Friday, March 23, 2012

Don't Drink This: Sweet Sixteen

Every so often, Izzet and Boros come up with a shitty idea for a drink and ask you to get together with your friends to drink it.  We call it "Don't Drink This".

Die Bonbon sechzen

- 2 parts Mountain Dew
- 2 parts Andre
- 1 part Lime Vodka

Hey guys,

For the first installment of "Don't Drink This", we're going to drink something I came up with while champagne drunk a few weekends ago.

It's the perfect drink for when you and your friends want to talk about boys but also feel really grown up.  Also you'll get drunk and there's caffeine in it too so you'll start acting really silly and random. lol.

So get together with some of your bffs, mix this ish up and tell us what happens.

Many hyphy returns of the day.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Inebriated Friends #1


Here are some links to things that we like:

Following up on my post about Young Money and post-modernity, here is a fantastic Jamesonesque Marxist analysis of Lil B as symptom of late capitalism.  I had a feeling someone had written this before I'd seen it and I'm glad that they did.

While we're on the topic of pop music, there's a careful investigation of the role of empty center that Britney Spears plays on the Billboard Charts over at Hooded Utilitarian.  Thought provoking and fairly discouraging.

A series about Pokemon theme songs by our good friend Jacob on the blog of our good friends Ashley and Andreas.  A well-written and mildly traumatizing trip down memory lane.

In keeping with the high-flown, slightly overreaching video game writing that's been going on, here are a few more Tim Rogers posts, these ones about Earthbound and Shadow of the Colossus.

In keeping with nothing (but fascinating nonetheless!), here's a response to the Werner Herzog documentary Encounters at the End of the World written by an interview subject in that movie.

Here's an old video about Charlie Rose that fills me with dread.

Next up, our first installment of "Don't Drink This"

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Chet Baker and the Ghost of Jazz

- Peter Allen

We were talking about music recently and my favorite interlocutor offhandedly brought up free jazz.  I took the opportunity to consider my relationship with the style and realized I don't particularly care for it.  Not because I think it's in any way inherently bad; I simply have no way to connect to its world.  Admittedly I haven't tried horribly hard to access said world, but it made me think more about what jazz I did connect with and why I felt that connection was possible.

I realized in the process that the jazz artist I have listened to most consistently is Chet Baker.  As per usual, I immediately tried to figure out if my taste for Mr. Baker was a product of a theoretical commitment.  And, as per usual, it was.

I recently posted on Young Money as post-modern troupe.  In that post, I talked about 40's beats and how ghostly they were; much of his work is made from half remembered, echoing melodies and muted bass thumps.  His music, at its best, is devoid of bombast and conveys a sense of unplaceable loss.

I feel the same way about Chet Baker.  Androgynous, high beyond belief, and totally alienated, Baker's take on jazz standards sound like they've been slowed down and played back through an android.  Just as Wayne's unique style comes in large part from the effects of the syrup that he constantly consumes, you can hear the heroin dripping off Baker's voice into the microphone.

Imagery aside, I think that Baker resonates with me because in large part I think the time of jazz is long past.  The Western musical event of the early 20th century, jazz has long been marginalized by pop music.  As the latter style dominated the mainstream in the second part of the last century, jazz worked in (relative) obscurity to push all the way to the extremes available to it, including fusing with other genres.  Jazz became dispersed into the bloodstream of music as improvisation and fusion became rote. As a result, I'd argue that playing jazz today is always retro, always an act of nostalgia.  What used to be controversial, alternative, and sexual is now tame and routine.  Jazz in the 21st century is the persistent echo of jazz in the 20th.

Baker's music acknowledges and embraces this fact. His inverted return to the pop-jazz standards that epitomized the genre at the height of its popularity brings the place of the genre today into stark relief.  The fall of the billboard pop machine due to pirating, the demise of physical music, and the corresponding rise of the internet as distribution medium has allowed for unprecendented experimentation. I would argue there are two dominant paradigms in music production today, both of which often overlap with the other.  The first paradigm is the modern one, a brutal new approach to experimentation where music goes to places it simply has not before and the bounds of genre (and the category of music itself) are stretched and twisted, at times to the point of nihilism.  See here Death Grips, Wolf Eyes, and/or The Dillinger Escape Plan.  Many of these new experiments incorporate elements of jazz to help them get that much closer to musical oblivion.  The second paradigm is the post-modern, the self-conscious remixing, reuse, cross-breeding, appropriation, or detournement of old styles and decades (at times, centuries) of music.  See Lady Gaga, Bloc PartyPac Div, and/or The Gaslight Anthem, each of which revives a set of nostalgic tricks to new effect. For an example of the fusion of this radical experimentation and self-conscious callback, I can think of no band better than Animal Collective. Anything that diverges from these agendas risks being accused of being unoriginal or worse, being boring.

