Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Belated Happy Birthday to Louis Daguerre

One night last week when I got home at two-something in the morning, I saw on Google’s front page a banner celebrating the birthday of Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of the (aptly named) daguerreotype, the first widely used photographic process. I was pleased to see Google honoring him in this way (a small gesture to be sure, forgotten tomorrow, but nevertheless, I have never been so honored) not only because photography helped usher in a new age for arts and documentation, which ultimately led to a whole new philosophy of the image and the perception of reality, but also because of unique characteristics of the daguerreotype itself which bear little similarity to later photographic processes. To be sure, the photograph would have happened without the developments of Daguerre. Henry Fox Talbot was developing (If you’ll forgive the pun) his Calotype process at roughly the same time. While he was beaten to the market by Daguerre, the Calotype, which used a photographic negative to print onto treated paper, was much closer to the processes that would eventually become standard and lead to an era in which the mechanical reproduction of the image (hats off to Walter Benjamin) would forever change our relationship to the work of art. At the time, however, the roughness of the paper resulted in a less sharp image than the pristine glass of the Daguerreotype. The Daguerreotype was a one of a kind. Unlike the Calotype, further prints could not be made with Daguerre’s process.

In describing the process, it has been said that the daguerreotype created a positive image that could not be printed, but this is misleading. The fact that the image is not quite a negative and not quite a positive is one of the reasons that daguerreotypes are so distinctive and, in my eyes, possess a greater, more haunting quality than later processes. Printed on glass, the image is essentially a mirror with a positive image appearing when the glass reflects a darker surface. Consequently, one of the notable aspects of the daguerreotype is that, depending on the angle from which it is viewed and what the glass reflects, it will appear as either a negative or a positive. Thus, it shows both the face and its reflection, the ghostly, shadowy image that one must at least consider for a second to be that piece of the soul of which the photograph robs its subject.

Today’s processes are completely different. The photographic negative has all but become a thing of the past. Kodachrome is dead. Digital photography has become so prevalent and so easy that most people carry cameras everywhere they go even if they don’t intend to. The terminology has changed. An image is no longer an “exposure,” but a “capture.” The “capture” implies catching something, arresting the subject in time, which is all well and good. I prefer, however, the “exposure,” which insinuates and openness, a revealing, both of the subject and of the film, which undergoes a physical change by being burned by the light.

Of course I am being hokey when I speak of the soul being stolen by the camera, but I do believe that the soul can be revealed and magnified in the photographic image. Also, I believe that the organic processes with all of their imperfections are better at exposing that soul than the digital processes that allow a greater malleability which often leads to a product that illuminates more about the photographer’s aesthetic sensibilities than the humanity of the subject.

To be sure, the daguerreotype was an unwieldy, slow process which was not conducive to catching moments of spontaneity. However, the image that was produced was one of great gravity and intensity. It was unique and unchangeable. Unlike most photographic processes, this picture did not lie and it did not beg to be reproduced. Daguerre did not seek to change the nature of the image. He only wanted to draw with light.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Jazz in LIC

The other night, I ran into a friend of mine on the street near my apartment in Long Island City. As so often happens (particularly with this particular friend), the subject turned to music. We started discussing shows we had seen since seeing each other last, which led to complaining about ticket prices. This led to some serious bitching about all aspects about music and the music business before we brought it all back home by talking about our own neighborhood. “There aren’t really any good places to hear live music here,” he complained.

I understood where he was coming from. While there was more going on in LIC than there was when I moved in over a decade ago, it was not nearly enough for a place that has been hyped as “the next Williamsburg” since before I knew where Williamsburg was. However, many recent transplants to the neighborhood have been artists and musicians, hungry to create a local scene. Not only that, but a number of them have been jazz musicians (and some very talented ones at that) who have been determined to make their new home a haven for jazz music. While they have had some success in finding places to play, I could still see my friend’s point about the dearth of good venues.

Yes, there are a handful of places to hear live music, but I would argue that most of them are not very good as places to really listen to it, particularly when it comes to jazz. I have heard some great music played in a couple of cafés and wine bars in the neighborhood, and while they provided a pleasant atmosphere for the music, I got the feeling that the musicians were there to complete the scene, to add some kind of bohemian authenticity. I suppose that’s all well and good, until you end up sitting next to a couple on their first date who are more interested in small talk and their bottle of rosé than the music.

And then there is the LIC Bar. More bustle than atmosphere, my major issue with that place is that it tries to be all things to all people. Whereas it used to be a lovely, chill spot without distractions like televisions, juke-boxes, and pool tables, now they boost their revenue by alternating sports nights with trivia night and, yes, music nights, all while offer cheap beer specials advertised on huge, tacky posters pinned up everywhere. Not a place that comes to mind when one mentions jazz. Perhaps I am being a bit cynical, but it is hard for me not to think that the main idea behind replacing the old photo booth with a small stage was less: “Hey, let’s create a performance space for neighborhood musicians,” than: “Hey, if we bring in musicians on nights when there’s no soccer match, their friends will come in and drink beer.” Anything to get people in the door, and, to be fair, they do get people in the door. So many people, in fact, that these days I find myself there less and less. So it seemed odd to me when a new friend of mine, a talented bass player named Diallo House, told me that his quartet would be playing there.

