Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Does Courtney Love Write Her Music?

With every subsequent album Courtney Love releases, either as Hole or as a solo artist, the once-kooky idea that her masterpiece, 1994's Live Through This, was at the least co-written by Kurt Cobain seems more and more plausible. Her last three releases, Hole's final proper album Celebrity Skin, her solo-record America's Sweetheart, and the new album by Hole-in-name-only Nobody's Daughter, feature a rotating cast of credited co-writers, among them Billy Corgan, Linda Perry, and Bernie Taupin.

On the surface, Love's heavy use of collaborators is not proof enough that Cobain had a hand in Live Through This. But listening to Hole's three proper albums in order, you can't deny something fishy is afoot.

Hole's first album, Pretty On the Inside, is a muddy, brash mess. The songs are amateurish and alienating, with no sign of the musicality of the following albums. Then there's Live Through This, a work whose quality was a stunning leap forward. It's not only one of the best albums of the nineties, but one of the greatest rock albums of all time. It's also sounds a lot like a Nirvana record. As I've remarked in this blog before:
Live Through This has one notable virtue, which lifts it aloft the above complaints and makes it compulsively listenable: its songs are incredible. They are gorgeous and furious, and almost always at the same time. This is the genius of the record. This loud soft loud, this melodicism with noise, this textural juxtaposition, is, of course, the trademark of the Pixies and Nirvana.
Sure, it's possible that Love absorbed Cobain's style by means of proximity. But even though Cobain didn't produce songs that match the quality of Live Through This until Nevermind, there were signs of Cobain's signature style and massive talent on Bleach. In Hole's case, the difference in sound and quality between Pretty On the Inside and Live Through This almost comes out of the blue, fully formed.

Hole's next album, Celebrity Skin, was released four years later, and sounded nothing like its predecessor. It's a good album, filled with shimmering power pop. Billy Corgan is credited on half the songs, but at the time, Corgan griped that he helped write more than he was credited for. Again, it's hard not to hear it as a Smashing Pumpkins album with Courtney Love at the mic. I've only heard bits and pieces of America's Sweetheart and Nobody's Daughter, but what I've heard sounds like the anonymous hack-rock of Linda Perry.

The schizophrenia of Courtney Love's music, and her heavy use of collaborators, reveals that Love lacks a musical identity. (Her lyrics, on the other hand, are unmistakeably her own.) So, is it possible, or even likely, that Love wrote the music to Live Through This? I'm not so sure anymore. Does it matter? Only as an exercise in music-nerd sleuthing. In the end, Live Through This remains a classic, be it the product of Courtney Love's talent, or the best album Nirvana never released.

Song (Without Words) Break

My favorite movement of one of my favorite orchestral pieces. I miss my bass clarinet.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Tolerance Is and Isn't

The wisdom of Robin Hanson:

“Tolerance” is a feel-good buzzword in our society, but I fear people have forgotten what it means. Many folks are proud of their “tolerance” for gays, working women, Tibetan monks in cute orange outfits, or blacks sitting at the front of the bus. But what they really mean is that they consider such things to be completely appropriate parts of their society, and are not bothered by them in the slightest. That, however, isn’t “tolerance.”

“Tolerance” is where you tolerate things that actually bother you. Things that make you go “ick”, or that conflict with strong intuitions on proper behavior. Once upon a time, the idea of gay sex made most folks quite uncomfortable, and yet many of those folks still advocated tolerance for gay sex. Their argument was not that gay sex isn’t icky, but that a broad society should be reluctant to ban apparently victimless activities merely because many find them icky.

I've been guilty of misusing, and misunderstanding, the concept "tolerance." Hanson's point is so obviously true that it's forcing me to rethink tolerance.

Doesn't "tolerance" stand directly opposed to "integrity?" Isn't there a difference between "political" tolerance and "personal" tolerance? For example, the recent Supreme Court case (which Hansen cites) that struck down a federal statute "criminalizing the commercial production, sale, or possession of depictions of cruelty to animals." Animal cruelty is a heinous act, no doubt, but the very purpose of the First Amendment is to protect speech that may seem unpalatable to many (or most). Yet should those depictions be exempt from moral condemnation, i.e. "personal" intolerance? I don't think so. Just as I think Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow have a right to bleat their inanities, I need not remain quiet and tolerate their views. I can use any means available, like this blog, to be intolerant toward them -- except the physical force of the state.

