Monthly Archives: September 2017

Misusin’ your influence: the best of Kendrick Lamar

No other hip hop figure has ever touched Kendrick Lamar’s preeminence. Forget Chuck D, Q-Tip, Nas, Biggie Smalls, and even Jay-Z, who for a decade before 4:44 was taken for granted despite robust sales. From DAMN’s astounding performance — three consecutive months in the top three, culminating in a return to #1 in late August — to the cultural space he occupies in the form of guest spots, allusions, and tips of the hat from David Bowie and collaborations with Kamasi Washington, commercially and critically he’s on his own. This means clear-eyed criticism is more necessary than usual. A solid mimic and master of polysyllabic flow, Lamar can also get tangled in his syntax; on the weakest To Pimp a Butterfly tracks he and the dense overdubs or live performances don’t gel. Less of a problem on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, on which his ambitions weren’t yet beholden to his considerable talents. The offhand cruelty both observed and lived in “The Art of Peer Pressure” finds its correlative in Lamar’s offhand delivery; the prissier he sounds, the worse the news.

Because of the ambition, he will record a turkey soon. I don’t want to watch the critical somersaults.

1. The Art of Peer Pressure
2. King Kunta
3. DNA
4. Swimming Pools (Drank)
5. The Blacker, The Berry
6. Poetic Justice
7. Wesley’s Tune
8. Collard Greens – Schoolboy Q featuring Kendrick Lamar
9. untitled 02 | 06.23.2014
10. Humble
11. Really Doe – Danny Brown featuring Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt
12. Hood Politics
13. Compton
14. Freedom – Beyonce
15. Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst
16. Alright
17. i
18. Duckworth
19. Backseat Freestyle
20. Element

Or are we dancer: the best of the Killers + Brandon Flowers

Cheers to the most ridiculous and, as I learned today, “the most successful rock band to ever emerge from the state of Nevada.” One of the few heterosexual bands to get the longing and melodrama of homos like me, and one of the few heterosexual bands to write melody lines for karaoke whores like me, as anyone who has endured my version of “Human” knows.

1. Mr. Brightside (Jacques Lu Cont’s Thin White Duke Remix)
2. Human
3. When You Were Young
4. Read My Mind (Pet Shop Boys Stars Are Blazing Mix)
5. All These Things That I’ve Done
5. Some Kind of Love
6. I Can Change
7. Jenny Was a Friend of Mine
8. Run For Cover
9. Can’t Deny My Love
10. Somebody Told Me
11. Lonely Town
12. Andy, You’re a Star

The ingénue to sex temptress arc of David Brooks’ career

Sometime this week  David Brooks assembled sounds into phonemes that after hours of cogitation settled into sentence structures. Let’s look at them together:

Sometimes pop culture seems completely prepackaged and professionalized, so when somebody steps out and puts on a display of vulnerability, trust and humility, it takes your breath away.

What “sometimes” and “completely” are doing here only a bobo in paradise would know.

Then, an eye on his word count like a student in a composition course, Diamond Dave spends three paragraphs explicating Chance the Rapper’s newest song, performed on Colbert’s show; he concentrates on lyrics, so he’s no different than the average music critic. The lesson he draws from Chance’s movin’-on-up story:

Sometimes that sounds like a hopeful Martin Luther King dream. Sometimes it sounds like an angry warning about final judgment.

Guess which “sometimes” grabs Diamond Dave’s attention most. It is the fate of the American political pundit to ignore the despair into which MLK sunk in 1968 as the Vietnam War swallowed thousands of young men, many of whom were black and poor, and the black power movement advocated less peaceful methods of protest. If Brooks has read Bearing the Cross or Taylor Branch, he betrays no sign.

But he’s warming up:

It’s interesting to compare Chance’s song with Taylor Swift’s new song, “Look What You Made Me Do,” which is also about a young star coping with celebrity. The former stands out from the current cultural moment; the latter embodies it. Swift is a phenomenally talented and beautiful songwriter who has lost touch with herself and seems to have been swallowed by the ethos of the Trump era.

