very seductive position, because once you come to this conclusion, you have exempted yourself and transcended such sheep, making your tastes (even if—perhaps especially if—they are for misogynistic rap or Satanic metal)  automatically a sign of your higher consciousness. This position makes solipsistic thinking about yourself, what you like and why you like it, a supposed signal of your analytic prowess and your nonconformity and superiority to the mass—narcissism becomes a sign of genius. Arguments about musical taste are inevitably about the participants seeking recognition for their individuality; by persuading someone else to concede your taste, we vindicate our right to our own opinions. The tragedy is that we are ever convinced that we don’t already have that right; the process by which we are inculcated with that notion sadly goes unexamined.


Pop music’s popularity can generally seem as though it requires no explanation. Its “goodness” seems self-evident—just look at the sales figures. Then many questions go unasked: Why this kind of music now? What enabled it to give pleasure to so many people? What does it deliver along with the pleasure? What systems secured the mass exposure the music required to become popular? etc. These questions depersonalize music because they reveal that what songs actually sound like is ultimately insignificant to the economics of the entertainment industry and expose “pop-music taste” as a red herring. But this taste is a crucial tool in self-definition within a mass culture—it differentiates one while simultaneously making a case for one’s belonging to a group; it lets you conform and be different at the same time, which resolves one of the fundamental contradictions we confront. So critics and listeners alike reject such questions and get defensive when they are asked. (“I don’t have to defend my taste to anyone”; “I’m not a robot consuming automatically what music companies spit out; I identify what is truly great.” “The best pop music is art, and here’s why…”) The questions are threats to our sense of individual autonomy; the aesthetic is our cultural system for protecting that sense, even if it is illusory. Shifting discussion to the inherent quality of purposely disposable music (ie, arguing that something about the song itself has made it popular or great rather than the conditions in which it was produced and distributed) masks its disposability, and more important, ours as well. (Side note: consider how much pop music is about the singularity or indestructibility of some unique and timeless love.)


Defensiveness about materialist dismissals of the significance of taste protects us from contemplating what may be an irresolvable existential condition of participating in a society, how to partake of social benefits (e.g., everything that commercial culture produces without having us specifically in mind) without dissolving into a crowd or becoming a mere number to that society. As much as we talk about shopping to construct identity, it is also at the same time a self-annihilating process in which we admit at some deep level that we are willing to conform our desires to ones anticipated in us by manufacturers that know nothing about us, and to the desires of thousands or millions of others who are making the same admission by buying the same product. When we enter consumer society, we surrender or suspend much of the pretense of our uniqueness; then we struggle to get it back in the process of consumption. One way to do this is to build arguments for our tastes, to try to find a unique reason for being a Justin Timberlake fan. But really, there must be better ways for me to distinguish myself than that.


Addendum: This cartoon is a more concise exposition of my argument.


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Friday, Jan 5, 2007


Nominees, Best Actor: 2006
Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat
Matt Damon for The Departed
Leonardo DiCaprio for The Departed *
Ryan Gosling for Half Nelson
Ray Winstone for The Proposition


Other notable performances:
Edward Norton for Down in the Valley, The Illusionist, and The Painted Veil
Patrick Wilson for Little Children


The Best Actor races of awards seasons past have been really heating up in the past few years. 2006 is turning out to be more of a lean race for the men, where it’s really anyone’s guess as to who will take home the Oscar at the end of all of the pre-awards lunacy, but the same few names keep popping up as being “in the running”.


In his last two outings with Martin Scorsese, Dicaprio was either not the focus of the attention (he was far out-classed by Daniel Day Lewis’ Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York; wearing a horrible fright wig and saddled with the wooden Cameron Diaz as a co-star), or he was passably functional but not “classic Scorsese” great (as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, he had some terrific moments, but for my money was miscast). Third times a charm, it seems: Leo has finally given us a “classic Scorsese” performance with The Departed. Filled with rage, youthful macho abandon, and the expertly shaded heroics of Scorsese’s pack of anti-heroes of past awards seasons his character really stacks up favorable next to some of Robert DeNiro’s early work with Scorsese (the rawness in Mean Streets for some reason comes to my mind). DiCaprio has finally delivered fully on the promise everyone has been talking about for years now. We get it; you’re a very serious actor, Leonardo.


