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

Monday, November 29, 2010

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

[I put this up in very rough form mostly to be able to look at it in a format that wouldn't make my eyes bleed. You could pretend this isn't here until I take this bracketed disclaimer down; this is definitely a "work in progress."]

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy begins with the rhetorical question "Could we get much higher," spends nearly 70 minutes proving yes we can, then ends with a nice round of applause. The applause is Kanye's acknowledgment of his excellence, but it's also the tail end of the Gil Scott-Heron sample closing out the album: the response comes from a small but appreciative turnout, suggesting Kanye inexplicably still thinks he's undervalued. And in a sense he is. A partial list of the stuff he hasn't done is stab someone in full view at the Vibe Awards (like 50 Cent compatriot Young Buck), rape or assault anyone (like uncountable NFL players), or indeed do anything worse than talk some shit about George W. Bush on national TV (in a sentiment that would've been vigorously and unthinkingly applauded "Real Time with Bill Maher") and interrupt Taylor Swift, who's sold 13+ records million worldwide, made $45 million this year and presumably isn't crying into her beer about this. Michael Vick? Awesome football player without much sympathy for dogs. Kanye West? World's leading asshole. Go figure.

So Kanye certainly has a point in wondering why "South Park" spent a whole episode mocking him when his sins are venial rather than mortal; he finds himself seemingly more valued as a cultural punching bag than as a musician. That goes some of the way to explaining My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's musical aggressiveness and lyrical defensiveness. Unfortunately, Kanye's version of "defensiveness" is talking about his dick relentlessly. He's never been shy about sharing his views on higher education (overrated, financially disadvantageous), AIDS (quite possibly a government conspiracy), his mom (awesome) and materialism (fun). None of the positions he's taken could be considered intellectually responsible, but they've all been presented in lively, upbeat fashion. With their loose academic theme, the upbeat trilogy of The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation presented a Kanye engaged with the world around him. With the title change and emphasis on broadcasts from Planet Kanye, 808s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy are determinedly solipsistic and way less ebullient; the music pushes further, but lyrically Kanye's retreating from empathy even as his technique keeps picking up.

That makes the dour sexuality foregrounded here kind of a drag. When Prince was filthy it was funny because of how far he went; when Kanye talks dirty, that mostly means he wants to say "pussy" a lot. The lowlight is a three-minute Chris Rock "skit" consisting of a grateful post-coital man asking his girlfriend how she "reupholstered" her pussy, how she learned how to talk dirty, etc. "Yeezy taught me" is the unvarying response; Rock's grateful response "Yeezy taught you well" is about as creepy and sad as it gets. These are easily the worst three minutes of Kanye's official discography (yes, even worse than "Drunk And Hot Girls"). For all his bravado, Kanye isn't terribly specific on what, exactly, makes his dick the one to end all dicks: he appears to be interested in having sex with the lights on (as evidenced in "All Of The Lights" and the "fuck with the lights on" breakdown on "Hell Of A Life"), which is setting the bar fairly low bragaddacio-wise. The freakiest thing here for real is Nicki Minaj's intro, and that's mostly because she's capable of being really terrifying.

I'm being a little deliberately obtuse: "All Of The Lights" is about having sex with the lights on, but it's also a defiant statement of pressing on, of wanting the spotlight on you to assert you're here more than ever despite public shaming. "It's nice Rihanna is still OK," a friendly sarcastically noted, but certainly Kanye knows when using her chorus against his narrative of a spouse abuser. (On both this and "Blame Game," he — for the first time — sings from another male's first-person perspective, allowing him some distance; it's telling that whatever's bothering him, he can't talk about it specifcally and has to resort to narration.) The idea, presumably, is a heady mix of artistic ambition, sexual restlessness and the generic imperative to "push hip-hop's boundaries." But song length, in and of itself, is not inherently ambitious: a lot of songs here go 5+ minutes without developing musically, which is disappointing from the creator of "Gone" (arguably the five-and-a-half best minutes of aughts songwriting). Given all the dick talk, it's hard not to think that song length=dick length=ambition, at least in Kanye's mind, which isn't the case.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a very good album: in pure recording terms, it has the special sheen of someone with very expensive mixing boards who knows precisely what to do with all of them. Musically, Kanye's always endorsed stealing from whatever genre: he's as likely to sample Curtis Mayfield as he is King Crimson (!) or (as he does on "Blame Game") Aphex Twin. The "first rapper with a benz and a backpack" understands that he's playing both to mainstream hip-hop listeners and fussy, more underground-inclined fans, and that his audience is more racially balanced than most. I'm just guessing here, but in terms of pop stardom Kanye is beloved both by white collegiate types, NPR listeners and the passing booming cars of Bushwick, where I live. That's not a bad trifecta, and it lets him sample whatever he wants while consciously rewriting what "the black musical tradition" might mean.

