Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Too busy to Write, But Not Too Busy To Bet

I know, I know, I haven't written in a while, but you try teaching 47 students. I'll be back soon, but you know I could not let the Nobels pass without adding my wildly way-off predictions (Even though I did predict Pamuk and Pinter). My money is on Adonis, largely because a poet is overdue. Don't rule out Roth or Updike, or Doctorow or Oates—That prick's comments may just be him bitching because he didn't get his way. They are overdue a poet, an African and an obscure European novelist.

Final picks:

Ismail Kadare
Ngugi Wa Thiongo
Yusuf Komunyaaka
E L Doctorow
Milan Kundera

And of course, some obscure European that we've never heard of.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Is We Stoopid?

Brilliant black musician, once promising disappears in a vortex of drugs alcohol, public expectation and the dark side of his or her own genius. I thought of my first sentence not because of Sly Stone, Albert Ayler, Rick James, Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Hartman, and Billie Holiday, but because of D’Angelo. In an uncharacteristically poignant article in the August issue of Spin, the magazine tried to track down the artist, a man who all but disappeared from the pop universe only years after he and his abs pretty much dominated it with his “Untitled” video, that song from his masterpiece, Voodoo (for my money, the only album in league with Radiohead’s Kid A for album of the decade). The article was depressing enough not only in its depiction of D’Angelo’s tragic fall and halfhearted attempts at rise, but also of the other casualties of 90’s hard to classify black music: Lauryn Hill and Maxwell. But what really depressed me was this:

“When I create things I almost have to dumb it down a little, because low record sales for me is seen like a failure. The new minstrel movement in hip-hop doesn’t allow the audience to believe the artist is smart. I love Kid A, but I don’t think D’Angelo would be allowed to sing ‘Cut the kids in half’ over and over and be taken seriously. It’d be like, ‘What’s wrong with that boy?’”

That was a quote from Questlove, drummer and creative force behind the Roots, one of the most respected bands in rock. I cannot imagine a quote that depressed me more this year. Fine, somebody out there must be buying Steppin fetch—er, Soulja Boy, but are we really still doing this? Have we really gone such a short distance that intelligence is still snubbed or looked upon with suspicion, if not outright hostility? It’s easy to lay the blame at hip-hop but rap made bands like A Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, Fugees and the Roots. But why in 2008 do people who transcend any form of formula still have to play dumb?

I remember talking to friend back in Jamaica who was appalled when I told her that back in school I played dumb to keep friends. It didn’t work of course but that didn’t stop me from setting my mind on dim when I entered the workplace, even when I went to church, never the most welcoming the place for any sort of brain. But can we talk about this? Until I read this article I thought I was one of few people hit with the pressure of dimming myself so that my “people’ can get it. Of all the interviews I’ve had the most stupid was from a fellow Jamaican who couldn’t think of something more profound than “did you write the book to get girls?” I complained and was told that it was all about publicity and fun and sometimes one had to play the game. What game was that actually, pin the tail on the dumb-ass-sex-mad Negro? I was offended by the question. I’m as irreverent as anybody and pride myself on a perverted sense of humour, but I bristle at stupidity and go apeshit at dumbness commoditized and thrust upon me. I can’t even think of a musician who wouldn’t find that question ridiculous. But it took me back to an earlier time when the slighter you were, the more normal you were because in black communities all over there’s still nothing more freaky than intelligence. This probably explains the colossal failure of that whole generation of smart, spunky black female musicians who rose up in the early 90’s. Even Joi, whose story is more frustrating than most gave up after trying everything, including remaking herself into the pop bimbo she was probably pressured to be.

Are we really still allergic to intelligence? Are we so stuck on formula that anyone who breaks it must suffer? How did Prince and Andre 3000 get away with it, by imitating rockers? I’ve been to readings where I push up the more scandalous parts of my novels largely because I’m dealing with an audience that does not know nor will ever care what existential struggle means. Chris Rock nailed this generation in his landmark routine known funnily enough as “The Routine” where he went where nobody did since Richard Pryor, distinguishing between black people and niggers. Rock squashed nerve after nerve after nerve but he left his masterstroke for last. “If there was one thing niggers love the most and were proud of the most, it was to NOT KNOW.” True blackness was measured by how little you knew and how less you cared. People like myself and most of my friends could only nod and laugh because we’ve all been there, accused of playing white because we knew the capital of Zaire and that Titus may be the most misunderstood of Shakespeare’s plays. We see it whenever we criticize a sentimentalist panderer like Tyler Perry and receive the onslaught of attack right afterwards.

My problem is that this ultimately infects both ways. I’m always disappointed when I have to dumb myself down, but it also creates in me my own prejudice where when I run into black audiences or groups or people and immediately set myself on dim and try to keep the TS Elliot and Chuck D quotes to a minimum. I went to dinner with authors Mat Johnson, Victor Lavalle and some others last January and almost hit the floor when discussion immediately turned to favourite tracks on the new Radiohead album. I had to confront my own prejudice right there and then, surprised that I still had them. But then I realized these writers were in the same boat I’m in, writing out on a limb with challenging literary fiction (Lavalle’s The Ecstatic, Johnson’s recent Incognegro) despite knowing how easy it is to shut up, shut down and write Blacka Da Berry, Chocolate Desire Part 3. We all know how it feels, reading at a black bookstore and being told by the owner what a difficult sell you are. We all know the feeling of doing a good reading, answering good questions and still watching the audience going off to buy Omar Tyree or whichever rapper’s mom just put out a book.

Don’t get me wrong, stupidity doesn’t discriminate. People buy US, Star and Globe, magazines of such dubious worth that a typical article would use, “but we believe” or “One can only assume” as declarative statements. In other words white people can be pretty damn stupid too. But it’s the glorification of ignorance, the association of dimness with your degree of blackness that troubles me. It bothers me that Questlove has to dumb things down because we won’t get it. It saddens me that D’Angelo will face a horde of people who only care if he still has his abs. I’m worried about the masterpieces I will never get to listen to because we’re not ready. And I’m, horrified that maybe, just maybe, the people out there don’t care anyway.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

No I haven't gone anywhere...

But I have been moving house, and doing a whole bunch of little things that seem to take a big time. I'll be back to causing trouble next, I mean THIS week.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Spin The Black Circle

So there I was at Casey’s house, staring as if it were some bulking but bashful animal. I hadn’t seen or touched one in years and my interest was purely forensic— surely it didn’t even work. A turntable, outside the context of a DJ in a nightclub, standing by the side of the living room, waiting for somebody to pull sound from it. I didn’t even remember how to turn thing on, but on it came with a boom and the record, already spinning stunned me with sound. Rich, deep, and ridiculously warm. After years of astringent CD’s and faceless Mp3’s I forgot just how completely I could be pulled under by sheer rock action. There I was, all but batshit at being submerged in guitars, drums and keyboards. I looked at my friend. Holy shit, this is Tears For Fears? I said.

I had been so trained to believe all the things I supposedly gained from CD’s that I all but forgot what I lost. For all its digital precision, there was always something cold and thin about a CD, fine if your interest is only melody (classical, new age) but disastrous if you’re ruled by rhythm. A CD, being a digital medium is governed by a number, and like the nerds that invented it, a CD could only process what’s quantitative, something that could be reduced to a zero or one. That’s why some audiophiles remain perplexed when told that LP’s are warmer —as well they should be since warmth cannot be measured by a number. In a hilarious aside, once Mariah Carey had tape hiss inserted into her songs, presumably to recapture something that even she knew had been lost. The thing about LP warmth is that it doesn’t come from the music so much as the listener. For me it works this way: I’ll forgive things on an LP that I would never let slide on a CD. So much so that I could be astounded by Tears For Fear’s Songs for the Big Chair, a personal favourite, but hardly a great record. There I was rocking and shaking and dancing (OK maybe not) to Shout, Everybody wants to rule the world and my personal favourite, The Working Hour.

Maybe it’s nostalgia. Memory has a way coming with a sugarcoat already built in, and maybe the record really wasn’t as good as my memory of it. A while there is some merit to that point, it’s not enough; after all I could have just whipped out the CD. It was the hiss before the music started, the feel of that big jacket in my hands, the feeling that I needed to stay put and hear all of it. The way in which sound seemed to travel around the room, spinning, twirling and bursting. And something else that I cannot describe but I know is there. I had not experienced it since my last LP, bought in 1989, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation.

