Not Everything is Equal

I read an article the other day where it was criticizing Simon Pegg because he claimed that sci-fi wasn’t as good as it used to be.  It then went into some argument that critiquing populist art was elitism.  I call bullshit loud and clear.  Pegg was making maybe too much of a blanket claim, but criticism is valid.

Art, like people, should never be judged as a group.  You don’t want to say hip-hop isn’t valid, but classical music is, or art house movies are valid, but summer blockbusters aren’t, etc.  But you can say, “so and so is vapid or such and such has merit”, when it comes to specific pieces.  Opinion always plays a role.  So does understanding.  There have been plenty of times I didn’t get something, only to get it later based on increasing knowledge.  Things also work on different levels.  Something may be excellent escapism and something might be excellent in making you think.  Different pieces for different moods and times.

The door is always left open to screw up in an assessment of something.  Rigidity is a mistake.  But all that being said, you can sure as shit argue that one thing is more worthy than another.

First of all popularity is no proof of validity.   Hitler’s ideas were popular at one point.  Especially in the modern world, when marketing plays such a huge roll in getting above the din, popularity just means exposure half the time.  This does not mean popular stuff is bad, only that popular is not the equivalent of good.

So whoever wrote that article with Simon Pegg is a clown.  You have to try to discern good from the bad.  Everything is not equal. The Kardashians are not Macbeth.   Life is short.  You need to have some kind of measurement of worth so that you don’t spend what little time you have turning your brain into mush.    Again, popular entertainment can be fantastic, but just the fact it is popular doesn’t mean anything.  Elite can infer stuck up, but it can also infer the best.  “They were elite soldiers.”  I wish more people would spend a little time asking for the best, and not settling for the banal:  Putting on whatever comes on TV or the radio without questioning it, drifting into the American night, lost and unaware, primed to lose.

Peaky Blinders Review

Peaky Blinders Review

The above article is review of the Netflix show Peaky Blinders that I think is pretty much right on the money.  The article acknowledges that although there is really nothing new at the core of the show, the execution of everything, from the acting to the sets, succeed in making it worth watching.  There are some minor quibbles I have with the soundtrack at certain points, as stylized shots with modern songs playing glamorize the violence sometimes in ways that aren’t needed.  (It would be far better if the violence was always portrayed as horrific and brutal as it would fit the themes of the show better.  Most of the violence on this show is portrayed in a barbarous way, but occasionally it does dip into Guy Ritchie territory, which seems out of place.)  There are also moments of coincidence that can briefly take you out of the action as they expose the seems of the writing.  The article above compares the show to Deadwood, and I think that is a fair comparison thematically, although this show doesn’t even come close to matching the writing of Deadwood.  (Deadwood is the best show of modern times, with writing on par with the best of literature.)

However, these things aside, I do like Peaky Blinders.  It is an extremely entertaining show.  I do think the acting, the set design, the costumes, and the cinematography are top notch.  I do think, especially in the first season, that it has themes and ideas that takes it beyond mere entertainment.  The way that society perpetuates violence is interestingly addressed.  The violence that these working class men carry out is partially the result of the violence that they were forced carry out during the war.  The show seems to be saying that violence, once introduced to society, is a cancer that we are stuck with, long after the fighting of war is over.  The ruling class sends these men to do horrible things in the trenches, only to condemn them when they bring their new “skill set” home.

Anyway, I more than commenting on it myself I wanted to point you in the direction of the above article, because I do think the writer, despite a few minor quibbles, does a good job of conveying the merits of this show.  (I think Tom Hardy’s performance in Season 2 is one of hat season’s highlights.)  I myself will look forward to watching Season 3 whenever that comes out.

Addition:  I don’t exactly mean to criticize something by comparing it to Guy Ritchie.  Although there is no doubt that some of the things he has done are shite (Sherlock Holmes movies!), some of his early films are at least fun entertainment, that have their own style and energy.  I don’t mind things being just entertainment.  My point is that in this show, the more choreographed moments of violence do not fit the overall mood, and it takes me outside the world of the show, a world of which I find myself fully immersed in for the most part.  