Yes, it’s interesting how a man in his dotage notices how Swift’s mediocre at best #1 is no more vengeful than, say, “Mean.” It’s interesting how Swift is beautiful but Chance isn’t because Diamond Dave is a man. It’s interesting how a copy editor let the phrase “lost touch with herself” through the system. It’s interesting how Chance’s management team hounded MTV News into yanking an article it found offensive, but it’s Swift who got swallowed by the ethos of the Trump era.

Swift had defied the normal ingénue-to-sex-temptress career trajectory of Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, but now she’s fitting right in. Spears released a similar song a decade ago called “Piece of Me,” which didn’t take itself so seriously.

The first thing you notice in comparing the Chance and Swift songs is the difference between a person and a brand. A lot of young people I know talk about “working on their brand,” and sometimes I wish that word had never been invented.

Notice how “Look What You Made Me Do,” whose anonymity reduces it to an attack on a lover, sibling, mother, or Starbucks barista, adduces Swift’s membership in the “normal ingénue-to-sex-temptress career” fan club. I needed Diamond David to explain how ferocity, however blank, is synonymous with sex temptressing or something. But then weaselly elision is David Brooks’ brand.

The second thing you notice is the difference between sincerity and authenticity. In Lionel Trilling’s old distinction, sincerity is what you shoot for in a trusting society. You try to live honestly and straightforwardly into your social roles and relationships. Authenticity is what you shoot for in a distrustful society. You try to liberate your own personality by rebelling against the world around you, by aggressively fighting against the society you find so vicious and corrupt.

Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and book length study of E.M. Forster are favorites of mine, but I prefer Oscar Wilde’s definition of sincerity: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal,” as well as “Everything matters in art, except the subject, and all bad literature is sincere.” To understand Wilde’s irony would tax even a regular NPR contributor.

Back in the 1950s, sincerity seemed treacly and boring, and authenticity, in the form of, say, Johnny Cash, seemed daring and new. But now rebellious authenticity is the familiar corporate success formula, and sincerity, like Chance the Rapper’s, is practically revolutionary.

I give up.

‘Rebel in the Rye’ clueless about writing

The picture isn’t five minutes old when a voice-over intones, “I’ve always found fiction more compelling than reality.” More goodies like this follow. In Rebel in the Rye, the author of The Catcher in the Rye and Frannie and Zooey, played by Nicholas Hoult, emerges as an intense, rather dim fellow trying to keep his hair in place. Alluding to the high spirits and irreverence with which Salinger’s fiction impressed the New York literary community in the 1940s, writer-director Danny Strong produces a staid, safe motion picture anyway. Like most films about writers and writing, it’s illiterate; you walk away from Rebel in the Rye thinking that everyone involved learned about writing by watching movies and shows about writers.

Here’s the truth: writers are as boring as you and me, hence the desultory state of so many movies about them, with their shots of prodigies sulking over blank typewriter pages (directors love the uncinematic depictions of writer’s block too).  An early scene gets it right: the young Salinger scribbling in a hotel lobby for days, ignoring his parents (Hope Davis and Victor Garber), but especially his pushy father, who, as you might expect, recoils at the idea of J.D. wasting his time. “Meat and cheese distribution have been very good to this family,” he informs Salinger, not the first of many howlers (that Strong based his script on Kenneth Slawenski’s J. D. Salinger: A Life means nothing; he still has to dramatize the material). Fortunately, Salinger has a surrogate father, Whit Burnett, an instructor at Columbia University and editor of Story magazine, played by Kevin Spacey in an unconvincing imitation of Kevin Spacey playing an unconvincing imitation of a failed writer, flaunting his indolence and alcoholism as subtly as House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood did his cynicism; all that’s missing is Burnett turning to the camera. Strong takes the audience through the familiar paces: Salinger, going through cigs like popcorn, writes story after story, none of which are good enough for Burnett, until the Big Breakthrough happens and The New Yorker accepts him at last – with conditions attached, naturally, which, naturally, Salinger, jaw a-tremble with write-ous fury, will not accept. Fortunately, the Japanese help him out of the dilemma by bombing Pearl Harbor.

