Category Archives: other

Thinking about Damien Hirst the other day

by Margaux Williamson

 

My sister, Tara Williamson, brought up the artist Damien Hirst with me last week. She said they had been discussing his new spot paintings on the radio. She asked what I thought of his work. I said that it can be irritating sometimes but that mostly it somehow always worked to break my heart a little bit. She said, I knew you would say that.

The next day I came across a text by Katy Siegel on Damien Hirst. It was somehow in my Kindle but maybe it came to me from an Art Forum email. Siegel’s text is useful in its criticism but generous too. In writing of Hirst against the art world Siegel writes:

It seems silly to feel sorry for successful artists, or for rich people in general, but in the end, there is no attitude to strike that can beat the house. Or, to put it another way, no one gets out of here alive.

I also feel a little silly to feel empathy for Hirst, but I do. Hirst’s work always seems to be saying “ALL IS LOST, I DON’T CARE”, with a much smaller voice in the background asking “all is lost, right?”

It’s interesting when an artist’s work, like in the case of Hirst, shows such a consistency of feeling despite how varied their projects or intent can be.

Thinking about it this week made me think of the model Kate Moss. She, too, seems to have a consistency in the work she does with her face.  Coming across a random picture of Kate Moss in a magazine,  her face always seems to say, “TAKE EVERYTHING, I DON’T CARE” with a much smaller voice in the background saying “you can take everything, but you’ll never, ever get anything from me.”

It seems a little like a puzzle. Was she born with this face? Is it her bone structure that tells you to “TAKE EVERYTHING”? Or are her feelings shaping her face? – the feelings that one doesn’t think to hide when the photographers take their pictures since one might not know that they are there.

Weighing Kate Moss’ feelings verses her bone structure reminded me of the work of Paul Ekman and Maureen O’Sullivan. They are psychologists who study, in great, unimaginable detail, humans’ microexpressions. Microexpressions are the involuntary expressions made unconsciously and received uconsciously. Apparently, microexpressions are very difficult things to repress.

Come to think of it, anything I came across by the designer ALexander McQueen always broke my heart too. His work always seemed to be saying “If I keep my eyes closed, keep dreaming and work really hard, maybe everything in the world will get better” (he never seemed to have a smaller voice saying something different – other than maybe “I DON’T SEE YOU”).

Maybe these are the things that happen when you are surrounded by England. Maybe these are things you can’t repress when England takes your picture. Maybe the gestures and the expressions and the objects made by people who are being closely watched by England always break my heart.

That’s on the other side of what I see when I see Damien Hirst’s work. When I see his work, I think “It’s not just England that’s watching you, it’s not just the filthy rich who are invested, it’s not just the art world that cares.”  Maybe it is always a little bit hard to strike a pose for people who aren’t in the room.

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Filed under fashion, margaux williamson, other, visual art

Ten-plus Cultural Experiences I’m Still Thinking About Now that 2011’s Done with Us

by Carl Wilson

 [With trademark untimeliness, Back to the World is presenting a series of belated, cross-genre, year-end lists, as we did last year, and again loosely on the model of Greil Marcus’s long-running Real Life Rock Top Ten. Margaux posted last week and Chris will post soon. Once again I’ve confined myself to topics I haven’t written about at length here before, or in my year-end chatter in the Slate Music Club (and accompanying Spotify playlist).]

1. Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (out, late 2010; read, early 2011)

 The Toronto-based writer, musician and scholar Marcus Boon’s generous intervention (that’s a full, free PDF) over one of the issues of our time (cf SOPA) seemed to echo everywhere – as far out as the viral reproduction of revolutionary courage through Arab countries, and the call-and-response of the “human microphone” of Occupy Wall Street and its own hashtag-breeding copycats.

