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’, 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!