Monthly Archives: December 2009

New Year’s Eve

I have so much farther to go than I thought. “Your boundaries are your quest.”

(Cairo, G Willow Wilson)

(The quote-within-a-quote is by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi known as Mowlana known as Rumi.)

Today is Daniel’s third birthday (he’ll always have fireworks on his birthday) and the last day of the year. It’s been a big one. We’ve taken him to Daylesford, the snow, Darwin, and so many other places. He’s grown in height (now the average height of a five-year-old) and grown in so many other ways.

I try to live up to him. For instance, every night when I read him bedtime stories, I concentrate on the pronounciation issue I grew up with and speech therapists couldn’t correct in primary school: a defect I once fought foroughly impossible to fix; a fing I’d suffer to my deaf: dreaded “th”. Now I can mostly hear the difference between “f” and “th”, mostly make the right sound amongst other sounds, and know when I don’t get it right. Perhaps by the end of next year I’ll be speaking like a native.

Next year. 2010. The future. I’ve got your rocket packs right here if you want them. The deal is, you get them, you have to give up a few things in exchange. The internet; PCs; the inability to use a slide rule.
Popular culture. Most kinds of tolerance and attempts at equality. Certain kinds of people (you know the ones). Good food! Yes, you can have someone else’s childhood fantasy of the future, in exchange for the one you’re actually living in. I won’t see you there.

2010 is going to be a big year for me. Six months off from work. A new child. Going back to uni to learn to become a book editor. A new Doctor. The tenth birthday of this blog.

That’s something that’s been on my mind. This blog has always been a means to no end, an end in itself, a place to think through writing. It’s never (though I didn’t always realise this) been a stepping stone to anything else, like publication, fame, or money. This public writing has never really been written for anyone else, though in my mind I’ve always had a kind of fictionalised sympathetic audience. But recently it’s started to feel solipsistic yet impersonal. Now perhaps this thought has run its course. I am thinking about new ways of thinking. I’m thinking about giving up this blog. Yes, it is that urge, as old as any blog, to stop blogging. It’s something that I’ve got until July 26 to think about. Ten years would to my blog be—sufficient. Until then there are definitely still posts to be posted on Pah.

Let’s have a happy new year together!

Minority Reading, Second Half

(First Half.)

Diaz:

I’m not entirely sure Oscar would have liked this designation. Fukú story. He was a hardcore sci-fi and fantasy man, believed that that was the kind of story we were all living in. He’d ask: What more sci-fi than the Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?

I have read 22 books in the last six months: 12 novels, 3 plays, 3 short story collections, 3 non-fiction, 1 memoir. 27% of these were by people of colour.

  • Samuel R Delany (African-American)
  • Junot Diaz (Dominican)
  • Nam Le (Vietnamese)
  • Barack Obama (African-American)
  • Vikram Seth (Indian)

I’ve read 11 comics, 6 drawn by people of colour.

  • Shari Chankhamma (Thai)
  • Georges Jeanty (Hispanic-American)
  • Rags Morales (Puerto Rican)
  • MK Perker (Turkish)
  • Shaun Tan (Chinese-Australian)
  • Roberto Weil (Venezualan)

My statistics for reading writing by women are worse, though improved: 23%—and remarkably stable at 21% if I include comics.

  • Angela Carter
  • Shari Chankhamma
  • Kathleen Ann Goonan
  • Nicola Griffith
  • Gwyneth Jones
  • Ursula K Le Guin
  • Rutu Modan

Must do better. These people are not a minority.

Reread Tolkien

Five years after those films, it’s still possible to reread and think about The Lord of the Rings, as Adam Roberts has done here:

  • Book I (on getting lost)
  • Book II (on writing in Middle Earth)
  • Book III (on what are the real two towers)
  • Book IV (on the Nightmare Life-in-Death)
  • Book V (oops—confuses necessary risk with suicidal despair)
  • Book VI (on appendices)

Especially good is the recognition that Tolkien doesn’t write in a single style; The Lord of the Rings is a collection of written forms.

Read, reread.

Political Christmas

Andrew Rilstone has an excellent post on political correctness. GONE MAD.

There is no such thing as political correctness. “Political correctness” is the dog whistle blown by people who like being rude or fear change or whatever. Who are unconscious of their hegemony or pretend to be. Note that in this world there are people who describe themselves as fascists, but no one who describes themselves as being politically correct. Correctness is not a goal in politics.

