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Blended, Chopped & Screwed
In answer to the question on the cover above, it seems that Britney has at least outlasted Blender. This morning I got an email from one of my editors there, Jonah Weiner, giving me the news, which was a nice courtesy, considering that I've only written a handful of reviews for the magazine. This is the first time that a publication I actually work for has joined the print-media death march, though I'm sure it won't be the last. (Though to those who wonder, despite the layoffs I am fairly confident The Globe and Mail will survive for the forseeable future.) My sincere condolences to all the staff and to Blender readers.
The shocking part is that I had figured Blender was the most commercially savvy one in the music-magazine market - they built their business on photos (especially of scantily clad pop starlets), best-ever/worst-ever/most-outrageous sorts of lists, titillation and trivia, backed up for credibility with a review section full of some of the best working music writers struggling (for a good paycheque) to squeeze wit and insight into tiny little capsule reviews. I hated its glibnesss, but it wasn't snobby - it was pro-pop, pro-hip-hop and pro-indie all at once - and it certainly seemed saleable; if even they can't survive, I'm not sure there really is a music magazine market. Curiously, a lot of the more niche-oriented publications - rap magazines and metal magazines in particular - seem to be doing well still, when I thought they'd probably be the most easily displaced by fan sites and blogs. Perhaps cliqueishness (and even snobbishness) is actually a safer marketing bet?
I still think there is room in the market for one more readership-oriented music publication, one aimed at the same audience that buys books about music. Something close exists in the UK (Mojo and, to a degree, The Wire) but a North American one might bring less of that musty British muso feel - like a general-interest version of No Depression, a great mag that was hampered by the narrowness of its "alt-country" focus. (ND continues to live online and as a twice-yearly "bookazine".) Given events like Blender's closing, though, I am less hopeful of ever convincing a publishing company of that idea. Sigh.
PS: Does this include the Indian edition of Blender, which I just discovered 5 minutes ago? If not, I want a subscription.
Everything's Coming Up Tommy (Edison)
In response to my interview on this week's Spark show on CBC radio about music and technology, in which I talk about ringtones, mp3s and the like, John Meyer sent me this link to a relatively new project rating the sound of various media - which concludes that listening to a 16kbs mp3 is the fidelity equivalent of listening to a wax cylinder! How steampunk, kids. (Maybe the Decembrists are on to something with their annoying neo-Edwardianism after all.) Any comments from audiophiles, anachronists and audio-anarchists?
This is so not like sexting
Today Peli and I talked about Gossip Girl, Britney, poptimism and finding a happy medium between Bourdieu and Adorno or something like that.
The Tech of the Hesperus
I talked to Nora Young of CBC Radio's tech program Spark this morning about ringtones, MP3s, computer speakers, iTunes, Auto-Tune and all the other gadget-adjustments that are changing the sound of pop music. In shorter form, it'll be part of their special music-themed March 25 show (re-aired on March 28) but, impressively, you can already listen to the full interview today on their site.
Speaking of tech and transition, you may have heard the newspaper business is having a rough week. Those who take this blithely because they assume that Twitter is going to take care of everything - or that, for example, somehow the same job can be done by the 20 reporters the now-online-only Seattle Post-Intelligencer is retaining as by the 165 it formerly employed - might benefit by reading this Globe & Mail Focus piece by my colleagues Sinclair Stewart and Grant Robertson (which I edited). I also recommend the Clay Shirky piece on "Newspapers & Thinking the Unthinkable" on the parallel between the Internet revolution & the Gutenberg one - only this one of course is much, much faster. The conclusion I draw from both is that, yes, newspapers are mostly doomed (I think weekend papers remain a viable model for now at least), but no, nothing exists to replace them. And we may be in for a rough decade, democratically, until something emerges that can.
A Big Steaming Mug of Ogre Milk
Fake photo by Torontoist now replaced by real photo from The Colbert Report.
Hi everyone. That hiatus was a bit longer than intended. Back to regular Zoilus business this week, but first a couple of links and notes from my psychic-teevee jaunt.
A lot of folks have been asking me about the experience, and it's difficult to sum up, except to say that it was very positive. [... continued after the jump ... ]
After these messages
I've got a review on the Globe and Mail site right now of the new book Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music.
Otherwise, I'm on the move this week - see below for the reason. Torontonians, some folks are gathering on Wednesday night upstairs at The Pilot on Cumberland St., to watch the Colbert show but also listen to some live music and readings, featuring my friends Laura Barrett, Angela Rawlings, Andrew Kaufman and Sean Dixon plus MC Sean K. Robb. Doors at 9, entertainment at 10, TV at 11:30. Here's the Facebook page - I didn't organize it but I appreciate it.