Among its many atrocities, the single worst crime of the CD was that it made albums longer. Nowadays perfectly fine 35 minute LPs, have become bloated and tedious 70 minute CD’s. The CD has actually taken us back to a pre Beatles era where an album was nothing more than a few hit singles padded with filler. Today’s generation certainly think so and they have the choice to just buy the songs they like on I-Tunes. The double album has fared worse, ruined by the double CD. There was a time when the double album was a major statement. Either the artist was taking stock of all that he had accomplished before (Sign O’ The Times) or he needed a canvas wide enough to blast into new territory (1999), or both. But the double CD is nothing more than a clearing house for the artist’s appalling hubris. Look no further than the Smashing Pumpkins, Notorious BIG and Wu Tang Clan to see records that should have been one third their lengths. Even Prince, once a master of the extra long player, blew his load with the triple CD, Emancipation, a record distinguishable only by its lack of a single good song. And yet people still wonder why downloads killed the album.

Back at Casey’s house this record player was reminding me of what an album sounded like. I found myself missing the smell of vinyl. Wearing out and replacing needles. I found myself even missing the simple act of turning a record over. Some lazy listeners quite like never having to get up once the music starts playing, but I missed playing a part in the hearing of my own sound. What’s more, in the past, musicians used to construct albums for the pause, with the record gaining gravitas between flips. That silence was important as well. You’d be surprised at how much difference it makes; one to ten minutes of silence between Led Zep’s Stairway to Heaven and Misty Mountain Hop. Or Purple Rain’s Darlin Niki and When Doves Cry. Last week I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and waited a full half hour between sides, just drunk on all that side one meant and allowing this most storytelling of lyricists to construct novellas in my head. No it’s not the same as putting a cd on pause. I remember waiting 20 minutes between side one and side two of Sergeant Pepper just because I was amazed and bewildered (in a good way) by side one. I wasn’t just savouring the sound that went, but also the absence of it. It’s a lost art, the construction of a good record side, and rock and roll has been the all the worse for it. You’re supposed to pause after True Blue’s Live to Tell or Woodface’s Four Seasons In One Day or even, Caught Can I Get A Witness, the side one closer on It Takes A Nation of Million To Hold Us Back, a record that gains in power by being split in half.

So in the past weeks I’ve bought records that I would never have tolerated on CD but now worship on LP. Rolling Stone’s Tattoo You. Duran Duran’s Rio. I’ve also bought records that simply never sounded and will never sound good on CD; Led Zep’s IV, The Band’s eponymous second album, Springsteen’s The River, and Wild Innocent and E-Street Shuffle, Black Sabbath’s Volume 4, but also recent stuff like the new Portishead, which seems engineered for the LP format. Maybe the real reason I went to back to LP’s is that I missed active sound. I miss the fetish of a large LP jacket and walking around with it. I miss music being foreground with activity surrounding it, rather than vice versa. And I miss the crackle and pop, the slight hiss, before sound explodes and all heaven breaks loose.

Friday, April 25, 2008

I'm Too Old To Rock And Roll

What’s really weird is that nobody thinks I’m old but me. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking and I’ve become one of those people that young people feel the need to reassure with “but that’s not old,” either out of pity or terror that one day they too shall become me. Maybe they think I’m pretty cool for 37, and while its great that some people think I’m still cool, I’m not one of them. And I couldn’t be happier.

In the middle of celebrating my 32nd birthday I realized that I was actually 31. This was devastating in a way that perplexed pretty much everybody I knew, who would have thanked whatever they prayed to for an extra year. Well maybe if I told them, that is. The truth is, I was always in a rush to get old, largely of course because I thought that when I got older things simply had to get better than this. It did, but it also got worse too, now that I was responsible for everything. I’ve never understood this obsession with youth, this denial of aging, the most inevitable thing that can happen to you. Youth may be wasted on the young, but fear and nostalgia is wasted on the old. I’ve never understood men and women who lie about their age, as if anybody believes they are 27 when they say it. For one, no woman who is 27 feels the need to declare her age. When someone says so, we already know she is lying.

I’m 37 and have begun to relish in my uncoolness. I love that I was the last generation to dial a phone number. To use the word “irony” properly. Just minute ago I was on Facebook looking at the 667 strong “Petition for a Real Rock Band to Come to Jamaica” Group and realized that I do not want to become a member. One of the reasons of course was that they were bringing some group called Paramore, a band I’ve never heard of nor wish to know. I couldn’t relate and far from being depressed, I was relieved. My friend Brian goes batshit over Breaking Benjamin, Seether, Incubus and all these bands that I once called the sensitive side of asshole rock, but I couldn’t care less if a plane crash brought them down. And I even know the lead singer of Breaking Benjamin’s Dad. I knew I was leaving the rock scene when I realized that Jamaican rockers would rather take cues from Bush taking cues from Nirvana taking cues from The Pixies and when Gas Money, one of Jamaican rock’s brightest hopes played Alterbridge in concert, a move tantamount to playing Journey then calling yourself a bad motherfucker.

I’ve become the very curmudgeon I dreaded becoming when I was their age. Just as how my brother rued the day when Gangsta and Native tongues, usurped B-Boy era hip-hop, I find myself becoming a sarcastic Rolling Stone critic, who in my day bitched that Duran Duran was no Roxy Music. Nowadays I say the Maroon Five is no Duran Duran. It’s not just that I feel my music is better, but I’m at the age where I not only know, but also no longer have to prove it. If you grew up in the eighties than you’re the last for whom rock and roll was an active experience. Maybe it was because we got so little of it back then, but rock and roll was a dirty secret especially after high schools made us watch that Rock and Roll is devil music documentary, “Highway to Hell,” a program that rather casually suggested that every black created music form was actually hatched by the devil. Kids today may bristle at me saying that they are passive, but I’m not sure they know how to listen to an album anymore that I’m sure that only Radiohead knows how to make one. Nick Drake's Things Behind the Sun, reduces me to tears nearly every time I hear it but I don't know if music ever does that to young people. Everything I hated about myself before I heard David Bowie, the Smiths and The Cure became everything I loved after, but I don't know even though I really hope that a legion of misfit teenagers are having mini-epihanies in their bedrooms as I write this. But who are they listening to? I realize that this paragraph confirms that I’ve become exactly the person I hated talking to when I was young but that’s cool with me. I’ve even gone back to vinyl, but that’s another blog.

Two years back, the records I was most excited about where the Stooges and Funkadelic Reissues. This year it’s The Replacements and Mission of Burma. Only two weeks ago I saw X in concert and nearly wet myself. Love’s Forever Changes just came out (again) and both Madonna and Duran Duran recently dipped into the Timberland/Timberlake pool only to come out smelling funny. And old. Madonna is now old enough to have given birth to Justin Timberlake.

I saw this coming a mile off, way back when I was 19 and my friend Damon lent me Sergeant Pepper. I pretty much confirmed it when I realized that not only had I fallen out of love with hip-hop but that I was supposed to. Hip-hop is a music of perpetual adolescence and pretty much everybody I know who still swear by it are people who for want of a nicer term, refuse to grow up. Russell Simmons showing up at a formal dinner in trainers doesn’t say badass, it says immature. Even Dr. Dre knows that there are certain things that he simply cannot do anymore.

That’s not to say I don’t listen to contemporary music. I think Mastodon is the greatest band on the planet. The new Earth album can move both planets and bowels at the same time (a good thing). MIA and Santogold have made the world’s streets far more interesting and as soon as Beth Ditto gets her shit together, she will out-madge, Madonna without losing a single pound to do so. And Robyn’s back. But I’d rather think about 1984 when I first bought Purple Rain and played it so much that my parents could recite the lyrics. Or the first time I heard Pixies screaming Wave of Mutilation and started screaming too. Or the first time I heard Sweet Chile O’ Mine, part of it anyway, right after Hurricane Gilbert pulled a Hiroshima on us, with the band muttering Where do we go? Where do we go now? Or the first time I heard The Cult’s Love Removal Machine in a dance club. Or when the Cure pulled me under deep blue with Disintegration. Or when Steve got that shitty video of Ministry playing So What. Or the time that same Steve gave me a cassette of Fishbone on one side, Bad Brains on the other and changed my life. Or driving to The Wanderer with Steve (again? WTF!) in October 1991 when he first played me this little band that we loved instantly but didn’t think would go very far. Nirvana they were called. Or remembering where I was when Kurt died. Yeah, I’d rather look backwards than forward, but I’m now at the age where I’d rather gaze at what I never left behind than hold out for what’s coming. Some would like to wait and see, but I'd much rather see and wait. Otherwise I’d be the post 35 year old either playing or screaming at a rock concert, willfully ignoring that some of the people in the audience are my friend’s kids. I always thought that the 40 year old at the nightclub was the most pathetic person in the room. I’m just glad that I checked out before I became him. Youth is for the young after all, and Tom Waits is for me. Just look at him. Was there ever a time when he wasn’t old?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Abbot and Costello, Tom and Jerry, Sport and Politics

If nothing else, this year’s Olympics will not be boring. The torch relay has been both triumph and disaster in equal measure—but its in answering whose triumph and whose disaster that the question itself gets muddled. So as I write this, Gavin Newsom, perhaps America’s most liberal mayor has organized a security detail that would make a pre-unification East Berlin envious. This must be the first torch relay to have state and federal agencies patrolling the route, with an FBI agent specifically to guard Natalie Coughlin, the five-time Olympic medal swimmer. Visually at least, it will be exactly what it is, a Chinese Olympics: creativity in the midst of a harsh security wall to keep the people out, yet acting as if it’s for the people. Those who fear that the world is being remade in China’s image need look no further than of all places, San Francisco.

