Tag Archives: entertainment

The Ethicist Who Wears the Black Hat

I wear the black hat

There is no way that I won’t read a book by Chuck Klosterman.  Still, that sentence’s double negative reveals my ambivalence.  In some ways, CK and I doppelgängers: we’re the same age, moved cross-country in our adult lives (me: born and raised in Brooklyn, then lived for 4 years in Minnesota and now, St Louis; Klosterman: born and raised in North Dakota, now lives in Brooklyn), grew up on and still defend heavy metal when other aspects of our lives would seem to suggest—even demand—more highbrow predilections (such as the use of the phrase “highbrow predilections”).   Certainly this blog is indebted to Klosterman’s groundwork as that rare writer who is a popular culture specialist who is also firmly a part of popular culture itself.  Yes, he sells way more books than I do, but I is a English professor.

Yet Klosterman’s writing is also sometimes exasperating, including his current gig as the New York Times Ethicist and his new book, I Wear the Black Hat.  And they are exasperating for opposite reasons.  In his Ethicist column, Klosterman prevaricates and dithers for most of the response, before finally settling on an ethical verdict—one that often seems shortsighted at best and just wrong at worst.  Klosterman’s cultural analyses, on the other hand, are consistently overconfident and make sweeping generalizations—Klosterman would have written this paragraph’s topic sentence this way: “What is so weird is that they are always exasperating for exactly opposite reasons.” Although often, he  also has a good point.  In their approaches, tone, worldview, and conclusions, the Ethicist and the author of I Wear the Black Hat seem to be two completely different personae of Chuck Klosterman.

Or, better yet: two different Chuck Kloster-men.

05ethicist-superJumbo

Let’s look at Kloster-man A, the Ethicist.  Sometimes, he is just wrong, such as his response to a former college student who writes that he would “sometimes write a single paper that would satisfy assignments in more than one course. For instance, I once wrote a paper on how ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ expressed satire; I submitted it for assignments in both my poetry course as well as my completely separate satire course. I did not disclose this to either professor.”

As usual, the the Klostethicist dithers for a surprisingly long time:

As I read and reread this question, I find myself fixated on the idea that this must be unethical, somehow. I suppose my knee-jerk reaction could be described like this: Every professor is operating from the position that any assignment she makes is exclusive to that particular class, even if she doesn’t expressly say so at the onset (in other words, it’s simply assumed that work done for a specific class will be used only for that specific class). It’s as if you were breaking a rule that was so over-the-top obvious it may not have been overtly outlined. But you know what? The more I think this over, the more I find myself agreeing with your position. I don’t think this is cheating. I wouldn’t say it qualifies as “genius,” and it might get you expelled from some universities. Yet I can’t isolate anything about this practice that harms other people, provides you with an unfair advantage or engenders an unjustified reward.

I look at it like this: You were essentially asked two questions that shared a common answer. The fact that you could see commonalities between unrelated intellectual disciplines is a point in your favor. Some might call your actions self-plagiarism, but the very premise of stealing your own creative property is absurd. You’re not betraying the public’s trust. It seems strange only because the assignments involve a degree of creativity. If this had been a multiple-choice physics test you failed to study for — yet were still able to pass, based on knowledge you acquired from an applied-math class taken the previous semester — no one would question your veracity.

It’s possible to argue that you were “cheating yourself” and wasting your own academic experience — but that’s not an ethical crossroads. That’s more of an existential dilemma over the purpose of a college education that (in all probability) you paid for. In the abstract, the notion of using the same paper twice feels wrong — and if you contacted your old school and told them this anecdote, it would most likely cite some rule of conduct you unknowingly broke. But fuzzy personal feelings and institutional rules do not dictate ethics. You fulfilled both assignments with your own work. You’re a clever, lazy person.

In other words, Verdict: ethical. Or not unethical. What Klosterman does not acknowledge, however, is that this person’s actions, in addition to  “cheating himself,” which is apparently not unethical, is that self-plagiarism dupes instructors—the former student did not ask permission, knowing that he was breaking the rules.  But OK, why is it a rule? Because it cheats the instructor, who wants original work, and more importantly, it cheats his classmates, who, through no fault of their own, did not have the luck to land two assignments similar enough for the same paper.  The students in those other classes did all of their work, essentially twice as much, as the letter writer. This person did half of it, for the same credit, at the expense of his teachers and peers.  Despite the dissembling, the answer was still wrong.

Here,  a person writes that he or she volunteers “for a program that serves homeless and at-risk American Indian people.”

He or she continues:

I sometimes sort and distribute their mail. In a separate community role, I advocate for infant and maternal health, because infant mortality rates in the Native community are three times higher than average. While distributing mail, I found an “introductory” infant-formula package for a Native mom. My first instinct, knowing the proven health advantages of breast-feeding, was to toss the package into the garbage, which seemed unethical. But it seems more unethical, given the higher infant mortality rates, to give her formula marketing materials without providing her the information that breast-feeding is better for her baby.

The Ethicist’s response–more evasion:

While the solution to this particular dilemma is straightforward, the broader question it raises is not. You have two unrelated jobs — mail delivery and advocating for infant health. So what do you do if the requirements of one contradict the responsibilities of the other? My advice would be to consider the worst case within each ethical framework and ignore whichever system has the least damaging real-world potential. Throwing away someone else’s mail is absolutely unlawful. (In this case, it’s defined as obstruction of mail and would be treated as a misdemeanor.) On the other hand, there’s obviously nothing illegal about failing to tell someone that formula is less healthful than breast milk. But can anyone objectively argue that the upside of upholding a man-made law regarding the improper disposal of unsolicited mail is greater than the downside of placing an already at-risk child in a potentially amplified position of peril? It’s not as if you’re making this judgment arbitrarily; as someone holding both jobs (and presumably trained to do so), you are in a valid position to decide which edict matters more.

So eventually, Klosterman decides that reading a stranger’s mail is OK, but only if you’re going to hector her about her personal life decisions, even if you don’t know anything about what might be going on in that person’s life, or what the person has even decided to do, if anything, with the formula:

In the specific scenario you cite, however, your two volunteer jobs are not really at odds. Give this woman the formula that was mailed to her, but not before urging her to consider the value of breast-feeding. Use the opportunity to educate her about how these nutritional methods are different, and let her decide what is best for her and her baby. In this way, you’d be performing both of your duties simultaneously.

This seems to me a clear case of Don’t Interfere with Other People’s Mail–or Personal Life Decisions. Ten unambiguous words.

In another ethical quandary regarding another’s mail—in this case, email—Klosterman again equivocates. Here’s the letter:

I sent my wife an angry e-mail. An hour or two after sending it, I was working at our shared computer and saw my e-mail, unread, in her in-box. Feeling regretful, I deleted it. Was this unethical?

And here’s the evasion (God, I’m running out of synonyms), before finally suggesting that the husband cannot ethically delete the email he sent to his wife, followed by a completely hypothetical caveat:

This is a situation in which our current relationship with a specific technology obfuscates the essence of the problem: who owns information, and when does that ownership start?

Let’s say you dropped a physical letter in the mailbox, walked up the block and suddenly regretted the decision to send whatever was in the envelope. Reaching into a public mailbox to retrieve that letter is unlawful (and complicated). But if the only letter you want to grab is the one you deposited, would the impulse be immoral? What if you regretted the decision not because of what the letter contained but because you realized it was incorrectly addressed? And what if the mailbox wasn’t public? What if it was the private mailbox in front of your suburban home (but you’ve already raised the box’s flag, signaling to the postal employee that the letter is now available to be delivered)?