What I found so moving, even given the book’s digressive wander through a potentially infinite subject (and the foolhardiness of trying to control infinitudes) was its restoration of copying’s many sensual and spiritual connotations in what has been much too abstract and legalistic a debate. The back-and-forth weave and warp of repetition and difference is a pervasive leitmotif of existence, and not just the human. Boon’s treatment is elusive, with no definitive answers, but that means it will reward repeated re-reading, never just a copy of the first time.

2. The sex scenes in Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce (March, 2011)

 

There was a lot of debate about what Haynes, one of my favourite American film directors, did in his HBO mini-series with the template of the 1940s melodrama starring, of course, Joan Crawford: Had he evacuated the original film’s queerness, its camp, and left only a portrait of a status-and-materialism-driven woman who brings ruin, reinstating the misogyny of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel? Yes and no. Yes, he was bringing back the sting of the novel’s more radical anti-capitalism. But he was also taking the mini-series’ extra time to push the viewer’s nose far deeper into the mortification (social death, social stiffening) Kate Winslet’s Mildred endures when all the guarantees of the social contract are pulled out from under her by economic-cycle brutality and masculine bad faith, and the contradictions she helplessly generates (chiefly in her daughter, almost earning Evan Rachel Wood’s scenery-masticating performance) in the course of trying to maintain vestiges of her expectations within that outcaste position.

But Haynes also grants Winslet’s Mildred a grace Crawford’s could never taste – full-blown, full-grown sensual gratification, in her leggy, languorous love scenes with Guy Pearce as aristocratic reprobate Monty Beragon, the real sex object of the piece. Granted, the plot ensures this is in many ways another trap, but between them the actors and Haynes refuse that old morality’s to overpower the commandments of skin and light on skin, the manifesto for being and perseverance that an intimate bodily encounter can’t utter but can proclaim. It enacts what camp once did but no longer can: victory within defeat, not just despite but also because of loss, in its unapologetic ensnarement with entropy and other ultimate unfairnesses, against which desire still demands, “Live all you can.”

By making that so vivid, and driven by the will of the “unrespectable” woman, Haynes discredited his own tragedy, asking why a male film figure like George Clooney or Clark Gable (whom Pearce’s Monty directly recalls) can give that same kind of vicarious pleasure and get at best lightly slapped, while Mildred Pierce has to be dragged through the shoals. In this, though the rest isn’t perfect, Haynes really made a melodrama to end all melodrama.

3. WTF with Marc Maron interviewing Bryan Cranston (June 10); Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul on Breaking Bad (all year)

 

If you measured by the number of hours spent on it in the year, you would conclude my most cherished art form is not music, literature, live performance or even TV, but the podcast. Check my iTunes: I’m currently subscribed to about 65, though the majority are really radio shows, not native to the pod. And the majority of those aren’t mwhusic but talk. Perhaps it’s that I live alone and am comforted by the chatter during cleaning, cooking, trying to go to sleep and other routines (I wish I were better with silence). But it’s also because non-broadcast radio lets people take liberties with talk – that most eternally human of media – that feel fresh and exciting without being consciously experimental and avant. There’s no better example, title down, than Marc Maron’s What the Fuck?! I came to it a little late, compelled by its backstory: A veteran, never breakout comedian who’s struggled with personal demons gets new career success and satisfaction by sitting down with people in his field in his garage and asking them frank, patient questions of craft, d but also how their own flaws and hauntings have affected their stories – empathetically sounding their barriers and/or divulging his admiring but frustrated puzzlement at how they surpass them.

The editions that draw hype tend to be confronting, sensational – a showdown with a hack, an uncomfortable discussion with a friend, a comedy writer confessing an attempted suicide. But I love the quieter talks he has with people about their growth. One of my favourites was with Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, and not just because he’s an actor whose work left me wide-eyed over the past several years (as it clearly did Maron). Cranston is at once enormously garrulous and open about his route to his ambitions (he tells stories with theatrical gusto) and humble (not showbiz humble, but humble) and grateful for the improbable fact that his journeyman dues-paying led to an artistic and career jackpot. I listened in early summer and have thought about it at least weekly since.

