Sunday, October 30, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 2: Willie Evans Jr. (Is Brilliant)

Beyond its late role as obligatory, super-expensive job training for the modern workforce, college also serves as a sort of a sort of cultural/pop-cultural swap-meet, a place where you’re surrounded by people who throw art, music, movies, TV, just everything at you every single day and for several years. That’s a pretty awesome side benefit, too.

But when you get old, get isolated, and that firehose of things to explore dries up? You can still find this stuff using music magazines or, later, online (not just because those magazines went online, but through blogs…which, it occurs to me for the first time are like the ‘zines of my youth (look, I’m slow)), but it’s both a lot harder and, often, more narrow; you lose the beneficial scatter-brain nature of inputs that comes with getting thrown together with a bunch of random people. Those people expose you to the names of artists, even entire genres, for you to check out and, when the stars align, fall in love with. Again, pretty damn amazing, but then one’s four or five or six (me) years of college ends and it all goes away.

So, what do you do?

When my interest in music sort of reignited in my mid-30s, I landed on the approach of picking up albums based on the cover. Even as it’s not as central to a musician’s art as his/her music, what a musical artists puts on his/her album cover makes its own artistic statement. And when you’re picking through the bins, the artist makes his/her introduction through the aesthetic choices made on that album cover. As it happened, this approach worked out a lot more often for me than picking a band* than most things I read.

A Movie Pitch (Serioushly)

Oh, I have an idea...

In a world…

Sorry, have to pause for a second to share just how much I love that hacky phrase. I’m not even sure it gets used in any actual movie trailers (someone counted 13; they also cheated a bit on the phrasing), but, seeing as it perfectly frames what I have in mind:

IN A WORLD, where the science and robotics have been enlisted in the war against death, where a human’s diseased and decaying body parts are replaced by machinery that lets them survive, even stronger and more powerful than before, humanity comes closer than ever to becoming immortal. But when a madman/madwoman hacks the miracle and turns it against society, the world, our loved ones, even ourselves, will a miracle of medicine become the seed to man’s downfall?

[Pause for a cutaway and a snippet of dialogue wherein the protagonist mistily looks into the bloodied dying eyes of a loved one (thinking his/her mother) who was afflicted by such an attack just as the lights go out.]

A hero will rise…

At any rate, you get the idea – i.e., scientists figure out a way to make human live longer by replacing failing organs, limbs, etc. with cybernetic parts that are stitched into the body and maintained and managed remotely by a web of computers, think the “Internet of Things.” A villain – say, the head of a corporation or a governmental agency, or maybe just some lone, psychotic asshole who technology has enabled to “scale up” – hacks into the body parts, thereby compelling the hacked people to do his bidding, very much against their will. Chaos ensues, blood is shed, etc. etc.

Anyway, hits a popular angles – fear of technology, loss of personal autonomy, paranoia about corporations (if I go that way)/government (if I go that way), individual megalomania/malignancy – and the cybernetics component brings in superhero shit, which means you can have super-strong heroes chasing super-strong villains as they all go around running, jumping and grabbing prizes (one of my favorite phrases/descriptions of video games, which I borrowed from a very good friend, just for the record).

Well, there it is. I dunno, maybe write a screenplay for it, yeah?

Hey, anyone else notice how thoroughly goddamn paranoid our art is right now? Probably means something. (Also, can’t claim that’s an original thought. Also, can’t remember where I first heard/read it, so it’s going unattributed till further notice and/or I remember to circle back.)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 1: Wu-Tang Clan

I don’t want to say that I’m ignorant about hip-hop, but I just googled it because I wasn’t clear on whether or not it’s hyphenated. (The answer: “it depends”). “Ignorant” goes a little too far, though, because what I really mean is that, down the years, a couple other genres got in the way, and I went pretty deep on those, so, what I’m saying is, I approach this stuff with due humility.

Still, “Me, Myself & I” sent me to the record store to buy De La Soul’s Three Feet High & Rising when it came out. During my freshman year in college, a friend of a friend passed on a mixed tape – hold on; that word has a different meaning now – I mean I knew a guy who put a bunch of rap on a cassette tape, Boogie Down Productions, Poor Righteous Teachers, Big Daddy Kane and Eric B. & Rakim, so some exposure did happen, and beyond “Yo, MTV Raps.” The point is, most of the exposure came to me, not vice versa.