Passionless Voices and The Death of Sex in Music

“It’s a miracle that I’ve lived this amount of time without having destroyed a person. But I still have a little bit of time.” – Maurice Sendak

I got a bunch of iTunes gift cards yesterday for Christmas.  I was combing the indie rock websites Louder than War and Pitchfork hoping to discover the great new indie band.  Fucking hell it was frustrating.  It just seemed like style after style with no substance, or great music with an incredibly dodgy singer.  Everything just seemed like an elaborate rouse with an empty center, kind of like most Christopher Nolan movies.  Especially if you compare the indie scene to the great post punk indie scene of the early 80’s, it just seems like children playing with toys.  (And I was too young to enjoy that scene when it was happening so you can’t peg me with nostalgia.)  Too many musicians that figured out how to make cool sounds, without understanding how to organize those sounds for maximum impact.

I kept thinking about this Camille Paglia article about Lady Gaga called:

Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex

Now of course I realize that Gaga isn’t indie.  But these two paragraphs really struck me and also make me feel like you could insert any number of indie bands in place of Gaga’s name:

Gaga is in way over her head with her avant-garde pretensions… She wants to have it both ways – to be hip and avant-garde and yet popular and universal, a practitioner of gung-ho “show biz”. Most of her worshippers seem to have had little or no contact with such powerful performers as Tina Turner or Janis Joplin, with their huge personalities and deep wells of passion. 

Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga’s flat affect doesn’t bother them because they’re not attuned to facial expressions.

Although there is a lot of new music that sounds somewhat emotional, it is that fiery passion, that ability to do something visceral to connect, that seems missing.  One of the reasons most of my best albums of 2014 were older artists, some of them my Dad’s age or older, is that those artists have a strong personality that cuts through any musical style that they might be attempting.  They have something to say and aren’t afraid to say it.  Not only that, but their singing voices are the voices of those that aren’t afraid to communicate passionately and directly.

My Dad and I were talking last night about why there is no strong social movements like there was in the 60’s.  He even commented that he felt music was one of, if not THE, leading force in changing peoples’ consciousness so that they got involved at a political level.

Now I think that one reason that strong passionate music is not on the airwaves, whether that be mainstream or indie music, is that radio DJs are now exponentially more constricted than they were in the past.  Unless it is public radio there are very few radio stations that are driven by restrictive playlists.  There are music lovers that like me will sift through music for hours to find something inspiring.  However, a great deal of people are only going to be made aware of something if they hear it in some fashion.

On top of this, again, I think you have too many singers that cannot use their voices to communicate true passion.  Autotune is obviously partially to blame, as it robs singers of their personalities in order to make singing more perfect.  (I do like when Autotune is deliberately used to make something sound like it is emotionally distant as on Kanye West’s 808 and Heartbreak or Laurie Anderson’s Homeland.)  But too many singers now, those that sing with their natural voices, seem to have thin reedy voices that by their very nature do not sound passionate in anyway.  Even the ones seem like they are trying to sing passionately seem more like they are imitating it than actually feeling it.  Music is a highly emotional art form.  If you don’t convey what you want with any real passion, can you really complain when nobody gives a fuck about what you have to say, in a way where they actually might be moved to do something different in their lives?

Anyway, I need to go take a musical shower with some records that don’t make me feel like I’m listening to someone on Xanax…

Cornel West On Obama

Cornel West: “The state of Black America in the age of Obama has been one of desperation, confusion and capitulation” http://www.salon.com/2014/10/05/cornel_west_the_state_of_black_america_in_the_age_of_obama_has_been_one_of_desperation_confusion_and_capitulation/

Salon has been pretty terrible lately.  It has slowly been turning into a Huffington Post that seems designed to generate as many clicks as possible through ridiculous headlines.  It might soon be time to delete this app on my phone as well.  But, for the time being, there are still some really great articles there.  I found this criticism of President Obama, by Cornel West, from a leftwing perspective, interesting.  I think criticism of leaders is important, even if you support them over the opposition.  If you understand how politics work, then you know that the people often lead the leaders towards making changes. 

A Great Piece on Popular Problems

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Leonard Cohen in the Daily Beast

The above article is one of the best write ups I’ve seen yet of the new Leonard Cohen album, Popular Problems.  If you are a Leonard Cohen fan or even just enjoy smart music criticism then it is worth checking out.  An excerpt:

I have to die a little
Between each murderous thought
And when I’m finished thinking
I have to die a lot

This is dark Jewish humor at its most arch: being a little dead “a lot” (rhyming with “thought”) is like being a little bit pregnant. (And his parents can’t even agree if Cohen, who observes the Sabbath, is chosen or not.)  And yet he’s serious—dead serious, as a near-80-year-old man contemplating murder, knowing his body is losing capacity all along the way. Being dead “a lot” is an existential proposition, especially for an octogenarian who has been standing down death since he wrote his earliest poems more than 50 years ago. 

