Targets of scorn accorded their place

Carl Wilson:

In recent years, most people, and critics in particular, have become more live-and-let-live about one another’s varying musical tastes. Teen-pop, dance music, metal, and even Phil Collins, to name a few frequent targets of scorn, are all accorded their place. Dump on Kanye or Ke$ha or Justin Bieber and watch how quickly we critics will come back at you. This may represent a swing of the pendulum back to pop writing’s roots in questioning the divide between high art and supposed trash. Or it may be because of MP3s and YouTube exposing us all to more material, or something more socially complex.

Free stuff has a leveling effect on taste, I’ll grant, but Wilson’s second sentence does not prove the first. My generation now rules the rock-strewn, desolate land of rockcrit. We grew up not taking Phil Collins for granted. It does not mean, however, that Phil Collins, New Order, and Robbie Nevil are equal. If “poptimism” exists, it does not dispense value like fliers after church. Instead, it grapples with the implications of smashing together two words: it is optimistic about pop.

As for The National, I like them more than Wilson. My SPIN review of Trouble Will Fine Me.

Singles 5/31

I’ve gotten pretty good at ratings, so I’m embarrassed to admit I’d bump “Dirty Laundry” up to a 7 now: over the sparest, hookiest The-Dream arrangement in years, Rowland embraces the psychodrama like an middling actress instructed to keep her effects simple. She’s touching.

As for the rest, I haven’t seen such a run of average results since the post-Lincoln/pre-Teddy presidents.

Click on links for full reviews.

Beyoncé – Grown Woman (7)
David Bowie – The Next Day (7)
Gerardo Ortiz – Dámaso (6)
Naughty Boy ft. Sam Smith – La La La (6)
T-Ara N4 – Countryside Life (6)
Kelly Rowland – Dirty Laundry (5)
Busta Rhymes – Twerk It (5)
Solange ft. Kendrick Lamar – Looks Good With Trouble (5)
Mark Owen – Stars (5)
Dizzee Rascal ft. Robbie Williams – Goin’ Crazy (5)
Shiina Ringo – Irohanihoheto (5)
Nine Muses – Wild (5)
B*Witched – Love and Money (5)
Gold Panda – Brazil (5)
Bruno Mars – Treasure (4)
Kenny Chesney ft. The Wailers & Elan – Spread the Love (3)

Coitus terminus

In Frank Rich’s elegyto his deceased theater mentor – “the most intimate relationship I’d had with any nonparental adult,” he writes – a sense of triumph over How Far We’ve Come is indivisible from the sexual and social amnesia that has befogged young gay minds:

This history is not ancient. My own concern about its preservation comes not from some abstract sense of social justice but from my personal experience. I grew up in the Washington, D.C., of the sixties, where the impact of racism was visible everywhere, front and center in my political education. But gays—what gays? No one I knew ever saw them or mentioned them. Not until the eighties—when, like many Americans of that time, I was finally forced by the rampaging AIDS crisis to think seriously about gay people—did I fully recognize that a gay man had been my surrogate parent in high school, when I needed one most. Not that I ever thought to thank him for it.

For younger Americans, straight and gay, the old amnesia gene, the most durable in our national DNA, has already kicked in. Larry Kramer was driven to hand out flyers at the 2011 revival of The Normal Heart, his 1986 play about the AIDS epidemic, to remind theatergoers that everything onstage actually happened. Similar handbills may soon be required for The Laramie Project, the play about the 1998 murder of the gay college student Matthew Shepard. A new Broadway drama, The Nance, excavates an even older chapter in this chronicle: Nathan Lane plays a gay burlesque comic of 1937 who is hounded and imprisoned by Fiorello La Guardia’s vice cops. Douglas Carter Beane, its 53-year-old gay author, is flabbergasted by how many young gay theatergoers have no idea “it was ever that way.”

A member of the generation that watched AIDS metastasize from a gay plague to a heterosexual crisis in the late eighties, I watched attitudes change before my eyes. Before my first group of classroom students in 1998 I could not drop one hint about my personal life; in 2004, a student confessed in an essay – which he insisted on not sharing with the class – that he’d served as witness to a friend’s commitment ceremony to another boy. Last year, after being asked how he spent his weekend, a stocky laughing journalism major recounted without a moment’s discomfort a double date with his girlfriend, best friend, and the best friend’s boyfriend. The closet’s evil rests in allowing a homosexual to hide in plain sight; now, the move towards confession created the banality of sameness — what we’ve always wanted?

