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Friday, Feb 16, 2007

I picked up a copy of Vance Packard’s classic ad-scare polemic, The Hidden Persuaders, in a thrift store recently—a Pocket Book edition that originally cost 35 cents. It’s not even a pocket-size paperback, and the dried, no-longer-adhesive glue cracks every time I open it. I love the cover, which has no illustration, just alarmist announcements of all of marketing’s mind-control-like secrets—whose salaciousness is barely concealed, if at all: “WHY men think of a mistress when they see a convertible in a show window. WHY women in supermarkets are attracted to items wrapped in red. WHY automobiles get longer and longer.” What makes Packard’s book such an effective piece of propaganda about psychologically oriented marketing is that it always suggests that the stupid shopping decisions we make aren’t our doing really but the result of evil advertisers’ manipulation. This twist lets readers pretend they can have the pleasures of shopping without the responsibilities; it puts their consumerism in the passive voice. Reading Packard’s sensationalized accounts of Pierre Martineau (whose Motivation in Advertising is a kind of companion volume to Packard’s book, well-worth reading, if only for its genial cynicism) and Ernest Dichter (a perfectly villainous sounding name for the founder of Motivational Research), we can become incensed at all the ways we have been tricked or gloat to ourselves over all the times we resisted and outsmarted Dichter’s overlords, the devious ad men (always men in this 1950s text). Packard’s outrage that science would ever be employed to exploit people—that scientists might love money more than an abstract notion of humankind and posterity—has a refreshing naiveté to it, and I’m pre-sold on the argument that consumer society needs to invent a new kind of consumer who wants to buy, buy, buy constantly, as if against his own will. In Packard’s account, depth psychology is deployed to “invade the privacy of our minds” and sell personality to people who hadn’t even realized they needed more of one. And consumers must be made to feel constantly discontented and led to think it common sense that buying something more could fix that feeling. (This is sometimes celebrated as a ambitious faith in innovation, a force that keeps the economy growing.) At times he hints at the considerably more interesting thesis that depth psychology may actually invent the notion of personality, the desires that adhere to a lifestyle concocted on some paste-up board on Madison Avenue—that motivational research posits and inculcates the motivation that it originally sought to merely describe. Packard works to make the line between description and inculcation hard to draw, so that once a shared human preference is noted by psychology researchers, it is immediately instrumentalized into something to manipulate people to behave in ways counter to their best interests. Common advertising tropes—the promise of transformation, say—yield irresistible symbols (never mind how these change over time—long cars become big trucks, I guess) that can operate on us against our will; suddenly we become helpless at the subliminal sight of ice cream, we are duped into becoming brand loyalists by the clever way our subconscious desires are toyed with. One chapter describes women being literally hypnotized by products in the supermarket.

It’s easy to mock the alarmist histrionics and complain about the paternalism this analysis seems to invite—the restriction of ads to protect people from things they only seem to want.  (The libertarian would be prompted to argue, If individuals can’t be trusted to know what they’d prefer, why should we then trust a government agency to decide it? From this perspective any desire we might feel is valid by definition, and it’s absurd to argue that we are duped into wanting cosmetics or big, dumb cars or cigarettes or whatever.) Ads become like drugs—people seem to derive pleasure from them, but it is a pleasure that works on a reward system that is out of the individual’s rational control and is therefore dangerous. This interpretation intrigues me because it is sometimes overlooked that ads are not merely reeducation campaigns but do provide pleasure—we enjoy resisting them, enjoy submitting to them, enjoy the way they stock our imagination with fantasies and give us a shape for our aspirations. But they also make us angry at all the other forms of experience they crowd out or cannibalize. Our ambivalence ultimately provides enough of a wedge for ads to slip through and colonize everything; they become an ambient presence, inevitable, about as worthwhile to complain about as smog or litter. The power to do anything about ads is obviously beyond any individual’s control, so we make our own private deals with them, getting what we can.

Packard went on to write about planned obsolescence in The Waste Makers, which pushed the notion that society is trained to celebrate wastefulness, usually in the form of fashion, which champions change for its own sake, or for the sake of establishing hierarchy. Written in the margin of that book I had written a note about comparing planned obsolescence to Veblen and Bataille’s “The Notion of Expenditure,” which ridicules the common sense notion of utility. Seeing all utility as confining and disciplinary in its rationality (usefulness implies production, which implies work), Bataille argues for a kind of anti-utility in destructive play, “expenditure,” a pointless waste that society nonetheless relies upon: “luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, art, perverse sexual activity.” Veblen rationalized waste as “conspicuous consumption”—showy displays that attempt to establish one’s wealth incontrovertibly. No one feels richer than the guy lighting $100 bills on fire. Waste, for Veblen, is not waste but a status purchase. But Bataille follows anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who in Essai sur le don links wasteful displays to potlatch rituals, competitive gift exchange which often verges into sacrificial waste. The greatest glory (which Bataille defines as the most absurd and rapacious waste) comes with losing the most; it’s a short leap from there to the masochistic impulse of surrendering all of your will in a perfect potlatch gesture that can’t be topped. This ties back to the manipulative ads that can dictate our will; these ads fulfill this fantasy of surrendering our will but within a safe context, where the repercussions are small and contained—the ads are socially tolerated safe zone for this kind of submissiveness. Ads can make us feel rich in will, so rich that we can give it up rather than exercise it.

