Archive for May, 2003

May 30th, 2003 Comments off

I haven’t been blogging this week. Not sure why. I’ve been busy, but not much busier than usual. Maybe it’s the weather. It’s been raining for, what, two weeks now. And it doesn’t look like, other than this short break this morning, we’re gonna get any relief any time soon. I have to say that I’ve just about had it with this shit (the weather, that is). One more spring without a spring here in New England. Gets me down. Summer needs to come on soon.

The only thing music-related I’ve been thinking about much lately is this question about experimental pop that comes up in this week’s Bombpop, which is about the Canadian collective Broken Social Scene and their terrific new record (well, new Stateside), “You Forgot It in People.” Still haven’t managed to get a handle on what it is that ties all these bands — Giant Sand, Calexico, Califone, Flaming Lips, the Polyphonic Spree … — together. Other than the obvious stuff, that is. And maybe I never will get it.

I do know that I like what they’re doing. I also know that it seems to me that rock is in its twilight years as a popular music form. So it’s probably about time it started reflecting on its life. And this experimentalism, in my mind, is a part of that process. Rather than attempting to expand the boundaries pop, it seems to me, the experimentalists are looking inward, trying to discover what rock is by breaking it down into tiny pieces and then pasting them back together in odd ways (or, in the case of bands like Califone, not really pasting them back together at all), seeing if the music coheres in these different ways as well as it does in its more linear forms. And the mere fact that it does cohere some of the time is a pretty strong indication that rock might have been many things other than (or in addition to) the many things it already is. That might suggest that there’s much life left in the old girl, much left to be done, but somehow I don’t think so. I think movements in the arts, much like people, come to their end with more potential unrealized than realized. That’s where retro and revivalist movements come from. The big difference between people and art forms, of course, is that art forms can go on living long after they die. Even if rock is on its deathbed, I’m confident people will still be playing it 100 years from now. And maybe, as in jazz, there will in a few decades be a split between those who play the old, accessible forms and those who still believe in moving the music forward, and attempt do so by making it such an intellectual exercise that little, if anything, of its original sound is left, even if much of its original intent (sprit?) survives, perhaps manifest in both groups, though few in either will admit it about the other.

Am I just over thinking this? Maybe. And maybe I’ve got it all wrong. I certainly don’t plan to stop thinking about it. If I figure I need to reverse my position (not that I’m taking a position) at some point, I’ll surely write about it. In the meantime, looks like I’m back to blogging. Let’s see if it keeps up once the storm clouds move back in.

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May 21st, 2003 Comments off

Well, it’s all but over. “American Idol,” that is. Nothing left but tonight’s announcement of the winner. And I think we all know how that’s going to go. The safe, white guy in a landslide. Yup, Clay will win, even though he should have been eliminated from the competition a week ago, and made that fact painfully obvious with each of his performances last night. Ruben, who was good, but not great last night (though still far better than the hollow competition) will be graceful in defeat. And I (thankfully) will never have to lay eyes or ears on any of the competitors again. This makes me incredibly happy.

I was reminded watching last night’s show of just how awful the whole “American Idol” thing is. (This is not a new realization. I’m just sort of re-annoyed by it this morning.) So here’s a show based on the horrible fact that the major labels and the corporate media can manufacture music stars out of whole cloth any time they feel like it. Look at last year’s AI winner, Kelly Clarkson, a woman who doesn’t have a lick of talent but still has an album on the charts. She didn’t fight her way up through a club scene, building an audience by making good records and touring relentlessly. She didn’t need people to turn their friends on to her music. She didn’t need to pound the pavement, flyering to promote shows in new cities only to have a half dozen people turn out. She won a contest and they made her a star. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose. But what a weird world it is where no only can these corporate interests create “our new American Idol” but can do it under the pretense that America is actually choosing for itself. As if there were any real, substantive difference between any of the contestants on this show. They’re all people who couldn’t make it on their own, have just enough raw ability (notice that I don’t say talent) to look and sound decent when everything possible is done to support them, and are perfectly content to make music for a living the way other people make cars or toaster ovens for a living (i.e. by following a set of instructions and doing what their bosses tell them, not by following a muse). The whole thing pretty much amounts to a big, public nose thumbing directed at those of us who still believe music ought to be more than a product you market to the hapless masses. I’ve had to remind myself that I only watch to see Simon tear into contestants periodically, which is easy to forget given that aside from one semi-critical remark to Clay (about his first song coming off like “American Idol, the musical), Simon might as well have been Paula last night.

Still, I’ve come this far, so I might as well say something about last night’s show. First and foremost, Clay should be thrown into a tank of hungry sharks. And whoever wrote that first song he sang last night should go in right along with him. Awful song. Awful performance. Makes me glad I won’t have to listen the record Clay will make after his inevitable victory. After that song, it just kind of got worse. I mean, man, I didn’t think I could hate “Here, There and Everywhere” more than I already did. I was wrong. And then there was “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” another fairly awful song that Clay managed to make even worse. This guy wouldn’t know heart or soul if it fell on him from out of a tree. He’s an imposter. He perfectly exemplified the difference between ability and talent. The guy hits all the notes in the right order. Usually sings all the right words, too. But there’s an emptiness to his singing that he has no ability ever to repair (OK, maybe if he were to experience some personal hardship, but that seems unlikely given that he’s about to have stardom handed to him). And he substitutes very staged, very stiff theatrics for stage presence. He’s a log, pure and simple.