Part of what's interesting about Fantasy is how explicitly Kanye seems to be modeling himself on peak '70s Stevie Wonder: as a one-man auteur drawing upon black and white musical traditions in equal measure for a crossover audience. He is, in fact, all that, but this isn't Songs In The Key Of Life; it''s a frequently brilliant album with lots of musical dead patches and too many guest verses. The album originated with the idea of paying tribute to mid-90s East Coast hip-hop; you can here that on the many repeating, basically static verses given from person to person. You can sense the album's rumored origins as a Pete Rock-produced, '90s East Coast tribute in the emphasis on verse after verse: more than ever, this is Kanye's most rap-oriented album, even as the song lengths and music call that categorization into question. Most of the guests are good (though Jay-Z's verse on "Monster" is kind of sad and dispiriting), but they're not all necessary, and they bend to Kanye's themes more often than not. One of his great hosted guests was Paul Wall on "Drive Slow." Wall's good at pretty much one thing only — proselytizing for grills to fuck up the inside of your mouth as bad as his — but Kanye let him do it uninterrupted, a generosity towards someone with completely different interests. It's hard to find a similar instance here,

Slave imagery runs rampant, from Kanye's modest self-description on "Gorgeous" ("the soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing") to the comparison of gang bangs to plantation workers ("and if we run trains we all in the same gang/Runaway slaves on a chain gang"). A crossover musician with a message, Kanye's sense of history is firmly one of racial wrongs and omissions, which is interesting and justifiable, but kind of queasiness-inducing when tied to his own sense of overinflated wrongs. (Not even going to touch his obsession with "white girls" and attendant apparent guilt. Apparently something's even worse when the lady's non-black.) He worries about what hip-hop is, mourns Michael Jackson reads some terrible poetry by Chloe Mitchell. The more he says how much he doesn't give a fuck, the more clear it becomes how desperately pissed off, paranoid and implosion-ready he is. Kanye's ego used to be his rocket: it was fun to brag along him. Now it's an albatross.

The most compactly successful song is "Power" and the best "Lost In The World" (more on that in a second). The undeniable centerpiece is "Runaway," the nine-minute behemoth of gorgeous self-loathing. The stark piano is gorgeous, the repeated "Reactions!" zipping from speaker-to-speaker unnerving like a mixtape DJ with sinister intentions, disrupting the prettiness like a sudden paint slash across a perfect white canvas. For some reason Pusha-T sounds exactly like Kanye (you want to see true egotism in action, start there). The three-minute outro, however, is pretty much a repeat of "Robocop" but much more flowery; the idea seems to be to say "See, I've confessed to being an asshole, but look at the pretty music I can make," which is kind of distasteful.

"Lost In The World," the final and best song (barring an extended sample outro) mashes up Bon Iver, pounding drums that can only be called "tribal," chanting voices and a repeated, urgent question: "Who will survive in America?" This is not a bad question to ask at this moment, and it's the only one Kanye asks that might strike workaday listeners as relevant. The song's so exciting it doesn't really matter that half of this is middle-school gibberish ("You're my angel, you're my demon" — brought to you by Dan Brown, presumably); it's all motion to the end, open to the outside world for once. This is a frequently near-great album, but ambition isn't execution until the end.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Social Network, Round 2

A month ago, I argued about The Social Network for a solid 45 minutes with Mike, one of the few friends my age who's actually been climbing the career ladder uninterrepedly since graduation. Three weeks away from moving from New York City to New Orleans in pursuit of a better job, he was way more qualified than me to weigh in on the vexing issue of whether or not the film's Mark Zuckerberg (who, let's stress, is basically fictional) is the hero or villain. For Mike, Zuckerberg was clearly defensible for a simple reason: no one got hurt. Eduardo Saverin currently has a 5% stake in Facebook worth $1.3 billion; the Winklevoss twins got a $65 million settlement. No one involved's strapped for cash; this was an abstract tussle for cultural cachet, not a truly despicable piece of corporate crime. Mike feels the same abstract urge to take risks and do whatever's necessary to move up not because he's fighting for his economic life — he'd be covered — but precisely because it's something he has the option of doing.

