Fluxing miscellany. If you're looking for top 10 film lists, click here.

Monday, May 31, 2010

"Turn It On"/"Cut Your Hair"



Imagine this: it's 1994. You're moderately fascinated by the whole idea of "indie rock," which is about to crest faster than the hair metal it was allegedly going to replace. Right now, though, it looks like it's about to take over the world; what you don't know is that in five years Pavement will be as dead as Kurt Cobain's about to be and a record contract will no longer be a matter of just seeming alternative cred-ish enough. As a dutiful, zeitgeisty representative of your generation, you're watching MTV. Beavis and Butthead are on, and they're mocking a guy with orange hair who's singing about jelly. That song will become a novelty single, and The Flaming Lips will, for a long time, seem like one-hit wonders.

But realize this: Beavis and Butthead are the audience college rock wants to evangelize, and they're the reason Stephen Malkmus never took over the world. They're aware that there's this thing going on called "college music," and they're appropriately dubious about it. This video's beyond brilliant; it's the final word on the subject. B&B sway along; 35 seconds in, Butthead stops swaying. "Uh-oh," he says, "I think this is 'college music.'" "Yeah," agrees Beavis; "you can tell because that dude has orange hair." Spot-fucking-on; plus you can also tell "because they're in a field." And Butthead comes in one more time for the kill: "How come he keeps singing about these people he knows? Who gives a rat's ass." Beavis starts mocking the song: "I know a guy! His hair is orange! He sucks!" It's about as succinct an attitude as you could have to the most self-righteous proponents of indie rock at the time: why are they singing nonsense? Why do they think their music is inherently special? Why are they on MTV, right next to Metallica?

"She Don't Use Jelly" is a totally decent song as far as it goes, which is to say it should be annoyingly "quirky" but is just crunchy and fun enough to get away with it. As it happened, Beavis and Butthead mocking it was the best thing that had happened to the Lips' career at that point, pushing the band to a new level of fame/temporary record label security. They ended up on "Beverly Hills 90210," and Warner Bros. kept trying to cross-platform them in the oddest places: it's safe to say "Bad Days" didn't belong in Batman Forever (not that anything deserved that fate), nor "Buggin'" in Austin Powers. But it's not the most obvious single on the album; that would be "Turn It On," a better song that's worth thinking about at length. [For the purposes of this argument, I'm basically going to have to ignore everything the Lips did before 1993 or after 2002. Deal with it.]

Generally speaking, Wayne Coyne is a weird but far from impenetrable lyricist; he's singing about superficially outre subjects (girls fighting robots, beestings), but he's always transparently thinking about maintaining mental optimism in a world of mortality and evil; it's Camus for indie rockers. He doesn't normally peddle satire or oblique lyrics. But "Turn It On" is sly mokcery, and thus kind of an anomaly in the catalogue; normally, Coyne is neither oblique nor mean-spirited. It's a kick-ass song, which doesn't hurt, but it's also a promo for the band.

"Turn It On" is the first song on Transmissions From The Satellite Heart. In the first verse, Wayne's just hanging: "Put your face up to the window," he tells his friend. "Tell me all about your gay folks." Fine (whatever that means). But in the second verse, it gets weird. "Put your face where we can see it/Put it on a show on cable/You can really show it all there/Turn it on when you are able." OK, so: there's an alternative music culture spreading on cable (this is before MTV went to hell) and the Lips want their cut of the money. So as a conscientious cultural consumer, right now the best thing you could do is watch TV; it will enrich you, and most specifically this (carefully unnamed) channel (which you watch "when you ain't got no relation to all those other stations") will push culture forward. This is kind of a horrible, cynical thing to say, and on one level Coyne's kidding (no band that had been playing the label game could've been that naive at that point), but he's also half serious: the band needs you to get them put into rotation. And that's exactly what happened: the song prophecies itself. (There's also the slight but real possibility that The Flaming Lips, like a shocking number of people, were generally optimistic about MTV as a force for cultural good in 1993. That didn't last.)

