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Archive for the ‘Columns’ Category

I recently proposed to a couple of friends that critically adored, unwatched Friday Night Lights (first 4 seasons now available on Netflix!) is superior to critically adored, unwatched The Wire. It was a provocation to be sure, and although TV critics mostly love FNL, The Wire reigns supreme in most minds with its coherent vision, scope, and depth. The Wire grew as a strange, beautiful anomaly, almost existing outside the world of TV entirely — a revolution in episode format.

In this light, Friday Night Lights is just so darn quaint. It doesn’t break any ground plot-wise; there are no political struggles to chart or social issues to pioneer. There’s no attempt to depict the world as “real”; the show breezes by plausibility, entirely content with television reality. Where The Wire sprawled its cast over a huge ensemble without any “main characters,” FNL fixes itself on a coach’s family and a football team.

And yet, FNL and The Wire both study the stark contrasts in the way they view America. FNL is rural; The Wire is urban. FNL is all about the prospect of moving up to middle class success; The Wire is about how success is almost always impossible from the perspective of poverty. FNL revels in its genre tropes — the cheerleader torn between her boyfriend and the “bad boy,” the coach’s daughter and the quarterback, the last-minute play that saves the day; The Wire refuses almost all genre trappings of the police/crime procedural — the police don’t solve the cases; the good guys don’t win; and everything is painted in shades of maddening gray.

These differences, from the cosmetic to the fundamental, create two diametrically opposed worlds. At their cores, these two shows believe in love and community in different ways, though they construct their worlds in similarly authentic ways (both shows filmed heavily on location — The Wire in Baltimore, and FNL outside Austin, TX). For The Wire, the physical place of Bulletmore feeds its own malignancy, spreading its tendrils into its newest residents and binding them closer to its poisons. Love may help mend wounds, but it is always secondary to the dynamics of power (see Beadie and McNulty). For FNL, Dillon’s strength is its community, a family built around the super-family of the Taylors that can hold together the most difficult residents. Love is an afterthought for The Wire, but it builds the essential foundation for FNL. Love here is not a means to an end or a distraction for side plots; it is the main attraction. If anything, the football almost distracts from the characters we care about.

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The recent spate of confidence-boosting pop songs is nothing new. Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” both became megahits (and frequent caterwauling victims on American Idol — the truest measure of pop song ubiquity). Yet, the current wave of pep-talk songs differs from its past versions in both style and sheer number. Currently on the Billboard charts, the #1, #5, #6 and #8 songs are all of the “inspirational” variety, with a smattering following after. Pop music works in waves, so this is not wholly surprising (as when the Top 10 were dominated purely by songs featuring T-Pain, or more recently, Pitbull). Here, though, the earnestness of the songs and their simultaneous rise in the wake of bullying news stories seems to suggest a broader force at work. One wonders why we need pop stars to tell us to feel good about ourselves anyways.

One notable change in this generation of confidence-boosters is the change in tempo. There are no ballads in this set, taking their hints from Britney Spears’ “Stronger” rather than the traditional ballad set — more “Rocky” montage than “Chariots of Fire.” We’ll dance/montage our way to feeling better! In that vein, let’s start with the execrable “Firework” by Katy Perry. Lord, it’s awful:

Starting with a painfully bad opening line, “Do you ever feel // like a plastic bag,” the song reflects a perfect exercise in banality. Nothing in the song distinguishes itself, from the Coldplay-cribbing string section to the blandest dance beat this side of Justin Bieber. This, however, is the song’s strength for the listener: this could theoretically be about me, since this could theoretically be anyone! Before you know it, your chest too could have an attached firework bra! (What is it with Katy Perry and novelty bras?) Pop songs are made to be universal, but at some point, the generality of “have higher self-esteem by being yourself!” hurts rather than helps. It only reinforces the idea that specialness is everywhere and therefore, generic. If after all your beautiful, colorful explosions, all anyone has to say is “Ah, ah, ah,” how great a show are you?

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(Note: Video is NSFW, as if the title weren’t enough)

Hipsters are easy to hate. They look ridiculous. They act pretentious as hell. They are so addicted to style and irony that they have time for little else.

Hipsters have been targeted as the “Dead End of Western Civilization,” which seems a bit histrionic, but underscores the general critical disdain for hipsterdom. Everyone, it seems, hates hipsters, even hipsters. Living in Wicker Park — hipster central in Chicago — I can’t tell you how many times I have heard bearded, skinny-jeaned hipsters discuss how much they hate hipsters.

