December 31, 2007

Don’t you know that other kids are starving in Japan

Filed under: Blogs Themselves, Funny Stuff, General Me, Laws and Sausages, Travels — tomemos @ 2:29 pm

Two unconnected month-of-December items, so that my conscience can be clear going into the new year:

•Julie and I finally took our honeymoon, to Ensenada in Baja California, about three weeks ago. It wasn’t sub-tropical by any means—our shorts and bathing suits went unused, which we half-expected—but it was quite relaxing, with plenty of napping and strolling, with a pleasant day trip to Mexican wine country thrown in. It also featured a minor milestone: I fell off the meat wagon. For the first time since (roughly) May 1993, I knowingly ordered and ate meat.

I’ve never been one of those vegetarians who is appalled by the thought of eating meat unknowingly. When, at one Midnight Breakfast at Sarah Lawrence, I realized that the fake sausage I had been enjoying was actually real sausage, I didn’t freak out, nor was I bothered when I realized that “imitation crab” is made out of other fish, not out of gluten or something. I also have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards broths, stocks, and sauces. But even with this permissiveness, my trip to Japan a couple of years ago felt extremely unsatisfying: while my family enjoyed every kind of fish dish, I was eating the same miso soup, salads, and edamame everywhere, and anything else I tried was most likely cooked in fish products anyway. Furthermore, my moral commitment to vegetarianism is wholly personal; I’m perfectly fine with others eating meat, so it felt strange holding myself to an absolute standard.

So, when I learned that our vacation destination was the Home of the Fish Taco, I realized that I was open to trying some. It was important that it be fish—I do believe that they feel less suffering and consciousness—and also that there be few interesting vegetarian options where we were traveling; even in Greece, I was able to enjoy local varieties of Greek salad, as well as various pita-based foods, whereas around Ensenada few restaurants had anything vegetarian other than quesadillas.

Over the course of the trip, I ate five fish tacos at two different restaurants, as well as a plate of seafood pasta. (I also ate steak tacos after all, but that was a misunderstanding: I ordered “tacos quesas,” and it ended up having steak, and the food took so long to arrive that I didn’t want to send it back.) How was it? It was fine. It felt somewhat odd knowing I was intentionally breaking an abstention, and I worried that I would have digestive problems (I didn’t), but it was basically anticlimactic; I was just eating food.

In the end, though, I think this experiment ended up strengthening my vegetarianism. The fish tacos tasted good; they didn’t make me feel like I had been missing out on something amazing for fifteen years. At one point during our trip, I had a vegetarian tostada, and that was as satisfying a meal as anything else I ate in Mexico. Taste is possibly the most transitory aesthetic experience: even if you eat a meal that you remember for the rest of your life—and I’ve had one or two—it can’t make you want to live a different way. My feelings on eating meat are unchanged: for me, it is a moral issue, but not a moral absolute.

Incidentally, in talking about this experience, I received a reminder that the personally significant is not always identical with the objectively significant. Talking to my sister about our trip, and trying to build suspense, I told her that there had been a “significant occurrence” on our honeymoon. She thought I was going to tell her that we had gotten pregnant.

•There’s a debate raging in the feminist and left-wing blogospheres these days, over a new book project, Yes Means Yes, a collection of essays about fighting rape culture through emphasis on women’s sexuality. The book was announced at Feministing and is co-edited by Jessica Valenti, controversial author of Full Frontal Feminism, which was (to my mind justly) accused of excluding middle-class, non-white, and international feminist issues, despite its claims of universality. (My two favorite responses were petitpoussin’s and Kugelmass’s.) Yes Means Yes is facing much the same criticism: it has been accused of being ahistorical, reductionist, and indifferent to working-class and third-world rape cultures, among other things. However, the book right now is just a call for submissions, and so there is no content to critique; furthermore, many people seem to be taking it as a given that the book is attempting to be the last word on rape, and that it could not be relevant to underprivileged women’s issues. Neither point seems fair to me.

That said, I don’t have much of a dog in that fight … except where it spills over into unfounded incriminations of progressives generally. At an excellent post by tekanji at Shrub Blog—a post that correctly critiques aspects of book’s promotional material while recognizing the potential value of the project overall—I read a comment that seemed to cross the line between making supportable claims about the book, or about Western feminism in general, and unsupportable generalization and hyperbole (“the incessant need of some middle-class white folks to act as though their insular world is the center of the universe, and that all others simply don’t count”). Breaking my usual policy, which is not to discuss politics online except at friends’ blogs, I responded, and a discussion followed, including what is probably the longest comment I’ve posted anywhere. The thread seems to have run its course, but you never know.