The night that Diallo was playing was one of those showcase nights with several bands playing with no stylistic theme unifying them. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the music that the other groups presented defied my expectations. On the other hand, the audience, largely, did not. Friends of the band would pay respectful, if somewhat exaggerated attention, as if dutifully making up for the rest of the people who were simply there to take advantage of three dollar Miller High Lifes and using all of their energy to make sure that their conversations were not hindered by the loud music.

It was a far cry from the last time I had seen him, playing a late-night set at Iridium, the prestigious midtown jazz club. On that night he played a solid, low-key set with a pianist and drummer, respectfully, maybe too respectfully, recreating the classic trio format for a small, but dedicated audience of uptight jazz buffs who went to heard music with the same mentality as going to Metropolitan Museum. Still, I thought that the LIC Bar seemed to misrepresent him and would not do him justice. In short, he seemed as if he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However, it took seconds before they turned the wrong place into their place, challenging the volume of the restless patrons and playing with a blistering intensity that belittled their petty drinking activities. It was clear that here they could play the music that they wanted to play and not have to blend into the atmosphere or appease jazz traditionalists.

Drummer Ismail Lawal laid down a groove of unrelenting intensity in which one could hear hints of drummers such as Billy Cobham and Alphonse Mouzon, but also the influence of funk and hip-hop break beats. However, whereas the break beat serves to create a foundation for other layers and colors, Lawal eschewed the solid, unyielding rhythmic base, creating instead a space to be inhabited. Tight and driving enough to make a physical response from the listener an inevitability, but loose enough and with enough room for his fellow instrumentalists to play inside and not simply on top.

Feeding that groove and upping the stakes, Diallo pulled percussive, funky lines and phrasing out of his upright bass which seemed impossible or even incompatible with the staid, dignified instrument. He hunched over it, vibrating in time with the music with the kind of violence that a concerned onlooker would be inclined to call an ambulance if he didn’t have an instrument in his hands. A little lower and his chin would have been pounding out 64th notes on the belly of the instrument.

Against this, guitarist Michael Louis-Smith provided a striking counterpoint. Far less relentless than his band-mates, he played with a clean, understated tone, with his sound seeming to come straight off of jazz records of the sixties. His softer touch both balanced the commanding rhythm section while also seeming to represent the more traditional type of jazz which was only one of the many sounds that the band was using to its own ends.

Stacy Dillard on saxophone was a revelation, playing within the space with intensity and imagination. At first I thought I heard Wayne Shorter in his playing. At another time, I could swear I heard the influence of Steve Grossman. Before long, I simply felt bad about making any comparisons at all.

In short, these guys cooked. Playing the wrong room at the wrong time, clearly they had something to prove. While they played with respect for their influences, they had enough confidence in their own voices to avoid the stifling reverence to tradition which too often stagnates jazz and relegates it to background music for Sunday brunch on the Upper East Side. So what if the girl next to me would rather send texts than applaud at the end of a solo? Let her drink her cosmo and hang out with her vapid friends. I found it funny that the best place for jazz in LIC, at least for that one night, ended up being the place that seemed to have the least respect for it, leaving the musicians to play what they wanted: Music that was vital and dynamic, music that’s intelligence was only matched by its drive, music that acknowledged tradition while flouting it. This was not jazz as a museum piece. It was not new or old, it was simply and aggressively here.

So while I had to agree with my friend on the street that there were no really good music venues in long Island City, I had to assert that at least there was good music to be found in the wrong places. “And maybe one day the venues will follow,” I added, with a somewhat pessimistic tone in my voice. Before we parted, I told him that Diallo’s quartet would be playing at LIC bar again this month, and that he would do himself a favor by checking them out.

The Diallo House Quartet will be playing August 17th at the LIC Bar on Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City.

Photo by Jeremy Gordon

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

More Celebrity "News" - Amy Winehouse Edition

News of the death of Amy Winehouse worked its way around the Facebook water cooler relatively quickly, as was to be expected. Most of the posts, that I saw at least, had a somber tone, regretful to see talent wasted. While no one seemed to be particularly surprised, most apparently had been hoping for her to pull it together enough to follow up her Back to Black album with a piece of work equally as rich and soulful, while others seemed to be of the opinion that that album’s depth probably came from emotions that were tragically inseparable from the self-destructive behavior. Some simply joked that she “probably should have gone to rehab, but she said: ‘No, no, no.’”

