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by Bill Gibron

7 Feb 2009

We are clearly a nation of classes. We hear about it everyday: the haves and the have-nots; upper, middle, lower, impoverished, disenfranchised, and all the pecuniary parameters in between; the name families and the citizenry within the so-called welfare state; those with power and those struggling to make ends meet. To ignore the financial delineation between people is foolhardy. To make too much out of it is equally pointless. There will always be rich folk and it seems we are destined to live in a social structure which fails to fully reward those who are the hardest working among us. But according to Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine and economic intellectual, there’s another class to be concerned about - one we Americans thought we would never see.

Indeed, in a democracy, there should never be a hierarchy of power, or a true ruling class. Money can indeed buy you influence, but the ability of the populace to control its abuse is the premise upon which our nation is founded. And yet, in his inspired documentary dissertation on the subject The American Ruling Class (new to DVD from Alive Mind), Lapham argues that the US is gripped by a collection of familiar names, faces, and corporate facades that manipulate and micromanage ever other facet of our supposed Constitutional community. Inexplicably tied to capitalism, the desire for material gain, and the implied notion of happiness linked to both, we discover that those who want to make a difference are rare indeed. Everyone else just wants to make a dollar.

Lapham presents his thesis in a powerful, provocative manner. He takes two “actors”, turns them into stereotypical Ivy League grads (Yale), and then sets them on different paths. ‘Jack Bellami’ comes from privilege, and has a standing offer at Goldman Sachs come graduation. He sees himself as part of the overall banking/financial set-up of America. ‘Mark Vanzetti’ has more noble aspirations. While he too could instantly earn a job on Wall Street, he really wants to be a writer. He takes a year off, gets a self-described “bohemian” apartment, and waits tables during the day as he searches for his muse. Lapham acts as a guide for both progressing pilgrims, showing each the possibilities, and pitfalls, of their individual pursuits. Part of this process includes talking with and interviewing individuals - artists, politicians, businessmen, CEOs - who hope to clarify (and sometimes complicate) the multifaceted pros and cons.

During its opening moments, The American Ruling Class appears obvious. Lapham may look like a member of the Warren Buffet Appreciation Society, but he seems more ideological in his search. He constantly warns his charges that there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of riches. Instead, he counters that one should “do no harm” during said quest. Thanks to insights from Walter Cronkite, Kurt Vonnegut, and Lapham himself, Jack feels authorized to begin his rise to prominence. After all, it’s just the way things are. But for Mark, our instructor forges a much more intricate path. We see a reporter playing waitress so she can chronicle the life of the minimum wage earner (the prognosis: not very good at all). There are conversations with Hollywood heavyweights Mike Medavoy and the late filmmaker Robert Altman. Mark even gets a last minute bit of advice from folk troubadour Pete Seeger.

Yet it’s the sit down with members of an elite think tank whose main purpose seems to be setting the policy for everyone on the planet that offers the most insight. It’s Mark who gets to match wits with such powerhouse individuals as Bill Bradley, Vartan Gregorian, Harold Brown, and William T. Coleman, among others. Most seem content to be part of the upper echelon, frequently speaking in terms that some might misinterpret as derogatory - or at the very least, unsympathetic. Perhaps the worst offender is former White House Chief of Staff/Secretary of State James A. Baker. Beginning from a position that believes there is nothing wrong with using wealth as a means of obtaining and maintaining power, and then extrapolating said position out onto the rest of the world, he remains a focused figure of Reagan/Bush neo-conservatism. Even his attempts at apologies seem arrogant.

It’s this sequence that turns The American Ruling Class from a dissenter to a dinner companion. It seems as if Lapham is backhandedly trying to support the notion of giving up activism for a life in service of the all mighty greenback. There’s never a time when child of means Jack reconsiders his career arc. He has doubts at first, but the film’s narrative seems to cement his resolve. Mark, ion the other hand, gets batted around like a dead mouse in a barn cat’s paw. He’s against the kind of corporate zombie stance. He bristles at the notion of “selling out”. He argues with wealthy friends who have the trust fund to let them work for pro bono agencies like Legal Aid. But in the end, he takes Jack’s offers to join Goldman Sachs, and even with the perturbed look on his face, he appears ready to start his own potential ascension into importance. 

