by carl wilson

April 30, 2008

Now Read This: Gimme Liberty
or Gimme Indie Lazer Bass

Image by indie184.

Over at the ever-productive Moistworks facility, there's a terrific roundtable discussion about a subject Zoilus has revisited, oh, a few times - the surviving meaning, or lack thereof, of the word "indie". Contributors include Moistworks honcho Alex Abramovich (bringing in Franklin Bruno on an assist) and writers and musicians Jonathan Lethem, Douglas Wolk, Luc Sante, Andrew Phillips, Brian Howe, Christopher Sorrentino, Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding), Blake Schwarzenbach, Ben Greenman and me. And more in the comments space. (And as a bonus, tracks by Sebadoh, the recently reunited Great Plains and Big Dipper!)

More, no doubt, to come.

(Later: Coincidentally I stumbled across this April 9 post in Natalia Yanchak from The Dears' blog, titled "Death to indie rock." She links to a National Post piece after the Junos that asked record-store clerks across Canada, "Is Feist still indie?". Several obnoxious answers later - only one, Chris from Zulu Records in Vancouver, addressed it as an economic-model question, by the way - you're left thinking they should add to the question, "... And why would she possibly care?")

Also this week in The New Yorker, Sasha Frere Jones introduces Montreal "lazer bass" to the smart set, in the form of Megasoid. More on that sometime soon too, I hope, but for now just a note that Megasoid is slated to be in Toronto on May 18 at the Drake (and less officially other locations), though their planned New York appearance this weekend was cancelled due to a loss in the family, for which we send our sympathies.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 30 at 4:08 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


April 28, 2008

Destroyer Again: "There's No Salt to Be Passed"


I apologize to Michael Barclay for quoting him out of context, but some good hard thinking came out of it, so let's continue the ping-pong at least another round.

One point. Michael says: "Throughout Destroyer's career, singer/songwriter Dan Bejar seems to have been on a mission to convince me that the rock'n'roll game is little more than a ruse, a farce, something to held in contempt. That he does this while making brilliant rock records is all the more confounding. Yet the deeper into his discography that we get, the less I find reasons to care. His mission, it seems, has been accomplished."

My feeling is that as of Your Blues, and certainly with Trouble in Dreams, it became more a growing case of "mission abandoned."

[... continue? ...]

Savaging rock just doesn't propel the songs anymore; though it still pops up here and there on Destroyer's Rubies, it's a side issue, as is the angry-young-man aspect in general. "I've been living in America in churches of greed," Dan sings on the new album's Dark Leaves Form a Thread: "It's sick! No, it's cool." The theme of complicity lingers, in a more tragic, personalized register, but with a maturity that is "perfectly at home with this dread."

It's something Destroyer's been arching towards all along, I think - just as the "arrogant" avoidance of direct contact with the audience in live shows had more to do with wanting to offer something otherly-sincere to cliched rock-show behaviour but finding, until recently, his only alternative was awkward discomfort. Similarly, the Bejarian attack mode is often more reactionary/defensive than other aspects of the writing (though redeemed by its sense of humour), and I think it's gradually receding.

It still seems odd to say Destroyer has convinced you that rock's a farce and so you've lost interest in him unless you've actually lost interest in all other rock, too. I suppose you could argue that it's hypocrisy or something, but as I argued in my previous post I think the hypocrisy is precisely the point: Destroyer is an ongoing drama about a guy struggling with his purist urges and ambitions, about falling from grace and then wondering if the place you've fallen is actually more full of grace than was your previous lofty perch.

Michael also says: "The more I immerse myself in the ongoing Destroyer discography, the more I think he's just making fun of me and every other pretentious asshole who wants their music to 'mean' something. ... But why would you ever bother being that verbose if you actually don't have anything to say? What kind of a poet, other than a self-declared con artist, would claim that his choice of words is entirely arbitrary and devoid of intent?"

I find Michael's example, the lines "you've been wandering around/ you've been fucking around," weird (what is arbitrary and meaningless about those words? they could have been written by Paul Westerberg), but I realize that's how a lot of people react to Dan's lyrics and what he's said about them. Still, asking a writer to explain what they've written seems to me either to suggest that they've failed in writing it - that it isn't sufficent unto itself - or that the reader/listener isn't willing to bring their own interpretive and emotional apparatus to bear on it, to cooperate in the making of meaning.

It's a big misunderstanding to think the claim that lines of verse have no paraphrasable meaning - no sense that can be restated in other words without abandoning their precision and their multiple layers of meaning - implies that they are "arbitrary and devoid of intent."

Dan probably has sewn confusion with some of his sloppier answers to interview questions, but he's never been more clear on that score than in this discussion with Grayson Currin of North Carolina's Independent Weekly. The whole thing (which includes chat about the origins of songs like "Foam Hands" and "The State" - "I'm pretty sure that song is about political torture in some ways, and in other ways, it's just about a girl") is worth reading, but particularly this passage:

Q. Are there times when you discover what may be a new meaning for a song years after you've written it?

A. I guess it's possible, but usually I do that with the overall, as in, "What was I trying to get it, making that record sound the way it did?" As far as writing goes, I don't really have the same view of meaning as maybe some people do. ... [Every] single line in every single song means exactly what it says when it says it. That's how I generate meaning, just by trying to find the perfect word to follow the perfect word that came before it so that the next perfect word... I'm not saying that Destroyer songs are perfect, but I have this idea in my head of what ideal musical writing sounds like. I just try to get close to it.

