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by Rob Horning

20 Oct 2008

At the Atlantic Monthly (love the new retro nameplate), Virginia Postrel, of The Future and Its Enemies fame, grinds her ideological ax in this essay that argues we should not be worried about levels of consumer debt. The figures cited are often flawed, she suggests, and we are far too pessimistic in thinking that it is possible for Americans to overspend. Such an attitude gets prominent press play out of a desire to “moralize.”

Personal debt, for better or worse, has been a moral matter throughout Western civilization (see, for example, Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism)—and this seems to be the argument Postrel wants to have, that debt shouldn’t be seen as a personal failing, and that debt on a national level has brought unprecedented prosperity, as measured in terms of the consumer goods we get to own and use.

The expansion of consumer credit is one of the great economic achievements of the past century. One institutional and technological innovation after another has made borrowing easier and cheaper for rich and poor alike. With each development have come fears—sometimes fueled by the unforeseen problems that inevitably accompany new practices—that this is the change that surely will lead to disaster. Yet a half century after Black’s warnings, doomsday has not arrived, the “consumer-credit explosion” continues, and most consumers are much better off.

Gripes about personal debt are merely attempts to make us feel guilty for enjoying prosperity (“Still others felt guilty about buying luxuries even when they could afford them”—horrors!), and they let the scolds and snobs of the world “paternalistically” tell us what we can or can’t have on the installment plan. Better access to credit, from Postrel’s perspective, means more freedom of choice within the market, which seems to be her definition of freedom itself—achieving the images of the aspirational lifestyle.

Whatever the merits of that argument—weighing the benefits of material prosperity against the psychic burden of living in a consumer society; assessing whether vigorously pursuing market freedoms hampers the development and protection of other types of liberty—Postrel fails to deal with a different kind of problem that consumer credit faces in our current economic climate, one that has nothing to do with an individual’s morals but with overborrowing at unsustainable levels. That there is more credit in the economy is a neutral fact, but the rise in defaults is unequivocably bad. And people are starting to default on their credit-card debt. Postrel thinks bankruptcy is no big deal for individuals:“If you default on your Visa bill, nobody comes to repossess your refrigerator or auction off your shoes. The biggest penalty you’ll face is trouble getting future credit.” But on a macro level, loan defaults contribute to the chaos we are now experiencing.

Felix Salmon links to two articles that undermine Postrel’s case. The first is a post at the Earn What You Spend blog (which has a bias, I’m guessing, against consumer credit), which points out that while credit may be cheaper and more convenient than ever, that has nothing to with whether or not consumers are “overleveraged.” Just because we like debt, that doesn’t make it good for us, anymore than it makes it automatically bad for us. The post concludes:

There are plenty of valid cases to be made for consumer credit and debt; if Postrel had written about why it makes financial sense to use a mortgage to buy a house, about amortizing costs over long periods of time, that would have been one thing.  But to say that all is well in the land of consumer credit, particularly through the use of misleading examples and irrelevant anecdotes, is bit reckless in a time like this. Credit card delinquencies are on the rise.  Consumers are overleveraged, and the chickens are coming home to roost.

The problem is not with debt as a concept. It is with overborrowing for one’s financial conditions.

The other post Salmon links to is from Henry Blodgett, who lays out the data that indicates a consumer-led recession.

the US consumer is finally broke.  For thirty years, we piled on debt and then spent almost every new penny we got.  This borrowing spree was made possible by a smorgasbord of no-money-down lending products and ever-appreciating asset prices. Unfortunately, the situation has now changed. The lenders who created those products have now been demolished, and asset prices are falling fast. And this is leaving American consumers with no choice but to cut back.

Consumers need to cut back not because borrowing and buying things is bad or morally wrong, but because they have no more money to borrow—no one will be willing to lend to them anymore if the prospects of their paying the loans back are bad. And there is no more money to draw out of home equity.

No one doubts that Americans want to spend as much as they can—they are well primed for that by our cultural norms and our pervasive marketing infrastructure. But we’ve reached a point where there may be a will, but there’s no longer a way. Postrel’s essay, it seems, is a plea to maintain the will in the face of changed circumstances, and to preemptively strike at the possibility of consumers adopting priorities other than spending as much as possible.

by Jason Gross

20 Oct 2008

Recently, the Metropolitan Opera got the bright idea of selling videos of some of its performances online.  Seem silly?  They also recently broadcast some of their shows in movie theaters.  The end result was that they got packed audiences for these viewings.  Don’t be surprised if they have good sales of their broadcasts too.

So the obvious question after this is… why aren’t more venues doing the same?  Not everyone can make it out to shows- you have a busy schedule or maybe you happen to live in an area where your favorite band isn’t doing a show.  For the millions of people in either of those boats, paying a couple of bucks to see the show might not be a bad idea, especially if it’s filmed well.  You have the bonus of saving money on traveling to the club, not paying for over-priced drinks and not having to push around for a good view of the band.  Plus, if you can keep the video, you can slow it, play it back, fast forward through parts you don’t like or see parts you love again and again.  And if you wouldn’t have to wait until it gets released as a DVD, that’s even better- even if it’s offered for sale online a day or two later, it’s still current and fresh.  Seems obvious. 

