Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Trainwreck of the Week

I'm hardly a Courtney Love hater. Whenever I indulge in a Love takedown, I make it a point to say that Live Through This is one of the greatest albums of all time, and certainly among the five best of the nineties. Yet as was made clear in a recent appearance on Howard Stern, Courtney Love has lost it. And now comes this delicious poison-pen review, from the Washington Post, of Hole's 9:30 Club show last Sunday. Read it all here, but this sums up the tone of the piece:
When Love did get around to singing, her voice sounded as if something had died in her throat. Love has a blood-curdling howl, by far her most effective asset as a performer. She should have used it more on Sunday. During the choruses of "Miss World" and "Violet" -- two of her best and most popular songs -- she turned the microphone to the crowd and didn't bother singing. Other times she skipped lines in order to cough or take a sip of water or just . . . not sing. Of the nearly 30 songs (or song fragments), not even a handful were completed without some minor disaster.

Love took a request for "Rock Star" despite admitting that she didn't remember how to play it. She stumbled through half the song without strumming one correct chord. She played a new song, "Pretty Your Whole Life." It was bad. Half an hour later, she played it again. It was worse.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Theory and Practice

It's unconscionable that many on the left, people who are appalled by the political doctrine of Nazism, remain vaguely sympathetic to communism. That communist iconography is seen as a kitschy and cool addition to hipster gear is bad enough. But the deafening yawn that greets the politics of an outspoken communist (and Nobel-prize-winning) writer like Jose Saramago is sickening. A sharp, and nicely argued, op-ed by Jeff Jacoby on the recent death of Saramago shines a cleansing light on this dichotomy:
At this late date, there is no excuse for regarding communism and its defenders with one whit less revulsion than we regard neo-Nazis or white supremacists. Saramago’s communism should not have been indulged, it should have been despised. It should have been as great a blot on his reputation as if he had spent the last 41 years as an advocate of murderous repression and cruelty. For that, in a nutshell, is what it means to be an “unabashed’’ and “hormonal’’ communist.

Anyone who imagines that the horrors of communist rule is a thing of the past ought to spend a few minutes with, say, the State Department’s latest human rights report on North Korea. (Sample passage: “Methods of torture . . . included severe beatings, electric shock, prolonged periods of exposure to the elements, humiliations such as public nakedness, confinement for up to several weeks in small ‘punishment cells’ in which prisoners were unable to stand upright or lie down . . . and forcing mothers recently repatriated from China to watch the infanticide of their newborn infants.’’) Communism is not, as its champions like to claim, an appealing doctrine that has been perverted by monstrous regimes. It is a monstrous doctrine that hides behind appealing rhetoric. It is mass crime embodied in government. Nothing devised by human beings has caused more misery or proven more brutal.
Some try to distinguish the doctrine of communism from its application. It's a noble theory, but it just didn't work in practice, they beseech. In fact (and I mean in fact), communism is wretched in theory, as was made clear by its practice.

What makes a theory good? My objection is not only political (or moral), but epistemological. A good theory is one that successfully translates in its implementation. If I had a theory that flapping one's arms will result in flight, how good is my theory? My intention, no doubt, is good. There goes the need for the aviation sector. Just think of all the oil that will be saved (a nice fuck-you to BP). But, as soon as dead bodies begin to pile up below cliffs, would the proper reaction be: well, the dead didn't flap correctly -- it's still a good theory?

Was it the depravity of the human body that prevented it from defying gravity? If man's body were "better," would the theory work in practice? When do you stop condemning man and begin to question the soundness of a theory?

An Odious Anniversary

Via Cafe Hayek.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Assorted Links

Dora the Explorer wants to make your kid fat.

Nefarious Nestle sends supermarket down the Amazon.

North Korea hires Chinese actors to root for North Korea.

Diet be damned -- I want a Grilled Cheese BurgerMelt.

Results Without Cost

No surprise here, from an NYT poll:
Overwhelmingly, Americans think the nation needs a fundamental overhaul of its energy policies, and most expect alternative forms to replace oil as a major source within 25 years. Yet a majority are unwilling to pay higher gasoline prices to help develop new fuel sources.
All we have to do now is figure out how to have cake and eat it, too.