I hope the freaks come out in numbers. It’s been a curious time for the Chinese government, stunned and often hit off guard when protesters not only become vocal, but vocal without consequence. If you know nothing about the lives of writers, you may not think anybody is paying for this Olympics with their freedom, but take a look at PEN America’s website and you’ll see the parade of writers who have been detained and imprisoned since this Olympic campaign began in earnest, a crackdown that may not be a literary kristallnact, but is certainly as close to that allusion as one could expect. Many of these writers have not been locked up for any actual writing (yes, some people are still imprisoned for their words) but what they might write. It’s the Philip K. Dick present that the film, Minority Report mistakenly grasped as future. Future murderers may still have it free, but writers have been imprisoned what they might write for centuries now.

That’s because Science fiction has always been about the present. What has also always been with us is the marriage of sports and politics. The repeated calls on both sides of the Chinese political wall to keep politics out of sport smells of both moral hypocrisy and an ignorance of history. There has never been a time when sports have not been political. Anyone who thinks the 1936 Olympics wasn’t a political gesture has no grasp of politics or the Olympics. What about USA’s boycott of 1980? Mexico 68? The USSR’s boycott of 1984? Romania’s decision to ignore the 1984 boycott? Humanitarianism is itself an act of enormous political significance. What’s especially galling about the keep politics out of sport brigade is that they have no problem attaching political significance to an event post Olympics, such as taking some credit for Jesse Owens’ dazzling Olympics run, as if that played some part in the struggle for civil rights. Of far greater significance is that Owens had to race against horses to put food on the table and was charged with tax evasion.

Maybe you can afford to keep politics out of sport but we can’t. Too much is at stake, too many people are watching and too often, people do not change unless the world begins to see. A child abuser is less likely to abuse if nobody leaves him or her alone with child. So far, the Chinese government has tried the usual tactics—hide everybody from view before people start to miss their absence, but that did not work this time. Then there is the potential bloodbath of Tibet, carried about by a government not used to dissent and bewildered by being thrust on an international stage that they cannot control and having to justify their actions— even as they claim that they do not have to justify themselves to anybody. Suddenly, the idea of being true to the sport at the expense of politics has become as ridiculous as it always was, the last retort of politicians and businessmen with a stake in the outcome. By attending the opening and closing ceremonies, Gordon Brown and others are agreeing in public to go along with a sham, admiring the view from the ship’s deck and ignoring the horror of slaves below. They insult us all by remind us that this is ultimately about money and power, not the human spirit or the Olympic Ideal. That is as political an act as any protest.

What does it say about us that we are willing to put human rights on hold just so we can have something to watch on TV for two weeks? What do athletes say by deliberately blinkering themselves, ignoring what they are going into, as if it’s somehow nobler to represent some athletic ideal in a regime dedicated to crushing the human spirit? If you ignore what China is doing in Tibet aren’t you in some way responsible? Some people will support human rights in ‘spirit’ and yet see no moral dilemma in spending money at these games, money that may very well buy better weapons to do a better job on Tibet. When good people do nothing blood is on their hands.

I support these protests, I support free speech, I support Mia Farrow’s campaign and I support embarrassing people into change when nothing else will. You may think humiliating people into change does the opposite, but if you're reading this, chances are you're not the one suffering. You can stay on the sidelines or tell yourself that politics should not be in sports until it becomes a mantra, but if people die while we do nothing it’s partially our fault. I won’t be joining you for beers on your couch, thanks for asking. Because when the oppressors come for me, and one day they might, you’ll be the same person saying sorry man, I just want to watch the game.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Miss Jamaica Mulatto Factory

I’ll be the first to admit that a beauty contest is a pretty easy target. The bane of feminists, scholars, spunky girls, intelligent girls, hard achieving women, unpretty women and just about anybody aware that this is the 21st century, beauty contests have been around longer than them all and will be around presumably long after. That doesn’t grant them respect, but one does come away with a certain grudging admiration. It seems even foolish now to be appalled when a beauty queen conforms to stereotype—who expects a contestant to have a view on Marcus Garvey or Michel Foucault when the whole world needs to adopt a puppy? What beauty contests say about women is still an open and now tired debate, but what it says about race, particularly in a country like Jamaica is still up for grabs.

This is Facebook’s fault. Only this week somebody who shall remain nameless sent me a message, recruiting me on a campaign for (I can’t remember her name) to win Miss Jamaica. The winning Miss Jamaica would then represent the country at Miss World, where as you may not know ‘beauty’ comes ‘with a purpose.’ I took one look at the girl and remembered a remark I made in a review of Thomas Glave’s last book where I brought up the oh no he di-int specter of what I like to call Consensual Eugenics.

Consensual Eugenics. Post WW2, Nazis flocked incognito to the tropics; for anonymity to be sure, but you have to wonder if they had not marveled at what we’ve been doing for centuries in the Caribbean, without the help of a good old kristalnacht to spur us. The transmogrification from one race to another. Many white Jamaicans would be stunned, for instance to discover that they are actually black. This is neither new nor unique to Jamaica. Mr. Black man has sex with lighter black woman (or white woman if he hits a bonanza!) to produce brown child, or mulatto. Said brown child has sex with slightly browner woman (or whitey) to produce Quadroon. Said Quadroon has sex with other Quadroon (or whitey) to produce Octoroon. Said Octoroon, who can now pass, has sex with white woman to produce full free—er, white. This sounds like ancient history but black men and women are doing it right now or making plans in an office cubicle near you. I’ll never forget my shock when a former co-worker came back from the hospital blushing with pride that his bred a child that looked like his brown wife and not him. This from a graduate of a tertiary institution.

Consensual Eugenics however should not be mistaken for jungle fever. That is a matter of the heart or loins, both of which demand some form of heat. Nor is to be mistaken for genuine blind love. The least interesting thing about interracial couples is their race and they would be the first to tell you. But its the others, the ones who know what they are doing that bowl you over, mostly because sometimes I wonder if they have a point. We haven’t had a dark skin Miss Jamaica for some time now.

But aren’t light-skinned Negroes people too? Even a white Jamaican has a right to enter a beauty contest, even to win it, but the endless parade of different models of the same insipid mulatto female archetype has me wondering if these women are born at all, but engineered on some breeder assembly line hiding out in Vernam Field. Some may think my objection is racial. Some of these very women will quite proudly tell you that they are black, and our doubting them says far more about us that it does about them. The very distinction of “brown” says more about the person using the term than the person whom the term is being used. It’s not the race of these women that makes them so objectionable, but the blandness of them, the monolithic sameness of the brood that trots of 18 versions of the same model year after year. Lisa Hanna, a beauty queen of rare intelligence was a striking break from the norm (well sorta, being Indian...ish) but she has quickly become the exception that proves the rule, despite her being the last to actually win the Miss World crown. The very next year all contests went back to normal, popping another generic mulatta out the beauty poop chute, as if uptown high schools sold them by the bushel. It says something, though I’m not sure what, that the type of woman that won a beauty contest in 1979, looks absolutely no different from the type that won in 2007.

