Huffington Post - "Crap's Last Tape"

Crap’s Last Tape” – by Kevin Morris and Glenn Altschuler

Review of Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music

Halfway through Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, Jack Rabid, editor of the fanzine The Big Takeover, blurts out author Greg Kot’s thesis: “What’s dying is the idea of only the crappiest crap, made with the crappiest intentions, with the crappiest production, to entice the most airtime on the crappiest giant chains of radio stations, bought and paid for by crappy labels, and dictated by some crappy, contemptuous, lowest-common-denominator-projecting programming exec from his crappy polling printouts in some crappy office somewhere, to ensure we all swallow the same crap all over the country at the same crappy time, and then placing that one slice of crap on a longer disc with a bunch of even crappier crap. That is the concept that is dying. Amen.”

The music critic of The Chicago Tribune, Kot agrees. In Ripped, an informative and entertaining state-of-play piece on contemporary music, he suggests that technology may well be making it possible for a new generation of artists and fans to mess with the mean, money-grubbing, mediocrities in the record business and usher in a revolution of sound and fury.

In over a dozen deliciously detailed profiles, ranging from Prince to Pitchfork, from Bright Eyes to Danger Mouse, from Radiohead to Reznor, Kot cites — and celebrates — musicians and entrepreneurs who refuse to bow to tradition. File-sharing, sampling, downloading, blogs, ezines, and the iPod, he claims, are beginning to allow artists to break down the unholy hegemony between the majors and corporate radio, take control of the “products” they have created and get a fairer share of the profits.

Kot knows his stuff. His book is never better than when it is in the music. But Ripped is about what is happening to music, and Kot stands with the T shirts and not the suits. Sometimes he is ready to declare victory: right now, he writes, musicians are connecting with fans through social network websites, alerting them to concerts and TV and radio appearances, selling merchandising and CD’s , and booking tour dates. Sometimes he declares that the promised land is in sight: reminding readers that there will be 750 million new wireless broadband subscribers in the next decade in the U.S. and Western Europe alone. And sometimes he isn’t sure: worrying, along with one veteran music observer, that “once the paradise of infinite storage is entered it will represent the end of all intellectual property rights.”

In many ways, Ripped is a wish that wants to give birth to a fact. Some artists, of course, do have a knack for entrepreneurship. They’re taking the initiative — taking up the pitchforks, if you will — while many others are hoping for a utopia where no middlemen take more than they deserve, the artists reach the audiences directly, and fans buy the best stuff available.

Unfortunately, the truth may well be that it is (the aptly named) Jack Rabid who is full of crap. Even if radio, the dinosaur, is dying, there is substantial evidence that mass sales in music — like any other business — will continue to depend upon someone with lots of money to drive audiences to artists.

Part of the problem is that finding a commentator with something good to say about the music industry is about as easy as finding a politician who’ll admit she’s an atheist. If you start with fifty dollars and subtract a buck for every partisan of the record business, you’ll have enough left to download the $47.95 Danger Mouse Essentials from iTunes.

Nonetheless, even for those who say they want a revolution, after the Thermidor, summer gives way to fall, all the leaves are brown, and the realities of show business set in. While Kot’s artists may be exceptions that prove the rule, the case Ripped makes that the business has — or will — change permanently, is not compelling. The truth is, artists need infrastructure. Sure, bands like Death Cab for Cutie will utilize the tools of the Digital Age differently, and younger artists are taking advantage of ever-newer technologies. But even the Grateful Dead had fifty employees.

Most artists, as Kot acknowledges, don’t want to be businessmen. As John Mellencamp said of Prince, “I think it’s more work than he wants it to be. It has to be. You gotta do it yourself. Who wants that?”