*Toy Story 3* Review

There's one certainty in life apart from death and taxes: Pixar delivers. While not every Pixar film is created equal, even the lesser films -- Monsters, Inc., Bugs, Cars -- are better than the majority of what Hollywood puts out in a typical year. The best ones -- Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Up -- are masterpieces. For me the aberration is Wall*E, a film that aimed for greatness (and in its first 45 minutes, achieved it), but was bogged down by its heavy-handed message.

Toy Story, and its first sequel, were wonderful, snappy buddy pictures. But even at their best, they never delivered the emotional wallop of Finding Nemo or Up. Toy Story 3 is the odd tertiary franchise film that bests its predecessors. It's the most focused (and thrilling) of the trilogy, and the most moving. Those 3-D glasses have a secondary purpose -- they hide tears.

What sets the Toy Story films apart from the rest of the Pixar oeuvre is their deep understanding of childhood. Here the series' themes of mortality, disposability, and devotion reaches a climax. Andy is off to college. Our beloved toys' very purpose in life, to be played with and loved, is threatened. Like the previous films, Toy Story 3 is a return-to-home adventure story, mixed with a large dollop of Prison Break. Yes, it's rollicking and clever, but Toy Story 3 is infused with tender nostalgia, without being sentimental.

Oh, it's really, really fun, too.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Song of the Summer, 2010 (Nominee #5)

The best summer singles are often dance songs. After all, an amplified melody set to an infectious beat is the very definition of the genre. A good dance song lives and dies by these two criteria, and Robyn's new single "Dancing On My Own" delivers handsomely on both. Robyn gives us her best hook yet, while a synth-driven beat stutters underneath. Lyrically, it employs a well-worn trope: seeing an ex with a new love, struggling with longing while remaining defiant. Which is to say, she puts what's best upfront: the music. Just try to get this one out of your head.

Robyn 'Dancing On My Own' (Official Video) from Robyn on Vimeo.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Making a Pretty Girl Ugly: Three New Releases

A pretty girl is like a melody
That haunts you night and day,
Just like the strain of a haunting refrain,
She'll start up-on a marathon
And run around your brain.
You can't escape she's in your memory.
By morning night and noon.
She will leave you and then come back again,
A pretty girl is just like a pretty tune.
--Irving Berlin
Has anyone described the nature and effect of a good tune better than Irving Berlin? His comparison is so perfect that you can chart our culture's opinion of both pretty girls and pretty melodies along the same trajectory. Today, both are loved -- but not too much. They are celebrated and scorned, often by the same people. In the case of a pretty girl, she can grace the cover of Vogue, with all her flaws airbrushed away, and then the cover of In Touch, with the most minor imperfection emphasized by a damning red circle. In the case of melody, pop divas exalt it, while experimental bands deny its very existence.

The relationship between popular music and Irving Berlin's pretty girl has been, well, complicated. The songwriters of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building judged the quality of their output by one criterion: marketability, i.e., tunefulness. Like prospective Hooters waitresses, ugly melodies needn't apply. The Beatles were a transition. Through innovative instrumentation, complex structure, and the beginnings of modern experimentation, they aimed at making the pretty girl smart, too. By the seventies and eighties, only hacks embraced melody without subverting it in some way. (But this was the case only at the time. Artists who, in the past, were seen as awful by critics of the day are now celebrated by the current elite. See: ABBA.) Today we've reached an unstable equilibrium. Kelly Clarkson can be openly loved by critics, but not as much as Animal Collective. Yet, even the Animal Collectives of the world often get their highest praise when they allow tunefulness to rise above their attempt at subverting it. (See: Merriweather Post Pavilion.)

As the line of demarcation between pop artist and critical darling has blurred, so has their output. Both seem uncomfortable in the other's clothes, but the "serious" artists seem more so. Three new debut albums exemplify this tension between embracing pop melodies and retaining indie authenticity: Male Bonding's Nothing Hurts, Sleigh Bells' Treats, and Ariel Pink's Haunted Grafitti's Before Today. All three are the aural equivalent of a nerd awkwardly wearing Juicy Couture. Or is it a jock posing in ironic thrift store attire?

Male Bonding is the most upfront with its melodies, insomuch as they're only buried in the mud of the album's mix and the low-fidelity of its production. The band's attempt at authenticity is tempered by the fact that its songs are bound to sound better (even great) live. I suspect by its third album, after having established proper indie credibility, Male Bonding will release a sparkling "breakthrough" record. Nothing Hurts shows how murky production can turn great material into a merely "good" album.

