27.3.08

The Serious Relationship-er

Why is it that many a woman of the Serious Relationship ilk - those who only enter a relationship if they feel confident it will last as long and be as perilous as Odysseus' return to Ithaca - brandish their membership to the group like a Vietnam Vet talking about his six tours in Khe-San?

I sat near a couple today at lunch at the Landmark Deli and overheard a conversation about a friend's faltering relationship. The man made a few points concerning his perception of the relationship downfall. The woman brushed these opinions away; "No, no, no. Look, I've been in serious relationships since I was fifteen." She appeared, now, to be all of 23, which gives her as much experience running relationships as George Bush has had running the country.

For her men's sake, I hope her learning curve is not as steep.

I consulted two experts in my search for origins and understanding of this phenomenon; a woman, and Google.

I Googled "serious relationship women." The results offered me some insight. The first informed me that, "Hand in Hand will introduce you to beautiful Czech women, unspoiled by feminism. Your true life partner awaits." So feminism is to blame. Is that second or third-wave, specifically? The second result offered this sly riposte to my query, parrying my question with a question of its own: "Should you get into a serious relationship with a woman who participated in a ten man gang bang?"

From the woman I encountered stiff resistance. She told me, "Fuck off, I've been in serious relationships since I was fifteen!"

Are we so terrible that women look back on our times with us like a marine recalling Guadalcanal? Yes. But I'll shirk the psychology and take the easy route: I blame television. If it wasn't for shows like Party of Five and Saved by the Bell, no one would have the idea that a serious relationship by fifteen is something to strive for. Or maybe they would.

Perhaps the best tack for a friend mixed up with a Serious Relationship-er is G.O.B Bluth's:

"Her?"

25.3.08

Hip-Hop is Dead

The landscape of music history is littered with the death knells of critics who proclaim the end of a genre as an old guard fades from relevance. As Homer Simpson said, when he decried Bart and Lisa’s obsession with rock bands like Sonic Youth and The Smashing Pumpkins, “What’s with these new bands? Everyone knows rock attained perfection in 1974, it’s a scientific fact!”

So I’m not here to tell you, “Hip-Hop is Dead.”

Instead, I will work with the postmodern concept of double-coding to explain the dynamic of the hip-hop audience and will then explore the birth of the hip-hop nation in one of its most hallowed of high codes embedded in the cocaine, guns, and blood of Brian DePalma’s Scarface. Finally, I will explain how, by declaring his music dead, Nas actually carved a new space in which it can live.

But before we go forward, we’re going to need to go back. Before I get into this discussion of the dynamic of the hip-hop audience I want to provide some historical context by discussing where Nas grew up.

Nas, born Nasir Jones, grew up in the Queensbridge Projects, located in Long Island City, New York in Queens. Construction on the projects was completed in 1939 and when World War II came to a close, the government built projects were expected to provide temporary residence for returning troops and their families. But during the 1950’s all families who lived in Queensbridge and made more than $3000 per year were transferred to middle-income projects. Most of the families moved were Caucasian and by the 1960’s Queensbridge was populated almost entirely by lower-class blacks and Latinos.

Today 15,000 people are permanently crammed into the buildings that were intended for only temporary residence. Queensbridge is the largest public housing development in the United States. It offers 3,142 rentable units. In 1986, when Nas was 13, there were more murders in Queensbridge than any other NYC project. In April of 1994, Nas released his first album, Illmatic, at the age of 23.

This is what one hip-hop critic wrote about Illmatic: “Nas is a genius introvert who rose out of the rubble of Reaganomics… His narration glorifies the emergent poetic self as a creative state that is potentially attainable by any ghetto child… his narrative voice swerves between personas that are cynical and optimistic, naïve and world-weary, enraged and serene, globally conscious and provincial. Throughout Illmatic, listeners are implored to embrace his hardened upbringing as an imperative to move on to bigger and better things.” Today, Illmatic is one of the few albums on every knowledgeable critics top five list.

Nas poured his life into the album. In an interview with Vibe Magazine, this is how Nas described the feeling of looking back on Illmatic ten years on: “When me and my friend listen to Illmatic, we think about America and about how we had to live at such a young age. I was just barely 18, and I was already thinking about being retired because of the life you’re forced to live in a neighborhood like Queensbridge. I saw my best friend die before my eyes. I saw my little brother being shot up… And I’m starting to realize my mom can’t spoil me no more, I gotta go out and get my own. Becoming a man is what I learned. And I put that into my music. And when I listen to it now, I say, God… How can it be that this is what my reality was?”

Nas’ music was motivated and informed by a desire to improve his life and escape the violence and insecurity of the projects. He did so by rapping about what he knew. Take, for instance, these lyrics from the title track on Nas’ latest album, "Hip-Hop is Dead": "What influenced my raps? Stick-ups and killings / Kidnappings, project buildings, drug dealings."

