Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Deep Laughter: Trout Mask Replica and the Legacy of Captain Beefheart

"My smile is stuck
I cannot go back to your Frownland
My spirit's made up of the ocean
And the sky 'n' the sun 'n' the moon
'n' all my eyes can see
I cannot go back to your land of gloom
Where black jagged shadows
Remind me of the coming of your doom
I want my own land
Take my hand and come with me"

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band 'Frownland'

What does uncompromising mean? It crops up in so many music reviews these days that it has become, like the word challenging, an almost meaningless identifying trait, an empty signifier. The term could easily be applied to the most recent Taylor Swift album, given that it's hard to imagine how Taylor Swift's music could be compromised in any way. If a person has no artistic principles and no musical vision, then it goes without saying that any album they release will be uncompromised. Given that I do not enjoy the music of Taylor Swift, couldn't it be said to be challenging also? Clearly I do not understand its appeal, therefore its very existence challenges me. Wading through the murk and muddle of modern music journalism, one begins to wonder if it's even possible to use such terms again and have them retain at least some of their intended meaning. It's doubtful, but every now and then events transpire that allow us to reconnect with an important term and see that, before it was diluted and overused, it actually did denote an important concept and its usage was meant to imply that something important was at stake. To be compromised was to choose commercial acceptance above the demands of your art and, laughable as this may sound, there was a time when that meant something bad. We have moved on from such scruples these days, happy to be able to shake off any troublesome ethical dilemmas, but the question is, are we better off for shedding such baggage? What does it mean to have artistic principles and, really, what is the point of having them? On December 17th 2010 Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, passed away. His life was one infused with the idea of artistic principles, of achievements and ambitions not tied in with financial reward, and as such serves as a timely reminder of what can be accomplished when the creative mind is untethered by commercial demands. To be sure he made some lurches toward the mainstream which resulted in his greatest artistic misstep, (yes, I'm talking about Bluejeans & Moonbeams) but he ultimately had the wherewithal to recover his artistic momentum and finish his musical career with a trilogy of patented Beefheartian brilliance. Even though the name Captain Beefheart is synonymous with avant-garde rock in general, within his back-catalogue there remains an album that still manages to strike fear into even the most adventurous of musical explorers. Time has not softened the impact of Trout Mask Replica. Its eccentricities have not been incorporated into the mainstream and as such it remains an utterly idiosyncratic creation, furiously atonal and, yes, uncompromising. Let us use the great mans passing as an opportunity to explore its hidden treasures and also to look back at a time when following ones artistic muse was not seen as pretentious or reveling in failure but was viewed rather as a triumphant cry of individuality in the face of business interests and audience demands.

Let me start by saying that if you're looking for an entry point into Beefheart's world, Trout Mask Replica is not the best place to start. Both his debut Safe As Milk and 1972's Clear Spot represent less extreme but nevertheless  glorious examples of the Captain's unique genius. Once hooked, as you certainly should be, by Beefheart's charms you will sooner or later feel the urge to explore the bumpy terrain of Trout Mask Replica. Don't let the first listen put you off. Or the second, or the third. I still remember with great clarity my first experience with the album in question. I was puzzled as to why an LP could have no discernible melodies, completely ungraspable time signatures and altogether impenetrable lyrics. Nothing about it made sense. I retreated in fear to my copy of Safe As Milk, unsure when I would be able to give Trout... another shot. Try I did though, again and again, and time and again I was repelled by its unorthodoxies. I gave it a long break and had all but given up when several months later I threw it on while driving. I found it to be less off-putting than normal, and indeed wondered if I was really beginning to enjoy it. Then it happened. About a minute into 'Sugar 'N Spikes' I felt an exhilarating rush, a sense of all the pieces fitting together. "God", I thought, "it really does make sense". With each successive listen it made more and more sense and I felt confused as to how I could have missed its power and creativity the first time, or at least by the fifth time round. Once seduced by its charms, though, there's no going back. It continues to reward the convert, and one can even get an inkling as to what fuels its creative motor and why it takes so long to pick its locks. The secret is the rhythmic friction between drums and guitar, and how this gave the Captain free reign to unleash his lyrical absurdity with no concession made at all to melodic appeal. It's all in the rhythm. Don't forget.

The blues was a river of sorrow that flowed northwards from the Mississippi delta all the way to Chicago. Its distributaries reached the most creative minds of not only America but also the British Isles. In California the young Don Van Vliet was a teenage disciple, worshiping at the alter of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. It was from these early building blocks that Don would create the edifice that is Trout Mask Replica. Safe As Milk showed that Captain Beefheart had more than mastered the blues rock genre, and indeed had already moved beyond it. With Strictly Personal and its extended sessions things went further, but this was not enough for Don. After eight moths of solid rehearsal in religious-cult-like circumstances the band nailed the music for Trout Mask Replica in a matter of hours when actually permitted to enter a studio. Every lurch, every clatter, every crash and every jolt was planned in advance. What seemed like chaos was in fact a series of intricately worked-out, interlocking rhythmic patterns that revealed themselves to the listener over time. Once these patterns are discerned songs like 'Ella Guru', 'Moonlight On Vermont', 'Fallin' Ditch', and 'Veteran's Poppy Day' leap out like uncaged animals, with Beefheart coming on like a surrealistic preacher just returned from forty days in the dessert and intent on sharing his outlandish visions. Unlike many artists connected with the avant-garde, Beefheart's words were celebratory rather than tormented. Retaining the depth of emotion that emanated from the blues, Beefheart flipped the coin to produce an aching, declarative happiness, a large-hearted laughing embrace of life wherever it ebbed and flowed. This was no mere "let the sunshine in" banality, however, this was an exploratory, demanding happiness that refused to rest on its laurels, that prodded and pushed the listener, all but asking them: "How can you really be happy with the same old thing, aren't you selling yourself short by accepting some endlessly recycled version of a familiar, comforting emotion?". On every level Trout Mask Replica was both challenging and uncompromising, and it's to its credit that it remains so. Its appeal lies in the apparently hysterical notion that the listener must engage with the music, must work to unlock its secrets and above all must be prepared to enjoy a work of art that is beyond irony, beyond nostalgia, beyond kitsch, beyond angst, beyond sentimentality, beyond "awesome", beyond all easy emotional responses; its creation is at times beyond belief, and as a work of genuinely difficult aesthetic wonder it has no place in our current pop culture climate, which prefers instead to bestow upon us pseudo-populist observations of banal mainstream productions that require no artistic enlargement, but more an intellectual reduction that demands unquestioning passivity while reveling in an ostentatious display of apparent open-mindedness. 

After Trout Mask Replica came Lick My Decals Off, Baby which, although cut from the same cloth as Trout Mask..., could never be described as more of the same, instead being a case of more of the different. From then until 1982 Van Vliet's musical creativity continued, though not always matching the same high standards of Trout Mask Replica. Following his retirement from music the Captain concentrated on his first love, the visual arts. At some point he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and it was this disease and its complications that would eventually lead to his death. Although he had been quiet for many years, his death was still shocking. In some way just knowing that he was alive somewhere in California was a comforting thought. His mere presence meant that our collective imaginations had a curmudgeonly guardian, ever ready to chase away demons with a burst of deep laughter and a half grin / scowl. Even for those who never quite connected with Beefheart his passing should still be an occasion for sorrow as it represents a shrinking of our artistic boundaries. To use a political analogy (which, given the Captain's ecological concerns, I hope he would not find displeasing) Noam Chomsky has often remarked that in mainstream debate about global climate change there are two positions: those who say that we must act to save the planet and those who pronounce climate change a fallacy. Chomsky goes on to say that while this "debate" is played out there exists a third voice that is deemed too extreme for mainstream media, and that is the voice of scientists who say that all the steps we are taking to save the planet are nowhere near enough, and that climate change is happening right now and we must completely change our entire way of life in order to avoid unspeakable global disasters. Aesthetically, Captain Beefheart was that third voice, whose artistic demands altered the borderlines of what was deemed acceptable in music. The extremes of individuality and eccentricity of a particular age mark the furthermost points of imagination in regards to the visionary aspect of culture at that time. Van Vliet's extremity of invention cleared a revelatory path, not necessarily for others to follow, but more as an act of willful creativity that allowed his admirers to shed any fear they had in regards to their own artistic impulses. If Captain Beefheart can release Trout Mask Replica, then surely nothing is out of reach! That Beefheart's ambition did not relate to financial reward or mass exposure now marks him as a quaint relic from a bygone age. We live in a bold modern era where the job of the musician is to balance the demands of art and business, not follow their creative path wherever it may lead. Indeed, the very idea of following ones creative path to whatever end is now a mere pretentious fantasy (unless that path is mainstream acceptance). How lucky we are to have shed such notions as artistic integrity. How happy is our lot, with thousands of undemanding pieces of entertainment at our fingertips ready for consumption. How glorious must our future be, free from a past in thrall to the transformative power of Art. I bid you farewell Captain Beefheart. If your artistic inventiveness did not push popular music away from its cloying trajectory as you intended then instead let it serve as a lighthouse to those lamentable souls who, for some unknown reason, do not find joy in the cultural offerings of our impending utopia. In the glow of your musical output let them feel the thrill of capriciousness and anomaly, and let them know that there were indeed brave mortals who cared little for stifling, small-minded subservience. Rest in piece Don Van Vliet. An emptiness blows through our alleys and side-streets and winter becomes all the harder to bear, but you left behind enough light for even the most storm-tossed ship to sail toward, and for that I remain forever grateful.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Capitalism Unbound: Clinton's Collaboration, the Economic Bailout and a New Era for Neoliberalism