In my mind, Baker performs the same revitalizing inversion for jazz, post-hoc.  His versions of standards, like 40's beats, have the numbness of something long lost.  And what is lost here is the entire style and history of which he is a part.  In a lot of ways, Chet Baker was playing jazz's eulogy before it died.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Metroid Prime, Interactive Narrative, and "Progress"

I mentioned in passing a few weeks ago that Metroid Prime "meant a lot to me" and got a pretty serious cocked eyebrow in response. I understand, obviously, that it requires a lot more defense when you say that a videogame that consists of basically nothing but shooting spiky alien turtles means a lot to you than when you say that, for example, Madame Bovary means a lot to you, so I've done some thinking, and I think that, sentimental attachment aside, the reason I'm so enamored of Metroid Prime is the way it resolves what I see as an awfully oppositional relationship in most games: the divide between "narrative" and "progress."

The word "progress" is almost always a misnomer when it's applied to videogames. (It's a misnomer when it's applied to many other things, too, but that's not really pertinent here.) If we think of "progress" in a narrative setting – and I'm sure I'm committing some kind of a faux pas by describing videogames as "narrative settings," but I'll ignore that for the sake of argument – as movement towards a definite goal, then the kind of "progress" that a player makes in a video game isn't progress at all.

We can look at a bare-bones (storyline-wise) first-person shooter like Halo as an example of how games usually handle narrative. In Halo (in the single-player campaign, I mean), you have the illusion of progressing through the game as you move your character – obviously, you're walking forward, plowing through dozens and dozens of enemies, picking up new weapons and ammunition, and reaching the occasional checkpoint, where an Australian space marine will yell something at you and there will be a little set-piece shootout. But in reality, you're not actually making any narrative progress at all. The "progress" in games like Halo occurs in little bracketed off spaces between the real narrative moments, which take place in cutscenes. Any plot movement that really happens is outside of the player's control. If we look at part of a bare-bones plot summary of Halo:

Your spaceship is fleeing some blue aliens. The spaceship gets blown up by the blue aliens and crashes into a ring floating in space. You soon discover that the ring was built by god-aliens and can potentially destroy all life in the galaxy or some bullshit. The ring blows up and you get away.

just about all of it is restricted to information that's established in cutscenes. If you actually tracked where gameplay happened, you'd find that it's long tracts of what amounts to nothing, from a narrative point of view – just activities that go on between between plot elements. The plot of Halo takes place in the present perfective tense (Halo explodes) and the progress takes place, appropriately, in the present progressive tense (Halo is exploding). No action is ever completed until you've finished a gameplay scene; until then it's just delayed indefinitely. So "progress" is really narrative "delay" in a game like Halo, a long delay just tense enough to keep you playing until the next scene where you put the controller down for a few minutes and watch a gruff, polygonal James Cameron character bark at you about the aliens. The way a typical game handles narrative involves creating some kind of a duality between the character's progression and the story's progression. The two can't occur simultaneously; they have to trade off.

For the most part this holds true for every game that tries to have a story. Your average RPG might introduce a few plot elements during gameplay, but they're not really emphasized as such until the next cutscene – when you stumble into a cave in Chrono Trigger, for instance, until a scene of scripted dialog "activates" it as a plot element, it doesn't feel like anything more than another dungeon. You still don't advance the plot or discover the game world's backstory as any kind of an agent.

This wouldn't be worth discussing if we could pretend that a typical game privileges leveling up and scoring points over narrative progress, but that hasn't been true since Final Fantasy 1. No matter how good you are at a typical game, you can't break the narrative sequence; you're still constrained. Your avatar has a completely circumscribed existence within little brackets in the game's world; no matter how high you level Frog up and no matter how many rounds of Battle Rifle ammunition you grab, you're still tied to the game's narrative sequence. This approach is taken to its logical extreme in a game like Progress Quest, which will gather experience, skills, weapons and items for your avatar automatically, on its own, whether or not you're playing at all, or One-Dimensional Tetris, which strips the experience of "gameplay" down to its barest essentials despite the fact that you never do anything but rack up points. As you might imagine, neither of these games is particularly satisfying. By extension, as far as I'm concerned, neither is Halo.

Now, I don't mean to set up a brilliant foil to this mode of using video games to tell stories – but at the same time I do, so we'll set that logical fallacy aside, too. In my opinion, a game like Metroid Prime strikes a much more harmonious balance between "progress" and "narrative." It handles the progress-narrative divide in two ways that are radically different from the way a typical game does, and I find both of them much more engaging than I find a game like Halo or even a game like Chrono Trigger.

