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Indie Disrespect Goes Beyond Hip-Hop…

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Something I stumbled upon over the weekend tangentially got me thinking about the ever-present debate of relatively uninformed white writers and their connection to rap music. For the most part, I haven’t gotten too much of this kind of criticism myself, I’m more apt to recieve moronic accusations of disrespect from “Veteran” bloggers- which means guys blogging for three years as opposed to me, blogging for one year- but I’m keenly aware of the debate and if the pussy veteran types and pussier commenters didn’t take so many cheap-shots, I might even side with them…

It was this Pitchfork review of some new EP by Battles, wherein the reviewer made an uninformed generalization about progressive rock, that got me thinking about the typical “indie”-type fan, respectably entering out of his area of comfort, and talking straight-out of their ass because well, they don’t know much about what they have chosen to discuss. I want to look at the example and see where this writer went wrong and also to tell my readers- most of whom are rap fans- that they need to drop the rap-martyr complex a little bit and realize that white, indie kids show the same amount of disrespect to any number of marginalized, musical subgenres…

How I even got to a review of Battles I don’t know, I’ve only heard the song that had a video on MTV2 and don’t have the slightest interest in their music. They really only pop-up on my radar when some sorta-informed music fan friend of mine tells me they “think” I’d like them because their music is “proggy”. Battles are not “proggy”, nor are Wolfmother or Lightning Bolt, although The Decemberists actually sort of are, but rarely is that adjective ascribed to them…anyways, it was the first paragraph of this Battles review that really killed me:

“No band has marked indie’s prog revival more definitively than Battles: Their debut, Mirrored, took rock for a set of puzzle pieces, but was ultimately defined by its pictorial sensibility– each song felt like a cartoon soundtrack– and the incorporation of jokes into the most historically humorless music in the known world.”

This struck me as frustrating because prog rock is not one of the most “historically humorless” sub-genres of music and only a total fucking outsider who listened with nothing but irony and third-hand knowledge would say that because see, Prog is the well-known musical genre of nerds, like real nerds, like what nerds used to be, before being a “nerd” became a way to get pussy. They were into Tolkien and Dune and Dungeons and Dragons and Vaughan Bode and all kinds of other truly nerdy shit. As a result, the sense of humor on progressive rock albums is more the kind of stuff Dwight Shrute might find funny or super-conceptual (like everything with prog) humor that you gotta kinda be within the prog-culture to understand or “get”.

When YES called an album ‘Tormato’ and it has a cover of a windstorm of tomatoes, they know that is retarded and it’s funny to prog fans and musicians to make tedious music with loosely conceptual themes and so many prog-albums have a few throway joke songs (personal favorite: ‘Are You Ready Eddie?’ by Emerson, Lake, & Palmer). Of course, prog isn’t all a big ironic wank, it’s just, in-part, nerdy and self-deprecating, and outsiders, especially modern rock critics who hate pomp and theatrics, don’t dig that too much, so they assume there’s no joking going on; one can take one’s shit very seriously and very un-seriously at the same time, you know. The guy who wrote that Pitchfork review and a lot of Battles fans (and maybe even the group themselves), are much too cool and boring to get into Camel because there’s nothing overtly cool about first and second-wave prog. People who invoke Battles’ “proggy” aspects are people who like dumber, less engaging versions of a genre, the same way people like ‘Grindhouse’ but don’t know about and wouldn’t enjoy the films of Larry Cohen. It’s not that they aren’t allowed to like Battles or ‘Grindhouse’ it’s just that they feel an obnoxious need to connect it to an older genre or tradition it has very little to do with anymore. The embrace of certain aspects of prog without going full-speed ahead, of course, connects to the ongoing nerd-chic in the culture; people want to be un-nerdy nerds, just as they like edgeless controversy and teethless satire like ‘The Daily Show’…

What this does in connection with rap is show the tendency for indie types to condescend to any number of genres and not just rap, proving we rap fans need to chill a little bit; it’s not so much a race issue as it is an issue of co-opting anything obscure or outside their culture. Rap fans only notice when writers provide their genre with “disrespect” but the fact of the matter is, this disrespect is commonplace for almost any genre that isn’t rock, punk, or “indie rock”. It also goes the other way, as most rap fans and rappers are equally stupid and closed-minded and makes equally fucking retarded judgments on rock music. See Chuck D’s mixed-up history of 60s rock in his joke of a book ‘Fight the Power’ or listen to Kanye West talk about Franz Ferdinand like they weren’t third-generation rip-offs of Joy Division or Wire.

My point is, the same uninformed white boys writing bullshit about rap are writing about prog and other genres and subgenres of which they know little beyond a superficial history. It is more symptomatic of a growing lack of passion amongst music writers, mixed with increased availability of music due to the internet, than it is a racial or cultural issue. It is this lack of passion that is mentioned by Carl Wilson in this Slate article (which I found through Richard), which it seems Wilson, like so many others, gleaned from SFJ’s kinda sorta infamous indie rock and rhythm tirade. Wilson’s main point, to remove any nuance and to conflate it with my own, is indie fans and indie rockers themselves, increasingly come from privleged backgrounds and so their disinterest in musical miscegenation is more because of “class” than “race”. The musicians and the fans of the music have very little to lose and play it safe, so they could never get really into rap or even really into prog…This moves toward explaining my connection between indie disrespect of prog and indie-type disrespect of rap; it’s more of an elitist thing, as prog is percieved as arty and pretentious and therefore, “falsely intellectual” and well, shit, rap is just dumb and funny, right? The same level of fun, sincerity, and the right kind of irony is going on whether it’s a rap cover designed by Pen N’ Pixel or a dragon-filled cover painted by Roger Dean…

In terms of indie and class, I might have been better to have chosen indie’s recent embrace of metal, a typically working-class, wonderfully aggressive, non-mannered genre, but that seems a little too easy and obvious. See, what indie types take-up in their embrace or prog, metal, rap, or whatever, is any and all types of “the other”. As indie types are generally white and upper-middle class (the fact that an “upper middle class” was created, proves the point about the wealthy’s increased interest in elitism and anti-elitism, at the same time) or plain ol’ upper-class, pretty much everyone becomes “the other” to them. Long-haired metal nerds, corpse-painted black metal dorks, dark-skinned hip-hop heads, and even hyper-intellectual D & D players, they are all exotic and fun to pick and choose cultural aspects to temporarily adopt. Rap fans need not get it twisted, the white working class has long been condescended to by indie types as well. The only difference is at some point in kinda recent history, the culture of complaint skipped-out on white people and so, even working class whites themselves feel self-concious about complaining about being fucked over, for they are not darker-skinned (although often equally poor and disenfranchised). The indie embrace of Pabst Blue Ribbon and faux-interest in sports, be it fake-fan or fashion and even moustaches, comes from a irony and reverse idealization of blue-collar, white culture. If indie types were sincere or real about this appropriation, they might even go deer hunting. There even seems to be a weird level of redneck co-opting going on, as rat-tails and other “bad” haircuts pop-up at hipster bars…when I saw Daft Punk’s ‘Electroma’, a guy in front of me had a redneck-ish ‘do and actually smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in awhile! Now that is a weirdly sincere devotion to being ironic…

So, what is really going on in music is just the upper-class by way of indie rock, ironically embracing another variation on “the other” which you know, as economic disparity widens, slowly becomes everybody that isn’t them. To get too worried about the simple co-opting of other cultures is a waste of time, for it has always been the case the wealthy who have the time, lack of worries, and obnoxious sense of privelege to condescend. Any history of the upper-class or aristocracy in any country (including ones led by brown people) will show the same level of elitism. A favorite example of mine is the Hellfire Club, a group of English Aristocrats who, in the mid-1700s got together to have mock-religious orgies! Now, I know liberals arts college now teach us that religion is horrible and therefore, we’re allowed to mock the religious for being so stupid and blah blah blah, but this is pretty much the same kind of mock appropriation of a sub-culture now found when some jerkoff ironically wears a Pittsburgh Pirates hat and sports a moustache. So, rap fans, don’t hog all the indie kid hate, plenty of other people deserve to be pissed off just as much.

