Latest Blog Posts

by Rob Horning

14 Nov 2008

Does typecasting by nationality become more pronounced in a crisis? (One of the curious paradoxes of the identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s was that it was both wrong to essentialize people categorically based on their nationality, race, or gender or what have you, but at the same time the differences automatically engendered by these characteristics required a deeper respect.) I’m reading Orwell’s essays written during World War II, in which he concludes naturally enough that patriotism is the most powerful force in the world, considering all the destruction being wreaked in its name. In “England Your England,” he proceeds to claim that Spaniards can be known by their cruelty to animals and Italians are congenitally noisy before proclaiming that the British citizens’ respect for the law is a national characteristic.

Now, facing an economic crisis, more and more national stereotypes seem to be cropping up in economic analysis. Or maybe they are always there, but now we really need them to be true. Americans are presumed to be optimistic shopaholics, sustaining worldwide demand; Asians are inveterate savers who stubbornly refuse to consume more. And in an editorial in yesterday’s FT, Canadian finance minister James Flaherty champions his people’s dullness. In a piece headlined ” ‘Boring’ Canada’s financial tips for the world,” he writes,

Few countries are as dependent on trade or as integrated into the global financial system as Canada. Yet our financial sector continues to weather the turbulence better than many other countries. This did not happen by chance. Canadians by nature are prudent and our financial system has been characterised as unexciting. Canada’s regulatory regime ensures that stability and efficiency are balanced.

This sort of thing makes me extremely envious of Canadians. I wish I lived in a country that was generally proud of being boring and pragmatic as opposed to gluttonous and intemperate.

by Jason Gross

14 Nov 2008

When the Eagles decided that they were getting rid of some of the ticketing fees for their shows, their new buddies at Ticketmaster had to come up with a creative way to announce this.  Before we get to how they worded it, a note from the linked Live Daily article notes that TM has a ‘controlling stake’ in their management.  So now that they’ve hooked up, they decided to give their fans a little break by waving the ridiculous, greedy fees that they usually attach to the ticket prices:

“Ticketmaster is testing this program and is consulting with all our clients in the hope of rolling out the ‘all- in ticketing’ program for events nationwide,” Ticketmaster CEO Sean Moriarty added. “We are honored that the Eagles are the first to kick off this unprecedented fan-friendly Ticketmaster program.”

TM themselves who’ve never even tried to show any transparency over the ‘handling’ charges for the printed tickets that they mail out, not to mention the charges that they still dole out for ‘will call’ tickets which don’t get mailed to you or the ‘paperless tickets’ that you vouch for at a box office or the printable tickets which you can just make at home (and which they sometimes charge you extra for).

When they say ‘testing out the program,’ they mean that they wanna see if they can rake in enough dough without the extra charges, especially now that a falling economy means that people have less money to spend on concerts.  It also makes TM and the band look nice for not trying to rip you off with these charges.  Whether it’ll be enough to keep fans coming out to shows remains to be seen.

If TM doesn’t see fit to waive the fees, then I’d suggest that the new admin’s attorney general look into their practices to see if they can really justice the charges or not.  If they can’t, I say that they owe us some big refunds and not the chintzy ones that the major labels had to cough up for payola violations a few years ago.

by Rob Horning

14 Nov 2008

I still remember being taught in high school during the 1980s that the U.S. was superior to the Soviet Union because we could shop at the mall and choose from a cornucopia of goods while the Soviets had stand in line at gray, dreary state-owned dispensaries and basically take what they were given. The Soviet citizens envied our freedom, which is why they were always defecting and why they faced a repressive police state and fences to keep them in rather than enemies out. When the U.S.S.R. fell, many assumed that the former Soviet bloc would smoothly integrate into the global capitalist economy, greased by surging consumer demand. That hasn’t worked out so well, though we still hear of the over-the-top consumer decadence of Russian oligarchs—for example inadvertently killing their mistresses by letting them bathe in tubfuls of expensive perfume. But considering how Russia remains a bloc unto itself, it seems true that Soviet citizen weren’t simply Western-style consumers in waiting, that in fact Western-style consumption is not some universal mind-set that sits dormant in all humans and is merely waiting for the opportunity to flourish as it should. It may be that the Western consumerist mentality is itself as anomalous as the Iron Curtain mind-set. What’s more, those not to the consumerist manner born might actively resist adopting it.

This FT editorial about stoking consumer demand in China (also noted by Brad Setser here) got me thinking about the desirability of consumer mind-set. The FT and Setser rightly argue that from an economic standpoint, the world needs more demand from Chinese consumers. From the FT:

China’s growth to date has been phenomenal, but it was based on exports and investment, at the expense of consumption. China almost aimed to be a supersized South Korea: in 2005, capital investment made up more than half of China’s gross domestic product. The capital-intensity of its growth also meant profits grew strongly as a share of GDP. But employment growth has slowed since the 1980s, so workers have gained small benefit.
With an undervalued renminbi also making imports dear, the Chinese public has proved loath to spend. China has far too little dom­estic consumer demand. Where­as household consumption made up more than half of China’s GDP in the 1980s, it now contributes little more than a third.

