Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Aug 22, 2007

Poor Steve Jobs is getting chased at from all directions.  Everyone wants to knock down his dominance of online music sales.  The problem is that while there’s a lot of competition heating up, they’re not necessarily poised to kill off iTunes.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007

We tend to forget how lonely and narrow the craft of songwriting can be, especially in these days of sour re-sampled ‘hits’ and hooks-by-committee creativity. To channel the melodic meaning of the universe through your insights and instruments remains an almost indecipherable creative pursuit. How a single human being can summarize the wealth of individual experience into a three minute collection of chords, words, and aural abstracts often seems like a challenge to cheat God. Only someone with powers as omniscient could forge such a solid sonic pact with both music and meaning. It’s rare, but some of that talent tends to trickle down to people on our planet, giving them inspiration to attempt the evocative expression. It’s these dedicated artists that we find as the focus of this month’s Surround Sound, an installment supporting such a harmonious hypothesis. Whether they’re fictional, factual, or fractured, we are given a privileged glimpse into their way of working, such a snapshot providing proof that, even on Earth, there are definite deities amongst us mere mortals.


Once [rating: 9]


Music is often referred to as the soundtrack to our lives, and for many, it’s a sentiment to be taken literally. We fall in love to a certain song, break up over a privately held tune, and treat all celebrations, losses, and interpersonal struggles as objects for underscoring. It’s a proposal that propels the critically acclaimed “indie musical” Once, a film forged out of the former working relationship between John Carney and Glen Hansard (who were in the Irish rock band The Frames together). Centering on the burgeoning relationship between a street performer and a Czech immigrant flower girl, the celebrated outsider triumph took a non traditional route toward its aural accompaniment. Pre-production found non-actors Hansard and Markéta Irglová (noted professionals in the industry) writing the highly personal soundtrack, both separate and in collaboration. The results ended up reaching across the typical music and lyrics to evoke strong, substantive emotion while also providing the kind of minor key mood that prepares us for all the emotional upheaval that the narrative promises. As is the case with releases like this, context is crucial to gaining the full impact of these songs. But once you’ve heard them, they’re hard to forget – with or without the movie to illuminate them.


A perfect example is the opening track, “Falling Slowly”. Beginning with a graceful guitar signature, and building to a crescendo of expressive singing and intricate piano and string driven instrumentation, the song suggests the start of something doomed, as if fate has already stepped in and clarified the possibilities. It’s a feeling only amplified by the duets, where simple aural implications like “If You Want Me” or “When Your Minds Made Up” say more about Hansard and Irglová than any dialogue could deliver. Toward the middle, our male lead has a pair of palpable high points. “Leave” is the most undemanding break up song ever (even the title suggestion sounds more like a pledge than a plea) while “Trying to Pull Myself Away” is an uptempo effort to convince himself that life post-affair can return to normal. Of course, the lyrics suggest something far more complicated. There are also hints of the long lost troubadours here, the sonic semblance of “All The Way Down” to “Pink Moon” era Nick Drake being rather obvious. By the time we reach the title track, we’re hoping for the kind of clear cut catharsis that such a storyline seems to suggest. Instead, we become lost in the apparent ennui, freed only by Hansard’s fabulous finale “Say It To Me Now”. From a whisper to a scream it sells Once as a fabulous and fresh reinvention of a typically tired genre.


You’re Gonna Miss Me [rating: 8]


As an audience member, we rarely get to witness a musician’s mental breakdown through their songs. Instead, the manipulative minds behind the performer’s career tend to tweak out the bad stuff, leaving behind an incomplete portrait without all the sonic shadings. In the case of psychedelic bluesman Roky Erickson, however, the shift was sudden, severe, and very, very public. Before anyone could get him the help he needed, he lost both his audience and his mind. It wasn’t until he hit that most horrible of clichés –rock bottom – that he could pull himself out of his psychotic stresses. In his prime, however, he was like a combination of Syd Barrett and Daniel Johnston with a persona heavy on the weird acid casualty side of ideas. The change manifested itself aurally, as Erickson went from writing normal tunes about love and loss with the seminal 13th Floor Elevators to converting the voices in his head into epic audio tirades against unseen demons, goblins, and ghosts. It’s a path that we can follow, thanks to Kevin McAlester and his in depth documentary, as well as this stellar soundtrack album accompanying it. Covering Erickson’s entire career (including some heretofore unheard demos), we see how a damaged brain can become an even more messed up muse.


