Tuesday, September 28, 2010


As far as American culinary plaudits go, a four-star review from the New York Times is like winning the Pulitzer, despite Michelin's attempts at stateside gastro-kingmaking. Sam Sifton, the Times' restaurant critic, who replaced Frank Bruni over a year ago, has not yet placed a quad-asterisk crown atop an NY restaurant -- until today. And the winner is...Del Posto, the first Italian restaurant to have that sacrosanct honor since 1974.

What makes this a story of note for us non-New York food lovers is the review itself. While any hack can write a smarmy take-down, only the best food critics can write eloquent praises that are enjoyed for their own merit. Also, a persuasive four-star review instantly puts a restaurant on the Must-Conquer List of every fervent and far-flung foodie.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Bruni's excellent 2004 review of Per Se, a piece that was the eventual-catalyst of an incredible meal, and a considerable budget re-allocation, of mine earlier this year:
The butter-poached lobster almost did it, but not quite. I had been wooed with succulent lobster before. The Island Creek oysters and Iranian caviar, mingled in a kind of sabayon that I was served during that same dinner and during others, made a seductive case. But I was wary of such ostentation.

In the end, it was a different night and a nine-course vegetable tasting, of all things, that made me drop any reserve, cast aside any doubts and accept the fact that I loved Per Se — and that this preening, peacock-vain newcomer deserved it.

I ordered the meal out of a sense of duty, with a heavy heart. Jicama ribbons? Warm potato salad? How transcendent could those be?

Silly, cynical, carnivorous me. The jicama was sensational, so packed with moisture and so faintly sweet that it could have been a new, undiscovered fruit, and the cilantro and avocado that came with it were like idealized essences of themselves, so flavorful that they seemed to have been cultivated in a more verdant universe. The bite-size marble potatoes in the potato salad popped like grapes in my mouth, and an exquisitely balanced mustard-seed vinaigrette gave them a subtle zing.

Lobster is easy; potato salad is hard. And a restaurant that turns a summer picnic staple into a meal-stopping, sigh-inducing dish — and makes that dish a legitimate course in a $135 tasting menu — cannot be denied. Per Se is wondrous.
Sifton's review seems limp by comparison:
Great restaurants may start out that way. But an extraordinary restaurant generally develops only over time, the product of prolonged artistic risk and managerial attention. An extraordinary restaurant uses the threat of failure first as a spur to improvement, then as a vision of unimaginable calamity. An extraordinary restaurant can transcend the identity of its owners or chef or concept.

And of course an extraordinary restaurant serves food that leads to gasps and laughter, to serious discussion and demands for more of that, please, now. The point of fine dining is intense pleasure. For the customer, at any rate, an extraordinary restaurant should never be work.

Consider Del Posto, which opened in 2005 on a wind-swept corner of that grim Manhattan neighborhood that is neither Chelsea nor the meatpacking district, in the shadows below what is now the High Line park. The restaurant’s owners, Joseph Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali, and its chef, Mark Ladner, envisioned a temple to Italian cooking to match any ever built to honor a European cuisine in New York, a 24,000-square-foot palazzo of mahogany and marble devoted entirely to the pleasures of Italian food and customer satisfaction.

Five years later Del Posto is that and more, a place to sit in luxury and drink Barolo, while eating food that bewilders and thrills — an abalone carpaccio to start your meal, perhaps, and absolutely a celery sorbetto to end it, as well-played Gershwin and Kern tinkle in the background.

Del Posto’s is a pleasure that lasts, offering memories of flavors that may return later in a dream: a tiny cup of spiced gazpacho, say, rimmed with a salty dust of dried capers; or a plate of the square-cut whole-wheat pasta known as tonarelli, with fiery little chickpeas, fried rosemary and bonito flakes in place of the more-traditional bottarga; perhaps a nectarine cooked into slow and amazing submission, with a savory grilled lemon cake and intense basil gelato. And, oh, that wine!
Here's the full review, not nearly as excellent as the food it describes.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review: Antony & the Johnsons *Swanlights*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

Swanlights starts with a repeated mantra – sung first with a lilting warble and later with a soaring yowl, accompanied by some gentle piano notes, acoustic guitar plucks, a high-hat metronome click, and finally, after a swollen crescendo, a few grand cymbal rolls – just three words, the song’s title: “Everything Is New.” Well, not exactly. In fact, very little here is new.

Antony Hegarty has perfected a sound. What he lacks in breadth and variety, he makes up for with depth and consistency. Swanlights follows the template laid out by I am a bird Now and The Crying Light; it’s a collection of sparsely instrumented folk nocturnes and chamber lullabies, with a couple of esoteric art songs thrown in for good measure. But where Antony & the Johnsons’ previous releases were impeccably crafted and instantly gripping, Swanlights is looser, at times formless and even abstruse. Which is just a kinder way of saying Swanlights isn’t as good as its predecessors.

