February 3, 2011 § Leave a comment
I have returned. Not to writing, yet, exactly, unless this counts as that; but to home.
IN DAYS TO COME, MAYBE:
— a couple things I started writing before I left but couldn’t get finished in time (RE: race, again… and uh, videogames?)
— something about country music (?!! — don’t ask, just read it. I promise there will be good jokes.)
— I saw the movie Training Day for the first time recently, and thought about writing something, but then realized that all I really had to say was “Man it’s pretty weird how those Mexican gangsters are supposed to serve as some kind of honor-among-thieves, traditional-family-values counterpoint to Denzel’s totally corrupt amoral cop, when you consider the shit that actually goes down in Mexico.” So, yeah, that. Maybe it’s time to reconsider our pop-culture Latino stereotypes?
— scathing takedown of two really dumb Atlantic articles about the failures of feminism or something, I don’t even know, it’s making me angry just trying to remember
— … AND A VERY SPECIAL WEEK-LONG BLOGGING EVENT THAT I’M GETTING GOOSEBUMPS JUST THINKING ABOUT (OR POSSIBLY BECAUSE I’M COLD NOW THAT I HAVE LEFT THE BALMY BEACHES OF FLORIDA FOR THE TEMPERATE TRIANGLE)
January 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
January 22, 2011 § 1 Comment
So after working my pop-music-blog hustle for the last few posts, I’m worn out, and ready for another refreshing dip in the comparatively placid waters of reconstructive academic history. Before I completely abandon this newly-claimed ground, though, a couple of links and a small handful of thoughts:
1. Anna Leach’s article on the hipster as ‘agent of social change’ touches on some of the same fashion/masculinity/sexuality issues I’ve been writing about lately, with an added infusion of pro-hipster polemic that is sure to tweak some noses among the easily-tweaked. I’m more or less on board, although she does manage to get an eyebrow raise from me, of the ‘We-may-need-to-qualify-those-statements-a-bit-before-we-go-on’ variety, when she compares the last decade’s fashion trends with “The adoption of black culture in the 60s [that] paved the way for the more racially equal society that America has today.” Still, it’s an interesting argument, worth considering.
2. Nick Southall recently posted on the “return of the record club” micro-trend (cf. this Guardian blog post, a handful of personal anecdotes, and the admittedly-cool-new-thing ListeningRoom) and its relation to perennial “death of the album” speculation. I suppose it’s too early to tell if we really will start to see a rise in ‘social listening’ [ready to hate this phrase already] and a backlash against the “decade of white earbuds”; but because I’m a contrarian and a dialectician, my first instinct is to respond to that question with another one: How do you suppose people got through those long, lonely years of antisocial listening?
I remember thinking, around the release of Arcade Fire’s Funeral — surely among the capital-A Albums in recent history — how strange it was that this particular album had become a sort of rallying-point for the indie-music world, given how strongly marked it was by the very idea of ‘community’ or ‘togetherness’ or whatever. Musically, they took the “btw all our friends play in our band” overstuffed orchestral setup that post-rock bands like GY!BE (and weirdos like the Polyphonic Spree) had piloted to minor success, stripped away a lot of the intentionally-alienating weirdness, and arrived at some kind of million-man-march/celebrity-benefit-concert good vibes; lyrically, they sang about families and houses and sleeping in backs of cars, and had four songs with the title “Neighborhood”. The hamfistedness of it annoyed me a bit because as a young “indie music” dude I already felt an unspoken sense of community with the couple-three other people in my high school who were listening to the same things as me, which calling attention to could only have made less cool. But whatever, the album was great, and it seems to have worked out well enough for them. It leads me to wonder whether this might have become one of the secret criteria for a great album in the iPod era: something you can listen to by yourself, but without feeling alone.
Hipster nationalism? Just a thought. The metaphor breaks down a bit when you realize that hipsters are more like emigres (not to say refugees) than a nation proper; and I suspect the ultimate lesson to be drawn might simply be that everyone and everything you run away from eventually follows you to the places you made cool.
January 20, 2011 § 6 Comments
Rereading my last post, I’m sort of disappointed with how it turned out. As presented, it was never meant to be anything more than a bit of navel-gazing autobiography and hip-hop historiography that, although it would’ve felt out of place in a piece focused on Lil B, might still work as a prefatory note, a way in to my thoughts on a complicated subject. Unfortunately, the hastily written conclusion made it seem like the next installment would be on some gotcha-journalism shit — “RAP CLOSET CASE EXPOSED!!!” with flashing Drudge Report sirens everywhere — when the actual point I wanted to make was that hip-hop, like middle school, and for many of the same reasons, can be a cruel place for outsiders. Which is also to say: I can’t really blame Lil B for fantasizing about killing hip-hop, given how hip-hop has been inclined to treat him — cf. the comments on this Smoking Section post from last summer, which are sorta-interesting at first, but quickly degenerate into dudes calling for Lil B’s death and suggesting that his fans should be targeted for hate crimes.
Anyway, I was feeling sorta down about the whole thing when my boy TP suggested that maybe the internet could still use a “definitive Lil B post”; so I figured I’d dust myself off, hop back in the blogsaddle, and give it another go.
