Music Notes April 2012

April 30, 2012 at 11:39 pm (Uncategorized)

OK, I missed the Cribs and didn’t win tickets to Nick Lowe, but that’s no reason to cry there’s still plenty to enjoy…

1. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Street Light

It might be the contender for the dumbest album cover of he year (I won’t spoil it for you), but it’s a pretty good record. Not really a departure from their signature sound, but a certainly a pop inflected sensibility. And they play the Phoenix in Toronto this Saturday. Sold-out, so if you didn’t get a ticket…

2.Group Inerane – Guitars from Agandez vol 3

What is it about North African blues? If you like Tinariwen, this should be on your playlist too. Group Inerane are from Niger but have played all over the region. Hypnotic stuff.

3. Roy Harper – Flat Baroque and Berserk

Quite simply a fine, fine record. Harper’s voice and songs soar. One of those musicians that at the end of the day you’re scratching your head and saying why are they a star. Probably the best known song is “I Hate the White Man” but the album is full of other little folk gems too.

4. Wingless Angels – Wingless Angels

Keith Richards produces Jamaican musicians. Gotta be the ultimate blues-reggae jam right? Uh no, actually no, but the results are very pleasing. Keith is very much a background presence here, and it’s the Angels who at front and center. A slowed down sound that sounds like a soulful reggae church choir. This is the deluxe edition with a disc of extras.

5. Broadcast – Ha Ha Sound

Lovely British pop-electronica. New to me, but I love the singer’s voice. And then I heard she had passed away. A really shame as this is a marvellous little piece.

6. Tav Falco’s Panther Burns – Behind the Magnolia Curtain

I used to work at a college radio station. Once I happened upon Tav Falco’s version of  “bourgeois blues” and was hooked. It’s a terrific lumpy record. and the rest is just as good. Half the time the band sounds as if they’re playing three different songs. The production by Alex Chilton is spotty, and Burns himself is a lisping Elvis. And it’s great. This re-issue has the Blow Your Top EP as well.

7. The Slits – Peel Sessions

I find myself returning to the music of my youth these days. I’ve mentioned the deluxe version of Cut before (and you can find these songs there), but they’re also available separately. The first session in particular is extraordinary. There’s a rawness in their playing that blasts past any technical inabilities. It’s what made punk great. Not just the DIY of it, but the sense that you could truly express yourself. true, lots of it was rubbish, but these songs still sound fresh 35 years later.

8. Anna Calvi

Tired of waiting for that new Anna Calvi record? Fear not, there are downloads a plenty at her site. All free. No new songs, just versions of existing ones, but Anna is such a massive talent, it doesn’t really matter. Download, download. Anna Calvi

9. Cindi Lauper – Memphis Blues

Just for the strangeness of it,  Cyndi’s blues record. Not bad even.

10. The Folkes Brothers -” Oh, Carolina”

Every month I hear a song that makes me remember Socrates’ notion about ignorance being the beginning of wisdom. When I listen to this Jamaican folk-reggae I wonder how could life have been complete before hearing this. Next month, it will be something different, but until then…

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The Genesis creation myth is not unique

April 25, 2012 at 11:47 pm (Uncategorized)

Interesting piece courtesy of the Skeptics Society . There is nothing new under the sun.

The Skeptics Society Great Debate on Sunday, March 25, “Has Science Refuted Religion?,” (watch it for free on featured physicist Sean Carroll and Skeptic publisher Michael Shermer debating physicist Ian Hutchinson and conservative author Dinesh D’Souza. At one point Ian Hutchinson fished out an old chestnut of an argument, one often used by Christian apologists, that, to my mind, has too long gone without rebuttal. He stated that, of all the ancient creation myths only Genesis 1 features a transcendent deity who created the universe out of nothing and is independent of it. The argument, which Dinesh D’Souza also used in his 2007 book, What’s So Great About Christianity, is basically this: According to Big Bang cosmology the universe was created seemingly out of nothing 13.7 billion years ago; Genesis 1, featuring a god that created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing) is compatible with modern physics; and, in featuring a transcendent god—as opposed to gods who themselves rose out of a watery abyss and therefore did not transcend the physical world—is unique among all the ancient creation myths. This Christian apologetic argument, known as creation ex nihilo, is obscure enough that scientists and others debating Christian apologists are often baffled by it and without a reasonable rebuttal.

