Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Check me out

New Stop Smiling piece, a review of David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster. Includes juicy gossip on Wallace!

As far as Frey and all that

I am with Oprah: you shouldn't make stuff up when your book is being sold as nonfiction. That's unfair to readers. But memoir is a literary form, and it's kosher to alter the order of things that really did happen, to imagine the exact wording of conversations you really did have and to create composite characters out of people you really did know. Disclaimers like this one should pretty much do the trick, I'd say, until such time as the reading public's interest shifts back to novels.

Today's secret word

is embourgeoisement, meaning "the process by which a social group becomes middle-class in manners and attitudes." Every time today someone says "embourgeoisement," scream real loud.

Monday, January 30, 2006

"You making secret songs, man, let it out, we ready for 15 rounds"

Cam'Ron's Jay-Z diss track is hilarious and hopefully will elicit a response. Sample material:
"Turn the beat off. I had to turn the beat off for this. You talking about you an 80s baby, you 37 years old. You was born in 1968, and I opened the Daily News--how's the King of New York rocking sandals with jeans? How is the King of New York rocking sandals with jeans, and he 42 years old?"
Cam has a point, and you have to respect his on-the-fly revision of Jay-Z's age. As rappers the two are so unalike that this beef is already more interesting than a thousand Game/50 Cent volleys. Cam is an avalanche of eccentric verbiage and bad manners where Jay, even at his most self-mythologizing, is all about understatement and inference. (Somewhere I read a description of his particular brand of cool as deriving from the sense that "he always has somewhere else to be.") In fact Jay could almost remain aloof and out of this battle if Cam hadn't brought Beyonce into it. Which means another battle track from Jay-Z, hopefully soon.

The Prime Directive: Bullshit?

Watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation, specifically this episode got Laura and I debating the soundness of the Prime Directive. My argument is that the Directive is logically incoherent: the Enterprise is "interfering" with every away team they beam down, so what meaning can it actually have? Laura's more practical argument was that by requiring that their involvement is directly requested, the policy keeps the Federation from becoming colonizers. She also points out that the Directive does have some inherent flexibility--even in this episode Dr. Crusher violates it in order to save a life.

Now, we can all agree that the first-generation Directive (no aid or assistance to any society that hasn't developed warp drive) is bullshit. But on Next Generation it's more complicated. Wikipedia summarizes the Next Generation-era Directive this way:
[T]he Prime Directive forbids any involvement with a civilization without the expressed consent or invitation of the lawful leaders of that society, and absolutely forbids any involvement whatsoever in the internal politics of a civilization.
But what are "internal politics," anyway? What about genocide, say? Anyway, I'm a little rusty on my Prime Directive caselaw and would be interested in opinions from anyone familiar with the scholarship in this important area.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Republican fight!

The Illinois Republican gubnatorial primary is on, and last night for some reason I watched ‘em debate. Thrice-elected State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka is the frontrunner by a mile and will be the best candidate for Republicans in the general election. But she was not the winner of this debate. She talked a lot about her experience but she rushed her talking points, rambled and varied in tone from weirdly intense to bored and distracted.

Illinois is a solidly blue state, and Republicans here are a funny breed: Topinka is pro-choice and opposes a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Socially moderate and fiscally conservative is a political sweet spot in Illinois, especially with so many Democrats dissatisfied with Gov. Blagojevich. But in a Republican primary, social moderation opens you up to attacks on the right flank, and Topinka’s main attackers are dairy maven Jim Oberweis and state senator Bill Brady, both social conservatives. In last night’s debate it was Brady who appeared slickest and most on-message, who smiled and kept right on flogging his pro-business/anti-tax/"private sector" message.

But Brady is polling third in the race, after Topinka and Oberweis, and he’s unlikely to gain enough ground to beat either one. He and Oberweis are splitting the social conservative vote, which benefits Topinka. (Theoretically, Topinka is competing with former Board of Education Chair Ron Gidwitz for socially moderate votes, but that guy looks like an alien and no one will ever vote for him.)

