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Monday, May 14, 2007

Zygmunt Bauman offers two defining principles of Leftism, something that seemed pertinent after the detour into Hegemony and Socialist Strategy over the weekend.


The first assumption is that it is the duty of the community to insure its individual members against individual misfortune. And the second is that, just as the carrying capacity of a bridge is measured by the strength of its weakest support, so the quality of a society should be measured by the quality of life of its weakest members. These two constant and non-negotiable assumptions set the left on a perpetual collision course with the realities of the human condition under the rule of capitalism; they necessarily lead to charges against the capitalist order, with its twin sins of wastefulness and immorality, manifested in social injustice.



In other words, leftist politics are a matter of supplying a social safety net and inverting the assumption that socioeconomic benefits trickle down from the top, after the wealthiest of society are given the leeway to pursue their greed to the utmost. Wealth provides a wider latitude of opportunity, and those on the Right tend to argue that inhibiting those opportunities compromises possibilities for everyone on down the totem pole. But if Bauman’s principles are respected, we must consider the person in society with the least social and financial and human capital as the focus of our concerns. Capitalist society’s failure to enhance these people’s capital is what makes it guilty of “wastefulness and immorality”—strange charges when you consider capitalism’s heedless drive for efficiency is generally its operating principle. Capitalism tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, who then use their enlarged opportunities to continue to consolidate their advantages. Political disagreements often revolve around whether this process generates opportunities for everyone else, has no particular net effect on opportunity, or positively harms those left behind. That in turn hinges on how one views the problems of relative wealth, egalitarianism, environmental risk, community solidarity, ambition’s place in meritocracy, the danger of moral hazard in social protections, and so on. To my mind, the most compelling argument regarding the dangers of economic inequality is that it yields political inequality; the wealthy are able to seize control of government and use it to protect their interests at the expense of opportunity for others—social mobility is inhibited and democratic processes devolve into sham practices, with consumer choice masquerading as political choice, and prosperity of the “look how many flat-screen TVs Americans bought” sort supplanting freedom. So in a statement like this”


Unless closely watched and checked, markets tend to produce a lot of waste and lead to the deepening polarisation of human conditions and life prospects. They also generate insecurity, promoting and reinforcing feelings of abandonment, alienation and loneliness.


I would want the remark about waste clarified, given some kind of measure. It may be that capitalism’s hostility to waste, its tendency to label nonproductive behavior as inefficient and wasteful, that yields the polarization, the alienation, the loneliness. Capitalism’s view of waste needs to be set against a leftist version that’s persuasive, a definition of waste that hinges on a sense of a wasted life, of insecurity as wasted, counterproductive and socially corrosive mental energy.


Bauman translates his two defining principles into this definition:


The left is best described as a stance of permanent criticism of the realities of social life, which always fall short of the values a society professes and promises to serve. The left is not committed to any specific model of human togetherness: the sole model it refuses to tolerate is a regime that deems itself perfect - or at least the best of all possible worlds - and therefore immune to questioning.


This definition shows Bauman has assimilated of Laclau and Mouffe’s point of there being no given, natural inevitable constituency for socialism, and it hearkens to the notion of permanent revolution. He seems to elevate critical thinking to the level of an end in itself, not necessarily because critical thinking is a practice commensurate with the dignity of humankind (which is why I’d advocate it for its own sake) but because of a realist assessment of what’s possible. This is akin to Zizek’s prescription for “pessimistic leftism”, touched on in this brief interview.


But ultimately he conceives of Leftism’s mission to promulgate the “social state”—something like Sweden. Which means the left must come up with an answer to the ammunition provided by stories like this one, which suggests the incentives in the Swedish system are creating freeloaders rather than the fully dignified humans we leftists would like to see.


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Monday, May 14, 2007

When Time magazine published their infamous “Is God dead?” cover story in 1966, editors across the continent learned a valuable lesson: God sells. And controversial stories about God sell more. Just ask Dan Brown. Or Richard Dawkins.


