[the palaverist]

Sunday, April 18, 2010

[pop is the new alternative]

It's a truism that the millennial generation is a whole lot more earnest than the Gen-Xers who preceded them. Certainly they don't seem to be mired in the crippling irony that we all seemed to struggle against, and they don't have the combination of seething anger and helpless despair that fueled the whole alternative movement.

There are two relics of the Gen-X period that to me sum up what stood out about our generation and why. The first is a line from "Smells Like Teen Spirit": "Our little group has always been/And always will until the end." There just aren't a lot of us, and I think that made a difference. The boomers were marketed to relentlessly, and still are. The same is true of the millennials: movies like Look Who's Talking and Three Men and a Baby, came out when they were born, and the music industry was creating pop stars for them when they were still tweens. But for Generation X, the marketing juggernaut never really got ginned up. I think we never fully bought into corporate America because corporate America never really bought into us. The resources weren't invested, so we went our own way and listened to weird bands and wore weird clothes that were difficult to sell in any organized way. I'd like to imagine that the alternative scene was about something deeper, but I suspect that we felt like we had no real place in contemporary America simply because no one was trying hard enough to sell us things.

The other Gen-X artifact that I think of is the movie Slackers. Its various characters are all struggling in one way or another to gather and communicate information: the guy who collects TVs, the guy who keeps shouting about how people need to read the newspaper, the Kennedy assassination buff, the girl trying to sell Madonna's pubes are all trapped by their inability to connect with anyone who shares their enthusiasms. And what's remarkable about this movie is that every one of those problems is solved by the Internet. With YouTube, political blogs, social networks, eBay, you no longer need to be alone with your obsession. That devastating feeling of isolation and powerlessness that the alternative scene was meant to assuage is simply not a problem in the way that it was. Millennials have come of age knowing that they can make a difference, that they can have an impact on the wider world, whether through serious political engagement or through participation in a flashmob.

But so here's where the whole situation with pop music starts to get interesting. For Gen-X, there were two kinds of popular music: pop that was manufactured by people who didn't seem to understand us that well, and who were definitely not us; and alternatives to that pop, whether gangsta rap or grunge or what have you, that had to define itself musically against the slicked-up sounds of more traditional pop. To be authentic, music had to be uncomfortable, at least a little.

But for the millennials, that's just not true anymore. They voted for their American Idols, so it's OK to like them. And they watched Justin Timberlake grow up, so it's OK to like him. And now, there's the emerging and fascinating phenomenon of the ironically self-aware pop star. Lady Gaga is the obvious queen of this new phenomenon, but you see it in Lily Allen and in Timberlake, and I noticed in in Ke$ha on SNL this weekend. (Sudden thought: was it Eminem who bridged the gap between alternative rage and abrasiveness, and self-parodying pop stars?) They're pop stars, and they know they're pop stars, and they seem to think that the whole thing is a zany lark, akin to a YouTube video that blows up for no apparent reason. You get the sense that they genuinely realize the whole thing is a crap shoot, and that there's nothing all that special about them as people.

It used to be alternative that was the realm of DIY, where you went to see bands that made you feel like you could be in a band just like them. You could never be a New Kid on the Block, but you and your friends could totally pull off a Beasties punk number, and any schmuck could dress that badly. But now it's the guitar bands that seem kind of remote and obscure, while anyone with a sequencer and a webcam can make a video and maybe turn into a pop star. It's like Toto pulled back the curtain, and the millennials decided that Oz was totally great and they wanted a turn at the levers.

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[what does it all mean?]

I don't know, but it's on every hip hop record, and apparently it's New York City Mayor Fiorello Laguardia explaining the moral of a Dick Tracy comic strip over the radio during a newspaper strike (the famous sample kicks in at about 1:27).

The first use is almost certainly Double Dee and Steinski, who included it in their Lesson 1: The Payoff Mix from 1983, an astonishing sound collage.

The more you know ... Star!

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

[national fears]

Because I know a little something about Korea, people often ask me about the Chinese government. I suppose Canadians probably get asked to explain America, so I kind of get it.

In any case, a question that often comes up is why the Chinese government is so terrified of Falun Gong. I don't know from any detailed insider knowledge or anything, but my guess is that it has to do with a vast and little-known war called the Taiping Rebellion.

At roughly the same time that some 600,000 Americans lost their lives in our Civil War, China was going through an epic struggle that cost some 20 million lives — some 30 times as many casualties. (I found one reference to China's population in 1834 as 400 million, while the US had some 31 million in 1860, so the percentage losses are closer: something like 5% in China, and 2% in the US.)

Wars on this scale leave national scars. America certainly hasn't resolved all the racial issues that lay behind the Civil War, and fear of race-based insurrection has continued to haunt the national psyche.

In China, the haunting fear is of a different kind. It's a fear of disruptive religious movements, because that's what Taiping was. Hong Xiuquan, the movement's leader, claimed to be Jesus's brother, and he led what was called the Heavenly Kingdom in a great battle to rid China of Manchu rule and spread a peculiar brand of heterodox Christianity.

