Monday, February 19, 2018

Be Strong, Be Wrong

Isabelle was in a fury because someone at her workplace had handed her a pamphlet of what she called “dangerous literature.” She said it was all about mindfulness and being mindful.

Me: “Well, annoying, yes, but why is it dangerous?”

“Because it makes me want to punch someone in the face.”

I know exactly what she means. Indeed, you don’t need to have read “Politics and the English Language” twenty million times like I have to know that anyone who blathers on about how we need to ‘embrace happiness’ or ‘find our inner joy’ is actually expressing extreme mindlessness, not its opposite. Also, I should add, they have never had to deal with two 92 year olds every day like I do. Mindlessness is a curse, not a virtue, and 'twas ever thus. To quote Mr. O,  “(our language) becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.”

There are a number of ways that today’s obsession with mindlessness expresses itself, but probably nowhere was it as evident in the performance Cato and I attended on Sunday night by an artist (“artist”) called (“called”) Poppy. I had never heard of her — “her” — but Cato asked me to get us tickets months and months ago, and it was at a small club in Berkeley, i.e, cheap, so I did so. A few weeks ago, the New York Times did an article on the so-called "rise of the social media fembot"  discussing this artist in particular, and in addition, I got an email from some ticket resale agency asking me if I’d like to resell my tickets for a lot more money, so it didn’t really come as a HUGE surprise to see a line around the block of the Cornerstone Brewery and a big “Sold Out” sign on the door when we got there.
that poppy. Cornerstone Brewery, 2/18/18

It was interesting. Having been a rock critic since I was 17, I have hardly ever been to a show where I had less knowledge of the artist, the venue, or the scene than this, so it wasn’t just that I had no expectations, it was that even the New York Times article was unable to fully explain the very high concept thing that Poppy represents. I gathered that she is on the cutting edge of an obsession in pop culture with robots, or rather, fembots: perfect, robotic women. These are synecdoches of women -- like Siri, Alexa, sexdolls altered to look like models, and Kylie Jenner — who are expressionless, mindless, soulless, and meet our (“our”) every need. Oh joy.

So, Poppy is a pretend robot. In other words, she’s a woman (Moriah Pereira) who performs as if she were a fembot, in the midst of an irony-laden aesthetic that would attract two main types of people: adolescents, and pedophiles. She wears fluffy pale pink, white and baby blue mini skirts with feathers, a long perfect blond wig, and her songs are all electronic pop with lyrics about robot things like her computer boyfriend, love of the internet, nail polish, and oh yes, candy. Poppy’s music isn’t played on the radio, that would be too old fashioned. Instead, she has a popular YouTube station and a show on MTV, in which she does robot-y things like say her name (“I’m Poppy!”)  or“I am empowered when I create high quality content on the internet,” for ten minutes straight, talks animatronically, and seems to be handled, or programmed, or whatever, by her d-jay/producer/”creator” Titanic. 

Folded into the Poppy experience is a nod-nod-give-us-a-wink job/ at corporate sponsorship. She sponsors Doritos and Monster Energy Drink but does so in a way that makes it obvious she’s doing so, IE has giant pictures of herself eating or drinking them, as if this somehow subverts the action. To the college kids at the Poppy concert, this all seemed hilarious and extremely meta – they chanted “Monster Energy Drink” happily, and jumped around screaming “I’m Poppy” for the full 90 minute show. BTW, that 90 minutes consisted of 45 minutes of d-jayed music – the BarMitzvah mix, I called it, with songs like “Umbrella” and “A Thousand Miles” and “Mr. Blue Skies” (ELO is making a comeback, don’t you know)  – and 40 minutes of the real-person Poppy pretending to be a robot by miming her songs over a back track and a video screen while two men dressed in tutus and Sia fright wigs danced around behind her. The videos, by the way, had extremely low-quality aesthetic values, they could have been made by middle schoolers, and this seemed to be part of the joke.

