Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for July, 2009

Giggling and Guiding

July 31st, 2009

The Zoilus Live Calendar (see link at left) has been updated for August at last, all the way from Lil Wayne on Tuesday to Elvis Costello at the end of the month with many highlights in between. Meanwhile, I have yet to report to you (unless you saw my sporadic Twitterings) about XX Merge, the Merge Records anniversary festival at which I spent last week in North Carolina, and for that and much else I am truly sorry in my heart to the Lord. Penance to be served this weekend, with hot sauce.

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Oh, And Also…

July 16th, 2009

… there is an interview with me up on Jemsite, a site about “Ibanez guitars and more.” I would be part of the “more.”

Topic Plunder: The John Oswald
and Michael Jackson Story

July 16th, 2009

In 1989, Canadian record-industry reps claiming to represent Michael Jackson forced Toronto artist-composer John Oswald to turn over hundreds of copies of his landmark Plunderphonics CD (see cover above) to be destroyed. You can find out what happened next and Oswald’s reaction to his former antagonist’s death in my piece today in The Globe and Mail. I’ve also put together a list of other MJ-inspired art.

That list was trimmed down by the paper for space, by the way. Here are the other Jacksonian works that were left out:

Obscure FM, Michael Jackson is in Heaven Now (1992). This techno anthem consists mainly of beats and blasts along with an announcer proclaiming that Jackson has been shot “in front of a live studio audience” and then the title. It was part of a brief fad of dancing to celebrity-death announcements sparked by Dutch duo L.A. Style’s 1991 “James Brown is Dead.”

Kent Twitchell, Michael Jackson (1993). The well-known Los Angeles photorealist mural painter completed a 100-foot-tall portrait of Michael Jackson for the side of what’s now the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, but it was never installed, and was shown to the public for the first time in a gallery show this April.

Mister Lonely (2007). In Gummo creator Harmony Korine’s most recent movie (his first after a long hiatus) a Michael Jackson impersonator in Paris falls in love with a Marilyn Monroe imitator, and emigrates to a colony of celebrity lookalikes.

Rhymefest, Man in the Mirror (2008). One of last year’s most popular hip-hop mixtapes came with an MJ theme: The critically acclaimed Chicago rapper (and Kanye West protege) interspersed his freestyling with (illicit) Jackson samples, imaginary dialogues with The Gloved One, and a closing cover of the poignant title song.

and Michael Jackson Story">1 Comment

Polaris, squared (and square-rooted)

July 7th, 2009

This year’s Polaris Prize shortlist:

Elliott Brood - Mountain Meadows (Toronto, ON)
Fucked Up - The Chemistry Of Common Life (Toronto, ON)
Great Lake Swimmers - Lost Channels (Toronto, ON)
Hey Rosetta! - Into Your Lungs (St. John’s, NF)
K’Naan - Troubadour (Toronto, ON)
Malajube - Labyrinthes (Montreal, QC)
Metric - Fantasies (Toronto, ON)
Joel Plaskett - Three (Halifax, NS)
Chad VanGaalen - Soft Airplane (Calgary, AB)
Patrick Watson - Wooden Arms (Montreal, QC)

For the record I voted for exactly one of them, but that’s par for my course. With a couple of exceptions, I do think these are all pretty good to very good albums, and I want to congratulate all the nominees heartily (and give my condolences to those left behind).

And now on to the kvetching: Besides the fact that only one nominee comes from west of Toronto (predictable when you looked at the contenders), the most noticeable trend is that six of the ten nominees are repeats. If they were undeniably stronger or more prominent than the rest of the long list, that wouldn’t be odd, but they’re not. Rather, I think the Polaris’s degree of influence on the large-independent, centre-left stratum of Canadian music is beginning to tell - through the boost in visibility a nomination confers on a short-lister, it’s becoming a primary influence on itself.

This is not really the Polaris organization’s fault: It’s a basic fact of culture and of the psychology of taste that popularity makes things popular. You might pipe up at this point and then ask why, say, Finger Eleven isn’t nominated, but the self-reinforcing popularity effect only operates in a group of, more or less, self-perceived peers. So this is a loop that circulates via music critics, bloggers and college-radio and CBC broadcasters, the judges who select the nominees.