It’s difficult to definitively declare when a physical letter no longer belongs to the person who wrote it. It could be argued that the moment a letter is placed inside an envelope and the recipient’s name is scrawled on the outside, the contents become the recipient’s property. But this, somehow, feels incomplete; you could hold onto an addressed, stamped envelope for years, and no one could stop you. What makes e-mail different is that this philosophical haze is technologically eliminated by the lack of a middleman: the moment a user hits the “send” button, the question of ownership is moot. But that shouldn’t dictate the ethics.

The reason I would classify what you did as unethical is that you shouldn’t be directly accessing your wife’s e-mail account. The fact that you saw this unread e-mail was possibly unavoidable, as that’s always a risk with a shared computer. But you should not manipulate or examine the contents of her in-box, regardless of where those contents are from (there are theoretical exceptions to this rule, but they’re so rare that they can almost be disregarded from the discussion — if your wife was missing, for example).

I will, however, say this: had you remotely deleted your own unread e-mail after it was sent, I would not classify the act as unethical. If someone wrote an ill-advised e-mail in haste (or inadvertently sends a message to 100 co-workers instead of one) and used an “unsend” feature to destroy it before it could be opened, I would support the act (although it should be noted that the current technology for doing so isn’t very practical — not everyone has it, and my e-mail system only allows for a 30-second annihilation window).

Now, I realize this presents a logical contradiction. As the writer of the e-mail to your wife, you could claim you’re being reprimanded for manually doing something that would somehow be acceptable if it were done remotely, even though the outcome is identical. The difference, however, is this: the first situation involves rooting through someone’s nonphysical mailbox, which we’ve collectively agreed is off limits. The second situation involves pre-emptively extracting something that — in my view — is still partly your property. That distinction is minuscule and certainly debatable. But that’s what makes this a good question.

So…  it’s ethical to read a stranger’s mail if it leads to meddling in her personal life, in which you have nothing at stake, but it is not OK to delete an email you sent to your wife, even though married couples often share computers, often leave their computers open, and seldom sign out of accounts, making such a deletion less of an intrusion than reading the stranger’s mail, but it’s also wrong even if you yourself wrote the offending email—and deleting it will preserve marital harmony.   In Klostermania ethics, deleting an email from your spouse’s account, that you yourself sent, is a worse violation than egregiously  hurting her feelings.  Perhaps the email had been lecturing her about breastfeeding, so it’s OK.   Of course, a husband who is sending his wife nasty emails probably has bigger issues in the marriage, which is apparently a less important point to raise than a “distinction [that] is minuscule and certainly debatable.”

Yet for all the, um… synonym… fudging in those answers, the other Klosterman, in Black Hat, is sure as shit and right as rain: The Eagles “are the most unpopular super-popular entity ever created by California…  I know this because everybody knows this….”  Beginning a book about villains with the Eagles is counterintuitive, but it helps to reveal an interesting idea—that people are capable of vilifying even the blandest, more innocuous stuff—that then becomes smothered by the high-stakes hyperbole.

And: “There is no greater conundrum for the sports-obsessed historian than the relationship between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frasier.” Look, I’m not a sports guy at all, but I find it hard to believe that sports-obsessed historians agree on anything.

When Klosterman gets to comparing real-life subway shooter vigilante Bernard Goetz with Batman, then I’m interested.  But again, Klosterman’s strange need for absolutism and Manichaeism leads to pronouncements like this: “But oddly—or maybe predictably—most of these comparisons [between Goetz and Batman] are primarily occupied with why everyone still loves Batman (as opposed to why everyone stopped loving Goetz). They start from the premise that vigilantism is indisputably wrong. The core question is always some version of ‘Why are actions unacceptable in life somehow acceptable in fiction?’ But this seems like the wrong thing to worry about. That answer seems self-evident.  I more often wonder about the reverse: Why are the qualities we value in the unreal somehow verboten in reality?”  He goes on to suggest that “Batman is a beloved fictional figure who would not be beloved in a nonfictional world… He would be seen as a brutal freak, scarier to the public that the criminals he captured.”

It could be such an interesting comparison. But the insistence that the first question is self-evident and that the second question is somehow better and opposed to the first seems wrong-headed.  Klosterman’s second question in fact seems far more self-evident: because real people get hurt in real life.  And the follow-up ignores that the recent Batman relaunch—the one that grossed a hundred gazillion dollars—is in fact primarily concerned with the very question of what Batman would be like in a less cartoonish, less fictionalized fictional world.  What began as a good set of questions seems undermined by smug certainty and cherry picked examples.

Look. I liked the book. I like the topic. I like that Klosterman actually talks about Mr. Bungle (who I love, unlike CK).  But I can’t get behind that I Wear the Black Hat is written in the same overheated rhetoric of the above quotations.  Here’s the repetition breakdown:

Always is repeated 68 times

Never: 78 times

Inevitable/inevitably: 22 times

Everyone: 38 times

No one: 32 times

Certainly: 23 times

True: 36 times

All: a whopping 92 times

The book is only 199 pages.

Perhaps, in the end, the two Klostermen can come together.  Perhaps the Ethicist can achieve some of Black Hat Klosterman’s insight and moral clarity—less wishy-washy, but more insightful. And BHK can approach the world in a way that’s more relativist (in a good way), to try to examine his subjects in a way that acknowledges that not all things, everyone, or no one certainly always believes or behaves in the ways he proscribes.

We would have a more ethical Ethicist, and more readable cultural criticism that acknowledges the ambiguity of his subject matter.  After all, metaphorically speaking, most characters and people wear gray hats.

Time: Over! 90 minutes

Tagged , , , , , ,

I Bet You Think This Blog is About You: Blurred Lines and the Problem with Direct Address

blurred-lines-cover

Who are you?

Or, I guess, who are “you”?

More accurately, if less grammatically, who is “you”?

“You” has been very busy, at least going by song lyrics.  Other genres—including a lot of poetry, even though people think of lyrics and poetry as the same thing—stay away from using “you” as the dominant pronoun.  You can count on one hand the number of novels written in second person.  (Bright Lights, Big City; something by Italo Calvino…  OK, on two fingers.)  Instruction manuals, and their snooty siblings, self-help books, sure, “you” yourself away.  Nonfiction—and blogs—use direct address as an occasional rhetorical device (“You can count on one hand…”).  But every song is about You.  Here’s a rundown of some song titles that begin with “You”:

You, Breaking Benjamin

You, REM

You & Me, Dave Matthews

You and Your Friend, T-Ride

You Are Not Alone, Michael Jackson

You Are the Everything, REM

You Are the Girl, Cars

You Belong With Me, Taylor Swift

You Better Run, Pat Benatar

You Can Call Me Al, Paul Simon

(You Can Still) Rock in America, Night Ranger

You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Stones

You Can’t Get What You Want, Joe Jackson

You Can’t Kill Michael Malloy, Primus

You Can’t Kill Rock & Roll, Ozzy

You Can’t Stop Progress, Clutch

You Could Be Mine, Guns n Roses

You Don’t Have to be a Prostitute, Flight of the Concords

You Don’t Know Me at All, Don Henley

You Don’t Know What Love Is,, White Stripes

You Drive Me Ape, The Dickies

You Dropped a Bomb on Me, Gap Band

And that’s just the “You D–”’s, with more than 40 more You-first, not including “You” contractions. This is just from my iTunes library.  (Yes. Taylor Swift.) Go pull up your own playlists and see for yourself (and go ahead and post favorite or significant titles in Comments).  And obviously this list can’t include all the songs that revolve around “you,” since that would be nearly all of them.  “You” had to be a big shot.  Who is “you,” and how do you have so much time to do everything?