At their best, Antony’s songs inhabit a place of such intimacy and yearning that they can be suffocating in their beauty. Fans already know the sublime alchemy that occurs when Antony’s voice meets a devastating melody. Songs like “Hope There’s Someone” from I am a bird Now, “Blind” from Hercules and Love Affair’s debut, and Hegarty’s cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” from the I’m Not There OST show that Antony, while being a great songwriter, is first and foremost an expert vocal stylist.

Nothing on Swanlights rivals his prior greatness, but a few songs come close. “The Great White Ocean” is the simplest of the bunch, just the singer, a stately guitar, and a seemingly timeless melody. It’s vintage Antony, as are its familiar themes of mortality and the bonds of family. Austere and aching, “The Spirit Was Gone” is another song about (surprise!) death, which lifts its hook from Paul McCartney’s “You Never Give Me Your Money” and puts it to great use. Yes, we’ve been here before, but when the familiar is done this well, why complain?

Swanlights shares a flaw with every other Antony & the Johnsons album: its songs have a tendency to blend together, making a collection of strong material seem monotonous and monochromatic. That said, there are a few left turns here, of varying success. “I’m In Love” is the most successful, and the album’s best track. Above a “primitive, offbeat rhythmic drive,” to borrow the words of Philip Glass, Antony sings a repeating eight-tone motif, while a Wurlitzer mimics in kind. The circularity of its structure suggests the perpetuity of finding a new love. It is pessimistic and hopeful at once. Love is lost and found, and lost and found, again and again and again. The album’s lead single, “Thank You For Your Love,” starts out sweet, its bright horn accents a relief to the album’s overall melancholy. Yet for as joyous as it first appears to be, darkness lies underneath. Antony sings thanks to love for saving him from “falling in the seizure of pain,” from being “lost in the dark blackness,” from his mind being “broken into a thousand pieces.” Antony pleads “I thank you!” over and over at the song’s end, and it’s unclear if his pain has been alleviated or exacerbated.

Even Swanlights’ least successful tracks are rescued by a smart twist or an interesting flourish. “Ghost” is closer to “art” than song, but its sixteenth-note ostinati flurries, which suddenly shift to half-time eighth-note pulses, are enough to keep the listener’s attention – a cerebral, if not emotional, payoff.Swanlights’ too-long and soporific title track is aimless for its first half, all drone and reverb, until a drum kit and piano mercifully add some structure to the mess. There’s a gorgeous song somewhere within the meandering “Christina’s Farm,” but you’ll have to wait for it (give It four minutes; it’s worth it). The worst offender is the Björk track ”Flétta,” if only for the great opportunity squandered. Whereas the wonderful Volta track “Dull Flame of Desire” used both vocalists equally, with the bombast they deserved, “Flétta” cedes to Björk’s duller tendencies. The song’s jaunty piano interludes at least inject some life into a largely stillborn track.

If Swanlights had matched the quality of I am a bird Now and The Crying Light, its lack of sonic growth could have been tossed aside as an afterthought, a minor disappointment. Being an inferior album, its similarity only heightens its flaws. Still, it’s almost unjust to nitpick when the overall product is this good. Swanlights is not the departure for Antony & the Johnsons that I’ve been hoping for. Maybe next time. (Might I humbly suggest an album of girl group covers?) For now, I’ll happily settle for a good, rather than great, album.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Exhuming Malthus

Here we go again.

Slate has a good article on the forever-interest in the ideas of 18th century economist Thomas Malthus, particularly in the realm of fiction, specifically with regard to Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. To describe Malthus' central idea on one foot: human population grows exponentially, while natural resources grow arithmetically. The former will eventually outstrip the latter, leading to a population bomb that will detonate and obliterate us all.

No matter how many times Malthus is refuted, his ideas linger. Ultimately, Malthusians of all stripes are defined by their suspicion, if not hatred, for civilization. Malthus was in the news recently, thanks to the Neo-Malthusian nut who took hostages at the Discovery Channel earlier this month. His inspiration? A novel: My Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn.

It almost makes you miss the influence of Karl Marx.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Let's Talk About *Freedom*

I've just started reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, a book I planned on hating but am actually kind of enjoying. I've disdained Franzen (yes, my negative opinion of him has been that intense) since the whole Oprah flap back at the beginning of the last decade. I wasn't put off by some great offense against Her Highness of Daytime, but by Franzen's apparent smugness and snobbishness toward the economic gift horse that is the Oprah Book Club, by his attitude that he and his work (The Corrections) were too good for the sudden popularity that followed from Oprah's stamp of approval, that the vulgar "O" printed on the book's cover immediately tarnished its contents by marking it as "female fiction." Didn't he want people to read his goddamn book?

