Thursday, June 30, 2005

R. Kelly, "Trapped in the Closet"

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R. Kelly's 5-part, 16-minute epic song "Trapped in the Closet" tells a story of infidelities, deceptions, secret lives. In the first of many plot points finds Kelly hiding in the closet of a woman who is not his wife; it is his cell phone--not set to vibrate--that eventually gives him away. The narrative winds its way through more than one love triangle and through the personal lives of half a dozen characters. Kelly's narrator tells the whole loosely structured story without verse or chorus, his vocal lines more like a great jazz soloist than an R&B songman or a rapper. Over a quiet, sparse beat, Kelly's voice flutters and soars, speak-singing down low or in falsetto, then building to a giant, growly-voiced crescendo at the end of each song. Each single advances the story, and each ends with a cliffhanger. The story itself is pulpy and captivating and the level of detail is so minute as to be bizarre. Here is a sample interchange in which the woman's husband's cell phone rings:

He picks up, and somebody says "Sweetheart, I'm downstairs."/ And he's like, "I'll buzz you up, I'm on the fifth floor, hurry, take the stairs."

But while some of the detail is excessively naturalistic, at other times it is bright and shining poetry. The husband confronts Kelly's character:

He says, "Something I bet you didn't know, my man. Did she tell you that I was a pastor?"/ I said, "Well good, that's better, right? Why can't we handle this Christian-like?"

When it comes, the ending is a little anti-climactic, but Kelly's point about the complexity of relationships is made. "Trapped in the Closet" is a sort of morality tale without a moral, filled with lurid characters and high drama, half R&B hit, half one-man radio drama.

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Download help: Click the link above and you are taken to the file sharing service called RapidShare. Scroll down and click on the "Free" button for download. You are given a "ticket," which usually means waiting about 30 seconds before you can start the download. When the timer counts down, the link appears at the bottom of the page; click it and choose "Save." Give it a little time, it's over 20mb but so worth it!
The good news that the World Bank, IMF and African Development Bank are dropping $55 billion of African debt was immediately followed by calls from Tony Blair & Gordon Brown to drastically increase international aid. This is less good, and this article by Slate editor Jacob Weisberg is dead right about the reasons why:
Today, Ethiopia is significantly poorer than it was 20 years ago, and...perpetually dependent on charity. This is, sadly, the story of aid to sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. While the developed world has contributed more than $500 billion over the last 40 years, Africans have continued to fall farther behind. Policies promoted by Blair and Bono offer little hope of breaking out of this cycle.
So what would break the cycle? Weisberg says free trade--I absolutely agree--and pushing governments to "reduce corruption." But as policy proposals go, I'm afraid these are sort of like opining that to reduce pollution, Americans need to be "pushed" to drive solar-powered vehicles. Yes, but...

By itself, "international aid" is no solution, and anyone who minimizes the corruption of many sub-Saharan governments or who denies the absolute complicity of international aid organizations within these systems does a disservice to the cause of reducing African poverty. The thing is, with political and economic reforms, international aid (particularly for basic health services and HIV prevention) most certainly is part of the solution. And in the absence of these reforms, it's far from obvious to me that reducing international aid is a solution in itself.

So, yes, by all means, lets deal with underlying causes. Let's do that right away.

PS -- Two great books that double as vicious indictments of Africa's international aid infrastructure are Phillip Gourevitch's harrowing account of Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, and Paul Theroux's much lighter (though not light necessarily) travel book Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Good post about Nabokov's Lolita over at the American Scene blog. I have felt this way:
I [can] imagine myself being as good a writer as Dickens, but not Nabokov....when I read, say, David Copperfield, I think oh, I can see how that was done, and it seems to me that however hard it would be to match Dickens' achievement, he isn't entirely out of an ordinary writer's reach. But when I read Lolita, I feel the way I do when I read Shakespeare - as though I'm in the presence of another order of talent altogether, an artistic genius that's almost superhuman.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Look for the judicial clerk in the horn-rimmed glasses

Modest Mouse mentioned in Souter's Supreme Court majority opinion on Grokster:
Users seeking Top 40 songs, for example, or the latest release by Modest Mouse...
Top 40 or Modest Mouse?!