Others stuck Winehouse comments into threads dealing with the tragedy in Norway, in which a radical right-wing, racist xenophobe murdered nearly a hundred people in cold blood, as if to chastise us for spending so much time weighing in on a death of a pop star who was more famous for her offstage behavior than her incredibly limited catalog, instead of dealing with weightier issues that demand our attention and discussion.

It is true that I commented on Amy Winehouse’s death on Facebook before I commented on the tragedy in Norway, even though that happened the day before. It seemed easier to comment on her. Talking about what happened in Norway felt like a bigger responsibility. I would actually have to say something intelligent.

What happened in Norway was real news, in every sense of the word. It was shocking, unexpected, and while not geographically close to home, the issues certainly are. Truly this requires real discussion beyond knee jerk reactions, not only in discussions of the event itself, but also in how it was reported, specifically how quickly the assumption of Islamic terrorism became voiced long before accurate information became available.

Most would say that Ms. Winehouse’s death, by comparison, is not news, and it isn’t. It is entertainment, and entertainment is what is talked about around the water cooler. Entertainment can fit in little sound bites and be attached to trite sayings punch lines. News requires thought and contextualization, which actually requires effort.

I do not want to belittle the death of a human being, and I do consider myself one of those who were hoping for a recovery and a comeback, but her death was not unexpected. Quite the contrary, her death was the final act in the show that we had been watching for the past couple of years. Some had hoped that the story would have a happy ending, but deep down, did anyone really think that it would? But there’s nothing wrong with a sad ending. We all love a sad movie now and then, right?

Is it heartless of me to be saying this? We watched her deterioration without wracking our brains of how to intervene. We didn’t ponder a course of action to take based on the “news” of her condition. I don’t think that’s any reason to beat ourselves up over that. Celebrities have always served the purpose of being distant figures to be the objects of idolization, derision, and gossip kept at a safe distance. Their private lives are repurposed to be a game as engaging and entertaining as the work they create, often more so.

For this reason, I am not surprised that more people are talking about Amy Winehouse, and what’s more, I’m glad that more people are. I don’t want to see Facebook clogged with a bunch of poorly though out gut reactions and flippant comments about an issue as grave as what happened in Norway. What happened in Norway was news, and I would rather hear nothing than hear reports that are skewed in the direction of sensationalism or propaganda. The problem is when entertainment is treated like news and news treated like entertainment, which is too often the case. Frankly, it is just easier to talk about Amy Winehouse, anyone can voice an opinion with no harm done. I wouldn’t want to hear most of those people weigh in on global politics anyway. Myself included.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ceci N'est Pas une Brochure

As I got off the train at Columbus Circle today, I passed by a guy wearing a red shirt that read “Yeshu” in a Hebrew styled font. “Fucking Jews-for-Jesus,” I thought. I looked down at the pamphlets he was handing out and saw a cartoonish drawing of a guy holding a sign that read “Beware of religious fanatics handing out pamphlets.” I stepped back and took one. Perhaps I had him all wrong. Perhaps there was a different intention here. I opened the pamphlet and looked through it and saw a bunch of cartoons and a weird questionnaire. It would have been better if the pamphlet was empty, but this still looked vapid enough. What was this supposed to be? A secular humanist doctrine? A bit of ironic performance art? A bit of Dada? I skimmed through the pamphlet looking for the message, truly hoping that I wasn’t going to find one. I got through the first page and, so far, so good. I found nothing espousing a concrete world view. I started to get a little mad at myself that I hadn’t had the balls to do this, and this unassuming, unsociable looking guy had. What a wonderful idea to go out onto the street during the morning rush hour and hand out pamphlets to commuters, with messages intended to subvert the meanings of the common political or religious pamphlets commonly seen on these streets. Or better, yet, to hand out pamphlets that reject the idea of meaning at all. I mean Dada is old, decrepit, and perhaps even incontinent, but not dead.

What kind of message would I have in there? “Ceci n'est pas une brochure?” No. That is far too derivative. A cookie recipe? A print ad for a product that hasn’t been in existence since the 1940s? Perhaps a banal piece of my own day, like so many tweets that are posted today, but instead handing it out in hard copy under the hot sun. (Ah, the digital age, when messages are so plentiful and so easy to ignore, it is almost refreshing to have some jerk try to foist his views into my hand as I am trying push my way by him to get to work. Almost.) It is not as though this type of thing has never been done before, but now, in age of Facebook and Twitter, it seems so anachronistic to make such an effort. Indeed, it is the sheer effort involved in this gesture to inflict meaninglessness on a group of people is what makes it art, not how the meaninglessness is constructed.