Finally, Kot doesn’t always make clear where “acceptable” commercialism starts, subverts, or stops. Death Cab for Cutie, it’s important to remember, took off when one of the characters on The O.C said he loved the band. But it’s hard to imagine John Lennon agreeing to launch his career on Fox. Lauded by Kot as allowing the customer to be a “coconspirator” and “creative partner,” moreover, Trent Reznor’s five-tiered pricing system got traction after the Reznor-produced Saul Williams’ song “List of Demands” appeared in a Nike commercial. And, in perhaps the greatest misdirection in music history, U2’s flogging of the iPod was disguised by Bono as support for the “most beautiful art object in musical culture since the electric guitar…”

Bono understands the game better than anyone and nails the point that Kot pokes at. The world’s biggest rock star was associating his band with a product (the iPod), but he might as well have been talking about the perpetual relationship between artists and commerce. In the fast-moving technological age, he declared, “you’ve got to deal with the devil.”

Huffington Post - "Narcissistic Night Sweats"

Narcissistic Night Sweats” – by Kevin Morris and Glenn Altschuler

Review of: The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell Ph.D. Free Press Publishing.

As Americans fight off the swine flu, social researchers Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell have taken aim at a different kind of bug. In their new book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, they argue that “the relentless rise in narcissism” in one way or another “has touched every American.”

The authors begin by identifying five root causes of the epidemic: “self-admiration; child centered parenting; celebrity glorification and media encouragement; attention seeking on the internet; and easy credit.” The symptoms are vanity, materialism, uniqueness, anti-social behavior, relationship troubles, entitlement and (oddly) religion and volunteering, and The Narcissism Epidemic concludes with a discussion of the prognosis and suggested treatment.

Like its poster child for the cultural crisis, Paris Hilton, the book’s body is appealing but thin. Identified thirty years ago by the historian Christopher Lasch, the culture of narcissism is by all accounts a problem in modern America. But narcissism is an imprecise concept. Twenge and Campbell deserve credit for citing the best available empirical studies measuring the phenomenon, but the science is squishy and the analysis which flows from it is more than a bit shaky.

Twenge and Campbell see narcissism under every rock, from cheating on tests to cheating on spouses. Sometimes they’re flat out wrong. They claim, for example, that narcissism is “the missing ingredient” responsible for the housing bubble. They don’t realize that millions of Americans these days are petrified of debt. Nor are today’s borrowers in any sense unique in reaching for the main chance. Even in the pre-credit card age of the Conestoga wagon, inner-directed rock-ribbed Republicans from Indiana would have grabbed a subprime loan to buy a home for their families. Although they might have been willing to stretch beyond their means –“on the come,” so to speak – no one would have or should have adjudged them narcissists.

All too often, moreover, The Narcissism Epidemic seems like a self-help manual, long on harangues about MySpace and YouTube – and bromides. Don’t be narcissistic, the authors keep saying. Teach your kids not to be narcissistic. Don’t get married to or make friends with narcissists.

There are a few fine suggestions: don’t give your kid an X-Box, Twenge and Campbell advise parents; design something yourself, like a poem written in crayon on construction paper. Far more often, however, they simplify a complex problem. For example, they think giving trophies to every kid in Little League at the end of the season sows the seeds of narcissism. Are they right? It seems to us that triumphant trophies for tots don’t always send the same message as do meritorious medals for mid-teens. Self-esteem doesn’t always lead to narcissism.

The authors sometimes have a thesis in search of corroborating evidence. They acknowledge that voluntarism is up among America’s youth, but try to explain it away as a self-centered exercise in resume building, an argument that rings hollow – and maybe offensive, even for the affluent, whiter than Wonder Bread suburban youngsters who seem to be the “real” subjects and targets of the book. Equally empty are apocalyptic warnings about the nation going to hell in a handbag (designed, we assume, by Gucci) because of American Idol, tummy tucks, MILFS and Baby Einstein videos.

The limitations of the analysis are especially evident when one listens to the dogs that don’t bark in this book, including the pervasiveness of fundamentalist religion in the United States and the fact that Americans work harder than their counterparts in other industrialized countries. Are these folks immune to the epidemic? Are they exceptions that somehow prove the rule? And, if you say, as the authors do, be less like Paris Hilton and more like George Clooney, aren’t you endorsing the celebrity culture you’ve just indicted?

As Twenge and Campbell note, there are nervous-making developments in American culture on many fronts: vacuous “reality television” shows, declines in reading rates among young adults, and so forth. But, we believe that a transformation in American attitudes and behavior will not come from exhortation and hortatory comments, but from systemic change.

