Monday, October 10, 2011

The Occupation Will Be Televised

It was Karl Marx, or, rather Bob Zimmerman, who said "When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose."  Looking back, it seems quaint that these two generations, writing almost exactly a century apart, should predict revolution.  And perhaps, to one looking back on the present day fifty years from now, the same idea would seem quaint and hopelessly naive.  But I, for one, feel it is time.  People living under various regimes are waking to the reality of their complete powerlessness, and they are not impressed. During the Arab Spring, the world was witness to a different kind of revolution, one truly by and for the people, not spearheaded by Napoleons who would turn around and crown themselves when the moment passed. The people took to the forums, to Facebook, and organized themselves in the newest, potent democratic sphere.  It is telling that the government in China fears social networking sites, and bans their use in official policies.

The beast to the south, America, is finally waking too.  We are with you on Wall Street, with your cardboard manifestos and your silent and spoken affronts.  As Marx predicted, it is only when a great, single class of people who have nothing realize that they do, in fact, have nothing, that the revolution can take place.  Not only are they waking to their exploitation, they're coming into a collective consciousness.  A class consciousness that binds them in their various sufferings, expressed (notably online), in places like "We are the 99 Percent."

The very title refers to the unequal distribution of wealth, as any good Marxist would quickly observe. And the occupations are spreading.  There is no quick fix and there is no answer.  The system is broken.  Does anyone remember the country where, "whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it... laying its foundation on such principles...[that] shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness?" The Declaration of Independence itself calls for the abolishment of a system that has stopped serving its people. Historians and theorists often point to Marx and claim his projections were unfeasible, that the means of production would never be returned to the workers.  What they may not have seen is that the inequalities Marx describes on a national scale are now taking place on a global scale; America may be the catalyst because much of the wealth and more of the debt is held there. It is happening in Greece, and it is happening in America, and it is happening in Egypt and the UK. The world is changing.

The problem is Greed
The problem is Wal-Mart.
The problem is for-profit Universities.
The problem is, corporations are NOT people.
The problem is, capitalism only works if people are good.
The problem is the American Dream.
The problem is Hollywood.
The problem is privatized medicare.
The problem is ignorance.
The problem is Jersey Shore.
The problem is the machine of sameness.
The problem is Bieber.
The problem is McDonald's.
The problem is Vogue.
The problem is Halliburton.
The problem is branding.
The problem is the emptying of the self.
The problem is Disney.
The problem is the Tea Party.
The problem is CNN.
The problem is bailouts.
The problem is copyright law.
The problem is BP.
The problem is Wall Street.
The problem is Bay Street.
The problem is the underfunding of the arts.
The problem is fascism masquerading as democracy.
The problem is the death of the imagination.

Turn it off. Opt out. Don't buy and don't worry.  Let the walls come crumbling down around you and rejoice in the ruins because at last you will be free. We are with you on Wall Street.  The Occupation Will be Televised.

Monday, August 22, 2011

For Jack

I was shocked and saddened to hear of the death of NDP leader Jack Layton this morning. I was in transit back to London, ON, and felt cut off and hopeless, and particulalry disturbed, as I often am, by how the world conspicuously "goes on" after such a great loss. But despair is the last thing Jack Layton would have wished for us  at this time, both as a nation and as individuals.  The final words of his letter to Canadians are deeply moving: we must try to view this moment as a beginning and not an end.  Jack Layton showed Canadians that change is possible, and young people must respond to his call and work to make this country the very best that it can be. Though already quoted extensively, I wish to include the end of the letter here, along with some words of my own, as a humble tribute to a good man.

"My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world."

For Jack

The world didn’t notice
(Or so it seemed),
Crisp with a fall tinge,
Sun rising same
Over this country,
All fields and rocky ground and water,
Touching green and brown
In angles, flatness, curves,
In blueness and grayness of sky
After rain and raging of heavens,
Now quiet, with a streaking of clouds .

The world didn’t notice,
Waking foggy and oblivious,
No bowed heads of attic shepherds,
Garlanded, weeping with higher poetry than this.
On the farms they let out livestock,
Looked on what was done and what was left to do,
Elsewhere, the cities shone,
In hurried motion through sun-gold streets
Burnished rails, automotive clatter,
While glass buildings show the
Same, vain sky, in all her apathy…

The world didn’t notice, but
The people did.