On Treats, Sleigh Bells take the immediacy of a simple dance-pop melody and turn up the volume to the point of near cacophony. The best description I've heard of the album was from an Onion AV Club critic. Before he heard Treats, he thought it would be something he could play at a picnic (given the glowing reviews that called the record "fun"). After hearing it, he imagined even the most musically savvy picnickers would demand to know what the hell they were listening to, as they rushed to turn off the stereo. Treats inserts its lovely melodies into your ear like a ice pick. (The gorgeous "Rill Rill" being the exception that proves the rule.)

Ariel Pink is a true oddball. He absorbs the best (or, some might say, worst) tendencies of eighties soft rock, and regurgitates them into his fractured pop gems. Throughout Before Today, Pink sends great melodies through a weirdo prism -- be it by randomly singing with a strange affect, or coupling pretty tunes with Zappa-esque bizarro lyrics (See: "Butt-House Blondies" and "Menopause Man"), or the various other tics that pop up all over the record. "Round and Round," one of the best songs I've heard this year, most deftly balances Pink's need to glorify and subvert a melody, often in the same breath. The song slyly slinks about before giving up a chorus so good that it's like a block of Velveeta liquefying in the microwave of your heart. Here, his restraint, his affinity to give us just so much of a good thing, pays great dividends.

As successful as Ariel Pink is, he can be as frustrating as Male Bonding and Sleigh Bells. All three clearly have the talent to give us great melodies, straight up. Instead, they often allow "authenticity" to mar tunefulness. Like a pretty melody, with a gigantic pimple on her nose.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Trainwreck for U.S. Senate

Thank you, thank you, thank you, democrats of South Carolina.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Song of the Summer, 2010 (Nominee #4)

"Point the biggest skeptic out, I’ll make him a believer," Drake says on "Over," the first single from his debut album. I'm not yet a believer, but I'm certainly intrigued. "Over" sounds less like a radio-friendly single than the opener to a non-existent Broadway-style hip hop opera. Drake does a fair amount of navel-gazing on the track (tempered by the usual rap-star bravado, of course), which endears me right out of the gate. Name checking Ebert and Roper doesn't hurt, either.

Here's a NYT profile of Drake. His bio is just as intriguing as the song.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Song of the Summer, 2010 (Nominee #3)

Just for the moment, I'll ignore the very literal "male bonding" that occurs in video for Male Bonding's single "Year's Not Long." I wouldn't want to distract myself from the lo-fi wonder of the track. Better to focus on the rush of the main guitar lick, which demands a top-down convertible to blare from. Oh, who am I kidding? Look at all those hipsters making out!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Who's Afraid of Wal-Mart?

The most readily accepted myth propagated by the enemies of Wal-Mart is that the superstore drives out mom and pop grocers when it moves into a new town. It's a myth that plays well with anti-corporate leftism, as well as America's general romance with small business over "the big guy." Even those who consider themselves "pro-business" often lament the destruction of a scrappy David at the hands of the smiley-faced Goliath of Bentonville. Yet, as economist Russ Roberts has noted, it's not the mom and pops who suffer when a new Wal-Mart opens -- it's other Goliaths, namely large supermarket chains.

The WSJ has an illuminating article that reveals the extent to which these large chains use feel-good populist channels to keep out competition:
As Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has grown into the largest grocery seller in the U.S., similar battles have played out in hundreds of towns like Mundelein. Local activists and union groups have been the public face of much of the resistance. But in scores of cases, large supermarket chains including Supervalu Inc., Safeway Inc. and Ahold NV have retained Saint Consulting to block Wal-Mart, according to hundreds of pages of Saint documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with former employees.

Saint has jokingly called its staff the "Wal-Mart killers." P. Michael Saint, the company's founder, declines to discuss specific clients or campaigns. When read a partial list of the company's supermarket clients, he responds that "if those names are true, I would say I was proud that some of the largest, most sophisticated companies were so pleased with our success and discretion that they hired us over the years."

