Maybe I should call this blog, Am I a book snob 2.0. Or, the hidden benefits of elitism. One of the crucial facts forgotten about American democracy is that a power elite shaped its fundamental principles. Had the process of forming a democracy been itself democratic many would have preferred the safety (or cowardice) of sticking it out with mad King George. I’m thinking about this because of Andrew Keen’s book, The Cult Of The Amateur, a lightning rod of a book that has sparked an onslaught of criticism mostly from people who haven’t read it.
The problem is that the nature of the attacks all but proves Keen’s point and he knows it. His all out assault on web 2.0, particularly it’s user generated content has provoked vicious responses from that very same group and the first thing that’s noticeable is how amateurish most of the criticism is. Simple, grade 2 mistakes like attacking the man instead of his argument. Attacking the man because one had not bothered to read his book, and not seeing how obvious the ignorance. Calling him a motherfucker, for example. This book has provoked constructive debate but that is lost on people who because of the very nature of their sites or blogs have never applied genuine, informed critical thinking. They have never fact checked a blog to make sure there is truth to back up an argument, and have never been in a situation where simply saying that he is a dumb motherfucker is not enough. This of course proves his point even though one cannot escape Keen’s own personal stake in the matter—perhaps his own bitterness at having launched an Internet company that quickly went bust.
He may also be ignoring though he claims not to, that the same Internet is responsible for breaking truths that the mainstream media did not or would not. Would anybody have been the wiser about James Frey were it not for Smoking gun? I tread lightly because this is after all a blog and not only has it facilitated my own expression but also my communication with you, something that would not, has not and will not happen in the mainstream media where my voice simply does not count. And the stakes are not even as high for myself as it is for a Lebanese teenager who has nothing but a modem. That said there are things that I have written in my blog that would not have passed the first round of fact checking that I left untouched because I knew nobody would call me out on it. This is dangerous, something I have started to call Wikipedia wisdom. I come across Wikipedia wits all the time and the danger is not that they are unaware that Wikipedia is to a huge percent incorrect if not outright false, but that they do not care. Truth has become as flexible a commodity as trendiness and not half as necessary.
Perhaps the biggest myth about web 2.0 is it being a universal equalizer. A tool that has made the ordinary person, as powerful as any pundit. But not only is this untrue but the deception is perilous. The new boss is really no different from the old boss except that the slave doesn’t think he has a master. Aintitcool.com may have seemed like the voice of the people but it is really the voice of a few steering many, sometimes to bad movies that merely fit in with kinks of 34 year old virgins, movies like Me Myself and Irene. Watch how the web shaped the look of Transformers, where overgrown boys, still terrified of icky girls were responsible for eliminating a female transformer.
And then there is Wikipedia. The end result of Wikipedia being accepted as fact is not that truth becomes irrelevant (that’s the beginning), but that truth become easily manipulated. Contrary to what you may think, the internet shrinks opinion as much as it expands it. You may think that your gmail account is safe and easily accessible, and it is. But g-mail is also two gigs of your life that can be wiped out in a second by somebody you have never met. And there’s nothing you can do about it. A book in my hand, in my closet or hidden in my cellar means that when the oppressors come I can hide my knowledge, instead of watching it being destroyed by the whim and fancy of whoever is the programmer. Web 2.0 is power but it means nothing if the light goes. That’s an entire universe erased by a power switch. Youtube is ultimately controlled and the controller is not you.
Another big problem with web freedom so far is that is has not come with web responsibility, a fact reassuring to pedopliles and rumourmongers everywhere. So a biography of Anderson Cooper can make a huge detour into his sexuality, plunging into hearsay and hear-think and departing from fact and decorum, as if whom he is sleeping with is as important as how many died in Hurricane Katrina. I have seen in my own case how web reading has hurt my ability to read and teach books. Even now I have to force myself to not ‘web read’ novels— to not scan the first four or so lines, then ‘scroll’ to the bottom and turn the page.