When someone labels something “political correct”, ask yourself, what are they telling me that I want to hear? When someone says something you want to label “political correct”, ask yourself, what are they telling me that I don’t want to hear? Reason is elsewhere. Think about why there are cards that say “Season’s Greetings” (hint: it isn’t because of political correctness).

Here’s a toast—a Happy Christmas to all of us.

The Shape of this Decade in Music

AKA a Best Music Of The Decade post

Epigraphs

“I must find the 2000s. I must write how I will remember them. I must say goodbye.”

The Harvard Crimson:

Best Album You Heard Thirty Years Ago: The Strokes, Is This It
Best Album To Name-Drop: Radiohead, Kid A

Anwyn Crawford:

If someone had forewarned me in 2000 that, ten years on, the inane corporate “punk” of Greenday, massively irritating in 1994, would be one of the decade’s best-selling acts; that U2 and their devil’s progeny Coldplay would still be on magazine covers; that divas unworthy of the term—the tacky Shakira and the increasingly anodyne Beyonce—would annexe the popular consciousness; that The Pixies would be six years into a reunion tour that kick-started an entire Indie Rock Heritage Circuit… well, it’s lucky that no one did serve me notice of these inauspicious cultural signs, or I would have been an even gloomier 19 year old than I already was.

Previously on Pah

Apologia

I have written about the thinness of albums this decade. The shape of this decade will be remembered in singles. In surveying the decade’s music I found that I had little desire to rip songs from albums I’ve already nominated as great. Somehow in those works the songs work so well together that I am loathe to listen to one without listening to them all. Then again, most of those albums did not have formally released singles, so the weirdness is not mine alone. And perhaps it will be a relief for you to see a list from me without any Mike Patton.

I live in Australia. Our charts take from the rock-oriented US charts and the dance-oriented UK charts and add our own Aussie spin. This means that we have a slightly different perspective than either of our colonial masters. Previously I would have said we take the wheat and leave the chaff, but this decade has been much more about LCD chaff.

This is not an ordered top ten or even a top seventeen (even ignoring the missing album tracks). Though they are the best, and some are better than others, I cannot bring myself to sort them. I leave markers where relevant, but the list appears in chronological order.

Two Song Theory

To me there were two big songs that defined the 90s: Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991) by Nirvana, and Breathe (1996) by Prodigy. These are two awesome songs in their own right, but also leaders and exemplars of movements in that decade.

I’ll give away the “end” here by saying the best song of the 2000s is Hey Ya (2003) by Outkast.

But the other defining song of the decade isn’t so awesome. For a second tent pole, I’d pick Sex on Fire (2008) by Kings of Leon. This is not a great song. I hate this song. But it is unquestionably representative of the retrogressive/nostalgic/reheated quagmire that bands like Outkast couldn’t quite give us enough thrust to escape. You might argue then that I should be picking a Strokes or White Stripes song, but the thing about this movement is that the longer it goes on, the less original it gets, the more it succeeds in its goal. Which is to unhinge the industrial production of pop music from high art so that it can be more perfectly sold in cyclical seasons, like yoyos. The future of music will be an endless recycling of certain pasts that younger people haven’t happened to have heard before and older people will never get tired of. So that it can be used to sell you stuff.

But there is still Hey Ya. The charts haven’t quite gone yet. We’re not all alone with our iPods.

And so, without further ado, the good songs…

Get Ur Freak On (2000) by Missy Elliott

I’ll get off to a lazy start by letting Anwyn handle this one.

It Wasn’t Me (2000) by Shaggy, featuring RikRok

Shaggy writes about the dark heart of RikRok’s sultry R&B voice. This is the theme song of the 2000s. Children overboard, global financial crisis, priestly paedophilia, Copenhagen: it wasn’t me! Its status was confirmed in 2001 when Michael Jackson selected it as a personal favourite at his 30th anniversary celebrations.

Stan (2000) by Eminem

Eminem could have been the artist of the decade, but his rapping slowed, and America chose George W Bush over him. It’s hard to remember how controversial he was in the early 2000s, and how his fights with Moby, Jay Z, and Triumph gave some life to music news. It’s true he was a white boy appropriating black music, and I might not have been as interested if I’d listened to Wu-Tang Clan… but I might never have listened to them if not for him, he did bring Dr Dre and D12 with him, and he did have his own ideas to offer. This is his masterpiece, fast postmodern lyrics telling a story with a gift for detail, juxtaposed with the inspired selection of a sample from Dido’s Thank You, building to one of the most horrific climaxes ever to make it into the charts.