Most of the audience was college kids, but there were exceptions. Me, for example. And my daughter. Also, there was a fox-faced woman who arrived in an Uber SUV just as we were coming in, who was wearing a faux fur coat and Jimmy Choo ish shoes, and who looked like a Real Housewife of Orange County. She had a small boy in tow, and she immediately made her way up to the same corner of the balcony as I did (the obvious spot for old rock club hands who know where the perks are) and where she proceeded (unlike me) to bribe the security guard to let her son (and incidentally herself) onto the special/guest only balcony over the stage. I was standing right next to them so I heard the whole proceedings and it was amazing, and also successful, though the guard, to his credit, wouldn’t take the hundred bucks she offered him, he was perfectly satisfied with her smarming him. My daughter was watching it from a little ways away, and she texted me to ask what was going on, and when I explained, she said, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s fair, even if he is only ten. I would like to go to that balcony too.” Yup. That’s why security guards aren’t supposed to favor people. But that’s what world we live in. I texted her back. “Oh well, I bet she drives a Hummer.”

I forgot to mention that before Poppy came on, the club sound system played “Africa” by Toto on a tape loop – i.e. hundreds of times – and they did it after she left the stage too. Funny funny.

Maybe that’s what caused me to lose it. I do get the joke, I do get the meta-content, and I do get that, as the Times puts it, the fembot’s ideation of something ‘physically perfect but mentally deficient’ is but a stance, a way of critiquing technology, and music, and our role in popular culture; our desire to meld ourselves with perfection via social media and Instagram and so forth. Poppy herself could be seen as a clever and timely cross between Kim Kardashian and  Laurie Anderson. But in the concert context, this outward display of mindlessness did not work for me. Because of course Poppy’s sound isn’t new or groundbreaking, it is dumb electronic pop. Nor was her look anything you haven’t seen before in a manga or anime; though Moriah Pereira certainly embodies the Sailor Moon body type better than almost anyone I’ve ever seen in person. The whole performance art aspect, being surrounded by very low-Rez cheesy looking videos, has been done before by Yung Lean, and the pretend-subversion of both the corporate world and the patriarchy, is just specious. No one subverts those things. All we can do is participate in them, hope to profit from them, and then feel totally filthy about it afterwards.

I think in the end, what disgusted me about the whole thing could be summed up by a single visual, that of a really creepy crazy old man with a mustache and a baseball cap who had planted himself in the front of the stage, where he could conveniently look up Poppy’s dress. He seemed to know every song, and he sang along and cheered with the crowd of teenagers through all the pop riffs – “Like a Virgin” and so on, blocking shorter people’s view and also, to my mind, creating a really unsafe space. It was astonishing what a blot on the landscape he was. Talk about not being mindful! His bodily presence was a constant reminder that what Poppy was/is all about is not computers, not cyberculture, not advertising, not even little girls who like fluffy pink dresses and cute songs about robots: it’s about men who use women’s bodies and their illusive promise of subservience to sell things – and even get us to buy in on it because it’s ha ha funny. And it’s not just us being ripped off, either. Poppy’s  producer Titanic has already done this once, with an artist called Mars Argo.

Anyway, as with Isabelle's pamphlet, the whole shtick bordered on dangerous speech, because it made me feel like stabbing someone -- that guy up front, for beginners. Such toxicity! No wonder kids today reject gender and sexual norms...the way the patriarchy has evolved is just so gross. You know, the whole time I was a rock critic, I tried to guard against becoming that person who says things like, “Kids today!” Or, “That just sounds like noise!” Or, “Music in my day was so much better.” I try to be open to new things and if anything, I have been looking forward to the day when my daughter and her generation found some kind of sound or music that was either inexplicable or utterly offensive to me. But guess what? This isn't that. This is the crossover moment when I turn into a screaming old lady and just say it:

This is shit.

Monday, February 5, 2018

There's a Spectre Haunting Football

When I think about professional football, I think about global destruction. The poles melting. Markets failing. War. Then, humanity losing its collective mind as a consequence and becoming ever more frightened and boastful and vain…certainly all those traits and more are on display in the world of football, like a naked butt with a ton of ugly growths on it. Traumatic brain injury, cheating scandals, demeaning mascots, the shutting down of free speech…it’s certainly convenient the way these cancerous subjects cluster around a single sport, all the better for us to observe it happening.

