Friday, December 29, 2006

In praise of the Pagan, Feminist, Vaudevillean Holiday Classic: The Year Without a Santa Claus

Od-ed on fruitcake? Reached your patience limit with your family, no matter how much you love them? The lazy hometowns bringing you down during the holidays? Fear not, deliverance from ennui is nigh. Check out Rankin and Bass's classic The Year Without a Santa Claus (TYWSC) available on DVD , sample clips of it available on You Tube (see them below).

Out of all the holiday specials, The Night Before Christmas, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Frosty the Snowman, A Christmas Carol, Rudolph's Shiny New Year, and many others, it is TYWSC (1974) that I remember best and most fondly.

TYWSC is an animation masterpiece by the remarkable Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Rankin/Bass had a prolific stretch of productions using stop-motion puppet animation (“Animagic"), beginning with the ever-popular Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1962.

Many of these Rankin/Bass “Animagic” productions are interesting on several levels, since they often pulled the holiday away from religious moorings (with a couple of exceptions) and contributed to the huge holiday commercial machine (music, decorations, TV, now video and DVD) but at the same time celebrated the secular-humanist qualities of Christmas, such as cheer and pleausure of giving or sharing for their own sake. TYWSC, like some of these others, is in fact a pagan, feminist and still moralizing tour de force.

The plot follows basic script-writing rules by introducing problems that must be resolved by a cast of heroes, foes, and helpers. The magic is in the details.

Santa is under the weather and is uninspired, thanks to the ingrates around the world. Christmas has lost its spirit and become reduced to a hollow, ugly "gimme gimme me" entitlement to things detached from any deeper human principles. So Santa decides to leave his red suit in moth balls this year (yes, there are moths in his North Pole chateau). Mrs. Claus is the heroine of the story. Behind the male lesser hero is a strong woman, and Rankin and Bass foreground her. In this sense, the production is a kind of unveiling of the hardly self-made cheer-giver by showing how dependent he is on his generous yet assertive wife. "Mrs. C" sees Santa is depressed by what he generalizes as a loss of Christmas spirit and cheer in the humanity he has served so generously over the years. So she sends two elves and a reindeer down to Southtown in search of evidence that will dispel Santa's suspicions and re-inspire him. But Jingle and Jangle, the charming and hapless elves, get into trouble and their tiny reindeer Vixen falls prey to a villainous dogcatcher.

The plot’s first basic problem to be resolved (Santa on strike) encounters a second plot requiring resolution: The mayor will spring Vixen from dog-jail if the elves can make it snow in Southtown, which has a kind of Southern California climate.

This new problem, getting snow to Southtown, brings viewers to what is unmistakably the most memorable parts of the show: the Broadwayesque scenes of brawling brothers Heatmiser and Snowmiser, given dominion over the northerly and southerly climes by their Mother Nature. Their song and dance routines are etched in the minds of millions of adults and even received an indirect homage in the film Batman and Robin (1997), where the villainous Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) encourages his minions to fête him with Snowmiser’s song.

Indeed, the entire show seems to owe much to Greek and other mythologies where gods are powerful, flawed, and sparring like humans and thus in need of a stronger and wiser deity to keep them in check. In the end, it is only the strong woman Mother Nature who can arrange the snowstorm in Southtown, which, importantly, is accomplished by teaching the boisterous boys the art of compromise: Heatmiser lets it snow in Southtown while his icicle-nosed sibling permits some global warming in the North. Unsurprisingly the resolution of these two subplots makes way for the central message: one should believe in Santa Claus who is a symbol of good cheer and benevolence toward humankind, which of course should be a year-long spirit annually re-charged. The latter is the real meaning of Christmas, and Santa finally finds convincing evidence of its existence. So he resumes his global sleigh ride with renewed vigor.

TYWSC is a heartwarming morality tale executed with superb animation and songs. If you’re experiencing a lull in the holiday stretch (or even if you’re not) I recommend you re-live your childhood and enrich your own children’s by watching this DVD. If you don’t remember it or believe me, take a peak at these clips of these supernatural siblings, and try to resist.
Happy holidays.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Sigh: No more third-rate poetry

Thanks to those of you who have politely stuck around through this period of third-rate poetry saturation. Though this blog publishes on many topics, I dare say it can't be all genres. A few of you come here for anything but third-rate poetry or translation of first-rate poetry, so I have moved the poetry to a new site:

If you're interested in following my third-rate poetry, exchanging with me, seeing perhaps commenting on my translations, then you can easily go to that site and register for email alerts. I hereby free the rest of you of my third-rate poetry (though I may occasionally announce some special third-rate poetry event). Here is the explanation and Welcome to that new site:

Why am I here? Why are you here? Of course we don't really know.
But my profile to the right gives you a decidedly un-cosmological shot at explanation about why I think I'm here (you're free to try the same).

My harshest critics, though somewhat insightful, have pointed out the oddity that I've actually registered four blogs, though I'm only heavily active on two. It is telling of a person though. Let me just say, though, that "everything but the kitchen sink" blogs/sites may not be very pleasant to read. This is an age of narrowcasting. People want to customize and nichefy. So it is with blogs. One of my sites is broader, covering vast terrains of media, culture, and politics, and yet, it didn't really comfortably house my third-rate poetry. It was time to find a home for it somewhere else. There's the rationale, which no doubt works in tandem with the mysteries of the unconscious.

The volatile mix of life's demands and expectations and my own ill-considered actions brought me here, a third-rate poet by default. I was always impressed by the story of how the precociously Leviathan intellect John Stuart Mill, having learned Latin, Greek, and algebra by age eight, all the classics of history, much philosophy, and political economy by age 13, suffered a mental breakdown at age 21. In his Autobiography, he claims that nothing could comfort but the poems of William Wordsworth, his Lyrical Ballads. Like Mill, I have always turned to poetry in times of crisis, at least in moments when I could bring myself to read at all. I have also written some poetry in times of non-crisis over the years. I used to think that poetry was for me, as it was for Keats and Shelley, a time of youthful productivity that would blaze magnificently, then take its exit like the locust that sings short-lived in summer. But now I understand why some feel compelled to write across their lives, however so short or long.

Honestly, millions of people consider themselves "writers" and "poets," and good for them if writing makes them feel better. On the other hand, I don't believe all things are equal (though it's true that standards are culturally constructed--Rimbaud is not good poetry from the point of view of the courtly poets two hundred years before him). I don't pretend to be a first-rate poet, though writing does take practice. Much of this material will be constantly revised.

In addition, every Western monopolizer of world resources and his dog has a blog these days (indeed, I'm thinking of giving our dog M her own blog) . Most aren't seen or heard, sad trees falling into deafening inexistence, while others are out-of-control egos, substituting for unresolved inadequate parental love and childhood recognition traumas, resulting in obsessions with statcounters, hits, being seen, comments, and strategies to increase traffic on their sites: "Look at me! Please, will you pay attention! I exist! I'm smart! I'm beautiful! I'm loveable! Please say something nice about me (or go away)!" Sometimes the sites are little more than clubs of backscratchers, cyber-group therapy, criticism necessarily being expelled from a discourse of eternal positive regard. Networks are built and can be good or bad for mental health, since many people are afraid to explore their demons and so spend life bouncing around from one unconscious fix to another. Sometimes sites are little more than boring, poorly written, intellectually and stylistically arid diaries and effusions of "I": "I went to the park. I took a runny dump. I saw Cameron Diaz naked on a beach in San Torini. It was cool." Sometimes they are shallow but cleverly executed prose, period. And people like Harlequin romances and E entertainment as much as Virginia Wolf.