You Can Fall (2000) by Broadcast

This song opens up an alternative history of pop. What if, instead of listening to Bob Dylan in 1964, the Beatles had watched Doctor Who instead? Perhaps we might have had more bands like Broadcast, who sound like their realisation has been provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Harder Better Faster Stronger (2001) by Daft Punk

Daft Punk showed that it was possible to use a vocoder for good, not evil. Here they turn a funky minimalism into accretion and recombination that just makes me want to dance. Kanye West made the second worst sampling faux pas of the decade when he thought he could use this as background (Black Eyed Peas made the worst when they used Miserlou).

I Can’t Get You Out Of My Head (2001) by Kylie Minogue

Kylie has always been an actor, submitting herself to songwriters and producers, without the continuity of personality like Madonna. That tendency finds its perfect expression in this song, where she swaps pop vitalism for a flattened affect subsumed by the music. This is Human 2.0, love-as-pathology, the will-to-cyborg. It was a signal that many would follow (e.g. Hung Up by Madonna, Toxic by Britney).

Crazy In Love (2003) by Beyonce, featuring Jay Z

Another key signal for pure pop practitioners: contra Freud, there are two libidos, and one of them is female. Christina Aguilera’s Candyman and Pink’s U + Ur Hand come from here. Yes this is still just a love song and needs validation from Jay Z, but the energy has reached what before might have been deemed an unseemly level, and maybe all that shaking might just be for Beyonce’s own pleasure.

Hey Ya (2003) by Outkast

At the start of this decade, a small child opined to me that hip hop wasn’t music because it didn’t have a melody. This was obviously her parents’ opinion and I hope she’s grown up and out of it by now. This song has such a fantastic beat that even small children are helpless before it. Of course this song can’t be reduced to just its beat, it has such a richness of sound. It’s funny to think that under all those synth splodges and overdubs, an acoustic guitar provides the basic accompaniment to the singing. The effect is one of laidback high energy. Its weakness is its singular nature. Even Outkast don’t sound like this (and I’m thankful that it’s not poisoned by testosterone like the rest of The Love Below). It stands alone, an outlying forerunner of a (still?) possible future.

The Nosebleed Section (2003) by Hilltop Hoods

A lot of its power comes from the sample of Melanie’s 1972 The People in the Front Row (but being a DJ means being a smart curator). The rest comes from its (in more ways than one) Australian accent (this is how it must have felt listening to the Streets in Britain). Afterwards I listened to Australian hip hop on the radio for months. But only this made it to the big time; mainstream radio stuck with Australian Idol and the diminishing returns of past stars.

Dr Who on Holiday (2005) by Dean Gray

Mashups deserve greater recognition. I’ve heard many great mashups this decade and this (an Oz/US collaboration) is the greatest. The Bush/Dalek juxtaposition sends chills down my spine. I particularly like the subtlety of not just mashing together Green Day’s Holiday and the Timelords’ Doctorin’ the TARDIS, but also going back to the latter’s source of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll part 2. There’s a lot that Green Day and Murray Gold could learn from this song.

The Beekeeper (2005) by Tori Amos

Tori’s uncanny adaptation of Death: The Time of Your Life. Beautiful work by Amos on the Hammond, bass from Evans, Chamberlain on the drums, squelchy guitar bits from Aladdin…

Archangel (2007) by Burial

I heard it on the internet and dismissed it, then encountered it being pumped to the street from an Asian cafe, whereafter it stayed with me, distorted sounds repeating on me. I can’t exactly discern what dubstep is from other electronic microgenres, but “hauntological” is a better label for this.

Heartbroken (2007) by T2, featuring Jodie Aysha

Electronica does itself a disservice with too many microgenres, but somehow I found myself listening to a set of mixtapes featuring bassline, and fell in love with it. Unlike most dance music, I could listen to this stuff all day long. The speed and layering, the distinctive computer-generated bass, the sped-up female vocals. It’s a crime that there’s been no official albums out of this scene, though this awesome single reached #2 in the British charts.

Piece Of Me (2007) by Britney Spears

Here’s the ultimate response to those Kylie and Beyonce signals I mentioned earlier. On the one hand, Britney’s damaged-affect voice is just a building block to be used by the producers. On the other hand, this is a raw assertion of self as subject. She’s her own subject and ours too, it’s all tricky stuff, and handled perfectly here. For this song she is the most rock act of the decade.