All of this is a way of getting to the Song of the Summer, in caps, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.  Yes, it’s crazy popular, and you can’t listen to the radio for 10 minutes without hearing it.  But it’s controversial, because the lyrics have been declared rapey, a word that fills an important vocabulary niche but that still sounds, meaning aside for the moment, like the name of a cat.  A lot of it comes down to this line:

You know you want it.

It’s pretty damning out of context, especially the way I used sinister italics, sitting on the page like that creep on the public bus. And I’m not here to defend the song. (Hourman hates controversy.)  But a few things are interesting about it.  First, its context is not the page but rather a pretty sweet R&B song, which is melodic, playful, and even a little corny (musicians: it’s all in the flat 7s, the corniest of all intervals).  How else can Robin Thicke, Jimmy Fallon, and the Roots pull off an all kiddy instrument version of the song?  (Of course, I am conveniently ignoring that OTHER video.)

And the song sounds and feels nothing like what I think of as the (intentionally, to be make fun of that sort of thing, according to the group; Thicke said something similar about his own song) rapeiest song of all, Stone Temple Pilots’ raucous Sex Type Thing.  Featured lyric: “You wouldn’t want me have to hurt you too, hurt you too,” totally worse than “You know you want it.”  (Musicians: the main riff revolves around a flat 5 interval, which everyone knows is the devil in music).

Maybe the song could deflect its accusations better if it were one of those He said/She said songs that allow for more than one point of view and point of “you”—think Don’t You Want Me’s first verse by the Guy:

You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
When I met you
I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new

 Followed up in the second verse by this, by the Girl:

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
That much is true
But even then I knew I’d find a much better place
Either with or without you

Balanced, dueling “you”s.  Or more recently, Gotye and Kimbra’s Somebody I Used to Know, where we get the sense that both the man and woman are hurting over the breakup, not that one is right and the other wrong. First Gotye sings this:

Now and then I think of when we were together
Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
Told myself that you were right for me
But felt so lonely in your company
But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember

Later followed by Kimbra’s POV:

Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
But had me believing it was always something that I’d done
But I don’t wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know

No assumptions about what the woman wants, since the song allows her to tell us.

It’s also interesting to compare Blurred Lines to the runner-up song of the summer, the maybe even catchier Get Lucky by Daft Punk.  Here’s the chorus:

She’s up all night to the sun

I’m up all night to get some

She’s up all night for good fun

I’m up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to the sun

We’re up all night to get some

We’re up all night for good fun

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

No “you” at all!  Instead, the song uses “she” and “I’ before settling on “we.”  If the repeated line had been “You’re up all night to get lucky,” a la Blurred lines, it wouldn’t sound so sex positive:

 You’re up all night to the sun

You’re up all night to get some

You’re up all night for good fun

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

 Now it sounds so accusing, kinda shamey.  Now, it’s not a story about two individual people, She and I, who together comprise We, but rather the lyrics’ male speaker looking at and judging the behavior of an unnamed woman.

The same thing happens if you contrast the next line in Blurred Lines: “You’re a good girl.”  It’s the singer’s assessment of what the woman thinks of herself, not necessarily what she thinks.  Contrast it with Tom Petty’s Free Falling, which begins with the exact same line but in 3rd person:

She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too

And with 3rd person comes the feeling of objectivity, which may be at the heart of the Blurred Lines—and, for me, the “you”—controversy.  “She’s a good girl” sounds like an omniscient narrator.  It means what it sounds like, or at least doesn’t call attention to its own possible ambiguity.  “You’re a good girl” sounds subjective—who are you to say or know whether she/I/ you is/am/are a good girl?  Blurred lines indeed.  Whether we find the line—and “You know you want it”—offensive or not boils down to whether we believe the singer.    If the singer—he—is reliable, and she—the recipient of the song’s words—is a good girl, and does want it, and the blurred lines of the title represent  the internal conflict within the woman herself, then the song is seductive, which I take as Thicke’s—and every lyricist’s—intention.  But if we doubt him, and hear situational blurred lines—he thinks that she wants it, but she doesn’t—well, that’s rapey.

But it’s up to you to decide.

Time: Over time, about 80 minutes, since I didn’t keep track that well, with double apologies for going italics crazy.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Breaking Bad; or, the Superhero Uncertainty Principle

breaking_bad

I am several years late to the Breaking Bad party.  I tried watching it two years ago but lacked the fortitude to see how Walt and Jesse were going to dispose of the dead body and get themselves out of trouble in just the second episode.  But having spent the past three weeks catching up—I want to use the word “binging”—on Seasons 1 through 4 (so no Season 5 here), I’m struck by the ways in which the show—about how down on his luck high school chemistry teacher Walter White turns to cooking meth to provide for his family when he’s dead, having discovered he has late stage lung cancer—thoroughly borrows from, and just as thoroughly subverts, all of the stale ingredients of the superhero story to cook something new and powerful.

There’s the basic Superhero 101 stuff: Walter White has an alliterative name : Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Reed Richards, ad infinitum; he has a sidekick who is younger and physically smaller, Jesse Pinkman, whose own name is superheroic, although The Adventures of Pinkman may not appeal to the target demographic.  (Jesse also has a sketchpad full of superhero drawings, each, according to his late gf, a version of himself).  Walter has an identifiable vehicle (although, like Pinkman, it’s not exactly awe-inspiring—it’s an Aztec), a secret lab (with a 60s style Batcave entrance—a secret staircase behind a secret door), a disguise (hat and sunglasses count), and most importantly, a dual identity: Heisenberg, the nom de guerre he takes that, like Batman, reveals something important about who he is to the viewer but somehow not any characters—Batman’s legend of the bat flying through the window as a way to inspire fear; Heisenberg, as one of the key thinker in quantum physics but known in the popular consciousness for the Uncertainty Principle, which could have been the name of Breaking Bad itself.  And like Batman, Heisenberg has no superpowers, just his superbrain and whatever gadgets and plans the brain can come up with.

aztec car

But what BB really borrows from the superhero story is less the outer trappings than the inner workings of the dual identity conceit.  In a show obsessed with secrecy, it’s not surprising that Walter has more in common with Superman than the newest version of Superman himself (except for the good and evil thing, which I‘m getting to).  Instead, what Walt is hiding is neither the meth nor the money, but something that harkens back to the earliest symbolic and dramatic appeal of superheroes themselves: that there is something special, wonderful, and necessarily hidden about Walter that only he and his closest confidants—including the viewers—know about him.  The Walter that the world knows is a regular guy at best and a bit of a loser at worst. In devising a cover story for a multiple-day disappearance, Walter lays out what he knows he looks like to the world for a psychologist (and here I paraphrase from memory): having seen all of his peers surpass him and make millions, Walt now makes $44,000 a year, has a disabled teen-aged son, a baby on the way, and a terminal disease.  Ouch.  But secretly, he is fearless, awesome, and superhumanly capable—everything he is not on the surface.  He synthesizes the best crystal meth ever, improvises explosive and poisonous chemicals, charges his RV’s dead battery out of the pocket change lying around, and takes on and takes down crime kingpins.

Like Superman’s Clark Kent, the Walter White that the world knows, and who he used to be, becomes the hapless alter ego, the disguise of normalcy he wears for protection so that no one knows who he really is. Even Hank, his DEA brother in law, so often superheroic in his own cop instincts, cannot fathom that lame ol’ Walter is Heisenberg, just as Lois Lane, star reporter, cannot connect that Clark is Superman.  Despite staring them in the face, the notion is too preposterous to take, even when Walt jokes, on several occasions, that he is a super criminal. “Got me,” he says to Hank, who laughs, and to the audience, who laughs for entirely different reasons.

