Wednesday, April 29, 2015

This Is as Much as You'll Grasp: Dennis Cooper and the Aesthetics of Vacuity

Teddy Bear and a stack of Dennis Cooper books
“This is the commonly reigning form of barbarism: that one doesn’t even realize that morality is a matter of taste.”- Pierre Klossowski


Social media offers us an opportunity to control the way we appear to the world. Generally, people want to appear to be moral and tasteful; we post articles and petitions that reflect our praiseworthy political commitments, we can scroll down our profile and be reminded of what Good people we are. A quick look at novelist Dennis Cooper’s facebook profile demonstrates that he doesn’t seem to care about appearing to be a good person- he regularly posts links to male prostitutes he’s been checking out online, and one of his recent cover photos was of a would-be school bomber. This isn’t because Cooper is an actual connoisseur of underage prostitutes or a violent criminal, but because he recognizes that the internet is a place to explore fantasies. The predominant fantasy that gets explored is of being a coherent, morally upright person. Social media enables this kind of behavior- it's profitable.

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Dennis Cooper
A theme throughout Cooper’s work is the aestheticizing of morally reprehensible behavior- typically sexual violence and pedophilia. This is exemplified by the mostly out-of-the-picture music critic father in 1994’s “Try”, who is sexually obsessed with his young son, but whose rhapsodic appreciation of his son’s beauty is part and parcel with his ability to exploit him. Cooper’s often relentlessly dry, museful prose style desensitizes readers to the heinous acts that he describes. This isn’t an authorial strategy used to teach a moral lesson, it is an effort to render whoever is reading an accomplice in the character’s violent acts. After raping and murdering his own brother, the narrator of 2011’s “The Marbled Swarm”’s internal monologue unspools:
 ...I no more spend time reading novels than you would kill your brothers. Hence, how authors give dead characters’ survivors room to grieve while, presumably within the same handful of paragraphs, checking off new plot twists as though nothing diabolical has happened is wizardry to me.
This suggests that formatting and narrativizing human debauchery and misery is just another “form of barbarism”. Cooper has said in many interviews that he is not interested in politics, but I think this has political implications. With the apparent triumph of global capitalism and liberal democracy, the ideals of progress and unity are accompanied by realities of exploitation and imperialism. Just as our political agendas are tainted and rendered all but vacuous by their complicity with fetishistic capitalism and the human misery it begets, Dennis Cooper’s character’s obsessions with beauty drive them beyond fabular or ethical confines- they end up being too evasive and discerning to be evaluated in a conventional moral framework (sort of like successful politicians).
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Cooper’s work reflects the fact that personal aspiration in capitalism is tied to exploitation. In his 1989 novel “Closer”, a middle school boy name David constantly fantasizes about being a pop star. The chapter narrated by him begins, “I’m a talentless but popular young singer and I have the feeling someone is watching me.” Throughout the chapter, David claims that because of his physical beauty he is worthwhile and deserving of a high level of visibility. In the end it is revealed that David was raped by a man claiming to be an A&R executive for a major record company- this incident being the impetus for his seemingly superficial preoccupation with pop stardom. David says, “I’m sure he doesn’t remember the incident. Still, I can’t forget.” Believing that we are intrinsically special or beautiful may be the only way we can cope with the world, but in David’s case, the event that instilled that belief in him also brutally proved that he was totally fungible. 

Articles Cooper wrote for Spin Magazine in the 90's, including Kurt Cobain’s obituary, dealt with exploitation in the music business directly. For Cooper, it was unclear whether Cobain’s music transcended or perpetuated the demoralized world generation x-ers were emerging into. Who benefited from Cobain’s success? Was it the people who saw themselves in his music, or the people who got rich off of it? Was Cobain’s inner turmoil accessible to his fans in the same way that the dollar bill was accessible to the baby on the cover of ‘Nevermind’? Does it matter? Cobain, Cooper writes, “with his stupid, infuriating death… showed us what our belief costs.” When Cobain sings “I’m buried up to my neck in contradictionary flies...I’m too busy acting like I’m not naive”, one is reminded of Cooper’s characters whose voices are decentered as the confusion at the center of their lives envelopes them.


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“All I’m trying to say is, I have no idea what I’m after. I just know how it looks on the surface.”

Cooper is most well-known for the five part George Miles cycle, named after a friend and lover of his who committed suicide. The cycle was partially an attempt to make sense of his friend’s death, but also features characters (some named “Dennis”) who are obsessed with finding romantic and/or sexual partners who share George Miles’ physical and mental traits. This leads to art (being concerned with enduring issues like loss, love and death) becoming indistinct from pornography (where human characteristics are more or less effects of lust) in Cooper’s work. A decade before Jean Baudrillard claimed that “the illusion of desire has been lost in the ambient pornography and contemporary art has lost the desire of illusion,” Cooper wrote:


Just as contemporary art eschews the traditional notion of subject, relying instead on a display of purely aesthetic components, pornography’s not about what it appears to observe- sex. Porn’s simply intimate with human beings, its components… but they’re hardly porn’s real subject. That subject is lust- theirs, their director’s, their viewers’.

Many of Cooper’s characters are totally driven by lust, and also see the world in ‘purely aesthetic’ terms; they have a sort of overdetermined acumen when it comes to recognizing beauty. His rigorously surficial way of describing his character’s perceptions doesn’t become a mere exercise in effacement (as so much art has literally become), though. This is because he recognizes that confusing artifice with reality is the core of being human; we can’t deliberately pursue triviality any more than we can wisdom. In 1997’s “Guide”, the fourth book in the George Miles cycle, a character named Dennis Cooper is in love with a man named Luke, who is exactly his “type”, down to the last detail. While Dennis’s lust arbitrarily gains total purchase on Luke, his advances get rejected and he ends up fascinated not by how well Luke adheres to his lust's typology, but by Luke’s solipsism, beliefs and behavior- his inaccessible interiority. This demonstrates that, even as our identities seem to collapse under the weight of banality, our lust can inadvertently lead us to stare at our own blindness. We’re still at square one.

