The Emperor’s New Wall Hangings

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Toast to my evilness

Empire, my favorite television melodrama, is so dense with gold chains,  so rife with betrayal, and so bonkers in its plotting that you would be forgiven for missing some of the show’s subtler motif work. The clothes are one thing (nary a dame is seen without 5 inch heels, even when doing push-ups) and the physical spaces another (all-gold-everything). And yet the uniting aesthetic, as one of the show’s designers coins it, could be described as “ghetto fabulous.”

The term ghetto fabulous offers a rebuttal to those who would use “ghetto” as a pejorative adjective, describing something shoddy or ill-made. The fabulousness of all things on Empire cannot be disputed, and yet there are different kinds of fabulousness, not all of it ghetto. A recurring friction on the show is the cultural rift between those who came up on the streets (mama and papa Lyons, Thirsty) and those who didn’t, such as the YMCMB progeny and bourgie, lily-skinned Anika. Luscious, like the Jay-Z he is modeled after, has a foot in both worlds, and is the embodiment of the one-in-a-billion rags-to-riches success stories. It’s an American tale, but one rarely told outside of the medium of rap.  Even for its capitalist zeal, its celebration of material-driven narcissism, and its earnest embrace of the patriarchal family structure, the show’s focus on black aspiration at the highest levels of the fake Empire show universe is kinda revolutionary.  Luscious and Cookie are the embodiment of ghetto fabulous.

Enter Kehinde Wiley painting. Of all the contemporary art of Empire, Wiley’s paintings are the most ubiquitous–hanging in the dining room and living room at the Luscious Lair, ready to be unpacked in Cookie’s new Dynasty office, illuminating the office at Empire, in Hakeem’s penthouse. You name the space, and a Wiley can’t be far away.

I first saw his paintings in the Brooklyn Museum, and admit I’d never even heard of him before. In a strange quiet corner, some ceiling panels were installed from Wiley’s series “Go.” These paintings–in scale, in the bodily posture of their subjects, in their heavenly environment, reminded me of the Sistine Chapel; the subjects, of Wu-Tang.  I was so delighted by the concept, and surprised that no one seemed to think of it earlier.

The Michelangelo + 90s rappers effect is all fine and good and the point, I think, of the gorgeous, technicolor oil paintings by Wiley. But they aren’t mere meme-quality in their incongruity. They’re recontextualizations of black people–some in attire easily identified as “hood”: low-slung jeans, drawers hanging out, hoodies, Timbos, etc, and a recontextualization of reverential Western art iconography, like the luminous portraits of saints and martyrs. Putting the two together challenges our racial/historical associations, synthesizing unlike traditions to melt arbitrary, sometimes racist boundaries. Beyond Renaissance painting, Wiley seems fond of perfect, repeated patterns, like William Morris and other Victorian printers, but with a technicolor boost, unafraid of pinks, reds, yellows. His subjects may appear with halos or appear to glow like saints, but in the Go series, they are placed against a doily of royal Islamic lattice work. It would be wrong to say these paintings are merely mash-ups of high and low, of royal versus hood, which I think it would be easy to say. Empire shows there’s nothing contradictory or at odds about being black and enormously successful, powerful, and rich. But it is something new for the United States, historically, and something network television is new to showing. Hence, Wiley’s paintings are a perfect thematic complement to the Lyon family, who find themselves in situations where far more white faces have gone before. “What’s the last thing you expect to see at a black tie/ a black guy,” Kanye said of this phenomenon of the upper echelons, and all things we consider synonymous with high class.

Other paintings I spotted were some Basquiats, which obviously makes sense given the artist’s near-universal hip-hop cred. Others have catalogued the art of the show, to my surprise. So I’ll link them out of obligation.

The artwork that inspired me to write this post, though, was an ironic use of Kara Walker. I first saw Kara Walker’s silhouettes in the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She is known for creating silhouettes, like paper dolls, which appear in innocent and sorta folk-arty scenes, like an embroidered pillow of farm animals at grammaw’s house. But the whole point is that the innocence is belied by the depiction of something gruesome in the “it is heritage,” genre of American cruelty, be it a lynching, a rape, or a beating.

While Empire’s partnership with Wiley is intentional and well-paired, the show veered off into ignoramus territory by placing a Kara Walker piece in Lola’s girly-princess bedroom. In the direct sightline of Lola’s bed is a Walker vignette featuring two children playing under a tree. And from a higher branch that we cannot see, a body dangles, with only legs visible at the top of the circular scene. It’s a picture of a lynching, but the cute silhouettes of little children with braided pigtails was apparently an  irresistible design choice for the little girl’s room, historical underbelly be damned.