On my last couple of encounters the brazenness with which trysts dismiss the rudiments of safe sex astounded me. No flippant descriptions of the discomfort of wearing condoms (and what to do with them once used), or obligatory eye rolls at the interruption of a shall we say privileged moment – the guys were dumbfounded, as if I’d asked them if they spoke Finnish. One of those assignations ended early; let’s call it coitus terminus. Like the Spanish flu or Black Death, AIDS exists as a multiple choice answer in a social studies test. Millions of American teens will mature as citizens of a country whose landscape is altered thanks to the collaborations between their forebears and straight “allies.” But crimes will persist. Surrenders to causes with more money and political will behind them remain. In Miami the intersection of race, education, and masculinity produces bone-chilling statistics. When millions of Facebook subscribers switched profile photos into a Human Rights Campaign logo in March to celebrate “marriage equality,” I balked. We’re not post-gay. We’re not even gay yet.

The state with the prettiest name, pt #2351

Better late than never, better toothless than gumless:

Florida drivers: Soon you’ll no longer be able to text and drive, but you and the guy in the next lane will be allowed to text if you’re stopped in traffic or at a red light.

A law signed Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott bans manual texting and emailing while driving. The penalties are light, amounting to $30 plus court costs for a first offense and $60 for a second offense.

The ban goes into effect Oct. 1 and makes texting while driving a “secondary” offense, meaning a driver would have to be pulled over for some other violation, like careless driving, to get a texting ticket.

“It’s certainly not a cure-all, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction,” Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said. “It’s a hazardous, dangerous activity. Whether a vehicle’s going 60 or 65 mph on I-95 or 25 mph in a residential neighborhood, nobody wants a distracted driver behind the wheel.”

Unfortunately, Israel said, if law enforcement officers spot a driver who is texting and driving but not committing any other traffic violation, they still have no recourse.

“They have to see a primary offense or we’re going to let them continue,” Israel said. “And that’s the tough part about it, watching someone continue on their way.”

I’m a lengthy monologue: Iggy Pop’s New Values

220px-Iggy_Pop-New_Values_(album_cover)Phil Freeman, one of my favorite rock critics, reexamines Iggy Pop’s New Values, released in 1979 after Ig’s Bowie collaborations and on which he writes almost every song himself as if to prove he can do things himself. I bought it recently. The surprise was seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers sideman Scott Thurston playing many instruments, but after the tunes sank in it made sense: this is an album whose punk genes are exposed in Iggy’s contrapuntal, staccato vocals and the way in which he comes at rhythm sideways, not in the arrangements, which to my ears sound like Mott The Hoople wrestling with horn charts and percussion; the guitar on “I”m Bored” even sounds like a pretzeled Captain Beefheart bit from the same era straightened and desalted. Unlike Phil I like the chairman of the bored line and Iggy, who’s fancied himself a primitive since the Stooges days, gets away with “African Man.” We’d have August Darnell soon enough.

When he and Bowie reunited, they were worth a million in prizes, thanks to the success of Let’s Dance and Tonight and their Iggy copyrights. Blah Blah Blah, the album that Bowie produced and co-wrote and made in his words “commercial as hell,” is maligned these days but heard past the thudding drum machines, hamhanded power chords, and dinky DX-7 lines recasts New Values in eighties shoulder pads; it’s wacky and fun, preferable to Iggy’s “mature” 1990 Don Was collaboration Brick By Brick (with a John Hiatt cover!) and far better than Bowie’s own songs. Chris O’Leary explains BBB’s vices and virtues here.

Books #7: Ike’s Bluff

Another in the recent series of reexaminations of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, Ike’s Bluff uses Ike’s prodigious card skills as the prism through which to view a foreign policy that relied on feints and the threat of overwhelming force. Although loath to fight a nuclear war with China over Quemoy and Matsu, and resistant to French, British, and Israeli bleatings of despair over Egypt’s effrontery in taking control of the Suez, Eisenhower never once publicly ruled out the possibility of aiming thermonuclear weapons at threats, confident that world leaders would know he meant what he said. Evan Thomas, a solid writer who heretofore had subsumed historical narrative beneath glossy magazine narrative, eschews parallels between Ike’s time and ours; we learn no lessons about the presidency other than to at all times debate the merits and demerits of policy proposals, and, when possible, command the largest army in modern times. No president, Thomas argues, can emulate Eisenhower because none of them served as victorious Supreme Commander during World War II. None can say he knew Stalin, Chiang Kai-Shek, and De Gaulle. To no surprise when analyzing a book beholden to a thesis that its subject possessed wizardly powers of concealment, I balked at Thomas’ reluctance to reckon with the consequences of Ike’s infatuation with covert operations. Conceding in asides that his book does not concern itself with such things does not absolve the author of the responsibility of explaining how putting the shah’s fat ass on the Peacock Throne or destabilizing Guatemala at the behest of United Fruit Company burnished Eisenhower’s reputation for democratic statesmanship. The Bay of Pigs survives in Thomas’ account as an excuse to reprise the can-we-hope-it’s-apocryphal account of an anguished, sobbing JFK calling his Old Frontier predecessor to Camp David for tough love.

