Friday, December 30, 2005

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Mentzer on experimental fiction

My review of Ander Monson's Other Electricities now up at Stop Smiling.

Monday, December 26, 2005

...But then again, too few to mention

Thinking I may have ranked Sufjan too low. Illinois is really good.

Overreaching Critic of the Week, Holiday Edition

Josh Levin writing about the Chronicles of Narnia rap:
People aren't forwarding this video because it's a parody of what's bad about rap; they're sending it around because it's an ode to what can be great about it. Instead of auguring a new day for SNL, maybe it points up what's missing in mainstream rap--an awareness that it's OK to be goofy.
Which has a nice sound, except when you take into account the frequent goofiness of Kanye West, MF Doom, Missy Elliott, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Andre3000...nearly anyone except 50 Cent and the handful of mad-face rappers sharing his specialization. A nice try, though! Always nice to hear about what's wrong with rap music from people who don't like rap music!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The problem with DailyKos

is that Markos Moulitsas Zuniga seems to only pick political losers. This doesn't always mean he's supporting the wrong candidate, but it would seem to call for a reconsideration of political tactics. But no, he keeps right on pushing the angry-outsider schtick and bashing centrist Dems for no good reason.

On the other hand, DailyKos.com is a great source for polls and rundowns of lower-profile races all over the country, and Moulitsas is right about a lot of things, like how Dems should tone down gun control in order to make inroads with rural voters. This awesome profile in the Washington Monthly compares DailyKos.com to sports talk radio, and the analogy only gets better the closer you look at it. Both in a good way and in a bad way.

And what is his beef with the DLC anyway?:
His most curious crusade of all was the one he began in late August of 2005, when he declared on his site that he had a secret plan to destroy the Democratic Leadership Council. A few years ago, when the organization of Democratic centrists was backing the invasion of Iraq and flirting with Social-Security privatization, this might have made sense. But by last year, the DLC had begun loudly denouncing Bush, particularly for his handling of Iraq, and was generally in agreement with Moulitsas and the party's activist base on a broad range of issues. Moulitsas, for his part, had spent the previous few months focused on taking on the liberal interest groups, urging Democrats to run more pro-life candidates, and to contest rural contests with rural values--all long-held tenets of the DLC. So Moulitsas's beef with the group wasn't over ideology, it was, predictably, over tactics. But even here, the ire seemed misplaced: The DLC is hardly averse to a strategy that puts winning ahead of ideological purity--it helped make its reputation in the early '90s by advising Bill Clinton to adopt just that kind of pragmatism, arguing that electoral victory was more important than philosophical correctness.

Still, Moulitsas wouldn't back down. “No calls for a truce will be brooked,” he wrote. “Appeals to party unity will fall on deaf ear… We need to make the DLC radioactive. And we will. With everyone's help, we really can. Stay tuned.” [...]And then...nothing. Three days before the scheduled unveiling, Moulitsas wrote that he'd changed his mind. Hurricane Katrina, which had just struck, had made him realize, he said, that this was not the time for intra-party bickering. “We think someone got to him,” a DLC staffer told me darkly.
Moulitsas' response to the article is kind of fascinating in itself--at first an outraged list of factual errors in which he viciously defends his own party-outsider status, followed by a series of increasing lucid updates ending with a convincing argument that DailyKos is just one part of a larger progressive movement.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

I have heard approximately zero of these records, but this album art countdown is cool to scroll through.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Etc.

Best Song – Still Tippin’ by Mike Jones (feat. Paul Wall & Slim Thug)

Best EP – Prefuse 73 Reads The Books

Best Box Set - I Am the Upsetter by Lee "Scratch" Perry

Best Compilation – Run the Road

Best Operetta – Trapped in the Closet Pts. 1-12 (!!) by R. Kelly

Better than the original – The People’s Champ Screwed & Chopped Remixes

Preferred it when it was called OdelayGuero

More great songs - "1 Thing," "Since U Been Gone," "Hollaback Girl," "Shake it Off" by Mariah Carey, "Now You’re Leaving" by Prefuse 73 feat. Camu Tao, "Hate it or Love it" by Game, "Pon de Replay" by Rihanna, "Over and Over" by Tim McGraw & Nelly, "My Doorbell" by the White Stripes, "I Turn My Camera On" by Spoon, "Pimpin’ All Over the World" by Ludacris, "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" by the Hold Steady, "Been Robbed" by Consequence feat. Mike Jones (beat by Kanye).