I did realize recently that I’ve been somewhat off the mark in my assessment of Clay’s support, though. I’d previously believed that Clay’s backers were either drawn to the safe and bland (which I think is true of most of America) or (consciously or, more likely, unconsciously) racist. I no longer believe that. I mean, I still believe Clay’s followers include many people from both of those categories. Only, I need to add a third: the just plain old stupid. I have a tendency to forget how painfully dumb a lot of people are — until something happens to remind me. I’ve been reminded, so I have to point out that it’s not only possible but probable that there are people out there who are dumb enough to actually believe Clay has some talent. They’re still wrong, but they’re not necessarily lacking of palate or racist (though some may be either or both in addition to being stupid).

Ruben, as mentioned, was good last night, but not great. In fact, I think he just sort of walked through his first two songs and only turned it on for real for his last number. I don’t know if that was nerves, resignation (everyone else knows Clay’s gonna win; maybe Ruben does, too), or maybe overconfidence. The guy has that easy way about him when he’s on stage and it’s hard to tell if maybe he just thinks he’s got the thing wrapped up. If he were in any way aware of how much better he is than Clay, and foolish enough to believe that anything in America happens by way of pure merit, he’d have to believe he’s gonna win.

So this is probably the end of my weekly rants about AI, unless something happens tonight that I feel I absolutely have to respond to. Back to regular life. I’m gonna go listen to some real music now. You should maybe do the same. It’ll be cleansing.

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May 13th, 2003 Comments off

I’m just back from four absolutely lovely days in the Carolinas, two in the Charlotte, North Carolina area, where I attended the wedding of two delightful people who I hope will share a long, happy life together, and two just outside Columbia, South Carolina. Gorged myself on Carolina barbecue, easily the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten. Lots of pulled pork with this amazing, thin, very spicy barbecue sauce. I worry that I will never be able to eat at any of my beloved local barbecue spots again without secretly longing for something a bit more refined (in my mind, I’ll be wishing I were going to Carolina, I suppose). It was an extraordinarily nice way to spend a long weekend. Except for one thing.

Whenever I travel to new parts of America (I’d been to Raleigh-Durham before, but never to the western part of North Carolina, and not to South Carolina at all) I get very excited to check out the local culture. I’m not expecting anything so radically different from what I know, really, just a bit of regional charm. And I’m encouraged by the fact that you can still find it if you look hard enough. But I’m increasingly discouraged, bordering on depressed, at how hard I have to look. And I think that’s actually less to do with the places I visit as the place I live. That is, driving past endless lines of shopping malls and chain restaurants, I’m forever struck by the oppressive sameness of modern America. I’m saddened by the fact that while I have to scour the back roads for something authentic and local, I’m never at a loss to locate a Starbucks, an Outback Steakhouse or a Chili’s. (This, of course, leaves out the obvious fast food stuff. We can talk about the McDonaldsization of America without getting bogged down in Filet-O-Fishes and Big Macs, can’t we?) And I recognize that this is happening at home just as it is everywhere else. We’re all losing our individual and cultural identities to the inescapable onslaught of corporate culture.

Ultimately, I have nothing really against any of those food chains. Eat at them from time to time (though not nearly as often as my corporate masters would like — sorry corporate masters). Nor do I really think America has anyone to blame but itself for the ongoing steamrolling of its regional cultural differences. We can blame those chains. We can blame Westinghouse and Disney and their broadcast media arms. We can blame whomever we like. But in the end, these companies thrive because we feed them, happily sacrificing the local, the flavorful, the colorful in favor of comforting ubiquity, the bland and empty, the endless seas of eggshell, taupe and ecru.

It’s just saddening to me that there’s so little left that’s different from one place to the next. And while I go to consumer culture to illustrate the point (yes, because it’s easy and, yes, because I am a consumer, a sad seeker of happiness in the material world, knowingly doomed to spend my life seeking that which is attainable only through the discontinuation of the search — all while the mantra of truth, like a set of GPS directions to the realm of earthly contentment, echoes softly in the back of my ever-softening melon — softening, apparently, to the extent that I sometimes get to thinking I’m Tom Robbins) it goes well beyond consumer culture. We focus on our differences, to distract ourselves, but in reality, we’re mostly all the same. I’m certain I can even hear our accents fading into that Midwestern monotone that the TV networks so favor.

I don’t know what the solution is. Actually, I don’t think there is a solution, short of complete societal collapse (which may be inevitable). And maybe it’s all for the best. Maybe this is how that legendary melting pot that seemed never to materialize actually functions. Maybe the American melting pot has just been hidden in the back of the kitchen of a TGI Fridays somewhere, slowly cooking us down into a happy flavorless mush without anyone realizing it was happening. Maybe, that is, this thing that makes me so depressed is simply destiny at work. If that’s the case, I suppose I shouldn’t be so sad. And still, I am. And I suspect I will be. Until they finally manage to stir some Prozac (the spice of modern American life) into my corner of the pot and I melt into a blissful and utterly unremarkable state that may not be nirvana but probably seems close enough. I can almost taste the cheese fries already. I want my baby back, baby back, baby back … .

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May 5th, 2003 Comments off

Massively, hugely, enormously busy week for me. Lots of stories due to lots of different places, so not much time for the blogging. I’ll definitely post some thoughts on tomorrow’s “American Idol” (’cause, you know, a fella’s gotta have his priorities and all), but other than that probably not much until at least Thursday.

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