I argued the exact opposite for 45 minutes (that Zuckerberg's the loser, lost and alienated from his only friends), and we both had legions of supporting details. It was amazing we could both argue opposite sides for 45 minutes without either of us breaking down, and it made me want to see the movie again, trying to zero in on "what the film's about." Ambiguity seems to be the point: the reason the ethical rights and wrongs can't easily be sorted out is because they don't have real, firmly rooted moral precedents. You can't measure the lasting value of Facebook this early in its existence: there's simply no way to tell what it'll be, or how long it'll be a subject of worldwide obsession.

"We don't know what it is yet," Zuckerberg keeps insisting, and the film agrees. How can you evaluate something when there's no reasonable metrics in place to measure value? Facebook crashed the Harvard servers and made Zuckerberg the world's youngest billionaire by tapping into a need most people had never previously known they could feel. The movie proposes it's an overwhelming, sexually motivated urge for horny college students, but it could be any of the things the site does (allow you to snigger at less fortunate high school acquaintances or envy more successful ones, keep in touch with people you've met once for no apparent reason, etc). And it's seven years old. You could argue there's comparable internet precedents even in this foreshortened, but size matters.

The first lawsuit: whether or not Zuckerberg stole the idea from the Winklevoss twins, stalling them because he knew being first was more important. But that's not quite clear: "If you had invented Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook," Zuckerberg says in a particularly Mamet-y moment. His argument isn't that he didn't steal the germ of their idea; it's more that they presented the goal in a hamfisted, ineffective way (posting traditional Harvard studs for the presumed universal adulation of young ladies everywehre). Zuckerberg's big lightning bolt — the final piece of the concept he strains to grope for — is a sublimated, simple one line question about people's relationship status. It's the difference between a hard sell and a (sorry) inception. Given that his code was entirely different and that the Winklevoss' site would (in the film's conception) almost certainly have failed, does it matter Zuckerberg took a raw idea, made it substantially better and refused to give even token financial compensation to its source? It's unanswerable.

The second lawsuit: did Zuckerberg dick former best friend Savarin out from reasons of sullen resentment? Probably, the movie suggests: Zuckerberg sometimes disputes testimony, but most of the time everyone agrees on what's being said. You can take the linear narrative at face value, the same way Zuckerberg does while demonstrating his utmost contempt for the proceedings: the truth is simply irrelevant to the larger enigma. He did something evil (in the film's telling), but it's yet another lesson on why you should always read what you're signing, so it's hard to feel that bad for the wealthy Savarin.

Facebook's impact and financial value and ability to exploit people's self-created needs are simply immeasurable, the kind of dilemma sure to drive an OCD type like David Fincher nuts. All the verbal fussiness and back-and-forth is an increasingly frantic skirmish to avoid staring the informational void face-on. In Zodiac, Jake Gyllenhaal became increasingly the only one who cared, quantifying one thing for the record long after people had stopped paying attention. In The Social Network, the instigator at the center doesn't care about sorting out what he does; his obsession will be many people's mess to clean up. That's what scares Fincher and Sorkin, I guess: something that can't be measured. That weird, sickly horror film patina — the bags under Eisenberg's are the biggest since Tak Fujimoto shot Chris Cooper like a monster in Breach — is panic at the unknown. Fair enough.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pinkerton

Pitchfork's review of the deluxe reissue of Pinkerton is pretty infuriating for a number of reasons, but the main problem here is the eternal one: what do we do with Rivers Cuomo? How do you evaluate a new Weezer song in 2010? Here's a guy who came swinging with one album of radio-ready anthems, followed it up with an even more rocking, initially reviled cult classic, and then returned to destroy his following twice over: first by writing songs that were sonically identical to Blue Album (thereby opening himself to accusations of cynically retreading himself), and then going off to some other planet where it's acceptable to write a song like "We Are All On Drugs."