Tolerance is only a virtue in the political sphere, to protect actions I may despise that don't violate the rights of others. Those crazies who think gays will go to hell have a right to say so. Politically, I must tolerate them. But personally, I have the right to be as intolerant as they are. Only persuasion, personal intolerance of those opposed to "gays, working women, Tibetan monks in cute orange outfits, or blacks sitting at the front of the bus," leads to acceptance. As Alex Tabbarok notes:

[G]ay rights have not advanced because of more tolerance per se, i.e. they have not advanced because more people are willing to accept behavior that bothers them. Advance has occurred because fewer people are bothered by the behavior.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: Rufus Wainwright *All Days Are Nights*

I used to think Rufus Wainwright could sing the phone book and still produce a masterpiece. Listening to All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu, it sounds like Wainwright agrees. Unfortunately, we’re both wrong.

Wainwright, an artist whose self indulgence can be his greatest virtue, has finally been swallowed by it. Ironically, and fittingly, the self indulgence in question is the loose, stripped-down approach he’s taken on his latest record. Wainwright is notable, and equally loved and hated, for his oversized ambitions. This is the man who had the chutzpah to recreate Judy Garland’s classic Carnegie Hall performance song for song, and who has already composed an original opera. Beginning with his self-titled debut, and climaxing with his sprawling double-album magnum opus Want, Wainwright has been known for an excess of orchestration, sparkling and layered production, soaring melodies, operatic flourishes, classical and pop tendencies, and, ultimately, an over the top sensibility that few artists can execute with such panache. All Days Are Nights is a striking retreat: Wainwright, a piano, and, in one unfortunate section of the album, a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Fans of Wainwright, and I still count myself among the die hard, know that he is no stranger to solo performances. Days after Want One was released, Wainwright performed “Go Or Go Ahead,” one of his more excessively orchestrated numbers, solo with guitar. It was an electrifying and revelatory performance. For as baroque as his album cuts can be, most are just as moving and thrilling with Rufus alone at the piano or with an acoustic guitar, because most of Wainwright’s songs have, as their backbone, incredible melodies.

On ADAN, the opposite is true. The songs are nearly structureless and, given their short running time, they somehow manage to meander. True believers will no doubt credit the album for its stark emotion, and it is stark. But the emotional wallop of Wainwright’s music has usually been delivered by a devastating melody. While there are a few here, mostly the songs sound adrift, as if Wainwright hoped the directness of his approach would compensate for good construction.

Wainwright’s previous studio album, Release the Stars, suffered from a related flaw. Barring a couple of knockouts, most of the album buckled under orchestration that tried too hard to elevate material that was subpar. Still, it made for an engaging, if disappointing, listen. On ADAN the lack of orchestration only lays bare the weakness of the material.

The death of Wainwright’s mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, haunts the album, though she was still alive when he wrote the album. (She was battling cancer at the time.) The album’s best track, the achingly beautiful “Zebulon,” quietly burns with pain and loss. It's vintage Rufus, and a fitting bookend to another song for his mother, “Beauty Mark.” "Zebulon" concludes the album, and makes the ten tracks before it seem worse than they are.

All Days Are Nights is not awful. It's a middling album, best suited as background music, no more and no less.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

New LCD Soundsystem Streaming Now

This Is Happening, the new LCD Soundsystem album, is streaming on their website. And it's good. It's really good, as in: it just might be a classic. Yes, that good.

Another Preview of Obamacare

Another excellent article on the health-care death spiral, this time in New York:
New York’s insurance system has been a working laboratory for the core provision of the new federal health care law — insurance even for those who are already sick and facing huge medical bills — and an expensive lesson in unplanned consequences. Premiums for individual and small group policies have risen so high that state officials and patients’ advocates say that New York’s extensive insurance safety net for people like Ms. Welles is falling apart. [...]

New York also became one of the few states that require insurers within each region of the state to charge the same rates for the same benefits, regardless of whether people are old or young, male or female, smokers or nonsmokers, high risk or low risk.

Healthy people, in effect, began to subsidize people who needed more health care. The healthier customers soon discovered that the high premiums were not worth it and dropped out of the plans. The pool of insured people shrank to the point where many of them had high health care needs. Without healthier people to spread the risk, their premiums skyrocketed, a phenomenon known in the trade as the “adverse selection death spiral.”