- @_akrasis_

Friday, April 10, 2015

Guy of Thrones


I.

In his essay "The Geography of the Imagination," the American critic Guy Davenport writes that "when Europeans came to the new world, they learned nothing on the way, as if they came through a dark tunnel." In America they did their best to create some version of the civilization they had come from, but it necessarily morphed under the influence of this new continent with its strange new soil. With this in mind, we can fruitfully look for the foundations of European art buried beneath each new work produced in the New World.

This is a pretty dry way of summarizing Davenport's essay, which is gorgeous and almost godlike in its erudition, but I've got a lot to get through. The core of "The Geography of the Imagination" is an extended reading of Grant Wood's painting American Gothic, in which Davenport finds the embodied legacy of the Greek pantheon, the Industrial Revolution, and the cultural mores of the Celts. The barn's pointed windows come from Venice; the couple's pose comes from the Pharaonic funerary portrait. When a friend complained that Grant Wood couldn't possibly have known enough to include everything Davenport found in the painting, Davenport replied that "the painting knew it for him."

Paintings know more than their painters, is what I want you to take away. The essay starts with a discussion of Edgar Allan Poe, the grandfather of all American genre fiction, who, Davenport writes, divided his imagery into two categories, the grotesque and the arabesque. Davenport associates "grotesque" with the Gothic cathedral, the ultimate monument to the gloom of Northern Europe, and "arabesque" with the intricate tilework and and calligraphy of Jewish and Islamic cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, there's a missing category in Poe's scheme: Davenport writes that "if Poe had wanted to designate his imagination more accurately," he would have included a third term, "classic." This refers to the peristyle temples and freestanding statues of the Greco-Roman world. All of Poe's imagery falls into these categories, even if Poe himself didn't know it.

The grotesque-arabesque-classic triad comes together most succinctly in the image of the Raven. This most gothic of birds, redolent of the moors and forests of Northern Europe, still bears traces of the totemic birds of the arabesque and the classic modes. In early drafts of the poem it was a parrot, a bird that in 1850 was still associated with the mythic Orient, and even in the finished version it maintains the parrot's habit of verbal mimicry and repetition. While it croaks its single word it stands on a statue of the most classical goddess of all, Athena, whose symbol is the owl.

This is only the most concise example; the triad recurs throughout Poe's work. "Israfel" is written in an arabesque mode; "To Helen" is classical; both include symbols of the other two elements. Davenport believes that tracking the "metamorphoses of these symbols will give us a new, as yet unread Poe." He goes further: the triad isn't restricted to Poe but is integral to the communal imagination of the west, irrespective of ideology. It appears in the work of James Joyce—in Ulysses, a Northern European of Jewish extraction reenacts the voyages of a Greek—and in the work of the cryptofascist cultural historian Oswald Spengler, who divided world cultures into "Faustian," "Magian" and "Apollonian." (Spengler also wrote that we are entering the Winter Time of Western Civilization, so he's a pretty soft ball for this article.) Along with a few other figments, the grotesque-arabesque-classic triad is a trace of something unspeakably vast and ancient in the western imagination, something that goes so deep as to be impervious to mass migrations and the collapse of whole economic systems.

II. 

Edgar Allan Poe is exactly who we should expect to open himself up to such a vast and ancient cultural complex. A Europhile dandy with a tin ear for the American idiom (whatever that meant in 1845), Poe lacked Walt Whitman's indefatigable faith in democracy and Mark Twain's suspicion of high culture. In fact, as Davenport notes, he talked openly of the need to establish "an aristocracy of dollars" to compensate for our lost "aristocracy of blood." His characters live in cities of gabled roofs and winding cobblestone streets, but he created them at a time when Washington D.C. was still a town of farmhouses and bumpy dirt roads. Without Napoleon at the end of "The Pit and the Pendulum," there would be no evidence of the French Revolution ever having taken place.

When you read Poe you can sense his nausea at the idea of North America, a continent he perceived as basically a desert, lacking the fertile soil of European culture and tradition. We can read his madness for French and Greek quotations the same way we read Eliot's: as a method of shoring up fragments against his ruins. He wanted to create a copy of the old world and seal himself up in it. I suspect the reason he's so durably part of the American canon is not in spite of but because of this: for every Ahab there has to be a Roderick Usher. That sense of loss hasn't gone away; recent manifestations of it include Joan Didion, neoreactionaries, and the entire fantasy genre.

III. 

You know somebody like George R. R. Martin. He epitomizes the life path of a certain kind of nerd. All nerds have to fit their outsize interests into a functional life; the ones who are into math fit it into academia, the ones who are into video games subsidize it as a hobby, the ones who are into programming become Silicon Valley dickheads. Some nerds, though, fill a frightening liminal role: with enough innate confidence and social finesse to scrape by in everyday life, and with an interest, like baseball stats or literature, that is sort of borderline acceptable, they actually emerge into the hegemonic discourse. These people walk among us. They take showers, drink beer, and bitch about their jobs. You could spend years in a close friendship with one and not even notice they were a nerd. Maybe you have.

