Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Trapped in the Glass Closet?

The deafening collective yawn that greeted yesterday's news that Ricky Martin is gay got me thinking about a good article by Michael Musto, which Out published as a cover story a few years ago. Musto used the term "the glass closet," so perfectly put, to describe celebrities who are publicly gay, but officially sexually-agnostic.

While no sea change has occurred since the article's publication, in 2007, the notion of a glass closet seems quaint and unnecessary. Perhaps it's the saturation of openly gay celebrities in popular culture (Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O'Donnell, Neil Patrick Harris, Adam Lambert, Cynthia Nixon, Wanda Sykes, the Queer Eye guys, Rachel Maddow), coupled with recent political victories like the legalization of gay marriage in five U.S. states (and the District of Columbia) and the dismantling of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but being gay now seems as unremarkable as it should.

Yet some public figures stubbornly remain in the glass closet. Anderson Cooper and Jodie Foster (whose visages graced the aforementioned cover of Out) are the most famous examples. Cooper is a regular of New York City gay clubs, while Foster's sexuality is an open secret in Hollywood. Sure they have a right to their privacy, and it's no one's business anyway. But by having an openly-gay public life, while dodging the issue in the media, they implicitly imbue their sexual identities with the sour hint of shame.

The salient question is: what effect does coming out have on a celebrity's career today? Ellen and NPH are more popular post-outing than they were when closeted. Celebs like Wanda Sykes and Cynthia Nixon have seen no discernible change in their popularity either way. Since Ricky Martin's career has already declined, the effect of his revelation would have been more evident 10 years ago.

I may be naive, or so utterly cocooned in my big gay reality, but I doubt coming out would ruin many careers nowadays. We won't know until a current A-list celebrity comes out. Will it happen? I'm not so optimistic. I suspect no A-lister wants to be the one to test how their sexuality affects their career. It would take an act of great courage, something you don't witness often.

Still, hats off to Ricky Martin. Welcome to la vida homo, Ricky. You got the best reaction you could have hoped for: complete indifference.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Why Critics Matter

Last week, the Boston Globe published a provocative Op Ed by Steve Almond, which argued that music criticism is a pointless, and at times pernicious, endeavor:

Wretched as I was, I loved being a music critic. I got to feel like a big shot, the one guy whose opinion (no matter how misbegotten) mattered.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my glorious career as the next Lester Bangs: I was dispatched to cover an MC Hammer concert. This involved lots of flashing lights and sparks. Hammer himself was wearing those ridiculously baggy pants and barking out lyrics about jewelry and torture.

I dutifully spent the evening scribbling witty insults in my reporter’s notebook. But at a certain point (after I’d fulfilled my quota of witty insults) I turned my attention to the folks all around me. They were enthralled. And what I realized as I gazed at them was this: I was totally missing the point.

The very idea of music criticism — of applying some objective standard to the experience of listening to music — suddenly struck me as petty and irrelevant. I spent several more months as a critic, but my essential belief in the pursuit evaporated.

I’d come up against a concept I’ve since come to think of as the Music Critic Paradox: the simple fact that even the best critics — the ones, unlike me, with actual training and talent — can’t begin to capture what it feels like to listen to music. Because listening to music is a collaborative endeavor. Fans don’t just sit there (as critics do) parsing the technical merits of a song. They bring to each song their own emotional needs: their lust and sorrow, their hopes and heartbreak.

Basically, Almond thinks that since fans are going to like what they like anyway, critics are only valuable as cheerleaders for the artists they love.

There are a number of problems with Almond's argument. The most glaring of which is that his (yes) criticism of music criticism can be applied to all types of criticism. Almond halfheartedly attempts to make a special distinction for music, "because songs are aimed squarely at our hearts. They’re meant to make us dance or weep or laugh." I think what he means here is that music is more of an emotional, rather than intellectual, experience. True. But music as an art form contains a number of intellectual elements: its craft and structure, its historical and cultural context, its literary merits (when lyrics are involved). The same can be said of the novel.