With his atheist manifesto, The God Delusion, dominating bestseller lists since it was first published in September, Dawkins has been at the centre of nearly every God (or rather, anti-God) story recently published.The articles all seem to tell us the same thing: Science and religion are at odds. The Intelligent Design debacle made a lot of people angry. Religion and God are bearing the brunt of their anger. Atheism is hot and Richard Dawkins is the man who lit the flame. (Here, to prove that this subject is newsworthy, some other prominent atheists are mentioned, usually philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and neuroscience grad student Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. Aspiring freelancers take note: three=trend.) Religion is the cause of most of the world’s violence, the Atheists say. Stalin and Hitler were Atheists, the religionists say. Hmmm, the writer says.


 


 


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Sunday, May 13, 2007


Perhaps you’ve seen the trailer. It features a whisper thin slacker type sitting by the seashore, melodiously requesting that somebody listen to his story “all about the girl who came to stay”. For a moment, the feeling seems sad and somber, the dark, dreary setting matching the mood and atmosphere of the plea perfectly. Still, there’s something gnawing at the back of your brain, a familiarity that keeps you from getting completely lost in the scene. And then it hits you. The actor, Jim Sturgess, is not presenting an original sonic sentiment. No, he’s channeling John Lennon circa 1965 and Rubber Soul, crooning the Beatles’ tune “Girl” as part of a…what’s this? A musical based on the compositions of the Fab Four? Apparently, current filmmakers have learned nothing from the past.


In an industry not noted for its intellectualized approach to art, the notion of using the creative canon of cultural icons John, Paul, George and Ringo is not a new idea, but it certainly is a bad one. With at least two certified cinematic disasters looming in the medium’s rear view mirror, how anyone could greenlight a project which melds a myriad of Beatles songs into a operetta-like look at the most tumultuous time in US history screams of stupidity – or at the very least, short sightedness. Yet now, with the trailer for director Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe showing up in theaters, it appears that some suit drank the creative Kool-Aid on such a cockeyed conceit. And the potential apocalypse is up on the screen for everyone to see.


In brief, the preview offers up the story of Jude, a naïve Englishmen who arrives in America and gets a job as a dockworker. Instantly, he is swept up in the peace and love movements of the ‘60s. All throughout the various meet-cute moments and supposedly iconic vistas, the reworked hits of the greatest band ever waft in the background and pour from the pouting mouths of the frighteningly young cast. We even see snippets of what looks like a dream/LSD sequence, with British comedian Eddie Izzard as a diabolical circus ringmaster (Mr. Kite, anyone?). Things change, however, when the Army calls Jude’s pal. Before you know it, hippies are doing choreographed dance moves in the middle of Central Park, while soldiers scream in rice patties, “Helter Skelter” blaring in the background.


Sounds potentially promising, right? Maybe, thanks to Taymor’s stint as the director and creative force behind the Broadway smash The Lion King. That’s no small feat, considering she was starting with a cartoon as the source material for a live action extravaganza. Perhaps she can find a way to make this work. After all, Milos Forman took the similarly formless rock opera Hair and found a way to make its divergent collection of poptones perform in tandem to tell an actually story. So why not Taymor? Well, the comparison between Universe and the 1979 Forman film is apt, especially since this new show looks like a direct rip-off of the previous production. From the aforementioned park sequence to the mimicked moment when a young man faces the military draft board, there’s a clear filmic familiarity capable of breeding a serious amount of creative contempt.


It’s not just the idea that a series of songs, disconnected from each other in time, theme, style and substance, are being jerryrigged into an equally narrow-minded view of one of history’s most important and multifaceted eras. No, the recent trend, even on the Great White Way, is to take an artist’s entire catalog (say that of Abba, or Bob Dylan), draft a dodgy script that tries to link the material together, and present it with a fair amount of verve and generational gusto. Pop culture is fueled by youth, and with many of the sources several DECADES out of the limelight, such songfests had to appear fresh and innovative – at least to this just out of diapers demographic. There are also hints of knowing nostalgia, a determination that boomers and their ever increasing outer fringes will find the trip down memory lane wistful and warm.