MAYBE–just maybe–this cunning show wanted to convey what Walker does–that within every adorable pastoral lies someone’s brutal oppression and the heritage of American racism. That there is no such thing as cuteness. Lola’s origins, after all, are sorta messed up–nothing innocent or lovely about That’s So Raven’s baby’s daddy. But more likely, some designer wanted to big-up Kara Walker to the neglect of her themes.

As far as the sins of patronage go, this is a lesser one. Because like the Lyons, the work of these black artists has only recently come to grace the corridors of power.

Cardboard King Push

Push doesn't mind his music sales being tracked.
Push doesn’t mind his music sales being tracked.

My mother is a battered and wise veteran substance-abuse counselor, with most of her career playing out during the crack boom on the south side of Chicago during the last three decades. Woman has seen a lot. But somehow, perhaps because she understands the deep seeds of human frailty, the codes written into some people’s genes, and the social or emotional circumstances leading to drug abuse, she is an empathetic, not a cynical or judgmental person. However, she leveled one judgment to me in her time; saying once, and only once, “I really hate drug dealers. Drug dealers are the scum of the earth.” I have the feeling she was not referring to your schlubby neighborhood dope dealer, but rather to those selling harder stuff to the poor and the wretched.

This moral judgment kept erupting in my mind as I disappointedly listened to “My Name is My Name,” the pretend debut of Pusha T’s solo career. Unlike Rick Ross and other phonies, Push really was a dealer (Re-Up Gang affiliates have been put away for decades for their involvement in a big wig drug ring), and consequently, his career in the game has featured one of the realest, grimmest takes on the economics of the drug trade, and its relative, evil. One friend once very eloquently summed it up by saying that Clipse had “a very intimate relationship with Satan.”

This complicated celebration of ill-gotten gains has been the defining thematic content of Clipse; the Neptunes’ minimal clickity clack beats on Clipse’s first two albums had a bleak, almost apocalyptic ghetto sound that was entirely their own; spliced into all of this were some of the best rhymes to come from any rappers ever, with the duo appreciating not just deep metaphor and word play, but the sounds of consonants stacked together, rhymes of such sonic and Biblical gravity that Dante, another poet of evil, would surely have died of envy.

But the Clipse disbanded. Malice took the road to righteousness; on “Freedom,” his conversion flows in celestial rays, illuminating the god/man divide he has encountered: “This is where the buck stop/ here where I draw the line/ I’ve touched the hem/ god’s work is so divine/ i’ve seen the error of my ways over time/ …/ Malicious has been refined.” Malice recently released a Christian rap album  under the name “No Malice.”

The only thing refined on MNIMN is, per usual, the quality of the brick, powder, snow, blow, arm & hammer, raw; the singular metaphor at the deepest level of Push: cocaine. Push’s godliness is in the guise of his earthly, material powers; he believes there’s a god above him, he’s just the god of everything else. He is a methodical thinker and dealer, “like Scarface, but it’s God’s face in that mirror/ we was made in his image, dialing and it’s much clearer/ scoring from the heights but I wanted mine purer,” But how pure, Push? “Aryan, blonde hair, blue-eyed like the Führer.” That line alone is so fucked. Diamonds and Aryans are what prop up on this album as objects of purity. I wish he’d go to church, and stop being so young, rich, and tasteless, yuck!

Anyway, Push’s fierceness remains one of the last genuine primordial forces in mainstream rap. At the same time, it’s an unchanging mask, projected to a larger commercial audience since people never got it the first 4-6 times he tried to tell you about him. This late in the day, long-time Pusha fans might feel tired. Tired of him holding on to his embittered, battle-hardened dealer identity. One wishes for a narrative turn, a denouement, or some sort of epiphany, anything, anything to mitigate the unrelenting trillest hustler business. His diamond, so pure when compared with everyone else’s, he claims, is at this point turning back into coal.