Co-star Matt Damon would be an equally compelling choice as actor of the year for his stellar, similarly surprising turn in Scorsese’s film; it seems as though Damon just gets better and better with age. In a cast that is filled with knockout turns, Damon fits perfectly. With strong performances in diverse lead and supporting roles (from tortured gay misfit in The Talented Mr. Ripley to the sublime action of the Bourne films franchise) for more than ten years now, Damon’s collaboration with Scorsese makes perfect sense. It will be very exciting to see his next move after the third Bourne installment this year.


While comedy doesn’t really play well with most film critics organizations that dole out awards (generally to the most austere dramatic performances), Sacha Baron Cohen’s skilled portrayal of a hapless, hysterical Kazakhstan-born reporter is not only one of the best comedic performances of this year, but of any in recent memory. Tackling the outrageous physical demands of the part without any vanity, Cohen has seen his name popping up on year-end “best actor” lists all over the country. He shared the Los Angeles Film Critics award for Best Actor this year with Forest Whitaker’s ferocious characterization of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (talk about an odd couple), and snagged a Golden Globe nod the same week. His is a performance so buzzed about, that at this point he might be considered a favorite for an Oscar nomination, provided of course, they can look past the whole testicles-in-the-face scene (or the anti-Semitism, or the sexism, or the… well you get the point).


Two men flying under the radar of everyone this year, are Ryan Gosling for his searing, natural work in the indie drug-addiction drama Half Nelson and Ray Winstone as a English lawman in lawless Colonial Australia in Nick Cave’s revisionist western The Proposition. Both turned in career-best work that is shamefully going unnoticed by the predictable critic’s groups, mainly because everyone is so obsessed with Whitaker’s role in a shamefully by-the-numbers biography film. I guess original characters aren’t interesting to watch anymore?



Nominees, Best Actress: 2006
Penelope Cruz for Volver
Laura Dern for Inland Empire *
Kirsten Dunst for Marie Antionette
Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls
Kate Winslet Little Children


Other notable performances:
Judi Dench for Notes on a Scandal
Cate Blanchett for Little Fish
Fernanda Montenegro for House of Sand


In the category of Best Actress this year, the only name anyone seems to be able to say is: Helen Mirren. Mirren has been fantastic consistently for so long that her sweep of critic’s prizes (and it’s very likely she will take the Oscar too) doesn’t seem particularly gratuitous, even though it sort of is. She is good in The Queen as Elizabeth, but she has been so much better elsewhere that it seems a little insulting that this sort of stock (at times boring) impersonation is being heralded as her career-best when there are so many other more interesting options in this race. Like in the case of Best Actor and Actress winners of the past (and the list is long), playing a real-life character will likely be Mirren’s ticket to a clean sweep of acting prizes this year.


Nothing any other artist, male or female, will pull off this year will top the experimental Laura Dern/David Lynch alliance in Inland Empire. It’s the kind of performance that will be talked about for years to come and will be properly understood sometime in the future, too late. Dern has been kicking ass and taking names since 1985 (with the underrated teen drama Smooth Talk, which was immediately followed by her first Lynch outing, 1986’s Blue Velvet) and this is he best work to date. As she’s gotten older, her acting choices have become some of the most interesting of any woman in the industry: another Lynch turn in 1990 with Wild at Heart, her Oscar-nominated Rambling Rose, the razor sharp Citizen Ruth, and the searing relationship drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore offer a mere sampling of her film work; while her small screen work has been equally effective (just check out 1998’s The Baby Dance, in which she goes toe to toe with the formidable Stockard Channing, if you don’t believe me). Lynch’s film could very well turn out to be one of the worst-reviewed of the year, but even the critics who hate the film couldn’t help singling out the brave performance of Dern.