Oberweis is a businessman who is funding his own campaign, meaning he is essentially a far-right vanity candidate. He is all about bashing the government ("Keep them out of our face!" is one of his policy proposals tonight), immigrants, and politicians generally. (Note: Do not buy ice cream here.) Guess he’s hoping to harness the awesome power of the social conservative vote in Illinois. If only this political strategy were such a definitive loser on the national level!

Personally, I won’t be voting in anybody's Republican primary anytime soon, but I am one of the dissatisfied Democrats that Topinka is going to be wooing in the general elections. But I'll need to learn a lot more about her before I make my decision, and she’s going to need to do better than she did last night.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

I'm a business man

You've heard the (great) news that Jay-Z has signed former rival Nas to Def Jam, but this Status Ain't Hood post also offers some good analysis of Jay-Z's business plan for Def Jam:
Jay has quietly spent the past year or so making over Def Jam in his own image, signing and retaining guys who sit well with the different crannies of his gentleman-gangsta-aesthete thing. In their own ways, Kanye and Jeezy and the Roots and Ghostface all fit comfortably into Jay's world. DMX doesn't, and that's why Jay quietly let him go last week.
So when's the Nas album going to come out? Fall? Too long...

All cool kids get airfreight quotes

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Darkness at 12:42pm

Straight party-line vote 10-8 from the Judiciary Committee and expected confirmation in the Senate. Any Dems besides Ben Nelson going to defect? Any so-called moderate Republicans going to vote no? (Answers: probably no and no.)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Toward an ethical theory of file-sharing

If the results of this study turn out to be broadly true and it is shown definitively that "the 'bottom' 3/4 of artists sell more as a consequence of file-sharing while the top 1/4 sell less," might it not be possible to argue that file-sharing actually amounts to a social good?

A small sampling of sub-questions: Is it possible to define file-sharing as anything other than "stealing"? And if not, does this moot any argument about its social effect? What about that top 1/4, where do their rights begin and end? What might file-sharing-tolerant legislation look like?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Why Charles Taylor sucks

In the country music thread, Kirsten mentioned this article in Salon as following the "'I hate new country' mold," which hits it right on the head. So let's take a moment now to explain why an essay like this is bad, muddled music writing. Taylor writes:
McBride opens "Timeless" with Hank Williams' "You Win Again" as if it were a statement of ethics. The utter simplicity of the song, her faith in it and her refusal to embellish become a way of returning not just herself but the entire genre of country back to priorities.
I take this to mean that embellishment is unethical: a hardline stance if ever there was one. But Taylor begs the question by assuming that unembellished simplicity is the only right and proper priority for country music.

The rockist argument against contemporary country is that Nashville just hasn't been true to its principles--that is, that the genre should be more musically conservative. The vocal style Taylor has a problem with--rich in added syllables and ostentatious vocal runs--originates with black R&B, where improvisation is the rule. It has become thoroughly mainstream, of course (Jessica Simpson, American Idol), and it's true that country absorbed the influence via mainstream pop. This mainstreaming is supposedly the root of the problem, but the bottom line is that the contemporary country ought to be shorn of the contaminating influence of R&B.

False premise, false conclusion. Why do reactionary gestures like Lee Ann Womack's and Martina McBride's "throw down the gauntlet" on contemporary country, and why should any genre confine itself to a proscribed set of acceptable influences? Please note that I like Lee Ann Womack a ton and I think I like Timeless, too. But the throwback country sound is transparently about crossover potential, wooing rock listeners into making an exception for a "real" country album. Where folks like Taylor see a rebuke to the genre, fans of the genre will see a record aimed at White Stripes fans.

And of course Taylor's argument colossally misunderstands the way musical genres work and the way Americans listen to music. He announces that he quit listening to country "a few years back" because he couldn't find a happy medium between "that shopping-mall dominatrix Shania Twain [and] Lucinda Williams' wallflower moping." This explains how Taylor missed Gretchen Wilson, who is practically a made-to-order cross between the two, but it doesn't go very far toward explaining why he's qualified to sweepingly condemn the genre, or even to write about it at all.