Anyway, it wasn't just spite that motivated me to pick up Freedom. It's too long a book to be read for the sole (and self-indulgent) purpose of further stoking some anger within me. No, I wanted to understand and be part of a conversation about an "important" literary work within the culture. I place quotes around the word important not to be snarky or contrarian, but to underscore the fact that Freedom's import is that it has prompted discussion in the first place, without me having to evaluate how important a literary work it is. It's not often that a work of fiction is discussed so ubiquitously, with angles of debate so multifaceted.

First there's the issue of the book's literary merit. Freedom has been overwhelmingly embraced by critics, with a few poison pens written in gleeful dissent. Then there's the reaction to the book's critical reception, which has become a debate about the nature of literary criticism and what it means to be a Great American Novel. Add to the mix questions of what happened to the popular "middlebrow" novel, why most people no longer read fiction, and whether a woman writer of literary fiction could ever grace the cover of Time, as Franzen did a few weeks ago, and you've got yourself some robust cultural discourse.

The last bit, of the media's attitude toward women literary writers, immediately cuts off any mention of J.K. Rowling, she being the clichéd 800 pound, and multi-billion dollar, gorilla. Of course, the modifier "literary" in front of "fiction" is central to all of this. When in recent memory have people, like real reg'lar people, many of whom are also the erudite consumers of the NYT's Notable Books list, clamored about and discussed a work of fiction? In the last ten years, it's only been in the context of young adult and genre fiction: Harry Potter, Twilight, and Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy exhaust the list.

And so, we talk about Freedom. While that's a very good thing on the surface, what about Franzen has established him as the literary topic of discussion? It's not merit alone. There have been a number of great, and for the most part popular, contemporary works that did not make the same splash, books like The Road, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Netherland, Tree of Smoke, and Middlesex, among many others. Perhaps it's because few other authors mix Franzen's prodigious ambition and ability with broad social commentary. While I almost completely disagree with Franzen's evaluation of America and Americans, there's no doubt that Freedom is the work of a writer in full control of his powers, one who is emphatically Making a Statement. Freedom's sweeping 23-page first chapter is proof enough of this.

Whatever the answer, the great debate over Freedom shows the reports of the novel's death within American culture are at least slightly exaggerated. And the townsfolk rejoice, however halfheartedly.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Song Break: Late to the Game Edition

I'm just now getting around to listening to Hot Chip's One Life Stand. "I Feel Better," the album's standout, recalls the yearning of Hercules and Love Affair's "Iris" and "Athene." As with those tracks, "I Feel Better" is either uplifting or haunting, depending on the listener's mood. Joe Goddard's heavily Auto-Tuned vocal provides a sonic foil to the purity of Alexis Taylor's chorus (clearly inspired by Everything but the Girl's Tracy Thorn). Both trade off over synthesized strings and a simple kick-drum/ high hat/ snare drum beat. An instant contender for song of the year.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

For Parrot

Outside my window, half a block south, I can see candles flickering in the semi-darkness of the sidewalk. A small crowd stands in vigil. The occasional car honks in passing. There's a news van parked at the end of the block: a local television station has come to cover the event. All of this for Parrot. If you live in DC, you probably already know who that is.

Parrot was a pit bull who was shot and killed by a police officer last Sunday. There are conflicting accounts, but a few facts are agreed upon by the dog's owner, the MPD, and eyewitnesses. First, it happened in full view of a street festival that was in full swing in DC's Adams Morgan neighborhood. Second, Parrot and a poodle got into a sidewalk altercation -- both were leashed; the poodle may or may not have been bitten. Third, an MPD officer stepped in and subdued Parrot, before shooting the animal execution-style.

The crowd currently gathered in front of the Brass Knob, where Parrot was killed five days ago, and the presence of local media are a testament to how much this story has impacted locals, especially dog owners. I was shocked and sickened when I heard the news on Sunday. It didn't help that I own a dog that looks strikingly similar to Parrot, and that I live hundreds of feet from where it all happened.

A friend of mine knows the officer who shot the dog. Apparently, he is a dog lover (and owner) himself. Imagining the officer as a faceless cop, he's a monster who cares little for human rights (like property) and even less for animals. After hearing he may be a dog lover, he sounds like a human being who made a really, really bad snap decision.

To a certain extent I can understand. The officer was faced with a dog, a pit bull no less, who could have very well been dangerous, in the midst of a densely attended street festival. Allegedly, the owner's hand was bleeding. Maybe things looked worse than they were, and the officer did what he thought he had to do. Of course, this doesn't exonerate him. Disregarding the callousness of his public execution, he discharged his weapon in the midst of a densely attended street festival. At least Parrot was on a leash.

