Five Reasons Why Global Culture Didn’t Suck in 2003…

It’s funny how some totally discount the value of lists like these, even as they are drawn to them, like Gollum to his ring-shaped addiction. In other words, I cannot count how much mail, good and bad, I received for last year’s installment of this retrospective, especially from readers who could say nothing other than how useless such lists are.

But there was one vitally important note that was brought to my attention about last year’s list — I lumped everything under the unintentionally nationalistic rubric, “American culture”. Figuring, perhaps correctly, that much of the entertainment sphere’s lifeblood and funding comes directly out of the United States, I felt, perhaps wrongly, that its products were at least latent manifestations of American culture.

But even if that sentiment is found to be correct or fallacious, it is inherently missing the point. Even if one argues that America is where the world comes to play with its various signifiers — especially those of the entertainment and political persuasion — it’s nothing short of ignorant to ascribe all of them to the United States. In that sense, I would like to apologize to everyone outside of America who felt slighted by my pathetic bias.

And, again, I would like to apologize to everyone in the past that I’ve offended — and everyone I’m about to offend with this piece. That said, here’s 10 more watershed moments of the past year whose impact will most likely be felt long after Dick Clark’s balls drop on New York City and Los Angeles.

It’s About Tolkien Time!
Peter Jackson’s peerless presentation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s canonical imaginary made the top of the list last year, but that was right after The Two Towers hit the theaters and several months before the fan-friendly extended DVD landed. In other words, it was in media res. But now, with the release of The Return of the King, it can conclusively be said that Jackson’s trilogy is nothing short of history in progress. The box office receipts are staggering and the reviews are across-the-board positive, with a little elbow room given to quibbles that will most likely be smoothed over by the time the extended version comes out.

In fact, the only public dissent can be found amongst the Tolkien hardliners who misunderstand the fundamental complexities involved in bringing a 1000-page literary masterpiece featuring multiple storylines and constructed cultures and languages to the screen. And even those are hard to find.

One thing that the haters and the cheerleaders both seem to forget is how unprecedented Jackson’s achievement is, how rare a moment in film — to say nothing of entertainment — history it has become. Without alienating the Tolkien horde, without defaulting on New Line’s loans, without employing any major stars and without anything resembling a standard Hollywood resume of his own, Peter Jackson has revolutionized cinema. His heart-wrenching CGI Gollum raises serious questions about so-called “real” actors, his fellow Kiwis at WETA have made the two words “George Lucas” a thing of the past, and his trilogy has supplanted any other that came before (the Matrix cocktail, Coppola’s Godfather saga, the Star Wars machine, the Indiana Jones washout). Plus, his films will dig the fantasy and science fiction genres out of conventional narrative’s red-headed stepchild basement, and his fanatical dedication to his work and home have made New Zealand a Hollywood of the future.

Now, I know that he and many of his actors don’t give a shit about awards, but it’s insanity to think that the Academy doesn’t owe him back pay for overlooking his trilogy in favor of A Beautiful Mind and Chicago (where are they now, indeed), and that they won’t come through in 2004 to make up for it. I’m sure the rise in salaries for future projects will be nice for all of those involved, but more than anything, as sports has shown us, everyone remembers the winners and it’s time to pay up, suckers. It will be no small satisfaction watching Jackson have to make repeat trips to the podium at the Oscars this year; it will be about fucking time.

Mars Volta
All hail the kings of prog punk! In a year that saw many bands going back to the well with boring (Radiohead) if not ridiculous (Dandy Warhols) results, one group grabbed the brass ring and reminded our DJ-saturated culture what it means to make music together again. Recombining the DNA of everyone from Led Zeppelin, Santana and Fugazi to Ozomatli, Rush and Pink Floyd — then adding a potent does of their own lyrical and musical fury — Mars Volta easily made the album of the year, causing some serious cranial hemorrhage along the way.

Crafting a scato/eschato/psychological exploration of addiction, depression and doom, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala carved out a name for themselves as the best songwriting duo since Page-Plant. Cedric’s glass-shattering vocals and Omar’s guitar wizardry brought an almost forgotten energy back to rock, while ensconcing both in the headbanger hall of fame. And is there a better, more powerful drummer in music today than Jon Theodore? The guy is unbelievable.

