The politics of welfare

Dean Baker’s post is thorough but rife with redundancies and typographical errors. Paul Krugman does yeoman’s work in breaking down the lies issued by a particularly gross Washington Post article published today. Gross because an American who knows nothing about how the government pays for Social Security would take this for gospel. What the GOP won’t say and the Democrats, for a number of reasons, are afraid to say is that Social Security is fully funded until the 2030’s, after which recipients will receive 75% of benefits. Let us not miss Krugman’s essential point: when have you ever heard anyone refer to a “deficit” in the defense budget? You’ll hear a politician claim we’re not spending enough on defense, but it’s not the same as claiming a deficit exists. That’s how Social Security works: a permanent part of the budget, what some of us who deal with budgets call a fixed cost, and neither more nor less irritating.

Money’s too tight: Margin Call

Margin Call is a movie about lizards that ends with a chimp burying a dog in his backyard. The metaphorical chimp is Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the mid-level apparatchik of an unnamed Wall Street investment firm whose humanity is defined by his affection for a cancer-ridden dog (the only important scene, save one in Brooklyn, shot outside Wall Street unfolds in a vet’s surgery room). Writer-director J.C. Chandor, perhaps shamed by the airless, tip-top melodrama he’s created, also includes quiet moments in which the phlegmatic corporate lawyer (Demi Moore), hair down and barefoot, watches the sun rise over Manhattan minutes after being asked to take the fall. Both these scenes are distractions: remember that Hannah Arendt line about the Nazis playing Wagner at Buchenwald. Why “humanize” people who have, according to the movie’s terms, accepted their inhumanity?

The rest of Margin Call moves like a three-act play: knowledge, panic, resolution. Imagine Inside Job, the horrifying 2010 Charles Ferguson documentary about the collapse of the rickety housing and investment banking structures, treated as a fiction film with little fat. Chandor makes a crucial decision: he begins with the low-level peons (Penn Badgley and Zachary Quinto) “only” making a quarter million dollars a year selling bundles of toxic assets, then patiently moves up the hierarchy: the fast-tongued cynic well enough not to take it seriously (Paul Bettany), the tortured Jack Lemmon type (Spacey), and the colorless manager skilled just enough in office politics to survive (Simon Baker). The last circle of hell Chandor reserves for the ice king himself: Jeremy Irons as the CEO, looking as dessicated and gone to seed as the twins he played long ago in Dead RingersMargin Call‘s other insight is to remind us — again and again — how stupid and indifferent brains become when they’re located closer to the empyrean where the only difference between a billion and a hundred billion is an after-lunch yawn. As plutocrat Bernstein reminds Thatcher in Citizen Kane, “It’s no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money.”

The most delicious scenes take place between Bettany and his two underlings. Chewing Nicorette before saying fuck it and returning to the relief of Marlboros, Paul Bettany isn’t going to let the thinnest sliver of a conscience come between him and his two million a year (after giving money to the IRS, his parents, several fashion designers, and the same bank that owns his home, he blows the rest on hookers and liquor). Zachary Qunto, nerves a-quiver and hair as motionless as Andrew Garfield’s in The Social Network, fades from the picture once he serves his function: delivering the news (in words “that a golden retriever” can understand, Irons urges him) that the firm is “leveraged” beyond even terms like “collateral.” Who’s to blame? Lawyers like Demi Moore, whose job was to legalize (on paper at least) the proceedings. Flunkies like Spacey, who, speaking in a voice as parched as his Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential did when asked why he became a cop (“I don’t remember”), gets the job of delivering the movie’s homilies.

I enjoyed much of Margin Call, vaporous title and all: it’s swift and cutting. But Chandor doesn’t know maybe a bit more about credit default swaps and derivatives than the audience; he’s in for the melodrama, one in which Irons’ John Tuld gets his own variant on Gordon Gekko’s greed-is-good monologue (this one has an extra historical kick: Irons names every great financial panic of the last four hundred years) and at the end of the movie still keeps the privilege to eat in the firm’s executive dining room. If Margin Call ends unsatisfactorily, blame two things: the Harry Lime Dictum, i.e. allowing the villains their glamor and omnipotence; and the way in which current headlines suggest that the story still hasn’t ended.