You can read the actual arguments at tekanji’s blog. I do want to say a word, though, about where my interest in this issue comes from: it comes from attending both high school and college with students who were 1) universally left-wing and 2) divided, to different degrees, into pretty stark contrasts of privileged and unprivileged, both financially and demographically. Consequently, identity politics has been central to my political understanding and discussion, for better and for worse. Some would expect this to be the point where the white, straight, middle-class man complains about how unfairly he was treated; actually, I found most of political discussions in my youth to be thoughtful and productive, and especially important for someone coming from natural positions of privilege. The exceptions have been cases where assumptions of exclusion and privilege preclude and eclipse fair consideration of content, and I think that’s what’s happening with Yes Means Yes. At Shrub Blog, one commenter accused progressive and feminist bloggers of paying “lip service” to working-class issues, which for me raised the question of what other kind of service can be paid on a blog; aside from organizing and fund-raising efforts, the internet is all talk. In fact, people seem to be criticizing Yes Means Yes precisely for its failure to make explicit mention of unprivileged women’s issues. Honestly, this is a fair point—if the book wants to be for everyone, it should make this clear— but the fact remains that the suggested topics are just that, suggested, and before the essays are compiled it is impossible to conclude whether or not the book is “exclusionary.” The frustrations with the state of feminism and the feminist and progressive blogospheres seem valid to me; the assumptions about this unpublished book do not, and run the risk of alienating potential supporters and allies.

Be safe tonight and this year, everyone.


December 7, 2007

Using ideas as my maps

Filed under: Blogs Themselves, Film and Video, Literati and Cognoscenti, Music — tomemos @ 2:12 pm

Attention, smart people: I think we should have some kind of symposium on the Todd Haynes film I’m Not There. Probably an online symposium, though honestly I’d like to get us all in a Mariott ballroom talking about it, as it’s a film where our disagreements are more important than our agreements. Because while I liked the movie overall—I’d say three stars on Netflix—it’s also the most disappointing movie I’ve seen in years; I didn’t love it by any means, and yet no one who loved it has said anything I’ve disagreed with. So I’d like to start us talking about how we could all be thinking such similar things about the film and coming to such different aesthetic conclusions.

Here’s what I’m going to say today: I’m Not There is a textbook example of why, in art, the conceptual is unsatisfying without effective practical execution. In fact, I used it in class a week ago to make that very point to my students. Somewhat like the other Todd Haynes films I’ve seen—Safe (which I saw while young, admittedly) and Far From Heaven—the movie is thoughtful and has interesting ideas, but does not actually feel interesting to watch. The disappointment of I’m Not There is so keen for me because the concept is especially good, while the execution is often mediocre and occasionally bad. (Spoilers follow from here on out.)

In fairness, I should note at the beginning that I experienced the film in a sub-optimal manner: some reels were shown out of order, so that (for instance) we first encountered Cate Blanchett’s Dylan before he had been properly introduced. Perturbed by the abrupt shifts in scene, we suggested to a theater employee that the reels might have been out of order, but he said he had arranged them correctly and added, “It’s what you call an extremely disjointed narrative.” It took a week to confirm that this was incorrect; the friend we checked with wondered at first if maybe we just didn’t understand avant-garde cinema. On the one hand, you could say that we would have enjoyed the movie more if we had seen it in order, and that’s probably true (though it wouldn’t have made any difference for the Richard Gere and Heath Ledger sequences, which had nothing redeeming for me). On the other hand, the fact that the projectionist couldn’t tell that the film was out of order isn’t exactly a point in its favor. (There weren’t a lot of audience members around us who shared our suspicions, either.) So, with that out of the way:

Joe Kugelmass, who initially disliked the movie, came to appreciate it by thinking of it as a statement on Dylan’s use of self-mythologizing: “For Haynes, Dylan is the sum of his fantasies—the fantasy of being black and young again, the fantasy of being a noble refugee with a history of violence.…” Uncomplicatedly, in a comment on that entry, agrees:

Everyone goes through successive reimaginings of themselves– which is part of what gives the film weight and resonance– but this is especially important for Dylan, who was bent on reimagining himself in defiance of people who wanted to hold onto the particular incarnation they had connected with.

This matches other opinions I’ve heard: the movie is intended to capture Dylan’s constant re-invention, both to the public and to himself, and the impossibility of settling on a “true” Dylan in light of this. This is made explicit in Richard Gere’s words near the end of the film: “Me, I can change in the course of a day. I wake up thinking I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.”

Here’s the thing: I get all that. What’s more, I agree with all that. It’s what I understood Haynes’ object to be when I heard he was making a movie with six very different Dylans, and as someone who’s been a Dylan fan most of my life, it’s what made me excited to see it. And, despite some unfortunately literal uses of Dylan lyrics, Haynes’ use of this concept is exemplary, as he makes observations—criticism, really—about Dylan’s life and career that make intrinsic sense. My favorite of these is the way that Christian Bale’s Dylan, the early-sixties protest singer, resurfaces in the late seventies as a born-again preacher. It’s true that Dylan’s Christian period was in some ways a reprise of his protest period: he believed, again, that he could change people, save people, through song. I had never thought of it this way, but, thanks to Haynes, now I have.

My problem is that the enjoyment or fulfillment I got from watching these concepts in the movie was equal to that I got from reading about them in film reviews ahead of time: it was an intellectual enjoyment, not an aesthetic one. In other words, for the most part the concepts and ideas work only as concepts and ideas; aside from a few good scenes, almost all in the Bale or Blanchett sections of the movie, they are not actually executed in a way that gives pleasure beyond figuring them out or understanding them. And so the movie ended up for me as a noble failure, a smart but disappointing effort, rather than a comprehensively good film.