Even though the death of their sonic experimentalist and friend, Jeremy Ward, injected a disturbing confluence between art and life into their De-loused at the Comatorium, nothing could stop Mars Volta’s refreshing runaway train of rock revisionism. While some will argue that some brat named Dizzee Rascal or some color-coded kids named the White Stripes made the album of the year, Mars Volta could take a stage and eat their collective lunches with one song.

The Daily Show
Liberal billionaire George Soros is tired of the right-wingers at Fox, MSNBC and elsewhere soiling the airwaves, as is Progress Media. They want to spend millions to roll out a liberal bias in the media to counter that proffered by tools like Rush Limbaugh (nice call on McNabb, Oxy fiend!), Sean Hannity, Joe Scarborough and onward.

And, as usual, the question always comes down to blueprints — who is going to get copied to make the dream a reality?

Who indeed, besides Comedy Central’s brilliant fake news program, The Daily Show? In a stroke of genius or luck, The Daily Show lost former ESPN talking head and smug tool Craig Kilborn and replaced him with Jon Stewart in 1999, and it’s been gravy ever since. Where Kilborn’s intellectual capacity seemed to involve not much more than chicks in hot tubs, Stewart by contrast has a firm grasp of pop culture and its attendant politics, as well as a congenial interview style that isn’t saved by a bogus five-questions quiz.

Then there is the insanely funny Stephen Colbert (“That’s French, bitch!”), whose trenchant satire has skewered everyone from crotchety loudmouth Bill O’Reilly to confused loudmouth Al Sharpton. In 2003, Colbert and Stewart were the finest one-two punch on television, while the whole sick crew was rewarded for their penetrating insights with two Emmys.

Add that to the Emmy and Peabody already decorating The Daily Show‘s toilet, and you have more than the best fake news program on the airwaves — considering America’s current piss-poor state of television journalism, The Daily Show is the best damn real news show. Period.

Strom Thurmond Finally Dies!
Goddamn this took longer than it should have. Strom Thurmond’s long life defies the existence of a god; actually, I take that back: it does more to prove that god is white male than anything I can think of. How else to explain how a guy that steadfastly fought integration, who tried to run for president on a racist platform (Trent Lott, pick up the white courtesy phone), and continually fortified his redneck worldview whenever given the chance — all while siring a mulatto and paying her off with hush money since 1941(!) — lived to be 100 and serve time in Congress at the same time?

The only thing worse than Strom is his daughter Essie Mae Washington, who told Dan Rather that for “50 or 60 years now, this thing has been following me. So the fact that I am coming out now to talk about it is like a burden being lifted, because I had this secret.”

First off, it was no secret; everyone in South Carolina knew about it, and anyone with a sure grasp of tragicomedy — or Freud — could have guessed that much (hey, Strom had to be compensating for something). And secondly, why she felt that holding the bag for an absentee father who spent most of his public life degrading the living hell out of people her color — OK, people darker than her, but you catch my drift — up until the end of the 20th century is beyond me. I mean, think of the sea changes in African American culture since King, X, Chester Himes, Marcus Garvey, James Brown, Snoop Dogg, P-Funk, Tiger Woods and Jesse Jackson, to say nothing of the now-canonical slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass — they all passed her by. Next to Rosa Parks suing Outkast for trademark infringement, this has got to be one of the most ludicrous moments of 2003, hands down.

And before all you sensitives draft those hate mails, answer this question — what possible collective good came from Washington keeping silent? That move saved one person above all else some much-needed embarrassment: Strom.

I know it might be taboo to ridicule the dead, but in a year that cost us the shining lights of Edward Said, Gregory Peck, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, Elliott Smith, Gregory Hines, John Entwhistle, Barry White, Althea Gibson, Bobby Bonds, Celia Cruz, Stan Brakhage, Leslie Cheung and Maurice Blanchot (whew!), the passing of Strom was music to my ears. Good riddance.

The Liberal Smackdown!
Michael Moore wins an Oscar. Al Franken firmly lodges his foot in Bill O’Reilly’s ass. Some nobody named Howard Dean galvanizes –and raises — millions at the drop of a hat. In fact, there’s a better than good chance that he might be America’s next president.

Can you smell what the pinkos are cooking?