As far as the sexual preferences of Brandon McCartney, the real person, the legal and biological entity who stands behind the character of Lil B “THE BASED GOD”, I don’t really give a fuck. Who knows if dude even has a sex life? After all, as he told Complex.com (in an article that I refuse to link to because it’s infuriatingly spread out over twenty-five god-damn mother-fucking slow-ass-loading Mcdonalds-advertisement-filled pages — Seriously websites, stop doing this shit, please.), he’s been pretty busy with music lately:
Truth be told, I’m not out fucking a lot of bitches. And the funny thing is, I could be. At any time, switches could be flipped and I could go crazy, but right now I’m definitely just keeping it positive and living that life. I mean, when times do come when I need to fuck, I will, but other than that it’s straight work.
Fair enough. Still, it hasn’t stopped people from raising the question. To a certain extent, Brandon/B seems to bring it on himself — not because he wears tiny pants or listens to ambient music, but because he calls himself a pretty bitch (he says it’s about being “high-maintenance”, but also admits that sometimes he’s just trying to get a rise out of people) and freestyles about, well, being a fag. Once again, I’ll defer to the man himself:
I said it in a song that ‘I’m a fag, I’m a lesbian.’ I don’t care. I’m not. I’m not a fag. I’m not a lesbian. Who cares. Even if I am, I don’t like guys. That’s just a word. […] I said it one time in the song and people are like, ‘That’s a gay song. He said he’s a faggot. I can’t believe it.’ I’m on that new age slang man. I’m on that ‘I don’t give a fuck’ swag. I’m on that the bitch ask me what I’m doing and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m sitting on the couch eating pizza like a hoe on New Year’s by myself like a bitch.’ I’m loving it. A nigga so cocky I’ma call myself a bitch, too. I need to calm myself down. [Laughs.]
Three things here. One: did B really spend New Year’s by himself, eating pizza?? He shoulda called me! I wasn’t doing anything either; we coulda hung out! I love pizza!!!
Two: let’s take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come, how much things have changed (mostly for the better) since Cam inked that deal with the devil, scoring himself a lifetime supply of pink clothing in exchange for popularizing the completely execrable phrase “no homo”.
Three: look how easily B moves here from pejorative terms about homosexuals to pejorative terms about women. It’s all part of the same “new age slang” of not-giving-a-fuck: calling yourself a bitch or a faggot is just something you do when you’re feeling cocky on the mic, but everyone knows it doesn’t mean anything — it’s just words, and words can’t define you! Which is true, sure, as far as it goes; and if this were just about a dude calling himself names, I probably wouldn’t care. When I start caring, though, is when you start calling the people around you a bunch of bitches and faggots; and then they start calling other people bitches and faggots; and then next thing you know, we have a situation on our hands.
Let’s be perfectly clear before we go any further: I’m not here to tear down the Based God. I love his music. I don’t think he’s a bad guy, or a hateful person, or blasphemous, or the antichrist. We’re talking about a dude whose (extremely #rare and short-lived) beef with Joe Budden was sparked by Budden’s derisive retweet of Lil B’s claims to have “ended racism” by inventing a new #grey race. If anything, you might accuse him of being a little bit naive.
But B is one thing, and the movement that seems to be taking shape around him is another; and it’s the latter that’s been keeping me up at nights lately.
* * * * *
“Wherever men meet and assemble to take wives for themselves, to negotiate for them, to share them, etc., one recognizes […] a primary homosexuality between local groups, between brothers-in-law, co-husbands, childhood partners.”
* * * * *
* * * * *
Historically, of course, the most respected women in hip-hop — hell, maybe in life in general — have tended to be moms. Lil B, in his own way, is no exception: check “Exhibit Based”, where he reminisces over youthful days spent robbing, bringing home stolen TVs to give to his mom “as presents for creating me”. It’s silly, but still kind of sweet, no?
Which is maybe one reason I felt so weird watching this video, which hit the internet a few days ago, after B’s latest sold-out NYC extravaganza:
Youtube commenters were predictably scandalized, comparing the fans to brainwashed cult members (no Jim Jones!); but I prefer “secret club” to “cult” in this context. What the people in this video are doing is speaking a kind of code, a private language, a set of rituals and unwritten rules designed (like most cool things) to leave the uncool outsiders scratching their heads. It’s impossible to understand what’s going on here if you don’t have some familiarity with that code and its history: you have to know the standard hip-hop tropes that are being parodied/subverted; you have to recognize the evolution that runs from rap-battle-boasts about stealing the other guy’s girl (“I bet I snatch your chick with my goddamn Vans on”), up through BasedGod’s self-aggrandizing claims about dudes actually thanking him for sleeping with their girlfriends, and terminates in this weird situation where fans show love online and at shows by offering him the use of their own bitches (real or imaginary).
This is all in good fun though, right? Done with a wink and a nod, it’s surely not meant to be taken literally, unless you want to look foolish, like a 19th-century European ethnographer who hears an African king being praised for the beauty of his 3333 wives and loses his fucking monocle over it because he doesn’t realize that the guy saying this is a diplomat from another kingdom trying to flatter the king (who in reality has maybe seven or eight wives, tops).* Kids asking Lil B to fuck their moms, their bitches, or whoever, are just playing around, in the same way that Lil B is playing around when he says “Bitches suck my dick cuz my chain look like lightning” or “I almost went to jail for like 500 things”, or brags about having the same gun they used in the movie Blue Streak (although I think he might be serious about that last one).