"In the financial institutions, which by now dominate the economic system, the management level repeatedly acts in ways which will destroy their own institutions if it'll increase their benefits, and benefits are not small. You know, you take a look at the revenue of, say, Goldman Sachs - a very high percentage of it just goes to payment of management and bonuses. There was a time traditionally - say, GM in the 1950s - it was trying to develop a consumer base that would be loyal and lasting and they were thinking in terms of an institution that would remain and grow and thrive in the society. By now, a lot of the investment firms - bankers, hedge funds - are perfectly happy to destroy what they're in and come out with huge, tremendous benefits. That's a new stage of capitalism."

 Noam Chomsky

"We serve them. I teach the blatant Latin language. I speak the tongue of a race the acme of whose mentality is the maxim: time is money. Material domination."

"Ulysses" James Joyce

We are in a new era. Future historians may argue about when the change occurred, but all will agree that by 2010 the last remnants of a certain way of living had all but disappeared. Some may mark the election of Nixon as the beginning of the new era, or the first stirrings of what was to come. Others will point to the '80's, the era of Reagan and Thatcher, as the true dawning of the new age. I prefer, however, to see the election of William Jefferson Clinton as the actual changeover point, as one epoch gave way to another. Why the election of Clinton? It marked the point where the Democrats shed any connection with anything remotely Centrist. They had never been left wing in any real sense of the term, but many Democrats had a strong attachment to the idea of civic duty, of a government that provided a safety net for it's most vulnerable citizens. These principles never stemmed from Marxist ideals, but more from a moral sense that, without such a safety net, poverty, disease and barbarism would surely follow. From this mindset came the New Deal, America's most overt attempt at social welfare. Now, here's a quick question: which president enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, ending American welfare as we know it, cutting welfare more than any previous Republican president had dared to? Which president enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act which, amongst other things, allowed potential deportees to be held for as long as two years before facing an immigration board, at which point they had to pay their own legal fees if they wished to be properly represented? Which president repealed the Glass-Steagall Act and legislated the Commodities Futures Modernization Act, two accomplishments that all but set into motion the financial crisis still affecting America's (and by extension the world's) economic status? If you haven't guessed by now, I'll tell you. It was Bill Clinton. Not George W. or Bush Sr or Reagan. No, it was Democrat Bill Clinton, the same president who also ratified NAFTA after Bush Sr ran out of time while trying to push it through. Wait, he didn't start a war you say? That's because he never had to deal with 9/11. In 1998 he bombed a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, killing only one but destroying 60% of Sudan's pharmaceutical supplies, based on flimsy evidence that it was producing chemical weapons. Later that year came Operation Desert Fox, whereupon Iraq was bombed for four days after failing to comply with UN Security Council resolutions regarding the production of Weapons of Mass Destruction. So you're telling me this man wouldn't have launched a war in reaction to 9/11?

Put simply, he marks the point where the Democrats became just as right wing as the Republicans. Granted, they didn't have far to go, but with Clinton the transition was complete. Cutting any ties with social concerns, Clinton marketed the Democrats as business-friendly and willing to do whatever it took to ensure monetary backing from Corporations. The New Deal was truly dead, and in it's place was a president who was basically a highly paid Corporate power broker, working to open up markets and grease all the right palms. His intelligence and charisma appealed to the vanity of Democrats who imagined themselves intelligent and charismatic, as opposed to the boorish and slow-witted Republicans. In other words, Democrats didn't exactly disagree with the policies of Bush and Son, more the manner in which they were carried out. With a heartfelt and calculated explanation from Clinton the actions wouldn't seem half as bad. Clinton had the financial backing of Corporate America, without which presidential victory is impossible, and did exactly as he was hired to do. The reality is that nobody with any kind of power or influence opposes Corporate America's agenda, with the squabbles among Democrats and Republicans largely the result of both trying to prove that they are more business-friendly than the other. On some social issues, for example abortion, there is disagreement, but in terms of fiscal policy they both accept Corporate sponsorship with abandon, doing everything in their power to advance the Corporate cause.

The other major event which ushered in the new era was the worldwide economic collapse of 2008. Instead of curtailing the gross irresponsibility that led to the collapse, the governments of the world did the opposite. They rewarded it. In America the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act allowed for the creation of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), legislation that allocated the government $700 billion in order to rescue America's financial institutions. Most was paid back, with the cost to the taxpayer amounting to $25 billion. No small amount, but this tells only a small part of the story. Government bailouts went on in other forms, mostly without the public's knowledge. Costs rose into the trillions with Neil Barofsky, the Inspector General of TARP, admitting before Congress in 2009 that the total bill for the bailouts could be as high as $23.7 trillion. (It's almost impossible to tell just how much the government has spent thus far, with various news outlets giving figures that range from $4 trillion to $12 trillion). Let me remind you that, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, Citigroup received $45 million from TARP and proceeded to give bonuses out to numerous employees. (738 employees each got a $1 million bonus, 176 each got a $2 million bonus, 124 each got a $3 million bonus and 143 each got bonuses that ranged from $4 million to $10 million). Now let's contrast the bailout number with welfare costs, that scourge of America which is bankrupting the nation. Conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation reports that between 1965 and 2000 the American government spent $8.29 trillion on welfare, adjusted for inflation. So in order to save the financial institutions of America the government could potentially spend around three times the amount spent on welfare over 35 years.

Still, there is a budget crisis. The government must make some tough decisions. Why is the government facing a budget crisis? In 2008 an article in the New York Times reported that two out of every three Corporations in America paid zero income tax between 1998 and 2005. The number of Corporations in America amounted to 1.3 million. Could this have anything to do with the budget crisis? A good question, except nobody has thought to ask the government. With the Bush tax cuts still threatening to remain in place the people who will suffer are, as usual, the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Funding for welfare continues to be cut, funding for public schools continues to be cut, Social Security continues to be cut, but who benefits? Not the poor, obviously. Not the working class and middle class, as real wages have been all but stagnant since the 1970's (Conservative economists point to the 66% increase in consumption since the early 70's as proof that real wages are growing, ignoring the fact that debt has steadily increased since the 1970's with the average adult carrying around $3,752 in revolving debt as of February 2010. This figure does not include installment loans.) Between 1973 and 2006 the bottom 99 percent of American workers saw their average income increase by a mere 8.5 percent, with most of those increases coming from the top earners in that 99 percent bracket. The richest 1 percent saw their average income rise by 190 percent. (For you Democrats out there, the presidency of Clinton gave the top 1 percent a 59 percent increase in average income, while under George W. they managed only a 13 percent increase).  All this points to the fact that cutting taxes and cutting welfare did not save the US economy, yet our solution is to continue to cut taxes and cut welfare, as to suggest anything else makes one a Marxist intent on destroying the freedoms of all Americans. The destruction of freedoms is right around the corner, though, but it's not coming from Marxists.