And yet leading with ignorance makes sense because it fits my relationship to the first artists I’m exploring for this project: The Wu-Tang Clan. It’s also why starting this entire project with a hip-hop act just feels…right. If there’s a purpose to the whole thing, it’s exploration – answering the question of why something connected, regardless of when it connected. So, to lean into that ignorance as hard as I can without falling off, I had no idea that Wu-Tang dates back to the first half of the 1990s. completely missed that. I’d heard of Method Man (part of Wu-Tang) and Red Man (not part of Wu-Tang; turns out they’re cousins) in a couple fish-out-of-water movies from the early-aughts, but didn’t know to connect him to Wu-Tang. For years, Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the only guy I could confidently connect to Wu-Tang, and that only came when he died.

As with most of hip-hop, Wu-Tang came to me. By that I mean, I’d heard songs by either Wu-Tang (“Gravel Pit”), or individual members (“Baby, I Got Your Money” and “Shimmy Ya”; sensing a theme?), before I really knew where they came from; later, I heard “A Day in the Life” on Handsome Boy Modeling School’s White People. I wasn’t even sure if actual members of Wu-Tang featured in the song, but the songs hit all the same. And that’s the long and the short of how you find a Wu-Tang album in a bin, decide to pick it up, take it home, and upload it onto your hard drive.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

On (My) Music: A Project, an Inspiration

Here, my right hand massages the lobe for music appreciation…
Like a lot of people of a certain age, I have compiled my share of music collections. I’ve lost and gained them by way of break-ups (typical), cross-country moves (perhaps less typical), and just plain negligence (drunk?). There are songs, and entire bands, I can only remember when someone asks me, “hey, remember those guys?” And even then, I can’t always find them (e.g. Big Chief’s “Start at the Top,” which, across three albums (damn…they have them?) Spotify can’t find either. More on that software later.

When it became possible to save more music than I thought I’d ever own on my computer, I did that. The result is 214 + 47 folders across two entirely practically divided sets*, most of them containing folders within those folders, and all of them containing a lifetime’s worth of not just music, but interests and memories. Building and maintaining all that took about two years. And then along came Spotify.

I resisted Spotify, and for quite a while, for reasons both ideological and self-serving. Even now, as I look forward to my Discover Weekly playlist each and every week, it still feels like some experience has been lost. Or maybe it’s just the old Protestant mind-fuck needing to do work (or just to suffer) before anything registers as worthwhile. Regardless, by way of algorithms and convenience, Spotify can give me something close to what I want each and every week, whether by feeding it to me via Discover, or just by allowing me to search an actual universe of music.

Since getting Spotify just two months ago, I have compiled a secondary library of 80 songs, minimum, several of them that I just flat-out love, and with the giddiness of a new fling. The one anxiety I can’t escape is the notion that there’s some ur-song out there, some end of the rainbow iteration of what I like in music that Spotify will pinpoint and feed me over and over again, and that I’ll love it so much and so unconsciously that it’ll satisfy the “music lobe” thing in my lizard brain, and I’ll hear what old people’s brains have told them since the beginning of time – e.g., it all sounds the same and that the stuff of one’s youth is better, so why bother with that new-fangled __________? (aka, is Justin Bieber the end of music?)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

An End to Trump Mania (And a Shift to the Real Project)

I mean, given the givens, I have to go with the red wire, right?

Since, roughly, July of this year, I’ve spent days upon days in a panic over just about everything about Donald Trump. My twitter feed is a profile in obsession, I come home with headaches if I read a particularly harrowing article (Trump Anxiety is real, peeps), etc.: it’s a shit-show of impotent rage, really, me shaking my tiny twitter fists at a guy with…hold on…12.7 million followers. And yet I still hold out hope that he reads the nasty tweets I send him on the daily, and that they make him very, very sad. And that’s sad. Maybe even sadder.

Still, all that obsessing had an end, even if, between trying to figure out what a breathing human being could see in him and psychic revenge fantasies, the conversation in my head amounted to dogs chasing tails chasing cars chasing tails. The end result, though, feels like peace (so don’t you fucking dare upset the fragile mental balance precariously arranged below, not unless you want your twitter feed to become that Jim Carrey vehicle about an obsessive):

The pitch for Trump goes something like this: sure, he’s manifestly unable to pay attention to the most important moment in his life (probably) for more than 30 minutes (see, the Debates), and he’s got the impulse control of an uncontrolled toddler at over(?) 70 years of age, and all that implies, but, boy, is he right on immigration and which lives matter!

Maybe the stuff on impulse control and incapacity for concentration in a job that requires non-stop both gets lost in all the misogyny (real), sexual assault (probable), and racism (playing footsie with Nazis makes you racist), but those two traits should be disqualifying all on their own, even for misogynist racists, and yet they’re not. And there’s nothing I can do about that. I mean, if a steady drip of his dumbass antics don’t scare you off, let’s just say you don’t scare easy…and how’s your life insurance policy, and any way I can become a beneficiary?