Monday, December 19, 2005

List season pt. II

20. The Documentary, The Game
Because the best beats money can buy—from Dr. Dre, Timbaland, Hi-Tek, et al.—turn out to be pretty goddamn good.

19. Surrounded by Silence, Prefuse 73

18. The Milk of Human Kindness, Caribou

17. Favela Strikes Back, various artists

16. Be, Common

15. Trill, Bun-B

14. Illinois, Sufjan Stevens
I like him, too! Breathtaking through its first half, Illinois comes unraveled as it goes on, suffering from the airy abstraction of tracks like “The Seer’s Tower.” But this is one where the high points are high indeed.

13. Cru, Seu Jorge

12. The Mouse & the Mask, Danger Doom

11. Z, My Morning Jacket
They’ve picked up a reggae influence and it suits them. So do the Beach Boys harmonies. Z has the feel of an American London Calling--well, not as good as all that, but pretty good nevertheless.

10. The Cookbook, Missy Elliott

9. I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, Bright Eyes

8. Multiply, Jamie Lidell

7. Everything Ecstatic, Four Tet
Made the album we wanted Prefuse 73 to make this year. Lush, abstract, confrontational, with a pungent aroma of Aphex.

6. The Woods, Sleater Kinney

5. Arular, M.I.A.
Some complain that M.I.A.’s political posturing is mostly a pose, but so what if it is? Arular is an album of sly come-ons disguised as protest songs, not the other way around. Diplo’s thick favela-influenced provide the jump-off.

4. Congotronics, Konono No. 1
Needs to be heard! Sample of "Lufuala Ndonga": DOWNLOAD HERE

3. The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, Quasimoto

2. Dimanche a Bamako, Amadou & Miriam
Under Manu Chao’s production, the duo’s pop sounds sleek and melodic, organic without seeming old-fashioned. Organ tones and occasional woodwinds (flute, bari sax) establish the easy pop-soul vibe; the ambient noise, choral vocals and driving rhythms make it a party.

1. Late Registration, Kanye West

Sunday, December 18, 2005

List season (interlude)

I suppose Sufjan Stevens is the heavy favorite for Pitchfork's #1 slot, but who are the underdogs? Antony & the Johnsons, maybe? Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? (I would applaud that choice for sheer self-promotional audacity, though I think CYHSY is merely room-temperature.) Think Kanye has a shot? (??)

Friday, December 16, 2005

List season

Best Books of 2005***:

FICTION
Mission to America by Walter Kirn. Probably my favorite novel this year, it's the story of two young missionaries traveling through an America that was previously closed to them. I have a full review of this book coming for Stop Smiling.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy's Westerns have an element of the supernatural, presenting evil as an animating force inhabiting certain more-than-human characters. Set in the present day, No Country counterpoints bloody scenes of brutal violence against elegiac first-person reflections of an aging small-town Texas sheriff.

Saturday by Ian McEwan.

Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie.

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee.

NONFICTION
The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem. A collection of personal essays mostly about the author's relationship to pop culture. Lethem looks at the ways our favorite things fuse with our personalities (and the ways we are active participants in this process), and writes well about Philip K. Dick, Star Wars and The Searchers.

Triksta by Nik Cohn. An aging British rock writer joins the New Orleans rap game. True stories of art and ambition among desperate surroundings.

Can't Stop Won't Stop by Jeff Chang. Indispensable, researched-to-the-hilt history of rap makes connections you haven't thought of and tells anecdotes you haven't heard. Sort of flawless until Chang hits the 90s, but its account of rap's beginnings is surely the best ever written.

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson.


*** NOTE: And of course this means best books I read in 2005, which means it's almost comically non-comprehensive. But I suppose the same objection could be raised about anyone's year-end list of anything, which might be reason enough not to raise it at all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Not cool, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not cool at all

In 2003, when Fidel Castro threw a bunch of poets and dissidents in jail and (following a quickie show trial) executed three men who had hijacked a ferry, Cuba expert Anne Louise Bardach made a convincing case that Castro's actions were specifically designed to prevent the U.S. embargo from being lifted. After all, the sanctions benefit Castro's regime most of all, allowing him to keep tight control on the island's economy.

