Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween!

Dear New Yorker:

Don't get me wrong—I'm a huge fan. I keep your fine magazine on my bedside table at all times; I find its soothing pedantry to be the perfect nightcap, informing me as it lulls me into an erudite sleep. See? I know words like “erudite.” I'm one of you, New Yorker.

But you know what keeps me up at night worse than anything—worse than rowdy neighbors, worse than snoring lovers, worse even than five-alarm chili with extra Tabasco? Anger, that's what. When I'm angry, I can toss and turn for hours, grinding my molars and mentally giving those who deserve it a good what-for.

You know where this is heading, don't you? Of course you do, New Yorker—you're very bright. Yes, I'm angry at you. Specifically, I'm angry at whichever editor was drunk enough to let Sasha Frere-Jones's cudlike rumination on race in indie rock into your austere pages. Because—how to put this delicately? It blows, New Yorker. It plain old fucking blows.

Here, basically, is Frere-Jones's thesis: Kids today, with their Shins and their Arcade Fire and their pants around their waists! Whatever happened to the rock'n'roll, man? Music has lost its soul. Not like when I was growing up. The Stones, man, now that was a band. Etc etc yadda yadda—if you have any male relation over the age of 40 but under the age of 70, you already know the schtick. He further goes on to say that this is evidence that rock'n'roll has abandoned its African-American roots. In other words: The Shins are not like Elvis.

May I speak for the entire under-40 population when I say, Duh.

I mean, honestly? Is this all it takes to get in your pants, New Yorker? Because I am chock-full of such observations. Check it out: Movies today aren't like Casablanca! Cars now lack tailfins! Am I on staff yet? Because I can keep going.

Frere-Jones backs his argument up with example after example, tracing the whitening of rock from its Muddy-Waters-stealing beginnings with the Stones and Beatles, on through the electrified blues of Zep, into the (to him) disappointingly Caucasian folk-rock of today's Decemberists. But this is the thing, New Yorkerthat means nothing. Anyone can cherry-pick a few bands to back up the most asinine of arguments. Sure, the Decemberists, the Shins, the Fiery Furnaces, Of Montreal, Wilco—they all draw primarily from white musical sources like folk and the Beach Boys and late-era Beatles. But they're hardly the only indie acts making the rounds. Perhaps Frere-Jones has not heard of a talented young man, name of Beck? He's been known to appropriate a culture or two in his music.

Speaking of which, Frere-Jones's black-and-white vision of modern music is a little tough to stomach. Um, hello? There are a lot of musical traditions out there that have been fused to rock. Try listening to Cornershop to discover one, or Calexico to discover another. Or, hell, throw on some Madonna—at one point or another, that lady's stolen from just about everyone, bless her chameleon heart.

Frere-Jones whines that rock no longer rocks. I guess he's too busy listening to old Clash albums (Sandanista? You seriously want to point out Sandanista as the pinnacle of their career?) to spend valuable seconds listening to, say, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or the Donnas. No, and of course he wouldn't, because you know what? An entire 10-column on the history and present day of rock, and he can't be bothered to name a single female artist? Perhaps now would also be a good time to mention, New Yorker, that we ladies have learned how to do all sorts of things since you first went into circulation. Like drive! And vote! And play electric guitar! Crazy but true!

But of all the omissions Frere-Jones makes, one trumps them all: In a piece arguing that indie rock no longer borrows from African-American culture, he ignores the biggest indie act of the first half of the 2000s, a band that single-handedly blows his theory to smithereens. I speak, of course, of the White Motherfucking Stripes. I mean, Jack White might as well have his IOU to African-American music tattooed on his bicep—and for all I know, he does--so jubilantly blatant is his borrowing from Detroit blues and soul. I know you don't get out much, New Yorker. But trust me, the Stripes are pretty major. Your boy should have maybe mentioned them somewhere.

Yes, there is some super-white music out there. But guess what? That doesn't mean all music's gone honky. The existence of the Pernice Brothers no more precludes that of Amy Winehouse than the existence of Joan Baez precluded that of the Beatles. And anyway, after half a century, wouldn't you expect modern music to be further removed from its roots? Isn't that what evolution is supposed to be about? And what's wrong with music diversifying into many different sounds? We can get cars in colors other than black now, too, but I don't hear anyone bitching about that.

