Well, yes

David Thomson, reviewing Tom Kalin’s tentative film career and his pretty good (and, until Savage Grace, only) film Swoon:

It was hard to see Swoon without detecting a gay film, but that mood was no more pressing or less complicated than the fact that Goodfellas was a claim made for heterosexuality in an essentially gay world. In other words, no film is simply about sex, even if nearly every film is also always about sex.

Hardly fashionable, but my Oldie of the Week is OMD’s “So In Love,” their first of four American Top 40 hits. Everyone knows “If You Leave,” which then and now I’ve always found one of the worst beloved hits of all time — garish and obvious, from the synthesized percussion to the breathy way in which the vocalist (I can’t tell them apart) sings “Seven years went under the bridge/Like time was standing still” as if it took seven years under the bridge to come up with the lines. Since I’m lukewarm on many of OMD’s early electro ditties, the straightforwardness of “So In Love” often grabbed me whenever I heard it (not often). I love how the synth-strings outrace the piano line, with Andy McCluskey barely holding the high notes; the song, like his rapture, gets away from him, barely returning to earth in the final minute before lifting him to the English Electro-Gloss Heaven populated by the likes of Roxy Music’s “Over You” and New Order’s “True Faith.” Speaking of which, Stephen Hague had a hand in shaping this one; his reins-holding here reminds me of what he’d do two years later on “True Faith”: constructing sturdy but porous blocks of electronic sound that insulated the band from their own excesses but allowed their conviction to seep through.

I haven’t written about movies in a while. Let me catch up.

Enchanted (2007): One of the movie’s least remarked on jokes is that no one in Manhattan blinks an eyelash when Amy Adams’ cartoon princess steps out of a manhole cover in Guinevere drag; it says little when prince James Marsden jumps atop a crosstown bus with a sword. But disrupt rush hour traffic and they get PISSED. Sure, it’s New York — its citizens are accustomed to oddities — but it’s no accident that the characters materialize in Times Square, practically owned by the Walt Disney Company, which also produced this film. America has become an extension of the Magic Kingdom; thus, the callow likes of divorce lawyer Patrick Dempsey (as Adams’ real true love) incarnates the fantasies of millions of little girls. Why believe in lovelorn princes when a bland flesh and blood one with a six-figure salary makes for an able substitute?

Still, this is a pretty good spoof; a multibillion dollar behemoth like Disney can afford to be generous. During one of my last visits to Walt Disney World, we ate a character buffet, at which we were visited by, in quick succession, Alice (from Alice in Wonderland), Belle, and Piglet. Amy Adams reminded me of those young women. There isn’t a scintilla of irony in her performance; she’s committed to playing Disney’s conception of a princess as fully as Ronald Reagan played an American president. Like Reagan, you don’t dare make fun of her to her face: she wouldn’t get it, so fully do they inhabit their parts. Meanwhile Marsden, relieved that he wasn’t cast in the Dempsey-patsy role for once, mugs and throws his stumpy arms hither and thither as if he’s never heard of Errol Flynn.

Amidst the amiable jabs at pop psychology and modern publishing (as well as an unexpected twist on a familiar denouement between a dragon and the True Love), there’s a truly sinister conclusion: Adams heads a booming princess-gown trade in a place that looks a lot like a gift shop on Main Street, U.S.A. You can argue that she teaches other girls to enact the fantasy she’s made flesh (literally), but the glint in her eyes doesn’t just signify a determination to believe in true love — it also projects a yen for lucre. Imagine Snow White and her prince moving to a loft on the Upper East Side to manage their plush toy business. Its most popular items? The Seven Dwarfs.

Circle in the Sand

A couple of weeks ago, former Stylus colleague Jonathan Bradley thought it would be a nice idea if the rest of our former colleagues assembled summer mix tapes. I collaborated with Dan Weiss on mine. Download the mix here; the tracklist is below. Here are the prefaces we wrote:

Mixing this was a necessary challenge. I’m in constant worry that the constant tide of new sounds to parse will eventually swallow my instinct for putting music together or catching the hairpin logic of a loop in potential. I’m really proud of these results, though. Alfred is a natural collaborator for me because he’s one of the few critics of my time who zeroes in on melody, rhythm, songwriting…the boring essentials that some people will go as far as SunnO)))) records to avoid. I can count on him to present me with a new way to hear E-A-B-C# again (Kathleen Edwards’ brilliant Amy Rigby stunt “The Cheapest Key”) or discern visceral arguments of longevity from inscrutable favorite-band-ism (Pet Shop Boys’ “Minimal,” as exciting as they’ve ever been in 20+ years). I was delighted by his picks, nearly all of them unknown to me. In fact, his choices set the bar so high I went back and redacted a few of mine that I fear relied too much on my weakness: classic alt-rock comforts. Even still, no summer can jam without Weezer, Weezy or Belinda Carlisle. Thanks for luring me out of the cheapest key.