As far as what the song is about, [it's not] I say one thing but really it's about my dog that went missing. Or I say "Blue flower, blue flame," but what I'm really talking about is the river behind my house. That shit doesn't exist. Meaning to me is whatever abundance of emotion I can create by saying something.

Q: So you don't mean a phrase like "blue flower, blue flame" to be any bigger than its exact meaning?

A: No, I don't. There's no code. There's no hidden veil. There's nothing behind the curtain of these words. It's just like notes, you know? I feel like the languages have to be cut some slack, just like the melody or a really awesome drum fill or a swell of strings, it kind of means the same things as those words mean. It's hard to get your head around that, I guess, because we generally try to communicate ideas and concepts with words. When we say "Pass the salt," we want someone to give us salt. When you're making art, there's no salt to be passed. It's just a mystery, right? It's just like "pass me..." - "create a mystery for me."

I think that's what art is. It's this thing that gets made, and you don't know exactly why, but it just blows you away. When I read something and I really like it, I just have to put the book down for a second or a minute. It's the same sensation as someone knocking you over. You have to kind of brush yourself off and make sure that what happened happened. Maybe that's just me. Maybe that's not normal.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 28 at 3:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)


April 27, 2008

Hidden Agenda

I didn't get a chance to mention on Friday that I was on that night's edition of TVO's The Agenda in a panel discussion called "What Happened to the Hits?" - asking whether there are no longer broad-demographic "songs that everybody dances to" in North American culture, and if so why, and whether it matters. (See Agenda producer Mike Miner's related blog post here, complete with ensuing weird discussion - though I was glad to see someone bring up Guitar Hero.)

There was a bit of fuddy-duddiness about the setup - they compared Top 10 Charts from 1978 and 2008 - the 1978 chart being Bee Gees-dominated - and read out the names of the artists on the first-half-of-the-year chart with a certain "how can this Lil Wayne guy, whoever he is, possibly compare to the Bee Gees?" condescension. But I think we managed to get out of that mode at least part of the time, though there was plenty we didn't cover (the role of the introduction of Soundscan numbers, for example, in revealing that the "big hits" weren't as big as assumed and that country and hip-hop and R&B; were selling more than anyone realized).

On the panel with me were Toronto Life/eye's Jason Anderson, Maple Music's Kim Cooke and Dan Hill - ! It was a tad surreal to be on the same panel with Hill (who was famous, at least in Canada, when I was a child). He was very cordial and knowledgeable, despite the show's attempt to set him up against me, since he's written songs for Celine Dion - I didn't say it, but in the early '80s, the book could almost have been about Dan Hill. Now there are plenty of people who don't know who he is, if my 31-year-old friend's reaction is any indication. (But she recognized Sometimes When We Touch, the ultimate 70s sensitive-guy anthem [and, regarded cynically, a gold mine of unintentional hilarity], when I, er, crooned it to her.)

Anyhow, I'm told that the video will be online today at the show's website, and soon on iTunes (at least in Canada).

General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 27 at 9:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


April 24, 2008

Street Fighting Man?

My posts on Tomfrankobamaculturetcetera have helped spur some good debate here but also a couple of nice posts I'd like to point out without further comment: Phil Ford at Dial M for Musicology, a site I should mention more often, reflects that "the problem with the culture-critical stance is that shorts the emotional meanings that people derive from their experiences." (He also says some very kind things about my book along the way. Thanks).

And 2fs at The Architectural Dance Society explains why, proceeding from Ellen Willis's critique of Tom Frank, the Democrats ought to be running the young Mick Jagger for president. Lately I've been wishing Barack Obama would do a little more strutting and tongue-flashing, frankly.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 24 at 2:21 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


April 23, 2008

Destroyer in Toronto, April 19:
"A Nightmare," Three Witches Chant,
Confounding Nerds' Aim

Dan Bejar and Destroyer live at the Bowery Ballroom, a couple of days after the concert discussed below;
photo swiped from music journo Ryan Dombal's Flickr page;
I'm glad we don't have any kind of professional guild to spank me for it.

I've had the title for this one sitting on my computer all week, because I've noticed a lot lately doing cryptic crosswords (a recent adoption) that the clues often feel like Destroyer-ese. Unfortunately to mention puzzles suggests decoding, encrypted meanings, blah blah blah, which gets it exactly wrong (in Destroyer songs, the encryption is the message; the funeral is the biography). But I was too tickled by my cryptic clue to abandon it, so there it is.

Mainly, I just wanted to tell you that if you are anywhere in range of the current Destroyer tour (eg., in New York tonight, Philly tomorrow, DC the day after - etc), you should not miss it, because there's been something of a rip in the continuum and, suddenly, Destroyer is not just a band you enjoy live because there's something endearingly awkward and stiff and strange about it all - suddenly, they're a band you enjoy live because they kick ass. Dan's reluctant-prophet manner has gone up five levels on the fire and brimstone scale - there was a hilarious moment on Saturday night when he tried to make a joke, which flew over everyone's heads and fell in a puddle to the floor. After a second's pause he grimaced sheepishly: "Uh, sorry, I've never tried saying things to the audience before." His performance was more physical and stagey - John Barrymore-era theatricalism flashing out between shakes of a super-shaggy head, thoroughly through-composed guitar lines being peeled out as if they were just jammed - which is a long way round to rock'n'roll but it can get you there.