4 of MNIMN’s 12 songs were released before the album; of the singles, “Numbers on the Boards,” “Nosetalgia” and “Pain” all happen to be the best tracks; so when it finally was released, I felt robbed, with most of the remaining songs reminding me of paler versions of things I’d heard before. Much of the production on the album sounds is reminiscent of perhaps a lesser G.O.O.D. Music mixtape; “King Push,” produced by Kanye, is an odd intro to choose, as it could easily be a lost track from Yeezus; its spastic, trembling bass and the scarily chipmunked vocal sample are totally Satanic, but in a way that suits Kanye better. “Let Me Love You,” is a re-tread of “Dirty Money,” Clipse’s catchiest song to date, and features an enjoyable return of Pusha’s lazy, Spanglish-inflected drawl, a stoned and carefree flow he only busts out when he is reminding ladies of their complete irrelevance to him (Push has a special derision for women, even for hip-hop, calling HIS OWN MOTHER a “bitch” on 40 Acres). “Hold On,” at first sounded cheap to me, a phone-it-in Kanye-produced effort in which gospel chords accompany a catharic autotuned Ye melody. But the longer I listened, the more I felt the pathos, specifically thanks to the Kanye singing.

It’s unclear in any of this Kanye-world-making-detritus whether Push can ever musically truly be at home; the Kanye crew fits him a little like some Bottega Venetta sneakers, unfastened; they look good, they’re fancy, but there’s something unfinished about the whole fashion.

The only time on MNIMN that Push is heading towards any sort of development as a rapper or moral sentient being is in “Nosetalgia,” with Kendrick, a rapper much more concerned with interior worlds than with material success. The first two verses of Push’s are a bildungsroman of the young dealer: we see a young Push, with beepers and a two-tone Starter jacket hustling in his early days. Kendrick then chimes in about witnessing his aunt and father on crack, bringing the human element that is always lacking from Push’s stories to the center of the song in crystalline, nostalgic imagery; a synthesis unfolds between the dealer and the consequences of his selling; the facilitating dealer, the addict, and passive victim all orbiting around each other in the same tune, for once.

There is no argument that Pusha remains one of the best rappers alive, based solely on his poetic sensibilities, on his ways with words. But there remains a pit in the center of his cocaine myopia, preventing him from being one of the most fascinating rappers alive; without a breathing, changing persona, all we get is the mask, the tautology, the name that is his name. And it’s not enough.

On Ryan Gosling; Or, Where Metaphysics and Smoking Collide

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On accident, I revealed my status as a smoker to my students not long ago. I was leaving school early. Like, at the same time the students get out of there. I drove past the bus stop, took a drag of my cigarette, and looked over to see three of my students fervently waving in attempt to get my attention. I waved with the offending hand and then panicked. I then clumsily switched my cigarette to my right (non-smoking) hand and hid the cigarette beneath their sight-line, which of course by then was useless. Where there’s smoke, there’s a cigarette, and they already knew it.

So then comes the next school day. I’d forgotten about it. But the news had been spread to other students, who that day were all “smoking” their pens. After several minutes of this behavior, which was annoying but definitely not as disruptive as some of the other shit they pull, I finally paused the lesson and asked, “What are you all doing? Take your pens out of your mouths, and put them to your paper!” Gregg, who is never afraid to give his unreserved opinion, offered, “But Ms. Piontek, we’re just worried for your health. You shouldn’t smoke. It’s bad for you!”

Mind you, I teach at a high school in Chicago Public Schools. Students should probably be smoking by now, and thinking it’s cool, and hiding it from their parents. But instead, they’re lecturing their teacher about the perils of smoking.

So, you know, it appears times have changed.

That’s a good thing and all. I’m not arguing anything to the contrary. It’s good that I’ve been shamed and excluded from smoking in most places in society, because lord knows I’d be even more hooked than I am now.

Besides me, there’s another guy who’s keeping smoking alive. His name is Ryan Gosling, and he likes to smoke.

Over the weekend, I watched the I-can’t-believe-no-one-edited-this-absurdly-long-movie “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Don’t get me wrong; this movie had moments of absolute transcendence. Beautiful tracking shots, thrilling motorcycle rides, a coupla key acting performances. Etc. I don’t want to write about the whole thing. As a woman, and as a smoker, it read to me like a really long movie about masculinity and also smoking.

Ryan Gosling dangles a cigarette out of his mouth while he acts really hard at actually not conveying any emotion. Not since Clint Eastwood, or fuck, since Brando or James Dean, has anyone so determinedly tried to get the kids smoking again.

Some of the allure of the smoke is mitigated by the fact that Gosling has bleached 90’s hair, and wears some of the worst clothes one could ever see in a movie.

