Former Libertines frontman and posterboy for celebrity excess Peter Doherty is releasing his first solo album Grace / Wastelands on March 24. Here’s the first single from the upcoming record, “Last of the English Roses”.
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You know when you get so tense and anxiety-ridden that all the nerves at the back of your neck snarl up into one burning ball? Well, if that gland could make music, it would sound like this album.
—Lester Bangs, from “Monolith or Monotone? Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music
It took me a while, but finally, after dipping my toes in the water by attending a mash-up party, I gathered the courage to go to a rock show. I have been semi-avoiding rock shows literally for years, and the blame falls primarily on an indie rock group called Mates of State. If you don’t know them, they’re a married twosome who make pretty songs using keyboard instruments and slightly off-key harmonized singing. They are so incredibly twee that they sound like the hired band at a leprechaun wake. I saw them at the Coachella Music Festival, which happens every year in a scorched earth corner of California, and before a huge assembled audience they were singing in their jaunty, charmingly tuneless way, dressed like clerks in a yarn store.
The set generated good buzz for them, at least among the people I know, but for me it epitomized a senseless optimism grounded in what we might call the music of being yourself. It’s about sounding awkward, dressing down for your shows, and then building songs out of small tribulations and the irrepressible, myopic hope that today will be even better than yesterday. It’s the furthest a performer can run from performance art without actually hopping off the stage. It’s the sung version of being over at their house for a cup of tea, bantering about the day’s gossip.
But you are not at their house, of course: that is a fairly expensive illusion you pay for, and the casualness of the performance belies the fact that the wall between audience and performer stays as high as ever. Arguably, in fact, the wall is even higher because they’re so offhanded, like it’s some kind of weird luck that they’re up there performing everyday life, and now that they are, casual everydayness has been stolen from you, and you have to pour your adulation on them in order to vicariously get it back.
Worst of all, in the midst of all this brightness, something is terribly wrong. It’s like the moment right at the beginning of Mulholland Drive, where the kindly old people stare and wave for just a second too long at eager young Naomi Watts. Call it what you will: guilt over the war, anxiety over the economy, the whole repressed mass of social ills and personal disasters that just can’t be sung away so easily. The same evenings spent hanging out and worrying about running into an ex-lover. The same suburbs you grew up in, or the Manhattan apartment that is so small you have to walk sideways past the mattress. The job that means doing tons of unpaid overtime. It’s the little things and the big, universal crises, both: the two feed into each other. Let a city—hell, a whole country—segregated by income build up enough places you shouldn’t go, or wouldn’t go, or can’t afford, and what’s left will turn into dreary sameness.
Out of all this comes the music of that imaginary gland Bangs invented, the burning ball of muscles, nerves and stress. You can hear that sound a little bit on the album by A Place to Bury Strangers. On each song the band creates harsh, sinewy distortion, propped up with great old industrial bass and Cure guitars, and sounding distantly like the Jesus and Mary Chain. This everyone knows, but not enough is said about how incomplete the JAMC project really was. On their earliest albums, they gift-wrapped most of their songs in noise, having already built complete (if wickedly cynical) pop tunes. The two things don’t quite integrate, except on the occasional miracle, such as “Just Like Honey”. Later on they wrote other songs that did meld sounds and tunes together perfectly, but the purity of the noise was gone: “Head On” isn’t going to make your ears bleed. Instead it’s a very poppy, measured take on hard rock.
The album that actually was terribly, completely, endlessly noisy was Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, from all the way back in the mid-seventies. It was as grand a statement as Reed was capable of making. Using a bunch of synthesizers set to warble, stutter, choke and sputter out, he layered one computerized feedback squall on top of another until he had just over an hour of “music,” all of which sounds like the triumphant ending to a blistering, uncompromising rock song, or like the sharp peal of sound when a hand-adjusted radio goes from station to station. Reed left, like some coded message to all future musicians, this furious electrical storm wherein culture empties itself into one great ocean of noise. His own elliptical way of putting this was to imagine that the head of RCA’s “Read Seal” classical label had become obsessed with Metal Machine Music and had praised him for quoting Vivaldi and Bach and Beethoven’s 3rd and 6th symphonies. None of that is actually true, but as far as lies go, the Beethoven is particularly significant because those are the “Eroica” and “Pastoral” symphonies, and that’s what Reed wanted to create. He wanted to be the heroic author of a sound wherein the most primal modern desire, that of a pastoral return to brotherhood and sisterhood, was finally articulated and satisfied.