No wonder so many of us only tune in to it once a year, for the Superbowl, and even then, we mostly watch for the ads. Only this year, the ads were almost as emblematic of America’s puzzled immorality as the game itself. First there was the one which used Martin Luther King Junior’s empassioned voice in the service of selling Dodge trucks. Then there was one using a version of Nirvana’s song “All Apologies” to entreat viewers to sign up for T Mobile.

Soon after that one, I was surprised to see one which used the iconography of the band Pussy Riot, ’til I realized it was for a movie about housewives robbing a bank. Following that, there was an ad for something called “Unsolved” a true crime series about the murder of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. It was interesting that Tupac was making an appearance, even in ad form, because it was sort of on his behalf that I had even tuned in to the event. I was intrigued, because a few years ago, I wrote an article about Tupac’s appearance at the Coachella Music Festival in Indio California, where he was a surprise guest during Snoop Dogg’s set. At the time, he had been dead for fifteen years.
one of these men is actually dead.

Tupac’s appearance — via hologram, or, more specifically, a special effect known as “Pepper’s Ghost” in which an image is projected on a tilted screen, giving the impression that it’s 3D — gave the throngs of kids at Coachella a huge thrill, caused a sensation on social media, and basically was seen as a ‘cool’ happening, helping to re-energize the festival and boost its hipster cachet. What wasn’t widely talked about was the sinister overtones the effect had, overtones that relate to both ethics and race. 

You see, one legacy of slavery is that images of black male bodies haunt American culture. Billie Holiday famously sang about “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,” in her song “Strange Fruit” (1939), and the canon of universally known American images of violence against black bodies include the video of Rodney King’s beating, as well as the famous photograph of murdered Mississippi boy Emmett Till’s mutilated dead body. Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner…today, the dead black body is still a spectre haunting America. And the technological resurrection of one in order to make it perform with someone on stage is, in my mind, one step worse, because to force a reanimated body to sing, dance and say the words of someone else has overtones of puppetry, minstrelsy and voodoo, activities that have artistic or historical links to slavery.
Trayvon. Today he would be 26.

You may see where I’m heading with this. The day before the Superbowl, there were numerous reports that half-time performer Justin Timberlake was going to use a similar effect with Prince. According to various sources, that was the plan; after a lot of pushback (including widely circulated screenshots of a Prince interview in which he specifically said he didn’t approve of it), Timberlake himself reportedly told Sheila E. that the idea had been scrapped.

But it hadn’t. Or not entirely. Near the end of Timberlake’s performance, he sat at a white grand piano and began playing and singing “I Will Die 4 You,” while Prince’s image performed above him on a screen. It was probably put together rather hastily, and can of course, no longer be seen on YouTube, but the immediate effect was that he was dueting on the song with the ghost of Prince.
The Coachella hologram — and Michael Jackson one used at the Billboard Music Awards in 2014 (and presumably in Vegas) — differed from this in that they have been specially doctored so that they seem to be doing things that the performers never did in real life. (Tupac, for example, says, “What the Fuck is Up Coachella,” although the festival only came into being four years after his death.) Therefore, the use of Prince’s image, and his music, at this particular moment in the half time show, could be seen differently; as merely a tribute to the city’s most beloved artist, as if someone were playing in New York and they showed Frank Sinatra singing “New York New York” behind them, or something like that.
He looks like what would happen if a deer drew a businessman

Honestly, I might even be inclined to go with that reading, except for a few troubling problems. First, at Coachella, although performing for a largely white audience of whose fetishization of him was a bit grotesque, Tupac was at the very least rapping alongside his friends Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, whereas Prince was ‘singing’ with Justin Timberlake, a far lesser artist whose work he was not particularly invested in (quite the opposite, in fact).

Also, Timberlake’s entire performance was tepid and lame, and only partly because his music is tepid and lame —it’s impossible not to notice that he’s just a big grown up Mouseketeer wearing a bright red kerchief whose head looks like a pellet and who is clearly interchangeable with every one of his backup singers and dancers. This was fairly clear throughout but never so much as when he segued from Prince’s “I Will Die For You” into the theme song from the movie “Trolls.” Now, that is a seriously insufferable segue.
Worst. Movie. Ever. "Storks" was better, that's how bad.