Standing in a coffee shop
(in Wingham, Ontario)
All nasty from an early bus,
Crinkled purple ten for a cup of steaming tea,
I heard the crackle of a story on the radio.
The floor opened up as I waited
For change,
Hand open feebly,
Staring into an abyss of
Cheap grey tile.

There was a hole in the middle of me
Because I had been jubilant,
Hopeful, and irreverently happy
With the ecstasy of revolution.
I felt love in the middle of a
March of millions, smiling,
Heard singing in the tower
And those old, stone halls.

And there was a hole in the middle of us,
Bound ‘round a centre that could not hold,
Fell, but did not go gently,
Feared the spiral into coldness and chaos,
The crumbling of an edifice.

But instead,
I see a nation pouring out of doors,
In mourning, not in black
But in a stream of colours,
Distraught, all weeping
But still fighting
As you fought.

And though the hole will not be filled,
(It may heal and be covered,
Never filled),
Our hope will scaffold what we built with you,
With the electricity of joy—
Love, to hold each other up,
Many tongues, all speaking peace,
So dignified, becoming worthy
Of your shining words and kindly acts.

So let us rally and love and remember
And fight the good fight
(For goodness more than worth such fighting),
Until we overcome.

When the bottom of the world fell out,
And I was waiting for change,
I looked outside,
And the world noticed you
Speaking in us,
And was glad.

Monday, June 27, 2011


This might just be the most horrifying ad campaign (for an equally horrifying product...) that I have ever seen.

To think-- that I had this image on my desktop so that I could post it here.  That I actually typed that name into google to verify that this is not a sham. That I visited the "fragrance" website for supporting materials. This is a real product and not the invention of comics from SNL or the Onion.  But before you tune out because Bieber-bashing is just too easy...your poindexter would like to "read" this campaign to show you why I find it so concerning. (I use the term Bieber or "Bieber" for the business and not necessarily for the person-- the 17-year old from Stratford clearly doesn't know what's going on.  I hold his management accountable until further notice).

We see the teeny-bopper with a shorter-version of his trademark swoosh, and a woman of indefinite age (though clearly older than Biebs) whispering in his ear.  The largest text reads "Someday," the bottle resembles a flower with a key. Smaller text reads "Never Let Go with the new fragrance for her that gives back."

Anyone who has taken a media-studies class begrudgingly knows what is to follow.  As always, what is being sold is not a perfume but a vision of life, a vision of happiness: here, it plays upon emerging female sexuality and fantasy.  A male "artist" creates a fragrance for women, selling it to them as an incentive to Never Let Go because they might meet him Someday. This in itself is concerning.  Usually female celebrities "design" fragrances for women, and males for men, but here, "Bieber" hocks his fragrance to young women, or girls, more appropriately. He offers a scent that his fans can wear that will attract him. According to the youtube page for Someday, "It's a fragrance he can't get enough of and can't stay away from, making those who wear it irresistible." Apparently money can buy you love, as long as it's used to buy this fragrance first.

Clearly these ads are directed towards girls who are not yet media-savvy enough to wade through this barely-pseudo-sexual language.  The question of age is important--Bieber is a young star with even younger fans. "Someday" it will be socially acceptable, never mind legal for them to have the relationship the ads promise.  I don't think I need to point out that the flower on the bottle looks like female genitalia; thus female sex organs are literally turned into a commodity-- sold by "Bieber" (the entity, not the person) back to young females.

"Someday" also exploits the harmful stereotype of female fandom:  women's consumption of music and culture is frivolous, and based on crushes and irrational desires.  Female-fans (short for "fanatic," remember?) are culturally encouraged to embrace stars in a specific way: buying posters and magazines (...and CDs or MP3s or LPs) and T-shirts will show him that you really love him, so that when you meet after a concert or on the street or at school, he'll know that you care. That's how the scene plays out.  Women pursue the hypothetical relationship, including sex, marriage, babies (in no particular order) allegedly without"listening" to the music, which is why teeny-boppers are so easily dismissed.  Bieber's "Someday" promotes hysteria (I choose my words wisely). Purchase and apply the product and you can "take the experience past the music, beyond the performer, and journey deep into a world of possibilities. Into the world of Justin Bieber." 