But Ike still emerges as the most impressive post-WWII president, canny about power, impatient about received wisdom, and ruthless about maintaining a public image of smiling banality; it’s impossible to believe that reporters thought this man the Reagan of his time unless they wanted to be deceived. He used the dyspeptic John Foster Dulles as a mouthpiece and could thus bask in his astonishing seventy percent approval rating, which held for most of his presidency (and remains unequaled by successors, even Saint Ronnie).

“We took a big risk to save our heritage”

An amazing story: how scholars in Timbuktu saved rare Islamic manuscripts.

Radical Islamists had entered Timbuktu four months earlier, and they had set about destroying everything they deemed a sin.

They had demolished the tombs of Sufi saints. They had beaten up women for not covering their faces and flogged men for smoking or drinking. They most certainly would have burned the manuscripts — nearly 300,000 pages on a variety of subjects, including the teachings of Islam, law, medicine, mathematics and astronomy — housed in public and private libraries across the city.

The scholarly documents depicted Islam as a historically moderate and intellectual religion and were considered cultural treasures by Western institutions — reasons enough for the ultraconservative jihadists to destroy them.
The New York-based Ford Foundation, the German and Dutch governments, and an Islamic center in Dubai provided most of the funds for the operation, which cost about $1 million.

“We took a big risk to save our heritage,” said Abdel Kader Haidara, a prominent preservationist who once loaned 16th- and 18th-century manuscripts from his family’s private collection to the Library of Congress. “This is not only the city’s heritage, it is the heritage of all humanity.”

Read the whole thing.

Frances Ha

In Frances Ha, writer-director Noah Baumbach scores a perverse triumph: he creates a film whose title character is meant to be as garrulous, stunted, and insufferable as it’s possible to be. Greta Gerwig doesn’t act in any conventional sense; she performs a kind of feature-length skit or stand-up routine. Her large hands and feet and spasmodic movements adduce her adult-sized kid qualities. She’s a type, in other words, recognizable to late twentysomethings, which the pointless black and white photography apotheosizes: a Brooklynite who makes no money as an apprentice for a dance company and can’t afford her best friend Sophie’s (Mickie Sumner)’s company, drinking too much vodka and smoking too many cigarettes. When the money runs out she does the unexpected and moves crosstown to the Chinatown apartment of artists Benji and Lev (Michael Zegen and Adam Driver). Playing what Pauline Kael would have a called a post-Godardian tootsie, Gerwig is affectless about her affect. Her sentences are semaphores of forced hilarity and appeals to private jokes that her companions are loath to get (to do so might mean encouraging her into a real conversation). During one awful dinner in which reaction shots telegraph the guests’ horror, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, playing the most self-possessed and gorgeous people in the movie — they’re like Spirits of Boho Past — regard Frances as if she were a boa constrictor in the Bronx Zoo. Baumbach’s camera does too as she spends two jetlagged days in Paris only to return to a part-time job as a part-time hospitality person at a college in Poughkeepsie.

At a fleet eighty-six minutes, Frances Ha doesn’t hang around long enough to wear down on nerves, and while in the first ten minutes I wanted to hurl a cinder block at everyone on screen its rhythms relaxed after a while, especially in the Benji-Lev sequence, where Gerwig and Zegen create a buggy intimacy devoid of sexual undertones (I thought Zegen was supposed to be gay). After their third scene, however, Baumbach establishes Gerwig’s style with other guys: she only hurls darts that she can parry when an interlocutor returns the gesture; it explains Zegen’s increasingly sour “Undateable!” catchphrase. Many critics have praised Frances Ha for being what it self-evidently is — a sociological study — and not what it does well, which is to observe friendship in all its tonal varieties, including the way in which envy and rancor flicker without warning and how accumulations of small hurts often suffice to call it off; it’s easier not to feel. The Squid and the Whale approximated these in the deluded, pompous Jeff Daniels character. Movie friendships Survive Hard Times or fade; Frances Ha is ambivalent enough to hint that we have no idea what will happen to Sophie and Frances. Friendship isn’t deeper than a marriage: it’s as fraught.

The ending is a fraud. The unease with which Baumbach addresses money and class curdles the film into downtown wish fulfillment. As usual American directors prefer skittering past these complications with “relationship” emollients gleaned from decades of sitcom watching.

“West, Texas, wouldn’t have happened if they had a fire code in place.”

