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by Diepiriye Kuku

3 Mar 2009

I was 31 before the lyrics to the 1987 chart-topper Pleasure Principle meant anything to me. When the song debuted, I was already a staunch Janet Jackson fan. I was the first in my seventh grade class to be able to do Janet’s famous head-bop from the song’s video- moving her neck left and right, framing her head with her right hand under the chin then the profile. Janet wore plain black pants and a T-shirt, and full kneepads for the shoot. There is even a website dedicated to the cryptic markings on JJ’s tee, and calls this clip “a perfect blend of music and motion designed to ensnare its target in a very specific way.” Alone, she danced on an equally stripped down set to showcase the most baadasssss moves since, well, her brother.  In stark contrast to the highly ornate, narrative big-budget videos that would characterize successive albums and especially the Rhythm Nation 1814 Film, Pleasure Principle- the sixth single off her 1986 album Control- was all about the dance.

Janet’s success followed her elder brother’s chart-dominating, pop precedent-setting albums Off the Wall and Thriller by only few years. Moreover, when her turn came, she took over the scene just as quickly as Michael had done as a solo artist. Stretching decades from 1982’s Thriller, every kid in any dance school around the country learned sequences from Joe and Elizabeth Jackson’s kids. By the end of 1987, even drag queens abandoned dresses for tights and jeans in order to do Janet’s now infamous run, jump, balance and leap, landing from a chair.

Janet was neither the queen nor the princess, and certainly not a dominatrix of pop music (read Madonna’s Erotica, circa 1990). By the mid- to late ‘80s, grounded in Paula Abdul’s choreography, Janet had moved beyond trendsetter to ‘norm establisher’ in popular culture; she was in control. Little Ms. Penny from Goodtimes was more than just a starlet shaking her tits-n-ass for some coins. Nevertheless, she would play that card years later at the Superbowl, absorbing all the oxygen from the short list of other high profile celebrities set to perform that day in the Superdome. As comedienne Sommore says, “does anyone even remember who sang the national anthem that year?” Rather, Ms. Jackson (‘cause I’m nasty) genuinely remains true to her heritage as entertainers- a virtual clan of griots.

The Best things in Life are Free

One of my mother’s best friends took me to see the Rhythm Nation 1814 Tour, and it was all that! Naturally, I had purchased the cassette months earlier, and had memorized every word to every song, including the B-side non-hits, and knew the moves from those classic videos. I could croon every twist and turn of Janet’s Soul ballads like Someday is Tonight, which, upon a close listen, tone for tone approximates the heart wrenching melismatic orgasm of her brother’s Lady in My Life. At that tender pre-pubescent age, my vocal range could match that of any Jackson’s. Rhythm Nation 1814’s rich album notes included lyrics to every song, which is of great importance when confronting head-on topics that the news chooses to ignore like racism, sexism, war, oppression and the legacy we bequeath to our youth. In State of the World, Janet wrote/performed:

To feed the baby before he starts to cry/No rest, no time to play/15, the mother is a runaway/No time for dreams or goals/Pressure is so strong/Her body she has sold so her child can eat/What is happening to this world we live in/In our home and other lands

Of the myriad of pop artists that talk about sex, few regard the topic from this, frank and not so uncommon perspective. Many artists simply will never go there.

That rock on your finger’s like a tumor

Janet so neatly does Black music, infusing the old with the new into a finely crafted message of active contemplation and hope for the future. I always appreciate when artists come clean about their influences and tastes; as a people we pay so little attention to our history. Michael Jackson regularly thanked James Brown, publicly testifying to copying his moves while watching him as a child entertainer.

As a budding young dancer, I scoured through every available resource to learn about big band leader Cab Calloway and acrobatic dancers The Nicholas Brothers- all truly wicked entertainers from the Harlem Renaissance who made cameo appearances in Janet’s video Alright. The popularized remix of this hit paired Janet with Heavy D, fashioning the R&B/Hip-Hop duo that others still follow. One only need witness LL Cool J and Total, Ja Rule and J-Lo, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Mariah and well, just about every other thug. Control paved the way for New Jack Swing, of which Mary J. Blige would later become its queen.