In reality, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is based on substance so gossamer thin that it’s surprising it can be seen to support such an edifice of theology. In fact, the entire argument rests on a single Bible verse, namely Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It is only because the verse neglects to say out of what God made the heavens and the earth that one can assume he made it out of nothing. Beyond being based on a single Bible verse, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo and the argument, voiced by both Hutchinson and D’Souza, for the unique nature of the transcendent God of Genesis and the compatibility of Genesis 1 with the Big Bang, are unsustainable, not only in regards to physics and biblical interpretation, but most especially when Genesis 1 is compared to other, earlier creation myths.

Does the Big Bang theory in fact claim creation ex nihilo? Consider the 2012 book A Universe From Nothing by physicist Lawrence Krauss.1 It seems that the “nothing” out of which material universes rise is, in fact, a quantum field: a nothing that really is a something. Without becoming ensnared in the abstruse discipline of cosmology, about which most of us, myself included, are profoundly ignorant, I might observe that the quantum field can be metaphorically related to the primeval chaos out of which first things emerge in many creation myths. That metaphor notwithstanding, I will, however, refrain from making the quantum field an argument for the validity of neo-pagan theology.

A particular weakness of the argument for creation ex nihilo is that it demands a rigorous, one to one, translation of a single Hebrew word in Genesis 1:1, bara, when its proponents should know that the definition of Hebrew words is often complicated because they have multiple meanings dependent on context. Bara not can not only mean “create,” but as well, “choose,” or “divide,” among other meanings. According to one Old Testament scholar, Professor Ellen van Wolde, in the context of Genesis 1 bara should be translated as “separate.” Thus, Genesis 1:1 should be translated, “In the beginning God separated the heavens and the earth.2 This fits the context of Genesis 1, in which the creation is presented as a series of separations: light is created and separated from darkness, the firmament of heaven is created to separate the waters above it from the waters below it, and the separation of land from water. This is followed by a series of creation events populating the separated realms—the land populated with plants, the firmament populated with heavenly bodies, the sea populated with fish and sea monsters, the air with birds, and the land, again, with animals—followed finally by the creation of humans in the image of God.

Another blow to the uniqueness of Genesis 1 is that it is almost certainly based on the sequence of creation events in Enuma elish, the Babylonian creation epic. In this story, after killing the chaos dragon Ti’amat, Marduk slices her body in half lengthwise, top to bottom, using the top half to created the firmament of heaven, separating the waters above from the waters below, and using the bottom half to create land separate from the waters below.3 Before Marduk had killed her, Ti’amat ruled over a chaotic, formless void, much like the initial state of creation in Genesis 1:2: “And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

The Hebrew word for the deep is tehom. In its feminine plural form, tehomot, “deeps,” it is cognate with the Akkadian, Ti’amat. Of course, Genesis 1 does not begin with a divine combat. That its author edited out an original combat between Yahweh and a chaos dragon can be seen from the many allusions to such a battle, with a serpent variously referred to as Leviathan and Rahab, salted throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Consider the following:

Psalms 74:13, 14: Thou didst divide the sea by thy might. Thou didst break the heads of the dragons of the waters. Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan. Thou didst give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

Psalms 89:10a: Thou didst crush Rahab like a carcass

Isaiah 51:9b: Was it not thou that didst cut Rahab in pieces, that didst pierce the dragon?

However, Christian apologists could easily argue that the similarities between Enuma elish and Genesis 1 are only coincidental and that Professor van Wolde is wrong in her interpretation of the verb bara. If, for the sake of argument, we accept that Genesis 1 clearly argues for creation ex nihilo, doesn’t that mean that it is unique among the many creation myths of the ancient world? In a word, no. While most of the Egyptian creation myths (there are several) begin with a creator deity rising from Nun, the watery abyss, there are a number of Egyptian papyri antedating the P Document creation story of Genesis 1—probably written no earlier than ca. 750 BCE—in which creation is presented as ex nihilo. One of these is the Papyrus of Princess Nesi Khensu, daughter of a priest-king of Thebes ca. 950 BCE, in which the god Amen Ra is conflated with the god Khepera or Khepri. The god is described as:4

…the lord of space, the mighty one of the form of Khepera, who came into existence in the form of Khepera, the lord of the form of Khepera; when he came into being nothing existed except himself.

