Monday, December 22, 2008

The New Romantics


As many writers have pointed out, 2008 was the year that pop stars en masse were (in Neko Case’s colorful words) “jizzing saccharine all over you” through the use of Auto-Tune pitch correction. From Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” (and pretty much every guest spot he did) to Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreaks, the software was ubiquitous, which probably means it will be put on the shelf soon, only to be resurrected during the inevitable “late-double-O’s” revival fifteen years hence.

T-Pain’s singles “Can’t Believe It” and “Chopped and Skrewed” were, for me, the most successful Auto Tune-d outings, possibly due to the irony of the fact that, unlike Weezy and Kanye, T-Pain just might actually be a good singer.

If that’s the case, he’s doing a bang-up job of covering it up. When he sings “cuz you look so goooood” in “Can’t Believe It ,“ the notes waver in and out of pitch, which is strange when you consider that the intended use of the technology is pitch correction. It’s as if the notes are attempting to be in two places at once, metaphorically demonstrating one of the basic ideas of quantum theory, the uncertainty principle. George Gamow used this principle to show how radioactive decay was possible, according to Michio Kaku, because “one never knew precisely the location and velocity of a particle; hence there was a small probability that it might ‘tunnel’ or penetrate right though a barrier.” There are theories that propose our universe may have been rendered through such tunneling.

Tunneling is also primary to the understanding of how electronics function, which makes T-Pain’s output another in a long line of “meta-“ art forms, where technology is used to comment on itself. The use of pitch correction software here is actually a harmonic distortion, not unlike the effect of guitar distortion. Both obscure potentially bad playing and singing, but can also result in a pleasurable affect. As listeners, we like to be caught off guard, surprised by sudden changes in volume, instrumentation or time signature. Likewise, imperfection is often desirable in (particularly) rock music, where obscurity and nihilism often hold sway.

T-Pain’s lyrical nihilism is romantic in nature. It emerges through the Quixotic dream of our age: getting a stripper to fall in love with you. Hopefully we can agree that much of what makes rock and roll exciting is the danger, the cacophony, the fear that the whole thing can fall to shit at any moment. Think about Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire or The Who smashing their instruments on television. Think about Jim Morrisson, Iggy Pop, Sid Vicious, Darby Crash. We love self-immolation in our rock stars. In the moment it is thrilling; on reflection, it can sometimes just be pathetic.

He wants to take the girl away from the club, because she "might get hurt here." T-Pain is a loud and proud "Captain Save-a-Ho," to use E-40's parlance. That’s why he succeeds in the popular consciousness; he is vulnerable to a fault, but in kind of a sleazy way. He wants to be a pimp, but continually receives the cold shoulder from the object of his desire. This humanizes him, makes him accessible to all of the other aspiring “ladies men” out there, who get rejected about as often.

All of this makes T-Pain, more so than Kanye or Weezy, the artist par excellence of the current zeitgeist. West obviously recognizes this, which prompted him to duplicate the aesthetic on 808s and Heartbreak. Kanye’s clearly more self-conscious in his use of the technology, as you can see in his performances of “Love Lockdown” and “Heartless” on Saturday Night Live recently. He was exploiting the pitch correction in real-time, bringing the viewer’s attention to the mechanics of popular record making, often seen as vacuous and inauthentic by purists. But then he defied the technology again by actually sounding awful. It was a failure for music, but a triumph of man over machine.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Charred Remains

Iron Man Pictures, Images and Photos
I came across this review of IRON MAN in the Bright Lights film blog, and while making a few salient points regarding the idea of the white (American) knight travelling to the Middle East to save civilization, the bulk of it is a misguided screed by an author who betrays a deep ignorance of the actual situation on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region as a whole.

Catalan ignores wide swaths of exposition within the film, for the simple fact that they do not adhere to his grad-school Marxist interpretation. Charges of racism abound:

A black actor in a supporting role, ostensibly privileged as the high-ranking Colonel James, turns out to be pining after Stark's odour of radical market capitalism. Like a nagging asexual slave, the token black man is a tumour on Stark's persona to be subtly belittled and hushed throughout.

Never mind that the character in the original story is also black; would Stark’s belittlement of James be more acceptable if he were white? Unlikely. Stark is an asshole to everybody during the first half of the film.

Catalan claims that

(i)n a video-virtuosic sequence, we watch Iron Man's rocket flamethrowers decimate mythological desert bases and cook people of colour for the crime of living on their homeland.

This simply does not happen in the film. Stark decimates the training camp of the "Three Rings", yes. No one is innocent here. If you enter organized crime, this is what may happen to you.