One good thing may come of this. The great public outcry, the disgust and anger that swelled with the news of Parrot's death, will, I hope, cause an officer to think twice before shooting a dog in the future, especially when no one is in immediate danger. Still, that's little salve for Parrot's owner.

I walked past the vigil on my way home earlier, before it got started. The crowd was solemn; a few eyes were red from crying. A woman handed me a leaflet with pictures of Parrot on it. Another handed me a dixie cup, to catch candle wax. And there stood Parrot's owner, wearing a white t-shirt, surrounded by strangers who were brought here on a rainy Thursday night to honor the life of a dog. Just somebody's pet. I still don't know if the feeling I had at that moment was profound hope, or sadness.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Adrian Fenty's Spectacular Defeat

Was it Michelle Rhee? Fenty's aloofness toward the black community? His hubris with regard to his reelection campaign? The heavy whiff of nepotism that accompanied his appointments?

Megan McArdle thinks gentrification was largely to blame for Fenty's loss:
When it became clear that Fenty was going to lose, there was a lot of shock going around in the circles I live and work in--which is to say, mostly white professionals who live in DC's gentrified, or gentrifying, precincts. After all, there's little question that things have gotten much better under Fenty, and not just for white people. The truly abysmal schools are being reformed, parks are being built, crime is slowly improving, the city is getting streetcars desired by almost everyone except the folks who live directly on the tracks . . . so why did voters just kick him out?

I don't think you can quite explain it by saying that Fenty's modestly corrupt (too-expensive contracts have gone to friends, though those friends seem to have mostly done the work very well). Marion Barry has remained quite popular here through much more serious violations, and in general, the corruption now pales in comparison to the pervasive corruption that has been uncovered in multiple city agencies, which long predates Fenty's administration.

Most people agree that this is ultimately a proxy battle over gentrification. It's all rather nebulous, because of course Vincent Gray hasn't campaigned on rolling back gentrification. He seems to support all the services Fenty has expanded, with the possible exception of the school reforms. Instead, the theme of his campaign--and the more generalized opposition to Fenty--has centered around respect and process.
She continues:
Gentrification represents a real loss to people who can't afford to stay. They've lived in the city a long time; they have networks of friends and relatives, and institutions like churches, that are built around proximity. Why should they favor a city that provides more services--and then sees real estate prices spike, so that they can't afford to stay around to enjoy them? There are probably a number of voters for whom the status quo is vastly preferable to a situation where Fenty manages to improve the schools enough that middle class voters start a bidding war for homes in the district.

Certainly for the teachers and the taxi drivers--both groups huge opponents of Fenty--this is about real economic loss and changes to their jobs that make them less pleasant.

But no one comes right out and talks about the fact that they are now worse off; instead they talk about how Fenty has run roughshod over council process, or that he hasn't respected some group . . the teachers, the council members, "the community". So our mayoral election has become a debate over which groups in the city are worthy of respect, rather than what concrete improvements can be made in peoples' lives. Because in a city dysfunctional, there are no changes that make everyone better off.

I don't know whether the voters who selected Vincent Gray understand at some level that as long as the quality of life in the city continues to improve, gentrification will continue apace. Vincent Gray didn't force them to consciously make that choice; he made vague promises about things like inclusionary zoning which are supposed to keep more affordable housing in the district. These initiatives will not work, but at least they sound hopeful. And the people who voted for Gray are willing to hope because they think that he, unlike Fenty, respects their concerns.
The implications of her argument, if correct, are provocative. It only follows that a segment of D.C. believed things have been getting better, yet actively voted against progress. In fact, a recent poll showed that most Washingtonians thought the district was heading in the right direction. The same poll showed Fenty trailing behind Gray.

I think McArdle's argument is persuasive, but Fenty's bafflingly inept reelection campaign certainly played a large part in his loss. The Washington Post's surprisingly good analysis, published today, is the best argument for this view.

But I think McArdle nails it with her prediction of what to expect from Mayor Gray:
I don't know how good a mayor Gray will be--he seems like a nice guy, but nice guys often have a hard time getting things done in fractious cities, and his campaign platform is pretty empty of actual proposals. I think this is probably a tragedy for the utterly dysfunctional school system, but I doubt that Gray is going to do much to roll back the other changes, like the change in the taxi fare system, that have made the city a better place.

And for good or ill, I doubt he'll do anything about gentrification. Inclusionary zoning has, as far as I know, proven an excellent way to subsidize home building in poor neighborhoods, and to provide below-market housing for relatively middle class retirees, but it has not, as far as I am aware, ever succeeded in keeping a neighborhood's economic mix from changing. The forces altering DC right now are like a runaway freight train. In 2000, the population of DC was 30% white and 60% black; by 2006-2008, those numbers were 36% and 54%, respectively. Meanwhile, the percentage living below the poverty level dropped from over 20% to under 18%. On a demographic timescale, that is lightning fast. If gentrification keeps up at that pace, the lines are going to cross sometime in the next 10 to 15 years.