Almond misses the point by arguing music fans will like what they like no matter what critics say (as in his MC Hammer experience). Music critics don't write for the casual fan, nor do literary critics, art critics, dance critics, etc. Even film critics, the most populist variant, write for people who have a deeper appreciation for the art form. Steve Almond, as film critic, would have also despaired at the droves who enjoyed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, in spite of the evisceration it received from him and his colleagues.

So what value do critics provide? The cheerleader function (of which even Almond approves) is the most obvious. Critics are paid to consume mass quantities of an art form, and they primarily provide guidance within a sea of options. This is especially important with music, given the great quantity of it out there. Even though it's basically free of charge to sift through music online, time is still a high cost. In this sense, you could argue that music critics are even more important today. In the past, radio and music television could break a promising new artist. This is no longer the case. Though internet memes can often fill this role, music critics are invaluable as champions for the new.

But there is a second, equally important, function critics provide. They put artists and their works within a context, and give serious fans a framework for analyzing the artists and works. Good critics provoke further thought and examination, which is true even if the reader disagrees with their final evaluation. Sure, it's a process that could occur without critics, since the work itself provides the material for contemplation. But critics bring professional perspective, whether you agree with it or not.

Yes, like all fans, I like what I like. But I love to read a review and think: this critic nailed it, or blew it, or just made a really interesting point. Criticism engages me in art. That's why critics matter.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Next Stop, Nationalization

I've been hearing advocates of the shiny new health-care legislation crow about the new America where (eventually) everyone will be covered. This is simply not true. Let's look at Obamacare's two central pillars for expanding coverage:
  1. Banning insurance companies from rejecting risky individuals. (Thus guaranteeing adverse selection.)
  2. Mandating that everyone buy insurance. (To combat adverse selection, and the dreaded death spiral.)
As Bryan Caplan notes here and here, intention and reality may not intersect:
If preliminary summaries of Obamacare are true, it looks like individual health insurance will soon be a better deal than employer-provided health insurance. In the individual market, you can now wait until you're really sick to buy insurance: "Heads I win, tails I break even." Firms won't have that gimme - and it seems more valuable than premiums' tax deductibility. Admittedly, Obamacare imposes a small penalty on individuals who don't buy insurance, and a moderate penalty on firms that don't provide it. But it still seems like it will be in the financial self-interest of many firms and their workers to get rid of insurance, and split the (cash savings minus penalties).
This means the result could be a full plunge into the death spiral. Rather than reducing health-care costs (something the law doesn't even attempt to do), they would skyrocket. For me, Obamacare is a boon. I could cancel my employer-provided policy, which I rarely use, and just opt-in when I need it. As Caplan says: "Heads I win, tails I break even." I would have to pay the penalty (which will be levied by the IRS), but that's still cheaper than my premiums and co-payments. In response, the government has three options:
  1. Repeal the legislation. (Unlikely: just look at the twin financial catastrophes known as Social Security and Medicare.)
  2. Dramatically increase the penalties for individuals and firms. (More likely, but politically unsavory.)
  3. Nationalize the health-care system. (Depending on the political makeup of the government in 10 years, a real possibility.)
Given these possibilities, the third option seems the most likely. The cynic in me thinks this was the Dems' plan all along. They pass a bill that get's the camel's nose into the tent, only to get what they really want in a few years (also known as the Fabian model). Again, given the nature of the political process, it may very well work. Bad news for those of us who still value freedom, but by now, we're already used to bad news.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Klosterman + Pavement = Rad

Chuck Klosterman interviews Stephen Malkmus, on the heels of the Pavement reunion. This is as self-recommending as a recommendation gets.

The article is great throughout, but this exchange is especially revealing. It shows how self-aware and honest Malkmus is about Pavement's music and legacy. Klosterman wonders:
Did having so many people insist that Slanted and Enchanted was brilliant change the way he [Malkmus] now thinks about those songs?