In retrospect, bands like Mudhoney (Mudhoney!) were supposed to be the beneficiaries and heirs of alt-rock, shaking up the record labels etc. In practice, The Flaming Lips — the last band you'd expect out of the post-Nirvana signings bonanza — toughed it out on a major label and eventually became stoner festival favorites and almost certainly one of the more profitable American touring acts. This is weird; no one in 1993 probably could've seen that one coming. And because of the peculiarly snarky nature of "Turn It On," it slots nicely alongside other meta-dispatches from the music wars. Most specifically: "Cut Your Hair."

I'd heard from someone a long time ago that when Beavis and Butthead watched "Cut Your Hair," they screamed "TRY HARDER"; regrettably, this turned out not to be true. Regardless: "Cut Your Hair" is generally considered the snarkiest meta-song about '90s music, what with all the talk about "special new bands" and the death of metal ("NO BIG HAIR"). But "Turn It On" is even more assaultive: Malkmus is being unusually direct (for him, anyway) but Coyne's pretending to invoke Timothy Leary and trippy alt-culture — in the name of cable airplay. This is a good joke, especially now that the Lips are the career band institution they are.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gawker/HRO/Tumblr

[NB: I just wrote this this afternoon because it's been preying on my mind for literally years and I didn't want to draft this and then never post it because I'm too lazy to edit it. There's a very high chance I'll be dipping in and tweaking it for the next few weeks. That said: let's rock. Also noted: as Mike D'Angelo points out, I don't "make the case that this sensibility is infecting general discourse," which is absolutely true: this is about some very, very niche stuff that has almost nothing to do with most of what's out there. This is some real ephemeral, micro stuff afflicting a tiny corner of the internet that -- demographically -- happens to be my corner, and frankly if you don't already have a good working grasp of Gawker/Tumblr/HRO I'd stop right now. Also: yes, this is a tad over-the-top and disproportionate. I acknowledge that, but that doesn't mean my vehemence isn't real.]

In the summer of 2007, due to a lot of unreplicable circumstances (long story), I was very comfortable financially without having to do much work. I was living in my very first apartment, a large, hardwood floor, nice-ish set-up in a terrible part of Brooklyn (the Bushwick-Aberdeen stop on the L, which is 13 stops into Brooklyn; I was a block from the projects). Since it was summer and I was still in college, I didn't know a lot of people; most of them had gone back to wherever they were from. So it was just me, my then-girlfriend and my laptop. Which is how I spent the summer of 2007 watching Emily Gould have a mental breakdown online.

Before we go any further, let me say that I don't have any real interest in Gould as a living, breathing human being; I say this because, judging by her Tumblr (which frequently consists of her freaking out about people saying mean things about her), she has the Google Alerts turned on like none other. I'm more interested in the language she helped create, which I personally feel is destroying the capacity for intelligent thought on the internet one listicle at a time. But this isn't really a personal thing; I'm not accusing her (or anyone) of deliberate mendacity/being a bad person. (I mean, she well could be, but that's none of my business.)

At the time, Gould seemed like a force for good. I'd been reading Gawker off and on since 2003 [IT SAID 2000, FIXED]; since I almost never have a TV, it seemed like good mental junk food and it fed into my obsession with New York City while I was still feeling stuck in Austin. Initially, Gawker was fairly phenomenal: they did snarky gossip about Manhattan media non-entities unknown to the rest of the country, creating their own mythology as they went. Then Gawker seemed to be jumping the shark (although in retrospect they weren't even close to their current nadir); it was unclear what they were focusing on (the site basically devolved into reblogging bullet points with commentary), and the schtick was getting calcified. Gawker went from a site with a narrative to a site selling only one thing: its voice. And that voice was, for a while, Emily Gould.