Who doesn’t follow the advice “write what you know”? This progression, however, in which you live in the projects, want to escape the projects, rap about what you see and experience, and finally make money and achieve the goal of leaving the projects results in a bizarre sort of irony: The trail that Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Schooly D and countless others blazed, required an experience of violence and the projects and subsequent exposition on these experiences in order to escape those conditions through the medium of hip-hop.

There are rappers who are exceptions to this and are commercially successful, perhaps De La Soul and Kanye West are the most significant, but they are the exceptions to what has become the rule.

Today Nas looks back and acknowledges that he was a part of creating this path: “Everybody’s album is a street album today." He told Vibe Magazine. "But back then you had no manual to learn how to make an Illmatic… this wasn’t even about necessarily being a nice rapper. It was [about] being able to describe my life and the life that kids were living in America at that day and age. There was no script for that. Now, everybody knows how to go in there and make a Ready to Die or Life After Death or make a fake Makaveli album. Illmatic… was raw, out of the heart. Out of life.”

This progression from violent projects upbringing to hip-hop fame and riches is so well worn and well known that it's ingrained itself into other contemporary American cultural products. There's a pretty great subplot in The Sopranos season four episode "The Fleshy Part of the Thigh" that deals with the way to success in contemporary hip-hop and puts it into perspective.

Tony's in the hospital for a gunshot wound and he's in a room next to a rapper named "Da Lux" who's been shot multiple times. One of Da Lux's crew members, named Marvin, complains to one of Tony's guys, Bobby, that Da Lux will now be a hugely popular rapper because he’s been shot and Marvin bemoans the fact that he's never been shot himself. So Marvin and Bobby strike a deal and Bobby shoots Marvin in the "fleshy part of the thigh" in the hopes of upping Marvin's street-cred and jump-starting his career as a rapper. It'd be easier to laugh at if it wasn't so close to real life.

Now this is only one half of the equation – how a contemporary rapper may come to be successful and escape his or her “Queensbridge” through the trail blazed by Nas and others. But now I want to offer a theory of the dynamic of the hip-hop audience and its music – the second half of this equation.

There is a so-called “fact” that has infected discussions of hip-hop’s audience for some years now. This “fact” is that 80% of hip-hop’s audience is made up of suburban white kids. But, as Bakari Kitwana points out in his recent book, Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop, no one really knows where this fact came from – it just sort of popped up and took on a life of its own. Indeed, a large portion of hip-hop’s audience is white – in the early 1990’s Public Enemy front-man and hip-hop legend, Chuck D, estimated that 60% of his audience was white. And that’s probably closer to the actual number.

But the number is under serious dispute. What is clear is that hip-hop has the ability to speak to audiences with very different backgrounds. And, in the United States, there are at least two large sects of hip-hop listeners with major differences in their backgrounds.

So how does the music speak to these very different groups?

Charles Jencks coined the term “double-coding” in reference to postmodern architecture but the concept of double-coding works well to understand the dynamics of hip-hop’s audience as well.

Jencks, in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture and What is Post-Modernism?, explains that double-coding in postmodern architecture, “speaks on at least two levels at once: to other architects and a concerned minority who care about specifically architectural meanings, and to the public at large, or the local inhabitants, who care about other issues concerned with comfort, traditional building and a way of life. The post-modern building or work of art addresses simultaneously a minority, elite public, using ‘high’ codes, and a mass public using popular codes.”

Similarly, the hip-hop track offers different codes that are appreciated by different audiences.

In terms of double coding we have several possibilities of listeners. Umberto Eco in his book, On Literature, offers these three possibilities for readers of a double-coded text which describes fairly well the possibilities for types of hip-hop listeners if we just substitute “listener” where Eco uses “reader”:

“When we come to double coding, we can have: (i) a [listener] who does not accept the mixture of cultured and popular styles and contents, and who therefore refuses to [listen to] it, precisely because he recognizes this mixture; (ii) a [listener] who feels at home precisely because he enjoys this process of alternating between difficulty and approachability, challenge and encouragement; and lastly (iii) a [listener] who perceives the entire [track] as a pleasant invitation and does not in the end realize the extent to which it draws on elite styles (so he enjoys the work, but misses its references).”

Now I want to apply this to an actual hip-hop track. Consider Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.”


“Juicy” appeared in 1994 on Notorious B.I.G.’s first album “Ready to Die.” The album went quadruple platinum and the single “Juicy” went Gold. “Ready to Die” is ranked at 133 in Rolling Stones’ list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time – those statistics certainly suggest mass popularity and therefore the presence of popular codes but I want to show the high codes that are present here, too.

So, take these lyrics from the first verse of “Juicy.”

It was all a dream
I used to read Word Up magazine
Salt'n'Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine
Hangin' pictures on my wall
Every Saturday Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl
I let my tape rock 'til my tape popped
Smokin' weed and bamboo, sippin' on private stock
Way back, when I had the red and black lumberjack
With the hat to match
Remember Rappin' Duke, duh-ha, duh-ha
You never thought that hip hop would take it this far
Now I'm in the limelight 'cause I rhyme tight
Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade
Born sinner, the opposite of a winner
Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner
Peace to Ron G, Brucey B, Kid Capri
Funkmaster Flex, Lovebug Starsky
I'm blowin' up like you thought I would
Call the crib, same number same hood
It's all good

These lyrics ask something that the production of “Juicy” doesn’t. “Juicy” samples the Mtume track “Juicy Fruit” for its production and it’s a very listenable track – one described in the hip-hop magazine, XXL, as “radio friendly… in contrast to the grim depiction of urban hopelessness told in one of the most immediate voices the form has ever known,” that characterizes most of the rest of the album.