It's in keeping with the tone of Trouble in Dreams, which is in many ways the least hostile and aggressive Destroyer record yet - almost in inverse proportion to its noisiness (Fisher Rose drums way loud). It's more of a band album (a more focused This Night) than Destroyer's Rubies and more of a Your Blues-esque crooner and 1950s-musical album too - contrary to all the backlashy "just more of the same" reviews, which one might expect after nine albums, except that it's silly to hear it coming from reviewers who only actually heard one of those albums. The erratic semi-random nature of the ... Rubies mania of aught-six is thus confirmed. Anyone have a better theory?

(I should note that true to his backlash-courting ways, there was only, I think, one ... Rubies song on the set list the other night, which I'm sure frustrated some who haven't gotten well-acquainted with Trouble and don't know This Night, the other well the band was drawing on.)

Michael Barclay told me the other day that he felt like Dan had worked so hard to convince him of the ridiculousness of rock'n'roll that he found it hard to listen to him with the current band just playing rock'n'roll. I share some of those feelings; after Your Blues, not just my favourite Destroyer record but one of my favourite records of the decade, I did regret the return to rock on Rubies - but Dan's changes have never been linear, so the sequel to Your Blues, the all-clarinet-and-sitar album, could be right around the corner. I think the thing is that right now he has this band that, when it locks into formation the way it did on Saturday night, shoots the songs straight into orbit. That might not be true tomorrow, with the musicians of Dan's Vancouver generation (including Dan himself) gradually settling into businesses, family life, and so on. In some ways the notes of regret and anticipation that I scent between the lines of Trouble in Dreams seem like change-of-life vibrations, a goodbye and the breath right before "hello." (Perhaps that desire to hold on accounts for my one real complaint about it, which is that it's two or three songs too long.) The absurdity that Destroyer has always imputed to rock, after all, is by no means unique - the path from politics to poetry leads through understanding that the effort is always ridiculous and doing it anyway. So hit the drums hard.

(Oh, and speaking of [collector] nerds' aims...)

(Plus, later:: See Dan spar with Emusic readers. Note the John Cale/Syd Barrett discussion at the end - this is what you have to explain to the people who confuse matters with all their pointless Bowie comparisons.) (On the other hand, I just realized I've never heard The Apartments.)

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 23 at 5:33 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)


April 21, 2008

Clap Clap Culture

I'm always happy to be questioned and challenged by Clap Clap's Mike Barthel, an incisive and never-dogmatic thinker. But in his response to my Tom Frank/Obama/class-culture post, he misinterprets me, so I must have been unclear.

Mike says, "the only thing [Carl] reverses about [his past] position is that the people who like Celine have been duped - he still believes that their communities' cultures are being ['strip-malled and outsourced ... out of existence'] ." No. That was also a reference to a past set of beliefs - in this case, actually, further past than my feelings about Celine. I realize things might get confusing when I set myself up as my own foil, in the name of a reflexive, introspective approach to cultural conflict. But since Mike has read my book, I would have thought he could extrapolate this from the chapter on globalization.

Globalization has formidable problems - how trade deals are contracted and the way multinationals can grow to out-muscle the countries trying to regulate them, for starters - but I don't believe it or "corporate culture" simply homogenizes and eradicates, because for one thing there's no singular monolithic "corporate culture."

[... keep reading? ...]

To use an easy example, Brazilians in Rio's favelas are borrowing from American hip-hop and other foreign, commercial music when they make baile funk, but the result is still unquestionably local culture - which would be diminished if some cultural militants tried to push them to play sambas. Hip-hop and other music in Britain and the U.S. (such as M.I.A.'s) are in turn influenced by baile funk, and that's cultural process for you - and this kind of exchange, of course, goes pretty much all the way back in human history.

However, there are occasions when cultures need defense - in colonization, for example. Cultural preservation is urgent right now in New Orleans, for example, as Larry Blumenfeld illustrated in his moving and enraging talk at the EMP Pop Conference, reporting on cops cracking down on second-line parades and traditional jazz funerals, and musicians and other citizens passionately objecting.

Milder cases of gentrification, as with Mike's Disney Store, raise valid, though milder, concerns. There's a desirable midpoint between freezing things as they are (or seeking some fantasized "pure" past, as some cultural conservationists seem to desire) and just giving private capital a free (invisible) hand to decide on its own how a community or a city develops, no matter what the people without as much money need or want (the latter being what's often called "neo-liberalism").

But cultural influence runs in all directions: The world is not becoming flat and it's not becoming (white) American - it's a self-flattering assumption on the part of western critics to imagine that our cultures are so seductive and powerful that people are unable to resist succumbing. (Almost as self-flattering as it is among those crusaders and "freedom"-exporters who want that to be true.) Non-western and western cultures change each other, as do city and country, region and nation. Celine Dion's music implicitly recognizes such changes as both exciting and traumatic. People love her for her traditionalism and for her glitz, for her modernity and her anti-modernity.

On Friday, I was honoured to be part of a conversation on WNYC in New York's great Soundcheck program about the way music expresses and constructs personal (and group) identity, along with philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose work I admire. There's a great deal of overlap between my book and Appiah's Cosmopolitanism (so much so that it was often hard for me to add to what he had just said; understandably, he got the lion's share of the theoretical questions).

In retrospect I wish I had referred directly in the book to Appiah's praise of "contamination" - both our investigations have to do with letting yourself be contaminated while maintaining a sense of identity, how to assert strong values while being aware that they're deeply contingent on social context, and how to recognize commonalities while also respecting differences. That's what my post and my book were really about, though I don't know that even Appiah has reached a final synthesis. (Mike says "being curious and respectful of what other people like isn't the goal of criticism, but the base standard for responsible criticism," and of course I concur, but it's not nearly so widely practiced that way.)

