April 27, 2011

Tatu and the IWW

Tatu are secretly Wobblies, aren't they? All About Us hinges on a personalization of the great IWW slogan An injury to one is an injury to all, transmuted into obsessive romance:

If. They. Hurt. You. They. Hurt. Me. Too
So we'll rise up won't stop
And it's all about
It's all about
It's all about us

It's not just me feeling the solidarity. This group review returns to the theme time and time again, albeit with a point-missing tendency to link it to the USSR:
You can imagine those pounding war drums soundtracking the Bolshevik revolution - there's certainly a similar sense of collective running through the lyrics, drawing strength from standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow revolutionaries. "If. They. Hurt. You. They. Hurt. ME. TOO.": spine-tinglingly magnificent pop moment of the year.

And more generally, you can make a case that the value of TATU is fitting their various high-pitched emotional states into a grand narrative of love and rebellion:

If you listen across their 'Best Of' album, you can see it unfold: forbidden love and ensuing confusion as the girls, through their transgression, are thrust beyond the bounds of the normative ("All The Things She Said"'); the forging of a new revolutionary ethics ("All About Us", "They're Not Gonna Get Us"); yet more confusion as one of the girls falls for a boy ("Loves Me Not"); a Thermidorian inquest into the motives and consequences of the betrayal ("Friend Or Foe"); then finally, the realisation that the only place this utopian society can exist is in space ("Cosmos")

February 14, 2010

Michael Bracewell

Radio 3's The Essay had one of its better runs last week, with Michael Bracewell talking about Germany. With only five quarter-hour episodes, he didn't have enough space to say much original about the country itself. But he did a great job of pinning down a 'fantasy of febrile decadence and alienated modernism' which attracted a certain type of arty British punks there. I was a generation too young to be caught up in this particular fantasy -- and had never thought much about Germany before coming here. But it remains utterly comprehensible as a dream; because the worries he describes remain as free-floating cultural sentiments, ready to attach themselves to whatver place or subculture seems momentarily to embody them:

'somewhere in the middle of punk was the idea, fanciful no doubt and swollen with youthful egoism, that we were growing to adulthood in the ruins of history. In every racing, snarling punk record was the message that modernity itself had accelerated to a point of critical mass, and what was left was a tribe of lost urban youth who dressed as though Dickensian urchins had time-travelled to the 23rd century....It flattered us to believe we were living in a new decadence, of melancholy urban ruin, dark covert little bars, and febrile nightclubs, a place caught in the louche cafe culture of the Weimar republic, where young men and women of ambiguous sexuality spent their days and nights in a cocoon of unreality, the better to shut out the premonition of disaster.

Besides, I'd enjoy the turn of phrase even if he was talking nonsense. In fact,I was intrigued enough to look up Bracewell. Unsurprisingly he turns up writing for Frieze, despite the fact that music, rather than art, is obviously his primary love. He's also written a few novels; the reviews online don't tell me much, except that they fall into the stereotypically British genre of people trying hopelessly to find meaning in pedestrian but outwardly painless lives. Putting it enthusiastically:

Bracewell is to Middle England what David Lynch is to Middle America - his is a noticeably eloquent voice disguised by a surreal touch and a poetic sensibility. In Bracewell there is always an attempt to locate some kind of spiritual purpose

Maybe he has done something interesting with this background, but I'm going to chicken out and stick with his writing on culture and pop music. I'm probably in for yet another explanation of how we're living in an age of nostalgia and cultural collage -- but at least it'll be fun to read.

August 11, 2009

The Edukators

I've lately been bingeing on German films (why yes, I have been feeling homesick, how did you guess?). Germany at present seems to be churning out a good number of decent films, although I'm not enough of a buff to say whether claims of a golden age are more than hype.

The Edukators (2004) is certainly a good film, albeit far from flawless. Roughly speaking, it's a political take on the caper film, with a love triangle thrown in for good measure. Jan, Peter and Jule are young Berliners, embroiled in anti-globalization campaigning that they know is useless. Unbeknown to Jule, Jan and Peter have a second life as a team of anticapitalist pranksters, who ransack the homes of the rich, without stealing anything, in the hope of showing them the error of their ways.

Not the most direct way of fighting the system, perhaps, but in the world of the film personality always trumps practicality. Among 'the edukators', politics with the personal. If, as they daub on a wall at one point, "every heart is a revolutionary cell", then simply wanting to "live wild and free" is enough to fight the system.