But while the production, the beat, may be a popular code there are high codes here, too. To understand the high codes of these lyrics requires a fairly extensive understanding of the origins of hip-hop: DJ’s like Kid Capri, Funkmaster Flex… Rappin Duke who was releasing albums in the mid-80’s… and the reference to Mr. Magic’s Friday and Saturday evening radio show on WBLS-FM in New York City, “The Rap Attack,” which aired in the late-80’s with legendary DJ Marley Marl. These are all references to hip-hop’s adolescence – not widely known outside the black community of New York City at the time. But what’s more these are codes that are directed at, as Jencks requires of high codes, “a concerned minority that are specifically concerned with [hip-hop related] meanings.”

So “Juicy,” therefore, is a track that offers room for Umberto Eco’s second and third types of “readers”: Those who can speak and understand this language of Biggie’s and feel at home in this song’s lyrics and its beat, and those who let the lyrics pass over them but enjoy, perhaps, the lyricism of the words and the beat if not their meaning – “He enjoys the work but misses its references,” as Eco wrote.

I mentioned earlier that part of this project is to try to reach an understanding of what makes or made hip-hop “alive” to begin with. So, now that we have a way of understanding different types of hip-hop listeners, I want to turn to a specific high code that is pervasive, almost omnipresent, in hip-hop. It is a high code that Nas helped make famous and it has a history much deeper and older than hip-hop and in it are, I believe, the seeds that made hip-hop grow – what brought it to life.
In the 1983 film Scarface there is a climactic moment when Al Pacino’s Tony Montana stands in the art-deco living room of his coke baron boss, who he has just murdered, and looks out onto Miami Bay. Giorgio Moroder’s synthesizer tune pulses and a Pan-Am blimp floats above the bay flashing a marketing slogan: “The world is yours.”
“The world is yours” is the tagline of the dramatic story of Tony Montana’s rise and fall. One that piqued the passions of millions of disenfranchised urban youths looking for social mobility and a way to assert themselves and escape a repressive milieu.

Those four words, “the world is yours,” and the Scarface story as a whole, left a profound mark on the adolescent hip-hop nation and I think the birth of the contemporary hip-hop moment can be traced back to Tony Montana standing in that living room. It’s hard to name a rapper over the past 20 years who doesn’t in some way allude to either Scarface the film or those four words specifically. More over, the sort of litmus test, I think, to see if a hip-hop fan is Eco’s type-two listener, one who understands and engages the music’s high codes, that litmus test is whether they understand and can discuss the significance of Scarface and specifically that line “the world is yours.” These are the sort of keepers of hip-hop’s birth, those that keep the genre vital and relevant. Without them hip-hop has a foundation of air.

But if we’re only looking back to Scarface, for the significance of the line “The world is yours” in hip-hop history, then we’re missing a big part of its history that is critical to understanding the birth of contemporary hip-hop. For this, we need to go back to the British Empire.

In 1910, fifteen years after a disastrous and failed British invasion of Johannesburg led by Sir Leander Starr Jameson and Cecil Rhodes, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called “If –” that commemorated what Kipling saw as Jameson’s fortitude in overcoming the difficulties of the invasion.

“If –”is a poem about the traits that make the strong, imperial, British man. “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/ If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too,” the poem begins. The poem progresses in this tone, laying out conditions until the last two lines of the poem which are: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/ And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” The words bear a striking resemblance to Scarface’s “the world is yours” philosophically as well as literally.

Was Oliver Stone reading Kipling when he wrote the screenplay for Scarface? In a sense that question is more interesting than it is relevant. In fact, “the world is yours,” appears on a billboard in the 1932 version of Scarface as well as the contemporary one so perhaps it was the first writers of Scarface that nicked Kipling’s words or were inspired by them. However it is definitely the second incarnation of Scarface which made the line “the world is yours” famous for the hip hop generation.

Kipling was a conscience for his nation’s imperialism; he celebrated and criticized it. But while Kipling’s characters come from Britain, an imperial power, and colonize outwards, and this is why the line is so significant, Scarface is a story of reverse colonization.

Though it is simplistic and wrong to understand Kipling as a one-dimensional imperialist, this particular poem certainly does champion the imperial spirit of the late 19th century British male. The poem is a celebration of the man who shoulders the White Man’s Burden – to “civilize” the “uncivilized.” But Tony Montana flips that around.

Montana seeks vengeance for the colonized. In a famed speech, drunk and high at a fancy Miami restaurant, and awash in cash, Montana tears his table apart and jumps to his feet. “You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be,” he shouts to the diners. “You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers, and say ‘that’s the bad guy.’” Affluent white faces surround Montana during the speech. Montana taunts them and says he has succeeded where they have failed.