Of course, one could reasonably argue that you can’t judge a film fairly once you’ve spoiled it for yourself by reading reviews, and that if I had seen the film without prior knowledge I would have been able to achieve full enjoyment of its ideas. I would respond with two points:

1) The film’s own promotional materials made a point of explicitly selling, and explaining, these same concepts, running the same risk of spoilage as the reviews did. I’m not just talking about the trailer, although that’s part of it (the Gere quote from above is right there in the trailer); I’m also talking about “I’m Not There: The Official Guide to the Movie,” a six-page booklet, given to us with our movie tickets, which contains articles explaining what part of Dylan’s life and iconography each of the actors represents and what all the sources for the people, dialogue, clothes, etc. are. Now, obviously Haynes didn’t make the trailer or the booklet; he may abhor them. But it is relevant to me that the film was sold by giving the concepts away: it created my desire to see the movie that went along with those concepts, and that movie didn’t stand up. Moreover, I wouldn’t be too quick to say that this is separate from what Haynes himself does: in both the beginning and the end of the film, we see a rapid-fire display of snapshots of the six actors playing Dylan, which seems to be Haynes’ way of pushing the film’s central concept to the forefront.

2) More importantly, the film should stand on its own. This is true of any work of art: the intellectual or conceptual material is not less important than the practical execution of that material, but both halves need each other to thrive. A friend of mine disliked the novel Hannibal, until he found a website that claimed to find a system of oblique references (to what, I don’t remember) in the novel. Without weighing in on the plausibility of the references, or the quality of the book—I’m not familiar with either one—literature is not an Easter-egg-hunt; it’s not just about finding references, nor is it just about making points and developing ideas. Those references, points, and ideas have to be artistically presented to an audience. A boring or unconvincing novel is better with well-developed ideas than without them, but it remains boring and unconvincing either way.

Losing sight of this means losing sight of why we take the two hours to actually watch a film, rather than just talking about its ideas. When a film is all concept, it’s impossible to discuss it on any other grounds; every flaw is actually an essential part of the concept. The Richard Gere sequence in I’m Not There is derivative (basically a watered-down McCabe and Mrs. Miller with giraffes), but that’s okay, because Dylan’s vision of the West was itself derivative. The Heath Ledger/Charlotte Gainsbourg divorce scenes are boring, but that’s okay, because it shows us how flat and boring Dylan’s life felt to him during this time. On the other hand, I just watched a Sopranos episode (“House Arrest”) about Tony and everyone around him being bored and depressed, and it was compelling from beginning to end. Everyone who’s been in a writing workshop has heard someone say that a character is supposed to be annoying, or a scene is supposed to be frustrating. The fact is, good art is able to make all the emotions and experiences of life, even the banal ones, feel interesting and worthwhile (not to say pleasant or enjoyable) without making us think of justifications for their banality.

I would compare it to surprise endings. Obviously, a movie with a surprise ending is better when you don’t already know the ending, so that you don’t lose the surprise. At the same time, a good movie should be good independent of that surprise. The fact that The Crying Game doesn’t stand up when the twist (not actually at the end, I know) has been spoiled is a sign that it isn’t a very worthwhile film. On the other hand, I loved Citizen Kane, even though I had known what Rosebud was since I was seven. A concept, like a twist, is something one can know and understand independently from actually seeing the movie (or reading the book, etc.). Experiencing that concept or twist has to be worthwhile in and of itself.

I do admire Haynes for making such an ambitious and conceptual movie; I do enjoy thinking through what it has to say about Dylan and about identity in general. As it turns out, all of that doesn’t have much effect on my experience actually watching these people say those lines. “But then all this had somehow to be turned into art,” Martin Amis once wrote at the end of a book review; “that is where the real trouble started.”

November 23, 2007

The War on Thanksgiving

Filed under: Film and Video — tomemos @ 10:37 am

(Updated below)

Ways in which TV advertisers sold the idea of going to their stores at (variously) 4 am, 5 am, or 6 am on the Friday after Thanksgiving, aside from simple appeals to deep discounts:
(based on advertisements seen on Thanksgiving for Target, JC Penney, Mervyn’s, Macy’s, Big Lots, and others)

1. Fear and social pressure. Shot of a suburban neighborhood at night. People running chaotically from their homes, across lawns and into the streets, reminiscent of people evacuating or fleeing in disaster movies. “Mom, where are we going?” shouts a little boy. Mom answers that they are going to take advantage of an early-morning After Thanksgiving Sale. Details of savings and deals follow.

2. Good-natured reminders of personal responsibility. “Set those alarms!” a voice says merrily, as an alarm clock rings. A small dog, representing the buyer, gets out of its dog bed and trots away as the voice recounts all of the deals available at the early-morning After Thanksgiving Sale. As the dog returns to its bed, exhausted (or goes to bed early in preparation for the early-morning sale? Ambiguous), the voice brightly chides us, “You’ve got a lot of shopping to do!”

3. The invigorating thrill of a strenuous physical challenge. No voice-over. Instead, The Go! Team’s “We Just Won’t Be Defeated” plays in the background as an animated stick figure pushes a shopping cart at a full run through a minimalist background. Shots of the stick figure doing shopping-themed exercises, overcoming obstacles, etc. Beads of cartoon sweat drip from his stick-brow. During the evening’s feature (The Incredibles), the little shopper occasionally reappears, running with his cart from the left side of the screen to the right.

