4/29/2011 12:21:41 PM
Readers of late have been bombarded with literary mash-ups. Who ever thought our culture would survive that Jane Austen/B-horror meme? Well, you might want to sit down for the latest literary spoof.
Playbill commissioned a video dubbed “Jersey Shore Gone Wilde” to promote a current production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The way-too-funny short features one-liners once uttered by the thick-headed, hyper-sexualized, booze-guzzling cast of MTV’s reality series Jersey Shore—but delivered with snarky wit by professional actors in 19th-century clothing.
There’s an odd appropriateness to the combination that The Book Bench’s Elizabeth Minkel touches on: “Imagining Wilde and The Situation in the same cultural sphere isn’t a particularly easy task, but after all, didn’t Wilde once write, ‘We are all in the gutter…’? Yeah, let’s just leave it at that.”
Source: The Book Bench
4/26/2011 12:53:00 PM
Aristotle once said that “The mathematical sciences particularly exhibit order, symmetry, and limitation; and these are the greatest forms of the beautiful.” But mathematics isn’t the only trade capable of harnessing the balanced beauty of symmetry. Cinematography does a fine job as well.
Filmmakers at Everynone, experts at turning quaint shots of mundane life into moments of epiphany, collaborated with WNYC’s Radiolab program for a new short video called “Symmetry.” Like a pocketful of shiny two-sided coins, “Symmetry” juxtaposes pairs of complementary objects in quick, beautiful succession.
Some of the pairings are what we’d think of as typical symmetry—twin brothers standing beside each other, two glasses half-full or half-empty—but others challenge our notion of the pleasing spatial form. I won’t give any of the couplings away—it’s more powerful to let the images speak for themselves.
Symmetry from Everynone on Vimeo.
4/20/2011 2:55:41 PM
When we caught up with Steve Earle, he was hanging out in New Orleans on the set of HBO’s Treme, waiting to shoot a scene for season two. It’s the second time Earle has gotten into character for the show’s co-creator, David Simon. In Simon’s critically acclaimed The Wire, he played a bit part as a former junkie turned 12-step guru. In Treme, he plays an insightful street musician named Harley. In both cases, he has drawn on personal experience. “The Wire really required no acting,” he says wryly. “The role called for a redneck recovering addict. I could do that.”
Earle—a Townes Van Zandt disciple and self-described hillbilly—is a storyteller who’s drawn on personal experience and keen observation to create more than a dozen studio recordings, including three Grammy Award winners, and a collection of short fiction. This month, his newest recording, I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive, hits the streets. Next month, his debut novel of the same name will be published by Houghton Mifflin.
In the midst of the most prolific period of his career, the down-to-earth but steadfastly irreverent Earle talked about his move to New York, the craft of writing, and the art of politics.
Let’s talk about the new record. What will we hear when we hit play?
In a lot of ways, it’s the most country record I’ve made in a long time. There’s fiddle on it, pedal steel, and some things I haven’t used in a while. It features the same rhythm section that [the record’s producer] T-Bone Burnett worked with on the Alison Kraus/Robert Plant record [Raising Sand]. Dennis Kraus, who also plays in my bluegrass band, is the bass player. The guitar player is Jackson Smith, Patti’s son. Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek is playing fiddle. There’s a duet with [wife] Allison [Moorer]. And it also includes “This City,” which we recorded in New Orleans for Treme. T-Bone came to town to record that song, and Allen Toussaint wrote the horn charts. The rest of it was recorded in like five days in November.
What does a producer like T-Bone Burnett bring to the table?
When I produce I’m an arranger. I’m a cheerleader. T-Bone is all of that. Over the years he’s assembled a group of players that I’ve heard him and others compare to the Stax house band. But there’s a difference: The Stax group, the Wrecking Crew, and all these other sections were put together to make hit records. This group of people was put together to make art—and to make it appear effortless. It was hard to get us all together because of schedules and other stuff, but once we got in the studio it was the easiest record I’ve ever made.
Death is reoccurring theme on the new record. What accounts for that emphasis?
What happened in the last three years is that my dad died, and he was really sick before he died. My family, which is very close, still hasn’t recovered from it. It got me thinking about my experiences with mortality and spirituality. I’m a hippie basically. I grew up in a pretty wide-open spiritual atmosphere. And it’s one of the things that saved my life. I think that when I finally decided that I didn’t want to die and I could get clean, I had no problem with the spiritual element of it. I never questioned whether there was a God or not. I’m not a Christian or anything close to one, but I definitely believed there was a power greater than myself. That helped a lot. That was half the battle. My spiritual system is 12-step programs.
So you still go to meetings regularly?
Trust me, when I stop going to meetings you’ll read about me somewhere else.
In May, your new novel, also titled I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive, will be in bookstores. It seems you’re really stretching out as a writer.