What Gould was doing seemed like a reasonable response to the position she'd been placed in: she would write completely bullshit posts about her personal life (accurately tagged "Emily's LiveJournal"), then she would engage in what seemed like passive-aggressive sniping against evil Gawker overlord Nick Denton (the Rupert Murdoch of New Media), and in the last two weeks -- after giving notice and serving out her term -- she went totally bats. Before Twilight and Teams Edward/Jacob, there was Team Emily in the Gawker comment squadron. The best part? No one in the real world cared at all. It was the most entertaining teapot tempest ever. (Aside: blogging at the pace Denton demands takes incredible mental stamina and the ability to write literately fast, which is one of the harder things you can do day-in/day-out. It's hard to really hate any of the Gawker writers per se; they're all clearly people of above-average intelligence hired to do basically demeaning work.)

With all the fun, I failed to notice the real point: Gould came up with and perfected a house style that Gawker now ruthlessly imparts to all its writers, to a degree that's kind of incredible. It's easier to imitate than explain, but basically it's passive-aggressive finickiness disguised as wit. Contractions are generally avoided, giving the prose an affectedly flat cadence that seems "deliberate" and "not like it was written in ten minutes to meet the insane post quota." Punctuation is soiled with great regularity; question marks are used where there's no question, exclamation points proliferate like a five-year-old shouting. The oddly childlike nature of the prose -- its deliberate suggestion of faux-naivete -- blends snark with tweeness, which is about as bad a mixture as I can think of. Chuck Klosterman got the tone absolutely down: "If you've spent any time trolling the blogosphere, you've probably noticed a peculiar literary trend: the pervasive habit of writers inexplicably placing exclamation points at the end of otherwise unremarkable sentences. Sort of like this! This is done to suggest an ironic detachment from the writing of an expository sentence! It's supposed to signify that the writer is self-aware! And this is idiotic. It's the saddest kind of failure."

The problem with this kind of writing is that it precludes actually writing anything funny, or surprising, or fresh. It's an updated version of the problem George Orwell nailed in "Politics and the English Language" (which I realize may well be the most overquoted essay pulled out by anyone complaining about bad writing, but it's still the best): "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." This language isn't slovenly, but it's self-satisfied even when it's blatantly terrified. Example: a few months ago, a blogger synopsizing "The Hills" -- apparently mandatory for any website that wants traffic -- referred to it, pseudo-humorously, as a "Pynchonian text." This literally makes no sense, and there's no bullshit analogy she pulls out to extrapolate or justify it; it's just a reference whose sole function is to say "Look! Although I'm blogging about 'The Hills,' I'm actually a serious, literate person exercising my analytical/linguistic skills in the name of frivolous careerist bullshit so that someday I can write about something I care about. Just because I like this show doesn't make me an idiot." Which is sad, but doesn't make it any less annoying to read. And this stuff is all over the internet as a default style. I hate it so much: it makes personal tone a matter of robotic consistency.

Think I'm getting needlessly worked up over nothing? I'm just getting started. (Feel free to get some more coffee/beer; this is going to take a while if you have the fortitude to tough it out with me. God knows I'm sheepish about how long this is.) That, more or less, was Phase I of Language Stuff That Makes Me Hate The Internet More Every Day. (Trust me: no one hates the internet more than people who work "on" it in some capacity, and that goes double for me.) Phase II arrived with Tumblr, the easy-blogging format that actively celebrates incoherence, illiteracy and using loooooooots and looooooooooots of vowels and CAPITAL LETTERS FOR EMPHASISSSSSS in the name of "sincerity." The company's public face -- its optimal user, its alpha and omega -- is one Meaghan O'Connell, who I'm sure is a perfectly nice person but whose writing makes me want to claw my eyes out (or maybe just spill coffee on her iPhone, not sure which). At the top of her blog it says "Life is hard. Here is someone," which sounds nice and maybe like hard-earned wisdom -- life is difficult, here I stand with existential fortitude ready to battle it out -- and then comes falling apart with the sub-hed: "My name is Meaghan O'Connell and I am 25 and I live in Brooklyn and work for Tumblr and here goes nothing." All the Emily-isms are there: the deliberate overuse of "and" as a cutesy affectation (what those of us who sweated it out in Latin learned to refer to as "polysyndeton," technically), the conflation of name/location/technology as an emotional statement, the implication that we're just getting someone's bared soul and something brave is happening here.

