Archive for the 'Pop Culture' Category

They’ve worked hard… they deserve it

Andrew Sullivan notes that “Porn Stars are Happier than You.” He summarizes:

A new study in the Journal for Sex Research found that female porn stars “experienced no more abuse than a matched sample, and they were found to enjoy sex more, have higher levels of self-esteem, positive feelings, social support, sexual satisfaction, and spirituality.”

Bah humbug!

From the esteemed CTV News: Police arrest Kingston man who told kids Santa isn’t real at parade

Police arrested a 24-year-old man on Sunday who was allegedly walking along the parade route, possibly drunk, yelling that Santa Claus didn’t exist.

Bystanders described the man as having his hair gelled to “look like horns that were protruding from his head.”

Ho ho ho!

TV soundscapes

Lately, I’ve been getting interested in the world of background television music e.g. the score that often plays behind the scene and emphasizes the emotion of the moment. I’ve found myself in particular drawn into the music for the police drama “Law & Order: SVU.” During one show, I noticed a music segment that reminded me of a piece I’d written. And as I watched several episodes, I heard that piece pop up again and again. I realized something that is probably obvious: TV composers often reuse their work. So, if you have a musical piece that denotes a simmering tension, you can play it when detectives are interviewing a rape victim, when they are walking down a dark hallway pursuing a killer, and when someone is anxiously awaiting the results of a pregnancy test. (I should note that the musical bit I often hear recurring on the show is not replayed exactly the same every time. There’s little variations.)

The larger topic here — the art of cueing emotional states via sound — is quite interesting. To think that someone can play a chord on the piano and elicit subtle physiological shifts that will be interpreted as emotion in the listener seems like a very powerful force. It makes one presume that somewhere out there is a “dark chord” — a harmony that will demand such a strong emotional reaction it will drive listeners into a homicidal cannibalistic fury.

Behind the scenes at SNL

Here’s an interesting interview with comedian Chris Elliott where he discusses the behind-the-scenes process at Saturday Night Live. Doesn’t sound too fun.

I had a terrible time. I always have to preface this by saying that all the cast, they really liked me, they were all really nice. I think I just went there when I was too old. I had already done “Get a Life,” “Cabin Boy” and nine years working for Dave, and I was amazed that people like Chris Farley and Adam Sandler were still competing for airtime on the show, which is the process there. It’s a really unhealthy process. You’re doing comedy but you’re competing with your fellow cast members for airtime. I had never worked in an environment like that. I was always given my own little shot, and then “Get a Life” was mine, and so it seemed very alien to me, and I don’t think people understand how hard that show is during the week. It looks like it’s really a lot of fun, but you’re constantly auditioning. You’re auditioning the day you meet the host and have to pitch out an idea you might write that week, then you have to stay up all night and write sketches. And then there’s a table read on Wednesday where you’re basically auditioning your piece in front of everybody who wants their piece to go better than your piece. So there’s a lot of people just sitting on their hands and not laughing when you’re doing your thing and then doing real big fake laughs on the piece that they’re supporting. Then the show pieces get picked and then you have to go through this rehearsal thing and then dress rehearsal is the last stage before something gets cut — and that’s another kind of audition. So it’s very tense up to that point. I loved doing the show itself — that was the easiest part of the week for me, the actual show, because I was usually hardly on it. I think Lorne knew I had a hard time staying up after about midnight so my stuff was usually over before then. Just take a nap.

The price of success for Bob Dylan

Recently I was ruminating on Carl Jung’s ideas that groundbreaking thinkers (and, one can presume, also artists, musicians, plumbers etc.) are not appreciated in their own time. Their ideas/paintings/sounds/plumbing techniques are too new for the common man to appreciate. The success stories (here I’m defining success in terms of fame and money) are the people that come after and employ these groundbreaking ideas once they’ve been accepted by the masses. These people’s ideas still seem new, but not too new.

I was just having an email conversation with a friend about Bob Dylan. Some people may know that Dylan became a born again Christian around 1980 and released a couple albums of Christian music. While he’s quieted on the topic of his beliefs since then it seems reasonable to presume that he’s still a Christian. This seems curious. Why would a guy who could presumably live a rather shameless life of hedonism shackle himself to the strict rules of religion. In an email I proposed the following:

Let’s say you’re Dylan in the 60s-70s. You can pretty much tap any ass you want. Everyone treats you as some kind of god, you know? You can’t order a ham sandwich without the waiter telling you that some song that you don’t even remember writing changed their life. And you’re thinking, “This can’t be it. I can’t be this great. There’s got to be something greater.” And that’s when you find Jesus. Because you need to find something better than you.

In short, Dylan was treated like a god, but knew he wasn’t one. So he had to find a God for himself, someone to provide rules and order. Dylan was not a groundbreaker of Jung’s ilk, rather of the next generation. He knew where his ideas came from and understood they were not the result of godlike abilities but study of the masters.

If I were to achieve Dylan’s success I would have no problem enjoying it because I would know I was fully deserving. I am a God. WORSHIP ME!