But what exactly do hipsters do to deserve the hate? To me, a hipster is little more than an evolution/hybridization of many previous existing subcultures. The one that most reminds me of hipsters, however, is the dandy movement of the 19th century. Baudelaire describes dandyism, fairly accurately, as an elevation of aesthetic to a religion. Dandies in their time were decried by many outsiders as well, for their superficiality and snobbery with regards to aesthetics, as opposed to the “real issues” of the day.

To this end, I think much of the hatred of hipsters focuses on the uselessness of their existence. What exactly do hipsters produce? Hipsters are often derided for their lack of economic productivity, funded by their parents to live in overpriced apartments from Portland to Williamsburg. They live for the scene, oblivious to the problems of the world. Yet, I would caution anyone who labels a movement as purely aesthetic or narcissistic, since such movements often have far-reaching effects. Dandyism, after all, produced Benjamin Disraeli, as well as writers such as Wilde, Baudelaire, and Byron. My point here is that a movement that seems driven by superficial aesthetics only appears worthless to a society focused on economic production.

The superficiality of the hipster does differ in some sense from previous counter-cultural movements — the scruffy beatniks, the decidedly unkempt hippies — but has deeper roots in other aesthetically driven subcultures. One need only trace the term “hipster” to its origin in the Bop era of jazz, with its roots deep in musical snobbery (a taste for hot jazz, as opposed to big bands or old-timers) and fashion (zoot suits and black turtlenecks), in order to understand that hipsterdom is an attempt to find the authentic, the “cool” as opposed to the “square.” What modern hipsterdom has discovered, to its own dismay, is that trying to find the “cool” is itself inauthentic — “uncool.”

What does the hipster stand for? Irony, music, fashion, the scene. Thus, hipsterdom is less of a specific ideology, so much as it is a posture, a subculture bent on standing for the meaningless. Perhaps the hatred of hipsterdom comes from its obscurity, its refusal to permit entrance from the “square” world, and its embrace of the meaningless in a world overflowing with meaning. This lack of ideology makes the hipster hard to pin down. If a hippie stood for free love and embracing all mankind, the hipster stands for nothing and knows it.

The hipster has appropriated other subcultures and transformed them into merely so many clothes to wear (see here). A keffiyeh goes from symbol of radical Palestinian solidarity, to a fashion statement. A neighborhood goes from gritty working-class to fashionable (and fashionably overpriced), only to be abandoned for the new “hot spot.” Rather than embracing something as “authentic” or “real,” the hipster continues to focus on the “cool,” shifting from one band to the next, one trend to the next, etc., accelerated and aided by the trend-seeking Internet. Where hip-hop or country music seem obsessed with the question of authenticity — exposing fakes, giving real talk,  etc. — hipsters have largely bypassed the question.

Part of what is fascinating about the hipster hegemony is actually the violent reaction of the non-hipster. A hipster may exult in his own taste, addicted to superficiality and meaninglessness, but where exactly is the affront to the mass? The hipster’s very existence is the affront; the fact that this person exists, refusing to participate in the “real world,” perturbs the dominant culture.

I don’t think we know yet exactly what the hipster aesthetic will create. Hipsterdom shifts too often in its tastes and trends to be examined for its social and political outcomes. But in the same way that beatniks provided a counterweight to the dominating culture of Cold War fear and dualism, perhaps the modern hipster will provide a sort of futile rear guard to our dominating culture of economics and globalization. A movement driven by an aesthetic may not appear productive, but is it less productive than the mass culture of infotainment that we regularly consume?

White, upper-middle-class, urban subculture movements have been around as long as there has been a white upper middle class. Hipsterdom is a variation on a theme, one that bothers us because of its embrace of its emptiness. In some ways, hipsters resemble a more literate Jersey Shore, so ensconced in its own aesthetic that it has become foreign to the culture at large.

As we look back on such subcultures — Victorian dandies, Bloomsbury bohemians, Greenwich Village beatniks, San Francisco hippies, London punk — we see the same pursuit of the meaningless, the same shifting tastes, the same snobbish reaction of mass cultures. And yet, as we look back, these groups are often the ones that produce the most interesting art, the most compelling public figures, the most enduring ideas. I’m not saying that hipsters will write the history of the future, but hipsters, by the nature of their constant shift against the “square,” serve a role as counterbalance, a murky reflection of society’s values at large.

