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Wednesday, Feb 7, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

It was PopMatters#1 album of 2006, remember?

Gnarls Barkley
St. Elsewhere


It begins with the click of a film reel. Then, it explodes into a manic gospel-circus fronted by a multi-octave ringmaster. Two minutes later, this year’s most infectious single cuts through the cacophony. In case you slept through 2006, that album is St. Elsewhere and that song is “Crazy” by Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo, a.k.a Gnarls Barkley. Who knew that existentialism with a go-go beat could be so catchy?  Like the album cover’s voltaic mushroom cloud, the songs on St. Elswehere captured small slices of life, death, love, fear, and joy.  Gnarls Barkley penetrated the collective psyche of its listeners and uncovered the angst underneath all the “bling” and bravado permeating popular culture. Remarkably, the album crossed over to an unlikely mix of hipsters, rappers, glitterati, boomers, yuppies, indie kids, and suburban dwellers to prove that St. Elsewhere is, in actuality, everywhere. Christian John Wikane


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Wednesday, Feb 7, 2007

A few days ago PsyBlog reported on a study that revealed that people just getting to know one another frequently talk about music and that music serves as a powerful means of signalling personality traits. Here are the details of how the study worked:

participants were asked to judge people’s personality solely on their top 10 list of songs. This was compared to participants results on a standard type of personality test measuring the big five personality traits: openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability. Overall the results showed that music preferences were reasonably accurate in conveying aspects of personality. Of the five traits, it was a person’s openness to experience that was best communicated by their top 10 list of songs, followed by extraversion and emotional stability. On the other hand, music preferences didn’t say much about whether a person was conscientious or not.

The study led me to wonder, though, if you couldn’t develop an iTunes plug in that would interpret your personality to yourself by analyzing what you are currently playing or have played most often most recently along the lines of how Pandora analyzes music and makes recommendations. (I need something to tell me why I am listening to so much Jandek.) It would work like a horoscope, perhaps, making oracular pronoucements about how you are feeling and what you seem to need. When iTunes inevitably becomes a social networking tool, this horoscope could link you to other people who might be especially compatible with you. If music is proxy for personality, it seems a cinch to make networked iTunes libraries into a kind of dating service.

Still, I found the specific findings of what music makes for what personality a little suspect:

What some music preferences mean for personality:
  * Likes vocals: extraverted
  * Likes country: emotionally stable. On the face of it, this is bizarre really because country music is all about heartache. Either the emotionally stable are attracted to country music or it has a calming effect on the unstable!
  * Likes jazz: intellectual

These correlations seem entirely contingent on popular associations, not some intrinsic quality of the music, and will likely change as the public perceptions of these genres change. Also the signalling power of these genres diminish the more they are understood as sheer signals, and the authenticity of a person’s preferences become questionable in light of their obvious instrumentality. If everyone knows you can say you are into the Shins to establish some kind of indie credibility, then liking the Shins no longer signifies that. The music’s usefulness as signal empties it of the specific quality it originally conveyed. That’s why this is such a poignant and powerful PSA. Music preferences become subject to the rational expectations critique—the alleged coolness of the preference is already built in by the time you choose to like something, so you get no added coolness out of the choice. You have to choose to like something uncool and hope the zeitgeist blows in that direction. Likewise, jazz signals not that you are intellectual, but that you were aware that it would make you seem as though you are intellectual at the time the choice was made. The more obvious the signal, the less authentic the choice seems, and the less it seems to reflect your true personality as opposed to the one you are scheming to convey. I don’t think this study undermines this, because music selection and personality test taking can both be games of projecting who you want to be rather than measuring something that’s there and beyond your control. This, in fact, may be why it is always a waste of time to try to determine what someone’s “true” personality is—it is always ad hoc, contingent on choices in the moment, on what one seeks to stress and minimize.

Perhaps this is why I find the question of what music I like a really annoying one to answer, because it has nothing to do with, well, what music I like. I secretly resent the question; it’s another way of asking, “Who the hell do you think you are?” It’s like the spot on social networking profiles that encourage you to list what books and records and movies you like; this is impossible to do honestly. Generally I’m very reticient to disclose my personality (why I wear a de facto uniform), which, New York magazine tells me, places me in a moribund demographic. I just strongly suspect that anything I say about myself, no matter how well-intentioned, will eventually be made into a lie by my actions, what people should probably judge me by. Which raises this question: Is forming tastes about consumer-culture product now the only form of public action left open to us?