Plopped down in the middle of the Obama recalibration of the economy, society, and culture of the United States, Twenge and Campbell’s narcissism narrative seems, well, so five minutes ago. Is it possible, we wonder, that the book is appearing at the very moment the epidemic has peaked? Or is such optimism the product of our fevered imaginations?

Huffington Post - "Juvenal Delinquencies"

Juvenal Delinquencies” – by Kevin Morris and Glenn Altschuler

Review of Snark, by David Denby. Simon & Schuster.

In his meandering, meditative new book, Snark, David Denby, film critic for the New Yorker, does not invoke Justice Potter Stewart’s standard for obscenity — “I know it when I see it.” But he might as well have. Snark, according to Denby, is a clever insult, designed to get a cheap laugh without making a substantive point. It is “spreading like pinkeye, throughout the media, especially the Internet.” But then again Denby deems “vituperation, which is insulting, nasty, but well, clean,” a valuable activity in a democratic culture. While he’s wondering why we can’t all just get along, or, at least, find a little “grace” in our dealings with one another, he’s also advising readers to “commit” a savage insult: “You’ll feel better. You’ll make other people feel better.”

Denby traces the roots of snark to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. In the evolution of snark, from Juvenal to Alexander Pope to Spy magazine, and “today’s lame practitioners,” he sees “a line down, a collapse, a devolution, as snark increasingly loses its intellectual complexity and wit.”

In homage to Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark, Denby’s book is organized, not all that helpfully, into seven “fits.” His Fourth Fit, entitled “Anatomy of a Style”, for example, contains nine “Principles of Snark,” and the exposition collapses under the weight of the gag into a kaleidoscopic — and painfully obvious — monologue (snark attacks without reason, gives old jokes a new twist, tries to disguise hackneyed prejudices, accentuates the negative, reduces human complexity to caricature, brings fear and loathing to celebrity culture, assaults the elderly, ignores journalistic principles, and, we kid you not, trashes “expensive, underperforming restaurants.”)

Denby bemoans snarkiness in contemporary political discourse. He is disturbed — rightfully so — not just by the racist material promulgated against Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, but by the subtle and not-so-subtle statements and messages of Republican attack ads, Fox News, and “off the record” comments by Karl Rove. Recognizing, belatedly, that his partisan slips are showing, he acknowledges, halfway through the book, that “Liberals are not without sin.” And then skewers Maureen Dowd, the “most gifted writer of snark in the country,” devoting an entire chapter — or “fit” — to her, which concludes: “like the ravenous Cyclops, snark see with one eye. And then it complains that other people lack dimension.”

Taking after Dowd doesn’t make Denby an equal opportunity snark shark. Indeed, he goes out of his way to gives liberals he likes a free pass. Not everyone, we guess, will agree with him that the claws of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are sharp but not snarky. And while some may believe, with Denby, that Keith Olbermann’s tirades are “voluminously factual, astoundingly syntactical and always logically organized,” many more will conclude, as we have, that if the daily designation of Bill O’Reilly as the ‘Worst Person in the World,” accompanied by an impersonation of his “Ted Baxter” voice and a recitation of Bill-O’s sexual hang-ups, ain’t snark, then God didn’t make no little green apples and AIG was a steal at seventy-nine.

The heart of the book, the part that resonates, is Denby’s thesis, presented in fits and starts, that snark is “mean, it’s personal, and it’s ruining our conversation.” Denby insists that “when writing becomes the vessel of social ambition, snark becomes more likely” and that “when such a shift is combined with the development of new reading and writing technologies, like the internet, snark becomes inevitable.”

As Denby says, it is “reasonable to ask: What are we doing to ourselves? What kind of journalistic culture do we want? What kind of internet culture? What kind of interpersonal — and national — conversation?” He is angry — and rightfully so — at the phenomenon of anonymous postings on websites. He points to the (now defunct) website Juicy Campus which invites coeds to comment on each other. “Who are the hottest girls on campus?’ ‘Who are the biggest sluts?’. The women are named, but the men identifying them hide behind a handle.”