Mike's other main objection to my post - part of a larger argument about how critics at places like the Pop Conference combine culture and politics - is that "to conflate 'adventurous art' and 'reproductive freedom' is ludicrous." He goes on to add, "You can never really 'win' an argument about the avant-garde. You can win an argument about abortion. And that's as it should be, because abortion policy has real, demonstrable consequences."

I can't fully answer here Mike's question about what the "consequences" of cultural actions are - as he says, it's "an entire field of study." But as I'm sure he knows, but doesn't say, a large part of that field no longer holds "that culture maintains the power relations in society by distributing the ruling class's dominant messages," because contamination occurs here too - culture also distributes resistant messages, audiences receive messages resistantly, and so forth. There are people who believe very strongly that the dominance outpowers the resistance, and other people who believe the reverse. As usual, I'm a both/and guy (though I have my more dour moments).

Nevertheless, Mike and I do disagree: Abortion beliefs, for example, are broadly culturally based, and much of the debate about them (like most values/ethics arguments, as Jonathan Haidt maintains) is backwards rationalization. A religious-versus-humanist dispute is seldom resolved by logical debate alone. "Winning" on abortion has more to do with how much social influence either side accumulates - not just political power but which one becomes more attractive and advantageous for people in various contexts to accept. Which isn't all that much unlike how social disputes over art - say, representation versus abstraction or swing jazz versus rock'n'roll - are "won."

Any "red/blue" map of political preference covers up more than it explains, but those patterns - the way social conservatism, religiosity and cultural conservatism tend to cluster, for example - do persist and have consequences. I use Pierre Bourdieu's work to discuss this in my book, but I like the way Appiah describes it - as "social scripts." Culture and politics are alike influenced by an implicit understanding of what "people like me" (or "people like what I want to be") are supposed to like and dislike, believe and disbelieve, not to mention what "people not like me" are figured to think and prefer. (Though the objects of approval or disapproval and the metrics that define social "likeness" are always reshuffling.)

To take another of Mike's examples, he says, "If a lot of people dislike gay marriage, that means a bunch of my friends can't get married. If a lot of people like Celine Dion, I occasionally get annoyed while in a department store. That's not just a difference of degree, but a difference of kind."

Sure, but it doesn't mean those forces are radically distinct from one another. Instead of Celine (who has gay-friendly associations, though you could argue that a lot of people see her in "family values" terms), let's talk about the effect of a lot of people liking, say, Ted Nugent - and another bunch of people having hostile notions about "people who like Ted Nugent." Let's say at a guess that the pro-Nugent crowd is more rural and the anti-Nugent crowd more "downtown." The pro-Nugent camp is not unaware of what the anti-Nugentites think of them. They're also aware that the folks downtown include a lot more gay people (at least openly) than they have in their neighbourhood. The Ted Nugent issue becomes a reason for them to think that homosexuals are not only weird but hostile to their own lifestyles, the ones echoed and expressed by Nugent's music.

The result? A lot of Mike's friends can't get married.

This is shorthand caricature, of course, but it's suggestive: Art matters politically in part because of its contribution to reinforcing and/or challenging social scripts - or enhancing social experiences in which those scripts are reinforced/challenged - in a way that debate can't. And politics affects art partly because it helps construct the social scripts that art draws upon and revises. Those scripts are collective creations, to which culture and politics both contribute, and they have collective impacts, of which culture and politics both partake.

(Of course art also matters in a lot of ways that are not political and have much less to do with identity, politics and social scripts. Likewise, little things like, say, money probably matter more than art to those processes. Mike is right to caution against "conflating" anything.)

Finally an aside to Frank Kogan, who says: " 'Everybody has false consciousness' and 'no one has false consciousness' are ridiculous statements, since there's nothing inherently false or inherently true about having a consciousness based on one's social experience and position."

Perhaps my tone wasn't sarcastic enough, but that's exactly what I meant by equating the two statements. I think "false consciousness" is in the same set of unhelpful, misdirecting concepts as "authenticity," which you could equally ascribe to everybody or to nobody.

(While I'm really happy to have Frank, a writer I greatly respect, participating in this argument, I wish he'd stop publicly characterizing my thinking as "terrible" without actually reading the work. It feels like turf defence.)

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 21 at 1:17 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)


April 20, 2008

EMP 2008: Academy Fight Song

Douglas Wolk's super Ballad of the Green Berets presentation at the Pop Conference. Photo swiped from Chelsey's Practice Space.

Some folks have been down on the recent latest edition of that annual pop-think mindmelt, the prattle in Seattle, the EMP Pop Conference, for leaning harder than before to the academic end rather than the journalists' side. They complain that it makes for drier presentations and more esoteric language. Maybe yes, maybe no, but I also wonder why that shift might be happening.

(... for that and other post-EMP thoughts, please,
click here to continue reading ...)

To make that argument, you have to overlook the amazing work many academics have contributed - including this year Katherine Meizel on "God Bless America" and "God Bless the U.S.A." and American civic religion; John Vallier on Christian "applied ethnomusicology" (that is, writing hymns in the style of local musical cultures as an evangelical gambit); Dan Thomas-Glass comparing Public Enemy and poet Lyn Hejinian's pauses, stresses and caesurae as figures of urban spatio-cultural gaps, in a hilarious fast-thinking power-point presentation; Tim Lawrence's bracing polemic on the way disco is left out of the story of the late 70s/early 80s downtown avant-art/music scene (with Arthur Russell as exhibit A); and Charles Hughes's lovely meditation on Sam Cooke, among others.