This is the first full-length novel. I published a collection of short fiction about nine years ago. I’ve written one play. That’s why I moved to New York, because of theater. I’m working on a play now. And while I swore that I’d never write another novel toward the end of this last project, I already have an idea for another one. I just like to write. It was kind of recovery thing. I started writing poetry and prose after I got clean. I also think all the other creative things I do make my home-base craft stronger. I think that’s borne out by the songs on the new record.
As a writer, what is your daily discipline? And where do you get your ideas?
I write what I’m going to write the first few hours of the day before the phone starts ringing. I write with a computer. I don’t use a pencil anymore. I wake up early, like 6 or 6:30, and write most of what I’m going to write by the middle of the day. It’s funny: I don’t understand people who wander around New York City with ear buds in, because you’re just listening to the same shit over and over again, and you’re missing all the music, and you’re missing all the lines, and you’re missing all of that stuff. Writing is not that original. It doesn’t spring full grown from a person. It’s coming from without.
So has relocating to New York affected you creatively?
I moved to New York to breathe the same air as Tony Kushner. I don’t think I could have continued to create anything if I would have continued living in Tennessee. And that’s nothing against Tennessee. It just became more and more of a hostile environment. Not in the sense that people were hostile to me, but I just felt a little stimulus-starved. I was really in danger of becoming an old fart there, just stagnating.
You’re known for your work against the death penalty, and from the stage you can be very outspoken. Does politics fuel your work?
I’m not a political writer. I know people have a hard time believing that. There’s political stuff on my records, but the songs have always been about the way politics affects human beings. But I still write more songs about girls than I do anything. I write and I make things up. And I’m outspokenly political because I think I would be a pussy if I wasn’t. To have realized as much from doing something that I love to do and to not use that position to talk about things that I think are wrong would be irresponsible. If I irritate other people, it doesn’t cost anyone any money but me—and I’m OK with that. I’m just trying to keep from going to hell.
How are you feeling about the current political environment?
I’m pissed off. I’m angry. It’s tough for me. But I try not to be negative, and I’m dedicated to being part of the political process. I’m having a hard time. I’ve always thought that Obama was a little bit too Clintonesque for me to be comfortable with. He wants to make everyone happy so desperately. It does count that he’s black, though. It does count that we elected a black president. We are a better nation for that.
So, a new record, a new book, a play in the works, a new season of Treme—you’re in the midst of one helluva year.
The record comes out in April, and I’m going to do a record store and radio station tour. In May I’m doing a book tour. And then the band starts touring in June. It will be good. If I stay really, really busy, make music, and talk to my sponsor, I should be OK.
4/18/2011 12:06:56 PM
Here in the Utne offices we’ve been thinking a lot about ourselves lately. Not necessarily because we’re narcissistic—though if we believe what we read, we probably are—but because our latest issue tackles the whole idea of narcissism in the modern world. From Christopher Lasch’s prophetic take on the narcissism pandemic to a millennial sticking up for her generation to a look at the state of the novel in today’s narcissistic culture, the current Utne Reader looks at the issue from many different angles.
The good folks over at Miller-McCunehave chimed in on the subject, too, by way of song lyrics. Apparently the trend over the last few decades in pop music lyrics has gone from “we” to “me.”
“Vocalists often warm up by singing “Mi, mi, mi, mi, mi,” writes Tom Jacobs. “But increasingly, the songs they perform—or at least those that make the top 10 lists—are odes to ‘Me, me, me, me, me.’”
Using something called the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program researchers analyzed lyrics, looking for words that would imply a shift to “a focus on the self,” such as first-person singular pronouns (I, me, mine), as opposed to first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our). The researchers also found an increase in “words reflecting anger or antisocial behavior (hate, kill, damn).”
So, what does it all mean? In the spirit of all this self-love, why don’t you tell us?
To see the rest of the articles on narcissism go to the table of contents for the May-June issue.
(Related: See “Lonely Together” from the March-April issue of Utne Reader, about John Cacioppo, who argues that loneliness isn’t some personality defect or sign of weakness—it’s a survival impulse like hunger or thirst, a trigger pushing us toward the nourishment of human companionship.)
4/15/2011 12:32:28 PM
Here’s a problem that most of us never have to face: You're young, you're trying to get established, and the work you do becomes such a skyrocket success that there's almost no place to go but down. Think child actor here, or viral internet sensation, teen music heartthrob, teenage tennis champion—any of those rare persons who are everywhere one moment only to disappear a few moments later and are never heard from again. This is perhaps what F. Scott Fitzgerald was thinking about when he wrote: "There are no second acts in American lives." Or, more recently, what Kurt Cobain was pondering when he quoted Neil Young in his suicide note: "It's better to burn out than to fade away."