Cruise News

Are you like me? Can you not get enough Tom Cruise news?

A year ago, Cruise fired Pat Kingsley, his publicist of 14 years. She was the author of his disciplined, on-message public persona and a pioneer of his aggressive, adversarial press relations. In her place, Cruise installed his sister.

Imagine Pat Kingsley's Schaudenfreude at the, um, PR difficulties Cruise has experienced of late!

The point is, Cruise made a deliberate decision to abandon his old, phenomenally successful PR strategy. Why? Could be many things, including hubris: I'm such a huge star, I am immune to PR missteps. More likely, I think, is that Cruise wanted to speak publicly about Scientology, even if it meant taking a PR hit. This Salon article offers some additional clues, such as the plausible rumor that Cruise has achieved the Scientology level of Operating Thetan VII (!). Given Cruise's prominence and influence within Scientology and given the 180-degree turn he's made in regulating his public pronouncements about the religion, it is unlikely in the extreme that all this hasn't been plotted out in advance, almost impossible that it's not part of a concerted decision to move Scientologist rhetoric into the spotlight.

Considered this way, the PR debacle over the Cruise/Holmes engagement actually works to deflect the PR debacle of Cruise's anti-psychiatry, anti-Brooke Shields pronouncements. People like to flatter themselves into believing that they are too savvy to be taken in by this or that engagement-as-publicity-stunt, but what if all that is nothing more than misdirection?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

After an excellent first spin, the Pimp name generator gave me about 50 lame ones in a row. Ah well, on to the next internet funsite. This site "The Shins Will Change Your Life" is dedicated to all things maudlin and overwrought in music criticism and it is beautiful. Here is an article about it in the New York Times.
Okay this Pimp Name Generator is good Internet fun. Mine is:

Papa Mentzer Quick

Please address me appropriately from now on.
I don't like the new Batmobile nearly as much as the old one.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Typically oversensitive response by Dave Eggers to Neal Pollack's NYT essay from the weekend. Worse, Pollack responds to the response by retracting one of the quotes he attributed to Eggers, which was: "We are entering a new age of literary celebrity." Eggers writes,
Neal and I talked about writers like Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway, whose personas were grandiose and larger than life, and who often made claims about being the "top dog" or the "best since Tolstoy"—that kind of thing. We also talked about how writers of previous eras would fight with each other publicly, backstabbing and insulting and generally making the book world look like the playground of too many antisocial and insecure teenage boys. This was what Neal was so effectively parodying.
Eggers also writes that he "hope[d] that whatever came next in the literary world would be different, mellower, less tense, less rivalrous, and thus altogether better." But, hmm, is it so obvious that the last thing on that list follows from the first three? (Was rap music made worse by the Jay-Z/Nas battles?) Seems to me that any community develops its own hierarchy, and power struggles within that hierarchy--the characters, the egos, the strategies--are just inherently compelling...the stuff of great literature, in fact.

I understand Eggers' project a little bit differently than he does, apparently. (As someone unaffiliated with the McSweeney's group, it goes without saying that my understanding of Eggers' project is not worth the pixels it's printed on.) To me the point is to give up the sniping factionalism of academic English departments in favor of a more general cultural engagement. (Academic battles are so heated and vicious because the stakes are so low, as the saying goes.) Mellowness and supportiveness for their own sake, I could care less about.

Anyway, I think it is lame and submissive for Pollack to retract. If Eggers didn't say it, don't write it. But if you write it, stick by it!

PS -- Here's an item on the Clap Clap blog that says some similar stuff on the subject of Eggers' response.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Monday, June 20, 2005

Wax cylinders killed the concert hall star

Here’s some fascinating writing about recording technology and the “essence” of music by Alex Ross of The New Yorker. “The Record Effect” is about how recording technology has changed the way music is consumed and heard in the last 100 years. He starts with anti-recording hardliner John Philip Sousa’s doomsday prediction (circa 1904) that:
“The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music,” [Sousa] said. “Everyone will have their ready made or ready pirated music in their cupboards.”
Well, here we are! Ross also traces how recording capability changed the way music was made (not just distributed), including the increasing use of vibrato by violinists (to cover up minor pitch inaccuracies) and the rise of “crooner” Bing Crosby, enabled by more sensitive microphones. He describes Stravinsky’s ambivalence toward the technology and the decisions by Glenn Gould and the Beatles to renounce live performances in favor of studio experimentation.