More significantly, you have to overlook the fact that many, many of the people who present at the Pop Conference are both academics and pop critics, including some all-stars like Joshua Clover (whose by-all-reports-mindblowing M.I.A. lecture, like many others, I missed on the Friday because I was holed up in my hotel room overcoming writer's block on my own talk), Oliver Wang, Elijah Wald, Daphne Brooks (whose Amy Winehouse paper, which again I missed, was named by many as the best piece in the conference), Daphne Carr, Will Hermes (whose paper on 70s NYC rhythm culture, from salsa to minimalism to hip-hop, dovetailed beautifully with Tim Lawrence's), Franklin Bruno, Greil Marcus and of course conference organizer Eric Weisbard himself.

By conference's end, Robert Christgau was surveying folks to see how many critics were doing academic work or knew other critics who either were combining the two fields or had switched over to academic work entirely. A comparison to poetry and fiction occurred to me - sometime, it seems in the '70s or '80s, there must have been a pivot point where the authors who made a living mainly from writing or from another sort of day job started to be outnumbered by writers who made their living as teachers, because that's how the economics and the culture had shifted. These days, it's almost surprising to meet a creative writer who is not in some way connected to the academic world (unless they work in the publishing field itself). Are we seeing the same thing happen with pop criticism, and indeed arts criticism in general?

For sure, the freelance environment has gotten harsher both economically and creatively, as the print medium is struggling to survive and most newspapers/magazines also have become less hospitable to long-form reviews and cultural journalism. Simultaneously the academic world has become more welcoming of pop-cultural discussion and studies (provided they're put through disciplinary filters, of course) - an opening partly owed to the way journalists and critics on film, music and TV built up intellectual cred for their forms over the past 40-plus years. The Pop Conference itself is a product of that crossover.

I don't want to leap to conclusions about the trend, but it's worth tracking.

Otherwise, I thought it was a strong conference. The opening panel suffered a bit from the decision to cross-promote with the EMP's (excellent, from the bits of it I saw) "American Sabor" exhibit on the history of Latino/Chicano/Hispanic (take your pick) contributions to U.S. pop music. It was great to hear the perspectives of Louie Perez from Los Lobos (whose testimony to the band's discovery and embrace of their "parents' music" was terrific), Raul Pacheco of Ozomatli, the amazing El Vez (Robert Lopez, fromerly of The Zeros, who connected punk outsiderness and Latino outsiderness) and younger L.A. musician Martha Gonzales of the band Quetzal (whose music I have to check out) as well as the scholars and curators.

But the tendency to continually refer back to the exhibition and debate its effectiveness and its set of terms really hobbled the discussion and prevented it from getting deeper into the core issue the panel began with, the dominance of the black music/white music binary in talk about American pop music and everything it erases. (It was great to learn that "Louie Louie" was actually based on a riff from a cha-cha sung by Ricky Martin's dad - I'm embarrassed not to have known before!)

What's more, and this made for an uncomfortable tension in the whole conference, it meant that the opening panel didn't succeed in framing the conference theme of "music, conflict and change." Of course the two subjects are related - any exploration of race/ethnicity, community and cultural history has to do with conflict and change - but there was a split throughout the program between the Latino/a-themed panels and papers and the ones squarely aimed at political-social content and context in music. There were a few points where they were juxtaposed, but it was a programming challenge that couldn't really be overcome.

Combine that with the fact that there were so many presentations this year - more than 160! - with four panels going on at once, most of the time, and it exacerbated a sense that there were several separate (albeit intersecting) conferences going on at once. While the inclusiveness is great, I still would prefer a somewhat smaller conference with less counterprogramming in the interest of what comes out of the conference, as a conversation that then continues in the days, months and years to come. When fewer conference-goers have heard the same papers, it's harder to have that conversation.

I don't want to come off as endorsing Christgau's "I miss the monoculture" proclamation (during his terrific John Mayer talk), but just as there is content to that sentiment, in yearning for a shared public culture that maybe never existed, I'd like the conference to combine its diversity with a strong sense of focus. (Which may mean that not all of the all-stars get to present every year - which might be a promotional obstacle but still seems the right road. That's what you call affirmative action, no?)

That said, I do think the "conflict and change" theme prompted people to sharpen up their arguments this year - there were more strong assertions and on-a-limb theories, along with the excellent research and analysis. For instance, in Jody Rosen's utterly ass-kicking talk on early 1900s vaudeville wild girl Eva Tanguay (which I hope becomes a book and a documentary and, hell, PBS series on vaudeville and the American experience), he didn't stop at asserting that she was the first-ever pop star (!) and that her all-but-forgotten influence can be traced in the styles and manners of female image-making and music-making alike well into the jazz age; he added that pop history has overlooked vaudeville's vital role in between minstrelsy and the age of recording, and that it's a distortion that needs to be addressed.

However, in my experience the stronger theses didn't lead to so many really lively, provocative Q&A; sessions - maybe because the schedule was so packed that people were thinking more about where they were headed next, and also felt run a bit ragged?

I won't go into all the other fine work I saw and heard, let alone all that I missed. (Do a Google blog search on "Emp Conference" and you'll find a nice set of reports.) But despite my (I hope constructive) criticisms, it was a great conference. As always, I can't wait for next year.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 20 at 11:10 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)


April 16, 2008

Bona valetudo melior est quam maximae divitiae

Pop Conference-related distraction meant that I missed the moment when this news, about Mountain Goats singer/songwriter John Darnielle dealing with unspecified "chronic health issues," circulated over the past couple of weeks. Zoilus readers know how much John's work means to me (and to many others), so let's all send healing vibes North Carolina way. The very best wishes to John and his loved ones.