The presidency of Barack Obama has shown him to be part of the New Democrat mindset initiated by Clinton. Competing for Corporate funding, Obama is definitely from the Clinton mold, surrounding himself with the same economic advisers as his Democratic predecessor. Promising to end the war in Afghanistan while running for office, he changed his mind upon becoming president, launching more drone attacks in 2009 than George W. did in eight years. 2009 was also the year that brought about the most recorded civilian deaths in Afghanistan, with UN reports giving the death toll for noncombatants as 2,412, as opposed to 700 in 2007 and 1160 in 2008. The Obama bailout continued the job begun by George W. Bush, which meant rewarding the very institutions that caused the whole problem in the first place. What do you call a society that rewards those whose actions almost led to it's destruction? Insane? Perhaps, but the outcome was predictable given the intimate relationship between big business and government. Those running for Congress are generally businesspeople, often millionaires, sometimes billionaires. The idea that government serves any other master outside of the business sector should now be considered a joke. To reiterate, the collapse happened despite Bush tax cuts, despite a massive reduction in welfare costs. The collapse happened because of the current economic philosophy which still reigns in America, not in spite of it. The collapse happened because banks and Corporations weren't happy with merely having control over our actual money, they also wanted money which we didn't have, so banks were allowed to create copious amounts of credit (which amounts to the creation of money from thin air), and give loans out to people who had no hope of repaying them. They were allowed to trade and gamble on commodities in quantities that may or may not have borne any relation to how much of that commodity actually existed (look up futures contract). On top of that, they were allowed to do all this with less and less regulation from the government. My constant mentioning of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama is not to say that all of this is solely their fault. The economy has been steadily deregulated since the presidency of Richard Nixon and continued through the presidencies of Carter and Reagan. My point is, though, that there has been no real difference between Democrats and Republicans in recent years. Their disagreements represent disagreements among the wealthiest members of American society, and are mainly social in origin. Take for example the abortion issue again. Not all of the wealthiest families agree on whether it is immoral or not, some being socially liberal, so it is open to political debate. Neither Democrat nor Republican, however, questions the logic of unrestrained wealth accumulation (I'm hesitant to call it Capitalism, as it isn't in the true sense of the word, but as a catch-all term it will have to do) and indeed both parties do all they can to further the endeavors of the business class. So where does that leave Democracy?

As everyone knows, Corporations and banks are not democratic institutions. What do Corporations and banks want? Money, and the easier it is to get, and the less personal risk involved, the better. As Chomsky and others have noted, though, we are in a new phase of Capitalism where even the Corporations and banks can be thrown to the wolves as long as the CEO's and big money investors can walk away with monumental rewards. What incentive did high earning Citigroup employees have for acting in the companies best interests knowing full well that regardless of the outcome they would receive millions of dollars in bonuses? The answer, obviously, is none. So what are we to make of this bold new phase of Capitalism? High finance has finally loosed itself from all restraints. Morals play no part, patriotism plays no part and now even company loyalty plays no part, with employees leaping from Corporation to Corporation like some economic version of musical chairs, making sure that each parting of the ways is accompanied by outrageous bonuses, regardless of whether their time spent at any particular Corporation was profitable for the company or not. Personal wealth accumulation is untethered, and as such cannot be controlled by any force, least of all governments. Let's say that the American government felt that Corporations were not paying their way and decided to make them pay more in taxes. What would those Corporations do? Simple, they would close up shop in America and go elsewhere, easily finding a Corporate-friendly government willing to cut them a break (like, say, Ireland, who just received a massive bailout from the EU as they were basically bankrupt, but who nevertheless promised Corporations that they would not increase Corporate taxes, which are the lowest in Europe). We are essentially in mythic times, with the CEO's, managers and investors playing the role of the gods on Mount Olympus. We must do everything in our power to appease them or they will destroy our economy and take away our jobs. They appear to have even fewer morals than those gods of old and are willing to do just about anything if it means greater wealth. We must make sacrifices to them, work for less pay, demand less rights, lest they become angry and move their offices to a third-world country where the workers have no rights at all. The government is powerless to stop them, but that would imply that they wish to. On the contrary, the government works hand-in-hand with the business class to ensure bigger returns for all. Again I ask, where does that leave Democracy?

The short answer is that it leaves it helpless and redundant. The push from the business sector for lower taxes and less money for welfare and public schools means that general starvation and no public schools remains a real possibility 20 years from now. Try raising taxes and see what happens. The problem, as far as business elites are concerned, is that Western workers have too many rights. Workers need to be competitive, and if they keep demanding higher pay and protection, well then they just can't compete with Indian and Chinese peasants who will work for almost nothing, and with no job guarantees. While right-wing Christians complain that gay marriage and slack morality is to blame for the destruction of family values, households are being torn apart by the demands of the modern Capitalist agenda. Enterprising individuals must follow the money, go where the jobs are, even if it means taking your family to another new city, and your children being enrolled  in another new school. Modern Capitalism cares nothing for family values, or indeed loyalty to anything other than personal wealth accumulation. The voice that opposes these developments has no place in the American Democratic system, simply because running a successful campaign is so expensive that it requires Corporate backing, and Corporations only give to those who will back their agenda. Let's take the public perception of business ethics against those who claim welfare. Criticise the actions of the business class and you will be told that, sure, there are some bad apples, but overall they are decent, moral people. Find a case of somebody claiming welfare illegitimately and it becomes par for the course to label everyone who claims welfare as some kind of lazy, morally repugnant leech. One simply cannot discuss Unions in America, as everyone "knows" that they are run by corrupt, power-hungry demagogues. Yet the unscrupulous actions of the business elite threatened to destroy the economic foundations of the global economy, in the process causing millions of jobs to be lost all over the planet. How did we react to such actions? We gave them even more power. 

There is no serious political debate. Raising taxes kills jobs. End of debate. Even though the money saved by Corporations from less taxes more often than not goes either to personal wealth or the gross underpayment of third-world citizens, the same mindset continues unabated. The business elites feel no loyalty to America. They are loyal only to those who can, for now, promise the highest returns with the lowest amount of risk involved. If anyone balks at such an idea, why did the global collapse happen, and how did the perpetrators end up benefiting most? This is no conspiracy theory, this is economic reality. Let me be clear, I have no inherent problem with a regulated market that provides safety nets for the weakest members of society, one which recognises such notions as civic duty, and sees education and health care as basic rights for a hard working populace. I see only disaster and immorality in subjecting people to Social Darwinism in order that the weak and less intelligent may be punished with highly unpleasant and shorter lives. It's hard to see what can stop the momentum, though, other than the complete collapse of the Western economies. Until then, ordinary citizens of America will have less and less control of their lives as their rights are sacrificed to make them more competitive in the global economy. Safety nets will be removed so people will have no choice but to starve or work for less pay and less employment guarantees. The global economic disaster has, if anything, allowed the business elites to gain a firmer grip on the political trajectory of not only America but the entire global economy. We are more dependent than ever on the unprincipled activities of those whose only goal is greater personal wealth. As I said, the only thing I see bringing this situation to an end is the collapse of society as we know it. I'm not sure how things will look on the other side of that collapse, and in almost every way our lives right now will still be better than those in the immediate aftermath of such a disaster. The fact remains, though, that as of now there is little to no real antagonism toward current economic philosophies. To be sure there are voices of opposition, but they are largely ignored or labeled extremist. Our Democracy exists in name only, with all of the major decisions that affect our lives being made by undemocratic institutions that care nothing for our personal situations or our rights. For now we still have many of the rights put in place by politicians who were forced to implement them or risk an angry populace. As these erode we will be forced more and more to succumb to the demands of a global marketplace, and in doing so we will lose the last of the hard won guarantees that strong, brave and clear sighted citizens insisted we would need lest we become modern day serfs. Until such individuals rise again and are given a real opportunity to have their voices heard we will continue down our current path, a path that can lead only to servitude and dependency, the very antithesis of liberty and freedom.


I would like to acknowledge the excellent book "The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism" by Roger D. Hodge which provided many of the facts and figures, and the inspiration, for large parts of this essay. I would also like to acknowledge the unending inspiration given by the works of Noam Chomsky.

The exploits of William Jefferson Clinton are for the most part common knowledge and can be verified by various online biographies. I offer up the following sources for specific statistics and dollar amounts mentioned above:

Sudanese pharmaceutical plant bombing
TARP to cost only $25 Billion
Neil Barofsky's testimony
True cost of TARP
True cost of TARP

Citigroup bonuses
Cost of welfare
Corporations not paying tax
Revolving debt figures
Increase in consumption
Income and wealth inequality
Obama drone attacks
Civilian deaths in Afghanistan, 2009
Ireland's corporate tax rate

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Manufacturing Dissent: Conformity as Rebellion

"Only the man who says 'no' is free"

Herman Melville

"If you want to serve the age, betray it"

Brendan Kennelly

As far as legendary moments in the history of popular music go, what happened at Manchester Free Trade Hall in May '66 is one that still reverberates, in part because it really happened. The subject of many an article and music discussion, the actions of John Cordwell have created more mileage for the Dylan myth-making machine than any other event, other than perhaps the supposed motorcycle crash which sent him into retreat a mere two months later. John Cordwell was one of the many youths of the early '60's who felt an almost religious reverence for the work of Bob Dylan, particularly those early protest anthems that seemed to speak an unquestionable truth, a folk-spun wisdom that nevertheless blazed with a righteous indignation more befitting a preacher than a popular music singer. Put simply, Dylan's songs emitted an ethical charge that hypnotised his fans, providing for them intellectual nourishment amid a climate of what they saw as compromised ideals and commercialised jingles. When Dylan went electric and moved the focus of his lyrics away from indignation and towards a poetic, at times impenetrable, exploration of personal emotions, many felt betrayed. So it was that in Manchester John Cordwell stood up in a quiet moment between songs and yelled out "Judas". Dylan, master of cool and seemingly unflappable, blurts out "I don't believe you". He is then stunned into silence, managing only to retort "You're a liar" before launching into his next song. History has judged Dylan the victor and Cordwell to be just another woolly-jumpered folk fanatic whose desperate moment of protest was merely the whimpering of a man caught on the wrong side of popular culture's great earthquake. Stranded and confused, his shout is instructive now merely as an example of a certain closed-minded resistance to change. We shake our heads in disbelief, knowing that we would have accepted Dylan's artistic changes with a mixture of excitement and expectation, ever eager to embrace the new. Is there a price to pay, though, for this spirit of acceptance that pervades our times? I think so, and I intend to explain just what that is.