The two 13th Floor tracks – the recognizable hit that gives the work its title, and “Fire Engine” - argue that our hero wasn’t functioning on all six cylinders to begin with. The later track specifically sounds like a failed Brian Wilson SMiLE cut crammed into The Beatles “Revolution #9”. It definitely prepares us for the worst yet to come. What’s surprising, though, are the pre-problematic cuts where Erickson comes off like a solid Me Decade arena rocker. In fact, his new band (the Aliens) could easily be called Blue Oyster Occult. Genius works like “Bloody Hammer” and “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” appear cogent at first. But then the increasingly surreal lyrics start creeping in, and before we know it, efforts like “Mine, Mine, Mind” and “It’s a Good Night for Alligators” lose us. Thankfully, the compilation compensates for these obviously arcane riffs, referencing Erickson in his more introspective period (the poignant “You Don’t Love Me Yet”) and insightful (the calm, acoustic protest “Unforced Peace”). By the end of the album, our troubled soul has more or less returned to his senses, singing the heartbreaking and brittle “Goodbye Sweet Dreams”. Unlike other musicians whose minds snapped, time and treatment appear to have brought him back – at least, part way. With a collection of creative shout outs like this, it’s a well earned return.


Kurt Cobain About a Son [rating: 7]


Sometimes, it’s easier to look outside, to an artist’s sphere of influences, rather than reflect on the same three album canon over and over again – especially when financial issues like copyright and residuals conspire to mess with your options. For his documentary about the Nirvana icon, filmmaker AJ Schnack (creator of the brilliant They Might Be Giants deconstruction, Gigantic) drew on the numerous sonic references the troubled artist relied on to create his inappropriately labeled ‘grunge” dynamic. In fact, aside from Steve Albini’s overriding desire to distort all guitars, Cobain was a pop songwriter forced to conform to the needs of the scene (Seattle in the ‘90s) and the rock merchandisers (who rightly saw punk’s potential rebirth). He was also indebted to standard ‘70s cockrock, as well as the harsh hardcore subgenre that swept the West Coast of his adolescence. Without using a single note of the man’s amazing oeuvre, and avoiding the more obvious bands (The Pixies) namechecked in interviews, the slightly off center portrait painted is one of a DIY devotee who also enjoyed reflecting on the medium’s previous dinosaur stance. Together, with minor snippets from the audio interviews with Kobain that form the basis for the film, the imagination that drove this determined musician slowly comes into view.


The soundtrack begins on an ephemeral note, where one of the few original pieces – an ambient like drone by Steve Fisk and Benjamin Gibbard – sets the melancholy mood. It prepares us for something more introspective than extroverted. Oddly, this isn’t supported by the next track, the weird inclusion of the Arlo Guthrie novelty “The Motorcycle Song”. Perhaps within the context of the film it works. Here, it’s a glaring sonic stunt. More in tune with our expectations is “Eye Flys” from Cobain faves Melvins. As a simple bass line loops and lunges, fuzzy guitars ‘buzz’ in the background. After almost five minutes, a groove is set and the singer steps in. The lyrics suggest the sort of mental fever dreams the late poet played with. In quick succession, the brilliant Bad Brains prove why they were “Banned in DC”, while the usually atonal Half Japanese go bubblegum with their jaunty “Pour Some Sugar On It”. By the time The Vaselines arrive to offer up their cryptic ear candy (“Son of a Gun”, a great track), the image of Cobain as a craftsman is clear. He channeled all his loves – Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Leadbelly, all present – into an intriguing amalgamation of personal primal scream and amiable AM radio. He had as much in common with the Butthole Surfers (represented by “Graveyard”) as he did with fellow scene stealers Mudhoney (“Touch Me, I’m Sick”). Even highly specialized tastes like Scratch Acid (represented by the arcane “Owner’s Lament”) make perfect sense within this decibel dynamic.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007
The Book of DisquietAuthor: Fernando PessoaPenguinDecember 2002, 544 pages, $16.00

The Book of Disquiet
Author: Fernando Pessoa
Penguin
December 2002, 544 pages, $16.00


Have you ever finished a book and then gone back to the beginning to read it all over again because you can’t bear to let it go? I did that for the first time a few days ago when I came to the end of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I’d make a terrible, skewed reviewer right now: my thoughts are all superlatives. The main one is: “This is the only true book I have ever read.” That keeps going through my mind: This is the only true book I have ever read.