I don’t know if Trump will lose on November 8, but all signs that aren’t bat-shit point to yes. Even if he goes away, though, a longer term problem still exists. It’s not Trump’s supporters, either, but the societal mechanisms that lead to his rise. The Business Insider put up a great, if cobbled piece on this today, or, more specifically, on the “conservative media industrial complex” (for shits ‘n’ giggles, consider the oxymorons in that phrase).

If I don’t cut it off here, I’ll go on all night, so I’ll just close with read the article. The biggest take-away is that conservatives are waking up to the damage that their media is doing to their own movement. The problem comes with finding the exit ramp from this dynamic:

“Perhaps more important, however, the conservative media industrial complex successfully managed over the years to lock the Republican Party away from access to its own base. Those who consumed conservative media were taught not to trust politicians or, even worse, the mainstream media.”

When you hear Trump lie daily, habitually, and contrary to video/audio evidence, that is the time-bomb that enabled it. Trump is nothing more or less than shameless son-of-a-bitch who inherited a rotten estate and rode it to ignominy. Defusing that time-bomb is the project of getting the country sane again.

Book Plug: Strangers in Their Own Land

The new national past time. (Screaming into it, I mean.)
“To set up the air monitors, I had to wear a respirator. Staff asked me to take it off since it might make the workers who saw me with it on worry about the ill effects of the air on them. But they needn’t have worried. Some of the guys would taunt me, the corporate sissy who couldn’t tough it out like they [did]. But when they laughed at me, I could see their teeth were visibly eroded by exposure to sulfuric acid mist.”
It takes reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land to get the sub-text of that moment. Hochschild, a UC-Berkeley sociologist, conducted a research/residence in Louisiana, the “reddest of red states” as she puts it, and here’s something you might not know about that state: its wildlife splashes around in all kinds of chemicals and toxic waste and the people seem weirdly accepting of that. Over the course of Louisianans present lifetimes, bayous across the state, even suburban neighborhoods, have become biological dead zones. The state government – especially under former Governor Bobby “This Is Your Brain on Ideology” Jindal – turns an irresponsibly blind eye and the public, desperate for jobs and acculturated to the notion, cheers on corporate operators who bring industry to Louisiana, and toxic waste, but little in the way of jobs. The emotional response among most of Hochschild’s interviewees isn’t resignation; most would relate to that toothless, laughing guy; over half of them would high-five him.

The phenomena explored in Strangers in Their Own Land require some suspension of disbelief. Reading the thoughts of people who not only defend, but praise the same companies that punch toxic, neighborhood-swallowing sinkholes under bayous and get away with it produces cognitive dissonance on a level that…let me try something else: here’s where the late, rising tide of sympathy for Red State America becomes manifest and condescending all at the same time: how to get inside the heads of U.S. citizens who roll over to corporate malfeasance again and again, while blaming the government, specifically the federal government, for not preventing it, even as these same people vote for regulation-slashing Republicans at every single level of government? Oh, and it’s a Red State government that does the relevant permitting? Think al Qaeda’s “near-enemy/far enemy” concept, only without the logic?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Third and Final Presidential Debate. When and Why I Lost My Shit

"Oh, shit!"
During last night’s Presidential Debate, the third and, blessedly, final entrĂ©e in the great pile of torture porn that is Election 2016, there was one moment that caused just pure rage to erupt out of me. I’m also guessing it’s not the one you’re thinking, though it was part of the evening’s most infamous moment. From the transcript, the part that enraged me in bold:

“What I've seen -- what I've seen is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt, and the pile-on is so amazing. The New York Times actually wrote an article about it, but they don't even care. It's so dishonest. And they've poisoned the mind of the voters.

I just yelled. Think it came out as, “Fucking COCK!

As the demonstrably most dishonest major-party candidate of the modern era, Trump accusing other people of “poisoning minds” is a great fuck-you to the American public. Then again, his approach defines the modern GOP. Look, fact-check the fact-checkers, note media bias or favoritism or what have you; note that, when journalists do contribute to political campaigns, they tend to give to Democrats (and, with due respect to the interviewee in that segment, I’d argue that it’s better that a journalist’s political leanings become public, because it gives readers context. To a point…continuing): all that’s fair game, but I see the Right’s war on the sources of information as the founding sin in that party’s march to nihilism. It is the well-spring that nourishes all the GOPs other sins. Trump is the purified embodiment of that cynical dipshitery.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Short Step Between Democracy and China

“Democracies fail when people lose faith in them and elites abandon their norms for pure political advantage.”
One Donald J. Trump has exploited this dynamic as unconscionably as any figure since…honestly, no one within my political experience has ever reduced complex, structural problems to bullshit and conspiracy quite like Trump has.