An even earlier papyrus, the Papyrus Hunefur, now in the British Museum and dating from the 19th dynasty ca. 1285 BCE, referring to the God Ra, states:5

Thou art the one god who came into being in the beginning of time. Thou didst create the earth, Thou didst fashion man. Thou didst make the watery abyss of the sky [i.e. Nut]. Thou didst form Hapi [i.e. the Nile]. Thou didst create the great deep…

At this point, Christian apologists are likely to point out that the translations of Egyptian material by E.A. Wallis Budge are outdated and possibly faulty. However, in a more up to date translation of another text, a hymn to the god Ptah in the Papyrus Harris I, written during the reign of Ramesses III (1182–1151 BCE), also speaks of a transcendent god:6

Greetings to you exalted ancient one,
O Tatenen [Ptah] father of the gods,
Eldest god of the primeval time,
who shaped mankind and formed the gods,
Who began Becoming, is the first primeval god—
every event that occurred came after him.
Who created the sky according to what his heart imagined
and raised it like a feather
Who founded the world as his own creation,
circled it about with Ocean and the Great Green Sea
Who made the underworld, province for the dead
allowing Ra o sail across below to comfort them
Ruler of Eternity forever.

That Ptah is credited here with creating the sky and the sea, the two abysses from which the gods emerge, demonstrates that Ptah, in this hymn, was seen as independent of the abyss. This is reinforced a few lines down from those quoted above when Ptah is hailed as: “Who created the offerings for all the gods when he embodied himself as Nun, the primeval chaos.”7 Since, in those Egyptian creation stories in which the gods do rise out of the primordial chaos, that chaos or watery abyss is Nun, Ptah, by embodying himself as Nun becomes transcendent.

It was under Ramesses III that Bronze Age Egypt experienced its final hurrah, garrisoning troops in Canaan for the last time. Thus, even before the semi-legendary period depicted in the Book of Judges, when a tribal confederacy worshiping a henotheistic deity named Yahweh, was still competing for space with a host of other tribal groups, the already ancient civilization of Egypt had conceived of a transcendent god over all other gods, and this was not the God of the Bible.

Besides the Egyptians, the ancient Hindus also envisioned a creation ex nihilo, well before the P document was written. The Indian Rig Veda has been dated anywhere from ca. 1400 to ca. 1000 BCE. It asks:

If in the beginning there was neither Being nor Non-Being, neither air nor sky what was there? Who or what oversaw it? What was it when there was no darkness, light, life or death? We can only say that there was the One that which breathed of itself deep in the void, that which was heat and became desire and the germ of spirit.8

In fact, according to David Leeming, author of Creation Myths of the World, creation ex nihilo is about as common as creation from a pre-existing watery chaos.9

Thus, the God of the Bible was far from unique in creating ex nihilo, if indeed his Jewish creators even cared about such a theological fine point. He did not suddenly appear, transcendent, universal and alone, in stark contrast to a host of crudely conceived idols, gods of wood and stone, as the Bible presents it. Rather, his development was gradual and the concept of him as an eventually monotheistic, universal deity borrowed heavily from cultures that were old when Israel was young.

Tim Callaghan

  1. Krauss, Lawrence. A Universe from Nothing. New York: Free Press.
  2. Alleyne, Richard. 2009. 2009. “God is not the Creator, claims academic” The Telegraph (U.K.) October 8.
  3. I document this in: Callahan, Tim. 2002. Secret Origins of the Bible. Millennium Press, p. 37.
  4. Wallis Budge, A. E. 1900 (republished in 1991). Egyptian Religion. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 131.
  5. Ibid., 49.
  6. Foster, John L., (translator) 1995. (ed. Susan T. Hollis). Hymns, Prayers and Songs: An Anthology of Ancient Egyptian Lyric Poetry. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 109.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Leeming, David Adams. 2010. Creation Myths of the World. (2nd ed). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 3.
  9. Ibid., 2–9.

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Let them in Cake in Montreal

April 24, 2012 at 9:45 pm (Uncategorized)

There’s a moment in Dr. Zhivago where a large workers demonstration is passing a venue where the wealthy are eating. Their songs are overheard by the revellers within: “Maybe after the revolution, they will be better singers” quips the speaker.

Jean Charest’s comments on Friday had that feeling. As crowds demonstrated against Charest’s polices, he joked, “We could offer them a job … in the North, as far (north) as possible. ” The audience laughed.