4. Ironic directness. A touching family Thanksgiving scene, though a somewhat comical one: one of the older children, a late teenager, over-earnestly wears a paper Pilgrim hat. Mom brings out the turkey and sets it on the table, to the family’s delight; however, she immediately leaves the kitchen, pulling the tablecloth, food, and place-settings behind her. They fall to the ground with a clatter: “Who wants dessert?” calls Mom from the kitchen. The voice-over tells us to hurry and get to the store for the After Thanksgiving Sale, making it clear that Mom wants to get dinner over with quickly to begin shopping. After recounting of deals, a shot of Mom, still in her apron, standing at the store doors alone in the middle of the night. “Open, open, open,” she mutters, rattling the doors.

This one could stand more discussion: by “ironic directness,” I mean an advertisement that simply tells you to do something ridiculous or distasteful, or claims a ludicrous property for the product, but avoids offense by using humor to suggest that they’re just pulling your leg. At the same time, the advertisers obviously want you to do or believe exactly what they’re joking about. On Thanksgiving I expected to see more of this technique, which was incisively described (with the example of the Axe Deodorant ads) in Joe Kugelmass’s account of advertising, but I only saw the one ad; maybe America isn’t yet ready for this level of starkness regarding a family holiday. Within a few years, though, the concept of going shopping on Thanksgiving night may have been normalized to the degree that more advertisers can just tell us to do it, while leaving the “just kidding!” escape hatch unlocked behind them.

I also learned, watching these ads (and reading some of the catalogs that came in the daily paper), that the word “doorbuster” has become the standard term for an extremely good deal, one that will bring people crowding into the store, busting down the doors, etc. This seems like a case of Madison Avenue chutzpah, since for me “doorbuster” evokes everything that makes me not want to take part in brief sales events: namely, getting caught in a massive, door-busting crowd. But it would be a major coup if advertisers made the two worst things about these sales (going to a store at 4 am and packing yourself in with a thousand other shoppers) seem like features: exciting, part of the fun, even part of the holiday.

On the way home from Thanksgiving, we saw a billboard: an extreme close-up of a Budweiser bottle, with the caption “THIS IS BEER.” Obviously, it’s meant to be read with a certain emphasis: “This is beer.” But for a second my mind was freed from that enunciation and I read it for what it actually was: a simple declarative statement (“This is beer”). It sure is! This is somewhat in homage to Penny Arcade’s vision of the ideal Doritos ad: “Doritos are chips.™”

Update: While we’re on the subject…in the past I’ve generally been indifferent to Buy Nothing Day, but the crassness of the Black Friday ads has finally made me a fan. This graphic from designer Jonathan Barnbrook is a pretty thorough argument in favor.

November 14, 2007

Every day I write the book

Filed under: Blogs Themselves, General Me, Get your motor runnin' — tomemos @ 10:29 am

This is a good month for blogging every day; in fact, it’s the month for blogging every day. Friend and blogfriend Kindle (first blog I ever read, hand to God) is taking part, for the second straight year, and has so far discussed films, fashion, food, and ESL teaching.  In similar news, a guy I know has started a blog chronicling his 20-day quest (beginning Saturday) to watch 100 great films, run 100 miles, and grade 40 student papers.   So you want to put that in your RSS before you forget.  Finally, Sarah Lawrence friend Phaea Crede has a blog which, while not technically a NaBloPoMo participant, seems to update almost every day, and also each entry is titled “Today in…” which feels pleasantly like syndicated news.

I recommend all three blogs, both for their own merits (this is projected, in the case of Days of Industry) and for the feeling of plenty that comes from having a new entry to read each day. Me, I don’t have the material or the wherewithal to blog once a week, let alone once a day. However, in the spirit of the month, here is something quirky and trivial you can read about me:

I’ve learned to ride my bike without hands. I know that I’m a little old for this, but but the circumstances were never right before: there are too many hills in Berkeley, and I’ve always been a late bloomer in terms of not being a pussy (I couldn’t watch Pee Wee’s Big Adventure or The Neverending Story until I was in my teens, e.g.). Now, though, I find myself in Long Beach, home of flat, broad, one-way residential streets, and since I’m in my late twenties it can no longer be said that I have my whole life ahead of me. So I started riding no hands – tentatively at first, then confidently. Now I can do it for a block at a time, and I’m starting to learn how to turn.

The funny thing, though, is how addictive this method is; it’s started to feel like the most natural way to ride. Now, whenever I climb on the bike, my first instinct is to put my weight back, and for the first time in my life I want to own one of those upright cruisers rather than a bike that makes you lean forward. It’s too bad unicycles are so dorky, because that’d be the logical next step.

November 1, 2007

Playing with Power

Filed under: Halowe[']en — tomemos @ 11:12 pm

If it’s November, it must be time for me to blog about my Halloween costume. I went as Captain N, the Game Master, star of a half-hour cartoon commercial for Nintendo that aired on Saturday mornings in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I never watched the show, and honestly had forgotten all about its existence until a friend mentioned that it was available on Netflix. So Julie (who did watch the show, I’m just saying) and I rented it, and, well. Hmm.

Here’s a test to do when you’re considering renting a cartoon you remember from your childhood: do you have a single positive memory about watching that show when it was first on? If not, stay far away: that show is too terrible even to be funny, and it even doesn’t feature the toy ads which were half the reason you were watching in the first place. We made the exact same mistake by renting the Legend of Zelda cartoon one night and watching it with a friend. Between the three of us we couldn’t come up with enough jokes to make it worth it.