It seems truer than non-fiction because it is openly subjective. If you removed the author’s right to his ‘I’ then the book wouldn’t exist. Disquiet takes the form of a diary without dates and without a narrative connection between the days. The diarist does not, for example, meet a woman one week and then chart a course of love with her across the months, ending in triumphant dating by the climax. There is no climax. The order of the entries is more or less arbitrary. No one knows the order Pessoa wrote them in, or how he meant them to be arranged. Like most of his writing, the Book went unpublished during his lifetime. It was assembled from his unfinished notes after he died. (Some of the entries begin or end in ellipses, or hint at supportive paragraphs that he never got around to writing. Small squares have been drawn in places where his handwriting became too illegible to decipher.) The edition of the book that I’m reading—Richard Zenith’s translation from the original Portuguese, published by Penguin in 2001—comprises 481 of these notes, and ends with a Disquiet Anthology of pieces that could potentially have made it into the main body of the Book, but, in the end, didn’t.


The cumulative power of these scraps is something like that of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but Pessoa’s research was all inward, a hermetic brooding over his own emotions and ideas, where Benjamin liked looking up quotes at the library. Questions roll around in the diarist’s head. Who am I? What am I? How can I tell? How should I spend my life? Some of the entries are a page or more long, others are the written equivalent of idle doodles. “Faith is the instinct of action,” is one of those doodles. Another one: “Who am I to myself? Just another one of my sensations.” And: “To speak is to show too much consideration for others. It’s when they open their mouths that fish, and Oscar Wilde, are fatally hooked.”


Fernando Pessoa

Fernando Pessoa


Outwardly the diarist does very little. He goes to work, comes home, eats his meals in the same restaurant, and often looks out of his window. “Wise is the man who monotonises his existence, for then each minor incident seems a marvel,” he remarks. “A hunter of lions feels no adventure after the third lion.” Pessoa names him Bernardo Soares. Soares lives in four rooms, doesn’t travel, is unmarried, ungirlfriended, childless, unsociable, not handsome, not famous. He is what his author called a semi-heteronym, an imaginary person who is almost-but-not-quite Pessoa himself. Most of Pessoa’s other writing was done by heteronyms. “A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which it is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; a heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be,” he explained. His heteronyms had their own names and biographies. One was a suicidal aristocrat, another was an anti-Christian Englishman, a third was a Portuguese “nature-poet” named Alberto Caeiro: others were dying women, men who did the crosswords, bisexual dandies. Soares refers to them as freely as if they were real; he refers to real writers as if they were real as well. 


This common, imaginary bookkeeper’s brain is extraordinary rich—one of the effects of this book has been to make me aware of the wrongness of the word ‘extraordinary’ in this sentence. “I’ve had great ambitions and boundless dreams, but so has the delivery boy or the seamstress, because everyone has dreams,” Soares writes. “I differ from them only in knowing how to write. Yes, writing is an act, a personal circumstance that distinguishes me from them. But in my soul I’m their equal.”


Dreaming is essential, he decides, or, at any rate, it is all we’re fit for. “Dreaming is the one thing we have that’s really ours.” A daydream is the place where the human being is most free. All other freedoms are only the appearance of freedom. Even a king is not rich unless he is free in this way. (Saying this, he comes a little too close to the poor-little-rich boy idea embodied by those Hollywood comedies in which moneyed, staid people blossom anew thanks to housekeepers, bag ladies, chancers, thieves, kidnappers, carjackers, prostitutes, ethnic stereotypes, etc, although Soares doesn’t push it that far himself. Sometimes, when he goes to extremes, he can sound defensive or merely tongue-in-cheek: “[T]here are contemplative souls who have lived more intensely, more widely and more turbulently than those who live externally,” he asserts, without evidence. “A dream can tire us out as much as physical labour.” Tell it to a labourer.)