OK, so these are all minor victories, but trust me, after four years of the smarmy, smug, provincial “Us vs. Them” corporate sellout Bush administration, I’ll take whatever I can get. And you should too, because no matter your political affiliation or cultural perspective, there is no doubt — to use Ronald Reagan’s twisted logic — that the United States is far worse off than it was four years ago. Four years ago, we had a massive surplus; now we’ve got trillion dollar deficits. Four years ago, the dollar was kicking currency ass; now it’s getting beat down by the euro. Four years ago, the Twin Towers were standing and the Clinton crew was chasing Osama bin Laden and Saudi Arabia down. Today, the Towers are a memory and the energy sector-funded Bush administration has killed at least four times as many civilians who died on 9/11, all while invading and occupying a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 but nevertheless houses the world’s second-largest oil reserves.

What kind of boneheaded administration decides that occupying a country in the Middle East — which is already losing its mind over, what else, Israel’s occupation of Palestine — is a good thing? Or thumps its chest because they found Saddam in a spider hole? Only in America!

Four years ago, we were friends with mostly everyone in the world; now they all hate us. In other words, the ascendancy of Dean, Moore, Franken, Soros and other liberals who so recently realized that they weren’t king-sized wimps is instructive; in fact, it may be a taste of things to come. Smell that!

… And Five Reasons Why It Did

Democratic Sellouts
Talk about a loser’s strategy. First, Joseph Lieberman caves in to conservatives by calling out Bill Clinton’s sexual explorations with a Beverly Hills moocow on the floor of Congress. Then, he gets the nod to crouch in Al Gore’s hip pocket for the 2000 election, a Jiminy Cricket of sorts promising to bring morals and ethics back to the White House (I’ll have some of whatever he’s smoking). That move, as we all know, was an unmitigated disaster, a cave-in to the Bible-thumping right looking to repeal every civil liberty and sociopolitical gain established in the last fifty years. Democrats — who under Clinton at least got to talk about gays, universal healthcare, poverty, sex, gender and the environment — collectively coughed up their spleens and ditched the party for Ralph Nader, Lyndon Larouche, Dubya, whoever they could find. Some didn’t even show up to vote, mostly because they couldn’t spot the difference between Bush and Gore (who couldn’t seem to find anything to disagree about).

The result? Gore lost the election but not the vote; whether that was because of shenanigans or the sheer fact that he is a pussy who gave into the Supremes doesn’t really matter anymore. What does matter is that Gore forgot who the hell he was and Lieberman knew who the hell he was, and neither of these walking downers could galvanize a cockroach. Fast forward to 2003, and Gore suddenly has his memory back — endorsing populist hero Howard Dean, railing against Ashcroft and his ass-backwards Justice Department, calling out Bush’s Iraq escapade as an overproduced oil grab — but it’s too little too late, because he’s already irrelevant. And Lieberman? I actually heard him say this the other day: “If you’re not sure about Dean or Clark, I’m your guy!” The dude can’t even give himself a ringing endorsement. In short, he’s a joke — although one favored by conservatives on MSNBC and Fox News, who encourage his Dean-bashing. Which is itself — for all involved — an act of desperation that will not, and has not, worked.

That, my friends, is called a sign from Da Lord.

As for the other entrenched Democrats like Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards and company — but not the excellent Kucinich, who definitely knows which way the bullshit is blowing — they need to stop taking the brown acid. They have endlessly lamented the way Bush has “misled” Congress into giving him every power other than that which allows him to mandate that citizens wear their underwear outside of their clothes, but if Bush has zero evidence of actual WMD now — real ones, not half-assed programs to build them — then he didn’t have any back when it really counted. Which means that those losers simply let him lie his way into this war and demanded nothing of him. Are those the kind of spineless tools we want running the country?

Look, the choice is clear: Dean is the only guy who knows what the hell he’s doing these days — and he’s totally new to it; the latecomer Wesley Clark may get there, but only because the Clintons will hold his hand. In other words, the wimpy Demos need to take their cue from the audacious Republicans — raise up, shut up and get in line if you want to win. Dean may not be the guy to beat Bush in 2004, but he’s undoubtedly the people’s choice. That used to mean something; the Democrats, especially the clueless Lieberman, might want to think about why it doesn’t anymore.

Let’s just clear away the debris while we can, because memories are short. A couple decades ago, Saddam Hussein was a brutal thug who lied, cheated, stole and grifted his way to the top in Iraq. A few months ago, he was the same, except that he was no longer an American ally on Washington’s payroll, one supplied with chemical weapons and our blessing (both of which he used at will for us on the hated Iranians).