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Thursday, Feb 15, 2007
by Harlem Shakes

Harlem Shakes w/ Deerhoof
Diary #3

We’re now four days into tour—four shows, four cities, four venues, and what feels like a thousand hours in Thevandra. A pattern is
developing. First, we drive all day:

Then, we arrive at a venue, load equipment into the club, soundcheck (if time and tattooed men permit), and find food.  Then, we play our set:

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Thursday, Feb 15, 2007

Back when television was the only important cultural game in town, the notorious ratings period known as “Sweeps” actually mattered to the viewing public. They knew that, during this advertising extravaganza when networks and local affiliates pulled out all the scatological stops for that extra speck of viewership, something sensational was typically in the offing. Sadly, it seems that the modern concept of this carnival of creative programming is made up of more episodes of American Idol, extra installments of Dateline‘s “To Catch a Predator” and as many reality style shows as possible. Even the cable channels have pulled up stakes and refused to follow the undeniable hype. The choices for the week beginning 17 February are good, but not the kind of gratuitous grandstanding the concept of Sweeps evokes. Still, you’ll enjoy most of the choices, beginning with a certified SE&L favorite:
Premiere Pick
Hustle and Flow

It may be tough for a pimp, but 2005 was a magical year for filmmaker Craig Brewer. With this look at a world-weary street hustler hoping to break out of his dead end life by becoming a rapper, the novice director delivered a staggering drama with real depth and heart. At the center of this sensational film is the terrific Terrence Howard, offering a star making turn as Djay. He brings real empathy and emotion to what could have been a crude cardboard cut out. Equally effective are the sequences where Brewer shows how hip hop tracks are formed – creativity culled from the bottom up, a combination of inspiration and ingenuity. It all works together wonderfully, melding effortlessly into one of the year’s best films. (17 February, ShowCase, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices

This made for British television biography of the Lord of Longford, a champion for controversial causes in the UK, comes to American cable thanks in large part because of The Queen. Indeed, Peter Morgan who wrote said reimagining of Elizabeth II’s battles with Tony Blair over the death of Princess Diana, also scripted this tale about a celebrated child killer – and Longford’s efforts to free her. (17 February, HBO, 8PM EST)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

After the amazing work Alfonso Cuoran did with Prisoner of Azkaban, many in the Potter fanbase feared that Mike Newell, best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral, would be unable to rise to the challenge of this material. Luckily, those qualms were alleviated when Newell delivered what many consider to be the second best installment of the series. (17 February, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

The Wild

Get ready to yawn as Disney delivers yet another subpar cartoon cavalcade relying on the no longer novel element of CG animation to sell its shortcomings. Mimicking Madagascar, this tale of a ‘city’ lion accidentally shipped off to Africa and the group of wisecracking zoo friends who come to his rescue is so routine it grows stale before the middle act arrives. (17 February, Starz, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Lost Highway

David Lynch, hot off his success with Twin Peaks and the debacle that many considered its big screen incarnation, Fire Walk with Me, decided to abandon all pretense of mainstream acceptance, and instead focused on honing his already odd dreamscape style. The result was this amazing motion picture, as much a study in cinema as it is a look at character duality. Bill Pullman plays a man plagued by anonymous videotapes of his household – and a murder he may be responsible for. Before we know it, the story shifts, and Pullman is now Balthazar Getty, a young mechanic caught up in an affair with a mysterious mob moll. In between gorgeously shot sequences, a white faced demon (played by Robert Blake, of all people) haunts the characters, bringing the world of nightmares to Lynch’s illogical lushness. (18 February, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Bomb the System

For those unaware of the phrase, “bombing” is old school ghetto lingo for graffiti. Back in the day, when urban youth had little to celebrate, spreading your name all over the city via spray paint and talent was a metaphysical escape. This fiction film does a good job of capturing the culture, and while Style Wars is the definitive documentary statement, this movie manages a close second. (20 February, Sundance, 11:30PM EST)


Alex Cox went from punk to politics when he followed up his sensational Sid and Nancy with this incredibly odd period piece. Ed Harris is the American mercenary fighting for the Nicaraguans in the 19th century, but it’s clear that Cox had more on his mind than this specific situation. Using a mixture of modern and antiquated imagery, it was really an attack on Reagan and his problematic El Salvador stratagem. (21 February, IFC, 10PM EST)

Short Cuts

The late, great Robert Altman took the short stories of Raymond Carver and turned them into a stunning portrait of LA at the start of the ‘90s. Using his standard interlocking narrative structure, and amazing performances from an all star cast, the director delivered what many consider to be his final major masterwork. As dense as any work of fiction and just as symbolic in its statements. (22 February, Sundance, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
All That Jazz