Singles 10/28

The Jukebox debate over the politics (and semiotics) of the word “geronimo” overlooked how an act as divisive recorded an album’s worth of erratically rhythmic war chants. I mean of course Justin Bieber.

Kidding. Look at my single of the week.

tUnE-YarDs – Gangsta (8)
Kate Bush – Wild Man (7)
Aura Dione – Geronimo (6)
Justin Bieber – Mistletoe (5)
Britney Spears – Criminal (4)
Nero – Crush On You (4)
Wynter Gordon – Buy My Love (4)
Lana Del Rey – Blue Jeans (4)
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – AKA… What a Life (3)
Charlene Soraia – Wherever You Will Go (3)
Rascal Flatts ft. Natasha Bedingfield – Easy (2)
Korn ft. Skrillex & Kill The Noise – Narcissistic Cannibal (2)

Heave-ho: Tom Waits’ Bad As Me

A musician whose first album purchased remains the prohibitive favorite, Waits hooked me with 1992’s Bone Machine, a clanking, clattering, nightmare that mitigates its Southern gothic cornpone and oleaginous melodic sense with consistently fresh percussion. Hooked me, but didn’t keep me; last year Rain Dogs finally revealed itself as the turning point album its reputation suggests. I like to remind fans of the existence of Rod Stewart’s Top Five cover of “Downtown Train” because Stewart and producer Trevor Horn embrace the original’s night-of-a-thousand-stars mawk instead of relying on an admittedly fetching Robert Quine guitar line to mitigate Waits’ wet croak.

Bad As Me will satisfy the faithful. “Raised Right Men” is another iteration of Rain Dogs‘ “Big Black Mariah,” down to the vowels-only singing. Without checking the credits of “Last Leaf,” it’s obvious that the Keith Richards-anchored “That Feel” from 1992 served as a sonic forebear. The album’s second third adduces Waits’ weakness for ballads. Rod Stewart, calmly nesting in the warmth of the Great American Songbook, probably won’t cover any of them though, which is doubly piteous: not only doesn’t Rod care much for contemporary songcraft, but Waits, whose albums now debut in the top forty (and whose 2006 comp went gold), no longer needs the publishing income. He’s a Great American Master already, down to his heaves and belches. So let me reserve special praise for a particularly odorous belch: “Hell Broke Luce,” in which Waits’ decision to repeat key nouns over the usual clattering drums and scrub board guitar sounds more necessary than it did in 1999 when I suppose we all agreed Mule Variations represented his best bid for canocity.

Fourth quarter update

How the year looks so far:

Pistol Annies – s/t
DJ Quik – The Book of David
Destroyer – Kaputt
Britney Spears – Femme Fatale
Serengeti – Family and Friends
Marsha Ambrosius – Late Nights and Early Mornings
Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’
The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
Beyonce – 4
Wire – Red Barked Tree
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Nicholas Jaar – Space is Only Noise
Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What
tune-YARDS – w h o k i l ll
Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
Poly Styrene – Generation Indigo
Lady Gaga – Born This Way
Junior Boys – It’s All True
R. Kelly – Love Letter
El DeBarge – Second Chance
Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots
Arctic Monkeys – Suck It and See

The limits of fandom: “indie adult contemporary”

Welcome to indie adult contemporary:

But if there is a consensus about what counts as respectable, adult music in 2011, [Wilco, Neko Case, Bon Iver, and Feist] are surely a part of it: While more people consider pop music inherently silly than enjoy it, few assaults are leveled at the seriousness or artistic value of this stuff. It’s tasteful and subtle and brings a few newish ideas to the middle of the road; it adheres to a classic sense of what rock and American music are, but approaches it from artful enough directions to not seem entirely fusty; a certain type of teenager and a certain type of parent might agree on it. If this sounds close to the definition of what was once considered “adult contemporary,” well, that’s precisely the territory bands like Wilco have spent the past decade colonizing, often entirely by accident. One good indicator of this norm’s normalness? The main criticism you hear about this kind of record—even outweighing references to Starbucks and/or the bourgeoisie—is that it is just too dull to even bother producing any more complex indictment of it. These acts, intentionally or not, have won; they’ve taken a lower-sales, lower-budget version of the type of trip Sting once took, from a post-punk upstart to an adult staple.