Oh very droll. Very witty. Let them eat cake didn’t go over too well last time either.

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A Film’s Superheroes include the Director

April 15, 2012 at 6:35 pm (Uncategorized)

I know, it’s shameless how many posts are NYT reprints. But it’s Joss Whedon. C’mon!


A Film’s Superheroes Include the Director


New York Times Sunday April 15, 2012

LOS ANGELES JOSS WHEDON does not consider himself an assertive person. “I’m not fierce,” he said. “I’m grouchy as hell.” But one subject that evokes the passion he has self-diagnosed as crabbiness is the decadent state of contemporary Hollywood entertainment.

As he recently recited a list of familiar if keenly felt criticisms about his industry, Mr. Whedon, a creator of fantasy television series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” said: “Nobody’s interested in making a living. They only want to make a fortune. Where are the prestige pics? Where are the ’70s, where are people taking chances?”

Here in his blossoming rant, Mr. Whedon, 47, a rangy man with short brown hair and a copper-colored beard flecked with white, had to smile at himself. He was delivering the tirade “while I’m making a giant, tentpole, franchise, action, summer movie.”

With mock defensiveness, he added, “That doesn’t make me a hypocrite, it just gives me layers.”

Having been a script doctor for hire and a pioneer of independent digital content, Mr. Whedon is now the director and screenwriter of “The Avengers,” the Marvel Studios movie (opening May 4) that assembles several of its comic-book heroes on a mission to save the world.

With a cast overflowing with stars like Robert Downey Jr. (who reprises his role as the reckless billionaire Tony Stark and his alter ego, Iron Man), Samuel L. Jackson (as the law-enforcement agent Nick Fury) and Scarlett Johansson (the superspy Black Widow); a roster of copyrighted characters that are now loyal subjects of the Walt Disney empire; and a budget of more than $220 million “The Avengers” would seem like the epitome of the blockbuster summer movie: flashy, corporate and above all, big.

“The Avengers” would also seem to be the antithesis of the kind of work Mr. Whedon is best known for. On TV and in films like “The Cabin in the Woods” (which he wrote with its director, Drew Goddard, and which opens April 13) he has subverted conventions of supernatural and science-fiction storytelling and defied the expectations of audiences well versed in them, while working small and on his own terms.

Perhaps none of these projects succeeded as fully as “Buffy,” a cult hit for WB and UPN that for seven seasons embedded stories of empowerment and self-discovery in the narrative of a young woman battling paranormal monsters.

Yet for Mr. Whedon “The Avengers” turned out to be liberating. While it was surely a lesson in managing the interests and egos of his high-profile cast, it also alleviated frustrations he encountered on other recent efforts while allowing him the peculiar joy of building stories from established characters and predetermined plot points. “You get all these pieces, and it’s a puzzle,” he said. “But it’s a puzzle that comes together. It’s not just a bunch of broken stuff. There is a way that it’s supposed to fit. And when it does, you find you’re being given as many gifts as you are problems.”

For Marvel “The Avengers” is the culmination of a years-long campaign enabled by the success of the first “Iron Man” movie (which grossed $585 million worldwide in 2008) and later hits like “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

On “The Avengers” the studio sought a director who was not only passionate about the heroes in this supergroup — comicdom’s equivalent of the Dream Team or the Wu-Tang Clan — but also reverent of their history.

Whoever accepted the assignment would have to embrace the story lines established by the first wave of Marvel movies, the scenario Marvel wanted for “The Avengers” and the various sequels it is intended to set up, while giving each character proper screen time.

“We’ve already said this is not ‘Iron Man 3,’ this is not ‘Captain America 2,’ this is not ‘Thor 2,’ ” said Kevin Feige, the Marvel Studios president. “This is ‘The Avengers 1.’ And everything needs to service this as the origin story for that team, and no one stands above any of the others.”

Marvel had approached Mr. Whedon in the early 2000s during the development of “Iron Man” (which would be directed by Jon Favreau) and “X-Men: The Last Stand” (released in 2006 and directed by Brett Ratner).

Mr. Whedon was known then as a relentless multitasker, writing Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men comics while overseeing on television “Buffy”; “Angel,” a spinoff about one of Buffy’s undead paramours; and the space adventure “Firefly.”