Soares doesn’t make friends with people and he doesn’t woo women. It’s richer, he thinks, to drowse over them, to anticipate them as dream-figures inside his head, much as Pessoa imagined his heteronyms, independent thinkers yet dependent on him, their creator. At bottom, no one knows what they are, why they are here—religion doesn’t cover it, nothing covers it. The Book of Disquiet spirals around this unanswerable mystery and decides that it is unanswerable. There is no narrative to us: we live, we die, that much is certain. This is not a comforting realisation, but it is an honest one. That’s why The Book of Disquiet feels like the only true book I have ever read.


Compare thirteen different translations of Pessoa’s poem “Autopsicografia”.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007

Today, the Wall Street Journal reported on the precipitous drop in the value of shares of Heelys, manufacturer of those rolling shoes that were popular a season ago with kids looking to break their necks. (I guess the WSJ is still good for something. My flight to quality and the FT won’t be complete until my WSJ subscription runs out.) My first reaction to this was delight; the shoes were a stupid trend, and there’s schadenfreude in seeing its inevitable demise. You have to wonder what sort of investor saw a sustainable growth potential in a business that sells novelty shoes to ten-year-olds? Optimistic neophytes, or opportunistic daredevils? Anyway, I started to wonder why I had anything invested myself in the fate of this company, even if it was only emotional investment. Why was I so pleased?


Initially, the failure of such companies as Heelys seems to prove that it’s a bad move to base businesses on frivolous fashion, which by extension seems to suggest that fashion itself is a dubious force, something better eradicated, like volatility in the markets. When the Heelys of the world fail, it should theoretically remind everyone not to get too wrapped up in fads, and to look elsewhere for engines of growth—to technology that breeds efficiency, for example. This is in keeping with my general skepticism regarding retail stocks, which are always dependent on fickle and unpredictable customers spending irrationally in a way I wouldn’t otherwise condone.


But if I’m hoping that the failure of fashion-forward companies somehow portends the end of the industry, I really need to consider more carefully this passage from the WSJ article:


Industry analysts said [Heelys’] sales drop stems from a more prosaic cause: An increasing number of youngsters said they would rather wear something else. Amy Braunstein, 14 years old, who was shopping at Dallas’s NorthPark Center mall last week, said Heelys were popular among her classmates two years ago. Now, the eighth grader said most children wear Nike Inc.‘s Converse shoes, leaving their Heelys at home. “They’re old,” she said.


If anything, Heelys’ failure demonstrates the remorselessness of fashion, and how deeply it has been entrenched even in the mind of preteens. It’s influence is far from showing any signs of mitigating; instead its stranglehold on culture grows stronger. Were Heelys able to establish itself and maintain its stature perpetually without having to come up with “new shoe designs, including nonwheeled sneakers and a wheeled boot”—pointless innovations (nonwheeled shoes sort of defeats the whole company’s raison d’etre)—then foes of fashion would have reason to be pleased. Instead, I’m thoughtlessly celebrating the opposite. This probably means that I actually take more pleasure in trends than I ordinarily admit to myself—I just happen to enjoy the side of the cycle when trends fade and companies fail rather than when they rise, like a craps player playing the don’t-pass line. Foolishly, I think this makes me a contrarian, and I pretend that I’m not really interested in the craps game at all, while I am making private little bets all the while.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007

There’s a good cover story from Prospect Magazine which lays out all the problems that the record industry has been going through for the last few years and how they brought a lot of it on themselves (no matter how many lawsuits they file to the contrary).  One thing I don’t agree with in the article is about included free CD’s in newspapers- they think it’s useless and only devalues CD’s when in the article, they’ve already argued how CD’s are ALREADY devalued (and Prince used this ploy wisely too).  Also, I don’t like how the article doesn’t offer solutions and instead only serves up a lot of gloom- concert sales seem to be the only way artists can make a living nowadays but as many rappers have shown, there’s a lot of money to be found in other kinds of marketing.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.