A Quick New Year's Resolution: More Value-Judgements

I'm currently cooking new year's dinner for my in-laws (which will include two types of venison) so I don't really have time to blog. But since resolutions are meant to be delivered today I thought I'd sneak mine in. And since I've preoccupied my mind lately with my personal relationship to music, it'll have to have something to do with that.

Once, in what seems to have been a time when my taste in music was an entirely different one, I was posed a challenge by some friends. I had written a lot of forum posts and articles describing seemingly every aspect of music, but they all relied on facts to work - I effectively told the story of the music and relied on its greatness being conveyed through that. But my friends challenged me to write an entire article without mentioning a single identifiable extra-musical fact, merely how the music felt and worked.

It was hard. I chose to write about a track with an extreme energy level, namely this one:

Unfortunately the result is lost in the annals of cyberspace, and I'm not sure if the result had not been a lot better if I'd been allowed to mentioned (say) the secularisation of gospel tradition and so on. But nevertheless. I described the music with adjectives, feelings, effects, and to be excessively musicological, with value-judgements. I'm still not entirely comfortable with actually evaluating specific pieces and details of music, but I've been experimenting a bit with a slightly more verbose style like this here and here.

I think I need to have this side to my writing as well so as to not lose touch. So for next year, I'm going to do something which for most people is normal but that I've completely lost touch with.

I'm going to spend the year listening to whole albums and singles, and rate them internally, and post a best-of list at the end of the year. Feel free to ignore it. It's mostly for me.


Eartha Kitt RIP

The A side of Eartha Kitt's hi-nrg album "I Love Men" is easily the best thing Jacques Morali ever produced and often runs repeatedly on my vinyl player. The purring exotica delivery contrasts beautifully with the clockwork-precise soar of the arpeggiation, layer upon layer of polyphonous pop perfection. As if that wasn't enough, it also contains one of my favourite Orientalist cod-middle-eastern exercises, a genre La Kitt had obviously dabbled in before. A magic carpet ride indeed.

Eartha Kitt - Arabian Song


Recession music anyone?

There's an old truism that pop music supposedly gets better during economic downturns. I don't necessarily agree with this - in a capitalist system there's hardship for some sectors of the population all the time, and a lot of the happy-time music is great too. But certainly there's quality to be had in the darker or more desperately escapist music popularly associated with recessions. For whatever reasons, not necessarily just economical, music often weaves in and out of happiness and darkness, as anyone who's read Energy Flash can attest.

So I'm wondering, has any reader noticed any trends in music that could be somehow attributed to the current economic recession? I guess it's probably a little early to tell yet, but I'm definitely keeping my eye out for it during the next few months. In fact, there's only one genre where I'm properly sensing it at the moment. And strangely enough, that genre is the once so slick R&B.

I've had a huge surge in my interest in R&B in the past few months, downloading massive amounts from Im1 and (in the past few weeks) following great new R&B blog Plain Gold. The genre is certainly as fascinating as its ever been. A lot of the best stuff right now is made by songwriter-producer-singers like The Dream and James Fauntleroy, and the breadth even within the single artistic oeuvre is staggering.

And that definitely includes music that plays right into the recession. To take a couple of examples from Plain Gold's current best of 2008 list: the angsty, desperately militaristic "16 at War" by Karina Paisan and the plaintive, dislocated "Heated" by James Fauntleroy. You can feel the icy synth pads piercing and weaving through the multi-layered desperation, a perverted twighlight on the most exuberant Miami sound a few years ago.

But my absolutely favourite song recently has been "Keep Dancing" by Ciara featuring The Dream. Perhaps the best recession song in decades, it encapsulates both the sombre menace and dionysian abandon of the hopeless, in an endless, maddening dance leading to bitter-sweet insanity and final dissolution. Love, death and escape enveloping each other in an endless vortex of serenity and shadow. Could it be the best melancholic song about dancing since Delroy Wilson?

I know several of these songs were produced before the bunt of the meltdown and that they're part of a field that includes a whole lot of other stuff. But nevertheless, this is the kind of music I'd want as the soundtrack to my recession.


Esoteric Research Methods #5-#6: The Freedom Map and Youtube Playlists

Very straightforward this one, really, but it's proven productive so far.

I've been using this map of relatively free countries to search around the world, based on the reasoning that if there are lots of good countries that produce great music because they've got good civil liberties, other countries with good civil liberties must have decent music scenes too. Not entirely true, of course, but the very act of going around the map is a great ERM, just sitting with an atlas, Youtube and Wikipedia and randomly punching in countries, cities and regions can yield surprisingly decent resluts.