The Problem With Pitchfork

pitchfork1.1

I read reviews at Pitchfork, even though I rarely agree with them.  Pitchfork at least takes reviewing albums somewhat seriously in an age where reviews seem more like tweets than actual criticism.  More and more magazines and sites seem to be mistaking a half a paragraph as enough information to base an informed purchasing decision on.  I’ll at least give Pitchfork their due in that they put out an awful lot of longer form criticism.  The problem, however, is that most of the opinions you encounter there are ones that you can pretty much guess in advance, especially when it comes to rock music.  Their writers seem to disparage anything where actual songwriting is involved.  The more an album is a collection of weird sounds, and the less it actually features well crafted songs, the better chance it has of being highly rated.

The thing is, really great songs are hard as fuck to write.  We actually need more artists that are actually saying something in a way that reaches people.  I love all kinds of music as long as I feel an artist is doing something that comes direct from their soul and they are not just following trends.

Their is a band called The Knife that I like.  Their last album, Shaking the Habitual, was a really interesting record.  It dealt in avant-garde soundscapes much more than it dealt in pop songs.  If it were a painting it would be more of a Jackson Pollock than a beautiful landscape.  But do you know how many times I actually listened to the entire record in one sitting?  I haven’t once.  It’s pushing the envelope and that’s important, but it’s not really enjoyable other than as an intellectual exercise.  As a musician I really appreciate that kind of thing, but it’s a hard thing to love.  Pitchfork gave it an 8.4 and called it the best new music.  If you read the artwork that comes with the album you know that The Knife have a political agenda, but you would be hard pressed to really get that agenda by actually listening to the music.

Meanwhile the new Morrissey record is really subversive politically and in a way that anyone listening could get.  It’s because he uses the form of the pop song as his platform.  There are intelligent lyrics that tackle everything from gender politics to animal cruelty, but they are all delivered with melodies that are undeniably catchy.  His new album World Peace is None of Your Business has some really interesting arrangements.  The album starts with tribal percussion and a didgeridoo.  I’m Not a Man, perhaps the most subversive pop song that I have heard in some time, with an incredible melody, even starts with a minute and a half of strange noises.  What I’m getting at is that this isn’t simple guitar, bass, drums stuff, although I love traditional rock n roll as much as anything.  But I can’t help but think that Morrissey was punished a couple points by Pitchfork because he actually dared write memorable melodies.  His album was awarded a 5.9.

The new U2 album got only 4.6 points.  I wouldn’t say that the new U2 album, Songs of Innocence, is one of their top three albums, but it’s really good.  Every song features really strong melodies and great playing from musicians that play as a true band.  I personally like it more than probably any record they have put out since Pop.  I think Bono as a lyricist was at his peak between The Joshua Tree and Pop.  However this new album has songs that deal with IRA car bombs and the death of his mother.  It’s not exactly bubblegum.  But out of the three albums it is the most traditional in terms of writing and arrangements.  This is a rock n roll band album by and large.  But anyone that has ever written songs with things like guitars and melodies will know that what they are doing on this record is not the kind of thing that is easy.  It would be much easier to get a bunch of weird instruments and make an atonal soundscape.

I want a world where I can hear both.  I like that I can flick on my iPod and shuffle between The Knife and U2.  Out of the three records I like the Morrissey one the best as I think it is the one that straddles the gap between the intellectual and emotional the best.  But out of the other two, I can tell you flat out I am going to listen to the U2 one way more.  It’s more emotionally resonant.  And also, even though it seems more traditional, creating great songs is actually the harder magic trick.

I feel lucky though that as a music fan I don’t have to choose.  There is different music for different occasions.  Everyone has slightly different tastes and opinions.  However, I can’t help but feel that Pitchfork tilts the scales too far in one direction.  I feel like our mainstream culture has been dumbed down too much. If you look at the music of the 60’s you will see that this wasn’t always the case.  There was a time when music could be popular and important.  Now Pitchfork alone isn’t responsible for this.  A great deal of it has to do with other aspects of our free market culture run amuck.  But sometimes I wish the writers over at Pitchfork would realize that intelligence and subversive thought don’t necessarily have to exist apart from accessibility.

“The Conformist”: An unsettling political masterpiece returns

“The Conformist”: An unsettling political masterpiece returns http://www.salon.com/2014/08/28/the_conformist_an_unsettling_political_masterpiece_returns/ via @Salon

This article in Salon made me really want to see this movie.  It is also nice to see a long form piece about a work when so many reviews are becoming shorter and shorter.