Chris Burden is a case study for how quick and early success can affect the course of an artistic career. In 1971, at age 25, Burden became suddenly famous (or infamous) throughout the art world. That year, in the F Space gallery in Los Angeles, Burden made a performance piece titled "Shoot," in which he had an assistant point a rifle at his left arm and shoot it. And art would be changed forever afterward. Never mind that Burden, when interviewed a year later, talked about the influence of the Vietnam War on the piece and "about the difference between how people reacted to soldiers being shot in Vietnam and how they reacted to fictional people being shot on commercial TV….What does it mean not to avoid being shot, that is, by staying home or avoiding the war, but to face it head on?" In the midst of the self-absorbed and recessional 1970s—which starkly contrasted to the wild, communitarian, and innovative 1960s—critics and observers had a hard time getting past a basic reductive formula: This crazy artist would go to any length to turn his body into art. Through the whole of the 1970s, artists would spearhead only a few new art movements—just mail art, installation art, neoexpressionism (which, of course, was a throwback to an earlier movement)—and in this lull Burden's performances stood out.
Burden followed "Shoot" with a series of memorable performances. In "Five Day Locker Piece" (1971), he spent five days crammed inside a two-foot by two-foot locker. In "Deadman" (1972), he lay still beneath a tarpaulin as though he were a corpse, and in "Bed Piece" (1972) he stayed in a bed in the Market Street Program gallery in Venice, California, for twenty-two straight days. Each successive work of Burden's from this period was designed to test the limits of his endurance, strength, flexibility and tolerance for pain. He hung himself upside down and naked over a basketball court ("Movie on the Way Down," 1973); he crawled naked through broken glass on a local 10-second TV spot ("Through the Night Softly" 1973); and he lay on the floor of a Chicago gallery beneath a piece of glass for forty-five consecutive hours ("Doomed," 1975). One of his most notorious works from this period was called "Transfixed." For this performance, which took place in 1974 on Speedway Avenue in Venice, California, Burden lay down on the rear of a Volkswagen Beetle and had nails hammered into both of his hands, as if he were being crucified. The car was pushed out of a garage for a few minutes, its engine revved at full throttle, and then pushed back inside.
This string of youthful performances were so widely observed that they took on a life beyond the artist, helping create a new art genre, endurance art, and influencing a generation of imitators—some noteworthy; most forgettable. For a time in the 1970s, it seemed his ideas were the only new thing going. While I was in art school in the early 1990s, a professor who was acquainted with Burden, Tom Holste, spoke of the artist as a shamanistic psychopomp for the modern world. This likely was because, in his work Burden often seemed to enter a trancelike state in order, perhaps, to commune on our behalf with a supernatural or spiritual world. (A psychopomp is a figure who escorts newly deceased souls to the spirit world.) This early work also gave Chris Burden a formidable reputation even beyond the circles that cared about such things. Norman Mailer referenced Burden's work in his 1973 essay and book on graffiti art, The Faith of Graffiti. (Mailer held up Burden as an example of the Romantic, civilized artist in contrast to the more primitive impulses that guided graffiti artists.) Burden even entered the popular consciousness. His performance "Transfixed" was mentioned in David Bowie's 1977 song "Joe the Lion," and his "Shoot" provided the inspiration for Laurie Anderson's 1977 song "It's Not the Bullet that Kills You–It's the Hole (for Chris Burden)." "I used to use myself as a target," Anderson sang. "I used myself as a goal. I was digging myself so much, I was digging me so much, I dug myself right into a hole."
By 1978, "dug myself into a hole" may have been an apt description of how Burden was feeling. For some time, each new performance work seemed designed to be more sensational than the last, an obvious creative dead end. And now that he was into his 30s, his body was less able to endure what his intellect imagined for it. Compounding Burden's frustration, perhaps, is the fact that the intention of most of his performances was widely misunderstood. A few observers were aware of this at the time. Robert Horwitz, writing in Artforum in May 1976, said of Burden's work: "Like most reductivist art, his work is under-articulated. That is, the information presented is so limited that one set of facts may suggest—indeed, may encourage—a number of conflicting interpretations and offer no means of determining which were intended by the artist…. Inaccessibly private responses, feelings and insights are woven into its basic structure. Nor can one distinguish between those qualities that are specifically attributable to the work from those that are ambient or latent in the environment." (Horwitz also added that Burden's ambiguity was likely a strength, serving "to set the work apart from the general flux of experience.")
For reasons that the artist has never fully explained, Burden quit making performance art works around 1977 or 1978. Also in 1978, Burden became a professor in the art department at the University of California in Los Angeles. And while he made art objects in the years following, none of it ever attracted anything like the attention that his early performance work did. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote, in 2007, that Burden's work since the late 70s was comprised of "one-off wonders." Burden's career was, at least in the upper echelons of the art world, for the most part as cast-off and forgotten as Linda Blair, Lief Garrett, and Tracy Austin.