Written by Brandon

November 5th, 2007 at 5:04 am

Posted in Indie, Irony, Prog Rock

Notes on Otherness, Part Two: M.I.A


Click here to download MIA’s ‘Paper Planes Remix’ featuring Bun B and Rich Boy.

I’ve held a strong dislike for M.I.A since the annoying ‘Pull Up The People’ and that mixtape that allowed kewl kids to listen to Ciara without really listening to Ciara (Jazze Pha > Diplo). It was mainly her smug politics, particularly her obnoxious tendency to claim third-world status and half-assed political sloganeering that passed for insight among back-patting progressive types. Then, a few weeks ago I saw her perform ‘Paper Planes’ on Letterman and really liked the song. It’s an easy song to like- looping the ridiculously great Clash song ‘Straight To Hell’- and it works, including M.I.A’s crappy “rapping” and the conflation of gunshots and cash register sounds with ‘Rump Shaker’ is clever and post-modern and really does say a lot…although it begs the question: Why is Uffie the most hated hipster rapper out there and M.I.A, a critical darling? Don’t answer that, I don’t care.

A little while later on one of Tom Breihan’s podcasts, he played a remix of ‘Paper Planes’ featuring actual rappers Bun B and Rich Boy. The song is really, really great, as Bun and Rich Boy destroy M.I.A on a technical level but also content-wise. Between this song, his really smart verse about out-sourcing on Devin the Dude’s ‘Lil Girl Gon’, and countless lines on ‘Underground Kingz’, Bun’s probably the smartest political rapper out there. Rich Boy’s verse is some particularly clever gun-talk delivered with socio-political anger that M.I.A is too cool to express. Breihan, on his podcast, talks about how M.I.A and Bun drop these sort of general verses about violence while Rich Boy is like, in it- which is half-right. The best that can be said about M.I.A is her verse is so general and her sloganeering so simple, it’s not too annoying. To suggest that she’s doing anything close to what Bun B does is a little offensive. I’m not sure who orchestrated this song but as a song, especially if you don’t think too much about it, is really great.

But on the topic of “the other”, ‘Paper Planes Remix’ reeks of exploitation. This is particularly fun to pick apart because it hints at some things that have always bothered me about M.I.A, namely, a certain hypocrisy when it comes to her discussions of colonialism, imperialism, and issues of the third-world. It’s cool that she took the time to pick out two smart, politically-engaged and still entertaining southern rappers, but another aspect of it just feels off. M.I.A, starting with ‘Piracy Funds Terrorism’ has shown a tendency to avoid more conventionally accepted “smart” American rap for Southern rappers. Recall that she declined working with Kanye on ‘Late Registration’ but has since collaborated with Timbaland, Three-Six Mafia, and others. Part of me think it’s wonderfully contrarian, a way to validate much-maligned Southern rap but another part sees it as similar to the moans about hipster celebration of crack rap over “smart” rap. Many blame this Southern rap fixation on collaborator Diplo and indeed, that makes some sense, but recall this moronic blow-up with with Pitchfork, where she minimizes Diplo’s influence on her music:”[It is] insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female or that people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blond-haired and blue-eyed [meaning Diplo].” To me, the situation reads more like M.I.A using Diplo. Indeed, many might credit Diplo for the southern rap influences but one another level, he will act as a shield for exploitation criticisms. The white dude will get the shit and not the British/Sri Lankan female. It’s convenient for M.I.A to lash-out against those who credit Diplo for her success after the fact; if what Miss Arulpragasam says is true, she used the white boy’s whiteness to gain acceptance: M.I.A is more successful and well-known than Diplo.

The weird issues of exploitation go further as her problems with the pretty much accepted producer/rapper relationship is just one of many examples of taking American rap and pop on her terms. The accurate and much-discussed conflict with European Americans in regards to their treatment of the other, be it individuals or a whole culture, is the expectation that the other should come to them or meet them half-way. In the case of M.I.A, it is she who expects the rap culture to accept her. Is there any rapper out there who does not suffer a little bit of credit due to collaboration? M.I.A just happened to choose a white collaborator, so she can invoke her gender or race when proper credit is not given; she doesn’t just accept it. In this Status Ain’t Hood interview, she complains about Timbaland’s interest in (gasp!) making hits and surprise, surprise…Three-Six Mafia suck at collaborating with women! Did she expect these production legends to bend over backwards because M.I.A showed up? She also sounds incredibly British (not Sri Lankan) when she condescendingly speaks of Three-Six’s limited travel experience and carrying around their Oscar (as if DJ Paul and Juicy J aren’t aware of why that is funny…).

In the same interview, she has a similar tone discussing Baltimore Club producer Blaq Star (“He’s really really soulful”) which brings us back to Diplo. Diplo has, rightfully, caught a lot of shit for what many in Baltimore see as an exploitation of the city’s music. I guess it’s cool that now M.I.A is going straight to the source but I don’t see how that’s any different from vaguely uncomfortable genre-hopping experiments from Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel. On the topic of that ‘Graceland’-level of exploitation, there’s M.I.A’s use of a Nigerian refugee named Afrikan Boy. When she describes the part of England from which Afrikan Boy comes, she sounds like some Long Island Jew who ended up in the wrong part of New York: “He’s this Nigerian kid, and he’s a refugee who lived in Woolwich, which is the worst neighborhood in London. I went there once in my life accidentally when I fell asleep on a night bus, and it was like the worst day of my life.” Besides the uncomfortable aspects of her description, it’s weird the way she uses conventional appeals to essentially “street cred” when describing the rapper. There’s also her use of Aborigine Kids on another track and the off-handed comment that now two of them are “in a young offenders’ institute.” I get the icky feeling that if M.I.A weren’t exploiting her own Sri Lankan heritage, she would be called-out for exploiting these kids and you know, not helping them out for anything beyond sticking them on her album.

What seems to excuse M.I.A’s cultural exploitation is her own minority status which, if she didn’t seem to constantly flaunt and address it, would be a little more acceptable. She was born in England and went with her family to Sri Lanka; her father was some kind of revolutionary. I would not disagree that her life was tough, but she was never as “third-world” as the people she speaks-up for. She eventually came back to England thanks to Western programs that aid refugees, got an education, became an artist and musician. Ultimately, her rather questionable connection to the third-world is fine but since it is she who plays games of “I gotcha” identity politics, she deserves to be called-out. She subscribes to and/or takes advantage of the rather weak assumption that all “oppressed” peoples share some kind of weird connection; Stanley Fish called this “boutique multiculturalism” meaning,: People weave in and out of differing “foreign” cultures, picking and choosing which aspects to embrace and which to ignore (like shopping in a boutique).

