Sunday, January 31, 2010
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Bowie, Bolan, Brian Ferry and the whole Glam Revolution of the early 1970s lately. This moment is often heralded as the first stiletto-heal to drop in the coming post gender era. Bowie via his alter ego of Ziggy Stardust is often seen as giving a voice to a generation of swish boys and butch girls who would grow up to abandon the centuries old nonsense of gender. Although I agree that the glam guys were the first kind of mass-market version of a post identity culture that would change the world in the coming decades, I also feel that this was not the only game that they changed. Since the first British Invasion of the early 60s British Popular Music had been primarily about location. The Beatles music was rooted in their hometown of Liverpool. The whole Mersey Beat Sound of the first wave of British RockNRoll was rooted in a mixing of American Roots music and a certain working class English ethos and sound. The second wave of British bands would wave a sort of Nationalist flag for all of England. Mick and Keith wrapped themselves in the Union Jack and their music was rooted in their very Englishness. No band did this more effectively than The Who, a band that even took the colours of Britannia as the palette for their logo. British Music of the post war era was about where you were from and about how music was a path to where you were going. It dealt with the class struggles and desires of upward mobility that had defined British Youth culture for generations. The early bands masked their working class accents in a sort of mimicry of the vocal styles of Black American bluesman. By the time you get to records like The Who’s My Generation you have Roger Daltrey mining the working class vernacular and colloquial expressions of his generation not just in interviews but in the very lyrics and style of singing on the records themselves. Where is an artist like David Bowie or Marc Bolan to go from there? Bowie wasn’t even working class for starters. This is where the story of the second revolution in British Pop Music begins; Bowie and the boys made music that would forgo the class politics that had defined pop music and in doing so would open up a whole new world of musical and narrative possibilities within the framework of RockNRoll. Glam wasn’t about Liverpool or London, it wasn’t about Britannia or the artist’s working class world. Hell, it wasn’t even about this world at all. With Glam, Bowie and all the other boys shot the narrative straight into outerspace. From this moment on anything was game. Not only weren’t artists limited by gender they didn’t even have to be of this world. This shedding of the skin allowed music to become about anything the artist could imagine. In doing so it abandoned the need for authenticity that had plagued music for so long. Artists no longer felt the need to prove that they were still neighborhood boys with all the working class bullshit that accompanied that. Music was no longer about the world around you but also about the world inside you. If you wanted to be an androgynous alien with a snow-white tan glam said you could. Glam laid the groundwork for music that explored the internal world where anything was possible and in doing so escaped Hegel’s dialectic of working class guilt butting up against aspirations of upward mobility. Glam freed artists to write about their dreams no matter how strange those dreams might be and thus spawned not just the Eurythmics but also bands as diverse as Fugazi and The Flaming Lips. Bands that would grow up in a contemporary world that would not limit them to creating art that addressed their external reality but also their inner conflicts and demons as well as their inner space alien. Glam changed the lives of people who never even think to put on a T Rex record and for that it deserves more credit than it will ever receive.
Friday, January 29, 2010
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
a New York State of Mind
New York City has one of the nation’s richest musical histories. From Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue to Sinatra’s ode to the city that never sleeps and all the way up to Brill Building Pop and The Velvet Underground. Only maybe Nashville and New Orleans have a stronger case for America’s musical capitol. However in the canon of contemporary (read as Post Beatlemania) music produced in and around New York and with New York as an over arching theme Vampire Weekend has a particular original place. From the Velvets to the Dolls to the Ramones and even Springsteen (if the outer boroughs count, why not Jersey?) and the Strokes, music of a New York sensibility has always either been the product of working class kids of a bridge and tunnel persuasion or in the case of the Strokes rich kids aping a working class aesthetic. Vampire Weekend is especially unique in this manner. Unlike all the aforementioned bands Vampire Weekend are both neither working class nor particularly embarrassed by their prep school pedigree. They are unabashedly posh and in a city with a notoriously complex relationship to class this ambivalence is often perceived as arrogance. Vampire Weekend exist in a particularly contemporary spot that is in a broad sense a bi-product of their generation. A generation born under Reagan and Bush and who came of age during the greatest economic boom in a generation; however in a macro sense Vampire Weekend are not just products of Reagan Bush Clinton Bush but also Giuliani. Vampire Weekend grew up in the most sanitized and privileged New York ever. They are too young to remember the AIDS crisis or the Washington Square Riots. They grew up in a city where even the rats had an Amex and a chauffer. The New York of drag queens and junkies that inspired Sweet Lou is as ancient history to them as the gas crisis or legionnaires disease. Never mind the class resentment that fueled bands like the Ramones to make music informed by the fact that being from the outer boroughs might well as made you the redheaded stepchild. Their New York was not only one of sanitized streets but also sanitized memories. Not only was the New York of pimps and peep shows dead and gone, but New York was all the better for it. Much as someone born with no olfactory glands can never understand the subtle differences between a Cadbury and a Hershey Bar their ignorance of a New York before Rudy allows them to be posh without shame. How can they realize a faux pas when they are a product of a city that has come to see it’s seedy past as vice and not a virtue. In short they play a sincere game of idiots delight. And make no mistake, their aim is both true and sincere. There is no nodding gesture or knowing tongue in cheek. Much like the city that made them they are totally comfortable in their sincere ambivalence, ne total ignorance of the class struggles that have since Dickens defined a city that is lit by the torch of lady liberty who proclaims give me your poor your tired your hungry but whose median real estate prices those very immigrants will never be able to afford. New York has always fed on the dreams of those who have little more than dreams but the New York that reared the lads of Vampire Weekend is a city without shame. It is this callous and gentrified New York that informs Vampire Weekend’s work and it is this very indulgence that may well be their crutch. They have done what neither the Strokes nor the Dolls were capable of, make two records that are both distinctly New York and distinctly great, one better than the last. They have also done what the Velvets and Ramones were unable to do; sell records, lots of records actually. Now the question is, if they are the band that Rudy birthed than how will they grow and adapt to a New York that itself is changing. The rich are still getting richer but there quite simply aren’t as many of them. Furthermore, as a result of the shrinking of the globe brought about by the internet paired with rents that are still out of the reach of most Americans let alone most human beings in general New York will never again hold the cache that it once held. With Youtube and Myspace will the next Bruce even feel a need to cross the river to find their voice. Vampire Weekend may end up being the penultimate New York band and if that is the case then isn’t it interesting that they would deliver on the promise of every great New York band before them by sounding and looking so little like them while still being so New York.