The mixed message really hurts The American Ruling Class, much more than the nonsensical novelty numbers strewn throughout the movie (yes, this is a musical…of sorts) or Lapham’s cryptic narration, filled with fancy, flowery prose. Documentaries are notorious for their ability to act as eye-openers, shedding light on ideas and individuals that the mainstream media seems to ignore. This film I a lot like Mark’s trip to The New York Times. On the one hand, the paper must serve the wishes of pure journalism. It must offer reportage without the benefit of bias or political position. And then there is the demand for cash flow. Sometimes, the content must meet the requirements of the commercial sector as well. The American Ruling Class apparently wants to argue both sides of the situation. But as anyone familiar with the art of debate can tell you, sitting on the fence is ultimately non-persuasive.

by Matt White

7 Feb 2009

Morrissey was on Jimmy Kimmel Thursday night playing “Something Is Squeezing My Skull”, one of the best songs off his upcoming album Years of Refusal. Moz and the boys look a little confined on the tiny stage but deliver a strong performance with Morrissey shouting “Lux Interior!” at the end, in tribute to the Cramps’ singer who passed away the day before.

Years of Refusal is out February 17.

by Rob Horning

6 Feb 2009

I will take the bait. Here are a few theses inspired by Hipster Runoff, a site that bills itself as “The Most Conceptually Celebrated Blog in the History of the Memesphere.” It strikes me as the apotheosis of a new category of critical discourse that, for better or worse, has been slowly congealing over the past few years via such various modalities as LOL cats, Vice magazine do’s and don’ts, flame wars, douchebaggery and douche bags as a widely recognized species, text messaging, sock puppeteering, YouTube karaoke, intensely and disturbingly self-referential video art, and so on. This category still needs a label—I’m hoping that postpostmodern will not be employed. I’m not entirely convinced that this is not just a fresh iteration of previous forms of postmodernity. Anyway, to the theses!

1. Online sociality has brought on a crisis of identity. The self has been externalized and its evolution preserved in ways that were previously unthinkable. The burden of self has thereby become more palpable.

2. Social criticism has been resolved into self-expression.

3. One can’t be against hipsters. Hipsterism consists of its own repudiation. Recognizing the existence of hipsters to a certain degree makes one a hipster.

4. Social networks mandate identity formation on the model of cloud computing. One’s corporeal self is merely the local host for a self whose operating system is now fixed elsewhere, distributed across a digital array. Our bodies function merely to transfer data to the cloud, to the networked space in which it may be transmogrifed into identity. Akin to “software as a service,” we now have self as a service.

5. The variables we transfer to the cloud increasingly delimit the field of identity and condition what sorts of data will subsequently be considered relevant or applicable. Our data trail winnows, making online recommendation services seem more prescient and useful. These services will work to colonize more and more aspects of social being, suggesting friends and lovers as well as music, hobbies and interests. A song recommendation generated by your online practices will not be some byproduct of one’s identity but its very substance. One will exist as the residue of the recommendations that one generates actively or passively through consenting to consign most of one’s social activity to online forums and have them tracked and compiled. Our identity will only be as deep and complex as the quantitative density of our Facebook status updates and tweets.

6. Existence online appears accelerated, though in fact it consists of a series of frozen moments. It waits for and demands our input, perpetually presenting options and reminding us of alternatives while confronting us with the history of our previous tendencies. It thus forces on us unremitting self-consciousness. There can be no harmonizing of action and its preconception; no spontaneous authenticity.

7. Online, we are made painfully aware of the existential need to act, though that awareness is tempered by the way in which our actions online are always provisional and easily altered, augmented or supplanted. We can embrace necessary action with none of the responsibility for consequences.