So he gassed the Kurds along the way; we could give two shits, as long as the Middle East, an explosive hotbed of religious fundamentalism, was under his iron fist. In fact, according to recently declassified but nevertheless well-known information, our own senile Donald Rumsfeld (remember the “unknown unknowns” speech? classic!) shook the guy’s hand and all but told him to keep on keepin’ on (gassing his enemies, that is). There’s video of it, for Christ’s sake.

Like Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet, Manuel Noriega, Pervez Musharraf, Joseph Stalin and onward, Saddam is simply one in a long line of dictators the United States supported in hopes of fortifying American business as usual. But then he overstepped his bounds, most notably by threatening the monarchs of Kuwait (and by extension, Saudi Arabia) who we call friends, even though they also happen to operate some of the most oppressive regimes in the world. Poppy Bush got mad, and then Junior got even, by bombing the shit out of and then occupying Hussein’s country, killing, as of this writing, anywhere from approximately 8,000-10,000 civilians (not soliders; they don’t get counted) on the way. That’s almost three times as many civilians that died on September 11th, a harrowing historical event that Dubya invoked as he hammered his way to Baghdad (noting, much later when it became convenient, that the two had nothing to do with each other).

Which begs the question — What ultimately led the United States to kill three times the amount of people that were lost on 9/11?

WMD? Nope, we haven’t found any (although some knobs on Capitol Hill proclaim this is the reason they signed off on the excursion). Because of the so-called War on Terrorism? Nice try — while almost all of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, none were Iraqis, and no concrete connection between Saddam and 9/11 has been unearthed. OK, how about, er… preemptive retaliation? Fat chance — Saddam couldn’t weaponize chemicals if he had Enrico Fermi chilling in Basra.

So what’s left? Get this — democracy.

Some fundamentalist policy hacks named Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and more figured that the best way to counter other fundamentalists on their home turf and spread the democratic seed was to invade Saddam’s country and kill thousands of innocents in the name of freedom. They figured that both Iraqi Muslims and secularists would drop to their knees and praise U.S. soldiers and the bombs they dropped as liberators, and Iraq’s thousands of years of history and culture would melt away like Bush’s WMD evidence (well, the culture in Iraq’s museums did melt away, but from the heat of the fires). Along the way, they enriched their friends at Halliburton (who overcharged America millions to supply Iraq, not the U.S., with oil) and Bechtel, privatized Iraq’s social net (hey, it didn’t work here; might as well try somewhere else), and laid off half the country.

OK, that last one might be an exaggeration, but the whole scenario is so cartoonish that Bugs Bunny would be suing for infringement if it wasn’t for the fact that the dead bodies could populate every room in the lavish palaces that now conveniently function as American bases of operation. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, indeed. No matter where you stand on Saddam, he is a red herring. The true meaning of the war on Iraq lies in….

Saudi Arabia: The Magic Kingdom
Poof! Just like that, they were gone. The smoke was barely clearing from bin Laden’s masterminded assaults by the time all of his kin who were in America were summarily safely squired out of it — by Americans. Forget that they might have had something to do with the 9/11 attacks, or perhaps knew someone who knew someone (like Osama?) who did — while the rest of America was rerouted, the President of the United States allowed members of Osama’s family to ride his planes out of the country gratis.

Why? Because Saudis are rich, very rich, and also because Bush is friends with them. We all are, don’t you know?

Forget that they’re Wahabi fundamentalists who would like nothing more than to lower Mohammed’s sword on the necks of infidels everywhere, or that they’re not even a democracy — they’ve got money and they’ve got oil, therefore they are untouchable. And they, not Saddam, are the reason we’re killing and dying in Iraq.

See, Saudi oil is untouchable, Iraq’s is not. Bush has friendly biz connections with the Saudi royals (who helped fund all of his pre-White House business failures), while he has nothing to like about Iraq, except its oil reserves, the second largest in the world. James Baker, the guy he sent to beg nations to forgive Iraq’s debt? Attorney for Saudi Arabia. 9/11 hijackers? Mostly Saudis. Terror sponsoring nations? Start with the Saudis.