Burden was forgotten, that is, up until a few years ago. The seeds of Burden's return to the international art spotlight were sown around the turn of the century. In 1999, Burden, now in his 50s, created an installation for the Tate Gallery in London called "When Robots Rule: The Two Minute Airplane Factory." Burden had commissioned a studio of sculptural engineers to create a machine that would make, in an assembly-line way, a series of rubber band-powered toy airplanes out of tissue paper, plastic, and balsa wood. A placard in the gallery explained to viewers how various parts of the machine, which churned away throughout the exhibition, were intended to work. The only hitch was the factory did not. No actual airplanes were ever created. In fact, no actual material ever ran through the machine.
The resulting consternation and attention paid to this work—was this a joke? was this intentional?—brought international attention back to Burden for the first time since the 1970s. He followed with more compelling work: A "Ghost Ship" that had no crew and, piloted using on-board computers and a GPS system, undertook a 5-day, 330 mile trip off the coast of England; a sculptural piece, called "The Flying Steamroller," that used a flying level to send a steamroller flying through the air; an installation, for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, called "Urban Light" that was comprised of 202 closely clustered, fully operational vintage streetlights (a work that has proved so popular that its become a popular location for wedding photos and fashion shoots and was even featured in a recent Hollywood romantic comedy); and, most recently, two variations ("Metropolis I" and "Metropolis II") on a model imaginary city constructed of erector-set parts, machinery, conveyor belts, building blocks, toy car tracks, and similar materials, feeling and sounding very much like a modern-nightmare version of a Rube Goldberg machine.
"Metropolis II" is, for now, the centerpiece creation of this newly reemerged artist. Recently loaned by the artist for 10 years to Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it is an overwhelming thing: more than 1,000 cars clack loudly through the machinery and across tracks and curves, filling the space with a constant roar of sound; individual cars are impossible to discern as they move around the construction, through the various machines, girders, and block constructions, and eventually return to the end of the tracks to start the churning process all over again. The cars zip along the track at speeds of up to (relative to their size) 100 mph, and they are intended to continue doing so until they wear out. Burden has said about this work that it is a "poetic" (as opposed to a "realistic") portrait of "L.A. or any modern city," even as he has also suggested the work "does produce anxiety" because of the constant movement, the noise, and the endless clacking bustle and turmoil. In sum, this is a provocative piece in the way that poetry about death is provocative: We know there is likely more truth in this fancy portrait than there is in any realistic portrayal.
Among its many attributes, "Metropolis II" begs us to reconsider Burden's complete oeuvre and its intentions. All of his work—even his early seminal performance work—has one thing in common. It all has pointed to the unreality and futility that rules modern life. The pain we projected onto his early work was not just the artist’s alone, but was also our pain. At first this was expressed by setting up impossible and quixotic tasks for himself while he stood in for us, but later, after the personal performances had run their course—or perhaps after Burden had grown up enough to start looking outwardly—this meant creating structures that reflected the modern urban condition. In the end, Chris Burden was less a shaman steering souls to an alternate world, than he was a prophet revealing the beautiful pain and equisite futility of our own.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications.
4/14/2011 11:38:27 AM
It comes but once a year: a day to revel in the nostalgia of crate-digging, needle-dropping, and, later, groovin’ to crackle-sweet tunes. We’re talking about Record Store Day—Saturday, April 16th this year—a special chance to get your hands dusty and support your neighborhood vinyl shop. Record Store Day is also an exciting day for musicians: Many artists release curious, experimental, or unexpected albums on wax in honor of the day. On top of that, to titillate the fervent collectors, many of those releases are pressed in very limited quantity. Here’s a list of some of the most exciting LPs, 45s, tapes, and reissues coming out on Record Store Day 2011.
Thrill Jockey record label is dishing up two split LPs. Americana Primitive folk bards Glenn Jones and Charlie Parr share one release, which includes dusky steel guitar and down-home recipes in the liner notes. In the opposite aesthetic direction, German minimal electronic wunderkind Oval splits another LP with experimental black metal group Liturgy.
Now-punk-superstars Green Day team up with then-punk-superstars Hüsker Du this year. On the A-side of this construction-orange 7”, Green Day cover Hüsker Du’s classic “I Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely.” The original is on the B-side.
Similarly, another 7” has the well-bearded thrash metal group Mastodon covering “Just Got Paid” by the original well-bearded group ZZ Top. Original on the B-side.
Sub Pop record label’s collection “Terminal Sales Vol. 4: Please to Enjoy” features much of its current roster of artists. If you don’t feel like dropping the cash for the die-cut packaging and 18-print booklet, you can listen to it for nothin’ online:
Minneapolis-based college radio station Radio K has a comprehensive collection of local and national independent music—on tape. Tracklist here.
Shoegaze-pioneers Guided by Voices have amassed a near-cult-like following, even among musicians. Sing For Your Meat is a tribute album to GBV, featuring the likes of a few well-known fans: Thurston Moore, Elf Power, Flaming Lips, and Blitzen Trapper.
