Friday, May 28, 2010

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Is Ukrainian Eurovision Pop Star Secretly Video Game Character Lamiroir?

Lilit at The Gloss wrote up some fashion descriptions of various Eurovision contestants, including Ukraine's Alyosha, singing "Sweet People." Lilit writes:
In order to show that you are a true artiste, you should cover your face with a hood to make the “is this a man or woman or otherworldly being singing this song?” reveal all that more exciting.
The description, and video, can't help but remind me of a different, fictional pop star. (On the right, Lamiroir from the DS game Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney.)

I do love Eurovision, though. Even if I find the Israeli contestant's song, Harel Skaat performing "Milim," a little dull. He's got a sweet, lugubrious voice, though. I just wish he was performing something a bit more memorable.

This particular lyrical bit is great:
Sfarim mesudarim, uven hachadarim
Hesh’art li rak milim, zer shel man’ulim
Elohim, hesh’art li rak milim

(Tidy books and in between the rooms
you’ve left me nothing but words, a wreath of locks
Oh God, you’ve left me nothing but words)
Lyrically, the song fits into a long tradition of love songs to God that might secretly just be love songs to another human being (Shir haShirim, half the stuff on this list), but the twist is that it's actually a breakup song to another human being that might secretly just be a breakup song God. Who else wrote a bunch of words and then left? The question of why love of God makes such a great entree to loving another person is probably due to the ways that humans have modeled their human relationships on their divine relationships, and vice-versa, the ways that divine relationships are inevitably modeled on actual human ones. (The line "you've left me nothing but words, a wreath of locks," is most definitely modeled on Dashboard Confessional relationships. "Your hair is everywhere / Screaming infidelities."

When Eating Food and Giving Quotes

New Yorker on Andrew Breitbart:
I just feel like I am one of these Idaho guys saying, ‘You’re not taking my land’—with a gun, on my porch,” Breitbart told me one evening. He was sitting in the bar of the Bowery Hotel, in Manhattan, drinking white wine from a glass that was being refilled by a slim waitress in a black wrap dress.
New York Times on M.I.A.:
Unity holds no allure for Maya — she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. “I kind of want to be an outsider,” she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. “I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist.”

Is this a legitimate journalistic tactic? In both cases, the context of the interview undermines the sentiment being communicated. We're supposed to chuckle at Breitbart who thinks he's just 'one of these Idaho guys,' while sitting at a chic bar drinking wine. M.I.A. boldly calls herself a terrorist while she eats truffle-flavored French fries. The contrast of imagery is jarring, but is it necessarily false? Can't a terrorist eat truffle-flavored French fries? Can't a gun-toting land defender drink wine in a fancy bar? (lol.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Because Life Is Too Short To Feel Superior About Not Reading Dazzler #1

Crossing the Distance Between Metaphysical and Intimate in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #2

Grant Morrison, author of Animal Man, The Invisibles, and Final Crisis, has a reputation among comic book fans of being obscure and impenetrable. It's a fair reputation. Look at the panels on the left. "And so the plane time -- space b," is not previously referenced in the comic. What is plane time? Where is space b? The "And so" indicates that this is following something else, but all it follows is more dense prose ("We call this line space a. Vanishing point stands at its terminus. But there are other timelines. For time extends not only forward and back but laterally also").

A reader looking to make meaning out of Morrison's work has to often throw their hands up and assume that the impenetrability is itself the point -- we are meant to be confused, to be disoriented. Certainly we aren't supposed to piece together what it means for time to run laterally, are we? At best, we may associate the lingo with amateur speculations on time travel, that there are multiple timelines running concurrently, all possible narratives. But that's not really the point. This is pulp science fiction. (If you're really a sucker for DC canon, you may assume that Superman's comment, "It certainly fits with what I've experienced" is actually referencing Superman Beyond 3D from Final Crisis when Superman entered an alternate, 3D glasses rendered dimension to battle a Vampire Superman or something like that. Yes, really.)

I don't think Morrison wants this to be easily deciphered though. He wants us to be as confused as Superman and the others. Confusion is at the heart of Batman Returns. For those not following along, during Final Crisis Batman succeeded in killing the super villain god Darkseid, but was sent back into history. In the first issue he has to deal with tribes of cavemen. In this second one he appears to be in 17th century America in the midst of witchcraft hysteria. He does not know who he is, or where he has come from. For the entire first half of the comic, he actually believes himself to be Mordecai (hey, that's my name!), a witchhunter sent to deal with 17th century Gotham's supernatural problems. Meanwhile, Superman is on a quest to stop Batman from returning to the present DC Universe because, apparently, Darkseid has strapped a metaphysical bomb to Batman. If he returns, it will destroy the Universe.