Just a couple of weeks ago this was a much more tedious task than it has to be, but thank goodness that Youtube has brought back playlists from the dead. These used to be incredibly annoying, stopping whenever they encountered a broken video or seemingly if you just coughed gently, but now they're smooth, plentiful and (with some working around) embeddable. A great way to access a local's selection of the music, as a sort of answer to the dilemma posed in the last post.

Just to take a couple of products of the combined approach of the two above:

Picking Liberia as a relatively free country, looking up Music of Liberia on Wikipedia, searching for "hipco" on Youtube, and getting this playlist:

Cool. Next: picking Namibia, repeating the procedure with "namibia kwaito" and producing this:

And that's pretty much it. I'm off to listen to more stuff...

Posed or Distant? Does music resemble photography?

This post about photography on zunguzungu struck a very deep chord with me. Not because of the shoot-from-the-hip night photography, although that's an interesting type of topic in itself. No, I really recognise the behaviour of taking photographs of the relatively marginalised either from a good distance or explicitly posed. All my shots of places like the Refugee camp at Marsa on Malta have that paparazzi-like, zoomed-in quality about them, and have been taken at a distance, or they're explicitly posed for me by willing participants.

Zunguzungu does it because he doesn't want to appear to be the typical tourist. I do it out of guilt. Deep in my heart, I know photography of strangers (especially those belonging to marginalised groups) is wrong. And I think the argument why could be an interesting analogy for music as well.

I've not read that Susan Sontag book (though I'd like to). But I'm a journalist by training and our photography course was a real eye opener to the profoundly undemocratic nature of photography.

The subjects of a photojournalistic shot have absolutely no power. Subjects can't, short of violence, prevent the photographers from depicting them any way they chose, and there's an incredible array of semiotic signifiers at the photographer's disposal to control precisely what message the subject conveys. By framing, colour manipulation, depth of field, reflections, depth perception, the photographer can chose exactly what a photograph says, whereas the subject has no say. It's the photographer that choses the "best frame" to tell his story, and can discard all the rest. And it's the photographer who benefits, gets the credit, earns any money the photograph makes.

Were it resources and not mere images we'd be talking about it would rightly be called neo-colonialism. Two parties collaborate, but only one reaps all the profits, only one decides what product to make, only one is the person the photograph is for. And so to dull our shame we stand back so they can't see us and don't get angry with us, or alternatively make it explicitly clear what we're doing by posing.

The music analogy, if you've been following my blog, should be fairly clear by now - the "collaborations" of world music are very much like posing, because everyone involved knows that the power and interest only lies with the dominant party. Since the production, distribution and market are all in europe and north america, all power essentially rests there, too. And isn't it the case that the kind of musical tourism where we only pick up random MP3's off the internet is pretty much photography from a distance? Still the power of choice is ours. The DJ, like the photographer, is perfectly able to pick only those shots that confirm his world view. And it's not like we let them DJ for us.

Still. Photography, and DJing, has a very great appeal, the creative and documentarian rush is too great to stop it. But in order for it to be properly ethical, it needs to be much more democratic.

There's a lot we can learn here, I think, from Malian photographer Seydou Keïta and the later photography of compatriot Malick Sidibé. Here the collaboration is very clear with definite creative input from both parties, and the photographs are posed for the benefit of the subject and to make the subject happy. And indeed both parties explicitly benefit. Sure, part of it is because it's a much more egalitarian and familiar form ("joking cousins"). But part of it is actually a deep respect, a "clientism" if you will (from the link above) where you let the subjects decide how they want to be depicted. Maybe that's a lesson we need to think about in music as well.


Batfascist quickie

I just saw the film Batman Begins, and it's honestly the second most right-wing film I've ever seen. I know right-wing radicalism is supposed to be a feature of the super hero genre, but this is fucking extreme! Without revealing too much of the plot, basically Bruce Wayne joins a Nazi organisation, then leaves them because they're not conservative enough. Then he goes back to Gotham to fight the corrupt and probably socialist government, allying himself with a pro-vigilante, law-and-order policeman. (While being Patrick Bateman during the day.) Finally he defeats the main villain, The Elders of Zion.

Horrendous. I dread to watch The Dark Knight, which is next in my pile.

I much prefer this Batman:

(cf here and previously on the blog here.)