God, this piece! Every paragraph seems designed to make me want to smack Frere-Jones with a plugged-in Gibson. He dismisses Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as Wilco's worst album—which, okay, even morons are entitled to their opinions, but shouldn't a journalist at least acknowledge that just about everyone else in the known universe crowned YHF as a masterpiece? Dude, you can't have missed that. They made a movie about it and everything.

And then. And then. And then this idiot's got to take things even further, because he's writing for you, New Yorker, and therefore he has to get to the Really Big Picture, which as he sees it, is: Music is becoming more racially segregated. To which I can only say: GNARLS FUCKING BARKLEY! CHRISTINA FUCKING AGUILERA! AND, ONCE AGAIN: THE WHITE FUCKING STRIPES, MOTHERFUCKERS! I mean, just because one or two subsets of modern music aren't melting the pot, that doesn't mean music in general isn't one big Benetton ad's worth of multiracial love children. Hell, good luck figuring out what the racial identity of American pop music is these days. And while it's true that, so long as there is breath in my body, I will renounce Dave Matthews and all his works, the fact remains that there's one white boy who knows how to steal from black folks, knamean?

On the brimstone-scented soul of James Brown, New Yorker, this piece is exemplary of everything that's wrong with the cultural-criticism breed of “journalism.” It combines slipshod argument with incomplete facts; flaccid reasoning with deliberate laziness. That it ever made it into your pages is a sad statement about both modern journalism in general and the crack habits of your editors in particular.

Because no one who has ever attended a rock show would ever, ever, no matter how many blackmail photos were involved, hire a guy from an all-white funk band to write about rock music. An all-white instrumental funk band. Seriously, New Yorker, what were you thinking? Even down your hallowed halls some AC/DC must have wafted, at one point or another. That was rock music. Instrumental funk by guys too white to sing? Nooooooot so much of the rock, no.

Seriously, were there blackmail photos involved? Was she underage? Because this does not make sense. I'll grant you, Frere-Jones has what is probably a valid and interesting point when he says that indie rock should find a new term to describe itself, since it is no longer holy nor Roman nor an empire. But it's a valid and interesting point that should be made in, at most, 300 words. This thing runs closer to 3,000. You know what that is, New Yorker? That's Proustian. And not in a good way. Think about it. I know I will, while grinding my molars tonight.


Ann Editor

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

ISYGF, Intermission: Proust in the news!

I know, I know, I've been using this move as an excuse for my absence for so long, you've probably deemed it an empty excuse. But let me put it this way: I am currently sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floor of my empty back bedroom, sipping bourbon out of a plastic cup. We are so far into the final countdown, my friends, that we might as well be a Europe cover band. (Rim shot.)

But! As I was lying on my couch (the bed is packed)last night, lulling myself to sleep with the New Yorker, what to my wondering eyes did appear? In a profile on Marie-Laure de Noailles, patroness extraordinaire of the Surrealists, the author (Francine du Plessix Gray) writes of her encounter with de Noailles while still a young rookie reporter:

As I proceeded to interview her, any trace of tolerance she might have had for me was diminished by my lack of an adequate retort to the one query she put to me: "Men who love Proust have short penises, don't you think?"

I can't decide if I love Marie-Laure an Andalusian dog more than I did before because of this, or if I now find her to be tiresomely stuck in some sort of perpetual adolescence. (I mean, it is kind of a highschool Mean Girl trick to play. Even if it is side-rippingly funny, if you're into the Proust-mocking genre of humor. Which I, obviously, am.)

I like to think I would have had the presence of mind, in such a situation, to shoot back that the only man I've ever known who was an outright fan of Proust was, so far as I can recall, about 5'10", and from head to toes an utter dick, meaning he was by far the largest penis I've ever encountered. But that's what I like to think I'd say. And I'm not a rookie anymore; I expect, at that age, I would have been reduced to a similar stammer. Does that mean I will be writer for the New Yorker in another few decades? Friends, we can only hope.

But it does bring up an interesting point: Should an artist be judged by his or her fans? I tend to vote no, because, well: Jesus. On the other hand, I do find a... well, at least a tolerance of at least one Joss Wedon project to be a good indicator of some minimal sort of compatability with a new person. Hm. This is the sort of question that, in a perfect world, would be solved with the judicious application of more bourbon. But, considering I have to be up early to let people into the house to take away yet more furniture, I think I'd better retire to the couch and try to stop thinking about how much I need to do in the next 36 hours. Proust, and his unfortunately endowed fanclub, will have to wait.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Interlude (again): In which I confirm my status among the living.