And that's really the heart of the metaphysics. Disentangling the meaning of multiple universes isn't the point. Like Batman we're disoriented and confused. Like Superman we're hunting for meaning in a complex, indecipherable location. It seems to me that your willingness to suspend your own ability to understand the narrative is the extent to which you can enjoy this and other Morrison's comics. In this issue, the metaphysical actually becomes a gateway to intimate moments that elide most other comics. It starts here, where the archivist (who may or may not be some kind of Batman avatar?) says, "Each track a new vibration, a separate universe, a superstring on a mighty fretboard." You may be inclined to read this as a metaphor, but we know from other Morrison comics that music is an important trope for him. In Final Crisis Superman destroys Darkseid's soul by singing an incredibly powerful note to him.

It seems likely to me that Morrison literally conceives of time-space in the DC Universe as being musical in form, and I love that idea. Comics are much more like music than like literature -- they have certain tropes (chords, notes) that they play with slight variations. They transmit affect (feeling, emotion) with incredible potency, but are less powerful at transmitting ideas. They can make us feel excited, powerful, moved, or angry, but they rarely inspire deep meditations on the meaning of time travel, or heroism. (In fact, they often fail to communicate ideas about the very things they're about -- look at Brian Hibbs' very hurt/angry post about this week's Justice League: The Rise of Arsenal #3. The comic completely undermines the meaning of superheroes, heroism,  etc. But in terms of transmitting affect it's super effective. "I felt incredibly dirty and gross after I put it down," Hibbs writes.)

For Morrison, affect is transmitted through the move between his dense metaphysics and intimate interaction. In this issue, Batman/Mordecai has a romance with a young witch. She is eventually burned. On the right you can see the panel where the archivist notes her death. Look at his mangled, tree-branch hand. In the second panel, his tilted oval black head. The single word speech bubble, "annie." The second: "This is where she died... right here... a tiny spark unnoticed in all the cosmic geometry." I find this panel incredibly moving. I've seen many superheroes die that I've read for years, and cared less about their deaths than this character introduced and killed in this one issue. Her death is not made meaningful in spite of the dense metaphysics that Morrison is playing with, but because of it. It is tragic because of how meaningless it is in light of "all the cosmic geometry." She is a "tiny spark."

This is maybe a narrative lesson. Because Morrison is willing to be so unclear, when he steps forward into a moment of humanity, it is incredibly potent and affective. Unlike comics that drill us with humanity (sex! drugs! illness! murder! soap opera discussions!), like The Rise of Arsenal, Batman Returns works because it is so muted, so momentary and transient. This issue exemplifies why Morrison slays me so much and is my favorite comic book writer working today.

Sleigh Bells and Growing Up

Last night I was hanging out in the AV Club liveblog for American Idol. If you're unfamiliar with any of these terms, AV Club is The Onion's non-parodic cultural section, the liveblog was basically a few staff members chilling out in a chatroom with a bunch of readers making snarky comments about the show, and American Idol is the hit television show that has once again broken my heart. Okay, that last piece is a bit hyperbolic, but once again in a contest between a really talented, unique contestant (last year Adam Lambert, this year Crystal Bowersox) and a totally unmemorable one (last year Kris Allen, this year Lee whatever his last name is), the winner was the uninteresting one. So I hung out in the liveblog chatroom for support in these troubling times.

(Fun sidenote: AV Club uses the same liveblog/chat technology that ESPN uses for their sporting event liveblogs.)

At some point during the show Lea Michele's new commercial for Dove aired. Conversation naturally turned to Michele, and her show Glee. In the midst of the discussion I made a comment that it would be really awesome for Glee to do a Sleigh Bells episode. Sleigh Bells being a new indie-hype band. Their new album, Treats, reminds me of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video and My Chemical Romance's "Teenagers." It's loud, aggressive, and poppy -- like an explosive pep rally. To quote Nitsuh Abebe: "OMG JAMZ HELLS YES." The aesthetic match seems intentional too -- the front cover (as pictured above) shows a bunch of cheerleaders. Go listen to the album and then imagine Rachel Berry and Finn Hudson screaming the verses at each other while the distorted guitars combust in the background -- it would be totally rocking.

Anyway, the point of this exposition. After I made the comment, another user responded to tell me, "Sleigh Bells suck. Grow up." I found that comment really interesting. The first half is obviously legitimate, people vary on their opinions. But the second part is what caught my attention. Why would liking a bad band mean that I needed to grow up? It's obviously not just the style of music (ie: He wasn't responding to the band's youthfulness). After all, he didn't tell me that Glee sucks and I need to grow up. And Glee seems much more associated with being young and immature.