There’s a wonderful anecdote Fish uses to exemplify this kind of thinking and it comes from (I think) a Paul Theroux travel essay. In the essay, Theroux recounts traveling through a Muslim country and chatting it up with a cab driver who happened to have a Literature degree (this is off the top of my head, so the exact details may be off). Theroux and the cab driver waxed poetically about classics of literature and then Theroux, thinking he with a completely like-minded liberal-arts type, asked the driver his opinion on the Rushdie fatwa. Much to Theroux’s surprise, the driver slammed on his breaks and angrily ranted murderous threats against Rushdie. The point being, this moronic assumption that people all over the world who share certain qualities, be it oppression or education- are “just like us”, is wrong! One can imagine M.I.A in the foolish spot of Theroux and not the Muslim cabbie, as she sat in Three-Six Mafia’s studio and heard them preach “backwards” expectations of female rappers or stand in shock when Timbaland drops “baby girl, go to your teepee”…

Written by Brandon

October 4th, 2007 at 9:19 pm

Notes On Otherness, Part One: Wes Anderson

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When I first read that the new Wes Anderson movie was took place in India, I was nervous. My first thought was, it seems a grotesque catering to his twenty-something audience (of which I am a part), many of which (this part, I’m not a part of) idealize India and go there to “study abroad”. Just as Anderson enabled their love of everything from Asics to 60s pop, he was now indulging in their strange obsession with India. Within a few minutes of reading about ‘Untitled Wes Anderson India Project’, I readjusted my thoughts and considered Anderson’s previous four movies, all of which are reversals of expectations and essentially, genre deconstructions. As ‘Bottle Rocket’ parodied the heist movie, ‘Rushmore’ the youth rebellion picture, ‘Tenenbaums’ the screwed-up family drama, and ‘Life Aquatic’ the action movie, it is safe to say ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ will take an equally complicated view on the “going to a foreign country and finding one’s self” movie, making Jonah Weiner’s article for Slate ‘How Wes Anderson Mishandles Race’ all the more frustrating.

I’m not one to immediately dismiss claims of racism or “race mishandling” but I do like to take a close look at such claims because when the claims are unwarranted, it only makes it harder for the worthwhile accusations to be taken seriously. I haven’t seen ‘Darjeeling’ yet, so I’m admittedly talking half out of my ass here, but I’ve seen all of Anderson’s movies quite a few times, wrote an 80-page Undergraduate thesis about one but also wouldn’t exactly call myself a member of the Anderson cult; he’s a good, not great director. What annoys me about Anderon’s work is what annoys many, his twee-ness, his quirky obsessions, but what I love about Anderson is that in every movie, the quirks are ultimately demolished by real-world problems, emotions, and yes, social and cultural politics. Even as Anderson seems to be stumbling around in his obsessive, doll-house unreality, his movies are constantly poking at and highlighting aspects of our real-world. For example, Jeff Goldblum’s streamlined and cold scientist is a parody of Apple product-obsessed elitists (there’s a quick visual gag involving an iPod in ‘Hotel Chevalier’ too).

Anderson is an ironist, not in the sense of him not taking anything seriously, for his movies are very, very affecting but an ironist in the sense of being highly aware of himself and his movies and what they are doing. Anderson is well aware of genre, film history, and is Kubrick-ian in his casting of actors for their past filmography and their real-life personae. So, when Jonah Weiner reads ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ as simply “…beware of any film in which an entire race and culture is turned into therapeutic scenery.”, I can’t help but think he made this decision before seeing the movie with Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ in-hand. Of course, Weiner has seen the movie and I haven’t, but it seems to be a movie about movies in which white characters find themselves through another race/culture and not a movie in which that happens and is validated.

The basic plot involves three brothers, headed by Owen Wilson in what seems to be an update of his Dignan role, using India to find themselves. I know an ongoing joke in the movie is the way the characters are given laminated itineraries for the day, that will highlight the many “spiritual” places in India (Stanley Fish would’ve called the brothers’ actions “boutique multiculturalism”). The joke of the movie seems to be the way a bunch of white brothers search-out transcendent moments. The irony is of course, that one cannot contrive or seek-out life-changing events (reading the should-come-with-a-spoiler-alert article in the new ‘Film Comment’, it seems like the brothers lives actually become changed once they veer off-course).

Weiner essentially says this (“Sometimes Wes Anderson winks at the brothers’ fetishistic attitudes toward India, but he eventually reveals his own”) and then cites said SPOILER-ALERT scene as an example. Okay, so SPOILER-ALERT: There’s a scene where the brothers, at their lowest point, end up having to save three drowning Indian boys; one drowns, they attend his funeral. On an artistic level, I think Anderson is depending too much upon these kinds of “moments”; in the trailer I saw, I even spotted it as that “moment” because of the hand-held cameras…but as a part of the movie, this does not sound like a scene that suggests that some Indian boy had to die for the brothers to stick together but that it’s the point where they are suddenly immersed in the reality of India and reality of the world (DEATH.). It is at that point in the movie (if it follows Anderson’s past formula) where they can no longer sit back and objectify their reality (and India).

Weiner’s second problem with this scene is that comedy is derived from it. At the same time, he critiques Anderson for not “wink[ing]” at the scene’s obvious borderline offensiveness (forgetting the movie itself is in part, one huge wink) but Weiner’s thesis is how Anderson uses India and jokes- especially when the punchline is purposefully misinterpreted- become obvious examples of not taking an issue seriously. A joke that Weiner ignores that I recall from the aforementioned ‘Film Comment’ article is that one of the brothers, holding the dead child, says “I didn’t save mine.” If that isn’t a joke about (not at) the brothers’ cultural objectification, I don’t know what it is! Weiner instead focuses on a joke that comes after the un-winking funeral sequence, in which the brothers are shown in “gorgeous late-day sunlight” (signifying gained knowledge?) and then “the camera slowly zooms out to reveal a cartload of Indian porters behind them, carrying the brothers’ considerable baggage”. This is reduced to a “sight gag” by Weiner but it is a loaded sight-gag. Presumably one about how all that junk that just happened to the brothers, witnessing a drowning, attending the funeral, only kinda sorta changed their perspective; they are still blissfully ignorant assholes, in short, they are still humans (people like Weiner do not like movies full of humans, they prefer symbols). The scene is not a joke at the expense of those Indian porters but a joke at the brothers’ obliviousness (and a purposefully corny joke about literal and figurative baggage). Weiner makes the rookie mistake of conflating what an artist portrays with what he supports.

The next move is a willful misinterpretation of the “minority” characters in Anderson’s movies. I will certainly concede that Anderson is not the greatest handler of race, however I’d dare Weiner to name another Hollywood director that even makes an attempt to address issues of race and class. Anderson, in movies that are never directly about race (although often about class, Anderson handles this flawlessly), still finds places to subtly address and acknowledge it and for that, he is snarkily challenged…most apparently in a simplistic laundry-list dismissal of Anderson’s minority characters.

The first issue with Weiner’s list is the way that it only relates to brown or yellow people. Why is Klaus in ‘Life Aquatic’ not a mishandling of Germans? Ms. Cross of ‘Rushmore’ has hints of the cliche of the British intellectual but this is not a concern of Weiner’s. Anderson’s movies too, often do women a bit of a disservice, as they are either sexless or sexually overactive. By only reading those brown and yellow people as misrepresented, it puts Anderson’s work into a conventional Hollywood sense of race and representation the director has never subscribed to: Anderson’s movies use archetypes (and stereotypes) that apply to all of the characters, from Margaret Yang to Steve Zissou. It is very easy to reduce any of Anderson’s characters to offensive stereotypes if one is so inclined.