Vincent Gray could throw his body in front of the freight train and it wouldn't even slow down. The change in the city may stop on its own; no trend continues forever. But the city is now good enough that many affluent people who used to flee to the suburbs now want to live here--and their presence is attracting non-government services which make it attractive enough to lure still other people to follow them. Unless Gray starts an active campaign to make things worse, the core issue that seems to have animated this campaign is largely out of his hands.
Progress marches onward? Washingtonians can only hope.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Housewives, Totally Losing It

Courtesy of Oprah and the continent of Australia.

(Mirrored on 100MC)

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Lady Gaga Takedown

The Sunday Times (UK) published a devastating piece on Lady Gaga by the always wonderful Camille Paglia. Paglia, an iconoclastic cultural critic, is well known for her analyses of Madonna through the years, and for her controversial views on feminism and sexuality. Here's an excerpt from Paglia's criticism of Gaga:
Gaga has borrowed so heavily from Madonna (as in her latest video-Alejandro) that it must be asked, at what point does homage become theft? However, the main point is that the young Madonna was on fire. She was indeed the imperious Marlene Dietrich’s true heir. For Gaga, sex is mainly decor and surface; she’s like a laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture. Alarmingly, Generation Gaga can’t tell the difference. Is it the death of sex? Perhaps the symbolic status that sex had for a century has gone kaput; that blazing trajectory is over…

Gaga seems comet-like, a stimulating burst of novelty, even though she is a ruthless recycler of other people’s work. She is the diva of déjà vu. Gaga has glibly appropriated from performers like Cher, Jane Fonda as Barbarella, Gwen Stefani and Pink, as well as from fashion muses like Isabella Blow and Daphne Guinness. Drag queens, whom Gaga professes to admire, are usually far sexier in many of her over-the-top outfits than she is.

Peeping dourly through all that tat is Gaga’s limited range of facial expressions. Her videos repeatedly thrust that blank, lugubrious face at the camera and us; it’s creepy and coercive. Marlene and Madonna gave the impression, true or false, of being pansexual. Gaga, for all her writhing and posturing, is asexual. Going off to the gym in broad daylight, as Gaga recently did, dressed in a black bustier, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels isn’t sexy – it’s sexually dysfunctional.

Compare Gaga’s insipid songs, with their nursery-rhyme nonsense syllables, to the title and hypnotic refrain of the first Madonna song and video to bring her attention on MTV, Burning Up, with its elemental fire imagery and its then-shocking offer of fellatio. In place of Madonna’s valiant life force, what we find in Gaga is a disturbing trend towards mutilation and death…
I wholly agree. In fact I wrote this about Gaga last year:
I've been listening to the deluxe edition of her Grammy-nominated The Fame, and I just can't understand why Lady Gaga has broken out of the club scene to become a genuine pop phenom. Yes, her singles are decent, and she knows how to market herself (and endear herself to the gay community). In that latter sense, she invites comparisons to a young Madonna. But the comparison ends there. Go back and listen to Madonna's first few records. Those songs were some of the best pop of the eighties. Other than the incredible, aforementioned "Bad Romance" (which is as close as she gets to Madge's early brilliance), her material is pretty middling.

So what explains it? Perhaps it's because she's an amalgamation of what people like about other pop stars. She embraces style and fashion (like Gwen Stefani), she's a little outre (like Bjork and Kelis), and she flirts with prurience (like a lite version of Peaches). But is she really greater than the sum of her parts?

I don't think so. I'm reminded of Gertrude Stein's description of Oakland, California: When you listen to Lady Gaga, you find there is no there there.
Apparently many find plenty of there there: she won eight VMAs last night, including the top prize for video of the year. So it goes.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Friday, September 10, 2010

Things Fall Apart

Guess who said this of Obamacare:
[He] told The Associated Press this week that he considered the law “to be the greatest failure, modern failure, of political leadership in my lifetime.”
Newt Gingrich? Wrong. Rush Limbaugh? Nope. Glenn Beck? [Loud negative buzzer sound!] Barack Obama? Maybe in 2012.

It was former Georgia Governor Roy Barne, a Democrat. Here's the entire NYT article.

This sentence is particularly surprising:
Mr. Obama, when asked at his news conference Friday about Democrats who are running against his plan, said only that “people are going to make the best argument they can right now, and they’re going to be taking polls of what their particular constituents are saying and trying to align with that.”
I admit I'm a novice to the art of politicking, but Obama's admission seems too honest. His statement would have sounded cynical coming from a Republican. But when spoken by the head of the Democratic Party, who has every reason to sugarcoat and spin, his words peal with hard truth.