See you, as they say in the teevee biz, "after the break."
"Curiouser and Curiouser!" cried Alice
Uh. Huh. Wed., March 4, 11:30 pm EST, on The Comedy Network and Comedy Central.
James Franco Journeys to the End of Taste
(a.k.a. Strangest Day Ever)
I woke up this morning to various emails and frantic Facebook "wall messages" conveying the news that James Franco (Sean Penn's boyfriend in Milk, Peter Parker's frenemy in Spider-Man and, of course, bad-boy Daniel in Freaks and Geeks) name-checked my book on the Oscars red carpet last night. Turns out that not only did he mention it, he gave it a more on-point quick summary than almost any of the reviewers.
Now, besides acting and preparing for his bar mitzvah (as he discussed earlier in that interview), Franco's currently doing simultaneous MFA's at Columbia and NYU, so it's not really so weird (however it feels to me!) that he's plugged into stuff like this. I hope he passes the book along to a few of his Hollywood friends - the movie industry could stand to unthink some of its assumptions about the "mass" audience versus the "prestige" audience, no?
PS: Apologies to Idolator for ripping off their headline, but I just loved it too much.
The Secret Love Affair
of Speech and Song: A History
Saxophonist Leon Kingstone introduces Charles Spearin's "Mrs. Morris" in the middle of a Broken Social Scene concert.
Following up on my piece last week about Charles Spearin's The Happiness Project, in which he turns the cadences of his neighbours' conversations about happiness into the melodies and rhythms of songs, I've put together a
quick (well, not so quick) cultural history on how musicians have tried to transform human speech into music through the ages (but particularly, often thanks to technology, in the 20th century).
[ ... continues on the jump ...]
Happiness is a Project
Today in The Globe & Mail, I have a feature about Toronto musician Charles Spearin (Do Make Say Think, Broken Social Scene) and his new album of compositions based on interviews with his neighbours, The Happiness Project, released this week. Bonus material coming on Zoilus
later this afternoon, er, Thursday.
Lux E Tenebris
The Guardian puts brilliant spin on sad news: "It's hard to think of Lux Interior as dead, despite what reports say. Then again, it was always hard to think of him as alive."
Psychobilly was never my drug of choice, but it was a key influence on the first post-punk-alt-indie-underground bands that I saw as a teenager, the likes of Deja Voodoo and the Gruesomes in Montreal or Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (forerunners to the Sadies) and The Forgotten Rebels in Toronto - not to mention what would become goth culture, and even emo, David Lynch movies, neo-burlesque shows, roller derby and so on. It's impossible to resist the romantic mythos of the Cramps - Erick Purkhiser of Akron (part of the irradiated generation of Ohioddity that would create Devo, Pere Ubu and, lest we forget, Eric Carmen) picks up California girl Christine Wallace hitchhiking in 1970, and by 1973 they're reborn as Lux Interior and Poison Ivy - a marriage of true minds and engine parts that gave birth to a band that would last 35 years and a refraction of '50s and '60s garage-band fashion and noise that seems like it will never end - if only because, in a way, it never began.
Ohio/Texas swamp-blues band The Heartless Bastards, with remarkable frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom, has new disc The Mountain out today. I gave it a four-star review in Blender magazine.
A Tale of Two Philosophes, and a Dilemma
The TLS presents a lively account of the correspondence of Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, in which the confrontation between Nietzschean provocateur and pious liberal becomes a parable about the uncomfortable relationship between criticism and compassion. It closes with this remark from George Orwell to Stephen Spender in April 1938:
When you meet anyone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for that reason that I don't mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to.
I sympathize: It is hard to be harsh or even ironical about people one knows or has met - but rather than giving up meeting people, the only answer I see is to give up the kind of polemic that consists in treating people as caricatures embodying certain ideas. If a statement, a work of art or an action truly deserves a scathing response, its offense must be so deep that you would say the same to the person's face. Otherwise, even though intellectual brutality can be useful and especially pleasurable, it comes at too great a cost to the soul.
As Stanley Elkin (the late American novelist) put it, in a phrase I first read on Dial M that went on to haunt me throughout the writing of my Céline Dion book:
Listen, disdain is easy, a mug's game, but look closely at anything
and it'll break your heart.
Or that's what I think this week. How do others deal with the dilemma: Is it possible and desirable to be civil in private and yet be "public enemies" (as Houellebecq and BHL's collection of correspondence is punningly called), or should we shun human contact with our intellectual/ideological opponents lest it dull our rapiers? Do you find it harder to pass judgment on people's work in public or in print after you've met them, or even if you know they will be reading it?
Here It Comes ... Bush-Era Nostalgia!