If Emily Gould made "oversharing" fashionable (or controversial, or at least a buzz topic, or maybe just a stupid word), she was at least trying to write about it directly and clearly. Tumblr ups the ante, throwing every piece of moronic internet jargon and slang into the mix, shaking vigorously and downing the whole sewage cocktail with relish. I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time close-reading this stuff or providing examples: it mostly speaks for itself. Meaghano (Meaghano!) would like you to believe that this has a lot to do with David Foster Wallace (a common delusion among Tumblr practitioners). Hence posts like this (there's way more where that came from, trust me), which invite us to contemplate that DFW's polemics against irony/investment in being honest and kind even when it's difficult/unfashionable have finally blossomed amidst a thousand dancing-cat .gifs.

Because that's what Tumblr comes down to. There's a vile sub-section of Tumblr-istas who I'm not going to name because they're crazily vigilant about monitoring themselves and prone to throwing long, maudlin fits about "people being mean on the internet" and so on and I don't need the trouble, but here's what they do: 90% of their posts will contain some kind of image (frequently animal based), LOLCATS-speak and/or songs that are "meaningful" that they have a lot of "feelings" about. (The fact that the word "feelings" has been rebooted as something inherently positive is completely insane, but let that pass.) Or they'll talk about "The Hills." Or whatever. But then -- like an '80s sitcom in sweeps season -- there will be A Very Special Post occasionally, about something that's clearly emotionally important to the person writing, generally concerned with a) a past relationship in its failing stages b) childhood traumas and fears remembered, frequently family-related c) getting drunk and experiencing a mental breakthrough. The prose will often emerge like a groggy, hungover New Yorker refugee: the prose will be "terse" (or someone's idea of terse), frequently in the present tense, laced with heavy doses of the maudlin and faux life lessons wisdom. We are then supposed to applaud the Tumblr person, who has proven that they can skim the tides of crap pop culture without losing their intellectual/moral seriousness; they're just saving themselves for the big moment, when they can speak for a generation.

It's all pretty terrible.

Let me be unambiguously clear, and perhaps unnecessarily harsh: if there was some kind of hypothetical scenario in which the late and sorely missed (we need him more than ever, honestly) DFW was invited to sit down and contemplate the contents of our leading Tumblr-ists/-istas, there's a 99.7% chance he'd be appalled at the spectacle of people congratulating themselves for sharing every last thought they have, especially the heavy emotional ones that they haven't really thought through. Among other things, Tumblr celebrates drunken babbling and deep feelings; it prefers them, because it's "sincere." (In other words: the bloggers may want to be DFW, but mostly they're an even shittier Dave Eggers.) And this is stupid; it's the opposite of rigorous self-contemplation. It's narcissism disguised as something brave and positive, and as community-building. Worse yet: it's actively corrupting the minds of potentially decent writers, turning them instead into little more than riffers of the moment.

Now: am I saying this is Emily Gould's fault? OK, maybe it is a little (although I doubt she thought people were going to be looking up to/imitating her). But this Phase II mixture is way more toxic than her original brew because it's perilously close to being completely incoherent; when you start labeling the paterfamilias "LOLDAD," it's time to pack it up and go home. It celebrates the worst of the internet as its crowning achievement, and it's freakishly self-righteous in the process.