While sometimes his performances in the two Cianfrance movies (Pines and “Blue Valentine”) seems a bit tone deaf–too tough guy to make any sense in the contemporary or almost contemporary world he lives in–he still nails something I actually think of as a sorta Brechtian skill. He’s an old archetype floating around on screen–not a modern character who makes us privy to his feelings. Everyone else is moving and breathing and emoting and not smoking, and there’s Gosling, presenting more as a physical and sexual force than as a thinking or feeling one. His performances are so calibratedly understated.

Watching him in “Pines” and also in “Drive” conjures the same mystery I also feel when interacting with my special students way out on the spectrum. I am not only unsure of what they’re feeling, I am unsure if they’re aware of themselves in the world at all. There’s a box to check on my kiddos official documents that asks if the student seems “disoriented in time”. When I first saw this option, I thought this seemed rather too metaphysical of language to appear in a legal state document describing a student’s learning abilities. But it’s one of those things where ya know it when you see it. I’ve checked “disoriented in time” for a couple of kids with autism.

I also check “disoriented in time” for Ryan Gosling as a smoking tough guy–one gets the impression his mama smoked too many cigs while his characters were still in the womb. And the result is absolutely fantastic, full of grit and guts and opaqueness and juice. We’re not meant to know everything, and directors and actors who try hard to let us in are making the mistake of elucidating what should sometimes remain a question in our minds. I think that here, cigarettes had something to do with it.

Choose Your Own TO THE WONDER

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“lead me to the bison”

My buddy Lucas once declared Terrence Malick a “post-modern romantic,” and I wish I’d been the one to call him that first, because it’s so dead-on. As a romantic, Malick has a meticulous attentiveness to the rhythms of nature. He is fascinated by it, and his characters are always returning to it, finding their truest selves within it, rejecting modernity for it. As for post-modernism, that beast, one of the only things we can agree post-modernism includes is a collapse of forms. Malick shows routine disregard for linear narrative, most recently splicing cosmic birth with his characters’ present day, personal histories with imagined heavens in “The Tree of Life”. Dreams and memories and reality and dinosaurs all converge as a spectacular specific/universal tone-poem in “Tree,” and yet the movie still tells a story. It’s a feat!

Whatever interest in plot and narrative Terry may have once had, though, has basically fallen away in “To the Wonder”. I kept wondering wtf “To the Wonder” was about, but about half-way through & after my second bathroom break (I drank a lot of water yesterday), I decided to relax and not think so hard about what it was about. I also stopped reading the subtitles. (Oh yeah, it’s an American movie, but most of the talking–in the form of voice-over narration–is in French, a lil bit of Russian, and Spanish.) I just, ahem, experienced.

The film opens to two lovers (Ms. Olga–a ravishing, spritely, broad-faced beauty–& Ben Affleck, strong and thankfully silent) nuzzling one another under the Pantheon, smiling broadly on the canal in the summer, twirling around statues in the Tuileries in winter. They visit an abbey, and walk on rippled clay on some northern sea shore. They play in the water. They don’t talk. Olga’s kid can’t even understand Ben’s shitty French accent. Talking isn’t part of their love.

This is a movie about sensation, not communication; the feeling of winter sunlight on a skin; the prickles of prairie grass when you slide its berries from the reed; the suck of a boot sole against clay-like mud; the thrill of sliding a finger across the taught abdomen of a lover. You get the idea.

This is also a movie about lack of sensation: where is God? I can’t feel him! is a thought that hovers over this movie. Father Javier Bardem is pastor to an ill-attended Catholic church in SmallTown, OK. It’s no wonder he is questioning his faith when apparently his only acquaintances are a rather Diane Arbus-like freakshow cast of poor meth addicts, an eccentric wizard of a janitor, prisoners, and cognitively-impaired people. I suppose these people are supposed to stand out as aberrations of nature, as ugliness, which is sort of appalling. Structurally, though, I think that’s what Malick was going for: that God’s absence is felt when nature is not right. Father Bardem is not surrounded by beauty, but by dereliction and degraded people.

I’m hesitant to draw too many deep conclusions from any structures that pop up. But it’s clear that Malick is obsessed with the order of nature, and returns over and over again to shots of rippling seas, roaring dams, peaceful pools, bubbling brooklets–you fucking name it. (It’s almost as if he can’t help himself–he too feels oppressed by the orderly subdivisions and wide open asphalt spaces of Oklahama that he chose to film.) Then he has the aberrations (the Diane Arbus cast). And then he has the corruption of mother earth. Ben’s character has a job where he goes around measuring toxic chemicals in the earth near oil extraction sites. He climbs piles of rubble & dust, and wades into toxic ponds in rubber boots. He talks to poor people about tar seeping into their yards. I’m tempted to say Ben’s dealings with corrupt earth are connected to his passivity in love–but I don’t actually know if these dichotomies I’m setting up matter. I think this movie is actually a series of impressions, and that together and separate, they are fine and beautiful and resist hard interpretation.

