Thursday, February 25, 2010

yeah, yeah, yeah, more postmodernism ... blah, blah, blah.

Blade Runner’s Dystopian Future: Postmodernism or Pessimism?

      We find our jobs supplanted across seas to foreign lands in this increasingly globalizing capitalist economy. We find our very existence depending more and more upon advancing technology—computers, iPods, blackberries, videoconferencing, MRI’s, cat scans, robots, cyber security. Images and information from news tickers, billboards, movies, television, and the Internet bombards our eyes at all hours of the day. Manmade radiation of all sorts flies through the air, crisscrossing, synthesizing, and eventually frying our synapses. And we are lost, dazed and confused—unsure of where the real world ends and the constructed reality of mass media and popular culture begins. How can we hold on, cope, and hopefully thrive in this dizzy, mixed up world?
      It is not an easy question, so there is of course no easy answer. But while scientists, engineers, politicians, and economists deal with the more tangible issues of the present age (the shrinking ice caps, growing population, depletion of the O-zone layer, outsourcing, weapons of mass destruction, etc), those hiding in academia (a place I hope to find refuge), or more specifically “cultural studies,” explore the all important abstractions and complexities of our current existence, hoping to find answers that might calm our nerves and bring us peace. Postmodernism has become, since its popular genesis in the 1970s, an all-important mode of critical theory, a philosophical dialogue used by academics to digest the world around us. It is a lens, if you will, that may be applied to the art, film, society, economy, and culture of our times. In this paper, I will apply the postmodern lens to the urban setting and themes of Ridley Scott’s award winning film Blade Runner in hopes of finding some of these answers that might make our world slightly more intelligible. I intend to enter the polemical dialogue over Blade Runner’s postmodernity, and specifically its ability as a film to accurately project a postmodern future. But in order to do this we must first come to some basic understanding of postmodernism and the characteristics of postmodern film, and additionally, momentarily gauge the nature of the debate over Blade Runner.
      One problem with defining postmodernism is its very resistance to simplified, singular narratives or understandings. Postmodernism distrusts grand theories and ideologies. It was originally a reaction to modernism, and at its heart is a response to the pretensions and snobbery of “high” art—a rejection of elitist culture. Extreme complexity, ambiguity, contradiction, diversity, as well as interconnectedness and intertextuality characterize postmodern art. The intentional assimilation of different artistic styles, the self-conscious allusion to previous styles and works of art, and the integration of images and dialogue relating to the consumerism and pop culture of our postindustrial, postcolonial society will be the most obvious characteristics of postmodernism in film, and certainly these aspects will be reflected within the settings, characters, and themes of Blade Runner.
      Critical theorists Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Fredric Jameson can claim responsibility for the most significant shaping of the postmodern discussion, particularly in regards to cinema. The crux of Baudrillard’s characterization of postmodernism in film is the idea that the rise of cinema and Hollywood culture in America has reversed the traditional mimetic relationship between art and reality. Baudrillard argues that in today’s world the “simulacrum” or image supersedes reality. Our world has become so saturated with the constructed image, that our reality becomes constructed by these images. “It is not the least of America’s charms,” Baudrillard observes, “that even outside the movie theaters the whole country is cinematic. The desert you pass through is like the set of a Western, the city a screen of signs and formulas.1 As reality mirrors image, instead of the reverse, reality slowly drowns all together and we realize Baudrillard’s presentation of the postmodern as a world become wholly image, described by Catherine Constable as “pervaded by its own superficiality and thus rendered meaningless.2 With reality superseded by the image, autonomy of the artist disappears, as original social commentary is no longer possible. As Jameson explains, this idea results in one of the key aesthetic features of the postmodern, pastiche: “all is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.3 The pastiche form of expression, drawing from the styles of various time periods, annihilates temporality just as the domination of the image and mass culture drowns reality. In this sense, postmodern art fails to establish any sequential sense of past, present, or future. As a result, art is “condemned to the perpetual present,” that is, as Jameson and Constable posits, “emblematic of the postmodern condition.4 These characteristics of postmodernism in film and others are fully exhibited in Blade Runner.
      The film Blade Runner is set in a dirty, dizzying, expansive Los Angeles in the year 2019. Incredible advances in technology have allowed for the production of sophisticated bio-engineered humanoid beings, dubbed “replicants”—they are essentially robots without the necessity for but with the propensity for human feelings. In wake of some sort of violent revolt on what we can imagine to be a “replicant” production city and slave-labor plantation somewhere in outer-space, but what is simply referred to as the “off world,” replicants are declared illegal on earth, and a search for any that may have escaped to earth and into the mixed up habitat of L.A. is hastily undertaken. Reminiscent of the introduction to the 5th Element and Bruce Willis’s character several years later, Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckard is called out of retirement in order to locate and destroy (or “retire”) a few specific replicants known to have escaped to the area.  In a strange turn of events, Deckard becomes romantically involved with one of the replicants, Rachael, whom has convinced herself of her own humanity, although Deckard coldly explains that she has been programmed with false memories. Deckard provides her with refuge in his apartment as he proceeds to eliminate the rest of the replicants, and the films ends as Rachael and Deckard depart from his apartment into an uncertain world and towards an unsure future.