Whether China wants to become more like South Korea culturally seems questionable; it’s curtailment of political freedoms seems to suggest otherwise, and if the Milton Friedmans of the world are right, the procedure of fulfilling increased consumer demand habituates people to freedom of choice and leads to citizens insisting on liberty across the board. Already, no one trusts China’s economic data; part of the obfuscation seems to be to conceal its efforts to manage consumer demand and suppress it. It seems probable that China, on the give-an-inch-take—a-mile principle, would want to intentionally restrict consumer demand to forestall unrest. So it keeps wages (and consumer demand) low, produces goods and sells them to the West, and then uses the proceeds to buy Treasurys and keep its currency weak (making foreign goods expensive and also pre-empting consumer demand). It pooh-poohs the West with talks of rebalancing its economy and reducing its current-accounts surplus, but takes no action. Its recent stimulus plan, as the FT argues, does little to address this. Setser adds that Chinese tax rebates on exports will only exacerbate the imbalances that are creating problems for the Chinese economy in the first place—namely that world demand for cheap Chinese goods is falling yet the Chinese economy has little incentive to shift to manufacturing for the domestic market. (Though the Chinese government might want to consider some palliatives if this sort of thing keeps up.)

This seems to add up to Chinese government officials being reluctant to unleash consumerism in China. Perhaps they fear moral corrosion. Perhaps the ghost of Mao is admonishing them. Perhaps the Chinese people haven’t effectively been taught how to demand—maybe there is a marketing deficit there. But some attention should be paid to the political and social factors (as opposed to only the economic factors) that retard the growth of consumer demand. It may be that consumer demand can’t automatically be called into being simply because economic models require it.

by Thomas Hauner

14 Nov 2008

Living legend is a term frequently abused. Interlopers inattentively dilute it, so squeezing what meaning remains from it does not give justice to David “Honeyboy” Edwards’ remarkable, and continuing, 93-year history steeped in the blues. However, tossing in the name Robert Johnson—whom Honeyboy was acquainted with and whose fateful final performance he was present at—instantly adds much deserved lore and intrigue to Honeyboy’s often overlooked stature.

Let it be clear that the rowdy crowd at B.B. King’s knew exactly whom and what they were listening to. The venue’s dinner-theatre arrangement easily gave way to whoops and hollers that helped energize Honeyboy’s aged hands and weathered voice, while second guitarist Rocky Lawrence also egged them on between and during songs.

Joining the nonagenarian and Lawrence was harmonica player Michael Frank, longtime collaborator and friend. But Frank and Lawrence were merely rhythmic and social companions to Honeyboy’s deep shuffling vocals and finger picked slides. Together they played with apt dynamics, beautifully conveying the emotional ebb and flow of each tune.

Opening with “Catfish Blues” Honeyboy himself was avuncular and sympathetic. Maintaining a woefully serious face on the surface through most of his songs, he would eventually give in to a bright-eyed grin when the audience got particularly rowdy, like during “Sweet Home Chicago”, or when they howled after he sang “I don’t know right from wrong” during “Don’t Say I Don’t Love You”. I also personally felt for him and his inherent frustrations, his fingers not always responding as they once had nor as he’d intended.

Like Honeyboy’s humble origins in Shaw, Mississippi (where the historic Mississippi Blues Trail marks his roots) his sound was bare yet refined, unfiltered yet concentrated with decades of raw emotion. In fact, much of Honeyboy’s demeanor suggested ceaseless pain from the woeful subjects of his songs: drunks, untrustworthy companions, and his own primordial vices. 

But he keeps moving on though, musically steeped in a distancing past, his life embodying that of the mythical traveling blues man.

by Timothy Gabriele

13 Nov 2008

In my review of Max Richter’s 24 Postcards in Full Colour, I choked a bit trying to connect the dots between Richter and the texturalists, that sorted group who together make up a kind of non-laptop-based “glitch” scene by exploiting the naturalized deterioration of sound and using entropy and antiquity as instruments in their recordings.  I’d count among this lot Bibio, Belong, Optiganally Yours, Ariel Pink, Burning Star Core, William Basinski, The Caretaker, Boards of Canada, Black Mother Super Rainbow, and almost all noise musicians, amongst a host of others.  There’s something important I wasn’t quite putting my finger on when examining the vitality of the recursive losses within the effects these musicians employ. 

And then I came upon this old article by Woebot, which describes the advent of digital technology as the end of time, at least as far as sound media is concerned (even going so far as to speculate that such problem have facilitated the crisis of conscience and consciousness in the music industry).  The article supposes that digital technology has perfected our desire to mummify every artifact in its exact original depiction, creating in essence a whole new generation who will be raised under MP3 and M4A and whatever’s to follow without ever understanding the temporal nature of music.