Here, by the way, is a video of John D. making a cameo appearance at a Weakerthans show in NC and duetting with John K. Samson on "Anchorless," on April 9 - John D. certainly seems vigorous enough (not to mention tremendously stoked) here, which is nice reassurance that whatever is up won't keep our man down long.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 16 at 7:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


April 15, 2008

What's the Matter with
(the Son of that Mom from) Kansas?

Baby Barack with his feminist-anthropologist mother, Stanley Ann Durham:
I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.

I'll get to that post-EMP Pop Con report (I discussed it this afternoon on CBC radio's show Q - the podcast should be posted here eventually) but first, I want to talk about the current Obama flap - because it raises some questions I really wanted to address in my book, but dropped for lack of space. (Maybe if I had, and if it's true that Obama's read some of it, all this could have been prevented!)

Obama's remarks are being overanalyzed, exploited, exaggerated and spun by the Clinton campaign and opportunistic pundits, but it really is a problem that the segment of the population that connects worst with Obama is older working-class white (and Latino) voters. It's not a question of policy - it's more credible to me that Obama would actively pursue policies that favour the disadvantaged than that Clinton would turn her back on her Wall Street and multinational business connections. (Though both of them are bullshitting on Nafta.) But Obama is the child not just of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya but also the child of a white bohemian feminist intellectual agnostic from Kansas (after all what other kind of white woman from Kansas married a black man from Kenya in 1961?). While she didn't come from wealthy stock, she wasn't exactly the meat-and-potatoes type - and her son is about as much from Kansas as he is from Oz.

Thankfully Obama doesn't pander and playact the way Wesleyan/Yale girl Hillary Clinton does, insecurely taking on phony accents, dropping her G's and pretending to be a gun-toting, God-fearing country gal, if that's the local atmosphere. I don't think anybody wants that. But Obama hasn't found an entirely effective alternative.

As several pundits have noted, his remarks are reminiscent of Tom Frank's thesis in What's the Matter with Kansas? - that the right wing has taken advantage of economic suffering in the "heartland" to encourage those voters to blame their problems on liberals and city people and immigrants and homosexuals, etc., rather than on the corporate and political elites who put them out of work. There's no doubt that Republicans and neo-con media do that. But the reason it works is not because they've brainwashed the public into acting against "their own interests." Overall, I suspect white working-class voters in deindustrializing areas are skeptical any politician is going to act in their economic interest. (On top of that, they are Americans, and they believe in individualism and capitalism.) However, their cultural interests weren't just imposed on them - they are long-standing parts of many people's identities and communities, and if they become more defensive and "cling" to them in hard times, that's an act of strength rather than simply weakness and "bitterness." That is to say, cultural interests are real interests, and any way of thinking that doesn't recognize them as such is a vulgar materialism you'd expect from some naive Marxist-Leninist groupuscule.

I thought a lot about these questions with regard to Celine Dion. There was a time when I would have figured that listening to Celine, like going to big blockbuster Hollywood movies, was a kind of false consciousness - being seduced by a materialistic Disneyland escapism that says nothing about real people's lives. I could have written a "What's the Matter with Celine Dion?" critique parallel to Frank's, claiming that people were being duped into listening to fairy-tale fantasy music sold to them by the very people who were strip-malling and outsourcing their communities' cultures out of existence.

But when I listened to Celine's music more and talked to her fans, I realized that she did, in fact, reflect her audience's values and concerns back to them in complicated ways - how to be at once strong, modern and feminine, for example, or the fate of tradition and family and community in an era of globalization and mass media - and that the more "rebellious" music that I used to think superior to the mainstream is often indifferent or hostile to those values and concerns. So why should they want it?

I came to think that everybody has a "false consciousness" of one kind or another, because everybody's cultural tastes are the product of their social experiences and position (including critics and rebels and radicals, seeking affirmation in the beliefs and culture they approve). Which is the same thing as saying no one has false consciousness. It's not that all beliefs are equally valid, but you won't get anywhere by assuming or claiming that other peoples' beliefs are inauthentic.

As the late, great feminist rock writer and social critic Ellen Willis (who probably would have had a lot to discuss with Obama's mother) said in her brilliant rebuttal to Tom Frank (which remains very, very worth reading), those of us who care about culture can only betray ourselves by dismissing other people's cultural interest as trivia that arises because of structural misalignments. If we want to assert the importance of multiculturalism, adventurous art, minority cultures, reproductive freedom, then we have to recognize that some other people are equally attached to and serious about their religions, their social values, their leisure activities, their "American" culture.

You might want to change some of those things - for instance, to convince people that American culture has always been built by immigrants and won't be "lost" by accepting and welcoming new people; to get people to think differently about abortion; etc. - but you can't do that if your starting premise is that their positions are just pathological hallucinations or side effects. The social-conservative surge in some areas in the past two decades has also been a backlash against genuine "progressive" success on many fronts (in social attitudes to sex, gender, race and sexual identity), and it seems quite likely that the backlash will be temporary - even in rural Pennsylvania, I'll bet many, many young white people are much more comfortable with diversity than their parents, irrespective of whether they are doing as well economically.

In his follow-up statements so far, Obama has elaborated very compassionately and thoughtfully on how he thinks the government has failed people like working-class Pennsylvanians, and what has to change. But he still seems unable to speak directly to the class-cultural question, much in contrast with the eloquence with which he addressed race after the Pastor Wright controversy.