      Some critics have argued that a projection of postmodernism onto Blade Runner’s narrative for the purpose of critical interpretation is an overly forced use of the theory, and several of these same critics even question the usefulness of the postmodern theory, and the truthfulness of its separation from modernist theory. My intent in this essay is not to project a theory onto a film, nor to characterize Ridley Scott’s filmic intentions as any way related to postmodernism (although I don’t doubt that this could be successfully done), but to specifically demonstrate how Blade Runner, and most importantly the construction of the fictional Los Angeles of 2019, reflects the characteristics of the postmodern condition, the distinctiveness of late capitalism or postindustrial capitalism, and the distinguishing factors of postmodern architecture. As well, in my humble opinion, it is ludicrous to question the usefulness of postmodern theory and its associated terms. The theory has garnered an expansive currency across many academic departments and the critical discourses surrounding many artistic endeavors. As mentioned before, postmodernism has provided a vocabulary and theoretical framework that has helped critics and intellectuals relate the most recent art, literature, film, architecture, etc to the ever changing and globalizing modern world. Certainly there is room to critique the use of postmodern theory and the intricacies of the theory itself. Also, there is truthfulness to explaining postmodernism as an extension and evolution of, rather than a departure from, modernism. But to describe it as an unnecessary extension would be misguided. Those who would ask us to ditch the use of postmodernist theory in their unwavering loyalty to modernism are somehow in belief that Hemingway’s work and that of John Barth or David Foster Wallace can be best understood under the same theoretical parameters. This view assumes that the founding theorists of the modernist school foresaw the incredible changes that would undergo both society and art over the subsequent century. I find this view incredibly hard to believe. In all of my critical endeavors I look to emphasize continence as much as I highlight change over time. There is much truth to be found in grounding today’s intricacies in the ancient narratives of human and social nature. This point is exhibited by that fact that the story of Oedipus continues to be employed by critics today, and Aristotle’s formulaic unraveling and understanding of tragedy continues to be relevant today. But to deny the necessity for critical theory to evolve along side the ever-changing world is a view detrimental to our ability to understand the current relationship between our arts and the psychology of our surrounding world and ourselves.
      Film critic, and College of William and Mary professor, Varun Begley takes issue with the fact that:
    …it is a commonplace in cultural studies circles to invoke Blade Runner as a paradigmatic example of postmodern film. Since the 1980s, architects, urban scholars, film critics, and cultural theorists have used the film to advance a variety of disciplinary aims associated with the postmodern watershed. As an investigation of time, space, identity, capitalism, and the city, the film has often been taken as commentary on, or indeed as evidence of, a profound historical and cultural transition.5
I don’t necessarily disagree with Begley’s assertion that there are serious problematics associated with forcibly projecting a theoretical interpretation onto an intolerant film narrative, but my intention here is not to proffer Blade Runner as the emblematic postmodern film. On the contrary, I simply believe the themes and narrative of Blade Runner to be very generally illustrative of the characteristics of the postmodern condition as laid out earlier in the analysis of Baudrillard’s, Constable’s, and Jameson’s elaborations on postmodern theoretics and their relationship with film. The intangible but very real dissolving of the distinction between real and simulation, as a result of our Hollywood and image saturated culture, is loosely mirrored in the basic plot of Blade Runner—as humans struggle to eradicate a few replicants that are seemingly identical in appearance and behavior to actual humans. Not only is this postmodern confusion exhibited in the nature of the plot, but in Rachael’s inability to recognize herself as non-human. The insertion of false memories into her programming convinces her that she has a past, and therefore is a human. These details further recall the postmodern condition in which images and false images alike complicate our ability to locate ourselves within reality. But more specifically, I believe the setting of Blade Runner, the futuristic version of Los Angeles, to be the most accurate and pertinent reflection of the postmodern condition. The nature of Blade Runner’s L.A. works not only as an embodiment of the postmodern condition of the human conscious but also as an accurate projection of a postmodern city as result of a postindustrial society.
      Geographers and academics Michael Dear and Steven Flusty have clearly and successfully summarized some of the common themes and characteristics of postmodern urbanism: offering the broad categories of “world city,” “dual city,” “altered spaces,” and “cybercity” as a way of loosely organizing the discussion of a city as postmodern. The first three of these categories are applicable to and recognizable in the construction of Ridley Scott’s imagined Los Angeles. Dear and Flusty single out the idea of a world city in order to “emphasize the emergence of a relatively few centers of command and control in a globalizing economy.6 A world city is the projection of globalizing forces onto the physical and social structuring of a city. Such an idea is easily realized in the viewing of 2019 L.A. Director Ridley Scott was quoted attributing his portrayal of a futuristic L.A. to his time in “Hong Kong on a very bad day” and his former home in the heavily industrialized landscape of northeastern England.7 Many critics have described Ridley’s L.A. as an amalgamation of Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, reaffirming an understanding of the futuristic city as less and less distinctive, and more and more universal in appearance. This parallels the understanding of the postmodern condition as one in which the local is dissolved into the global, and true origins become lost. This loss of identity is exhibited in one case by the fact that police in L.A. speak a foreign language, no longer English, and Deckard is forced to have the creator of his Japanese noodle dish translate for him. The hybridity of global cities today, like L.A. and