But nonetheless the guy’s hair looks like mine (visual reference here), so that’s what I went as. More Halloween ’07 photos are available at my long-neglected Flickr account, including the glorious sun and the three different people playing Hunter S. Thompson in I’m Not There, Either, the new Todd Haynes movie about Hunter S. Thompson.

As for next year, who knows. I enjoyed dressing up this year, including the usual quests to get the costume together—thrift store shopping, driving out to a used video game store in Torrance on the day of the party to buy the controller and gun, sewing on the N—but I can feel the enthusiasm ebbing out of me, and I can see myself being done with costumes by, oh, age 30 or so. What an early bloomer I am—that’s only seven years after I learned to drive!

October 25, 2007

Can you imagine Doobie in your funk?

Filed under: Music — tomemos @ 12:40 am

(Updated below/Updated again)

In an article in The New Yorker, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones discusses a trend in rock music, specifically indie rock music: the move away from rock’s black roots. Reviewing the familiar ground of how early rock and roll relied heavily on adapting, and sometimes stealing outright, black rhythms, genres, and lyrics, Frere-Jones follows the thread into the early ’90s when, with the rise of both hip-hop and political correctness, white and black music underwent a schism: hip-hop for black music, obscure and soulless indie rock for (a sector of) white music. This has culminated, he argues, in the situation we have today: indie rock is almost wholly white, both in performers and in affect, and as a result has lost the power to entertain, to move, and to excite that rock and roll once had. (I’m giving a very brief synopsis of Frere-Jones’s argument to leave room for my own indispensable commentary; I suggest you read the article for the whole story. Just to avoid confusion: Frere-Jones uses “indie” to refer not to the labels, but to the genre, and I’ve followed that usage.)

At the outset, I want to say that while I disagree with Frere-Jones about both the scope of this phenomenon (the separation between white and black music) and the consequences, it is a real phenomenon. The concerts I go to are generally attended almost exclusively by white people, and the difference between rock and soul now is, broadly speaking, greater than it was in the 50’s and 60’s. As for the racial makeup of early rock…it’s hard to say how many people of color really dug a band like the Shondells, but certainly our images of sixties rock and roll include multiracial crowds at Woodstock or Altamont watching multiracial bands like the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Sly and the Family Stone. These are ideals rather than facts, but they may at least be based in fact.

Nevertheless, I found Frere-Jones’s article profoundly irritating. A lot of my objection comes from the sense that he is hostile to introspection and thoughtfulness in music, and equates them with whiteness: he criticizes “retreating inward and settling for the lassitude and monotony that so many indie acts seem to confuse with authenticity and significance,” and he casually describes Wilco’s lyrics as “embarrassing poetry,” which would be annoying enough without the memory of him dismissing Radiohead’s lyrics in much the same way a few months back. I also couldn’t help but think of his insinuations that Stephin Merritt, of the Magnetic Fields, is a racist for not liking rap music: it honestly seems like Frere-Jones is a little too obsessed with negritude to be an effective critic sometimes. Beyond these circumstantial questions, though, I do think there are some important oversights and errors of reasoning in Frere-Jones’s article which cause him, fatally, to miss the point of modern music and what it means to be a music fan today.

First of all, it’s convenient for Frere-Jones to simply ignore clear cases of blending (I’m using that term rather than the more loaded “miscegenation” that he prefers) going on in modern music. One of the most successful indie bands of this century has been the White Stripes, who spent two albums making blues-rock and whose music now sounds an awful lot like Led Zeppelin (when it doesn’t sound like a Scottish-Indian blend; see “Prickly Thorn but Sweetly Worn”). Cat Power’s last album, The Greatest, used Memphis studio musicians and production to create a fairly literal blend of introspective indie and gospel-inspired soul. (More on that album below.) TV on the Radio, aside from actually having black members, uses varieties of soul harmonies in their very indie songs, and just last weekend I saw the multiracial Go! Team performing their blend of soul, hip-hop, and symphonic ballad. Even bands which I think Frere-Jones would describe as pretty white, like Spoon and Yo La Tengo, have some songs which strongly emulate 70’s soul and funk. So the whiteness of indie rock, while definitely a thing, is not nearly as thorough as Frere-Jones puts it in this article.

Frere-Jones also seems unaware, as he waits patiently for the Miscegenation Rock Tour to come to his town, that rock and roll is no longer the only game in town, even for white people. He doesn’t ignore hip-hop, but he does present it as a black musician’s domain (with Eminem as “the exception that proves the rule”), bereft of the kind of interracial interaction he’s looking for. However, there are several white indie-rap darlings (Sage Francis, Aesop Rock, Buck 65), just as two of the most exciting acts in soul are Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen; and Gnarls Barkley, a collaboration between a white DJ and a black Atlanta rapper, had one of the biggest hits of 2006 and were huge with the Coachella set. (There’s also Matisyahu, to prove that you should be careful what you wish for.)

