I first learned about Robert Ashley through Peter Greenaway, thanks to his Four American Composers series. I rented all four videos because I was interested in John Cage and Philip Glass. I didn’t know who Meredith Monk was, or Robert Ashley.
As it turns out, the episode on Ashley interested me the most. I didn’t understand the opera being discussed, Perfect Lives, but I knew I had to hear and watch the whole thing. I took to the internet and discovered that I could order it directly from Lovely Music, on VHS. I did so. It cost me $100—but I had to hear it.
Few people I knew at the time had ever heard of Robert Ashley. When I moved to Illinois and met Mark Tardi and Jeremy M. Davies, we bonded in part over our shared love for Perfect Lives, “an opera for television” made in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s still not widely known. It’s still never been broadcast in its entirety in the US. But I’m not alone alone in regarding it one of the greatest operas and long poems in the English language. (John Cage wrote of it: “What about the Bible? And the Koran? It doesn’t matter. We have Perfect Lives.”)
So far in this very irregular series, we’ve scrutinized Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and Macaulay Culkin eating a slice of pizza—preparation for tackling one of the greatest and most beguiling music videos ever made.
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” was a single from Bonnie Tyler’s fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night (1983), and her biggest hit. It was written by Jim Steinman, Meat Loaf’s once and future collaborator. Steinman also planned out the video, which was then directed by Russell Mulcahy, a man responsible for numerous ’70s and ’80s music videos, as well as the films Highlander, Highlander II: The Quickening, and Blue Ice. So that’s the aesthetic world we’re dwelling in. (In a single word: overblown.)
The video itself is pretty broad, and rather easy to read—broadly. Simply put, Tyler plays an instructor (or an administrator) at an all-boys boarding school. (I will refer to her character as “Tyler” throughout, for convenience’ sake.) Extremely sexually repressed, Tyler endures a long night of the soul fantasizing about her young charges; this constitutes the bulk of the video. Come morning, she (and we) are returned to restrained, repressive reality. But we’re left with the hint that A.) at least one of her students has magically become aware of her fantasy, or B.) her fantasia has caused Tyler to become mentally unhinged. (I lean toward B and will defend that reading below.)
That’s the basic outline. The devil, however, sits in a straight-backed chair, clutching a dove. He’s also in the details, so let’s delve deeper …
On 16 December of last year, Macaulay Culkin posted to YouTube a video of himself eating a slice of pizza:
I watched it and showed it to some friends because, on the one hand, how random! Macaulay Culkin! Eating pizza! Lol! One million other people and counting apparently felt similarly.
The video fascinates because it depicts a star (or a former child star) doing something utterly mundane. The presentation is simple, stripped down. The shot is static and there are no cuts. Culkin looks embarrassed to even be there, to be watched eating. There’s no glitz, no glamor. The guy eats pizza just like you and me, even tearing off the crust (though I would’ve finished the rest of the slice).
At the same time, the video fascinates because it’s awful—it’s “so bad it’s good.” That reaction is breathlessly conveyed in the Time Magazine blog post, “Questions We Asked Ourselves While Watching Macaulay Culkin Eat a Slice of Pizza,” which presents no fewer than forty-six questions about the video, in pseudo-live-blogging fashion:
Why does he look like he really doesn’t want to be wherever he is, or eating the slice?
Has he ever eaten a slice of pizza before?
Why does he look so sad?
Does he know he’s being filmed?
Do the pizza oils get trapped in his beard?
Why does he keep looking up?
Forty-six questions is a lot of questions, prompting a forty-seventh: “How many times did author Eric Dodds watch the damn thing?” And one million views is a lot of views. Thus, despite being banal, despite being awful, the video is somehow also something else. Would it be fair to call it transcendent? Even sublime? And if so, why? Because it purportedly offers us unmediated access to a former star, now desperately embarrassing himself?
But far from being random, or mundane, or excruciatingly candid, Culkin’s pizza video is a put-on, its every second pure artifice. For starters, it’s a loving recreation of another work—a short film of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger:
Here’s something to keep in mind if you happen to be in Michigan next February.
On February 17, 1974, at a VFW Hall in Grand Rapids, Michigan, The Nail Bombs played their only show. They played for 11 and one half minutes. They played three songs. There were 19 people in the audience. All 19 started their own bands within two weeks of seeing The Nail Bombs play. Shows played by the bands formed by the 19 people who saw The Nail Bombs play inspired more bands. Those bands inspired more bands. Those bands inspired more bands. Thus, The Nail Bombs are an index case of much of the Midwest’s punk rock scene. (Sure, The MC5. Sure, The Stooges. But remember: with music, multiple ears are available to be infected, and multiple strains infect. The Nail Bombs were a strain. An powerful strain.)
No one knows who The Nail Bombs were. No member of the band has ever stepped forward and said, “I was a Nail Bomb.” No one has even attempted to do so as a hoax. They never recorded a record, or even made a little demo. There was at one point a tape of the show—the only audio evidence of the existence of The Nail Bombs—but it has been lost, and now there remain only some fragments of a transcript. (Fragments will appear at the end of this post.) READ MORE >
Recently a friend accused me of not listening to any music that is not rap. Of course that is totally untrue, but in a social context it is somewhat correct: publicly the music I am most likely to enjoy is rap. Privately, I have always listened to different music as well, especially while working/ writing.