"Of course it does, in a way. But no matter how much positive feedback you get, it's never enough," Malkmus says. "I'm not a particularly needy person, but it always seems like every review could be better. With a record like Slanted and Enchanted, that was so much a timing thing, along with the fact that its flaws are a big part of what makes it good. It's not like some Radiohead record, where the whole thing is good. Our records aren't good in that way. Our records are more attitude and style, sort of in a punk way. We're good in the same way the Strokes are good. I think Slanted and Enchanted probably is the best record we made, only because it's less self-conscious and has an unrepeatable energy about it."

Friday, March 19, 2010

10 Influential Books

A few days ago Tyler Cowen listed 10 books that influenced his view of the world, and kicked off a fascinating meme among bloggers. My list is below.

Like Cowen, I compiled from the gut. I read every entry, except for the last two, before I turned 21. Only one or two would go on a current list of favorite books, but their influence is undeniable.

Here they are, in chronological order:
  1. Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park: The book that made me love the novel. Before I read Jurassic Park, at the age of 12, the only books that interested me were comics. Jurassic Park was the novel that made me realize books could enrapture without the aid of images (fractals notwithstanding).
  2. Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle: The book that made me an atheist. Before Cat's Cradle, the idea that god existed was immutable, self-evident. Vonnegut's apocalyptic parable was my first encounter with the notion that not only is religion ridiculous ("No damn cat, no damn cradle"), but that it's possible to think of it that way. Added bonus: Cat's Cradle was the first book that caused me to obsess over a single author. I went on to devour the entire Vonnegut oeuvre. For better or worse.
  3. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice: The book that made me love a good sentence. I read Pride and Prejudice in the summer before my junior year of high school, for AP English. I initially dreaded reading it. It seemed stuffy and out of date. Austen's prose grabbed me from the novel's iconic opening line. It was the first time I enjoyed reading a novel for its craft, rather than its plot or theme.
  4. Toni Morrison, Beloved: The book that made me a critical reader. Another entry in the high-school-required-reading category, this time twelfth grade. I was determined to conquer Morrison's seemingly impenetrable style. By the end I realized some books that require effort actually reward you for it.
  5. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged: The book that most made me who I am today. This is the most obvious entry. Rand's novel presented a world, and a point of view, that still shapes me to this day. I would never have studied economics without it. And I would still be a socialist.
  6. Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal: The book that made me certain that capitalism isn't only better than its antipode, but the only moral system. Atlas Shrugged made me a capitalist, Capitalism made me a crusader.
  7. Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers: The book that made economics personal. By the time I read The Worldly Philosophers, I was already interested in economic theory. But Heilbroner's book was my first exposure to the ideas of individual economists. Though I disagree with Heilbroner's perspective (as I did at the time of reading it), his enthusiasm for economic ideas was infectious. It cemented my decision to study economics.
  8. Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: The book that grounded my approach to thinking about economics. Until reading Mises, my opposition to socialism was based in morality. Socialism showed, in great depth, why the price system is central to applied economics. It showed that socialism is not just wrong, it's impossible in practice.
  9. Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis/Careless Love: The book(s) that made me a serious music fan. I had dismissed the music of Elvis, until I read Peter Guralnick's incredible two-part biography. That I'm now an Elvis fan is a happy consequence, but only a side note. Guralnick's bios showed that reading about music can be as rewarding as listening to it.
  10. Bill Buford, Heat: The book that made me a foodie. I was a fat kid, so I've always loved eating. But I never appreciated food. Buford's account of working in the kitchen of Mario Batali's Babbo was the catalyst to my most expensive obsession: fine dining. Heat showed that food contains pleasures beyond being a terminus to hunger.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alex Chilton, R.I.P.

Alex Chilton died in New Orleans yesterday, at the age of 59. His band Big Star (co-founded with Chris Bell) sold few albums, but they pioneered the genre of power pop and produced two masterpieces in the 1970s: #1 Record and Radio City. His music influenced bands (like R.E.M.) who achieved the success Big Star never would.