And if that essay gets your juices flowing, there is also impressive thinking on the subject by David Byrne, who you may remember was the frontman for a band called Talking Heads. Byrne posted a response to Ross’s essay on his web site (scroll down to June 5), picking up on and extending some of the same concepts. Byrne’s piece is also fascinating, and especially effective when he turns Sousa’s prediction on its head:
Record collectors and consumers often view music as something that is inseparable from the object on which it resides. But if the digital world has taught us anything, it is that the musical information on CDs is anything but inseparable. The two things come apart quite easily, making the value of the delivery object fairly questionable.... Maybe if music is no longer seen as an object, but as pure information, data, sound waves, then the object becomes at best a mere delivery device, and we’re back to viewing music as an experience, albeit still one that other people produce.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Neal Pollack is sorry about all that Neal Pollack stuff

His literary status is diminished; he has credit card debt and has been reduced to such ungentlemanly work as writing copy for Weight Watchers (a job I'd take in an instant). The literary scene has moved on; his ultra-ironic "satire" hasn't aged well. So as of today he would like to announce, via NYT essay, that he is giving up on Neal Pollack the greatest living literary journalist, Neal Pollack the slam poet, etc. He's back to plain old Neal Pollack.

But what does any of that have to do with me? The essay doesn't even offer any good gossip: the big break-up scene is Dave Eggers telling him, "I want things to be more straightforward from now on." Come on!

All the same, I will probably be interested to read his memoir--not "memoir," note--when it is published next year. I do like his blog.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

This interview with Nick Hornby is like 100 years old, but a friend just directed my attention to it for the first time today. Hornby has always seemed likable enough to me (haven't read the books, but I love the movies!), and the article describes him as Britishly polite. But boy he comes off like a tool, for example when he complains about what a pain in the ass it was to be a music critic for The New Yorker: "You couldn't let a piece go for three weeks and the fact checkers!" Or when he explains the reason he doesn't write about music anymore by saying,

"Whatever I feel about Springsteen or Marah somebody else feels about Cher or Justin Timberlake, and I no longer want to judge and to say that they're wrong for thinking so."
Folks, a critic who throws up his hands at Justin Timberlake is really, really not listening. More to the point, it's an unappealingly schoolmarmish view of music criticism. If it's such a bummer to judge people and say they're wrong for the music they like, couldn't you just, y'know, not do that?

"I couldn't find enough [music] that I wanted to write 3,000 words about," he says.
Well no wonder! You weren't looking.

karl and porky


karl and porky
Originally uploaded by amillionmonkeys.
Funny? Not funny? I can't tell, I just like the separated-at-birth concept pairing Karl Rove and Porky Pig. But let me know if this is not funny and I will take it down right away.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Missy Elliott couplet of the day

"...That's the way a real diva like to floss it/ Buy a car no matter what it costses..."
The Searchers! Hot damn!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Dean as flypaper

Here's analysis of how the former governor of Vermont can help Democrats by not shutting up:

Every Red and Purple state Democrat runs by separating him or herself from the national Democratic Party. For too many voters in the South and West particularly, it's just a damaged brand. They may like the policies, they may in fact be comfortable with a vigorous working-families liberalism. But for whatever reason, they don't like the idea of the national Democratic Party. ...And now, they have a nice, easy way to [distance themselves]: denounce Howard Dean. Why shouldn't Harold Ford, running for Senate in Tennessee, denounce Dean? With one move, he seems to cut himself loose from the national party and from a potent symbol of Northeastern secular liberalism, and mark out his own independence.

Of course this line of reasoning is...sort of a stretch. But the dilemma it describes is real. On a national stage, the left-wing base will always be less acceptable than the right-wing base, because the right wing can make an appeal based on nationalism that isn't really open to the left. And that's cool--the Dems should be the party that accepts weirdoes and hippies &c.--but it complicates political strategy. If Dean as DNC chair can make needed institutional reforms (so far so good) and provide red meat to the base, he may indeed make it easier for Democratic politicians to play against type. Maybe that was the plan all along? (Or, maybe he just reinforces the negative stereotypes of the national Democratic Party, and this was Karl Rove's plan all along...)