When I was in college I used to do most of my work in a very claustrophobic, constrained space to avoid all possible distractions. It was a lab that was equipped with a large Mac desktop and a bunch of equipment that I never used, because the lab was actually intended for the “New Media/ Critical Theory Studies” kids and during that time I was learning different stuff I am no longer using today. It was around that time I first became obsessed with Aphex Twin’s music, definitely starting with ’Selected Ambient Works 85-92.’ I loved the combination of the productive/ manic energy of the beats and the simultaneous soothing effect of the majority of the melodies in the album. I remember listening to “Ageispolis” after–and during– sleepless nights of meticulous studying, sometimes watching the very ravey video as a study-break.
I have been thinking and wanting to write on Aphex Twin for a long time, but my wish proves to be a somewhat impossible task. Richard James–also known under his pseudonyms: AFX, Blue Calx, Bradley Strider, Caustic Window, Smojphace, GAK, Martin Tressider, Polygon Window, Power-Pill, Q-Chastic, Tahnaiya Russell, The Diceman, The Tuss, and Soit-P.P–is someone who definitely chooses to be an enigmatic figure. James has spent a great deal of his career creating an unflattering image of himself intentionally. The point behind his dedication to making the world see him as an unattractive individual remains unclear to me, but that is part of his enigma.
Initially, I was planning on doing a mini-series of sorts on “The Way Every Richard James Album Makes Me Feel.” Ultimately, I am deciding against proceeding with that idea because it might be relentlessly self-absorbed and perhaps even too-revealing for no-reason. Instead, I present you with my deepest wish of someday writing the absolute Aphex Twin profile after spending a month with him, observing his daily life, work habits and nightlife activities.
This 7-minute MTV interview is maybe the closest the artist wants us to get in understanding Richard James.The interviewer asks him what he means when he says that he builds his own instruments, and he states that he uses software, computers and the net to create. Often, he uses the help of others to perfect his sound. Questions about the way he releases his music continue, and his laidback attitude makes me admire him even more. It is particularly interesting to me to see the vibe between him and his enthusiastic interviewer. The interviewer clearly recognizes his genius and tries, at points perhaps too hard, to instigate a more intricate interview. Richard James seems humble, composed in a careless manner, soft-spoken and completely unaware of how brilliant he is.
This music is to the average European ear more than diabolical, this being to a large extent due to the differences in the tones, semi-tones, and intervals of the scale, but personally, having got accustomed to their tunes, I rather like its weirdness and originality. When once it is understood it can be appreciated; but I must admit that the first time one hears a Corean concert, an inclination arises to murder the musicians and destroy their instruments.
Jhnnes gos on to tlk about ART as a “zone which both hrts and is hrt” and how, qoting his wife Jylle McSney, “snd is a knd of violence” and, fnally, sying “I am invested in this violent aspect of art: it fascinates and hrrfies me.”
So, nyways, a few hrs fter I read Görssn’s engagng Ptry Fdation pst I found myself thking again abut snd, vlence, snd-vlence, and other thngs as I lay in a rlly hot bth reaing A.D. Jmson’s xcllent “Amazing Adult Fantasy”:
You’ll be the guy who finally knifed up Indian Jones. Some’ll love you and some’ll hate you. Some’ll never believe it and never give in. Some’ll send flowers. Some’ll look for and find the younger Indian Jones.
The casl skm-reader READ MORE >
Music by Kanye West. Commentary by Lakshmi Singh, Leonard Lopate. Beer by Pabst Brewing Company.
Kanye West, in keeping with a truncated periphery necessary for megalomania, has upgraded from hipster shutter shades to a high couture diamond mask (by Belgian fashion designer Maison Martin Margiela) whose stones, growing in carat, funnel into his money machine, that is, mouth. His favorite puns involve you swallowing his cum, which is why I prefer to listen to him with a can of ginger ale handy. Like cheesy pop songs of the mid-90s with that embarrassing rap interlude, today’s hip hop (Kanye, Drake, Frank Ocean) strains itself with melody, often auto-tuned. As Yeezus is released today, drying out all the fervent leaks a week prior, we’ve found — or perhaps created — a black Jesus whose relation to our sins seems less compassionate than complicit. Short of dying for our sins, he would rather watch. The sadness of the “real” Jesus story is that he was gracefully on our side, which seemed too good to be true, so we killed him. It is the story of a learned cynicism, our grand expulsion. In 1966, John Lennon said The Beatles were more popular than Jesus and was met with outrage from both the Christian right and populace. Lennon later explained he was referring to the decline of religion (though his Jesus complex eventually resurfaced with his Abbey Road white suit and Imagine white piano). Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007) is a sculpture about economics. It cost £14,000,000 to produce and was exhibited at an asking price of £50,000,000, an instant 350% inflation for patrons perhaps too dense to see the sarcasm. Hirst has been obsessed with a Dahmer-esque clinical curiosity of what’s inside us, though his perverse pathos stops short at a grant. His work mocks the mortal’s concept of immortality. Self-aware to a degree, Kanye’s diamond mask probably has little to do with the diamond mining industry in Africa, which accounts for two-thirds of the world’s diamonds, and whose upsetting trade empowers warlords and insurgents. If there’s any thing to say, we are enamored with the spectacle of depth. The stage as a pulpit. Grandiose entitlement is rather American, and with that, Kanye stops being its critic. Tired of splooge allusions, his “I am a God” repeats the title over and over: I am a God / Hurry up with my damn massage, though each time I read that line I see “message,” perhaps delusional that there is one.