Metroid Prime doesn't have a "plot," in the conventional sense of the word. Cutscenes rarely advance the plot: the opening cutscene introduces the main character; the cutscene at the end of the first level introduces the game's setting, the cutscene after the third-to-last boss fight introduces the last level, and the ending cutscene ends the game – other than that there's nothing a cutscene tells you that you don't already know. They're all redundant. All they do is add formal rhythm. When you enter a new area, the camera zooms around it for a few minutes to show off where you are, and when you kill a boss, the camera watches it die. Neither of these advance the plot; they're only for emphasis. Plot advancement takes place almost completely within space that you, the player, can interact with. If we think of an RPG as splitting narrative up into "dungeons," where progress take place, and "towns," where narrative advancement take place, then Metroid Prime is just one giant dungeon, and within that dungeon, accruing weapons and discovering new caves constitutes the entirety of the plot advancement.

But Metroid Prime also has a backstory – backstory that might be given to you by a Carl Weathers-type sergeant in Halo or a boss-fight monologue in Chrono Trigger – and the way that you discover that backstory is really what I find brilliant about the game. This Tim Rogers review (if you can stand to read it over the ridiculous background) goes into a good amount of detail, but the basis is this: the HUD in the game has a specific mode that allows the player to collect data on the surroundings, and this mostly gets used for the obvious "this door may be susceptible to heat, such as that produced by a plasma beam" hoops that any adventure game makes you jump through nowadays, but once in a while you'll find a plaque on a ruined temple wall that will give you a few pages of cryptic prophetic literature about the history of the world you're in. All of the backstory is totally optional unless you're going for 100% completion – it's almost never helpful in an instrumental sense – but it governs the extent to which the player understands the context of the game world.

What this means is that Metroid Prime is in some sense a much more "interactive" form of narrative than Halo or Chrono Trigger. The player is free to ignore or obsess over the narrative at his or her leisure; if the player misses a plaque or a computer terminal, then the player doesn't get that fragment of the backstory. Looking at this through the lens of reader-response criticism would be really interesting, because the player is literally and explicitly constructing a unique experience of the "text" every time he or she plays the game, but in lieu of that, I think it's enough to say that Metroid Prime is one of the few post-1995 games that functions on every level like a videogame, never taking the viewer out of the experience of an immersive world.

I don't want to get hagiographic, so I'll just conclude by saying that Metroid Prime is one of the only narrative games I've ever played that has real integrity as a videogame, one of the only ones that narratively succeeds or fails as nothing but a videogame. That's not to say that it's the only one that has any merit as a narrative, obviously – but the reason it appeals so much to me is that it solves the formal problem of "progress" versus "narrative" that's so conspicuously present in so many games, and does it so elegantly that it's hard to believe it was ever a problem at all. That kind of formal confidence matters more to me than any of the reifications like "gameplay" or "level design" that people who write about games love to throw around. A game shouldn't have to be 1D Tetris to be a narrative success.

Friday, March 9, 2012

I'm On One: Young Money as Postmodern Prototypes


- Nicki Minaj, "Moment 4 Life"

Hip-hop has always been fairly amenable to the themes of post-modernity. Repetition, artificial modification, endless reference, and an affirmation of alternative cultural possibilities have been a part of its canon since it began.  Within this inherently timely genre, I would argue that the rappers of Young Money are the most forthrightly post-modern group of rappers performing today.

It is easy to assert that someone like the (formerly) Pitchfork-approved Das Racist or their similarly liberal arts-educated compatriots hold this dubious crown.  I think that reading Heems, Victor, and Dap as post-modern is to have a overly simple grasp of the concept at hand.  Their self-conscious, hyper-referential statements, while utterly fantastic in their own right, are too ironic and winking to be the kind of pluralist case study that embodies the condition that I'm trying to get at. As anyone who has read Heems' Tumblr can attest, there is a very real political and personal (dare I say ideological?) coherence to both his and Victor's musical approach.

It's put best when it's put simply: Das Racist can often just be too clever for their own good.  While shouting out Spivak seems like everyday conversation coming from Heems, a lot of Victor's material can at times sound forced, like he wants to make the most of his Wesleyan education.  His inter-song echoes are at times a little too deliberate, a little too name-droppy.  Similarly, after a few mixtapes Heems' constant references to food start to sound gimmicky and lazy rather than apathetic and charming. Das Racist is too held together, too aesthetically, culturally, and musically neurotic, to be the hodge-podge, transgressive group that they are sometimes thought to be.  Their message is post-modern, but their self-consciousness is not.

By contrast, Young Money is a collective of outrĂ© misfits.  They include a free-associating drug addict from New Orleans, a Canadian of mixed race who grew up on television and takes one of his major stylistic conventions from Twitter, a multiple-personality rapper who identifies with a mass produced, hypersexualized plastic toy, and a skinny Comptonite of Vietnamese and Jamaican descent who started on a pop-punk record label. This is already a pretty promising genealogy.