Sorry You’re Not A Winner (2007) by Enter Shikari

The only piece of actual rock on this list. Instead of retreating into the past, Enter Shikari follow in the footsteps of nu metal, beefing up the metal-influenced content. I spent the middle years of this decade wishing for something like this outside the local Melbourne scene. And I got this. But only this. (Pink, for instance, put out some good rock too—Sober is particularly good—but she’s working with established forms in a way that doesn’t distinguish her enough from the decade’s regressive background to make it on this list.)

The Way I Are (2007) by Timbaland, featuring Keri Hilson & DOE

I heard this on So You Think You Can Dance, the only television show to really respect music this decade. Using two singers is probably what seals the deal and makes this stand out from similar songs. I love how the two vocals and all the sounds weave in and out of each other.

Umbrella (2007) by Rihanna

No one sings of the pathology of love like Rihanna. It can be a disease or an addiction. Even when, as here, she sings of lyrically straightforward love, she turns it away from notions of naive choice. She has a beautiful voice, but instead of indulging in mellifluous tones or melisma she offers something that’s almost bored or robotic. The key there is almost. She walks that modern line between chance and nihilism. We are compelled but we choose every minute of it. She has a serial killer’s delivery and she’s loved like Dexter. This is the perfect complement to Hey Ya and comes in a (very close) second place for best song of the decade.

Stats

Out of 17 songs…

9.5 songs from the United States, 4 from the United Kingdom, 2.5 from Australia, and 1 from France.

9 songs featuring women, 7 featuring people of colour.

4 songs from 2000 and another 2 from 2001… these are songs that I might call “90s music”… but then the 90s start with a lot of “80s rock”, so let’s call it even…

A big spike in 2007 with 6 songs. I feel like the zeitgeist took pity on me and gave me a gift.

So

So that’s my story. That’s my 2000s. Producers, complexity, postmodernism, strange sounds, flattened affect, energy and the female libido—versus—reformations, revivals, Australian Idol, and MOR. Unfortunately the former, Cnut-like, is a taker of arms against the latter’s sea of troubles. I don’t blame bad taste or failing talent or reduced possibility for the situation. I just think that we are no longer interested in music as an ends, or music as a means to something transcendent. Our focus is elsewhere. Fair enough. It’s a medium that didn’t exist sixty years ago and nothing lasts forever. But I will be sad to see it go.

If it is as I say. Perhaps you think differently. What’s your story?

The Third Age Continues

The Third Age episodes five and six, the last for this year, are now up. (The Third Age will continue… on January 5th.)

Finally we hear the voice over from the end of episode one in the diegesis. Then footage from episode six turns up in the closing credits of episode five. It’s all connected.

Episode five introduces us to Holly, played by Hallie Cooper-Novack. I think she’s my favourite actor in the series so far, bringing a lot of nuance to her character. I love the way she’s introduced, filming a video (perhaps a web video?) on magic. She’s talking to noone, but imagining she’s talking to someone. This is where the not real becomes real, but it’s not facile. Similarly, you can see that she believes in magic, but she’s not a zealot, she has to work at expressing herself. This is the ironic moment for me, where talk of sigils is a straying from what I believe into questionable territory, yet I find Holly’s message to be absolutely vital, good, and true: reality is a construct, so start doing your part to construct it.

list of Top Ten Top Ten lists

The list of Top Ten Top Ten lists for this decade that I am ill-equipped to write:

10. The top ten albums of the decade.

9. The top ten television shows of the decade.

8. The top ten comics of the decade.

7. The top ten beers of the decade.

6. The top ten novels of the decade.

5. The top ten movies of the decade.

4. The top ten weblogs of the decade.

3. The list of Top Ten Top Ten lists for this decade that I am ill-equipped to write.

Light Facts

1. Everyone knows that tomatoes are fruit, but Kate Oliver reveals that strawberries, oranges, bananas and plums (and more) are not. Make sure you read her final footnote for even more shocking revelations.

2. The following were all born in 1977 and thus are the same age as me: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Edward Furlong, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Orlando Bloom, Shakira.

3. There was going to be more, but now that is all.

Cargo Cults?

Somewhere between A Question of Re-entry (1963) and News from the Sun (1981), JG Ballard’s conception of cargo cults changed. In the former he describes one much as Peter Lawrence would in Road Belong Cargo (1964). In the latter he follows Richard Feynman’s Caltech commencement address (1974). This got me to thinking about the topic again. Is Feynman the source of all misinformation?