This, finally, brings us to Carles and Hipster Runoff. The Carles "project" basically involves pissing all over everything, all the time; it's kind of hilarious. What Carles does is talk about "relevant" music and what we can sloppily shorthand "hipster lifestyle choices and accessories" in a deliberately obtuse tone, combining newly coined words with text speak and daring you to take it seriously. His biggest weapon: scare quotes, deployed frequently. He knows what he's doing though: he doesn't vomit them up as randomly as the Gould-ites and Tumblrs use exclamation points. What Carles has figured out is that putting scare quotes around even something so ordinary as, say, "going to a movie" points out how self-conscious someone who's invested in a "lifestyle" can be about how every decision and action they take will reflect on them. This is a reasonable thesis. (The fact that Carles predated the rise of Tumblr and accurately predicted what it would develop into is kind of remarkable.) His use of text-speak isn't celebratory; it's openly derisive and vaguely terroristic. It's an appropriately contemptuous response to the state of things; the fact that the Tumblr-ites have appropriated some of his language (especially the practice of using "bro" as a suffix -- cf. "dadbro") without seeming to get the joke tells you everything.

I used to really despise Hipster Runoff -- it seemed unbelievably self-loathing -- but lately it's grown on me, especially when "Carles" (or whoever's manning the helm; he, too, has a house style that can be learned) just riffs on "news reports," taking the logic Gawker has adopted (i.e., that the art of media aggregation and commentary is one of style rather than actually contributing anything to the conversation) to its logical conclusion, refracting everything through one myopic lens. The difference is that Carles' lens is actually funny, while Gawker is just a deeply cynical exercise in seeing how many hits one alleged photo of Britney Spears getting drunk can rack up. This basically destructive attitude has alarmed some people: in a long, breathlessly sincere missive on the subject, Nick Sylvester seems to literally propose that this kind of attitude will filter down to the children of current hipsters and deprive their childhoods of joy (" Why won't you let my kids be kids? They will be the better for it. And you were too--and I'm so sad you don't see that. I'm so sad you don't remember how fucking hard it is, being that age, not knowing fuck-all how anything or anybody works, let alone yourself."), which would be fair if it weren't the case that 99.9999999% of the global population will never come within striking distance of the site. Once again, allying yourself with emotion for its own sake gets the better of a writer who clearly is not without talent.

And so personal internet writing in 2010 is an unholy beast indeed, combining bad slang, sloppy emotions and an alarmingly monolithic sensibility (allowing for regional deviations). I don't have a constructive suggestion for any of this (plus in the Big Internet Picture I'm basically a nobody, so who cares) except the obvious: write often and try to improve, think hard, learn to create unflashy but not putridly functional prose that will allow you to express yourself lucidly. All of which seems to have gotten lost somewhere, which is why Emily Gould haunts my dreams: like Morrissey, she started something she couldn't finish, but other people are perfectly happy to finish it for her.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The National, High Violet

Last year, The National released "So Far Around The Bend" on the Dark Was The Night compilation; they stated it was a one-off, a musical direction they wouldn't be pursuing any further. With its elaborate Nico Muhly arrangement and jaunty, near-syncopated bass-line, it's by far the cheeriest song they've ever released, flute solo and all. The lyrics firmly sketch out what being moderately successful but constantly depressed in New York feels like; the key chorus line is "Now there's no leaving New York." The song isn't pulling the old trick of juxtaposing something appalling with incongruously peppy music; instead, what it suggests is that getting pumped about your dejection means you're doing it right and are not alone. The National make depression fun. Their shows are the opposite of the pin-drop reverential silence Tindersticks command, with an audience primed for — as Matt Berninger sings on High Violet — the "summer lovin' torture party."

With the exception of their debut album and about half of The Virginia EP, The National have never released an inessential album: they're capable of pretty much everything but happiness. After sublimating the occasional screaming fits of Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers and Alligator into the coiled restraint of Boxer, something had to give. The result is High Violet — their fourth album that's inscrutable the first time you hear it and grows more insidious with every listen.