That planet, as it happens, is FM radio: the mostly wretched Hurley is the band's sixth album in a row to debut in the Billboard top 10. Weezer has fans, but (with some rare exceptions) their following is completely different from their first wave. They've jumped generational waves without missing a beat, a feat that's abstractly impressive. That kind of commercial success appeals to people who believe populism automatically confers cultural significance, while simultaneously alienating those who believe marginalization automatically equals personal significance. And no matter how much Pitchfork loves Lady Gaga or Ke$sha or whatever other goddamn populist pop thing we're supposed to genuflect before, when it comes to a band like Weezer, those '90s battle-lines and scars still linger. It doesn't matter if the album was vindicated long ago; any review will start from an inexplicably defensive position, because mentally it's still 1996.

In his mostly useless but sporadically amusing collection Eating The Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman claims that he really loves that song, "Beverly Hills" and "Freak Me Out" because, well, he's a populist. That's not what he says (he goes on for a few pages about how literal-minded a songwriter Cuomo is, which is true, and then lapses into a stoner reverie about weirdos lurking in shadows), but that's what he means. This is kind of a load of shit ("Beverly Hills" is abominable and no amount of college + Christgau hyperbolic essay-writing will ever convince me otherwise), but it's also an apt way to think about Cuomo, because it mirrors his approach to post-Pinkerton songwriting. Both Klosterman and Rivers are smart guys who at a certain point decided that the defense and preservation of lowest-common-denominator music (something so pervasive that it certainly didn't need their help) was their true calling. They're aware of other stuff; they just don't care. Last year I interviewed Cuomo, which had to easily be one of the five most pleasurable interviews I've ever done, and certainly with a musician. In the course of the interview, he mentioned studying Boulez and Schoenberg, which is certainly the long way round to writing a sub-Dandy Warhols piece of shit like "We Are All On Drugs." He also spoke about moving from the Pixies to the simplicity of The Beach Boys lyrically. Then I asked him what he'd been listening to lately, and he opened up his iTunes and geeked out on Gloria Estefan's "Anything For You."

This is a long way of saying that Rivers Cuomo knows precisely what he's doing: he's far smarter (both in understanding how songwriting and composition work technically, and also as a businessman) than most bandleaders, and the fact that most of what he does now sucks is kind of irrelevant. He made a conscious decision to discard most of what he knows in his songwriting, and he seems perfectly happy with it. Good for him. Anyway, most Weezer albums have at least one salvageable track (Red Album has the stupidly catchy "Pork 'N Beans" and the bizarrely compelling "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived," and "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To" is a pretty good opener on Red Album). Worrying about latter-day Weezer is a total waste of everyone's time; either you have the time to sift through and abstractly appreciate what he's doing or you don't.

None of this is relevant in any way to the album Pinkerton, which in a bit I'll get to arguing for as a '90s keepsake as much as a musical monster. Here's my relationship to it: in high school — which is precisely when I should've been rotating it on repeat — I didn't much like it. I had enough problems of my own to contend with without sinking into Rivers Cuomo's sexual angst. I pulled it out about a year ago for the first time in years and basically haven't put it down since. My point here is that when I should've loved it I didn't, and now that it's irrelevant to me thematically I love it; it does not have to be appreciated through one confessional prism. It's pretty much near-perfect work, insofar as it flows immaculately from start to finish and almost every song can be listened to singly as a concise gem (except for "Butterfly," which is admittedly pushing it). The songs that freaked me out as too hysterical in high school now strike me as mostly awesome, especially "Getchoo." It's too much, but it's the good kind of too much. It's loud and it rocks. At times, it's almost dangerously ramshackle like Third/Sister Lovers but on purpose, with no drugs, which is impressive.

Lyrically, Pinkerton is problematic in a number of ways, but, again, it's the fun kind of problematic. Rivers Cuomo is writing from the heart of the '90s, a decade that would finally mandate sexual tolerance for anyone who wanted to be a Sensitive '90s Boy, which Cuomo is nothing if not: this is a guy who established himself by comparing himself to Buddy Holly and whining about Heinekens taking over his fridge. This is not a misogynist guy: he blames his mom for everything, sure, but on "Say It Ain't So" he blamed dear old dad for all his trouble, so that seems fair. This is the guy who wants to be your better boyfriend and can't stop worrying the girl will inexplicably leave or assert herself in some way: this is Scott Pilgrim before the gift of self-respect. What's brave about Pinkerton isn't the specific creepiness on display (although some of it is very creepy indeed, in ways that could only occur to this guy); it's that Cuomo is flaying himself, repeatedly, for not being the kind of good progressive 20something he should be. Instead, he's giving in to all his base instincts, no longer the guy he wants to be. He's making an awful lot of shoddy-sounding excuses for himself, but he can't stop himself.