Naturally, this can't last. Surprised by the owner of a house they have broken into, they kidnap him so he cannot turn them in to the police. This is when the real education begins, as the three youngsters lie low in a mountain village with their captive, Hardenberg. This latter turns out to be not just a businessman but also a disillusioned radical, a child of the 60s for whom the "long march through the institutions" led to becoming part of the system. The film just about manages to contrast the viewpoints of its characters: yes, they're muddled and disoriented, but then so is their reality.

The director is fairly clear about his propaganda aims:

As you leave the cinema, you should have the feeling "if I, as a young person -- and youth has nothing at all to do with age -- have the feeling that something is wrong with the world -- I am not happy, I am angry, then this feeling must come out, must be translated into action. Otherwise it could make me ill"

Incidentally, I can't help giggling at the need for the faux-German title. The group in the film give themselves the far-less-sexy name of "Die Erziehungsberechtigten" (meaning something like "the guardians"), while the German title of the film was the uninspiring slogan "Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei" (the years of plenty are over). Phony 'K' or no, I think the international market got a better deal.

This is the best review I've seen; Rotten Tomatoes has plenty of others, and here are some links to German reviews.

August 9, 2009

Silent Shout

Best way to find music: share a bedroom, share an office. Between people playing me their favourites, and the need to drown out background noise, I've probably spent more time wearing headphones these last six weeks than in the previous six months. Mostly the easy-to-ignore genres that are perfect background music to work to (psytrance, industrial, metal, and sometimes foreign pop). Also, though, things that demand more attention and then worm their way deeper into your body, until you need to pull them back out by naming them.

First among them, Silent Shout (2006) by brother-sister electronica pair The Knife.

Many reviews describe this as a 'cold' album. To me, it's not so much cold as alien. The key is in the vocals, Karin Dreijer Andersson's voice twisted, blended and echoed into a chorus of androgynous, even inhuman sounds. This is the the Midwich Cuckoos, telepathically linked and talking (almost) with one tongue. Most literally in From off to on, as menacing children:

When we come home, we want it quiet and calm
We want you to sing us a song
When we come home, we pull the curtains down
Making sure that the TV is on

But the same voices are present We share our mother's health, this time as refugees from Eden (We came down from the north, blue hands and a torch). And in The Captain they emerge as grizzled sailors:

We are out of wind
We have pock-marked chin
We have lots of water
We turn the other cheek and we win

This is what makes the album -- the aura of sinister closeness of the hive-mind. Its echoes remain even in a love-song like Marble House, as side-effects of Karin singing a duet with herself.

Not that this is a concept album; in fact, I suspect I'm reading in ideas that barely crossed the minds of Karin and Olof. Each song here is a piece by itself, with no explicit connections between them. The steadily-deepening nightmare soundscape of the title track contrasts sleepy, almost despairing vocals with an insistent background of synth arpeggios. After the end of that richness, it's a surpise to be brought back down to the simple, panpipe-like opening of Neverland.

Most tracks on Silent Shout start something like this, taking an almost-familiar sound -- a dripping tap on Like a Pen, clicking marbles for Marble House, or on We share our mothers health what sounds very much like the Clangers -- and quickly losing it under many more layers. The effect is most striking on Marble House, where the clicking is speeded up into some kind of crackling.

Lyrics are fairly unimportant for the first half of the album, the heavily-manipulated vocals contributing to the sound rather than telling a story. Towards the end, though, we have some more lyrically-driven pieces. In Forest Families we hear a double-edged reflection on a back-to-nature childhood. It also contains a subtler form of the feminist anger which in One Hit is brought to the fore ("It's manhood's bliss / One hit one kiss"), and powerfully combined with a worksong-like call-and-response.

Finally, Still Light brings the album to a gloomy close. The singer, talking to her doctor, is facing the aftermath of -- well, we don't quite know what. A drug binge? A suicide attempt? Specificity would perhaps have detracted from the emotional landscape, which is one of bleakness, combined at the very end with faint hope and the need to continue:Now where is everybody? Is it still light outside?"

Other reviews of Silent Shout:

  • Stylus (Fergal O'Reilly)
  • (Joe Davenport)
  • Pitchfork

The Knife: Silent Shout

June 18, 2009

Fear (1): Fassbinder

A few weeks ago I finally saw my first Fassbinder film. Fassbinder was an obsessive prodigy who dominated German cinema of the 70s, churning out 41 films in 13 years before working and snorting himself to an early death at the age of 37. He has been mythologized as a romantic hero, as a driven man surrounded by a clique of neurotic hedonists, and as a sadomasochist obsessed with the cruelty underlying love.