8. Online practice is always a simulation in the sense that it occurs within a world that offers no real resistance to the self. A nondialectical space, the field of online being offers nothing to negate; it only assimilates. If, as Hegel claimed, the “rational is the actual” and vice versa, the realm of online simulacra is a realm where rationality is impossible. No critical intention can disrupt the reality presented online, nor can it merge with action and become praxis. Action results not in self-actualization but merely self-conscious agglomeration.

9. The collapse of language into abbreviations, arbitrary conditions of brevity, self-enforced infantilism and the like are attempts to import the the inflexible conditions of reality, against which we shape ourselves, to the online world, which lacks such conditions and threatens us with an amorphous and intolerable incontinence of identity.

10. Faced with the promise of a seemingly infinite extension of identity online, our actual lived identity shrivels to the disappearing point of spontaneous revisions at every instant, all of which are minutely recorded and make subsequent necessary reinventions that much more implausible and untenable.

by Michael Edler

6 Feb 2009

I just dumped R.E.M. and this time it’s for good!

The first time I tried to dump R.E.M. was in October of 1994. The air was crisp, the sounds of the alt-rock that R.E.M. had helped influence had grown to the stale melodies of radio-easy music, and R.E.M. released their “rocker” Monster. Some critics talked about how R.E.M. finally delivered their great rock and roll album after years of toiling with the sad songs of the past. The quartet from Athens, GA finally came through with an album that was all parts Document and Life’s Rich Pageant. I placed that damn CD in my Walkman for a whole month trying to like the thing and one day in October of 1994, I told R.E.M. “I need a break from our relationship.”

Two years later and R.E.M. released a new album New Adventures in High-Fi and I bought it, kinda liked the last track “Eloctrolite”, but it salvaged little from an album of blandness and broke up with them again late in 1996. I was furious. I refused to make up again. I did this back and forth for the next three albums. Each album represented music that did not push boundaries or re-invent (or invigorate) modern music. I would break up with the band, get back together the moment their new album came out, break up after listening to each successive album until one day; maybe a week ago, a good friend came to me with a copy of the latest album Accelerate, an album I purposely ignored and refused to acknowledge, and a small endorsement of the album’s content; “It’s not too bad.” I went home, hooked up my headphones to my stereo, plugged in this latest venture into my musical heart, and two listens later, I frustratingly put my headphones down and announced; “Michael, Peter, and Mike (and Bill), I am officially breaking up with you. It’s over. I cannot handle it anymore. I know you are trying real hard and feel each album is a new venture into your maturing sound-scapes of a career, but really. Stop it. You’re no good to me and you’re hurting yourself.”

Don’t get me wrong: R.E.M. is the most important American band since 1980. No band has the influence on American music like R.E.M. Even Saint Cobain admitted that he loved what R.E.M. stood for in his life and, like Kurt Cobain, I believed in the ideals that this band adhered to in their career. But a simple check through the back catalogue of R.E.M. albums before 1994’s Monster displays a greatness that has been left behind. The question I propose is whether to believe that the last 15 years of R.E.M. is cancelling out the loads of influences that the previous 13 years created (pre-Monster? I am a big R.E.M. fan and I refuse to answer the question in the affirmative as I believe the back catalogue of R.E.M. stands up to the strands of whatever music they attempt to generate, but eventually this big band from a sleepy college town must realize that it is slowly becoming just a sleepy band. This, honestly, makes me sad.

What makes me sadder? Take a listen to R.E.M.’s 1st EP Chronic Town and pay really close attention to a song like “Wolves, Lower”. It’s classic Peter Buck arpeggio work, the mumbled lyrics of Stipe, the solid baseline of Mills, and the constant undertone drive from Berry. Then, consider how “Wolves, Lower” becomes a new language for what to expect from a rock song. There is a band recreating the verse, chorus, bridge, chorus pop-rock song on a small label EP. By the time the band puts out its critical staple Murmur, R.E.M. has crushed what to expect from a rock and roll song and it didn’t do it by recreating the patterns of the rock song, but by disagreeing with what we expect a rock song to sound like. They stood above the song and divided the elements and democratized the rock song. At the core, rock and roll is about Democracy. It’s the shared elements of the music that equals brilliance.

