Welcome to the past: Brad Paisley

In 2009 Brad Paisley wrote a song about the significance of Barack Obama’s election called “Welcome to the Future.” Now that 2011 looks more like  “Hello Past” and the beautiful dreams of post-partisanship melted faster than polar ice caps, Paisley himself looks a little dowdy, as shown by opening his new album This is Country Music with the feeblest salvos of his career: an uncharacteristically nervous, tentative title track whose affirmation of so-called country values wipes out the ecumenism of American Saturday Night; and a song called “Old Alabama” that’s not about the state but the bleating beardos who were the early eighties equivalent to Garth Brooks, although it might be, so mild is its conservatism that it can’t be bothered to piss off new liberal fans who’ve never heard “Under the Red White and Blue” and “Okie From Muskogee.”

So charming is Paisley, so prodigious his skill at churning out tunes hooked with Donne-style conceits like “Alcohol,” “Ticks” (check out Donne’s “The Flea” for similar flair), “Water,” and, on TICM, “Toothbrush,” that I’m tempted to dismiss how deftly this dissembler can fag-bait in the mildest way in songs like 2007’s “I’m Still a Guy” yet remind his missus in 2009’s “You Wear the Pants” that he doesn’t mind her in charge. The connective tissue here is sex, and if Paisley’s songs are to be believed he enjoys it a lot, or at least has it enough to imagine bolder, truer to life scenarios. The new album’s “Remind Me” boasts Paisley’s guitar at its most elegiac as it curls around a narrative in which the contemplation of his girlfriend/wife unpeeling her stockings  gets him so hopped up that he can’t stop making out with her while saying goodbye at the airport (she misses her flight, which is not worth a makeout, honestly). With duet partner Carrie Underwood whoopin’ and hollerin’, this is one damn fine anthem, almost the equal of Blake Shelton’s “Who Are You When I’m Not Lookin’,” country’s other great sustained erotic reverie this year. Speaking of machismo, someone ask Paisley what Don Henley is doing on his track except to serve as a Ghost of Music Veteran Future.

Thanks to Paisley’s increased grasp of professionalism, This is Country Music features less filler than ever; but from the songs about girls getting spring break tans to the lame one about the girl dying of cancer, it sounds like retrenchment. The thirty-eight-year-old Paisley, eighteen months after American Saturday Night, is getting too old for this shit (a five-minute instrumental called “Eastwood” is the most exceptional “mature” track). Although “Welcome to the Future” adduced his implicit affinities for Obama, Paisley himself is closer to Bill Clinton: he waffles, he flexes his dimples, he looks you straight in the eye, he courts your vote and checks out your wife’s tits. Paisley still doesn’t make choices — he makes promises, and promises by their nature require exclusion.

Ye gods: Thor

Tom Hiddleston is the best reason to watch Thor. Slight of built and with dark hair slicked back like an otter’s, the Norse god of mischief rarely raises his voice; he’s so self-possessed that he doesn’t need to. You understand why he carries a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder: with a ponderous walrus like Odin as a stepfather (Anthony Hopkins), any twentysomething might wonder whether another god wanted to fuck me over.

The rest of Thor boasts the same rather shoddy CGI values of a would-be franchise biding its time until the grosses are released. Since Kenneth Branagh was not a particularly distinguished director when he was supposedly re-imagining Shakespeare and Hitchcock for American audiences, his “stamp” is non-existent; Odin himself could have directed it from Asgard. Speaking of which, with an almost two hundred million dollar budget I’d have thought Branagh and his production team could design an empyrean that didn’t look like a combination of Narnia and the sets from The Wiz. Also, apparently Norse gods were a more racially integrated bunch than historians have thought: Thor’s crew counts a brunette and an Asian as members, and the Gatekeeper of Asgard is a Carl Weathers type with a glower and manner etched in the Bronx. But neither training nor manner can wither Natalie Portman, who gives one of her worst performances ever and looks smashing while doing so. When she’s supposed to look like she’s having fun, her jaw clenches and eyes go mad like a hyperactive kid on Ritalin; when asked to show Thor (Chris Hemsworth) she’s got the hots for him, she chews the insides of her mouth.

As for Hemsworth, he’s sweet in a lunkheaded way and wears blond bangs like a pro; he’s a believable oaf. But Thor was never one of my favorite Marvel superheroes: his proto-Schwarzeneggar schtick of breaking stuff and acting clumsy around mortals got tiresome, especially since wit and him were only passing acquaintances anyway. That’s why the final confrontation between him and Loki is a hoot: when the nimble Hiddleston, clad in emerald green and brandishing a staff he stole from Narnia’s White Witch, loses it doesn’t seem fair.

Marcello Carlin reactivates his blog after some inactivity. HIs latest entry in his review of every chart-topping British album: Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me I”m Only the Piano Player.

When Donna Summer added prominent rock guitars to her sound, the results were uneven. For every “Hot Stuff” and “Cold Love,” there was a “Nightlife,” on which producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellote abandon the experiment at the halfway point and revert to the pre-/post-disco motorik thud they invented.