Logistics

Here my job is described as "seemingly soulless, boring, and unsexy." "Seemingly," note! It is also "the unheralded key to the New Economy" and a career path recommended to the "young and directionless." And I am pretty sure I qualify for a free subscription to this hot new mag.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

"There was the pedestrian who wedged himself into the crowd, but there was also the flâneur who demanded elbow room and was unwilling to forego the life of the gentleman of leisure. His leisurely appearance as a personality is his protest against the division of labour which makes people into specialists. It was also his protest against their industriousness. Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them." -- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Slate rips off AMillionMonkeys

Slate's headline writers--clearly readers of this blog--blatantly steal my clever phrase for their subhed of Dahlia Lithwick's essay "Swing Time: Anthony Kennedy -- the new Sandra Day O'Connor." What's more, the essay makes the same point I made yesterday, like, two hours earlier. (In internet time that's over two weeks!)

Lawsuit pending. But because I am magnanimous even as a Goliath internet publication steals the food from my babies' mouths, I should acknowledge that it's a typically great piece from Lithwick and a good primer for anyone who got firewalled out of reading the earlier TNR piece on the same subject.

AMillionMonkeys: writes like the pros, only shorter!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Thursday. Thurrrrrrsday.

Actual transcript of remarks between my landlord and super as they worked on our dishwasher today. My landlord is a middle-aged American non-practicing lawyer and the super is a grey-haired, mostly-deaf Ukranian speaker. Their communication is a weird shouted pidgin:

Landlord: This?
Super: [unintelligible]
Landlord: Yeah, perfecto. Per-fect. Hook! This is important. No touch. You want upstairs we go? Wire is okay? No touch! No touch! Thursday is new machine. Thurrrrrsday. Not Tuesday, Thursday! New machine. New installation no problem?
Super: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.
Landlord: Thursday!
Super: Yes. Is okay.

Sounds like we're getting a new dishwasher!

All cool kids have blogs

Everybody welcome my brother to the blogosphere with his new blog Haahnster's Hallucinations. That and more in my new-and-improved blogroll to the right.

Don't mistake this post for optimism

Look, I'm not minimizing the serious damage that Samuel Alito will do when he takes O'Connor's place, but it is worth noting that with Alito on the court, this 6-3 ruling would simply have been 5-4, meaning it wouldn't have been decided differently. A voting block of Alito, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas still isn't (quite) a critical mass of conservative wingnuttery. For the foreseeable future, most of the Court's big decisions will be in Kennedy's hands.

Catty

Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker is one of the best music critics going. Not one of the best poets, though!

(Well this one is pretty good...)

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Resolution

One of my New Year's resolutions is to become conversant in contemporary country music. Why? Because it's an insanely popular genre that gets little critical respect and is often used by hipsters and critics as the example of lowest-common-denominator crap. This is reason enough to give it another look: a good general rule is that the public has better judgment than self-styled hipsters and professional music critics.

(Brief aside: I'm not saying the public always get it right! Crappy music does indeed reside at the top of the pop charts--Nickelback, say, or "My Humps." [Briefer aside-within-an-aside relating to "My Humps": Isn't the simplest explanation for the grassroots popularity of this terrible song that everyone loves tits?] It's just that popular music always fulfills some need, and it's dumb to deny this, i.e. to undervalue catchy or dancey or weepy songs in favor of "smart" ones. Also, in general it's dumb to confine yourself by genre.)

So I've been listening to stuff by Tim McGraw and Gretchen Wilson and especially Lee Ann Womack, whose stunning album There's More Where That Came From is self-consciously styled after 70s-era Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. It's nostalgic and sounds like "old" country, but in a genre where nostalgia is a built-in standard feature, this doesn't make it feel forced so much as sweetly dedicated. It's also full of sex and betrayal and regret, rendered with complexity and singalong choruses.

The best country lyrics turn on verbal irony, and Womack's songs contain some masterful examples: "I may hate myself in the morning/ But I'm gonna love you tonight" or the torch song refrain "One's a couple, baby, two's a crowd." And if you can listen to weepers like "The Last Time" and "Painless" without getting at least a little teary, you are probably dead inside and the sort of person who inflicts suffering on defenseless animals for fun.

Probably someone has already commented on the influence of hip-hop on Gretchen Wilson, whose first megahit "Redneck Woman" was all about establishing street cred, including shout-outs to "all my sisters out there keepin' it country." "Redneck Woman" is old news by now, and truth be told it is gimmicky as hell--but it's such an enjoyable gimmick that it's hard to complain. Better still is "Homewrecker," a classic don't-take-my-man anthem that includes the following threat of violence: "There's two ways we can do this, I'll let you decide/ You can take it somewhere else or we can take it outside."

I'm taking recommendations! Anyone able to educate me about contemporary country?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Questioning is over, but the hearings drone on and on

Things being what they are, the political interests of the left are not be well-served by a filibuster of Alito. But I believe Democrats will hold together for a strong block of 'no' votes and there will be very few crossovers, certainly fewer than there were for John Roberts. If we can pick off a moderate Republican here and there in the full Senate vote (Olympia Snowe?), that will be a minor, meaningless victory.

My overwhelming impression from listening this week and reading some selections of his writing is that Alito is a conservative legal technocrat, nothing less or more than this. He's smart and he respects the law, but is more than willing to sift through increasingly technical legal arguments until he hits on the one that suits his conservative ideology. (Note that this is not true of all conservative judges, including Roberts.) Alito is an "activist judge" in this sense, though he would seem to be less cavalier than Thomas about discarding precedents, and is certainly less of a firebrand than Scalia.

More bad news. It seems clear from Alito's non-answers that he believes Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and that he would overturn it. His ability to do so is unclear, neither assured nor impossible.

We've been talking about issues of executive power, and this field is the primary reason that Alito's nomination should be opposed. He consistently defers to the executive branch and undermines the Congress in a way that is bad for democracy and bad for the rule of law. He pled sloppy phrasing in the old memo in which he wrote that he believes in the "supremacy" of the executive branch, but in view of his judicial record it looks more like a Freudian slip.

Alito does not deserve a seat on the Supreme Court. He gets one anyway.

Couldn't have happened to nicer fellas

Dave Mays and Benzino out at The Source, a great day for rap media...

This is just to say

A note to whoever is writing "Diarrhea Bread" in chalk on the pavement in various places around my neighborhood: please stop. That is disgusting.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

AMillionMonkeys Movie Review Corner

Murderball is very good. Those rugby wheelchairs are badass, and it is startling and cool when the players slam into one another and their wheelchairs tip over and clatter on the gym floor.

Sort of/not really an academic question

For some reason (Bush-hatred? Utilitarian ethic? Machiavellian tendencies?) I'm having trouble forming an argument against unfettered executive power that doesn't rely on outcomes. It's easy to argue against unchecked executive power for Bush because he uses that power to torture people, wiretap illegally and suspend due process for American citizens. But let's say we someday get a left-wing president who uses an "inherent in the presidency" argument to accomplish something I agree with. How does the super-strong executive look to me in that hypothetical situations? Here I get kinda stuck.

I'm interested in what other people think... What's the argument against executive power that doesn't turn on Bush's bad judgment? Or are these sorts of arguments really always about ends?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Joyless curmudgeons, indeed

This Onion AV Club feature "The Best of the Worst of Everything" is great fun, but don't they miss their own point by perpetuating the patently false myth that ponderous pre-disco Bee Gees are preferable to "Jive Talkin'" and "Night Fever"??

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Some scattered SCOTUS thoughts

-- Overall, Alito is less able than John Roberts to deflect and jujitsu his way out of answering questions, but he's not exactly forthcoming. He's certainly less personally appealing than Roberts, and considerably less virtuosic with his legal knowledge. His pinched, nasal voice and unengaged mien make me hate him more, but I doubt they hurt him (or Republicans) politically in any significant way.

-- My favorite off-script moments today: 1.) During Ted Kennedy's initial questioning there was a break in the action while they fiddled with the clock or something, and in an atmosphere of lame jokes and forced laughter Kennedy called the peanut gallery "scurrilous dogs"; and 2.) When Sen. Cornyn, a Republican, accidentally referred to Alito as "Scalito." Oops.

(This nickname is actually unfair to Scalia, who at least believes in due process. Backwards cultural views notwithstanding, Scalia is apparently far more willing to limit executive power than Alito, Thomas, and possibly/probably even Roberts. Which is to say that Alito's ascension will--on some issues at least--make Scalia something of a centrist on the court. This prospect is both extremely depressing and, considering Scalia's well-known penchant for iconoclasm, sort of fascinating.)

-- Looking to the future (since an Alito self-destruction is now officially impossible), this article in The New Republic from a couple of months ago is right on the money. Since I think this link is subscription-only (email me if you want to read the whole thing, though, and I'll forward it to you), allow me to summarize: Kennedy is the new O'Connor. This isn't exactly good news, but it might not be as bad as you think.

-- Political angle for Democrats: I just cannot find one. For Democrats, the two most important issues of 2006 are Republican corruption (Abramoff, DeLay, et al.) and Bush's illegal wiretaps, which will get Congressional hearings later in the year. Sadly, these things simply aren't directly relatable to the Alito hearings. Clearly he has no connection to dirty lobbyists or the GOP political machine, and today he effectively evaded the wiretapping issue by saying that the president "is not above the law." This answer is deeply disingenuous (Bush claims--disingenuously!--that he isn't breaking the law) but for the purposes of these hearings probably, unfortunately, sufficient.

-- Happily though, I remain in a tiny minority of Americans who are riveted by the workings of the Supreme Court. Abramoff is a much bigger story, and it will only get bigger as more and more Republicans are brought down. This benefits the left, because as we all know, winning presidential elections remains the only, only, only thing that gets you the ability to appoint SCOTUS justices.

Of course I'm ODing on the Alito hearings

I just don't have anything new to say about them. Maybe later?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Some dialogue from the USA Network's edited-for-TV version of Casino

Joe Pesci: "I [fouled] up. I [fouled] up good. I shoulda never got involved with this [nutty] broad."

Robert DeNiro: "She's a junkie, she's out of her [flippin'] mind."

Some guy: "[Bologna!]"

Here, this is better

Saturday, January 07, 2006

New to me

Three albums, each over 20 years old, each acquired and listened to for the first time by me in the last two weeks, and each one its own sort of masterpiece:

  • We're Only in It for the Money by Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention
  • Truly vicious anti-hippie satire, full of bile ("Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet"), odd editing, sped-up vocals and forays into showtunes ("Bow Tie Daddy") and rhythm & blues. Its Sgt. Pepper's-parodying cover seems funny/harmless now, but consider that this album was released only one year after the Beatles' album. It's very funny, sonically captivating and it oozes confrontation.


  • After the Gold Rush by Neil Young (Thanks Haahnster!)
  • Young's country-folk influences give us haunting, dirge-y songs like the title track and "Don't Let it Bring You Down." The bitter taunt of "Southern Man"--"Southern change gonna come at last/ Now your crosses are burning fast"--sparked Lynyrd Skynyrd's response song, "Sweet Home Alabama," but that can hardly be held against Neil Young, now can it? (Lesser known is that his song on this album "Birds" provoked "Freebird." Just kidding.)


  • Main Course by the Bee Gees
  • Perhaps you are where I was not long ago, vaguely aware of the Bee Gees as corny, badly dressed disco icons without ever actually sitting down and listened to the group. Main Course was their first stab at disco, funk & soul sounds after a mildly notable career in the sixties and seventies as prog rockers and Beatles rip-offs, and it was this album that first turned them into the cultural sensation we know as "the Bee Gees." The brilliant "Nights on Broadway" introduced Barry Gibb's falsetto and achieves a Sting-like level a lyrical creepiness: "Here we are in a room full of strangers/ Standing in the dark where your eyes couldn't see me/ Well I had to follow you/ Though you did not want me to," yuck, I need a shower. The album is as much a bouillabaisse of sounds as We're Only in It for the Money, but where Zappa created a discordant symphony, Main Course integrates its many influences into a seamless, amiable pop whole. The Beatles influence shows up, as do vocal harmonies learned from the Beach Boys; a range of black soul and R&B in the funk guitars and the beats; the first twenty seconds of "Jive Talkin'" are straight up proto-techno, no kidding; and songs like "Come on Over" take on strains of American country music, complete with steel guitars. Most interesting musically is probably the early use of synthetic sounds (basslines, proggy keyboards) in organic settings, but the soaring vocals and singalong choruses are what make the album irresistible.

I'm not a completist, and my approach to listening to music (and writing about it) has never been guided by a desire for comprehensiveness so much as the search for unexpected connections. Each of the above artists has religious followers, so on some level I'm already late to the party, perpetually playing catch-up. But to me, this is the real point of listening to music: worlds that were closed to me (whether through sloth, genre-blindness, snobbishness or something else) open up, and turn out to contain multitudes.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Lists are dumb

Sure, sure, of course, of course. Dumb dumb dumb. But why fight it? You know you love them. The question is, are you the sort of person who would go so far as to read an essay surveying, critiquing, considering them? What if the essay is very, very good?

Begging the question

T. Rex explains what it means.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

New sh*t

My review of Walter Kirn's Mission to America is up at Stop Smiling, grouped with reviews of Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision and Bret Easton Ellis's Lunar Park under the heading "Three White Guys."

Also today I have a review of Nik Cohn's book Triksta in the Chicago Reader, where it has been given the snappy headline, "The Bounce Remains the Same: Nik Cohn tried to influence New Orleans rap but all he got was this lousy nickname."

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Oh and happy new year

Moby Dick is like my favorite novel ever (is this strictly true? I haven't actually listed them or anything, but it sure comes right to mind), but I haven't read very much else by Melville. Here is a great essay (subscription) by TNR literary critic James Wood on a new biography by Nicholas DelBanco. In particular this paragraph knocks my socks off:
Melville stretches his similes and metaphors, risks their formal success, pushes them to the rim of the plausible, so that rather than simply asserting that x is like y, he seems often to be floating a hypothesis: suppose that x were seen as y. We are used to the Flaubertian-Nabokovian idea of simile as predominantly visual, but some of Melville's most daring similes begin as visual likenesses and then swerve into the comparative blindness of abstraction. The Pequod's masts "stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old Kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flagstone in Canterbury Cathedral where Becket bled." The first simile in that duet, likening the masts to Cologne cathedral, is visual in impulse, though already nicely alienating; the second, though it seems visual, has a quality of excess, of speculation, of ideation, that pushes it beyond the merely visual. And it might be said to be, in the ordinary sense, not especially "successful" as a simile: however worn and wrinkled these wooded decks were, they can never really have looked much like the gray old stone of Canterbury. But the visual fitness is not the point; the simile is being used to slap on thought, to goad an association, to wander. Simile is being used to enable what Melville called "philosophical ripping" and what we might call philosophical riffing. And simile is being used here, obviously enough, to lend an aura of divinity to this ship of souls.
Nice, eh? Makes me want to reread the whale book and get my hands on all the rest of them.

Monday, January 02, 2006

So sincere

You** get one warning, so do not test me. I will slice you open from cheek to chest. I won't think a thing of it.

**Not YOU. You're cool.