I Think I Need a New Eyeglass Rx...

...because I just read this:
President Obama said Friday that if the midterm elections become a referendum on which political party has the most effective agenda to improve the economy, rather than a decision on its current state, "the Democrats will do very well."
And if the midterm elections become a referendum on which political party has the juiciest sex scandals, it will be a Republican landslide. Unfortunately for the Dems, the midterm elections will be a referendum on three economic issues: the financial and auto bailouts (this being the first election since), the stimulus bill (ditto), and unemployment. Oh, and health care.

Also, this is funny:
Obama highlighted several new economic proposals this week, including business tax breaks for research and investments, that Republicans have said are designed chiefly to appeal to voters this campaign season.
Republicans, please. Targeted tax breaks that purchase discrete and organized blocs of voters? Your lily-white consciences must be scandalized by the very notion.

(Mirrored from 100MC.)

Angry Mob of the Day

News of Old Navy's pant-size inflation finally reaches Afghanistan.

From the NYT.

(Mirrored from 100MC.)

Another Victory

DADT struck down by a Federal Judge:
Judge Virginia A. Phillips of Federal District Court struck down the rule in an opinion issued late in the day. The policy was signed into law in 1993 as a compromise that would allow gay and lesbian soldiers to serve in the military.

The rule limits the military’s ability to ask about the sexual orientation of service members, and allows homosexuals to serve, as long as they do not disclose their orientation and do not engage in homosexual acts.

The plaintiffs challenged the law under the Fifth and First Amendments to the Constitution, and Judge Phillips agreed.


Kelsey responds to my response:
I, too, am an atheist, and I struggle with the illogical, irrational and illiberal tendencies of all religions and Islam is no exception. I think for me (and probably for a lot of lefties) I often get unduly defensive because I have seen so many attack Islam on the basis of it's inherent violence in an attempt to paint Muslims as somehow subhuman.
Again, eloquent and well put. If only we were all as thoughtful as Ms. Pince. I'm glad Kelsey reminded me that some who seemingly share my criticism of Islam are the real subhumans. No doubt.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

On Denouncing Islam

Kelsey Pince, a friend and fellow blogger, responds to my previous post, eloquently (and patiently), via her iPhone:
The president and others speaking out understand that we're fighting the perception of being at war with Islam. The Quran burning would be seen as proof in many minds that we are, thus putting moderate Muslims in the unfortuate position of trying to defend a country that seems to hate all Muslims. Finally, having legitimate concerns about an occupied peoples reponse to this kind of provocation doesn't negate the idea that Islam is by nature peaceful.
Kelsey brings up a salient point: we are at war in two largely-Muslim countries. In this case, she's right, we have a complicated and fraught relationship with Islam. One that I didn't acknowledge in my short post.

Kelsey raises another, even more salient point: the physical text of the Koran is viewed, by Islam, as the literal Word of God:
Because it is the word of god, the only part of god believed to be sent to man, it's a closer comparison to Jesus himself than the bible. Burning the quran is roughly equal to someone burning Jesus.
According to the Christian holy book, "someone" crucified Jesus, that poor bastard. Some (many?) think that someone is the Jewish people. We rightly condemn these troglodytes for holding a grudge under the auspices of a ridiculous notion. In fact, we, the Urbane and Erudite, lampoon the nutty beliefs of Christians and Jews all the time. Think: anti-evolution (and science), anti-homosexuality, anti-sex, anti-abortion (and woman), transubstantiation, etc, etc, etc. Actually, these are mostly nutty Christian beliefs. All, except for transubstantiation, are shared by Islam.

And that's my point. There's a sensitivity and an over-accommodation by the left (and many on the right) toward the anti-liberal* religion of Islam that (again, rightly) is not offered to the anti-liberal religion of Christianity. Crazy is crazy. The only difference, if I call Islam crazy, I'm worse than those aforementioned troglodytes. I'm a monster.

I know that would-be Koran burner in Florida isn't worked up into a lather over the illiberality of Islam. He's a Christian pastor, for Christ's sake. But if I, an atheist, proposed to burn Korans for the cause of reason, would I receive thunderous applause? Disregarding the crudeness of the act -- I respect books too much to burn them -- is there not a unique acceptance of the wacky principles of this particular religion, even among the secular, that would result in a wave of disgust against me?

As for Kelsey's first point, we are not "at war with Islam," but we ought to be at war, intellectually, against the anti-liberal aspects of Islam (and those of Christianity, and every other anti-liberal philosophy). Any other response is cowardice, pure and simple. Political correctness demands that we treat all beliefs equally in public discourse. If so, why argue over our values in the first place?