Truly, there is no difference to the frame of most R.E.M. songs than there is to a song by Boston, but it’s in the completion or execution of the song; the way the band hovers over each other, no part greater than the other; this gave rock and roll another lease on life. Ultimately, this is what good music does: it engages us not to try too hard and be weird for the sake of being weird, but rather to take what we already know, shake it up, and present it to us in the same form, but the result of hearing it gives another way of seeing that original unit of measurement.

For R.E.M. they gave us a different unit to measure the pop song. It is an ironic placement of what the ‘80s Alternative Music scene did for rock and roll. No one can call any member of R.E.M. a musical trend setter, but you can say that they made us think about what a pop song is supposed to sound like.

Fast forward today and I cannot help but notice that R.E.M.’s songs no longer carry the same unity. Two-thirds of Accelerate is filled with songs this band could do in its sleep. There is not one bit of innovation. They are a skeleton of loose parts; Stipe the “Cult of Personality”, Buck the accomplished rock guitarist, and Mills dressed like a bombastic rock star.

I get it. You’re no longer R.E.M. of the ‘80s. I don’t really want you to recreate Document, but I would really love you again if you realized that at your best, R.E.M. is a band that recreated the standard of how we hear rock and roll and that each time this band releases sub standard music, it reminds us that they are inching ever closer to becoming the new Boston. It’s only a short ride to “More than a Feeling”. Ironically, I would love for them to stop by my house and play me “More Than a Feeling”. I would love for them to rise above the song, sell it to me as something more than what I expect it to be. Maybe this could regenerate my love for R.E.M. again.

I mean, come on. I broke up with the band, but I’m not going that far away. I’m only a phone call, a short letter, or a new album away.

by Sachyn Mital

6 Feb 2009

A long line of people were waiting outside in the freezing January night while on stage at the Mercury Lounge, Brooklyn’s Chin Chin opened up for Brazil’s Curumin (pronounced “KOO-roo-mean”). If you got there late thinking that Chin Chin were serving as a warm-up band, though, you would have made a mistake, because by then the six-piece band already had the place on fire. Numerous people were dancing up close to the stage while everyone else gave way and were forced to groove shoulder to shoulder at the back of the room. Before finishing up, Chin Chin decreed music is “so much better when we do it together” and it was easy to understand why with the number of people moving to their sounds.

Quannum Projects, the record label of Luciano Nakata Albuquerque (aka Curumin), is primarily known for its roster of underground hip-hop artists, including Blackalicious and Lyrics Born as well as being an early home to DJ Shadow. But, as Chin Chin would agree, music needs to be shared. When Blackalicious discovered Curumin during a tour of Brazil in 2005, despite the language barriers, they must have loved his music a lot for they signed him to their label. And hip-hop culture was ever present on the stage at the Mercury Lounge as Money Mark, the keyboardist, producer and past Beastie Boys collaborator performed alongside Curumin and three other musicians as a special guest.

 

Branded as “samba-soul-hip-hop”, Curumin made sure to keep the audience dancing and applauding whatever the genre of song. From behind the drums, he sang songs from both of his albums, Achados e Perdidos and the more recent JapanPopShow, like “Samba Japa”, “Magrela Fever”, and “Compato” that conveyed delicious samba funk. A later song had a breakbeat club rhythm, while the show closer had an easy-going reggae vibe reminiscent of Sublime. Curumin described the next song as “beautiful” before turning the slow original Roy Ayer’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” into an extended jam.

Since the majority of singing was in Curumin’s native Portuguese, people could be overhead wishing they knew what he was saying as “the music is so good”. Through his set, Curumin encouraged everyone to wave their arms, gave a salute to New York and expressed his happiness in seeing so many people. He even asked the audience to give back in the form of an MC. And when one was welcomed up, he repeatedly asked people “give it up for Curumin” receiving a resounding sound of gratitude. Even though he would make a perfect outdoor summer show, Curumin turned the tiny Mercury Lounge into a steamy oasis during winter. People came together, not to seek respite in the form of shade or water, but to bask in the warmth and pleasure of the music.

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