Which is not to say the film says nothing or is empty. Cerebrally, it does not offer much. But Terry isn’t an intellectual filmmaker in the sense that he cares about controlling the wheels of your mind while you watch his films. He is an emotional filmmaker, toggling with your heart, appealing to your soul. “To the Wonder” offers emptiness in the forms of lots of wide-open space–like the Oklahoma sky, amirite?–and the space is there for you to fill it up with your impressions and memories. In its undulating waves of brown grassy hills, empty parking lots, panoramic waters, and elevated views of Paris’ Hausmannian orderliness–it weaves the viewer into itself, allowing you to graft your experience onto it. As far as a trip to the movies go, that’s about as deep as it’s gon get.

Camera & Modernity + Dreams = “The Mirror” Part I

Oh, look, it's that guy from "Stalker."
Oh, look, it’s that guy from “Stalker” just beyond the bush.

The best art grows deeper with context. For instance: the second time one watches a Jason Statham flick, one feels degraded and sad, as you realize that the only thing that was good about it the first time was the novelty/shock value. The second time one reads a good novel, however, you’re bound to feel enriched, and the prose is better retained in the brain. As you may know, I’m way into Tarkovsky right now, and his films might actually be completely impenetrable without context, requiring not just patience of his viewers, but reverence and dedication to the artist himself. It can be a burden to delve into an artist like him, because it requires so much responsibility. But responsibility can sometimes feel like relief when you’ve spent too much of your time watching Jason Statham punch people’s heads; the loss of brain cell’s to a Statham foe seems to be vicariously felt in the viewer’s own head.

“The Mirror,” which some people apparently think is Tarkovsky’s best movie, is the most impenetrable, opaque one that I’ve seen. It contains a kind of a pulsating, transmutating narrative, providing impressions that last long enough for the viewer to arrive at some thoughts or feelings, but then confounding you by switching, dream-like, into different modes while staying in the same setting, or among the same characters. As the narrative of a dream wanders, and the crises change, a feeling remains, connecting events as the same dream.  Our parents appear, as do our childhood homes, ancestral feuds, deep unacknowledged fears, surreal incongruity of image: dreams are the realm of nostalgia, of unuttered thoughts, and of the unreal. Sorry to be writing about “dream space” with the earnestness of an early Freud or Surrealist, but, I mean, come on, they are really special. Dream logic is what rules the universe of “The Mirror”, making for a fascinating and extremely frustrating movie. The truth of it is dense and muddled, tied to Tarko biography, tied to Russian history, and is just about as ambitious as a movie can be. The following is my attempt to unravel some of it.

First, the myopia. It’s long been a meme for me that the particular is the key to unlock the universal, and I think Tarko is on my wavelength. There are many moments of “The Mirror” that are almost claustrophobically intimate, especially in the scenes between the mostly unseen narrator and the protagonist lady. These are scenes from a life and from a heart–complete with careful attention to moles on the protagonists’ back, the way tears run down a cold cheek, the way hair glistens when wet. The camera hovers close to her face, while she looks into it and discusses with it the practicalities of custody for her  lonely son–the camera in many scenes is quite literally her ex-husband/narrator/director himself. His voice questions her and disagrees with her just beyond what we can see.

Then there’s the matter of the ex-wife being conflated with the narrator’s mother. Mother and wife are played by the same actor. The narrator even comments that when he tries to remember his childhood, he pictures his ex-wife in the place of his mother. (I didn’t bring up Freud for no good reason.) The film wavers between the richly textured, degraded interiors of a shabby-and-only-slightly-chic Moscow apartment and a cozy, damp dacha in the north country, the former one assumes the location of the narrator’s present, and the latter where he was raised.