Know that they always have a tell. An aversion to caffeine, maybe, or a slight speech impediment. Irregular eye contact. The inability to sing along to songs on the radio. And always, always, always the monologues: they can barely keep their hypertrophied interest below the discursive surface, and it threatens always to burst forth. If you ask them the wrong thing at a party (chillingly, they do indeed go to parties) there is always a chance that, at first haltingly and then with increasing speed and rising volume, they will pour upon you a torrent of trivia about something—70s reggae, European cars, abstract expressionism, poker strategy—that you almost, but don't quite, care about. Left without interruption, these people will construct a prison around you and themselves that neither of you will ever escape. 

George R. R. Martin is probably unique in that he's almost a good enough writer to make that prison a goodly one. He's been building it for years, and its name is A Song of Ice and Fire. His interest—broadly, the history of the medieval and early modern periods—is nearly acceptable, and the way he narrates it—that is, luridly—is almost enough to keep you engaged. From his comments on the work of Maurice Druon, you can tell that he reads history for thrills, not enlightenment: he savors betrayal, cruel irony, and abrupt reversals of fortune. Formally, he looks in history for acts, characters and situations, all of which more properly belong to fiction than to history. This should reveal that George R. R. Martin essentially thinks of history as fiction—it's all sensation and drama, and inasmuch as it touches us it never happened at all.

IV. 

To read history like this you have to believe with all your heart that you are outside of it, that history is over and you can now look at it as a whole. Otherwise you continue the struggle to get out of it. For George R. R. Martin, history might as well already be fantasy. This is his tell.

The basic feature of every nerd is that they dwell in the imagination. Look at George R. R. Martin as he attempts to communicate with glittering non-nerds Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers: you can see him curling up like a snail in an imaginary shell. Other people are happy to slot themselves into an actually existing institution like a sports fandom or a music scene. Nerds seal themselves up in imaginary pyramids and keep everything else out, from rap music to incorrect English grammar to the sucking undertow of history itself.

Beyond that I won't say anything about the man, because I've never read A Song of Ice and Fire and don't intend to, and because this article is about Game of Thrones anyhow. George R. R. Martin is not the author of Game of Thrones. He's barely responsible for it at all. As Tolstoy reminds us, the more you seem to stand independent of history, the more you are helpless in its grasp. If Game of Thrones did not exist, it would be necessary for us to invent it.

V. 

Every fantasy realm is a pastiche of Western history. The imagination is not a sphere of unbounded freedom; it has historical and geographic constraints just like the body. All we really get when we ask fantasy writers to imagine new worlds for us is the old world rearranged in a new way. Tolkien's constructed languages, for example: in Lothlorien they speak a centaur of Finnish and Latin; in Mirkwood they speak a version of Welsh; in Rohan they speak Old English; in Erebor they speak a version of Hebrew. As a child it used to bother me that Tolkien hadn't gone all the way and imagined really, utterly different languages, languages that had no relationship to ours. Why did he have to do this boring Anglo-Chthonic thing when he could just make shit up? Now I realize that that would be impossible, because the category "language" can't be transposed to another world; it doesn't meaningfully exist except as a projection of actually existing languages. To put it simply, you can't make shit up.

Game of Thrones is at least honest about this. Its world is a scrambled version of Eurasia; its history is a scrambled version of Eurasian history. Pastiche prevails on every front. The ritual solemnity and precognitions of doom in the Stark storyline come from Macbeth. The exotic setting and semi-picaresque structure of the Targaryen storyline come from the medieval genre of the Alexander Romance, in which the idealistic European conqueror triumphs over successive trials in the mysterious Orient. The coruscations of betrayal and resentment in the Lannister storyline come from the actual dynamics of Italian Renaissance history, although they've clearly been refracted through the Godfather movies.

Character, too: When Tywin Lannister appears on horseback at the end of the second season, he's performing as a condottiere, one of the mercenary warlords sculpted by Leonardo and Verrocchio, but his position as would-be dynasty head until the end of the fourth season lets us identify him as the famous family man Rodrigo Borgia. Rodrigo had a son of disputed paternity whose name was Gioffre, although Tywin's sadistic grandson Joffrey Baratheon is clearly taking his cues from Caligula. The eunuch Varys is Niccolò Machiavelli, down to his creepiness and his supposed desire to restore peace and unity to the realm. Cersei Lannister, quelling popular revolt in the capital, is the Byzantine Empress Theodora. Daenerys is a female Alexander the Great. Khal Drogo is a cuddlier Attila. Viserys is a thinner Crassus. 

Setting is where it shows most clearly, though: the continent of Westeros, where two-thirds of the show takes place, is clearly Britain, resized to reflect how important Britain thinks it is. In real life Britain is an island of two or three biomes, about as large and interesting as Pennsylvania. Westeros, on the other hand, spans thousands of miles and an enormous array of appropriated European cultures. In the North people inhabit a roughly Scottish countryside and practice an old, animistic religion; there are passions and blood feuds and the kind of unimaginably horrible political violence that we know from Macbeth. In the capital, King's Landing, there's a syncretic culture that occupies the geographic position of London but has the aesthetics of Constantinople—floral capitals on all the columns, pendentive domes redolent of incense, duels, spies, Greek Fire, and a parody of the Church.

The Game of Thrones version of the Eurasian landmass proper, Essos, is just a big turd-shaped blob, rapidly losing definition as you move east from the Italy equivalent. (This is the way that Anglo-Americans have always looked at it anyway.) Somewhere in it there is an enormous steppe, but Daenerys doesn't have to cross any Himalayas or Gobi Deserts to get all the way to the other end of the continent, which anyway isn't China or even India but a pan-Orientalist realm with features of Achaemenid Persia, Pharaonic Egypt and Ottoman Anatolia: opium, pyramids, deceitful merchants, ritualized speech, eunuch slave-soldiers, and the overriding sense that the inhabitants were not doing much of anything before Western conquerors arrived.