A couple of points. Firstly, I don’t believe the platitude that great art must be subversive; not only is what is subversive to you banal to me, but if subversion were our ne plus ultra, then our bookshelves and hard drives would groan with the number of first novels and albums contained therein (besides, how often do we listen to Gang of Four?). As a listener who must note gender and sexuality in the performance, I often fixate on bright, agreeable surfaces anyway.  Secondly, in his genial way Nitsuh Abebe withholds blame; he recognizes that taxonomy gets people defensive enough already. Besides, in 1991 anybody who cared about Sting (and they were plenty) bought The Soul Cages without worrying about genre or, ominously, what the purchase signified. Hold it a moment – aren’t Wilco and Radiohead fans defensive creatures? If I make the leap to link Abebe-defined indie adult contemporary to the “middlebrow” sensibility, as defined by Dwight MacDonald and Clement Greenberg, then surely Radiohead’s attempts at seriousness belong in this category? I’m engaging in taxonomy too: in their last three albums Wilco, to their credit, haven’t tried for Serious Art so much as limning the possibilities of tasteful noodle rock. Only their most devoted fans will vouch for the differences between The Whole Love and Sky Blue Sky; as for Sting, his heart might swell with pride at the thought that there was a tinker’s damn of difference between The Soul Cages and ...Nothing Like the Sun. That Wilco and Radiohead bore me has little to do with the requirements of fandom: valuing distinctions among songs or albums that the rest of us consider banal. I’ll accept the same criticism regarding The-Dream, Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, the Mountain Goats, Drive-By Truckers, Robert Forster, or the other contemporary  acts I love.

Singles 10/21

Miss B takes this by default: nothing on this week’s list matches her panache, avidity, and talent for excellent gif captures.

Beyoncé – Countdown (9)
Emile Sandé ft Naughty Boy – Daddy (7)
T.I. ft. Big K.R.I.T. – Flexin’ (6)
The Wanted – Lightning (5)
J. Cole – Work It Out (6)
The Horrible Crowes – Behold The Hurricane (6)
Joe Goddard ft. Valentina – Gabriel (6)
Bruno Mars – It Will Rain (6)
RD – Got Me Burnin’ (6)
Gavin DeGraw – Not Over You (2)
Susan Boyle – Enjoy The Silence (2)
Toby Keith – Made in America (2)

C’est plus chic

A double dose of Chic mystique: today’s NYT story in advance of guitarist-songwriter-producer Nile Rodgers’ memoir and a recent entry in The Guardian‘s “My Favorite Album” feature praising the elegance of 1979’s Risqué. Forgetting for a moment that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, singly and collectively, have created — in every sense — a half dozen of my most essential albums, the Chic catalog sounds like a marvel the older I get and the less often I visit the dance floor. For it’s there that the modern psychodrama gets its most hysterical unveiling, and “My Feet Keep Dancing,” with a string section that plunges into your throat like a knife and sampled tap dancing, provides the score; Sister Sledge’s “Lost in Music” says it all.  Unrequited desire looks an awful lot like same sex attraction: listen to “My Forbidden Lover” (in that Rodgers interview he is candid about his familiarity with the intersection of the homosexual demimonde and disco in late seventies Manhattan). But thank Rodgers-Edwards for the grace notes which pull their lovers from despair: note Edwards’ rippling little bass run animating each repetition of “At Last I Am Free”‘s chorus; it’s the kind of thing you don’t hear until the fifth play.  And sometimes love is ecstatic release: the snap of Tony Thompson’s snare and Rodgers’ furious riffing over the last two minutes of “When You Love Someone” should tell you so.