New York, with their large and highly imageable ethnic burroughs, are proof of this fictional projection. The fictional and futuristic Los Angeles becomes a collage of architectural styles, where Japanese and Chinese billboards juxtaposed with Coca-Cola posters, rising from the roofs of grecco-roman temples and Egyptian-style apartment highrises. Critic Giuliana Bruno explains: “We are not presented with a real geography, but an imaginary one: a synthesis of mental architectures.8 The pastiche nature of L.A. is further emphasized, and reaffirmed as world city, in the social make up of the city. As Deckard walks its streets, we witness the passing of Hassidic Jews, as well as Japanese punks and Chinese businessmen. Bruno elaborates on this idea, writing: “The film is populated by eclectic crowds of faceless people, Oriental merchants, punks, Hari Krishnas.9 But more significant to a postmodern and postindustrial reading of Blade Runner’s setting, than the pastiche nature of the world city, is the idea of “dual city.
      The dual city is the embodiment of “the increasing gap between rich and poor; between the powerful and powerless; between different ethnic, racial, and religious groupings.10 This concept is realized in both the plot and setting of Blade Runner. The evolution of society and technology to the point that human’s are creating replicants for the purpose of war and labor, is essentially a return to human slavery, and the perfect materialization of the oppressive nature of capitalism. The distinction between the human and the replicant, is a projection of the relationship between rich and poor, between capitalist and laborer. The idea that progress can augment the postmodern condition into a happy state of perfected capitalism is eschewed in this case, because such a notion is fantastical, naïve, and likely impossible. The only projection of the postmodern, postindustrial city is one in which current realities are at least maintained and in most cases exaggerate. We can’t assume that the processes of waste and creative destruction, the necessities of the capitalist system, will be solved as time goes on. Instead we must assume they persist and materialize in new and evolved forms. Again, this is demonstrated in the physical and social construction of Blade Runner’s setting. Bruno writes, “The postindustrial city is a city in ruins.11 Indeed, in the world of Blade Runner the wealthy literally live on top. No longer feasible to escape laterally to posh gated communities, the capitalist elites build their havens higher and higher as the laborers scurry about well below. We see this as the Tyrell Corporation and other high-rise apartments look out on the city from high above, while street level scenes exhibit social dissidents, the homeless, and streets and alleyways of filth and trash. Bruno acutely synthesizes the idea of the world-city and the characteristics of the post-industrial, stratified, dual city when she describes Scott’s Los Angeles, writing:
    It is a place of vast immigration, from countries of overpopulation and poverty. While immigrants crowd the city, the indigenous petite bourgeoisie moves to the suburbs or to the “off world” as the case may be. Abandoned buildings and neighborhoods in decay adjoin highly populated, crowded old areas, themselves set next to new, high tech business districts.12
In the postindustrial city we have not realized how to dispose of the less attractive sides of capitalism, instead we have simply built on top of them, shoved them aside, left them to rot, and situated them out of view.
      While Blade Runner may not whole-heartedly engage with the intricacies of postmodernism in the construction of its narrative, I believe the film as a whole, and more successfully the characterization of the city setting, are illustrative of the postmodern condition projected into the future. To reiterate, my intention has not been to position Blade Runner as a postmodern text. Instead, I have attempted to show how Blade Runner’s setting and general feel successful portray the economic, social, and political conditions of postmodernity. Many critics contend in response to such a claim, that Blade Runner fails to account for the entire breadth of postmodernism, arguing that Blade Runner only portrays the negative, “doom-and-gloom” side of postmodernity. Critics choosing this position point to the dialectic portrayals of postmodernity as falling under the category of the “sunshine face” or the “noir face.” They position an utopian/futuristic portrayal against a dystopian/apocalyptic portrayal. Certainly the dystopian portrayal is the category under which Blade Runner belongs, and such is the case for most of the successful futuristic films (The MatrixMad MaxAkira, etc).  But my support of Blade Runner as an accurate and successful portrayal of the postmodern condition does not suppose that Ridley Scott’s L.A. is a perfectly truthful projection of our future. I of course do not believe that in ten years, I will have the ability to order pleasure replicants over the Internet, be flying around in hover crafts through American cities that look like Tokyo, and be in the need of translators for police altercations. But I do believe that the very nature of the postmodern condition plays to our inner anxieties, not our hopes and dreams of joy and harmony, and so it makes sense to project in an exaggerated fashion the failures and problematics of our current existence in a mixed-up and confusing, capitalist world. In a way, Scott’s projection of a dystopian postmodernity can serve as a warning. The struggle between man and machine, as touched on earlier, is evocative of the struggle between rich and poor. By appealing to the anxieties of our postmodern condition, Scotts exaggerated projection of postmodernity may call attention to the potential for very grave consequences if the middle classes fail to acknowledge, and rectify, the repercussions of the widening gap between rich and poor, and the establishment of a limitless majority underclass laborers. In this light, the building and building, higher and higher, on top waste and poverty, will not allow our escape, but may lead to the toppling over of our elitist structures and institutions, leaving the bougousie to fall paralously down to face the ugly realities of postmodernity. Those who wish to grapple with the semantics of postmodernity, frustrated with its projection in films like Blade Runner, may actually be secretly unwilling to engage in the far more serious political debates inmplicate in postmodern theory.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Few Decent Pictures from GF's Birthday Bash in D.C.