It starts to feel like something that would get filed away in the Western History section of Fanfiction.net if it didn't have HBO money behind it—some kind of Super Smash Brothers thing, one of those insufferable fever dream crossover fics, where Alexander gets married to Attila and Joan of Arc swears loyalty to Mary, Queen of Scots and Fezzik crushes Inigo's skull.

There's a method, though, and once you key into it you start to notice certain patterns. Characters from the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years' War tend to reappear in the North. In King's Landing the menu selects from the Roman and Renaissance aristocracies. In Essos, it's the Hellenistic period, the Roman Imperial frontiers, and French depictions of the Ottoman Empire. The mosaic floor of the dueling arena where Oberyn dies is a copy of the animal mosaics that archaeologists discovered buried in ash at Pompeii. The weirwood groves in the North are a version of the druidic groves that Pliny first mentioned and Chateaubriand popularized when he was trying to resuscitate the Gothic legacy. The Ghiscari harpy that surmounts each city that Daenerys conquers is an insulting parody of the Zoroastrian sun disk, which was ubiquitous for a thousand years in cities from Ctesiphon to Samarkand. Every image in the show circles one of three drains, and the names of these drains are Classic, Grotesque and Arabesque.

VI.

Thousands of people have labored to inscribe this story, a crew spanning the whole of Europe, a swarm of producers, consultants, horse wranglers, pyrotechnics supervisors, blacksmiths, makeup crew, PAs, interns and extras. Surely the biggest sustained enterprise in the history of screen art, bigger than Ben-Hur, bigger than Apocalypse Now. Production on Game of Thrones has gone on like this for five years now, longer than World War I. Who is responsible for this? Where, on an atomic level, is the impetus for this show coming from? Certainly not George R. R. Martin, who did nothing but rearrange. Is it the executives at HBO, then? They just anticipate market demand. Is it David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners, who write most of the episodes? They're just interpreting George R. R. Martin, and anyway every decision they make has to go through an army of line producers and actors before it reaches the screen. Is it the actors, who ultimately have final control of their performances? Their performances are compromised by the photography, the editing and the mise-en-scène. Is it the cameramen, the editors, and the set designers, then? They must defer to the line producers. Is it the audience? But we constantly ask for fewer Red Weddings, fewer dead characters, fewer horrific reversals of fortune, and we are always denied.

Tolstoy wrote that war is the process through which we most clearly sense the presence of the world-spirit; the twentieth century taught us that popular entertainment is just as good. The real author of Game of Thrones is a force that persists between the line producer and his headset, between the showrunner and his MacBook Pro, between the extra and the blood packet taped to his chest. It quivers in the buffer bar on HBO Go and the video artifacts in every torrented kilobit of every episode. This is a force of absolute necessity. Game of Thrones exists because it must exist, because that force, like every force, evolves a form.

VII.

George R. R. Martin is often called "The American Tolkien." What would it mean to be an American Tolkien? Tolkien wanted passionately to be connected to a different history, a different world, a world where the English had had horses at Hastings and Birnam Wood had really come to Dunsinane. George R. R. Martin, like his forebear Edgar Allan Poe, is content to imagine a connection to any history at all, even to a world that is essentially the same as ours—the same waves of bloody migration, the same wars fought for foreign debt, the same collapses of economic systems. He imagines that just because he wrote this history, it is fantasy. Nerds always think this. He doesn't realize that it's realer than he is. It speaks through him like it spoke through Poe, who may have been the first American nerd.

Have you ever seen a crowd of nerds come down the hallway? Maybe in high school or at the local library? Each one of them has real cognitive ability, real processing power, and knows it. Not intelligence, necessarily, but at least a high intelligence score, something that will let them be confident when they have to make certain saving throws. And yet they are always repeating, in their throaty voices, the same arguments about Buffy, about communism, about next-generation video game consoles. They even use stock phrases: fezzes are cool, kill it with fire, polyphloisboio thalassēs. (Sorry, that last one kind of crept in there.) Look at them long enough and you see the panic in their eyes. Each of them wants so badly to talk about something else, anything else, anything new. To be a different thing. How did we get like this? Why this body, why this acne, why this speech impediment? Why these base stats, why these TV shows, and not some other ones? In the end we're all tired of this ancient world. History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. But one must sleep the never-ending night. You already know what the three-eyed raven is saying. It's one word. Guess what it is.

@johnsongriffinj

Monday, March 16, 2015

Permafrost: Drake's Glacial Excavation



If You're Reading This It's Too Late was released on February 13th. On the face of it the title of the album/mixtape is a challenge to the relevancy of the reader. Drake, it seems, will always be a step ahead of you, ahead of all of us, a part of the avant-garde. Taken in this flat way, the title is a prelude to the braggadocio of the content. The record picks up the blunt flow and minimal beats straight from Nothing Was The Same's "Worst Behavior" and sprints ahead full speed with them. It appears that Drake has taken his success to be a sign that he can take the structures that he explored with "5AM in Toronto" and accelerate them without limit. It's continuously too late for us because we have written Drake an artistic blank check, and now, along with his fellow luminaries, he defines relevancy, rather than operating within it.

 

On a second, vastly more interesting level, the title of the mixtape denotes a certain powerlessness of Drake as an artist. We commented on the same phenomenon at the time of his last major release. Understood with this inflection, the title becomes a commentary on the impossibility of a certain sort of relevance for the sort of mainstream mass-distributed act of which Drake is an exemplar. One need only listen to the contents of the record in order to find this ineffectiveness littered throughout. From the pre-released "6 God" to the catchiness of "Know Yourself", the record is full of music that Drake has been listening to during his sabbatical. In much the same way that Kanye's latest effort was an attempt to inject a "quintessential" Kanye essence into a distillation of the state of groundbreaking hip-hop at the time, IYRTITL summons together all of the most dehumanized elements in rap music and then attempts to apply a thick layer of Aubrey Graham on top.