Andrew keen is keen on pointing out how much the new web world has destroyed the old, better establishment, but nobody had to murder someone so dead set on suicide. A better point to be made is that the world that web 2.0 is creating is far inferior to the one that came before it. The Blind leading the blind hoping they’ll all eventually see—or, more likely conclude that seeing is way overrated anyway. A bigger problem is the new boss destroying a world it is not equipped to supplant. Or at least not yet. You may think that a voice from the street means more that a Walter Cronkite, but should a Hurricane Katrina happen or a President gets assassinated you need a Cronkite to hold 250 million people together. You need Britannica and its researched facts because should you need to save a life, a Wikipedia tip could just as likely kill. You need an amazon.com where people who hate this blog cannot then go on my page, write a barrage on disgusting reviews despite not having read the book, and drive my rating down to one star, knowing that the American reading public trusts other readers more than critics.
But as I said before Andrew keen makes the same mistake that traditional media makes, screaming bloody murder while pointing the gun at himself. By trying to stretch his mouth wide open to include pornography, pedophiles and Youtube he exposes himself instead as a luddite in Bill O'Riley drag. You Tube may be a world where "Nothing seems too prosaic or narcissistic for these videographer monkeys," but it is also the only place where you’ll find James Brown on the TAMI show, or Lebanese kids showing their side of the whole bombing last year, because the mainstream media will show neither. Stephen Colbert knows that had he fought Youtube instead of left it alone, many of his present viewers would have ignored him. Keen attacks the wisdom of the crowd and the lack on an information central but fails to remember how easily manipulated information was even up to recently, which is why people still have a pleasing sense of nostalgia about Operation Desert Storm and trust anything Fox News channel tells them.
He also has to face the fact that web 2.0 is not going away, in fact a web 3.0 is on the horizon already. He may also be ignoring that many blogs have gone on to genuine intelligent content whether that be the range of opinion on The Huffington Post, or the simple elegance and grace of The Sartorialist. Unlike Keen, I see intelligence in an upward not downward curve. Human beings inevitably want more and that greed for information—not more, but better information— is always good. That greed has sparked everything from the creation of the wheel to outer space exploration to the discovery that the world is round. We are curious and hungry creatures and while we feel safety in the wisdom of the crowd, that crowd still needs that one kid who realizes that the Emperor is naked. What Keen does not realize is that this lone seeing eye —The web 2.0 Galileo or Dorothy Parker will come from the same crowd that is right now flying blind.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
So lately everybody has gotten into the argument as to where rock and roll was born. According to The New York Times, New Jersey has now gotten into the act, with two cities declaring that rock began when Bill Haley and his band played there. The argument has devolved into semantics with one city claiming he played there with the Comets, his rock and roll band and the other that he played with the Saddlemen, a country band that was sort of rockish anyway. New Jersey is but one of several places all laying claim to the sound, including Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, Cleveland and Philadelphia. But these warring places have one troubling and tiresome thing in common, a dogged, insistence that wherever rock and roll came from or whoever came up with it, that person simply MUST BE WHITE.
For if the person was black then it was merely R&B or race music. Or sped up 12 bar blues. One wonders where that leaves Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ ‘Rocket 88,’ a record held up by no less than Sam Phillips as the first rock and roll record. Doesn’t matter that Phillips thought it was Rock and Roll, most white critics consider it R&B, a bridesmaid of rock, not the Bride. Even the Bill Haley version of Rocket 88—which has no real difference from the original—is held up by some as the first rock and roll record. Rolling Stone, in one if its most inexplicable and disappointing articles came on the side of the Elvis kiss-ass and declared that ‘That’s Alright Mama’ was the first rock and roll record, something that Elvis disputed almost twenty years before and the magazine proved wrong in its very own 50’s issue from April 1990.
This begs the question of just what a black artist has to do to be considered rock. Any black rock song made too early (Rocket 88 was released in 1951) gets classified as R&B with patronizing rock critics declaring it to be important to the formation of rock and roll, but not rock itself. What does Rocket 88 have to do to be called a rock and roll song? Sure it’s ragged 12 bar blues but so is The Beatles’ Day Tripper. If anything Rocket 88 had a kid brother’s relationship to R&B, eschewing the dirty old man double-talk of the blues for a brand new lyrical concept that was all youth, all id and as blatantly sexual as it was witty: The car metaphor. Rocket 88 did more than that. It also introduced fuzz guitar almost 20 years before it became popular and pushed the drum way to the front where the whole song seemed submissive to the beat. Even listening to it now the blatant, sexually ferocious youth of the thing says rock and roll far more than anything by Bill Haley and The Comets.