And then spliced into this intimacy is archival footage of civil war, upheaval, atom bombs, Cultural Revolutions, technological feats and follies of the last century. The film is a history, a mirror on the artist and his time. To make a movie like this is a both an absurdly huge and absurdly pompous task, and only a gifted-few are allowed to pull stunts like those in “The Mirror.” To show historical footage in your film is like waving a sign that says, “Hey, I’m deep.” Tarko shows scenes specifically from a border dispute war in Russia’s south-eastern reaches–the part that borders with China–and has footage of Maoist demonstrations in the newly minted Communist country from the 60s. In footage of the border dispute, the Uyghurs (who are a rather stateless people
who hang in central asia) rather mildly chant and knock about a circle of Soviet soldiers, who, young, big-eyed, and stoney-faced, simply hold them back in a line. It’s not a genuinely violent revolt. It’s not a battle. It’s not even that passionate of a protest. In another scene, we see people trudging through a flood plain, every step more burdensome than the last, their pants rolled up to their ankles as they book it, Oregon-Trail style, in covered wagons and desperation. In many of the archival footage of war and disaster, people make eye contact with the camera, self-conscious or fascinated by the thing capturing them. There is a remarkable shot of a little girl either in pre-fascist Italy or civil war Spain who looks into the camera giddily, but her face darkens into a mortified grimace for reasons we can only guess at one the other side. These scenes show small and intimate and inefficacious moments of conflict, as opposed to a grander narrative of valor or tragedy in warfare.

The constant in this wavering between small-moments-in-world-time and small-moments-in-subjective-time is the camera–an all-seeing eye that fosters self-consciousness and bewilderment, that is capable of collecting both the scurry of a beetle on a sunny stone and the destruction of entire cities by bombs.

Stay tuned for PART II because this blog post started to go OFF THE CHAIN.

How to Properly Incorporate Your Love of the Cocteau Twins into Rap, and Other Ideas

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Next time you need a genuine fairy lady, just call Kate Bush. Please.

Back on my grind: rap music. There’s been a lot of emotions and electronic music and self-reflectiveness afoot in rap music for the past few years. Blame it on Kanye: most of what we hear now is directly or indirectly linked back to that dude. (On a sidenote: I used to defend everything he did. But due to recent events that are too low-brow for even me to mention, I can’t handle him at the moment.)

Something really odd is going on now, though, and I’ve noticed it in a spate of releases from the past couple months. Apparently, women-led 80s gauzy British art rock is making a play for major sleeper influence in rap music.

This didn’t start with Kanye, but just so we’re clear, it couldn’t have been born without him. This fad, rather, is fathered by one of Kanye’s spiritual spawn, the once-villified, now-totally-established Drake. Take Care, which I once called “thoughtful, dextrous, and mature,” Drake’s 2011 album, continues to be a force to be reckoned with in most rap releases. The chilled-out, ambient production favored on that album’s contemplative (errr…navel-gazing) tracks struck me as sounding really nostalgic. They were nostalgic to me and my musical past, though, not nostalgic in relationship to rap. It’s because Take Care’s first jam, “Over My Dead Body” sounds basically like a Cocteau Twins song. (And I love the Cocteau Twins!!!)

But what I’m more interested in is not the trends in electronic sounds, but the production and voice choices for back-up vocals in rap songs. Whereas lady R&B singers could rest assured that they’d be included on a tune or two if vocals were needed a few years back, now the intrusion of indie into rap all but guarantees that some unknown English lily (get what I’m sayin’???) is lilting somewhere in the mix.

FOR INSTANCE: That Florence lady is on the ASAP Rocky album. She’s no good, if you ask me–all flim flam and no real guts. Her idol, I’m sure, is THE KATE BUSH, but you can’t just sing like you’re on the brink of orgasm/emotional breakdown all the time and think you’re THE Kate Bush. Kate Bush isn’t afraid to sound like a man/sea monster, isn’t afraid to stretch the limits of what the voice can do in the mold of some avant-garde Meredith Monk shit.

Along the same lines: the new Big Boi album features neither lovely chanteuse who appeared on his last album (Janelle Monae and Mary J), but rather some lady from “Phantogram.” I have never heard this band, but their wiki page tells me they belong to the “electronic pop” genre. The songs on which Phantogram appears are pretty okay, but they are very much “electronic pop” songs that will sound extremely silly in two years. One friend, upon hearing the Big Boi feat. Phantogram song “CPU,” likened it to Robyn. SO YEAH.

So, now you’re waiting for me to make a racist argument that rap music should feature soul singers. That black music has to be black. I am not saying this. I am saying, however, that the recent heavy hitters–this ASAP fella, Big Boi, Drake–are indulging in Kate Bush and Cocteau Twins, to some mixed results. Is this genuine experimentation, or are these albums just pushing genre barriers because that’s what rap is supposed to do nowadays? I know Big Boi can do Kate Bush–I KNOW HE CAN! But this album, mired in the bleep-blops of 2011-sounding club-ready indie jams–is not it.