That’s what the album means. The echo chamber of culture, folded back on itself until it is pure “feedback”, is also the scream buried in the desperate relation between performer and audience, both of whom are trying to escape, through art, from the madness of their real existence. So all this real, necessary hope gets multiplied into an uncountable number of records, and movies, and books, and paintings—Mates of State and the rest included—until the individual grain of each work disappears into the simplicity of that desire to be somewhere else, to be something else. But Reed lacked the ability to put his vision into a single moment, so it stretches over an hour like a bad joke.
A Place to Bury Strangers discovered that moment last Saturday night. The concert was designed as a terrific and increasingly intense alternation between recognizable melody and drenching noise. The album sides definitively with pop: for the romantic ballad “Don’t Think Lover”, the band actually brought up some vocalist who otherwise didn’t perform, and he crooned it like a young Dave Gahan still working hard on being the loverman. It felt nice but too soft, even with the sarcastic refrain “Love lasts forever”. The bridge piece to where the concert ended up is also the best song on the album lyrically, the single “To Fix the Gash in Your Head”. Above the instrumental roar, you could just make out Oliver Ackermann singing
I’ll just wait till you turn around
And kick your face in—
To fix the gash in your head
To fix the gash in your head
It reminded me of a very honest song from the other camp, the Regressive Utopians Who Like The Beach Boys, called “The Gash”:
Is that gash in your leg
Really why you have stopped?
Because I’ve noticed, all the others
Though they’re gashed, they’re still going
Because I feel like the real reason
That you’re quitting and admitting that
You’ve lost all the will to battle on
Will the fight for sanity be the fight of our lives?
Now that we’ve lost all the reasons
That we thought that we had
Wayne Coyne sees a friend who’s stopped fighting, who is slowly bleeding to death along with everyone else, and all he can do is scold him or her for being a quitter. Other people have it just as bad, friend; when the current of love is running this shallow, no wonder “Utopia” has be mere sleight-of-hand, getting the audience to sing along to a kid’s book wherein brave Yoshimi battles the pink robots.
Ackermann, on the other hand, explicitly acknowledges the sadism of what he’s doing. He’s going to wait until you stop battling your way forward, until you turn around to see how your fellows are getting on, and then he’s going to kick your face in. In that moment you realize that he’s also doing this to himself, that he is also the subject of this willingness to push the noise too far, to drown in it, to deny absolutely nothing of the horror in order to fix, not ignore, the gash in your head. After that song things reached the point where you knew, from hearing the album and following the general outlines of the melody, what words he must be singing, but they were buried so low in the mix that they became indistinguishable. Finally, on “Ocean”, they brought out some fancy guitars in order to play the complex verse melody, and they did, everything starting out clean and beautiful.
Then, by fiddling with some of his homemade Death by Audio machines, Ackermann summoned the wall of sound, and it kept growing and surging until the bass player stopped playing, then the drummer, and then Ackermann, and finally the sound was going by itself, but Ackermann couldn’t let go of the guitar. He bent low to the ground, whirling the instrument around, watching the cord snake and twist, lost in wonder. He played with it like a kid will with a flame, as though he was poking at the spark that started a bonfire. With nobody manning the machines, what was keeping the sound going, exploding out of the big Marshall stacks until everything else was silent? No longer one person, particularly not Ackermann, now almost ridiculously hunchbacked over his guitar with his Costco boxers showing, moving to an unheard rhythm. The momentum came from everyone in that room, standing on tiptoe, together in an agony of hope.
The great Smokey Robinson joins Elvis Costello for the final episode of the first season of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, airing tonight at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel. Costello, wowed by the Motown singer-songwriter’s presence, remarks that if Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Groucho Marx all walked onto the stage, he wouldn’t be more thrilled. For his part, Robinson doesn’t disappoint. He holds court with great stories about meeting Berry Gordy for the first time, writing and recording songs for the original Motown roster, and watching on, dumbfounded, as Ray Charles wrote spontaneous arrangements for “Bad Girl” during his first performance at the Apollo Theater. In fact, Robinson keeps Costello silent for extended periods of time, which, if you’ve been watching this series from the beginning, ain’t no easy task.
Speaking of the Apollo Theater, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the entire season of Spectacle has been filmed at the legendary Harlem venue—the very place where, as Robinson notes, Ella Fitzgerald won an amateur singing competition as a teenager. Having Robinson as a guest on Spectacle, in a room that has historic significance for 20th century American R&B, is especially notable; his presence and desire to bring the conversation back to where they’re sitting makes the Apollo a more integral piece of the program.