More importantly, the blending during the sixties wasn’t all white-black, which is the other reason that “miscegenation” is such a lame term. Elvis drew on black singers and musicians, but he got his start with Sun records singing about Kentucky and touring with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, et al, and it would not only be hard to say whether black music or country music was the bigger influence on him, it would be pointless: country music is also heavily influenced by blues and black folk, and—what do I know?—probably vice-versa. Dylan used blues music, but also Woody Guthrie, the Beats, and, later, the Beatles. Simon & Garfunkel used traditional and contemporary English folk music. The Beatles, on their highest-regarded albums, drew on English music-hall tunes and Indian sitar, for heaven’s sake. By limiting his discussion of musical influences and interactions to a single continuum—white-black—Frere-Jones presents it as a binary issue, rather than one that shifts and evolves.

But I think the larger answer to Frere-Jones’s question about why the blackness has gone from indie rock—and the reason, in my opinion, that indie music is not stagnating, and in fact is as interesting as it’s ever been—is summed up in this response by Joseph Kugelmass to Cat Power’s The Greatest:

I can tell you what Memphis soul sounds like: it sounds like Aretha, or perhaps Dusty Springfield. It has a little fire in its belly. Cat Power’s inability to catch that fire is a huge problem.

I don’t happen to agree with Kugelmass’s assessment of Cat Power here—in my mind, she can succeed, not by exceeding Dusty Springfield, but by blending the two sounds to make something new and exciting, and she often (though not always) pulls it off. The point I want to make with this quote, though, is that we know what soul music sounds like now, in a way that most white people simply didn’t when Elvis hit the scene. Modern white music listeners, unlike (I would argue) those of the sixties and seventies, are quite familiar with the major black musical styles, from blues to reggae to hip-hop, from the 1930’s to today. (Though jazz is a weak spot with me and the kids I know.) I wasn’t there, and anyone who was should comment, but my impression is that early rock and roll wasn’t just a blend of white and black musical styles; it was also a bridge between the white and black musical worlds. Most white people listening to Elvis for the first time didn’t know who his influences were, since their record stores didn’t carry “race records.” Elvis brought them black music, just as groups like the Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival, in the late ’60’s, brought country music to listeners who wouldn’t buy a bona fide country album if their lives depended on it. Someone buying Led Zeppelin when they first arrived would probably not also be buying Willie Dixon; ditto with the Rolling Stones and Robert Johnson, the Doors and Howling Wolf, Janis Joplin and Big Mama Thornton. Early rock and roll was largely white artists showing white audiences how great black or black-influenced music could be.

Whereas nowadays the demonstration is unnecessary, and the surest way to demonstrate your indie cred is to know all about the classic blues and soul singers of Chess or Stax. A few years ago, the extremely white and indie movie Ghost World made the scratchy blues recording “Devil Got My Woman” into a favorite among beflanneled twentysomethings; the same movie made fun, through the band “Blueshammer,” of white acts that thoughtlessly raid black music and create something truly miserable. Today there simply is not as much room for musical acts to draw on/appropriate other musical genres and cultures, because the listeners of today, unlike those of forty years ago, are already well familiar with the source material. To impress us, you have to make something new, or at least draw on source material that has not often been drawn on—as Interpol draws on Joy Division, say.

“Last month, in the Times, the white folk rocker Devendra Banhart declared his admiration for R. Kelly’s new R. & B. album ‘Double Up,'” Frere-Jones writes at the end of his article. “Thirty years ago, Banhart might have attempted to imitate R. Kelly’s perverse and feather-light soul. Now he’s just a fan.” As if we Converse-wearing ironists don’t know who R. Kelly is, and don’t know how to go to our local Amoeba or iTunes Store and buy his record.

Let me close by observing that it is always an extremely dangerous move, as a critic, to say that there’s no good art anymore, or less than there used to be; nine times out of ten, history will discover that there was plenty of great stuff going on, and that you were just a fuddy-duddy unable to adapt. (Think of Arnold Bennett’s stance in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.”) Frere-Jones tries (I have to suppose) for a kind of exciting relevance by evoking sex in the blend of white and black music that he remembers: aside from the “miscegenation” references, he twice talks about the old music as music to have sex to: “…it was though your parents had come home and turned on the lights” (the boringness of the new music); “There’s a reason the lights were off” (the greatness of the old). But equating black music with sex has its own problems; moreover, all of this just sounds like the guy who thinks that the Cure is gay, and that real music is music that gets your ass shaking, man. No one can be an effective critic based solely on their memory of how good things were back then, and based on this article it certainly seems to me like Frere-Jones has outlived his usefulness to music listeners.

Update (10/26): In comments, Brandon points to this Slate article by Carl Wilson, which also takes Frere-Jones to task for his oversimplifications, and, more importantly, describes the socio-economic changes, ignored by Frere-Jones, that caused this trend: the resegregation of American communities, the increasing gap between rich and poor. While the article still suffers somewhat from the same narrow-minded view of what rock should be—referring to “boringly undersexed rock music” and calling the Decemberists “fine-arts-grad poseurs” (for the record, Frere-Jones mentions the Decemberists as an indie band he enjoys)—the thesis is convincing and worth reading.

Also, in reference to “boringly undersexed,” let me ask—what is with the sex thing!!! As a culture, can we not get it up unless we’re constantly listening to music with a heavy bassline? That may be a masculinist way of putting it, but I’m being faithful to the source material: after deriding the indie rockers “performing their haplessness and hyper-sensitivity,” Wilson sneers, “Pity the indie-rock girlfriend.” Yeah, ladies—wouldn’t you rather be dating a real man? Wearing a leather jacket with a big fucking eagle sewn on the back?