Atlanta and Chicago stand out as two scenes that have obviously been in rotation in the Drake household. There are few, if any, tracks on the record not inflected with the sociopathic lack of affect that has defined Chicago Drill since its inception. It is no coincidence that on "0 to 100", Drake said he was "on his Lil Mouse drill shit" On the Atlanta side, one need only look as far as OG Maco's breakout "U Guessed It" to see the latest in a line of thoroughly dark tracks that pioneered the minimalist beats and shouting flow that litter Drake's latest effort. And far be it from us to forget that one of the most crucial experiments to Drake's evolution into his current state was his flow-biting of the Migos when he "graced" them with a remix of "Versace" lo those many years ago.

If anything, IYRTITL demonstrates how Drake's real talent lies not in music but in a particular brand of pop anthropology. In the wake of previous projects, this meant infinite thinkpieces on how he was the voice of a generation of alienated, insecure, perennially self-medicated, and deeply sheltered Americans. The latest effort, on the other hand, reflexively turns on the genre to which he pledges allegiance. Drake and 40 have found the deep reservoirs of what is happening across various local scenes, re-rooted that sound in Torontonian mythos, and then re-universalized it by virtue of Drake's accessibility and distributive reach. The overall effect, as it was with Yeezus, was to gather together geographically disparate but stylistically similar strains of beatmaking and flows in such a way that the record created its own canon of precursors. Like the true Bloomean that he is, Drake has given a strong reading of rap in the moment. The attempt at relevance, here, relies on both muddying and purifying the water out of which it grew.

 With this overarching structure in mind, we can discuss the way the record fills itself out. "Legend" sets the blustering tenor of the record and is immediately followed up by a slew of tracks that hammer home the stylistic tone of the rest of the record. From the menace and swagger of "Energy" to the bro-upping of "Know Yourself", the beginning of the album is a testosterone multipack. Most of these early tracks slither and slink around in the shadows, setting up their seriousness through beat selection and counting on Drake to carry the aggression. This trend is violently interrupted by "6 God", which, as @SquidDad observes (via a RT by @passionweiss) "[...]makes me feel like I'm going to battle my ex girlfriend in final fantasy". Released before the record, "6 God" matches Drake's energy with what sounds like a MIDI string section in utter panic.



When Drake does revert to his confessional mood and his classic flow, it begins under the auspices of PARTYNEXTDOOR. This helps us to understand an interesting broader trend within Drake's OVO brand, which is that old versions of Drake's style are passed down to the less famous musicians. By way of example, if you can't hear Thank Me Later-era Drake in IYRTITL's "Wednesday Night Interlude" you should reacquaint yourself with "Cece's Interlude" from the former record.

This signals the fundamental divide in the record. In "Now & Forever", where Drake breaks out some of the trance-like crooning that made Take Care compelling in the way that it was. A similar mood is interrupted midway in "Company" by a truly vicious musical flip by Travi$ Scott. And, almost by way of apology, "You & the 6" sounds as though it would fit snugly alongside the tracklist on the ancient mixtape Comeback Season. In fact, much of the end of the record sounds like a series of hedging ploys to help old fans ease, ass-backwards, into the mixtape. By the time we reach the omni-directional flexing of "6PM in New York" amends have already been made and the thrumming dehumanization of the first half has been thoroughly diluted.

The strongest moments of IYRTITL are flat, purposefully flat, like a survey of a polar expanse, and attempt to be threatening in the same manner as that landscape. Drake lays his cold eyes on the bracing hostility of contemporary rap and attempts to become equal to it and claim it for his own. It's a mostly failed attempt, dragged down by Drake's historical work, but the excavation he does to get there is enough to hold interest. The weakest moments of the record consist in Drake's archival revival of his own catalog. This ends up in a series of songs that sound like poor rehashes of some sort of retrospective record, reworked covers asked to fit into an alien venue. Again, our faith in our old claim is renewed: Drake's work is best when he does not try to be himself.

- @johnnyhonest

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why You Can't Do Fast Casual Dining Ironically


A few weeks ago, I walked into the Uptown Minneapolis Chipotle and was greeted by a sign announcing that no carnitas would be available. Luckily, my meat of choice at Chipotle is steak and I was there to try out Sofritas, the fast casual dining giant’s new vegan option. My Facebook news feed later informed me that Chipotle had pulled its pork option (look, a pun) from at least 400 of its locations upon discovering that one of its major pork suppliers had failed to comply with the chain’s animal welfare standards. Chipotle, it appears, is actually holding itself and its suppliers ethically accountable to the animals it depends on for profit.

 This information came to me at the height of my seemingly inexplicable obsession with the fast casual restaurant industry, particularly in its marketing and aesthetic practices: these places specifically position themselves in a realm between "fast food" and "casual dining," eschewing the table service of a casual family restaurant while promising higher quality, fresher cuisine than a typical fast food joint. The middlebrow result of these promises is what interested me. This phase doesn’t seem so inexplicable anymore, however; I think I’ve found the root of my fascination, which is that you can’t really do fast casual dining ironically. Something about how these companies market themselves commands the trust, rather than eyebrows raised hungrily tongue-in-cheek, of consumers, and when the chance to make a fast casual dining experience into a joke arises the company often delivers the punchline before we can.