— Dan Weiss

After studying our mix, I noticed that we were most concerned with space — how artists and shrewd remixes suggest vastness. In the context of summer, vastness suggests the abrogation of responsibility: school and relationships, mostly, and the moral sinecures they provide by necessity, against which we strain with some success, and towards which we return as the days start to shorten, and bank balances begin to shrink. These songs are guideposts: towards danger and release.

— Alfred Soto


1. The Reputation – Face It
2. Arthur Russell – That’s Us/Wild Combination
3. Cut Copy – So Haunted
4. Yo La Tengo – Today is the Day
5. The Cure – A Japanese Dream
6. Be Your Own Pet – Super Soaked
7. Lil’ Wayne – I Feel Like Dying
8. Belinda Carlisle – Heaven is a Place on Earth (Heavenly Version)
9. Mike Doughty – Like a Luminous Girl
10. Hercules & Love Affair – Shadows
11. Pet Shop Boys – Minimal
12. Katy Perry – Waking Up in Vegas
13. Wussy – Soak It Up
14. Kathleen Edwards – The Cheapest Key
15. Jens Lekman – A Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill
16. Bryan Ferry – The In Crowd
17. Weezer – Everybody Get Dangerous
18. Al Green feat. John Legend – Stay With Me (By the Sea)
19. Duran Duran – Meet El Presidente (7″ Remix)
20. The B-52s – Eyes Wide Open
21. We are Scientists – After Hours
22. Liz Phair – Lazy Dreamer
23. Rosanne Cash – Hold On
24. Bob Dylan – Clean-Cut Kid

Doin’ The Things That They Want To

What I admire most in a beloved musician is what I call colloquial mastery, and Matos‘ post on Prince’s “Blue Light” is exactly what I had in mind. I only warmed to”Blue Light” after absorbing Prince’s other work, and for other reasons: it’s a song recorded after the artist, having nothing further to prove, refines his craft by concentrating on the quotidian events that you and I take for granted — that they, in their quest of greatness, took for granted in their youth.

I feel the same about Lou Reed’s eighties work. Although praised highly at the time by the likes of Christgau, among others, the consensus has swung back to canonizing Transformer and Berlin, two albums I find unconvincingly sketchy and leaden, respectively (listening to Transformer is like watching a friend putting the moves on a gay man because he’s flattered by the latter’s attention). I can understand why — The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, and New Sensations often sound horrible, despite the skill of the best band Reed’s worked with since the Velvets. Reed’s idea of production glitz, for example, consists of pilfering the drum sound of Private Eyes-era Hall & Oats. But there’s rewards to this approach too. After writing about heroin, bondage, and putting jelly on your shoulder, Reed’s devotion to banality requires a similar accommodation on the part of the listener. He did run out of ideas too (1986’s Mistrial and even New York are collections of slogans looking for arrangements, even melodies). Still, for me, Reed has never sounded more human and Reed-like than on “My Friend George,” “Rooftop Garden,” “I Love You, Suzanne,” and “Doin‘ The Things That We Want To.” Like “Blue Light”‘s use of what Matos calls “Taxi” (as in the TV show) synth lines and a loping reggae rhythm to which Tom Cruise and Elizabeth Shue might have danced in Cocktail, Reed’s use of decidedly unsubversive arrangements underlines his commitment to normality, illuminated by his superb ear for the unexpected fillip. The situation he delineates in “My Friend George,” in which bumping into a friend inspires frustration and renewed comradeship, gains more resonance as I approach my mid thirties and respond to Facebook requests from high school alumni. No rancid putdowns or labored analogies here: he doesn’t need them; his wise-ass personality underpins the song. Beginning with a violin line straight out of mid eighties Peter Gabriel duetting with Reed’s strummed electric guitar (and the return of the thin, white, dreaded H&O drums), “Doin‘ The Things…” is more adventurous musically, and its arrangement adds heft to the song’s simple premise: Reed swoons over a Sam Shepard play; it reminds him of what he loved about Martin Scorsese’s New York films. Years after he claimed on a famous Berlin psychodrama that he didn’t give a shit about people suffering, it’s touching to hear Lou drop his guard like this, playing the fanboy. Like Reagan meeting with Gorbachev one year later after Reed recorded New Sensations, Lou could get away with it thanks to two decades’ worth of accruing a reputation for doing the opposite. The title is descriptor and manifesto: without grandstanding, Reed puts himself in the company of fellow experts of the demotic, of men who make art after punching the clock.