The fantasy is vague--the girl is alone in her room, she sprays the perfume, and SUDDENLY she is falling in front of a green-screen-sky with Bieber sometimes floating sometimes embracing. Titanic-style hand reaching and golden clouds. Tweeny-piggyback riding and laughing. The walls come back up and the girl is left in her room but the boy of the fantasy remains.  She holds a heart-shaped lock and a key (playing on archetypes of female chastity). If you wait, if you are good Someday your prince will come.

There is a "Someday" iPhone app. I don't know what I can say about that.

Dreams cannot be purchased and should not be sold.  We must continue to scrutinize media so absurdities like this are not accepted at face value. Girls and young women must be encouraged to engage in dialogue about the culture they consume.

Finally, Bieber is, unsurprisingly, no advocate for women's rights.  When Rolling Stone asked Bieber about rape (as it relates to abortion), he responded "Well, I think that's just really sad, but everything happens for a reason. I don't know how that would be a reason...I guess I haven't been in that position, so I wouldn't be able to judge that." Maybe Someday he will understand.  Someday.

Rolling Stone interview

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Surreal Poetry of Eraserhead

    Wandering, Chaplin-esque through mentally-projected wreckage, white-socked and tall-haired, Henry Spencer is you and he is me.  David Lynch's confessional masterpiece Eraserhead is stitched together with dream-like associative reasoning, ever imagistic and disturbing. I would like to say that there are days when we all feel so alienated, but I'm not sure that this would be accurate.  No, but those others stumbling through the wondermart along with me may find simple tasks frightening, the aisles twisted as if pulled from Caligari's Cabinet. The paint on the face of the woman opposite you on the bus may make her seem some screaming portrait by Bacon, ads seem blatant as wartime propaganda, and most concerning is the apparent apathy of most forced through the system. And yet we all retreat from this absurdity into films and books and video games that offer more stable, if not friendlier alternative realities. Maybe we choose Pride and Prejudice or Portal or a Lady in the Radiator or Lady Gaga, but we flee from the everyday, like Henry.

The claustrophobic inside spaces--architectural expressions of Henry's (and Lynch's) feelings towards marriage--give way to the spaciousness of fantasy, the sweeping proscenium arch and the Lady on the stage. And the so-called "baby," the subject of much debate is the greatest horror of the film, not because it is entirely strange but because it is uncanny, close-but-not-quite: not quite human, not quite beast (lamb? calf?), neither puppet nor fetus, sympathetic nor repulsive.

Indeed, the film itself feels repulsive, awkward, and alienating, but not without purpose.  We are made to feel exactly the same unease as Henry, as he struggles to cope with everyday challenges and relationships. Lynch's world does not possess the same colour and sensuality as the "magic realist" mode associated with Marquez, Borges, del Toro and other South- and Central-American artists, but Eraserhead truly  renders the average strange, and the strange average.

Sound design obviously helps create this bleak world, though it is easy to ignore this element in such a quiet film. Industrial sounds, wind and impressionistic synths make up most of Eraserhead's sonic world, but it is only with the commencement of the song "In Heaven" that we realize just how quiet the film has been. Directly preceded by the muffled sound of wind, "In Heaven" presents the only possibilities for transcendence: imagination and death. Thus the Lady sings of heaven, in Henry's imagined world, for a two-fold poignancy. We see Laurel Near performing the song (albeit with what seem to be papier-mache cheeks) and hear the voice of Peter Ivers, just another level of audio-visual incongruence.

In the end it doesn't matter whether Henry Spencer's world is real or imagined: if it is "real" it is still a secret allegory for Lynch, if it is "imagined" it may as well be real since it is the viewer's only frame of reference. Lynch has admitted that the film is was inspired by "what happened in Philidelphia," which seems to be some great anxiety at the conventions of marriage, family life and expectations of society, and one need not be more specific than this. To reduce it is to lose the--dare I say--magic to a semiotic code, empty in its direct translations. We must let the film be strange and wonderful, disturbing and deeply moving. And for those of us who feel like Henry,  we must remember that there is a way out, whether we believe in heaven or not.

In Imagination, Everything is Fine.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Death of the "Classical"

I don’t mean to invoke Barthes facetiously, but I can’t help but notice that Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Verdi, Puccini, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Debussy are dying.  Perhaps Tchaikovsky will be mummified temporarily in the sequined swaths of Black Swan, but he would be doing no better than the notoriously frozen Walt Disney.  Having attended several of the Met simulcasts and their encores, I felt remarkably out of place, again, a bit like Johnny or Barbara in the cemetery.  Young people, on the whole, have little interest in opera or classical music in general. To invoke the largely irritating Harold Bloom, I wonder if this is the “anxiety of influence”:  a simple case of young people rejecting the music lauded by the generation that came before them.  Many opera companies and orchestras offer special rates to students or people under thirty to attend their productions; this is not only for all of the sentimental ideas about passing the music on to the next generation, but more importantly for the economic viability of the genre(s) when the current devotees die.  Perhaps classical music will die with them.