No. In the last four years, video footage of cargo cults has appeared on YouTube. This footage comes from a 1962 exploitation doco, You Dog of a World! (Italian: Mondo Cane). It’s interesting because this shows cargo cults as Feynman would describe them twelve years later. It’s even more interesting because it’s the only visual evidence I’ve seen for the existence of cargo cults as he described. It shows Papua New Guineans loitering around the airport at Port Moresby, gazing longingly at Australian aeroplanes. Then it shows Papua New Guineans with a wooden recreation of an airport tower beside a beaten dirt runway, waiting for their own aeroplanes. Sensational stuff. But is it real? It seems strange that this kind of activity could be going on in Port Moresby without more evidence being available. It seems even more strange that a scholar like Lawrence could have failed to mention it. Other episodes of the film are faked and it seems this one is too.

An even earlier prototype for Feynman is David Attenborough’s 1960 book, Quest in Paradise. This devotes two chapters to Attenborough’s visit to Papua New Guinea. Attenborough talks to locals, both colonial and native, then goes in search of mythical cult messiah John Frum. The problem here is that all his familiar descriptions come from the mouths of colonial figures: Lutheran and Catholic missionaries, and an Australian land owner, i.e. people who have a vested interest in portraying the indigenes as incapable of work, ownership, and governance, and in need of moral guidance. For his part, Attenborough renders the Papua New Guinean’s English phonetically, and believes the missionaries when they tell him a crucifix erected by the Christian-instructed Papua New Guineans is a cargo cult radio mast. (Richard Dawkin’s perpetuates this racist travelogue in The God Delusion because he’s more eager to show he knows Attenborough than he is to demonstrate actual science. This is crucial because he fails to distinguish between the rise of a new religion and a change in expression of an old understanding of the universe.)

So Feynman is not the first, but neither do Attenborough and the makers of Mondo Cane stumble upon the “cargo cults” in PNG by accident. They have followed stories there, so I can assume that there are yet earlier sources. I continue to ask the questions: Has anyone got any evidence that the cargo cults of popular conception ever existed? Or is the true “cargo cult behaviour” that of Feynman, Dawkins, Doctorow, and many programmers, the ritual invocation of racist colonial myths?

The Time Meddler

The TARDIS, the Doctor assures us at the start, has taken us into the past, but this isn’t your usual historical. Those are filled with Shakespearean dialogue and political intrigue. This is an altogether more quiet story. Little happens, little is said. The key image is Peter Butterworth’s fabulous Monk laughing hysterically at the end of the first episode, with no explanation of him given in the second. Something is happening: pay attention.

Pay attention to the watch. Vicki didn’t drop it. Could the Doctor have dropped it? What is going on here? This isn’t 2009 and the story can’t be watched with our contemporary genre expectations. The 1965 viewer would not have expected:

  • an artificially-recreated environment
  • a parallel world
  • a virtual reality
  • a hallucination
  • or…

Actually, ignore that ellipsis for a second, and go back a point. Ian thought that the TARDIS was an illusion. What would he have thought if his first trip hadn’t been back 102,000 years, but here instead? A watch, a gramophone… This can’t be the past. In story after story the Doctor has assured us that the past can’t be changed.

In fact it has already been changed, twice: the Doctor gives Nero the idea for burning down Rome; the Daleks cause the crew of the Mary Celeste to jump overboard. But these changes have been brief, comedic, and besides, nothing actually changed, did it? History was fulfilled. Now at the climax of Season 2, we are given time to understand.

The cliffhanger to the third episode is not as we try to understand it today. The revelation is not that the Monk is one of the Doctor’s people, with a promise of more backstory to come. The revelation is that the Monk is a time traveller—and is changing history. Interference is no longer impossible, merely proscribed. The incident with Nero doesn’t look as harmless when we hear the Monk has already helped the ancient Britons with an anti-gravity lift. This is why the story itself is so quiet. Imagine the turmoil of the viewer. The thought: until the Monk turned up, there was no Stonehenge. The nature of Doctor Who has changed irrevocably.

(But then the curious end. The Doctor doesn’t stop the Monk. Instead, the locals become suspicious of his plans to light beacon fires. It’s revealed that he is harbouring Vikings. To the monastery! History homes in for the kill.)

(For a fuller review of The Time Meddler, check out Alex Wilcock.)

(I claimed the other day that, after this, Donald Tosh returned us to the “pure historical”—I should have refreshed my memory about what happens in The Myth Makers. That story is a kind of nightmare inversion of The Time Meddler: in place of the Monk freely trying to change history with his technology, the Doctor is forced to change history with his technology. Merely showing up in the past is liable to interfere with it. (I wonder what impression is given with both the Doctor and the Monk being present in the next story as the Daleks try to destroy time?))