Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Half-assed Pitchfork Write-up, Part I

Solo is what I prefer, or so I tell others as a defense mechanism for being a loner.  At the movies this is actually the case almost without exception due to stubbornly inconsistent attendance practices (read: preemptive buyer's remorse) but also the fear, occasionally validated, that I will find myself accompanied by a chronic phone-checker.  For live music I'm much more flexible (read: desperate for human contact), but the often prohibitive nature of ticket costs and the even more prohibitive nature of my taste in music make that sometimes an even harder sell.  So, I prefer solo, accompanied only by the internecine drives to drink and to be somehow productive when- and wherever I go as materialized by my trusty Moleskine.  This is how I expected to spend the Pitchfork Music Festival this year only to find my solitude interrupted by friends wandering into and out of my vicinity.  But committed I was to documenting the experience, and committed I remain, so here are, dear reader, my notes.  From one of three days.  After arriving late.  Attached to photos I found on the Internet.*  A week and a half after the fact.

Plans to arrive relatively early and catch well-recommended bands like KEN Mode and Parquet Courts were quickly jettisoned by attempts to graft a Platypus of Evan Williams onto the interior of my backpack.  The result was a mess of duct tape attached to a belabored alibi that my bag was a piece of shit requiring layers of adhesive to keep it from disintegrating upon contact.  Why bother with such a high maintenance accessory, you ask?  Well, officer, I won't be missing it if it gets stolen, will I?  Foolproof.  As the multipartite ruse no doubt suggests, I am a novice smuggler, held hostage by a lousy poker face and healthy fear of the law.  Many a college day I've spent admiring my more seasoned peers from afar, swigging proudly from expertly holstered hip flasks as I exchanged double market value for lukewarm beer like a sucker.  Now was my chance to avenge younger me against every grabby rent-a-cop ever to gain my deference.  Said rent-a-cop turned out to be a less-than grabby fat teenager with braces, who seemed hard-pressed to notice that I even had a bag to search.  But the booze got in, which is a success, you know, in consequentialist terms.  It was a moral victory.  Get over yourself, younger me.

...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead lead singer Conrad Keely demonstrates his creative process for 2006 LP So Divided.
My arrival coincided with ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead taking the stage.  I wandered into their modest crowd in the middle of "How Near, How Far."  Source Tags & Codes was the gateway drug for me, as it was for most indie rock guys of a certain vintage, so those syncopated snare fills and Conrad Keely's melismatic vocals brought me right back to about eight years ago, when a little free time and a lot of pot made this stuff mean a whole hell of a lot.  Indeed, Keely especially seemed to have never left 2002, unless Patton-Oswalt-fronting-Fallout-Boy was the look he was always cursed with.

Part of the band's torrid legacy - rife with major label disillusionment, intra-band squabbling, burnouts and rebirths - was a live show reportedly punctuated with the onstage destruction of expensive equipment.  Age (that or pesky liability clauses) seemed to have tempered their rich kid anarchism, but their show was still no less forceful and vivacious than a college kid looking for the midpoint between hardcore and post-rock could hope for.  ST&C was the most heavily represented album, as far as my ears could tell, but they did end with "Totally Natural," one of my personal favorites from their underloved sophomore LP Madonna.  They also played a tune from Worlds Apart, which gave band co-founder Jason Reese the opportunity to bite the hand that fed them by remarking that it was Pitchfork's favorite album (hint: it was not).  Sophomoric, yes, but pointed, especially in the context of curation carefully tuned to reflect the music mag's notoriously fickle taste.  When the festival was starting out back in 2006, Trail of Dead's music was getting regularly tepid responses from Pitchfork, after having earned a perfect 10 out of 10 from them with ST&C.  Hence, no invitation to Union Park was forthcoming, not until they could clean up their act and please the gatekeepers once again.  I'd be a little bitter, too.

Savages lead singer Jehnny Beth calls you out for your obscenely positive worldview.
After I had visited the beer tent two graduate school companions joined me and we headed to the adjacent stage to hear Savages, a recent beneficiary of the Pitchfork hype machine.  As much as I hate to admit it, though, they deserve it: in an overplayed field - post-millennial post-punk - their debut, Silence Yourself, could easily stand with Unknown Pleasures and The Scream, and they lived up to it live.  The sky was blue and the sun was out, hungrily seasoning grateful trees and the ample exposed flesh, but you'd hardly know it from Savages' seething, seedy gloom.  The old cliché about post-punk is that it's what happened when real musicians started playing punk, and that's what sets these five ladies apart from any number of likeminded nostalgists.  Even their drummer, whose performance on the kit was loose to the point of sloppy, fit the ensemble perfectly, lending their melodic discord an almost precarious brittleness.  The icing on the cake, though, was realizing that the lead singer's pitch-black jumpsuit was capped off with bright yellow stilettos, neither of which appeared to hinder her progress as she stalked the stage, daring the world to knock her off her pedestal.  Bitching.  By the time she had bowed and urged us to follow her over to Swans at the red stage, I was forced to acknowledge a few greater-thans by proxy:

1) all-chick bands > all-dude bands;
2) overpriced cold beer > dirt-cheap warm bourbon; and
3) standing in front of musicians with company > standing in front of musicians without company.