Then again, dumb beauty queens are one the great guilty pleasures of civilization. And the dim ones are far more preferable to the driven ones, frightening in their self-determination to win contests, dust out rivals, snag a politician as husband or breeder, and go to work in the biblical sense. Beauty contests even provide sorely needed temporary employment, after all, there are only so many flight attendants, receptionists and entertainment coordinator positions available in one small island and not every woman knows how to be a good beard. One wonders what happens to these women afterwards. Some go on to enter contest after contest, making hay while the jaw lines hold. But what about the others? I think the beauty queen mulatto factory rounds them all up at gunpoint, takes them to a ‘camp’ run by a leading cosmetics company and then shred them to pieces in a Garbage disposal. Then, ever environmentally conscious these women are recycled and reshaped into a brand new model. A new model same as the old model, mind you.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Five Songs I Must Have On My I-Pod

Geoffrey tagged me with this one. Strangely enough, it’s easier to write a 1500 word screed against homophobia. This would be the perfect time to get on my soapbox on how I-tunes and the I-pod have ruined the album experience. I just went back to vinyl—pretentious, I know, but you won't think so when you remember how accommodating vinyl could be. Just last month I listened to Tears for Fear's Song From the Big Chair, amazed at the stuff I forgave on LP that I would never tolerate on CD. But back to the topic. As I said this stumped me for a good while (OK 10 Minutes) until I realized that maybe the I-pod should tell her own story. I plugged the thing into I-tunes, searched under 'play count' and stumbled upon these, the five songs I play the most. Right now anyway. I eliminated those played under special circumstances, like jogging or the gym in favour of those played simply because I cannot bear to be apart from them too long (Sorry Justice, whose "Stress" I've played 33 times.)

1. "No, No, No," by Yeah Yeah Yeahs. (42 times)

I swear to God that I did not make this up. This must be one of those stylistic coincidences that makes even God go all goosepimply. Or maybe my I-pod has a wickeder sense of irony than I do. Coming from Yeah Yeah Yeah's bananas debut Fever To Tell, No No No attacked quiet-loud as if Smells like Teen Spirit's chorus was just a semi-forgotten after thought. And the dub coda at the end sent this most earthy of punk songs into the stratosphere of white-people ganja haze. I would quote lyrics, but when the chorus for one song goes uh huh/uh huh/ uh huh/uh huh-ow! and the other goes uh-uh/ awooowooo! lyrics are beside the point.

2."All I Need," by Radiohead (38 Times)

I'm into schadenfreud as much as the next person. So half of the joy of this song is knowing that Coldplay are right now stupefied with the task of trying to rip it off. All I Need must have them at a strange impasse —a band that more than any other, benefited from Radiohead's curious season of not wanting to be Radiohead anymore. But enough about them. I've remarked on this before, of Radiohead's stunning descent/rise into sheer loveliness, but this is a luminous wonder, startling even by their own stiff standards. It's even sexy, which is perhaps the greatest surprise of all. Like No No No, All I need shoots up in the end, but for them it's a not a dubwise no mans land but a glorious crescendo, like a carnival of bursting lights.

3."Emily," by Joanna Newsom (32 Times)

Let me tell you a story about Nick Drake. Years ago, Mystic Urchin, back when he was pretending to work at Island (ha!) gave me Nick Drake's compilation, Way To Blue. I had no idea who he was except for a review in an old issue of Spin and was expecting at the least something like Paul Weller. Way To Blue went into CD in my changer in 1993 and stayed there until 1997—and only because the laser went bad. I say this because Newsom is a similar spellbinder, whose acoustic beginnings hint barely at the universe of sound yet to come. Lazy critics call her medieval Bjork and there is some merit to that. But there is so much more as well. Emily is a 12-minute masterpiece that starts with gentle harp but ends in the thunderous full tilt of an orchestra. The lyrics itself are similarly arcane, expansive and not a little comic book geeky: "The meteoroid/is a stone that's devoid/of the fire/that brought it to thee/" Yes she said thee. It's that kind of song. And If you're stuck on a desert island you'll be glad for such flights of fancy.

4. “Spanish Joint,” by D’Angelo (28 Times)

What can I say—I’m as surprised as you are. This is not even my favourite D’Angelo song. But I remember skipping to it on the subway, thinking perhaps that a gentle latin-esque showstopper with horns was as far away from subway grit as one could get on 45th street. Or maybe it’s the aural equivalent of sunshine. I’m not sure. Either way, I play this an awful lot.

5. “Like Cockatoos,” by The Cure. (20 times—so far)

Had you asked me ten years ago which song do I play the most on my Walkman, Like Cockatoos would come out on top, despite fierce competition from Prince’s Crystal Ball (Which come to think of it makes more sense on a desert island since it takes near forever). Happily or sadly, technology hasn’t change my habits much still I still listen to this song way too much. I’m not sure why either. I would never call it the finest Cure song or even the finest song on that album (Kiss Me Kiss me Kiss Me), but Like cockatoos has this strange transfixing power over me, swirly, even psychedelic as if I had taken the very best drugs. Or maybe it’s the woozy bass. Or maybe it’s the way the strings come in at the end —I seem to have a thing for orchestral crescendos. Maybe some things should stay a mystery. Maybe If I find out why I listen to it so much I just might stop.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Invention of Homophobia.

Two days ago I was in the men’s locker room at this gym in St. Paul. Americans have totally different ideas when it comes to locker room exposure and being a quick adapter to change, I had no problem doing as the Romans do. In the shower amid several buck naked white men were two black guys laughing, joking and showering with bar soap. That they were the only ones showering in boxer shorts should have been a dead giveaway that they were Jamaican. There was also the accent of course, but in a city like St. Paul one gets so hungry for a Jamaican accent that an Antiguan could just as easily pass. But I knew beyond any doubt that they were Jamaican because they were doing one of the Jamdown man’s favourite pastimes: Convincing the world that he’s straight.

Yeah man when me fuck 'ar she jus' awwww and ohhhh and eeeeeh and IEEE-I-I-I-! said stud number one. Not to be outdone, stud number two went on about how even as he was knee deep in pussy, felt a burning sensation and had to go to the doctor because the girl gave him the clap. Of course he punished her with another good and proper screwing. Leave it to people like us to assume that the only way to get rid of a sexually transmitted disease is to fuck it out. With showers spraying, other men talking and loud music playing over the speakers it would have been hard to hear anybody, but those two came out loud and clear. As was something else not said but made plain. WE fuck pussy you faggots, so stay away from us.

Jamaica’s homophobia is so acute, so unlike gay-hate anywhere else that it would have been funny were it not for the odd murder or lynching. It seethes in the rumours of the powerless about the powerful, but it also explodes far too frequently with a brutality that begs for the reintroduction of terms not seen since before political correctness: blood lust and savagery; with murder gangs operating like a Klu Klux Klan fighting for the right to preserve the unfucked anus. If you were to look for corresponding models one would have to go to the most repressive of Middle Eastern states to find a parallel. Last week, after Jamaica cop Michael Hayden’s very brave and very public coming out, death threats started flying and Hayden, who at one point seemed ready to take the hit that the rest of the community dodged, finally realized that he was no match for countrywide hatred and the blind eye of authority.

What’s at the crux of such bigotry? Homophobia’s most frequent victims aren’t necessarily homosexuals either, but anyone who in voice, manner or even profession deviates from a relentless maintained masculine archetype. Our homophobia can be so extreme that a man who has only one woman is suspect. And there in lies the subtext, that our Homophobia is not really homophobia at all but a crisis in manliness.

Truth be told, we produce many males but our country hasn’t really produced a man yet. How can we, with so many still fatherless? In an environment consistently robbed of a father figure, we allow manliness to be defined by other things, music for one, where heterosexuality is dragged to such ridiculous extremes that one wonder how these men’s penises don’t fall off from overuse. Our homophobia, chauvinism and promiscuity all come from the same place, that puzzling unanswered question of what it means to be male. We don’t have fathers to answer our questions so we take lessons from Bounty Killer.

It’s not gayness that's in crisis but straightness. Heterosexuality is relentlessly policed day after day because what was straight today may be gay tomorrow. The straight identity perceives itself as so under threat that it needs to be reinforced every day by chauvinism and promiscuity. So infamous Don-Man, Zeeks, in response to assertions that he was gay, provided his many bastard children as proof that he only bangs the ladies. Not long ago, Bounty Killer, never one to hide his hate, found himself on the defensive for appearing in a No Doubt video where the frequently naked drummer got naked again. This of course took homophobia into the realm of the ridiculous, but nonetheless it was a controversy that raged on for weeks. Only a few years back Beenie Man nearly had his hetero pass revoked because of poor grammar. “How can I make love to a fella/ In a rush? Pass me the keys…” was looked upon by some as a confession of love sessions with the dudes until English teachers everywhere reminded everyone the difference between a comma and a fullstop. All this despite the song having a roll call of conquests matched only by the most virile rabbit.