Then there’s the Janet problem. As everyone who’s not clinically dead knows, in 2004, JT performed on the Superbowl with Janet Jackson, and accidentally revealed her nipple, and although it was his mistake, not hers, she somehow took all the blame for it. Many people today thought she should have been invited back to the Superbowl as well (and indeed, there was a twitter campaign by former NFL-er Matthew A.Cherry to tweet Janet videos all day, which was pretty cool), but that was not to be. Instead, for the second time in a little over a decade, Timberlake used an African American person’s achievements to somehow highlight and magnify his own, way more meagre, ones. He used their flesh to do that. And both cases, he did it without their consent.

In both cases, he surely meant no disrespect. But we live in an era when these kinds of exploitations are simply taken for granted, and the consequences of that thoughtless incomprehension are very bad indeed. There is a divide in this country over race and equality that is getting realer and angrier and more obvious on the daily, and the sooner people are willing to acknowledge that, the sooner we can get over it. 

Over what? I hear you cry. Over our unconscious racism, is what. Our exploitation of black bodies, in music, on the football field, and in ads. In the superbowl, especially. Because using Martin Luther King’s speech to sell Dodge trucks and Prince’s image to enhance Justin Timberlake’s brand is to hold those two men hostage like their forebears, only in the country of the living. It is to turn them into more strange fruit, dangling from a different kind of a tree.

Note: parts of this blog were taken from my chapter in the book "Death and The Rock Star", (Routledge, 2015) entitled "There's a Spectre Haunting Hip-hop." 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Not Good Enough For Anyone

I used to go to this restaurant in Oly where they always played this Pandora station that relied entirely on easy listening hits from the '70s and Christian music. At first it irked me, but I was addicted to their Singapore noodles, and somehow the two things got mixed up in my mind and I got so I kind of enjoyed my ire. One day, the station played the Carpenters song “Yesterday Once More” and I burst into tears.
welcome to Oly: downtown. (photo by me.)

I can’t even explain how it triggered me, but it felt like reading “Black Beauty,” watching “Brian’s Song” and the day I missed qualifying for J.O.s by 1/10th of a second all rolled into one…only mixed up with some extreme pleasure, i.e. aural BDSM or something. I immediately went home and downloaded “The Singles” and played it in the privacy of my car over and over again.

A few months later, I was cruising a private site on FB and one of my favorite artists, Lloyd Cole, posted a note about his own love of the Carpenters, and the comments thread on his remark reflected that same confusing emotion I was having. People couldn’t really articulate their love of them, that pleasurable mix of shame, nostalgia and appreciation.

The Carpenters music is many things: the apex of whiteness and the nadir of self pity. It is sad and schmaltzy and perfectly executed. There are things in it that are so sickeningly shallow, like, extended flute solos, choral flights, strings, arpeggios, and children singing ‘la la la,’ that it almost makes one ashamed to be human, and other things that are so incredibly deeply felt that they exonerate the rest of it. Karen’s voice, our hind-sighted knowledge of her pain, and, simply put, the sheer musicality of it…these things are all sublime.

I suppose it is the juxtaposition of these two conflicting things that make the Carpenters music so resonant for me. Hearing their songs creates uncomfortable little bursts in my heart.

However. It’s always a lot easier to write about music you hate than to talk about music you like, and why you like it, nor do I think a writer can convince someone to enjoy music they already have an opinion on. Either the Carpenters grab you where you live, or they don’t. I don’t think the Carpenters are essential listening, per se, but — unlike the Beatles— they are uncoverable, and that’s saying something.  No female singer in the world could match Karen’s purity, and all those male-sung versions by bands like Redd Kross, American Music Club, and Grant Lee Buffalo (collected on the 1994 “If I Were A Carpenter” LP) merely takes away their nuanced depths, leaving something quite – well, the kindest applicable word is pitchy – in its place.