There are performances here, as usual: Costello and his band play a few off-beat Robinson compositions, like “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”, while Robinson sings a snippet of “The Tracks of My Tears” and duets with Costello on “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”. But it’s the conversation here that really turns up the heat. The two get talking about love as the championing emotion in Robinson’s body of work, and Robinson, noting that the greatest hate is created by equally devout love, gets into an impassioned discussion about how prejudice is the most “absurd” of human emotions. It’s hard to watch this exchange, Robinson staring intensely into Costello’s eyes while Costello silently takes it all in, and not think about Costello’s infamous 1979 near-career-ending incident at a Holiday Inn in Ohio. I don’t mean to suggest that Robinson is confronting Costello here, nor do I think that Costello needs to be confronted, but the combined history of the venue with personal histories makes for some fascinating subtext.
I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the point I was trying to make at the end of the previous post. My dissatisfaction ties in with my thinking about Ryan Avent’s point in this post responding to criticism of Richard Florida’s recent Atlantic article about the future of the “creative class.” Avent is puzzled by the objection to fashion-oriented innovation, regarding them as cultural goods, and concludes that “Cultural goods aren’t just a nice by-product of a modern economy. They’re the very justification for it.” In other words, the reason we care at all about economic growth is to expand the quality of life, which is expressed through the ability for we in the ordinary classes to afford the ever more innovative and creative commodities made by the creative class. Avent writes, “Efficient technologies are nice, in no small part, because they allow us to cheaply or sustainably use electronics, either to work more productively (in order to spend on those frou-frout consumption goods) or to directly consume entertainment (like television or video games, which contain disturbingly high levels of frou-frou design, music, and narrative).”
I don’t agree with this assessment of the effects of technology. In my view, technology seems to accelerate the rate at which we consume (while affecting the personality changes to facilitate this acceleration) so that the cycle of exchange can spin more rapidly, allowing producers to realize profit at a faster rate. Technology is like financial leverage, only on the variable of time. Without any malice, with nothing but the best intentions of bringing something new and captivating into the world, the “creative class” aids this acceleration by fueling the fashion cycle and shortening it to accommodate more trends, more memes, more retro recoveries, more design accoutrements, more obsolescence. The creative class are by definition artists who have bent their talents to commercial purposes; thus, the cultural goods they produce tend not to satisfy “real” wants in those who consume them; instead the consumption of these goods may be a defensive measure to preserve one’s place on the cool continuum, to signal one’s ability to keep up or keep ahead. Even if real pleasure is derived from these cultural goods, it often comes compromised—the pleasure is imbued with positionality; it is often the pleasure of knowing more than others, of social superiority, which can mask itself in aesthetics. The relation between the creative-class cultural good producer and the consumer is not analogous to the relation between artist and audience. The latter is gratuitous; the former serves an ineluctable socioeconomic purpose.
Another problem with the creative class is that they are making cultural goods that are designed to in part supplant the creativity of the people who consume them; they abet the idea that sheer ownership of tastefully curated goods is an expression of creativity, taking us off the hook for actually doing anything more, for actually realizing our own creativity through more elaborate activity, through meaningful work undertaken seriously and ultimately geared toward adding to society’s aesthetic wealth. But currently, the creative class monopolizes that process, and the ideology of cool, urban living being central to its productivity helps preserve that monopoly.
Now, to the point I was trying to make yesterday. The internet, originally, was heralded as a medium that could threaten the creative class’s monopoly, undermine the networks they thrive in and open up creative and rewarding social production to a much broader swathe of society. If you buy into a Marxian utopian vision, this is ultimately what socialism is about—overcoming the division of labor so that each person can realize their full potentialities in socially necessary and recognized work. The distinction between creative work and drudgery would be effaced. We all would have the opportunity for meaningful work and for society, in some way, to recognize our creative efforts—wages would in essence be replaced by this creative fulfillment and recognition. This is utopian, of course, but if a “progressive” movement means anything, the end of alienation is what it would be progressing toward.
Paradoxically, we all need a sympathetic community within which to realize our individuality. Isolated, we are ciphers, even to ourselves; only as a social being do we know ourselves and become aware of how we are fulfilling our capabilities. Consumerism functions primarily by isolating us, offering us products for our self-realization in lieu of that community. These ultimately fail, leaving us with a sense that our identities are unstable, tenuous. Our connection to the community that buoys us is obscured.