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Wednesday, Feb 7, 2007

While it might seem amazing that Apple’s Steve Jobs is now speaking out against DRM (digital rights management) attached to sales of online music, CNET has a good article that tries to parse his logic about taking this tact in this article.  One thing’s for sure, the market is becoming so unwieldy that the labels and Jobs don’t have clear answers now about how to keep making money so they’re scrambling around for solutions.

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Tuesday, Feb 6, 2007

Women hold a sacred place in Indian cinema. Pre-Christian rituals of worship are imbued on a screen projecting images of full-lipped goddesses. The inherent beauty of the female figure, the agility of the dancer, the playful sauciness, and above all, the promise of sex, is what endears these eight women to billions of moviegoers. Sex is less taboo and dirty in Indian cinema when rendered in a certain artistic, quasi-religious sort of way. Indeed, its procreative potential and its ability to excite the human consciousness grants it a divine status. Audiences don’t just drool and fantasize over these goddesses. Like their more cerebral Hollywood counterparts, Marlene Dietrich and Sharon Stone, they’re admired for their charisma, craft, elusiveness and unpredictability. As mutable as the Apsaras they recreate onscreen, these actresses grow more complex with each new film, tantalizing us with a spirited song sequence or surprising us with a new side of their acting, nuanced and original, that we didn’t expect to see.

Four of the eight actresses hail from South India, the heart of classical Indian dance. Dance is a vital aspect of worship in Hinduism. Shiva created the universe through dance, resolving and sustaining the cosmos via a sinuous ballet. A woman who is accomplished in the technique and discipline of classical dance is deeply respected for her beauty and her intelligence. South India’s starlets remind one of the primeval goddesses represented in cave sculptures: woman in its original, undiluted form.

One of the most popular stars of the 40s and 50s, Vyjayantimala, was the first big star from South India, no small feat in a North Indian-dominated film industry. With her astounding virtuosity at Bharatnatyam, her classical Earth Mother beauty, and her sensitive performances she paved the way for the other South Indian actresses. Hema Malini, the darling of the 70s, shared Vyjayantimala,’s talent for dance and arresting good looks, though she defined her persona as a wise-cracking, brassy skeptic along the lines of Jean Harlow. Sridevi, the reigning movie queen of the 80s (the most prolific of all eight, she sometimes had up to 10 movies out at the same time) upped the ante on slapstick and sex appeal—the Carole Lombard of Indian cinema. Rekha, the last of the South Indian beauties, a star of the 70s and 80s, seems to become more fascinating with age, starring in provocative roles that challenge the existing norms of India’s sometime hypocritical policies.

In the 70s, India like the rest of the world, was swept up in the tide of cultural revolution that came with political dissent.  As the Women’s Rights movement spread internationally, Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi embodied modernity. While the Indian heroines thus far wore tasteful, conservative saris and bindis, Aman and Babi were unashamed to show off their lovely figures in bikinis and mini-skirts. They were looked upon as “Western” heroines whose rejection of conventional attire and attitude (the subservient wife or fiancé) stunned and titillated audiences who were unaccustomed to seeing an Indian woman so unapologetically cosmopolitan.

By the time Madhuri Dixit entered the scene the ideal of the screen goddess began to unravel. Actresses struggled to be seen as artists and not merely as nubile, plastic dolls. The late 80s and 90s, when more Indians were working abroad and longed to return to India, tradition and ritual came back full-force in Indian cinema. Dixit was the phenomenon of those years. A spirited dancer and vivacious personality she possessed a homespun beauty of Miss Middle India, a glamorous homebody equally at ease in an evening gown or cooking at home. She enjoyed the popularity Rita Hayworth did in the 40s, her picture emblazoned on every man’s wall in all far corners of the world. But the overwhelming celebrity as an international sex symbol became too much for Dixit, who retired from movies seven years ago to marry an NRI doctor and live a quiet life as a soccer mom near Denver, Colorado.