In this heterosexual crisis women are as much a threat. So even now despite the fact that women are more educated than men, most men (and quite a few women) work towards the day when the woman doesn’t “have” to work, because as we all know women couldn’t possibly enjoy a career. But more than that, the capable woman challenges the identity and place of the man, leaving him with nothing more than phallic certainty. So right along with the kill batty-boy tune, is the Gal in a bungle tune. Boasts of sexual prowess is nothing new to music and is certainly not endemic to any one culture, but it’s the nature of ours, the depersonalizing, the grouping of women like cattle or spare parts, the violent ‘tear it out wide and kill it with stab’ imagery that makes ours special. With it lies implicit the fight to be the man that nobody has defined the Jamaican male to be. The homosexual, or rather the effeminate man of course confounds this.

Homophobia also rages because good people do nothing. The church, never shy to fan a homophobia flame when it needs to get fornicators to go to church, nonetheless turns a blind eye to acts of violence, fearing one supposes that support would mean consent. This is understandable of course, but it is also backward logic which has no place in the 21st century. One cannot turn a blind eye when people who aren’t the least bit religious, trot out the bible excuse; fornicators calling sodomites sinners as if they aren’t all going to the same hell—if you believe in such a thing. Homosexuality is a sin, according the wildly corrupted King James Bible that I read, but then it also calls for the death of all who eat shellfish, which raises some interesting questions about Crab Night.

Such hatred in unacceptable in any place that claims to be a member of western civilization. Annie Paul is right about foreigners coming into a country to condemn their atrocities when they are in truth redefining cultural superiority in another effort to show how better than us they are. But she is also right that this does not let hatred off the hook. Nor does it hide that we are on the verge of becoming an international concern and a genuine human rights crisis. I for one have very little tolerance for homophobes. If that person is you, feel free to stay away from my blog. Come to think of it, you can fuck right off.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Obama Question We're Afraid to Ask

It took the media long enough. Last friday I was looking at my screen saver, a program that flashes recent news headlines and there it appeared: a headline that made me almost fall out of my chair. Time magazine had finally gone there—asked the unaskable. Or rather they raised the fact that the question was being asked. The often thought but never uttered question. We asked it of Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell, we've even enteratained it about Condoleeza Rice. The one question about Obama that dares not speak its name in polite public discourse. If you're black you know what I'm talking about, even if you wouldn't write a blog about it. If you're white, you probably know that we're asking the question, but what you don't know is that we've been asking it from two years ago. And not just about Obama, but Harold Ford as well.

How long will it be before they try to kill him?

There. I've said it. It's been said.

And if you're black and have never thought of this question you're lying. Martin Luther King was to many Americans too much of an Icarus waiting to happen. In hindsight, the only thing shocking about his assassination was how inevitable it now seems; how likely—as if the American extremist element, like the Taliban or Al Qaeda would stomach much longer a black man impacting popular consciousness. Obama, on paper at least stands for something even more outrageous, a possibility, and a real one that someday is today and we may have really overcome. If that's a fairy tale for many blacks, it's downright heresy for some whites, white who are so happy that they can remedy that situation with a steady aim and quick trip to Walmart.

Can we discuss this in the open? Our very real fear that Obama, even if he wins will certainly not be permitted to win, unless he already has a full body kevlar suit? Not insignificant is the fact that Obama was given full secret service security since May 3, the earliest ever given to a presidential candidate. In fact the size of his security comes close to that of an actual president. That notwithstanding, haven't we been here before? Swayed by the hope of change or at least newness only to have it shot in the head from a Texas roof or in the middle of a hotel ballroom, a one note act that leads back to the Status Quo. Ask someone who was a teenager when Kennedy was shot and listen for the silences in his answer; the sigh that never stops, the sense that something truly immense was lost that day and lost in an instant, even if they cannot articulate what it was.

I think it was hope in its purest form. Hope at its best makes no sense. Like faith, it is evidence of things unseen, which is why it can be fearful and exhilarating at once. Hope is not quantifiable, which is why a Hilary Clinton neither understands it nor takes it seriously. Will the type of person who still thinks Bush was right about Iraq sit by while America votes for a candidate named Barrack Hussein Obama?

It's not that Obama threatens to be another MLK. That tactic didn't work for Jesse Jackson. It far worse than that. It's that he threatens to be another JFK. It's stunning to hear people talk about a man in a way that you can only see in newsreels of 1962. Barrack Obama is without question the finest public speaker running for office since Kennedy. Barrack and Michelle are certainly the most glamorous couple since Jack and Jackie, and Michelle has made it quite clear that she's nobody's fool. An Obama white house would be an era not seen since the early sixties when daring to dream must have felt like embracing a secret taboo, something that you had to take on with a poker face, not to reveal how much you heart was dancing at the sheer prospect of newness. Freshness.

Clinton, the poor man's Jack saw this of course and patronized the man for 'giving a good speech.' That's cute-speak for, 'he certainly knows how to inspire,' something that Hilary Clinton could never do, even with written instructions. Are we ready for this? A president who with one speech can make you work harder, go farther and do more? A president that encourages you to own yourself and take charge of your own future? A president so new in spirit at least that he'll most like piss off republicans and democrats? A president who might just think twice before taking the easy road of partisan politics?

Nope, I didn't think so either. Every RFK gets the Sirhan Sirhan he doesn't deserve. And even if you've never said it, you've thought about it. We'd like to think this is a new America and things like that will never happen again, but I remember not long ago seeing a photo of a lynching on display at America's Black Holocaust Museum in Wisconsin. Same as usual— the black human body desecrated and transfigured into something animal, like a goat being strung up to be butchered. Lynching photos have an awful uniformity, the neck squeezed like a tied balloon and the shoulders sunk low as if both blades were broken. But as horrifying as the picture was, it was also reassuring because of our association of lynching with the past.

Reassuring at least until you looked at his feet and saw brand new Converse sneakers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Book Number 2: Pride and Prejudice

I have not yet seen the film version of Atonement. I don’t really plan to, largely because of what the director did with Pride and Prejudice a few years back. Granted, after a TV miniseries so brilliant that there were moments that stood neck and neck with the original novel, one could argue that the only way left to go was down. The film wasn’t a nadir exactly, but it left one wondering why the director killed plausibility by turning Elizabeth into a babe, and Darcy into Heathcliff. But it made me read the novel again and I’m always looking for reasons to re-read Pride and Prejudice. Fine, I will give that Emma is her most perfectly realized novel, Mansfield Park her most public, Sense and Sensibility, her wittiest and Northanger Abbey her kinkiest. But Pride and Prejudice still resonates the most with me because each time I open the book, it’s a different novel.

This time I found myself coming into a new understanding, if not total affection for the least likeable characters, largely because of something that was always present in the novel but that I had not noticed before. Whatever your opinion of the shrieking harpy, Mrs. Bennett, the money hungry yet intellectually bankrupt, Mr. Collins, the sadly cynical best friend Charlotte or the imperial Lady Catherine de Bourgh, they all possess one thing lost on the far more appealing characters. They are the only characters thoroughly aware of the era in which they are living. The closest any main character comes to such wisdom is rude-phase not romantic-phase Darcy.

It turns that even those of us who praise Jane Austen profusely still have loads to learn. For a novel so steadfast in the belief in having it all, great love and loads of money (hello, chick flick) The novel is also blessed with a deep understanding of the real machinations of society, and the economics of love, marriage and sex, so much so that these characters serve to remind us that for the rest of the world things are not so simple, if ever they were.

Take for instance Mrs. Bennett. Very early on in the novel, Austen makes a striking character assessment of her, a technique that would have been condemned in 20th century fiction as “telling.”

Mr. Bennett was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

No reader in the 19th century would have dismissed Mrs. Bennett as shallow and callous from that sentence, in fact they would have congratulated her for being the only Bennett with her head on straight. The fact is this was a woman saddled with five daughters. Think about that for a second; the paragraph will still be here when you get back. Five daughters, two of which were nigh passing the age of desirability. What’s more, Mr. Collins, the sanctimonious kiss-ass who stood to inherit their estate had made no bones about leaving them to starve should none of the sisters marry him. You can congratulate your smug self that Mr. Bennett so wittily told Elizabeth not to marry Collins, but he had also condemned five women to a life of the destitute and seemed to be quite pleased with himself about the matter. Mrs. Bennett has every right to shriek and scream; the man had in a way destroyed his own children. Mrs. Bennett is not dead set on a wedding because he enjoys wedding cake. She’s thinking about the survival of her children, something Mr. Bennett doesn’t pay much attention to until his loosely run house allows one of his daughters to cut loose.