I didn't go rollerskating tonight because I was getting a new tattoo. (I kind of love that sentence.) But once I got home, after relaxing for a little bit with part of a first-season Wonder Woman episode (funniest. Nazis. ever!), I found myself, for the first time in months, picking up Young Girls (hee!) with real eagerness. I should be coming into a little more free time fairly soon--at least for a week or two--and I'm definitely going to try to get myself back in the swing of things. Next up: Marcel meets Bergotte! Can't you feel the electricity?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

ISYGF, Chapter 12: That's why the lady is a trollope.

Okay, I've been AWOL, I know, but 3000-mile relocations are a bitch, knamean? Anyhoo, here I am, just six pages past my last post, but I've been brought to a screeching halt by what I find: "For all that, Mme Swann had mastered the manners of the fashionable; and, however elegant and dignified the grand lady might be, Odette was always her equal in them."

Say whaaaaa? I mean, let's ignore the whole switching from last name to first in the same sentence, because maybe that's just the journalist in me bristling at the inconsistency there. Let's just look at that sentence for its basic meaning. I mean, this is Odette we're talking about, right? Isn't a resolute lack of class one of her defining characteristics? I mean, Proust was just telling us about how she still views Mme. Verdurin as her major role model, and that woman was the personification of odious coarseness. I'll accept a certain amount of Eliza Doolittling going on after Swann domesticates la madame, but I find it hard to swallow that she suddenly goes from Anna Nicole Smith* to Jackie Fucking O. Non, M. Proust. Because I know you at this point. You're totally going to make some bitchy remark about her crassness and social gaucherie in another 50 pages, aren't you? Aren't you? Right. So don't even try this shit with me.

*I had a weird mental block for a second about ANS's name--for some reason, my brain kept giving me "Nicole Ritchie," which, while a viable alternative, was not really the exact metaphor I wanted. So I had to resort to Google. And I suppose it's some sort of legacy that, if you type "dead texas floozie" into an internet search engine, her name comes up right on the first page. Rest in peace, sweet DTF. Rest in peace.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

ISYGF, Chapter 11: That's what they make back burners for.

Yeah, I know, it's been a month since my last post. But honestly, I've got a lot going on right now. I'm dealing with a major life change (read: anyone need an editor/writer in Portland, Oregon?) that's consuming most of my free time, work is crazy busy right now, and my personal life has achieved a level of cheap drama that would make even a veteran watcher of the WB (or CW, or whatever they're calling it this year) roll their eyes in disbelief, the end result being that I'm having a hard time getting it up for self-obsessed dead French writers at the moment.

But I'm going to try to keep with it as much as I can, because, well, a project is a project. So I'm taking a few minutes out of packing to give Proust a little respect, because he made a pretty good funny. On page 110, the elder Swanns are bitching to Marcel about a woman they know named Mme. Blatin (which, I have to admit, is the perfect name for a character like this). They're showing Marcel the finer points of adulthood by telling him a totally humiliating story about this woman. "It's too stupid," says M. Swann. "You see, Mme. Blatin like to address people in a way that she thinks is friendly, but which gives the impression that she's talking down to them."

"What our friends across the Channel call patronizing," Odette interrupts.

Okay, that's what social satire should be. Worthy of Austen, that line is. I totally want to reference it with a friend now, be all, "Umm, yeah, I believe your tirade about Miranda July is what our friends across the Channel would call pretentious."

But that, of course, is the problem with reading Proust. Even if you find a joke you like in one of his books, you can't pull it out in casual conversation with anyone else, because no one else is moron enough to have wasted valuable CW-watching time reading the damn things. Guess it's time to pull out the sock puppet again. You'll find my joke très amusant, won't you, Socky?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

ISYGF, Chapter 10: Paris is burning. Yawn.

Pg. 107, M. Swann is talking about moonlight and how it's more dramatic at the seaside:

In Paris, it's just the opposite: merely a strange glow, barely noticeable, on the fronts of the great buildings, and that faint glare in the sky, like the reflection from a house on fire, colorless and dangerless, that hint of some immense but banal happening somewhere...

Um. No, I--no. Really? Banal like a house on fire? Man, what does it take to impress a Frenchman? "Oh, I t'ought zees was somezing eenteresteeng, but non, eet is just ze house on fire. Quelle domage."