Here's what I think: Sleigh Bells is an incredibly hyped band. Its debut was preceded by a demo tape that made the rounds on every hipster music blog (from Stereogum to Pitchfork to HipsterRunoff). I believe the comment was a way of calling me out of that, as if to say, "You only like Sleigh Bells because they're so hyped. Instead of liking the expected cultural aesthetics of your social groups, why don't you grow up, aka think for yourself."

I didn't respond, but if I had gotten defensive (instead of curious) I would have mentioned that I don't just jump on bandwagon trends because they're trendy but because I like them. I've never really gotten in Joanna Newsom, or Animal Collective, or Panda Bear (despite multiple tries to enjoy them, and lots and lots of hype surrounding them). Sleigh Bells struck me in a particular way, and though I probably would've never heard of them without the hype, I liked them for reasons beyond the hype.

But actually, on reflection, I think the entire maturity/hype dichotomy is a total canard. There is definitely this cultural trope of assuming that following the opinions of others, following trends, or fitting well into a social category is acting immaturely. "If I were more mature," it seems to go, "I would think for myself." However under scrutiny that doesn't really hold up. When I was younger I was all about being an individual. I got into very obscure musical acts, and when Pitchfork covered a band it was already too popular for me. Not everyone gets that hyper individualistic about music, but we all stake out our identities to an absurd degree, we all have things that we think define us specifically in the world. *Not belonging* is a common cultural experience, generally around high school time.

Now one could say that the ways we choose to rebel against the larger group are themselves adoptive modes of performance, but the fact remains that when we're young we spend so much time trying to individuate ourselves from larger groups. There's nothing mature about "thinking for yourself." It's actually what we spend all of our time doing when we're younger. If anything, as people grow up, they start to appreciate their social/cultural categories much more for the support they can get from it. This is generally fitting into a geographic (or now digital) community of friends and family. When you're older and your friends like something, maturity isn't getting some special thrill about disagreeing with them and liking something else. It's about sharing these objects with them. I love listening to music with friends, even "shitty" music, because I like hanging out with friends and honestly that's more important than being individuated.

This goes for online taste communities too. Why not hang out on the hype blogs and enjoy the music they enjoy and chat with the people who enjoy it? I'm secure enough with my identity right now that liking Sleigh Bells (or Glee or American Idol or, hell, Dave Matthews Band) isn't an issue. So I like a hype band. So what?

Surprisingly, listening to Sleigh Bells, I think this is partially what the album is about too -- these models of belonging and non-belonging. The track "Rill Rill," is less narrative than a collection of cliches and lines that create an ambiance that addresses this issue.

"Keep thinking about every straight face yes / Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces / What about them / I'm all about them": You're a high school student, and you're legitimately worried that your boyfriend isn't going to like your braces. Being cool and liked is very important to you and so you're scared and it turns out that he's "all about them." (Side note: Do students still tease each other for having braces? That seems very antiquated at this point. Doesn't everyone get braces these days?) So you might be surprised to find out that ways of non-belonging (like braces) can turn into modes of belonging (your boyfriend still likes them).

"Click click saddle up see you on the moon then / And all alone friend / Pick up their phones then / Ring ring call them up / Tell them about the new trends": Chatting with people about trends are a way to alleviate loneliness and form taste communities that can make you happy.

"Have a heart. Have a heart.": Seems self-explanatory, scarecrow.

Anyway, if sharing trends is a way to create communities and be happy, I'm sharing Sleigh Bells with you. Here's a youtube clip.

P.S. I delivered a paper on a panel called "Music & Belonging," a few weeks ago in NYU Performance Studies. I was talking about Kol Nidre, the Jewish vow annulment ritual said on Yom Kippur, and how that creates affective communities of belonging. So modes of performing belonging are very much on my mind these days.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sportswriting and Being Wrong