A bridge collapsed a couple days ago. In West, Texas, a fertilizer plant combusts yet the state prohibits most of its counties from keeping fire codes. The Dallas Morning News has the story:

Yet for 173 of Texas’ 254 counties, adopting rules based on that experience is illegal. They are either below 250,000 in population or don’t touch a county of that size.

Having fewer people doesn’t mean less risk. Those counties contain some of the most dangerous chemicals and industrial processes in Texas, The Dallas Morning News found.

“It’s not 1956 anymore,” said Jasper County Judge Mark Allen, whose county, while mostly rural, has multiple potential sources of industrial risks.

“It’s not 1964 or ’65,” Allen said. “We’re not Mayberry. We have life-threatening events every day.”

But 85 percent of the code-prohibited counties have no full-time professional fire department anywhere in the county, The News found. Only a few bigger industries have their own specially trained and equipped in-house fire brigades.

Training and gear for chemical emergencies are beyond the reach of most volunteer fire departments. In the 173 counties that cannot adopt a fire code, 21 have established local emergency-services districts, but few of those provide enough money even to cover the basics.

With a state-mandated tax cap of 10 cents per $100 in assessed property value, a $100,000 home provides an emergency-services district with no more than $100 a year.

Standard turnout gear for a volunteer firefighter can cost thousands. Many departments rely on fish-fry fundraisers and coin jars on local store counters just for essentials.

Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, said he’s seen local volunteers thrilled to be able to buy an aging water tank truck, paint it red and put a flashing light on top.

The association, based in Austin, advocates for better fire-service funding, including for volunteers.

I suppose this is the spirit of volunteerism to which Republicans allude. County officials lack the comprehension to even ask for state aid:

McLennan County could have implemented a fire code that some experts say may have prevented the fatal explosions at the West Fertilizer Co.

Although Texas law prohibits many small counties from adopting such codes, McLennan is not among them. The county became eligible, according to the State Fire Marshal’s Office, after the 2010 census when the population of an adjacent county, Bell, exceeded 250,000.

But McLennan County didn’t act, perhaps because officials didn’t know they had the option.

On April 17, a fire at West Fertilizer led to two explosions of ammonium nitrate that killed 15, injured 200 and caused an estimated $100 million in property damage. Twelve of the dead were first responders.

Investigators said they have not pinpointed the cause of the fire, which burned for at least 22 minutes. But they have said there are three possible sources: a 120-volt electrical system, a battery-operated golf cart that may have overheated, or arson.

A properly enforced code requiring fire detection and automatic sprinkler systems might have stopped the blaze from triggering the explosions, said Scott Harris, who worked in Texas for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an emergency response manager.

“If you can stop a fire in the beginning stage, then you don’t have an outcome like West. A small fire or electrical short or any kind of malfunction like that, the earlier you can catch it, the less the damage and hazard to the population,” said Harris, a senior adviser for a safety science firm, UL Workplace Health and Safety.

Loyd Dittfurth, a former volunteer firefighter in the Panhandle who has urged legislators to allow all Texas counties to adopt fire codes in their unincorporated areas, said he agreed.

“West, Texas, wouldn’t have happened if they had a fire code in place. If someone would have walked in there and said, ‘You don’t have a sprinkler system,’ there wouldn’t have been this tragedy,” said Dittfurth. He recently was hired as a code inspector for the state Department of Aging and Disability Services.

A sprinkler system. That’s it.

The useless necessity of pay phones

I love stories about obsolete technology. The pay phone in Miami:

The question: What to do with the archaic, bland pay phones that once served an extraordinary public service but, at a time when just about everyone has a cell phone, seem little more than space-eating advertising sites cluttering Miami sidewalks?

“I suppose you can justify one without an ad every 12 blocks or so,” said Peter Ehrlich, a Scenic Miami member whose group considers outdoor advertising to be visual pollution. “They’re not really pay phones anymore, it’s visual clutter, an eyesore.”

Though most everyone agrees pay phones are so rarely used they don’t pay for themselves and would disappear without the advertising, they still serve an important function, advocates argue.

“Miami has a large number of tourists, especially foreign tourists whose cell phones won’t work,” said Bruce Renard, executive director of the Florida Public Telephone Association. “And it still serves a major public purpose. When the towers went down in New York the pay phones were the only phones that worked for weeks.”

Stroll down most of Miami’s main streets and every few blocks you’ll see a 5-foot tall, three-sided structure with a couple of sides of advertising, usually for bottled water or a clothing line. The old metallic phones inside the small booths have stickers showing a call is now 50 cents.

I got my first cell phone in 1999 on a plan I shared with Mom. The year before was the last time I searched for working pay phones to place a beep (hey: remember those?).