So I don't know this for a fact, but I suspect that when Chinese officials see a movement like Falun Gong — a religious movement with the power to mobilize great numbers of people — some national memory of the Taiping disaster kicks in. On a gut level, mass religious zeal produces panic.

None of this is meant to justify the abuse, repression, or torture of any group of people for their religious beliefs, of course. The question isn't whether such repression is OK — it's not — but why it happens, why this group in particular gets the Chinese government's panties in a bunch. And I think that maybe it's that legacy of Taiping.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

[lies, damn lies, and sound effects]

Like a lot of folks, I've been watching Life, the Discovery Channel series of nature documentaries in which photographers go to extraordinary lengths to bring back fascinating footage of fauna, which is then edited into anodyne snippets narrated by Oprah Winfrey, who seems to feel obligated to give clever line readings.

OK, so I'm not thrilled with the series. But here's the part that really gets me: the sound effects. And they get me because they're so utterly false.

Whatever you might say about the narratives used to frame the video of animals doing their thang, you can at least look at it and go, "Yup, that bat sure is eating that fish," or whatever. It's a picture of something real. But the sound effects are trickier. Sometimes they're presumably genuine recordings of animals making sounds: the call of a particular bird, the roar of a lion.

Or maybe not.

The trouble is, there are sounds that are evidently faked. Everything underwater, for example. We know that even if they had a mike down there, it would pick up the sound of a diver blowing bubbles, and that would be lame. But what do we hear in the show? The splishy whoosh of this or that fish darting out and eating its prey, or the burble and hiss of coral ejecting eggs. But there is no such sound, or at least nothing that was recorded in the wild for this show. Even worse are the sound effects that go along with slow-motion or time-lapse footage. The sounds aren't slowed, which is again proof that they're faked.

Why does this matter? Because it calls into question every other sound: the crack of the bones that the vultures drop on rocks to break open, the clack of monkeys breaking open nuts with rocks, even the animals' vocalizations. How can I have any confidence that the elephant's trumpet on Life was produced by the elephant on the screen at the time that the elephant was being filmed?

Indeed, and slightly to Life's credit, the show ends each episode with a segment called "Capturing the Shot," which shows photographers gathering the material for the show — and, typically, narrating the moment as they capture it. Which means that they're ruining the sound. Which means that the sounds we hear in the final version are foley effects added later.

It's disappointing. And it's not just Life, either. I was just watching a Nova episode in which a space telescope whooshed by. Did it have to whoosh? But at least there it was glaringly obvious that the sound wasn't real. With nature documentaries, I'd like to feel confident that the roars, squeaks, growls, crunches, and other animal noises are actually animal noises, not reconstructions in a studio. But until a higher standard of honesty prevails, we'll never really know.


Thursday, April 01, 2010

[our pakistan moment?]

For years, Pakistan made a national security bargain. Seeing India as an existential threat, and believing that they couldn't match India's military strength directly, Pakistan's intelligence forces promoted a variety of Islamist terrorist organizations as proxy fighters in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

It was always a risky scheme, and in the last couple of years, many people, including many in Pakistan, have come to recognize that these state-supported terrorist groups are a far deeper threat to Pakistan's existence than India is.

Here in the US, since 9/11, we've had a fanatical focus on the threat of foreign terrorists. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, that was understandable: we thought they were far deadlier than they turned out to be, and we had no idea what was coming next.

Unfortunately, in the panic that ensued, a political culture was created that saw dissent as treason, and dissenters as a danger to our existence. Opponents of, say, the Patriot Act, or the prison at Guantanamo, or the war in Iraq were not just political adversaries but enemies.

Those who created that political climate were making a bargain a little like Pakistan's. A key problem with that kind of rhetoric is what happens when these supposed enemies take over the state, which happened in January of 2009. They took it over, of course, through the constitutional means of free and fair elections, and have done nothing to suggest that there won't be more elections on the same regular schedule Americans are used to. This was hardly a coup d'etat. But no matter. If you've convinced people that the political opposition is an existential threat to your country, then you've got a problem on your hands when the opposition takes over.

What makes this bargain similar to Pakistan's is that America faces significant threats from domestic terrorism. Indeed, through most of our history, domestic terrorism has been far more meaningful than foreign terrorism. The second-worst terrorist attack in our history was the Oklahoma City bombing, carried out by fanatical right-wing American terrorists. And if you lump in other forms of political violence that usually go by other names — lynch mobs, race riots (whatever the race of the rioters), hate crimes, assassinations — it's clear that home-grown fanaticism has been far more dangerous to us than foreign fanatics could ever hope to be.

Let's hope that we don't face another Oklahoma City, or another major assassination. Let's hope that the rhetoric can be brought down to a more responsible level before someone ends up dead. And let's be realistic about what genuinely threatens democracy in America.


Previous Posts

[things i'd like to write about but haven't]
[drop the red lantern]
[how not to apply for a job]
[pop is the new alternative]
[what does it all mean?]
[national fears]
[lies, damn lies, and sound effects]
[our pakistan moment?]
[how to fail like an olympian]
[cold winters]


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