Heisenberg-e1316393225858

Which takes me to the other significant superhero trope that Breaking Bad appropriates: dramatic irony mixed with suspense.  That is, the audience, but almost none of the characters, knows all about Walter.  We know what Walt knows, which means that we can see how the tensions between his identities and secrets will play out.  It’s a great device that seems to have fallen out of favor—witness Man of Steel’s  jettisoning of the classic Clark Kent/Superman/Lois Lane triangle of dramatic irony, as well as the many excellent movies of the last decade—the Bourne movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento, and more—that use the what used to be tired trope of amnesia to reverse the very premise of dramatic irony (undramatic irony? Dramatic sincerity?).  Instead of knowing more than the characters, we know as little as they do and learn as they do.  It’s interesting and maybe fun, but it can be exhausting.

Yet even though we know what we know, one of the show’s addictive qualities for me is the suspense, even back to that second season 1 episode that almost put the brakes on the Bad for me. We know Walt is the smartest, most resourceful, and most desperate guy in the room. We know he has to get out of whatever craziness the particular episode focuses on—disposing of dead bodies, disposing of live bodies, getting out of a trap, luring someone else into a trap, breaking into one building, breaking out of another—and whatever Walt has now gotten himself into, he somehow has to get out of it.  Until the very last episode—sadly, coming up soon—we know that Walt somehow has to walk away mostly unscathed.  (Unlike in, say, Game of Thrones.) But again and again, we need to see how.  In a form pioneered by superhero comics, the show continues the best tradition of the serial narrative.  It has a larger, longer, season-wide arc that shifts and varies, but also a single-episode, smaller arc that never changes: Walt gets into trouble, Walt gets out of trouble, seeming to restore the status quo, but the getting out must somehow create newer, even worse trouble for next time. It’s 60s Batman with a meth twist.

The big question, then, is the moral one.  Aren’t superheroes the good guys?  Isn’t Walt really a villain, not a hero?  The bald head he decides to keep post-chemotherapy, not to mention the way that Brian Cranston is able to change his face from fake kind to real evil like it’s a special effect, puts him in firm Lex Luthor territory (sorry, Professor X).  It’s been the perennial post-Sopranos TV problem.  Walt is a lot like a combination of Tony, or the dad version of Nancy from Weeds, an regular guy version of Jax from Sons of Anarchy,  or, at times, Dexter.  And since my time is up, I’m not going to resolve the idea of narrative sympathy, subjectivity, or evil here (which I talked about a greater length for Game of Thrones anyway), as much as to say that it reminds me of a large-scale version of a dopey old Jerry Seinfeld routine:

I love these nature shows, I’ll watch and kind of nature show, and it’s amazing how you can always relate, to whatever they’re talking about. You know like you’re watching the African Dung Beetle and you’re going “Boy, his life is a lot like mine.” And you always root for whichever animal is the star of the show that week — like if it’s the antelope, and there’s a lion chasing the antelope you go, “Run antelope Run! Use your Speed, Get away!” But the next week it’s the lion, and then you go “Get the antelope, eat him, bite his head! — Trap him, don’t let him use his speed!”

But instead of a lion and the antelope, we root for whoever is on screen.  Go, Walt! Get away from Hank! Hank, you can get Walt! He’s right there! Walt, get away from Gus! Gus, kill the cartel guys who killed your old partner! Jesse, get back at Walt! Walt, stay away from Jesse!  We are simply suckers for the point of view characters, morality and uncertainty be damned.

Time: 80 minutes. Darn.

BONUS HOURMAN!  It’s been a while since a major show had a character named Jesse (which is my name.)  Dukes of Hazard, Full House, and Rick Springfield ruined my childhood, but Breaking Bad seems not to have had any effect, other than the weirdness of hearing my name so many times on TV. In Comments, feel free to post about your own experience sharing a name with someone or something famous or in the media.

Tagged , , , , ,

Man of Steal

The S stands for Hope. Shope. S'hope.

The S stands for Hope. Shope. S’hope.

Man of Steel, the movie that dares not speak its name, uttering the S word only once[1], opens in a CGI sci-fi universe reminiscent of Avatar.  No giant Smurfs, but plenty of bizarre creatures and vaguely cloud-forest images.  Russell Crowe shows up, reprising his weird fake English accent[2] from Les Mis but now playing a Jedi, including requisite Prequel Mullet, and before long the movie looks like Star Wars by way of Alien, a kind of PG-13 HR Giger, biomechanical but desexualized, down to the Kryptonian asexual reproduction, even as everything on Krypton also looks like a phallic symbol.  (They’re obviously sublimating their sexual frustration.)

Cute little Kryptonians!

Cute little Kryptonians!

Then Michael Shannon shows up, and you know he’s a bad guy because of the shape of Michael Shannon’s head.[3]  Krypton blows up on cue, Kal El is launched in another phallus, and before long, Clark Kent is a grownup on Earth—33 years old, a portentous age that the movie does not fail to point out to us.  Then we’re in X-Men territory, as the heavily muscled and even more heavily chest-haired[4] Henry Cavill drifts, just as heavily muscled and  equally hirsute Hugh Jackman did as Wolverine over a decade ago, trying to understand his place in the world, the charm on his necklace again his only clue.  Cue “Seasons,” the depressing Chris Cornell acoustic grunge song from the movie Singles, as the Artist Formerly Known as Superman swipes a conveniently flattering flannel shirt from a clothesline and hitchhikes to the next identity a la David (not Bruce) Banner in the TV show The Incredible Hulk.  If only the movie played that music instead:

The movie is cut with flashbacks to young Clark’s childhood, where, rather than having super abilities, he’s treated, and behaves, more like a child with disabilities. It’s an interesting metaphor that the movie doesn’t do much with—Smallville, the TV show, did it much better.  Ma and Pa Kent show up, although Kevin Costner’s Jonathan isn’t what I associate with the role. Rather than teaching Clark to celebrate who he is and always do what’s right, he warns him that he has to hide his true self.   Again, shades of X-Men, which I always read as a reversal of the Superman story. While classic Superman is a wonder of assimilation, cheered and welcomed by humanity for his differences, the X-Men are feared and suspected for their differences, and in Man of Steel’s revision, Superman is not only an alien but alienated.

Christopher Nolan co-wrote and produced the film, and he brings his rebooted Batman sensibilities to the project—Superman is dark and brooding, not just orphaned, like Batman, but orphaned twice, by both Jor El and Jonathan Kent.  Before long, General Zod’s mean-shaped head is back and threatening to TAKE OVER THE WORLD, at which point the movie takes its cues from War of the Worlds, down to the giant tripods, and Cloverfield and other 9/11/2001-infleunced films, all shaky handcams and masses of people fleeing the dust, wreckage, and debris of falling buildings.  Meanwhile, a Transformers-like cityscape CGI battle ensues for, I don’t know, like an hour.  Superman wins! Yay! And kisses Lois Lane, even though Metropolis looks like it was hit by a hundred 9/11s.  No matter. In the final scene, the Clark Kent we know and love—glasses!—shows up in a miraculously restored Metropolis (although it took over a decade to put up a single new tower in Ground Zero), and we’re ready for the next adventure.

Quick! Sneeze on them!

Martians! I mean, Kryptonians!