Other examples: Van Morrison’s “Cleaning Windows,” Stephen Malkmus‘ “Gardenia,” the entirety of De La Soul’s The Grind Date, the Go-Betweens‘ “Here Comes The City.”

Bravo, Senator Obama…

…for reminding us that you can pander as abjectly as your colleague, Senator John McCain. As I’ve written elsewhere, this was an especially sordid move when every poll shows that the Democrats will not just keep but expand their Congressional majorities. So why are they afraid of being called Soft on Terror by chicken hawk Republicans?

Glenn Greenwald, who’s been following this story since 2005, sums it up:

This bill doesn’t legalize every part of Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program but it takes a large step beyond FISA towards what Bush did. There was absolutely no reason to destroy the FISA framework, which is already an extraordinarily pro-Executive instrument that vests vast eavesdropping powers in the President, in order to empower the President to spy on large parts of our international communications with no warrants at all. This was all done by invoking the scary spectre of Terrorism — “you must give up your privacy and constitutional rights to us if you want us to keep you safe” — and it is Obama’s willingness to embrace that rancid framework, the defining mindset of the Bush years, that is most deserving of intense criticism here.

But, hey, Obama wants to be president, and stands an excellent chance of winning, so why wouldn’t he support cool new executive powers allowing him to pursue deeds worthy of his most soaring rhetoric?

To be responsible, I listened to Girl Talk’s new one twice, but I knew I hated it upon hearing the third track. As I wrote somewhere else, this is the album-length equivalent of participating in a music trivia night at your local bar, with the dork at the table (okay, me) identifying Survivor tunelets. I disagree with the Idolator folks: Jive Bunny’s “In The Mood” at least nodded to history, and you could dance to it, sorta. Apart from the juxtaposition of “Whoop (There It Is)!” and Big Country’s “In a Big Country” — due mostly to acknowledging how marvelous the Stuart Adamson riff sounds cranked good and loud — this album is the most witless example of sampling/mashing to date, the sort of horror which discredits its possibilities.

To be responsible, I listened to Girl Talk’s new one twice, but I knew I hated it upon hearing the third track. As I wrote somewhere else, this is the album-length equivalent of participating in a music trivia night at your local bar, with the dork at the table (okay, me) identifying Survivor tunelets. I disagree with the Idolator folks: Jive Bunny’s “In The Mood” at least nodded to history, and you could dance to it, sorta. Apart from the juxtaposition of “Whoop (There It Is)!” and Big Country’s “In a Big Country” — due mostly to acknowledging how marvelous the Stuart Adamson riff sounds cranked good and loud — this album is the most witless example of sampling/mashing to date, the sort of horror which discredits its possibilities.

Tim Russert’s dead. It’s awful, world-historic, so much so that yesterday NBC Nightly News actually showed a clip of Brian Williams mourning the death of his colleague while footage of the Iowa floods played in the background. If you need further examples of the depravity of our punditocracy, watch this video of Wesley Clark being interviewed by a pair of nobodies on MSNBC. Note how the anchors splutter when Clark makes a terribly obvious point about John McCain’s purported national security “experience” (“He’s never been responsible for policy formation. He’s never had leadership in a crisis or in anything larger than his own element on an aircraft carrier or in managing his own congressional staff”). In their quest for easy digestion, pundits will chew on anything malleable, such as Andrea Mitchell, among others, characterizing Barack Obama’s appeal back in the antediluvian days of November and December 2007 as “rock star,” as if that said everything you needed to know about him. In this case it’s John McCain the War Hero, as if being a prisoner of war qualified one to be an effective Chief Executive, which is like saying that I’m qualified to serve as editor in chief of a newspaper because I was once a reporter. Obama, of course, has even less experience, but that’s the point: both candidates, all things being equal, are equally qualified to be president, despite the bleatings of our local Republican bloggers, most of whom can’t make a point without their carotid arteries throbbing in public.