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A new Pew study finds that the gender gap in Asian-American interracial marriages is growing. (It is also growing in black relationships in the other direction. There’s plenty of commentary on that subject, but you can start here.) Asian-American females marry men of another race at almost double the rate (~40%) as Asian-American men. This trend has actually increased in past years, despite increased immigration, which lowers overall intermarriage rates (since many immigrants are already married, and 0-generation immigrants are much more likely to remain within an immigrant community).

Interracial marriage rates by ethnicity and gender (Pew Research Center, 2010)

These statistics do have particular relevance for me, an Asian-American man in a relationship with a white woman. (Potato, this is your shout-out!) Sometimes when we’re out, we like to play a game, in which we count the number of Asian-male/white-female couples, and compare it to the number of Asian-female/white-male couples we see. The ratio is usually even more lopsided than the Pew study indicates. (We also play a game where we wonder why attractiveness in Asian-female/white-male couples disproportionately favors the Asian female, but that game is only tangential to the question at hand.)

Why is this? I have a few theories, based on nothing except my own hunches, and it’s worth noting that “Asian-American” covers a wide variety of ethnic groups including Indian, Pakistani, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indonesian, Iranian, Iraqi, Arab, etc. Thus, any generalizations will be just that — generalized. My theories after the break! (more…)

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Leon Lederman, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, once explained how at a lecture he faced an audience member who asked if he had ever seen an atom. At this point, electron microscopes were still advancing, but of course, Lederman’s detectors had “seen” atoms as well as they could be seen. The audience member persisted, “Yes, but have you ever personally seen an atom?” Lederman, flustered, replied, “Have you ever seen the Pope?”

This problem of requiring tactile and tangible proof of some phenomenon before accepting its existence has only gotten worse with the rise of the right-wing noise machine. Empathy is a trait often lost on the right wing, particularly when it forces one to cross ideological boundaries. Just look at the Republican response to Rep. Louise Slaughter’s (D-N.Y.) story of a woman who, without health insurance, had to use her dead sister’s false teeth: “sob story,” “They’re just recycling,” “Da funniest thang evuh!” Let’s set aside for a moment whether an individual’s story should be indicative of a whole movement, and take a look for a second at the lack of empathy. Instead of a logical explanation of the problems inherent in the bill itself (and whether the bill would actually help the woman in question), the response was mocking, insulting and void of any understanding of the woman’s situation.

Yet, when Republicans have a particular, personal cause that makes them close to the issue, in which they have personally experienced its effects, they suddenly find themselves bound to change. Consider Dick Cheney’s support of gay marriage and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or Sarah Palin’s defense of disabled rights. It’s no coincidence that Dick Cheney has a lesbian daughter and that Sarah Palin has a son with Down syndrome. The conservative mentality relies heavily upon personal experience to determine one’s beliefs. When a Tea Party protester gets injured without health insurance, he becomes cause celebre for donations, with no one questioning why unemployment should dictate a lack of health insurance.

This experiential mode of understanding makes it difficult to comprehend problems with a longer timeline or effects far from the original source. For example, running a deficit in hard times appears problematic if one considers the nation’s budget much like one’s personal budget. (“Balance the Federal Checkbook,” as one headline blares.) My personal experience tells me that it is bad to incur debts I do not repay; therefore, the nation should do similarly. This leads right wing commentators to make increasingly stupid statements based on personal experience (such as, my favorite, “Why doesn’t the U.S. just default on its loans?”). The nation’s experience with its finances is very different from a person’s experience, but that seems lost in the discussion.

The way the right wing approaches broader problems — global climate change, health care, economics, civil rights, foreign policy — is so determined by personal experience that alternate opinions cannot be tolerated, unless they have a basis in what the viewer has seen or felt firsthand (“We had a lot of snow this year, so there must not be global warming!”). The contemporary conservative worldview rejects the world of those it cannot understand, whose experiences it cannot process. When conservatives try to “reach out” to other groups, Hispanics being the most obvious example, the discourse varies from tone-deaf to insulting.

This is not to say that empirical evidence is a bad thing, but an inability to use evidence through any lens other than one’s own leads to untenable positions and dangerous misconceptions. Sarah Palin’s advocacy for the disabled may be admirable, but when confronted with other groups that have faced similar discrimination, she cannot “feel their pain.” Ask Sarah Palin about gay marriage, and she’ll cheer the constitutional amendment banning it. Ask Sarah Palin about maligned minority groups, and she’ll say they need to quit whining.