When Montana says “you need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers, and say ‘that’s the bad guy,’” he strikes chords that should remind us of the imperialism of Kipling’s poem. Without the “uncivilized,” which Montana represents, the “civilized” would not be able to define themselves. It is only when Western society confronted the “other” that notions of superiority based on civilization and race could come into play. The one is defined in opposition to the other. Montana pays homage to that dynamic and, at the same time, carves out his own space as one branded as “uncivilized” who comes to America and creates an empire within an empire, turning the imperialist agenda on its head.

Like Montana, rappers are defined as the “other” in relation to, in this case, “civilized,” white, bourgeois America. Just as Montana created his own identity through the role of the “other” so, too, did hip-hop. When Nas, in 1994 escaped Queensbridge and found a massive niche in the capitalist market that would gobble up his storytelling he declared “The world is yours.” His declaration was the creation of hip-hop’s nation, it’s identity. He celebrated the national identity he and others had created for young, black, urban-American youth. He celebrated that hip-hop had turned the tools of the colonizer against it and created its own empire.

Today, though, Nas has this to say about the nation he helped found: “Everybody’s like microwave music now, know what I mean, ‘cause it’s the way to eat. When I was doing this early on, [I did Hip-Hop] because I loved it. Now, they’re not artists, they’re opportunists. So it’s just a way to eat now. And that’s cool. But then of course, the music is gonna suffer.”

And it has. The result of this microwave music has been the starvation of those high codes and the first fractures seen in decades amongst the core street audience and the type-two listeners who engage the high codes of the music.

Though record sales, of course, should not be the sole indication of a music’s health they are useful in the case of hip-hop because the music has, traditionally, so warmly embraced its commercial appeal where other music forms, such as rock, have traditionally rejected it. “Selling out,” until right now, has never really been an issue for rappers. This year it came out that hip-hop sales declined twenty-one percent from 2005 to 2006 and for the first time in twelve years, no hip-hop album was among the ten best sellers of the year.

So now we need to turn to Nas’ new album and specifically the title track: Hip-Hop is Dead. Keep this quote in mind during the video. Nas was asked in an interview, when Hip-Hop is Dead came out, what kind of music he was making if not hip-hop. Nas answered, “I dunno what it is. Some shit right. Crack music. It’s fucked up.” That term, “crack music,” is an important one.

"Hip-Hop is Dead" Video

Nas smothers this video in the imagery of crack houses and dealing crack. But instead of vials of crack cocaine we see Nas’ albums “The N” and flash-drives marked with “The N.” But the imagery is clearly that of the crack industry.

By declaring hip-hop outlawed and dead, Nas allows for the music that he is making to take on a new name. He gives his music a new domain: Crack Music.

This is music no longer sanctioned by the mainstream that hip-hop embraced. This is music that is dusted with one of the most culturally unacceptable and destructive drugs: crack cocaine. Here Nas is making explicit that which was tacit for so long – that the music he helped make mainstream has gone too far, that rappers need to push back on the audience dynamic they have ignored for so long. This is a conservative movement in hip-hop. Rappers like Nas say the music needs to get back to the no-exit desperation that first made the music passionate and a voice for the members of Queensbridges of the country and the world – those with whom, according to Nas, the music no longer connects.

Nas is courting those type-two listeners in the lyrics of Hip-Hop is Dead by rapping about where hip-hop was and where it is now and how it got there. “Everybody sound the same / commercialize the game / reminiscin’ when it wasn’t all business / and forgot where it started / so we all gather here for the dearly departed.” These lines are his invitation to those type-two listeners. He commiserates with them, understands their criticisms.

Other rappers have identified this same need. Kanye West, mentioned earlier as a rapper who hit the mainstream without the project-trappings of a rapper like Nas and yet is wildly commercially successful and well-respected amongst hip-hop purists, had a track on his 2005 album, Late Registration, called “Crack Music.”

In the track Kanye raps: “We took that shit, measured it and then cooked that shit / And what we gave back was crack music / And now we ooze it through they nooks and crannies / So our mommas ain’t got to be they cooks and nannies / And we gon’ repo everything they ever took from grammy / Now the former slaves trade hooks for Grammy’s / This dark diction has become America’s addiction / Those who ain’t even black use it / We gon’ keep baggin up this here crack music.”

It’s not hard to figure out who that unnamed “they” is in Kanye’s lines. He’s referring to the predominately white base that makes up his audience and to white America in general. Some rappers are now turning their music on the predominantly white commercial base they once more or less ignored or did not address in their music but from whom they reaped financial windfall.

Whether or not hip-hop is dead is debatable. What that even means is debatable. But I think where people like Nas and Kanye go, the genre should follow – these are the sages of hip-hop. The questions we’re left with, then, are; will this stuff, “Crack Music,” succeed in revitalizing hip-hop’s base and pushing away the commercial embrace? Will it fracture out of hip-hop and create a new sub-genre? Can Nas and Kanye redirect the bulk of hip-hop’s artists? For that, we simply have to wait and see.