But on the other hand: sometimes the surface appearance is actually right. Maybe this is exactly what it looks like: a new twist on one of the world’s oldest pastimes, men coming together to arrange (or pretend to arrange) the distribution and exchange of women. Which, of course, has had serious repercussions for women throughout history — even if, as that Anti-Oedipus quote above points out, it’s often less about the girls themselves, and more about the chance for male bonding and alliance-making. (I’d prefer to call this “homosocial” rather than “homosexual”, but whatever.)
And then on the other-other hand: What to make of that new twist? Does it change anything? Does it change everything? Surely there’s a difference between pimping out your daughter, and pimping out your mom… which could be as simple as this: in the first instance, you end up with a new son, an heir, an ally, a future to look forward to; while in the second, you get a new dad, a legacy, a history you never had. So that maybe asking a rapper to fuck your mom is like a cry for help: Save me, Based God; let your love come into me, let it transform my body; I wish I were someone else; I wish I had never been born.
Again, I’m not trying to start a moral panic or anything here; even if I were, I wouldn’t lay the blame at Lil B’s doorstep. I don’t think, for example, that he’s ever bragged in a song about fucking people’s moms, and I doubt it would have spontaneously occurred to him to do so. But that’s the thing about being a Twitter-addicted, viral-meme-generating rapper: you can’t control what happens to your work once your fans get their hands on it. Sometimes you unintentionally invent a hot dance craze; other times, you just give a bunch of teenage d-bags something to laugh about.
I wonder sometimes: what does it feel like to be a woman at a Lil B show when everyone starts calling themselves bitches and offering to share hoes with each other? Just how inviting does this pretty boys’ club seem when you’re on the outside looking in? Take a look at this video, which opens and closes with Lil B laying out “the rules and regulations of cooking”: anyone can cook, but apparently you’re always supposed to say “Let that boy cook”, regardless of who’s doing the cooking, because that’s just how it works. And I honestly don’t know how to feel about that.
I wonder, too, about that faceless woman up there: Is she a fan? Or just a fan’s “bitch”?
* * * * *
Any attempt at a serious Lil B discussion is eventually bound to stumble on the question of language. Slang is a delicate affair at the best of times, frequently requiring us to smile and play along until we have enough context clues to know what “crunk” or “hyphy” or “shazam” or “superman that ho” means, or else risk being unmasked as the lamestains we truly are. But while most of the world has managed to work out what “swag” means by now, B’s bewildering array of neologisms continues to leave heads scratching.
I’ll be honest: I can’t really define them for you either. That’s not how language works. If the question you’re gonna ask me is, What does Lil B mean when he talks about (being) “based”?, the answer you’re gonna get is, Go listen to his music and figure it out. There’s no shortcut, no way to get just the ‘meaning’ of the word without having to observe the usage too. That being said, I might be able to offer a few pointers. “Rare”, for example, puzzled me for a long time — hearing him talk about “rare golden collectibles”, my mind instinctively went to Pokemon. Eventually, I remembered that “rare” can mean “undercooked”, too; that Lil B calls himself “the rawest rapper alive”; that he’s famous for his cooking swag… suddenly, a connection that hadn’t been there before clicked into place. That’s how language works.
“Based” is even trickier to pin down. On one level, it’s something like an unfiltered, stream-of-consciousness approach to rapping. When B says “I married Paris Hilton / We’re at the Hilton / Limousine driver, nickname Hilton”? Yeah, that’s pretty based. But there’s more to it than that.
’33Pippen’, over in the comments section of the aforementioned TSS post, takes it as a sort of heads-up, buyer-beware! indicator:
Dude , he has this scheme known as “based freestyles” that are meant to speak the foolishness that one might not dare speak on mic.
Before I understood that, I thought he was ass.. Then I noticed how specific he would be on top of his videos.. “BASED FRESSSTYLEE” as if he was trying to stress it was just random recordings.
Which is plausible enough, if you’ve watched/listened to any of B’s based freestyles. Here, for example, is that infamous “I’m a Fag, I’m a Lesbian” video:
Now, if that’s not the rawest rapper alive, I’d like to know who is.
I mean, just watch B here. Really watch him. Look into his eyes. Put yourself in his shoes. Follow his thought process. Imagine trying to rap over this beat. It starts off kinda low-key and ambient, he does his slam-poetry thing for a second… and then those ridiculous jacked-up double-time drums come in, someone in the background laughs, and you can see him think, Shit, what am I gonna do with this? So he tries a bunch of different styles, approaching the beat from every angle; he finds a groove, loses it again; he says dumb things, then shakes his head and rolls his eyes at the dumb things he just said. At the end of the day, he never quite hits on a flow that works for this track; but there’s something exhilarating about watching, waiting, to see if he will.
Rawest rapper alive.
Let that boy cook.
“… That’s right, I’m makin’ up different sandwiches…”
Thing is, you can’t freestyle your way through life. Sometimes, even if you’re the Based God — especially if you’re the Based God — you have to set something down in stone. Sometimes, you have to stop, take stock of your surroundings, and get to work building something. You have to give people something they can hold onto; you have to find a place to stand.