Hairband videos of the late-’80s seemed meta in how they “set up” the song by showing the band, usually conceitedly, approach the stage during the opening riff or drum beat, to kind of glorify, or prolong, the imminent explosion of the song (rap songs, similarly, often begin with vignettes of rappers speaking into the mic about how they are about to start rapping). Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” (1986), whose titular contraction of “living” serves the lingo of our times, was in many ways the ultimate rock anthem video, with its talkbox riff, rigged flying theatrics, and artsy black & white lavender tint. I would “air band” it (an intricately spliced combination of air-guitar, -drums, -bass, and -vocals), running into furniture, discovering bruises the next day which unfairly implicated my parents. The song tells the story of Tommy and Gina, a young working-class couple whose love for each other compensates for their stout lives — while real life Ginas preferred displaying their mammalian buoyancies at the composer of the song, whose slo-mo moments right before the nipple highlighted videos of this nature. Of milk’s offering, newly satiated from Korova bar, we come across dystopian bros entering a tunnel in which they are to beat a homeless man to death. Anthony Burgess’s prophecy can now be seen on homeless beating videos, snuff meets Punk’d, in which teenage boys competitively break faces with cinder blocks and bats, the retina display of life perhaps more convincing than a video game. Misandry just happens. One may wonder if all videos are essentially games, life’s diorama inside a cartridge, the control pad’s rubber buttons as numb nipples whose virtual and distant volition is an actual child, silhouetted with his co-conspirators, in infamous anonymity.
On the 2006 Xiu Xiu album The Air Force, there’s a song, “Wig Master.” Lately I’ve been listening a lot to a cover version done by Why?, on the 2007 album Remixed and Covered. It’s easily my favorite piece on that album.
I was looking for the lyrics of the Why? version and I realized 1.) they’re not already online (that I could find) and 2.) they’re substantially different from the Xiu Xiu version.
So I thought I’d type them up, and put up a post about the differences. This is that post!
Music by Kendrick Lamar. Commentary by David Fishkind, Adam Humphreys. Beer by Coors Brewing Company.
Belle and Sebastian album covers always bothered me because they would remind me of The Smiths. Both bands are morbidly precious — or preciously morbid? — and English; well, the former is Scottish but who cares. England is to Scotland what China is to Korea what Spain is to Portugal. As in no one cares. I have a friend who has this rule where she won’t fuck a guy if she finds Belle and Sebastian on his playlist. I can understand: I have Belle and Sebastian on my playlist and I wouldn’t fuck me. It bothers me that you take a photo, run it through a color filter and slap some typographically “literary” text on it and consider it an album cover because, right, like your fans are all sensitive art students with melted candles and a suicidy razor blade by the bathtub; and emphatic or compulsive design seems uncool and corporatey, and your life is all about casual. Casual sex; casual resume sending; casual cereal for dinner. Every time I see one of these album covers I want to have a vasectomy and not subject my child to this world and vice versa. I love it when there’s an acoustic guitar lying around at a party — the kind of party with salsa and guacamole in coffee mugs because everyone’s too mellow to actually cook — and always the least-laid guy needs to pick it up and start playing the four chords he knows. Then five to seven grimly codependent-ish people all reluctantly stay quiet and feign attention while he plays something out of key. Then he starts sincerely singing, which is basically a metaphor for the world: we make it horrible with our feelings. Some asshole says do you know any Wilco and all the more amicable networky people into electronic music with better clothes and skin are on the roof now drinking beers, holding the bottle against the sun so that it seems that the sun is inside the bottle, setting into the amber sea.
Just wrapped up a two week session on The Orange Eats Creeps in my 21st Century Horror class, and one of my awesome students, DJ Dodd, created this badass mixtape: “For those who are interested in further exploring the dark underbelly of society hinted at by The Orange Eats Creeps, here is a streamable and downloadable mixtape that features the twisted, crusty, and often sublime characteristics found within the novel.”
A link to the mixtape, plus a track list after the break.
I downloaded Animal Collective’s new album Centipede Hz, and decided I would chart what I noticed as I listened to it and surfed the internet doing research on the Harlem Renaissance. (FYI, it looks like a grad student at Columbia recently unearthed a previously unknown-to-exist Claude McKay manuscript. Pretty significant news, via NYTimes.)