I got to the bottom of the pamphlet and, to my dismay, it did evolve into some treatise for Jews-for-Jesus. I was frustrated at myself for being fooled for even a moment (he was wearing that stupid shirt, after all), but more frustrating was seeing this opportunity for a beautifully empty gesture wasted. I tore up the brochure and threw it away, amazed at the audacity of this guy to try to differentiate himself and his group from “religious fanatics.” Actually, that was a pretty good joke, but one that the pamphleteer was not in on.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Operationalizing the Hipster

On Facebook today, a friend posted this cartoon, accompanied by a note which read: “[R]elevant to many "Hipster" conversations [I]'ve had recently, [I] think this does a good job of pin-pointing the empty phrase.” I certainly concur that it humorously depicts a real phenomenon of hipsterism, primarily because the term hipster has become an epithet that is rarely, if ever, portrayed in a positive light, but it does not define what a hipster is. I don’t necessarily believe that it is an empty phrase, although it may seem that way, being so ill-defined. Usually, the definition is based on the old adage “I know it when I see it,” (incidentally, the same way in which Justice Potter Stewart defined hard-core pornography) rather than a definition of what it is, or what it is not, beyond superficialities.

I wrote my Master’s thesis on digital music consumption and, in focus groups of music listeners, the character (or caricature) of the “hipster” emerged frequently, usually as representative of a type of elitism, coolly sitting in judgment of current music and its fans. When I wrote about this, my advisor asked me to operationalize this term, meaning that I had to define it in academic terms well beyond the anecdotal way that I had been using it. In short, she was asking me to fill this empty phrase.

Ultimately, what I came up with was this:

The hipster phenomenon is confusing because, generally used as a pejorative term, it is rare to find people who will willingly define themselves as such. More difficult is coming up with an adequate definition for a hipster without relying on stereotypes (skinny jeans, Converse All-Stars and thick rimmed glasses without frames in them). This new type of hipster is not to be confused with the hipsters of the 1950s. The original hipsters, as described by Hebdige in Subcultures: The Meaning of Style (1979), were a white youth subculture based on a kinship for urban African-American culture, speaking the same lingo, having the same love for jazz, and sharing a world view with urban African-Americans including the aspirations of making out and moving up” (p.49). This was in contrast with the beats, who, on the other hand, were described as being far more suburban. Far from understanding, or even trying to understand, the actual desires of African-Americans, the beats idealized their poverty, which, to them represented “a divine essence, a state of grace, a sanctuary” (p. 49). As opposed to the hipsters, who were portrayed as actually being in the know, the beats were described as essentially slumming, cultural tourists, completely out of touch with the actual culture except for an appreciation for jazz music.

Today’s hipster is not defined by a relation to African-American culture, although it could be argued that the stand-offish Brooklyn hipster of today, perhaps unknowingly, emulates the cool, elusiveness of the prototypical jazz musician. Arguably the best definition of today’s hipster comes from Will Straw (1997) who defined hipness in relation to record collectors. To him, hipness involved the cultivation of knowledge which would be protected with a particular nonchalance. Thus, the hipster would not readily divulge what he (Straw was defining hipness in terms of male archetypes) knew because he would not want to let on that such knowledge often came from scholarly or pedantic study as opposed to experience or instinct, and to maintain boundaries that make the hipster seem “elusive and enigmatic” (p.9). No more would the jazz musician tell a fan what records he studied that influenced his sound, insisting that his playing was all “feel,” than would a hipster record collector confess that his tastes developed over years of listening to records alone and reading music magazines and musicians’ biographies.

In short, I determined that it is kind of a know-it-all-ism with the sources of knowledge hidden from view. One may argue that hipness, then, is a façade to prevent the world from knowing how uncool they really are, but I don’t wish to make judgments. My theory of hipsterism is summed up the old joke:

“How many hipsters does it take to change a light bulb?”

“(Scoffs) What, you don’t know?”

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.

Straw, W. (1997). Sizing Up Record Collections: Gender and Connoisseurship in Rock Music Culture. In S. Whitely (Ed.), Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender (pp. 3-16). London: Routledge.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

R.I.P. Jeff Conaway and Fuck TMZ

I have a couple little things to say:

1. Jeff Conaway passed away this week and that is an unfortunate thing. I am not one who tends to get broken up over the death of celebrities, but it would take a tremendously calloused person to not recognize the sadness of seeing someone’s demons have the final say.

The headlines came out that the Grease star had died, and I believe that movie has a special place in a lot of people’s hearts. A lot of people my age associate it with their childhoods and I imagine the movie has renewed resonance in the post “High School Musical,” “American Idol,” and “Glee” world in which we live. In fact, now that I think about it, Grease became a “reality” TV phenomenon of its own when it opened up the casting process to create the show casting for the Broadway revival into Grease: You’re the One that I Want! (When I went to look up the title of the show, I found that there was a similar show on the BBC, Grease is the Word, that did the same thing for a West End revival.)It seems like the American musical is alive and well if Jukebox musicals, revivals and the Disney Channel are your idea of inventive theatre, but that is a whole other post.

I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and watched Grease start to finish, but I am pretty sure that I have seen the whole thing in installments from frequent airings on cable TV when I was young. My main familiarity with Jeff Conaway, however, comes from him being a part of the great ensemble cast of the wonderful late 70’s, early 80’s sitcom, Taxi. More current TV audiences may know him from Celebrity Rehab, on which he showed audiences the behavior that would lead to his early death. Though Dr. Drew Pinsky would report, while Conaway was in the coma from which he would never awaken, that an overdose did not occur, he asserted that Conaway’s state was directly related to years of bodily abuse. Later, on Friday Pinsky would report via Twitter that: “I'm saddened to report he has succumbed to his addiciton [sic].”
“Jeff was like a brother to me,” fellow Taxi cast member Marilu Henner said in a statement to E! News. John Travolta, who starred alongside Conaway in Grease, released a statement to TMZ that Conaway was "wonderful and decent man and we will miss him."

This leads me to…

2. When I die, don’t report it via Twitter (and if you do, take a little time to ensure proper spelling and punctuation). Also don’t send your condolences via TMZ (this, of course, presupposes that I will have sufficient notoriety when my time comes that this would be considered a viable option). Seriously, TMZ is a site that would have published deathbed photos of Conaway complete with tubes up the nose and a colostomy bag if they could have gotten their hands on it. Why anyone would give a scoop to these pricks who exploit their subjects and viewers alike is completely beyond me. I have occasionally tuned into TMZ’s spin-off TV show (generally by accident, but occasionally I will tune in to find out what sponsors I should be boycotting) and have been appalled by the smug manner in which they routinely pass off the worst kind of trivialities as news and seem to think that invasion of privacy and the forsaking of propriety constitutes as journalism. The only reason I could see Travolta giving his statement to TMZ would be if he thought that a brain-dead public would not get the message if he gave it to a reputable news source. Still, Marilu Henner gave her statement to E! News, which generally deals in the same trivialities as TMZ, but aren’t dicks about it, and the message got out just fine.

Seriously, though, if my death is treated like this, I will come back and haunt your ass, and not Sixth Sense style, but full on Amityville Horror shit.

That’s about it. In summation, I guess all I wanted to say was R.I.P. Jeff Conaway, fuck TMZ, and you can keep your Twitter.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Digital Navel Lint

The other night I did something that I more than occasionally do: I had a thought that was burning a hole in my cerebral cortex that I felt desperate to share, but decided that I was too tired, drunk and emotional to attempt to put it down into words that would convey the depth of my feeling, the confusion of my thoughts, and the subtle fluctuations of my state of mind. Perhaps it was laziness, or perhaps it was the only wise thing that I did last night, but I am glad that I showed restraint.

I have frequently thought that the internet should have a breathalyzer to prevent unwise Facebook posts or irresponsible purchases from occurring late at night. Last night, I am pleased to say that all that it took to halt me in my tracks was the recognition of the vast reach of social networks and the internet in general. I believe that read somewhere that if the pen is mightier than the sword, then the printing press is like an atomic bomb. That being the case, what is the internet? A tool that effectively has a greater reach than print, unrestrained by circulation numbers and printing and shipping costs, available to nearly everyone (in developed countries) regardless of intelligence, ability, or sobriety.

I suppose that if one stopped and thought about this, it would be easy to get alarmed by this, and indeed it is much easier for more insidious notions to be shared with likeminded psychopaths than in times when lone nuts tended to be, well, lone, and isolated geographically. However, I am simply more concerned with the rest of the population that will be more inclined to use this technology in ways that are more indulgent than outwardly destructive (and I think that is most of us).

While it can be argued that the internet is a convergence medium, presenting audio, video, still images, and text in equal importance (and I must add that it is quite remarkable that video and unaccompanied audio can coexist on one medium) I would say that the main thrust of the internet is text. E-mail, status updates, tweets, blogs, etc. I don’t think that this is a controversial opinion or that I am saying anything that isn’t widely known, but I will argue that, while it is assumed to be a Read-Write (RW) medium (to borrow Lawrence Lessig’s use of disc drive terminology as applied to a medium) as opposed to traditional publishing, which would be considered Read-Only (RO), I propose that it lends itself to being a Write Only (WO) medium, in which the conversation is entered less in the spirit of a give and take, than to indulge in the novelty or airing one’s opinions, feelings, and breakfast choices to a wide audience who pays the minimum amount of attention to this information simply to find an opening for them to drop in their ten cents.

Of course, we all read how Facebook was used to organize protests in Egypt and, don’t get me wrong, I believe that this extraordinary circumstance was probably the best use to which social networking can be put. In fact, I would say that it makes nearly all of what I post seem silly and irrelevant. That said, what happened in Egypt was indicative of the breadth of Facebook, not its depth. I would suppose, however, that most Facebook users (at least in America) do not have the overthrow of governments as their main intention (yes, I have read a tremendous number of politically charged posts, but they were of course sandwiched between posts of cute kitten videos and movie quotes).

I hesitate to say unequivocally that the medium completely dictates the content, but I will argue that 420 characters is not enough to expound on anything in any detail, and with Twitter that number is even less. The only thing that can be done with that would be platitudes, slogans, and trivia, usually in horribly truncated and corrupted language. So now we have the ability to publish far and wide poorly considered, hastily written, fragmented thoughts. So while text seems to have a greater presence in our communication than it has since the advent of the telegraph, telephone, and television, it seems to have been done great injury by these other media which favor the image or sound bite (can you tell I am re-reading Neil Postman right now?). Thus we inundate each other with messages that mean little now in the grand scheme of things, and will mean even less later.

Come to think of it, perhaps I need not have bothered censoring myself. I do think that it was a moment that I should have kept for myself anyway without feeling the need to validate it by sharing it with unseen people. However, if I wrote something and posted it, I don’t think there would have been much harm. The post would have easily sunk like a rock, perhaps after a few people would post an emoticon or two before going back to talking about their breakfasts and weekends, and I wouldn’t have blamed them. The posts that I find have the longest life-spans are the ones that enable people to share their own perspectives. I don’t think that this is entirely narcissism, and I do believe there is value to interactivity, particularly when it comes to discussion of news and current events. However, there is a considerable difference between posts that encourage debate and force us to clarify and defend our opinions and those which attempt to make other people gaze at our navels.

There has been quite a bit said about being cautious as far as what we post about ourselves online, arguing that nothing on the internet truly disappears (if you don’t believe me, try out the “Wayback Machine” on, and we are supposed to be careful of posting things that will come back to haunt us later. But perhaps we should also contemplate why we wish to air intimate details about ourselves and, on the other hand, be concerned about how much time is spent posting things that will prove to be unworthy of remembering.

For further reading:
Lanier, J. (2010). You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Knoph

Postman, N. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin

Lessig, L. (2008) Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York: Penguin

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Obsolete Savant

A few nights ago I was at my local when the song “Fool in the Rain” began to play which, of course, led to a conversation with a slightly drunk patron about Led Zeppelin. One of the more mundane conversations that I had had on the subject, neither of us had any controversial statements to make (one of the most famous is the age old proclamation that “Led Zeppelin is overrated.”). Both of us liked the song. Both of us liked the band. Both of us believed that the album from which the song came (In through the Out Door) was decent enough, while certainly not as strong as their earlier albums.

“There were some good songs on that album,” he said. “’D’yer Mak’er’ is one of my favorites.”

“That’s off Houses of the Holy,” I told him.

“No. It’s off of In through the Out Door,” he asserted.

“I’m 99.44 percent certain sure that it’s off of Houses of the Holy,” I said in a tone which attempted to be authoritative but non-combative and non-condescending.

“No. I’m pretty sure it was In through the Out Door,” he stubbornly added.

As we had just met, he had no reason to believe me and doubt his own memory. He didn’t know about my collection of classic records, my memory for facts, my obsessive attention to the minutest details. He didn’t know of the late-night calls I frequently received from drunken friends to settle bar bets about who played what on what and so forth. I’m not bragging. In fact, I’m not sure this something worth bragging about.

Forgoing a long drawn out debate, I pulled out my smart phone, pulled up the Wikipedia page for Houses of the Holy, and showed it to him. He conceded and the conversation casually meandered elsewhere. No hours of bickering. No bringing up dozens of tangentially related facts in order to prove our expertise to each other with neither side willing to back down until finally agreeing to disagree, but not really because it would still be gnawing at us and every newcomer to the bar would be asked to weigh in to support one of our sides. No, we solved it in a matter of seconds and that was it. After so brief a battle, the victory was hollow.

What was the victory, anyway? To have recalled information that anyone with a computer or smart phone would be able to instantly access? The guy didn’t even seem impressed.

Today one does not need knowledge; one simply needs the ability to access it. With the internet available nearly everywhere on all sorts of devices, most people have that ability at any given time. One simply needs to be able to plug into this collective consciousness and pulls whatever morsel of data that is needed out of the digital ether.

I’m not saying that this makes us a nation of idiots. And it is important to note that this kind of paradigm brings with it issues of its own and a whole different skill set. The internet, that wonderful repository for all discovery, philosophy, epistemology, and pornography also includes vast amounts of hearsay, illogical arguments, un-cited quotes, and straight-up stupidity. It requires diligence to sift through this mess to find verifiable information. In fact, it’s the same kind of diligence required of any kind of research. Cross referencing and citation checking may seem a bit tedious to the modern internet surfer, but as concerned citizens of the digital frontier, it is imperative to use these new digital stockpiles of information fully and responsibly. That said, in a pinch Wikipedia is generally all one needs to quickly, easily, and reliably determine what album “D’yer Mak’er” was on(while nothing online is infallible, Wikipedia is pretty good for basic facts, and for things to be posted, it does require citation).

I guess what makes me the sad is the fact that people like me are simply not needed anymore. In years before the wisdom of the ages could be instantly accessed from the cloud, experts served a very particular function, to maintain the knowledge that others did not have the time, energy, or desire to acquire, either because they had more pressing concerns or perhaps they actually had social lives. Today, they don’t need some geek like me.

Worse, no longer are we simply unneeded, but more, we are largely undesirable. Who wants to have some guy around who slavishly dissects liner notes, pours through musicians’ biographies, and spends hours researching obscure session men? These loner geek-savants tend to make rather trying and creepy company. Now no longer kept on retainer to settle the odd bar bet, we mostly engage one another, finding weaknesses and exploiting them in games of geeky one-upsmanship.

I still maintain that, as good as smart phones are, the geek savant will be able to supply more information and faster. Not only will the geek savant tell you what album the song was off of, but the name of the session guy who played violin on the track, and what obscure band he used to be in with a guy who later played drums in Wings. However, while beating the machine in such a decisive way would be a point of pride with the geek savant, most normal people would probably rather take a few extra seconds to Google something than be inundated with all of the other extraneous information.

Most people would simply be glad to know that such information is accessible should want to find it at some point, and also comfortable knowing that they most likely never will.

But I argue that there are hazards involved with relying on the information simply being in the cloud, even beyond the apocalyptic fear that the whole system may someday collapse, plummeting us all into the dark ages before e-mail, Facebook and internet porn. The main concern should be the fact that the ability to remember vast quantities of facts tends to involve mind mapping and contextualization, which not only act as mnemonic devices, but also give weight to the information. Simply accessing facts may lead to a less critical eye when assessing information and determining its validity and importance. The bigger picture could be lost.

I am not writing this to say that everyone should start pouring through tomes about musicians, songwriters and producers (hell, I’ve even heard that there are other things to learn about beyond music). This way of thinking is not for everyone. In fact, we are aware of being different and our undeserved feeling of superiority comes from that fact that we know more than others (care to) know. But please don’t throw us under the bus because of this. We still serve a function. We’ll still tell you want you want to know and a little bit more of what you were unaware that you needed to know. Don’t abandon us for the new toy.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Steaming Cup of "Friday"

I feel like the subject of Rebecca Black, the new teen-phenom-in-training, and her opus “Friday,” has been exhausted by now. Younger and more in touch people have weighed in over a month ago and I expect that I am probably the last to offer my two cents. In fact, I really hope that I am. Originally, I watched the video out of curiosity. After all, it was being described as the worst song of all time, and I guess I just had to see it. After I watched it, I debated for a while about whether I would even bother to put down an opinion, which would be a open admission that I actually sat through four minutes of adolescent treacle instead of pursuing loftier things. I decided to let it rest.

This was until I saw that Stephen Colbert was to perform the song on Jimmy Fallon’s show. Clearly this phenomenon was now bigger than the adolescent girl who made the song and the pathetic teenage boys who took the time to write online comments urging Black to “get an eating disorder” or “die.” (Frankly I believe those comments should instead be directed at Ark Music Factory, the company that wrote the song and sold it to Black’s parents for two grand.) To be sure, I don’t like the song. I hardly think that even needs to be said. To be honest, I would be wary of any thirty-something males who do. Which is why I was so surprised and dismayed that Colbert, backed by the Roots, performed a special arrangement of the song on Fallon’s Friday night show, potentially giving the song more cultural weight (ironic as their performance was) and greater longevity.

I feel about “Friday” the same way I feel about “2 Girls, 1 Cup”: If it’s not your thing, don’t watch it. If you aren’t a preteen girl with a taste for sugary pop, don’t watch “Friday.” If you aren’t a far-out fetishist fecalpheliac, don’t watch “2 Girls, 1 Cup.” These are two internet sensations that became popular because of the horror that they inspired in an unintended audience.

But in spite of the fact that I belong to neither of the aforementioned demographics, I have seen both. They simply blew up in such a way that I felt that I was somehow disconnected from the reigning popular culture if I didn’t experience both of these things. In fact, I probably didn’t have to, and probably shouldn’t have. I don’t feel scarred by either of the experiences (but if I had to choose, I would probably say that I found Ms. Black’s video more disturbing), but found them both tremendously unnecessary. Both of those videos should have remained mercifully in obscurity.

The view count of “Friday” on YouTube is now pushing 90 million, but in spite of the fact that the number of views do not count as votes of approval (there are nearly 2 million “dislikes”, and only a quarter million “likes”, while the rest didn’t bother to vote), Rebecca Black has become famous. I feel slightly guilty knowing that I am 1/90,000,000th responsible for that. I added, in a small way, to its popularity, or at least infamy. I was even hesitating to write this piece because I thought it would further contribute to her notoriety if I thought for a second that anyone was actually reading this.

YouTube provides a way to satisfy our curiosity in the latest viral internet phenomena in a way that can be anonymous without making any type of monetary investment. This is especially convenient in the cases of videos such as “2 Girls, 1 Cup” and “Friday” when we know in advance that what we are going to see is a lot of shit.

For the most part, it was a combination of ridicule, indignation, and curiosity that made the song and video popular. Consequently, whether we like it or not, we will be hearing more from Rebecca Black. What direction her career will take is anyone’s guess. Will she go the Ashley Simpson route and find a degree of unearned success just through sheer marketing, or will she actually prove to have some artistic voice of her own (unlikely)? Or will she simply record an album that will end up in the bargain bins next to William Hung’s CD by the end of the year (see how old I am? I’m talking about CDs for shit’s sake!).

Seeing Colbert perform it made realize just how big it has become and how inescapable it is. Even we old farts can’t ignore it. Maybe if we had ignored it, not let our morbid curiosity get the best of us, maybe it would have remained what it was supposed to be, a frivolous video for a thirteen year old girl to show to her friends. As if its internet success wasn’t enough, in Colbert’s and the Roots’ hands, the song has been given a new treatment and an even bigger platform than it had before. But who knows? Maybe, hopefully, this will be the last word.

I will give Colbert and the Roots credit: they polished that turd to a shine, and as far as viral internet videos are concerned, I’m glad they recreated “Friday” instead of “2 Girls, 1 Cup.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Charlie Sheen "News"

It is said that the English word “news” came from the pluralizing of the word “new” in the late 14th century. I think that this is important to remember because most of the things that are exposed to the public as “news” are really just “goings on,” events that do not represent any deviation from the norm or expected outcome and have no direct relevance to the reader (or viewer). Any look at the daily stories of any “news” source will generally result in some sort of feeling of déjà vu. If it’s not surprising, if it’s not new, it’s not news.

Charlie Sheen is going crazy… Or at least he’s acting crazy and saying crazy things, and as the old expression goes, if he walks like a ducks and talks like a duck and he’s not actually a duck, he’s probably fucking crazy. I don’t believe I have to dwell on his antics and although the story seems to just get sadder (I just read online that his kids were just taken away by police), I feel like it’s important to say that this cannot be seen as unexpected. He has a history of drug use, running around with porn stars, frequenting prostitutes, and violent acts against romantic partners (don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against most of those things). This is merely a logical extension of behavior that he has exhibited over the last twenty years or so, which has been allowed to continue and escalate because, well, apparently we like him that way.

Remember that after Sheen had done quite a bit of damage to his image in the late nineties, he was given a second chance on a show called Spin City, replacing Michael J. Fox as the central character. Sheen’s character, unlike the cheeky, but earnest workaholic character played by Fox, was a charming, philandering semi-lowlife named… Charlie. He won a Golden Globe for that role. Clearly, he was back.

After Spin City was cancelled Sheen ended up reprising the character, which is to say he played another loveable reprobate named Charlie, on the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men. America loved him so much that he ended up being the highest paid actor on television, garnering nearly two million dollars per episode. America told him that not only did we forgive him for his transgressions, but that we would reward him with heaps of money (or, more accurately, the ratings that would justify those heaps of money).

Television actors commanding large salaries is nothing new. The cast of Friends, for example, made record breaking salaries at the time, but we expected them at act to some degree, or at least to learn to respond to different names. I will not compare most sitcom acting to Ben Kingsley transforming himself into Mahatma Gandhi, and also I don’t know the cast of Friends personally, so I can’t say the extent to which their characters differed from their actual personalities. However, it is not hard to see the past decade of Charlie Sheen’s career as him simply “being himself” (okay, minus perhaps the spousal abuse), and receiving huge amounts of money and adoration for it.

And now he’s going crazy. Or crazier. But this should come as no surprise. When he began exhibiting his outlandish behavior we gave him a biscuit… and a TV show. We gave him another TV show and his behavior escalated and we gave him another biscuit…. and even more money and fame. He has been given positive reinforcement for all his negative behavior over the past decade. The escalation of his antics should be expected.

Therefore, it is not news.

It’s entertainment.

If the producers of Two and a Half Men, were really smart, they would try to fill out the DVD of this aborted season with his clips from TMZ, The Today Show, 20/20 and the rest of the interviews he did this past week. After all, it’s the same character. It’s the same old Charlie, just on at a different time. And clearly we love him just as he is.