Look.  I don’t want to be a jerk here.  But I took my boys, ages 11 and 15, to see this movie, hoping for—for what?   The way I felt when I saw Superman with Christopher Reeve, I guess. Or Star Wars, or Indiana Jones, or the many movies that I can honestly say felt like a formative childhood experience.  I’m not one to wax nostalgic.[5]  And there’s nothing exactly wrong with the picture, as the discrepancy between the fan ratings (largely positive) and critics’ reviews (negative to lukewarm) suggest.   But in borrowing from, let’s recap here, Avatar, Star Wars, Alien, X-Men, Hulk, Smallville, Batman, War of the Worlds, Cloverfield, and whatever I left out, director Zak Snyder and Nolan seem profoundly embarrassed by Superman himself.  Superman thrives on the dramatic irony of Clark Kent’s nebbishy persona, the one that Reeve did so well, the one that is as absent here as Superman himself is.  We know who he really is, and we’re special for it.  But there is no Clark Kent here, and no Superman.  Nolan’s Batman movies got to the core of that character, a man pushed by tragedy to the brink of psychosis, living in a noir nightmare, neurotically and impotently trying to avenge and atone for his parents’ deaths.  But Superman is not Batman, and Man of Steel does not get to the core of Superman.  In trying to reboot him, it abandons what I liked about the character–his contrasting personas, his simplicity, his good nature, his fun.    It should be awesome to be Superman.  We don’t need to learn that [spoiler?] he himself is somehow responsible for luring Zod to Earth, or [spoiler x2?] not saving Jonathan, that he struggles with who he is, that humans fear him.  (The only human who used to fear Superman was Lex Luthor.)  In the end, Man of Steel is a perfectly adequate summer special effects extravaganza.  It is not Superman.  Which is a shame.

Time: 55 minutes  


[1] “Superman.” What S word did you think I meant?

[2] Usually British accents come easier to Aussies and Kiwis.  Not so Crowe.

[3] Michael Shannon will make phrenologists of us all.

[4] I will admit that I was happy to see the chest hair.  I’m not only a member of the Chest Hair Club for Men; I’m also its president.

[5] Or wax anything. See: chest hair.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

We Have Entered the Era of Un-

In culture, literature, and theory, the 1960s marked the beginning of postmodernism.  And quickly the prefix post- became the operative way of understanding the world: post-war, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, post-industrialism; then, post-human, post-Boomer, and post-punk; more recently, post-millennial and post-apocalyptic; and for a least a little while in 2008, post-partisan and post-racial.   (Many a postdoc has been devoted to developing post-anything.)  Post- became more than a prefix—it became a worldview, an epistemological category.

But what, students in my class on postmodern literature reasonably asked, can possibly come after postmodernism, or post- anything? More post. Post-postmodernism. [Shudder]. Post- is the prefix that devours itself, since it is always after, belated, still waiting, and deferred. Nothing can come after post-.

Nothing except, with apologies to Existentialism, a new kind of nothing.

Enter: Un-.

Un-, like post-, is not a word. Unlike other prefixes, however, like pre- or post-, or re- or un-’s near-relative, under-, un- does not describe, affix in time, suggest repetition, or, like mis- or mal-, even suggest that something is wrong.  Unlike with-, dis-, de-, counter-, anti-, or even the powerful non-, un- does not suggest opposition, working against.  Un- suggests more than reversal or opposite: it is negation, disappearance, taking out of existence.  And if post- described the world after about 1945, Un- describes the world from 2000, or maybe 2001, to the present. We are living in the era of Un-.

Now, I realize that lots of words began with Un- before 2000.  I used “unlike” twice in the last paragraph alone. But I used it as a preposition, “dissimilar from.”  On Facebook, unlike is a verb: if you click Like, and then decide that you don’t like that thing anymore, you can click Unlike and it will erase your Like. Since Facebook does not have a Dislike button, Unlike is as close as people can get.

But Unlike is as different from Dislike as unable to disable, unaffected to disaffected, unarranged to disarrange, unfortunate to disfortunate (which is sort of a word).  Which is to say, very different.  Both suggest opposition, but dis- implies an active opposition, expending energy to reverse.  Un- feels passive, a kind of vanishing—or worse, the suggestion that the thing never was in the first place.  When we Unfriend on Facebook, we do something we cannot do in real life or face to face, which is presumably why the word had to be recently invented. We don’t Unfriend corporeal people.  We just—what, exactly?  Stop being friends? Spend less time together? Drift apart? Or something stronger—not a drift but a rift.  A fight, a falling out.  We’re not on speaking terms anymore.  But not Unfriend.  We can only Unfollow online, on Facebook or Twitter.  We can’t Unfollow in person.  Unfriend and Unfollow seem etymologically and epistemologically close to Untouchable, with the implications of prohibition, exclusion, disappearance. Unclean.

Like many people who spend time at their keyboard, I have become reliant on Delete, on Backspace, on Undo.  When I knock down a glass and wish it would float back in a startling cinematic backwind, or misplace my book and want it to reappear, or say something that I want to take back, I can picture Ctrl Z clearly in my mind’s eye.  But it does not Undo.   Glasses do not unbreak; books are not unlost but rather must actively be found (without Ctrl F, either). Words that are unspoken were never spoken, not spoken and stricken.  We say, I take it back.  But the words cannot be unsaid.  Judges instruct juries to ignore testimony, but lawyers know that jurors cannot unhear. Judges cannot unstruct.  Traumatized viewers cannot unsee.

Do not try this in real life

And so Un- fails at complete erasure.  Like a palimpsest, Un- can’t help but leave traces of its former self behind.  The close reader can see what used to be there, the residue of virtual Friendship, the electronically unsettled path left behind after one has Followed, or been Followed.  And perhaps this failure is for the best.  The only thing more powerful than Un-’s fever dream of retroactive disappearance is that the wish cannot come true.  If anything, the electronic world that birthed the fantasy of Undo is the same one that never lets us scrub our online prints away.

Time: 55 minutes

P.S. Please Like and Follow this blog.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

All Places Except Here Are Imaginary: Hearing Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Part I

I have a book called The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi.  Its Forward explains that the writers were inspired by what it might be like to take “a guided tour of Paul Feval’s vampire city, Selene,” and, “excited by the idea, it did not take long for us to compile a list of other place we felt we would like to visit: Shangri-La, Oz, and Ruritania readily sprang to mind.”  But, they write, “as the project developed, our list of entries kept going, threatening to become endless,” in what sounds less like a real book than an imaginary story about an imaginary book about imaginary places by, say, Jorge Louis Borges, who as far as I know is not imaginary.

So the writers imagined up some rules: no imaginary places that were “in effect, disguises, or pseudonyms, for existing locales.”  Not “Pooh’s turf or Watership Down” because “these exist… the characters, the actions, were imaginary—not the places.”  No imaginary worlds set in the future, for reasons I still don’t get.  And more.  Even then, the book runs 755 double columned pages.  And it raises some serious ontological problems: aside from the place where we are at any given moment, aren’t all places imaginary places?  This sounds like solipsism: if I close my eyes, the world disappears.  But it’s a little different, in that places in our minds, and certainly in every work of fiction, become imaginary places, even movies filmed in real (or “real”) locations.  Any world from our past, and even anywhere we are not, becomes a mental reconstruction, a psychological set as unreal as any façade Hollywood might construct.  And that’s still assuming we can trust of our senses, ignoring every philosopher from Descartes through Lacan.[i]

Michel Chabon is best known for constructing imaginary places, fanciful conceits, and high concepts.  It’s no wonder that he is one of the few award-winning Serious Novelists to have co-written big Hollywood screenplays, including Spider-Man II (yay!) and John Carter (um…) .  Can you imagine Jonathan Franzen putting time into Blade III, or Jane Smiley revising a few drafts of Fantastic Four II: Rise of the Silver Surfer?[ii]  In keeping,  Chabon invented a number of imaginary places in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—the world of his superhero The Escapist, who is imaginary even by the already imaginary standards of superheroes, in that he is not a “real” superhero, even acknowledging that there are no “real” superheroes.[iii]  But he also invents an alternative Prague for Josef Kavalier, one that includes magic and a real (no quotations) Golem, although unfortunately Chabon does not imagine it without Nazis.   And the world of late 1930s Brooklyn, with Sammy Clayman and Josef’s comic book collaboration and the rise and fall of the costumed superhero’s Golden Age, while not entirely imaginary, is entirely imagined.