But the Beatles – they’ve proven downright deadly before. Taymor is not the first filmmaker to tackle the quartet’s potent portfolio, and before you start screaming over a certain Peter Frampton/Bee Gee debacle entitled Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, let’s recall the first real Fab Four fiasco. Back in 1976, documentarian Susan Winslow was approached by 20th Century Fox with a very strange proposition indeed. The studio was looking for a novel way to exploit their vast vault of World War II battle and newsreel footage, and they thought that juxtaposing it against the Beatles would be a perfect commentary on the importance of both entities. Monty Python ex-Pat Terry Gilliam reportedly rejected the idea as “sacrilegious”, but Winslow thought she could make it work.


Of course, the still-feuding boys would have nothing to do with the project, so all of their songs were re-recorded by ‘famous’ rock acts of the era. Elton John’s previous hit version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was dug up, while other artists like Helen Reddy (“The Fool on the Hill”), The Four Seasons (“We Can Work it Out”) and the Brothers Johnson (“Hey Jude”) came onboard specifically for the film. There were some interesting takes on the material – vaudeville crooner Frankie Laine’s version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, Rod Stewart’s sizzling “Get Back” and Tina Turner’s dynamic cover of “Come Together” – but the problem wasn’t the music itself. No, once placed alongside scenes of battle and Nazi propaganda, the entire project took on a weird, almost diabolic tone.


Try as she might, Winslow could not save her film, now entitled All This and World War II (a supposed satiric stab at irony, ala the British dance hall dramatization of WWI, Oh What a Lovely War! ). A massive soundtrack album was released, but the project was eventually shelved. For many, it was the only logical choice. After all, the very idea that music created in an era of freedom and revolution would be used as the backdrop to an overview of international atrocities in the name of power seemed ludicrous. Currently available only in bootleg editions, the final product is actually fairly entertaining. The songs may suffer every now and again, but the context they provide on the War is actually very astute.


All This and World War II appeared to be the last word on adapting the music of the Beatles to the big screen. Still, the lads from Liverpool remained as popular as ever, and when music executive Roger Stigwood was looking for a way to channel the reputation of his prized act The Bee Gees into other lucrative venues, an off Broadway production from 1974 seemed like the perfect solution. Stigwood’s RSO Records label had released the massive hit double LP score for the disco draw Saturday Night Fever, as well as the hit soundtrack to the movie version of Grease. With the Brothers Gibb under contract, and a desire to work with then Comes Alive powerhouse Peter Frampton, the genesis of future flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was born.


Stigwood had it all figured out. He would hire the former band’s legendary producer, George Martin, tap famous faces (Steve Martin, George Burns) and rock acts (Alice Cooper, Aerosmith) to play important characters, and dress the whole thing up in a silly psychedelic dreamscape that was part frilly fantasy, part scathing attack of the debauchery-laced record biz. He hired Cooley High/Car Wash director Michael Schultz to helm the project, opened up his checkbook, and plunked down a whopping $18 million for the budget. Now, that may not seem like a lot, but only the year before, Steven Spielberg’s epic UFO thriller Close Encounters of the Third Kind cost a scant $20 million. Certain he would make back his money on the inevitable record release, Stigwood saw nothing but dollar signs.


Of course, said symbols all ended up in red on the bottom of his movie’s balance sheet. Pepper was a disaster, an unmitigated morass of bad casting, inert performances, horrendous narrative spasms and an overall feeling of camp creepiness. The Bee Gees were bad, Frampton failed to impress, and even the professional member of the acting team – Donald Pleasance, Paul Nicholas, etc. – seemed subdued. Instead of capturing the magic of the Beatles, the movie buried their energy and invention in a fog of Muzik-lite adaptations and arcane artistic choices. A critical and commercial catastrophe, Sgt. Pepper sat as the industry’s delineated disaster du jour – that is, until Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate came along and stole its box office bomb thunder.  And yet Stigwood was right in the end. The soundtrack album sold extremely well. 


