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by Christian John Wikane

4 Mar 2009

The Pointer Sisters gave New Yorkers a Valentine’s Day treat with a powerhouse performance at The Lehman Center for the Performing Arts. All of the hits of the group’s four-decade career were revisited in the 80-minute set. Ruth Pointer’s gospel-inflected pipes opened the show offstage with “Happiness”. With sister Anita and daughter Issa in tow, Ruth sauntered out onto the stage as the band transitioned to the strutting funk of the song’s second half. Ruth’s voice has only gotten more nuanced and rich over the years, as her take on Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” amply illustrated.

Anita Pointer, who co-authored many Pointer Sisters classics, brought a little country into the mix with “Fairytale”, a song that earned the group their first Grammy Award in 1975 for – get ready – Best Country Performance by a Duo of Group. “Slow Hand”, a number-two pop hit from 1981, was also given a slight country makeover with an arresting lead by Anita. A highlight of the show was Anita’s rap introducing a medley of “How Long (Betcha’ Got a Chick on the Side)” and “Yes We Can Can”. The segment was prefaced by some exotic vocalese reminiscent of “Chainey Do” from The Pointer Sisters’ Steppin’ (1975) album.

Issa Pointer took center stage for “Dare Me”, a song that June Pointer originally fronted. (Issa replaced June when she passed away in 2006.) Issa made the song her own, injecting sass and spunk into every note. Her aunt would be proud.

The Pointer Sisters closed with a four-song explosion of hits: “Fire”, “I’m So Excited”, “Neutron Dance”, and “Jump (For My Love)”. Their ability to shake, stir, and summon an audience to their feet is nearly unparalleled by performers half Anita and Ruth Pointer’s age. After more than 35 years of entertaining audience, The Pointer Sisters prove how flavors-of-the-moment come and go but legends remain.

(Note: to celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Pointer Sisters’ debut album, PopMatters sat down with Ruth Pointer at her home in Massachusetts to discuss the group’s legacy. Look for the complete interview soon!)

by Sean Murphy

4 Mar 2009

This Sunday’s New York Times magazine features a lengthy, but worthwhile appraisal of John Cheever by Charles McGrath. The piece reassesses Cheever’s current status (McGrath correctly concedes that Cheever, who died in 1982, has had his star fade in the last decade or two), and perhaps in light of John Updike’s recent passing (he made it to 76), it is difficult to believe the “Chekhov of the suburbs”, as he was sometimes called (in a way that only a regular contributor to The New Yorker, that literary bible of upper-middle class, over-educated and angst-ridden WASPs could be) did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his collected short stories. Those stories, taken along with his novels (some highly regarded, others not so much) seemed to constitute a significant pillar in the modern American pantheon (modern meaning three to four decades ago).

When Cheever died, McGrath recalls: his literary reputation seemed as secure as literary reputations get. You would have bought shares in it if you speculated in such things. He was a widely acknowledged master of the short story, in a league with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Updike, who said that Cheever wrote “as if with the quill from the wing of an angel.” Now, not so much. The aforementioned collection of short stories, still largely regarded (for better or worse) as one of the seminal works of 20th century American fiction, sells approximately 5,000 copies a year. Not shabby, McGrath acknowledges, but pretty depressing when you consider that James Patterson, for instance, probably sold more books in the last ten minutes than the Cheever catalog will sell in the next ten years.

Nevertheless, (and this seems to be one of McGrath’s implications) it stands to reason that with the understandable hubbub stirred up by Updike’s death and the celluloid reincarnation of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (haven’t seen it yet, but if it’s half as depressing as the novel, it will be very depressing indeed), the time may be ripe for a reassessment of Cheever, that bard of suburban despair. We’ll see. As we slouch toward a not-so-great Depression, I suspect that nostalgia for the black-and-white TV era in America might not entice too many young readers. Having to brown bag lunch it once in a while (do they even make brown bags anymore?) is about as retro as most middle-aged clock punchers want to get. I can’t say I blame them. Also, remember how quaint some of the characters seemed, when we read about them in the late ’70s and early ’80s? Think about how ancient, and boring, those loquacious and well-mannered (not to mention mostly lillywhite) characters will seem to X-box educated pupils today.