Some of it has worse qualities as well. Sonic Youth’s cover of “Superstar” is so misguided, pretentious, and lacking in empathy, that it has become the popular meme in Brazil meant to designate ‘poop.’ No doubt Sonic Youth thought they were somehow celebrating her role as a tragic heroine, but something about their version devalues Karen Carpenter as a human being and an artist, and that must be why it makes me  (and a bunch of Brazilians) uncomfortable.

It’s possible, also, that my love of the Carpenters is tied to nostalgia. “The Singles” includes the songs that totally suffused my childhood AM radio listening self, so it reminds me of things like the Sonny and Cher show and Carol Burnett, gunne sax dresses, Dorothy Hamill haircuts, and those wedge heeled shoes I always wanted my mom to buy me (but that she wouldn’t). Pant suits. Lip gloss. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford…all that pre-Prop 13 California stuff, when there was seemingly no such thing as homelessness and (bad segue) I spent all summer long in my bathing suit.

(Presumably it reminds Lloyd Cole of something similar, only more English. I love that he loves her, because I love his music so much as well, and yet the two things – Carpenters and Lloyd Cole songs – are so very different. Have you ever heard of the hypodermic needle theory of the media? It’s the idea that mass media injects its ideas into you: that watching violence makes you violent, and so on. That Lloyd Cole writes what he does with the influences he has is proof that there is absolutely nothing that the media can do to poison you. You can watch racist and sexist movies for your entire childhood and still end up a social justice warrior. You can watch Fox & Friends and not believe a word of it. You can listen to schmaltz and write “Rattlesnakes,” and that sure redeems the schmaltz.

That said, I do have some reservations over some of their choices. The best case in point is their version of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” to which I say faugh. That’s a travesty if ever there was one, all quavery slow and drawn out sadness shoved into a song that really just wants to bop. Consider the original and then consider this and you’ll have a meltdown, it’s so wrong headed. When I looked into the histoire du Carpenters, I discovered this was their first single, and its success cemented their contract with A & M. Like almost every one of their songs, it was a cover of a song that was relatively new, only four years old. So it’s exactly as if someone came out with a new, radically re-envisioned, version of, I don’t know, “Get Lucky” by daft punk (a big hit in 2013), and then remixed to appeal to old ladies. And check this out: one of their next hits, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” was originally a jingle for Crocker National Bank. Richard heard it on TV and thought it could be a hit. It’s no wonder some people had contempt for the band at the time, but it shows that the cliché, “she could sing the phone book and make it sound good’ is true for Karen Carpenter. Oh there’s a lot to hate about them. But there’s a lot to love as well.

The Carpenters music is really made for the ipod era, since their records are just compilations of singles anyway, and Best Of albums aren’t ruined by the shuffle component on your ipod. And there’s so much to love on the Carpenters singles LP. A song I’ve rediscovered recently is “Goodbye To Love,” which just kills me (it’s by Leon Russell, by the way). I’m a sucker for “Rainy Days and Mondays” and for “I Won’t Last A Day.” Then there’s the sublime “Sing,” — from Sesame Street! — which fits alongside a shortlist of ditties about the greatness of music as a genre - ABBA’s “Thank You For The Music,” Barry Manilow’s “I Write The Songs,” Gloria Estevan’s “Turn The Beat Around,” — whatever you think of it, you have to respect that theme, especially in the day and age when music and art are being devalued and eliminated from school curricula. I can’t imagine anyone writing a song about how great STEM subjects are. (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, for those not near an educational facility today: the four subjects all students are encouraged to master.) “Sing” is simple and silly, but in a Shel Silverstein kind of way:

Underneath my outside face

There’s a face that none can see

A little less smiley

A little less sure

But a whole lot more like me.*

It’s so much easier to appreciate that sentiment, and the sound that goes along with it, at my age and from this distance, and the same is true for the line, "don't worry that it's not good enough/for anyone else to hear." If my brain is full up with snippets of lyrics, each one of which is fading with every passing year, then I hope that's the one that lingers as I gradually lose my mind.

 *"underface" by Shel Silverstein.