To date, the most successful thing that Lil B has ‘built’ is probably the cooking dance, which almost singlehandedly spawned the insane fan culture that follows him to this day. I can see why it caught on: the dance is fun as hell, with lots of room for creativity and personal flair. (I like to pause dramatically in the middle of the dancefloor while I tie my invisible apron — can’t be getting sauce on my tiny pants y’all!) And the craziest thing of all is that, as B notes, he never really tried to make any of that happen:
I never, never, never thought cooking would catch on. It was just a fun joke to me. Just a fun thing for me to do online and make jokes with the people that respected and supported me. […] So, we all making jokes all day and shit on the computer and I did that and now it’s somethin we getting a million views from. That’s what’s so crazy to me. It hit me hard. Just seeing it catch on and people continuously doing the cooking dance and not stopping and views gaining more and then more and more people asking me, ‘Where’s the more cooking music?’ Then going out to New York and flickin my wrist and the place just shut down. Man, I be feeling like Michael [Jackson]. I really be feelin’ like Michael, dude. I appreciate it. It’s fun. It’s definitely a unique thing to have and it’s just an honor. We’re having so much fun, man. Niggas over here having so much fun, man. Genuine fun and I just don’t wanna stop.
* * * * *
Like “I Killed Hip-Hop”, “I Am the Hood” is a song built around a very simple metaphor, stretched almost to the point of ridiculousness. Lil B doesn’t just come from the hood, or speak for its inhabitants; he literally is the hood: the buildings, walls, streets, signs, fences, sidewalks, alleys, the cracks in the pavement where crackheads stand adjacent.
This does some interesting things to traditional notions about street cred, or realness, or whatever you want to call it. Because if Lil B is the hood, and you’re from the hood, and you shit on him… doesn’t that mean you’re shitting in your own backyard?
Not that that stops anyone: one of the main themes of the song is people’s utter disrespect for their hood, the gallons of blood and piss and booze that get spilled on B’s face, the cracks that open up and never get mended. See, the thing about the hood is, it can’t help itself. So by casting himself as the hood, Lil B does more than just assert his credibility; he also flips the script on his critics. I’m not just a product of my environment, he seems to say, I’m a part of that environment. When you attack me, you poison the air; you make things harder for everyone; you make this world a worse place to live. I didn’t choose to be born into a time when tiny pants were cool, it just happened that way… but you can choose whether or not you’re gonna me call a pussy-ass faggot bitch for wearing them. Or, to use his words: “It’s not the world’s fault / It’s the people inside it.”
Which is maybe another reason why “let that boy cook” blew up so big: because you know cooking, like clothing, is a fraught issue. There are people out there who don’t want to let that boy cook, who would rather tear him down, because someone told them a long time ago that cooking is something bitches do, and they never really got over it. And in the face of that attitude, “let that boy cook” can basically translate to, I don’t give a fuck what you think of me or my friends; we’re gonna do what we want and have fun doing it.
I don’t wanna speculate too much on the biographical details of B’s life, but remember that he hit at 17 with a song about how rocking Vans (“A punk-rock shoe with the logo in the back”) could be just as cool as rocking more expensive shoes, if not more so. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if some of his friends at the time disagreed. It’s natural enough: everyone has haters, even this measly old blog (U KNOW WHO U R). And so now he spends a lot of his time trying to show that, Vans and pants and words and dances aside, he can still be hood, still be a goon, still be hard. Again, in his own words:
You know motherfuckers be like, ‘We don’t fuck with that pretty bitch shit.’ Alright, well I’m gonna keep going and you’re gonna have to respect it because I’m still real and I been real so I can make jokes. I can make fun of myself and fuck whoever hatin’ on that shit. I’m not gonna stop ranting until I’m gone.
Which is maybe as close as we’re gonna get to a definition of “based”.
* * * * *
* * * * *
If you’ve been following the Based God for a while now — especially if you enjoy mining youtube comment sections for funny/stupid/insightful quotes — you may have noticed something changing lately: people are giving him a second chance. Until recently, comments were invariably split between the pro-based camp (these posts were easy to recognize because they usually contained the word “SWAG!” at least a dozen times) and the haters. But lately, his videos are exploding with comments like these:
“wow i never expected decent music from lil B this song is actually good but every single other lil b song is total shit”
“this nigga be playin he need to drop real shit like this more”
“wow i cant beleive he did good on this he went hard”
“lil b says some gay shit and he cant really rap but this nigga killed this! creative”
And another variant, which I find even more interesting:
“notice how this video has 95k views but suck my dick hoe has 820 thousand.”
“This gets 100k and Suck My Dick Hoe gets 900k…Exposin hip-hop bruh.”
((all taken from the “I Am the Hood” video, but you can find plenty of comments along the same lines on any of his ‘serious’ songs — “Age of Information”, “Cold War”, “The Worlds Ending”, to name a few))
We’ve got at least three distinct perspectives here, which break down into a surprisingly neat dialectical progression (no Hegel!).
In the first moment, one encounters B at his most ‘immediate’, rapping over booming drums and epic trance synths about the hundreds of thousands of bitches he has on his dick, and comes to the conclusion that this guy is an abomination, a symptom, a direct manifestation of everything that’s gone wrong with the world and music and the kids these days.
The second moment is a reconsideration of the first in light of further evidence: Okay, some of his songs are actually good… so why doesn’t he make more like this? And why put that other shit out at all? Where’s the quality control? What’s this dude’s deal? (Guided By Voices fans are nodding their heads right about now.)
