I think the Rambler's take on it is wrong, astute, and right, in turn. It's wrong to get that mad at the title "The case for communism"--it's fairly amusing in the context of a review, and clearly not meant in seriousness. Plus, while it may be insensitive to say that great art comes from suffering, as much as I hate to admit it, that doesn't mean that it's sometimes true; art isn't the product of justice or freedom or anything wholly good. It just is, it just happens, and sometimes for some pretty horrible reasons and by some pretty horrible people.
The astute bit is in pointing out that it's not that no good art has come out since the fall of Communism, not just that no good art-under-repression art has come out, i.e. since Western critics are looking for works that express the horror of a repressive system and since the repressive system is no longer in place, those works are no longer there, but that doesn't mean that there aren't good works that express other things coming out of the former bloc. Thing is, I have no idea if there is; just because there could be doesn't mean there is, and I don't think he really makes a case for the positive argument. And if there's not, well, that's a pretty interesting phenomenon, no? Personally, I'm not quite cynical enough to think that a Granta editor wouldn't take an otherwise incredible piece of work coming out of Poland if it wasn't dealing with repression, but more on that in a second.
The wholly right thing is this:
I think there's a much more logical, and honest reason for why art created out of appalling political conditions is more successful. It's simply that art, in general, is about telling stories, creating myths. And one of the most hackneyed, yet enduring, myths is of the struggling artist fighting the life around him in forging his art. It makes a great story, and gives us, the audience, an easy way in to the work without having to struggle too much with comprehending it on its own terms, grappling with its specific form and content. It's simply a Product of Struggle (with one's government, the system, race, deafness, whatever). It's never, ever, granted the dignity to be a creation in and of itself.
Bingo. But, similarly, you can't exempt the artist from this equation; if the work is never allowed to stand on its own, this must be, in part, because the artist is not trying to let it stand on its own. It's easy to throw around the kind of signs that Western critics are looking for without including much of substance. The article's misguided, I think, in endorsing Roth's metaphor of the state as a mother just behind the door from masturbating artists, and its wrongness seems startlingly obvious to me in this context. Roth's concerned with the artist's position, but that's onanism, pleasing yourself, whereas what we're concerned with here is pleasing others. The artists in the exhibition may very well be quite pleased with their work. It's just that critics aren't.
I still believe, as I said in the previous post, that the problem is not the removal of the repressive state but the laziness of creators. Tim's 100% right to say that the struggling artist myth is hackneyed and enduring, and what that makes it is easy. (It's telling, for instance, to see "a banality" in the artwork; the old stuff was banal, too, it's just that the banality was way more exciting. So maybe we should rethink our problems with banality, eh?) Artists are constantly faced with the problem of What Is My Subject? This leads visual artists to get fixated on certain images or processes, writers to get fixated on themes, musicians on genres, etc., not because they like them so much as there's enough energy in the chosen focus to sustain creativity. In a repressive society, the subject is so easy it seems almost criminal to write about anything else. Why write about love when you can write about repression? Why write about love when it will just be interpreted as being metaphorically about repression? (Possible review from 1989: "Although there are no specific references to his country of residence, it's undeniable that Polish writer Mikal Svortsky's novel about monster truck enthusiasts in rural Ohio is, at heart, a cry for freedom...")
And so what do you do when that unitary subject is removed? Well, for one thing, you write about different things than everyone else, which takes away the illusion of a "movement" that would be easy to get a handle on, or, to be more charitable, takes away that peer motivation of "raising your game" that others have discussed, and which I'm inclined to endorse. For another thing, it robs you of the kind of moral focus that makes for more unambiguous, and thus easily graspable, art.