Another revelation this year is Penelope Cruz, working again with director Pedro Almodovar on Volver (the two last worked together in 1999 for All About My Mother, in which Cruz played a pregnant nun with AIDS). It’s probably a sound bet for any actress to take even the smallest part with Almodovar, who is so famous for drawing out unique, memorable women but never has such a familiar actress caught me this off-guard: I am not at all a fan of Cruz’s technique, but found her utterly compelling here. When she is performing in English, I always feel like something is missing or something isn’t really connecting properly. In her native Spanish, she comes across deadly sexy, fiercely intelligent and totally committed to her material; it’s like we are watching a completely transformed woman. Though she continues to churn out misfire after misfire in the US (my apologies if anyone was really into her “performance” in Sahara), Almodovar continues to see something exceptional in Cruz, which is lucky for fans of great female acting everywhere in the world.


Left out of every major critical outing this year (unjustly) is Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antionette, but specifically the deviously girlish performance of Kirsten Dunst, who like Cruz, sometimes has trouble connecting to characters that are perhaps outside of her range or experience. As the young queen, Dunst was able to register on screen like she never had before: she was appropriately beguiling, and eventually commandingly tragic. It’s another case of an actress really hitting her artistic stride alongside a favorite director (2000’s The Virgin Suicides was their first successful match up), which looks to be the most surefire way to achieve a modicum of artistic merit this year.


Little Children was one of the best films of the year that, unfortunately, no one saw. Kate Winslet can apparently not give a bad performance, audience or not: her turn as a bourgeois suburbanite mother whose life is uproariously stirred up by a neighbor is one of the most introspective and well-thought out pieces of acting she has done to date (think American Beauty meets Madame Bovary, and you’ll get the idea of where she is coming from). Considering the career that Winslet has nurtured over the years, it’s a bold statement to call this her best work, but it is clear that she wholly identifies with the material and connects with it on a very important level, being a young mother herself in real life. Playing a woman who isn’t concerned with appearances at all, and who also might not be a great mother, Winslet is able to speak volumes with the most seemingly insignificant gestures and looks; but also with a singular lack of personal vanity. In Little Children Winslet’s beauty is presented as many things other than just physical: it’s empowering, tragic, and even stoic.


And lastly, we have the biggest, boldest hype of the year: Jennifer Hudson. She of the mega-buildup, she of American Idol fame has had a maddening amount of buzz being spilled her way for her tour-de-force debut performance as the now-mythical Broadway character Effie White in Bill Condon’s adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls. It is the only time in recent memory I can confidently say that the performance lives up to the hoopla: Hudson is flat-out astonishing. At the end of her huge diva number that closes the first act, prepare to be amazed at her skillful combination of real, gritty emotion (that isn’t glam in the least), theatricality, and vocal prowess. The audience I saw this scene with, outside of Detroit, erupted in thunderous applause and cheers in the middle of the film, after this scene (something I have not seen with any other performance, in any other film).  Hudson is charming, and it is refreshing to see a real woman like her run away with show. She may not be as skinny as co-star Beyonce Knowles or as popular, but she is way, way cooler.


Hudson’s off-screen persona compliments her character’s transition from nothing to star to has-been and back again perfectly and naturally. The only issue I have with her performance is that she is being promoted (and winning) supporting actress honors all over the place, when really she is the lead of the film: she has more screen time than her co-stars and is so expressive that when she is not onscreen, you are still thinking about her and hoping she will be back soon. Like her character in the film, she is being screwed out of what is rightfully hers just so Knowles, who is more of a supporting character in the story than Hudson, can be primed to take a spot in the lead actress categories. At least losing gracefully this time will likely result in an Hudson getting Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, rather than an insult from Simon Cowell. Thanks, J.Hud for taking one for the team, a classy, winning move indeed.


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Friday, Jan 5, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Straight on the heels of their Spin.com “Band of The Day” feature and selection by KEXP.com as as a favorite local band of 2006, The Trucks have mixed down their Peaches-meets-post-punk/retro-synth pop/garage band song “Titties”  to eight source tracks, slapped them up on-line and made them available for the world to remix and mashup. In other words, play with The Trucks’ “Titties” and win a iPod Nano (you won’t hear that offer again).