The third and final moment attempts a synthesis of the first two contradictory perspectives: Lil B isn’t an idiot, but most of the people listening to him are; he’s clowning us, knowing that the cream sinks to the bottom while America gorges itself on shit and cotton candy…
Of course, none of these interpretations is entirely correct, and none of them is complete on its own. The third one has the advantage of at least showing the man a little respect, acknowledging that he might have something going on, in his mind and in his life, that goes deeper than the words he’s spitting on any given track. But in many ways, it remains a displaced version of the first moment: I’m still the guy who knows what’s really up; but now Lil B gets to be on my team, instead of Team Idiot, which is full of no-taste-having suckers for me and B to laugh at together. What this view still can’t account for, though, is the very real possibility that B might actually enjoy making the ignorant club bangers; or, even weirder, that they could be somehow necessary for the existence of the serious songs.
To draw once again on the always-relevant Fred Jameson: perhaps we’re facing an impasse, a sort of impossibility within the current representational field of pop culture. Maybe being a full-time “good rapper” in 2k11 is simply out of the question, like summing up the state of modern-day America in a Balzac- or Dickens-style realist novel. Maybe Lil B will never develop that quality control filter; maybe he’ll just keep doing his thing, tossing off trash and treasures with equal effortlessness, and we’ll always need people to follow in his wake and pick up the pieces — whether they be internet tastemakers, or Soulja Boy, who heard B drop the line “thirty thousand, hundred million” in a freestyle and liked it so much he decided to craft a whole song around it.
And if that means the world has to become a little more based to deal with all this craziness, then maybe it won’t be such a bad thing.
*: No citation on this, sorry; I pretty much pulled the numbers out of my ass, but I took the story from Robert Bernasconi’s outstanding essay “Hegel at the Court of the Ashanti”, which I unfortunately don’t have on hand right now.
January 18, 2011 § 3 Comments
In honor of Dr. KingCompletely by coincidence, actually, here’s another post situated at the intersection of music and race. This one might need a little more context — basically, I’ve been trying for a while now to write something about why I like Lil B, and why I think other people oughta like him too; but it quickly got out of hand, snowballing lyrics and quotes together in an attempt to craft THE definitive Lil B post, with a long digression into rambling autobiography along the way. I’ve broken that last part off into its own thing, which I present here now; further reflections on the BasedGod to follow at some point.]
* * * * *
“Imagine there’s no hip-hop. It’s easy if you try.”
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My personal history with rap music more or less begins in middle school. Back then, rap was primarily something my friends were into; but I was assured of at least a passing familiarity with it, thanks to the fact that middle school kids never fucking shut up, love quoting things, and especially love quoting things that that are cool or funny or vulgar or all three at once. Rap lyrics hit the trifecta about as often as anything this side of a South Park movie, so whenever a new song about pimpin’ came down the pipeline, you best believe I knew about it. It all seemed fun enough, in the same way that imitating professional wrestlers was fun; but I never really got the feeling that it was anything more than a game, for my friends or for the guys making it.
Around 8th-9th grade, I started actually buying CDs, which almost immediately turned into “defining my identity through buying CDs” and led me to more or less totally reject top-40 music — and rap along with it. I did cop that first Gorillaz album pretty early on cuz I liked the single, which of course had Del tha Funkee Homosapien on it, and later led me to buy one of his albums; but for a long time, that was literally all the rap I owned. At some point after I started reading Pitchfork, I bought an Aesop Rock record, got into Def Jux, and some other critic-approved underground nerd-rap; an older kid I was friends with played me Dr. Octagon; I occasionally heard interesting things I didn’t know the names of on local college radio stations, which usually turned out to be the work of uncool ‘conscious’* rappers, French people, or MC Paul Barman. But I knew somehow that none of this was real hip-hop — not because it was phony or nerdy, but because ‘real hip-hop’ was still pop music, 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg, the kind of stuff that you heard on the radio, that people knew the words to and sang along with, or said in front of uncomprehending teachers to make their friends bust up laughing.
Flash forward to 2005. I’m 18 years old, just out of high school, not quite ready for college; I spend most of my time working and most of my money buying CDs. I am musically omnivorous, or aspire to be; my pretensions about the diversity of my tastes took a hit when I started reading I Love Music, but I gamely sucked it up and set about fixing the gaps in my knowledge. Gamelan music? Sure, why not! Free jazz? Don’t mind if I do! CCR? You mean those dudes who did “Proud Mary” are actually a good band? Okay then, I’ll check ’em out…
Which is how one day, I ended up sitting in front of my computer, watching this video:
What the hell?, I remember thinking at the time; These guys aren’t cool at all! They’re just a bunch of goofy dorks! Don’t they realize how lame they look? Why would I want to watch this? They look like kids I know — they look like a bunch of white kids!
And then, a second later, it dawned on me: Holy shit, I’m a racist.
Because, of course, Tribe never asked to be judged according to my bullshit standard of ‘coolness’; they were just as uninterested in out-swagging the Puff Daddys and MC Hammers of the world as they were in out-thugging the NWAs and Run-DMCs. And if they had been a bunch of white kids with guitars, I realized — if they had been Pavement, say — I probably would’ve found their awkward goofiness charming, rather than cringeworthy.
It was a genuinely eye-opening moment, and I hope I haven’t utterly trivialized it in the course of writing about it. I know that, contra Christianity, one moment of painful Damascine lucidity does not an untroubled soul make. But honestly? I’m proud of 18-year-old me, for being sharp enough to realize that something was up, and brave enough to call himself out on his own bullshit.