In this respect I've always been particularly amused by "Pink Triangle," in which Rivers is straight-up pissed that some (faceless, nameless, personalityless) girl is a lesbian. This is not a very good (or tolerant) thing to admit to, but it's funny; in the decade where gay characters get mainstreamed on sitcoms, Cuomo's pissed his own heteronormative life has been disrupted. In a lot of ways, Pinkerton is an uber-90s album, in which a sensitive guy flagellates himself for not being sensitive enough. The '90s were the decade of ludicrous spectacles like Promise Keepers rallying in DC to, like, pledge to be good dudes. Being a guy in the '90s is rough if you have any degree of self-consciousness and desire to be a good person at all: pretty much everything is telling you all of your base instincts are horrible, horrible things.

This is not a problem special to Cuomo; he was just unusually open about it. Another '90s sadsack had similar issues: Elliott Smith told a "Spin" reporter that in his college time, "I was reading all this heavy-duty feminist theory—Catherine McKinnon, in particular. I really took it to heart, and it kind of drained all my energy away. I didn't want to do anything. If you're a straight, white man, she made it seem impossible to live your life without constantly doing something shitty, whether you knew it or not." There's not a single Elliott Smith song about this, but this is pretty much what every single song on Pinkerton is about. Rivers' transgressions, in the overall scheme of things, are pretty trivial: he's an immature jerk in relationships who thinks everything is about him, he has no empathy for his partners, he fantasizes about underage Japanese girls (though he knows he could "never touch you, that would be wrong"). That sucks, but no one's exactly getting scarred for life here except Rivers.

Here, of course, "sensitive" means something more like "empathetic" rather than "feeling everything way too much, which is the main problem.) But "Pink Triangle" gets even better because he heard she's a lesbian; he hasn't even talked to her. They were "good as married in my mind," which is pretty pathetic and not that far off from Don Gately in Infinite Jest who, "if a halfway-attractive female so much as smiles at [him] as they pass on the crowded street [...] has within a couple blocks mentally wooed, shacked up with, married and had kids by that female, all in the future, all in his head [...] By the time he gets where he's going, the drug addict has either mentally divorced the female and is in a bitter custody battle for the kids or is mentally happily still hooked up with her in his sunset years." This is basically Rivers Cuomo in 1996, and Pinkerton is unsparing at laying out what a dick he is. There's very little mediation or self-censoring.

There's no real reason to review Pinkerton and Death To Heavy Metal together, except to use the former as a stick to beat the latter with and fight the battles of 1996 all over again, which is basically what Ian Cohen's review is all about. In 2010, Pitchfork (and therefore, whether we like it or not, much of mainstream music criticism) is all about rewarding "embarrassing" "honesty" and "sincerity," terms which all deserve their separate scare quotes. It's the only way to explain a sentence like this: "The supposedly juvenile feelings of Pinkerton still pack visceral power years after listeners would've supposedly outgrown them." Those twin "supposedly"s are an aggressive statement: juvenile feelings are mature feelings, and we do not outgrow them. (Except for Rivers Cuomo, apparently, whose songwriting now displays absolutely zero emotions.) Arguable, I suppose: Cohen's repudiating someone who isn't there, someone telling him Pinkerton is for teenagers only. This is a pretty pointless: why can't the album be both juvenile and great? Why do we all have to embrace our gooey innards or risk being accused of being, I dunno, "supposedly mature"? What's this weird either/or divide when it comes to emotion in music? This is somehow all the Arcade Fire's fault.

ANYWAY. Here's my beef: Pinkerton is a great album, the band's last. That they have failed to live up since to the kind of standards of emotional self-disclosure is not a problem, or it shouldn't be. Ragging on latter-day Weezer for not being old Weezer is sort of like complaining that, say, The Limits of Control isn't like Stranger Than Paradise: it sounds like a compelling precedent, but it's mostly completely irrelevant. There are a lot of weird things to accuse Pinkerton of: witness, say, this bizarre diatribe on how Rivers Cuomo is everything wrong with man-boys these days. There are a lot of things to love about it. But you cannot insist that Pinkerton transcends context, or eternal, or eternally pathological, or whatever: praising it for being a gapingly sincere wound (and valuing it primarily for that) is as stupid as accusing Rivers of not being a good enough guy (which is what the whole record is about). It's a rock album: it's loud and it's fun, and it's absolutely inseparable from its year.