Certainly, anonymous postings involving personal attacks are cowardly, juvenile and quite possibly actionable. But they do not seem to us to be a distinctive category of snark. The public square in America has always been a rough place; but snark goes to the level of civility of the speechmaker. Anonymous postings are drunken hecklers. Snarky or not, they do not deserve a platform.

Snark stimulates us to think harder about the public square and how it will look in the future. We wish Denby had provided a comparative perspective to help us understand snark in the cycle of American politics. Is there more snark in newspapers, on TV, and even on the internet than there was in the nineteenth century, when “scandalmonger” James Callender and a legion of lesser lights revealed the lurid details, many of them imagined, about Alexander Hamilton’s sexual relationship with Maria Reynolds, a married woman, and Thomas Jefferson’s child-producing rape of his slave, Sally Hemmings? As Americans enjoy snark in our culture of infotainment will they — can they — address issues of politics and public policy as they did in earlier times? What does it tell us that the electorate ate up Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky jokes, but was overwhelmingly opposed to his impeachment? And that for all of the Obama/Osama crap that was out there, Barack still won?

Denby suggests, albeit too briefly, that “snark sounds like the seethe and snarl of an unhappy and ferociously divided country.” Is it, then, an epiphenomenon of a more dangerous phenomenon, political polarization? When Americans gravitate to media outlets tailored to their point of view, do they greet snarky comments as subscribers to Democratic Party newspapers in the nineteenth century did when they read that Abraham Lincoln was an “ourang outang” — as rabid reinforcement of what they already think or believe?

“I have a tendency, I know,” Denby admits, “to be bothered by cynicism, slander, and failed nasty wit more than I should, and indeed, to take things too seriously.” He may be right about the pernicious tendencies of snark to debase our culture. But maybe, he — and we — should be more worried about a democratic mass media that has conflated opinion with information and sorted out viewers into us and them.

Huffington Post - "Doctorow's Bleak House"

Doctorow’s Bleak House” – by Kevin Morris and Glenn Altschuler

Review of Homer & Langley. By E.L. Doctorow. Random House.

Don’t let book jacket summaries fool you. Homer & Langley, E.L Doctorow’s ambitious new novel, isn’t anything like his richly detailed historical narratives, RagtimeThe Book of Daniel, and The March.

His subjects, of course, are the New York City nutball Collyer brothers and their activities in – mostly in – and around their Upper Fifth Avenue mansion. The narrator is Homer, “the blind brother,” who recounts a progression from the Manner to madness. But Doctorow makes no pretense in this novel to verisimilitude. Indeed, he extends their lives from 1947 to the late 1970s. Although (as the book jacket claims), “the epic events” of the twentieth century – “wars, political movements, technological advances” – do pass through the Collyers’ cluttered house – Doctorow isn’t really interested, as he’s been so often before, in illuminating America’s past.

After a wealthy childhood, Homer tells us, Langely ships out “Over There.” He returns home with scars to his body and mustard gas in his lungs, but it is the damage to his soul which provides the book its historically familiar – and philosophically challenging – subject: Langley’s post-World War I disillusionment.

Langely becomes a full-blown eccentric. He is – as the real life Langely was – a compulsive hoarder, venturing out into the city each day and returning with junky treasures. Homer is, well, a home-bound “homer” (and, of course, a “Homer”). With the exception of a stint as the piano player at a silent movie house and fast walks around the neighborhood, he spends most of his time exploring the tactile sensations of the residence. There is a halcyon time for the brothers, just before the moon landing, when Homer resumes his piano playing and Langley takes up painting. But they quickly return to outer space.

As a story, the novel moves briskly. Love interests such as Perdita Spence, Mary Elizabeth Riordan and Jacqueline Roux, along with a collection of other characters, weave through, emblems of their times. These folks can be compelling, especially the Collyers’ cook, Granmama Robileaux and her grandson, Harold, a gifted musician who is killed in WW II. But some, like Vincent the gangster, who befriends the boys at a speakeasy, sends call girls as a gift, and then does the Collyers a bad turn, are B-movie stereotypes. It must also be said that some references, like the one to a Pulitzer prize winning photo of Langley, seem culled from the historical record and pasted in. But even when he throws pitches low and outside, you’re willing to give Doctorow a free pass.