After a massive heart attack and more than his fair share of Broadway flops, director/choreographer Bob Fosse was looking for a way to battle his all consuming inner demons. His decision – make a thinly veiled autobiographical musical that exposed all his flaws and foibles, no matter how painful that might be to friends and family. The result was this stunning example of cinematic hubris, a classic song and dance fest deconstructed to focus on ideas like adultery, betrayal and death. Drawing on previous collaborators including Ann Reinking and Ben Vereen, and using real figures from his life (renamed and reimagined, of course) Fosse found the proper balance between backstage drama and esoteric experimentalism. It’s a brilliantly insular work of wounded genius. (22 February, Fox Movie Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Good Son

After years of playing the bratling hero, Macaulay Culkin (or more importantly, his dictatorial dad/manager) wanted to expand his thespian range. Too bad then that the producers went and hired Elijah Wood to steal every scene alongside Master Home Alone. What wanted to be a boys’ Bad Seed ended up being merely a bad career move on the part of a fading family film star. (19 February, Encore Mystery, 3:35AM EST)

The Serpent and the Rainbow

Zombies are real – at least they are in the veiled world of voodoo that is Haiti. Horror maestro Wes Craven, taking a break from the supernatural, used the non-fiction book by Wade Davis to discuss the ancient African religion, and the real possibility of creating “the living dead”. Light on flesh eating and heavy on authentic atmosphere, the results are creepy indeed. (20 February, ThrilllerMax, 6:35PM EST)


By now, it’s randy reputation precedes it. It’s the film that started Kevin Smith’s career. It was awarded an NC-17 rating by the MPAA for filthy language only. It became a crazy cult unto itself, and spanned one of 2006’s best films. Now drink in the heady humor of this slacker celebration, a terrifically talky look at life and its failed personal promise. (21 February, Showtime, 12AM EST)


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Thursday, Feb 15, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Two Minutes to Midnight  Black Belt—"Road Crew" from Two Minutes to Midnight on Novoton

Preview the whole album

What if you kidnapped Pete Townshend, Iggy Pop and Otis Redding, put them in a small cabin, force fed them cheap beer and greasy food, and—under the supervision of Josh Homme—made them solve the great rock’n’roll riddle? You might come up with something similar to the diverse, yet straight-forward, soundscapes of Swedish power trio Black Belt—big fuzzy guitars, fat ass bass, rolling drums, dirty denim, sweet soul and tons of swagger. With one foot running the working class meanstreets of the ‘60s, the other foot placed firmly in the black soil of the south, Black Belt proove that it’s still possible to create a stir by rolling that old rock in yet another direction. With their largest production to date, the band both roars and crumbles, whispers and cuddles—although they never lose trace of the chorus-driven nerve that made them a name in the first place. From—"Fall on Me"—a PopMatters exclusive

Sure, From is a four-letter F-word. It suits the band just fine. No song is precious. Nothing aims for utter seriousness. And it’s not a bad thing to infuse some rawness into arty abstraction. In the fall of 2004, designer Roni Brunn launched From in Los Angeles, and the lineup has been fluid since. Brunn sings and writes all the music; production and performance duties are shared. From’s sound began with the unexpecedly fecund pairing of the Stone Roses and early Madonna. Ride, Oasis, Primal Scream, and, of course, the Beatles have also influenced both the feel and the song writing. The lyrics reflect Brunn’s multinational displacement, playful sobriety, and boy-crazy attachments: very specific yet simultaneously intutitive. Dustin O’Halloran—"Opus 63" from the Marie Antoinette soundtrack, and "Opus 23" from Piano Solos Vol. 2

Piano Solos Vol. 2 is the beautiful new instrumental work from Dustin O’ Halloran. Dustin recently attracted the attention of renowned music supervisor Brian Reitzell, who asked O’Halloran to assist in the score of Sofia Coppola’s epic historical drama, Marie Antoinette. Two of the compositions on this new release, as well as Opus 17 from Dustin’s first Piano Solos album, appear on the Marie Antoinette soundtrack.

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Thursday, Feb 15, 2007

Finally!  A James Brown tribute for real, thanks to the good folks at 1st of the Month magazine.  This includes not only bookend poems by Amiri Baraka as well as thoughts and memories from Chuck D. and John Leland but also explicit and great essays from Charles O’Brien (about “Sex Machine”), Mel Watkins (about the show that became Live at the Apollo Vol II) and W.T. Lhamon Jr. (on a mid-80’s obscurity).  Also there’s this moving, spot-on observation from Watkins: “Like Aretha, Sam Cooke, and, later, Marvin Gaye, he was a both a symbol and personification of the grassroots black musical heritage that wielded such tremendous influence on America’s popular culture during the latter part of the 20th century.”  By comparison, most of the obits about JB covered the same routine ground about Brown’s life, never really capturing the magnitude of his achievements and accomplishments.

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