It was Control that would lay the foundation for all danceable pop music to follow. Beyond just stealing and sampling funk and disco beats, Janet’s lyrics and image covered much, much more than fanatical love and hardcore sex. Janet’s next project, Rhythm Nation 1814, was an action-packed album that not only gives ample treatise to social ills, but also incorporates entertainers that influenced Janet, on top of contemporary dope beats. Most certainly, this left little room to brag about wealth, though I suppose growing up at 2300 Jackson Street, one grows accustomed to such riches.

Like Beyoncé, Janet can pay her own fare, “It’s not the first time I’ve paid the fare,” she says, “Thank you for the ride.” She’s an Independent Woman. Yet, unlike savoring the ability to ‘buy your own’, eschewing, as she says in Pleasure Principle, “part-time bliss” for “happiness,” Janet asserts: “I’m not here to feed your insecurities. I wanted you to love me … My meter’s running I’ve really have to go!” She is interested in more than just goods. Despite the Jackson trail-blazers, so much of today’s pop encourages independent women and girls to leave love aside, opting for a cheap, material upgrades, or be Bossy, turning the tables and becoming somebody’s Suga Mamma. Today’s divas simply wallow in their own insecurities, victims of the perpetual lust for pleasure in material bliss.

by Jer Fairall

3 Mar 2009

Nebraskan indie-rockers Cursive will release their ickilly titled sixth album Mama, I’m Swollen on March 10, but both the

band and their label are making it available early via an inexpensive yet highly motivational tactic. On Sunday, March 1, the full album download cost $1. On March 2, the price went up to $2. On March 3, it’s $3, and so on until the release date. The sooner you get on it, the more you’ll save!

Need more convincing? Check out “From The Hips”, a typically intense Tim Kasher slow-burner from the new record.

Cursive
From the Hips [MP3]
     

by Thomas Hauner

3 Mar 2009

That Toad the Wet Sprocket ended their show singing, “Just memories to hold / That grow sweeter each season / As we slowly grow old” was fitting given the circumstances. They’re playing yet another reunion tour and the nostalgia of early ‘90s alternative pop stardom lingered closely, both for them and their fans. Front man Glen Phillips is the only member with a compelling or successful solo career. But it also wasn’t the catalyst for their seminal break up so hitting the road with Toad—as they’re affectionately referred to—was for pleasure, not business.

Webster Hall—which underwent a “renovation” recently, meaning converting its ambiguously ancient Egypt/Aztec theme into an ambiguously ancient Rome/Medieval theme—was relatively packed with only 35 year-olds. One could still feel the pumping bass of remixes playing in the basement bar. But as this was a trip down memory lane, including trying to reenact past make-out sessions and substance abuses, nothing could deter them. 

It also made me consider a notion I once heard that musical tastes are cemented by age 25. Looking around me it seemed perfectly true.

Finally taking the stage, the band made a few quips about it being great to see everyone “again” and launched into “P.S.”, a song with steady strumming with a beat to match. Supposedly one of the band’s first compositions ever (1986?), it was an appropriate nod to their history together and the first of many during their set.

Classics like “Something’s Always Wrong” and “Whatever I Fear” wallowed in the flannel-cloaked angst of their ‘90s heyday, but the mood was memorializing. Guitarist Todd Nichols’ guitar echoed a brilliant reverb through his Vox, and in tandem with Phillips’ acoustic guitar reproduced their prototypical guitar-drenched sound.

Before “Butterflies” Phillips asked, “who knows the hidden spoken words on Butterflies?” A worthy winner was chosen, Karen, who then got to go perform the song onstage with the band. Though undoubtedly excited, she played it super cool.