I'm sure this blog runs all those risks and will fall into some of those boxes, for some readers. Feel free to let me know if you think I'm doing exactly what I want to avoid. I'm surely not going to be the one to point it out to myself. I don't believe in self-made man bullshit. People change, with great effort and will, in dialog with others. I have a friend who told me she hates blogs. She finds them pathetic cries for attention and confessions about matters that should be private--it's the Clinton-Lewinsky phenomenon that people gobble up like pizza samples in the supermarket. She also thinks people are doing the same thing when they dress in ways that call attention to themselves. But if someone has something to say, they must do something to get attention. It's true writing on the internet at all requires some ego, some desire to share and be recognized, even if we don't really know why or what we want in the act of recognition itself. Perhaps that desire is worth the writer's scrutiny?

The poetry here is often that genre whose authors are said to "take themselves too seriously." Not everything written here is bleak, dark, morose, and tumultuous. It is a mix, but you'll see my view has a hearty dose of Baudelaire's spleen. I do have acid reflux. Perhaps, in the end, I bear more darkness than light. And yet I laugh, here and elsewhere. I love. Above all else, I make mistakes, try to learn from them on a life journey toward the man I've meant and mean to be. Some see it as romantic folly. So be it.

There will also be an ongoing series of poems about Paris, where I currently dwell.
I'm mainly speaking to other third-rate poets, those who take comfort and interest in third-rate poetry, and first-rate poets who feel better about themselves by comparing their work to that of third-rate poets.

Perhaps you're a third-rate poet, too? Or you gain comfort from third-rate poetry,too? I will be sharing my works in progress, which will also include translations of French first-rate poetry (eg. Francois Villon, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire,etc.). Perhaps you'd like to exchange comments and your poetry with me? This is not a gated community. It is hopelessly quaint: the front door is always unlocked, and I am usually on the porch, playing guitar or accordian, singing, weeping, thinking, laughing with a friend. Don't be shy.
j (p.s. My most recent entries are "Contemporary free men and women," "December, 1943," and "Trustworthy maps")

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Top 20 Melancholic New Year's Indie Songs

Solidarity in Pain, Regret, and Hope for the Holidays
(also published by Blogcritics on-line magazine)

Most of you know the routine of this column by now. If you don't, treat yourself to the warp speed explanations of columns past. Time's a wastin': let's get down to the business of music and the holiday season.

Holiday cheer? Humbugarama! Life does not take a holiday for most of the world from December 25 through January 1. War, heartache, poverty, work, grief, oppression march on unflinchingly. They deserve attention, even from us who struggle so much to lend it despite our best intentions.

Someone I know barely kept his life on Christmas Day when the navy ship on which he was serving was sunk, killing hundreds of comrades and from which he escaped with his body and only part of his mind. He hates Christmas, and not of his own volition. Others find the rampant and aggressive commercialization a cooptation of more human principles at the holiday’s heart. Others still, are in the midst of heartache not of their own choosing. Nor might an indie reviewer, however so attention-challenged, forget that many people in the world have not the resources for its commercial version and/or have no tie to its religious foundation.

So this exceptional IMRFAD goes out to the Attention-deficients who for various reasons find Christmas sad, superficial, lonely, or annoying—any and all of these things.

Focus. Here are twenty songs for those in need of comfort but repulsed by naïve cheer. The list is hardly exhaustive, but you and I have trouble concentrating, so I’m being considerate. Good luck making it through the list, and if you do and need more, you can email me.

1. Oscar the Grouch: “I hate Christmas.” You’re always in good company with this loveably mangy muppet. Raise a glass to the Grouch. He farts on Ikea obsessions and potpourri compulsiveness.

2. Steve Earle: “Christmas in Washington.” Like Cash, at unlikely times he turns an eye toward the underbelly of a situation, this time at Christmas. Earle hearkens back to a time when religion and collective celebration pointed to obligations to one’s fellow creatures, not just self-absorbed consumerism and selective moral criticism. His finale is a tour de force, as he summons the spiritual help of the freedom champions of Christmas Pasts to come back and inspire now: “Come back Woodie Guthrie …Come back Malcolm X/And Martin Luther King/We're marching into Selma/As the bells of freedom ring.”

3. John Doe (of X): “Someone Like You.” This also competes for number one on my sadcore list, depending on the day. Doe's voice yearns, his tears drip from the speakers, as the country guitar simulates the sniffling pedal steel. No one wants to admit it, but there are many out there who never ever recover from the grief of losing their greatest love: "Well it's cold at Dawn/You're so far gone/I still miss Someone like you." A lifetime of regret. May it not visit you, my friends.

4. Elliot Smith: “I Didn’t Understand.” Hard to choose from this tortured soul’s magnificent corpus. “Independence Day” is a close second, though one could find many more with very little effort. Smith is nearly incomparable in putting to music the pain of tortured minds who realize they’ve driven away those they love more than anything else and must face the dark possibility that such is their destiny. (Also worth mentioning, in association with Christmas special "The Year Without a Santa Claus," Smith was in a band called Heatmiser before he went solo.)

5. The Kinks: “Father Christmas” (a single from 1977). Surprising entry by the Kinks, who point out that Christmas has a class underbelly in its Western commercialized version. A sample: “But give my daddy a job cause he needs one/He's got lots of mouths to feed/But if you've got one, Ill have a machine gun/So I can scare all the kids down the street/Father Christmas, give us some money/We got no time for your silly toys/We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over/Give all the toys to the little rich boys.”

6. Sufjan Stevens: Okay, I'm going to depart from my usual routine here at the risk of losing you completely. Hang in there. This guy deserved his own Indie Music Review For the Attention Deficient this year for his album The Avalanche, the follow up to his excellent album "Illinois" (2005).

“Sister Winter” (from Songs for Christmas, 2006): The horns, the sleigh bells, the vocals--
"My heart is returned to Sister Winter...Oh my thoughts I returned to summer time…gave to a beloved who threw it all away.” He then apologizes to all his friends for returning “to Sister Winter.” He wishes them the best, a Happy Christmas, genuinely or ironically. This song perfectly captures the double-edged sword of the holidays; beneath the carolling horns and tinkerbell-ish sleigh and other bells is a drone, violins, a monotone sound constant with grief and inconsolable sorrow.

But a close Sufjan second would go to the acoustic version of “Chicago” (The Avalanche) especially if you’re haunted by regret, mistakes. His voice gently pets you into a dog: “you came to take us /all things go, all things go /to re-create us /all things grow, all things grow /we had our mindset /(I made a lot of mistakes) /all things know, all things know /(I made a lot of mistakes) /you had to find it /(I made a lot of mistakes) /all things go, all things go /(I made a lot of mistakes).” Once again the ambiguity is hope-tinged. Mistakes made, things get re-created, things go, things grow. Some may take this as utterly pessimistic about relationships. In fact, I like the metaphors of growth and re-creation here, which give it a kind of aura reminiscent of Heraclitus's maxim: you never step in the same river twice. Things change, but they also grow, not necessarily requiring total loss to grow and re-create us (not just you or him or her). But you know I'm a total optimist at heart.

7. Merle Haggard: “If We Make it Through December." He sings: "I wanted Christmas to be right for daddy's girl/Now I don't mean to hate December/It's meant to be the happy time of year/And why my little girl don't understand/Why daddy can't afford no Christmas here." If you think you don’t like “country” (as if this is mainstream Nashville Garth Brooks drivel), then grow up. There’s a reason why recovering punk-rockers have turned to classic American country (John Doe of X, Jon Langford of the Mekons,etc.).