But Jackie and the Delta Cats were not white, so Rocket 88 is R&B. After all Rolling Stone says so. For rock and roll to be rock and roll it simply must have some country in it. Never mind that all these black kids came from the south, grew up on country as much as blues and some, like Ray Charles actually played in country band. Critics use country merely as a ruse so they do not have to say that for rock to be rock it must have some white in it. White meaning people, not influence. Whatever black people did was proto-rock, proto being another word for prehistoric.
This slur disguised as compliment is nothing new of course. Jazz’s greatest fans have been insulting it for decades. David Hadju once wrote that in lionizing jazz the beats popularized the myth of black creative primitivism, allowing the most open-minded white listeners to use words such as ‘effortless’ and ‘instinctual’ to define black genius. Black art was an inexplicable mystery, like voodoo or black magic. So Prince is an instinctual genius despite playing 90 instruments and composing for the Joffrey ballet, but Elvis Costello is a craftsman. Duke Ellington is a natural talent but Stravinsky is a master of “multiple compositional styles, who revolutionized orchestration.” Black art is never about craft, education, technique, or intelligence. Not even jazz. Not even Free Jazz. Not even Be-bop.
Rhapsodizing about be-bop, Allen Ginsberg gushed that the music gave him such a wild, sense of freedom that he felt that all he had to do was ‘grab a horn and blow.’ Charlie Parker could only snigger at the statement, but other jazzmen took this to considerable offence. The idea that music was of such uncultured simplicity, such accidental genius that anybody could be inspired to just do it was simply preposterous, even if Ginsberg meant no harm by saying it. The truth is nobody can just grab a horn and play be-bop. One of the most complex music forms ever created, ever single person who played be-bop in its golden era was a genius, from Charlie Parker to Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Cannonball Aderley, and Milt Jackson, among others. For all the wild abandon that Bolero inspires, nobody ever says Ravel makes one feel like grabbing a piccolo.
There is still this sense that something is not quite believable about black brilliance; that it happens by either chance or something inexplicable. And that the talent is never a matter of intellect, but ‘baffling brilliance,’ as Kurt Loder once said about Prince. Black brilliance is either off the cuff, or accidental or so couched in primitivism that one needs only to be wild and primitive as well to tap into it. Iggy Pop certainly thought so when he did the ridiculous Africa Man, where he simply growled and screamed like an idiot because well idiocy and inspiration go hand in hand with black people. Critics seem to want to believe that rock and roll emerged fully formed from the start, but not if that means black people did it. Not if that song is Rocket 88.
This isn’t racist so much as willfully ignorant. That rock and roll could be so well developed and explosive from as far back as 1951 (if not earlier) makes the music more phenomenal not less. Perhaps critics are worried that if Rocket 88 is credited for giving rock and roll everything it needed for the subsequent 40 years that would mean that white people contributed very little. This is of course ludicrous. Subtract Elvis or Carl Perkins from rock and roll and there would be no Beatles and certainly no Led Zeppelin. It’s crucial to remember that 50’s rock and rollers boxed themselves into a corner that they could not get out of and nearly took the music with them, until the Brits and the Beach Boys found a way out. Bill Haley, Elvis, Ike Turner, Little Richard; All these artists were critical to the creation, vitality and legacy of the music. But it all began with Rocket 88, and it’s high time people stop acting like it didn’t.
Monday, July 02, 2007
Like all rock and roll stories this starts with a band. Even in the balls and bluster world of Metal lines are drawn very deep, separating one from the other. And like every genre these days metal has its mainstream bands none of which I know or listen to and its alternative bands such as Isis, Jesu, Pelican, Converge, The Fucking Champs and Mastodon. Last year Spin magazine stunned readers when they gave Blood Mountain, the band’s new album two out of five stars and dismissed it as bad prog. The review was as brief as it was surprising given that both the mainstream and alternative press went rapturous over the record, culture tastemakers Pitchfork Media in particular giving it 8.5 out of ten. Not many issues down faux punkers Fall out Boy and Brand New both got a four star reviews and in June 2006 Beyoncé made the cover of “The Sexiest Under 25” issue. Something was changing and it wasn’t just the focus on cleavage. Was Spin turning into Blender?