“You have a mandate that’s accessible in theory, but not in practice, because it’s too expensive,” said Mark P. Scherzer, a consumer lawyer and counsel to New Yorkers for Accessible Health Coverage, an advocacy group. “What you get left clinging to the life raft is the population that tends to have pretty high health needs.”

Friday, April 16, 2010

Freedom, Yesterday and Today

In honor of Tax Day, and the debate that has been raging through the blogosphere, I've been thinking about our relative liberty today compared to the 19th century. The gist of the debate is whether Americans were more free in the 19th century, the apex of laissez-faire, given the fact that women, black people, and gays had little political freedom (by modern standards). Bryan Caplan leads the charge pro-Gilded Age, arguing that despite the lack of explicit political freedoms, women had more de facto liberty than they do today. His detractors abound.

It's undeniable that minorities (including women) today are more free qua minority than they were in the 19th century. But it's a moot point. The lack of political freedom for women, black people, gays, etc., was a fact of life across the globe before the 20th century. Sexism, racism, and homophobia were the standard, the status quo of human history. The 19th century was radical because it unfettered the economic activity of a huge portion of individuals (in this case, white males), whose subjugation was the norm throughout history. Yes, the 19th century was far from perfect. Still, name me a country from that era that exhibited our modern standards of equality.

The point that everyone seems to be missing is that America (and the U.K.) were the freest nations on earth, given that bigotry was the norm. Today, bigotry has largely been eliminated from the political sphere, but as a whole we are less free than the freest (straight white) men who existed in the Gilded Age.

Monday, April 12, 2010

I'm Not Surprised

From the NYT:

In a new report, the Congressional Research Service says the [new health care law] may have significant unintended consequences for the “personal health insurance coverage” of senators, representatives and their staff members. [...]

The confusion raises the inevitable question: If they did not know exactly what they were doing to themselves, did lawmakers who wrote and passed the bill fully grasp the details of how it would influence the lives of other Americans?

A good question to ask after the bill has passed, no?

Nanny State Watch: High Fructose Edition

New York is on a roll. Now there's a proposed bill to ban high-fructose corn syrup. Personally, I try to avoid HFCS, but I also try to avoid sugar. As Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward notes, a calorie is calorie, whether it's coming from HFCS or sugar:
The substitution of real sugar for high fructose corn syrup is like the old riddle about which is heavier: A 10-pound bag of feathers or a 10-pound bag of lead? (Answer here, but we're going to ban anyone who needs to click through from, so choose carefully.) A calorie of natural sugar is still a calorie. Weight gain or loss is determined by calories in vs. calories out. Ruth Kava, the director of nutrition at the American Council on Science & Health, a group that debunks food and health panics, says "I don't know how one supposedly distinguishes between ‘real' sugar and any other kind!"

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Health-Care Death Spiral Realized

The Boston Globe reports on the shape of things to come:
Thousands of consumers are gaming Massachusetts’ 2006 health insurance law by buying insurance when they need to cover pricey medical care, such as fertility treatments and knee surgery, and then swiftly dropping coverage, a practice that insurance executives say is driving up costs for other people and small businesses.

In 2009 alone, 936 people signed up for coverage with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts for three months or less and ran up claims of more than $1,000 per month while in the plan. Their medical spending while insured was more than four times the average for consumers who buy coverage on their own and retain it in a normal fashion, according to data the state’s largest private insurer provided the Globe.

The typical monthly premium for these short-term members was $400, but their average claims exceeded $2,200 per month. The previous year, the company’s data show it had even more high-spending, short-term members. Over those two years, the figures suggest the price tag ran into the millions.

Other insurers could not produce such detailed information for short-term customers but said they have witnessed a similar pattern. And, they said, the phenomenon is likely to be repeated on a grander scale when the new national health care law begins requiring most people to have insurance in 2014, unless federal regulators craft regulations to avoid the pitfall.

“These consumers come in and get their service, and then they leave because current regulations allow them to do it,’’ said Todd Bailey, vice president of underwriting at Fallon Community Health Plan, the state’s fourth-largest insurer.

The problem is, it is less expensive for consumers — especially young and healthy people — to pay the monthly penalty of as much as $93 imposed under the state law for not having insurance, than to buy the coverage year-round. This is also the case under the federal health care overhaul legislation signed by the president, insurers say.