Friday, January 22, 2010
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Sunday, January 17, 2010
In this edition of a Few of My Favourite Things I would like to discuss a recent film. Film as a medium can do things that a painting or sculpture can never do, beyond the fact that films traditional use of narrative inherently includes the viewer in the action in a way that painting cannot ever truly accomplish; however, even films with less traditional or no narrative structure still can grab the viewer by using things like time to heighten the tension or amplify the catharsis. Take for example, the recent Coen Brothers film, No Country For Old Men. Just like the Cormack McCarthy book that it is based on the film is an allegory. One is not meant to take the events presented as real and actual. There is in actuality no Anton Chigurh, No Llewelyn Moss; likewise there is no money or drugs or cross state murder spree. Anton is not a man and Llewelyn is all young men. Young men, with their arrogance and bravado, men who still think they can work the system in their favour. Men who haven’t realized that we are but a grain of sand in all of the Sahara desert. Men who this world still has a use for because they are the fuel that feeds the beast of nature. And Anton, Anton is the beast’s messenger. Throughout the film Anton flips a coin to allow his victims to feel they have some say in their fate. This represents God’s gift to man of free will. As the film sees it, God gave us free will only to abdicate the guilt that is at the root of His ambivalence. The film is the fever dream of Sheriff Bell, a man at the end of the primordial journey who has for his entire life walked a straight line and played by the rules and has stepped over the corpses of failed hustlers who thought they had all the angles accounted for and who now has found the prize for all this hard work. The prize of course is the same one all the bagmen and grease men found waiting for them. For you can’t fight the beast, we all meet our fate and grace of god or not, we all end up six feet under. I could watch this film everyday until I have no days left and still marvel at how perfect it is. No shot is superfluous, every frame is captured the only way it could be. Like a Rembrandt or a Rothko this film is the work of master craftsmen at their peak. Their confidence in their ability to tell this story is what allows them to avoid so many of the pitfalls that beleaguer even the greatest of filmmakers. It is so easy to get cocky and throw in shots just because you can or get sheepish and cut something amazing because you aren’t sure but the best artists exist in that perfect middle where confidence and humility dance. Take the scene where Anton mends his wounds after his encounter with Llewelyn outside the hotel. The Coens treat this scene with an objective tenderness that belies the carnage that Anton has wreaked. We feel as if we are watching an animal lick it’s wounds, in that moment we don’t see Anton as a beast but instead as a force of nature playing it’s part in a grand awful tragedy. In that moment the Coens give us a quiet glimpse of the beauty that is the mess of life. Yes, people suffer and yes, the bad guy often wins and we don’t control our fate but at the same time these shackles also free us. We are not perfect, we do not control our destiny; but like being strapped to the back of a wild horse traveling at breakneck speed down a gorge to certain death this ride called life can be a wild and amazing trip if you understand the rules that the universe abides by. The Coen brothers give us a glimpse of the beauty amidst all the pain. And oh, the beauty; this is one of the most beautifully photographed films that has ever been made. They show us the awe and wonder of nature and how small we humans are in comparison. This film is a travelogue for the human condition and it capture the quiet beauty amidst all the savage pain.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Sunday, January 10, 2010
I know it has been quite a while since I updated A Few of My Favourite Things here so I will skip with the pleasantries and just get right into it.
The subject for this edition of A Few of My Favourite Things is the contemporary artist and draftswoman, Aurel Schmidt. Aurel’s work belongs in the recent resurgence of drawing. Her work is also a kin of the recent rise of what could best be described as obsessive / ritualistic work. Wherein the artist uses repetition be it of formal elements or technical processes to a degree that borders on obsessive and ritualistic. These artists can be considered the offspring of artists such as Yayoi Kusama and although their work often borrows Ms Kusama’s obsessive tendencies it rarely shares her formal limitations. Instead the work of Ms Schmidt cribs everything from pop culture to pseudo-religious imagery and the reference lays in the technical as opposed aesthetic approach that Ms Schmidt takes to her very labored over drawings. Another reference point for Ms Schmidt is the work of outsider artists like Henry Darger and Martin Ramirez. Like both Mr.’s Darger and Ramirez Ms Schmidt’s work often has as it’s subject matter imagery that can be described as bizarre and surreal however unlike both Mr. Darger and Mr. Ramirez who both struggled with mental health issues that often plagued the consistency of their work Ms Schmidt’s work has been prolific and consistently rewarding. Her work in many ways reminds me of the work of someone like the early renaissance artist Hieronymus Bosch in its fixation upon the disturbing and the grotesque. There is something truly wonderful about how she so precisely crafts these technically complex "cabinets of oddities". The loving attention paid to every last detail of such seemingly disturbing drawings elevates the subject matter above it’s pulpy and gruesome origins into some sort of thing akin to beauty and maybe even truth. As if by paying it some much heed Ms Schmidt begs the question, “Why not?”