National security is indeed the most salient “issue” facing us this election, but we should worry as much about how fighting a perpetual war corrodes an executive branch that’s itself barely survived the abuses of the Cold War. As Immanuel Wallerstein notes:

The biggest unknown is how far he will go to dismantle the quasi-police state structures that the Bush regime has instituted under the umbrella of a war against terrorism. This involves far more than appointing better judges. It means a radical revising of both legislation and executive policies and exposing the ultra-secret rules and practices to the light of day. Much can be done, as we know from what was accomplished in the 1970s, reining in the CIA and the FBI. But the situation is worse now and requires more. History may well judge Obama most of all on what he does in this domain. Up to now, he has been quite silent about this arena.

Make no mistake: Obama’s rhetoric at its most affirmative and swollen makes me tremble. In context, I’m relieved that the paleoconservative rag American Conservative has also realized, in tones more paranoid than I’d adopt myself, that an Obama administration might (they say “would”) “parrot precisely the Bush regime’s panic-packed arguments about the horrendous threats facing America,” especially when he remarks, as he did last year, that “this century’s threats are at least as dangerous and in some ways more complex than those we have confronted in the past. They come from weapons that can kill on a mass scale and from global terrorists who respond to alienation or perceived injustice with murderous nihilism. They come from rogue states allied to terrorists and from rising powers that could challenge both America and the international foundation of liberal democracy.”

You can spin this as Obama’s way of countering the “perception” that he’s “weak on national security,” but he said those words, and he must account for them. American history is strewn with the bodies of presidents who appealed to our better natures by leading us into unsolicited wars of choice. The real audacity of hope would be if a President Obama shirks the call to higher duty.

Driving home on Father’s Day, I had the pleasure of catching on the adult contemporary station one of the very best ballads of the nineties. Although it led to the inevitable saccharine Disney ballad, and remains the peak of Vanessa L. Willams‘ career in the era before Mary J. Blige, Aaliyah, and Brandy effected a version of the R&B ballad toughened and inflected by hip-hop, “Save The Best For Last” is also a kind of peak for this kind of deliberately classic songwriting: the metaphors are rote but rounded neatly, and for once the piano and strings don’t smother the singer — who, by the way, sounds like a real human being; this song wouldn’t be as memorable in the hands of a self-appointed Classy Dame like Anita Baker or gimlet-eyed up-and-comer like Mariah Carey. “Save The Best For Last” conveys a modesty without banality: living within your means, learning without ostentation, loving and being loved not an iota more than you deserve (“Love Is,” her other Top Fiver from the era and a duet with Brian McKnight, is almost as memorable).

ADDENDUM: Wow. I had no idea this even existed. Greil Marcus always surprises you.

Deborah Solomon a cranky and rather useless interview with Gore Vidal, who can’t be bothered anything but growl stale bon mots. But his paranoia is so succinct it’s funny:

And what about Mr. McCain?

Disaster. Who started this rumor that he was a war hero? Where does that come from, aside from himself? About his suffering in the prison war camp?

Everyone knows he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam

That’s what he tells us.

Why would you doubt him? He’s a graduate of Annapolis.

I know a lot of the Annapolis breed. Remember, I’m West Point, where I was born. My father went there.

So what does that have to do with the U.S. Naval Academy down in Annapolis

The service universities keep track of each other, that’s all. They have views about each other. And they are very aware of social class and eventually money, since they usually marry it.

How, exactly, is your cousin Al Gore related to you
? They keep explaining it to me, and I keep forgetting.

So-called “social conservatives” take heart: gay marriage in Massachusetes is as banal as marriage for everybody else:

Some same-sex couples say being married has made a big difference, and some say it has made no difference at all. There are devoted couples who have decided marriage is not for them, couples whose lawyers or accountants advised them against marrying, and couples in which one partner wants to marry but the other does not.