If we are all to be creative and be recognized for it, we need an audience attuned to our own idiosyncratic creative production, which would thrive in a more or less pure form since it wouldn’t need to be commercially viable or compete economically with other creations. The internet seems to be the technological development that could facilitate these microaudiences, and the proselytizers of the various forms of social media seem to have this in mind in their encomiums. Our social networks can potentially become the infrastructure for these the appreciative microaudiences, who will celebrate our pure expressions of our creative self (presuming these expressions can be transmitted digitally). We could be famous to fifteen people instead of for fifteen minutes. (Someone else must have used that line before.)
But therein lies the problem—the very notion of fame. If we pursue fame as it is currently constituted in any way, our practice devolves into the familiar forms of reification, alienation, profit maximization. We replace the pleasure of the activity of work in itself with fantasies about the outcome, the rewards we imagine we’ll reap in measurable notoriety. Hence, social networks don’t make for microaudiences then; they seem to function like any other consumer product that caters to our fantasy life—in this case, the fantasy serviced is that of our being celebrities like the stars in whose lives we participate vicariously through gossip and well-attenuated entertainment product. Now we can emulate them in a subtler way, by trying to maximize our social reach by amassing friends or followers and imagining they are hanging on our every update.
Of course we disavow such fantasy overtly, but it’s there, fueling the drive to inform on ourselves in Twitter posts. The internet hasn’t only fostered microaudiences; alongside that possibility has sprung up its neutralizing antithesis, the impossible dream of a mass audience for everyone, for ourselves. Pursuing that dream nullifies the benefits that might come from a nurturing microaudience; it is a return to isolation, a retreat into vicarious fantasy rather than a shoring up of our presence in a community. To chase that mass audience, one must adopt the commercial and entrepreneurial strategies of honing in on the common denominator. With that we are back in the realm of the creative class, and its commercial yardsticks and its competitive prerogative, its defense of its fiefdom of cool, defined as the latest novelty others can be seen chasing. To dissolve the creative class into a universal creativity, the tyranny of “cool”—fashion as a mass-market business; trendspotting as an entrepreneurial vocation; friendship as a quantitative measure; influence as and end in itself—must be abolished.
On the eve of this year’s Oscars, Aakar Patel’s ridiculous article appeared in the Sunday edition of the Wall Street Journal’s India’s version, Mint. “Why Slumdog Millionaire is Unbelievable” came out in Saturday 21, February’s Mint Lounge section, and basically said that Slumdog was far-fetched because poor people don’t have “dignity,” that dignity is an “intellectual” pursuit, and “the poor” aren’t interested in learning. The man even wrote, “those who have spoken to the poor will notice the glaze over their eyes. There is no curiosity in the nature of the world, because it has already revealed itself to them in full.” Well, the kids under the flyover near my house are high, many sniffing something as simple as everyday glue, which would explain the glazed over look. Mr. Patel goes on to say that “we” cannot afford to have compassion for poverty and “the poor” because “it would be intolerable for us to live, surrounded by such sorrow.”
A few things here: First, poverty does not exclude people from experiencing happiness, or even cultivating “dignity,” for that matter. Secondly, not all privileged people find compassion intolerable. Third of all, I am generally suspicious when writers are too presumptuous to unpack “we,” which usually leads me to think even more critically about how it is used. There is no “we” when Mr. Patel says: “The poor are rejected in India for their condition.” Well, do “we” reject them? He then says, “It is an existence of eternal reaction. Constant hunger and helplessness.” Are “the poor” reacting to us? Have “we” starved them or somehow exploited them in ways so morally indefensible? Moreover, have “we” perpetrated “incident upon humiliating incident,” against the so-called helpless poor? Have “we” done this? Has our lack of compassion lead to mainstream trashing of Slumdog, with the only benefit that “we” can now use “slumdog” in mixed, polite, politically correct company?
It is true that “we” were the bad people in the film. We were the schoolteachers that beat kids over the head. We were the mute-witnessed that stood by while mobs slaughtered communities, while authorities stood by. We rolled up our car windows when beggars approached at intersections. We were the game-show host, taking each and every chance to humiliate the “slumdog”, a word said repeatedly like a hissing snake. We were commuters on the train watching a group of goons assault a young girl, grabbing her by her hair and dragging her into a car. We were the citizens who tolerate torture by water-boarding and electrocution. We did not even see “the poor” as people. Indeed, Slumdog was hard for us to watch.