“Joss always said that everything became a vacation from other things,” said Mr. Goddard, a writer for “Buffy” and “Angel.” “If he was talking about ‘Buffy,’ that meant he was on a vacation from ‘Firefly.’ And when he would go back to ‘Firefly,’ it meant he was on vacation from ‘Buffy.’ ”

Mr. Goddard added: “This is just a guy who loves storytelling. I don’t get a sense that there’s ever a plan other than the act of creating itself.”

When Fox pulled “Firefly” in 2002, midway through a first season in which the network had shown the episodes out of their intended order, Mr. Whedon said he “went nuts,” gathering his lawyer, agent and others and demanding they find a way to keep the project alive.

“One of them was like, ‘These people are going to say no,’ ” Mr. Whedon recalled. And though “I’m very meek and I’m very afraid of conflict,” he said, “I remember just saying to them: ‘I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear what you’re going to say to convince them when they say no.’ ”

The eventual result was “Serenity,” the 2005 film continuation of “Firefly,” which marked Mr. Whedon’s feature directing debut, and which even its stars, like Nathan Fillion, did not expect to happen.

“When he started talking movie, I said: ‘Good luck, buddy. It is you against the world out there,’ ” said Mr. Fillion, who played the swashbuckling captain Mal Reynolds in “Firefly” and “Serenity.” “I had very little hope. And then I got that call and thought, ‘Oh my God, this guy did it.’ ”

After “Buffy” and “Angel” ended, Mr. Whedon directed episodes of “The Office” and was a creator of “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” a musical about a struggling supervillain (Neil Patrick Harris), his do-gooder nemesis (Mr. Fillion) and their shared love interest (Felicia Day), which he self-financed and released free on the Web.

Mr. Whedon’s return to Fox in 2009 with “Dollhouse,” about a woman (Eliza Dushku) whose personality and memories can be electronically rewritten, was much anticipated, but it turned into a prolonged struggle for him.

The network, Mr. Whedon said, resisted the sexual content he wanted in the show. “They want things to be sexy,” he said, “but for God’s sake, they don’t want them to be sexual.”

Believing the show had been “eviscerated,” Mr. Whedon felt himself withdrawing from “Dollhouse.” When its first — and, Mr. Whedon presumed, only — season ended, he worked with Mr. Goddard on “Cabin in the Woods,” a horror movie about a group of college students (including Kristen Connolly and the future “Thor” star Chris Hemsworth) who find that a seemingly rustic vacation spot is the setting for something much more sinister.

To Mr. Whedon’s surprise “Dollhouse” was renewed for a second season, then canceled weeks after it started. Meanwhile “Cabin in the Woods” went into limbo when MGM, the studio that produced it, filed for bankruptcy. (The movie was later sold to the independent studio Lionsgate.)

Mr. Whedon said he has learned over time that he cannot control these situations, even when his name is on the screenplay. “You have to believe in your work to the point where you can get your heart broken,” he said, “or you wouldn’t have the energy to do these things.”

When Marvel came to Mr. Whedon about “The Avengers” in 2010, he saw the pitfalls of summer-movie syndrome, but also the potential for a “Dirty Dozen”-style adventure about the ultimate ensemble of mismatched teammates.

He said: “I was like: ‘Oh, this actually sounds fun.’ I can write about these people. They’re broken and tortured and strange.’ ”

Mr. Whedon (who also did some uncredited revisions on the “Captain America” script) continued to fine-tune his “Avengers” script over more than 90 days of filming in Cleveland, New York and Albuquerque, N.M., while learning to work with the actors who have become the cornerstone of Marvel’s movie franchise.

Regarding Mr. Downey, Mr. Whedon said with a laugh: “We had to sniff each other out. Because I’m used to having people do everything I say, and so is he.”

Mr. Downey made it clear he expected a certain amount of creative participation. “As far as I’m concerned, I have everything approval,” he said, only half-joking.

But while Mr. Downey said he was willing to be hands-on with “The Avengers” and was “down for a good, hard time,” the film “was not that kind of party.” When he requested alternate lines of dialogue for a scene, he said Mr. Whedon preferred, “while he’s between setting up shots, to go off and literally write three pages of alts.”

Mr. Downey added: “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s easy. You do all the work, and I will pick from a menu.’ ”

Mr. Jackson affectionately compared “The Avengers” to a group of children pretending to play superheroes. “There’s always the lead kid who tells you what the story’s going to be and what you’re going to be fighting and what you need to do,” he said. “And that’s Joss.”