More self-depreciating hipster comedy

I realise this is so last month, everyone is doing it now. But I've just recently borrowed a copy of the comic strip compilation This Is Stockholm, which gathers comics from the comic strips Stockholmsnatt and Disco Sucks, both by Stefan Thungren and Pelle Forshed, and it shows flashes of absolute brilliance.

The strips of a group of twenty-something fashionistas (or "fashionists" as the book's internal scheme of ideologies would have it) as they navigate the treacherous world of trend cycles, indie kids, art school Christmas markets, neo-mods, goths and sarcasm. There's a family of relentless wiggers, a trustafarian anticipating Ras Trent, two friends born on different sides of 1980 (and thus self-consciously having different mentalities), sixteen-year old video bloggers with Kanye West electro shades, and a whole lot more.

One by one the strips can often be very funny indeed, peppered with self-depreciation and obscure hipster references, but taken together they leave a bit of a sour taste in your mouth from the relentless progression of changing styles, the uncool slowly being written out, the same empty posturing year after year. There's also a notable weakening around the beginning of 2008, but whether it's because the writer has lost touch with the notoriously fickle winds of hipster fashion or whether we're just not ready to joke about our own time yet is a bit unclear.

A couple of the less Stockholm-specific examples which I've taken the liberty of translating into English. This first strip should hit home with a lot of readers in this blog. I know it did for me.
The second one is rather more typical. I swear I used to live next to this office last year, although the one next to me had cult Japanese plush toys and a projector-screen X-Box instead.
I don't know whether I should laugh and thus join into the hipster self-depreciation (since I get all the references) or whether I should just feel a bit sick and dismiss it. I think, perhaps, that was the cartoonists' intention.


How Conceptuality Destroyed My Taste In Music

My girlfriend has a much better taste in music than me. I keep being reminded of this fact as I look at compilations of year-end "best albums" lists and realising that I've heard at most a couple of albums off any list.

It's not that my girlfriend has listened to more of them, she doesn't like the majority of new music, but at least she has the capacity to. Me, I've lost the ability to listen to albums properly, like I used to. And it's got nothing to do with losing touch with the current music climate, I may really be more updated than ever, but somehow my listening for absolute pleasure and listening uninterrupted to whole pieces of music has completely dissipated.

Part of it is information overload and my general championing of functional over absolute music. But mostly, I blame conceptuality.

See, my girlfriend's taste in music is very literal. It's not that she has no understanding of what makes music good - far from it, she can point very specifically to features she likes. No, the thing is that she likes what she likes - doesn't try to put it in systems of thought, doesn't worry about where its coming from a great deal, and ends up picking music she likes to listen to because she likes the lyrics, or melody, or the feel. If she finds a track she likes, she's got no problem listening to it over and over again until she's tired of it - after all, it's a good track, isn't it?

Me, I listen to music to make frameworks of understanding in my mind. I barely ever listen to music repeatedly or even deeply, preferring to listen to a lot of music superficially. My greatest music experiences are usually epiphanies, not moods, and I have a hard time listening to music without being able to put it into context. Conversely, I often revisit music I've previously scorned after learning more about it and suddenly finding it wonderful.

It didn't use to be this way. Circa 2001 I was just as literal as she is now, but reading, radio-making, blogging and academia has made me approach music in a totally different way. I still derive enormous amounts of pleasure from it, but somehow, I have a niggling feeling I no longer quite get what makes music good. Or rather, I can see it in other people's picks, but I keep getting excited over music that's not really very good at all.

Lucky I have my girlfriend who can select good music for our common daily life...


Pop Culture Fragment: My 1920s Hungarian Wall Hangings

I've just spent some time getting my apartment in order for a big party (therefore the seldom-posting), which has given me time to put up what's one of my most-treasured pop culture artifacts: my small collection of circa 1920 Hungarian wall hangings. Unlike the communist-era poster art I've also got tons of around the house, no-one comments on how "cool" these are, and indeed they can be got almost for free on flea markets in Hungary, down-valued like all traditionally female crafts.

Still, I think they're extremely interesting and (since they're made by the women themselves) they reveal a lot about the attitudes and lives in the villages of Hungary ninety years ago.

"My husband, my good sir, don't wander about in the kitchen, wait for lunch in the sitting room"

This one is a favourite of mine, despite the extremely gendered and sexist message which is typical of a lot of these. Part of the reason is the details of the "dream" home most peasants wouldn't have afforded at this time - running water, metal pestles, fashionable clothes - which seem humble and naive in retrospect. The details of that upward aspiration are fascinating and revealing. I also love the cartoonish expressiveness of the needlework.