In retrospect, I guess what I find most troubling about all this is that, even during the years when I wasn’t really listening to “real hip-hop”, I still carried it around inside my head as some sort of normative yardstick; it was lying there, just waiting for a chance to lash out at some idealistic kids who were naive enough to think they could do their own thing, have fun, and get away with it. Maybe the connection between rap and middle school that I started from is more than incidental. Because if there’s one thing middle school teaches us, it’s how to police differences. I remember making fun of kids for being “gay”, before any of us had the faintest notion of what that might really entail, just because they dressed weird or watched the wrong TV shows. Some jerk in my class convinced me it would be funny to go up to one of my friends and say “George Michael is a faggot” (this must’ve been around the time of his infamous L.A. men’s room incident); I didn’t understand anything in that sentence besides “is a”, but my friend, who was apparently a big Wham! fan, did, and she ran out of the room crying.
Which brings us to Lil B. In lieu of a full discussion, I’ll stick to one song: “I Killed Hip-Hop”, B’s beautiful twisted noir fantasy, off of last year’s Red Flame mixtape. The track opens with our narrator (“I’m Lil B the hitman,” he helpfully explains at the top of the first verse) getting rung up by an anonymous caller with an unusual request:
There’s this dude named Hip-Hop
He old and his hips rock
He need to get off the block, there’s new blood around town
A lot of people told me that they tired of the same rules
Everybody scared to say something, and they scared to move
It’s a great concept, and the rest of the song only deepens it. Hip-Hop, it turns out, is nowhere to be found; Lil B walks the streets, presses DJs and engineers for info, goes digging through old records and contracts, but can’t turn up any leads. “Maybe this an odd job,” he speculates, beginning to worry. He’s gone coast to coast, studied all the rap legends of the past, bought a new gun… all for nothing. Hip-Hop never shows his face on the track.
Which doesn’t stop B from continuing to boast, as the track winds down: “I killed hip-hop… I killed hip-hop…” Well, maybe he did; but if so, it was definitely an odd job — you might even call the whole thing a bit queer.
TO BE CONTINUED…
*: Obviously, I could spend a whole other post on the casual dismissal of rappers tarred with the ‘conscious’ brush, and everything that’s troubling and problematic about it… but I’d rather not, at least not today.
January 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
“I cast off these couplets in honor of the void”, sang Dan Bejar on his last masterpiece, the 2006 rock epic Destroyer’s Rubies. It was the kind of line Destroyer fans have come to expect by now from Bejar: a little bit romantic, a little bit bitter, a lotta bit self-aware — not to mention funny, wrapping up as it does a void-couplet that begins ominously, “Those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd.” That line, too, is quintessential Bejar: a music-lover at heart, he peppers his tracks with namedrops (“Listening / To “Strawberry Wine” / For the hundred-and-thirty-first time…”) and lyrical easter eggs, incessantly surveying and reappraising the pop canon, all through an eye so skewed it can sometimes be hard to tell whether it’s jaundiced or simply winking at you.
On his new masterpiece, Kaputt, Bejar — assuming, of course, that these lyrics are in any way autobiographical, which is always a bit risky — seems to have adjusted his sights a bit. “I write poetry for myself,” he informs us on “Blue Eyes”, the album’s second (and possibly best?) track; and then repeats it, maybe to drive home the point, maybe just because he wants to. A little later in the same song, he sends off a “message in a bottle to the press”:
It said “Don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves,
Don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves,
Don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves…”
… which I interpret as something of a preemptive strike against the album’s likely reviews: Sure, it seems to say, I might be soaked in smooth-jazz sax and chorused guitars as thick as cream cheese; but don’t you dare call me a ‘guilty pleasure’.
Of course, for some people, even some Destroyer fans, it won’t be much of a pleasure at all. For whatever reason, the production styles at play on Kaputt — some long-disowned bastard child of yacht rock smooth and quiet-storm fierce — are ones that have been deeply uncool, particularly with ‘indie’ music fans, for going on two decades now. Sure, Ariel Pink’s new album breathed some life into the aesthetic, and everyone loves Steely Dan; but after the endless Oughties procession of dancing punks and grimy electroclashion, all culminating in the neon trance funhouses of Animal Collectopolis and the spooky decrepit shopping malls of Deerhuntersville, it’s easy to get sketched out when Bejar pulls up and throws open the doors to the slick leather interior of the Destroyer limousine. This sort of thing takes some getting used to, I know; but I promise, the ride is worth it.
(His mama said he shoulda had brown eyes…)
Okay, but back to the words: do they mark a break, a new direction, as dramatic as the one taken by the music? Bejar certainly thinks so, telling Pitchfork that “If someone couldn’t really place much of a difference between” the lyrical and vocal stylings on this album versus his last couple of efforts, “it would cast a certain ‘what the fuck am I doing?’ light on things.” So, although he cops to having never really distinguished “between what words sound like and what they mean”, there’s still something different going on here: “I didn’t really know what to make of the words I was singing even though they felt really comfortable to sing.” Which is weird, he continues, because “I usually know exactly what I’m saying at every single moment.”
A similar sentiment washes up on “Bay of Pigs”, the gazillion-minute-long ‘ambient disco’ slow-burner that preceded Kaputt‘s release and now, slightly shortened from its EP version, serves as the album’s closer:
It don’t mean a thing
It never means a thing
It don’t mean a thing
It never means a thing, it’s got that swing…
In the Pitchfork interview, Bejar goes so far as to say that he’s “lost complete interest and faith in indie rock music being a serious forum for writing […] I just gave up on it and decided I would just focus on being a singer.” His sorta-weird rationale being that song lyrics are like screenplays: no one appreciates them as pieces of writing in their own; they’re a means to an end, and as such, they only ever get evaluated retroactively, in light of the finished product. Knowing that, why even bother about the words?