I would say Proust must be some sort of superhero--burning building, all in a day's work, call me when Magneto shows up--but, you know, this is a guy who has his autobiographical doppelganger practically fall into a faint over the mere idea of going to a play. I'm imagining Proust facing a burning building right now and... well, actually, that is kinda funny. Hee! Oh man. But my point is, burning building is totally winning that fight.

Or was late-19th century Paris so lousy with burning buildings that they were some sort of nightly event? Even so--and this comes from a resident of a city where house fires seem to happen every week or two, because the wiring in half the housing stock here was put in by drunken squirrels during the Cleveland administration, including the wiring in my own house, which is why I'm always a little nervous when I turn on a lightswitch, plus people are poor and crowding in 13 to a house and it just breaks your heart when you hear about another one going up in flames--but that's my point: Even in my town, we still sit up and notice a house fire. And two words I would not use to describe it are "colorless" and "dangerless." I mean, you ever seen a house on fire? They're pretty damned colorful, and about as dangerous as anything you're likely to find.

Banal? Think about it, Proust: For all you know, that house could be full of asparagus.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

ISYGF, Chapter 9: So you're a genius now, are you?

Pages 105-106:

This length of time that it takes someone to penetrate a work of some depth ... is only a foreshortening, and as it were a symbol, of all the years, or even centuries perhaps, which must pass before the public can come to love a masterpiece that is really new. This is why the man of genius, wishing to avoid the discontents of being unrecognized in his own day, may persuade himself that, since his contemporaries lack he necessary hindsight, works written for posterity should be read only by posterity, much as there are certain paintings that should not be looked at from too close up. However, any craven urge to avoid being misjudged is pointless, as misjudgment is unavoidable. What makes it difficult for a work of genius to be admired at once is the fact that its creator is out of the ordinary, that hardly anyone is like him. It is his work itself which, by ferlizing the rare spirits capable of appreciating it, will make them grow and multiply.

Do you think Proust was talking about himself? There is a sense of frustration there that makes me think so--"buck up, you 'andsome devil you, ze people today, zey cannot appreciate your amazeeng talent, but een feefty years, hahaha!" (Okay, my written French accent sucks.) I know some of his early writing wasn't particularly well-received, though it wasn't like his stuff didn't get published. Okay, maybe not the books, but some of his shorter (the mind boggles, doesn't it?) essays got into various literary reviews, so it seems weird to find him pouting about how nobody loves him here.

Can genius only be appreciated in retrospect? I dunno. I mean, Casablanca was a huge hit when it came out, and is still considered one of the best movies ever made some six decades later. And, as I said, Proust himself was given all due props in his own time--Young Girls would wind up winning the prestigious Goncourt Prize. Though I guess, from what I've managed to pick up so far around the Internets, it looks like Swann's Way rocked the world of Marcel Proust and pretty much nobody else. But still, six years (the time between the publishing of SW and ISYGF) is not that long, in the grand scheme of things. No, I'd say that this is just another one of those grand pronouncements Proust makes that sound really deep until you realize that empirical evidence suggests that they're actually total bullshit.

And it's not like posterity always has the best taste. Personally, I find Kerouac incredibly annoying, and I've never understood the group swoon he produces in the writing world. Meanwhile, other writers who probably deserve more recognition wind up relegated to the sad has-been world of library stacks and estate sales.

My mother has this thing where she picks up old books by authors she's never heard of. Her theory is that is anyone held onto a book for 50 years, it could very well be really good. She says her success rate is at least 50/50. I have one of the books she found this way: Gus the Great, a book based on a PT Barnum-like character, written in the 1950s. It's really good--it's been a while since I read it, but I'd put it near Kavalier & Clay in both tone and quality. I guess it was a smash hit at the time, but it's been out of print for years. Was it a work of genius? Probably not. But I'll tell you what: It was a helluva lot more fun to read than Swann's Way.

Was Proust a genius? Most people seem to say yes. He was definitely innovative. But it's weird to see how whiny he is about it. I don't know, I don't think I'm as focused as I should be today--I really need to get back to Real Life stuff, like painting my kitchen, so I'm distracted--but I do have to wonder if obsessing about whether people recognize your genius kind of gets in the way of any genius you might possess. But, like I said, the kitchen is guilt-tripping me right now, so I could just be extra-irritable. And I'm sure that if Proust knew he was getting upstaged by paint drying, he'd do an extra summersault in that well-visited grave of his.