Culture

Breakfast of Champions

Tara Taghizadeh

Washington, DC ain't for the faint-hearted. This is the school of hard knocks, baby. In DC, they eat politicians, lawyers, and other movers-and-shakers for breakfast. New York has nothing over DC.

"So I came to Washington, where I knew I would be farther away from America than I could be on some foreign shore..."
-- Huey Long


There is something intriguingly quiet about Constitution Avenue at night. This famous road, which bears some of the nation's most famous landmarks — the Vietnam Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Smithsonian — is a buzzing hub of daytime activity as throngs of dazed and bewildered tourists with cameras and guidebooks in tow, descend en masse to gape and "Ooh" and "Aah" at the imposing structures. But at night, this street becomes a different creature. Dark, hushed and mysterious, it shows off its beautiful historical buildings, their treasures safely secure behind their firmly shut doors, with the help of flickering lamplight. Late at night, the unusual silence is intimidating. The Capitol building looms large in the distance; the stunning Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial are only a stone's throw away; and standing here on one of Washington's most illustrious avenues, however you want to mark the spot, one can capture the true essence of this often-maddening, contradictory, powerful, and eccentric town by simply looking around.

Washington, DC ain't for the faint-hearted. This is the school of hard knocks, baby. The place where they eat politicians, lawyers, and other movers-and-shakers for breakfast. This is the home of the Watergate scandal, which sent President Nixon off into the disgraced dustbin of history. This is where they crucified Judge Clarence Thomas over the Anita Hill fiasco. This is where President Clinton was lambasted for his involvement with the young Monica Lewinsky. Those who escape run away screaming, vowing never to return. New Yorkers may be the tough-talking braggadocios of the nation, but New York has heart and soul. Washington doesn't. New Yorkers may talk about despising California but Washingtonians actually mean it. This is a ruthless, critical place where its powerful residents are forever placed under a microscope, scrutinized for every wrong move. Washington is an unforgiving town, steadfast in its righteousness, frowning upon those who don't play by its rules. New York welcomes those from all walks of life; Washington is more particular. But what Washington offers instead is potent bait: intrigue and power in a place where one's every move is watched closely by the entire world.

Forgive our snootiness and cynicism, but long-time residents love this controversial town, despite all its political shenanigans, crime, and dichotomous aspects. Frankly, we don't give a damn. Sticks and stones have never broken our bones, and so many have been thrown our way. The world's eyes are always upon us, and we are both horrified and amused at every lie and misconception. Washingtonians remain as confident as ever in the background, quietly laughing as the world watches.

I was once asked if I could take a single photograph of Washington, a picture that would best convey the real spirit of the city, what would it be? Forget the postcard-perfect images of the White House or every other stately structure gracing the city. This place has multitudes of facets, of which so many people never see. Just as London can't be summed up with only a photo of Big Ben, and New York can't be fully depicted by only the image of the Statue of Liberty, so too, Washington can't be expressed solely with a picture of its White House, from which presidents just come and go.

Granted, this is a government town, swarming with lobbyists, policy wonks, and the journalists who report their every move, but it's also throbbing with a surprising rhythm felt only by those who live here. If Washington could be depicted in a solitary photograph, it would have to be a group shot of the many faces depicting its diverse array of residents:

The stripe-tied handsome lawyers who crowd K Street; the tired, weary-looking government employees who swarm the Washington metro, each holding a fresh copy of the Washington Post; the fresh, young, ambitious African American student who cycles to classes at Howard University; the non-English-speaking Colombian immigrant who shares a tiny place with six other people as he looks for a job; the old, wrinkled grand dames of society who gather for tea and gossip at the Mayflower Hotel; the Ethiopian cab-driver who speaks impeccable English and mourns for his country's better days; the saxophone player who plays in the city's U-Street jazz corridor, harking back to the days of Washington's former jazz legends; the young political interns who frequent the North Capitol Street bars after hours; and the long-lost souls who are forever trapped in the rundown, wrong-side-of-the-tracks world of murder and drugs of the Southeast section of town.

But despite their own rhythm, no average Washingtonian can escape the looming shadow of the political powers-that-be whose presence overshadows everything. After 9/11, when a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, somber Washingtonians came to accept full well their role as a serious target of attack. We always knew we were living in a city that is despised by many, but the devastation overwhelmed us to the level that we came to further realize the importance of our hometown. Presidents and their administrations may come and go, but Washington always remains, and so do we.