8. The Smiths: “There is a light that never goes out.” It’s tough to choose one Smith’s pearl out of their considerable showcases of sad jewels—they have a monopoly on them in underground niche markets of the last twenty years. But this one is inevitably sad-tinged and yet bold, romantic, hopeful: “And if a double-decker bus, crashes into us, to die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine.” Morissey, a strange troubadoring hybrid descendant of Wilde, Goethe, and Poe.

9. The Cure: “Pictures of You.” Sadness, Regret, Hope aren’t just evoked by music. The visual evidence is a haunted house, a torture chamber, or an oasis on the horizon.

10. Johnny Cash: “Hurt.” The Man in Black—‘nuff said about qualifications. He wears it for the poor, broken-hearted, etc. and if you’re still reading this that includes you. In the last few years before he died, he did some of the most eery, astonishing, monumental covers in the history of modern popular music. This is my favorite, a cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt.” Throw all sharp objects out the window before listening to this.

11. Serge Gainsbourg: “Les Feuilles Mortes” (The Autumn Leaves). This classic (originally in France, 1942, lyrics by the poet Jacques Prevert) has been covered many, many times. If you've never heard it, time to grow up musically. Afterall, you're grown up unwillingly thanks to heartache, misery, doubt, bad luck, and angst. This dirge is suitably in French, but if you have an "English-only" policy, try Edith Piaf's version (she's the greatest French chanteuse of all time but sings this in English and French) or jazzed-up ones like Chet Baker's or Miles Davis'.

12. Jerry Jeff Walker: “Mr. Bojangles.” This gem has been covered many many times, by "the Byrds, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Harry Nilsson, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Arlo Guthrie, Nina Simone, John Denver, David Bromberg, Neil Diamond, Sammy Davis, Jr, Tom T. Hall, John Holt, Robbie Williams and David Campbell" among others, and for good reason. Another beautifully sad tale of a hapless man who finds some spring in his step (indeed, he’s a dancing man by métier).

13.Buffalo Tom: “Torchsinger” (Big Red Letter Day). BT’s songs are often poppy, which will veil their angst for some listeners. Excellent songwriting that somehow makes pain toe-tappable.

14. M. Ward: several possibilities, but let’s go with “Vincent O'Brien," in which Ward moves effortlessly from a warble to a Tom Waits: "He only sings when he's sad/and he's sad all the time/so he sings the whole night through/ and he sings in the daytime too." I hear a lot vocal similarity with the equally talented Bare Jr. (on, say, "Fool Says"--What say you?). Another master of melancholy who has but recently wept his way into the sadcore scene.

15. Patsy Cline: “Walkin’ After Midnight.” One of the most distinctive American female vocalists of any genre, and the yardstick of female singers of her generation and after. This is possibly her most famous number, and it is more than fitting for alternative holidays: “I stop to see a weepin' willow/cryin' on his pillow,/maybe he's cryin' for me, /and as the skies turn gloomy, /night winds whisper to me, /I'm lonesome as I can be/I go/out walkin' after midnight, /out in the moonlight,/just hopin' you may be somewhere a walkin' /after midnight searchin' for me.”

16.Cat Power: “Hate.” The Greatest is a feast of self-doubt, -hate, -regret. The Romantic poets don’t have much on these bare arrangements, Chan’s raspy voice a songbird with sinusitis. Only for those not on suicide watch: “they can give me pills/or let me drink my fill/the heart wants to explode/far away where nobody knows/do you believe she said that?/do you believe she said that?/I said I hate myself and I want to die.”

17. Jose Gonzales: “Remain.” Anything off the spectacularly melancholic Veneer will give you your fix, again and again, on a loop that will eventually rock you to sleep, when you feel there’s no way to sleep ever again. “Remain” is ambiguous, hope-tinged. The rain washes away everything, even bloodstains from hearts, and the lovers remain standing—but reconciled? Separate?

18. Richard Buckner: “Blue and Wonder.” His first album established him as a Prince of Indie singer-songwriter darkness (true he has several competitors). His first album, the gloomy masterpiece Bloomed, is one long, perversely sweet funeral procession. Expectations are a gun without a safety trigger. Keep them low: be happy.

19. Lucinda Williams: “ Metal Firecracker” (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road). Again, an artist with multiple offerings for a list about comfort through angst-ridden solidarity. This is one of my favorites, but check out Lucinda’s eponymous album, which features the perfect rhetorical question: “Am I Too Blue (for you)?”

20. Joel R. Phelps and the Downer Trio: “Calling for You.” Former Silkworm rocker has produced some of the saddest and most beautiful singer-songwriter efforts of the last ten years. This one is my favorite, an Iris Dement cover, and it is hard to beat Iris if that tells you anything about the power of this song and Phelps’ rendition. It also is hopeful about reconciliation after hurt has brought love to a dangerous precipice.

I said I would stop there, but Hank Williams Sr. sholdn't be neglected. I just couldn't narrow it to one. Honorable mention also goes to Nick Drake, Joy Division, George Jones, and the Old 97's, especially "Lonely Holiday" and "Valentine." Or, in haiku:

Consumer binges

Up yours! you cheery f-er.

Oscar the Grouch rules!

I wish you a Happy New Year in 2007, friends.

This article also appears in Blogcritics on-line magazine.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

First-rate Poetry, Villon revised 12/17/06

Ballad of the ladies of old Poème de François Villon Poem by François Villon

Tell me where, in what land, tell me
Is Flora, lovely Roman lady?
Where Archippa, where Thais fair,
Who was her cousin? Please tell me!
Where now is Echo, who bellered
Back at you o'er rivers and ponds,
Whose beauty surpassed any human's?
O where went the snows of past winters?

Where is Heloise chaste and wise,
For whom celibate and monk-made
Was Abelard in
For her love so much he suffered .
And likewise, where now is the queen
Who commanded that Buridan
Be bagged and cast into the
O where went the snows of past winters?

And Joan so dear of Lorraine
Whom the English lit bright at
Where are they all, Sovereign Lady?
O where went the snows of past winters?

My Prince, seek not endlessly the knowledge
Where now are they, why passed the time;
But only remember this chorus:
O where went the snows of past winters?

Translation, Harsin

Thursday, December 14, 2006

(Revised 12/14/2006)From September to March!

From September to March!

Women of the Repbulique,
We give you boots, boots!
Brave men of the Republique,
We give you femmes, femmes!
Women of the Republique,
We give you boots, boots!

Armies, Armies, Armies!

Sex in the city
"liberated boots."
"We feel good in boots."
"It's not for them boots."
"It is for us boots."
Women power boots.
Androscopophilic boots.
Les francaises are boots?

High-heeled ankle-bending boots;
“Tres Sexy” leopard-skin boots;
Pointy-toed canoe shaped boots.

“Ladies” over 22,
Get in your boots, boots!
Girls of the banlieue,
We give you boots, boots!

Boots, boots,
Over yer foots,
The boots you wear,
The boots you are,
Françaises in boots:
Feel the power!

Boots, boots,
Over yer foots;
Together in boots
The better you feel
Ignore the pain
Ignore your heels.

Boots, boots,
Things on your foots—

Liberty Boots,
Fraternity Boots,
Equality Boots--
Et ou sont les bottes d'antan?*

Do not ask, young prince,
in a day, a week, a year,
but remember this chorus:

Always leather,
boots, boots, boots, boots!
From September to March.