Blender is the successful Maxim spin-off that caters to all the pre-hormonal boys who wished Maxim had more music. It’s very good for what it is and saying that it is cheapening the culture is not only pointless but also wrong. Trash and cash has always been newsworthy and when music gets worse Blender only gets better. The problem is that Spin magazine had made a mistake in thinking that rule also applies to them. Whatever happened to Spin Magazine? That weird post punk, post reggae, pre hip-hop, pre grunge magazine that put people like Nick Cave on their cover and called him the last rock star? That was from a time when Spin, like underground rock and roll was still a scary and sexy force, governed by no rules except its own and taking the hits (putting a free condom in an issue nearly drove them out of Business) that such fearlessness was bound to receive.
In the mid to late 80’s the sheer fearlessness of Spin was almost impossible to categorize or appreciate, and not just the pioneering AIDS Column. Spin was also the first magazine to truly dig black culture as it was happening, not after the fact—which has always been the story with the white media and rock and roll. That meant not only articles about hip-hop but stuff written in hip-hop language, with Bonz Malone’s pioneering articles, as crucial in establishing the music as Yo! MTV Raps. Like The Face in the UK, Spin covered House before Technotronic took it to the charts, Trip-hop before hairdressers bought Sneaker Pimps and even this little thing called grunge before Nirvana had a hit. In fact back when Rolling Stone dismissed Nevermind with a patronizing 3 star review Spin downright ordered its audience to buy the damn record and helped start a movement.
Around the same time Rolling Stone gave Nevermind three stars it gave new albums from U2 and Michael Jackson four and a half. By dismissing the former and lionizing the latter Rolling Stone declared allegiance to the establishment. Or had been so fat on corporate rock that it could no longer see where the music was going. Earlier in the year, their New Music issue produced such vanguard acts as Chris Isaak and Extreme. Alternative was about to explode and Rolling Stone would have none of it. The magazine even trashed crucial precursors like Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual De Lo Habitual. Maybe they didn’t see it coming, but Spin did. And maybe Jane’s was right and we do become the thing we hate because Spin is now doing the same thing, praising industry-approved bands like Fall Out Boy and routinely dismissing indie obsessions like Mastodon and Isis. When a rave review of a genuine talent happened as it did with their appraisal of Joanna Newsom’s YS, it felt left field, like and exercise in coolness, like a Rolling Stone review. There was a sense that the magazine was out of its depth, reporting about a topic on which it no longer had authority.
I remember in 1987 when Spin said Guns and Roses ‘looks like all that rock has left,’ and being thrilled and appalled by the sentence. I remember being perplexed and annoyed by their first Greatest Albums of All Time list because a James Brown live album was number one, Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones was either 2 or 3, Echo and the Bunnymen was in there somewhere as were Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and George Michael’s Faith. It wasn’t only the choices that made my head spin but the writing, the reasoning why they demanded that these records be listened to. On Faith they said that Michael swung from faux prince to faux pop balladry and was so obsessed with giving pop pleasures that on ‘Hard Day,’ he warps his voice to play his own lover. Note that I can quote the article almost verbatim. I stole this issue from my friend and poured over it for months trying to figure out what kind of psychos would make a list like this and what did it mean. Then I listened to the records and the person in my mirror changed. Spin did not get me to listen to different rock and roll—it got me to listen to rock and roll differently. Rock and roll became a dark and sexy mystery where yes, George Michael’s desperate and sexually confused attempt to fake Prince was more rock and roll and real than Prince himself. Where James Brown screaming ‘take it to the bridge’ had more menace and noise than the breakdown in Whole Lotta Love played twice. Where Black Celebration and Ocean Rain played back to back summed up my eighties better than any book I could possibly write. And more than anything else where music could be mine and mine alone even as I shared it with millions and there was not a damn thing wrong with that.