I may not be an artist yet, but I'm workin' on it.

Click on pictures for blown-up (full effect) image.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Vampire Weekend: Old News...Old Essay

I wrote this essay right after Vampire Weekend came out with their first album. Don't be offended...

For most Americans, an iPod is a simple means of escape from the world, a distraction to keep runners from stopping and realizing that for some odd reason, they are actually running. For most Americans, the car radio is no more than the obvious way to kill the monotonous silence of a long drive. For most Americans, music is simply something to be mindlessly consumed. The populace willingly laps up whatever garbage the record companies spill onto MTV’s TRL or the Clear Channel airwaves. It is only for a small minority that music is something more than prescribed pleasure. These facts seem to upset a fair amount of people. And these people often turn their anger towards the record industry and media monopolies like Clear Channel and Ticketmaster, seemingly forgetting how culpable the American public is for the dire state of pop culture. Although fifteen dollar convenience charges for concert tickets get me a little steamed, and although I’d certainly prefer the days when the most popular acts were still required to pass some sort of litmus test of artistic integrity, I prefer to plug in my ear phones and rock out perfectly oblivious to the horrid state of popular music than to paint signs and form picket lines.

“Why such apathy, Brooks?” one might ask. Well, if the status quo negatively affected me, I would be more inclined to fight the power, so to speak. But the truth is, plenty of quality artists, from varied musical genres, veterans as well as newbies, continue to produce amazing albums each year. While the majority of these albums, mostly produced by independent record labels, don’t register on the radar screen of the average American, or even the average college student, they receive adequate attention from the New York Times, NPR, websites like Pitchfork Media and NME, hundreds of music blogs, and dozens of other publications. Lately, a young band called Vampire Weekend, comprised of four Columbia grads, have made some serious buzz in the music world—featured on the cover of Spin before even releasing their first album, playing David Lettermen and Saturday Night Live only weeks after their virgin album debut, and most recently performing as the must see act at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.

These New York preppies describe their sound as “Upper West Side Soweto,” a mix of Afropop rhythms and melodies, Western classical synth-strings and keyboard, indie rock, and collegiate inspired lyrics about “oxford commas” and “Cape Cod.” The result is not something mind blowing, but something fresh, clean, and something you can come back to over and over again. Vampire Weekend make clever pop songs, free of clutter and complication, sound exceedingly easy. And although their self-titled debut has received considerable critical acclaim from a myriad of publications, their loud entrance onto the music scene has garnered a serious backlash of disdain. Their image—nicely ironed oxford shirts, Lacoste polos, boat shoes, and cardigans combined with an Ivy League education and well-advertised, privileged New England backgrounds—has certainly inspired some of that animosity. As well, their clean, peppy sound has not sat well with many within the music critic community that hoped to see indie rock take a grungier, riskier, less collegiate approach. As for myself, I enjoyed Vampire Weekend’s first album, and find myself listening to it over and over. But I understand the dislike many have. Lyrics about English lit courses, keffiyehs, ivy-league life, and the tackiness of money can come across as insincere and pretentious. And I have serious doubts about the simplicity of their sound being able to carry the weight of another album without being the same old.

But I write not to herald nor condemn Vampire Weekend. Instead I wish to point out a truer reason for many people’s annoyance, including mine, with Vampire Weekend and all their hype. Vampire Weekend, much as the Strokes did in their debut, threatens to break down the wall between the contained indie rock world and more general outside popularity. We, the annoyed, have grown comfortable in our musical taste superiority. I stack my artistic fancies into a throne to sit upon, high and mighty over the masses. It is scary to imagine this throne knocked from underneath me, sending me plummeting to the ground, forced to mingle with the musical tastes of my peers—the ones who opted for Mae, Gym Class Heroes, and the Ying Yang Twins to perform at our school. But such fear is silly and immature. We music snobs should welcome success stories as encouragement for more quality bands.