But that is a writerly sin of omission (however convenient it might be to omit European and Women characters) and Weiner’s big sin is commission, as he willfully misinterprets the minority characters he does address. Anderson’s minority characters are shown to be sane and rational in a way that his privileged whites choose not to or in more sympathetic moments, just seem unable to be. Yes, ‘Bottle Rocket’s Inez is a “projecting screen” for Anthony’s romantic ideals but this is never seen as a good thing. I would also say that very few movies that aren’t directly about Latino culture, give a better outsider’s perspective on the culture than ‘Bottle Rocket’ and this is obviously because Anderson is from Texas! ‘Rushmore’s lack of minorities is only appropriate, for it is simply a fact that you’re not going to find a lot of minorities at a prep school. Margaret Yang begins as a parody of the studious Asian but she turns out to be a lot like Max. Recall that Max sort of really falls for her when she admits she faked the results of her science project; she is NOT the studious, do-gooder Asian. If the movie were called ‘Margaret Yangmore’ I might have a problem with such a simplistic presentation but given her total of like 10 minutes on-screen, it’s fairly complex. Danny Glover’s Henry Sherman of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ is a true supporting character in the movie and is pretty much the only sane character of the bunch. Sherman does not “meekly endure” Hackman’s racist jabs, he strikes back screaming, in a scene that only ends when Etheline breaks them up. Hackman calling him “Coltrane” is a joke on the petty idiocy of racial comments: How is Coltrane even offensive? That’s the joke of the scene and reasons for Henry’s initial meekness: he’s unsure how he’s even being offended. ‘Life Aquatic’s multi-cultural crew is a nod to 60s or 70s concepts of diversity; one must remember that Anderson must cast a crew that Zissou would cast and Zissou is an out-dated guy so, he still subscribes to out-dated concepts of racial sensitivity. It is also frustrating that Weiner takes this jab at Anderson when Weiner’s perception of race is incredibly simplistic, the kind of faux “with-it” dislike of whiteness only found in a white person:”Wes Anderson situates his art squarely in a world of whiteness: privileged, bookish, prudish, woebegone, tennis-playing, Kinks-scored, fusty.” Other than “privileged” (and even that is up for debate) none of the other descriptors scream-out “whiteness”.

Weiner’s coup de grace is when he chastises Anderson for yes, in one way, “point[ing] out his characters racial sensitivities” but “ultimately [presenting them] as endearing quirks”. First, what separates Anderson from many of his peers is that his characters’ quirks end up being far from endearing. His characters begin as cute and quirky but those slowly become real-life fuckups that leave the characters stagnate. For example, look at something like ‘Garden State’ wherein Natalie Portman’s tendency to lie is shown as cute and endearing. That is never given a real-world perspective (in the real world, we call her a LIAR). Viewing ‘Hotel Chevalier’, it is clear that Anderson is playing off of ‘Garden State’s “quirkiness” and shows the downside of it, the manipulative, harsh side, exemplified by Portman’s cruel manipulation of Schwartzmann. So, the characters’ racial insensitivity is not an endearing quirk but simply a quirk, which you know, is sort of what it is. Anderson’s characters are rarely overtly racist (even Hackman does it out of malice, not racism) and show equal amounts of ignorance when they try to talk to others, consider others’ emotions, and even consider their own. The racial insensitivities of Anderson’s characters is rightfully presented as a minor, personal flaw which when lined-up with problems like dead parents, depression, suicide, incestual longings, etc. just makes sense.

Written by Brandon

October 2nd, 2007 at 5:42 am

Posted in Irony, Wes Anderson, iPOD


In Defense of Uffie.
For those who don’t know (or don’t care), Uffie is the 18 year-old, white, female, pretty-much universally disliked “rapper” for the infamous Ed Banger records. I put “rapper” in quotation marks not to demean Uffie’s rapping skills (although they are almost non-existent) but because Ed Banger records is a French electronic music label with little to no connection to mainstream or even underground rap. It specializes in wonderfully aggressive and contrarian dance music. So yeah, this is some goofy-ass uber-white person shit but I promise, it does still relate to the rap music I generally talk about…

On the track ‘Tthhee Ppaarrttyy’, from Justice’s album ‘†’, Uffie raps in a light, girlish but aggressive attempt at the Roxanne Shante style. The topic is well, partying and she drops such polarizing lines as “Out on the streets all the taxis are showing me love/Cause I’m shinin’ like a princess, in the middle of thugs”. The song seems to interrupt just about every critic’s enjoyment of the album and the consensus seems to be that Uffie is a complete idiot. I could explain why she’s an idiot (if you haven’t already figured it out), but this Pitchfork review of Uffie’s single ‘Pop the Glock’ does it pretty succinctly.

Let the hipster-hating polemic begin, right?

Nope, sorry. I think Uffie is much more interesting than anyone is giving her credit for. She complicates knee-jerk responses to hipster-ism by developing a persona that is almost too-easy to goof-on. Nearly everyone who encounters her, especially as the annoying chick on Justice’s album (Personally, I find ‘DVNO’ way more annoying) seems to take her bait. The same people who celebrate Ed Banger’s contrarian dance music miss the contrarianism of Uffie’s chick-rap-hipster persona.

She baits and confronts anti-ironists like myself and that is quite different than if she were just a plain old hipster ironist. In certain ways, her persona is constructed similarly to the “gangsta” rappers she ironically mimics and finds inspiration in. She fully understands the weird dialectic of rapper; one that moves between a self-created, semi-sincere persona and a detail-oriented reporter of their lifestyle. Recall that oft-quoted line that rap is (or was…) “the black CNN”. Just, Uffie documents the realities of Parisian club-going hipsters instead of inner-city plight and violence…

The “black CNN” metaphor is inaccurate. Originally used to explain the social importance of rap music, it simplifies the rapper’s complex stance to their environment. The rappers documenting the “reality” of their lives were almost always involved in that “reality” (or fronting like they were involved), so they were more like the black Truman Capotes or Hunter S. Thompsons or something. Most were not “reporting” in a conventional, objective sense but doing a strange, hyper-complicated mix of first-person, subjective storytelling and a brutally honest, few-steps-back-from-it-all-but-still-rich-in-detail objectivity. Even N.W.A at their most cartoonishly over-the-top, do not completely vindicate the violence they enact in song. The dirty, hilarious, gross, messed-up, ecstatic details still seep through and any thinking listener won’t leave the song only wanting to jack a cop. The compulsive need to tell the truth among even the most “ignorant” of rappers outweighs attempts at idealization and justification. This chick, Uffie does that too. She too is profiling a “scene” and its attitudes, but she renders that scene realistically, almost anthropologically.

On the song ‘‘Tthhee Ppaarrttyy’, in her purposefully-wack rhyming style, Uffie describes the night’s partying as it moves out of the club: “You and me, c’mon lets take it to the next level/Let’s all go to the hotel pool as we finish the bottle/Maybe kiss and don’t tell, it’s the rule around here/You must have put me under a spell, I lose control when you’re near”. The first line, where she asks some kind of male suitor (probably with an ironic moustache, no?) to “take it to the next level” is undercut by the second line, where the “next level” is partying at a fucking hotel pool! Finishing the bottle, hotel pool, and her little-girl delivery of these attempts at sexual provocation add a sort of gross, realistic feeling to it all. It’s decadent in the worst sense of the word. R. Kelly songs have a similar feeling. ‘Ignition Remix’ or that ‘Make It Rain Remix’ where he compares his taking-of-women to his room to a cavemen dragging a woman to a cave…Not exactly glamorous!