Then again, no one else has been able to have that kind of "grownup conversation" about class culture in America lately either.The faux-populist news anchors go into an orgy of tut-tutting about Obama's "elitism" that, however justified, still erases and conceals everything he was really saying about prying government from the clutches of corporate interests and making it respond to human needs. It's grim to see that the pattern Tom Frank points out in his book is being re-enacted in the response to Obama - the media talking as if what really matters is not whether there's been decades of economic decline in your community but that some latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, fancy Harvard lawyer thinks he's better than you.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 15 at 4:09 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)


Rattle Your Keys in Parkdale Tonight

I'll be back with some thoughts on the Pop Conference and other matters later today, but first, quickly passing on this news about a show tonight that sounds worth attention:

"Keys To The Studio invites you to a concert of music you've never heard before! On Tuesday evening, April 15, 2008, starting at 6 pm, experience ground-breaking performances by the Keyholders, the originators of the music on the program, who also happen to be people diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities (such as autism, Tourettes, etc.). The Keyholders will be joined onstage at the Masaryk-Cowan Community Centre (220 Cowan Ave. at Queen West between Dufferin & Lansdowne) by their colleagues at Keys To The Studio, well-known Toronto musicians Victor Bateman, Dave Clark, Dan Goldman, Justin Haynes, John Jowett, Teppei Kamei, Joe Kelly and Sandro Perri.

"Come to hear DJ scratching, improv, electronic beats, guitar distortion, rock'n'roll and 8-bit music, and to support Keys To The Studio's innovative venture to unlock the doors that have kept musicians from this community from their audience (see feature article at Keys to the Pay-what-you-can admission (suggested $5 and additional donations welcome) and wheelchair accessible. Tickets are available at the door, by calling 416-532-8480 or by email at"

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 15 at 1:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)


April 9, 2008

No Ordinary Love:
"Double Bill #1"

Posting has been sparse lately, partly due to life and partly due to scrambling to get my paper done for the EMP Pop Conference, which will be the subject of upcoming posts this weekend. Before I get Seattle-bound, I want to tell you about a beautifully Toronto-bound event that opens tonight (Wednesday, Apr 9) and runs until Saturday.

"Double Bill #1" is the yield of a "mash-up"-style concept from Dancemakers artistic director Michael Trent: he wants to reach out to other artists to create works in dialogue. Having seen last year's wonderful "Dance/Songs" piece (subject of past Zoilusian praise), Trent chose to invite Ame Henderson of the Public Recordings company as his first collaborator. The parameters they agreed on were simple: They would each create pieces that used the same people, from dancers to music, which would mean each choreographer's process would be bumping and grinding up against the other's.

The results, which I previewed at a dress rehearsal on Saturday before they moved it to Harbourfront's Premiere Dance Theatre, are superlative. I have to single out Ame's "It Was a Nice Party," which, like "Dance/Songs" (which took the skeleton of a rock-club show and draped it in a dance piece, with equal measures of wit, irony and reverence) and her Nuit Blanche piece (which involved large crowds of dancers emerging in and out of the margins of a Kensington Market park, dancing to music from hand-cranked portable radios), is a playful exercise in slow-motion revelation: If you pay attention, a seemingly arbitrary and cryptic set of behaviours is slowly unveiled as a self-conscious game.

( ... continues ...)

I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to reveal that what the dancers are doing is "sampling" from the party scene of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, in a series of algorithms that's almost an Oulipian set of themes-and-variations that you slowly decode. The byproduct, as Dancemakers dramaturge-in-residence Jacob Zimmer put it to me, is that out of the film scene, the company was able to generate quickly a fresh set of gestural vocabularies that are not at all "dance" vocabularies. (They also tried using a bank-robbing scene from The Thomas Crown Affair and a bird attack from The Birds but settled on the more cheerful-strange ambience of a party - which, bonus points, allowed some of them to pretend to be Marcello Mastrionni.)

Humour and energy spring out of this strategy, all the more so because Ame's preserved the unheimlich grammar of film in the choreography - the dancers keep suddenly dashing across the stage to keep pace with the cuts and crosscuts of film editing, too, so the typical dignity and smoothness (even in choreographed awkwardness) of dance is undercut by the frantic splicing and interruption to which reality is subjected by the camera.

In addition, the ensemble keeps the mood of the piece itself party-like - casual, companionable, conversational, giddy. At intervals, in personae somewhere between themselves and themselves-as-character, the dancers come to microphones at the corners of the stage, to explain what just happened and what's about to happen next: "We're going to do that again, only this time, Kate's going to be over there and I'm going to start here... okay?"

Both pieces are scored by The Reveries, a band I've toasted in the past as one of Toronto music's uncanniest combinations of silliness and sentiment, with their poker-faced techno-peasant routine of playing instruments that are amplified through cellphone speakers lodged in each other's mouths, while they slobberingly deliver the lyrics of love-song standards. The group features local improv luminaries Eric Chenaux, Ryan Driver and Doug Tielli (plus, more recently, percussionist Jean Martin).

For "Double Bill" they presented the company with several CDs featuring dozens of songs they'd be capable of covering, ranging from jazz standards to Willie Nelson to Sade, and let the dancers choose over the course of rehearsal which songs to use. Then they provided recordings of covers of the selected songs as the final soundtrack, which gets played by the dancers from an on-stage boombox.