Note: this will probably be revised every few days; check back if ya please--Jayson Harsin, Dec. 3, 2006

*Thanks to Satchmo for "les bottes d'antan"

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

First-rate Poetry

Mirabeau Bridge,
Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools (1913)

Under Mirabeau Bridge runs the Seine
with all our loves
need I recall
joy always comes after pain

Night rings the hour
days disappear, I remain

Hand in hand let us stand face to face
while under
the bridge of our arms pass
our eternal gaze a weary wave

Night rings the hour
days depart I remain

And love runs like this running water
sure as life drags
sure as hope's violence

Night rings the hour
days depart I remain

Days pass into weeks that pass
Neither times passed
nor my love return
Under Mirabeau Bridge runs the Seine.

Night rings the hour
days depart I remain.

Translation Jayson Harsin, 2006.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Microhistory of Indie Paris via Sing Sing and Eloise

At first glance, Paris can be offputting to the self-conscious outsider, the stranger, the detached critic of globalized consumer society and lover of the exception. Indeed, it has a Disney quality, the celebrated literary Left Bank but an anthill teeming with tourists, boutique owners, culturally sanitized museums and un-cafes. It appears designed for the lotus-eating local and globals who reduce life and its manifold pleasures to a robotics of buying and selling, and feel-good guidebook culture . But the heart of an older Paris still beats strongly beneath the anthills and their armies seeking officially administered culture.

Those with a sense of history, look simultaneously teary-eyed on this spectacle and wistfully janus-eyed back on the heyday of Bohemian Paris at the dawn of the 20th century. What was that Paris, so oft-romanticized by contemporary self-declared bohemians and envious wannabes?

In his comparison of bohemian Paris and Beatnik, then punk New York, Jessamin Swearingen writes:
"The term 'bohemian; stems from a region in Czechoslovakia--Bohemia--where the gypsies lived. The French bohemians found themselves mirroring gypsy life."Swearingen refers to a popular book on the Paris Bohemians by Jarrod Siegel, who observes, "The bohemians located themselves in a twilight zone between ingenuity and criminality." The Bohemians eschewed the cultural mainstream, even while they depended on it for patronage.

As Swearingen notes, this phenomenon is not limited to Paris of the belle epoque. It's an ongoing process of conflict and absorption between mainstream and contestatory culture in most market societies.

The bohemians received a fair amount of criticism from the established middle class. Because most participants in the bohemian culture during the late 1800s were artists and writers, the conflict surrounding their lifestyle arose out of the need for artistic output versus the need for societal support. Siegel argues that the conflict of French bohemian identity emerged out of this conflict. He asked, "At what point did personal cultivation cease to be beneficial or acceptable to the society that sponsored it?" (p.11). This aspect of bohemian culture and practice is repeated throughout history.
Indeed, it does. Indie folk, rock, pop, electro, hip hop and their connections to poetry 'zines, indymedia, intellectual life, activism and so forth are the legacy of such subcultures like the Paris bohemians. Indie-bohemian subcultures have been constantly commodified throughout the 20th century by corporate coolhunters, while their spaces of cultural production have been increasingly gentrified, making indie cultures into "civilizers" of ethnic and/or poor areas attractive to part-time bobos. Yet as I said, Indie Paris still kicks if one is willing to stick out one's derriere and ask for it.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending one of the indiest of indie music performances—an invite-only show in an apartment in the 20th (is my indie paris cred surging or what?). Lucky for the neighbors it was pretty low-fi, and pretty…pretty.

The performers were the dynamic duet Eloïse Decaze and Sing Sing. Sing Sing is a burly bohemian teddy bear with a penchant for choppy Nick Drake-like acoustic licks, pop melodies and vocal harmonies. Eloïse is a lovely and slight young Genevan in Paris who has a voice like a theremin. They both have a penchant for humming, a low but beautiful form of musical expression on par with the pun in poetry. Together, they also produce some of the sweetest and haunting indie folk I’ve ever heard.

As I said, Eloïse has a voice like a theremin, that weird musical instrument that produces the ghoulish sounds in haunted house scenes and Scooby Doo episodes. Her powerful voice jumps around the scale or moves slowly and strangely as a slide whistle. She is at her best singing old sea shanties and Hungarian folk songs, or giving new life and interpretation to medieval peasant ballads.

Watching Eloïse perform is about as entertaining as listening to her. While she sings she seems near possessed, staring blankly off into the corner of the ceiling, her body threatening to levitate with each climbing note. The total experience gave me my first ever goose bumps at a musical performance.

It will be exciting to see what becomes of this duo (though the attention they deserve demonstrates the very tension at the heart of indie culture in market societies where cultural producers offer products in a market that transforms those contestatory products to compete with toasters and vaccuums). They are living proof that indie creativity still thrives in Paris. I first saw Sing Sing and Eloïse-the-walking-theremin at Le Limonaire “bistrot a vins et a chansons” in Paris, a cheerfully cramped little remnant of a Paris gone by. It does a laudable job of providing space for the folky, cabaret, and nouvelle chanson artists in Paris and the area. Indie Parisians and global wayfarers can look for them there and elsewhere, including the priceless random apartment gig, if they dare lend their ears to the street.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Remembering the First Thanksgiving

I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.
Jon Stewart

Friday, November 17, 2006

Indie Music Review for the Attention-deficient: Pajo

(Also published by Blogcritics Magazine)

And you may ask yourself, "What is this swine-loving blogger listening to this week?"

For those of you new to this series, let me familiarize you with how it works.

In keeping with this increasingly globalized,glibly compressed, irrevocably speedy, and immanently forgettable media culture, I have devised a simple review system that also allows you to voyeuristically peek into my ipod window but without all the trouble of having to wade through a paragraph or two of self-indulgent prose. I mention its usually 90s,80s, 70s, or, sometimes digging way back into ancient history,60s, influence, and give you a sentence or two explaining (sometimes in high modernist poetic fashion or haiku) why it's cool. All of these artists are creative exemplars of postmodernist pastiche. Little if anything in indie rock is thoroughly new, but the pastiche of styles can be impressive.

If you're not in a hurry, if your life isn't hurly-burly;if you're not thinking right now, "damn, here I am on the internet and I've got so much crap to do!"--well, I'm not talking to you.

Again, here's how it works. What am I listening to?

Thanks for asking.

Pajo: David Pajo did time with legendary indie bands like Slint and post-rock demi-gods Tortoise. But he came to a fork in the road, took the path less-traveled by, and made an appreciative difference. The well-crafted songs on his latest, 1968 (2006), showcase his hauntingly poetic vocals on carefully wrought musical scapes, whose consoling autoharps and synthesizer pops and gurgles fleetingly recall children’s camp songs as well as 80s Eurodisco.

Take, for example, the track “Who’s that knocking.” It begins with simple strums of an autoharp, then adds an echo chamber vocal layered on the basic autoharp chords, then adds intermittent electric guitar licks, which develops into organs,piano,and acoustic guitar, while the omnipresent autoharp recedes in the mix. It’s like three songs in one. Ironically it is just in the last twenty seconds of the song that a drum set appears only to fade out immediately in a tour de force of composition.

I find the uncanny likeness to Elliot Smith’s vocals bordering on the eery (e.g., "Prescription Blues"). ES haunts this music. Who else? Magnetic Fields, Pernice Brothers,Will Oldham--dolt-headed signposts are de rigueur, mes amis.

Ever had the urge to dash to the nearest pond, lake, or stream, commandeer the odd available row boat, pop in some tunes, and give your aching mind a break? Next time take Pajo avec. Trust me: it's an unbeatable joyride.

Pajo in Haiku...

Dolt-headed signposts?

E. Smith, M. Fields, P. Brothers.

row, row, row your boat.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The People Have (Been) Spoken: Exit Polls and the Vox Populi

The People Have (been) Spoken: Exit Polls and Public Agendas

Today, the day after the midterm elections, we are swimming in exit poll data. How that data was produced and what it actually means is not as obvious as some commentators would often have us believe when they tell us the people have spoken.