Clowes’ revenge

Reason magazine has an interesting article on the comics of Dan Clowes, one of my all-time favorite comic creators. Clowes did the hilarious “Eightball” comic in the 90s and various related products. The article focuses on Clowes battles against the elitist world of high-art and his realization that comics could be a meaningful product.

In early 1990s issues of his comic book Eightball, Daniel Clowes regularly savaged the pretensions and hypocrisies of high art. In his estimation, art school was a scam where washed-up hacks dispensed expensive affirmation to lazy and inept strivers. Art critics were boobs and blowhards. Galleries and museums rewarded hype, novelty, and speculation over craftsmanship and authentic expression. The world of high art, Clowes suggested in multiple stories, was silly, shallow, venal, and blind to actual talent.

It was as if he realized that the world of commercial art—and especially the world of comic books, where the end product was a cheap commodity that was far more resistant to the sort of variations in price that made assigning value in the high art so capricious—was the best domain for the serious pursuit of art.

Alas, the high art world failed to completely appreciate the radical nature of Clowes’s approach—then and now. But compare his cultural impact to, say, Haring’s or Scharf’s. The latter ostensibly made art more accessible by bringing it to the streets, the subways, and the Mudd Club. But they still mostly trafficked in one-offs certified by cultural elites and underwritten by well-heeled collectors.

Clowes, in contrast, wasn’t interested in making art more accessible. He was interested in making that which was already highly accessible—the comic book—more artful. Not out of any utopian sentiments—Clowes has always come off as a cultural snob of the highest order—but rather just because he really, really believed in the artistic possibilities of the comic book.

Hear, hear! And death to art snobs. When the revolution comes they will be dragged from their houses as they shit and piss themselves in fear and then tortured to death. Yay!

Poor, Poor, Pitiful Jackson

Anyone with any taste is aware of Warren Zevon’s tune “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” What I just found out is that it’s theorized that Zevon was taking a swipe at his friend Jackson Brown in the song. (The song features a protagonist who seems to have no problem getting the ladies yet feels sorry for himself.) If so, this makes the line “I met a girl at the Rainbow Bar, she asked me if I’d beat her” even more compelling as Jackson was famously accused of beating up Darly Hannah (though serious questions exist about these charges.)

Anyway, here’s Brown’s version of the tune.

Where is the underground?

Today, I went down to the used record store and sold a bunch of old DVDs, VHS tapes and records. To keep them seems pointless. With Spotify, my record collection is 1 million times bigger than it ever was. And I can always sign up for something like Netflix and expand my movie collection by the same amount.

Still, I was looking over the store’s records and CDs and reminded of the time when the physical representation of music actually meant something. A band would really struggle to put out a 45. I remember the first CD I was involved in (the debut CD from the classic Seattle funk rock band Dr. Zoom) and that felt like a real accomplishment.

Now, this record store had a lot of punk rock records. These records were produced by bands that stayed under the radar of mainstream America or for years, in some cases for their entire careers. Bands like Gang Green, The Mentors, The Adolescents etc. My disparaging views on punk rock are well known (though I am a fan of The Mentors) but I have a certain respect these kinds of groups that dedicated themselves to keeping the currents of subculture moving.

Now, a while back I asked “who is the Devo of today?” My point being: where is a band with similar quirkiness and gravitas. While I was looking at the records for these punk rock bands today, I thought, “Maybe the question is really bigger. Where is the underground of today? Where is the punk rock, the thrash metal, the hippie culture etc. of today? Does any of that or some equivalent exist?” Certainly, there’s still a punk rock scene, I guess there’s still a hippie scene, there’s still some kind of underground… but I think even the people in those scenes will concede that their best days are behind him.

So why would this be? Well, back in the 1960s, the 70s, the 80s etc. the “mainstream” (by which I mean the corporations in the entertainment business) was a kind of omnipotent force. The mainstream moguls were the gatekeepers for any kind of music or movies of significant budget. They ran the three television networks. There was one video network. They were the overground, and they were what the underground was against. In present day, of course, the mainstream is in disarray (because of the Internet, the ease of self production etc.) And in a sense, the weakening of the corporate giants weakens the underground. The underground was kind of like David to Goliath. If suddenly the Goliath is looking pretty sickly, then David is no longer needed.

So I guess we’re seeing a shifting of the various forces of culture. It used to be the powerful mainstream versus the feisty but ghettoized underground. Now I think there are many interweaving cultural forces, tides rising and ebbing.

I bet it’s weird to be a teenager today.

Why do women hate their husbands?

Last night I watched a movie featuring a female, 40-ish protagonist investigating the murder of a local young woman. Who did the murderer turn out to be but her own husband! (I’m not mentioning the title of the movie to avoid spoiling it for anyone.) It reminded me of a book I read (written by an acquaintance of mine) in which a fortyish, middle-aged (but still hot) woman discovers that her husband is trying to kill her (while she’s having an affair with a ghost.)