Alternative music, that is. Before it became a nation and a punch line, alternative was an aberration. A subculture that was thought to exist only on college radio, but not quite a movement or a commercial force. Spin was not the first to respond to college rock but it may have been the first to find the common streak in wildly divergent styles from then obscure acts such as REM to a ubiquitous artist like Prince to something totally unpalatable like Ministry. It was the first to treat all music as baroque instead of focusing on only adolescent male virgins with big glasses and jangly guitars. By giving as much ink to Salt and Pepa as they did Slayer they dared to declare that they were one and the same thing, unified not only in their statement of purpose and their DIY creativity but also in mainstream ignorance or confusion. More than that Spin had a particular genius for pin-pointing what made these artists alternative—The propulsively gay and disco subtext of Madonna for example, or the rise of irony as the dominant aesthetic device as deployed in the film Heathers—in ways that other mags like Alternative Press simply could not understand.
Spin was also a common ground under which all the disparate strains of alternative could congregate. In that it echoed the progress of seminal bands in the late 80’s that did the same thing: Public Enemy, Pixies, Sonic Youth, NWA, Ice-T/Body Count, Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Soul II Soul and Nirvana.
Gradually to some, suddenly to most, Spin and the artists they covered became things that everybody had in common, an alternative nation before MTV co-opted and killed the term. As alternative grew, Spin grew into the tastemaker and 1990 to 1994 were the best years to be alive. But it would not last, and you didn’t need to see what was left of Kurt Cobain’s splattered head to know. The genre that never was spawned too many heads, too many compromises, too many marketing efforts disguised as bands that found the look, feel and sound too easy to co-opt. By 1996 alternative was also used to describe Matchbox Twenty and Better Than Ezra. The center could no longer hold and many of alternative’s unifying elements, Jane’s Addiction, Public Enemy, Raygun magazine, Nirvana and Lollapalooza fell apart.
Today’s Spin is not Spin magazine, but Pitchfork media, the website and alternative kingmaker responsible for making it’s own stars like LCD Soundsystem, Tapes n’ Tapes and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Thanks to Pitchfork the young listener can see brilliance in both Dizzee Rascal and Kelly Clarkson and their reviews stand in striking, wonderful defiance of the conventional wisdom that internet age kids will never read anything long. But something is missing: the grand statement, an attempt to make rock a national, cultural discourse the way Spin did in the late 80’s and Rolling Stone did in the 70’s. An attempt to unify disparate elements without every saying that’s exactly what they are trying to do.
Counter culture and Music culture has never been more fractious, never been more in need of something with the ballsiness and insanity to bear witness and give testimony to it all. The last time this happened was the late eighties when songs like Just Got Paid went to number one and nobody knew what the hell was up with Prince who no longer seemed interested in saving us. In that universe Spin as if nobody told them not to, packed Morrissey, Metallica, Run DMC, AIDS, Rai and free condoms in one package and had the gall to stamp the whole thing, “ THIS IS ROCK AND ROLL.” Rock and roll heard differently and correctly. Without ever claiming so, Spin became the voice of the generation that would not be spoken for and it said strange things, like claiming rap was art (in hip-hop voice) that disco was as crucial as punk and that if you put Morrissey and Sinead together you might get Madonna. And yet they were never so up their alternative ass that they wouldn’t put Jon Bon Jovi on the cover.
Maybe every magazine is granted only one decade of brilliance. Esquire for the 60’s Rolling Stone for the 70’s, Sassy for the 80’s. And much of this is not Spin’s fault but rock and roll itself, which has become a passive experience, not different from watching the credits roll on a videogame. Maybe Spin should pull an Apple move and ask Bob Guccione Jr to come back. Musical chairs for the editor slot is never a good sign and there is still the magazine's continued attempts to become Blender. In trying times one can either take stock or take risks and Spin seems content on doing the former even though it remains leagues below its early 90’s heyday. Maybe Spin will realize that the mid 2G’s are not that far removed from the mid 80’s and needs somebody to make sense of it. Maybe they will see that they need Joanna Newsom and Justin Timberlake on the cover, not the Killers and that they need to stop trying to figure out what people want and have the guts to give people what they need. To stop following culture and create one. Maybe they will realize that we need 80’s Spin now more than ever.