The evidence for bombing the shit out of Saudi Arabia is practically incontrovertible; no country in the Middle East has done more to encourage the type of murderous invention we suffered on 9/11. But we went to Iraq instead, and took on a pitiable regime in an easy-to-predict cakewalk; in fact, the Iraq contest was so predictable that we didn’t even bother planning the aftermath, which to date has been an unmitigated failure. And that kind of shit, if you can follow this, that makes us the kind of undemocratic occupiers we like to invade in the name of democracy. The incestuous circularity of the whole thing can make you crazy.

Although Saudi Arabia’s moment of triumph was found in the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center over two years ago, it is quite possibly the most important story of 2003. If anyone was actually paying attention, that is. Too bad no one was.

My 50 Cent Worth
Oh man, where to start? How about at the beginning? Curtis Jackson, like so many Americans, grew up the product of a broken home occasioned by hustlers and addicts, and like many rappers before him, decided to turn away from crime and toward music. That is, until he found out that the industry is crawling with white execs drooling at the prospect of selling the Bulletproof Black to the white consumers who fuel entertainment’s considerable market — at which point crime was just fine, thanks!

Sure, African-Americans buy his stuff, but their sales percentages alone couldn’t propel a naked Beyonce (her time will come) to the top of the charts without massive help from the rest of the world. Which leaves us with the same tired Horatio Alger shit we’ve seen before, this time featuring probably some of the worst rhyme skills this side of Vanilla Ice and more video-hos-for-rent than a Dirty South convention. It’s a good thing that 50 wears that Kevlar vest — in an act of genius publicity, he also bought one for his son — because if Biggie Smalls ever comes back from the dead, he’ll probably want to fill him with holes for degrading hip-hop’s lyrical tradition.

But 50 is far from the problem, he’s just the latest wack rapper with no talent to receive massive industry backing. No, the real problem here is the continuing collective support of hip-hop violence, especially in a year that saw some amazing releases — Outkast’s double joint, Diverse’s One A.M., anything Madlib touched, anything Def Jux released, the list goes on — in the genre. Didn’t any of these cats learn anything from the Tupac-Biggie blood feud?

I’ll share a secret with all of you: 50 Cent is not bulletproof. One well-placed shot — or rhyme from an opposing rapper — will take him out so quickly that no one will ever remember he existed. The way things are going, that could happen as soon this summer.

Disney’s Tramp Factory
The only Mouseketeer hottie I really remember is Annette Funicello (who my pop referred to as “Annette Full-a-Jello”), but I can’t for the life of me remember her sucking face with Nancy Sinatra. In fact, before the steamroller called Britney Spears became negative capability defined — “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”? So what are you? A man? — I thought the Mouseketeers were a laughable relic of the past.

Wrong! They’re taking over the freakin’ world — and Internet porn too. Christina Aguilera, who actually can sing, had a unofficial porn featuring Justin Timberlake floating across Kazaa, as well as an official one, called “Drrty”, on MTV, BET and every channel you can think of. Both sucked ass. Meanwhile, Spears, who can’t sing a lick, took a page from her idol Madonna and started showing some ass to move product — and it worked like a charm. Then there’s Hilary Duff, who’s next in line for a public sexual maturation; think I’m crazy? Punch “Hilary Duff nude” into Google and see what happens.

All of which begs the question — what the hell is going on over at Disney? Is this Eisner’s work? What happened to the family in family entertainment?

The answer is simpler than you think. Of course, the Internet has bolstered if not outright legitimized pornography for the next generation, if only because it’s now so accessible, so culture itself has changed its mind to an extent when it comes to sex; unless, of course it’s homosexual, in which case it’s akin to bestiality, at least according to Rick Santorum. But that would be letting Disney off the hook. Since giving Ariel tits in The Little Mermaid, Jasmine a sexy midriff in Aladdin and Esmerelda the whole hot package in the awful Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney has significantly if stealthily altered the sexual landscape of girlhood. And if you ask them, they’ll deny it to their graves.

But that pissed-off cartoonist who discreetly painted a cock into The Little Mermaid‘s poster art knew which way the wind was blowing. For decades, Disney has riffed on the theme of female sexual awakening (Snow White? Sleeping Beauty?), and the 21st century’s in-your-face cultural vernacular has merely paved the way for them to shrug it off. And I’m not bitching about it, understand that. But Disney should just come clean and say that it’s interested in building up massive facades of sexual purity and romantic love only so it — or its various products — can tear them down.

Honesty is still the best policy; well, that and ass, evidently. Wasn’t that the point of Pinocchio’s phallic nose in the first place?

Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists