Saturday, February 25, 2006

Concert review haiku: Aceyalone/RJD2/Busdriver @ Metro 2/24

weird rap for the kids
tongue-twisters and freestyle flows
got the room involved

let the good times roll
records spinning fish swimming
while the crowd bobs heads

old-school rhymes abound
and everyone throws hands up
short set: solid, safe

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Somewhere around Barstow

It's not the whole thing, which was massive, but it's still cool. Excerpts of Stop Smiling's Hunter S. Thompson oral history are now up online and worth revisiting.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Monday, February 20, 2006

And don't talk to me about Toktogul Satilganov, he's totally overrated

Easily the weirdest promo disc I've received this month is Tengir-Too, Mountain Music of Kyrgyzstan, released in a package that includes CD, DVD and explanatory booklet. The seven-piece group plays traditional Kyrgystani music on instruments like the qyl-qiyak, you see, as well as the komuz and of course the sybyzgy.

So what does the mountain music of Kyrgyzstan sound like? Sort of like the Shalabi Effect. And how is it? Not bad, suitable as weird background music for such activities as playing online poker or knitting the traditional Kyrgyzstani wool felt carpet known as the shurdok. You may think I'm exaggerating, but this may be the hottest shit to come out of Kyrgyzstan since Muratali Kurenkeyev.


Judy Baar Topinka on WBEZ today said that Gov. Blagojevich has "announced programs for all intents and purposes are turning the state of Illinois into a welfare state." Those would be the programs to provide a.) universal preschool and b.) health insurance to all children. For obvious political reasons, Republican attacks on these programs don't say "we don't think children should go to preschool/get health care," they say "we can't afford it." At least that's the script, allowing Republicans to sound responsible without having to engage the principles behind these programs one way or the other. So thanks to Judy Baar Topinka (the most "moderate" of Republican candidates, remember) for accidentally saying what she really thinks. That it happens to be ugly kneejerk privilege-protection is clarifying.

UPDATE -- Listen to the debate here.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Primarymania: IL 6th District

Here's an interesting Democratic primary race, a rare instance of an excess of appealing Dem candidates. Check out this candidate roundtable broadcast on WBEZ's Eight Forty-Eight.

Illinois' 6th District House Rep. Henry Hyde, a Republican, has announced that he won't seek reelection (he's like 100 years old), giving Democrats a chance to mount a real challenge to his handpicked successor, State Senator Peter Roskam. Hyde has been in office forever, but his district (suburban DuPage County and some Cook County) is more purple than red--Democrat Christine Cegelis got a respectable 44% of the vote against Hyde in 2004, and things have only gone the Democrats' way since then.

Tammy Duckworth is the frontrunner in the primary. (Here's more good info on Duckworth.) An Iraq war veteran and double amputee--she lost her legs when a rocket-propelled grenade hit a Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting--Duckworth was hand-picked for the race by Rep./DCCC Chair/hatchet man Rahm Emmanuel. (This much to the chagrin of Cegelis.) Steady and understated, less abrasive and more affecting than Paul Hackett, she's an impressive candidate who would draw tons of adoring national press that would benefit the Democrats' national image.

She's being opposed by Cegelis, whose campaign has not recovered from Emannuel's death blow. (Read: she's broke.) On the radio this morning, Cegelis attacked Duckworth from the left but landed very few punches. Her 2004 campaign laid the groundwork for this year's race, but politics is a tough game, and she is not the right candidate this time around.

The third candidate in the race is Lindy Scott, who presents an interesting dilemma for 6th District Dem voters. (Trib profile here.) A Wheaton College professor, former pastor, Spanish-speaker, beard-wearer and Iraq War opponent, Scott wouldn't draw the kind of national press to the race that Duckworth would, but he'd stand an excellent chance of connecting with general-election swing voters and moderate Republicans. In fact, with his outspokenness how his faith informs his progressivity, he'd arguably be a better candidate than Duckworth within the district. He embodies the new progressive pro-choice strategy and is what you might call a New New Dem in the Tim Kaine model. In his part of the Eight Forty-Eight broadcast, he focused almost exclusively on his electability, and he made a strong case for himself as the candidate most likely to attract the votes of moderates, immigrants and social conservatives who are ready to leave the Republican party. (This last group is one that I think Dems should be actively cultivating.)

The primary is Mar. 14, and the contest in November is an important one for Dems. Duckworth would make the biggest splash. Would she get the most votes?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

AMillionMonkeys is all about trying new things

Such as sloppily photoshopped headers adapted from a photo I took in my neighborhood.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

R. Kelly, Humorist

Because the subject has come up independently with several different friends, allow me now to unpack my argument that R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet is intentional and self-conscious in its use of humor.

In December I received the DVD of parts 1-12 as probably the greatest office Secret Santa gift ever, and I have naturally spent the months since traveling the country showing it to everyone I know. You know the story: R. Kelly's character Sylvester is a married man hiding in the closet of the woman he's just slept with; she turns out to be married to a minister who turns out to be involved in a gay love affair with a man he met through a police officer; the police officer is having an affair with Sylvester's wife even though he is married to a white woman named Bridget; Bridget is having an affair with a midget named Big Man. The story is lurid and violent and the level of quotidian detail Kelly narrates ("She said yes I said no she said yes I said no") is a spectacle in itself. Because the plotline is so tortured and the dialogue is so realistic, Trapped in the Closet is funny and surreal, and also weird in a not-quite-sure-how-to-take-this way.

I now present the following partial list of intentional humor in Trapped in the Closet:

a.) When Sylvester reunites with his wife and they have sex, he complains about a cramp in his leg: "She cries out, 'Oh my goodness, I'm about to climax,' / I said, 'Cool, climax, just let go of my leg'"

b.) "Rosy the nosy neighbor," shows up at their door armed with a spatula

c.) The over-the-top white accent of the cop's wife, Bridget

d.) Bridget's lover is a midget. Also, the midget's hiding in the cabinet parodically reenacts the story's opening scene of Sylvester hiding in the closet.

e.) The midget is named Big Man. When Sylvester asks Big Man how he got that name, the midget gestures to his crotch and answers "Because I'm blessed."

f.) Amid all the commotion, Big Man 1.) craps his pants and 2.) faints, twice.

Now in spite of all this, there is also a sense of seriousness about the whole affair. R. Kelly is an artist who is very much convinced of his own genius and whose R&B songs traffic in cliches and aphorisms and strained metaphors of the most shameless sort. (Also, it would seem that he has a predilection for young girls and freaky sex.) We're used to reading these things--the cliches, not the freaky sex--as the mark of an unsophisticated artist, but it isn't true that cliche and sophistication are mutually exclusive, and here and elsewhere the laughing at/with distinction is harder to parse than it might seem on the surface. Trapped in the Closet winks and emotes, which is all part of the fun.

PS -- Bonus Trapped in the Closet Internet Fun! Chapters 1-5 as acted out by The Sims! This may finally be the key to getting publicprivate into R. Kelly!
I am not related to Chicago's famous mezzo-soprano.
Early impression of the new Aceyalone/RJD2 record Magnificent City: it rules.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Monday, February 13, 2006


So this is why I can't watch Bubble, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Constant Gardener, The Aristocrats or Hustle & Flow? This sucks.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Friday, February 10, 2006

My first words were bleep bleep and curse curse

Dean of Rock Critics Robert Christgau has a long, serious, big-think essay about Eminem in the new Believer, and it is essentially the piece I badly wanted someone to write around 2001 or 2002. (I tried writing one myself, in fact, but my unpublished piece was what some would call a "commercial and artistic failure.") Problem is, times done changed. Christgau writes:
[T]he moral panic Eminem set off has faded away. Either you accept the irony and multiple-persona defenses or you do not; either you believe the young suss his complexity or you do not; either you agree that he reflects more than inflects a racist, sexist, and homophobic America or you do not.
Yes, and perhaps that is why even a well-thought-out, fair-not-fawning piece like this one feels a bit tired in these waning days of Em's cultural influence.

It's interesting (or perhaps not) that although the "moral panic" is gone, we do not find ourselves left in a quiet room where we can evaluate Eminem's music qua music without the distraction of media noise. The music, the personae, and the moral panic are so entwined as to be inseparable. The Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers LPs, while still and forever great, now feel utterly dated in a way that other rap albums released at the same time do not. Why would this be? One reason might be because they so dominated airwaves and discourse at that time; another might be because so many of his raps are rhyming stand-up routines, and repetition eventually makes all jokes unfunny. (Although I did laugh at this forgotten couplet, quoted by Christgau: "I get imaginative with a mouthful of adjectives / A brain full of adverbs and a box full of laxatives.") Yet another possible reason may be the short shelf-life of conceptual postmodernism.

What doesn't feel dated about Eminem is the mastery of verbal play and creative slant-rhyming, the ability to cull assonance and internal rhyme from every imaginable style of rhetoric. At the end of the piece, Christgau quotes the entirety of an old freestyle called "We're Still #1" (inexplicably Christgau's favorite single of 2005--though that's not the only inexplicable thing about his singles list) in which he comes up with 18 rhymes of the same "err/err" vowel pattern ("I'm just a nERd cURsed with badly distURbed nERves / You wanna be the one to step up and get sERved fIRst?" and so on). Or as the Dean puts it: "In the feverish mischief of its multisyllabic rhymes and trick enjambments, the music he makes out of the poetry he makes out of speech creates its own place in hip-hop tradition."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Stop Smiling profiled by the Sun-Times.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

American Idol blogging (you know you want it)

Simon Cowell is one of the great cultural critics of our age. No? Watch American Idol for a little while and you find yourself engaging a critical facility you aren't used to exercising. Was that performance a little "pitchy"? Did that girl have a "likable quality"? The whole point of the show is to engage viewers in the process of judging talent--at first mostly symbolically but later, when we vote for our favorites, literally. The fun of this process is that the pool of performers is so insanely varied--the fat and the thin, country and urban, polished and crazy--that we have a chance to adopt favorites of all races, classes and subcultures. This is a show that produced Kelly Clarkson and William Hung both.

Because the early episodes of any season feature a share of delusional, immature or prankster entrants, Simon's snarky put-downs largely flatter the audience--cuz we knew that dude who sang Cher's "Believe" had no future in show business, etc. It's pleasurable when Simon says something like "I would say you're the opposite of what we're looking for," precisely because he's speaking the truth; we share his aesthetic judgment. But this isn't to say that he can't surprise us. After one hopeful on tonight's show performed a technically proficient version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," he remarked that the woman seemed to come "out of this perfect school where you have a good voice and you're very well-groomed, but there's something very robotic about [you]." Randy and Paula nodded her through, but Simon cast a protest vote: "I would absolutely say no."

"I only like the early stages of the show" is to American Idol as "I only read it for the articles" is to Hustler, because sarcastic scorn is socially acceptable but advocacy and identification are embarrassing in polite company. The early stages of the show are good, and they're probably funnier than the later ones, but the same principle is at work--it's a show about judging performances, choosing favorites, making alliances. This process is fun when the performances are bad, but it's more fun when they start to get really good.

Michael Showalter is a very famous celebrity

We watched The Baxter last night and found it to be great fun as a goof on the conventions of romantic comedy. A "Baxter," we learn, is any romantic comedy's nice but unextraordinary guy who at movie's end must step aside, allowing the romantic leads to live happily ever after. Written, directed and starring Michael Showalter, The Baxter fixes on this marginal character and puts him into center-frame, in the process riffing on the genre--a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead of romantic comedies.

Stella was like my favorite TV show in the world for all six or whatever episodes (hopefully it gets picked up for another season), and The Baxter feels a bit like a long-form version of a Stella episode. (Stella is Showalter, Michael Ian Black and David Wain.) The group's humor doesn't come from distending or mocking genre conventions so much as embodying them and fucking with their context. In one episode, the three men begin cultivating grain in their apartment, become fabulously wealthy farmers employing a stable of migrant workers, lose everything and end up back where they started. The key to Stella, and to The Baxter, is that every cliche is played with a straight face, and every convention is understood from the inside. The characters and situations become progressively funnier as the story goes on, and the straight-faced approach makes the occasional illusion-shattering gag that much funnier--in The Baxter, these include a pantsless Michael Ian Black and Wain's impolitic comment about the olfactory ability of bears.

So does this make the group post-ironic or just super-duper-ironic? I am actually not sure, but the formula works: weirdly high-concept and gut-level funny, full of cracked empathy and a canny sense of how much fun it can be to mix up and recombine familiar cultural signifiers.
Noted dreamboat Russ Feingold tells it like it is.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

One word: condoms

Incredibly compelling and edifying abortion debate going on here between Will Saletan and Katha Pollitt, two pro-choicers with different ideas about strategy. Saletan's argument is that the pro-choice movement should work to win over moderates by emphasizing birth control as a way of reducing abortions overall. We can and should try to keep the total number of abortions to a minimum, this argument goes, by making sure everyone gets plenty of sex ed. and birth control, and by having safe/legal/rare abortion available as a last resort. (This was more or less Hillary Clinton's approach in this big speech.)

Pollitt's counterargument is that even going this far accepts pro-lifers' terms. She wants the pro-choice movement to treat abortion as "a practical matter of public health" and argues that even speaking of it in moral terms--saying that we pro-choicers, too, want to reduce the total number of abortions--"do[es] the antichoicers' work for them." This argument doesn't stand up to scrutiny, I don't think--clearly the moral argument doesn't just disappear if the pro-choice movement ignores it, and politically this approach is a total disaster. But Pollitt makes some sound points about the sense of shame women already feel about getting an abortion, and if nothing else her viewpoint is very much representative of many other pro-choicers.

I side with Saletan, though, and reading his argument--rich in polling data--is sort of exciting because it sketches a way that the issue could actually become a winner for Dems and pro-choicers. There's a neat political angle here that is begging to be exploited: birth control as a wedge issue within the pro-life coalition. Many pro-lifers are hardcore anti-contraceptive conservative Catholics and religious fundamentalists. But many, many moderates who consider themselves pro-life do not oppose birth control. These are the people that the pro-choice movement can woo, as Saletan writes, by "pit[ting] contraception squarely against abortion, not as an offstage concession but as our central message." That message: "Contraceptives reduce abortions." This strategy sure beats the hell out of simply hoping that another Alito is never appointed to the Supreme Court.

Chicago Innerview's loss is AMillionMonkeys' gain!

So this little zine here has for some reason killed my essay on Houston rap. I bear them no grudge, though. After reading my pitch, the editor sent me back some fairly detailed suggestions about the angle he wanted the story to pursue, the types of points he wanted me to make, etc. I proceeded to completely disregard everything he'd said and turn in pretty much the piece I'd pitched in the first place. Normally I wouldn't do this, it's just that his ideas were so bad. He wanted me to connect Mike Jones to hair metal and "early 90s Fresh Prince-style hip-hop," a phrase I actually don't understand. Anyway I giggled all day the day I turned it in.

I guess it's February already, but this was originally supposed to be an interesting-records-of-2005 sort of piece focusing on Who is Mike Jones?, Paul Wall's The People's Champ and Bun-B's Trill.

So here it is, folks, a few selections from the Robert Mentzer exclusive that was too hot for Chicago Innerview. I called it:

In a genre that does not attract modest, self-deprecating artists, Mike Jones sets some kind of record for shameless self-promotion. Known for incessant repetition of his name, constantly recycling rhymes and most of all for giving out his own phone number (281-330-8004), there is probably no other platinum artist simultaneously so catchy and so grating. Who is Mike Jones? is not a great album, but it does contain my favorite song of 2005, “Still Tippin’,” which largely introduced America to the Houston scene. The beat, built on piano and a simple violin figure, is Rza-meets-Dr.-Dre menace, and along with Jones, Slim Thug and Paul Wall use their verses to explain the obvious benefits of their kick-ass jewelry, wood-grain automobile interiors and overall sexual prowess.

Another great, revealing moment on the album is the ballad “Grandma,” which is like Kanye West’s “Hey Mama” one generation removed, and which contains some especially memorable ad-libbed autobiography in the spoken outro:
“It’s crazy, you know what I’m saying? True story, check it out: a lot of people used to wonder how I got up in the game. My grandma was 99.9 percent of the reason. I used to go to strip clubs all the time and try to get people to listen to my CD, and they’d be like, who are you? And I’m like, Mike Jones, and they’d be like Who? I used to always tell my grandma [that] and she used to always tell me to use that...So I started using it, and it worked. It’s crazy, man.”
Mike Jones, everybody, ostensibly dedicating a song to his grandmother while talking only about his marketing strategy! Mike Jones has a new album coming out in April called American Dreams, and if I had to guess, I would guess that Mike Jones will not be altering Mike Jones' formula drastically. (Mike Jones.)

Paul Wall is best known for his truly ridiculous diamond-encrusted mouthpiece (“it’s like a disco ball”), the sort of fashion choice that would make Master P proud. Before getting into rap, Wall owned a jewelry store that specialized in grills, and just last month Lil’ Wayne boasted (if that is the word) that he “gave Paul a hundred thousand for my grill.” There is something hilarious about a jeweler-turned-rapper, but also something of a great American bootstrap narrative. As Tom Breihan pointed out in Pitchfork, Wall is also “the first white rap star who doesn't feel the need to talk about his race,” and only a few years removed from Eminem this does feel significant. In lieu of race talk, Wall namechecks Avon Barksdale of HBO’s The Wire and calls himself “Bobby Fischer on the mic, making chess moves.” The People’s Champ survives on Wall's charm, and the thick drawl that turns "think" into "thank," making a perfect rhyme out of the couplet: "I don't know what these boys thinkin'/ My motivation is Benjamin Franklin."

If Houston’s mainstream rap is too dependent on familiar rap tropes for your taste, you’d be hard pressed to find music that is weirder or more pyschotropic than “screwed and chopped” remixes, which are accomplished by sloooowwwing dowwwwwnnnnn the tracks until the vocals are thick and deep and the beats stretched out and turned, well, syrupy — fitting, since the style was originated by a devotee of codeine-cough-syrup (DJ Screw) and is designed to appeal to woozy syrupheads. (It’s not necessary for listeners to get fucked up on syrup in order to appreciate it, though: regular old marijuana works just fine.) Paul Wall’s CD comes with an invaluable Screwed & Chopped bonus disc that is arguably superior to the original. That disc begins with DJ Michael Watts exhorting listeners to “check out our new web site, Don’t hit, hit” The dot-com address is the property of unlicensed pretenders, it seems. Best of luck to them! They embody the shameless, irresistible hucksterism that makes Houston rap so much fun.
See, how do you not love the lengthy quotation of Mike Jones talking about his grandma? I think maybe I can use parts of this when American Dreams comes out...