In characteristic Whedon-esque style he took about two weeks after finishing principal photography on “The Avengers” to shoot a film version of “Much Ado About Nothing” at his home in Santa Monica, Calif.

His next project, he said, would be another independently produced Web series, to be distributed free, created with the writer Warren Ellis and called “Wastelanders,” which Mr. Whedon jokingly described as “Glengarry Timecop.”

Calling it “a drama about people who save the world and how unbelievably unhappy they are,” Mr. Whedon worried — up to a point — that its rougher edges could alienate even his dedicated fans.

“It’s very dark and very grown-up,” he said. “But it’s the next thing that I want to say, so I can’t worry about ‘Well, where’s the empowerment narrative that people love?’ ”

“That,” Mr. Whedon said, “will always be the story of my life.” He paused and corrected himself: “Not, sadly, of my life, but of my writing. If it had happened to me, I wouldn’t have to write about it so much.”

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Interview with Notes from Underground

April 10, 2012 at 3:41 pm (Uncategorized)

Ah, without wanting to shout too much, here’s an interview I did with Halifax’s CKDU FM a week or so back.

It’s mostly about Internationalist Perspective and left communism today. Click on the link below.

From the Margins

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Why the Old-School Music Snob Is the Least Cool Kid on Twitter

April 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm (Uncategorized)

From yesterday’s New York Times magazine. Reprinting it sort of makes the point of the article. It’s true, but you can still be hipper than your friends if you like , even if the Losing my Edge syndrome is still out there.
I will assert though that I had heard of One direction before this article and their appearance on Saturday Night Live (my daughter is 12 after all) .
Mind you, I’ve had conversations with teens who’ve never heard of the Who or Iggy Pop so there you go.

My friend Lily and I met in 2004 at a showcase for a record label that bartered cassette tapes in exchange for things like drawings and telling jokes. I was there to perform some songs I had recorded on my dad’s four-track using chopsticks for drumsticks; Lily was there to support her boyfriend, who was playing in a band led by our mutual friend’s 13-year-old brother. We hit it off, and after that we often went together to see bands play in local out-of-the-way venues, like the dilapidated shack down an alleyway or the basement nightclub that was perpetually flooded with toilet water. The bands were often lousy, but that didn’t matter to us. What mattered to us was that no one else knew anything about them.

At the time, it was very cool to know about obscure music. We were a few scant years out of the boy band/Limp Bizkit era, and Pearl Jam clones were still proliferating, each one worse than the last (Stone Temple Pilots > Creed > Nickelback). Hyped-up bands like the Strokes were marketed to seem independent, while independent bands like Death From Above 1979 and the Shins were being sought by advertisers and filmmakers in search of an edge. When the movie “Garden State” came out, the Shins — whose song “New Slang,” according to Natalie Portman, was going to change Zach Braff’s life — were dead to us. To our minds, fake obscure was even worse than popular.

Obscure knowledge was once a kind of currency. To get it, you had to be in the loop. You had to know the right people to learn about the right bands. You had to know the right record stores to hear those bands. The right record stores, like the right comic and book and video stores, were manned by knowledge guardians who scared the bejeezus out of us, so the act of going in to these stores felt kind of intrepid.

Lily and I inherited an understanding, which we’d gleaned from Kurt Cobain, that corporate rock was the pits, and movies like “High Fidelity” taught us about the sacred tradition of knowledge passed from cool person to cool person to, eventually, us. When we got our own record-store jobs, we discovered that knowledge-guardian culture was pretty much exactly as depicted. We were as self-righteous and fraternal as cops, sustained by an ideology that dictated that the more obscure the band, the better.

The Internet existed then, but file-sharing was still new, or newish, and there were still tons of artists you would never find online. By the time we reached our sophomore year of college, though, file-sharing had gone bananas and was quickly making our music-store employers go broke. Music wasn’t just free; it was everywhere: you could find it on blogs, YouTube and streaming Web sites, and you could read about it on Pitchfork, Wikipedia and Allmusic, without ever having to humiliate yourself in front of anyone mean.