Gotta bring it back to Kanye. Kanye is a borg who, on MBDTF, assimilated genres (King Crimson? James Brown? Gil Scott Heron spoken word? Black Sabbath? All of the above!) and made one of the best albums ever (yeah, I just said it). It was celebrated by rap and rock critics alike, and probably made a lot of doctrinaire rap fans even crankier about his rap-dilettantism than ever before. But art dies the moment it becomes doctrinaire, if it adheres to the conventions of genre, and, in the case of rap music, stays within the confines of its regional sound.

But you can’t push it. It’s a delicate process. If your thing isn’t indiscriminately devouring all kinds of music which organically results in some genre-hopping expression, then… stay boring. Or, I mean, to bring up that old adage: Write/play/sing what you know. An EMCEE everyone respects is Freddie Gibbs, who has literally no ambitions to do anything new. He’s a gangsta rapper and he knows it. Pitchfork sent some dumbass to interview him in his trailer in a junkyard in LA and asked him to spin a yarn over a beat. The dumbass played Gibbs two different beat tracks–one a fairly standard beat clearly not produced by Skrillex, and the other beat a bunch of dubstep womp womps and flambouyant synths that was maybe produced by Skrillex–and Freddie was like, “Uh, I’ll take the first one.” And then he rapped about how he still sells drugs over the standard beat, and it was all good.

Some other dudes would do well to do like Freddie and stay true to their hearts. Or hire producers who aren’t second-rate chop shop jobbers jumping on a genre-bending band wagon. Being a good rapper, and staying relevant, does not mean you need to go into an enchanted English forest and pull out some fairy lady to back that track up.

Stalking The Truth: On Modern and Antique Modes of Searching

totes not in kansas
totes not in kansas

People are people, were people, and forever shall be people. I think that modernity, or antiquity, or contemporaryness (though useful terms for categorizing common hairstyles, cocktail fads, and to some extent, cultural interests) are misleadingly narrow constructions, witholding real information about the condition of the human soul. BECAUSE THE HUMAN SOUL IS IMMUTABLE. People are always the same, regardless of the time you’re born and the material and geographic circumstances of your life. Know what I’m sayin?

That said, there is a mode of being I’ve been pre-occupied with lately, a mode I’d like to designate as extremely un-contemporary. A mode that is diametrically opposed to our present time, and I am starting to think it’s one mode I need to be in all the damn time, even though our times are telling me not to be.

Let’s call this the “stalking” mode.

I’ve just spent a good few months obsessing about the Tarkovsky movie “Stalker.” I’ve replayed it a lot in my mind, though I’ve only seen it once. I’ve had several hours of conversation about it with one friend, and exchanged emails about it for months with two others. I read Geoff Dyer’s delightful pseudo-critique/memoir/ramble “ZONA” about it. It’s been living in the primest real estate of my imagination.

For those unfamiliar with the film, let me explain. “Stalker” is a metaphysical science fiction movie, a damp, dripping, mysterious, and thoroughly ungallant “search for the Holy Grail.” Stalker is a guy in this shitty, conspicuously-Baltic industrial ruin world who leads two other guys (Professor and Writer) to a forbidden area to find out their heart’s true desires. The forbidden area can be only traversed and navigated by the Stalker–he’s like a travel guide. This area is known, literal-Tarko style, as THE ZONE. The place inside THE ZONE that reveals the heart’s true desire is called THE ROOM.

In conversations with friends, the question erupted: how pure is the Stalker? THE ZONE, we understand, is dangerous: you make a false step there, and you die. The Stalker, like one Chosen, is the only one with the seemingly primordial knowledge of how to safely traverse the area, and he advises his wards to show reverence to THE ZONE. And yet he’s never allowed to partake of its fruit. He’s not allowed to have the essential truth about his self revealed in THE ROOM. Stalker’s predecessor (PORCUPINE) made that mistake, and ended up killing himself.

We learn from Stalker’s wife that dude is only truly happy when he’s in THE ZONE and feels it calling to him when he’s not there. All around, Stalker has a reverence for the Zone, an addiction to the Zone, mystical knowledge of the Zone.

But Stalker’s pure relationship with the zone  is complicated by the fact that Stalker is paid by some fools to show them around. He seems genuinely pained by their insouciance and disbelief in the fruits of the Zone, but at the same time, how else is he going to make a living? His relationship with the zone might be idealogically pure, but he apparently can’t be choosy about who he takes on to the Zone. It’s not a pilgrimage and he’s no one’s guru. He’s just a tour guide.