Hosted deeplinks for all eight remix tracks are available on the Toolshed mediapage (under the heading “Other Online Assets,” scroll down; source track at top of page)


Email your remix or mashup as an at least 128 kps MP3 to: thetrucks@clickpoprecords.com (Remix must be received by Midnight Pacific, Feb 28th.) Winner will be announced March 14th.


 


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Thursday, Jan 4, 2007

Wal-Mart dominates the retail sector because it perfected just-in-time logistics (only as much inventory as will be sold), minimizing overhead costs and allowing the company to charge lower prices. This in turn attracted more customers, which eventually gave Wal-Mart the enormous scale of operations that allows it to bully suppliers and dictate its own terms to them in order to hone its supply-chain logistics even further—a tidy little feedback loop. Now Wal-Mart hopes to improve its bottom line by treating workers, whom it has vigorized preventing from unionizing, in the same way it treats inventory, employing them on a just-in-time, as-needed basis. This WSJ article by Kris Maher, which is surprisingly sympathetic to the worker’s point of view, has the details:


Staffing is the latest arena in which companies are trying to wring costs and attain new efficiencies. The latest so-called scheduling-optimization systems can integrate data ranging from the number of in-store customers at certain hours to the average time it takes to sell a television or unload a truck, and help predict how many workers will be needed at any given hour….
But while the new systems are expected to benefit both retailers and customers, some experts say they can saddle workers with unpredictable schedules. In some cases, they may be asked to be “on call” to meet customer surges, or sent home because of a lull, resulting in less pay. The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person’s schedule. That means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month’s bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four-hour days, mornings one week and evenings the next.


In this post, Brad Plumer elaborates on the employee hardships Maher mentions: “Another problem, of course, is that 40 percent of Wal-Mart’s employees will soon be part-time workers. Many of them—and many of the full-time workers, too—need to find second or even third jobs to make ends meet. Of course, it becomes near-impossible to find another job when you have to sit around ‘on call’ and can’t predict your schedule from week to week. Ah, but at least the Bureau of Labor Statistics can record an uptick in ‘productivity,’ and economists can then sit around and wonder why median wages aren’t going up too. So it’s all good…”


Wal-Mart defends this by reminding everyone how great this will be for customers.


Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark says the system isn’t intended to schedule fewer workers, and hasn’t where it has been implemented so far. The company says that in one test last year in 39 stores, 70% of customers said the checkout experience had improved. “The advantages are simple: We will benefit by improving the shopping experience by having the right number of associates to meet our customers’ needs when they shop our stores,” Ms. Clark said.


But what about workers, whose lives will be made much more insecure? “Some analysts say the new systems will result in more irregular part-time work. ‘The whole point is workers were a fixed cost, now they’re a variable cost. Is it good for workers? Probably not,’ says Kenneth Dalto, a management consultant in Farmington Hills, Mich.


Probably not? Of course it’s not good for workers. It only amplifies the chaos in the already often chaotic lives of the poor. As Jonathan Cobb argues in his afterword to The Hidden Injuries of Class, class is a matter of being reminded that your time is not valuable, not nearly as significant as other people’s time, other people who presumably do something much more useful with it. If you are poor, lower class, you can always be made to wait. If you are important, you can have things “on demand.” Wal-Mart is telling its employees that the time of every single person who comes into a Wal-Mart store is more valuable than that of those it entrusts to serve those customers. Of course, any of us can become one of those customers and suddenly feel important, but that is the deeper charade at work—that we will ever be able to buy dignity and self-respect by being a consumer rather than earn it by doing meaningful social work. This development makes it plain how improvements in serving the customer are typically translations of ways of screwing the worker (who is essentially the same person). On-demand consumerism, then, is compensation for how our time is routinely demanded of us; the more on-demand consumerism we expect, the more we accept unreasonable demands on our time from our employers.


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