Supermarkets that have funded campaigns to stop Wal-Mart are concerned about having to match the retailing giant's low prices lest they lose market share. Although they have managed to stop some projects, they haven't put much of a dent in Wal-Mart's growth in the U.S., where it has more than 2,700 supercenters—large stores that sell groceries and general merchandise. Last year, 51% of Wal-Mart's $258 billion in U.S. revenue came from grocery sales.
This phenomenon of economically interested parties hiding behind a more politically palatable cause is not new. Clemson economist Bruce Yandle famously named this tactic "Bootleggers and Baptists" in his 1983 article in Regulation Magazine. The name comes from his example of criminal bootleggers who quietly support religious groups in the enactment of blue laws, which increase the demand for their services by restricting the legal sale of liquor. What's fascinating (and disheartening) about the WSJ article is the emergence of firms, in this case the oh-so-perfectly-named Saint Consulting Group, who facilitate and profit from the maneuver:
Mr. Saint, a former newspaper reporter and political press secretary, founded his firm 26 years ago. It specializes in using political-campaign tactics—petition drives, phone banks, websites—to build support for or against controversial projects, from oil refineries and shopping centers to quarries and landfills. Over the years, it has conducted about 1,500 campaigns in 44 states. Mr. Saint says about 500 have involved trying to block a development, and most of those have been clandestine.

For the typical anti-Wal-Mart assignment, a Saint manager will drop into town using an assumed name to create or take control of local opposition, according to former Saint employees. They flood local politicians with calls, using multiple phones to make it appear that the calls are coming from different people, the former employees say.

They hire lawyers and traffic experts to help derail the project or stall it as long as possible, in hopes that the developer will pull the plug or Wal-Mart will find another location.

"Usually, clients in defense campaigns do not want their identities disclosed because it opens them up to adverse publicity and the potential for lawsuits," Mr. Saint wrote in a book published by his firm.
No doubt they don't. The type of person who makes opposition to Wal-Mart a badge of moral virtue would find it awkward to discover his bedfellow is actually a big bad corporation like Safeway, Giant, or Supervalu -- not the lovable corner grocer.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Song of the Summer, 2010 (Nominee #2)

"Shutterbugg" proves two things:
  1. Big Boi, uncoupled from André 3000, is an artist to be reckoned with
  2. Scott Storch might actually have some talent
An obvious frontrunner.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Janelle Monae: Live in Baltimore, 5/30/10

I realize Cultural Minefield is coming dangerously close to becoming the unofficial Janelle Monáe Fan Blog, but I had the opportunity to see her perform live at Baltimore's Pier Six Pavilion last week and feel compelled to report on the experience.

Monáe was the opening act for N.E.R.D. and Erykah Badu and, given the tepid response she and her bandmates received as they entered the stage in their signature hooded robes, it was obvious few knew who she was. As the indistinguishable figures swayed to The ArchAndroid's opening overture, backs turned to the audience, the crowd reacted with a mixture of curiosity and what the fuck is going on here?

Monáe disrobed on cue, dramatically revealing her tuxedoed self to the audience, and launched into the trio of "Dance or Die," "Faster," and "Locked Inside," without a pause between the songs. Despite being a neophyte, Janelle Monáe the Performer is strikingly similar to Janelle Monáe the Recording Artist: warm, exuberant, and surprisingly comfortable in her own skin. As Monáe glided across the stage, her band danced to the beat, and two black-spandex-clad women with comically-oversized white gloves flanked the audience, goading us to participate in the joyous noise emanating from the speakers. It was like a gospel show imagined by Walt Disney. The crowd began to take notice.

Monáe only performed one track off her Metropolis EP, the gorgeous ballad "Smile." For as much as it showcased her upper-register chops, it couldn't match the frenetic energy of the first three songs. Monáe righted the situation with her two closing numbers. "Cold War," performed with video of Muhammad Ali sparring in the background, was the first time that night I felt the same giddy surge of excitement I had the first time I heard The ArchAndroid. It was what I had been waiting for. The crowd responded in kind.

I hoped for left turn at some point, but Monáe ended the set with the slinky funk of her new single, "Tightrope." It was a great performance, but one that hewed closely to her recent television appearances, right down to the James Brown ending.