'Angst essen seele auf' (ali: fear eats the soul) fits into that stereotype, though perhaps not in the way a plot summary would suggest. Emmi, a middle-aged German cleaner, meets Moroccan migrant worker Ali in a Munich bar. They begin a relationship and, to the disgust of society at large, eventually marry.

Racism and social opprobrium are omnipresent, but as background rather than theme. The fear of the title isn't of foreigners or violence or economic hardship; it is fear of small acts of cruelty from your friends, as they protect whatever small scraps of social respect they have by kicking out at anybody below them. The sole cure for fear is desperation; characters come together only when they have nothing to lose.

The first scene covers all this in microcosm. Emmi walks into an unfamiliar bar, half-full of migrant workers. She's rigid with anxiety, not knowing where to look or where to put herself, aware that all eyes are upon her. But she's here, overcoming fear and cultural barriers, because she has nothing else: her husband is long dead, her children ignore her, her work gives her nothing but shame. If she had just a little more self-respect, just a little more status to defend, she would retreat back into a world of petty closed-mindedness. Fairly soon, she will. So will everyone else in the film: all the characters betray themselves and their companions through small acts of social cowardice.

June 5, 2009

Things to listen to

I mentioned that I spend a lot of time listening to spoken word recordings. I thought it might be nice to list some of the other places where I find good listening:

  • Democracy Now. Amy Goodman must be one of the most hyperproductive activists out there, a throwback to the living-for-the-cause agitators of the 19th century. With a small team, she somehow puts together an hour-long tv/radio news broadcast every weekday. It's campaigning journalism with production values to equal or better the mainstream media. I wish I could find a European equivalent of this; Democracy Now does a great job of picking up stories from around the world, but it's really a USian affair.
  • In Our Time. The best thing on Radio 4, Melvyn Bragg and a few academics holding a no-frills discussion on some topic they know inside-out. Shamelessly highbrow, and generally fascinating.
  • IT Conversations is a mixed bag. They collect (mainly) talks from computer conferences, and repackage them as podcasts. Both the content and the audio quality are very variable. Generally good are Moira Gun's 'Tech nation' series, and anything recorded at an O'Reilly conference. [The white, male faces gracing most of their listings do tell a story -- but mainly, I think, about the IT industry as a whole, rather than IT Conversations itself]
  • Here is my unsorted collection of nice things to listen to. Some good, some bad, some I never got round to playing.

I've also discovered that The West Wing works even better as an audio-only experience. If only it were financially viable to get Aaron Sorking writing radio plays!

May 25, 2009

nuum wars

Simon "Energy Flash" Reynolds, K-Punk and friends have been having an interesting (and intriguingly nerdish) discussion on 'nuum', or the 'hardore continuum', the family of British music descending from rave and hardcore, and covering the range of jungle, garage, grime, and a thousand subgenre cousins. A blogger-heavy conference at the University of East London has given them license to go into depth. Simon's posts (1 2 3 4) are unashamedly, delightfully, high-falutin':

You could see rave as a whole, and the nuum in particular, as modernism's last stand, or unexpected comeback, long after the ideals of modernism had been abandoned, eroded, questioned, everywhere else....Miraculously holding pomo at bay, the nuum preserved within itself, within its own partially cordoned off space, the heightened temporality of peak-era modernism: a sensation of hurtling into the future.

K-Punk, incidentally, has a nice little defense of criticism.

May 11, 2009

St├ęphane Blanquet

There haven't been nearly enough pictures around here lately. So here's something by St├ęphane Blanquet, a youngish French artist producing comics, book and CD covers, and a solid supply of drawings. They range from Steadman-esque sketches, through an outright terrifying fake condom label, through to the kind of intricate and gently surreal composition that I'll reliably fall for:

April 23, 2009

Book: Energy Flash

Simon Reynolds. Energy Flash, a journey through rave music and dance culture. 1998.