Now, every family sitcom ever made is centered around a family where the husband is an oafish, retarded moron, whereas the wife is a beleaguered yet fundamentally hyper competent functionary. (The Flintstones, the Simpsons, According to Jim, Everybody Loves Raymond, that new sitcom with the wife from Everybody Loves Raymond etc.) Additionally, in between the segments of the sitcoms, you always see ads for things like detergent premised around the idea of some retarded husband soiling his clothes and having to sheepishly turn to his wife who uses the product being advertised to fix the problem.

Television, of course, is driven by advertising. The targets of this advertising are usually the person who controls the family budget for household expenditures: mom. (This is changing over time, of course.) So, TV shows and advertisements are built around appealing to mom by offering narratives that appeal to her. Judging from these television shows, it seems that the narrative of “my husband is a buffoon” appeals to a lot of women.

So the question becomes, why do fortyish, middle-aged women hate their husbands and seem fascinated by stories in which their husband is either a buffoon or a homicidal maniac? I would pose this theory: as the book “Sex at Dawn” argues, people are not really wired for monogamy. Men are somewhat comfortable with this fact; you don’t have to do a lot of arm twisting to get a man to admit that he wouldn’t mind sleeping around on his partner. Women have a much harder time with this admission. The idea that they might get bored of the same stumpy, slowly balding fellow waving his stubby penis at them every night is anathema. BUUUTTT… if your husband is trying to murder you, well, then cheating is okay. And if your husband’s a complete dolt, well, then you’re slowly growing revulsion for him doesn’t seem so bad.

The fact that I figured this out is proof that men are superior to women.

Art and the quiet mind

I’ve had a few more thoughts on the topic of how our internal state of mind affects our art. But first, take a look at these two pictures.

Milan Doumo Some building

At the left is a photo of Milan’s Duomo (originated in the 14th century). The second a modern skyscraper (I’m presuming it’s an artist’s rendering.)

Yesterday I was commenting on the constant interruptions of daily life. The phone calls, the nagging emails, our screaming, annoying children, television blowhards freaking out about this or that etc. Those are, of course, external distractions. But we’ve got internal distractions as well. I was just reading an old interview with the stress doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn who sums these up nicely.

A thought comes up and you’ll say, “Oh, I’ve got to do this,” and you run to do that. Then the next thought comes, and you say, “Oh, I’ve got to do that,” and you run to do it.

From “Healing and the Mind” by Bill Moyers

I read this and thought, “Boy, that is exactly how I think.” Then I thought, “Shit, I’ve gotta check for that email!”

So we’ve got two different kinds of distractions: external (which we have limited control over) and internal (which we have – one hopes – some control over.) I would also surmise that our internal state is “trained” by our external environment. If we are constantly being interrupted in the “real world,” soon our own mind will only be able to focus for short periods (because it’s anticipating the interruptions it’s so used to.)

Now, as I was saying yesterday, in the past we had less external interruptions. In 1450, there wasn’t much to do. If you wanted to write a piece of music (and were lucky enough to have your sustenance needs taken care of) you could sit and write for hours/days without phone calls, emails, facebook updates, television blather, etc. And I presume this lack of external interruption led to “quieter” minds that were less prone to self interruption (of the type described by Kabat-Zinn above.) As a result of all this, people could really focus on producing artistic media with tremendous detail: 12 foot tall paintings with all sort of hidden objects and figures (and obtuse religious connotations), ornate, sky high cathedrals covered with miniature statues of golems and maidens, 20 minute sonatas in which themes are developed via endless variation of tempo, melody, harmony etc.

And a calmer mind isn’t required just to create this art; it’s required to even appreciate it! I get about three minutes into most 20 minute sonatas and my mind is already wandering. I usually don’t have the focus to stay with it.

To recap: in earlier eras people had calmer minds. But, as time went on – as society industrialized, as we became better able to keep precise measurement of time (and thus create the great evil that is the daily organizer), as communication methods expanded from a single town crier to pony express to telegraph to telephone and then instantaneous email – our minds became more and more deluged with interruption.

So how did that affect art? Well, take a look at the above pictures again. The second building is much less ornamental, much simpler, much easier to digest. You can look at that building from a distance and basically “get it,” as opposed to the Duomo which you really have to view up close to appreciate the detail.

Now, if you landed on an alien planet and saw that second building you might think, “Wow, this such serene architecture; I bet these aliens are calm, peaceful creatures with minds devoid of incessant inner chatter.” But I’m thinking that the exact opposite is true. As the mind gets more cluttered, art gets simpler. Why? Because we don’t have the time to focus on creating detailed art, and frankly, we don’t have the time to appreciate it.

Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not knocking minimalism. I like minimalism and I’m not a great fan of ornamentalism (though I’m not virulently opposed to it.) But my larger point here is that what goes on “in here” (pointing to head) has an effect on what shows up “out there.” And it’s an inverse effect. Busy minds = simple art and vice versa*. To examine the history of art is to examine the changing state of the human mind. (To put it another way, “Art history is a subset of psychology.”)

*Obviously this is a broad statement with many exceptions. I also realize that simple, minimalist art is not that simple. But you get my point.