Had this been a headlining set, I suspect Monáe would have emphasized her knack for genre-bending. Instead, she (smartly) played to the crowd, who, for the most part, were won over. I was disappointed, though it wasn't her fault. I wanted a feast, but all Monáe could possibly offer in 35 minutes was an amuse-bouche. Delicious, yes. But I still left feeling hungry.

"Suite II Overture"
"Dance or Die"
"Locked Inside"
"Cold War"

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Song Break: Tipper Gore Edition

I dedicate this soul classic by the Flirtations to Tipper Gore, who was still being courted by Al when the song was released in 1968. Tipper, an outspoken music fan, should have listened to the sage advice of these lyrics when she had still had a chance.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Private Discrimination, Continued

Commenting on my post on private discrimination, restaurant refugee writes:
The comparison between discrimination based on attire and that based upon race is a false construct. One chooses attire, one does not choose that latter. I understand that the author was making the point that the owners of the establishments cited in the post were practicing a de facto sexism and racism. However that ignores the larger point that business owners have a legitimate interest and prerogative to mandate attire and norms that contribute to the experience of all guests. Does the author similarly take issue with restaurants that require jacket and tie? Tennis clubs that mandate one dress is tennis whites? What about pools that limit swimming attire to that which was designed for that purpose?
I apologize if I was unclear. I support the right of private establishments to set the standards of decorum within their four walls, be it jacket and tie, tennis whites, or no high heels. My point was that some of these standards could be inspired by racism and sexism, and still remain perfectly legal. I return to the example of my former employer, the gay club that didn't allow high heels in the club. The purpose of that rule was never in doubt: it was meant to keep women out. And it worked.

I don't deny refugee's larger point: "One chooses attire, one does not choose [their race or gender]." But the discrimination involved in barring the former rather than the latter is a difference of degree, not of kind. That many women wear high heels to clubs is undeniable, as is the fact that many young black men come to Adams Morgan on a Friday night wearing Timberland boots and baggy clothing. Club owners are counting on the fact that violators of their dress codes will be unwilling to conform to their rules, that they'll just shrug and go somewhere else.

Refugee continues:
The Title of the Civil Rights act the author finds objectionable deals with “public accommodations” and provides that no business that provides such accommodations may discriminate. The author makes the libertarian position on the matter clear: discrimination is immoral but government should not prohibit private business from doing it. Let us suppose that the author is right. So when I hang a sign in my restaurant that says “Whites not served here,” I would be within my rights. If a white person enters in spite of that sign, I ask him/her to leave, s/he refuses, what then? Shall I call the police? Am I authorized to forcibly remove him/her? Shall the police arrest that person for trespassing? Shall we spend government monies to prosecute people in the aid of racism?
My answer to refugee's hypothetical is an unequivocal yes, it would be within his rights as the owner to keep white people out of his establishment. If the white person in question refused to leave the restaurant, refugee could call the police to remove him (just as an Adams Morgan club owner could for someone flouting their dress code). The question is, why would anyone want to patronize an establishment that openly discriminates against them? And would there not be a public backlash against any business that was so openly racist or sexist?

As for the expenditure of "government monies to prosecute people in the aid of racism," those monies are in part provided by the racist business owners via their taxes. I know it's hard to swallow, but even despicable individuals have the right to the protection of their property rights and the standards of trade they see fit to enforce.

All trade entails certain conditions between both parties, be it buyer or seller. A wacky homophobic landlord has the right to not rent me his apartment if he (likely) suspects I'm gay, and I have the right to deny him my business if I catch a whiff of homophobia from him. I'm better served to not be legally protected from his homophobia and have to suffer the subtle hostilities that would surely come later. Likewise, it would have been better if my former employer had posted a "no women allowed" sign in front of the club. I've witnessed the hostility the few women who made it into the club faced from some of the bar staff (and the male patrons). The reaction of those turned away by the "no high heels" rule tended to be some form of "fuck you." And rightly so. Had the women who managed to gain entry to the club known the spirit of the rule, I suspect their reaction would have been similar.

Finally, I never said the government is "inherently evil," nor did I mean to imply it. Within its proper scope, government prevents a civilized society from devolving into barbarism and chaos. Government isn't evil. It isn't even a "necessary evil." The proper function of government is unquestionably good. I don't think this contradicts my position that the government should have no authority to protect us from the private discrimination of troglodytes. Unfortunately, troglodytes have rights too.