If digital music threatens to prevent music from colliding into a frictional relationship with time, then all new recorded sound will develop within the framework of a quarantined plasticity usually reserved for only the glossiest of pop stars.  It is left constantly shiny, constantly new, pre-wrapped for consumption.  In this sense, digital rendering is the genetic modification of music.  It threatens to take away what those of us who came of age in the era of tapes and records recall as music’s fallibility- its expiration date.  Remember when the magnetic tape of your cassette would gag itself in the gears of your walkman?  That can never happen with virtual music.  It is immortal, zombified. 

Like a painter who might burn his canvas to simulate aging, the aforementioned texturalists see decay in sound as something more than just window dressing.  Theirs is a kind of simulated attic music (attictronica? attica?), which carries the emotional resonance of years of dust and debris, the history of an old record collection like the rings of tree bark, despite the fact that it’s newly created music coming out of the speakers.  Their work examines the mysterious aesthetic of time’s toll on the intangible, a sound once uttered, once carried through the air and captured by a microphone, forever to be trapped in polyvinyl casing.  The tape decay and natural wear these artists dress their productions with carries an intrinsic gravity, but not just superficially from their association with a kind of universalist nostalgia.  This kind of imperative programming reproduces a world in which in which the studio is not a vacuum and music serves as an organic member of the phenomenological community, regardless of its relationship to methods of production. 

In the age of Pro Tools, one need not leave their desktop to have access to a home studio, so the decision of, say, Ariel Pink or Axolotl to use a four track or tape recorder should be seen as both an aesthetic and ideological choice.  It’s futile to argue which aesthetic sounds “better”, as all presumptive hierarchies are entirely subjective, but it’s not beyond reason to wonder if this kind of reactionary choice does not serve as a kind of elegy.

Whenever coming upon a just-barely rescued anthology or a blog cataloguing rare and out-of-print records, its halts me when I think of those that never made it out of the crates, works of art reduced to dust before any one could ever hear their beauty again.  Therein lies the sad secret of our great musical culture and its many institutions, all predicated on the seemingly populist notion that our shared artifacts are the distillation of mass tastemaking consensus, that we arrive by our heroes through their indisputable superiority.  The fact of the matter is that most great music lives and dies in a basement.  It gets thrown out or tossed aside, never making its way to the right sets of ears (namely, yours).  In fact the greatest song ever written is probably being written right now.  In a few days, it’ll uploaded to a random Myspace page in a corner of the internet no one visits, and promoted by a bunch of kids who are better musicians than salesmen.  The Myspace page may remain up for years, but only a select few will care about the greatest song ever written.

As disappointing as this notion may seem, there’s something self-satisfactory about the intransigence of sonic mortality.  Degenerative C90s and scratchable records were made to be discarded in an attic, forgotten by their owners, and left for dead.  That we even discover them at all is like dancing with a ghost.  And it’s not just the physical music object that is its hauntological essence, but the sound itself too.

The death of sound is something we experience perpetually as each wave vibration detonates against our eardrum and dithers its way into memory.  Recorded sound, like photography, is a time machine, a cheat against nature.  Our record collections are mausoleums of dead sound and now, with digital restoration, all these songs are absent the signs of rot usually observed in a corpse.  The modern age has also seen an exponential expansion of the aural Golgotha.  Technology now allows us the ability to establish a metalibrary of all recorded sound, left in the exact state it was recorded in.  Conspiracy theories tell of a vast NSA database of every phone call in America, recorded for posterity.  But when one thinks of the massive undertaking one would have to undergo to simply establish a categorical framework for analyzing these data mines, the idea seems more like a feckless battle against time than a system of control.

Recorded sound information is only doomed to be forgotten, left in eternal hospice without permission to fade off.  As vast as our music collections grow, as knowledgeable as we become by dissecting the past, we’re still left with the burdensome task of actually listening to all that music.  Eventually, the speed of information catches up with us all, just like death.

Hunters and collectors will continue to search through the bottomless record crate in attempts to communicate with the past.  Others will seek out only the obscure and potentially miss out on music’s essential function as a social unifier.  The rest of us will either look for a happy medium or settle for what the critical establishment, our friends and family, or the rest of the music community contends to be the best music has to offer, even though it probably isn’t. 

Will future generations be able to establish their own unique identities through music if what they listen to sounds exactly like what their parents listened to though?  What digital music threatens to erode is the knowledge that all music has a history, a genealogy, and plenty of contemporaries who have now passed on into the great record crate in the sky.  At the cellular level, we’re always changing into new people, shedding our skins, replacing dead cells with new ones, old music with new.  Musical evolution, like human evolution, requires us to allow for the death of music, loved or not, sanctified or vilified, to fertilize the grounds for tomorrow’s sounds.  Whispering crumbled, fragmentary, and wounded sounds of wisdom, the texturalists tell us to let it be.

//Mixed media

Tricks or Treats? Ten Halloween Blu-rays That May Disrupt Your Life

// Short Ends and Leader

"The best of this stuff'll kill you.

READ the article