What do I mean by “do fast casual dining ironically”? Think of spontaneous “Dude, what if we went to Arby’s right now?!?!?!!?” moments in your life. If there are none-- and there's no shame in that, considering the vast majority of people are probably more focused on eating for sustenance than eating to project an impression (I fall into both camps and, full disclaimer, really, really enjoy most of the bland American chains I mention throughout this article)--imagine a group of bored young adults stranded after bar close whose preferences have somehow shifted from “what is available for me to eat?” to “what would be the most ridiculous thing possible to eat right now?” The answer will almost never be a fast-casual dining establishment, at first for logistical purposes and then for the reason that it’s just not that funny to eat because the management is dead serious.

The first reason is about timing: while in any decently populated metro area in the U.S. you can find family-style chains like Denny’s or fast food drive-thrus open around the clock, the likes of Qdoba, Five Guys and Au Bon Pain are simply not open that late. If you’re not trekking out for refreshments at two a.m. (bar close in my current city of residence, Minneapolis), you can, of course, eat at a fast casual restaurant. But the likelihood of running to Panera Bread on your 40-minute lunch break in a burst of ironic motivation seems highly unlikely. Of course, now that I’ve said this, I expect everyone reading this article to announce to their coworkers around 12 p.m. tomorrow that it would be totally absurd to hit up Potbelly and spend a cool $8.50.


Neither does price of fast casual dining lend itself to ridiculous eating: while you’re not signing up for a gourmet meal by going out to Noodles and Company, you are sinking about $8-15 on your food when you could get the same amount for less than five bucks at the Taco Bell across the street. Actually, there probably isn’t a Taco Bell across the street from the Noodles and Company in question because throughout my “research” I’ve found that fast casual restaurants tend to cluster around each other the same way other similarly-priced institutions do. I think of some of my fondest memories: the road trips of my childhood and my family’s options at each stop being Bob Evans, Eat’n’Park or Steak’n’Shake (for a super fun challenge, look up the usual regional locations of these places to find out where my family used to travel in our white Honda Odyssey named Bill that I insisted was a “girl car.”) But I digress: a meal at Cosi requires more than pocket change and, therefore, less spontaneity and less potential for yuks than a trip through the Burger King drive-thru. 

But the price can’t be the only thing holding us back from making fast casual places the site of ironic joys. After all, pricier casual family dining chains such as Applebee’s and Perkins have served as a pilgrimage site for twenty-somethings looking to people-watch the poor slobs who frequent such joints (I’m allowed to say “poor slobs” because I used to go to Baker’s Square every week in high school to sincerely enjoy Free Pie Wednesday surrounded by octogenarians) or attend the world’s most unlikely “adult” venue. I’d suggest taking a look at artist Dorian Electra’s well-documented fascination with Applebee’s to understand the wondrous potential for the absurd in the world of family dining. Bennigan’s and Big Boy maintain Disney-levels of seriousness about the wholesome fun they offer to families, providing room for customers to make their own fun around these institutions. Chipotle senses its own comic possibilities and once offered its customers free food on the condition that they show up as silver-wrapped human burritos on Halloween. Again, fast casual is serious but not naïve: it can predict the end of the joke before we do.

 

In fact, in the fast casual dining I’ve “researched” (as in, ate at and asked my Chipotle and Noodles and Company employee friends about, my own food service industry experience being in a concession stand at a hockey rink) in the past few months there lies a sinisterly banal undertone: “eat less-processed, more-ethically-obtained food here!' they say. "Work at our company and make a career out of it! Sit back, relax and enjoy—we won’t rush you the way McDonald’s might.”

But what do we make, then, of the fact that Chipotle’s CEOs make more money than the vast majority of chief executives in the country’s largest 100 companies? What do we make of the sterility of the decor (which deserves a study to itself), the selectively chosen hip and friendly fonts, the Twitter campaigns and the buddy-buddy feel between management and customer that seems to pale when we realize these qualities necessarily fall under the backdrop of a corporate world dependent upon capitalism and hierarchy? My best answer is that if my interest mainly lies in how hard it is to eat “ironically” at a Chipotle, Fazoli’s or Culvers, perhaps what we really ought to delve into is just how the management at such places disallows the irony because it beats customers in their own race.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Mona Lisa's Got You All: Bradford Cox and the Death of the Author

"Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality."- Michel Foucault from "What is an Author"
"When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again."- Eric Dolphy 


Although Bradford Cox, the singer/guitarist of Deerhunter and sole member of Atlas Sound, makes hypnotic music that conveys an easy familiarity with the rock and roll tradition, he is notorious for being interminably opinionated and a difficult interviewee- this was satirized in a video where he gets psychoanalyzed. That video plays on the suspicion that his unfiltered thoughts, while always entertaining, could only be understood from a psychiatrist’s distance; similarly, his music sounds very vulnerable, not because his delivery is unapologetically nasal, voice-cracky, or out of tune, but because his voice, mixed low and drenched in reverb, constantly threatens to disappear into the wash of sound.

This dampening of the voice is related to his overall aesthetic:
 “If I could just put the stuff up there, and remove ego and name and possession from it, just to have immediacy...if there could just be a direct, like, route from my brain to instruments to the audience…”

Cox thinks his status as a creator impedes his ability to express himself. He laments that he has to preoccupy himself with presenting, packaging and distributing his music. Michel Foucault expresses comparable sentiments in his 1969 essay "What is an Author?"- which leaves its titular question open. "What is an Author" is Foucault's response to the 'death of the author', an event which used to dominate the French intellectual scene. For Foucault, recognizing the 'death of the author' meant recognizing that someone's biographical information, taste, and emotional proclivities were no longer useful criteria for analyzing a work. Rather than rendering authors anonymous, the 'death of the author' renders them irrelevant; discourse, even artistic discourse, operates according to its own rules- it hardly matters whose name is attached to what. The immediacy that Cox strives for is ultimately impossible because familiarity with a discourse- in this case, Cox's familiarity with rock music- doesn't allow one to mobilize discourse to be especially effective or expressive or descriptive; it instead exposes the artist to the irrelevance of their own human interiority to discursive practices. Foucault writes, "Discourse is not life, its time is not your time...". Cox's lyrics reflect this, for instance on "Disappearing Ink", where he seems to blame external forces for compelling him to write. The song is totally self-referring but can only be understood in terms of its 'unfolded exteriority'; the lyrics themselves make it clear that the circumstances they were written under are irrelevant:

I got a message/ Can you guess what it said?/ Drive alone/ Drive straight home/I did as instructed/ Closed my door and locked it//Sat and wrote a letter/ I described the weather/ And the scene/ Remembering/I forget tomorrow/ All sickness and sorrow/ Disappearing ink/ But the words still sting/ What was I thinking?/ What was I thinking?”