Better still, it looked like future filmmakers had finally gotten the point. Since Sgt. Pepper, no one has again tried to tie the Beatles to a big screen musical. In fact, until Michael Jackson bought the rights to the group’s publishing and started allowing certain songs to be used in advertising campaigns, the remaining members of the band have been very careful to control their use. Only recently, for 2001’s I Am Sam, did a significant amount of Fab Four material find its way into a film (and again, it was cover versions of famous songs). But this time, they were used sparingly, offered to help define Sean Penn’s mentally handicapped character.


Across the Universe, on the other hand, looks like someone trying to remake both Hair and Pepper with just a little of Oasis’ “All Around the World” thrown in for good measure. And for all we know, it could turn out to be a major motion picture triumph. Indications are, however, that trouble is looming on the hit parade horizon. A few months back, Revolution Pictures Executive Joe Roth (himself a quasi-filmmaker) took Taymor’s cut of the film, carved out nearly 40 minutes (it was originally running somewhere in the area of two hours plus), and showed his ‘version’ to test audiences – all without the director’s knowledge. Then we learn that the movie has been ‘done’ since 2005, and that Ms. Taymor herself has been tinkering with the editing for over a year. All claim it’s merely an issue of length, not legitimacy. Right.


We’ll have to wait until September before the final fate of Across the Universe can be determined. Maybe Taymor’s talent for the unusual has cracked the knotty nut that is utilizing the Fab Four’s music in movies. Perhaps the jarring effect of hearing seemingly tone-deaf performers bellowing out the band’s songs will be softened by some new narrative or performance perspective. Maybe everything will gel together – reality and fantasy, song and sentiment. The trailer tends to indicate otherwise, as does the track record for such a strategy. There’s a line in the title track that seems to suggest a possible outcome. “Nothing’s going to change my world”, the lyric boasts, and in the universe of the Beatles on the big screen, such a prediction is dour indeed.



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Sunday, May 13, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Immaculate Machine —"Dear Confessor "
From Fables on Mint
While traditional fables are simplistic and moralizing, Immaculate Machine’s Fables is an open-ended series of vignettes based on the idea that our lives are stories. These tales of travel and mischief leave plenty of room for listener interpretation. The energetic Victoria based trio formed in 2002 and released two CDs independently before signing to Mint Records. Their critically acclaimed debut Mint album, Ones and Zeros, was released in 2004.


Tarwater —"A Marriage in Belmont"
From Spider Smile on Morr Music
It’s the sound, not the song. At least at the beginning. Bernd Jestram and Ronald Lippok sit in their recording studio located in the heart of their city and turn the knobs, press the buttons, shift the regulators. Until they find a sound, until a sound finds its way to them. A rhythm, a melody, a noise. “Then, we slowly write the song afterwards.” For Spider Smile, Tarwater have found astonishing decided pop songs. They, the electro duo, each of them with his roots in East-Berlin’s sub culture and avant-garde. Their songs being full of allusions and references shall encourage the listener to link his/her own stories with the ones by Tarwater.


Benni Hemm Hemm —"snjórjljóssnjór"
From Kajak on Morr Music
So much time didn’t go by. And quick it was, too. Not only the sounds and texts for Benni Hemm Hemm’s second album Kajak were written within a few, concentrated weeks. The recordings in Sundlaugin, the studio of Sigur Rós, were also done within only four days. During four magical days eleven musicians recorded thirteen vibrating tracks. With kettledrums and trumpets, with guitars, trombones and a glockenspiel. Emotionally, energetically, emphatically. An insistent shining. Warm and visible already from a distance.