A recent phenomenon designed to cash in on the hardcore music fan's rabid curiosity for anything related to an artist or album they like is the "Under Review" DVD. Supposed experts, and the occasional person connected with events being described, talk at length about what they know and before long an hour of your time has been filled up. Needless to say I've watched many of them. While browsing in the music section of my local DVD rental establishment I happened upon an "Under Review" entitled "The Berlin Trilogy". Unable to help myself I took it home and settled in for some uninterrupted Bowie jibber-jabber. One of the things that caught my attention was that the various talking heads vying for screen time all seemed to want to talk about the critical reaction to "Low"-- contemporary reviewers were confused, some going so far as to call it unlistenable. Amongst the various opinions contained on this particular "Under Review" one could hear a certain smugness rising up to the surface, an air of "Look how wrong those critics were. They weren't ready for 'Low' and now they look stupid cos they gave it a bad review". If modern times has a commandment, it is surely "Though shalt embrace everything new, lest ye look foolish and obsolete in retrospect". No judgment is more scornful than the one heaped upon the fearful artistic conservative. From Impressionism's disdain for the Académie to hip-hop's challenge to rock, one's credibility is measured historically in terms of how early and how strongly one embraced these changes. Artists are the fearless pioneers of our times, visionary geniuses whose works may only be appreciated by the most open of minds, the most subtle and complex of thinkers. The red carpet is forever laid out, and any failure to understand a new artistic development is our fault, never theirs. With each aesthetic victory, however, the ranks of the supposed enemy grows thinner, the result being that oftentimes there is no conservative stodginess standing in the way of mass acceptance. When this happens, reviewers create a phantom to pit their open-minded approach against.

The release of "Kid A" by Radiohead is perhaps the greatest example of the phantom conservative music fan. Almost every review was glowing, and the album went to number one on both sides of the Atlantic. Scan through the reviews, though, and you'll see many critics referring to the album as "challenging" and "difficult". So an album that is embraced wholeheartedly by critics and public alike is both challenging and difficult? For whom exactly? It seems like the critics were reviewing themselves, not the album, and giving themselves five stars. Was the album challenging for them? Clearly not as they were keen to declare it a masterpiece in a very short space of time. No, what was being indicated was that the album would be a difficult listen for other people, you know, those phantom conservative listeners. The critics got it, boy did they get it, but those people would not. What followed was the biggest critical and public display of self-initiated backslapping imaginable. "Radiohead are challenging, they are before their time, they are miles ahead of every other band and you know what? I get it". In truth there was the occasional bad review, Nick Hornby's springs to mind, but taken overall the album could not have been better received. Apparently the world at large had been challenged by "Kid A" and had boldly passed the test. These critics were no stick-in-the-mud classicists, no sir. They were ready for the future and all the weird electronic dissonance that came with it.

What happened between the cry of "Judas" and "Kid A"? A lot, the main thing being that Pop Culture went from being an exhilarating celebration of the new to a gargantuan edifice of such size, scope and influence that it is all-pervasive and all-encompassing in its reach. For some reason, though, it has retained its status as untouchable among many. Try criticising the state of the music charts these days and before you know it you're an old grandfather looking for his pipe and slippers. Embracing the new has become passive acceptance of whatever direction popular music has taken. When punk drew fresh battle lines the new enemy was the classic rock fan, clutching in fear their copy of "Music From Big Pink" and scowling at all these noisy bands. Electronic music was embraced knowing full well that many rock fans were cursing its supposed soullessness and longing for a return to proper musicianship. What's changed since then? Not much really. From post-punk to synth-pop to hip-hop to dance all new sounds have been embraced by the alternative press and in a larger sense the public too. Since the early '90's, though, nothing truly revolutionary has occurred. By the time of Kurt Cobain's death and the transformation of Oasis from indie darlings to world conquering rock stars the alternative press had all but died. Dwindling circulation meant even left-of-centre publications had to follow the money. Major label pressure and demands from the marketplace overtly influenced what acts should be covered and in what manner, meaning that dissenting voices became thin on the ground (Lack of favourable coverage for a prized major label act often meant denial of press access to all of that label's acts, a situation that would all but destroy a magazine seeking high circulation and heavy advertising revenue). Soon enough, all that's left are those writers willing to toe the line but who deep down don't feel like they are selling-out. If these same writers can convince themselves that by embracing mainstream music they are actually rebelling then it can help quieten the uneasiness of being compromised. Given this predicament, the writer who can show the inherent danger (or lack of ambition) resulting from a narrow-minded indie outlook can recast their championing of the mainstream as both an act of open-minded heroism and a display of tough-minded realism. Meanwhile all that remains of the so-called alternative press is mostly stuck in an early '80's mindset, championing some indie acts but also aggressively pushing the idea that to complain about the standards of mainstream music is to throw your lot in with the classic rock fans snapping up the latest issue of "Mojo". In other words, to rebel against the mainstream is an act of almost unforgivable ignorance.

For this reason, we get the phantom "Kid A" detractors. Reviewers got a chance at last to show that they weren't stuck in classic rock mode but were actually on the cutting edge. The bigger question is, what do artists themselves have to kick back against? Creative spirits often need a challenge, an enemy, a direction that could ruffle some feathers. The nature of modern music criticism is such that almost any direction taken by an artist, barring a stab at classic rock, is viewed in the most sympathetic light possible, especially among newer artists. As if haunted by the idea of another "Low"-like episode, reviewers are at pains not to appear behind the times. What could be more embarrassing, after all, than being wrong about some new and important development in music? So fear is, at heart, one of the main drives behind bland acceptance and self-congratulatory open-mindedness. Ask yourself this, though; when was the last time there was any real controversy in music? Keep in mind music critics for the most part reacted to the upsurge in misogyny and homophobia among hip-hop artists in the '90's with what can only be described as moral cowardice. The controversy raged outside of the pages of the music press, who merely reported on the controversy. When was the last time somebody did something that would have merited the cry of "Judas"? To be honest, it's hard to think of anything that could incite real anger amongst devotees. We have become passive consumers rather than passionate fans, admiring our own eclecticism and open-mindedness about music rather than our engagement with the art (Or is it merely entertainment? We'll save that for another time). The focus is on what the music says about you, not to you. We are encouraged to approach pop culture like rapacious neoliberals, forever worshiping technological developments and congratulating artists for savvy media manipulation. The world is flat and we gaze transfixed at the shimmering surface, exhilarated to catch sight of our own reflection amid the varnished sheen. We feel modern. We belong. The end result is that musicians have almost nothing to rebel against. Fans are accepting of everything, with bands more than aware of their market and as such making all the necessary noises and dropping the right names. Fans then feel part of a rebellious continuum that marks them out as the cultural pioneers pushing things forward. Culture trundles on regardless as marketing strategies pinpoint our innermost needs and deliver them to our in-box. In the meantime nobody notices that nothing very interesting has gone on for years, and the post-punk stratagem of a bold leap for the mainstream is still the ultimate act of rebellion.

So what is the price we pay for passivity? The death of the critical voice. It has become the unwanted guest at every dinner table, the devil to be exorcised so that we may find our place in the world without apprehension. At the same time, nobody feels comfortable with the idea of conformity. So the critical voice that finds fault with new popular music developments becomes the surrogate John Cordwell, yelling at things they cannot accept, not knowing that these very same things represent the future and that soon their anguish will be viewed as a laughable moth-eaten vision of times gone by. Placed in opposition to such future fear, the conformist becomes the rebel casting off the shackles of an unwanted past, forever ready to embrace the challenges of a technologically dominated global culture. All morals, tastes and scruples must be committed to the flames lest we appear unready. We must be pliable, and we must be forever vigilant against the critical voice that tells us that we are being short-changed by the march of culture. In other words we must be the very model of the modern neoliberal. The contradiction that lies at the heart of such a reality, though, is that the very same cultural commentators that fit the above description to a tee believe themselves to be the opposite of the neoliberal. Instead they picture themselves as post-modern leftists laying bare the dark heart of globalism's cultural colonialism. That they choose to do battle with globalism's grim march by embracing all of popular culture's latest output is akin to fighting global warming by snapping up the biggest gas guzzling SUV imaginable (Perhaps to problematise the issue? To embrace the inconsistencies inherent in the modern dialectic? To have their cake and eat it too?). Members of the "alternative press" continuously push mainstream success as an artistic ideal, with the all-powerful Pitchfork recently beginning a review with the observation "The people making the best pop music in the world are typically also among the world's biggest pop stars". That Pitchfork itself is, philosophically speaking, a slapdash copy and paste of the British alternative press of 1982 that championed New Pop has apparently gone completely unnoticed. Though secondhand, the principles favoured by Pitchfork promote the unarguable idea that to embrace mainstream pop is a revolutionary accomplishment.