In both dances, but Ame's in particular, there's some aleatory space left after that, too, as the dancers can choose which Reveries selections to play during the show, which reinforces the party theme ("hey, what should I put on?" "no more Willie, I'm tired of Willie") but also severs dance from music and allows for recombinant effects - they might end up dancing frenetically to a slow ballad, or the song might end before the segment does and leave them dancing to silence. It all helps to free the dancers from what can in dance sometimes seem a slavish relationship between music and choreography - while the movies scene is dictating the motions, moments might fall anywhere on the beat, so it's a new dance every time.

The mood is also struck by the frantic effort that goes into following the movie's kinetic "score" - the dancers are constantly checking video monitors to see what action they should be imitating, so they have a split focus, which mirrors the audience's own effort to watch what's happening at the same time as puzzling out the embedded structure. Viewing it in the smaller rehearsal space, I was particularly conscious that I kept wanting to watch the movie on the monitors (even craning my head around to do it) instead of the real people in front of me - the same trouble one has, for example, carrying on a conversation in a bar while a TV is running in the corner over your friend's shoulder, or the way people you know in real life take on a kind of extra-reality in the microcelebrity of their Facebook pages and YouTube videos. In a way the dancers cannot compete with the film's aura, but their physical presence catches the viewer out in that guilty attraction, and reminds us of the satisfaction and complication the person-to-person encounter can offer. For instance, the dancers use their real names to refer to one another in dialogue, except that there are two Kates, so the second insists on being called "Magenta," after the colour of her dress, which is both an assertion ("I'm the girl in the magenta dress") and a surrender of identity.

Michael Trent's second half, "And the Rest," is a bit jarring after the revelation of the first, in that he turns the company back to a modern-dance physical vocabulary, and there's much less narrative drive. But on the other hand it's here that you get to see these dancers dance, again to the Reveries' wobbly ebbs and flows of song, and things get sexy in a much less ironic and more realistic (and thus more disturbing) way, as themes of dominance, submission and Bartleby-like abstention come into play.

My favourite section was one that went head-on at the sadomasochism of choreography itself, in which one dancer started giving instructions for moves to another and then got caught in a kind of deranged loop demonstrating the ridiculously strenuous motions that were required to fulfill her own orders, while the rest of the ensemble lazily ignored her. The orders she's barking ("put your wrists on your thighs, half-twist, sink to your knees, thrust three times, flutter your elbows twice") are of course exactly the kind that the choreographer must have used to make the whole piece - our pleasure rests on the mnemonic and physical labour of the artist-interpreters, our admiration of their seeming freedom resting on their terpsicordian bondage. The dress-rehearsal crowd laughed familiarly, but for those of us who aren't dance insiders, it was more of a moment in which the emperor stripped off his clothes to reveal that underneath, he was stitched up in a tight, rough corset. The work of the dancer, in those interludes, became its own subject, and its own reward.

In the program, Michael and (in his program notes) Jacob tell us that the piece is about tyranny and change: I wish only that they'd followed Ame's example and put more of those cards on the table in the piece itself. But that might just be that I'm a relatively inexperienced watcher of dance, and its pure physical abstraction (and perhaps its voyeurism) always make me crave more intellectual semaphore, more clues to the content within the form.

A real dance lover might find Ame's piece more frustrating because its whole mechanism stymies the flow of dance, blocking and undermining the performers' skills at each turn. I find that both funnier and more moving, seeming closer to daily life, but since I'd probably be unsympathetic to a similar argument about highly abstract music or painting, I'll offer that reaction with a grain of suspicious-tasting salt.

In any case, the pairing left me with plenty to smile over and think about and I wholeheartedly urge you to get down to Harbourfront to drink it in with your own eyes and ears. Also, check out The Reveries' new CD of Willie Nelson tunes, which was released this week.

Read More | Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 09 at 3:24 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


April 2, 2008

Goodbye Excentrico (RIP Klaus Dinger)
And Other News

Neu! in 1974 playing an early version of Hero.

Although it happened more than a week ago (March 21), news is only reaching the internets today of the death of Klaus Dinger - early Kraftwerk drummer, core member of Neu! (shown above playing guitar, though he's best known for creating the "Motorik" beat as a drummer) and founder of La Dusseldorf. The influence of Dinger (whose brother and Neu!/Dusseldorf partner Thomas predeceased him in '02), from postpunk (see under PiL) to post-rock (Stereolab on out) to various branches of techno (minimal, ambient), would be hard to fully estimate.

In happier news, it seems that there's finally a concrete outcome for Canadians from the fact that Elvis Costello is semi-resident here (on Vancouver Island with spouse Diana Krall and baby twins Dexter and Frank): He's doing a series on CTV. It's a talk show of sorts, coproduced by Elton John (oddly enough - I'd never known the two El's, Declan and Reggie, were friendly), and seemingly partly inspired by El Cos's success guest-hosting the Letterman show in 2003. Titled "Spectacle" (subtitle: "Elvis Costello with ..."), it'll feature various guests, musical and otherwise, in actor's-studio-style indepth chat. No hints yet of who's on the guest list. From angry young man to genial chat-show host - I can think of worse fates.

As for me, the podcast of the Happy Ending Reading Series event I did in New York in January is now up on Radio Press (the promising new project of Toronto expatriate and former Anansi Books editor Martha Sharpe - to download, go up to the "your playlist" box and click download). And I can't resist mentioning that my book made #7 on Entertainment Weekly's "Must" List this week. Celine and I are sandwiched in between a Joan Crawford movie marathon and Horton Hears a Who, which somehow seems just right.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 02 at 1:43 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)


Zoilus by Carl Wilson