The critical and popular success of “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country For Old Men” didn’t bother me. Unlike music, which is relatively inexpensive and easy to produce (and disseminate through the internet), films must have potential for commercial success before they’re even considered for production. But practicality shouldn’t govern my snobbery. I can handle enjoying the same band or movie as the average Joe, Besides, my philistine friends who enjoyed “No Country,” also thought “300” was a “sick film,” and the new Vampire Weekend fans will still revel in the mediocrity of Dave Matthews and OAR. No need to worry. You still have poor tastes, and I like weird stuff.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"On Romantics"

This essay was written a couple of years ago intended for the NYTimes Modern Love Essay Contest. I never really finished it, nor sent it to the New York Times, nor any other publication for that matter. But when I had the opportunity to finish half a paper instead of write a whole new one, I completed it, and used it for the purposes of my Expository Writing class in college. I know it is slightly cheesy, and I've matured slightly over these past two years, but I'm not sure I've changed all that much. I ramble. Enjoy...

As the rain began to beat harder on the New York City sidewalks, my friends and I jumped on the N Train and retreated back to Brooklyn, armed with a bottle of cheap red wine, some sweet vermouth for Manhattans, and the perfect ingredients to make a few mean-tasting burgers. Satisfied to remain inside my friend’s third floor railcar apartment for the evening, dry and safe from the sheets of rain we could hear slamming into the sides of the Brownstone, we made ourselves drinks, set out a bowl of olives, and waited while the George Forman sucked the fat out of our burger patties. Maybe to lighten the dreary mood that the rainy day had cast upon us, or just to take our minds off our impatiently hungry stomachs, the conversation turned to the topic of women, romance, and love.

Before long one of my friends was attempting to explain his pessimism about the potential for true love. Women were more or less the same in his eyes, never to meet his lofty expectations, and so he claimed to be content to find himself in a relationship that fulfilled only his practical needs (sex, money, freedom, relatively agreeable personality, etc), nothing more. The sexist slant of such an opinion did not faze me; I am used to such bias. Instead, it was his cold, stoic practicality that threw me back. His cynicism deeply saddened me, killing any desire, or even ability, to properly respond. Luckily another friend, a roommate of our host, came to my rescue, seemingly translating the rudimentary ideas buzzing inside my skull into eloquent sentences of proper English. To him, such a view, he explained, was not only immature but also incredibly sad, killjoy, and most of all boring. My thoughts exactly!

I have often been called a Romantic. I may well be; but I’m not a sap. I still prefer Mark Twain and Henry James to Sir Walter Scott, as well as Picasso to Botticelli. I enjoy debunking oversimplified historical metanarratives and discussing the never ending complexities of our world. Intellectually I prefer realism and postmodernist thought processes to antiquated romanticism. But realism, like everything, has its limits, its time and place. We should certainly approach our world rationally, but to live realistically, or practically, all the time would be incredibly dull. Yet it seems that our means to abstract ends are becoming more and more practical by the minute.

In search of fun, too many Americans look to amusement parks and cruise lines. In search of happiness, too many Americans look to Prosac, Lexapro, and Paxil. In search of love, too many Americans look to eHarmony and We want our fun, happiness, and love all prescribed, waiting to be picked up and purchased. A practical approach to abstractions destroys not only the individual but also defaces the very abstractions we seek. We see a complex world dominated by numbers, images, and information, and it makes sense to navigate it with internet surveys and preplanned travel itineraries. But this practicality, this business mindset, breeds corporatism and commercialization; it destroys the self and cheapens the ends. As happiness, fun, and love are commodified, they become empty. The amusement park brings us cheap thrills, an adrenaline rush, and hundreds of overweight children chomping on turkey legs. The antidepressant producers bring us hundreds of overmedicated housewives hiding their shallow happiness in the shadows of their sprawling, shoddy mansions and their gated communities. Just as Six Flags can’t bring you lasting fun, drugs can’t bring you lasting happiness; and just as chain restaurants like Ruby Tuesdays can’t bring you healthy, creative, palatable food, a random number generator can’t produce true love.

We must abandon this practical, mindless approach to the world, and we must avoid my friend’s aforementioned cynicism. We cannot let the romantic or the individual, the unique, be drowned in this global world. We must not abandon romance and adventure for the false comfort of brand names or false beauty of the suburbs. Love, beauty, truth, happiness: they are not all together lost. But they do miss us. We must choose to approach the world romantically—to seek these abstractions. We must break the cycle. Seek out mom and pop restaurants and authentic food. Support independent films. Watch the News Hour with Jim Lehr on PBS instead of the CNN bottom line news ticker. Drive, don’t fly. Explore the city on your own, feel out the streets. Patronize the independent bookstore, not Borders or Barnes and Nobles. Open yourself up to real people, not internet profiles. Fall in love. Truth, love, happiness, hope, and peace: they all exist. But they cannot be found practically.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Longing For That “Old Timey” Sound

Recently, in an attempt to escape the dizzy, chaotic swirl that college life in our postmodern world can often become, I sat down to read an old Time magazine and listen to some forgotten albums of The Band, or at least the few songs that my philistine frat brothers hadn’t beaten to death with overplay. As I read the 1970’s Time cover article about the group, and reacquainted my ears with the beauties of their simple, unpretentious sound, my mind lingered in the world of nostalgia—wondering why more bands today can’t blend the roots of our rock traditions in a fresh and organic way, as The Band did in the late sixties. At some point I dozed off, but eventually woke to the haunting chorus: “Corn in the fields / Listen to the rice when the wind blows ‘cross the water / King Harvest has surely come.”