Meanwhile on the other side of history remains John Cordwell. That he was wrong about Dylan's direction is perhaps now beside the point. In the larger sense he showed extreme tenacity in challenging counter-culture's poet god, and the fact that two months later Dylan crashed out of life altogether and only returned to the music scene in '68 with an almost all acoustic album awash in Biblical allegory suggests that perhaps Cordwell had a bigger impact than even he imagined. Artists demand to be challenged, and we do them a disservice by meekly fawning over each new creation. On the other side of the coin, artists do society a disservice by not laying bare the darkest secrets of the age. If our future is dancing to popular culture's puppet strings and Art a mere pretentious memory of older times then I fear for notions of individuality and humanity. The corrosive nature of the ironic persona has already allowed multitudes of substandard products to be embraced, treasured and even intellectualised. Our willingness to appear gleefully unperturbed plays in perfectly with the idea that to be overtly critical or unhappy with any turn of events is the ultimate communal buzz-kill and sign of an individuals impending obsolescence. Step outside of this mindset, however, and it's possible to see that there are worse things than being wrong. Going all the way back to Art's first modern rebellion, the painters herded into the category of Impressionist's tended, for the most part, to view each others works with disdain. Not to say that there was not some admiration, but there was certainly no all-for-one stand against the establishment. No, each in their own way was wrong about history's forward trajectory, but right in their own exploration of individual technique. Scan through all revolutionary artistic periods and you'll find the same sniping and backbiting, the same jealous denouncements. What saved each in turn was their willingness to take a stand. So it's easy to see that there is indeed something worse than being wrong, and that is being spineless. John Cordwell could hardly be accused of cowardice in the face of an overpowering cultural movement. Who amongst us could say the same?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Swallowed by the Cosmic Joke - Devendra Banhart: Missing In Action

"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom."

Søren Kierkegaard

Sometime in late 2002 a friend recommended that I give a listen to a new album out on Young God Records. Knowing that I was not a big fan of their output, he made sure to mention that this was not a Swans-like musical attack, more a Marc Bolanesque slice of folk weirdness. Intrigued, I picked up "Oh Me Oh My..." by Devendra Banhart and was almost instantly charmed. Everything about the album emitted an otherworldly hum, from the lo-fi production to the combination of home-made scribble and disquieting detail that constituted the artwork. The songs themselves mostly stuck to simple two-chord finger-picking techniques or folky strumming that managed to pull off the same trick time and again, as the tensions of the melodies were relieved by a return to the root of the main chord / finger-picking pattern. The magic lay in Banhart's delivery and words, both of which overflowed with a certain polymorphic-perverse sexuality as Devendra found a childlike sensuality and eroticism in flesh, words, trees, him, her, them; all situations were open to touch and play. Many of the songs were appealing fragments while others, like "The Charles C. Leary", "Michigan State", "Hey Miss Cane", "Soon Is Good" and "Pumpkin Seeds" emerged as fully formed entities, discharging a forceful, spontaneous wisdom that reveled in naive delight at the sheer joyous fascination of being alive, of actually existing. Banhart was only 21 when the album came out and when it began to develop a well deserved but nevertheless ominous buzz expectations were high for a follow-up.

In 2004 it was announced that two new Banhart albums would be released that same year, both being the result of a highly productive recording session. First came "Rejoicing In The Hands". The appeal of lo-fi recordings can mean that an immediate skepticism is present when an artist decides to upgrade to a studio. With "Rejoicing In The Hands" though, all doubts were swept aside. With Michael Gira at the helm, the emphasis remained on the songs and finding the correct setting for their appreciation. With this in mind a home recording studio was selected where the singer could feel comfortable and at ease. Perhaps because of this, the results were a triumph. The lo-fi buzz was gone, but in its place was an intimate warmth and a more assured sense of song-craft. Banhart bloomed in his new setting, with the opening trio of songs "This is the Way", "A Sight to Behold" and "The Body Breaks" being so strong that they threatened to overshadow the rest of the album. As it is the album more than succeeds as a whole, with Devendra's lyrical impishness and childlike wisdom present and correct but this time with a certain adult sadness making its way to the surface, puncturing the naivety but adding a layer of hard won maturity. Its sister album "Niño Rojo" was, as should have been expected, more of the same. While not quite as strong as "Rejoicing In The Hands" it nevertheless had many moments of genuine brilliance, with infectious effervescence and autumnal reverie blending into a satisfying whole. With his position as hippie boy-genius seemingly unassailable Banhart retreated to the sidelines once more, only to reemerge in 2005 with another new album, this time released on British label XL Recordings instead of Young God Records. One would perhaps expect business as usual, but this was not to be. It is at this moment that Devendra's recording career began to unravel. How and why? Let's examine the details.

While on Young God, Michael Gira commented that he could make Devendra the Nick Drake of his generation. Banhart balked at the idea, and it is here that we can perhaps see the reason for his split from Young God. Michael Gira clearly had definite ideas about how Banhart should be presented and I can imagine that this overflowed into the recording studio. It's conceivable that Banhart was restricted from indulging in anything too nonsensical while on Young God, with Michael Gira demanding a certain tastefulness from the recordings. With this in mind Devendra making the leap to XL is somewhat understandable. Something else happened when he made the leap though. Not only did he allow himself to indulge in many previously unthinkable musical excursions, his quality control all but evaporated. On first picking up the album, the first thing we notice about "Cripple Crow" is the cover. Gone is Devendra's art and in its place is a tiresome "Sgt. Pepper..." knock-off. It seems that without Michael Gira's firm hand Devendra felt free to entertain every hippie cliche that would have invoked Gira's ire while on Young God. It begins with "Now That I Know" and it remains the high point of the album. It's no coincidence that as a song it's the most reminiscent of his previous efforts. Importantly, though, Gira's natural sounding production is replaced by a studio sheen of echo and Eagles-like finish. Worse still, on the vast majority of the album Banhart's words have managed to transform themselves into the worst kind of hippie-lite nonsense, the songs languishing in a humourless, clumsy anything-goes morass. Mischievous and inventive wordplay has given way to a full on celebration of the Cosmic Giggle, the rot that eats away at the base of much hippie philosophising. This philosophy implies that all actions, emotions and interactions are just one big meaningless game and as such nothing particularly matters. Its relationship to post-modern philosophy's moral relativism and spiteful irony deserves to be scrutinised. The Cosmic Giggle's main thrust is abhorrence at taking anything seriously. Why get hung up? Existence is merely a valueless game and to get uptight is to misunderstand how empty the whole charade really is.

The end result of believing such guff (apparently I cannot give my life meaning, it can only be thrust upon me from an outside source) is written all over "Cripple Crow". Jokes and giggles abound, with almost every song coming off as an obvious imitation or caricature. Even the better songs suffer, and the inordinate length of the album makes it drag as we have to hold our breath for another senseless exercise in banality along the lines of "Chinese Children". Suddenly Banhart's persona is childish instead of childlike, irritating and hackneyed where once it was charming and refreshing. I remember distinctly defending Banhart in the face of criticism when "Cripple Crow" was released, while privately nursing doubts. This was something he needed to get out of his system I reasoned, and he would surely return to form on his next release. I could not have been more wrong. The follow-up "Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon" was a complete travesty from start to finish. The old Devendra was now completely gone, and in his place was a feeble mimic who got by on cheap cosmic goof-offs and eccentric behaviour. Soon after "Smokey..." he signed to Warner Brothers. Having learned my lesson I refused to even touch his first album for Warner Brothers. While shopping for CDs one day, though, it came blasting out of the store speakers. I literally felt ill, barely able to believe that the same person who recorded "Rejoicing In The Hands" was responsible for the dross I was currently hearing. Every note of every song was an homage to a pastiche of a parody. In interviews Banhart talked of the joys of being on a major label, that despite all of our closed-minded indie misconceptions people who worked for major labels were really genuine people who treated him with respect. He was happy.