Worse, file-sharing had rendered us, the knowledge guardians, irrelevant. Within a few years, knowledge had ceased to confer any distinction, and hoarding it had become about as socially advantageous as stamp collecting. Thanks to the Internet, cultural knowledge was now a collective resource. Which meant that being cool was no longer about what you knew and what other people didn’t. It was about what you had to say about the things that everyone already knew about.

Two months ago, Lily sent me a YouTube link to the song “212,” by the Harlem-born rapper Azealia Banks. Along with the song — which, fair warning, is quite profane — Lily mentioned that everyone seemed to be posting “212” on Facebook. So I listened — and several bars in, an intern popped into my office to announce that she loved the song and, not to brag or anything, she had been an early adopter: viewer No. 225,000.

Once I got over the embarrassment of being viewer No. 3,000,000, I realized something: the song was really good. Just as good as it had been 2,999,999 viewers ago.

In other words, there is no longer any honor in musical obscurity. If you can be popular on your own terms — if you can be Arcade Fire or Bon Iver and still win a Grammy — there is really no such thing as “selling out” anymore, unless you happen to sign a distribution deal with the Koch brothers. “I like the idea of our fans being a wide spectrum,” the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney told Rolling Stone for a recent cover article. “Whenever anybody talks about being uncomfortable about being at a show because there’s a different type of person there, that’s just straight . . . ignorance. I wouldn’t want somebody like that to be a fan of us.”

Populism is the new model of cool; elitists, rather than teeny-boppers or bandwagon-jumpers, are the new squares. There are now artists who sell out concerts while rarely getting played on commercial radio (the Weeknd or Tori Amos, for instance), and there are commercial radio artists whom no one in most people’s hipper circles has ever heard of because they listen exclusively to the Internet (Lady Antebellum, Jake Owen — pretty much all of so-called new country).

A month ago, I was walking by the MuchMusic building (that’s the Canadian MTV, though there is an actual Canadian MTV — nevermind) past a line of tween girls coiled around three city blocks. They were waiting for a boy band called One Direction, which, judging from my quick on-the-spot polling, seems to be some sort of tween version of the original Mr. Snuffleupagus: no one over 14 knows who they are. (Their debut album later entered the pop chart at No. 1.)

Pitchfork, the music Web site that is our era’s Rolling Stone, made its name initially by writing obscurely about the obscure. Now it makes itself indispensable by doing the opposite: by interfacing between genres and across all levels of fame. As Richard Beck pointed out in an N+1 article, the site serves primarily as a reviews archive, delivering the party line on each release rather than sparking critical discourse about it (although the site’s voice often reads like a satire of critical discourse). Crucially, Pitchfork exists to make sense of hip-hop and Top 40 for people who grew up listening to indie rock.

A similar reading applies to sites like Gawker and The AV Club, which are as much about telling us what to think about things as they are about telling us that those things exist in the first place. Contributors make no claim to objectivity; they’re smart alecks whose job is to stamp the dough of information. Staying current is now a wild game of whack-a-mole. And knowing one thing about everything is much more important than knowing everything about one thing.

And so: Azealia Banks is the rapper who appeals to Pitchfork readers; A$AP Rocky is the rapper who isn’t homophobic; Lana Del Rey is the lovely waif whose dad is loaded; the stylish blowhard whose dad is a former Tamil revolutionary. Having learned these lines, you can go ahead and tweet confidently about these artists, holding your own in the great digital scrum, even if you have no idea what the artists actually sound like. If you get drawn into an argument, you can always quickly consult Wikipedia.

My friend Christian, who is about a decade older than I am, has spent more than 20 years accumulating thousands of rare garage-rock records. And she gives great parties, schlepping her vinyl to and fro in a vintage carrying case. Meanwhile, another friend, who is my age and works at an ad agency, makes decent money D.J.’ing with songs he downloads to his laptop; once a month I make a quick buck or two doing the same. The difference between Christian and me is that I know the provenance of roughly only half of the songs I play, and I live in fear that some eager fan will approach the “D.J. booth” (that is, the counter with my laptop on it) hoping to nerd out on some performer that I only just heard of that day via YouTube. I fear that person because I used to be that person. And I know how much the old me would have hated the current me’s guts. But this guilt immediately washes away when I play the latest Azealia Banks song and everyone goes nuts.

My quarrel here isn’t with the idea that cool people don’t know as much about stuff as they used to. If you really want to drill deep into your interests, you still have that option. You just have to accept that most of your findings will have no social value.