I come to these morbid musings upon discovering that my local classical music store will be closing at the end of the month.  Of course, they also carry the other genres bearing the horrid sheen of elitism, being jazz, folk, and world music.  Unless a young person is studying music at a post-secondary institution, or by fluke was introduced by a member of an older generation, there would be little reason for them to step into the store.  After all, Don Giovanni wouldn’t hold a candle to Teenage Dream.  Can’t dance to it. 

If this cultural stigma of musics of the past could be lifted, young people might see the compelling parallelisms between the content of classical music (if programmatic or dramatic, which is often the easiest way in for new listeners), and the lives of composers, with issues people are facing today.  One friend I have been introducing to opera claimed “I didn’t know it was just about people trying to get into each others’ pants,” which it so often is.  Music historians cringe at these sorts of mythologies, but those such as Beethoven’s deafness, Chopin’s chronic melancholy, Bach’s strange love of coffee (come on, he would have LIVED at Starbucks… wait Star-Bach’s, Mein Gott!  I just punned parenthetically…), Mozart’s eccentricities, Schumann’s multiple personalities, and Tchaikovsky’s tormented homosexuality, can bring their works alive, and make them resonate with people today. 

Still, when pressed with the choice of buying a classical album or a popular one, I find it difficult to justify spending money on the disc whose composer has been dead for over 100 years. This is complicated by the role of the performer in classical music, which is somewhat beyond the scope of this blog entry.  Although distributors, labels and management take a cut, I like knowing that Sufjan Stevens or Joanna Newsome will actually see some of the money I spend on their music.  I would like to think that this is the real reason that classical music is dying, but in the age of adz, I mean, rampant downloading, insistence that money goes into the pockets of the artists can’t possibly be the real reason why young people shy away from classical music. I suppose, I too, am part of the problem, because this is such a difficult decision to make.  And it occurred to me, that to see a Met broadcast in a movie theatre costs more than to see a live opera at the C.O.C. with the under 30 discount.  Something is rotten in the state of classical music.

Ultimately, the issue cannot be reduced to any one cultural factor.  Young people may be alienated from classical music for a variety of reasons: generational associations, lack of exposure, elitist connotations, or the reluctance to seek out any music not on the MTV or Much countdown.  I’m not sure in which universe Justin Bieber is cooler than badass Beethoven (the guy broke multiple pianos, he was so angry), but baby, baby baby, ohhh, that’s how it goes. 

I can’t really synthesize much here, other than go with what you like.  If you loved Black Swan (again, I’ve been thinking of reviewing it), pick up a CD of Swan Lake.  Even download the highlights off of iTunes.  Look at the ending credits of a movie to see who composed that distinguished string quartet dinner music. Maybe Mozart does make you smarter, so toss on a little night music when you study.  Ironically, I think we’ve reached an age when listening to Monteverdi is more rebellious than listening to Kanye.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Impressions on January 12, 2011

Walking home in dark the lamps through skeletal branches, silhouetted on snow, all turned pink and orange with light pollution, the pink and orange covers up the gray snow of weeks and salt, where the six and seventeen swing by, spilling people into the streets.  But it feels like walking in sand, twisting limbs slipping through the biting night-cold.

Over the hill and far away I see the signs, the lights of food and beauty and medicine and entertainment, where they flow in like Romero's animated remains, where I always want to poke the people sleeping on benches to see if they're alive.

And I make pilgrimages too, here to the shiny place of buying, and I leave feeling satisfied and dirty, dirty and satisfied with the strange ecstasy of release, the ecstasy of acquisition too, arms weighed down with goods, and bads, and sometimes uglies.  Bam! Bam! western showdown's made of money and so much flammable celluloid.