The trouble is that this largely unavoidable phenomenon is underscored by the ideological bias of the way the Polaris defines itself. First there are the biases built into making it a “best album” prize rather than, say, an “artist of the year” prize - which blocks the way for a singles-oriented artist like Kardinal Offishal, or for that matter someone who’s made the year’s best mixtape, like Drake (an issue that I’m sure will arise again). Album-oriented artists are far more likely to look like the folk-rockers who dominate this year’s list.

But even more so the Polaris-nomination-breeds-Polaris-nomination phenomenon exposes the weakness of the criterion the prize itself is founded on, which is that “artistic merit” or “quality” is a virtue that can be discerned by the discerning no matter what genre, commercial apparatus or other contextual factors are at play, so long as everyone makes a sincere effort to keep those facts out of their deliberations. But they are never in fact absent, beginning from whether an artist gets in a position to make a record, and then how well it is distributed and publicized, on up to whether it’s perhaps a triple concept album that’s been given an endorsement by a Beatle.

It’s not that people are so shallow that they are totally swayed by the externals, but those developments do, for instance, help determine whether journalists write about a record, and in that process become more deeply familiar with and attached to the work. And getting a Polaris nomination has become one such trigger.

In addition this “quality” mythos makes people look at albums through a particular prism - it carries associations such as “timelessness” and “consistency” which can put out of the running records whose greatest virtues might be immediacy and daring, work that may in some ways be uneven or flawed but also have more vitality and originality than the finely crafted gems that have tended to win the award - or might simply be in a genre or tradition that doesn’t put a premium on consistency or carry the same signifiers of craft as the dominant forms do. (That’s why, though I’m thrilled Fucked Up was nominated, I doubt a hardcore punk album can win.)

Again, these problems are not unique to the Polaris, and the biases of the Polaris view do serve, as intended, to balance some of the biases of the mainstream music industry, and I applaud and support the prize for that. However, while there’s no real cure for this syndrome, I do think there are some remedies: The organizers could ease up on the insistence on looking at work as if it stood alone on a podium in a velvet-padded room, on their objections to discussions about other criteria of deservingness (such as stylistic variety or whether a voter feels one artist “needs” it more than another, for whatever reason).

Going further, they could lessen the self-reinforcing effect by altering the jury structure so that perhaps (as a hypothetical example) after the long list is chosen, a rotating, lottery-selected but regionally balanced smaller pool of jurors got to choose the short list. That would introduce a dash of randomness into the system that may help thwart the tendency for results to reproduce.

I realize how difficult such revisions may be for the organizers, who strive mightily to protect the prize’s integrity. But I think they’re worth attempting - not because the Polaris isn’t already providing a superb service to Canadian music, but because the grand game of culture is always unfair and so it’s valuable to try anything we can do, however minor, to check its inherent drift to elitism and self-serving, ideological myth-making.

Book ‘Em, Ringo

July 6th, 2009

Why did rock change from a music with both black and white stars to one full of white boys plus Lenny Kravitz? Why was the biggest star of the early days of jazz an orchestra leader named Paul Whiteman instead of Louis Armstrong? Why does indie rock suck (if it does)? All those issues are addressed (the last one just implicitly) in Elijah Wald’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n'Roll and my review in The Globe and Mail this weekend explains why…. while adding the pointed question: “Wait! What about Michael Jackson?”

In many ways I see Wald’s book as very much a kissin’ cousin to my own, sharing the project of revisiting the popular-music canon and asking whose perspectives and what sorts of music have been systematically excluded or condemned and why (we both discuss “schmaltz” for example). But his is a broader excursion into pop history, and less of a polemic or meditation. Plus it has the best goddamn title, even if the misdirection - the Liverpudlians don’t really show up until very late in the book’s story, which begins in the late 19th century - might piss off some readers who think they’re buying a Beatles book. (And some good chapter titles too: I want to make “Twisting Girls Change the World” into a song.)

If anyone is up for more discussion of its thesis etc. after reading the review, hie thee to the Comments. Sample topic: If someone 20 years from now were to write a book called, “How ________ Destroyed Hip-Hop,” whose prominent, respected name would fill in the blank? (Justify your answer with Wald-style demographic, sales and stylistic analysis.) I have a couple of theories.

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