Many of his songs include similar intimations of the futility of human effort and the uselessness of curiosity (how many poverties were interrupted by learning how to read? he asks). Despite his seemingly pessimistic ‘message’, his music is still very popular- and deservedly so, given how oddly comforting it is. If Atlas Sound and Deerhunter were placed in genre confines, they would likely be labeled shoegaze or dream-pop; their music washes over you but never really sinks in...

The lyrics on "Agoraphobia" describe a dream about being locked in some kind of deprivation chamber:
"I had a dream/ No longer to be free/ I want only to see/ Four walls made of concrete…I'd lose my voice, I know/ But I've nothing left to sayNo echo in this space"

Implying that we are living in a world where our own pronouncements are already-ephemeral echoes, where the condition of our speaking is that we speak into an echo chamber, Cox advises that we do as he does- blather on. On "Nothing Ever Happened" he sings, “Focus on the depth that was never there/ nothing’s easy, nothing’s fair”.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Little Drummer Boy


A superhero always doubles down on his value set. You can rely on Peter Parker to put the mask back on even if he's decided to be Spider-Man No More. And the inevitable question is always, is he just doing this for himself? Or is he just trying to sustain a personal brand?

Whiplash, a movie about a shy boy from a broken family, bitten by a radioactive band director and thus imbued with the powers of a great jazz drummer, is no different. The plot builds towards a statement on the relationship between power and responsibility: can you be a superhero and also just be regular teenager? Just how much space can you afford to give your alter ego before your hero work starts to slip? And how's a nice, gifted white kid supposed to cope in a world so full of confusion and mediocrity? The answer to that last question is obvious before we even see our Peter Parker, pretty much from the first audio cue of the movie: you double down on your value set. You become Great. And if you have to drop Gwen Stacy off a bridge yourself, so be it. 

Most of the movie follows Peter Parker, whose pseudonym here is Andrew Neyman, as he works himself toward greatness: dragging his bed into a practice room, offending his friends and relatives (his cousin is on Carleton College's famously mediocre football squad), breaking up with his girlfriend (she hadn't decided on a major yet, so fuck her), and working himself into a spasmodic frenzy in practice sessions. He plays double-time swing at 330 BPM, for example, until drops of blood fly from his blisters and pool poetically on the white snare head. Finally, at the end, through some plot devices, with everybody who ever loved him alienated or forgotten, he finds the recognition he's always wanted onstage at Carnegie Hall and ends the movie on a hard cut to black.

In the interim the movie behaves exactly like every other in the supra-Hollywood edifice of American prestige pictures. Like a conservatory, it's misogynistic, airless, and humorless. Miles Teller's performance is rote naturalism and the only person who seems like he's having any fun is J.K. Simmons. The atmosphere is halfway between the self-importance of Black Swan and the self-importance of The Social Network. Technically the movie is a funhouse of film school tricks: tightening the shot to induce claustrophobia, heating up the lighting a few kelvins so you feel Andrew sweat, switching to handheld after the ridiculous truck accident to induce a feeling of disorientation. Few of these techniques are well-integrated; in particular, the slick editing during rehearsal scenes, which cuts like a music video along with Andrew's drumming, feels like it's grasping at hipness, like a professor of jazz studies doing an arrangement of a Hozier song. Spidey's wisecracks can't conceal the boy beneath the mask.

Whiplash, for all its bluster, is inarticulate, self-conscious, and bound by convention. This is true of every teenage superhero; it's also true of every mediocre elite-sanctioned art form, from Alessandro Algardi's busts to Dave Brubeck's music. The thing that makes Whiplash an exemplary specimen, though, is that unlike most Oscar bait it's essentially a college application essay. 

It isn't just a movie about a young jazz drummer at an elite conservatory, it's a movie written and directed by debutant filmmaker Damien Chazelle, born 1985, who a) played jazz drums in high school and b) went on to graduate from Harvard. Whiplash isn't really a naturalistic look at the world of jazz, nor is it an allegory for the position of the artist in our society. It's a movie about Damien Chazelle's alter ego, who never gave up jazz drumming and went on to become Great. And, ut pictura poesis, it's also about Chazelle himself. The slick cutting I mentioned unites drumming and film technique. The correspondence between Chazelle's Harvard and Whiplash's Shaffer Conservatory unites the drummer with the unseen figure of the filmmaker. And so this movie about jazz drumming also becomes a movie about the history of its own creation.

With every beat Andrew drums the great and magisterial power of Damien Chazelle into existence; every step in his personal growth, every new leap in his confidence and ambition, serves to imbue Chazelle with legitimacy. At the end, when he cuts off both solo and film, uniting the drummer in control of his band and the director in control of his set, he has affirmed his own talent and the talent of an immense and terrible new auteur, and affirmed by the same coin their respective places in history. 