Reading Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent showy display of anti-semitism and rejection of Israel's right to exist, I was reminded of Castro's little dictatorial two-step, and curious about whether something of the same dynamic could be at work. I've seen analysis of how the statements work as domestic politics: Ahmadinejad is doing a little base-consolidation of his own and eliminating the possibility of a more open stance toward the West. But, "pure product of the [Islamic] revolution" or no, he is also aware of how his remarks will be received abroad.

And, oh look!, it so happens that on 12/21 Iran is scheduled to resume talks with the European Union about their nuclear aspirations. It is only a short leap to the conclusion that Ahmadinejad is intentionally undercutting these talks, creating a distraction and underlining points of irreconcilable difference. Why? One frightening possibility is that it's because Iran's nuclear program is going like gangbusters, and Ahmadinejad wants to make sure that the EU negotiations go nowhere so that Iran can keep doing whatever it is they're doing on the road to getting nukes. Like Castro, this regime benefits from greater isolation from the international community, not less.

Here is the part where some form of constructive solution would be nice. Unfortunately I can't think of one. No nation should ignore or minimize comments like "Israel should be wiped off the map" or "The Holocaust is a myth," and the international community sure doesn't want someone who says shit like that to have nuclear weapons on hand. But with the U.S. bogged down in Iraq, threats of military force are not credible, either.

Another article comes to mind, this one by Thomas PM Barnett for Esquire, which argued that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran would not be so bad if we could get the Iranian government to recognize Israel's right to exist. Barnett had a point, but increasingly it looks like we could end up with the worst of all worlds: a nuclear-armed Iran that also wants to wipe Israel off the map.

UPDATE -- Appetite for foreign policy talk not sated? More Iran stuff here here and here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Lil Wayne never dropped the Lil

Kelefah Sanneh profiles Lil Wayne, the New Orleans rapper and label head:
One thing you won't hear on [Lil Wayne's new album] is the one thing you might expect: a somber but hopeful song about the storm that destroyed the neighborhood he's still bragging about. When asked, he will talk about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. He will talk about how the displacement has destroyed family traditions. "You ain't getting another good holiday," he said. "That ain't happening for some years." And he will talk about how displacement has also "brought the wrong people together," stranding bitter enemies in too-small towns. But he says he didn't want this CD to be dominated by the hurricane. "When I get behind that mike, I got a whole 'nother mind frame," he said, then added, "I rap about what they wanna hear." He saves the hurricane commentary for journalists, he said. He has found that it's a good idea to tell them what they want to hear, too.
Bonus music writing link: an interesting critical piece (pdf) by Monica Kendrick in the Reader contrasting reissues of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run and Dead Kennedys' Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Fuck New Hampshire

It's a good idea.

Roe matters

Let's say that you, like most people, belong to neither the rabid-pro-life nor rabid-pro-choice camps. Maybe you, like many people on both sides, have entertained the thought that a SCOTUS ruling overturning Roe v. Wade would not amount to that momentous a change--the issue would go to the states, abortion would still be legal most places, etc.

You are kidding yourself.

Excellent post on the subject by NewDonkey, including this:
Whatever you think of the constitutional provenance of Roe, the idea that a post-Roe world would somehow entail a sort of national referendum on basic abortion rights, with a dignified debate and simple up-or-down votes in every state, defies everything we know about the politics of abortion and the nature of state legislatures. The reality is that the reversal of Roe would turn state politics across the country into an endless, 24/7 battleground over a vast array of abortion legislation, perhaps indefinitely. At worst, it could produce the kind of reasoned debate associated with the Schiavo case, every single day, across the country. At best, abortion policy would overshadow many compelling issues most of the time, and some compelling issues all of the time.
If your position is that abortion is an absolute moral evil equivalent to murder, this line of argument is beside the point. But for any other position--and there are many--these are exactly the stakes of the Alito nomination.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Experience, schmexperience: Obama '08!