But the message also has an undertone of, well, sass. The woman is asserting the limited power she's got in her home, and doing it in an underhanded way with a jocularly dismissive, mock formal tone. The third-person tense used is either over-respectful or talking down, and it's definitely from the woman's point of view.

"I've driven my geese onto the pasture, that's where I'm expecting my darling tonight"

This one is considerably less challenging and indeed bears the hallmark of a professionally-designed pattern with its composition and carefully measured size. Still, it's also got a bunch of interesting details, not least the wading and the considerably more everyday dress than in the first one. The at once romantic and highly mundane message is typical of these.

"My rose is beautiful, has no flaw, her kitchen is excellent"

A very common theme on these hangings is boasting. Usually, it's boasting about how good a housekeeper you are (again, gendered, sexist, I know) and here it's unusually enough the male who gets to be the voice. Otherwise it's almost always the woman speaking.

Lots of marvellous details here, too, like the Trangia stove and the teapot-patterned border. Based on the hairstyles and clothing styles I'd place this one somewhat later, maybe in the forties, and the text and image are almost certainly not designed to be together since they're made with different thread and rather clumsily spaced.


Offending muslims is pretty much like offending everyone else

I've been talking to a Muslim friend of mine about the two recent controversies involving Quranic verses being used as lyrics for popular music: first the removal of a track from video game Little Big Planet, then Busta Rhymes' supposed quotation in a recent remix. I asked her about whether the use of Quranic material in music is forbidden in Islam or not, and she told me, totally obviously in hidsight, that it's entirely dependent on the context.

Because, honestly, offending Muslims is not radically different from offending anyone else. Muslims are not only diverse but for the most part thinking human beings who understand things like intention and effect, and can understand perfectly well where a supposed offence comes from and what it means.

There's in fact plenty of Quran-quoting pop music even in the heart of the middle east. Literally Islamic pop music exist just as much as literally Christian pop, without any problematic connotations whatsoever except to some extremist cliques. British-Azeri artist Sami Yusuf sells millions and millions of albums of western-sounding pop with a deeply Islamic message. Even borderline use of the Islamic message to further political goals is largely accepted without much grumble: for instance, there's plenty of Hamas Anasheed which in social position is probably vaguely the equivalent of gang rap and has a kind of Hollywood-cinematic-synth sound, yet has very obvious Islamic lyrics.

Why is this accepted? Because these people are Muslims. They're doing it out of faith. They're not wantonly associating the message with drinking and sex and racist stereotypes, like Busta. Or (as it were, not) using it as a soundtrack to mindless gaming, like Sony. It's honestly not that strange, and I'm sure people of all faiths have similar relationships with their holy books.

So why is there this tendency in the media to portray Muslims taking offence at something as somehow exotic and irrational? It always has to be portrayed as a "religious ban" on a certain expression, and the exotic-sounding words "haraam" and "halal" end up in a lot of the coverage. There seems to be an undertone that there's no rational reason for the anger, that it's arbitrary just like not eating pork is arbitrary. That way, it can be straightforwardly dismissed as something "they" do.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is the now infamous Danish Muhammed cartoons. Almost uniformly, the outrage that many Muslims felt over these cartoons was attributed to the Islamic ban on pictorial representations of the prophet, despite the fact that such a ban is far from universal and that Islamic art history has a long tradition of Muhammed paintings. Devout muslims have, and still are, depicting Muhammed with religious chastisement and discussion as the only potential result, but Jyllands-Posten's publication was something else entirely: an acknowledgedly racist newspaper, printing cartoons with the explicit intention of denigrating Islam, with the effect of futher marginalising the oppressed Muslim minority in Denmark. Of course Muslims were angry! I was angry too. So why the need to relate it to the exotic and supposedly arbitrary?

And of course this latest controversy is not as "bad". Neither Busta or Sony have had the intetion of insluting Muslims, however insensitive they might be, and therefore it's not raised much of a furore. In fact, my Muslim friend tells me the Sony delay has been highly praised on Islamic message boards, which opens up the possibility of it being merely a deft marketing move. And Busta's sort of passive, unintentional stereotyping is not nearly as worthy of anger as the very prevalent active racism against "Muslims" that we see everywhere, and the vast majority of Muslims recognise it as such. Seeing as they are in fact thinking human beings, just like the rest of us.