The same is true for Mr. Collins, reptilian as he may be. A man lucky enough to be blessed with inheritance is not about to squander it taking care of five spinsters, none of whom plans to give him any hand in marriage (or sex if you want to get post modern) in the bargain. Charlotte disappoints Elizabeth when she marries Collins and seems to get her punishment with a life of unhappiness, but again credit Austen with some sense and sensibility. She neither condemns nor condones the marriage, but does make it clear that for a plain, poor woman like Charlotte a fate like hers was an extremely lucky one. Had Austen written a novel that had put forth the Elizabeth-Darcy model as the only legitimate male female relationship, it would have joined all the other bodice rippers of the time that have been forgotten. But Austen has always been keenly up to date on her own society. Something she shared, not in the romantic ideals of her great characters but in the cold practicality of her minor ones, the ones who served to remind us that while love sure is grand, even in the 19th century, it’s all about the bling.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Whatever Happened to Dionne Farris?

Maybe it was only a feeding frenzy after all. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Anytime an artist sidesteps formula and hits upon a winner along comes the deluge, the signing shitstorm that starts off promising but ends up with diminished returns, Shabba Ranks leading to Snow, Pearl Jam leading to effluvia like Creed. But this movement was something else. I didn’t believe it myself. Back in the mid nineties you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a brilliant black female musician.

The sheer number was staggering: Ambersunshower, Carleen Anderson, Jhelisa, Davina, Amil Larrieux, Sha-Key, 99, Meshell NdegeOcello, DK Dyson, Nicole Renee, Cherokee, Julie Dexter, Erykah Badu, Ndambi, Angel, Joi, Joi Cardwell, Janice Robinson, Skin, Res, Sandra St.Victor, N’Dea Davenport, Jazzyfatnastees, Kira, Des’Ree, D-Influence and Caron Wheeler. Neneh Cherry had just released Homebrew, a stunning new direction for hip-hop that showed you could be a blues-heavy world-wise funky mother of two and still wear no panties if you wish. This was the glory days of Vibe magazine under Jonathan Van Meter, where every week they seemed to dig up brand new funky thing. Like the so-called black wave of film directors (remember that NY times cover?) this wave of unclassifiable black women talked like a revolution, artists who were neither divas nor garden tools and who weren’t afraid of taking their minds to the dance floor. Dionne Farris in particular was championed by the magazine. Late of critical darlings Arrested Development and ready to take on the planet, she had even a better album than her former group.

But ten years later, Beyonce and dark-side-of-the-force clone Rihanna is as good a R&B gets. Missy Elliot, our last dependable funk-freak has become predictable, Meshell has left R&B for jazz wankery, and everybody has all but disappeared. Worse the standard for intelligent black pop has lowered considerably, excusing the hippy-dippiness of Jill Scott, the abysmal lyrics of Alicia Keys and the overbearing sentimentality of India. Arie, a woman whose lifetime channel wisdom is unleavened only by her considerable hubris.

But back then, when Dionne Farris slayed us with her first single I Know, we knew not only that revolution was coming but that it was going to start in the bedroom first. Her album, Wild Seed, Wild Flower was The Love Below of its time, with a little Prince, a little Betty Davis and a little Bill withers thrown in for good measure. Hot Southern soul that wasn’t afraid to rock out, as she did on Passion. Hell, she became the second woman (Neneh was the first) to take a Lenny Kravitz sample and come up with a better song, her blistering Stop To Think. And if that wasn’t enough she snatched her own hit single back, stripped I Know to its acoustic core and let it loose in the Mississippi Delta. Wild Seed, Wildflower was a near perfect album, inexplicable as it was irresistible. Farris and black female artists in general seemed on the verge of making a major statement. Then she disappeared. Fourteen years later “I’m not my hair” is as profound as some black women get. What happened?

And attack of the black, that’s what.

Not long after Wild Seed, Wild Flower, Farris, along with co-writer Van Hunt (criminally underrated, but that’s another blog) contributed a song to the Love Jones soundtrack, Hopeless, a single whose fortune was anything but. The record became an R&B smash. Still warm and gorgeous now nearly ten years since it first came out Hopeless also sealed Dionne Farris’s fate. Suddenly the powers that were sought to make an R&B diva out of her. Give us more of this they “asked.” And throw in some ghetto love, baby mama drama, some tracks we can play on BET Midnight Love, and something with a big ole space so we put Biggie Smalls smack in the middle of it. By the way, ditch the guitar, only lesbians play guitar. Okay maybe they didn’t say any of that. Instead they did much worse. Farris refused to compromise and asked to be let out of her contract. She went home, raised her kids, picked up carpentry and vanished. Some of her fans even believed she was dead.

Synchronicity can be a bitch, of course, for it seems a similar fate happened to the whole wave of black women who rose up around the same time. Nicole Renee is still MIA, presumably without a record deal, a shame for a woman who sounded like Prince and looked like Sheila E. Joi got picked up and ditched again, despite committing no sin other than making the female Stankonia. Twice. Meshell traded pop for jazz, but confused elliptical with boring. Sandra St. Victor took so long to rise that her music suffered from datedness. The list goes on and it only gets more depressing. Then you have the tragic case of diminished returns. Women like Alicia Keys, Arie and Scott being praised not for what they are (clich├ęd musicians and terrible lyricists) but what they're not, another round of producer controlled bimbos. Ironically, Janet Jackson for all her flaws has still delivered more gut truths than all these "artistes" combined. Not one of these women or anybody else in neo-soul for that matter has contributed a single new idea to music. Erykah Badu has, but she's a hip-hop artist who's been fooling herself.

Thankfully that’s not the final story. Erykah Badu’s “Healer” has sparked an online sensation not seen since, well “On and On” and word is her new album, New Amerykah, is the masterpiece she almost made with Worldwide Underground (criminally underrated, but that’s another blog). Best of all, Dionne Farris is finally back with a new album this year. The title? Signs of Life.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Book Number 1: The Brief Life Of Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz should hire me as his publicist. People left my forum at AWP either convinced or not a little disturbed by my proclaiming that the Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao may very well be the first true twenty-first century novel. It's not the first novel to celebrate its own post modern geekiness or to revel in its polyglot intensity ( Gautam Malkani's Londonstani achieved pretty much the same thing), but it is certainly the first novel in decades to point to a direction that fiction from the diaspora can and maybe should go. I wrote a humongous article on this already for the Caribbean Review of books and have no desire to repeat myself, but I really think that Diaz found a way to back flip to the past, leap frog into the future with only passing references to the present. And whenever that happened the present in usually what's being said on the street right now, not a liberal pseudo-hip re-imagining of ghetto speak, but real urban language.

And when the novel isn't talking loudly (which is 80% of the time) it literally sings. Or raps. Or beatboxes. Or toasts. Or spits wicked Spanglish without translation. It took twenty two years for English speaking people to give us the first true twentieth century novel, but now that we have a candidate a mere eight years in, could literature's prospects be finally looking up?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Send in Negro Number Two

Whether you support Hilary Clinton or not (and I’m not a citizen so ultimately, my opinion doesn’t count) you have to hand it to her for not yet pulling from the Clinton Bag of dirty campaign tricks. I’ve been watching them from the late 80’s when I minored in American politics and even from then, the Clintons (and they are team, not one) always had a knack for ruthlessness that would floor the late Lee Atwater. One reason why they could win races that other democrats could not was they knew how to out-fox Republicans. None of this would make them bad presidents of course; Johnson who’s been much bandied about this week was, until Vietnam one of the most effective presidents in history, in spite and because of his very callousness. But the Clintons have been abnormally reticent with this campaign, quick to clarify themselves whenever a comment gets out of hand, like lawyers who lobby a comment only to withdraw it later after the damage has been done.

But the Clintons are in no position to act dirty. Because everybody expects them to make one, a dirty play would stink of inevitability. The muck on them, from Whitewater to Mark Rich is just too well known to risk being brought up now, especially with the Republicans all but guaranteed to do so later. So with her hands tied, Hilary does the next best thing: let other people do the nasty for her. The first was Bill Clinton, still curiously popular among black voters even though nobody I asked can tell me exactly what he’s done for them other than to launch his book at a Harlem bookstore. You may not like the quality of the people he chose or their morality, but even Dubya had a more racially and ethnically diverse cabinet than any democrat in history. Bill Clinton, who now finds himself backpedaling from his “fairy tale” remark about Obama still chooses to reference only half of Obama’s comments to Meet the Press despite the full comment being a matter of public record. Then Hilary makes the statement about it taking a president to make civil rights happen. There is no question that the president signs papers to make laws, but that’s like saying the Allies didn’t win World War Two until Churchill and FDR signed the treaty. It was such a curious thing to say. Regardless of her motives, surely someone should have told her that black people bristle whenever white people fall into the habit of taking the credit for making black lives better. You’d think it was white people who marched in the Montgomery bus boycott.