Affirming your own talent is what you do for a living when you share Chazelle's class and values. I mentioned in my article on Lorde that for an ambitious white kid from the suburbs, talent is about being a showoff. High school and early college are where you find the profit motive at its most sublimated and also its most naked. In every college interview and every high school piano recital, talent is not demonstrated by the steady production of excellent work but by projecting Greatness at all times. It's about bombarding people with the evidence of your genius until they finally believe it. In a word, it's about branding.

Both Andrew and Damien Chazelle are essentially marketing themselves throughout the movie. Neither has anything in particular to express with his art, nor does either seem interested in any broader artistic discourse (Andrew has no favorite drummers except for Buddy Rich, a known replicant). In their preening superficiality they resemble nothing more than Spinal Tap. Their aesthetic philosophy is as shapeless as capitalism itself, with the same underlying values: it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do it more, bigger and louder than anyone else. It could be drumming or it could be film. Chipotle or McDonald's. LucasFilm or Marvel. Spiderman or Batman.

Whiplash is a bad movie, but it's worth an anthropological look if only because it represents some kind of inflection point in this great cultural hyperbola. Every piece of art has to do some work to justify its own existence, but if Whiplash couldn't congratulate itself then it wouldn't exist at all. The whole thing is a tautology, a commercial for itself, a smug ouroboros patting itself on its scaly tail and occasionally licking its own unmentionables. Andrew's apotheotic drum solo is, in the words of the Chicago Reader's J.R. Jones, "one of those horrible, endless jerk-off solos that give jazz a bad name", and the movie is doing very little else but jerking along with it. 

People keep going to Lincoln Center, though, and Damien Chazelle has positioned his brand extremely well with Whiplash. Thousands of shy boys in the suburbs will be bitten by his radioactive movie and become imbued with the powers of great artists. It's their gift, their curse.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

When A Carrot Is Just A Carrot: The Copyrights and the Redundancy of Hope

"Everything is over." - Teenage Bottlerocket, "Another Way"

At the beginning of "Grown Folks Business," on The Copyrights' split 7" with the Dopamines Songs About Fucking Up, Adam Fletcher sings:

"How many times can I write the same song / About my sick life and my shit job / I'm getting old and burned out / Putting the same words to the same sounds / You've gotta pick up the slack here / Cause I'm all out of ideas "



In pop punk circles, there's a common saying: "Pop Punk Is Dead". The days of Green Day and Blink on the radio are over. But the buck does not stop at pop punk. The Copyrights understand that in the 21st century you will never not sound like someone else. It's easy to sing about the oncoming apocalypse over the sound of thrash guitars or fucking authority with a double kick behind you; it's easy to sell records when you're singing about a fantasy and transporting somewhere else, saying that everything is going to shit or one day it's going to be better. The world-weariness of The Copyrights' lyrics is a perfect match for their heard-it-before pop punk guitars; both of them suggest that things might stay just the way that they are, and, further than that, that it's a mistake to think that things haven't always been this way. They play music you've heard before, not because they are not smart enough to be "avant-garde", but because they recognize the dishonesty and the redundancy of doing anything else. Music has ceased being "world-disclosing" in Habermasian terms, in no small part because we have disclosed the world plenty enough already. The problem is that, after every story has already been told, so many people are still trying to find a way out. Today, the extreme of utopianism on both the left and the right is just to hope or fear at all.

Fletcher echoes exactly this sentiment on "Holidays" when he sings:

"We all know much too well/There's no heaven, there's no hell/But we can dream/We can dream/That the calendar is full of holidays instead of numbers/Instead of work weeks/Instead of deadlines"



The Copyrights recognize that there's no transcendence on this world or the next. The utopia that they dream up isn't even the Marxist utopia of an unrealized freedom in solidarity. It's a negative statement; they just don't want to work. When everything speculative has been stripped away, the best we can do is celebrate every birthday at the bar. The holiday utopia is the best we can hope for exactly because it's a negative utopia. Things will be the same as they are now, just without all of the boring parts. We've exhausted every other hope that we had. It's all tied up and accounted for.

This isn't just about politics, it's also about personal aspiration. On "The World Is Such a Drag" Fletcher sings:

"Running after carrots on a stick / One day you'll finally catch up to it / And it tastes just like a carrot/Supposedly they help you see/But you don't wanna see that clearly/Better off in a world blurred slightly"



It's a familiar cycle. Whenever you get what you want, it's exactly what it was all along, and the thing that you wanted reveals itself as just a dream. Providing a twist on the beloved Louis CK bit "Everything is amazing, but no one is happy", "The World Is Such A Drag" suggests that nobody is happy because everything is amazing. If you get everything you ever wanted, you don't live happily ever after. You get miserable. You taste the carrot and realize that it's just a carrot. The rest of it is a pack of lies, and while you might need a lie to get you through the day, a lie won't save you.

What happens when you stop chasing the carrot? The other possibility is spelled out quite explicitly. On the record Dream Homes by Dear Landlord, which shares multiple band members with The Copyrights, the lyrics read:

 "We're both sort of right / I don't have much to sell / I'll die penniless, alone / I'll do what I like, you'll do what you know / That's just the way of things I suppose"

You can spend your life hoping that things will be better, or worry your whole life that things are going to be worse. You can chase the carrot. But Fletcher and his friends will still be drinking in the basement when you've hit your highest heights and lowest lows. The transition is from Kant's "What can I hope?" to "How can I run out the clock?" Beyond the apparent cynicism of this sort of thinking is a hungover-and-dead-sober humanism. It's a humanism that holds that we'll all be better off if we stop mistaking the lies we tell ourselves and one another for reality.

The chorus to "I Live In Hell" from Dream Homes goes:

"What does your dream home look like?/It'll take you years to even tell/And I'll be sleeping well/Here in Hell."