But more than anything else, I think it knocks out the crutch of transgression. And, make no mistake, transgression is a crutch. Nice as it can be as a tool (see South Park post below), it can never be the point, because it's almost never a practical reality. Art was transgression under Soviet regimes simply because the regimes said it was; whether it had any actual subversive effect or not wasn't really the issue. When we prize transgression as a cultural value, all that needs happen for great art to bloom is to create something to transgress against, and that doesn't really seem to make any sense, does it? Valuing transgression is probably the worst element of the adolescent view of art that most people never seem to grow out of; viewing the artist as a teenager makes no sense when they are, in fact, fully grown, and viewing the audience as their confidante makes no sense when they may, in fact, be the mother.
Artists are lazy because it is easy to create this stuff, because sadness has more cultural capital than happiness. But it only has cultural capital because it's supposedly harder to create, because something tragic reflects suffering and maturity and so forth. But as someone said, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." Creating something good and fundamentally positive seems easy right up until the point where you try to do it, at which point you realize just how hard it must have been for that scattered collection of creators who managed to nail it--and whose lives we seem eager to make tragic as if to compensate. We're none of us happy creatures, we humans, but we do manage to make a good go of it sometimes.
When the restraints are removed, what do you do? This is a question that's important not just to Eastern European artists, but to Western ones as well. The impulse seems to all-to-often be to pretend like there is still oppression there to justify what you do. But this is not true, and not productive. What is always more heartening to see is when people take that freedom and play with it in the same way they played with repression. You can and should impose limits and restraints on yourself, but you can't pretend that someone else did it for you. Take the restraint of freedom and do something wonderful with it.
 Although the article does make a great point in this regard: "Communism was officially optimistic, insisting that a better life for everyone was on the way. It was, in everyday life, insistent on niceness, backed up by state violence. The great quality of the culture of dissent in the 1970s and 80s was therefore an overt selfishness, aggression, and bad humour..."
 Possibly Oscar Wilde, possibly Sir Donald Wolfit. posted by Mike B. at 6:42 PM
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"I'm thinking about gardening as a radical political act."
Of course you are. Me, I'm thinking about pooping my pants as a radical political act. It really threatens people's assumptions about hygene and resource redistribution and the sacridity of the body. You know.
The whole article's pretty hilarious, because even beyond all the incredibly stupid things they're saying, no one mentions the real reasons they started "a hydroponic garden." If you catch my drift. posted by Mike B. at 12:34 PM
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I'll admit that it bothers me that I come down so hard on my friends on the left sometimes, because, well, because I agree with them, or at least with 2/3 of what they have to say, and we share the same goals, so why be so argumentative? For all the importance that I give to the maxim "the perfect is the enemy of the good," isn't that what I'm doing by getting so bothered by the rhetoric of radicalism? Shouldn't I be heartened by expressions of support for feminism, anti-racism, peace, income redistribution, etc., rather than disgusted and annoyed? Aren't I being too picky?
Maybe. But it's important, I think, that what particularly bothers me is speech, specifically political speech. I'll support a petition for something right up until the point where I actually read the damn thing. And yeah, that's stupid, but I don't think it's stupid to get annoyed at the simpleminded, self-righteous statements made by musicians, entertainers, and peers with whom I otherwise agree. One on level, it's that you're getting mad at someone who isn't there, preaching to the choir as if they were the enemy, and the roar of approval becomes equivalent to a conversion, which of course is not the case, and not helpful. What everyone agrees upon already is invoked as if it's in doubt. What's the point? It's self-aggrandizement, and it's dumb.
But I think the thing that really dismays me, beyond even the faulty reasoning or naive grasp of political realities, is how dull it all is. For all the rich tradition of political speech in this country--there's little anywhere that's comparable to the rousing prose of the Declaration of Independence, and that was nominally written by committee!--what I hear coming out of the mouths of my contemporaries is either simplistic or didactic, either amounting to "this sucks!" or a stilted white-paper presentation of the facts that nevertheless manages to be ideological and should be a footnote to the rhetoric rather than the major purpose. There's no language to rouse, just to reinforce. There's no credit given to the audience's knowledge, just an assumption of ignorance paired with either condescension or contempt. This doesn't really seem like a productive political technique to me. There's always been ignorance and apathy in politics, but the way to overcome it is not, I think, to attempt to bury it or deride it. It needs to be overcome, not pandered to. We need to rise above.
I can't think of a single great piece of American political rhetoric since the mid-60s. Some of the speeches of both Kennedys were genuinely inspirational and uplifting; little since has even approached that. So it's partially that the current generation sorely lacks for viable examples, and, of course, it's partially the rise of the mass media. I think it gets conveniently blamed for a lot more things than it's really responsible, but its effect on politics has been pretty clear. Political rhetoric has devolved because rhetoric plays a much smaller role now on the broad stage presented by the media, and words live forever to be twisted and reused, if they're not ignored outright. The example from our elected officials has been away from specific language toward ambiguous symbol, non-verbal cues, and non-explicit statements. Politics has always been in part, of course, the business of saying one thing and meaning another, but never before has there been such impetus to engage in ironic or ambiguous statement, and never before has there been such use of symbols, and visuals, and gestures. There are a lot of reasons for this (the weakening of the party system, hastened by the mass media, explains a lot of it, too), and I'm not saying it's necessarily Bad For Democracy, but I do think it's been severely damaging to political speech.
But just because our politicians have made speech a liability doesn't mean that we citizens can't still engage in it. What we have is, almost entirely, our voices, and to use it to merely spread information or to endorse a policy position seems like an injudicious use of the resources available to us. Why do we speak as if we are trying to subdue an unruly child when we could unambiguously, politely but without apology, attempt to convince others of the rightness of our case? Isn't that what we're supposed to do?
I'm not saying that we could realistically expect a return to the unamplified, three hour speech-a-thons that characterized 19th-century politics. But I think that the spirit of those times, if not the particulars, could be productively revisited, and for a young audience, no less. (We are, after all, already used to one-to-many presentations it from college classes, ha.) I'm probably the poppiest, short-attention-spanniest person I know, but I still get teared up when I read Lincoln's second inaugural, and if you don't, I want to know what the fuck you've been reading lately. Just as the spirit of a Bartok string quartet can be precisely conveyed by a three-minute rock song, so can the spirit of an epic speech from 200 years ago be conveyed in one today. What is important is not the content as much as the form, the rhythms and cadences and the perspective from which it comes, and the willingness to trust the listener. For everything that's changed with technology in the last 50 years, what will never change is the ability for humans to persuade other humans with nothing but their voices, and that is a power we all have. I simply wish we would use it with the precision that it presents as a possibility, and with a frequency that better represents its importance. And I especially wish leftists would use it. If we're going to get burned by anti-intellectualism, the thing to do is not embrace that criticism, but to use that smartness that we have for good.
Do I sound like a grumpy old man? Yeah, probably; I think I do half the time, when I'm not harping on about something ridiculously juvenile. But this is what I think, and what I'm going to try to do. posted by Mike B. at 6:36 PM
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1) It is the perfect song for 11 year olds. Because you (and by "you" here I'm going to mean an 11-year-old boy for a while) hear the edited version on the radio, and you know those edits are hiding something, and so someone in your class gets the unedited single, and it gets passed around like a secret prize, not because anyone would forbid it so much as because it seems kind of naughty. The point is not that you haven't heard these words before, since you have, many times over. The point is that they're still sort of new, and thus funnier; there is that tinge of the theoretically-forbidden-but-socially-acceptable that someone in my age group might get from, say, cocaine. (And remember, kids, it's a straight line from "shit" to cocaine!) Just as the idea of sexiness was at least somewhat familiar to me when I heard Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sex" at the age of 13 (if not, perhaps, European beefcakes of ambiguous sexuality, so kudos to you there, Richard and Fred Fairbrass), the fact that it was being spoken outright rather than alluded to was both significant and deeply hilarious. I'd wager that this song will have a lifelong place in the memories of the generation that's currently just hitting adolescence, because it's so blatant. And, of course, so catchy. This will pop up in their heads for years to come.
Tangentially, it seems odd that we're so eager to discount novelty songs when they so clearly seem like the first bits of "adult" pop that will likely grab kids' attention. Do we really not think this will deeply affect their musical sensibilities? Maybe I'm overstating this, but why not pull a Timelords and release a one-off novelty hit that conveys your sensibility to the littler kiddos? Maybe because novelty songs are actually kind of hard to pull off.
2) There's no swearing until the chorus. I love this. It's the lyrical equivalent of the grunge clich? of turning on the distortion for the chorus, and it totally works. All of a sudden it's louder, more noticeable, more driving. Given the generally processed, mechanical nature of the track, it feels like there's a Robot Eamon set on "genteel" and then his controller stomps on a pedal marked "SWEARING" when it gets to the chorus. I don't mean this metaphorically as a sort of evocation of what it feels like to me--I mean that I can actually picture this happening while I listen to the song. And it's this incongruity--that it's the same song, plus swears--that lends it a lot of its humor and power. You could easily have another song with these exact lyrics in the chorus and it would seem normal and boring, but here it really sounds weird, and in that way, actually a lot like breaking up.
3) It sounds like a parody of a slow jam that nevertheless works as a slow jam. All the signs are there: the sixteenth hat hits at the end of the bar, the deep bass, the strings, the backup singers, the honeyed voice. It is a slow jam, but man, it's not, because that chorus totally breaks face. Slow jams just aren't that outwardly unrestrained. The lyrics or performance can evidence an inner turmoil, but they miss "Fuck It"'s feeling of near-schizophrenia, lyrically. But at the same time: definitely a slow jam, and it can work on those terms. This is hard to pull off, the working parody, but when it does, it's absolutely delicious, because it's usually done by someone with no qualms about going directly for all the instant gratification buttons of the chosen genre.
4) There's absolutely no connect between the music and the lyrics in the chorus. The closest comparison this song has, I guess, would by Macy Gray's "I Try," in which the singer ends up going kind of crazy in an effort to mirror the emotion of the lyrics. But here, not only does the performance stay fairly restrained, but the music holds back completely. Here the mechanized thing comes in again, because it sounds like it's just playing on and Eamon's fitting something perfectly to it that it was never intended for. The chorus here wouldn't sound out of place at all in an emo song, and it makes total sense to replace the prom theme backing with screaming guitars and feedback and driving bass. But it plays it cool, and in doing so, it splits the difference between the two genres, coming out with something that's either a country or a hard rock anthem. It's highly fist-pumpable, and that's slightly weird to find. But it genuinely gets you worked up in a way these songs usually don't; it doesn't make you feel cool or sad or romantic, it makes you feel pissed-off and strong. It makes you feel punk, motherfuckers, and if you can't see that, something's missing.
I love this song. I love this song so much that while riding the train downtown to record vocals this Saturday for songs about totalitarianism and the bankruptcy of bohemia, and while also listening to and enjoying indie stalwarts like the Geraldine Fibbers and Fiery Furnaces, I was seized with a nigh-irresistible urge to hear this song, and so I did something I haven't done for a long time: I got off the train one stop early, walked over to the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, and tried to buy the single. But, alas, they didn't have it.
To call the song Tourettic is both too easy and inaccurate; a literally Tourettic song would sound like The Locust with really loud swearing on top, and a figuratively Tourettic song would be, of course, Prince's "Kiss," all jerks and grooves and stop-starts. "Fuck It," on the other hand, is like a balm, Tourette's caged and tamed, the tics taken into account and sequenced and set to a beat. I love how this song treats swearing, putting it out front and not shying away from that, but pulling everything else in around it in a way that exists almost wholly to emphasize "fuck" and "shit."
Which brings us, of course, to Liz Phair.
It can be argued that, for a while, Liz was as defined by swearing, or at least obscenity, as Eamon is right now. People might want to argue otherwise, talking about her deft songwriting and her innovative production, but the fact is that in the early 90s I doubt you could think about Liz Phair without at least unconsciously thinking "blowjob queen" or "I want to fuck you til your dick turns blue." She introduced a new female archetype to indie rock: as Kim Gordon was the Unapproachable Art Chick and Kim Deal was the Too Cool For School Stoner Girl, Liz's musical persona was undeniably the Slut With Issues, or SWI. This was hardly an original type; you can find SWIs, off the top of my head, in rock with Stevie Nicks, in folk with Marianne Faithful, and in country with lots of ladies, or at least lots of ladies' songs. Liz was the crazy girl who liked fuckin', and that was nice.
She created this by having a real grasp on obscenity as a musical tool, on the way swearing or dirty talk functions like a distortion pedal, as something to heighten and focus. In a droney song called "Flower," she could hide lines like "You're probably shy and introspective / That's not part of my objective / I just want your fresh, young jimmy / Turning, slamming, ramming in me" and make it revelatory, make the hidenness of it literal and thus reverse it. In its explicit (in both senses) explanation of the album's purpose, it reflected its sensibility onto everything else, and that same blatant obscenity, plain-spoken but exhibitionistic, made its way into even more under-stated songs.
Which is why "Why Can't I" is such an interesting inversion of what we're used to from the Liz Phair Sex Formula. Theoretically, it should be a "Fuck It"-like use of obscenity when it hits before the second chorus, because there's no other swear word in the song except this one:
Here we are, we're at the beginning
We haven't fucked yet, but my head's spinning
It conforms to half of the above description of obscenity on "Guyville": it's certainly plain-spoken. The whole point of the song is that after you get out of a serious relationship, it's really wonderful to have this new opportunity to hook up with someone without any baggage, without any expectations or previous fights, and the tension is really pleasurable. What they're going to do is fuck; it's really the best word for it, and so she uses it.
But it's not exhibitionistic; it's just honest. The song itself portrays the same kind of adolescent emotion that "Flower" does, but in a very different way. She's not speaking hidden thoughts, she's talking about something that almost all of us have not only felt, but expressed openly, because there's no reason at this point not to. And for that reason, the "fuck" passes by as mere correct grammar, rather than provocation or titillation. It's there, but it's true, expressing a wider truth than perhaps "Flower" does. I wouldn't make an argument that one kind is better than the other, but they're both, like "Fuck It," primarily adolescent, and better for their blatant juvenilia than they would be otherwise.
People sometimes don't want to admit it, but pop music (and I'm talking Pop-III here, very broadly) is an teenage medium, made best by people who are stuck in or able to reasonably recreate an eternal adolescence. Even stuff trying to be "mature" only works when it's still from that sensibility or successfully appeals to it. (Political pop music falls into the latter category a lot these days, as does Christian pop.) It's all deeply immature. But that's OK. If adolescence is an invention of post-industrial society, and most signs point to this being the case, that doesn't necessarily imply that it's a bad invention, any more than it would about the computer.
I'm not saying that consumers of pop shouldn't also read Harper's and watch Kurosawa films. Far from it. And I'm also not saying that you can't make a remarkably mature song, like "Divorce Song," say, in that medium. But I am saying that you do have to either foreground or background it with immaturity for it to really work. If Eamon is emo, then emo is novelty, and if Liz Phair is mature, then Avril is mature, and I think all or none of these things may be true. But, as usual, the connections are closer than we might want to admit.
 Also arguably comparable would be "Cry Me a River," but there the music reflects about as much pissed off-ness as the lyrics and singing.
 Preemptory disclaimer: what I'm about to say is going to be kinda sexist and definitely wholly from a male perspective, but I also think it's pretty fair to represent the early 90s indie sensibility this way, especially as regards Liz Phair. I don't think this is a good thing necessarily.
 Which is not to discount the sublimeness of the other songs, whose awesome songcraft is what has sustained Liz beyond Right Said Fred or, most likely, Eamon. But I think it's undeniable that the obscenity served as a total hook. "Flower" isn't really good enough of a song for it to be otherwise. posted by Mike B. at 1:39 PM
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