Kareena Kapoor is the most of recent of the lot and the one who seems to have the most fun. A star of the new millennium, when Indian society enjoyed more progressive liberalism and more respect for an independent, sexier woman, Kapoor is less inhibited than her predecessors, and less pretentious She dances, not classically, with enthusiasm and abandon. Her love of the limelight is inherited; the granddaughter of Bollywood founding father, Raj Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor combines the Old World glamour with New World attitude.

All of these women realize that being a sex symbol in India, a country that reveres sex but is still reluctant to talk about openly, is a challenging mantle to assume. As the object who graces the dreams of the both rickshaw driver and the Sultan of Brunei, she bridges men together with collective longings. But eroticism aside, the Bollywood sex symbol’s true talent is cerebral; she tantalizes with what’s left unseen, with fantasies unanswered. It takes a clever woman to realize that her sex appeal is half of what she has and half of what everyone thinks she has.

Vyjantimala circa ‘50s

Hema Malini circa ‘70s

Rekha circa ‘70s

Sridevi circa ‘80s

Zeenat Aman circa ‘70s

Parveen Babi circa ‘70s

Madhuri Dixit circa early ‘90s

Kareena Kapoor circa ‘90s

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Tuesday, Feb 6, 2007

Economist Brad Delong wonders what’s going on with the Super Bowl ads’ scorn for low-wage jobs:

I am not imagining this, am I? The underlying background assumption of these commercials is contempt for the men and women who serve the fast food and work the loading docks and deliver the pizzas and staff the call centers of America, isn’t it? The exectives of GM and Nationwide Insurance and their creative ad professionals think that denying the dignity of labor is the road to selling annuities and SUVs to the fiftysomethings with spare cash watching the Super Bowl, isn’t it? This is a Sign of the Apocalypse for our current Second Gilded Age, isn’t it? Or am I overreacting?

A good question, related to this story PopMatters ran the other day about GEICO’s caveman ads. The implication of these ads seems to be that sympathy for low-wage workers or marginalized groups is contrived, as contrived as the set-ups of the ads themselves, that to raise such objections as “What about the service worker’s dignity?” is to exhibit a fuddy-duddy political correctness that epitomizes a lack of cool. The only people who would leap to defend the fry cooks from the affronts in these ads are not fry cooks themselves but patronizing bleeding hearts who want to earn points for their conscientiousness. Presumably, the fry cooks aren’t bothered by the ads because (a) they find them sufficently funny, (b) they are content with any sort of recognition, even as the butt of a joke (the reality-TV eager-for-humiliation paradigm) or (c) they don’t identify themselves with the job, which they too have contempt for. People in those jobs don’t see themselves working them forever; the jobs are disposable and interchangable; meanwhile those working them are rooting their identity in future jobs (call it the permanent identity hypothesis) or in their consumption practices—what we are is not what we do anymore, or rather what we do mainly is shop, collect things and display them.

Also (and this may contradict the point above and may end up being tautological), I think when we watch ads, unless we are consciously resisting and hurling insults at the screen, we end up suspending our actual selves and adopting a provisional persona, a kind of collective transpersonal identity which codifies all the traits recognized as socially dominant. This self is open to the fantasies the ad wants to communicate—this openness makes the ads enjoyable rather than an irritating intrusion; in fact we’re grateful to the ads for helping us assume this powerful persona that public discourse (ads, again) is continually flattering. (That’s why it’s strange that the ad industry promotes the Super Bowl as a commercial showcase—it prompts viewers to adopt a critical attitude, as though they were expert judges of rhetoric and persuasion instead of the receptive blobs we typically are, softened up by formulaic entertainment. The critical attitude stymies the adoption of this alternate persona.) This provisional self is awash in aspiration and knows itself able to make good on all of marketing’s empty promises of transformation, reading accurately and vicariously experiencing all the meticulous details of the lifestyles ads convey. It revels in the (demented) faux utopias of beer ads and truck ads, full of anxiety-free relations, effortless beauty, unspoiled landscapes and perfect homes. The provisional self can know no failure, so it adopts the appropriate elitist perspective toward low-wage jobs and finds the comedy in them—the laughable idea that society makes people do things such as that. Ha! Can you believe it? The jobs themselves are shifted to the realm of fantasy, comedic nightmares invented solely for the purposes of getting laughs. Ads induce us to adopt a transcendent persepctive from which the fantasy and magical thinking ads trade in register as real and the tedium and injustices of life register as false, as jokes.

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