clap clap blog: we have moved
Friday, March 11, 2005
Well, time for a hiatus. Just kidding.
posted by Mike B. at 3:05 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Thursday, March 10, 2005
How do you make a great Basement Jaxx song even better? Make a video where it's all acted out fairly literally (attraction, come-ons, flirting, etc.), except by cute old people! And then have the cute old people do group dancing to it! And then: funky knitting! And then old people booty grabbing!
I think the best part is where she's getting asked questions by the two old ladies on either side of her while dancing.
posted by Mike B. at 5:47 PM 0 comments Links to this post
One more little tidbit, though. And it is this.
Die, Ted Leo, die. May long-nailed Jersey trash vixens slowly claw the flesh from your bones. May you be thrown onto the Garden State Parkway clothed in a spike-lined jacket, where the spikes are pointed inward. May all your affairs come to barest dust.
An acoustic cover? AN ACOUSTIC COVER? And then the YYY switch? Dear. Sweet. Jesus.
posted by Mike B. at 1:24 PM 0 comments Links to this post
3 things learned from the ol' referral log:
1) I am the only hit when you search Yahoo for "Gavin Bryers' compositional style and technique" for some reason.
2) This blog is saying something about my MIA post, but as it's in some Scandanavian language, I have no idea what it's saying. If anyone's got any ideas, lemme know.
3) I keep getting hit from people searching for "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah" i.e. the band of the same name. It's like every day. So I have to wonder: are people searching for it because they're interested in the music or is it just regular autogoogling? And why do I keep getting hits from it when I'm on the third page of results? Weird.
I've been giving you a lot of attention, my little bloggicans, and the other parts of my life are getting jealous and/or screamy, so I will have to neglect you today. But, um, if you want to talk about Gilmore Girls or something in the comments, feel free.
posted by Mike B. at 11:32 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Wednesday, March 09, 2005
My bathroom reading lately has been Shakespeare's Complete Works. Whilst perusing it this morning I came upon sonnet 8, which a) I had forgotten was one of my favs, and b) is perhaps the earliest recorded instance of smacking down hataz.
Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly?And then, of course, I realized how much it resembled Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young":
Come out Virginia, don't let me me waitNow, as my pops explained this to me, it's a taunt--only the good die young, and you're not dead yet, so what does that make you? Which is sort of what I want to say to people sometimes: we're all down here in the mud and the muck, so roll around in it with the rest of us. Don't be shy. Also: look, they're all singing for you, and if you don't like it, that just amuses the music. You by yourself ain't no fun. Joy delights in joy.
 No, seriously. I'm sorry.
 Confidential to Miss Clap: Shakespeare's COMPLETE Works.
 Definition there being very biased obvs.
 Just to say this going forward: I am being totally sincere about all of this, which may be more worrisome than the alternative, but still.
posted by Mike B. at 12:22 PM 0 comments Links to this post
My dad sent me an article from the 2/7/05 New Yorker called "Gross Points," written by Louis Menand. It's a review of three books about the movies, and isn't particularly interesting on that score, mainly rehashing things other people have said before about how blockbusters are bad etc.--I love ya, Louis, but this was starting to get old in 1997.
However, there are two interesting quotes that apply to genres that aren't movies. Number one:
The contemporary Hollywood movie is what Harold Rosenberg once called an "anxious object." Rosenberg was referring to art after Pop, to a time when, suddenly, a painting of a soup can, or a pile of stones, or a wall of Polaroids was worth a lot of money. But were these works of art, or were they commodities? The distinction had become blurry.Now, I'm going to be straight with you: I have never heard of Harold Rosenberg before, much less read The Anxious Object. But I'm going to go with Menand's interpretation here, and hopefully Janine won't come in and tell me I'm full of shit.
And Menand's interpretation is interesting because it says this anxiety, particular to "contemporary" movies (although later in the article he reverses himself on this point and admits that movies have always been commercial), is a bad thing, which is roughly what Rosenberg (from my hasty Googling) seemed to think about modern art--there was a different anxiety before, which was good, but once it got translated to commercial anxiety, it had a negative effect on the art. Menand regards it as natural and inevitable for art that has entered the world of commerce to have this anxiety, and so thinks the only solution, were it possible given the current realities etc., would be for it to back away, to avoid being a commodity as much as it would be able.
I, obviously, think the opposite. The anxiety of being commodified is not a natural thing, but an anxiety foisted on art by its critics and contemporaries, and the best solution to the problem (we agree, at least, that it's a problem) is to work through this anxiety and come out the other side, to produce art that does not see its commerciality as fundamentally a concern, nor is it viewed as such.
This is precisely why I (and, I think, other people, all of whom seem to be members of my generation, for whatever reason) fight so vigorously about criticisms of commodification or "selling out" or mass appeal. It does produce an anxiety, one that I simply don't think would be such a concern were those arguments not so widespread, and that anxiety is fundamentally detrimental to the quality of the art. It produces a focus on this concern that tends to preclude discussion of other subjects and to restrain movement, often out of fear of the reaction of your peers. This is not good. We all need people to tell us when we're sucking, but we don't really need people telling us we suck for what we're doing, you know?
There is no doubt that the degree to which a piece of art fights against outside commercial forces in the course of its creation is a useful indicator of its vitality. (Although, as Menand notes, outside commercial forces can sometimes have a better idea of what's good for a movie than the participants do.) But in no way is the black-or-white characteristic of commercial or non-commercial a determinant of something's artistic worth. Its artistic worth is what it is; ultimately, the way in which it is transmitted can be a guide, but never an actual basis for judgment. I think we've gone a long way in ceasing to see these divisions, and we wish other people would, too.
What I realized is that it's actually this "anxiety" I was talking about two weeks back, calling it "self-deprecating genres." The reason there's this defensive posture all stems, fundamentally, from the fact that the genres in question are wholly commodified: TV, comic books, pop music, teen magazines, and, as Abby put it, "commercial fiction." The defensive argument basically comes down to, "I know this form isn't very artistic, but what I'm making is art." It isn't really an argument that should have to be made, but it is, over and over again. It is the guilt of the bohemian in a capitalist system, hahaha, the cultural version of "liberal guilt" which transmogrifies itself into grumpy self-righteousness, i.e. "the clap clap blog default stance." But it kinda sucks. I think we'd all be better off without it.
Quote number two:
[P]people no longer respond to movies the way they once responded to The Big Sleep. This is not simply an argument from nostalgia; it has an empirical corollary. In 1946, weekly movie attendance was a hundred million. That was out of a population of a hundred and forty-one million, who had nineteen thousand movie screens available to them. Today, there are thirty-six thousand screens in the United States and two hundred and ninety-five million people, and weekly attendance is twenty-five million.Gee, a medium experienced by over 2/3 of the population on a weekly basis. What would that describe today?
Could it be...TV?
I dunno, I just get this feeling sometimes, you know? I read something like this and think, huh, sure seems like in a few decades people might be looking back at this era and calling it something like a golden age while treating the medium as a whole with the kind of reverence people currently reserve for "the cinema." It just fits: crassly commercial setup somehow producing great art, an abundance of auteurs, fast-paced, etc., etc. I'm not sure quite what the quality difference is between The Big Sleep and any number of contemporary TV shows. And believe me, that's not a rip on The Big Sleep.
If our yardstick is caring, TV's winning by multiple football fields. It's something we watch and love and discuss and get angry about if they change. Of course, this could just be because it's "addictive"--but weren't movie theaters "dens of sin" in their time, too? Ultimately, the addiction thing is a cop-out, a way of countering the fact that you're criticizing this thing so many people love so much.
But hey, I could be wrong. A lot of very intelligent people are quite convinced that TV, and pop music, and lots of other commercial genres, are in and of themselves unworthy, and that anything that comes out of them that approaches "art" is "subversive," an anomaly, something produced in spite of the system it emerged from. It just seems to me that neither good stuff nor the bad stuff should be unexpected from any medium, because the medium doesn't have much to do with it.
And now I must go kill zombie McLuhan.
posted by Mike B. at 11:21 AM 0 comments Links to this post
New reviews in Flagpole this week, including an Adam Green review by Hillary, and two somewhat embarassing hip-hop reviews by me. I can only say this: I'm sorry. Although I do kinda like the Yung Wun review. And they're both better than the Sage Francis review. (No offense Chad, but seriously: 'not a single grunt, "yeah" or "what up?" taints the music'--c'mon now.)
posted by Mike B. at 11:18 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Tuesday, March 08, 2005
So hey. Let's talk about MIA's "MIA" (or "POP"), shall we? For the purposes of this entry, I'm going to deal with the version that appears as a bonus track on Arular.
First off, here are the lyrics:
You can watch TV and watch the media(thanks go to Joe for extensive help on these, as well as Matthew for his contributions and for originally posting the song; I'm still not entirely clear on some of these words, but I'll try and avoid putting too much importance on those, alright?)
Let's just knock down one little critical garden gnome straight out of the gate: there is nothing, zero, nada here about the Tamil Tigers or terrorism or Sri Lanka, unless of course you want to count the single word "Indians," which, you know, I don't. The closest she gets is "educated, but a refugee still," and I don't know how you can read that as anything but a reference to the particularly British political issue of refugee status.
That said, let's delve into the music. It has basically the same structure as "Galang," a hook proceeding to 2 verse/chorus pairs followed by a longish bridge that ends the song, except in this case it transitions back into the hook and ends with a minute-long instrumental section. The hook itself is formed by cut-up bits of MIA's voice (cue Prefuse comparisons), quite possibly played on a sampler to form a riff later doubled by the bass, consisting of one measure staying on the tonic followed by half a measure dropping a whole step to a diminished (?) seventh and another half-measure that goes minor third up, back down to dim 7, then up to minor second, which ends the riff and sends us down a half-step to the tonic, which means it's in some minor mode I'm not qualified to name.
For our purposes, it's mainly important to note the way the vocals follow that progression, which is basically four beats of middle, two beats of lower and two beats of higher before coming back to the middle, if that makes sense. It's also important to note on which side of that golden ratio'd divide individual lines fall, as in the verses they're all pretty carefully divided up into halves, and when there's carryover, it's from the high to the middle rather than middle to low, as at that point there's almost always a clean vocal break. That middle-lower-upper thing isn't merely a musical conceit but a lyrical one as well, with both working in tandem. The halves and the halve-nots.
One of the things that strikes me about MIA's stuff is the almost infinite mutability of her vocals, which wouldn't be notable if she were straight-up rapping, but there's at least a semblance of singing at most times there. But still, her vocals sound great over this backing, but sounded great over the PFT backing too, and I can easily hear then over any number of different beats. Whether this is a positive thing or not is up to you, but I think it's a testament to the strength of her vocals. The strongest parallel I see between her stuff and dancehall lies here, as a sort of inversion of the riddim concept: same vocals changed by different backing music, adaptable without changes to a whole different sound.
Another thing that strikes me about MIA is how much room her productions leave for her voice, and the degree to which the tracks hang on the voice. (Which must make for some interesting challenges in performance, but that's for another time.) This is not what I hear in baile funk, which fills in many more beats. Even when, as in the verses of "MIA," the backing is mainly just a bass drum, there are simply more beats in baile funk per measure. Partially this is due to the way MIA structures things; as mentioned, the riff here spreads itself over two bars, and so the little accent noises that traditionally come at the end of a pattern and carry over into the next repetition here have an extra four beats in the middle, which allows them to dissipate. But it's also due to the particular sounds she uses, which are much tighter. There's no reverb, there's a much shorter sustain and release time, and there are legitimate bare spaces at times.
If there's a particular antecedent for MIA's backing-tracks-as-backing-tracks, it's clearly Timbaland, who's similarly careful to leave spaces, and similarly varies things up at irregular intervals. But he operates on a bar-by-bar basis, and so his sounds are even tighter than MIA's, with less beats and even shorter trails on his samples. Timbaland's trick is often to have half the bar consist of very low sounds and half of very high sounds with little overlap; MIA's has overlap but more actual emptiness. Her beats are cheaper, and so they can't be fine-tuned the way his are, but she solves that dilemma by giving herself more room to work. Fundamentally, Timbaland's beats are more manic than MIA's. He sometimes has the hip-shake, but never that lovely, slinky, catlike sexual menace we see here, that seductive creep.
And so we are free to compare it to a whole raft of different musical genres with which it shares a kinship, beyond the perhaps too-obvious ones it's already been likened to. It's sort of folk music with beats instead of acoustic guitars, spare and plain, the music sitting as an anchor to focus on the words and the voice. It's synthesized James Brown funk, landing on the 8 and the 1 and letting the drummer work in the middle. It's Now! pop with a Jamaican accent. It's something that could have always been created and which could be created again, a music always being created: an individual sitting down with a music-maker and creating something that simply sounds good to her, that reflects what she wants to hear without necessarily being part of a particular genre or scene.
So what do we hear? We hear, first of all, that voice, with subbass swoops behind, followed by a beat settling in, a variant on the "Red Alert" riddim kinda, dotted-eighth-dotted-eighth on kick and an eighth on snare. The bass comes in over this, a trebly distortion or a saw wave-derived tone, largely following the kick. Buzzes fly over this. Halfway through the first verse, a sampled one-note guitar riff triggers from time to time, extended via a one-rep delay. When the chorus hits, the only thing that changes at first is the incursion of sixteenth-note synth-handclaps that are unconstant and lack any particular pattern, but which seem to hold things down nevertheless. Halfway through the chorus the subbass swoop comes back in, and when the chorus ends everything cuts out for a beat or two, leaving the vocals exposed there at the beginning of the second verse. There's a bit more going on here, the occasional hi-hat hit, but it's shorter than the first verse, and proceeds pretty quickly into the chorus, which is half of what it was before, and when that ends we're back into the minimal backing and vocal sample of the intro. When the vocals start for the bridge, the backing is just the bass and the kick for the first two reps, after which we get snare and hi-hats for another rep, then the sampled guitar, then a little bit with filtered vocals, then an instrumental break focusing heavily on the subbass swoop, and the whole thing ends with the chorus backing music over the intro vocal sample pattern, with an additional vocal sample working its way in: "London," which gets an exposed solo briefly just before the end.
What's most notable here is, I think, how well the song works despite there not being anything particularly distinctive about it in the abstract. Standard beat, standard structure. What makes this song great is all in the details: the way she varies the kick hits, the three (!) different kick noises she uses, the totally counterintuitive times she puts in that subbass swoop, that great little guitar riff that, along with the two or three different buzzes she also uses, the extremely sparse hat, and the less sparse snare and claps, constitute the entirety of the non-bass noises in the song, which, again, leaves a lot of room for her voice. The number of times you could listen to the chorus without being able to clap along with the actual claps. It's a constantly mutating song that still manages to hold down a consistent groove; it is "POP" as the former title had it. Consistently mutating songs aren't anything inventive at this point, but the particular execution here is mind-bending. (It's also that it's slower but not like CoFlo molasses-slow, just a bit slower than other distorto-mutato stuff.) But what's more mind-bending is what she does with this.
What she does is different than what we're used to hearing above this sort of beat: she sings like it's a regular R&B track, a trick which of course enhances the mashup-ready feel of it all. It's neither rapping nor the kind of random shouting that you'd hear were this an electroclash song (which it could be with 35 more bpm and a more constant kick and, obviously, a different singer) but a confident, strongly delivered melodic line that doesn't rely much on anything around it but creates its own logic that the rest of the song somehow follows: like the vocals, it doesn't do too much, but it works wonders with what it's got.
This is all to say (kinda) that the music, vocals, and lyrics are all basically doing the same thing: reflecting a personal sensibility rather than any particular collective set of expectations. It is a private self that does not seek to express itself by performing the impossible task of filtering all outside influences, but instead accepts the world, all of it, as part of its makeup and then attempts to produce what would please this makeup most. And this pleasure also includes the pleasure of pleasing other people with what it is doing. Get it?
What strikes me most about the lyrics is the way that political figures are addressed as social or cultural figures--more actors in pop culture, in other words. Bush and Blair appear, but as figures far less distinct than everyone else here, as background noise, undeniably part of the fabric of our daily lives, but not as primary players, just basically the same as the person who gives you your food or the girl on the cover of a magazine: unreal, separate, but still actually, y'know, real. If this was a video that I directed, it would be MIA walking around the streets of London, fixing her gaze on different people and getting an accelerated glimpse into their lives, which would be revealed as a move projected through their forehead and shot from the size so you could see the beam. A projection and a narrative. Which is, of course, how the whole thing starts: "You can watch TV and watch the media." This is a representation.
But ultimately MIA does not remain the watcher. The reason I have this vision for the song is because she refuses to remain separate from what she's describing. She rolls her sleeves up and plunges into the fray, positioning herself not as an observer but a part of this: not different, but exactly the same, on a certain level, as everything she's presenting to you, which in turns is an attempt to implicate the listener of the song in what's being described, to take all watchers and make them walkers. But this applies to everyone in the song, from Bush to unemployed Londoners to Iraqis. It's an attempt to find a leveled space where everyone can speak as equals, a perfect plan, perfectly plain: pop.
She has been building the case for this since before Arular. She's insisted from the beginning on situating herself within mass culture. On Piracy Funds Terrorism, she managed to narrow the difference between herself, the Diplomats, and baile funk to almost nothing. It is a quite intentional rejection of the provincialization of subculutral scenes. "I'm a west Londoner...but a refugee still." Both and therefore neither. "I don't have a side." If it's all pop, it's not all music, and so everything is like everything else: Kate Moss is a political figure and Bush is a fashion model. Both are salespeople.
But how can she not have a side? Aren't there intentional slogans in there? Sure. But that doesn't necessarily mean she's the one spouting them if everything else in the song is observation. You can evoke globalization without passing judgment on it because it's a part of our lives when we live in cities just as much as magazine ads or the search for employment. The very unoriginality of the slogans points to the fact that they're not in the authorial voice but are more description of the cultural landscape. It all exists outside here, outside all of us--and it all reverts, ultimately, to playground taunts. Adolescence is love is sex is politics is war is culture is adolescence. Nyah nyah nyah nyah! Remind you of any critics you've read lately? (Me?)
This does not only apply to globalization. It also applies to the big MIA bugaboo, terrorism. Terrorism is a part of her life, but not in the same way (note I'm not making a value judgment here, just a statement of difference) as when American politicians say terrorism is a part of our lives, or even when victims of terrorism say terrorism is a part of their lives. Both of these are true statements. But we can all agree that MIA had, as the evangelicals say, a personal relationship with terrorism, from her father to the fact that significant areas of the country she grew up in are controlled by terrorists, to the degree that they basically feature terrorist-run civil governments. In Sri Lanka--and not a few other places--terrorism is politics, and politics, as we've demonstrated above, is culture. And culture is pop. It's more landscape description.
But the subject here is not terror, is it commercial. And, again, it can contain a critique of commercialism without necessarily endorsing that critique, in exactly the same way it can contain Kate Moss but not endorse her. (Cor, I'd like to endorse her, if you know what I mean! Uh, sorry.) Being the kind of person MIA is--an artist, a musician--concerns about commercialism are part of her daily discussions. The criticisms sitting side-by-side with the endorsements are there to serve as contrast, an intentional balancing act. Is it worse to "sell out" or be unemployed? Who's the offender, Kate Moss or the bill payers or the drug dealers? These contradictions absolutely define the modern world, and that's what this song is concerned with.
Even when she seems to be sending a coherent message, something intrudes. The first half of the bridge, which seems to be trying to paint some sort of inclusive portrait of oppressed peoples, is sung to the tune of "Here Comes Santa Claus," which as any Jewish-American can tell you, is not a particularly inclusive thing for a large portion of the world's population. This is significant. It's very pessimistic about the chances for any kind of unity because of the basic cultural differences between us, while at the same time holding fast to that vision, to that possibility.
There's another very significant contradiction in the second verse, with the line: "Trendsetters make things better / Don't sell out to be product pushers." Now, the first half of that is very interesting, and is not a view often expressed outside of celebrity journalism. Generally, we are supposed to have naught but scorn for trendsetters, because they are vapid hipsters. But she's recognizing their positive effects, and she's not even including the word "can" to suggest that they could be doing better. But then this is followed by basically a negation of the first half, because how can you be a trendsetter without basically being a product pusher? That's what you do. (That's what we do, fellow critics!) We're supposed to dislike them because they sold out. But look where it falls, vocally: the first half in the middle, the second half, the supposed negation, oscillating between low and high. She knows the beginning is the sensible and probably correct view, but she can't stop herself from thinking the negation sometimes. We're not consistent in our worldviews, because we'd be miserable. To ask for cultural consistency is to basically insist on separitism.
"How can she not have a side?" you ask. "These are all sides!" Ah, well then. Let me tip my hand before we roll onto the conclusion: her side is herself. This is inevitably your side when you enter into mass culture. But this is not necessarily apolitical or even conservative: Rawls' theory of justice is basically predicated on everyone vigorously expressing their self-interest. Enlightenment liberalism is founded in part on individualism, and is distrustful of authority. As is this song.
At first blush, the song appears to be a kind of rallying cry for people to rise up. Except let's examine those cries. First we have the chorus, "You can be a follower but who's your leader?" And then we have, in the bridge, "That's your life but who the fuck's your President?" Both of these posit both a sort of vacuum of leadership but do not necessarily present seizing the reins as a valid solution to this. The first statement smacks of car ad slogans, but where those would say something along the lines of "Lead, don't follow," this just says, "Don't follow!" And if you don't have followers, well, what kind of movement do you have? If you don't have a leader, what then?
As for the second statement, it's one everyone sort of asks. While it's certainly an evocation of the undue influence American foreign policy has on the domestic politics of other countries, it's also the inversion of something Americans themselves say (inaccurately) when the candidate they didn't vote for is in office, as well as something people in parliamentary systems can say (accurately) in the same situation: "he's not my President/Prime Minister!" It's politics at a remove, something you can say when the head of government's proclamations don't have much effect on your daily lives. But just as politics is culture, so is some culture more immediate, more present in your life: you're a follower of certain trends or styles, but who exactly is leading them? Who's making those decisions? Everyone and no one, in a way. And the closer you are to a certain form of culture or politics, the less of a follower you are, and the more everyone becomes an equal participant.
So it's a portrait of the modern world and a call for an embrace of its charms tempered with a strong sense of self. It's asserting the will of the individual as a primary political and cultural motor. In other words, it's what I said above about the music: an individual sitting with the tools of creation and consuming (artistically, commercially, politically) what is most appealing to her. It's a clear-eyed portrait of complexity and contradiction and an assertion that it all fits, that it all belongs, that we can throw open the doors and let it all in, because it's already been admitted. Here it is, and you are a part of it, whether you want to be or not.
ADDENDUM: Carl's got a few nice things to say, which I thank him for. Just one note, though: I wasn't actually responding to Simon's thing. This piece was more or less what I've wanted to write for weeks now, and the fact that I hadn't gotten it out was one reason why I was going on about MIA so much. This was pretty much what I wanted to say right here. So yay.
posted by Mike B. at 3:25 AM 1 comments Links to this post
Monday, March 07, 2005
Incidentally, the below is an initial response to Paul Morley's Words and Music. I sat in a Turkish restaraunt in the lower east side on Friday evening and read this while I ate. I got more attention than I ever have before. Regrettably--or not--it was all from straight dudes asking me what I thought of the book. I'll have more later.
The below could also use an essay around it for explanatory/contextual purposes, etc. I may write it at some point, but if someone else wants to take a shot at it, feel free.
posted by Mike B. at 1:56 PM 0 comments Links to this post
ROCK 'N' ROLL BON MOTS #031
Pop, at its pinnacle, is so transparent and so unabashed in its artiface and constructedness and calculation--its inherent unrealness--that it allows these concerns to fall away; it builds them up to such a degree that they collapse under their own weight, and finally allow us a peek at the thing inside. No genre does this better than pop does.
posted by Mike B. at 1:51 PM 0 comments Links to this post