I can’t out-do Larry Diamond’s article on this subject on any level, so I won’t bother. I can only encourage anyone who hits this post to read it. I’ve talked about the ahistorical growth and peculiar circumstances that made what we call American exceptionalism in posts that…well, I will kill shortly (look, they weren’t that good anyway; also, too damn rambling and long).

I’ve long held this theory that, for all the rhetoric about “freedom,” I don’t experience my life all that differently from some random, roughly middle-class guy from China. Sure, he can’t get on Chinese twitter (aka, Weibo) and rail against the syphilitic bastard who’s running for national office – or even against the party hack who will in all likelihood lead us into the Bland New World – but he, like me, wakes up and goes to work every morning, probably by way of a shitty and overlong commute. When he gets there, he will carefully monitor what he says, if for different reasons, and he’ll go home at night, maybe read a book, maybe drink too much, maybe jack off, maybe watch a movie slightly less interesting than what I can pull up (then again, in the era of never-ending superhero movies, does that even hold?), but, at the end of it all, he’ll curl up next to his wife, kiss her goodnight, fall asleep and do it all over again.

There is a difference between the U.S. and China, though, and it comes with elections, e.g. the alleged mechanism for accountability, the means to call to account public officials who abuse the public trust through their actions in office. In a hyper-partisan era, it’s worth questioning how well that feedback loop works at all; by that I mean, the public screams for “change” in every election, but they never ask for it and /or get screwed out of it by way of the available options. And maybe that’s why “people lose faith.”

By way of answering that, I’d argue that politics aren’t so much unresponsive as they’re responding to hundreds of thousands of signals, if not millions, which makes the response necessarily vague. Where politicians can help, however, is by being honest and being ethical. The value each individual politician has put on that in recent years is enough, frankly, to make me wonder if I wouldn't be better off in China. And, jesus, god, I wish I was joking. The point is, the politicians on offer seem less and less ethical with each passing day, and it feels like Star Trek promised me that the future would look, like, a lot better, but it doesn't. It looks more and more dystopian and orange every goddamn day, so, yeah, China. Then again, that also has a lot to do with “us” and how we, The People, respond when we hear the truth (one example). 

What I believe, and fervently, is that Trump, and Trumpism, isn’t the answer. It’s just a bigger, dumber lie.

Maybe Americans Don't Actually Get Capitalism?

“That fact that Americans don’t just pick up and move from economically depressed areas to booming ones—like they did during the Dust Bowl—has puzzled economists for decades. One study, from the American Economic Journal, has found that low-skilled Mexican-born immigrants move in response to labor demand, yet low-skilled American-born people do not. For every 10-percentage-point decline in employment for Mexican-born low-skilled men, the population of those men dropped 5.7 percent in a community, the study found. A similar decline in local employment led to no measurable decline in the less-skilled native population.”
With presidential candidates talking about all the jobs they’re going to bring back, that quote makes for one hell of a nut graph in a damned smart article about why the policy response to NAFTA [or, insert your trade deal acronym here] doesn’t matter. You can train people for jobs all goddamn day for a goddamn year and it won’t matter at all unless those people live where the jobs for which they’re training are.

The same idea forms a huge, persistent sub-text for Strangers in the Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild (big recommend, and book review coming). The “white working class” complains about all the jobs leaving their communities, but they’re also radically pro-capitalism. That position overlooks a central premise of capitalism: creative destruction, the idea that jobs that can no longer justify their existence just sort of die, and are replaced by jobs for which demand exists.

The factory system that sustained much of the Midwest and parts of the South are no longer economically viable and, where they are viable, technological innovation means that they require fewer and fewer people to make those same processes work. And the one thing that comes through in Hochschild’s book, time and again, is her interviewees’ unwillingness to leave the bayous they love…where there are no jobs, and no potential for the same number and kinds of jobs that once sustained those communities. When those collapse, the surrounding related pieces of the local economy (e.g. grocery stores, restaurants, retail shops, etc.) all collapse with them. 

But, again, when there are no jobs where you are, and for a variety of reasons, do you have the right to continue making the choice to stay? Put another way, what’s the government’s obligation to save you? What is industry’s obligation? It’s easy to blame Donald Trump for his scandalous promises to bring parts of the country back to an arrangement that simply cannot work, but that “damned smart article” gets at where all the promises dry the hell up for both parties.