Below are two examples of Chilton's brilliance, and one tribute to it. The first, "Thirteen," is a gorgeous and wistful teenage lullaby of rock. The second, "September Gurls," is quintessential power pop, and one of the greatest songs of all time.

The last is the Replacements' homage to Chilton, an apt eulogy:
If he was from Venus, would he feed us with a spoon?
If he was from Mars, wouldn't that be cool?
Standing right on campus, would he stamp us in a file?
Hangin' down in Memphis all the while.

Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round
They sing "I'm in love. What's that song?
I'm in love with that song."

Cerebral rape and pillage in a village of his choice.
Invisible man who can sing in a visible voice.
Feeling like a hundred bucks, exchanging good lucks face to face.
Checkin' his stash by the trash at St. Mark's place.

Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round
They sing "I'm in love. What's that song?
I'm in love with that song."

I never travel far, without a little Big Star

Runnin' 'round the house, Mickey Mouse and the Tarot cards.
Falling asleep with a flop pop video on.
If he was from Venus, would he meet us on the moon?
If he died in Memphis, then that'd be cool, babe.

Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round
They sing "I'm in love. What's that song?
I'm in love with that song."
Like Paul Westerberg, I never travel far without a little Big Star. Alex Chilton will be missed, even if he's been forgotten.

UPDATE: Here's Rolling Stone's write-up of Chilton. Here's Pitchfork's. Here's the NYT.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Gorillaz *Plastic Beach* Review

Listening to Gorillaz, Damon Albarn's virtual supergroup's debut album, twelve years later, reveals how much the band was more of an extension of Blur, two-parts britpop plus one-part hip hop, rather than the dramatic sonic break they seemed to be at the time. Moreover, the album sounds a mess compared to the cohesion of mood and sound of its follow-up, the excellent Demon Days. Plastic Beach, in turn, further deepens and consolidates the band's sound. Albarn has finally left britpop (and, for the most part, guitars) behind, in favor of symphonic flourishes and layers of synthesizers.

Gorillaz has always been a protean collective of artists shaped by Albarn, but it was possible to imagine an actual (cartoon) band playing its own music. On Plastic Beach, however, it's clear that Gorillaz is the vehicle of a singular genius. Even when Albarn's vocal is absent (as it is on much of the album), his force is felt more than ever, especially his incredible knack for melody, which only Stephin Merritt, his closest contemporary, rivals. Here Albarn is more composer than performer, one who allows his guest stars to shine (like Lou Reed, who recalls his former greatness on "Some Kind of Nature").

The sound of Plastic Beach is best expressed by "Empire Ants," which begins as a Dark Side of the Moon ballad that eventually gives birth, and cedes, to an electronic stomp led by Little Dragon. Its best tracks, "Stylo," "Rhinestone Eyes," "White Flag," bend and twist. The album also provides many straightforward pleasures, the giddy "Superfast Jellyfish" (whose chorus recalls the band's past heights), the gorgeous and appropriately-titled "On Melancholy Hill," and the equally-beautiful Bobby Womack showstopper "Cloud of Unknowing."

Plastic Beach trades big hits for consistency. No song matches the immediate brilliance of singles like "Clint Eastwood," Feel Good Inc.," or "DARE." Yet the whole towers over its parts, and Plastic Beach towers over its predecessors. This is pop music at its funky, oddball best.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Song Break

In honor of the superb new Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, here's Blur's finest, the gospel epic "Tender." It remains one of the great songs of the 1990s, and hints at the music Damon Albarn would explore with his cartoon supergroup.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Nanny State Watch

The new target in the slip slide into total state paternalism is salt:
Some New York City chefs and restaurant owners are taking aim at a bill introduced in the New York Legislature that, if passed, would ban the use of salt in restaurant cooking.