  

 Bryan Cranston, out of character … and in.

For several months, that was partly because a highlight of each week was the fourth season of Breaking Bad, the best drama on television since The Wire, even better if only because it had the previous show to go by (just as The Wire had The Sopranos). Unlike those two, it isn’t a big ensemble piece. Supporting players are super, but this is a show about two people, Cranston’s Walter White and his protégé (considering how terribly he’s protected, that’s exactly the wrong word): Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman. I have nothing original to add to the accolades: Beyond character and cinematic weave, what’s remarkable is its arc in which a good man becomes very far from good, at first for circumstantial reasons and then for deeply rooted ones, and the audience has to test how far our sympathies can extend, even as we vicariously participate in the rot.

The season finale is the obvious standout, featuring both one of the most ingenious murder scenes ever committed to film or video and an ending many viewers might find it hard to get past (and not just for its dangling plot threads). But three weeks earlier, there was an atypical episode, in which the focus shifted from Walter to Jesse for nearly the whole hour and forced the younger man to find unexpected strengths. It mattered because the question has become whether anyone in this saga will walk away alive with something like an intact soul, and there’s really only one hope left. Here we begin to see that a story that seemed to be about one person and his themes and issues might really be a story about someone and something else. As always: The story of the parents turns into the story of the children, which then turns out to be the story of their children, and the next, and so on. If it doesn’t, that’s when there’s real trouble. (Attention, anyone who compared Occupy Wall Street to Woodstock.)

4. The consolations of comedy: Party Down on Netflix, “Adults in Autumn” (Chris Locke, Kathleen Phillips, Nick Flanagan, 
Rebecca Kohler, 
Jon McCurley, 
Tom Henry
, Glenn Macaulay) at Double Double Land (November), Louis CK at the Sony Centre (October) and Louie, Maria Bamford at Comedy Bar (January), Parks & Recreation, Community, the Comedy Bang Bang podcast …

Along with having become a podcast nerd – and abetted by it – what really struck me in 2011 is that over the past several years I was becoming a comedy nerd. I’m now usually more enthusiastic to go see people say funny things than to hear a concert, or to listen to or watch comedy on my computer than to listen to music. I follow local comics, especially the way-underpublicized Kathleen Phillips, as avidly as I used to follow bands, even here in the greatest musickest citiest of them all-est. I am still puzzling. Perhaps it’s just that a change is as good as a rest, as they say: The comedy nodes in my brain may be less worn-down than the music nodes. Or perhaps there really is more fresh happening in comedy than in music (in Toronto specifically or in general?), or more likely that whatever was new a half-decade ago or more to true comedy nerds finally has become obvious and available to us rabble. (The fact that I still don’t love the Best Show on WFMU is the clinching evidence, right?)

Or as Woody Allen would say, maybe I just needed the eggs. A lot of us had a grim year.

And speaking of eggs, I agree completely with Margaux about the Louie duckling-in-Afghanistan episode.

5. Have Not Been the Same by Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider: reissue (June), panel (Soundscapes, Toronto, July) and CD (November)

Have I gotten this far without having to declare any conflicts of interest? No matter, plenty more to come.

Even in this supposedly retromanic age of eternal re-re-return, the bubbles of cultural history with local habitations but no names can easily pop away and leave only stains on the barroom floors. A decade ago, three Canadian music writers, one of them my friend Michael Barclay, tried to guard against that by writing a history of the Canadian music world (mostly indie division) from the mid-‘80s to the mid-‘90s, Have Not Been the Same: The Can-Rock Renaissance. It was a fairly thankless task in 2001, when those scenes were waninh, fractured and with little apparent trace, though since the book mentioned dozens upon dozens of people it sold well enough. Perceptively, though, they later realized the Canadian successes of recent years lent their subject renewed relevance – and that made it incomplete as history. So they undertook many more interviews, updated the individual stories and overall tale with a new introduction and conclusion and brought the book back this year. They held launch concerts and discussions – including a panel at Soundscapes record shop in Toronto with Julie Doiron (ex-Eric’s Trip, current-Julie Doiron), Don Pyle (ex-Shadowy Men, ex-Phono Comb, many more, current Trouble in the Camera Club) and Alison Outhit (ex-Rebecca West, ex-Halifax Pop Explosion, current FACTOR) that was one of the most worthwhile discussions of how musicians and music live and that life has changed I’ve experienced in ages, even (I think) without nostalgia.