Cosmopolitanism aside, what is really exceptional about Young Money is that they're a case study for the ability of modern pop music to make statements unlike anything before it.  Certainly, they've been vetted by a number of faceless bureaucracies who made sure that they're marketed correctly, as any artist that makes it onto Billboard must be. But what's interesting is what perseveres through this filtering process.  

I'll use DJ Khaled's "I'm On One" featuring Drake, Rick Ross, and Lil Wayne as a grounding example:

The first thing to notice here is the production.  The beat on a typical Khaled track is often a straightahead, club-minded affair ("All I Do Is Win") or tries for a pseudo-menacing cell-phone thug swagger ("I'm So Hood"), but that's compromised here as he plays to his co-stars. This is in large part because Drake's favorite producer Noah "40" Shebib and frequent collaborator T-Minus both contribute here.  This is the only song on We The Best Forever that diverges noticeably from the Khaled formula (to be fair, the Boi-1da produced Future has a sort of similar sobriety to it).  The ghostly, brooding mood on display here is a direct pull from the feel of much of Drake's recent material. Many of 40's songs make you feel as though he heard the Top 40 when he was smashed at the club last night and he's spent all day trying to rewrite them with a hangover.  This atmosphere is a key part of why I find Drake's music so interesting; the conventional boom-bap excesses of his contemporaries are present, but with an accompanying nagging, alienated, and cynical feeling that this is a ride that has been ridden many times before and will be again.

This wary, distant musical perspective is mirrored in Drake's lyrics.  He is obsessed with his own fame, but he has a perpetual consciousness of its finitude.  Whenever he makes any claim to timelessness, it rings false.  He's at his best when he seems totally overwhelmed with his condition and puts himself at the mercy of the forces that pushed him there.  This quietist self-consciousness is what many find unappealing (or "soft") about Drake, but it's the very real awareness of the narrative of which he is a part that makes him a fascinating figure. Unlike Das Racist's carefully obfuscated earnesty and self-consciousness, Drake's faux-struggle with his fame has all the pomp and insistence of a mission statement.  Here he admits, "All I care about is money and the city that i'm from/ ima sip until I feel it ima smoke until it's done/ I don't really give a fuck and my excuse is that I'm young/and I'm only getting older".  None of this sounds particular triumphant; it's the sound of a person realizing his predicament, his inability to act in the face of his realization, and the inevitable end that is on its way.  When he says "get it while you're here boy/ cause all that hype don't seem the same next year boy" we have a feeling that even though this is directed to a faceless up-and-comer, Drake is intimately familiar with the emotions on hand.

Let's skip Rick Ross for now.  His relationship with Young Money is interesting in its own right and in some ways he is the perfect marketable, post-Tupac "gangsta" rapper, but he's not important to our thesis at the moment.

This is a fairly conventional (read: lazy) verse for Wayne.  The brags and posturing of his generation of artists are here, but, as ever, his free associations set him clearly back in his own territory.  "Put an end to your world like the mayans" is a particularly relevant line here (as was his "and honestly i'm down like the economy" line when it was written for Jay Sean's "Down" at the depth of the recession) because it captures Wayne's appeal perfectly.  His prolificacy and his willingness to collaborate with whoever's hot at the moment is a key part of his domination of the charts.  In a sense, Wayne is the perfect "social networking" rapper; each song allows him to post a new status that keeps him up to date (fellow "Lil" individual and follower Lil B stretches this format to its obvious conclusion).  The benefits of this connectedness to pop culture (though at times he's a bit late to the party; see the Inception-style video for Six Foot, Seven Foot made half a year too late) and chameleonlike ability to change with his climate should be familiar to anyone that has read Foucault's analysis of biopower in his lectures at the College de France. Adapting to the trends of the market allows you to tap its power and it's in (mostly) simple, populist mediums like rap and folk that this headline-reading approach  is best embodied. In both genres, there is more emphasis on what is said (or how it is said) than on the melodic content of any particular phrase. This comparison isn't particularly novel, but I think it's apt.

In the final calculus, Young Money keep my attention because they capture the moment.  This is also why I think they so embody post-modernism; their catholicity and marketability make them look like they were magiked up on a corporate hard drive somewhere like some kind of fucking Rei Toei rap crew. They will not hold up in twenty years.  It's only because of their ability to adapt and willingness to inject themselves with new cultural DNA that they've lasted this long. Sure, I can imagine Drake's rap-noir or Nicki's schizophrenic cast of characters retaining some merit or influence in that scene-to-come, but the songs simply will not have the late 200X bite that they do now. The Young Money collective is deathly aware of the fact that pop music, now more than ever, isn't so much about works as it is about processes. All they can do is try to hold on to the cutting edge.