Following the surprise success of The Band’s debut album Music from Big Pink in 1968, the four Canadians (Robertson, Danko, Manuel, Hudson) and the lone Arkansan (Helm) packed up and moved from the quiet seclusion of Woodstock, New York to the bright lights of Los Angeles. Ironically, it was among the glitz and glam of Hollywood, in a house rented from Sammy Davis Jr., that The Band recorded their second self-titled album—equally as successful and well-received as their first, and equally as fixed in the down-home roots revival, country, and folk traditions of their own mostly rural upbringings (similar to the imagined upbringings of the many 19th century rural, mostly Southern, archetypes that continued to populate their songs). “Dry summer, then comes fall / Which I depend on most of all / Hey, rainmaker, can't you hear my call? / Please let these crops grow tall / Long enough I've been up on skid row / And it's plain to see, I've nothin' to show / I'm glad to pay those union dues / Just don't judge me by my shoes," laments the poor, Depression-era farmer in “King Harvest,” the last track on The Band. “It was the last thing we cut in California and it was the magical feeling of ‘King Harvest’ that pulled us through, “ said drummer and vocalist Levon Helm, “It was like: there, that’s The Band.” Robbie Robertson, guitarist and main songwriter, attributed the inspiration for “King Harvest” to the Steinbeck novels he was engrossed in at the time (most obviously, Grapes of Wrath), saying of the song: “It’s just a character study in a time period. At the beginning, when unions came in, they were a saving grace, a way of fighting the big money people.” Prominent cultural historian and music critic Greil Marcus once said of the song’s inclusion on a compilation of The Band’s best material: “To me, it is the most important song on the album, and while a handful of The Band’s songs might equal it, none have surpassed it.” “King Harvest” has always been one of my favorite songs of The Band; it perfectly exhibits the beauty of The Band’s honest and unidealized lyrical exploration into “the old” as well their musical ability to blend the contemporary with yesterday’s style, creating a fresh and purely American sound. For these same reasons, fans from a diverse cross section of America, tired of the impersonal nature of commercialized pop and rock music, have flocked to the authenticity and warmth of The Band’s music since the group first appeared from out of nowhere in late 1960’s.

As I continue to read Jay Cocks’ 1970 chronicle of the group’s growing popular and critical success, I continue to ponder the state of today’s music, wondering what we might learn from The Band. Describing The Band’s music, Cocks wrote: “it is a turning back toward easy-rhythmic blues, folk songs, and the twangy, lonely lamentations known as country music.” This stylistic method, although hauntingly well-executed and made to look exceedingly easy by The Band, was not necessarily an unprecedented idea. The economic Great Depression of the 1930’s, as the farmer from “King Harvest” can surely attest, inspired a swelling sense of regret about American society along with its culture and values. While Americans knew the system had failed them, they were unsure of exactly who was implicit in this tragic breakdown. Unwilling to point fingers at their neighbors, many concluded that the guilt lay not with ordinary Americans but with the mainstream establishments that were supposed to have been serving them. As a result, many middle-class Americans looked, for inspiration, to those who seemed to exist independent of these ‘mainstream institutions’ and uncorrupted by the inhumanity of the industrializing world. The same poor sharecropping farmers of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath that inspired Robertson’s “King Harvest” lyrics were also the heroes of this 1930’s trend—embodying the dignity and the proud perseverance in the face of hardship that so many hoped to emulate.

In accordance, many Americans looked to traditional folk music for additional inspiration, music that drew on traditions uncontaminated by commercialization and popular culture. Music of this kind implied an autonomous, self-sustaining culture that could outlast any plight—an unconventional, more vibrant American culture. And so it makes sense that The Band’s stylistic approach, and its contagiously warm reception, came in wake of what many saw as the most unsettling decade the U.S. had ever endured—a decade of turmoil that resurrected the yearning to break away from the damaged present by returning to the virtuous past, whether real or imagined. But just as I am unwilling to accept any and all music that claims some sort of folk tradition, the disenchanted, young rebels of this counterculture were often keen critics and reluctant to accept just any neatly packaged or commodified nostalgia. The sepia-toned, predictably melancholy, and often contrived music of the Grand Ole Opry was too stale for these youthful folk revivalists of the sixties and seventies. The Band, however, was not. “It’s hard to describe,” said an Amherst student quoted in Cocks’ article, “They’re sophisticated but the very words and music that make them so appealing move away from the sophistication to earthy, honest qualities in life.” Another fan, quoted in the article, affirms the Band’s authenticity, saying: “You listen and you just know that’s no group of Johnny-come-lately’s from the suburbs who’ve gone off to a commune while Daddy foots the bill.” Towards the end of his Time article, Cocks affirms this unique ability, writing: “What The Band has worked out is something that countless other Americans hope for, a sort of watchful, self-protective truce within an encroaching world of noisy commerce.”