This rejected track from the shelved I’m a Rainbow, which appeared on the Fast Times at Ridgemont HIgh soundtrack in 1982, is what I want from Summer rocking out. Eschewing Benatar-esque hysterics for a pace and timbre that presents her mid range in the most attractive setting, I can understand why her record company got the jitters.

“The war with the White House only stirred ratings:” Roger Ailes

I should have posted it last week, thus risking the possibility that anyone who cares has read it, but New York‘s profile of Roger Ailes is a must read. The most salient fact should not surprise: Ailes is the GOP’s kingmaker, to whom every candidate must grovel and offer the proper obeisance. The second point should have been obvious to me: Ailes cares about profit more than his political views, and will discard the latter if it interferes with the former:

“He thinks things are going in a bad direction,” another Republican close to Ailes told me. “Roger is worried about the future of the country. He thinks the election of Obama is a disaster. He thinks Palin is an idiot. He thinks she’s stupid. He helped boost her up. People like Sarah Palin haven’t elevated the conservative movement.”

In the aftermath of the Tucson rampage, the national mood seemed to pivot. Ailes recognized that a Fox brand defined by Palin could be politically vulnerable. Two days after the shooting, he gave an interview to Russell Simmons and told him both sides needed to lower the temperature. “I told all of our guys, ‘Shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually.’ ”

The news from America’s Most Trusted News Source isn’t good. Internecine war rages: O’Reilly, who can’t stand Sean Hannity, allies himself with Beck. Shepard Smith, he of the lavender lipstick, thrives as the token liberal. Meanwhile the ratings drop. Regrettably. Should FOX, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh fade as pinatas for liberals who have no one with whom to rehearse their arguments, will those Tea Party rallies turn deadlier?

Never could learn to love that list and to call it mine

What’s most amusing about TIME’s list of the worst Dylan songs is how they dismiss them with the smug facility the writers used to praise them at the time of their release: “Tight Connection to My Heart,” for example, was in 1985 “a playful bit of lovelorn apocrypha.” My beloved “Tight Connection…”  – one of his best eighties singles, with guitar fills and Dylan phrasing as rewarding as anything from the mid seventies – is many things, but not “apocrypha,” whatever that means in this context. Moreover, if the writers want to dismiss the determined innocuousness of “Wiggle Wiggle,” why ignore the leaden topicality of “Joey” or “Hurricane”? If I had my druthers, half of the boring, obnoxious Desire would make the list.

Subtext as text: Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”

I don’t need the encouragement, but these kids do. My students do too. Until “Born This Way,” Lady GaGa counted as a gay spokesman in both obvious (declaring her support for “marriage equality”) and subtle but proven ways (the by now predictable costume changes, which she confuses for stylistic shifts). If you didn’t watch her Barbara Walters interview a couple of years ago, read the press releases, or pay attention to the girl with the floral shirt who is the object of desire in the new “Americano,”  her songs would tell you nothing about her lusts or ambitions. She didn’t even sound particularly feminine. Masculine either; she was a roboticized androgyne.  Choosing Ace of Base’s “Don’t Turn Around” and, on the new Born This Way, “Beautiful Life” as sonic forebears counts as some kind of conceptual coup, as if she hoped that by submerging herself beneath synth squiggles and electro thud-thud-thud traces of personality will rise like bubbles from the bottom of the sea.

With Born This Way, Gaga aspires to become an all-purpose avatar for misfits and losers. Laughing at her for selecting the godawfulest album cover ever printed is part of the point. She accepts our derision; she invites it. That she succeeds three quarters of the time is testament to her development as a songwriter. Where she once struggled to write decent choruses for solid bridges or vice versa, every song on BTW boasts the surefire get-outta-my-dreams-into-my-car stomp of a Robert “Mutt” Lange composition (when Lange himself co-produces a song I barely noticed). When she eschews claims and slogans to “speak for” enfeebled minorities, she’s thrilling. Whether Willow Smith inspired the inanity of “Hair” remains open for conjecture, but the way the piano greases the transition from “Be My Baby” drum pattern to the choral “I am my hair!” makes for the year’s most batshit-awesome pop moment. “Scheibe” borrows a rumble from early nineties Belgian techno. The electro stutter in “Bloody Mary” is as indelible as the title hook in “Alejandro.” The Eddie Van Halen guitar squeal in “Bad Kids” anchors the first successful quasi-narrative foray of Gaga’s career, but if I stuck a prefix before the key word, blame the auteur for her impatience: she can’t wait to get to the message, which is, more or less, stay young and pure, and which is, unequivocally, bad advice. Those degenerates and twits will get old right quick, and if they’re so hung up on purity, they better move to that neighborhood in Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. Surely if we’re Born This Way and want our loved ones to accept us, then we have to accept aging too. Hustling for a culture obsessed with youth is the surest sign that Gaga and her Gagagettes will face no lasting problems with “fitting in” once the abrogation of the Defense of Marriage Act unleashes the fiduciary might of the empowered gay couple.