When we are told by CNN that 42% of voters polled cite corruption as a reason for voting the way they did, 40% terrorism, 39% Economy, and 37% Iraq, it doesn’t mean that’s what was on their minds in the voting booth. It was on their minds when they answered the polling question. This isn’t to say that many of these people didn’t go in there with these on their minds. But we don’t know for sure.

It’s more interesting to media and politics scholars when the questions are open (“So what issues are on your mind?”). Then they can compare those responses to the media agenda itself. The media agenda is what stories the news actually covers out of the millions of things going on in the world every day. If there is a strong correspondence between the responses about important issues and the findings of what appears to be the media agenda, then we see that the media have very likely played an important agenda-setting role for “the public”; they have primed the audiences about what to consider as important. Even there, sometimes studies may find that respondents are influenced not just by the news media but also or to varying degrees by opinion leaders they know, people who will influence them by one degree of separation from the news. These predictions are quite difficult given the wide variety of media diets people have these days. But some studies try to take that into consideration.

For example in a 2004 study, the Pew Center on the Public and the Press found that roughly 21% of young people ages 18-29 received their political campaign information from late night comedy shows such as “David Letterman, Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show.” There could be other TV shows that would diversify and break down the portrait of media consumption further, but these are the ones they ask about and they do tell us that people watch them. But we don’t know how many other shows they get information from in addition. Incidentally, this fascinating study maps out internet, TV, cable, radio news consumption about the 2004 campaign.

What is more, these representations/assertations of public opinion are then sometimes found to have secondary effects on those who consume the report of public opinion, one of the most common being the bandwagon opinion effect, where a person takes up a position because he/she doesn’t want to be associated with something perceived as unpopular.

Returning to the exit polls for the recent midterm election, we can see that the knowledge they produce is as good as the questions they ask. At a deeper level of analysis, one can even wonder if we can ever have completely reliable information about human motives for voting, among other actions. Is it always obvious why people do things? Do they rationalize in retrospect? Besides creating a position, an opinion that may not have existed in any strong form or even at all before the question, polls also transform a lot of singular responses into one big number which becomes “the public” in public opinion. However the term is a bit misleading, since when people actually do get together and discuss what they thought about issues, issues which bring them together as a public, the answers might very well be different. Groups work according to different dynamics, especially when they follow institutional rules for debate and considering multiple points of view before coming to a position or opinion. Finally, as with most forms of question and answer social science, polling is subject to the strange behavior that people manifest when they are asked questions about why they care about or do particular things.

Exit polls show responses to questions; they do not necessarily reflect accurate public opinion of what is most important in an open-ended way. When politicians read polls and then declare, “The people have spoken,” what publics have said exactly for policy-making is not nearly as obvious as one might assume.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

And the winner is...?

So the polls have closed. The votes are in medias tally. And the projections say the Democrats swept the House and won a couple of key Senate spots.

I am happy that the party that has ruled Congress for over ten years and the Executive branch for the last six has been dealt a vote of no confidence by the American people.

At the same time, the reason for the change is fairly obvious. Corruption, security, Iraq, and the economy. Those were the exit poll reasons CNN tells us people voted as they did. These usually function as predetermined sets of issues that can be read, answered, and then reported to us quickly.

Corruption and Iraq are synonymous. Corruption and the Bush administration, the way that it tries to gain consent for policies via militaristic domestic propaganda. The staged press conferences with soldiers, with fake reporters. The Valerie Plame leak. The fake news scandals. The criminalization of taxes as a bread and circus tactic, while running up debt and promoting huge new sensationalist bread and circus projects, such as the border fence, which given the billions of dollars they would cost are simply symbolic politics. They are branding efforts. All the spin about the roaring economy, which has four million temp workers everyday, inflation-adjusted wages dropping, gaps between the richest and the poorest widening, etc. There are so many examples, but who has all day? One more.

Security. People are starting to question whether starting a war, now increasingly a civil one in Iraq, was not just poor military planning and unethical public persuasion. Over 3,000 American deaths and 30,000-600,000 Iraqi civilian deaths later, some are hearing that the liberation of Iraq justification (after being forced to give up WMD) for the war is a tragedy at best. Further, they're understanding that far from making the U.S. safer in the precarious world of global terror, it has made the U.S. and the world in general, the Middle East in particular, less safe. It has incurred the wrath of international public opinion, allies and non-.

In theses conditions, it did not take well-argued positions to win the election. The incumbent Republicans are infected by the virus that spreads to them from the White House. And here is where I partially agree with some of the Republican pundits.

The Democrats have not had strong policy visions in this race. Some of them try to cowtow to particular voting blocs on issues like gay marriage or taxes and thus try to prove they're not "anything goes" liberals, but are really good conservative Democrats. But the point is for many years now, after Reagan, Democrats have been imitating Republicans. They have some key differences, but they try to stress their similarities as great deal, similarities that arguably didn't used to exist in such volume. Opposing a war in Iraq is one thing, but it's quite another to have a different policy vision that gets serious about all the political economic changes that are necessary for dealing with global warming, pollution and over-consumption, healthcare, unequal education, lack of corporate accountability, ongoing race tensions, and a fractured polity where many citizens no longer have anything to say to others partly thanks to political branding in place of respect for public argument.

Do the election results represent a departure from politics as branding? I think not. It's not that the style of campaigning and waging politics changed all that much. It's just that the context for it did.

But to deal with these larger, immediate public and global public problems requires policy visions and arguments, not just branding--and not just corruption and tragic loss of life.
(evidence for most claims in this editorial can be found in the links to this one)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Republican Robo-calling in Final Hours

Repbulican Robocalling-harassment-impersonation in the last three days. Another coincidence, first denied then admitted.

It's a Candidate Calling. Again.

Republicans Deny Subterfuge as Phone Barrages Anger Voters

Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 7, 2006; Page A08

This year's heavy volume of automated political phone calls has infuriated countless voters and triggered sharp complaints from Democrats, who say the Republican Party has crossed the line in bombarding households with recorded attacks on candidates in tight House races nationwide.

Some voters, sick of interrupted dinners and evenings, say they will punish the offending parties by opposing them in today's elections. But critics say Republicans crafted the messages to delude voters -- especially those who hang up quickly -- into thinking that Democrats placed the calls.


Republicans denied the allegation, noting that their party acknowledges its authorship at the recorded calls' end. After citizens' complaints in New Hampshire, however, the National Republican Congressional Committee agreed to end the calls to households on the federal do-not-call list, even though the law exempts political messages from such restrictions.

Whether "robo-calls" are positive or negative, mean-spirited or humorous, thousands of Americans are sick of them, according to campaign organizations that have been fielding complaints over the past two weeks. Click link above for full article at Wash Post.

See also Josh Marshall's excellent page on the issue, here.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

How to Win Enemies and Influence People: Hussein and Coincidences

Republican President Gerald Ford coincidentally pardoned Richard Nixon on a Sunday morning. A report that George W. Bush had a DUI on his record coincidentally surfaced a few days before election 2000. The release of hostages in Iran coincidentally didn’t happen until right after the presidential election of 1980, on Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, when coincidentally arms started flowing into Iran from Israel. Timing is everything, and with all these coincidences, should one be surprised that the verdict on Saddam Hussein was delayed until today, just a couple of days before the major mid-term elections for the U.S. Congress? Mercy, how time and chance happeneth to us all!

The name of the game (of all partisan stripes, though some excel more than others) today is timing and information management. Good timing pushes out all those other pesky issues for candidates’ legislative agendas. Let’s say you have a global agenda and you want to win enemies and still influence your people. How do you do it?

First, flood the news agenda. Have something ready for them all the time so that they don’t have time to come up with something on their own. Wipe out all that other annoying debate about foreign policy, healthcare, education, global warming and so on; quarantine it to low-hit internet sites where writers feel satisfied that they can exercise their rights to free speech, regardless of whether anyone is listening but their friends and a few bored cranks. Keep “discussion” partisan and compartmentalized. That way large numbers of people don’t have to respect debate and rational argument. Political support groups are great for ruling powers.

It doesn’t matter if your administration has deliberately misled the American people and the world and acted so recklessly that it no longer matters whether or not you aimed to mislead. It doesn’t matter how many dead Iraqis and Americans it’s taken—the tyrant Hussein is convicted of crimes against humanity.

If you want to invade Iraq and draw attention away from your Western genre “Dead or Alive” that has backfired after rich terrorist Dr. Evil has outsmarted the most high-tech and expensive (by far) military in the world, start claiming that a one-time tin pot dictator your own cabinet members built up is a threat to world and national security—but do not put the situation in historical context. Claim he has weapons of mass destruction, even though you can’t prove it to other experts the world over. Claim he has long and consistent ties with Al Qaeda. When the UN refuses to give you sanction to invade, do it anyway and have your front-group minions make plenty of false analogies to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. The world needs heroes, after all.

When over half of your own citizens show that they do not favor an unconditional invasion but rather want peaceful inspections to continue, you look for ways to avoid giving direct reasons for going to war. You start using PR to construct a drama of allied betrayal, especially by France. Hey, didn’t 3,000 mainly young Americans die in one day trying to liberate France from Nazi occupation? Offer lots of images of irate Americans pouring out French wine and boycotting French cheese. Have your party lackeys fall in line and change the House cafeteria’s treasonous French fries to freedom fries. Don’t worry if over half (the majority) of Americans want inspections to work and have a favorable view of France, in a couple of weeks they’ll support an invasion. When they do, you can claim that they approve of your sound argument for war.

Stay on your message. Don’t answer questions, except those you plant in the audience or have staged as news. Collapse the difference between war and peacetime communication. Control Information. Learn from The Truman Show; learn from Wag the Dog; learn from Primary Colors. Learn from reality TV. Make citizenship no different from consuming cinema and sensationalist TV.

In the thick of your war’s initial combat, start rumors that a heroic female Private has been captured and tortured by Iraqis, and that an equally heroic band of American soldiers has, at great risk and under heavy fire, liberated her. A good drama must have chapters, episodes.

Stage the unanimous support for American liberating soldiers and hatred for Saddam Hussein by mimicking images of the ’89 fall of Berlin. Get some soldiers and equipment to topple a giant statue of Saddam Hussein. Have closely cropped photos of the Iraqis you coaxed into jubilantly pulling it down with the Americans. That way no one will see that the rest of the square is empty and there are not really thousands of jubilant supporters of this tremendously symbolic act.

Once you get your war on, stage breathtaking spectacles of triumph. Try a tailhook landing on an aircraft carrier with a gigantic banner congratulating you for the “Mission Accomplished” and “end of major combat.”

When six months after the end of “major combat” there are more deaths and the country is actually less secure than before you claimed the end of such “major combat,” you ignore the criticisms that your original argument for war was deliberately misleading and/or bad, and you repeat over and over that Hussein was a threat to world peace and that the U.S. and world is safer with him gone. Don’t acknowledge that world opinion (of allies and many Arab nations) has a rising unfavorable view of the U.S. and finds it a threat to world peace. If someone mentions it, call them a liberal nut, or left-wing anti-American. Accuse them of not supporting our troops. Don’t ever acknowledge that a real patriot could question his government, except of course when Democrats are in charge.

Repeat “freedom” ad infinitum in all major public speeches, hoping that millions of people will never ask you exactly what you mean by the word, but that they will simply associate you and your controversial policies with the positive connotation of a glittering generality.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

Don't Have a Real Public Issue? Go Tabloid: Kerry and Election 2006

(published at Blogcritics Magazine)
I am reluctant to even speak about this issue out of self-loathing--for falling into the worst practices of this mediated political culture I spend so much time complaining about. So let me just use the opportunity to say that the John Kerry remarks, which the GOP PR machine has seized upon and gleefully fed to the ever-hungry tabloidizing news lions, are simply more proof of the rottenness, supperficiality, and war of distraction that infantilizes American voters as much as Kerry's statement infantilized American soldiers.

GOP supporters want to make Kerry's statement an election issue. That's right, you heard me: an election issue. The fact that it has nothing to do with public policy or visions for legislation is of no importance. Or rather it's of the utmost importance when politics is nothing but branding. In branding theory from business marketing, the idea is that your product, no matter how shoddy by comparison to or identical to your competitor's, must simply differentiate itself by association with images, values, desires with which audiences will identify strongly, emotionally, devoutly. They get a symbolic satisfaction out of consuming the brand. And here with Kerry we have it. Of course Kerry has been out lobbying for Democrats in this election race. He hammers away at Iraq as a failed Bush foreign policy, which of course millions of Republicans agree with if one believes the polls.

Yet Kerry puts his foot in his mouth with a remark suggesting that the worst American students end up in the army and thus in hellholes like the war in Iraq. Interestingly, it took me a fair amount of searching to find exactly what Kerry said, and as usual, given the soundbite culture, I don't know the context of what he said just prior to and after the statement. Here's what he said and then what he says he meant to say:

"Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

This statement is at face value unmistkably insulting to troops in Iraq and American soldiers in general. As with all of us sometimes, Kerry claimed that it just didn't come out right.

Here are the "prepared remarks" he released which show how the actual public speech always deviates from the prepared script, sometimes in catastrophic ways.

"I can't overstress the importance of a great education. Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush."

Whether this is crisis communication spin or the real situation is up to the charity of the reader (which means one's interpretation will fall into partisan line--branding and its loyalty again).

What Kerry said was insulting. But was its gist false?
Not according to the Heritage Foundation:

Given the nature of the military rank structure, most enlisted recruits do not have a college edu­cation or degree. Members of the armed forces with higher education are more often commis­sioned officers (lieutenant and above). In 2004, 92.1 percent of active-duty officer accessions held baccalaureate degrees or higher.[5] From 2000 to 2005, between 10 percent and 17 percent of active-duty officer accessions held advanced degrees, and between 35 percent and 45 percent of the active-duty officer corps held advanced degrees.[6] This indicates that officers continued their educa­tion during the course of their mili­tary service. [Notice they curiously don't give the percentage of enlisted recruits with a college education, though they do for the officers. Guess I have to look somewhere else to find that percentage]

Indeed, one is supposed to have a high school diploma to be a recruit, but there are documented cases where military recruiters have coached high school dropouts to make fake high school diplomas and pass drug tests. The point is not that soldiers are stupid, but that American wars are not fought by those with the monopoly on the social, economic, and political resources (education, family and neighborhood situation which affects educational and professional opportunities, as does violence and security in one’s environs and on and on).

But Kerry does not appear to have developed that line, which he knows would be immediately labeled not just “liberal” (as that throwaway demonizer goes) but “radical” or “extremist” by his opponents (as those who are incapable of arguing may use against me here for even mentioning it). He is not gutsy enough to pursue that line of argument. Nor are many, if any, mainstream politicians. That sort of line is branded negatively in association with scenes from Michael Moore’s patently un-persuasive cheerleading routine Fahrenheit 9/11. It is more likely that Kerry did mean to say something like “If you don’t study and take learning seriously, you end up getting yourself and others into a quagmire like Iraq: just ask George W. Bush.”