The Sitka Alaska of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is even more imaginary, although Sitka itself is not.  It is a kind of alternative history, a What If? in the great Marvel comics tradition, imagining a Jewish state not placed contentiously in the Middle East but rather somewhere no one would want.  And even within this imagined world, we see the double imagined world of the Jewish hardboiled detective novel, Yiddish-speaking flatfoots and underworld goons, an invented genre that becomes palpable in the book’s pages.  This is to say nothing of Chabon’s foray into Harry Potter and Narnia-esque Young Adult Fiction in Summerland, or its opposite, the seemingly realistic by comparison Wonder Boys.  While the movie adaptation does a great job of dramatizing blocked writer Grady Tripp, the novel does a better job dramatizing the blocked novel itself, a universe that is imaginary even within the imaginary confines of the novel itself.

All of this is a way of getting to Chabon’s new novel, Telegraph Avenue, which, by the standards of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, contains no imaginary worlds at all. Its setting is the intersecting space around Oakland, California.  No one invents any superheroes, although there are plenty of allusions; no one speaks Yiddish, although there are prominent Jewish characters.   Here’s the blurb:

As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there—longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, two semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart—half tavern, half temple—stands Brokeland.

When ex–NFL quarterback Gibson Goode, the fifth-richest black man in America, announces plans to build his latest Dogpile megastore on a nearby stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Nat and Archy fear it means certain doom for their vulnerable little enterprise. Meanwhile, Aviva and Gwen also find themselves caught up in a battle for their professional existence, one that tests the limits of their friendship. Adding another layer of complication to the couples’ already tangled lives is the surprise appearance of Titus Joyner, the teenage son Archy has never acknowledged and the love of fifteen-year-old Julius Jaffe’s life.

And here’s the thing: all of this is a long way of setting up that the Chabonian emphasis on setting, on imaginary places, is, in fact, misplaced.  It’s only a part of the story.  The other part, the one that makes Chabon’s novels elaborate works of the imagination—along with, I’ll add, the works and worlds of JK Rowling, CS Lewis, HG Wells, JRR Tolkien, and so many others—are not the imaginary places, with apologies to Manguel and Guadalupi.  It is his language.  Language turns Oakland and Brokeland into worthy entries in the Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

Unlike his contemporaries like the aforementioned Franzen, Eggers, Smiley, or David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon is yet not recognized as a first rate prose stylist.  I think this is, in part, as I will argue, because his style varies from book to book.  That ability to transform, one of Chabon’s key themes, is part of what makes him so great.  And no other novel showcases Chabon’s prose powers better than Telegraph Avenue—which I will get to next week, since my hour is almost up.

Time: 55 minutes.  I ended where I intended to begin, hence the hastily added Part I to my title.


[i] My plan is in fact to ignore them.

[ii] Although I suppose Dave Eggers wrote Where the Wild Things Are.  Which is not the same thing.

[iii] I’m going to stop before I make anyone’s brain hurt. You know what I mean.

Tagged , , , , ,

Puns of Anarchy; or, Sons of Anarchy Also Rises; or, Sons of Innocence and Experience; or, Serial Narrative Killers

Back for Season 5

Like Weeds and Mad Men—like Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and the Godfather of the cable antiheroes, The Sopranos—Sons of Anarchy is another long running series about a morally dubious subculture, in this case, bikers, as opposed to noncable TV’s continued fixation on morally salubrious subcultures, like doctors, lawyers, and twenty-year-old white people living in NYC apartments they shouldn’t afford.[i]

Sons of Anarchy began five years ago as a Hamlet on wheels. The Prince is Jax, short for Jackson, since being a Son is a big literal and metaphorical deal on the show. Last name Teller.  And tell he does: his hopes and dreams, wishes and fears, loves and hates.  Played by devilishly handsome Brit Charlie Hunnam, he’s a perfect female fantasy—the sensitive tough guy who just needs the right girl.

~sigh~

The Right Girl is Dr. Tara Knowles, a bad girl gone good gone bad, who seems to knowle everything about the human heart, but not her own.  Her medical specialty is Anything That Anyone Needs a Doctor For.  HamJax’s Claudius is Clay Morrow, whose clay morals take the motorcycle club deeper and deeper into harder and harder crimes: running guns, running coke, murder, and sporting a soul patch.  Gertrude is Gemma; with mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage, Jax’s mother has jumped from mourning John Teller, Jax’s father, into marriage with Clay, John’s spiritual brother.  But Jax has unearthed a cache of his father’s journals, much to Clay and Jemma’s chagrin, and through the magic of reading and voiceovers, his father’s ghost speaks from the grave to warn Jax to rebel against Clay.

This all made for excellent TV.  We got to see Jax struggle, even falter, against his doubts, conscience, relationship with Tara, and American accent.  And over the seasons, the backup bikers in the Sons have gone from sidemen and comic relief, a gang of jackbooted Rosencrantzs and Gildensterns, to round characters in their own rights.  The flawed but honorable Bobby Elvis, the scarred and unintelligible Chibs, loose cannon with a good heart Tig, and especially perpetually incarcerated, self-sacrificing Otto (played by Sons creator Kurt Sutter): each developed backstories and pathos beneath their tattooed skins, lives and motivations beyond how well they serve or don’t serve the Melancholy Mane.

This journey is in keeping with contemporary notions of TV in the age of DVDs and On Demand.  Thomas Doherty writes this in “Storied TV: Cable Is the New Novel”:

Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.

In 2005, Stephen Johnson suggested much the same in his book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, literally charting the way in which multiple plot threads have grown exponentially from 70s series Starsky and Hutch (one single, linear plot per episode) to Hill Street Blues (multiple threads in each episode) to the Sopranos.  This last series, for Johnson and many other critics the most effective complex show to date, works like Hill Street Blues, but more so:

Each thread is more substantial. The show doesn’t offer a clear distinction between dominant and minor plots; each storyline carries its weight in the mix…. A single scene from The Sopranos will often connect to three different threads at the same time, layering one plot on another.  And every single thread in this Sopranos episode builds on events from previous episodes, and continues on through the rest of the season and beyond. (69)

And yet, neither Doherty nor Johnson mentions that another TV genre has always used serial narrative, or employed multiple threads to “build on events from previous episodes, and continue on through the rest of the season and beyond,” or arc TV, to use Doherty’s phrase.

It’s the humble Soap Opera.

This tension, then, between creating a highbrow televisual novel—complexities! Nuances! Craft! Characterization!—and rehashing the lowbrow soap—with its cheap, tawdry thrills and ludicrous plot twists—is not mutually exclusive, but comes into sharp relief in Sons of Anarchy , especially in the ways in which the show has ratcheted up and escalated its requite quota of threats, sex, and violence each season.  In the beginning, the big menaces were a rival biker gang, the Mayans, with their nefarious mustaches, and perhaps a stealth enemy in Clay, himself no slouch in badguy facial hair.  But each season, the arc has gotten wider, and the dangers to our lovable bikers have dug in deeper.  Over the past five years, the Feds, a county takeover of the local police department, Irish gun runners, a drug cartel, secret after unearthed secret, Jax’s near death on almost every episode, and most recently the threat of Damon Pope, a huge, rich, connected Cali crimelord, who, paraphrasing Jax and Bobby (from memory, sorry) “isn’t anything like anyone we’ve ever dealt with before. He could kill us with a snap of his fingers.”