*By anti-liberal, I mean in opposition to reason and individual rights.

Islam and Peace

Am I the only one confused by the current narrative coming mostly (though not exclusively) from the left on Islam? Islam is a religion of peace, in fact "[it] is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism – it is an important part of promoting peace." As long as you don't make a Muslim angry: "You could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. This could increase the recruitment of individuals who would be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or European cities." Both quotes were from President Obama.

A thought experiment: I announce that I'm planning on burning a pile of Tipitakas, to show how intolerant I am of Buddhism. Let's imagine the reaction. How likely would this be seen as the opening act of holy war? How would the worldwide Buddhist community react? Would my stunt garner reactions from General Petraeus and President Obama? Would it even be national news?

What does it mean to be a religion of peace?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Snapshot Review: Big Boi @ 9:30 Club

Tonight Antwan Patton accomplished the impossible: he brought the usually inert DC concertgoer to life. For one sweaty hour at the 9:30 Club, bodies gyrated, hands swung high in the air, and the noses of the shorter among us spoke a silent "thank you" to the recent popularity of Old Spice. The not-quite-sold-out crowd (shame on you, DC) was a mix of frat boys, hipsters, stoners, and even a few hip hop fans. The only words of disappointment I heard at the end of the show were about its short length. Clearly, Big Boi didn't want to disrupt our sleep on a work night -- we were out by 10:40.

During the first third of the set, Big Boi and BlackOwned C-Bone (of Dungeon Family) ran through an extended medley of Outkast's greatest hits: among them "Rosa Parks," "So Fresh, So Clean," "Ms. Jackson," and "B.O.B." It was thrilling to hear some of the most spectacular rap music of the last 15 years performed back to back, yet the show began to sag under the weight of nostalgia. Kudos to Big Boi for shrewdly crafting the setlist. He got all the big hits out of the way before getting to the meat of the show, his solo material.

The evening's most welcome surprise was the crowd's reaction to Patton's new music. The ecstatic response that met the operatic choral hook of "General Patton" signaled we were all here for Big Boi, not Outkast. It spoke to the strength of his new album, or perhaps, more cynically, to André 3000's absence. Still, it's a strange day when "Shutterbugg" is received with more excitement than "Ms. Jackson."

Two highlights of the night. A few ladies from the audience were brought onstage to dance to three songs. At first, they awkwardly swayed in the wings, but as soon as Big Boi unleashed "The Way You Move," his great single from Speakerboxx, the ladies loosened up, and the stage began to resemble the loving misogyny of a good rap video. Later, C-Bone asked the crowd to throw him a bag of weed in honor of the next song, "Fo Yo Sorrows." His request was met halfway through, bringing the song to a hilarious halt.

It was strange to see Big Boi, an exemplar of his genre, and one-half of the one of the most successful rap groups ever, perform to a handful of die-hards. Yes, we showed him the love, and he responded in kind, but it was a scaled-down affair. It's tempting to fault the taste of the masses, those Philistines and fair-weather fans; after all, Lady Gaga sold-out the cavernous Verizon Center the night before. But tonight, a few hundred lucky individuals witnessed a remarkable hour of music in a small venue. So why am I grumbling?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Simple Inequality

I normally wouldn't blog about this, but I've been buzzing about seeing Big Boi live at the 9:30 club tomorrow. Jon Caramanica's NYT review of his performance at the Brooklyn Bowl, to clunkily paraphrase Bowie, only puts out my fire with gasoline.

Incredibly, the 9:30 club show has yet to sell out. People of DC: listen to Big Boi's stellar new album, witness his incredible Letterman appearance below, and buy your tickets now.

An algebra lesson, if you need it: Big Boi > Outkast - André 3000.

Feel free to check my math tomorrow night.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

"Where the Streets Have No Name"

It's not often that I rediscover how much I love a song. Being an obsessive, when I love something, I tend to suck it dry. I return to it so frequently that familiarity doesn't so much breed contempt, but indifference.

Earlier tonight, while I was working out at the gym, U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" popped up on my iPod's shuffle. It was as if I were hearing the song for the first time. I respect U2, and there was a time, years ago, when I listened to the band regularly. Tonight, the song halted me in my tracks -- literally. It came on while I was running on the treadmill. Two minutes in, I hit the machine's emergency stop button; I listened, out of breath, and sweat-soaked; the song ended, and I played it again and again and again -- three times! -- while awkwardly standing in place. Who cares what the employee behind the counter thought? We were the only ones left in the gym. And I was having a moment, thank you.

Maybe it was it was the increased circulation of blood through my brain, maybe temporal distance, maybe a random instant of aesthetic enlightenment. Whatever the reason, I was able to discern and appreciate the various elements of the song anew, and when I put them back together, I was in awe. So this is why people love U2. Suddenly, it all made sense.