The final one hurt my pride the most but as they say, the first step to solving a problem is to admit that you have one.

To be continued...

* Photos courtesy Pitchfork Media.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

PopMatters: Fuck Buttons, SLOW FOCUS

Three and a half years playing the LARP of music criticism and I still haven't leveled up much, considering both the relative infrequency of my contribution to the field, and my frankly inexhaustive knowledge of music.  Maybe that's why I'm extra careful when applying numerical scores to new albums: as the one quantifiable measure of subjective appraisal, they exclusively invite perspiration when inspiration is the hard part.  Besides, thanks to review aggregators like Metacritic, these arbitrary  values mean much more than they really should, so I reserve superlatives often in resistance to the promiscuous praise some critics have no qualms giving out.  Call it balancing the field.  Hence, in my three-and-a-half years writing for PopMatters' new music section, only two albums have earned a 9 out of 10.  The first was the remaster of Bowie's Station to Station, and in retrospect, I'd say it really deserved a 10, considering the minor nature of its shortcomings and the major stature of the art.  The second is Fuck Buttons' Slow Focus, the greatness of which I have become unexpectedly convinced.  An excerpt:
For Slow Focus, Hung and Power have nuanced their approach, and the difference is tremendous. Where Tarot Sport alternated between mirth and agitated “palate cleansers,” in the words of Dusted Magazine’s Jennifer Kelly, Fuck Buttons’ third full-length is founded upon anxious slasher synths, ominous hip-hop breaks, and everything in-between, like a soundtrack co-written by John Carpenter and RZA is music buff heaven. In mood, meanwhile, Slow Focus explores a more robust and inventive iteration of Street Horssing‘s slow-burn menace, which was potent enough, but bound to tried-and-true tactics like tribal drumming and the aforementioned screaming. In both cases, Fuck Buttons rested perhaps too easily on blunt notions of the ugly and the sublime. Slow Focus represents a departure into more mature territory.  The result is an album that stands up to many, many listens, despite its basically repetitive nature.
Read the rest here.  Below, the video for lead single "The Red Wing":

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Saturday Evening Post: Cat Chaperoning

Tonight witnessed, in order of cosmic significance:
  • Paranoid vigilante Nathan Bedford Forrest George Zimmerman found not guilty;
  • UK soldiers in Afghanistan found killing themselves at higher rates than dying in combat;
  • Several highly fatal commercial transit accidents across the world;
  • The Iowa Supreme Court's confirmation to the rest of the country that yes, it's okay to fire someone (read: a woman) for being way too hot;
  • Two hapless civilians run over by Chicago's signature downtown gentrification annual;
  • Our cat Ariel (pictured above) repurposing our bathtub as a toilet.
Given my own infinitesimally minor role in the grand farce of existence, it is this lattermost event that requires me most urgently - a fact for which, as my mother wouldn't hesitate to remind me, I should probably be thankful.  Adult supervision is my Saturday night which means, of course, drinking and reading, which means, of course, reading stuff on my computer screen.  The first item was a defense of radical feminists from accusations of transphobia so rhetorically and intellectually head-and-shoulders above the Jacobin piece that purports to call it out that I am forced to accept that I should probably keep my mouth shut about the whole thing (especially because the aforementioned journal is getting sued for their efforts).  The second was an absolutely searing piece co-written by Mal Ahern, whose acquaintance with me has been reified as actual friendship by capitalism's most cost-effective intelligence agency.  I'd be lying if I claimed it didn't inflame my contrarian impulses on more than one occasion, especially as a flesh-and-blood sometimes-symptom of the version of man-child she and co-author Moira Weigel semi-ludically propose.  But I'd be remiss if I didn't also recommend the piece as a humbling, sterling polemic on the boy's game of academic leftism.

"Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child" is structured as a damning critique of French Marxist collective Tiqqun's screed Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, whose title its parodies.  Some especially wounding excerpts:
"Tiqqun offers an edgy update to such misogynist metaphors deployed for the purposes of demystification. At times, it speaks longingly of women who have not been utterly corrupted by capitalism. But when it learns what it knew all along—there is no outside; all human relationships have become reified—its disappointment at finding no one authentic to grow old with intensifies its vitriol. “It wasn’t until the Young-Girl appeared that one could concretely experience what it means to ‘fuck,’ that is, to fuck someone without fucking anyone in particular. Because to fuck a being that is really so abstract, so utterly interchangeable, is to fuck in the absolute.” Tiqqun’s language may be obscene, but its point is nothing new. The failure to see women as “anyone in particular,” or as subjects endowed with their own ends, has allowed men to fuck women over for centuries." 
"When we look at the comment sections where men fantasize about violating and decapitating female bloggers, or ­OkCupid diaries where they rant about dates who spurned their sexual advances, we recognize immediately that the Nice Guy doth protest too much. Typos make it easy to call a sadsack sociopath a sociopath. But we imagine that our male colleagues at cultural institutions are aware of how women have been exploited.  So when one asks whether we would like to co-author a paper, undertaking all the translation for it because he does not “do languages,” we try to shake it off. He cannot ­really imagine that we spent years of our adult lives mastering foreign words and grammar just so we could do the tedious housework of gathering sources while he takes credit for the conceptual heavy lifting. (Even his verb choice—“do”—makes it sound like this was a hobby, like tourism, as if we just happened to get off on playing with textbooks.) When the co-organizer of an exhibition calls to ask, on a few hours notice, whether he can borrow sheets for the futon on which he volunteered weeks ago to put up a visiting artist—it was just coincidence that he called us and not Patrick or Andrew, right? We want to believe this. And yet, we look at the female faculty who seem to participate in every committee and conference and supervise over half the dissertations in their departments, and we feel afraid."* 
"When we accept the knowingness that the Man-Child trades in, we put off thinking about how differences of gender, sex, and sexuality operate in diverse lives. That sort of thinking takes work, work that many of us would often rather avoid. Because utopia never arrives, this labor gets passed on to the exploited, who do not have the choice of temporarily ignoring the question. In many workplaces, including academic departments, this means that race becomes the “job” of people of color; sexual politics the “job” of people who are female and/or queer and/or transgendered."
*I imagine the "co-organizer" and colleague who "does not 'do languages'" know who they are; one only hopes they read The New Inquiry. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

"Can We Stop Worrying About Millennials Yet?"

Fellow child of the boomers Matt Bors has penned an outrageously on-the-nose generational rebel yell and published it on CNN.  I will exploit my relative media invisibility to post it in its entirety.  And yes, I do so fully guilty of (ab)using the term "millennial" to signify a generational Other, not least of all in my most recent post on Spring Breakers, but with insistence that I still include myself among these teeming navelgazing masses.

Friday, July 5, 2013


“How the hell do we sell this?” a pen-twirling stuffed suit asks across the boardroom table of my imagination, apropos of Harmony Korine’s flashy nightmare vision of kids these days. The trailers that preceded the late night screening I caught suggested they never quite figured it out: Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain, the final Hangover entry, and a post-apocalypse comedy starring the dick-wielding half of Judd Apatow’s stable – i.e. this summer’s raunchfest tentpoles – were apparently AMC’s best attempt at narrowcasting. Not that its promo campaign has promised anything other than nonstop titillation, accented with the vaguely highbrow cred of, say, Vice Magazine, which incidentally mounted a great deal of said promo. Butts are in seats accordingly: the hip iniquity draws desirable demos, while anyone who’s seen Kids or Gummo comes just to wait for the other shoe to drop – if, in fact, it ever does.

Whether it does remains teasingly uncertain. Most write-ups, Jeff Sconce’s excellent analysis included, take for granted that Korine’s indulgence is critical, if not outright satirical, because how could it not be? But I’m not so sure. If Spring Breakers assaults the senses, that’s because its world consists entirely of sensation; no wonder that it shares a cinematographer, Benoît Debie, with Gaspar Noé’s neon epic Enter the Void. But whereas Noé frames flashing lights and throbbing flesh with unambiguously sleazy censure, Korine seems much more ambivalent. Benjamin Halligan observed in his superb piece on the “neo-underground” that Gummo, Korine’s ‘97 paean to hillbilly ennui, is neither entirely freakshow nor plea for social justice, instead subordinating both functions to an impressionistic “stylistic anarchy.”[1] This didn’t stop critics from accusing the film of one or praising it as the other, but it took the keen eyes of my undergrads to see the subtle resonance between the squalid tableaux of Gummo and the star-studded hyper-montage of Spring Breakers.