Just kidding, but one week into the new Age of Nothing's Wrong (I say in fun, though Obama's al-Arabia interview yesterday almost had me believing it!), I happened today to read Carrie Brownstein's transition-day, beating-around-the-Bush-era post on the former Sleater-Kinney guitarist's NPR blog, Monitor Mix.
She makes a fine list of songs of anger/angst/protest from the period. But then comes this summary, which hit home on first reading because Brownstein's such a convincing and clear writer:
"In the last few years, the songs and struggles have tended toward the internal: A lot of music has become as personalized and intimate as the means of recording it. There's a widespread sense of weariness and reflection in place of fury, alongside a hard-earned desire to dance, celebrate and escape. But, like the end of the Bush era itself, those recent musical trends are the denouement. The lasting musical embodiment of the Bush administration will be the songs with teeth - the ones that weren't afraid to snarl back at bared fangs."
No disagreement on the tendency to privatization of sentiment and thought in the songwriting of the past couple of years, which I agree is technological as much as it is zeitgeisty. But on reflection, while the Bush administration itself - or let's say the Cheney administration - was eager and willing to snarl, I'm not sure the songs that got traction or will have lasting impact actually are the angry ones, at least not the explicitly politically angry ones. This may be a Canadian point of view - one at a bit more distance from the action - but I think the songs that will end up embodying the era will be the ones that reflect what it feels like to have your government relentlessly snarling at you, and living in a society whose leaders openly sneer at "reality-based" perspectives.
Songs of escape such as Hey Ya (with its weirdly fucked-up family-romance narrative lurking under its chirpy surface) as well as the shelter-offering Umbrella aren't going to be forgotten soon, and the hip-hop fixation on "the club" seems to fall into the same area - recalling the way that escapist songs of the 1930s have endured. Even in the parenthetical, indie category from which Brownstein primarily draws, there was the ascendance of soothing folk/classical/nursery-song-influenced sounds, a lot of punk-disco party music, the Flaming Lips' dance-this-dada-around moves and so on.
The non-escapist music of 2000-08 that endures may include more generalized expressions of anxiety than explosions of anger. There was that initial post-9/11 backlash against critical thinking - which coincided with pop's most ferocious trickster, Eminem, withdrawing almost completely from the limelight during 2001-2008 (save for his brief intervention in the 2004 elections). That seemed to me to be followed by a wave of cynicism about the worth of calling down power in art (except in satire), and much of the music of the age reflected a sense of panic - some acted it out, like the "yelpy" school of indie (Modest Mouse et al) or songs like Crazy, while some staged it through withdrawal, such as Animal Collective and the other more insular sixties-revival-slash-experimentalist groups, or the mournful goth/emo bands such as My Chemical Romance.
There are exceptions, and Brownstein's right to celebrate them, from Green Day to Arcade Fire - the latter's mix of pessimism and optimism and nerve really does seem more heroic to me now than it did before November. And Sleater-Kinney's own muscular engagement with both social and sonic dynamics seemed heroic to me right away, so I'm happy Brownstein's not too shy to give herself and her comrades a nod. Finally, leaving aside veterans such as Young and Springsteen (who were really just taking up their appointed roles), there is the saga of The Dixie Chicks (pictured above on the notorious Entertainment Weekly cover that, in its 'aughties, Britneyish way, was an attempted show of strength that nearly pitched over the threshold of abjection): Not Ready to Make Nice seems likely to hold onto its place in pop history as a cry against the very deep-freeze in the culture that prevented a lot of other protest music from getting a real hearing.
What strikes me about that song is the way that it adopted not so much the language of traditional political songs to make its point, but the rhetoric of a relationship song. And that's a final development worth noting: I could be wrong, but it seems to me that breakup songs have had a real heyday in the past five years particularly. It doesn't take a Slavoj Zizek to read the political-cultural subtext in such expressions of frustration at being disrespected and abused and of the yearning for a fresh start - such as Hollaback Girl and Irreplaceable and Since U Been Gone.
And at the end of that cycle comes Single Ladies, which in that context almost seems like a triumphant kiss-off - for "single ladies" read "swing voters" (or non-voters) who at the start of 2009 can sneer at the sleazy chumps who underrated them and set their sights on someone who dares to "put a ring on it," which (while a retrograde image) still can stand for commitment and integrity and square dealing.
One could go on - I haven't touched on the re-emergence of the sentimental homefront ballad in Iraq-wartime country music, which has gone too little noticed outside the genre, or for that matter the newfound respectability of heavy metal, which maybe be a point for Brownstein's snarlers. But as for which music posterity will eventually elect to represent that messy era, well, as Bush himself once put it, "history takes a long time for us to reach."