The song begins with the signature cicada hiss of a Daniel Lanois production (a co-production with Brian Eno, in this case). A crescendoing, synthesized church-organ drone emerges, followed by The Edge's iconic delayed sixteenth-note guitar arpeggios, also with a crescendo, in 3/4 time. Both give the the impression that the listener is approaching a song already in progress, implying perpetuity and timelessness. The quarter-note pulse of Adam Clayton's bass and Larry Mullen Jr's kick drum enter the mix, and the meter abruptly shifts to 4/4.

The intro, almost two minutes long, feels like the slow extension of a tight metal coil that wants to fight back. Atop the rhythm section's frenetic stuttering, with a cymbal crash underscoring it, the vocal finally enters: Bono declares: "I want to run! I want to hide!" Release.

The verse brings increasing forward propulsion, and more stuttering. A tighter coil is pulled. Bono's sibilant vocal ("our love turns to russsssst!) soars over a swirling and glorious cacophony. Then, the chorus: the titular lyric ushers in another, greater liberation. Musical voices drop away, yet everything gets louder. The Edge' chiming, descending three-note guitar lick somehow makes the anthem more anthemic. Bono, open throated, sings of burning down love. Beneath him, the music is both lithe and fat. Stutter, stutter, stutter. Repeat verse and chorus.

And it ends as it started, back to 3/4, a drone, and The Edge's arpeggios. Decrescendo. A swift retreat from a song that will seemingly play on forever.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

At Long Last, Pitchfork Announces the Best Songs of the Nineties

All week long, Pitchfork has been counting down its top 200 tracks of the 1990s. Putting the untimeliness of the effort aside (and the snarkiness of my post's title), it's a well- thought out and argued feature, and a good springboard for debate (as any "best of" ought to be). Predictably, it follows the willfully iconoclastic slant the tastemaking site is both respected and reviled for. Here are some points of interest:
  • "Smells Like Teen Spirit" didn't make the top ten. Nirvana's rank (or non-placement) on any 90s "best of" list is an almost ideological signal of taste. Rank the band too high and you're Rolling Stone or Spin, firmly grounded in the alternative mainstream. Ignore the band altogether, and you come off as irrelevant, or admittedly non-rock (like Jazziz or Urb). Pitchfork splits the difference. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" lands at number thirteen on its list: reverent, but not fawning. The site offsets the ranking and recovers its cred by placing songs by Aphex Twin, Neutral Milk Hotel, and My Bloody Valentine ahead of it. All is well in indie-dom.
  • Where's Britney, bitch? While it may seem a given that pop music would get scant attention on a Pitchfork list, in the past the site has heaped loads of praise on pop-that's-so-good-it-transcends-its-lowly-genre. Think, Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone." In fact, Pitchfork included songs by Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake on its list of the best songs of the 2000s. Yet here there are some glaring omissions, the most notable being Britney Spears' "Baby One More Time," a song so damned good it belongs on a greatest songs of all time list. Where's the Backstreet Boys' "I Want it That Way?" Or even Madonna's "Vogue" (or "Ray of Light")? For as much as Pitchfork (sparingly) embraces pop, these omissions show how very too-cool-for-school and out of touch the site can be.
  • "It's the little differences." Throughout Pitchfork's list, an artist's less popular, more buzz-worthy work (to use MTV's parlance of the era) is substituted for the obvious choice. R.E.M. ranks at 72 with "Nightswimming." I love "Nightswimming." It's probably one of my three favorite R.E.M. songs, and I respect Pitchfork for calling it out. But it was chosen over "Losing My Religion." Weezer's "Say It Ain't So" is the site's number ten pick (ahead of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," natch). Weezer clearly belonged on the list, but "Buddy Holly" would have been the predictable choice, for all the right reasons. I think these taste-substitutions make Pitchfork's list interesting, and they reveal a high level of effort and deliberation on the part its writers, but they mar the list's "definitiveness." That said, it's easier to make a definitive list than it is to make an interesting one.
  • A high five to you, Pitchfork. For Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You," Belle and Sebastian's "That State I Am In," Smashing Pumpkin's "1979," and Bjork's "Hyperballad." All confirm why I respect you in the first place.
  • Stray thoughts on the top ten. Unexpected and eclectic, Aaliyah's inclusion being the case in point. "Loser" is higher than I would've imagined, though not undeserving of its spot. Same goes for "Common People" as the runner-up. While there's a paucity of pop (see above), the hip hop pics are pitch perfect. Before the top 20 was revealed, I assumed "Paranoid Android" would top the list. Instead, the honor went to Pavement. So, it's a wash.