Alternatively, we might dare to base our actions-whatever they may be- on compassion and recognizing that everyone has the right and potential for dignity. The Dalai Lama says, “Everything interdependent, interconnected. If you harm others, you get suffering. If you help others, you get benefit.” It is my own lack of humanity that blinds me from seeing the dignity in any other, and that causes suffering.
The Mint article makes some pretty shady analogies that “we” relatively privileged people often employ to speak about those who have less than we do. We use these excuses to convince ourselves that we deserve what we have, as if by birthright. Patel continues: “The single most important fact of poverty is the loss of dignity in the individual. The Indian knows this. The poor are actually second-rate human beings. Their existence is like that of animals: Their concerns are all immediate because that is the only level at which life engages them.” I disagree. I think that lacking compassion is a greater loss of dignity. This loss of dignity allows us to characterize others as “second-rate,” which justifies why “we” treat them as we do. It is really a lack of compassion for the self, however, that allows us to believe that sheer compassion makes life intolerable. Perhaps Danny Boyle believes that even in India, compassion cultivates tolerance.
Popularity and Appropriation
Following the eight trophy triumph of Slumdog Millionaire, it is important to establish tools for critical introspection now, before the wave of appropriated images flushes the so-called free market. Like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song ushered in a wave of cultural retaliation, so too might the popularity of Slumdog lead to more cultural appropriation, lest we start with respect for diversity in the compassionate, salad-bowl sense.
An entire genre of film resulted in the 70’s in response to demands and petite advances in empowered representation of Blacks in mainstream films. Blaxploitation as a genre spawned from MGM Film Studio’s appropriation of Black filmmakers’ leading characters in works written and produced by African-Americans such as Melvin Van Peebles. In fact, in 1970 Peebles wrote, produced and directed two feature films: Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song. Peebles starred in the latter, in which his son Mario also made his child-acting debut. The crust of it is that Van Peebles’ main protagonist had a personal vendetta against racialized oppression and (white) supremacy. Taking plugs at ‘the man’ turned out to be a major undertone of Van Peebles’ films. His films typically depict the rage of Black heroes against ‘the man’ (read: Establishment), particularly as this is articulated through racism and classism. Barring how narrowly gender is represented, like Sweetback, Slumdog uniquely centers upon non-elites, from a non-elite perspective. In both cases, all of the elite folks in the film were villains, including folks like me in the case of Slumdog; I simply roll up the windshield each time I pass under the flyover near my house where plenty of street children hustle and reside.
Slumdog made no focus of the elite, or Aakar Patel’s presumptuous “we.” Rather, the film critiqued systematic oppression and chronic poverty by its own virtue. Again, Slumdog portrayed us with great clarity as mute-witnesses to all sorts of oppression and exploitation happening in the so-called under-bellies of every urban space on this planet to one degree or another. This is even the critique of the Batman franchise, especially The Dark Knight and Batman Begins. Understandably, critiquing bourgeois society is met with bourgeois retaliation like Mr. Patel’s remarks perpetuating the “myth of meritocracy”. Unlike comic book superheroes, Slumdog hit a bit closer under our bellies with our eyes wide shut. Yet, now that “we” have had our eyes opened, will “we” place Third World poverty into another, more entertaining box?
Will we see a slew of “Third World” exploitation films, forgetting that ‘third’ in this instance means ‘non-aligned’ and not ‘less than’. Getting back to Slumdog, “third” as it pertains to “Third World” certainly does not mean “second-rate human beings.” That perspective gives way to charity, like the actor who played the game-show host donating his earnings from Slumdog to “the poor.” While worthwhile, charity is incomplete, for money is not the only answer. Moreover, charity has more to do with the giver than the receiver. Despite any temporary rapture money may impart, its effect tends not to endure.
Charity strokes First World egos (and perhaps ambitions of Mint’s readership), justifying our own power, privilege and wealth, as well as “their” oppression. “Without changing structures of domination, we leave in place the culture of lovelessness,” says radical feminist bell hooks. A very real ideological commitment towards domination reproduces and aptly reflects oppression in popular culture, which in the modern day means consumption. Colluding with this culture of domination, for example, Black actors are lured by Hollywood’s money to play minstrel-like, Magic Negro characters, sealing their own oppression. In this new millennium, will “we” break or perpetuate this cycle lovelessness? On the other hand, “love,” says bell hooks, “is especially available to is because it is a non-market value.”