Aesthetic ventures which end – maybe begin too – as social uplift are as old as pop music itself.  Sometimes the line between empowering and homiletic is hard to see; how many people do you know prefer “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to “We Are The World,” and why is it so goddamn hard for them to accept they’re wrong? Despite the marvel that is the sequence from “Hair” to “Bad Kids,” Born This Way drifts when she wrests the prerogative of sincerity from her producers’ willing fingers. Ask Bonnie Tyler or  Patty Smyth what “The Edge of Glory” is and how we avoid stepping over it; perhaps it involves commanding Clarence Clemons to stop blowing a siren song on his saxophone; perhaps it means the seizure of eighties triumphalism from the cold dead fingers of Survivor. Speaking of eighties sensations, Stevie Nicks is the only one who can get away with parenthetical interjections like “Highway Unicorn (Road 2 Love),” whose title sounds like a Scrabble game gone awry. Finally, although Matos argues that the title track sounds better in context, it still doesn’t transcend its origin as the musical equivalent of a collection box.

So: roughly a quarter is dross. This leaves almost forty-five minutes of the most sustained pleasure I’ve heard in a pop album all year. A warning though: Gaga’s hungry but not omnivorous, and she’ll need this instinct if she wants to join Madonna, Prince, Springsteen, Michael Jackson, and the other polymaths whom critics still think the age demands (I say so what and who cares). As she steps closer to the explicitness we want from said polymaths, pressure will increase on Gaga’s still maturing popcraft, and who knows whether the Garbo game she’s played since 2009 will extend our good will. But I can’t disabuse myself of the suspicion that my review of Born This Way, like any Madonna garnered in 1986 for True Blue, is irrelevant to the millions of fans — the millions of gay fans — for whom Gaga’s extracurricular outreach illuminates a corpus of new tunes strong enough not to require biographical glossing. The sociopolitical climate has changed; the aesthetic approach, twenty-five years after another set of would-be pop icons released their debut, has not.

Maybe I need the encouragement after all.

Twenty-five years ago today: Pet Shop Boys’ “Please”

To commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of a still unheralded debut, John Freeman gives Pet Shop Boys’ Please another listen. My own take from 2005. Before the video for “Domino Dancing,” before the imperial phase commemorated by the singles from Actually, I want to know how many fans who bought Please in 1986 knew the Boys were not Boys Don’t Cry or Sly Fox, both of whom made a fabulous hit but remain one hit wonders in America; whether these record buyers knew the Boys were Something Special.

On Harold Bloom

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From Sam Tanenhaus’ review of Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence:

The revelation came in Bloom’s “misreadings” — the linkages he found. He made the reader see how John Ashbery really had emerged from Wallace Stevens, just as Stevens had from Whitman; that Browning harbored the ghost of Shelley; that Tennyson issued from Keats. The point was not that “father” and “son” sounded alike. Much of the time they didn’t. The affinities occurred outside the familiar realm of echoes and allusions, of intended references.

Bloom’s theory, he explains in his new book, was the offshoot of his own reading habits, principally his freakish capacity for memorization. He discovered it in childhood, and it never left him. In the early 1960s, he “memorized at first hearing” W. S. Merwin’s “Departure’s Girl-Friend,” a poem of some 40 lines, after Merwin gave a reading at Yale. And even now “I possess almost all of Hart Crane by memory.”

When I met Harold Bloom at a Miami Book Fair event in 2000. during which he promoted How To Read and Why, I asked him to inscribe his favorite verse from his favorite poem in my copy of The Western Canon. I expected a Wallace Stevens excerpt, and he did not disappoint. The bulbous eyeballs slapped shut; the head rolled backwards; and the Great Man sort of exhaled the final life from “Sunday Morning:” “Downward to darkness, on extended wings.” Disappointed by its predictability, I asked for his impressoons of my own favorite Stevens line, buried in “The Novel,” one of his least recognized poems (“The fire burns as the novel taught it how”). His head shook with the subtlest of dismissals. But this faded when, thirty minutes into his lecture, he left the crowd spellbound with a recitation of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” from memory. It was a performance in the classic sense: Bloom’s stentorian bullfrog tones hurling the lines at us (I HAVE BECOME A NAME FOR ALWAYS ROAMING WITH A HUNGRY HEART!). At its conclusion no one dared applaud; our pants were soaked.

In graduate school, I learned from my professors to regard Bloom as a sort of Falstaff of litcrit, which, of course, would have tickled him. Too late. They disliked his facility; he had made a show of Reading Everything. He wrote expansive prefaces to his Modern Critical Interpretations series on Austen, Mann, Musil, Roth, et al, even for his enemies. What I learned from Bloom, and, later, from Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, and his hated Eliot, was how to forge a style sure in its judgments and expectant of ridicule. He dismissed Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell as “period pieces.” He valued Shelley over other Romantic poets. He persuaded me to memorize the second poem in Hart Crane’s “Voyages” sequence (“And yet this great wink of eternity…”). He preached the virtues of catholicism — of experimenting widely with the purpose of developing what he called “interiority” — but recoiled at any tracts which demanded special pleading, be it Marxist, gay, or feminist (he adored James Merrill and Elizabeth Bishop yet thought of ever more novel ways of shitting on Adrienne Rich and Alice Walker). As a critic I envy his resume: gadfly, best-seller, pedant.