Let’s put it this way: to get a handle on Cheever, you need to have at least a passing appreciation of a time when people poured their spirits out of glass decanters (you need to know what a decanter is). An era when women drank, and smoked, all through their pregnancies just so they could keep pace with their husbands. McGrath speaks to Mary, Cheever’s 90-year-old widow, and she reminisces about how certain folks rolled back in the day: “I just couldn’t keep him from drinking,” and went on: “But everyone drank a lot back then. People don’t always understand that now. Sometimes someone would even have to be put to bed before dinner, but that’s just the way it was.”

That remark, remarkable in its stoic, unsentimental honesty,  reminded me of Cheever’s much-anthologized short story “The Swimmer”. The story is not autobiographical so much as a stark document from the same era Cheever lived, wrote and drank in. Old school: Most of us can think of a friend whose father (or mother for that matter), we came to understand, was in an entirely different league when it came to the science of cirrhosis. The man who falls asleep fully clothed with a snifter balanced over his briefs, then up and out the door before sunrise—-like the rest of the inverted vampires who do their dirty work during the day in three piece suits. Maybe it was a martini at lunch, or several cigarettes an hour to take the edge of. Whatever it was, whatever it took, they always made it out, and they always came back, for the family and to the refrigerator, filled with the best friends anyone can afford.

Our friends’ fathers came of age in the bad old days that fight it out, for posterity, in the pages of books, uneasy memories and the wishful thinking of TV reruns: the ‘50s. These are men who have never opened a bottle of wine and have no use for imported beer, men who actually have rye in their liquor cabinets—-who still have liquor cabinets for that matter. These are men who were raised by men that never considered church or sick-days optional, and the only thing they disliked more than strangers was their neighbors. Men who didn’t believe in diseases and didn’t drink to escape so much as to remind themselves exactly what they never had a chance to become. Theirs was an alcoholism that did not involve happy hours and karaoke contests; theirs was a sit down with the radio and a whiskey sour, a refill with dinner and one before, during and after the ballgame. Or maybe they’d mow the lawn to liven things up, tinker under the hood of a car that had decades to go before it could become a classic. Or perhaps friends would come over to play cards. Sometimes a second bottle would get broken out.

It was a slow burn of similar nights: stiff upper lips, the sun setting on boys playing baseball, mothers sitting on the couch watching TVs families did not yet own, of forced smiles battling bottled tears in the bottom of a coffee mug, of amphetamines and affairs, overhead fans and undernourished kids, of evening papers and a creeping conviction that there is no God, of poets unable to make art out of the mess they’d made of their lives. It was a hard time where people did not live happily ever after, if they ever lived at all. It was a time, in other words, not unlike our own.

by Jer Fairall

4 Mar 2009

“You haven’t seen war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino.”  Out August 21.

by Vijith Assar

4 Mar 2009

As you probably already know, SNL alum Jimmy Fallon made his debut Monday night as a late-night talk show host in an attempt to fill departed comic royalty Conan O’Brien’s (figuratively and literally) enormous shoes. The poor dear was clearly dysfunctionally nervous, as evidenced by (figuratively) robotic delivery of the opening monologue and asking his guests (literally) point-blank to do impressions without any semblance of a contextual setup. (Yes, Conan and the random-ass non sequitur were the dearest of friends, but that’s not what was going on in this case.)

Let’s focus instead, then, on the introduction of hip-hop dynamos the Roots to the bandstand in the Max Weinberg Seven role, a bizarre career move which initially left me wondering if instrumental prowess was once again on the way out in hip-hop. No, Weezy’s guitar fetish doesn’t count.

The good news: they nailed it right off the bat, and the opening sequence clearly raised the bar on Conan’s. An apparently-late-for-work Fallon scrambled through the streets of New York trying to outrun a deliciously filthy funk-rock guitar riff that culminated in synchronized yelps from the band members and a wiggle of ?uestlove’s wig. That’s the kind of late night I wanna have; sorry, Pender.

The bad news: Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter still has to sell me on his importance in this context. Granted, he wasn’t half bad as a comic foil, singing Fallon’s Slow-Jam The News bit to a remarkable, er, climax—specifically, with the line “she added an amendment.” (One hopes the genre will change each night, but I guess we have to wait a few more hours to find out.)  But despite his front-and-center role with the band for the past 15 years, the fact remains that they’re doing transitional music and intro/outros now—they reportedly worked up 200 microcompositions in preparation for the debut. Unfortunately, a seven second canvas doesn’t give Tariq enough time to drop any coherent grammar, let alone the usual profound lyrical insights. Vicki Randle from the Tonight Show Band might sing Leno out frequently enough, but when guitarist Kevin Eubanks takes the spotlight—that is, most of the time—she plays percussion instead. Black Thought, on the other hand, just stands there looking slick. Can we at least get him some castanets?