Upcoming record indie label Sacred Bones unleashed a collection of b-sides and rarities called Todo Muere Vol. 1. The tracks taken exclusively from the label’s killer lineup, which includes Zola Jesus, Moon Duo, and Cult of Youth.
Omnivore Records repressed Big Star’sThird—but dolled it up as a “test pressing,” with liner notes from the original studio sessions. One in every 300 copies will include an actual test pressing from 1975—signed by the surviving member of the band.
Fela Kuti changed the way we think about “international” music, so one of the more historic releases this year is Fela Kuti and the Africa 70’s remastered Monday Morning in Lagos 1 & 2.
Hormoaning EP was originally released in Australia. For the first time, it hits shelves in the US.
I’d bet you remember the first time you heard The Doors—Jim Morrison’s blunt yet cryptic intonations of psychedelic drug use captured the imagination of '70s counter culture. In honor of L.A. Woman’s 40th anniversary, “Riders on the Storm” will be released with a mono radio-version of the track on the B-side.
Get some heady nuggs, and by that I mean a neato Flaming Lips box set. This one is packed with the first five albums the band released with Warner Bros. records. Duuuuuude!
For hardcore fans of The White Stripes (admittedly, it’s hard to tell if they’re still a band from one day to the next), the duo are putting out two 7” 45s with singles from 1998. On one you find “Lafayette Blues” and “Sugar Never Tasted So Good,” and on the other “Let’s Shake Hands” and “Look Me Over Closely.”
Odds and Ends
Did you see Tron: Legacy in the theater this winter? If so, you’ll agree that Daft Punk’s electro-cinematic soundtrack was as gripping, if not more so, than the movie itself. Now you can get hits from the OST on one of three different embellished translucent 10-inchers.
Sun-soaked lo-fi group Dom are releasing what they claim to be the world’s first three-sided 7-inch. How does it work, you ask? Side A is double grooved, so when you drop the needle, you won’t know until the song starts whether you’re hearing a remix or an exclusive track. Super neat!
Bull Moose record stores have been serving crate-diggers fromMaine and New Hampshire for years. This Record Store Day you can snag a performance by The Decemberists at one of the Bull Moose stores. This EP features songs from their latest effort The King is Dead as well as a cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love.”
Last but not least, at more than 700 record independently owned record stores you’ll be able to find a special issue of Utne Reader devoted to Americana and rootsy rock. Look inside for profiles of Steve Earle, Johnny Cash, Todd Rundgren, Jayhawks, and more!
Of course, you can always look through the stack of old, forgotten LPs from the days when vinyl was “still cool.”
Image courtesy of Record Store Day.
4/13/2011 4:10:18 PM
The typical U.S. historical marker, cast iron with raised lettering, usually raises more questions than it answers, and many of these signs are rife with errors and bias. Artist Norm Magnusson’s I-75 Project uses the form for a different sort of provocation.
Magnusson hopes to install these signs at rest stops along the 1,775-mile Insterstate 75, which stretches from Michigan to Florida. He has already shown them in several states and is seeking funding for the proposed installation. Thick Culture quotes him on their sly, Zinn-meets-Banksy appeal:
“ ‘Are they real?’ is a question viewers frequently ask, meaning ‘are they state-sponsored?’ I love this confusion and hope to slip a message in while people are mulling it over. These markers are just the kind of public art I really enjoy: gently assertive and non-confrontational, firmly thought-provoking and pretty to look at and just a little bit subversive.”
Source: Thick Culture
Images courtesy of
4/13/2011 9:12:55 AM
Paula Rabinowitz had no trouble remembering the first or the last time she saw Bob Dylan before his concert last Friday night in Shanghai.
“I was at Newport (Folk Festival) in 1963 when he went electric,” said the Minneapolis woman, a Fulbright Scholar living in Shanghai. “Nobody really booed.”
As for the last time, it was election night in 2008. Rabinowitz accompanied rock critic Greil Marcus to a Dylan performance at the University of Minnesota. Rabinowitz sat in the fourth row with Marcus, whose daughter was her student.
“Dylan came out on the stage and announced that Obama had won. People started dancing,” she said.
Rabinowitz will likely remember the show at the Shanghai Gymnasium for similarly historic reasons. Dylan was permitted to perform in China for the first time only when he agreed to submit a set list to the National Ministry of Culture. The government had expressed concern that Dylan might “offend the feelings” of the Chinese people with protest songs.
Dylan sang “Desolation Row” Friday night, and the sky didn’t fall. He apparently didn’t hurt the feelings of Chinese fans in attendance.
Dylan sang his 12-minute 1965 anthem midway through the second show of his tour of China. He performed “Desolation Row” in Taiwan on Sunday night but not on Wednesday in Beijing in mainland China.
The audience at the 8,000-seat Shanghai Gymnasium reflected the international population of the city.