That Banhart was and is happy is probably true. The fact is, though, that his songs are devoid of any kind of tension or drive. These comfortable parodies are the artistic creations of somebody who clearly cares for nothing more than a laid-back existence. Now, that does not make him a bad human being and I wish him all the best in terms of the choices he has made. It does, though, make him a bad artist. I am not Devendra Banhart's friend. I know him as an artist who releases music and as such I rate his success in terms of his artistic output, not his personal happiness. I am not suggesting artists have to suffer, but I am saying that their work must have some sense of tension, some clue that there is an active mind working through problems. For Devendra it seems that such notions are simply laughable. Pull that stick out of your behind and stop being so uptight. So he's on a major label? So what! So his artistic output has declined to the point of embarrassment? So what! I'm probably just jealous, right? If anyone can make it through an hour of the smarmy self-congratulatory meanderings that constitute Banhart's current output they have a stronger constitution than me. The Cosmic Giggle embraces pointlessness and as such renders its adherents pointless. Worse still, it is used as a shield to deflect any kind of criticism. Is signing to a major label wrong? Who cares. Is the notion of selling out redundant? I don't know, but maybe if I strip naked and wear a phony native American headdress we can just laugh at that instead. Seriousness is a drag. That's why wars happen because people act all grown-up and serious. Let's all just revel in a value-free universe and we'll all feel better. Neither the Cosmic Giggle nor post-modern philosophy's studious embrace of the low-brow have done anything to shake the pillars of finance. On the contrary, the slop that they both serve up helps the marketing world to dish out mediocrity to all levels of society. We can all live in a crass, class-free existence where nobody takes anything seriously and all thoughts of criticism have been put to bed. If that's your idea of paradise then you're welcome to it. I continue to hold onto the idea that something matters, that our actions yield real-life repercussions that cannot and should not be reasoned away by a casual shrug. As such I find Banhart's betrayal of his talents to be a disgrace. The sad thing is, it seems like he's already been forgotten. His sell-out did not give him Rod Stewart levels of fame and for this reason he already feels like an afterthought. I want to remind people, though, that he was once a great artist and that people really did care about his music. Keep that in mind if you happen to see him shirtless at a music festival, jamming out to another 70's rock parody. Michael Gira, perhaps foolishly, thought this man could be his generation's Nick Drake. Instead we got an indie Jimmy Buffett that we never asked for.   

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Counterculture Envy-The Right Finally Gets To Have Its Own '60s, and What It Could Mean

"I’m frequently seen in the conservative press as being out there on the barricades shouting: Down with capitalism! I do see it in the end as really the most workable system we’ve produced. So what we’re talking about is not the system itself, but its abuses, I don’t mean criminal but the abundant abuses just within the letter of the law. The essential question is whether it can survive these abuses given free rein and whether these abuses are inherent in the system itself."

William Gaddis

The mythology of the 1960's is so ingrained in our culture that its events can sometimes be seen as epic and otherworldly compared to our supposedly mundane times. People taking to the streets in anger, calls for armed insurrection and government take down, outrageous conspiracy theories; it seemed to, for a short amount of time, almost alter the course of Western Civilisation. Taking a stand against such outrageous behaviour was the silent majority, those God fearing, blue collar everyday folks who looked on aghast at Woodstock and feared for the purity of their daughters. They didn't smoke marijuana, and they certainly didn't take no trips on LSD. Given time, the silent majority prevailed and by the '80's Reagan was in power, and all was right with the world. Something must have been eating away at that silent majority mindset though. Tired of being painted as uptight moral guardians instead of the individualistic pioneers that they imagined themselves to be, the Right had to invent an authority to rebel against. They came up with the liberal media. Don't be fooled by this seemingly innocuous phrase. Behind it lies intimations of 1984 style mind control, of the befuddled masses being fooled by its insinuations and accusations, of a helpless populace forever enslaved by its propaganda. Who can free us from these mind-forged manacles? Who else but that rough-hewn pioneer forever alert to the nefarious servants of tyranny, that individualist champion of the ordinary person, that untamed rebel of the political jungle....the right wing suburbanite. With an enemy now in place, right wingers everywhere could feel more at ease with themselves. Unthinking servants of the American government? Never. Protectors of liberty and truth? You betcha. The fallacies of the liberal media theory have been dealt with elsewhere. That the media conglomerates themselves are billion dollar businesses owned by card carrying right wingers is apparently of no interest whatsoever. Let us not dwell on such matters though. Since the medias "betrayal" of America in their coverage of Vietnam, news outlets have been viewed as servants of the enemy by freedom loving suburban dwellers of the right wing variety. Apparently, though, this was not enough. The Right wanted a riot of their own, and with the election of Barack Hussein Obama, they got it.

Turn on the news and you'll hear talk of armed insurrection, of outrageous conspiracy theories concerning the President, of fighting for the real America. It's a show about the '60's, right? No, it's a show about the 2010 Right. The silent majority's counterculture envy has finally been unleashed. Now they get to be the rebels standing up to a "totalitarian" government. Now we have the birthers, spouting claims that would fit nicely into the pages of "The Illuminatus! Trilogy". Now we have Sharron Angle talking about a "second amendment solution". Everything that the silent majority rejected in the '60's is now being embraced wholeheartedly. Let's remind ourselves, though, of what most of the protests from the '60's focused on. The Vietnam War. What are the Right angry about? Health Care that supposedly ensures coverage for the poorest elements of society.(Can I add that it actualy ensures nothing of the kind? Yes I can) Apparently this is the single greatest threat to our freedom that currently exists and the first step on the road to Socialism. It begs the question, whose freedom is being threatened? Who are the people funding the Tea Party marches who are angry about Health Care? As everyone who's been brainwashed by the liberal media knows, it is the ultra-rich and ultra-right elements of the business world, who see any attempt at regulation by the government as a threat to their pay check. The problem is, they are stirring up a witches cauldron that may cause more trouble than even they can imagine. Telling a large group of powerful affluent individuals that they are under attack and peppering it with violent rhetoric is beyond irresponsible. Unlike the protesters of the '60's, many elements of the Tea Party movement and its affiliates have real power and influence, and what they seem to be asking for would lead to the dissolution of individual rights and replacement of government with business entities.

First off, let us rid ourselves of any illusions and make one fact perfectly clear. Individual rights exist because of government. The nature of Western politics is such that any advancements in individual rights are soon taken for granted and seen as being indisputable. Without government, though, we only have individual rights in principle. With no rule of law or appeal to a higher power those rights would be meaningless. They are not a permanent entity and many visitors to Western countries are shocked by the amount of liberties that we take for granted. The protection we are afforded by the existence of our governments is incalculable. Now, this is not going down the path of "Leviathan" and claiming that a totalitarian government is better than none. I hold in high regard those individuals who have risked their lives in order that governments would accept their rights and give them the necessary protection, which in many cases is simply the right to be left alone to live their lives. Many would point out that our individual rights were in fact given to us by a different kind of higher power, namely God. This is dangerous for two reasons. One, any government based on the belief of a particular god would have no incentive to protect the rights of non-believers or worshipers of a different god. Two, religious governments can and will go beyond merely being indifferent to the rights of non-believers to claiming divine reasoning for limiting the rights of all it's individuals, religious or not. Government must be secular regardless of the beliefs of those implementing the laws. Which leaves us with two options: individual rights as vouchsafed by a government (be it large or small), or the law of the jungle. Now, the law of the jungle in this case may not refer to outright lawlessness, but it may still reward the strong and punish the weak if they have no recourse to a greater power. This would be the case if the government's power were reduced so thoroughly and an even greater power (or powers) had usurped it. The power I'm alluding to is that of Corporations.

Right now, the only thing stopping Corporations from deciding the fate of planet earth is governments. Now, I know many would say  that the fate of the planet is in the hands of Corporations as it is, but the fact is that governments are a nuisance to Corporations. They charge tax and implement laws that demand minimum wage and worker's rights. If these same Corporations line the pockets of enough politicians they get what they want for the most part. The thing is, though, they want more. It is the law that Corporations must do everything in their power to make a profit, and often times that means butting heads with government officials. Government and Corporations have one crucial difference. Corporations are not democratic in any way. They are under no incentive to protect the rights of individuals, and the further Right you go, you find more people stating that ultimately the individual has no rights other than those he or she can secure in the marketplace. In other words, much Tea Party rhetoric involving less government and more "freedom" is simply right wing phrasing for the freedoms granted by the marketplace, the freedoms you yourself can secure, not those given to you by a government. Their version of freedom is that everyone is entitled to compete for their freedom, this is indeed their right, but that nothing more is guaranteed.