“Good Intentions” received some of the loudest cheers during the night, to the point that the show could have been mistaken for a “Friends” cast party.

Phillips complimented how beautifully the crowd aged, then proceeded to mock the very same thing, offering up their mandolin and lap steel player Johnny Hawthorn for parties, weddings, and bar mitzvahs—and dates added bass player Dean Dinning. The band’s self-deprecating handling of its reunion played well with the equally aging crowd, leaving a night of reminiscing and old-fashioned alternative rock.

 

by John Bergstrom

3 Mar 2009

Here’s the official video from Depeche Mode’s forthcoming Sounds of the Universe, out April 20th/21st. The clip was directed by Patrick Daughters, the hip American director and regular Feist collaborator. Apparently, he’s a fan of Volkswagen’s car crash ads.

by L.B. Jeffries

2 Mar 2009

The idea for writing an essay on The Wizard came after watching the Angry Video Game Nerd episode about it. The basic criticism of the movie is that it’s a giant commercial for Nintendo products. While this is technically true, I’d just randomly watched The Mindscape of Alan Moore before this one and was full of some heady notions about the power of writing. When he claimed that most modern magi are drunks, neglecting their talent or working in advertising, it made me wonder what kind of magic would go into an entire film that’s about a single product. If you think about it, there aren’t too many films that can actually claim this. TV series? Sure, G.I. Joe and other shows were glorified ways to sell toys. But those were only about 24 minutes long. An entire 90 minute film that’s about selling a product to a person? That is a spectacle which, however much bullshit it may be proposing, is worth taking a look at just for its sheer audacity.

 

The film begins with a troubled child lost and confused, only able to say the word “California”. We are then surrounded by his family in turmoil. A divorced mother has taken refuge with a man who doesn’t love her children. The father, unable to perform the traditional motherly functions of cooking for his children, is shown missing her. She is also sorely missed by her two boys, but when the father is asked to care for his third helpless child, the divorce blocks him because he does not have custody. Even Christian Slater, playing himself trapped in another bad movie, is acting like a dick. What could possibly heal this broken family and restore the joy to their lives? Fred Savage, equipped with his grapefruit head, only knows that family is what matters most. He traces his third brother to a mental home where he was placed by the cruel step-father. He sees the fate his brother has been doomed to: sitting blank faced, watching television, with no California in sight. What could make the activity of watching T.V. not so bland, no so emotionless? Fred Savage has a plan: sneak onto a truck full of chocolate cake while they head towards his brother’s favorite state! Fred is eventually horrified to discover that the script is going to demand someone change at some point, and storms back with the plot device that they are out of money. It is then that he discovers that his youngest brother, in a scant five minutes, has gained 50,000 points in Double Dragon. This sentence was originally a long explanation about why this was impossible, but then I realized that I’d have to do that for every other part of the film and replaced it with this.

 

Quick to notice this prowess at video games is the girl from The Goonies. Attracted by his skill at games, she is quick to recognize that his gaming abilities are a potential source of income and power for the once ostracized little brother. Fred Savage, grapefruit shining, shows his support for his little brother by betting money on his brother’s skills. The challenge does pan out but they are soon forced to find other ways to make money once the bus leaves them. Why not gambling? Indeed, risk is a fundamental theme of this film as 3 children hitch-hike across the country to a video game tournament in Los Angeles. Roger Ebert complained that the film actively promoted that children would be safe wandering the open roads. Which is true, but in the spirit of the film it is also promoting the liberation that Nintendo has provided these kids. Thanks to his ability to master Nintendo, they have money to spend, and one can’t help but notice that Fred is a little more confident with the Goonies chick. Interspersed with these successes are scenes of traveling through a vast and exciting landscape. The freedom these children have gained through Nintendo is developed by showing the oddities of the world. This is made literal by showing bikers, truckers, and all the other exciting things kids would love to do if they were truly free. Before Nintendo they were sleeping outside and hearing wolves; after Nintendo they’ve got a chick and money and the open road.