Yet the worst was her “Nigger Number two: Electric Boogaloo” act on Sunday, with Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) coming out to support her. We’ve seen this before of course. When you can’t attack Negro number one, because you’re well, white, send in Negro number two to do the job. This is nothing new; Fox news does it every week. Clarence Thomas can always be counted on for the Uncle Tom Perspective, and Johnson who never met a black community he couldn’t exploit is now the latest. Hilary can’t refer to Obama’s past drug use, but Johnson can so of course he did, in a ridiculous attempt to be subtle—this from the man behind the network that made the malevolent 50 Cent a star and is partly the reason why your 9 year old daughter dances like a slut. And what was with him comparing the Obama campaign to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” saying “this is not the movies Sidney, this is real?”

Far as I know Poitier has always been a man of dignity and grace that has never said a mean thing about Johnson. Poitier, was an exemplary fighter for civil rights on and off-screen who took the hit for people like Johnson. Poitier has never made a cent off the materialistic, self-destructive patterns of black youth but Johnson is counting his cash as we speak. And whatever you may think of the movie now, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was a groundbreaker of seismic proportions when it came out. The strangest thing about this is that Johnson is lashing out at a comment that was never made. Obama is just about the only person who has NOT said anything about Hilary’s civil rights statement, yet Johnson is attacking him as if he had, and the Clintons seem to not be in a rush to correct him. This is what’s truly offensive. The Clintons letting their pet coon yap, yap, yap about all the underhanded things they cannot say themselves.

And there is something far more insidious at work here. There are many black americans who simply cannot and will not get over their "blackness"—black as oppressed minority; victim spoiling for a fight. Many who are so obsessed with overcoming that they refuse to believe that we've already overcome much. Black warriors who spent so much time in the trenches that even if the war were over they'd never know. Call it Negro Shell-Shock. It takes little to spark it (the killing of any black male will do, good or evil makes no difference)and once it flames up, in comes his best friend, not the progressive black but the white liberal ally who learned all the lines to "We shall overcome." This is the topic that dares not speak its name in politics. The fact that Obama, by moving beyond race has become dangerous to both white and black politicians. By distancing himself from the ghetto of racial politics, Obama becomes something unprecedented: a black candidate with genuine presidential potential (Harold Ford tried something similar but was shot down by a very effective "nigger messin around with pure white flesh" ad campaign). It makes sense that the Clintons, in their underhanded way would drag him back into the race argument, because if they can turn him back into a "black" politician then he becomes exactly the kind of politician that undecided whites do not trust, and well meaning whites can then say "we like him but he's unelectable." The terrible precision of the Clinton masterstroke is that she does not have to get in the fray herself: there are scores of black leaders perfectly willing to take him on for her. Blacks who define blackness by how loud you can scream victim. Blacks who realize that if the struggle really is nearly over, they will have nothing to do. Blacks who make you wonder if Joe Biden didn't have a point after all. Because if it's one thing people like Johnson and Former Mayor Andrew Young hate more than whites who stand in the way of the black dream are blacks who are already living it.

I’m not sure if Johnson has the right to speak of anything concerning the uplifting of black people. Maybe I should just chill out and watch some late night TV on BET or take a trip to the Caribbean where I can watch the natives being fleeced out of their money by one Johnson’s many gambling schemes. Where I stand on Obama doesn’t matter because I don’t have a vote. But he seems more and more presidential every day. The man gets attacked for making people dream because supposedly it takes bureaucrats to make government work. This is a typically stupid comment from people who are clearly not leaders. If you really believe that experience as a bureaucrat (or a first lady) really makes you a better leader, you’re probably not a very good one. And if you really believe Hilary is in a better position to win over a republican opponent than Obama, you’re underestimating the intensity of Hilary-Hate. Some people, like Johnson (and Bill Clinton) chastise Obama on his ability to give a good speech. And here I thought leaders were supposed to inspire people, but then again, maybe Johnson and Clinton were the ones shouting “Get to the point,” when Martin Luther King was telling us about this wonderful dream he had. The Clintons definitely need to pick better a class of negro (Andrew Young's comments were appalling and backward). They made a blunder seeking Johnson’s endorsement and the blunder happened even before that Negro put his foot in his mouth.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Rocking My World, Working My Nerves Part 2

The Most Disappointing records of 2007.

I was all set to write about the year’s worst music. And while that would have been a lot of fun (what’s a Daughtry anyway, some fetish club apparatus?), it would also have necessitated actually buying these records and I’d rather corrupt minors than spend money on anybody connected to American Idol. Then there are artists like Smashing Pumpkins who make writing a “worst of” list way too easy. We should have known when he titled his solo album TheFutureEmbrace, but how could we have anticipated such jaw dropping hubris as to name one’s album Zeitgeist? Why that’s like calling an album Number One Record (which went so swimmingly for Big Star), or giving your baby Cool Muthafucka as a middle name. Too, too easy. Instead here are 2007’s most disappointing albums. None of them are outright bad, a few even occasionally good, but all are from artists that we expect better.

Interpol: Our Love To Admire
With Our Love to Admire, Interpol joins a club diverse enough to include by Sting, Sizzla, Cypress Hill, Culture Club and nearly ever rapper since 1994 not named Outkast. People you only need one album from. Needless to say, that album was not Our Love to Admire. It’s near impossible to gauge the impact of Interpol’s first album, Turn Out The Bright Lights, one of few records of the period whose majesty, unlike the Strokes’ existed more than on paper. Sure there was the grand doom of Joy Division, but there was also a twitchy nervousness all their own, a bizarre lyrical grace and a sound that wasn’t post-punk so much as post-nu-metal/hip-hop. But they lost it by their second album, one of those records that nobody admits to disliking but nobody has played more than twice. Three albums in, Interpol had become as much a formula as a hit hatched from the Matrix (Avril Lavigne) and you’re not so much dismayed as tired, like a woman realizing that her lover is nothing but a missionary man after all.

Common: Finding Forever
Given that Common has flaked on us before, I thought Kanye West would have had better instincts than to leave him with too much to do. Give a “conscious” rapper a free hand and he’ll lay another Electric Circus on you, but Common, for all his hippie tendencies is no Ritchie Havens. And yet that he would flake out into a directionless freak surprises no one. The real disappointment here is West, who we had counted on to reign things in, not only by forcing lyrical discipline but with a sharper sense of beats and hits, unlike the tired Soulquarian excesses that stopped albums such as Like Water For Chocolate dead after four songs. Common once called himself Chi-town’s Nas as a boast, but the title is more apt that he could have hoped. Several albums in neither has delivered the mature masterpiece we’ve been waiting on. Or put another way, while both have given us a War, (Resurrection, Illmatic) neither is going to give us a Joshua Tree any time soon. Also, Common, buddy, you really need to get some white friends before you judge a whole social group again. You used to do that with gays and that wasn’t very intelligent either.

Zap Mama: Supermoon
With MIA running all over the world, crashing into beats and rhymes and gunshots while trying to catch back episodes of lost, and Tinariwen spinning stunningly electric webs of guitar riffs across the deserts to the streets of Manhattan and Paris, who needs Zap Mama? Marie Dauline had been at the forefront of a rather curious experiment for some time now (not alone, Angelique Kidjo and Baaba Maal have been making the same trip). A seemingly deliberate attempt to get more and more generic with each record, to dissolve into pop sounds so increasingly light and fluffy that one day she would simply vanish. Zap mama was never very deep, but with Supermoon, the tired mysticism and stale neosoul makes one reach nostalgic for the days of Seven, when Dauline seemed ready to drop the masterpiece that Neneh Cherry never got to make. If you want your mind blown get The Very Best of Ethiopiques. If you have carpet to clean, however and need some mood music, you could do worse.

RJD2: The Third Hand
Time now for a pact between us. The next time a DJ shadow shows up in our midst, let us all, for his sake ignore him. Stunned by the deification he got in the late 90’s for Endtroducing, Shadow imploded on himself, releasing records that polarized his audience as if he was trying anything to ditch them fast. Or maybe he simply got tired of being saddled with the job of reinventing hip-hop. Either way, missing Shadow got a lot easier when RJD2 dropped the immortal Deadringer on us in 2002, perhaps the definitive post 9/11 hip-hop record. Here was a mostly instrumental album that had all the power and soul of 88 hip-hop and yet was no nostalgia trip. And "The Horror" remains the most thrilling four minutes of the past seven years. But alas RJD2 crumbled under the weight of expectation too; making the Moby mistake of thinking he was as interesting as his music. Part of the problem may be that he thinks he’s too smart for this (he’ll never live down the “hip-hop is moron music” line even if he’s...er...right), but a bigger problem may be that now that he’s ditched sampled voices for his own, he has not yet realized (and neither has Moby) that he has nothing interesting to say.

Patti Smith: Twelve
When Patti Smith took on Van Morrison’s Gloria, one of the pinnacle moments of straight male lust, in 1975, she slashed and burned it with guitar and piano, changed none of the gender pronouns and bookended it with the devastating, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Smith didn’t just steal the song; she kidnapped and corrupted it, regressed it to a fetus then engineered it back into her own poetic proto-punk image. Given her awesome powers for reinterpretation one would have expected Twelve to be a slam-dunk, or merely a masterpiece. Instead Twelve is one of the most boring covers album in years, a record so leaden it makes one reconsider Bowie’s Pin-Ups as an underrated masterpiece. Why did it all go so wrong? For one Smith, who once had no problem violating a song to save it, is now too respectful of the material to add anything new. So Gimme Shelter, where she ditched the Merry Clayton back-up but put nothing in its place sounded an awful lot like karaoke. Also, for such a punk goddess, when did Smith get so frustratingly classic rock? Check out Siouzie’s Mantaray or Debbie Harry’s Necessary Evil instead.

Bjork: Volta
It’s too easy to bring MIA into a Bjork conversation these days so let me say it all by inference. But even without any queen is the dead, long live the queen rhetoric, Volta was a hugely problematic and frustrating record, stunning precisely because the failure seemed so inevitable. Bjork, for all her elfiness never lost touch with the club or the street before, but somewhere between going from Matthew Barney’s lover to his muse she became alternative’s Stevie Nicks, insulated by rock and roll celebrity and privilege and losing her pop-touch. Volta is a series of over-ambitious misfires—a mess that actually sounds messy—as if finally caught in her own sonic barrage, Bjork herself got shot down. This was the album where Bjork became a Bjork imitator and in that crowded field, way to many (Ellen Alien, The Knife, Roisin Murphy, Goldfrapp) do it better.

Prince: Planet Earth
I know some of you are still hoping that his royal midgetness would go back to the days when he listened to Joni Mitchell and Led Zeppelin, because like Bowie, Prince does his best when he listens to the best (or at least somebody other than himself or who he’s producing). Get over it, people. Prince is the now the kind of guy that listens to Sheryl Crow and Gwen Stefani and appears on American Idol. Planet Earth was hailed by some, dissed by others, and while the album is neither his worst nor best, it is a brand new thing for Prince: The best that he can do.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Question Of The Day

Why is it that non-white prose is always called lyrical? (Unless it's from the Irish, but they are black people in denial anyway.) Am I the only person who feels dismissed by a word whenever his work is described as such?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Rocking My World, Working My Nerves

The best and worst of 2007 Music

1. MIA

If Rappers and Dancehall deejays were bemused by MIA’s Arular, they were downright bewildered by Kala. As well they should be: the future of street beats has announced herself, and that street isn’t in the Bronx or West Kingston, but Sao Paulo and Bangalore. Not for nothing did some point to the Timbaland track as their favourite—the worst and the safest song on the album. But nothing else was safe on Kala, musically or lyrically. Sure the kids are playing some didge “Mango Pickle Down River,” but by “Paper Planes” They’ve already riddled you with bullets and are now taking your money. With its increasingly proggy ambitions, hip-hop has been itching for a punk rock for some time now, so you know it has arrived when the two warring movements both hate it. Backpackers will never get past her lack of flow and chart watchers will never get past her lack of hits. But “Bird Flu”, with its massive talking drums, quasi 808’s, ostrich squawks and chirpy little girls mispronouncing her name is a hit. The transmogrified beat of Global kids who “watch Lost on cable” and answer hip-hop without giving a shit if the parent just doesn’t understand. This is the sound of the world right now and if you’re still bitching about her sing-songy voice, dirty beats or even the Bam-ba-ba-lam-ba-ba-lam-ba-ba- lam-bam chorus of “Come Around”, then you’re probably not aware that music has moved on without you.

2. Radiohead

Three months after I downloaded this I’m still clutching my headphones, out of breath and gasping in wonder. Of course Radiohead can do beautiful, that’s a surprise to no one, but who could have guessed at In/Rainbow’s unabashed loveliness? It’s shocking to hear them reclaim their humanity after three brilliant albums that nonetheless left us cold. Coming after Hail to the Thief, the first 10 seconds of “15 Step” hurts. But the keyboard glitches fade as soon as you realize that that’s Colin Greenwood on bass and good old Phil Selway (surely rock’s most underrated drummer) on the kit and they have never sounded better. In/Rainbows is unquestionably Radiohead’s warmest album even if lyrically Yorke is still hedging his bets on “All I Need.” And “Bodysnatchers” is the kind of blistering hard rock blast that the band tosses off every now and then to remind all comers that while they can do you, you could never do them. I haven’t been left so staggered by a record since REM’s Out Of Time. Bands like Coldplay existed solely because of the void Radiohead left, but now that the band has come back, with the natural ease of a conqueror I might add, maybe Chris Martin should focus on being a househusband from now on.

3. Justice

Not since Armand Van Helden dropped the pum-pum crazy “Koochi” on gay clubs back in ‘99 has a record been so devisive as Justice’s Cross. Maybe because, their massive sound, all Van Halen drums, mid range madness and actual riffs had many screaming rockism, and not in a good way. But Justice is not afraid of biting the hands that feed them beats, showing major love for Michael Jackson on the year’s best single (D.A.N.C.E) but also slipping “neither black nor white” in the chorus which could be taken several ways, none flattering to our favourite plastic surgery disaster. Like sonic daddies Daft Punk, and Cassius, Justice knows that all rock and roll is essentially dance music. And Disco set to eleven can out-stomp Metallica.

4. Feist
The Reminder

It always sucks when your one and only starts seeing other people, worse when it was the other people that made the first move. So I’m torn between joy at Feist’s deserved success and dismay that the idiot who bought Sheryl Crow at Starbucks now hums 1234 whenever he’s bitching for a caffeine hit. I feel it all too, my secret slipping away, destined to the same fate of former best private crush Nick Drake. Maybe it will do me good to remember that what draws the buckster also drew the hipster: stellar melodies, a refreshing genuineness and sincerity, a knack for interpretation not seen since Dusty Springfield, and that sometimes trebly, sometimes soaring, always astonishing voice.

5. Spoon
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

I’ve been convinced that Spoon was America’s finest band for some time now, but now I have gone from surety to religious mania. Never before has a band made such a huge sound from such few ingredients. On Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, you can literally feel the empty spaces between the words and notes. “The Ghost of You Lingers” bursts in with an insistent piano melody but at the very moment when every other band would have broken into a hard rock stomp, Spoon keeps banging away at the keyboards, withholding the climax you’ve been itching for until the terseness through repetition becomes almost unbearable. And when the drums do come, in the super slinky soul strut, “Don’t You Evah,” these four white boys lay down a groove that will make Smokey either very jealous or very proud.

6. Of Montreal
Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

What’s this? Prince is alive and fallen in love with the Beatles? Fronted by the least convincing straight man in rock, Of Montreal’s fey-one-second- fiery-the-next pop was almost defiantly queer, in both senses of the word. There was truly nothing like it, the funkiest beats since Controversy, and the most wide-eyed cutesy singing since the Wizard of Oz. That is until you listen to the lyrics, some of the most savage post breakup ditties since some girl bawled You Oughta Know. Is this what the 21st century man sounds like? Are women now the strong silent type while men vent on wax? Who cares, stay for the melodies, stay for the funk and remember that for every blast of cruel wit (“You’re just some faggy girl”) comes something so silly it’s joyous (“I need a lover with soul power.”) Yeah right.

7. The Besnard Lakes
The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse.

The brilliant Canucks not named Feist, Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene, Besnard Lakes would have risked pretentiousness with that album title were it not so apt. Then there are the songs themselves, some of the most darkly beautiful since the third album from those guys at number two. The Besnard Lakes don’t have choruses so much as climaxes and they swing from muddle to crescendo, peak to peak like those orgasms that men don’t get to have—most times in the same song. The term adult alternative went as quickly as it came, which is a shame because we’ve finally found a band that deserves it.

8. The White Stripes: Icky Thump

9. Tinariwen: Aman Iman

10. LCD Soundsystem: Sound Of Silver

11. Panda Bear: Person Pitch

12. The National: Boxer

Next Up: The worst!