Strong, whose writing credits include The Hunger Games pictures and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, shows little flair besides whisking things along such that, like a cable movie, each scene weighs as little as the next. An affair with Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch) ends before we remind ourselves of what Salinger and O’Neill’s future husband Charlie Chaplin had in common: a taste for very young women. Although Salinger returns from war with what we would classify now as PTSD, he’s no different from the pompous jerk we see in the first third (it’s Nicholas Hoult we’re talking about here, so the pomp has a lacquer). By the time Rebel in the Rye – gross title! enters The Razor’s Edge territory and Salinger meets a swami the picture becomes as meretricious as the phonies in The Catcher in the Rye.



Bite my lip and close my eyes: the best of Green Day 1991-2004

I wish they were queerer, faster, and dumber, but I can’t deny the dozen indelible tunes produced by Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool. The Indian summer of 1994 boasted Beastie Boys and Warren G fighting for our attention while Weezer and Green Day soaked up the teenage angst. Too old to care about either, and not particularly angst-ridden — my conflict was between thought and expression — I warmed to the trio during the Warning period. I wish they had written more acoustic shuffles like the title cut.

We thought the trio had consigned itself to declining post-Dookie sales — sales that would have kept them in clover for the rest of their lives. But they released my generation’s Once Upon a Time, a statement of booming, crushing intent that wooed new listeners and repelled older ones. Like many surprise hits seized an unexpected cultural moment: the general disgust with the Bush administration and its conduct in Iraq, plus, oh, a presidential election that promised to be as close as 2000’s. American Idiot said little about Bush, Kerry, blood for oil beyond “This sucks,” but in this it was no different from the hundreds of millions of kids and college students who bought the thing. Some songs aren’t very good but whose cultural resonance moves you to humming along anyway; this was me in spring 2005 and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” It didn’t matter. In yet another wrinkle, American Idiot came out the year Usher’s Confessions became the last album before The Adele Exception certified diamond thanks to CD purchases. And kept on selling. And selling.

Thanks to the second fluke of their careers — how many artists get more than one? — Green Day earned the right to release three consecutive albums whose titles remind me of Bono’s intro countdown in “Vertigo” (released in 2004, as it happens). They ain’t shipping more than platinum in a good year. I sense Billie Joe would be cool with that development too.

1. Longview
2. When I Come Around
3. Geek Stink Breath
4. Welcome to Paradise
5. Basket Case
6. Warning
7. Hitchin’ a Ride
8. Holiday
9. Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?
10. Jaded
11. Wake Me Up When September Ends
12. Know Your Enemy
13. Macy’s Day Parade

The uses of poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

– Mark Strand

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.

– Alexander Pope

In eighth grade, I memorized Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Cow at Apple Time,” “A Time to Talk,” and snatches of several others. For my birthday I requested an anthology of his poems. A tall order in the late eighties, for in this era before Barnes & Noble superstores we depended on the Waldenbooks and B. Dalton shops in malls. But Louis Untermeyer’s classic selection was available in a mass market paperback. I still own this book, tattered and soiled after a wise ass in the class below mine saw it lying around and used it as a baseball bat (don’t ask). I also requested Thomas Johnson’s edition of Emily Dickinson. Mystified, as ten generations before me, by the gnomic concentration of her verse, I fell for the Dickinson persona; I picked Dickinson when our eighth grade English teacher for National Poetry Day asked us to do research on a favorite poet and play him or her next class.

Reading poetry helps your prose. Dependent on rhythm, “pink, small, and punctual,” to quote Dickinson, poetry abjures jargon and worn language. It scorns the ornamental, winces at the gaudy. A good poet finds the word and the rhythm commensurate with the movement of thought. Poetry can be as allusive as Marianne Moore’s or as austere as Paul Celan’s. The suspicion about poetry comes from misconceptions about its use. Without sounding prescriptive, I advise skeptics to read T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Original Talent.” Poetry, Eliot wrote, is “an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” A century’s worth of revelations have eroded the impact of Eliot’s essay, but in the twenty-three years since first reading it I return to this excerpt like a Catholic supplicant does his rosary. Describe the object as seen, let the first ripple of syllables cohere into a rhythm, tether this rhythm to words.

If I were fool enough to define poetry, I can do no better than what the luminous critic Helen Vender attempted: “how people construct an intelligibility out of the randomness they experience; how people choose what they love; how people integrate loss and gain; how they distort experience by wish and dream; how they perceive and consolidate flashes of harmony; how they (to end a list otherwise endless) achieve what Keats called a ‘Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity.'”