Of course, I’m down with any excuse to hear these guys play Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” (or, as I knew it for years, “Regulate”), and although Fallon still needs to defrost a bit, he does deserve a little more time to ease into the role even if his band outpaces him from the get-go. It’s going to be hard to switch back and forth with Craig Ferguson and still catch Late Night’s ad bumpers, but I’m going to give it a shot.

by Rob Horning

3 Mar 2009

Commenting on British reality-TV contest shows, Chris Dillow makes a great point about what he labels “consumption deskilling”:

The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing also reflect the fact that once-basic skills such as singing and dancing have become specialist tasks performed by professionals and merely passively consumed by the rest of us. What’s going on here is a form of deskilling. But it’s a different from the one brilliantly described by Harry Braverman, who showed how workers were robbed by capitalists of their production skills. What we’re seeing here is the decline of consumption skills. Which raises a question. How can capitalism have achieved this? After all, the capitalist might have control over production - and is thus well-placed to deprive workers of productive skills - but he doesn’t have control over what we do in our own homes. So what’s going on? ...Scarce time… needn’t displace consumption skills. I suspect something else is going on. That something is the spread of purely instrumental rationality - the idea that utility maximization consists solely in maximizing consumption for minimal expenditure of time and money. Many of us take it for granted that it’s rational to spend as little time cooking as possible, and that music should only be a consumption good. What this ignores is that many things are worth doing for their own sake.

Exactly. Consumerism tends to encourage us to think of “doing things” as work and touts vicariousness as superior to actual participation. Watching and imagining become the convenient short-cuts to mastery —“rational” ways to save time and maximize consumption, which we have limited time for, after all, in this era of free content and attention deficits.

What makes instrumental rationality spread is advertising discourse, which conveys that ideology regardless of what specific product it touts. Consumer-goods manufacturers obviously have a vested interest in promoting vicariousness: If we find little meaning in our work and prefer consumption to concentration and collecting things to hobbies, they obviously benefit to a far greater degree than they do if they are merely outfitting us for activities other than shopping.With marketing to remind us of all the goods we are missing out on, the pressure to conserve time is always growing; and consuming instead of doing lets us save time while working through our leisure to-do list. (It’s apropos here to cite my favorite Minutemen song, “Shit From an Old Notebook”: “Let the products sell themselves; fuck advertising, commercial psychology, psychological methods to sell should be destroyed because of their own blind involvement in their own conditioned minds.”)

Vicariousness lets us evade that supposedly dismal slough of practice necessary before the “rewards” begin to come in—before our guitar playing or cooking or whatever is professional grade. That is what Dillow is talking about with “instrumental rationality”—the idea that only the ends justify the means, which must be kept minimized. The end result of anything we do is reified, in the sense that it becomes a kind of object we add to our collection of accomplishments. That feat of collecting such end results outweighs, or even obfuscates, the pleasures of having experiences themselves. (This is also why the “buying experiences” idea bothers me.) Dillow notes that happiness research suggests this is actually happening—people are finding it hard to identify what will make them happy and make systematic mistakes.

Losing touch with the desire to pursue pleasure through doing things, the pleasure of the sheer fact of being alive and humanly productive, is a fundamental sort of alienation, and, as Dillow notes, Marx’s critique of capitalism pivoted on this idea. “Marx’s gripe with capitalism was that it transformed work from a means of expressing one’s nature into a force for oppressing and demeaning people. So great has been capitalism’s triumph that many of us don’t even appreciate the possibility that Marx could have been right. It’s just taken for granted that work must be alienated drudgery.”

So it is vis-a-vis consumption deskilling: Consumption should take work; it is not work’s opposite. We must be actively engaged for consumption to be meaningful, or life-affirming or some such slop. If we instead look for short cuts to accelerate our processing of leisure goods, we, ironically enough, succeed in making consumption more work-like—at least in terms of how work is falsely conceived under capitalism, as disutility.

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