This essay has explored Nas, the birth, death, resurrection of hip-hop, the dynamic of its audience. But I should discuss me, for a second here, too, because I’ve always been, when it comes to hip-hop, hanging out at a party I wasn’t exactly invited to. I didn’t grow up in the South Bronx, and I get lumped into that suburban white kid statistic pretty nicely.

In the last track on the album “Hip Hop is Dead,” in its last verse, Nas says: “If you’re askin’ – Why is hip-hop dead? / It’s a pretty good chance you’re the reason it died, man / It’s a pretty good chance your lame ass, corny ass, is the reason it died, man / You don’t give a fuck about it, you don’t know nothin’ about it.”

Now, Nas kind of hands off a lot of blame here where I think he and his peers deserve some too because they were at least complicit in the death that Nas is talking about – they turned a blind eye and accepted gobs of money from the people he’s accusing of killing hip-hop in that quote. But that doesn’t mean that I am free of culpability here. I do think, although I wouldn’t quite characterize myself as a lame ass, that I am part of the dynamic that Nas believes killed hip-hop.
And I understand where he’s coming from when he says if you ask why hip-hop is dead, you’re the reason it died. I think he’s saying if you’re the kind of person who had no idea anything was wrong and this corpse of hip-hop is a big shock, then you probably haven’t paying attention and you’re not too up on the high codes of hip-hop.

But I also think his statement is misleading. Because I think someone like me has to ask that question and try to answer it. That’s why it’s so crucial to do write things like this if you’re a fan of hip-hop – I think if a kid like me is going to listen to this music you can’t do so passively you need to understand and earn your place, you need to understand your context, otherwise you’re exactly what Nas said – a lame ass, corny ass, asking why hip-hop died.

20.3.08

In So Many Words

"Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
George Orwell, from "Politics and the English Language"

Any positive change in American politics will begin with an improvement in the language of political discourse. Hillary Clinton often attempts to write off Barack Obama's campaign with her now polished by overuse "just words" accusation. Meanwhile, she partakes in the political language favored by George Bush; tired, stock phrases used repeatedly that convey little or no meaning and always leave room for a speedy escape, stage left, from accountability.

Barack's speech the other day, in contrast, did as much to plead for a new, reasoned and informed political discussion in America as it did to address race in America. As much as I hope Obama is succesful and Americans move from discussing whether Saddam had WMD’s to whether the Fed should bail out banks for bad investments, I don’t think it will happen. Obama may be elected president, but it won't be because Americans reached a higher plane of political conciousness.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama delivered speeches this week on March 17th and 18th, respectively. Both were billed as major speeches. Clinton's, delivered at GW University, purported to detail her plans for Iraq. Obama’s addressed the comments of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
Hillary’s “What I Say I'll Do In Iraq, Maybe” Speech

"Now, withdrawal is not risk-free, but the risks of staying in Iraq are certain. And a well-planned withdrawal is the one and only path to a political solution. The only way to spur the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future and to ensure that we don't bear that responsibility indefinitely. The only way to spur other countries to do their part to help secure stability in the region. The commitment to staying in Iraq has driven President Bush's foreign policy. It looks like it would drive Senator McCain's foreign policy as well, but it will not drive mine. My foreign policy will be driven by what is in America's national security interests."

This statement falls about ten paragraphs into Clinton's lengthy speech. After it, she launches into a detailed nine point plan and meticulously describes each action she would take to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home while leaving a "small, elite strike force" behind for certain operations. But she's invalidated her entire plan in that one paragraph, and she knows it.

Clinton sets herself up nicely until the last sentence of the paragraph when one should expect a strong, declarative statement that breaks her with the disaster that is President Bush and the calamity that would be President McCain. But she skirts the opportunity: "My foreign policy will be driven by what is in America's national security interests." Contrary to what Clinton states in the two sentences prior to that statement, every single claim to power, force, and illegal use of executive privilege that Bush has made, and McCain would continue to make, has been in the name of "national security interests." Neither one has ever said they want to stay in Iraq for the sake of staying in Iraq, they both justify our occupation by saying it is in our national security interests to be in Iraq.
Clinton then launched into her detailed plan, but she'd already made the plan irrelevant. If she were elected, and decided to renege on any aspect of her plan – or all nine of them – she would simply say that her former plan is no longer in our national security interests. As Orwell writes in "Politics" – "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." Clinton accomplished that in a single sentence and layered the rest of her speech with an impenetrable fog of uncertainty; would she keep her word, or make use of her handy escape route?

What’s terrible about Clinton is she’s smart and doesn’t have to use these tired images and flakey promises. Bush has to use that stuff because he’s an imbecile on the level of the one in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” who sits in a cage covered in food, flies, and feces “chewing on a turd.” That’s not Clinton. She uses this phraseology strategically. She thinks she’s on the side of good, so she can use Bush’s powerful tools for the good guys and do good things with them. As Anakin Skywalker taught us, though, that is a sure path to the dark side.