At first, I thought of the long-suffering-of-fools Stalker as a Christ-figure. He was Chosen and he is Driven to show others the truth of themselves in the Zone. I swear he even recites some Beatitudes at some point, saying something about how the meek shall inherit the earth. But then, you gotta think about the less glamorous aspect of money changing hands. I could go on, especially about the figures of Professor and Writer, but why bore you. I’ve now decided that Stalker is not a Christ figure but a Tarkovsky figure. He’s a film-maker, an artist. Someone concerned with revealing serious truths, but who also has to make money by doing it, and must suffer fools in the process. The impulse to make films and search for truth itself is a pure impulse, but the material aspects of it muddle the art, and can potentially ruin it. It’s a dangerous game, this truth-stalking through art, but only those who are truly CALLED to it really have anything to teach us about ourselves. From what little I know of Tarkovsky, he was a serious fellow, and took movie-making and truth-searching very seriously.

This serious search for truth–and the placing of the artist’s alterego at the heart of one’s Russian masterpiece–reminds me more than a little of Tolstoy’s character Levin in Anna Karenina. Poor Levin: forgotten in the dust-bin of literary history. Everyone always forgets that he’s Anna’s foil, so caught up are we in her sexy, black curl bursting infidelity. Levin, not so different than Lev T. himself, can’t fucking stand the artifice required of a person to get along socially in Moscow, much less hang out with the gaudy nouveau-riche scenesters of Petersburg. He’d rather be piling hay with his serfs, ahem, peasants, out in the country. Levin is always wondering what true fulfillment looks like, and how he’s going to go about getting it. He’s way into what I like to think of as the pastoral fallacy–that reverting to old ways, simple ways, will lead you to true fulfillment. (Tolstoy wore peasant attire even though he was a goddamn count. Nice try, Lev.) Levin, of course, is just one side of the coin–Anna, in her impulsive majesty, shares some of Tolstoy’s personal vices. (He was known for his infidelities.) To be all neat and structuralist about it, Levin gets the happy ending when he finds true love and a simple life in the country. His search for truth is not resolved, because the search, the fitful, tentative grasping for what makes meaning, the stalking of it as though it were something easy to startle on a hunt (of which there are many in the pages of AK), is itself the truth. Anna, as we all know, though, thought she found fulfillment, but the heart is capricious, and we all know how she got her comeuppance.

Both Tarkovsky and Tolstoy are guys that would have probably agreed that the aim of art is to tell us something about living. I know more about Tolstoy’s aesthetics, so I can confirm that he saw realism as the purest means of revealing “man to himself,” to using the phrasing of the day.  His prose is plain-spoken and elegant, and he was attempting to take snap-shots of life, then let them reel out in real-time. He probably would have made really long mumblecore movies if he’d been around now, except they would have been profound.

Both Tolstoy and Tarkovsky have placed, at the center of their narratives, a striver, a searcher, a stalker who is perpetually hovering close to fulfillment and to meaning, but never getting it actually. They are just on the prowl. I find it admirable and beautiful that they have placed doppelgangers at the center of their narratives, and use these characters as a means to continue their own search. This is a mode that does not happen with the same earnestness now. This is a mode that is serious and noble. Things that are serious and noble now are probably seen as old fashioned. Sorry, this is maybe about to be a diatribe.

I felt this year that the movie “The Master” attempted to address some of this truth-stalking business, but the master and his path are fraudulent, and the master’s disciple has a brain that has been pickled in booze, and seems to be merely tagging along to fulfill his urges to eat and fuck, animal-like. A serious look at how to find fulfillment, as far as I can tell, is not on anyone’s agenda in the way Tarko and Tolstoy made it the cornerstone of their entire artistic output. It’s not like I’ve watched every movie… So I could be wrong. (Oh, and of course, there’s always Terrance Malick, grasping for the branches on the tree of life…) But, what I’m saying is, the earnest search for truth, well, that’s old fashioned. We live in a post-modern time; we kill our idols, god is dead, narratives are tangled and subjective, language is contingent, yada yada. Hard to agree on the human soul when the stuff of our times is the shifting sands of the unknowable. How is a person supposed to muddle through this and find any truths? How is a person to navigate this mess and find out something about living?

I guess, by reading long Russian novels and watching long Russian movies.