Adding to this lame-ish decadence (because its 2007, so her decadence is passé), she adds the come-on of making-out, but with an unsexy qualifier (“maybe”) and explicitly referring her actions as basically, predictable: “Kiss and don’t tell, it’s the rule around here.” There are rules to her decadence! The making-out is also empty because it is “kiss and don’t tell”, temporary; something kept-quiet. Then, at the end, either complicating or conflicting with her assertions that this is just some kind of brief fling, she tells the guy “I lose control when you’re near”. That line, along with the “next level” line seem like the meaningless ideal dialogue Uffie and friends engage in to get what they want and sandwiched between it, the reality (we’re just going to a pool.this means nothing.don’t tell anybody). When it comes to sexual behavior, “hipster” and intellectual types have a way of presenting their sexual irresponsibility as “with-it” or “open-minded” but here, Uffie presents it in a way that does not represent freedom or open-mindedness, it’s just the norm. She deals with sex like a rapper; doing whatever she can to get a nut.

Hipsters’ strange embrace of hip-hop culture as ironic performance only applies to Uffie in part. While Uffie more than indulges, adopting hip-hop slang and clothing (see above) it is rooted in appreciation. Naïve, delusional, retarded, misdirected ,WHATEVER- it is developed into something more than ironic appropriation.

She’s stolen a lot from the image-creation of rappers. Like a rapper, she has a distinct and polarizing personality, part-real and part contrived, which is used to portrayal the realities of her life. Check-out this interview; the difference between her musician persona and real-life personality is clear. She is not the goofy, obnoxious brat she plays on ‘Tthhee Ppaarrttyy’ but an articulate, aware, unpretentious artist. It was jarring when I saw this interview, the same way it is jarring when the scary “gangsta rappers” revealed themselves as really fucking smart, “articulate” dudes.

Also, ironic hipster or not, Uffie knows her music history. She is well-aware and indeed, in her own way, sensitive to that which she quotes, copies, parodies, and steals. On ‘Pop the Glock’ (the most immediately egregious of her songs) she swipes her flow from Audio Two’s ‘Top Billin’ and paraphrases when she punctuates her verse with “and if you understood, would you?”. There are also references to Miami Bass, Crunk and Grime, all of which share a lot of sonic similarities. Her being from Miami does give her some regional “credit” if indeed, that’s your litmus test for whether someone is bullshit or not…

While it is her most problematic song, ‘Pop the Glock’ also shows the extent of Uffie’s relationship with rap and hip-hop culture. The song is exactly the kind of retarded hipster-ism so many of us are chomping at the bit to rip-apart, but the actual song isn’t what you think. Yes, the chorus is “pop the glock” repeated over-and-over and the song is punctuated with gunshots, but the topic of the song isn’t anything about popping glocks or any thug referencing, parodied nor appropriated. Uffie just raps loosely connected braggadocio that always loops back to her sing-talk “pop the glock” rendering the titular line, the one you’re just waiting to get pissed about, into nonsense. Did I mention she raps this song and only this song in a faux-British accent?

So… she’s a white chick who has lived all over the world, born in the American South, currently residing in Paris, making music that is a mix of old-school rap music and electronic music (itself rooted as much in the sounds of Mantronix as Aphex Twin), rapping in an unabashed girlish voice (no contrived rapper drawl) in a British accent! So yeah, I mean the levels of irony are mind-boggling and for that, I could criticize her but I think the weird, double-binded irony mixed with explicit inauthenticity ends up sincere.

Maybe it’s the British accent but I immediately thought of Mick Jagger, another white musician who flirted with levels of racial and cultural irony. Jagger often falls into a near-Minstrel black affectation and is equally willing to drop an over-the-top redneck voice, but it’s done in some weird over-the-top way that is ultimately, homage. It’s complicated, but in his 33 1/3 book on ‘Exile on Main St.’ Bill Janowitz makes a pretty good attempt at articulating Jagger’s complex stance in relation to his influences:

“The narrative voice operates on multiple levels. Some critics might have considered the Rolling Stones’ history of copping African-American music as a kind of cultural exploitation, similar to that practiced by all-white minstrels companies. But Jagger is in on the joke; the Stones themselves could be misconstrued as an updated minstrel show …[but] Jagger would certainly have been sensitive to such matters [of minstrelsy]. He does not let any self-consciousness impede on ‘Sweet Black Angel,’ though; rather, he displays a solid confidence in his own motives.” (113)

Uffie too, subtly informs her listeners of her motives by wrapping it in a great deal of sub-text and history. Like Jagger, the confidence comes through because she isn’t afraid of misinterpretation. No one would mistake her for a “real rapper”. Her voice contains no rapper-like affectation of either “hardness” or “blackness” and on ‘Pop the Glock’ she tries to get even whiter with that British accent. Her rhyme style too, is purposefully poor, avoiding any attempts at being “lyrical”. The electro and IDM-sounding production avoids condescending attempts at actual rap beat-making. The aggressively avant-garde “beats” of the Anti-Con guys or even El-P, especially in his blasphemous invocation of the Bomb Squad is waaaaaaayyy more offensive than Uffie.

This is all really-fun to break-down and analyze, but is Uffie any good? Well, no. Other than her track on the Justice album, which works because of its sequencing on the album, Uffie would probably best work as some kind of like, weird, Undergraduate thesis or independent project for a ‘Women’s Studies’ class or something. Pretty fun and engaging to talk about, but not music that will last. However, that too fits with Uffie’s persona of making music for parties and clubs. It is only her connection to the indie and experimental world that somehow “demands” her music be significant. Most of do not ask Cassie or Rihanna or even “rappers” like Jim Jones to be relevant, why must Uffie? Just as we praise the best mainstream artists, especially rappers, for injecting the cold, cold world of mainstream music with some heart and honesty, we should praise Uffie (and the Ed Banger crew) for injecting the “hipster” world with “meaningless” music. Be it the pseudo-literary world of the Decemberists or the intertextual, faux-clever mash-ups of Girl Talk, hipster music needs to stop trying so hard or try hard at not trying hard.

-Janowitz, Bill. ‘The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St.’ Continuum: New York, 2005.

Written by Brandon

July 16th, 2007 at 8:13 am

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Is This Whiteface?

Think of how much headwrap-wearing black tail whitey-whites with the balls to toss around words like “co-opt” and “blackface” and some ‘African American Studies’ classes under their belt must get…

Jamie Radford’s post, linked through OhWord’s constantly-updated “shared items”, keeps popping back into my head. The post is labeled ‘Is This Blackface?’ and discusses some random-ass L.A fashion line,Fowl Clothing which Radford sees as signifying:

“…a recent trend among middle and upper-class white kids displaying a fashion sense that typifies some of the most obvious signfiers of hip-hop fashion — straight-billed caps, colorful jackets, flashy jewelry — but in such a way as to almost mock hip-hop culture.”

At first glance, it sounds like something I could agree with. Recall this post: ‘The Deadening Effects of Ironic Indie Culture’ but I gotta disagree with Radford, painfully sincere as he seems to be. I take issue with half-formed assertions, invoking “blackface” and racism because they only damage legitimate, more thought-out critiques. It made me think of this post which totally misreads the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ as being racist. It helps no one to toss-out thoughts about race and appropriation that are half-formed.