Tonally, the closest antecedent is the Cherry Tree EP: the stalker-ish "All Dolled-Up In Straps" and brooding "Cherry Tree" are among their most dramatic material but don't even begin to prepare you for the sonic mess here. The difference this time is that the songs aren't concealing their hands the way The National normally do; this is full-blooded maximalism, to an extent that's disconcerting. When they played opener "Terrible Love" on "Late Night With Jimmy Kimmel," they appeared to have taken a page from the U2 playback; the guitars had The Edge written over them, and it seemed way over-the-top. On record, though, those guitars are more of an obfustactory squall than anthemic propellers. "It's a terrible love and I'm walking with spiders," Berninger repeats — a hell of an opener, and an announcement that the oft-elliptical-but-basically-clear lyrics of The National have finally reached a divide in which very straightforward, potentially embarrassing statements alternate with blatant nonsense. Berninger's coining words like crazy now: "Bloodbuzz," "Lemonworld," "Vanderlyle." It suits him.

So The National aren't interested in repeating themselves. Hence it's a schizoid record, split in half, a journey from confusion to clarity. If it were an LP, the break would come after the reasonably straightforward "Bloodbuzz Ohio"; the weird but clean guitar tone that opens "Lemonworld" (which, god bless them, features something that might quite possibly be a bandoleon) announces we've made it out of the haze. The mix gets a lot less overwhelmed at that point.

The two densest songs are "Terrible Love" and "Little Faith," both of which might give you pause the first time you hear them. If you were already inclined to dislike The National, you might uncharitably deem them "florid." With its swirling cello, minor keys and muttered depression ("Now I'm stuck in New York and the rain's coming down"), it's lushly dark. One of The National's traditionally-blue-blood-named women is present, of course: "Don't be bitter Anna, I know how you think." (Would that be the first album's "Anna Freud" perhaps? But related to Karen and Ada all the same.) The capper to that is a rare straightforward rhyme: "You're waiting for Radio City to sink." The city's drowning.

Water's everywhere on this record: "you must be loving your life in the rain," Berninger tells what I take to be an absent lover on "England." The opposite of water (both bodies of and/or precipitation) is The City — assuredly New York. It's strange to think of this as a "summer record": it's not breezy, or dancy, or celebratory, or any of those other things we associate with sunny jams. But it's an honest reflection of what it feels like to slog through an NYC summer at its worst.

Though some misguided types would have you believe The National are just dressed-up blank rock or Nebraska brooders (the fact that they covered Springsteen confirms some people's worst suspicions), on High Violet the band sounds slightly less sui generis and mildly more attentive to outside influences. Two in particular stand out. One's a certain strain of Copland-esque Americana, where the held notes of horns or woodwinds conveys the infinite promise of a wide open prairie etc. etc. You hear it all over the album, most notably in the horn bursts and undertones of "England." And though Boxer had a lot of arrangements, High Violet always flirts with excess: at times it seems the band is not so much playing with an orchestra as that an orchestra has The National playing alongside. (The "worst" track — there's no true bummers — is "The Runaway," if only for the simple reason that the live radio version that I lived off of for a year is already perfect in its simplicity; the cello on the album version is fine but unnecessary, and Berninger's vocals are inexplicably slightly more restrained.)

The other influence, oddly enough, appears to be the lovely British band Doves, or at least someone like them: the strings of "Little Faith" vaguely resemble the strings (and, more importantly, atmosphere) of "The Man Who Told Everything," while the ethereal "Conversation 16" — with its major chords, back-up singers and vaguely electronic feel — floats like the band at their most stripped-down.

What else? There's the usual depressed zingers, more than you can handle ("Keep my head in the oven so you'd know where to find me" on "Conversation 16" is a particularly good one), and some of the non sequiturs hit the mark with Malkmus-esque accuracy ("We'll play nuns versus priests until somebody cries" on "Little Faith"). There are looped outro vocals, suggesting someone in the band's been listening to Animal Collective. There's "England," which sums up the depressing suspicion that someone you love is having sex with strangers in a foreign country better than anything I've heard. There's humidity, despair and — ultimately — the suggestion that the best rocking comes when you're too depressed to focus on anything else. The National may be the best band in America right now.