As time goes by, the Collyer’s brownstone fills with more and more miscellanea. The most fantastic object is a Ford Model T, which Langley sets up in the vast dining room, a perfect metaphor for Homer’s imagined world, with its blurred line between inside and out, Langley’s crackpot attempts at control, and the breathtaking technological transformation of New York City during the century. Already world-weary, Homer and Langley seem to pass the point of no return with news of Harold’s death. The brothers slumber, sleepwalk, and stagger through the fifties, sixties and seventies, collecting crap, encountering hippies and fighting with just about everybody. Langley whacks out and Homer withers within.

What’s going on here? Would Doctorow mail in a March of Time? Why would the master of the “deep verticals” of historical fiction write a laterally moving novella about bizarre brothers who overstuffed their brownstone?

Homer & Langely, as we read it, is a philosophical reflection, best understood as a meditation on the distinction between the universal and the particular. Convinced that “doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle,” Langley is a self-appointed Modern Day Platonist: he collects every New York City newspaper each day, aiming to create a single edition. In doing so, he thinks he can demonstrate that every person, event, and phenomenon is but a pale copy of an Ideal Form, thus justifying his decision to stave off despair by isolating himself. “All those census records,” he tells his brother, “all those archives, attest only to the self-importance of the human being who gives himself a name and a pat on the back and doesn’t admit how irrelevant he is to the turnings of the planet.”

Homer, for his part, keeps reaching, albeit episodically and ineffectually, toward the particular, the unique. He lives through music and he yearns for love. Although he is, ultimately, at the mercy of the sighted Langley, Homer parries his brother’s beliefs reluctantly but resolutely. Are individuals irrelevant? Is there nothing new under the sun? “I wasn’t prepared to go that far, for if you felt that way what was the use of living in the world.” For “someone who had no regard for his own distinctiveness,” he observes, shrewdly, Langley “certainly was putting up quite a struggle, holding off the city agencies, the creditors, the neighbors and the press and relishing the battles.”

Properly framed, the book considers ultimate questions. And they ain’t easy. What explains modern life? Does a Langley-like acknowledgment of evil, imperfect communications, and death lead to the conclusion that one should foreswear human connections? If you subordinate the particular to the universal, as Langley does, will you end up powerless – and with a Model T in your living room? Does Platonism end in a darkness darker than Homer’s?

Throughout the novel, there is the haunting presence of Doctorow sitting in Homer’s seat at the typewriter, and a sad feeling that we are reading his final argument. Without shrinking from the bleakness, Doctorow surely casts his vote for Homer and for a love and not Love. “If what mattered was the universal form of Dear Girl,” Homer opines, “and if each Dear Girl was only a particular expression of the universal, any of them might serve equally well, and could replace another as our morally insufficient nature demanded. And if that were the case how could I ever be educated to love anyone for a lifetime?” Homer, it’s clear, wants to love someone for a lifetime – and he might even settle for some good moments, hours, or days.

In the end, though, Doctorow chooses to remain a bit elusive. When a failing Homer is visited by “Jacqueline Roux,” the novelist doesn’t make clear whether she is actually “there” or present in his mind as an Ideal Form. “I don’t remember the sex,” Homer confesses. “I felt her heart beating. I remember her tears under our kisses. I remember holding her in my arms and absolving God of meaningless.” And even more ambiguously – and achingly – Doctorow has Homer wish for himself a madness akin to his brother’s as the only relief against “an unremitting consciousness” that is “irredeemably aware of itself” – and, at the same time, desire, desperately, the touch, the very particular touch, of his brother’s hand.

In Homer & Langley - and for Homer and Langley…and maybe E.L. Doctorow – such philosophical questions come at the end of the line, when deep historical narratives no longer seem adequate.


Huffington Post - "Catty on a Hot Tin Roof"

Catty on a Hot Tin Roof” – by Kevin Morris and Glenn Altschuler

Review of City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960’s and 70’s. By Edmund White. Bloomsbury USA.

There are memoirs and there are memoirists. A close cousin to the autobiography, a memoir is customarily thought of in the singular: one per person. On the other hand, memoirists, the field’s specialists, can make any part of their lives into an epoch worthy of a book. They are literary raconteurs, stand-up monologists, night club actors on the page.