An Eloquent President

“For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies. We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.”

Consider that passage next to Clinton’s opinion of Obama’s speeches:

“Senator Obama has said often that words matter. I strongly agree. But giving speeches alone won’t end the war and making campaign promises you might not keep cetainly won’t end it. In the end the true test is not the speeches a president delivers, it’s whether the president delivers on the speeches.”

Tim Russert asked Clinton in one of the debates why she thought she could create jobs nationally when she failed to do so in New York state after promising she would as senator. Clinton replied that she would “have more tools at [her] disposal” as president, with which she could stimulate job growth. This is the danger of Hillary Clinton in combination with her prepackaged, hazy speeches. Hillary and her second wave feminist friends believe that tools, that power wrested from those who’ve carried the batons for so long, is the way to affect change. But it is not. This struggle for the tools of power leads only to the dark side. It is not the person who wields power that corrupts, it is power that corrupts those who wield it.

Obama, on the other hand, knows, and has epitomized throughout his campaign, the maxim with which Orwell opens his essay, “Politics and the English Language” – “[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts… to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”

Obama’s campaign is not about the tools of the presidency – signing statements, the purse, executive privilege, influence, power… “a Jedi craves not these things.” Obama’s campaign, and his speech the other day, is an attempt to raise political discourse to something above the worn, meaningless phrases of Clinton, Bush, and McCain.

Our Failings

“In our age,” writes Orwell, “there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” Obama is not interested in political conformity. His speech laid that issue to rest. No politician interested in political conformity would deliver such a sweeping indictment of American political involvement through the lens of our squirmiest of squimishnesses; race.

And so, rightly, Obama’s speech was called brave. And, ignorantly, it was called “risky.” Risky because it was not politically expedient, and he said as much himself. Risky because the journals and outlets which called it risky – The NY Times, WSJ, MSNBC, CNN – do nothing to challenge the status quo themselves.

The misfortune of Obama is that his speech may pass over the heads of Americans like a lofty breeze amongst the leaves of trees. In my generation, for every one person who supports Obama with a deep understanding of our nation’s position and our opportunities and needs for the future; there are ten who support Obama because Scarlett Johansen and Will.I.Am sang a pretty song about him and put it on YouTube. This generation of mine has not suddenly awoken to politics thanks to Obama, they’ve simply engaged in a cult of celebrity. This is his good fortune, of course, and I am glad they happen to support Obama in this instance but what does it mean for an election to be won on the votes of people who cast their ballot for all the wrong reasons? Or for no reason at all beyond celebrity? To be so uninformed makes one an easy target for demagogues and zealots, as a professor of mine once said. That said, I’ll take that over Hillary Clinton or John McCain any day.

Political change can do very little to affect human misery. And what it can do, tends to introduce new flavors of misery alongside any accomplishments. Perhaps this will hold true of Obama if elected, it most certainly would for Clinton, whose ambition is on perpetual and gaudy display. But if there is hope in our political future, words will not just be a part of that hope, words must be the sum of that hope.

18.3.08

Port of Miami

Some photos from the annual Spring Break Miami trip. Spring Break is the only religious holiday I observe.How was the beach weather in New York City this past March weekend? Oh yeah? You got hypothermia and almost died swimming off Far Rockaway? Not in Miami, man. Evy be swimmin' e'ryday.


Evy making faces.


Mom, Dad, Evy, Miami Beach.

Evy and Baby Jo-Jo. Is that spelling right? Or is there an "e" or two I'm missing in there... Baby names are so hard to spell.

Evy's new soccer jersey, straight from the streets of Hanoi on Uncle Alex's voyages. Baby Jo-Jo got a Zippo lighter with this engraved on it: "Live like a dog, work like an ass, fuck like a mink, die like a rat."

Word. Miami.

The 18th Amendment

"Top o' the morning to ye on this gray, drizzly afternoon! Kent O' Brockman reporting live from Main Street, where today everyone is a little bit Irish, except of course for the gays and the Italians."


There hadn't been any Patty's day celebrations planned, but a bump into at the gym and then another on the sidewalk and you end up at Jeremy's Ale House on the Sea Port with their calamari, a bunch of people, and 32 oz. styrofoam cups of beer. "To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems."

17.3.08

You Don't Know Juno!?

After WFMU’s Tom Scharpling dressed me down on-air for potentially liking the movie Juno (I hadn’t seen it yet but said I’d consider watching it) I finally saw it last night. I decided that even though I didn’t know anything about the movie at the time and hadn’t yet seen it, I deserved The Scharpling Best-Show-Bitch-Slap.

Juno would have made sense if it came out somewhere in the 1994 – 1997 range (like when the adjacent Time Magazine article came out). But a 2007 film about the angst of a 16-year old kid who gets pregnant and gives it up for adoption? Yawn. You could have watched that movie every day of your life as a social worker in Baltimore 20 years ago and it would have been more dramatic (less funny, though). This speaks to the allure of Juno; why did all those people watch it and the New York Times Magazine drool on it? Because it was about a cute little white girl amongst the evening breezes of Any-Town USA. How precious.