“It’s going to be an epic show,” said a Peoria, Illinois, man who identified himself as “Bob Admire” and said he was a Caterpillar employee in town on business. “He’s got a serious band with him.”
Dylan’s band included guitarist Charley Sexton and bassist Tony Garnier, who accompanied him during an appearance at the Iowa State Fair in August 2001.
On the fairgrounds stage that night, the best-song Oscar which Dylan won earlier in the year sat on an amplifier. Almost 10 years later, the statue was here in Shanghai, where “Things Have Changed”—the Oscar-winning third song on Friday’s play list—might have served as the anthem of this historic tour for Dylan.
Something had to serve in place of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” neither of which Dylan sang in Beijing or Shanghai. The earlier show in Taipei closed with an encore of “Blowin’.”
Scalpers bought a considerable number of the tickets available for the concert. At show time, an entire section of seats in front of the stage sat empty.
“I don’t know what to do,” said a young French man named Hugo, who stood outside the concert hall, undecided whether to pay scalpers for a ticket. “If I don’t get a ticket, I’ll go home and cry.”
“That’s Shanghai for you,” said Amy, a Dylan fan from Perth, Australia. “The concert is supposedly sold out, but scalpers bought the tickets and scanned them. You don’t know if they’re real or not.”
A fortyish, Chinese financial analyst, Ray, surmised why the Chinese in the audience appeared mostly young, while westerners, particularly Americans, were likely baby boomers.
“Dylan’s huge impact on American society occurred during our cultural revolution,” he said. “The Chinese didn’t start listening to western folk music until much later.”
Peggy Phillips, who has lived in Shanghai for 10 years, hadn’t attended a Dylan concert since her college years in Boston in the mid-1970s.
“He is an icon from my golden years,” Phillips said.
As Dylan launched into “Like A Rolling Stone,” his next-to-last song, fans streamed down the main-floor aisles and cheered.
“I’m surprised the audience was so passionate,” said Ray about his normally reserved compatriots. “This concert was such a good sign.”
A 16-year-old Chinese girl, Ann, stood on her seat in the last row of the auditorium, singing and waving her arms. A student at a Shanghai international school who came to the concert with her Columbian teacher, Ann most wanted to hear “Like A Rolling Stone.”
“I have had the time of my life,” she said. She began listening to Dylan on the Internet when she read a children’s book that alluded to him. “It is hypocritical and censorship that the government had to review the songs he’d sing.”
Dylan, who turns 70 in May, performed in Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday night. He closed with “Forever Young” and did not return to the stage for an encore.
4/12/2011 12:57:41 PM
Even for a music snob, it’s hard to keep up with the constant influx of new bands and their increasingly obscure names. Just sample a few current oddities: Mel Gibson & the Pants, Hunx and His Punx, The Tony Danza Tap Dance Extravaganza, Ramadanman, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Wolves in the Throne Room, Shabazz Palaces, Yuck. That’s exactly the point of Chicago Tribune’s Mark Caro, who—in an age of 14 million musical acts registered on MySpace—laments the bygone days of simple band names.
“Snowflakes fluttered down, lightning flashed and inspiration for a brilliant new band name struck,” writes Caro, describing a swiftly-dashed rock-epiphany. “Thundersnow.”
Mind you, I don’t actually have a band, but in my rock-geek fantasy life, I’m constantly in search of the perfect band name, so I vetted this one in the commonly accepted 21st century method: I Googled it.
Sure enough, not only is there a Madison, Wis., rock band called Thundersnow on MySpace but also a Rochester, N.Y., metal band named ThunderSnow.
Sigh. This seems to be the case with just about any clever band name you might come up with.
Ever helpful, the snarky folks over at SFWeekly compiled a list of words not to use when brainstorming your band’s new moniker. On the list: magic, crystal, bear, black, and teen.
Bands from a new genre called witch house—a spooky, throbby, sample-heavy variant of electronica—are sidestepping the problem completely. “A growing number of artists” writes Wired’s Angela Watercutter, “have found that by using symbols in their name they can make it to the top of playlists even if they’re not ranked at the top of Google results.” She explains:
Using crazy characters to subvert the music industry isn’t entirely novel. Prince did it when he became . MIA made a similar move by calling her latest album /\/\ /\ Y /\. But the new symbolists, like and , are not only hard for search engines to unearth but also nearly impossible to talk about offline (how do you pronounce “” again?).
Perhaps, though, we’ve entered a new phase of music culture in which getting your name out there isn’t (exactly) the point. “[F]or those in the know, the names create a parallel universe,” writes Watercutter. “On Last.fm stations, MySpace pages, blogs, and Vimeo channels, tracking down one artist can lead to dozens more. It’s a highly engineered musical underground hidden in plain sight.”
Sources: Chicago Tribune, SFWeekly, Wired
Image by kainet, licensed under Creative Commons. (For what it's worth, the pictured band is called Habeus Corpus.)