 

Christian Slater and the Dad are unable to communicate as they look for Fred Savage and the Wizard. The father’s ineptitude continues, allowing the empowerment of the son as he is the only one who can “follow the map”. Christian Slater struggles to express his feelings for the Dad until, while laying in his boxers with the Dad in a very small bed, he tells him that he loves him. The father is unable to appreciate this moment and Christian Slater is forced to retreat into video games. Despite the initial resistance of the Dad, Christian Slater awakes to see the Dad enjoying the same game. They have a newfound common ground thanks to Nintendo. Fred Savage, the Wizard, and the chick from The Goonies must continue to rely on their game skills and luck to survive. A couple of cow farmers prove that adults can’t be trusted, and some old geezers prove to be easy bait for the Wizard’s skills. But they soon realize that it’s not just adults who can’t be trusted, but kids too. A couple of older punks victimize them because of the Wizard’s Nintendo skills and beat up Fred Savage. Even worse, some gamers can actually be total assholes. The Kid With The Power Glove is quick to demonstrate his mastery of the Nintendo Universe. He owns every game (all 97) and he’s good at all of them. Our shining model for competency, the only player who is a worthy opponent of the Wizard, attained his status through practice and by buying every product possible. When he pulls out the Power Glove, everyone is in awe of its newness. The Wizard, firmly warned not to ruin the pace of the film, refuses to play against him because, “California”.

 

Throughout these moments there have been the interspersed scenes of the adult males acting out their masculine aggression in unproductive ways. A Professional Child Kidnapper and the Dad engage in several such battles with their cars. Smashing, destroying, and ruining each other’s productivity, the two men are not just at war, they are undermining their very ability to work as a business. If only something could come along that would allow them to express this sense of dominance that they mistakenly project on one another. As the Power Glove Kid and the Wizard show to us all, it is the children relying on Nintendo who have found an alternative. With these shenanigans also come the scenes of the games themselves. Rarely are we subjected to mindless slashing sessions. Driving a car in traffic, defusing bombs, and acrobatics are the themes of each gaming scene. To the parent watching Nintendo in action, they can see that this is a game system that’s about something more than just sitting front of a TV. Eventually there is a plot twist and it is revealed that the source of the Wizard’s trauma was watching his twin sister drown. The chick from The Goonies is quick to join in, admitting that her father is a trucker and that she wants to buy her own father a new home.  But the kids know they are going to have to work hard to win at Nintendo despite all these issues. Investing several hundred dollars in the Nintendo hotline, they are quick to find the information they need to become video game masters. Working tirelessly, they demonstrate the hard work and financial investment it takes to be as good at games as someone like the Kid With The Power Glove.

 

The culmination of the film is at Universal Studios. In a bold move, the qualifying game is Ninja Gaiden, a title whose challenge is legendary and that few can handle. The Wizard is able to deliver though, but just before he can move on to the final round the Professional Child Kidnapper is upon them. In these final moments the film makes its protagonists become parts of their very hobby. The screaming King Kong and the jets of fire all introduce fantastic elements that deliver these kids into a video game itself. The Nintendo has become real. In the nick of time they get back to the competition and the Wizard is able to play. In this final showdown, all members of the family are shown drawn together to support him. As each one roots for the Wizard, they slowly find a sense of commonality amongst each other. Even the Professional Child Kidnapper is seen rooting for him in the end. The once broken family has been healed by the power of Nintendo. The final scene shows the Wizard finally finding his peace as they drive back to Utah. Earlier in the film, the first coherent words he murmured were, “I don’t want to Quit [playing Nintendo so we can win the Big Tournament and I love you].”  Truly, it is the Wizard who senses that his gaming abilities are not just about playing games. It is he who detects the family coming back together through Nintendo, who realizes that by competing with the Kid With The Power Glove he can someday go on to put the memories of his sister to rest. The Wizard is able to succeed at this thanks to the power of, one more time, Nintendo.

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