It seems to me, that if the commercialization of popular culture in the sixties and seventies was often stymieing for artists seeking an authentic, folk inspired sound, then today’s postmodern, postindustrial global economy is damn near suffocating for artists with similar goals. Our consumer-heavy capitalism of today is characterized by new and increased consumption patterns, by the omnipresence of advertising and the media, by the trendy and fickle nature of fashion and styling, by the rapid, viral-like expansion of suburbia and its accompanying sprawl, and by the domination of the image in popular culture. The postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson describes today’s artistic climate as a place where “all is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” This pastiche form of expression, drawing from the styles of various time periods, annihilates temporality just as the domination of the image and mass culture drowns any clear gist of reality. In this sense, postmodern art fails to establish any sequential sense of past, present, or future. As a result, art is condemned to the perpetual present, which is exemplary of the postmodern condition.

This might seem like an overly dreary and pessimistic outlook, but read the average album review by today’s music critic and one might be more likely to agree with Jameson—that the pastiche filled postmodern present has stifled musical originality and creativity. In a recent review of Jens Lekman, a Swedish singer-songwriter, music critic Marc Hogan writes: “Lekman's stunning Night Falls Over Kortedala embraces this idea more fully than any release of the past few years-- more even than Girl Talk with his memory-pricking laptop references, Kanye West with his canny reuse of classic hooks from Curtis Mayfield and Daft Punk, or mash-up artists with their many one-trick tracks.” Judging by this sentence (there are thousands more where this came from), laden with references to other popular musicians, it seems that today’s artists, at least in the eyes of music critics (especially the indie-rock snobs of Pitchfork Media), are relegated to being, not themselves, but an amalgamation of their musical peers and those that came before. This isn’t solely a hypothesized or perceived problem; it is a reality—today’s musicians clearly struggle with these pressures as they search for a believably authentic voice. Jeff Tweedy was previously the darling of the alt-country scene all through his days with the groundbreaking band Uncle Tupelo, but he said he felt the pressure to ditch his alt-country ‘baggage’ and break away from the strict traditionalists’ expectations before he could take his current band, Wilco, in new and more exciting directions. Many others feel the same stresses as they strive for the genuineness that The Band, and others before them, made so appealing. Similarly, as pastiche leads to a loss of temporality, today’s music can seem empty in its anachronistic displacement. The postmodern disconnect between past and present is likely part of the reason myself and others have an admittedly grouchy discomfort with today’s popular folk material. “If a performer is too rough-hewn,” one critic confesses, “it often strikes me as scam primitivism…while on the other hand, I find that if revival performers seem too polished, their folk allegiances start to seem like calculated put-ons, and I question their legitimacy as tradition practitioners.” How, in this postmodern age, is the musician to forge a unique musical path?

This dilemma seems especially pertinent for artists of my beloved postmodern South. As the region becomes more and more assimilated into the popular culture of the global economy, what will become of the Southern folk roots that made the area so distinct? Taking on the pessimistic outlook of Jameson, I feel impelled to expect the revivalist-like Southern response to an increasingly diverse and confusing world to be an ugly and heated contest, as various parties jockey to claim Southern culture for their own. But my more reasonable and democratic understanding of the South acknowledges the inevitability of competition, yet sees this as neither problematic, nor anything new. What makes the South so great, for me, is that it has always been a dynamic site of hybridity, and often, rivaling cultures and identities. Indeed, in the postmodern, international context, the South has always been and will continue to be, not a place of heated contest, but one of cultural exchange. This is what moved The Band’s Canadian members Robertson, Danko, and Manuel to travel to the South, to the flood plains of the Mississippi, where they met Levon Helm, and where blues, jazz, folk, country, gospel, soul, and rockabilly fused into rock n’ roll. If we can embrace the South and the cultures associated with ‘place’ as something, not coldly tangible and in need of possession, but something eclectic, dynamic, and living, then we make the task of breathing new life into folk traditions much less pressure-ridden for musicians. I cite Wilco’s collaboration with Billy Bragg, the folk samplings of the hipster Beck, or the eclectic, evolving career of Bob Dylan, and even the persevering nature of Pete Seeger’s career, among others, as examples of artists who have managed to circumvent the strictures of authenticity, deciding not to limit themselves with the label of any one particular sound but instead, subscribing to the folk ideal itself—the process of digging through vernacular roots, breathing new life into them by combining them creatively with contemporary flare.