"No owner or operator of a restaurant in this state shall use salt in any form in the preparation of any food for consumption by customers of such restaurant, including food prepared to be consumed on the premises of such restaurant or off of such premises," the bill, A. 10129 , states in part.

The legislation, which Assemblyman Felix Ortiz , D-Brooklyn, introduced on March 5, would fine restaurants $1,000 for each violation.

This is madness, but it's no surprise. The crusade against personal liberty always begins with the obvious villains (tobacco and alcohol), moves on to more dubious ones (trans fats and sugar), and eventually reaches the point of sick farce.

It won't end with salt. How much longer until we see bills that mandate compulsory exercise, or a complete ban on processed food?

(HT Radley Balko)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Reality Check: "That Kind of Stuff Makes Normal People Want to Throw Up"

The good news: District gays can now legally marry. The reality check: some Washington Post readers found the front-page image of two men kissing controversial. From the Atlantic Wire:
Last week, same-sex marriage became legal in the District of Columbia, to the delight of some and the consternation of others. On March 4, The Washington Post marked the occasion with a front-page story, accompanied by a photo showing two young men sharing a chaste kiss outside the D.C. Superior Court. Michael Tomasky applauded the Post's decision to run the photo, calling it a bold and welcome move from a usually "provincial and cautious newspaper."

But according to Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, the photo has drawn an unusual amount of ire from readers. In a column at Omblog, Alexander describes fielding "rants, often with anti-gay slurs," and hearing from more than one reader that a snapshot of two men kissing doesn't belong in a family newspaper. (One reader complained of the photo, "That kind of stuff makes normal people want to throw up," suggesting Dahlia Lithwick might have been onto something when she wrote about "the politics of disgust" in Slate this week.)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Thoughts on the Academy Awards

Had Avatar swept last night, it wouldn't have imparted greatness onto the film, even if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declared it the "Best Picture Ever." Similarly, The Hurt Locker is a great film, it was before the awards were announced as it remains afterward.

The Oscars merely show how Hollywood regards its own output. An Avatar win would have revealed the preferences of those who make movies; it would have shown they value "bigness" over "artiness" (I know this is a gross oversimplification, but it holds a kernel of truth), and would have pointed to where Hollywood would be headed in the next few years. (Witness the aftermath of Chicago's win in 2003, at the flurry of musicals, mostly bad, that resulted.)

So David bested Goliath last night, and that's a good thing. The Hurt Locker was not the best film last year (that's a toss-up between Inglourious Basterds and Up), but it's the kind of movie that Hollywood produces too few of: small, honest pictures that don't aim to be Oscar bait, but end up achieving greatness. No doubt many will grouse that the Academy continues to be out of step with actual moviegoers, that it celebrates elitism over populism. After all, Avatar was the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee, while The Hurt Locker was the lowest.

However, it wasn't Avatar's bigness that made it undeserving of the win. It was its derivativeness, its hodgepodge of obvious sources that never gelled (not to mention its cringe-worthy dialogue, and its two-dimensional characters). Look at Cameron's previous film, the Oscar-sweeping behemoth, Titanic. It shares many flaws with Avatar. But there is pathos at the center of its spectacle that transcends its many failings. It deserved its Oscar jackpot.

I don't like James Cameron (I felt an abundance of schadenfreude at his defeat), yet I would never argue that he's anything but incredibly talented. Still, his loss last night represents a source of hope for those of us who love movies. Spectacles will continue to be made: Avatar's box office receipts will guarantee it. But maybe now studios will take more chances on smaller films that seek to be great on their own terms. We're all winners.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Portraits of Creative Destruction

NPR has a lovely slideshow of jobs made obsolete by innovation (HT Russ Roberts). It's an evocative reminder of how the dynamism of capitalism improves our lives.

*The Ghost Writer*

Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer answers the question that's tortured every sober minded person for the last ten years: why is the British government so deep in the pocket of America and her jingoistic interests? Whether you agree with the premise of my last sentence is of no concern to Polanski. He believes it, and his film's answer is meant to incite deep shivers.