4/6/2011 11:05:18 AM
In the latest issue of Utne Reader Julianna Barwick’s sound is described as “somewhere between a lullaby and a hymn,” and The Magic Place, her first full-length album, as “channeling the vocal force of what seems an entire medieval church choir.” Now the ethereal singer has attempted to bring that sound to life visually in this video for the title track of the album. Pitchforkdescribes the Jacob Corbin-directed video as “a slow moving journey through a variety of evocative, digitized landscapes, [that] features footage from the 1983 film Celebration: I Am All of These.” Check out the video below and go to Pitchfork for Barwick's tour dates.
Julianna Barwick - "The Magic Place" from Jacob Corbin on Vimeo.
4/4/2011 11:08:47 AM
It has often seemed a foregone conclusion, but it has finally happened: Dissident Chinese artist and blogger Ai Weiwei has been detained in a Chinese government crackdown, and supporters fear he may be charged with subversion or held indefinitely.
Here at Utne Reader, we have followed Ai’s defiant trajectory with an unsettling sense of foreboding. In 2009, we reprinted an interview with Ai Weiwei from Index on Censorship in which he explained his outspokenness against the Chinese government, which he says is “against humanity”:
“For me this is not a responsibility: It is part of life. If you live in self-punishment or self-imposed ignorance or lack of self-awareness, it genuinely diminishes your existence. Self-censorship is insulting to the self. Timidity is a hopeless way forward.”
By later in 2009 it was clear that Ai was being closely watched, and in January his studio complex was razed in a blatant act of intimidation.
Now he has been held for two days, and signs from the Chinese government and police are troubling: That is, they’ve given no sign at all that they’ve even detained him. Reporters are being hung up on, websites are being scrubbed of references to the incident, and Ai is joining dozens of other activists and critics who have “disappeared” in recent months.
Ai’s very life has often seemed like performance art. But now the narrative arc of the performance is out of his hands, and many fellow Chinese and China watchers worry that his story will become something that his life has never been: routine.
Read Twitter reactions from Ai’s fellow Chinese liberals at Global Voices.
UPDATE 4/10/11: Ai Weiwei has now been held three days. See China Digital Times for numerous links and analysis related to his detention.
Sources: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Global Voices, China Digital Times
4/1/2011 4:22:13 PM
America loves superheroes. Britain, not so much. Nick Harkaway at the British magazine Prospect points out that “John Constantine, the brutal magus anti-hero of DC Comics’ Hellblazer, once observed that Britain is a country where no one would have the nerve to wear a cape in public, even if they did have powers far beyond those of mortal men.”
Meanwhile, Americans, having flocked to films about Iron Man, Spiderman, and the Hulk, will likely do the same this spring and summer for movies featuring Thor (May), the X-Men (June), and Captain America (July).
What’s the attraction? Harkaway suggests America’s fascination with firearms plays a key role in our love for caped crusaders:
The gun, of course, is the elephant in the room in all superhero stories. Despite—and because of—the central position occupied by guns in American culture, superheroes exist in a space where conventional firearms are the tool of lesser men. Superman simply ignores them—in the latest movie, a bullet impacts with the lens of his eye and shatters—and Batman is so adept in his control of situations and martial artistry that he is immune. Iron Man’s armour is impervious, likewise Captain America’s shield, Green Lantern’s ring, the car in Green Hornet. X-Men’s Wolverine heals instantly and has an indestructible skeleton. Their refusal to take up the gun shows their superhuman natures, and sanctions their non-lethal actions. If Batman is going to disadvantage himself in this way, it’s only fair that he break a few arms and legs. Mundane concerns melt away, leaving only extraordinary ones, which are vehicles for questions of identity and about what such power means.
, licensed under
4/1/2011 11:34:22 AM
Sometimes great cultural breakthroughs are watershed events, celebrated far and wide. When evolutionary forces conspired to mesh Appalachian hill music, Mississippi River Delta blues, and big-city boogie woogie and create a wholly new cultural entity in Elvis Presley, the country duly rejoiced. Other cultural milestones, however, arrive not at all with a bang. They percolate underground for forty years or more, roiling through several generations of evolution, adoption, innovation, and cultural adaptation, until they find a more gradual, quieter, and less publicized acceptance by the mainstream.
Such an anticlimax was the subtext of a peculiar moment during the most recent Academy Awards ceremony this past February. Only a half-hour into the event, presenter Justin Timberlake leaned into the mic, before announcing the winners of the best animated film awards, and deadpanned, "I, uh--… I’m Banksy." Then he straightened and said, "Wow, that felt good." The cryptic joke provoked mild and scattered laughter from the bemused audience, while another smaller, more select and distant subset of American culture—such as many Hollywood elites, who had become collectors after Banksy’s controversial Los Angeles 2006 show “Barely Legal”—rejoiced. At long last, Street Art had hit the mainstream.