In real terms, it is the equivalent of climbing up a rope to the top of a cliff then cutting the rope when you reach the top and making others struggle. Peek behind the Tea Party bombast and you'll find many individuals convinced that their riches were the result of that "pioneering spirit" that birthed America. The market for them is the jungle, and they have slayed the beast. It is a fantasy world of affluence and arrogance, of delusions so strong that they threaten to unleash a firestorm of anger from many who are looking for real reasons as to why the American economy is failing. The answer that should be given to them, which is that American Corporations do not care one iota for the entity called America and therefore will go anywhere in the world where worker's rights are close to nil to ensure healthy profits for the shareholders (remember, it's the law) and the end result being that there is no industry in America, is not one CEO's and business leaders are likely to admit. No, the problem is big government and government spending. Never mind that Corporations will do everything in their power to starve the nation of taxes (again, I repeat, they are legally required to do anything it takes to turn a profit) and that real wages have been stagnant for decades. Never mind that many business leaders and Tea Party financiers would like to see a roll back of workers rights. This is all immaterial. The fault is always with government and never with the market. Which is not to say that I am anti-capitalist or endorse Communism in any way. I do not, and in fact see Communism's aims, whether carried out in good faith or not, to be detrimental to both the human spirit and individual freedoms. Individual rights involve a fusion of protection and being left alone. The right to mingle with our fellow beings or the right to be a recluse. The right to be generous or the right to be selfish. The problem, as it stands, is that Corporations have the power to reduce all our rights to their terms. In the teeth of such a monster we have only one hope, and that is government. Not an abusive or totalitarian one, but one that may curb the power of Corporations if they threaten our individual rights. Not always a wise government, most likely a messy frustrating one that does not please everyone, or even most, but nevertheless provides us with the rights and protections that many in the West gave their lives for, and that although we take for granted, could disappear in the blink of an eye if we misunderstand the nature of the "rights" and "freedoms" currently being pursued by many elements of American society.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Singer Not the Song (Or Why Performance is as Important as Form)

The single most important thing that ever happened in the history of popular culture was the arrival of Elvis Presley. His rise at once signified the end of an era. Behind Elvis was post-war austerity, uptight (white) social mores and the young being seen and not heard. In his wake came a let-it-all-hang-out looseness, an embrace of black musical figures previously unheard of (hitherto only permitted in the highly intellectualised circles of jazz) and the young as an angry, impetuous and highly marketable entity. While 60's musicians are perpetually rediscovered and cherished, Elvis seems cut off in another era, as if he managed to fall on the wrong side of the dividing line that he created. While the simplistic feel of 50's rock 'n roll is partly to blame, the fact that Elvis continued to record, and continued to have sizable hits, right up until his death suggests that another factor is at play. The biggest difference between Elvis and The Beatles (or Dylan or The Rolling Stones) is that Presley was not a songwriter. He remained an interpreter up to his final days. In this regard he comes across as a relic, somehow more connected to Sinatra or Bing Crosby than to his true cultural heirs of the 60s (of course his residencies at Vegas didn't help). Presley is showbiz, Dylan is art. This is unfair, however, because people don't actually rate "songwriting" as highly as they think they do. This essay is not an attempt to rescue Elvis from his kitsch, sequined place in cultural history (though it should, with any luck, prod you into giving him a fresh listen); rather it's an exploration of what modern songwriting has actually become. When songwriting became a byword for artistry, its place of privilege meant the demotion of what, in truth, are essential elements of modern music. Why it happened will be dealt with in due course. For now, though, let's asses the state of affairs as they stand. What exactly is a song? Let's find out.

Diversion # 1
I'm attending a concert by Neko Case. During said concert she sings a song called "In California" that I fall in love with instantly. Upon purchasing her mini-album "Canadian Amp"  which includes the aforementioned song I discover that it was, in fact, written by someone named Lisa Marr. I duly purchase the Lisa Marr Experiment album with "In California" on it named '4 AM'. With high expectations I give it a listen. Nothing. After several spins I remain unimpressed. After a few weeks  I go back and focus on "In California" , but even it seems flat and uninspired compared with Neko's version. A feeling of puzzlement washes over me and I'm struck with a thought: "How did Neko Case know that there was a good song to be had from this? What did she hear that I can't? Was it a good song badly recorded, or a mediocre song elevated by Neko's superior delivery?" Without Neko, had I ever been exposed to this song in it's original incarnation, I would have dismissed it.

List-making is an integral part of internet culture. Top tens abound, with one of the most popular being "Top Ten Favourite Songs". Check out one of these lists and you'll immediately notice something interesting. Let's say curiosity gets the better of you and you click on some old classmate's top ten to see what kind of music they enjoy. At number one sits "Jeremy" by Pearl Jam. First off, my advice is to defriend them. You may be a more forgiving soul, though, and continue to check out their list. As your eyes move downward you've already missed the interesting part. When people list their favourite songs, they always include the artist who recorded it as part of that list. Why is that interesting? Because a song, and a recording of a song, are two different things, or at least they used to be. What people are actually listing are their favourite recordings. What's even more interesting is that almost everybody manages to simultaneously believe that a song and a recording are two different entities and that the original version is always the best. Why is that interesting? Well, take a look at any list of the greatest songs of all time. There's a good chance that it will contain "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction". Great song. Have you heard the Britney Spears version? Pretty terrible. Now, imagine that the Britney version was the only one that existed. Would it make any Best Of lists? Not a chance. So is it still one of the greatest songs ever written? Granted, Otis Redding and Devo made great versions but, when the song makes those lists, they're talking about the Stones version. In fact, if anything is written about the song, you can bet they'll talk about the snarl of Jagger's vocals, the rough hewn simplicity of the distorted riff that Keith blasts out, the propulsion of the drumming, etc. In other words, they're not talking about the song. They're talking about the recording.

We've all read stories of artists spending hours, days, weeks on a song, all to ensure that it sounds just right. Surely, though, a classic song should not be laboured on for such a time. Great songs should emerge regardless, shouldn't they? That depends. In the early part of the 20th century, two artistic approaches can be discerned in the history of songwriting. On the one hand, we have the likes of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, songwriters whose interests lay not in recording any kind of definitive version of their songs but in writing standards for others to perform. On the other hand, we have  Robert Johnson, Skip James, and a host of other blues singers whose appeal lay more in their idiosyncratic approach, unfathomable time signatures, and heightened emotion. Few, if any, of the blues singers could read music so the line between what they performed and how they performed became blurred. Robert Johnson used many themes and lyrics that were familiar to other blues players but his particular style elevated them to a highly personalised and very modern Art (not Modern Art). It is important to draw a distinction between these two approaches. The former is now all but extinct, but it is from this method that our idea of "the song" comes from. Distinct from folk music of any kind, songwriters like Gershwin et al wrote songs and immediately had their works published. This meant that the songwriters would benefit from sales of the sheet music. Recording was still in its infancy so the songwriters got their royalties mainly from the aforementioned sheet music sales. From this came the idea of the song having some kind of idealised Platonic form that floated free from any particular version that existed. What, in fact, was a business measure gave the songwriter and the song a privileged position over the performers. Things moved fast in the 20th century though. While the visual arts existed for centuries before the challenge of Impressionism, no sooner had the songwriter triumphed than the performer struck back. The difference was the performer now wrote the songs, and recorded them too.

Diversion # 2
I'm attending a gig at First Avenue in Minneapolis. It's a double bill of Love featuring Arthur Lee and The Zombies. On the surface it looks like any other 60's has-been reunion tour, but I hold Arthur Lee in such high esteem that I feel like his presence will elevate it beyond the realms of dewy-eyed nostalgia and actually create a memorable gig. When Love come on stage I hear the whisperings of the crowd; "That's Johnny Echols on guitar".  Dumbfounded, I stare at the stage and, sure enough, there stands original Love guitarist Johnny Echols. The gig is mind-blowing, with Arthur Lee in fine form. His voice has retained all its menacing power, the backing band capture the energy of the songs perfectly and, to top it all off, THAT'S JOHNNY FUCKING ECHOLS PLAYING LEAD GUITAR!!! OK, so they could have gotten some other guy to play those lead guitar lines, but this is the guy who played guitar on the original recordings. Why does that mean something? I'm not sure why, but it does. If we see songs performed by the original line-up of the band, it somehow makes it more special. We feel that it comes closer to the spirit of the music, to its idealised form. That form has nothing to do with an exact replication of the chords and melody (the song), but with how the songs were recorded and who played on them, and I can't figure out why that's important.