So why ain’t it done? My guess is that part of the problem is that you not only have to pay the artist involved but also the label and the publishers for the songs they’re doing.  But if the band’s got their set list planned in advance, that can be arranged too.  I was at a Lucinda Williams concert where they had burned copies of the first half of her show ready for buyers who came there after the second half but in that case, she was covering her old albums so it was a set group of songs.  The Pixes and Phish did this too for their concerts but as we all know, good shows are more than just good audio- the visuals are the important missing component.  Fans want it and some smart entrepreneurs will figure this out, make deals and give it to ‘em.

by PopMatters Staff

20 Oct 2008

The real Sarah Palin appeared on Saturday Night Live this week and confused the hell out of Alec Baldwin.

Here’s a little extra web fun too.

Gov. Palin Cold Open
Gov. Palin pays a visit to the show

Update: Palin Rap
Amy steps in for Gov. Palin

by Kirstie Shanley

20 Oct 2008

It’s hard to believe that Deerhoof, the four-piece band out of San Francisco, California, just released its 13th album and has been a band for 12 years. Touring to support their latest full-length, Offend Maggie, the band has definitely refined their unique sound during these years, yet they still maintain the energy, excitement, and cutting edge quality of newer bands. In other words, Deerhoof carry no baggage but instead sound as fresh and inviting as ever.

This excitement really shone through at their packed show in Chicago. Lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki not only demonstrated an awesome chemistry with her band members—play fighting and jumping on amps—but she also interacted with the audience, spreading around bags of tortilla chips and loaves of bread. She possessed an ease and sense of happiness that projected well across the audience and made the evening infinitely more enjoyable.

The band concentrated on their most recent albums, but the flow of the overall set had an unexpected quality considering the jarring transitions between some of the individual song’s verses and choruses. Despite the idiosyncratic rhythm patterns and other aspects of their sound, Deerhoof always come off as really tight live and stay essentially true to their recordings.

This show was definitely no exception with band members willing to start and stop on a dime. Matsuzaki’s vocals – in English and Japanese—filled up these songs with an enchanting feminine and repetitive element that fit well with the musical accompaniment. It’s true that Deerhoof manages to create something truly original, which is quite something in this day and age. However, the true talent of its four members lies perhaps in their ability to take their eccentric chord changes, rhythms, timing, and vocals and somehow transform them into interesting pop songs.

by Barry Lenser

20 Oct 2008

“If they had wanted to, they could have found plenty of double meanings in our early work. How about ‘I’ll Keep You Satisfied’ or ‘Please Please Me’? Everything has a double meaning if you look for it long enough.”
—Paul McCartney

It’s amusing to consider the harmless sources of inspiration behind “Please Please Me”. As John Lennon was writing what would become the Beatles’ second single, he was working off a Bing Crosby tune from the early 1930s and imagining soulful crooner Roy Orbison on vocals. As a result, “Please Please Me” was a more downcast and sonically tempered song in its earliest forms. Not ideal material for the follow-up to “Love Me Do”. George Martin was pushing for the Beatles’ cover of “How Do You Do It”, written by Mitch Murray, to claim that designation. But to their credit, the young foursome wanted their own songs to be released. Martin later relented and, after treating it to a dramatic studio revamp, which included a harmonica section, beefed-up vocals, and a faster tempo, the Beatles issued “Please Please Me” as their second single. Far from John’s formerly heartsick, bluesy conception, it emerged as an invigorating and sexually charged rush of a pop song.

I haven’t read anywhere that John greatly adjusted the lyric of “Please Please Me” between its initial and final versions. This is noteworthy because it’s hard to imagine that the song could come off as so subversively salacious (by 1963 standards, anyway) in its early Orbison-styled form. Without the fleet pace and bracing harmonica parts, what would have created the brisk energy that vigorously animates the song’s sexual subtext? Without the call-and-response “come ons” and their tone of escalating frustration, how might John have sounded so desperate for fleshy satisfaction? Overall, the studio changes would seem to have transformed “Please Please Me” into a song whose needs were urgently of the moment.

The lyric of course remains the primary reason that, for instance, Robert Christgau once described “Please Please Me” as about oral sex. The chorus speaks for itself: “Please please me oh yeah/ Like I please you”. To “please” someone strongly suggests an action taking place. In this case, an action has been performed and the performer is seeking reciprocation. The same is true of “You don’t need me to show the way love” or “I do all the pleasin’ with you”. These lines again indicate physical activity much more than any sort of non-carnal exchange of affection. The rousing “come ons”, echoed back and forth between John and the supporting vocals of Paul and George, also factor in heavily. They prompt the question: would John really be shouting “come on” in an effort to elicit greater emotional attention from his significant other? It sounds strange to ask “Oh, come on, why won’t you love me more?” The pettiness implied in that phrase better suits a request for a sexual favor. And, finally, it doesn’t require much gutter imagination to interpret the line “Why do you make me blue?” in a bawdy manner.

In the end, “Please Please Me” is entertaining as a call for equality between-the-sheets but more gratifying as a pure pop pleasure. It’s just over two minutes of impassioned vocals, meaty guitarwork, shifty percussion, and snappy momentum, with a bit of scandal to boot.

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