Make no mistake; international cabals such as the “Three Rings” are in fact gangsters. And I mean gangsters in the sense that characters like Don Fanucci in The Godfather II are gangsters; providing protection to those who cannot count on state authority to resolve their grievances. This is why you see such strong support of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and (for a time) the IRA in Northern Ireland. These are not nihilistic killers ala Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. They oppose the perceived erosion of their culture, and often use violent means to achieve their ends. Many expect to die a violent death. The depiction of Stark’s decimation of the Three Rings camp is to be expected, just as drug dealers, at some point, must expect to robbed of their money, their product, or their life (also see DePalma’s Scarface). It’s merely the cost of doing business.

Catalan ignores Iron Man's portrayal of the folly of the US military-industrial complex's arming of the mujahedin, ala the Soviet-Afghan war. After the Soviets retreated in defeat, the United States mostly ignored Afghanistan, indirectly leading to the “blowback” of 9/11.

The foolish funding of Afghan warlords in the 1980’s is embodied in the character of Obadiah Stane, the true villain of the picture. Stane has the most to lose from Stark’s decision to cease arms manufacturing, since he has been illegally selling weapons to the terrorist group depicted in the film. Here, Stane’s real-life counterpart is most likely Viktor Bout (aka the "Merchant of Death", a Russian arms trader whose life was also the basis for the Nicolas Cage vehicle LORD OF WAR).

Hasn’t IRON MAN in fact gone against Hollywood stereotyping in making Stane, the villain-above-all-villains, an American, instead of British, Russian, French, or an Arab?

Speaking of stereotyping, what of the Arabs in IRON MAN? Catalan claims that Dr. Yinsen is

the racial other, a shaking, hallowed other who also serves Stark's every request and demand. Yinsen implores Stark to let him sacrifice himself for the messianic good of American homeland security,3 so that Iron Man is ensured a spectacular, biblical montage of flames in the decimation of Arab land.

In case you haven’t seen the film, Dr. Yinsen is also a prisoner of the “Ten Rings” group. This leads to another phenomenon ignored by Catalan: the relation between al-Qaeda-styled groups like Ten Rings and the tribal people that co-exist with them in places like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. The victims of their violence are typically other Muslims, not Jews, Americans, or other outsiders. To insinuate that the character of Dr. Yinsen is some sort of Arab “Uncle Tom” is ridiculous and infuriating.

As far as the decimation of Arab land, is that not what the Ten Rings intend to use the Jericho weapon system for as well? There’s a strange racism in play in Catalan’s piece: weapons in the hand of the white man=bad; weapons in the hand of the Arab “freedom fighter”=not as bad, apparently.

The idea that it is racist to portray an Arab character in a film as “evil” rather than a “freedom fighter” is na├»ve and dangerous. Evil is a term bandied about in politics much more than it should be, granted. It is understandable that people are frustrated and bitter about the Bush administration and its misguided “War on Terror.” But this does not excuse the actions of a group like al-Qaeda, whose stated objective is to kill anyone and everyone that they deem insufficiently Islamic.

Catalan may have a point regarding the “invisibility” of the Arab everyman, the laborer who merely wishes to live his life in peace. Considering that narrative films are predicated on conflict, it seems a tall order to portray a significant number of ordinary Pashtuns, Hazaris, or other ethnicities located in the region. When IRON MAN attempts to do so however, in the person of Dr. Yinsen, Catalan dismisses him as weak and subservient to the American hegemon.

IRON MAN is in no way a perfect film ideologically, and it is foolish to expect this out of Hollywood entertainment. What IRON MAN does that few other films in this genre do, is engage the real world. It is relatively non-partisan, which is likely why leftists see it as a celebration of US hegemony and right wingers see it as knee-jerk anti-war propaganda. The film understands the relationship between geopolitics and the U.S. military industrial complex, which is far more than anyone would ever expect from a popcorn movie marketed to 8-year olds.

Monday, October 6, 2008

MBV at the lovely Santa Monica Civic Auditorium 10.2.08


The Civic is 50 years old this year, and in case you've never seen it, it is straight out of Tomorrowland:

Santa Monica Civic

They don’t host a ton of rock shows at the Santa Monica Civic these days. Mostly arts and crafts shows and special holiday events for the community. Let’s just say the building was not ready for, and did not fully withstand, the sonic assault.

Towards the end of standard MBV finale “You Made Me Realise,” I heard to the right of me something that sounded like a balloon popping or one of those party poppers with the confetti in them. You know the ones, right?

Anyhow, I turn around and there’s this guy holding his head like maybe a beer bottle thrown from the bleachers had hit him in the head or something. Kate looked down at her foot and saw that it had started bleeding. She and I realized that a big light bulb had been loosened from its fixture in the ceiling and had bashed the poor gentleman in his crown, leaving him a bit bloody. Kate had caught some shrapnel from the same bulb in her foot. She walked out of the show under her own power.

The injured patron looked a little like this:


That’s what seeing My Bloody Valentine is like.

Thursday, August 28, 2008