My beef is really with the factors that gave rise to this state of affairs, and I realize this beef is deeply stupid: I bridle at the idea that good stuff could be public in the first place, that I should have to share my tastes with the wider world. My love of knowledge-hoarding was part snobbishness, part proprietary, part nesting: I liked the idea that my favorite movies, books and music are for me and a select few others, because they’re special and they’re part of my life. To think that everyone in the world might love them just as much makes me feel like a salt molecule in a tub of brine. Like friendship, taste should be somewhat exclusive — your friends are the ones you choose above all the other bozos. If everybody is friends, then no one is, really. The same applies to being fans of Arcade Fire.

Then again, it’s better to be friendly to all than to be a flat-out jerk to all but a few. And I have to admit that cultural populism is a lot healthier than the crabby elitism that used to prevail. The old way was guided by perverted logic (the fewer people who like something, the more valuable it is), while the new way is guided by a sounder reasoning (the more people who like something, the more valuable it is). The downside of this is that everyone already likes what you like, but the upside is that good artists actually get their due, and a crazy cross-pollination of genres can happen that didn’t seem possible before. We are living in an age when a band like Bon Iver, led by Justin Vernon, a flannel-wearing beardo who sings in falsetto, can collaborate with Kanye West, one of the world’s biggest rap stars, and also win a Grammy. It’s notable that Vernon’s Grammy speech pretty much nailed the exact attitude we’ve all outgrown. “When I started to make songs,” he said, “I did it for the inherent reward of making songs, so I’m a little bit uncomfortable up here.” He failed to acknowledge how cool it was that he was up there in the first place.



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First Aid Kit in Toronto – A review

April 8, 2012 at 10:47 pm (Uncategorized)

The last time I went to the Great Hall on Queen Street was to see Sonic Youth and Redd Kross. Must have been at least ten years ago, and as I recall, the show was oversold. So when my wife and I walked up to the venue Wednesday night, a certain queasy feeling came over me. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried, and soon enough we were inside.

I saw First Aid Kit last year when they opened for Lykke Li, but as my main memory of that night was that my car was broken into, their return to Toronto wasn’t top on my list of things to do. My wife however, was knocked out by them, and suggested we go. And I thought, why not?

It was a good idea.

Openers Peggy Sue played a catchy folk-rock blend (heavier on the former). A dodgy sound mix interfered with the first song, but after that, everything came together. The three-piece quickly brought the audience onside playing selections from both their CDs and their new covers record. A tasty opening treat.

First Aid Kit took the stage a little after 10:30, and immediately charmed the sold-out crowd.  I was taken aback by how effortlessly the Swedish sisters created an intimate atmosphere. The Great Hall holds about 700 (by my guess), yet it felt as if we were in a little living room listening to a couple of tremendously talented musicians playing well-crafted pop-songs. During “Ghost Town”  the duo even stepped away from the mikes to sing directly to the audience. And we sang along. In fact, it was surprising just how many people in the audience were singing along with every song in the set.

Perhaps a little poppier than my usual fare, but hey, I have no bad memories from this show.

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Bookfair Season 2012

April 2, 2012 at 3:23 pm (Uncategorized)

As the weather gets nicer, a young radical’s thoughts turn to bookfairs.

The London (Ontario) one was last weekend, and I missed that, but lots are coming up. Comrades from IP will be at the New York bookfair this weekend – if you’ve been waiting patiently for the new issue to appear on the site, never fear, you can purchase a hard copy soon. (And I promise the issue will be on-line soon.

The first big event for me is Montreal over the Victoria Day weekend in May. I’ve gone to this bookfair every year (the first was in 2000). Now it’s a two-day event with a week of activities beforehand. Go to the site to get all the details.

The Toronto bookfair is usually in April, but it’s been moved back to the end of June. Sign up at their blog to get more details. Or email them directly.

Not sure if Hamilton is taking place this year. I spoke to one of the organizers a while back, and she was uncertain. A shame as the others were really good.

So, if you’re looking to get that obscure ultra-left pamphlet or a copy of this year’s Aufheben, come by and see the Notes from Underground table. All the ultra left nonsense that’s fit to read 🙂  


Oh and while we’re on the subject, Historical Materialism has a conference at Toronto’s York University May 11-13. Something to think about attending (I’ve scoured the web, but there’s very little details – keep googling)

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