The immediate impetus for Timberlake’s joke was Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film nominated for the 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature that was made by the street artist Banksy and that much of which took place in and around Los Angeles. The film is notable for leaving the audience in the dark not only about Banksy’s true identity (his face is blacked out and voice altered throughout the film), but also about whether the actual subject of the film—a filmmaker-cum-street artist named Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash—is or is not a hoax perpetrated by Banksy and others. This sort of “culture jamming,”—i.e., subverting, for political reasons, of mainstream cultural institutions (in this case, the art market and Hollywood)—is a hallmark of artists who work in Banksy’s chosen milieu and medium. After all, Banksy first came to international attention in the summer of 2005 for a series of mildly political guerrilla art works executed, by the artist and his assistants, in view of security forces on the Israeli West Bank barrier separating Israel.
But while Timberland’s joke may represent Banksy’s emergence into mainstream awareness, it also was an unprecedented mainstream nod to the legitimacy of graffiti culture and the entire street art movement, a nod that had been many, many years in coming. Exactly how many years is difficult to say, of course. Public scratch marks—“graffiti” derives from the Italian word sgraffiare, “to scratch,” and before that from the Greek gráphein, “to write”—have been found in urban settlements forever. The equivalent of “for a good time call _____” has been found in graffiti among the ruins of ancient Ephesus, Rome, and Pompeii. And while this shows that the impulse for public scratching and writing is essentially human, over the centuries these markings rarely, if ever, rose to the level of “art.”
The idea of graffiti as an art form (that is, street art) has a murkier history. While scholars note the avant-garde art adoption of graffiti forms as early as the 1960s—in the work of the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism starting 1961 and of New York artists like John Fekner in the later 1960s—much of this work is coolly conceptual and somewhat lacking in the expressionistic verve, stylistic idiosyncracies, and other unique conventions of later street art. For my money, a more intriguing point of origin for the styles, conventions, materials, and means of expression of what we know today as street art can be found in the placas, or "wall writing," of los Sureños, or the Chicano street gangs of Los Angeles.
Starting in the 1960s, mysterious gang markings, usually made from black spray paint from the aerosol cans that had become increasingly common in the 1950s, proliferated all across Southern California. When I was a kid in the 1970s, you would find these hieroglyphs on the walls of city buildings, on suburban fences and playground walls, and under freeway overpasses or in flood control channels. Such graffiti served the purpose of marking territory and advertising a gang’s merits (over those of its rival Hispanic, African-American, and other gang), and also of culture jamming the dominant white culture of L.A.—i.e., sticking it in the face of the moneyed interests that ruled these kids’ lives. Each gang competed to develop more elaborate artistic flourishes—i.e, artistic style—in order to advertise what the gang was all about. In an era before the hyperawareness of gang culture—before N.W.A., Boyz n the Hood, and violence-glorifying video games focused on gang life—to many these markings were horribly evocative, infused with an abstract sense of menace and threat.
But the graffiti was not just advertisement. Sureño gang markings developed out of a long history of struggle against marginalization and prejudice. Beatrice Griffith, in her book from the late 1940s, American Me, describes the emergence of a proto-gangster lifestyle among the zoot suit pachucos who fought with servicemen stationed in L.A. during World War II and eventually rioted after the murder of a young Latino man in 1943. According to Susan A. Phillip’s history on L.A.-gang and hip-hop graffiti, Wallbangin’: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A., the graffiti of L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s was a means of communications that expressed something about hybrid cultural status of many of the young gang members making the marks. “Pachuco, cholo, pocho,” she writes. “Africans in America. People stuck in the spots betwixt and between cultures may be part of things but seem to belong nowhere…. Hybridity creates new social forms within the ‘layered conception of the modern world,’ balancing modernity and tradition.” This self-awareness among gangsters of their hybrid life led them to develop hybrid forms of communication that increasingly resembled art. Or, as Phillips quotes anthropologist Nestor Garcia Canclini: “Graffiti is a syncretic and transcultural medium. Some graffiti fuse word and image with a discontinuous style: the crowding together of diverse authors’ signs on a single wall is like an artisanal version of the fragmented and incongruent….”
For a skinny, faceless kid from Bristol, England, like Banksy to take on the style and working methods of the street-savvy Sureño wallbangers, and for him to come to Los Angeles forty years later to make a movie and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from sales of his graffiti-infused works of art, is of course ironic. But it is also, in our increasingly hybrid, synthesized, mishmashy, and multicultural world, somehow completely fitting.
Michael Fallon is a guest blogger for Utne.com. He is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications.
Both images are licensed under Creative Commons.
The author owes a debt of gratitude to the photographer Howard Gribble (a.k.a. Kid Deuce), whose Flickr photoset of 1970s-era L.A. gang graffiti (some examples of which are linked to above) is a treasure trove of visual information.
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!