I’m not sure I would totally trust every word out of Bejar’s mouth on this one. But if that really is true, then it’s too bad. Bejar’s not only a great singer and songwriter, he’s also a great critic, one whose hyper-self-awareness seems to have given him equally penetrating insight into the bullshit other people traffic in. It’s there on Destroyer’s Rubies and Trouble in Dreams, where he uses his marginal Canadian position to shoot rockets at the hypocrisy of a “wealthy American underground” whose “churches of greed” he’s had a lot of time to tour lately. (“I just noticed embarassingly recently,” he remarked back in 2006, “how generally rich American hipster culture is – and not ‘rich’ as in ‘The language of Shakespeare is rich.'” See also: Bourdieu, Pierre; River, Okkervil.) It’s there on This Night, where he drops one of my all-time top-10 lyrical truthbombs: “Try to celebrate the world / Not hurl insults at a girl” — a stinging rebuke that deserves to be painfully tattooed on the faces of a thousand emo misogynists, as a warning to future generations of sensitive songwriters who reach for their guitars when they realize it’s over. And whatever Bejar might say, I don’t think that this critical awareness, this — to use a deeply uncool term for it — social conscience, is entirely absent from Kaputt.
Click away from the indie blogosphere for a second and check out this short interview on some artblog, where Bejar speaks on “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”, an unusual collaboration with — you guessed it! — visual artist Kara Walker. Walker, apparently, was struck by some Destroyer songs she listened to while working on something-or-other to do with the 20th anniversary of Merge Records, and ended up pitching Bejar the idea of a Destroyer song ‘made out of’ her own short texts, cut up and reassembled into a lyric, set to his music. Quoth Bejar:
It gave me license to do a lot of things I wouldn’t normally write or say. There were some moments when I was getting off on an idea that could land me in hot water. At the end of the day, someone is going to ask me what the song is about, and I’m going to say “maybe it’s about black women’s experience in America over the last 400 years,” and for me to say that is dicey. I’m not American, I’m not black, and I’m not a woman.
Leaving aside for now all questions about “getting off on” the prospect of controversy… these don’t strike me as the words of a man who feels like what he says doesn’t matter. The chance to speak, or to sing, in someone else’s voice presents an opportunity, but also a responsibility — especially when the “someone” in question is a famous artist whose work is obsessed with the question of different voices, and of their presence or absence in the historical record. Think how not only your interpretation, but the very meaning of the song’s chorus:
You’ve got it all
You’ve got it all
might change depending on whether you imagine those words coming from Walker or from Bejar. Maybe it wouldn’t, I dunno. But my point is, there’s a kind of ethics involved in such a project; it might just come down to simple mutual respect, of the kind that’s needed for any sort of collaboration, but it’s still a frustratingly rare thing, and one worth celebrating when it pays off (as, I think, it does here). As someone wrote, and as Bejar sings, addressing someone, at some point in the song: “This is not about you / And it’s not about me, I swear.”
Of course, I could have it all wrong, too. Maybe there’s no deeper meaning behind the words; maybe it really is just about Dan Bejar, singing things he likes the sound of. (Such a reading might find support in the album’s first video, which, unless I’m missing something, doesn’t make a gram of sense.) Even on “Suicide Demo”, the verbal inspiration eventually dries up, leaving Bejar to repeat: “Words, words, words / Longings, longings, longings“. In the old days he probably would’ve honored the void, celebrated the world, and Ba-ba-ba’d his way on through to the next triumphant repetition of the chorus. Now he sounds wary, always hovering on the brink of silence, perhaps afraid of saying too much, or of saying something he shouldn’t. When he does speak, it’s not always clear whose voice he speaks in, or what they want to say, adding a profound ambiguity to lines like “You’ve got to stop calling me ‘Honey'” — which could just as easily be “You’ve got to stop calling me, honey.” Ditto for “Suicide Demo”, where someone (Walker?) warns someone (Bejar?): “Don’t talk about the South.” But it’s too late, because Bejar’s already done it, and will do it again, on “Bay of Pigs”:
I was born in the North
But my father was from the South
Love is a political beast with jaws for a mouth
It’s not much: one striking image, hastily cast in language, with a tossed-off last line that’s clearly more about the sound and the fury than the ‘meaning’ of the words. As for whether it violates any taboos, I’m not sure I can say.
But with that, I think, we’ve come full circle.
What does Kara Walker think about the song?
I think she really likes it. […] She said she really liked it. […]
January 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
[SPOILERZZZZ ahead, obviously]
I saw True Grit yesterday; like most (all?) Coen Brothers films, it was funny, absurd, morally ambiguous, violent, beautiful, etc, etc. Our protagonist, more or less, is a young girl whose pursuit of justice (or vengeance) is at once inspiring and silly (“I don’t want to see him hanged in Texas for a Texas crime!“). We have the usual cast of antiheroes, anti-antiheroes, honorable thieves, human scum, laughable braggarts. Words, ideas, judgments, bullets, fly through the air at a dizzying rate.
On the margins of this human drama, however, there is another story that plays out. A story circulating between two antagonistic poles of animality: the horse, the snake.