On the no-homo tip, ‘Fowl Clothing’ is just plain derivative and boring. An attempt at American Apparel-esque simplicity with some Bachelor’s degree in fashion-level print-making stolen from ‘Mark Ecko’ or ‘BAPE’ who of course, took it from skateboarder, metal, and punk-rock fashion…Also, making patterns out of iconic movie images like ‘The Shining’ is pretty played-out. The models also kill me. They look like girls you make-out with at a college “dance party” and spend the rest of the semester trying to avoid.But Radford has more pressing concerns (as he should); he is responding to the models’ holding of guns and wearing of Slick Rick-thick chains. Yes, the pictures are ironic. Yes, they are stupid. Maybe even sorta kinda racist, but its fashion! It’s always dripping with irony. I’m more frustrated by Fowl Clothing’s inability to do pseudo-subversiveness right than by any ill-informed moves towards disrespecting hip-hop culture.Fashion, in general, has a good grasp of irony as being alienating and harsh rather than cute and funny. Totally motivated by the next-big-thing, controversy, and $$$ as fashion designers often are, the ironic nature of some fashion points towards ugly truths. These Fowl Clothing pictures fall short but, American Apparel’s pervy-polaroids and Calvin Klein’s heroin-chic although “problematic” from a moral perspective, are truly subversive in their ability to make people look gross AND attractive, which is what sex is anyway…

Perhaps the biggest problem with Radford’s post is that it is founded on very-shaky ground. No one will ever agree upon what is true respect for hip-hop culture and what is disrespect. It gets even more complicated when you make assertions as to who is an “outsider” or “insider” in relation to that said culture. On a simple level, I can agree with Radford’s definition because it is pragmatic. The insiders to the culture are “those that really grew up in a neighborhood where they had to tote guns to survive” and the rest of us, are outsiders. But it’s not that simple!

I don’t think Radford (or anybody) accosts middle or upper-class blacks who also never had to “tote guns to survive” (whatever that means) but wear hip-hop clothing. Remember Tony Dungy’s kid? He tragically took his own life but for those few hours when you could look at his myspace you saw a kid, that in terms of hip-hop culture was every bit an outsider as these indie-fashion fucks. He’s allowed to do it simply because he was black?

There’s also the fact that outside of the chains and guns, which are working at a level of irony so thick and muddled that the joke seems to be ironic-white-guys-toting-guns-unironically-to-the-point-that-it-becomes-ironic, these white kids in L.A are wearing the epitome of “white” sub-cultural fashion not conventional hip-hop fashion. These designs comes out of the world of metal, punk-rock, skateboarding, and even, emo culture and have, in recent years, been dare I say- SAMPLED by designers of all races involved in hip-hop culture.

Obviously these Fowl Clothing people are being insincere but for the most part, we can’t really gauge sincerity, so forget about it. Strict rules on sincerity leads to weird grey areas no one wants to fuck with: Is Nigo doing blackface? is Pharrell doing whiteface? Are the Shop Boyz doing anything different in regards to race-mockery than Fowl Clothing? On one level, the Shop Boyz are doing a strange reversal that is primarily absent from the culture and as a result, we can applaud it, as Sach. O. of ‘OhWord’ said, it’s “a taste of their own medicine” while Fowl Clothing is maintaining a super-obvious parody of hip-hop, but really, the two ain’t that different…

Written by Brandon

June 29th, 2007 at 5:54 am

Posted in Indie, Irony, NO HOMO, fashion, woon

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On ‘The Sopranos’ Ending…

My connection to ‘The Sopranos’ has primarily been as a bonding experience with my father. I’ve enjoyed watching him enjoy the show a great deal more than I enjoy the show itself. ‘The Sopranos’ seems to be one of the few things he seems really interested in; it gets his gears turning and often leads to actual conversation. I withhold my snarky comments because all of my qualms with the show are personal taste.

I dislike the smarty-pants intertextual references and the super-obvious, mildly clever ironies. For example, in an episode a few weeks ago, we saw A.J and friends sitting on a porch listening to rap music only to then, a few minutes later get into an altercation with a black kid, wherein they beat him up and call him a “nigger”. Very clever. This same episode featured Tony driving around listening to ‘The Departed’ soundtrack and even having the characters fucking comment on how good the soundtrack is. I find it all a bit too much. I’m not into “clever” dialogue and bad-ass music cues and cool, shock violence (Phil Leotardo run over by an S.U.V) but watching it with my father is very fun.

I see why he enjoys the show even if it has me internally rolling my eyes. Occasionally, the show does something genuinely moving and amazing and that, coupled with connecting with my father, makes it “worth” watching. This week, in the final episode, I sat there amazed and moved by the same final scene that pissed-off so many others.

When something ends ambiguously that is how it is supposed to end. That is to say, there is no definitive ending that you are supposed to go back and “figure-out”. This is the biggest misconception about ambiguity, that it is a throw down by the creator, that it is a puzzle you are supposed to interpret and solve. No, the point of an ambiguous ending is ending it, cutting it off before anything definitive has happened, leaving the possibility of anything happening. When people read into the ending as Tony is shot, it is no more valid than suggesting that he’s about to be abducted by aliens or that the onion rings were poisoned.

Tony is probably going to die, be indicted, or keep on living the same half sad-ass life he’s been living since the show premiered. What more do you need to know? We live in an intellectually-corrupt film world where puzzle pictures like ‘Memento’ or ‘Old Boy’ are considered “genius” and unearned, cynical endings are embraced. If the episode ended with Tony getting a bullet in the head or Tony being pulled-off by the feds it wouldn’t be any less ambiguous because then you’d want to see how he reacts or his family reacts or what happens and none of that could be summed up in a single episode or even, a single season.

At the same time, I’m sympathetic to those frustrated by the ending. Not for the reasons that it isn’t satisfying because if you have a working brain, it’s pretty perfect, but because the exact presentation of that ending could be better. I am not frustrated by nothing happening, I’m frustrated by David Chase’s inability to not be “clever”. It is apparently impossible for Chase to resist sticking in a few weird things to drum-up multiple interpretations.

The first one for me, which does not seem to be addressed by anything I’ve read, is when Tony first enters the diner. He walks in, scopes the place out and then we cut in for a medium close-up of Tony’s face. Strangely, the next cut is a basic film-school “no-no” as it cuts to a wide-shot of Tony sitting-down. The wide-shot seems to be from the angle shown in the previous shot where Tony scoped-out the diner. It is subtle but anyone aware of editing can’t help but read the succession of shots as Tony entering the diner and watching himself. What does this mean? I don’t know but given Chase’s reputation, it may lead some viewers into thinking it’s a strange dream sequence or out-of-body experience.

I think the tension built through the scene is wonderfully done and playfully suspenseful rather than obnoxiously so. We are truly in Tony’s brain during the scene, as each person entering the diner is anticipated because it’s someone about to ice him or it’s one of his family members. Even after watching the end a dozen times, I still find myself feeling weird when the Members Only jacket guy slightly turns towards Tony. I find myself going insane as Meadow tries to parallel park and keeps fucking it up. Where the scene fails and I think, why I sympathize with those disappointed by the ending, is that it cuts-off too early. I know this is the point but it would be equally effective and significantly less obnoxious if we were allowed to see Meadow come in and sit down and then given a close-up of Tony wherein his look is nearly ambiguous and then… roll credits.

The ending too, might even work if it simply played-out as it does but without the insanely pretentious moments-of-black-without-sound that precede the final credits. This too, feels like an affront; the fuck you or “joke” that so many have since accused Chase of doing. Cutting directly to the credits without music would again, serve the same purpose. It is not the ambiguous ending as a concept, nor is it any single aspect of the ending, it is the series of mild missteps that occur in the otherwise powerful ending that make it frustrating. However, even these criticisms are minor in comparison to the overwhelming strength of the final few minutes of ‘The Sopranos’.