I truly believe that empathy is one of our greatest traits, and in an interconnected world, in which we understand how our actions affect the greater whole, the importance of empathy grows only greater. Rather than simply ignoring empathy, the right wing movement has rejected the opinions of others completely, focusing on only its pure-blood followers. The inability of the right wing to see beyond the blinders of its own experiences hurts our discourse and indicates a treacherous path for future debates.

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Basically everyone I know thinks I am trolling — or at the very least, deluded — when it comes to Taylor Swift.

Blogs I like reading (Vulture), people I like talking about music with (Linus), and many rock critics whose opinions I respect (the Sound Opinions guys) all consider her somewhere between dime-a-dozen pop demi-star and airbrushed garbage.

Thus, I feel I should lay out my defense of Swift, as well as explain some theories behind her mainstream appeal.

Swift’s music grows out of the ’90s suburban country music era — Shania Twain, Leann Rimes, et al. — in which country music, like so many “rural” trappings (stock car racing, SUVs, and cowboy boots), became mainstream. That’s not to say that country was without crossover before; certainly, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline achieved success on the Billboard charts. Nevertheless, the suburban country-pop of the ’90s was epitomized by Twain’s particular brand of feminism, emotionally charged lyrics, and overall smoothness that appealed to a suburban crowd — fitting for the gal from Windsor, Ontario. It’s no surprise that Swift cites Twain as her “biggest influence.

As rougher Southern artists, who might have been country artists in another era, gravitated towards rock (My Morning Jacket, Drive-by Truckers, Black Crowes, Band of Horses, etc.), country became dominated by the slicker sound of the suburban country star.

Enter Swift, 12 or 13, recording demos and trying to write songs. At age 14, sitting in math class, she starts writing her first hit single, “Tim McGraw,” the kind of bittersweet love song that teenagers love to write and listen to. The difference is that Swift’s songs are both honest and evocative, showing an in-depth knowledge of the construct of the country pop song. This aspect is important when viewing Swift’s pop-star rise; her gift is primarily as a song-writer, not a singer. RCA’s original deal with her kept her from recording on her own, and Nashville establishment first recognized her for her song-writing. She brings to mind the young song-writers of the Brill Building — Neil Diamond, Goffin and King, Burt Bacharach — churning out pop songs.

Lyrical analysis after the break!

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Well, we’ve already done best songs of the decade (Stendhal list here, Linus list here).

Let’s try best albums.

Top ten, no order:

Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Sometimes a band’s conflicts lead to trauma and the end of creativity. Every so often, they lead to acts of genius. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the latter. Haunting, with the right amount of Jim O’Rourke production foolery to bring alt-folk back to the future. Along with Kid A, this stands as the entryway into the fragmented, technological and alien world of the 21st century.

Track:  “Jesus, Etc.”

Radiohead – Kid A

Speaking of which, it’s practically cliche to say that this is one of the greatest albums of all time, but why the hell not? I would point out, though, that the 00s have led to a decline in melody and a rise in the focus on rhythm — whether in hip hop, pop or rock. In this case, the layered polyrhythms and hidden downbeats frame a world out of sync, out of balance. Yorke’s vocals never sounded better, and although OK Computer opened the door, this is the album that separated Radiohead from the league of ordinary bands.

Track: “Everything in its Right Place”

Bruce Springsteen – The Rising

When an American icon is destroyed, it takes an American icon to speak back. Harold Bloom suggested that no work has yet stepped into the void to respond to 9/11, but I think Springsteen does the job as he does any job — workman-like, plaintive, heartfelt. These are the songs of a man punched in the heart, who doesn’t know what to do. If I think back to the helplessness of the first days of the post-9/11 world, I cannot help but think of this album’s conflicted moans. Sure there’s too many toe-tappers, but Springsteen could only do what he knew how to do.

Track: “My City of Ruins (live)

The New Pornographers – Mass Romantic

I fell in love with Neko Case when I heard Mass Romantic. “Indie rock” was just another confusing genre with no borders and no standard-bearer. I still said the word “pop” with a disdainful sneer. That changed with the New Pornographers. They were strange, harmonically complex, and unapologetic pop, of a strain that I had never heard. Yet even years later, hearing “Letter from an Occupant” brings the feeling of toe-tapping, sing-along despite its relative age. All the power pop to follow is still playing catch-up to this album.

Track: “My Slow Descent into Alcoholism”

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