In other words, to claim Korine comes to bury or to praise is to deny any alternatives. Mimesis in extremis is typically understood to make satire, but the pop vocabulary Spring Breakers enlists – Skrillex’s ham-fisted beats, beer-doused breasts in over-saturated slo-mo – incorporates hyper-acceleration as a formal principle.  Whatever scans as subversion in Spring Breakers by virtue of excess is virtually indistinguishable from the crass mass culture that would be its target. Maybe lumping the film with The Hangover Part III is a cannier move than first suspected.

Anthony Lane gripes that Korine falls prey to the instant gratification he sets out to expose, which is about as predictable a high-brow reaction as I can imagine. Maybe it really is a generational thing. It shouldn’t elude anyone that the final shootout – in which the two most hardened reveler-cum-criminal tarts dispatch a small army of black gangbangers without breaking a nail – strains credibility. But whereas someone whose knowledge of hip-hop peaked in the 90s might read James Franco’s cornrowed wigger clown Alien as an update of Jamie Kennedy’s B-Rad G, it takes being weened on Myspace to place him among Riff Raff, Lil B, and even Das Racist: rappers who reject “the false dichotomy of jokes vs. serious shit,” to quote the latter, and yet are taken no less seriously for it.

Above all, consider the four leads. Their minimally-clothed bodies have decorated advance press and claim the lion’s share of Spring Breakers’ ninety minutes. Consistent with the film’s penchant for having its cake and eating it too: ticket-selling pandering functions also to critique the very same. But a comment I overheard in the men’s room afterwards is instructive. Three young men were working the film out over the bathroom sinks, and one asked the others: “What do you think they meant to do by making the girls not-that-hot?” I laughed, of course – to myself and my urinal – because the judgment was patently ridiculous: two of them former Disney Channel princesses, one of them a Pretty Little Liar, and the other Korine’s wife, these women are without a doubt among this species’ finer specimens. He’s right, though, in that they fail to conform to Hollywood’s tunnel vision of female beauty, especially of the bikinied variety and especially of the supposed-to-be-teenaged variety. Casting fully-grown women as high school seniors has long been the means by which high school sex comedies ogle at the underaged while sidestepping indecency. The heroines of Spring Breakers, on the other hand, look like actual college freshmen. In the place of impossibly leggy supermodel types are averagely petite girls adorned in the implements of Lisa Frank-style infantilized femininity. They evoke less our visual repertoire of screen teen queens – the Molly Ringwalds, Jennifer Love Hewitts, and Emma Stones of the world – than the “barely legal” cottage media industry, from the garish banners garnishing porn aggregators to the lad-mag features delivering soft-core centerfolds to the salivating masses upon a B-lister’s 18th. That Spring Breakers effects the graduation of Vanessa Hudgens and the baby-faced Selena Gomez from children’s television to cultural adulthood emboldens the point. The spring breaking of these pseudo-virginal bodies isn’t dialectical, it’s par for course.

Again we have that nagging accusation of cake-having and -eating. Instead of putting distance between itself and lamentable pornographic conventions, Spring Breakers dives right in. But of course it does. I’ve long suspected that insofar as we’re called upon to judge a cultural problem, satire and social critique make things easy for us. A duller filmmaker might have given Spring Breakers a viewpoint identifiably smarter, or at least more analytical, than its coed bacchanals. Perhaps the black bystanders of Gucci Mane's scenes would’ve been given more to do, beyond looking on in vague incredulity; or, more lazily, Alien and the girls could be made the butts of broad farce. But Korine offers nothing of the sort. Vacuous sensibilities are taken utterly seriously, conveyed with a lyricism that’s been duly compared to Terence Malick. When that means a motif of “Spring break forever!” and its verbal variants chanted monastically in voiceover, Spring Breakers approaches astringent absurdity, which is, I think, why it works and why it’s of a piece with Korine’s cinema of transgression. We’re forced to experience this world as is, only amplified, looped, and polished to an art cinema sheen. There’s no safety valve. Anyone who’s weak to the allure of underage girls, wet t-shirt contests, and Britney Spears’ “Everytime” is openly confronted with that uncomfortable fact. My screening companion wasn’t buying it, but I for one would rejoice in a future where summer tentpoles begin to look more like Spring Breakers, and we stop kidding ourselves about the ethical imperatives of eating cake. 

[1] Benjamin Halligan, “What is the Neo-Underground and What isn’t: A First Consideration of Harmony Korine,” ed.Xavier Mendik and Steven Jay Schneider, Underground U.S.A.: Filmmaking Beyond the Canon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 150-60.