So I come home to old wood, old books (poems, chiefly lyric) coffee AND tea, to unload all of my treasures, conquests, beauties, finds and bargains. Tell myself next time no I said no I won't no, and know that it's a lie, burning to take in just a bit more.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Some thoughts concerning the gendering of the iPod

In the words of Sacha Baron Cohen as his beloved and controversial character Borat, "I get iPod, he only get iPod mini, everybody know it's for girls!" For some reason this quote stuck with me: I remember laughing at it when first viewing the film, mostly because I knew that it was true.  But why was iPod mini, and now its contemporary equivalent, the nano, "for girls"? And what does it mean that these iPods are for girls, and that the "Classic" is not?  Perhaps I am over-thinking things, dear readers (both of you...) but this is what poindexter does, and this is what poindexter will continue to do.

Apple has released iPod minis, nanos, and most recently shuffles (although they are a slightly different case, being associated with athletics), in a variety of colours to appeal to girls and women. These devices hold less music than the Classic, which was originally released in pristine, Apple-Futuristic-Kubrickian-White, and later the basic black.  I am instantly reminded of the advent of many other technologies,  and their marketing to women:  telephones, typewriters, kitchen appliances, cars, and pdas...

Why is colour is feminized, since it does not interfere with the functionality of the device?  Although I can't deny that there was (and still is) a demand for such candy-coloured gizmos, I wonder why they are marketed to women, and why the more utilitarian, drab items are marketed to men.

Not to condense hundreds of years of history, but beginning essentially in the 18th century  "women's work" was infantilized, and devalued.  Women of the burgeoning middle class would learn how to embroider, paint, sing, and play clavichord or piano, so that they could entertain their husbands, and other men who visited their homes. Society regarded their function as primarily decorative; with amateur artistic ability, and a strong sense of fashion, they would make man's time at home more comfortable.

These ideas about women, work, and culture persisted through the 19th century, and into the 20th and arguably 21st. A change seemed possible when women went to work in during the world wars, but when the men returned home for good, women were expected to return to the home, and the 50s era of hyper-domesticity ensued.  Inevitably, when companies launched technologies marketed towards women, they emphasized ease of use, and style over function. For example, it is with the introduction of automatic transmission (driving is so easy that even a woman can do it!)  that cars become bright colours, with chrome and fins- the stereotype of 50s excess.  Of course, post-war  prosperity played some part here, but women's engagement with cars as consumers is largely responsible for this shift in design. Although some change was achieved with the women's rights movement of the 70s, the idea that women are irrational and childish (with regards to consumption) has largely persisted, both in the realms of technology and culture. Taking an example from the musical sphere: who listens to that god-awful-top-whatever-radio-station-that plays-the-hits-from-every-genre-and-decade and believes they are "cool" in doing so?  Housewives.  Mothers. Grandmothers, even.  At least, this is what we are lead to believe.

Returning to the iPod.  Women's engagement with music through iPod adheres to this model of infantalization.  In other words, technologies marketed towards women are made to seem like toys, pretty and easy to use, so that they have less worth than those serious devices marketed towards men.  It follows naturally that the iPods associated with female listeners hold less music than those associated with men. According to this line of thinking, women do not need iPod Classics because they know less about music.  They want the greatest hits.  They want singles, not albums. In the grand old age of vinyl, they wanted 45s, not LPs.  Men obviously know more about music than women do, inherently, they have better taste, larger libraries, and they're more likely to talk about music seriously with their peers. They follow pitchfork (whether they admit it or not), and you might hear them discussing the meta-narratives of dejection in the music of the National. Maybe I'm making too many generalizations here.  But I ask of you, humble reader, to consider the audiophile in your life (heaven forbid you have one.)  This person is near obsessive-compulsive, prefers analog to digital, talks about tradition, ingenuity, authenticity, grit and realism. This person may possess an iPod, if so, they will bemoan the compression of mp3s, but tolerate for the sake of portability. This person likely owns the iPod with the most gig available at any given time.  Sound familiar?  This archetypical audiophile is male, and essentially identical to John Cusack's character in High Fidelity.

So, where does this all leave us?  I am not accusing Apple of sexism, or oppression, or anything like that. There is nothing inherently feminine or masculine about pink or black iPods: these preferences are merely a reflection of social conditioning over hundreds of years.  Don't go pawn your nano or your mini or your blackberry pearl or your smith-corona: next time, question whether it's the colour or the content that attracts you when purchasing a device.

And as for me?  Of course I have a sixth-generation "Classic," with a skin of Kandinsky's Composition VII.  Because Kandinsky painted music, and it seemed fitting.

(Can you tell that I just learned to embed pictures? The adventures continue!)