This is the time, it seems, of the New York City gay memoirist. With City Boy, cultural critic and novelist Edmund White follows up on My Lives (2006) with a new memoir about life in New York City in the sixties and seventies. He’s a more highbrow Augusten Burroughs; a more sedate and scholarly David Sedaris.

The book is an exquisitely written, devilishly detailed account of White’s life in the City. The author has tales gaylore: he was a fly in the Stonewall; in leather at leather bars; cooked dinner for poets; attended after-parties for the New York Institute for the Humanities. He is a serial exaggerator, claiming that in the seventies “everyone wanted to be bisexual” and describing a friend “who read three or four books a day.” Throughout, City Boy reveals an unabashedly ambitious artist coming to terms with free love and gay liberation. It could be called Gay Sex in the City.

When dealing with everybody who was anybody in his circle, White is, well, penetrating. His friends and lovers (and you do need a scorecard to keep track of them) include Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Susan Sontag. He brushes up against Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges; visits Venice with Peggy Guggenheim; gets drunk with James Merrill and John Ashberry; and he cruises the leather bars with Robert Mapplethorpe.

It is difficult, however, to characterize the characterizer. After overcoming his ambivalence about being gay, White continues to struggle with whether there is or should be something called gay literature. The conflict between genre and a universal world view is the meta-theme of his book. Now that gay literature has come and gone “as a commercial fad and a serious movement,” he writes, it seems true that it “did isolate us – to our advantage initially, though ultimately to our disadvantage.” And when gay people were “liberated,” it “became easier in certain milieus to come out, but at the same time the stakes were higher….and only the highly motivated made it across the barbed-wire fence.” At times, White confesses, he regrets “the invention of the category ‘gay.'”

In City Boy, he remains ambivalent, using the very specificity of gay life to illuminate some transcendent truths and in so doing makes the whole work a sort of clever synecdoche. He struggles with what it means to want to be “among those five hundred people in America who earn a living, even a meager living, by writing serious literature.” (“Having no longer any chance to be a prodigy,” he tells us, “I now had to content myself with being a late bloomer, if I was going to bloom at all.”) And about the relationship, such as it, between friendship and love. “Love raises great expectations in us that it never satisfies,” he writes. It is “source of anxiety until it is a source of boredom.” While friendship “feeds the spit” with apermis de sejour that enables us to go anywhere and do anything exactly as our whims dictate.”

Applying such considerations to his own relationships, White welcomes readers to his world with take-no-prisoners portraits. Consider, for example, his deconstruction of a dinner party at the home of Richard Sennett:

All these lonely intellectuals, their eyes hallowed out from years of reading microfiches and medieval script, their voices hoarse from gabbing to themselves over tinned beans and Bovril in unheated Rooms, were now being stroked and feted and fed. They were like feral cats being tickled behind the ears for the first time. They were purring, though still looking around anxiously for the next boot in the rear, the next nasty review by a rival in the Times literary supplement.

Or his claims that “in everyday life,” Lillian Hellman,

was an appalling person…She would pick a fight with other customers in a store. The New York State Theater had no central aisle, and to get to the best seats one had to slide past a line of seated people. One night…Hellman had deliberately aimed her high heel and stabbed the foot of a seated woman, a complete stranger, then cursed her out for howling in pain.

As these passages demonstrate, White’s prose can be side-splitting and stunning. You don’t have to be gay to enjoy these White-bred reflections.

He’s candid about his travails as an aspiring writer and modest about his role as a founding father of gay consciousness. But, like his more contemporary contemporaries, he doesn’t always look straight at the camera, shifting in an augenblick from a deeply moving personal story to the more comfortable realm of the joke, the poke, and the coke.

And this territory comes with bouts of mean-spiritedness, including acid-strewn portraits of Sontag and Harold Brodkey, in which the author seems to play into “catty” gay stereotypes. Equally important, a sort of sadness sustained by the specter of AIDS looms over City Boy. In the end, the book drips with the world-weariness of a queen who fears he may be approaching his last outing, but who just may take the mouse in his hand again.