Put a black girl from Brownsville in that movie and it's a no-go.

The more interesting story shoved aside in Juno is between Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), a yuppie sell-out upon whom God has, presumably, exacted revenge for her lame ways by making her infertile, and her classic American I-don’t-wanna-be-a-dad-I-still-wanna-be-a-rock-star-but-I’m-36 husband Mark (Jason Bateman).
Mark and Vanessa’s relationship would have offered a more interesting and relevant story-line about the (nod to the knowing) arrested development that seems to plague many an American male these days.

There’s also the matter of the awkward attempt to capture American-teen-talk. “Swear to blog!?” It is rampant through the first, oh, nine minutes of the film and then Cody Diablo (stripper turned bad scriptwriter) must have exhausted a meagre Thesaurus of the Retarded American Teen.

Juno’s kind of funny, sometimes, I guess. But hardly worth it for that. Why did it get all this attention? Maybe there were a lot of producers that owed Diablo money from the old days.

11.3.08

Mr. Spitzer's Privates Matter

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer could not have been more wrong in his brief public appearance after the world learned that he was suspected of patronizing a prostitution ring. He did not just betray his family, but his constituents who would have also enjoyed a reprieve from their own taxing jobs with some hot, $5,500/hour sex. It is hard to see how he will recover from this mess without some tissue paper and one of those hookers as his press secretary so at least his horny citizens get a taste.

"I have violated my obligation to my family, in addition to several young women with 20-inch waists and 34-inch chests," said Gov. Spitzer before pushing his hands together to depict the various positions he had mastered for these encounters which appeared to include, "The Flying Dutchman," "The Ant-Eater," and "Mrs. Butterworth's Maple Syrup Slurp."

Gov. Spitzer went on to explain that politics is not only about "big ideas" but also "large breasts, well-appointed motel suites, and body chocolate." His short, arrogant statement was simply not enough from the Sheriff of Wall Street (which apparently is a moniker that featured prominently in his trysts, if you're picking up what I'm putting down), the folks at the press conference also wanted pictures, movies, and the Emperor Club VIP phone number.

On Wall Street, where Spitzer rammed through reform with the same vigor we hope his soon-to-be-public text messages and e-mails display he used in the company of high-class whores, investment bankers reveled in smug satisfaction as they railed lines of coke off hookers' tits in celebration. Said one zooted-up member of the Blackstone Group, "Spitzer? I hardly know her!"

10.3.08

No "Master of the Senate" Says Times of Obama

If you catch Barack at his relaxed moments – away from superdelegates, CNN cameras, and Ohio laborers – you'll find the man will discuss his feelings toward the Senate. Take his latest appearance on The Daily Show; that Delphic beacon of ironic truth that rises above the fog of misinformation roused by the Visigoth hordes of cable newscasters:

Stewart: Can a Senator [bring the country together]? So often now it's the governors. Is there something about – because the Senate – it's very hard to run on your record in the Senate because the Senate is so paralyzed and nuanced.

Obama: Well, it's paralyzed and it's designed for you to take bad votes, right… You know, with Senators you end up having to actually vote on stuff that has no relevance whatsoever, but can be used later on to attack you.

The NYT article, "Obama in Senate: Star Power, Minor Role," published March 9, 2008, as part of their "The Long Run" series portrays an Obama who is "frustrated by his lack of influence" and viewed within The Chamber as "naïve" and a "dilettante" by some Senate elders.

Kate Zernike and Jeff Zeleny, the writers of that NYT article, focus on the establishment's story line for their article – that of a freshman Senator, 99th in seniority, who confronts the Senate's "glacial pace" and jumps ship for high-office on a wave of popularity rather than become an obedient lubricant for the gears of The Chamber.

Whose party-line are Zernike and Zeleny towing for this article? Perhaps Bill "I-Can't-Believe-I'm-A-Hillary-Hawk" Keller's? Whoever it is, they betray their antiquated mode of political thought. The truth is Obama is neither a dilettante, nor is he naïve. The truth is the Senate and the House are malfunctioning bodies.

What are the great legislative accomplishments of the past eight years? They are those drops of poison that tipped George Bush's Sword of Patriotism which was thrust through the gut of liberty by an obliging and distracted Congress: FISA, The Authorization of the Use of Military Force, the Military Commissions Act, the Patriot Act… oh, and No Child Left Behind.

James Madison, in a speech for the Constitutional Convention, wrote, “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power… [men are] liable to err… from fickleness and passion and the major interest might under sudden impulses be tempted to commit injustice on the minority.”

Could Madison have imagined that abuses on both counts, with consent of the people to the abuses of power, would render neutered the House and Senate? That the mandate he imagined for the Senate, “first to protect the people against their rulers; secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led,” could be simulatenously felled?

The histories that conspired to bring us to these times – an epoch which deserves an-etched-in-marble title consisting of Benjamin Franklin’s best aphorism, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” – are diverse and complex. But Barack Obama has found a way to synthesize them when he wrote in The Audacity of Hope, “I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby-boom generation – tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago – played out on the national stage.”