* * * * *
Even before the horse, there are horses. But these horses are not yet animals; they are empty figures, entries in a ledger, prices to be haggled over. There is a coon, too, or at least the prospect of one, in the story Mattie tells of going coon-hunting with her father. Rooster is not impressed: a coon-hunt does not count, a man is not a coon. But, insists Mattie, it’s the same principle… Killing an animal, killing a man: seen from the proper perspective, these can be the same thing. Is she right? Perhaps it is still too soon to tell.
Our proper introduction to the animal comes a little later, when Mattie makes, or fails to make, the acquaintance of her horse, Little Blacky. He is a spirited (not to say spiritual) animal, young and strong, bursting with superabundant life. As the stable boy says to Mattie, on the occasion of this (non-)introduction: You’re not heavy enough, he doesn’t even realize he has a rider, he thinks it’s just a horsefly… The young girl is light, lacking, not all there. She is ‘not quite’ a proper rider, ‘not quite’ a man, perhaps closer to an animal than to a man. Whereas the horse is more than a horse. (But at the same time, still just a horse: “What’s his favorite treat?” “Well, he’s a horse… so that means he likes apples.”)
This horse — from which the rider is in a certain sense inseparable, having never been entirely ‘there’ in the first place — this horse becomes, through a couple of key sequences the we will have to analyze in a moment, the closest thing the movie has to a moral center. The horse is the place where the ‘true grit’ of the title will manifest itself. And, curiously, this will happen only through the introduction of another animal.
But first, the girl must become a man. Or, more accurately, must cease to be a “girl”, this not-quite-man that is the object of so much scorn and condescension. So, at the very moment when she is treated most patronizingly — the reins of her horse seized by a man who would guide her away from danger, back towards town — she refuses. She steers her horse away from towns, away from men, into the river. Horse and rider alike struggle against the current; and while praise is reserved for the horse’s efforts (“That’s some horse!”), it is clear, as soon as they surface on the far bank, that things have changed. Have begun to, anyway.
* * * * *
The snake (or snakes — for here it does not really matter) emerges from a dead body. Not the first dead body in the film, nor the last, but certainly the most frightening, and the most dangerous. Up until now, bodies have been harmless, and animals helpless. But the snake is different.
The snake is cruel, demonic, resentful: it rattles and hisses, terrifying you, trying to drive you away; you let yourself become terrified, you run, but it bites you anyway; you do not die but are marked forever by the experience. You lose something, becoming less-than, or other-than, wholly human. You lose something, without anyone gaining from your loss, which simply disappears, like the second gold piece, never to be found.
Of course, there is a point at which you could die. You could lose not only something but everything — which would mean victory for the snake. Once again, there is a struggle, and everything is in question.*
The horse will be the key to this struggle, as he was to the last one. Here the flow he fights is not the river but the blood, which is to say, time itself. He fights, he runs, he would reverse time, annul space, if he could — all this, despite having nothing to gain. He is not fighting for his own life, trying to reach safety before drowning; he rides towards nothing he can see, and even the audience is not quite sure where he is going. Little Blacky will die without knowing. For only the selfless sacrifice of the horse can undo the cruelty of the snake.
* * * * *
There’s a kind of spirituality running throughout the Coen brothers’ work that I’ve noted before. It’s most obvious, I think, in those films (Fargo, Burn After Reading, The Ladykillers, to name a few) that are structured around what I like to call a “secret miracle”, after the Borges story of the same name.
In that story, a writer who is about to be executed in a Nazi prison camp pleads with God for time to finish his final work. His prayer is granted, finally, as he stands before the firing squad: time comes to a halt and the writer ‘lives’ an entire year, frozen in place, writing and revising the work inside his head. When he finishes, time resumes again and the bullets strike him dead. The “secret miracle” can be performed, it seems, only on condition of being immediately withdrawn, vanishing from the world without a trace.
So, too, in the films mentioned above, we arrive at the end only to find that there is no longer any vantage point from which a coherent story can be pieced back together: every reliable witness is dead, every relevant piece of evidence destroyed. There are knowing references to this process of self-effacement in The Ladykillers and (especially) Burn After Reading, which ends with a meeting between two high-ranking CIA agents who have been observing, from a distance, the unfolding farce. What did we learn? asks one; Nothing, admits the other.
It’s easy to read these blind fools as stand-ins for the audience, but it’s also inaccurate: for the audience, like the reader of “The Secret Miracle” — like God himself — knows exactly what just happened. We leave these films feeling strangely reassured, convinced that there is a transcendent viewpoint from which everything makes sense, every effect is traceable to a cause, no matter how minor; and while such perfect knowledge may remain permanently off-limits for foolish mortals, we can experience some approximation of it in the theater.
If the Coens’ more recent films (No Country for Old Men, True Grit — I haven’t seen A Serious Man yet) mark a move away from this motif, I wonder whether something else will come to take its place. Perhaps it is no longer enough to stage publicly the sacrifice of sense, to unmask the empty aspirations of human vanity; perhaps now, as in the oldest myths, a wholly innocent soul must be offered up as well.
*: Psychoanalysis, naturally enough, would have something to say about this second ride, and the ‘paternal’ third party that is here superimposed upon the union of horse and girl. But psychoanalysis is, I think, still too human for our concerns here. At any rate, it does not exhaust the power of this fascinating figure, this one-eyed, two-named cowboy — both “Rooster” and “Reuben”, animal & man, a drunk who growls and spits and kills like a savage beast, but must also answer for himself before a court of law… and who ends up on display, in something not unlike a zoo.