From the blues came rock 'n roll, and from rock 'n roll came rock and pop. When rock 'n roll exploded, it popularised emotion and expression over craft. Capturing an incendiary performance became key. In the tradition of singers like Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf who could elevate mediocre material into the realms of Art with their performances, rock 'n roll singers used the song as a springboard to emphasise their unique approach, their uncompromising attitudes, their very beings. Just as rock 'n roll was about to disappear, though, something amazing happened. A new generation of bands emerged that fused the emotion of rock 'n roll with genuine craft and musical ingenuity. The problem was that, like the blues players before them, almost none of this new generation knew how to write music. For business reasons the songs still had to be published and authorship certified, but their real existence was not on paper but in the recording. Dylan stated that he wanted his albums to be viewed the same way as a Picasso painting. He wanted his music viewed as Art. While many of his early acoustic numbers were accepted as standards, Dylan's adoption of a nasally, unlovely singing style suggested he valued performance as much as song. His leap into electric music fulfilled his dream of being comparable to Picasso, with Highway 61 Revisited capturing a highly individualised talent who wanted just the right feel for his songs. In popular music terms The Beatles soon moved ahead of Dylan and, indeed, everyone. Songs like "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were astounding as well as being utterly modern in the sense that one could not separate the song from the recording. The song was the recording. I challenge you to find me anyone who prefers other versions of these or other Lennon songs from '65 onwards (McCartney leaned more toward the old school approach. His songs were more cover version-friendly and so melodically rich that they were a gift to other singers). It does not lessen a songs greatness to imply that only the original recording is truly great. It merely speaks of a misunderstanding of what a modern song is. To say that "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a bad song because some kind of idealised acoustic version does not exist and that it would fail without the samples and the processed drums is to miss the point. The samples and the processed drums are the song. The songs took shape in the recording studio and their very existence is inseparable from the recorded versions that continue to inspire.

Diversion #3
Imagine, if you will, that you are a session musician. When it comes time to record a song, oftentimes you will be given very specific instructions. Other times, though, you're given free reign to do what you feel and, if the songwriter approves, it stays in. On one such occasion, you arrive at the session and the songwriter has nothing specified. They tell you to play whatever you feel. After a couple of practice runs you come up with a funky little guitar riff right before the chorus that enhances the song perfectly. The songwriter is impressed and it's allowed to stay in. You love the song in question and know that it would still sound great without your riff, but you're  proud to have contributed to the sessions and also pleased the songwriter. The session is done, you receive your standard payment, and you go to the next job. Fifteen years later you're listening to the radio and you hear something that astounds you. Your guitar riff, and only your guitar riff, has been sampled and looped and forms the backbone of a very successful hip-hop song. Just to satisfy your curiosity, you buy the album that the song is from and rush quickly to the songwriting credits. Your jaw falls open. The members of the hip-hop group are all credited, along with the songwriter whose song you worked on that day. That damned songwriter's publishing company is even named in the credits too. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

As if hip-hop and dance music didn't do enough damage by breaking rock music's stronghold on the charts, they confused things even further by muddying the waters in regards to songwriting. When a song is sampled, somebody has to make money, and somebody needs to get credited. In both circumstances, the biggest benefactor is the songwriter. But what is being sampled? Is it a song or a recording? Clearly what is being sampled is a recording. One of the most famous examples of a recording being sampled is not actually a hip-hop song but a rock song-- "Bittersweet Symphony" by The Verve. The song samples an orchestral rendering of "The Last Time" by The Rolling Stones. To repeat, the song did not sample the Stones recording but an orchestral version. The Verve were sued and, as a result, the song is now credited to Jagger / Richards with Richard Ashcroft receiving zero money. Now, how much money did the orchestra players make? Can you guess? Did either Jagger or Richards arrange the orchestra or instruct the players in any way? Can you guess? So, despite not being at the recording in question, or arranging it in any way, and despite the fact that the the orchestra in question embellished the song in order to make it more orchestra-friendly, and despite the fact that Richard Ashcroft wrote the lyrics, the only people who make money from the song are Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Oh, and you know that Jagger and Richards were "inspired" to write "The Last Time" after hearing The Staple Singers "This May Be The Last Time" don't you?  Another casualty of sampling is the idea of the song as having a Platonic existence separate from recorded versions. For instance, is it possible to cover "Pump Up The Volume" by MlAlRlRlS? Clearly not. The song is the recording. That's not to say that dance music doesn't have its own version of the cover. It's called the remix. You need a copy of the original recording (for an official remix), but it amounts to the same thing as a cover. You get a remix credit, you get paid a remix fee, you move on. Even if your remix becomes better known, in fact even if it becomes the definitive version, you still don't get a songwriting credit. Surprise, surprise, you can't always get what you want.

Let me be clear, though, this essay isn't some Deconstructionist tract declaring the "death of the songwriter". On the contrary, the craft of the songwriter should never be underestimated and I hope it remains an integral part of music creation.The greatest moments in any art form should be a healthy marriage of craft and performance, content and style. The fact is, however, that a lot of the time the songwriter has no idea how he or she wants the recording to sound. It is surely their ambition to record the definitive version, the true version if you will, and this can only be achieved with the help of producers, engineers, other band members, string arrangers, etc. Original ideas can be changed around and, in the case of something like "Enjoy The Silence" by Depeche Mode, it can bear very little resemblance to how the songwriter envisioned it. One could argue that the work and pure inspiration put in by fellow Depeche Mode member Alan Wilder warranted him a songwriting credit. But alas, no. The song is still considered something apart from the recorded version, as far as music publishers are concerned anyway.Take also the example of "All Along The Watchtower" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The performance and musical textures of the song are so different that Hendrix deserves a credit on his version for its radical reinterpretation and sheer bravado. In modern composition terms it's a new song, in the same way that "Masters of War" is a different song from "Nottamun Town", despite sharing the same melody and chords (It was part of the folk tradition to take a well-known song and change the lyrics and/or melody to suit your own purpose. The advent of music publishing made this practice obsolete. The notion of intellectual property has made originality one of the modern virtues of Art. Until recently, however, it meant very little. Blame the suits again).  Every now and then you should listen to a cover version of a song you love. In fact, pick a version that you do not enjoy, then ask yourself if it remains a great song. Indeed, ask yourself if it's the same song.

Diversion # 4
In any list of the best Bob Dylan albums, 'Blonde On Blonde' usually rests in the top three. More often than not it makes number one, with many putting it forth as a candidate for greatest album of all time. By all accounts it should be one of the greatest albums ever made. The playing is brilliant, the sound is intoxicating, and it's Dylan in '66, supposedly at the top of his game. If you start to break the album down, though, and count the number of Dylan classics, all at once you realise that the going isn't good. Take away "Visions of Johanna", "I Want You", "Just Like A Woman" and "4th Time Around" and things begin to look grim. We can perhaps let in "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", but it remains overrated nonetheless. Worse than that, "Temporary Like Achilles" and "Obviously 5 Believers" are plain awful,  the two worst songs Dylan has written up to this point in his career. As for the rest, it's all passable, sometimes even somewhat enjoyable, but it's mediocre by Dylan's, or indeed anyone's, standards. So why is it rated so highly? It's the sound, the year, the idea of a sprawling double album by a wayward genius. It's all the things you want from a great album, except the songs. Seems like classic rock fans, those supposedly staunch defenders of the "content over style" school, are as susceptible as anyone else to the lure of the surface, to the charms of performance without substance.

 In the introduction to his gargantuan history of the novel, appropriately titled The Novel: An Alternative History, literary critic Steven Moore asks readers to think of  writing as a performance. He notes that Shakespeare took most of his plots and characters from older sources and that what makes Romeo and Juliet great is not the story, but the way it is told. After all, there were earlier versions of this very tale. Shakespeare's version just happens to be better written. The idiosyncrasy of Shakespeare's stylistic performance is what elevates it to genius. Shakespeare needed  the plot in order to work his magic, but the magic was in his own performance. The story of a novel in this way is analogous to the song in its relation to the recording. Without the song, the performance could not exist, but to privilege the songwriter in it's final creation is to misunderstand the entire process (The comparison doesn't work perfectly as the writing of lyrics could be thought of as a performance all it's own, but how many truly great lyricists are there in music? And how many times have you heard people say "I just ignore the lyrics and listen to the song" ? ). Would "Unknown Pleasures" have been a classic without Martin Hannett? Why have almost all of New Order's strongest creations been made in tandem with a strong producer/remixer (Arthur Baker, Shep Pettibone, Stephen Hague)? Why have so many classic albums involved the input of Brian Eno?  Did anyone else notice that The Band lost it as soon as Robbie Robertson began to dominate the musical arrangements and give the other members less free reign? Business practices have limited our appreciation of truly creative individuals. How a song sounds, and how it is played, can change our perception of that song for both better and worse. A great singing voice can often be dismissed simply because its power comes easily to the performer, whereas songwriting implies work and craft. Just as much work and craft goes into recording and playing, however, but it somehow still isn't held in quite the same esteem as the song or the songwriter. Which brings me back to Elvis. If you have a minute, take a listen to "That's All Right". So he didn't write it. Listen, though, to how his band performs it. Listen to the echo of Sun Studio. Above all, listen to Elvis' voice. It's a gift to humanity, full of hurt and defiance, tenderness and loneliness, showing strength in the face of insurmountable odds. It could transform a pedestrian piece of hackwork into a soulful expression of human frailty. If that's not genius, then I don't know what is.