Ryan Lizza of The New Republic lays out the case for Obama '08, and it is strong! Lizza lays out as a rule of thumb (new to me, but intuitively plausible) that a pol has no more than 14 years to become president, and after that time just isn't sexy to voters anymore. And when you start to do the math, it goes like this:

1.) If Obama doesn't run in 2008, he will have to run against an incumbent in 2012--a major challenge if the incumbent is a Republican, a virtual impossibility if the incumbent is a Democrat.
2.) If Obama doesn't run (or doesn't win) in 2012, that pushes us to 2016, and by that time his record of difficult Senate votes, political horse-trading and Washington insiderness will definitely be a hindrance.

More to the point, he has a zeitgeist quality now that he simply will not have in 2016, at least not in its current form. "The kind of political star power Obama has doesn't last," is Lizza's way of putting it, and it's hard to disagree. And this:
The biggest objection to Obama running for president just four years after being elected to national office is his lack of experience on national security. But experience is an overrated asset in presidential politics. It is conventional wisdom now that only during the interregnum between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of the war on terror could candidates lacking foreign-policy credentials win the presidency (i.e., Bill Clinton and George W. Bush). John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan all won during the cold war without significant experience in world affairs. (Emphasis added)
Experience is overrated! Well put, sir!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

From my perspective, the most troubling part of John Roberts' judicial record was his part in the ruling by the DC Court of Appeals on the case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, upholding that the executive branch may indefinitely detain "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay with absolutely no due process. It's an ugly, authoritarian practice by an ugly, authoritarian administration, and SCOTUS is one of the last remaining lines of defense against it. (The case will be heard by the Supreme Court next March; Roberts has recused himself.)

This essay by Dahlia Lithwick homes in on this side of Bush's ideology, and on the ways that Alito would help to establish unlimited wartime powers for the president, and continue to chip away not only at Roe v. Wade but at the rule of law.

Monday, December 05, 2005

"Poor people I've known who are intelligent and hard-working usually become drug dealers"

"Poor People Do Not Want to Be Lawyers," tips for writing stories about poor people from the Get Published or Die Tryin blog, which this week will have a series of confrontational posts on the subject.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Hobbyhorse

I will go Leslie one better and say that the fact that something is popular actually does mean it's good. Good at something, anyway.

Pop crap exists. Lousy TV shows, big dumb blockbusters, corny bestsellers, etc. Sure, on one level anything that's popular is popular for some reason, and it's a funny truth that "lowbrow" entertainment often fulfills deeper, more fundamental needs in us than the finest fine art. On the other hand, it's easy, easy to show that some works of art that are objectively worse than others--compare Danielle Steele's Toxic Bachelors to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, or Kevin Federline's rapping to Talib Kweli's.

So far, so conventional. Popularity does not an aesthetic triumph make. But my point is that popularity is neither an evil nor a neutral force; rather, it's one of the fundamental conditions that all art aspires to, and one that any worthwhile metric for aesthetic success must consider.

While there is such a thing as an artwork's objective merits, all art is also a social relationship in two distinct ways: 1.) a shared experience between the creator and the consumer, and 2.) between the consumer and other consumers of the same art. For whatever reason, #1 tends to be completely overvalued while #2 is barely acknowledged. But think about it: which relationship is more substantive, the one between you and Tolstoy or the one between you and your 19th Century Russian Book Club?

The usual story we tell about snobs is that they consider certain art theirs and theirs alone, and then stop liking it once it gets popular because it is no longer "special." But this still only describes the relationship of the individual to the artwork, not the peer relationship implied by popularity, which we all know is the real reason that snobs turn up their noses.

That peer relationship is not an incidental but an essential component of what art is, how it functions, and what it wants to be.

One more example. Upon seeing the actual Mona Lisa, people often remark that they don't see what the big deal is. It's a painting, looks the same as it does on the placemat at the Italian restaurant, etc. Their souls do not commune with Leonardo Da Vinci's. And yet, tourists continue to file through the gallery and to pool around the painting's reinforced glass casing and to consider, along with the hundreds of others in the room and the millions of others in history, what her smile signifies. What is magnetic in the painting is not just the painting: it's the common experience of looking at it.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

It's about this dude who takes a drug that makes him blind and also sort of a genius. But it's not very good.

My review of Paul Theroux's mediocre latest novel Blinding Light is up at Stop Smiling. Let me assure you that just because the novel is mediocre doesn't mean the review is less than satisfying!