That psychodrama is now winding down, but not without a fight. The average age in the Senate is sixty and these aging legislators have fought their battle royale over the past eight years and brought the people of the United States careening along as both unwitting spectators and minor accomplices.

This election will decide whether the American people are ready to say “enough,” to the baby boomers with, finally, a profound youth vote for Obama, or whether Hillary Clinton or John McCain (products that are the opposite side of the same coin) can wrest one final bout for their side of the 1960’s ideological divide – a battle rendered irrelevant as good and evil in that debate devolved into a single entity under Bush’s patriotic gaze.

The only chance for a new debate is to elect an intellect that was not sharpened by the now-rusted sabres of the sixties. It is a shame The New York Times does not seem ready to take that step.

5.3.08

Hey, Wha' Happened?!

“For now, this is all working nicely to Barack's advantage as anchors actually joke, in large numbers, about the media conspiracy Saturday Night Live accused them of being in on against Hillary. But the media giveth and the media taketh away. They did to Hillary, and they could just as easily, and at any time, to Barack.”

- All Al. February 29, 2008

I told you so.

I didn’t think they’d be able to reverse all that negative momentum Hillary had in a handful of days. But if Americans are anything, they’re impulsive. Oh, and also they’re attracted to an easy narrative like a cheap hooker to a half-full bottle of E&J Brandy… and they’re not concerned about pesky things like facts or who is creating the narrative they’ve chosen to follow like scripture on that particular day.

Note Maureen Dowd’s column in the NYT today: “Three Hillary volunteers, older women from Boston, approached a New York Times reporter in an Austin, Tex., parking lot on Tuesday to vent that Hillary hasn’t gotten a fair shake from the press. They said that they used to like Obama but now can’t stand him because they think he has been cocky and disrespectful to Hillary.”

Where did that come from? It couldn’t have actually come from anything Obama said or did because nothing he said or did was cocky or disrespectful. It can only come from watching the press discuss the race – and SNL – and deciding second-hand that Barack is cocky and disrespectful. And if Hillary hasn’t gotten a fair shake lately, which was true, people have forgotten that the press had her booked for the White House, ’08 – ’12, for most of the campaign until Iowa.

Americans in Ohio and Texas saw the young, smart black man trounce the white lady for eleven straight contests and responded with a singular, “Boy, back’a the line!”

What is amazing is no one claims responsibility for it. The members of the press report on themselves, thereby changing the dynamic momentum before the primaries but acting as though when one who is a journalist talks about the press, one is able to act as though not a member of the press. That’s some strict objectivity.

Americans gobble down the press line because it’s easy, tasty, well-packaged:
“There was evidence that the attacks had some effects. Mrs. Clinton did well among the 20 percent of voters in both states who said they made their decision in the last three days. She won about 60 percent of those voters in Texas and about 55 percent of those who voted in Ohio, according to exit polls conducted statewide by Edison/Mitofsky for the National Election Pool,” wrote the NYT.

They let their emotions swing wildly – “Barack is arrogant and ignoring Hillary! I’ll show him!” And racism and misogyny is at the fore in this debate. Ohio – distinctly racist (uneducated, lower-middle class, xenophobic; these are the people that carried Hillary). Texas – too big to categorize but the hispanic vote down there does not like Barack Obama, Clinton won it 2-1. Why? NAFTA? I don’t know, I don’t understand the hispanic vote and I don’t think anyone else does either. Especially that woman on MSNBC last night who categorized them as “the new soccer-mom vote.” Right. But someone better figure them out fast, this is a dangerous group for Democrats not to understand while their opinions are maleable.

But this race is not about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It’s about Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, Brit Hume, Andrea Mitchell, Keith Olbermann, Anderson Cooper, Pat Buchanan, David Gregory, Wolf Blitzer, George Bennett, Dana Milbank, Chuck Todd, Mark Halperin, Matt Drudge, Maureen Dowd, Gloria Steinem, Tina Fey…

It’s about the oncoming McCain Presidency at which point the press will play dumb, left like that guy in "A Mighty Wind" asking, "Hey, wha' happened?!"

IT'S ALIVE

Well. I felt bad about today's prospects beginning some time yesterday when I told someone, "you know what, I don't feel good about tomorrow." Why am I only right when it's about something I don't want to happen? So Clinton won the spin-game tonight, probably the popular vote, but not the delegates. This thing will go on forever. It's Tim Russert's dream! Maybe Puerto Rico will make up our minds for us. That would make me happy for all the idiots it would piss off. But I'm never right about that stuff.

4.3.08

Peace Out, Brett

Later, man. Good having you around the past 20 years.

3.3.08

Act Like You Know Part 1

Well. Act like you know. Bwah!

The Hardest Record Out Part II























Up outta hiding, The Hardest Record Out Part 2! Yeah, it's been out for a minute or ten. So what? What's harder than Nas' track that concludes Illmatic - "It Ain't Hard To Tell" That's right. Nothing.