There's currently a pretty great series going on at Slate at the moment (which is no stranger to great series) about being wrong. So far Kathryn Schulz has interviewed Alan Dershowitz (couldn't admit being wrong in any important way), Diane Ravitch (who considers herself wrong on a deeply important, particular issue) and most recently, the sportswriter Joe Posnanski. The series is great, and I highly recommend people check it out. Posnanski straddles a place of wrongness between Ravitch and Dershowitz: He's wrong often about real tangible things, but how important is it for a sportswriter to be right?
I do think, though, that a big part of the job is how you handle being wrong. Are you upfront about it? Do you play it off? Do you try to defend yourself? Every time you write anything, at least half your readers are going to disagree with you. A big part of sports writing is how you respond to that tension.
Obviously this is an issue in sportswriting as opposed to things like music criticism or film writing because prediction is hugely built into the sportswriting culture. ESPN and Sports Illustrated regularly run features about which teams are probably going to the playoffs, which team is the best in the league at the moment, who will win a particular game, etc. This is built into narratives about games -- a writer wants to illustrate the advantages one team might have over another team to give the reader more insight into the conflict. This is also about broader issues in the culture; gambling on sports is very popular, and sportswriters need to contend with readers who respond to sporting events through the (totally legitimate imo) prism of gambling on outcomes. To a lesser extent, fantasy sports are very popular, and someone like Matthew Berry is wrong multiple times during a season when he predicts a particular player will boom or bust for his fantasy team owners.

I think we can agree though that where Diane Ravitch was wrong (she was a huge proponent of No Child Left Behind and later decided that NCLB was incredibly destructive to the American education system) was much bigger an issue than a sportswriter that is wrong, even if that sportswriter might cost an individual gambler millions of dollars on a game. By contrast, a music critic is never really wrong. I guess he could predict that a band will break up, or that an artist is heading in one artistic direction but then shifts into another, but those stakes are terribly low and we don't really expect music critics to predict anything. We expect them to offer judgement on the quality of a piece of music, to contextualize that music historically, to describe it aesthetically, to proffer great writing about music (all sorts of things, really) but rarely would we say that a music writer is wrong unless we disagreed with their critical judgement.

Interestingly, that kind of being wrong Posnanski never touches on. Surely people must feel Bill Simmons is wrong for being a Patriots and Celtics fan (like me! I think he's super wrong for rooting for Boston teams when clearly Philadelphia is the superior sports city), but we file that kind of wrongness differently (subjectively, versus objective incorrectness). I have to imagine that both kinds of wrongness get folded together, though. Posnanski writes:
The nastiest e-mails I get tend to be when I've picked a team to lose and then it wins. For the fans, winning is great, but proving somebody wrong is even better.
Ie: The fan isn't just upset that Posnanski predicted incorrectly and cost them gambling money, but they were upset that Posnanski didn't love the team as much as they did -- and now that the team has made good, they are taking Posnanski to task for his subjective aesthetic failure through the legitimate complaint of an objective predictive failure.

The other odd thing is that complaining that a sportswriter predicted the result of a game incorrectly is not really legitimate at all. We shouldn't expect sportswriters to predict gaming outcomes correctly. We even have idioms culturally built-in to discuss how random and difficult-to-predict sporting events are. Stuff like "On any given Sunday, any team can beat any other team." Huge narrative tropes in sportswriting (like a team having a Cinderella story) are lodged in the knowledge that teams often surprise you, and that underdogs can win games. I think Schulz suspects this, because she asks Posnanski during the interview, "Is that part of what drives our deep love of underdogs—the fact that we have a shot not just at winning but at proving other people wrong?"

But she's missing that wrongness is not just something a sportswriter will deal with in the course of an otherwise successful predictive career (like a weatherman), but is something that is built into the discourses of sportswriting. A sportswriter HAS to be wrong because otherwise the stories are boring. The real mission of sportswriters is the same mission that music critics have -- write interesting prose that people want to read. Something that makes that prose interesting is being wrong, and interacting with fans about being wrong, and designing sports narratives that fans will enjoy reading and arguing about. In that sense, it's hard to call any kind of sportswriting wrongness as wrongness at all -- if you're wrong in order to succeed, then you're not really wrong. You're performing wrongness to get at a broader truth, to be really right about how to write about sports. No one wants to read a sportswriter who is always right for the same reason that no one wants to watch a professional sports team play an amateur once-a-month company sports team. The outcome doubt is built into the fandom.

Posnanski doesn't discuss what happens when he's really wrong -- ie: When he's pitched a story that his editors rejected, or he thought something would interest his readers but they totally ignored it, or he made an argument about something that he later decided was fallacious and silly, etc. He only really discusses what happens when he's performatively wrong -- ie; When he was really right all along. (These stories are kinda examples of being actually wrong, though. Like getting the details of a story incorrect. Those are legit wrongness. And here, where he associates his Slate story with Instant Replay, also gets at something authentic, though also super fraught. Can an Umpire ever be wrong -- even if the Instant Replay shows that he's wrong? J.L. Austin post to come, eventually.)