Similarly, with the stakes raised, the sex and body parts have rivaled what we see on HBO, the recipient of an imaginary Nudie Award; and similarly, the level of violence has reached a new level of graphic in its own depictions of bodies (dismembered, etc.), with [SPOILER] Tig’s daughter shrieking as she’s burned to death in front of her father, who later cradles the charred corpse in his arms.  Most importantly, we’ve bared witness to the brutal beating to death of a main character himself (revealed below), as the other Sons impotently look on.

Yes, other characters have died before. But at the risk of sounding callous, it wasn’t anyone we really cared about.  This escalation becomes the downside to the serial narrative.  SoA, each season, in true soap opera style, has to outdo the last, creating, as I suggested of Weeds a few weeks ago, a glut of both trauma and narrative from which the characters and the show itself cannot recover.    I fear this season marks the beginning of the end. Not in the Jump the Shark way, which is still a great phrase to mark the precise moment when a show passes its prime.  Maybe we can call it [SPOILER ALERT] “Killing Opie,” for the moment when a show becomes willing to sacrifice a major character on the alter of Higher Stakes (or higher ratings), as opposed to an essential narrative reason.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still enjoying SoA plenty.  But how long can this arms race of sex and violence continue for Sons of Anarchy? Hamlet may seem interminable to high school students, but it doesn’t take five years to tell its story.  The threats escalate, the thick plottens, [spoiler?] and it’s curtains, for the characters, of course, but also for the play itself, and for the audience.  Ideally, life goes on for decades. Ideally, stories do not.

Time: 60 minutes

Comments: what other shows have killed a major character just, it seemed, to up the ante?


[i] Actually, cable loves them, too.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Learning to Sing Hours and Hours of Cover Songs

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as Frank Zappa, or Elvis Costello, or George Carlin, did or did not say.[i]  Except, of course, that it’s not.  It’s more like writing about architecture, except more fun, frequent, and widely-appealing.  Humans strive to put abstractions, like justice; emotions, like love; senses, like taste; and art, like, um, art—that is, that which seemingly defy the verbal—into language all the time, a kind of symbolic synesthesia. Plus, the analogy does not hold, since music is unique; in addition to listening to music, playing music, and writing about music, we do dance to music, and create architectural structures devoted to it.

And yet, ZappaCostelloCarlin is/are also on to something.  For the past nine months, I have been playing music semi-professionally—three paying gigs for six hours of playing this month, y’all—after a seventeen year hiatus, as I wrote about here.    And although I teach a class on rock music (early version of the syllabus posted here) and have written an academic essay on the rock novel, it turns out that there’s still more to learn from playing the music itself.

For one thing, unlike my romantic, idealistic former self, the one who wrote the music and lyrics and refused to play covers, my current self is happy to play other people’s music.  If anything, playing covers is more like what I do for my day job—interpreting books and literary criticism.  In some cases, I find myself less faithful to the original artist, while in others, I’m more faithful.  Some of this is just me—everything I play on the guitar sounds metallic, so even Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny” gets an inadvertent metal makeover.

At other times, it’s the problem of trying to adapt a studio creation to a three piece guitar-bass-drums performance.  Even a relatively straightforward pop rock song like Ratt’s Round and Round overdubs multiple lead singing tracks (and guitar tracks, a different problem), so that each first line of the verse very slightly overlaps the one before it, making it impossible for one person to reproduce live. This overlap is almost inaudible and of no concern to anyone—except someone trying to sing it live.

Whereas other songs are just fun to copy, like Green Day’s Basket Case, where making myself nasal and deliberately trying to imitate Pee Wee Herman’s serious voice—the one he’s using when not screaming—becomes a pretty solid approximation of Billy Joe Armstrong.

And it is really the singing, much more than the guitar playing, that’s the challenge for me.  I like playing the guitar. I want to play guitar.  Every part of it is fun—practice, repetition, volume, the instrument and gear itself.  While I’ve resigned myself to being a singer, it’s much harder.  For one thing, I have to use my voice ALL THE TIME, for work, for leisure, for everything.  I want to save it and keep it safe and preserved, yet I keep having to take it out to do all sorts of things.  I imagine taking my guitar out of the case, say, to sweep up, or knock a Frisbee out of a tree, and what a dangerous waste that is to use an instrument for a nonmusical, mundane purpose. Yet I’m stuck doing that will my voice all day, every day. Tea and honey can only repair so much.

But even more than the challenges, learning covers, especially singing them, has made me think more about how songs work, and their structures.  Although they use words, rock songs are not narratives—rock operas , all those Billy Joel songs with verses that  begins with people’s boring first names, and Iron Maiden epics to the contrary.  Songs have too much recursion and repetition.    It’s a cliché to say that rock songs are verse/chorus/verse.  And in reality, it’s usually closer to intro/verse/prechorus/chorus/verse/prechorus/chorus/solo/bridge/chorus/repeat chorus fade.  But they don’t move linearly from beginning to middle to end the way a story does.

Yet they’re also not poems, Dylan and Lennon and Baez to the contrary as well.  They have elements of poetry, like rhyme, rhythm, and meter (although at this point I roll my eyes at any rhyme schemed or formulaic poems written after about 1940).  But they’re not usually interested in exploring or developing ideas through imagery the way poems are.  And they’re certainly not essays, all Rush lyrics to the contrary.

What the words often are, then, are part of the music itself.  Their sound, their tone, their shape in the singer’s mouth makes the song.  Rockists like to make fun of the toe-tapping masses who say things like “I don’t listen to the lyrics, I just feel the beat” [comma splice sic].  And I admit to being something of a lyric fanatic, whether it means greater appreciation or greater disappointment.  Mock if you want, and I’m iffy about some songs, but Pearl Jam has some strong lyrics. Spin the Black Circle, Even Flow, Jeremy: these are songs where the lyrics, as sung and together with the music, turn Eddie Vedder’s voice into a pure rock instrument.  And sometimes, I’m flummoxed : The Scorpions’ Rock You Like a Hurricane, a song I’ve heard a million times, is nothing but a series of crude sexual non-sequiturs, somehow  palpable because  Klaus Meine’s German accent makes the lyrics vary between percussive and sweet ‘n’ sibilant at the right moments.

In the end, why the opposition to writing about music at all? It turns out that music needs words a lot more than words need music.  There’s only so many times even an ardent rock fan can listen to YYZ.  On with the show.

Time: 55 minutes.


[i] Quote Investigator does a pretty stellar job tracking the sources of “writing about music…” http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/11/08/writing-about-music/

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

All Evidence to the Contrary, Showtime’s WEEDS Actually Has Something in Common with Real Life

 

After eight seasons, Weeds is over.  The show began well, with its premise of a young widow in a California subdivision who turns to selling marijuana to make ends meet.  Nancy Botwin fit the growing corpus of cable anti-heroes—sympathetic and striking characters whose behavior blurs ethical and moral boundaries and whose situations allow for subversive cultural critique.  For Weeds, that meant an update on Updike’s and Cheever’s soulless suburbs, hotbeds of hidden hedonism and hypocrisies, as well as forays into the ways in which post-Boomers are spectacular failures at parenting and nearly everything else.  It was funny and thoughtful, and Nancy, in her flowy dresses and high heels, Cheshire Cat smile on her face and plastic cup and straw in her hand, was a perfect portrait for audience ambivalence, often as repellant as she was attractive.