Guy who wrote about fire is a little too into fire

A local author who has written books detailing famous Chicago fires has been charged with setting a fire of his own last week at St. Benedict Church on the city's North Side, authorities confirmed today. ...

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Great news for developing nations. This is from the AP:

Finance ministers from the Group of Eight industrialized nations agreed Saturday to a historic deal canceling at least $40 billion worth of debt owed by the world's poorest nations, Britain Treasury chief said.

Gordon Brown said 18 countries, many in sub-Saharan Africa, will benefit immediately from the deal to scrap 100 percent of the debt they owe to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Sasha Frere-Jones tells it like it is about the White Stripes' new album, Get Behind Me Satan. Sasha wants Jack White to stretch his wings and go straight-up arena rock, either that or else stripped-down country. I can't say I disagree with either notion, but I do think Sasha is too hard on the excellent new record, which already shows signs that White is moving away from the old orthodoxies.

The piece also includes a memorable swipe at indie rock ideology, and since swiping at indie rock ideology is a favorite pastime of mine, I reproduce it here:

[White] subscribes, justifiably, to the do-it-yourself and own-your-recordings ideology of independent labels, but he has succumbed to the indie-rock delusion that the idiosyncratic part of your gift means more than its universal aspects.
Hey I was at this show. Nicole has photos...

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Tuesday Afternoon Metacriticism: What's Wrong with Blandness?

I certainly don't hate Pitchfork; neither do I love Coldplay. But Pitchfork's review of the new Coldplay disc (which I haven't heard) is strictly hipper-than-thouism without any critical thinking at all. Coldplay is "inoffensive," "middle of the road," "bland," "easy listening." Read: uncool, uncool, uncool, uncool; the review just doesn't have anything else to say. It begs the question: what's so bad about smooth edges?

As rock music hits its 50th birthday and punk rock approaches its 30th, it should be self-apparent that hard-edged guitar-based music's "challenging" qualities are purely formal. We know, because we have seen it happen again and again, that the most hard-assed, back-to-basics, pure-in-thought-and-deed rawk is as susceptible to commodification as lite pop. So why continue to attach importance to music just because it is hard on the ears? The quest for authenticity is a snake that eats its tail.

To oversimplify wickedly: rock and roll is both John and Paul; it is the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys. Requiring an album to be "offensive" is a lazy value-judgement that misunderstands and fails to describe the place in culture that popular music occupies.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

An entertaining, grumpy piece by Jon Pareles called "The Case Against Coldplay," labeling the band "faultless to a fault" (not a bad point, that) and dissing Chris Martin's mopey cliches. Well, fair enough. But Coldplay is now Madonna, Eminem, U2, Norah Jones: the question is no longer whether, the question is how. Megapopular artists like Coldplay et al. are something like the Platonic ideal of their artistic genre and the worldview their art reps. Their songs are examples of themselves, which is why they seem both absolutely vital and strangely distant. Which is a way of saying: Coldplay is great! (As far as they go.)
I think we can all agree (well, besides you, Macky Ole) that Common's Be is a fine return to rap form after the silly/pretentious psych-rock experiments of Electric Circus. Now Mos Def, too, has made a tactical retreat to straightforward hip-hop following his disastrous rap/rock album The New Danger. "Workin' It Out," Mos Def's new iTunes-released single, does not boast the best rapping of his career, but it sets the tone with its opening line--"The girl I love don't wear panties much"--and its great modern-sounding synthetic beat (produced by Minnesota) is an opportunity for both the artist and the audience to have a little fun for a change.

Let it be a lesson to you, quasi-underground rappers and aspiring actors: your music doesn't have to be "more" than hip-hop; we are not impressed by your "genre-blurring" efforts. We like straight up rap music just fine, thanks.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

You know, back in the 60s when Brian Wilson believed that his artistic nemesis Phil Spector was sending him taunting messages through the movies, everyone assumed Brian Wilson was insane...
New shit: My review of Eric Bogosian's novel Wasted Beauty is up at Stop Smiling. The novel, well, it's not so good...but my review is a must-read!
I think bats are the only mammals that can fly. Am I wrong?