But for me, while not the only band that embraces both the postmodern condition as well as the living dynamism of Southern identity in an effort to breath new life into old traditions, but the one that does it most fully (and one I recently rediscovered), is the Chapel Hill based band Southern Culture on the Skids. In a review of The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, edited by Stephen Conors, the critic Marshall Fishwick writes of the band: “I got an earful of postmodernism when a new rock group called Southern Culture on the Skids invaded our campus for an End of Exams Blowout concert. The name was well chosen. Loud and lusty, they blasted us with music they described as ‘hillbilly-surf-mexicali-rockabilly.’ One of the spectators, having enjoyed a good amount of artificial stimulus, called it ‘low-down-dirty thunder that's straight outta-the sewer blooze.’” The band was founded by guitarist and vocalist Rick Miller, who split his childhood between North Carolina and California, which helps explain the band’s Southern-roots-rockabilly-meets-surf-guitar sound. Since 1987, bassist and sometime vocalist Mary Huff along with drummer Dave Hartman, both of who hale from Roanoke, Virginia, have accompanied Miller on stage in what is one of the most entertaining and hilarious live acts in the music world. As Fishwick acknowledged in his book review, Southern Culture on the Skids is fully postmodern—not only in their obvious Southern-fried fusion of blues, rockabilly, country, swamp pop, boogie, and chitlin circuit R&B, but also in their blending of high and low culture along with their ironic lyrical approach to Southern (mainly trailer park) stereotypes. When Southern Culture on the Skids (known by most veteran fans as SCOTS) signed with a major record label in 1995 to release probably their most accessible album, Dirt Trake Date, the company, DGC Records, sifted through promotion ideas for their new client. They soon realized it was futile, as a record exec confessed, “To think of something clever to add to a band that plays on stage with a line of dancing men and women, a guy in a black suit with a Mexican Santo wrestling mask on his face, [and] a box of [fried] chicken being thrown around.” Yes, with their ‘kodzu limbo’ dancing, Tabasco guzzling, and friend chicken eating, their live shows are known to some to be the freakiest, freshest rock n’ roll parties around.

But SCOTS aren’t all gimmick. With just three instruments they achieve an amazingly loose, but rich and lively sound. Guitarist Miller, with his unique ability to provide extended guitar solos that one is able to dance to, pays heroically fresh tribute to the likes of Dick Dale, Travis Wammick, and Link Wray. And while they come across as sometimes vulgar, and many times hilariously ironic, SCOTS approaches the Southern archetypes they know best with the same honesty and poignancy as The Band. Like The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek” about the familiar female stop of a hard, working trucker, SCOTS sings “Fried Chicken and Gasoline” about a trucker missing a girl who don’t even know he’s gone. SCOTS’ ability to both poke fun at and take pride in their often white trash characters at the same time, along with their eclectic blend of different music styles, made with a contemporary feel and punk attitude, have made them accessible to a diverse demographic of fans. They can appeal to both those who embrace these low down Southern stereotypes as their own (the band gives the feeling that they are making fun of themselves more than anyone else) as well as those intellectual types who manage to take a bit more wit and irony out of their listening. Indeed, Southern Culture on the Skids is a benchmark of success in achieving a distinctly Southern, authentic voice rooted in traditions, with a tinge of postmodern eclecticism and irony, but never trapped by its strictures. If more artists can learn to apply this formula to their musical creativity, today’s music scene will only grow richer and more vibrant than it is today; and The Band might not remain as the group I seek to purify my soul when life overwhelms.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Short Writing Exercise

This is a short paragraph intended only to practice the craft of writing, specifically the art of writing an essay...

"To Fry An Egg"

There is something oddly beautiful about an egg, its smooth, speckled shell and oval shape. For centuries, the beauty of this delicate bearer of life has inspired humans to adorn its shell. Millions more pay tribute to the egg by shamelessly destroying its structure with one solid crack to the side of a skillet. While a fried egg may not have delighted Tsar Alexander as did the art of Faberge, cooking rather than painting seems the more logical, the more human, and maybe even the more poetic reaction to the egg. The crack of the egg must be swift, but the touch required to release its innards into the pan without any shell is something only acquired through practice. The pan should be hot enough to melt butter, but not so hot that the butter froths or browns. Add the egg to the pan. As you see the protein firming up but not fully opaque, use your quick wrists and the spatula to the flip the egg. By the time you've spooned on a little more butter, and sprinkled on some salt and black pepper, a perfect "over easy" fried egg is ready to the slide out of the skillet and onto your plate.

Ode to Fly-fishing

Those well-versed in fly-fishing and its accompanying plethora of literature, understand angling to be more than just sport. For many of us, it's an art form; some might even call it religion. At peace with one's surroundings, angler's look to participate in the cycle of life. We hope to trick these beautiful trout out of their cold, crystal clear pools in order to gaze upon their strange markings and wonderful colors for only the briefest of moments before we must release them back into their underwater worlds. As a purist, I covet the small stream and the native brook trout. My paintbrush of choice is my shortest, most delicate fly rod, selected in order to avoid the trees and brush that engulf the tiny pools I stalk. While a nymph may land me better luck and a bigger fish, a dry fly affords me the possibility to witness the wonderful spectacle that is a live strike on the water's surface. With grace and short bursts of speed at the outset and conclusion of my casts, I gently whip my rod and line back and forth to the rhythm of God's time, eventually bringing my mayfly to rest precisely upon the still water behind a bulging granite boulder. On this eddy it rests until my next cast, as does my soul.