Update II (10/27): On his New Yorker blog, Frere-Jones publishes e-mails he received from Will Butler, a member of the Arcade Fire. In addition to defending his band against the charges of whiteness (or whatever) with an MP3 that juxtaposes the Arcade Fire’s music with its purported black influences, Butler makes the same point about ignored Latin influences that Surlacarte makes in the comments:

First, I would encourage you not to ignore the Latin element in rock-and-roll history. “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles is in fact “a fairly faithful rendition of a 1962 R. & B. cover by the Isley Brothers.” But that 1962 version is a fairly faithful rip-off of La Bamba by Ritchie Valens, which is a fairly faithful rip off of a traditional Latin tune plus a rock and roll beat.

Butler also points out that “miscegenation need [not] be across color lines.” It’s good of Frere-Jones to publish this e-mail, but I think the reason he doesn’t respond is that there is no response: Butler is correct, and Frere-Jones’s original article is generalized to the point of uselessness.

October 22, 2007


Filed under: Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 4:02 pm

(Updated below/Updated again)

In a Q&A at Carnegie Hall two days ago, J.K. Rowling revealed that, in her view, Dumbledore was gay. The audience reacted with surprise and pleasure, and the chatter from her fans began immediately. “One more reason to love gay men,” read one particularly inane blog post.

I’m interested in this from two angles: as a supporter of gay rights, and as a literary critic. (My interest as a Harry Potter fan is basically negligible, for reasons I’ll get to.) From the standpoint of gay rights, was this a useful statement on Rowling’s part? On the whole, I’d have to say: sure. Any prominent figure speaking cavalierly about homosexuality does a little bit of good, and for the world’s most prominent children’s book author to do so about the world’s (arguably) second-favorite children’s book character is certainly beneficial, giving parents a good chance to talk about homosexuality and tolerance with their kids, and giving adolescents, sensitive to the prejudices of others, evidence that homosexuality is okay—especially useful for gay adolescents.

However, I also believe that it would have been more useful for Rowling to actually make Dumbledore gay. How do you make a character gay? The same way you make them Jewish, or freckled, or anything else: you put explicit or implicit signs in the work that the character is (gay, Jewish, freckled, etc.). You do not do it just by saying something plausible about a character after the fact. When Marge’s sister Patty came out of the closet in an episode of The Simpsons, it was plausible that she “had been gay all along,” as (unlike sister Selma) she hadn’t had any heterosexual relationships; however, she wasn’t a gay character until the show actually signaled this. By contrast, Smithers was/is a gay character almost from the beginning of the show, even though no character (to my knowledge) has ever explicitly said so. (“Something gay, no doubt?” doesn’t count.)

So the reader has to ask, not just “is it feasible that Dumbledore is gay?” but also, “In this text, is Dumbledore given to us as gay?” I went back and reread parts of Deathly Hallows following Rowling’s revelation, and I have to say, it just ain’t there. By my count, Dumbledore’s time with Grindelwald (the dark wizard with whom, according to Rowling, Dumbledore fell in love) is recounted four times—ranging from hagiography to muckracking biography—and none of the characters give any indication that there was anything between them besides intellectual admiration. If anyone can find a more definitive passage that I’m overlooking, by all means let me know. Interestingly, I see one or two phrases that could be stretched to imply a homosexual relationship between Dumbledore and his old, somewhat fatuous friend Elphias Doge, but nothing at all in the Grindelwald angle.

(For what it’s worth, I think Rowling was right to dissuade the screenwriter who gave Dumbledore an attraction to a girl in his past. It is significant that Dumbledore never had a romantic relationship that we know of, and giving him one in the film changes his character. But being a bachelor is different from being gay.)

Some might object that Rowling is not free to put a clearly gay character in the book, given the youth of her intended audience and the need to appeal to a broad readership. Yet in the same book it is implied that one character was raped or sexually molested; the event is simply put in vague enough terms that one wouldn’t have to confront a child with this traumatic idea. That kind of equivocation has a very distinguished history, and is different from the Dumbledore case, where there simply isn’t anything in the text to suggest what Rowling told her fans. In any case, Rowling seems to be trying to have it both ways by giving out information which isn’t available in the books, only to those in the know. One character expressed this well in a sarcastic comment on The West Wing: “Why not say that we’re against affirmative action and let on to our friends that we were just kidding?”

“That’s how I always saw Dumbledore,” Rowling told the crowd; however, it is obvious that her job isn’t just to see Dumbledore, it’s to make us see him. This is why I say that her “revelation” isn’t relevant to my views of Harry Potter: the text, and my interpretation of it, hasn’t changed at all, because it’s just as mum about Dumbledore’s sexuality as it was before. In a sense, Rowling outed Dumbledore in this Q&A, but in another sense she closeted him: turned him into a secret kept not only from the other characters but also from her readers. She’s free to do this, of course, but I don’t think it’s worthy of any particular admiration.

Update (10/23): This Salon article touches on the same subject and delves into the interesting question of whether it’s a good idea in general for an author to keep making pronouncements about a book after it’s concluded. The author, Rebecca Traister, buys the “gay Dumbledore” angle much more than I do—signs which I take as merely indicating friendship, like a picture of Dumbledore and Grindelwald ” “laughing immoderately with their arms around each other’s shoulders,” she takes as “clear” evidence of Dumbledore’s homosexuality—so I’d be curious to know what people think.