I have not felt so emotional, so affected by a climax since Michael Mann’s ‘Miami Vice’. A series of well-orchestrated actions and shots illustrating how great and how fucked everything is, all set to Mogwai’s ‘Auto Rock’. My description, an illustration of how great and how fucked everything is, sums up the end of ‘The Sopranos’ as well. Only it’s all set to Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ a song, that if drop your irony mask, can totally destroy you. It’s why David Chase is not a total idiot like Quentin Tarantino: he has moments of daring brilliance that move beyond clever-ness and into well-rendered emotional drama. Tony is holding on, you are holding on, I am holding on, all we can really do in this life is hold onto some belief about something, anything. The show has always wavered between ironic distance and true empathy with Tony and others and in this final scene, Chase makes the right choice, falling entirely on the side of empathy.

If the final scene must be “interpreted” on any level, I would move in the direction of saying the purpose of the scene is to put you fully in Tony’s brain; to fully empathize with him. For some reason, I’m involved in a pretty pointless debate about R. Kelly and pedophilia and really, my only point is, it is important to never forget the humanity of even the worst people. We need to relate to scumbags. That is what this final scene does and what ‘The Sopranos’ when it is successful, has been doing since Season One. Shit is complicated. Just because Tony’s a criminal and a killer does not mean he does not have deep feelings. Just because he fucks a stripper in Vegas (and countless others) does not mean he does not love his wife and family. That is what this final scene is about. We all have regrets and experiences and dreams and plans and they all weigh us down and freak us out and lift us up and keep us going.

Chase knows viewers will take-in every detail and gesture and magnify it because it is the last scene of the last episode. He takes advantage of this by making every gesture loaded with meaning, but not cutesy symbolism or puzzle-solving but pathos. It begins with the Journey song, those somber piano chords and lyrics invoking a “lonely world”, and continues when Carmela enters because we the viewers, know their relationship history. Tony may be comforted by his wife at this moment, glad to see her even, but it runs deeper than that because their marriage problems cannot be ignored.

To illustrate Tony’s paranoia but also to give us some kind of ‘Mrs. Dalloway’-esque sense of human interconnected-ness, we get shots of other diner patrons. Some looks like they might shoot Tony, others are there with family, others are on a date. The shots of the young couple laughing and smiling, which is shown more than once, holds a great deal of weight because it contrasts with Tony and Carmela’s deep, at-best bittersweet and at-worst disastrous relationship. That young, laughing couple, is what Tony and Carmela may have once been or maybe never were but wanted to be, it doesn’t matter- it’s just that the young couple are at a purer state of being; before shit starts to fuck up. Given Tony and Carmela’s age and their location in New Jersey, it’s possible that Journey was “their song” when they were dating. I know it was my mother and father’s “song”.

When A.J enters, right behind potential shooter in a Members Only jacket, we get the same feeling as Tony. Initially, it’s fear of the Members Only guy and then joy, at it not being a shooter (for now) and joy because he’s seeing his son. A.J sits down and Tony playfully hands his son a menu, touches his hand, and jokes about steak. This is what Tony and a lot of dads do to connect with their sons, fuck-around with them; it takes on greater emotional weight because Tony feels like it might be the last time he gets to joke with his son. Why Chase chooses to break this pattern by never giving us Tony’s response to Meadow I do not know. However, we are still put in Tony’s place as we see her attempts at parallel parking. Meadow’s poor parking, is presented as a foible, it’s nearly touching the way she tries to do it and keeps messing-up. She isn’t supposed to be an idiot, we respond to it the way Tony, her father, would, with frustration and impatience, mixed with sincere understanding and acceptance. A similar acceptance is shown when Carmela tells Tony that Meadow will be late because she is changing birth control. We see Tony, a father, a conventional one, reminded of the reality that his daughter fucks dudes. It does not make him angry, he understands!

I can’t help but connect the ending to my father, something of a Tony Soprano-type himself. Tony’s dignified resignation, mixed with an unflinching, hard-ass-ness and facing the facts; be it because he might get shot-up or that his son A.J is sort of a dope or that his daughter takes birth control, all reminds me of my father’s own mix of unflappable dignity and unintentional vulnerability. All this shit is goes on, you can feel it all, weighing down on you or keeping you alive or both and much more and at the same time, “real” life is just Journey and onion rings. While “regular” people chose to dismiss the ending as disappointing and nonsense and the television critics began thinking of witty one-line pans and random, anti-intellectual attacks, my father and I sat back, our minds half-blown because a television show we watched to laugh at and get-off on when someone gets whacked, maybe just sort-of defined exactly how we feel.

Written by Brandon

June 13th, 2007 at 7:51 am

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The Deadening Effects of Ironic Indie Culture.

“I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don’t work as advertised. I wish the country had fewer lawyers and more engineers. I think America has more often been a force for good than for ill in the world; I carry few illusions about our enemies, and revere the courage and competence of our military. I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally…Undoubtedly, some of these views will get me in trouble. I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.”-from ‘The Audacity of Hope’ (10-11)

Yesterday, while browsing Perez Hilton (no homo), I noticed an advertisement in the right corner that immediately disturbed me. It was an ad for a website that sells numerous t-shirts that purport to be supporting the candidate. They are done in the style of the ever-present “vintage”, hipster T-shirt and say things like: I (heart) Obama, O8ama, Clinton/Obama 2008, Barack N’ Roll, Do You Smell What Barack is Cooking?, He’s a Barack Star!, Barack My World, Obama/Oprah 2008, Obama Baracks My World, Barack the Vote, Kiss Me I’m Voting for Obama, It’ll Take Obama to End the Drama, Barack the Casbah, and my personal favorite, ‘Barack Out with Your Cock Out’… Now, if you’re laughing at these, I forgive you but seriously, what the fuck is this? When the ironic T-shirt has extended to our political statements, I’m not sure what to do. If someone were wearing one of these shirts, I don’t know that I’d immediately know that they were in-support of Obama. The shirts certainly don’t lend themselves to suggesting that one takes the candidate seriously (and I won’t even go into how racist they are…).

These shirts highlight a more problematic aspect of the indie-rock culture, the “genre” so many ill-informed music fans, writers, and bloggers have been supporting since the “death” of hip-hop. Besides the obvious problems with most indie rock, there is the bigger and far more damaging aspect to indie-rock: It is so damned ironic. Whenever I see someone in an ironic t-shirt, I always imagine them in the worst situation possible. At some point, somewhere, some douche in a “Worst Kisser Ever” t-shirt was told that his mother died or something and he broke down in tears. How can you have real emotions wearing that? Now, I know these shirts are just fun and I’m just being humorless, but sometimes it’s important that we don’t laugh at everything. The point of humor is to bring people closer, to reflect some harsh reality we may not be able to confront without laughing…you know, that whole laughing to keep from crying thing…

For many, Indie rock is being used in contrast to rap music. Now, what the two genres have to do with one another or how one is the antidote to the other, I do not know, but this seems to be the case, according to everyone from ‘The New York Times’ to Byron Crawford. Rap music, particularly by those that are still such dinosaurs as to not listen to any rap music, will cite the music as too self-serious or too fake, but I can think of nothing more false than the world of indie rock. Their ironic dance parties, their ironic clothing, even their pseudo-ironic/pseudo-populist embrace of Lil Wayne or Clipse. Go to Facebook and choose a liberal arts college and count the number of indie kids throwing up “gangsta” signs or captioning their pictures with “Crunk!” The ironic T-shirt form of irony does nothing but create an impenetrable barrier of pseudo-coolness, taking nothing seriously. Compare this kind of irony to the dark truth-revealing irony of Notorious B.I.G or even something as willfully goofy as Polow Da Don’s verse on ‘Throw Some D’s. We laugh with these artists, we are not laughing at the world.