Not surprisingly, it's this specific governmental power that draws so many to Washington, not only from other sections of the country, but also a vast majority of immigrants — notably Iranians and Ethiopians — whose families were once connected with former toppled governments in their own countries. These long-lost souls sought refuge in the great "melting pot", and opted for Washington DC — the nation's capitol, and the seat of power of the Free World — which in so many ways serves as a reminder of their former places of residence: capitols and government towns where wielding power and influence was the main aspect of the city's routine. Washington's imposing monuments, government buildings, and the day-to-day political grind remind them of their former homes, where so many of them also played important roles in their country's political/governmental foundations. This city's peculiar otherworldliness also distinguishes it from other US cities, and it's this sense of remoteness and internationalism that makes Washington such an ideal place for immigrants whom, though cut off from their homelands, can still immerse themselves in a worldly community.

Washington's "Democrat vs. Republican" role also allows it to act like a chameleon, and it's this consistent power play that makes this city as significant, interesting, and surprising as it is. Every four or eight years, there is a buzz that electrifies the city, as a new president and administration sweep into town, hoping to make changes and implement the new administration's vision for the nation and the world. They come from all around the nation, with their briefcases, cell phones, suits, and egos, and for a few years, hope to make a difference in a tough town which sees the likes of policymakers and politicos come and go at a drop of a hat.

It's this very transient nature that has made Washington a world unto itself; a remote island in a sense, cut off from other parts of the US where, aside from us few long-standing residents who watch quietly as so many come and go, the city serves as only a temporary home to thousands who flock here with ambition and dreams, and depart when a new power-that-be holds the reins. The city is largely comprised of transitory wanderers who hail from elsewhere, establishing it as an important pit stop along the road to some other place. Those of us who call Washington home, though, merely laugh and shrug off the new crop of transients who wander through the city, most of them eager to leave when their stint is over.

Outsiders (tourists, temporary visitors, or those who have never been here but think they know this place) rarely see beyond the media images of a routine, busy, albeit fascinating, Capitol: home to the White House, CIA, and FBI, entities designed to cater to the president-in-question's whims, whether that may be to pass a bill in Congress or wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq. (When foreigners usually speak of "hating Americans", they are largely referring to the government, hence Washington.) Such outsiders have described this city as boring and staid, populated by poorly dressed, no-nonsense paper-pushers who are about as interesting as their cold and dull city. (President Eisenhower once famously quipped: "There are a number of things wrong with Washington. One of them is that everyone has been too long away from home." And Alistair Cooke pithily stated that "Washington lies securely in what the guidebooks call an amphitheater and what you and I call a swamp.") Touché. All right, we have heard all the quips and cracks about our town and its horde of blandly garbed residents, going about their daily routine in a grave manner. Forgive our lack of lightheartedness, but this is a serious town with a serious mission to accomplish. Let them say what they want, but their eyes and ears are still pointed in our direction.

Yet if, as they say, power is the greatest aphrodisiac, then Washington is the sexiest city of them all, where political matches and liaisons are part and parcel of the city's diverse aspects. Washington draws the very powerful, and the very strong, and the very influential, and it's this gathering of forces that make it one of the most intriguing and important cities in the world.

Yes, we may be cold and aloof — weary of the constant slew of tourists and transients who treat our town as a temporary hotel, and write us off as a mere playground for presidents — but this beguiling town is kind to us insiders who wouldn't trade this place for anywhere. Those of us who have chosen to stay know this city's real charms. We know all of its nooks and crannies; its tucked-away art galleries that boast some of today's best talents; its delightful churches in the Southwest neighborhood that showcase incomparable free jazz on Friday nights. We know its cheapest dives, where for a few dollars you can get the greasiest burgers in town; the spectacular spot that offers a stunning view of the Potomac River; and the easiest way to beat rush-hour traffic. Having declared this city as home has granted us permission to scratch the surface of this intimidating and deceptively aloof town, to find a vast array of charms which Washington only allows those who truly belong here to see.

As I often wander around this breathtaking town with its spectacular scenery and impressive history, I am frequently reminded of a particular quote in Shakespeare's Richard II which, had it been written to express his admiration for Washington (instead of England), would read as such: "this little world . . . this earth, this realm, this Washington." Amen.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image