Kerry also apologized, which though a common “crisis communication” tactic of the last resort (first the PR gurus counsel you to ignore, then deny,etc.) is more than I can say for all the misleading statements and propaganda with which the Executive branch has bombarded their own citizens, from “fake news” (your tax dollars at work) to claims of Iraq-Al Qaeda links, to name just a few that have resulted in tragic misunderstandings on the part of millions of fine Americans. Need I remind anyone that as recently as September just under half of those polled still believe there is a connection between Hussein, Al Qaeda, and 9/11 (46%).

So if they want to distract from serious election issues by catching Kerry with his foot in his mouth simply to destroy the Democratic brand, let’s take the opportunity to talk about what sort of a society we have where the Heritage Foundation tells us that college graduates are officers, leaders from day one in the military, and the rest are rank and file and in a much more vulnerable position—systematically. But more than anything else, let’s note that the wide circulation of the Kerry story on the media agenda crowds out real debate about social issues that underpin those number of non-college degreed soldiers, which as I suggest are tied to lots of policy problems. It also crowds out the larger issue of this catastrophic war, its mismanagement, the unethical premises for it, which have also been used as a screen for cutting back taxes and thus social programs that would potentially, ironically, change those statistics about who serves on the front lines.

Friday, November 03, 2006

How do these people sleep at night? Plus More Republican Feuding

Today the news broke that "the Rev. Ted Haggard, resigned yesterday as president of the National Association of Evangelicals and temporarily stepped aside as pastor of a Colorado mega-church after a self-described male escort accused him of paying for gay sex."

This is the same party that courts the Evangelical vote, which has long made homosexuality a target of its values attacks. This is the same party that courted that vote in the last election and this one by opposing gay marriage to the point of supporting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. What hypocrites. Does this party have any credibility left?

In fact, both parties have very little credibility in general. Only particular candidates have more than others. The entire political culture is as rotten as the days of Boss Tweed's New York, albeit with modernized forms of corruption. Backscratching combined with a high-powered, high-tech propaganda assault are the norm today, making the old days look like they were what they were: horse and buggy. Now information bombards, whirls around, and primes citizens at dizzingly high speed and low accuracy. Though political groups and politicans' communication staffs have great resources to try to produce public opinion and control agendas, it also backfires on them, as we're also seeing as the tenuously sutured REpublican platform and identity is torn a bit more every day. The stories only in part resemble muckraking of the Progressive Era, since the issues are more tabloidesque than those the muckrakers often uncovered and publicized. Still, some do have to do with public policy, such as the Anti-Gay Marriage Amendments.

Rotten. On the same Washington Post hits of the day, I learned of another tempest in the Republican teapot. Retired Republican Congressional Stalwart Dick Armey is feuding with James Dobson, "the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, and other "self-appointed Christian leaders."" Armey claims the party is getting away from its fiscal responsibility roots and focusing too much on cultural values. It's not like Armey's been consistent there though. This is the same Dick Armey who made headlines for referring to Congressman Barney Frank as "Barney fag." What sort of falling out has he had with the evangelicals behind the scenes? What sort of amnesia does he expect of American audiences if he thinks he can present himself this way without even speaking of his past as inconsistent with this new line?

In any case, this kind of factionalism can lead to a party re-alignment, and that might be a great thing for the U.S. today. Good riddance.

World Fish Supply: Could Disappear by 2048

If not Global Warming, it's various forms of pollution. But hey, let's put these issues on the backburner and worry about fences on the border, flag burning, tax cuts, and gay marriage.

Thu Nov 2, 5:38 PM ET

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The world's fish and seafood could disappear by 2048 as overfishing and pollution destroy ocean ecosystems at an accelerating pace, US and Canadian researchers reported.

If current global trends continue, the loss of fish and seafood will threaten humans' food supplies and the environment, according to the most exhaustive study to date on the subject, published in the November 3 issue of the US journal Science.

Click for full article

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Calexico at Le Bataclan, October 29, 2006

Bataclan theatre, Paris, October 29, 2006 (Published at Blogcritics magazine)

A concert is a multi-faceted affair that includes venue, audience, performance, even ticketing. On these levels there was much to celebrate and a bit to disdain at the Bataclan Sunday night.

First of all, the Bataclan is a decent venue—lots of space, 4euro half-pints (not a bargain, but it is worse in some places), and a big stage. I will pardon the significant number of annoying concert deadbeats who hung out at the bar and talked through even the most pianissimo parts of the set. I complained about that in Chicago, too. But another problem with Bataclan and thus this concert by association, is that for some reason Bataclan uses FNAC (the giant French audio-visual chain) to do their ticketing.calexico on stage at bataclan

Like Ticketmaster in the U.S., these bigwigs corner markets on ticket distribution and jack up prices. They’re expensive, and they make you go to FNAC to pick up the tickets in person. The marketing assumption is no doubt that if you make people come to the store to pick up tickets, some of them are bound to spend money. This is an extra and unnecessary trip, and it produces a "middle-man" in the process which takes away earnings from the band in the end. My friends and I wondered what the band’s cut was at the end of the day. So the tickets were a bit steep at 25 euros. We further wondered how much of the tickets went to the elaborate cinematic backdrop to the stage, which consisted of a giant string-art screen on which Calexico's border images, the same kinds one finds on their cd art, were projected in between hallucinogenic fractals.

But it’s true that Calexico played their hearts out, especially just after announcing to rousing applause in the Encore, "They’ve given us 15 minutes, and we’ll play as much music as we can in that time." They held nothing back.

Calexico was the brainchild of the classically trained musician Joey Burns and John Convertino, who had met in 1990 in L.A. and then moved to Tucson, Arizona. Burns and Convertino had collaborated with Howe Gelb’s fascinating indie experiment Giant Sand, and then the Tucson lounge act Friends of Dean Martinez. Calexico broke into the indie American (then world) music scene in 1996 with their highly acclaimed Spoke (on Germany's Haus Musik Records). They experimented with indie twang, balkan folk, spaghetti Western, and surf on that first album. It was decidedly indie experimental, with hints of Tom Waits, the Go-Betweens, and soundtracks to Emir Kusturica films.

But it was on Black Light in 1998 (Quarterstick) that they really came into their signature sound, exemplified by songs like "Minas de Cobre." American country twang (mainly the steel guitar, vocal style, motifs, and time signatures) met mariachi in the indie gumbo they'd already been simmering. The result was a fresh sound that became as hot as the Tucson sun that incubated it.

Some critics did and still do miss the point, arguing that they’re just a cheap Anglo (they’re not all Anglo) mariachi imitation. But that’s never what they were trying to do, and a close attention to their musical hybridity (noted above and below) demonstrates their distinctive project.

I would say 75% of the songs they played at the Bataclan show were from the first four albums, and were heavily twang-mariachified. The trumpets, the percussion, the accordion, the pedal steel, and Burns’ distinctive vocals produced soundscapes evocative of tumbleweeds, hot, dry winds, desert loneliness, but also sombreros and splashingcalexico trumpeters margaritas. They are poly-instrumentalists, professionals that awe the careful spectator by their ability to rotate from instrument to instrument, role to role, different compositional need matching personal talents. This should not be overlooked.

On the other hand, some people find them creatively stuck. They may be doomed to play the indie mariachified twang for the rest of their lives, just as David Duchovney will always be Mulder, no matter how he wants to branch out. It’s a trap, in that they excelled at something and a hardcore following will always love to hear it. Others find it stale and demand new, new, ever new products, including music.