Ewan McGregor plays the titular (and nameless) writer, who scores the project of his career. He is to finish the highly publicized, ghostwritten, autobiography of a former British prime minister. Tony Blair, you figure? Nope: Adam Lang (played by Brosnan, Pierce Brosnan). The previous ghostwriter, who was close to completing his manuscript, has mysteriously drowned. Before the ink on the new ghostwriter's book contract can dry, Lang is charged with war crimes by the International Court of Justice. And the CIA is somehow involved. Uh oh. What follows is a detective story turned on its head, since our detective has full insider access to his prime suspects. After all, he's being paid a nice sum to write about them.

If you can get past its quasi-Manchurian conspiracy theory rubbish (as I did), you'll find The Ghost Writer is an elegant, satisfying thriller. Where most films in the genre twist and turn with mind-scrambling abandon (bang! pow! plot twist!), The Ghost Writer unspools with grace. The thread of each plot element follows so obviously in retrospect that The Ghost Writer makes films like The Usual Suspects seem cheap and clumsy. Its aha! moments, and it has a few, feel natural and justified, not shoehorned in.

The performances range from superlative (Olivia Williams as the prime minister's wife), to embarrassing (Kim Cattrall, who must have practiced her English accent for an entire hour). McGregor plays the ersatz gumshoe with the right mixture of incredulity and gullibility, while Pierce Brosnan misleads with aplomb.

A number of the The Ghost Writer's sequences dazzle, especially in its final minutes. Its muted visual palette, which enhances the increasing menace of the plot, is counterbalanced by the playfulness of its score (obviously inspired by Bernard Herrmann). Yes, the guy's a creep, but Polanski's still got it.

The Ghost Writer
-- replete with virtuosity, yet diminished by hackneyed political intrigue -- is to be admired, but not loved.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What's in a Name?

Karl Marx, archenemy of the free market, gave capitalism its name. It was a smear; but it was a smear that stuck, a smear that denotes a specific politico-economic system. Unfortunately, it also connotes, as Professor Bryan Caplan writes, "a system of rule by capitalists for capitalists," while its antipode, socialism, connotes, "a system of rule by society for society." In other words: capitalism bad, socialism good. Should those who are outspokenly pro-free market, those like me, adopt a new name for the system we advocate, purely for clarity's sake?

My answer, in short: no way.

It's true, many may equate any country apart from North Korea or Cuba, like the United States since the 1890s, as capitalist. Yes, the waters have been sufficiently muddied. But as Professor Caplan notes, the alternative only leads to further cognitive disarray.

There are no capitalist countries and, apart from the aforementioned extant communist economies, no socialist countries left on Earth. We only have gradients of mixed economies: from China to the USA. What's a free-marketer who demands clarity to do? Modify. Call it laissez-faire capitalism. Those who know the term will understand. Those who don't, don't matter anyway.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Saved by the Market

Writing to the Washington Post, Don Boudreaux explains why Chile's death toll was a fraction of Haiti's:

You report that experts give much of the credit for the relatively low death toll of Chile’s recent earthquake to “the nation’s enactment and enforcement of stringent building codes” – codes that were largely absent in Haiti (“Chile reels in aftermath of quake, emergency workers provide aid,” March 1).

With a market-oriented economy, per-capita income in Chile is more than ten times higher than is per-capita income in Haiti. One result is that Chileans demand and can afford better-constructed buildings – buildings designed by more-skilled architects, made of stronger materials, and erected (and maintained) by better-trained and more highly specialized workers.

Chile has – and enforces – tough building codes because it can afford them. Building codes of equal stringency in Haiti would be dead letters because Haitians simply cannot afford the level of safety that Chileans now enjoy.

Credit Chile’s low death toll not to what its politicians do, but rather to what they don’t do: meddle excessively in the market.