At the same time as being impenetrably ironic, most indie music, from the sad-bastard vocals to the uber-pretentious albums full of literary references, are employed to convince misinformed listeners that the music is sincere and yes, significant. The indie world loves to have their cake and eat it too and fuck them for doing so. Think of how many actually legendary rappers appeared on ‘The (White) Rapper Show’! Would their indie equivalents ever take their guard down long enough to show up on say, ‘The (Black) Indie Rocker Show’ if it were to exist? Stephen Malkmus or Sonic Youth would be too worried about an image to ever appear on something as “uncool” as a reality show…meanwhile, someone as self-serious as 50 Cent still shows up on Howard Stern and talks about eating asshole for thirty minutes.

Why must everything in the indie-rock world be pushed through some irony machine? Why must they pervert everything to fit their cause? Isn’t the fact that Barack Obama is the first truly viable, ethnic presidential candidate enough for you? He has to be turned into a bad pun by some art-school fuckface for you to visibly support him? Obama is not hip, he is not cool, this is what is so striking about him as a candidate. He is not a rock star, he expressed embarrassment when pictures like these were released. No matter which way you twist it, there’s nothing cool about a book called ‘The Audacity of Hope’ and that’s great! Do not treat him the way you treat that one black friend you have at college.

-Obama, Barack. ‘The Audacity of Hope.’ Crown Publishers: New York, 2006.

Written by Brandon

March 5th, 2007 at 9:38 pm

Posted in Barack Obama, Indie, Irony

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Uh, More Like Amy Whines-a-lot-House…

There’s a lot of talk about Amy Winehouse because of ‘You Know I’m No Good’ from ‘More Fish’ which begs the question, why hasn’t Mr. Maygreen blown-up? His vocal approximation of an incredibly specific bygone r & b era on ‘Good’ is just as impressive. Okay, so there are obvious reasons why Mr. Maygreen isn’t the talk of the U.K press: he probably doesn’t have an album out and someone that can sound Bootsy Collins is a lot less interesting to most than someone that sounds like 60s r & b. Even if those reasons weren’t the case, Winehouse has a lot of other things going for her.

First, the incredibly fickle U.K press. Once again, everyone has forgotten that England is a tiny piece of shit country where the press holds a lot of power and can make bands like Arctic Monkeys superstars. England isn’t open-minded, nor is it hip; it’s just small, so music critic love can make something incredibly popular. Imagine if the United States were only New York, the music charts would be “hip” too. It is for these reasons that punk rock was able to blow-up in England while remaining a subculture here.

Second, Winehouse is white. Her music proves just how far people will go to embrace black music while removing the black element. This is particularly true in the incredibly, musically racist U.K. These assholes will act like because they celebrated Jimi Hendrix they aren’t racist (just as the French still wear their acceptance of Josephine Baker as a badge). The reality is most white critics, particularly, foreign, white critics, when given the option, always adopt the white version of black culture. Can you say trip-hop? In the case of Winehouse, it is more disturbing because she has been embraced not only for her ability to sound like old, black singers but because her troubled, personal life is interpreted as making her soul music, that is, her connections to black music, more “authentic.” She is clearly trying to be Billie Holiday. This is borderline minstrelsy: (from ‘Rehab’) “I ain’t got tha tahhme/And if mah’ daddy thinks ahm fahne”. This is appropriation in the most fucked-up form but for some reason, no one is really complaining. The reason she is not questioned, challenged, or laughed-off for being white is because she is also nuts and can approximate a “black” voice?

Third, she is a woman. To many, Winehouse’s troubles are celebrated through some, confused feminist lens that celebrates her public hi-jinx as honesty. Julianne Shepherd’s recent ‘Interrobang(?!)’ said this:

“In the UK press, Winehouse has both been lauded as a talent in the classic soul and jazz sense, and held up as a drunken, eating-disordered, and generally disheveled pariah. She has been honest about all of these things– which, as those who have been drunken, eating disordered and disheveled will tell you, is no easy feat.”

No, it is not easy to discuss drinking problems or eating disorders but this is not what Winehouse is doing. She perversely uses her problems as both a P.R and anti-P.R moves (as not to alienate any fans), essentially making her problems a dark joke. Now, she can do whatever she wants with her problems but the fact that she is getting credit for being honest when she is at best, being sarcastic, is troubling. The fact that Shepherd, by far the most enthusiastic and (in the best sense of the word) impulsive of Pitchfork’s writers cannot actually say anything about Winehouse’s music in an article that praises the singer, is quite telling. When Winehouse uses her music instead of the press to address emotional issues, it is done in the least subtle of ways.

‘Rehab’ removes all of the subtleties of Winehouses’s supposed influences. While Nina Simone or Billie Holiday or girl groups used their very-specific femininity and the problems that stem from this as a sub-text, Winehouse rubs it in your face. Her music is a gross misreading of the female-fronted music she seems inspired by. There is something refined and at the same time, utterly brash about the music of these women singers, while Winehouse’s music is so cheeky it is uncomfortably obvious. Cat Power, who also went black-soul-throwback with ‘The Greatest’, was for many years, notorious for instability but never wore it as a badge even if every song she sang, in one way or another, was about said instability.

Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ sounds like a song from ‘Dreamgirls’ if ‘Dreamgirls’ were an off-off broadway musical instead of the Hollywood musical it is. That it to say, its approximation of the girl-group sound is significantly better than anything in ‘Dreamgirls’ but it is served through this hipster, “downtown” irony that seems to be where Winehouse is coming from. These impulses, the performing the action of honesty while making light of it all, allow her to be critique-proof and therefore, not controversial but safe, completely explains the UK press’s celebration of her. People love safe rebellion, quantifiable craziness, soft edginess, etc.

Winehouse has an incredibly contrived public persona that fully exploits her own neuroses not for absolution but for cheap popularity and misguided critical respect. So contrived is her persona that it is supposed to come off as totally uncontrived. She comes off as hot enough that males will think she is hot but ugly enough that women can’t hate her. When she says annoyingly flirty things like “I like pin-up girls. I’m more of a boy than a girl. I’m not a lesbian, though — not before a sambuca anyway” she’s begging dudes to jerk off to her. And fellas, if you haven’t busted a nut yet, in that quotation, she’s talking about her pin-up girl tats. Oh snap!

Her music isn’t bad as in, it’s alright, so I see why the British press and 30-something ‘New Yorker’ readers might embrace it, but I just can’t believe that so many others are being fooled. In contrast to Shepherd, Amy Phillips’ Pitchfork song review of a Hot Chip remix of ‘Rehab’ said: “Basically [Winehouse] sounds like a street-smart version of Joss Stone. (Not that we in any way needed a street-smart version of Joss Stone.) To extremely confused people, this means she’s comparable to Billie Holiday and Lauryn Hill.”

Dear Extremely Confused People,
There’s a guy named Jaheim. He sang on ‘My Place’ by Nelly and he’s also on that Cam’ron album that Pitchfork told you to buy. He has a much better sense of r & b history and deservingly samples Willie Hutch as opposed to fraudulently sampling girl groups. There’s also Cody Chesnutt. Remember him? If not, dig through your back issues of ‘Fader’ from 2003 or so. Can you send some of your love R. Kelly’s way? I know you chuckle at ‘Trapped In the Closet’ as if R. Kelly isn’t in on the joke (he is) but this dude can sing and if you’re interested in psychos, it doesn’t get realer than R. Kelly. The motherfucker pees on under-aged girls! That’s actually troubled! Not troubled by way of some prep-school attending, child of musicians, Jewess, with a good approximation (I suspect, thanks to some studio processing, but that’s another story) of the Shirelles.


Written by Brandon

January 21st, 2007 at 7:59 am