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Sunday, May 13, 2007

My loneliness was still there, but it was getting louder, and easier to dance to.
—Brett Butler, Knee Deep in Paradise


Her favorite thing to do when she visits is to peruse my bookshelves. They rarely change—everything squared safely away in categories, alphabetized, hardbacks with hardbacks, paper with paper. But, she looks at them every time as if they’re new, and she says, “I just love this.” For a long time, I thought she, like me, loved the visual, the idea, of stacks of collected books, waiting to be read and reread. It’s so great a site even for me that on my way from the kitchen to the living room, dinner tray in my hand, sometimes I’ll stop and stare at the shelves and remind myself how much I have to learn, and how my education is right there, perfectly ordered, ready. Recently, though, I heard my mum’s words differently. She’s not marveling at the books, or their order, or anything at all to do with them specifically. Her expression, I realized, says: “I created a reader.”


My mum and I have always shared books. She’s often mentioned how she read to my sister and I in the womb, that her one major goal in life was for her children to love books. We do—my sister and I are big readers, thanks to our mum. I remember when my sister and I were maybe 11 and 13, mum would take us secondhand book shopping, and we’d run into the book exchanges in Shepparton so we could be first to grab whatever Stephen Kings had come in that week. In those days, my sister and I shared a lot less. Or, perhaps, while we didn’t mind passing books around, we knew early the thrill of book ownership.


In recent years, mum and I, too, share fewer books. Strangely, the woman who once handed down Kurt Vonnegut, JP Donleavy, and Joseph Heller, has started reading trashy crime novels almost exclusively. As much as she knows about Kilgore Trout, she knows even more about James Patterson’s Alex Cross. She’ll sit on the couch and fly through the latest Harlan Coben, and yet the copy of The Fixer I gave her a few months back still has a bookmarks in it’s center. I don’t know quite what happened, but, as mum would always tell me, it doesn’t matter what you read (I was addicted to Dean Koontz for a while, my sister Anne M. Martin), as long as you’re reading. I’m praying, however, that my trash addiction passed with adolescence.


A decade ago, when I had just turned 18, I handed my mum a copy of Brett Butler’s Knee Deep in Paradise. I loved the book; Butler was on TV at the time, in Grace Under Fire, a show I watched only really when I remembered it was on. Bulter’s story is about growing up in the Deep South, coming to terms with her self-abuse, finding new respect for her parents, and herself. It’s a poetic, shocking read; I knew my mum would love it as much as I did. Something I didn’t think too much about when I gave mum the book was the little lead pencil markings I’d made inside next to passages I wanted to remember, that stood out to me as particularly meaningful. In the book, Brett writes a lot about her mother, intelligent and well-meaning, but scarily unstable. Despite her mother’s complications, Brett lets us know her mother was instrumental in her success. Brett writers of her mother’s unflinching compassion, her interest in her children’s lives, her encouragement of her kids to be unique, educated, and open-minded. My mother is complex in her own ways, and her philosophies mirror those of Brett’s mum. I underlined passages relevant to that. I also underlined passages I felt mirrored my experience – Brett had learned from her mistakes and perhaps, this early in my life, I could, too. I underlined passages about drinking, about bad men, about wanting to crawl away from life. The sad opening paragraphs of chapter 14, I’ve not only underlined, but bordered with five-pointed stars. I was a kid, really, at the time, and knew very little about what was to come. But I realize now, a rocky teenagehood, completely outside of my family home, prepped me early.


My mum handed the book back to me close to tears. We’d had a strong relationship to that point, but there was a lot we didn’t know about each other. She was the cool mum who hated doing the cleaning, and bought me mixed drink cans and took me to parties because that’s what cool mums did. To her, I was the rebellious free spirit, who looked after herself despite her wildness. Brett’s book showed us each other’s lies. She read my underlines, and began to know me. It turns out, we were more alike than we let ourselves realize.


My mom and I share fewer books now, but we rarely go a day without revealing something about ourselves to each other. Like Brett’s mum, mine is there for me, always willing to give, to help, to rescue. Her complexities are my complexities. She created not only a reader, but a woman. The books on my shelf, their importance, their order, and their underlined passages, reveal her as much as they do me. 


 


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