And then, over the next seven years, with the initial premise mostly run into the ground after the first few seasons, things happened.  A LOT OF THINGS.  A brief overview, with the likelihood that I’ve messed up chronologies and details, with props to Wikipedia as my cheat sheet:  the family is forced to relocate to San Diego, then Seattle, then Dearborn, then Connecticut, than New York City, than I think Connecticut again, before the very last episode, set in both the future and Pittsburg, if that’s not a contradiction. In the meantime, Nancy marries a DEA agent who dies, a Mexican drug lord who dies, and a Russian woman while they—Nancy and Zoya, the woman—are in prison.  Did I forget prison? Or that she was shot in the head and in a coma at the opening of Season 8? That she gets deeply involved with the California drug trade and Mexican cartels, former US military drug runners, the tobacco industry, and a Rabbi?  This is to say nothing of the many other characters’ own forays into crime, sex, drugs, and high comedy.

In other words, like many shows—and soap operas—before it, the show became bloated with both narrative and trauma.  Any one situation from any one season for any one character would have been potentially life-ruining, requiring years of therapy to even begin coping with the suffering .   Who gets over the multiple and escalating threats to her own life and family numbers, let alone the accumulating unnatural deaths and murders, that Nancy nonchalantly, breezily sashays around.  Even Tony Soprano suffered from panic attacks.  Yet Nancy, like a cartoon baby in a construction site, kept moving along, literally leaving a wake of devastation, including deliberately setting fire to Season 1’s original suburb, Agrestic.  The introduction to Season 8 self-mockingly underscores her dangerous shenanigans.

 

But it’s not the deaths and relocations throughout the years that have unnerved me.  It’s the disappearance of seemingly crucial main character after main character, who is then replaced by another seemingly irreplaceable character, so that only the core family—Nancy, hapless lovelorn brother-in-law Andy, and Nancy’s sons, vapid, handsome Silas and sociopathic Shane—has remained stable.  Frenemy Celia Hodes spent a few seasons as a main character only to disappear from the show as she disappeared from Nancy’s life, just as earlier, Celia’s own older daughter disappeared from the show out of narrative necessity or convenience. Sanjay was crucial to Weeds and Nancy, until he wasn’t and was gone.   Conrad? Heylia? The guy played by Matthew Modine? Caesar? Guillermo? Lupita? Jill?  Here and gone, invisible casualties in Nancy’s escalating, if metaphorical, narrative body count.

And yet, the same bursting at the seams plot-and-character accretion strikes me as a pre-Facebook, pre-Internet nostalgia for the days when we were indeed able to move, geographically, socially, and symbolically, and begin again.  The ruthless truth is that at every point in our lives, the people with whom we consider ourselves the closest—our best friends, family members, significant others, lovers, and co-workers, to say nothing of the dozens of casual acquaintances everyone constantly juggles—soon disappear, to be replaced by a new set, a new cast, and updated conflicts.

So much of Weeds was over the top, made for cable high concept and histrionics.  But in Nancy’s narrative amnesia and seemingly emotional invulnerability, we see an inadvertent truth: no matter how close we think we are to those who surround us, the only consistency in life is our immediate family.

And even then, for only eight years.

 

Time: 40 minutes.

Tagged , , , , , ,

“Call Me Maybe”: The Deconstruction

Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is the musical embodiment of what critical theorist Jacque Derrida refers to as “différance.”  Unlike “Call Me,” the previous hit song by Blondie of almost the same name, “Call Me Maybe” throws the initial utterance, the command to “call me,” into question, even forces it under erasure, through the retroactive emendation of final ambiguity, “maybe”; “call me” lies simultaneously with its very negation.  Yet the call itself has not been placed, and in fact exists only in the world of the Imaginary—that which, in Lacan’s parsing, by definition we cannot know. The call forever remains hypothetical, subjunctive, unrealized: deferred.  As Derrida explains, “the relationship to the present, the reference to a present reality, to a being—are always deferred.”

At the same time, the title’s syntactical construction posits its speaker, “me,” in the object position, the patriarchal relegation of the feminine, even while the speaker simultaneously issues the grammatical imperative, “[You] call,” (re)positioning her in symbolic authority.  Derrida suggests that “Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences … the simultaneously active and passive…”—just as the speaker of “Call Me Maybe” implies as well.   Further,  the lyric sheet reads “Call me, maybe,” with the comma to separate the command from the adverb, suggesting a heightened claim of ambiguity.  Yet the title, “Call Me Maybe,” with its elided comma and conventional titular capitalization, refigures its meaning entirely: the statement employs the dative declension, echoing literature’s most famous manifestation of this form, Herman Melville’s opening line to Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael.”  She is commanding the listener that she should herself be called Maybe, a name that is Not.

The speaker’s utterance, but also the speaker herself, has thus been rendered indefinite, unknowable, and differed ad infinitum.  The title must be read simultaneously as “Call me, maybe,” “Call Me Maybe,” “Call me, maybe,” if the call is never placed, or “Call me, maybe” if it is. We therefore find Carly Rae Jepson in the rhetorical situation of Derrida translator Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak.  In her Translator’s Preface to Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Spivak writes that her “predicament is [that of being] ‘under erasure.’  This is to write a word, cross it out, and then print both the word and deletion.  (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out.  Since it is necessary, it remains legible.)”

While I have been using the gender specific pronoun “she” to refer to the speaker, since Carly Rae Jepson’s voice, clothing, and sex all code her as “heterosexual female,” the gender identity and sexual orientation of the speaker are in fact ambiguous as well. The opening line, “I threw a wish in the well/Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell” recall the famous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law established under the Clinton presidency preventing gay and lesbian solders from revealing their sexual orientation, under the risk military discharge.  The ending, or “punch line,” of the “Call Me Maybe” music video introduces the possibility that what we had been viewing all along is not a heteronormative enactment of adolescent dating rituals but rather their subversion, playing upon the complacent viewer’s culturally rigid assumptions of masculinity.

Indeed, the song not only embodies différance; it embraces paradox.  The repeated last line to each verse, “And now you’re in my way,” as well as the reiterated “Where you think you’re goin’, baby?” imply the threat of male coercion despite the feminine vocal delivery.  And the final bridge section, repeating  “Before you came into my life/ I missed you so bad” like a mantra, becomes a Zen kōan, reflecting upon a sublime yet uncanny sense of temporal disconnect.  The notion that one can miss something that has not yet been experienced recalls haiku poet Matsuo Bashō, who writes of the ways in which one can long for an interior, emotionally subjective construction of life even at the expense of its own reality:

Even in Kyōto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyōto

The sense of différance set forward by the lyrics is further augmented by the music behind the chorus. The standard popular song follows a I-IV-V-I pattern: firmly establishing its chord progression with the I cord, developing tension through the IV and V chords, and then resolving the musical conflict by reestablishing the root or alternately moving to the root’s relative minor.  In “Call Me Maybe”’s key of G major, however, the chorus chords move back and forth between C (the IV) and D (the V) without ever returning to G (the I) or moving on to E minor, never resolving, a musical manifestation of différance itself, even throughout the end of the song, which, unlike the conventional fade-out, ends in a pitchshifitng downward spiral, deferring even the idea of a musical conclusion.

The final result of this radical indeterminacy is that “Call Me Maybe” is a musical Mona Lisa, rendering itself a cultural cipher, a tabula rasa upon which any reader may impose meaning; with over 222,500,000 views on YouTube, its video is a floating signifier capable of accommodating virtually any viewer.   As such, the Internet is inundated with “Call Me Maybe” memes, each imagining a different, resolved signified of the song that, taken together, negate each other, paradoxically denying any such certainty.

And so many more

Maybe.

Time: 75 minutes

Derrida quotations from “Interview with Julia Kristeva” in Positions (University of Chicago P, 1981)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 670 other followers

%d bloggers like this: