Let Us Now Praise Famous Social Media Engines

I was a very late convert to Twitter (read: only a couple months ago). It took a long time to argue myself out of an acute sense that this particular phenomenon was the end of language as we knew it, the last descent into pure senselessness. Once I talked myself down, I had to overcome my basic indifference to a medium in which many people appeared to be conversing but an interested listener could only hear one side of the conversation at any one time. I read a lot of tweets, but most were inside joke black holes, dutiful self-promotion, or recycled links. But the latest trending #ReplaceMovieTitlesWithVagina hashtag is enough to demonstrate that Twitter is like anything else: 90% of it sucks. And that percentage might creep even higher in this case because of the extreme ease of access and the few demands on the user’s craft, drive, or method. Even disregarding barriers of visual acuity or technique, someone who wants to paint a picture has to at least drive to an art supplies store.

But there is one crucial restriction. 140 characters. Enough for two meager sentences or a full one pimped out with subordinate clauses. It seems an arbitrary limitation but in practice it’s just enough to make a would be Tweeter reconsider any articles or extraneous details and map out their punchlines with greater economy. Like a poem, tweets exist in an ultimate relationship with familiarity and estrangement. In order to fulfill its obligations, a poem’s language has to be trusted at a basic level of understanding (these are words I know, or bear some similarity to words I know) while sanding away its encrustations of acknowledged meaning and convention. The originary technique of poetry was compression to accord with metrical form, just as Twitter’s technique is compression to meet a character limit.  Poets and comedians generally have the most entertaining Twitter accounts because their occupations have been teaching them the fundamentals of Twitter all their lives. And those fundamentals are compression (in thought and language) and surprise.

My favorite purely comic Twitter account is Rob Delaney’s, a comedian who’s built his reputation on a reliable drip of filthy and hilarious tweets that never stop and never falter (seriously this guy tweets all day). You can just spin the wheel and take your pick, but here are three of my recent favorites:

Delaney depends heavily on the punchline format, but he’s a stand-up comic and, more importantly, it never tires. His tweets are a hysterical melange of domestic squabbles, grotesquely specific come-ons, and visceral self-loathing marinated in pop culture both truly disposable (Kardashian et. al.) and enduringly disposable (the Spice Girls will never die). He has an edifying, as yet one-sided conversation going on with @BarackObama that’s worth following.

On the other end of the spectrum, Mark Leidner is an emerging poet whose 1,400 Twitter followers (myself included) hang on his bizarre extrapolations of pop culture addled American doublethink. Leidner’s tweets blur the line between poetry and stand-up, often depending on a comedic structure of expectation but with a poetic commitment to the volatile, perpetually ironized categories of time, death, consciousness, and the soul. A few are classic punchline poetry, tight ravels of topical absurdity and despair:

But some of them strike with the sudden, world eroding felicity of all the best poems, which would make me worry that Leidner is wasting good lines on Twitter if he didn’t have plenty more good enough to put the rest of us out of business. Observe:

Still others are almost there, but succeed only in their medium the same way song lyrics do:

Leidner’s tweets are like poems and his poems have begun to sound like tweets. Leidner’s poem “Romantic Comedies” reads like a single-minded Twitter feed, spinning out a series of increasingly bizzarre and even disturbing movie pitches, taking the bland and formulaic boy meets girl platform and inseminating it with all the totally fucked power of his imagination. He’s published a volume of poetry, Beauty Was The Case They Gave Me, and a collection of aphorisms called  The Angel In The Dream Of Our Hangover. Aphorisms that answer to the name haven’t been relevant since Nietzche, but Leidner and Twitter are changing the game, making the pithy and concise cool again. I have no doubt that Twitter and its descendants will keep influencing poetry on a craft level as it becomes an increasingly necessary vector of promotion and networking.

Detractors rail against inane tweets about breakfast but that has never been what Twitter was about, the same way poetry is not Plath-inspired shit poems about “fascist” parents and comedy is not Dane Cook. It starts with a riff on established language, the subversion of cliches, modulations of “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining, piss on my leg and…” and ends with a meaningful commitment to linguistic strangeness, absurdity, hilarity. Twitter could be an incredible teaching tool and I look forward to its incorporation in creative writing classes. My minor gripe with Twitter is that it’s an uninteresting link aggregator. Many other websites serve that function with greater elegance. My major gripe with Twitter is the correlation of accounts with real people, the putative authors of those tweets. I already think of the accounts I follow, even those of friends, as characters. Frequently I’ll be poised to tweet something horrible, often about my butthole or those of others, and remember that I’m writing under my real name, that my tweets publish to Facebook, that my entire family is on Facebook. My dream Twitter is one of nebulous, fabricated entities coalescing to tell jokes and anecdotes, to deliver suspect aphorisms, to deform and eat and sweat language. It’s both the ancient past and future of a verbal culture, a true oral tradition.


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The Modern Hater: Let’s Not Do The Time Warp Again or The Culture War Is Real

Regression is now less the shameful refuge of the contemporary babyman than a foolproof political technique. Nostalgia has always been at the core of any pitch to the American people, even though our country has so much less spent time for which to yearn. I don’t think any of the haircuts in the current election cycle really believe the America they’re selling ever existed: a time when the streets were safe, jobs grew on trees, and Mad Men was good. And I don’t begrudge any politician an appeal to nostalgia. The present is too close and the future unknowable. The past is what we have.

But indulging in nostalgia while functioning in the present requires a keen sense for what it elides. I’m shocked by the recent amnesia that’s seized public discourse in the past few years. The Help wins Academy Awards like it featured a radical thesis about civil rights. Women get compared to livestock on the floor of the Georgia House. Rick Santorum nearly calls the president (of the United States!) a vile racial slur that I would love to see him try to say to his face. Why are we recapitulating 40-year-old (and older) debates in the innermost spheres of our government? Is an election cycle a good excuse to challenge the most basic rights of women, minorities, and homosexuals every four years?

I’m so tired of this. Most people I speak to are absolutely beaten down by a political-media complex that starts spinning up too far in advance of the election and brings every soundbite and bit of political minutiae into its orbit. I would be exhausted and scared if I thought any of the bleak company of Republican candidates had a real shot, but I’m reasonably sure they don’t. I think Santorum is nostalgic for a time when he only had to interact with white people, Ron Paul is a malignant little free-market elf, and  I can only imagine Mitt and Ann Romney have a weird sex game in which she gets aroused watching him embarrass himself on TV.

But of most immediate concern to myself is the way it makes me feel. I was at dinner listening to a conservation about politics when a thought distinguished itself from the others: the culture war is real. I used to think it was something fabricated by pundits to feed an insatiable news cycle but I feel it now. I feel polarized. I know my position on Occupy Wall Street, abortion, corporate subsidies etc. etc. before I know any of the details of an individual case. I know what I feel when I watch Fox News: rage, but also, pleasure. That I’m so much smarter and more progressive than any of them. I am no better. I dream of conciliation. I’m nostalgic for a time that never existed when my relationship to half of my country wasn’t one of shame, arrogance, and frustration.

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2666: Roberto Bolaño

When I first came upon Bolaño’s work, it had the fingerprints of literary Scooby Doo villain Thomas Pynchon all over it. But a caper of this magnitude? A Chilean pseudonym with an elaborate leftist pedigree? All the chain smoking and cryptic interviews? I suspect that Pynchon ghostwrites about 25% of contemporary American fiction, but he can only do so much.

The opening movements of 2666 make clear that the debt lies elsewhere. Pynchon might figure in the novel, but as character sketch for the reclusive German writer Archimboldi (with some W.G. Sebald DNA) rather than any enduring stylistic influence. What appears a metatextual romp and literary noir deepens into a hard-fought commitment to the realistic novel. Each time it threatens to slide into the magical realism that might have been its guiding star, 2666 insists that the earthly rites and spectacles are grotesque and surreal enough. Its resistance to closure and strategic deletion of narrative markers, techniques that in another context would shore up its experimental credentials, actually heighten a sense of verisimilitude. Reading 2666 is like witnessing a predator live and hunt without some of its organs. Sometimes the void at the center of the world signifies malfunction and breakdown, and sometimes the evacuated space makes possible the salience of all the rest.

Originally slated for publication as five separate novels, the five parts of 2666 don’t all participate in the greater novel’s distinction. “The Part About The Critics” will certainly invite pomo aficionados to feats of literary detection but the novel’s lifeline lies not that way.  In particular, “The Part About The Crimes,” is an absolute moral and spiritual morass, though in this way it is faithful to its source material in the Ciudad Juarez killings. By some margin the longest part of the book, “Crimes” can feel like a garbled transmission. The authority that might have brought shape to the horrific and clinical depiction of rape and murder has receded, making “Crimes” the least pleasurable 250 pages I’ve read in some time. Part of it is intentional, but much of it feels a failure of intent. There’s a difference between recording and testifying, and in “Crimes” that chasm yawns.

2666 stands out as the best book I’ve read since I’ve started this blog. A work concerned with posterity, it works us into the posterity it’s concerned with.  And it teaches me that a piece of art can have the same ideological and conventional commitments as the rank and file of a familiar genre and still feel alien. 2666 is accounted for by our mechanics, yet it doesn’t breathe our air.

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And The Crowd Goes Mild: The 2012 Grammys

(Mark J. Terrill/AP) Justin Vernon searches for, and finds, impurities in his Grammys

It is impossible to watch the Grammys. I maintain that in the face of overwhelming evidence, not the least of which is the fact that I turned it on for twenty minutes last night. Not twenty sequential minutes, that would be dangerous, but enough to see backwoods bro Justin Vernon win two, to realize the Foo Fighters are still a thing, and to get totally exhausted by Nicki Minaj’s demon child gimmickry. The Grammys are objectively unentertaining, but they serve an important function, disclosing an appetite for pop that’s almost Zen in its avowal of an Eternal Now, when the only music worth listening to is playing right now on this revolution of a radio dial. The Grammys have no sense of any future except one in which Adele keeps selling a billion albums forever, and a feeling for the past so distant it has an unearthly cant, like it’s not even ours. This allows us to apply all our powers of snark towards a massive star-killer blog ray incinerating all the out of touch suits who presume to arbitrate tastes for us (we’re 16-24 DAMNIT). YEAH! Little Jimmy punts his radio and rides off, listening to some unholy Lightning Bolt CD-R, bleeding from the ears all the way.

But this is what we’re listening to, even if it won’t be a month from now. And the model of the record executive somehow young or savvy enough to find the ley lines of youth culture seems totally outdated at this point. Sure we’re bombarded with more marketing and advertising than we are stellar radiation, but we do the bulk of it ourselves. Some people out there still listen to Chris Brown (stop it by the way). For them he is an artist of great personal and musical charisma. His conduct is inexcusable and entirely his, but his career is our fault.

Beyond that, the Grammys have a necessary leveling effect on people like Nicki Minaj and Paul McCartney, whose lifestyles eat and shit out a thousand of mine in a day. At the Grammys their behavior can still seem “normal person” embarrassing; I had to flip back and forth from Nick Minaj’s performance I was wincing so hard.

I felt some affinity with the Grammys this year because I am also growing out of touch. Dubstep was the first youth oriented musical upwelling to completely confound me, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. When I turned 23 I made this 100+ track mix that was a big sloppy love letter to pop music, as I was certain I would only listen to “art” music thereafter. I failed, but now I think I just started too early. After 25+ years, you’ve witnessed the cycle repeat enough to gain some perspective. Now I feel closer to 12 minute high-hat drones, Keith Fullerton Whitman, Philip Glass, The Field etc.: little afterthoughts of dynamism against an undertone of geologic insistence. The worm turning in a constant soil.

But I’ve been wrong before. What pop music knows is that the method of life is seduction, and its movement is back into the fold.

For now: a little Keith to go out on.

Keith Fullerton Whitman – Stereo Music For Yamaha Disklavier Prototype

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February Lightning Round

Porcelain Raft

Sounds like: Don McLean’s recurring dream of Elysium

I Belong In Your Arms

Sounds like: Chupa Chups and Lazertag birthdays

Here We Go Magic
Make Up Your Mind

Sounds like: night train from Bushwick to Cologne, achieving liftoff

Pete Swanson
Far Out

Sounds like: a panic attack at a Battlestar Galactica theme party

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Blood From A Stone: Lana Del Rey, Authenticity, and Scare Quotes

A blogger's muse

A couple of days ago the Judge Dredd of pop music Sasha Frere-Jones fielded reader questions as part of a live chat about the authenticity of Lana Del Rey, the ostensible trailer park chanteuse who’s actually (gasp!) a vague composite of aggressive marketing and outsourced songwriting. I was impressed with the intelligence Frere-Jones brought to bear on the subject (probably more intelligence than it deserves), and I enjoy reading his column in every New Yorker I can steal, but I took issue with a particular strain of bewilderment that kept popping up in the Q&A:

“Artists promise us nothing specific. Songs can be terrible or badly conceived or embarrassing but I am still not sure what ‘inauthentic’ ever means. It feels like a Sasquatch nobody ever finds. It’s also possibly euphemistic and fancy way of saying ‘I don’t like this,’ which is always a valid response.”
-Sasha Frere-Jones

Frere-Jones seems willfully puzzled for the sake of aesthetic principle. It’s common among critics to forget how people without graduate degrees (a condition for which I’m bitterly nostalgic) approach media. Now that everyone loves Rick Ross and couldn’t possibly care whether anyone’s art is grounded in first hand experience the furor over LDR’s image might seem regressive. But Americans are good at this. Our one inarguable talent is consuming media. I don’t find it unsophisticated for listeners to grasp at the intent and worldview of artists who, at least formally, are communicating with them.

Frere-Jones draws an analogy to acting, noting that no one gives Meryl Streep a hard time for not actually being a prime minister, but this strikes me as a distortion. It might depend on whether you view pop musicians as essentially interpreters (or actors) or as generative, creative artists. Very few critics will agonize over what Rostropovich (genius that he was) thought or intended in recording a symphony but they will sure as hell want to know what was in Shostakovich’s dome when he wrote it. You might think of Lana, perfectly coiffed with a suite of on-call producers and songwriters, as just the interpreter of eminently available song structures and melodies but then you’d have to concede the same of Bob Dylan, to a lesser extent.

I don’t miss the indie pissing contests of the 90s or hip hop message board flamewars, but the author function doesn’t mean forgetting about the author and cavorting in a clear stream of pure sound. It means acknowledging the tendency to cobble together biographical detritus, images, and postures into a putative author who looms over the work and acknowledging that that tendency is at work when we talk about art. If we could fold LDR’s “inauthenticity” into an authorial figure that actually enriches our feeling for the music, then we would have something and could get off the internet for a while. But that would require an art equal to our patchwork mythos.

The reason we’re having this conversation at all is a) LDR is a attractive woman whose attractiveness is somehow a feature or theme in her music, with all the attendant gender complexities I have no authority to write about, and b) she fucked up. Here’s how:

1. Born to Die is a shit album guys. The fact that “Video Games” exists shines a harsh light on the other songs here, because the persona LDR cultivates in its ebb and flow of irony and sincerity somehow becomes gaudy and embarrassing on the rest of the album. When she sings “Heaven is a place on earth where you/ tell me all the things you want to do” I get that it’s withering sarcasm but can’t help but take pleasure in how beautiful it would be for someone to actually mean this. Born to Die is presented as more than a big, dumb, overwrought pop album, but the stabs at lyrical weight are weak everywhere but on “Video Games.” If you’re making an Important Statement with your music, your lyrics have to be either really good or just artless enough to be perfectly ignorable. But aggressively dumb and totally humorless is not a winning combo. Bottom line, what Born to Die is missing is pleasure, “the liquid tool” in the words of Brigit Kelly, which animates everything else. If we enjoyed this album, we wouldn’t have to entertain ourselves with this endless game of Guess Who?

2. The marketeers got overzealous and showed their hands (not necessarily her fault). If you’re trying to engineer a pop phenomenon you either hide that artifice  in plain sight or play it straight. No one thinks Lady Gaga is actually whatever the hell she plays on TV, but there are pictures of her in pre-breakthrough years being Lady Gaga. With LDR we’re talking about three people: the theoretical “real” Lizzy Grant, Lizzy Grant A.K.A. Lana Del Rey, and Lana Del Rey. The sleight is anything but seamless. Riding the hype lightning, LDR’s ad copy pushed too hard, protested too much. You’re not supposed to say you’re a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.” The critics will say that about you for free! Elvis never called himself a sex bomb he just exploded in a horrifyingly sexy shower of sweat and pomade. By the time we saw the timid girl on SNL, the ad men had expertly taught us how to disassemble their product.

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Book Fuel: Tuthilltown’s Hudson Baby Bourbon

Upstate pride

I’m going to resist the ubiquitous tendency to write about whiskey like a sex offender (all liquid is “supple,” that’s how you can drink it) and just make the most salient point about Hudson Baby Bourbon. It gets you drunk. In style. It has something for pretty much every demographic. For your mountain man, it’s bourbon. So it’ll make you feel like building things with your hands and referring to a beautiful woman as “handsome.” For hipsters, it’s an exclusive artisan product that looks antique and matches your suspenders and civil war facial hair. For rich people, it’s 35 dollars for a 350mL bottle. For all of them and everyone else,  it evokes a mild caramel sweetness and a puff of smoke that rises quickly to the top of palate, there to stoke its ruminant fire even for us fallen, deviant urbanites. Plus it has a wax seal that makes it feel like you’re cracking into a letter from a medieval king.

One of my favorite things to do after a few drinks besides texting is reading. Drinking simplifies and amplifies pleasure, and the animal joy of putting eyes to words is not to be overshadowed by the derivative joy of thinking about those words. If you’re going to try it, Hudson’s a great companion but you’ll in any contingency want to stick with brown booze. Rum can work in dark n’ stormy form and I’ll extend my approval to Irish and Scotch but if you’re drinking alone you better pray no one catches you with a cosmo in one hand and Yaya Sisterhood in the other. And if you miscalculate and the words on the page are in free-fall just cruise Cabin Porn like a true backwoods bourbonite until your head clears.

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