Update II (10/30): Kugelmass was kind enough to link to this post in a Valve discussion of this topic, which comes in the context of a number of other Valve conversations about author intentionality.  Valve readers: welcome.  Tomemos readers: visit the Valve post to see more opinions on this from Bill Benzon, Rich Puchalsky, Yours Truly, and others.

October 5, 2007

I’ll try to see it your way

Filed under: Blogs Themselves, The Gray Lady — tomemos @ 10:37 am

Since some of you read my blog via RSS reader, I thought I’d alert you to a comment you may have missed: Jeff Hersh, who wrote the letter to the New York Times featured in this entry about the Virginia Tech shootings, wrote a comment responding to my criticisms. I hope that you all will check it out and weigh in. And my thanks to Jeff for his contribution.

September 17, 2007

You people are the real thing

Filed under: Laws and Sausages, Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 11:43 am

Way to get mad, everybody:

UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake and Erwin Chemerinsky have reached an agreement that will return the liberal legal scholar to the dean’s post at the university’s new law school, the university announced this morning.

With the deal, they hope to end the controversy that erupted when Chemerinsky was dropped as the first dean of the Donald Bren School of Law.

Of course, to save face, UCI has to pretend like it was Chemerinsky’s fault for being so darned divisive:

Drake has insisted that Chemerinsky didn’t lose the dean’s position because of his politics, saying that it was only because he expressed himself in a polarizing way.

This would make sense if Chemerinsky had gone all Ward Churchill between being hired and being fired, but since he didn’t one would have to conclude that UCI hired him without actually knowing what he had said publicly and how he said it.  And can someone explain what was “polarizing” about Chemerinsky?  He expressed political opinions in a polarized political environment; that’s not the same as being inflammatory.  Did he tag up somebody’s house or something?

But whatever, I’ll let all that slide.  Kudos, UCI; I don’t mind spinelessness as long as it’s equal-opportunity.

September 12, 2007

Mad as hell

Filed under: Laws and Sausages, Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 9:11 pm

Update: Here’s an online petition from the UCI community to Drake.

In what can only be described as an act of humiliating cowardice, UCI’s chancellor, Michael Drake, fired Erwin Chemerinsky, the head of UCI’s new law school, out of concern that Chemerinsky’s left-wing views would cause too much controversy. Drake had to fly across the country to give Chemerinsky the news, because Chemerinsky hadn’t started the job yet. He only signed the contract last week; nonetheless, he had already started assembling his choices for the board of advisors, including a former Bush appointee. Chemerinsky did not say something shockingly controversial, or announce some radical plan for the law school—it was simply feared that conservatives might raise a stink about him.

I read that at Atrios a little more than seven hours ago. In the intervening time, quite a bit has developed: the LA Times picked up and verified the story; there was a discussion of it on my department listserv; conservative bloggers Hugh Hewitt and Instapundit, to their great credit, condemned the firing; and a left-wing UCI blogger dismissed out of hand the possibility that he, or any graduate student, could make any difference on this or any matter. So there’s a lot to consider here.

Here’s my thing, though. Why is it that you never hear about a candidate being withdrawn (scratch that: an employee being fired) because of fears of left-wing criticism? There aren’t more right-wingers than left-wingers in this country—certainly not in California—so obviously the reason is that left-wing partisans by and large won’t mount an organized campaign of criticism and complaint over ideological issues. Why should that be?

I understand that many on the left see equanimity as a matter of liberal principle (and what principle might that be—not wanting to be a bother?), but it is past time to see that this is disparity is absolutely killing the American left. In 2000, there weren’t Democratic staffers in Florida to face off with the Republican ones pounding on the windows of the Registrar of Voters. Given what the last six years have been like, can you say there shouldn’t have been? Despite Alberto Gonzales resigning in disgrace, despite his own lame-duck status, George Bush is once again trying to appoint a clear partisan to be Attorney General. He wouldn’t do it if he didn’t think he’d get away with it. And the reason he gets away with it is that we don’t have the backbone to get exercised about it. The left used to march in the streets while the right wing used to be the “silent majority”; what the hell happened?

I’m not advocating that we protest whenever a conservative gets hired to an academic position; I’ve known a number of intelligent and professional center-right professors who would be good on any faculty, and I teach conservative thinkers who I respect. But at minimum we have to reject attempts to dislodge qualified employees because they hold left-wing views. (Think about what I just wrote; is it 1947?) So to answer Scott Kaufman’s post (linked above): yes, write a complaint. Write complaints to everyone involved. Tell everyone you know to write a complaint. Get UCI—or whomever—to realize that the outrage it provokes from, horror of horrors, hiring liberal employees is nothing compared to the outrage it provokes from firing them out of fear before they’ve even stepped in the door.

It’s not a fun way to spend a Wednesday night. It involves working yourself up to a lather you may not really feel, a lather this single issue maybe doesn’t deserve. But it has to be done. Conservatives are winning the outrage war, and they’re not going to back off so we have to step up.

I am absolutely serious about all of the above.

Chancellor Drake’s e-mail address is

p.s. — Sorry for the cliché title. Honestly, it’s just because every time I see “Erwin Chemerinsky” I think “Paddy Chayefsky.” I had to indulge that impulse or lose my mind.

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