Calexico has responded to the stale accusation by venturing into more straight-up indie rock (sounding like Franz Ferdinand meets Flaming Lips on a couple of songs) and toward a troubling (from my personal point of view) mix of southwestern music with jam band blues rock marathons. At least two songs were of that nature, and I haaaaaaaaated them.

But as I said, there are many levels on which you may, if you’re so inclined, appreciate Calexico today as much as a decade ago. Despite their arguable identity crisis, I doubt there’s much risk they will spiral into a jam band.

The Construction of Facts: Election 2006 and the Economy

Published at Blogcritics Magazine

“It’s the economy, stupid,” James Carville is credited with having said, summarizing one of his talking points prior to the Clinton victory in 1992. Despite its overly simplistic explanatory value, it’s become a household phrase. Another piece of popular political wisdom holds that when you have the power to circulate and repeat such a slogan to the point of media saturation, many come to believe it, however true or false the reality to which the slogan refers. Indeed, if it doesn’t immediately refer to reality, it supposedly can sometimes create that reality in its crystallization as belief.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, we find politicians and their pundits struggling to present the economy in a way that will benefit their interests. Of course, when one has no flexibility in perception but becomes an ideological robot that chants the same position on the economy, any economy, anywhere, any time, then it is not even an attempt to misrepresent; it’s just what one believes when his or her team is winning.

This deliberate rhetorical straitjacketing of reality to suit one’s ideological goals or the robotic ideological script deprive serious and concerned citizens of the careful debate they deserve.

In the spirit of such exchange and debate, I want to take a look at some of the claims that have been circulating on the net and in the mainstream press about the economy as an issue in this fast-approaching election.

Why not begin with the very idea that people vote with their pocket books ("it's the economy stupid")? First, do Americans really always vote based on their perception of the economy? Not according to this Pew study of the last election:

Among those offered the seven-item list, a plurality of 27% selected moral values, followed by 22% who chose Iraq and 21% who selected the economy and jobs. Terrorism was chosen by 14%; education and health care were chosen by 4% each and taxes by 3%....

The responses were significantly different among those who were not offered a fixed list of choices. The war in Iraq was mentioned as the single most important issue by a similar number (25%), but the economy and jobs were mentioned by only 12%; and only 9% mentioned terrorism. Notably, just 9% used the terms "moral values," "morals," or "values." Specific social issues ­ including abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research ­ were volunteered by 3%, while another 2% cited the candidates' morals.

Nevertheless, political talk maintains the common wisdom about the influence of economic perception on election outcomes, which can possibly have a bandwagon opinion effect. Recently, a column in Blogcritics spotlighted Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi’s attempts to contradict President Bush's portrayal of a strong economy and a prosperous America. About Pelosi, the columnist writes:

Rather than many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, savings and investing rates are rising for the first sustained period since 1982, suggesting that more Americans than ever before have excess income…. Her numbers are also fishy on median family income. HUD estimates that median family income has increased by $7100 during the tenure of the Bush administration. Her number for the increase in household costs is not far off, so perhaps she 'accidentally' transposed the 7 and the 1 in the income figure.
The article makes similar claims about recent descriptions of the economy by Howard Dean. Contrary to Dean, Pelosi, and others, income and wages are supposedly up. How can there be such a gross misunderstanding (or diabolically deliberate distortion)? A thing called “inflation-adjusted income” may have something to do with it, more about which in a moment.

Politicians like Pelosi and Dean are accused of dumbing down political discourse by parroting talking points, like the ideological robots I maintain are dangerous for democratic political practices generally. Even more strongly, though, such talking points have been attacked as “half-truths, gibberish and straight-out deceptions,” which people supposedly believe because the news media simply put such claims on a conveyor belt to their audiences.

I agree that these are talking points, as are the points we get from the Bush administration and nearly every person running for office. It's even true of points from people speaking in more open media, such as websites and blogs. This is the style of our political culture, and I hate it. Soundbites are a way of life, encouraged by the price of print space and air time, fear of rational argumentation and embrace of techniques learned from war propaganda, advertising, and public relations.

So the question, I think, is not that talking points hide complexity but whether more developed arguments exist to support those soundbites? Going back to my original framework for thinking about how the economy is used in current political persuasion, one may ask if pundits criticize politicians like Pelosi and Dean for allegedly just not getting it (the facts), or, more seriously still, for deliberately distorting "the facts" for political gain. Everyone (including me) wants to lay claim to facts, but most facts require interpretation; their precise meaning is not obvious. Matters are further complicated when we realize that political marketing is a field that specializes in obfuscation, seduction, and distraction, but it is often difficult to prove that particular communicators are deliberately, ignorantly, or wishfully misrepresenting any number of things.

How does one put information and claims about the state of the American economy like the following into conversation with those already mentioned as a contradiction of Dean and Pelosi? The point in offering the following citations is that different research groups, some quite ideologically motivated, produce different data and then present it with different emphases and appeals.

The presentation of that data can be critically analyzed, but usually there is no conversation between those who have different data and interpretations of it. Keep in mind also during this exposition, please, that I am saying the current U.S. political culture discourages engaging the strongest arguments of one’s opponents, choosing instead to name-call or deliberately misrepresent the opposing arguments. These communication motives to win and govern by any means make serious citizenship all the more difficult. This citations are hardly meant to be exhaustive; rather they might help start to dialogue about why one gets wildly varying statistics and claims about the economy.

Take for example, information on the Economic Policy Institute's Homepage, updated in the last week, which just came up in a quick search I did on the state of the American economy. Compare it to the contrasting information I have quoted above.

The federal minimum wage has not seen an increase since 1997 and its value has dropped by 20% since then. In inflation-adjusted dollars, it is at its lowest value in 50 years. Automatic annual adjustments to the wage, or indexing, has gained increasing support and is becoming more common among the U.S. states that have their own minimum wage laws.
Perhaps those accusing Pelosi and Dean of misunderstanding or misrepresentation disagree with the claims and information just cited? The same research institute claims there are an estimated 14.9 million Americans receiving minimum wages.

On the other hand, the Heritage Foundation claims there are 1.9 million Americans working for the minimum wage. What to make of the discrepancy? Actually there are key words in the presentation of both of these "facts" that point to differently named realities ("estimated" vs. "reported").

The same EPI page continues its "gloom and doom," as Reagan would say: "The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that the economy added only 51,000 jobs in September, the fewest in nearly a year, with housing continuing to flatten and blue-collar manufacturing suffering its biggest loss of jobs since July 2003."

That doesn't sound like a thriving economy, but is it just misrepresenting the facts?

Two more samples from the same source:
For the fifth year in a row, the number of Americans without health insurance grew significantly. Nearly 46.6 million Americans were uninsured in 2005--up almost 7 million since 2000. From 2000 to 2005, the uninsured share of the total population grew from 14.2% to 15.9%, while the share of those with employer-provided coverage dropped.
Back to rising incomes and inflation-adjusted income.
The "negative trends affecting working families, and second, the way the administration has tried to spin those trends" keep the economy on the issue agenda, says EPI contributor Jared Bernstein in a recent editorial.

Bernstein continues, "When asked recently about why the administration's good news on the economy was failing to reach the public, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson responded 'That's the $64,000 question.'" Bernstein responds that
"Paulson's $64,000 question has a $3,000 answer. That's how much the inflation-adjusted income of the typical working-age household is down since 2000."
Continue reading here...

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween!

Well worth listening to the Candy Corn Song, my friends. Thanks to my sis for sending this on. Click on the image at left, and get the comic relief you deserve today.