Reynolds' history of 'rave music and dance culture' attracted me primarily in an anthropological way, as a loving report from an alien subculture. It's helpful that Reynolds' sympathies match mine. An intellectual left-liberal, and a believer in spritual and social progress through counter-culture, he drenches raveculture in his own aspirations

'What the London pirate stations and the free parties conjured up was the sense of rave as a vision quest. Both transformed mundane Britain, its dreary metropolitan thoroughfares and placid country lanes, into a cartography of adventure and forbidden pleasures' [xviii] ... 'While rock relates an experience (autobiographical or imaginary), rave _constructs_ an experience. Bypassing interpretation, the listener is hurled into a vortex of heightened sensations, abstract emotions and artificial energies' [xix]

Similarly, he shares the natural doubts. Coming into electronic music from years submerged in post-punk, he worries that ecstasy alone can't save the world:

Is rave simply about the dissipation of utopian energies into the void or does the idealism it catalyses spill over into and transform ordinary life? Can the oceanic, 'only connect!' feelings experienced on the dancefloor be integrated into everyday struggles to be 'better at being human'?

But the socio-political analysis doesn't get out of hand: most of the book is filled with descriptions of the music; Reynolds somehow manages powerful and varied descriptions of music, without the ability to fall back to the crutch of describing the lyrics.

My only disappointment was how parochial Reynolds' approach is. The cover doesn't make it clear, but this is primarily an exploration of rave culture in the UK. Detroit and Chicago do get a chapter largely to themselves, but there is very little exploration of the european scene. Eurodisco, EBM and the like are more-or-less ignored.

April 12, 2009


John Gray likes Margaret Atwood's new (non-fiction) book on debt:

Atwood's project is to show how human thought has been deeply shaped by notions of debt. It will be objected that she is merely spinning out an extended metaphor suggesting analogies between debt and noneconomic phenomena that are only vaguely analogous. In fact she is advancing the contrary and more interesting claim that economic activities involving borrowing and lending are metaphorical extensions of an underlying human sense of indebtedness. Beliefs about debt are not shadows cast by processes of market exchange. They are presupposed throughout much of human activity. Economic life invokes a sense of order in human affairs, widely dispersed throughout society.

July 15, 2008

Islam, beauty, torture and market reform

I've recently been posting mainly on Livejournal, rather than here. But, since I don't want to totally kill off this blog, I thought I'd cross-post a few things from there. So, a few book reviews:

Malise Ruthven, Islam in the world. A history of Islam both as a religion and as a political force. This was written 20 years ago by a journalist with a knack for picking out telling details, for tracing currents of thought through centuries, and for telegraphing detail into a paragraph without drying it out. It clarifies many of those names and terms that keep popping up, but tend to be explained only in terms of day-to-day politics.

He's particularly successful explaining the Islamic world through the eyes of Muslim thinkers. So, for instance, much of the military history is described in terms of 14th-century writer Ibn Khaldun, and his ideas of repeated conquest by close-knit tribal groups (Once in power, these groups become entangled in bureaucracy and urban life, zhence lose their sense of community and so fall victim to the next invaders). Ruthven falls flat only when he turns to modern Western intellectuals for ideas: Marx, Freud and Jung all look ridiculous here.

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth. Feminist tract from 1990. Powerful as a polemic, fairly convincing as an account of how ideals of beauty are used against women, but almost silent as to why. The 'beauty myth' becomes a free-floating malignant entity, causing oppression but itself without a cause.

More economics might have helped Wolf here, especially in the chapter on employment. Are women discriminated against at work because they are female, or because those who are already weak are easiest to exploit? I half-suspect she left out this kind of analysis deliberately, as it would have put off chunks of her audience.

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. Market reforms are like torture, says Klein: they're most effective when the victims are too bewildered to resist. It's not so convincing as an argument, but serviceable as an excuse to string together analysis of political repression and market liberalisation.

Most persuasive is her account of Chicago School economists as an organised, influential force that took advange of - or created - economic and political catastrohes to advance a neoliberal agenda. Except - she somehow thinks right-wing economists are the only group with long-standing agendas, who wait for crises in which to advance them. What about Marxists with their vanguards, with their dialectic of spontaneity and organisation, their plans to lead the people when they rise? For that matter, in any revolution you'll find discontent being used to serve ulterior aims. The free-marketeers have won in recent decades because their ideas were in the ascendant, not because they were the first to take advantage of crises.

December 29, 2007

Images from 'carceri d'invenzione', by 18th-century artist Giovanni Piranesi. Eisenstein called them 'architectural frenzies'; they're extremes that could never exist beyond art or film.