Michael’s also curated a companion soundtrack, possibly the first of many, with more recent Can-Rockers playing gems from the book’s era. Which coverers and coverees you like best likely will depend on your own faves: For me, there’s something especially poignant about the Hidden Cameras coaxing out the gentleness of Mecca Normal’s “Throw Silver,” or Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire) and Little Scream slipping into the steamy ether of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “When You Know Why You’re Happy.” Maps overlaid, outlines of one sunken continent shimmering around the contours of one newer-risen. Lenses, focusing other lenses, or a more vibrant blur.

6. Stand-In (1937) with Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell, on Turner Classic Movies (August 24)

Not at all new, of course, but new to me when I stumbled upon it on TV in the summer. It’s a bundle of this-but-that: A screwball, Hollywood-skewers-Hollywood comedy that bridges Bogart’s tough-guy and leading-man days, with Busby Berkeley star Joan Blondell (the excuse for its airing, in an evening featuring her) being cutesy-charming but also the brains of the outfit, Leslie Howard stiff and patrician-blinkered but then melting and gaining his senses, and the whole thing ending with a ridiculous/stirring Hollywood labour uprising that gives away its Depression-to-New Deal moment, hard to imagine in many other eras. Apparently the original was more radical still – censored were “a speech about the stifling of competition in the industry and the crushing of independent companies by the majors; and … a speech by Atterbury at the end, in which he says he is going to start a Senate investigation of the motion picture business.”

Here’s a link to the whole movie, as long as it lasts:

It probably stuck with me because the broadcast just preceded the #Occupy moment, but anything mainstream-American that talks explicitly of economic justice without patting itself on the back until its spine breaks (like recent supposed treatments of the financial crisis), frankly, is memorable on its own.

7. The Citizens’ Filibuster (July 28)

Another classic movie came to mind in Toronto a month earlier, on the night of July 28: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We mentioned it and pictured it here at the time, but too briefly: The bizarre, nearly-24-hour session of citizen testimony – or, as it became known, the “citizens’ filibuster” – against Rob Ford’s attempt to slash budgets was, just as Torontoist says, one of the truly heroic moments of the year, here or anywhere: Our local mini-Newt’s attempt to force closure became the opposite, a populist force to pry the oyster of debate back open, which led to this month’s still-surprising turnabout, in which Ford’s agenda was, for the time being, trounced.

Culturally, whether you were at City Hall or following it on the simulcast and especially social media, it was incredible civic theatre, in which vivid characters (none more heart-tugging than the one below, but some others close) displayed the eloquence and, more significantly, the expertise of so-called ordinary people who normally aren’t even allowed to pick up the marbles in the political game. It’s a contrast to the ugly pro-death-penalty and anti-immigrant ovations of selected attendees at Republican primary debates, for instance. Don’t let those things kill your faith in humanity. The corpse of that faith is what the vultures feed upon.

8. DJs Debate Club at the Henhouse (March 6)

This entry’s a tad more self-indulgent: For the past few years, the Henhouse on Dundas West in Toronto has been the place that I and a few close friends have gone to get our cheap beers on and make like Jonathan Richman, except in a post-Will-Munro-polymorphic Third Place. Our hosts Katie Ritchie, Jenny Smyth and Vanessa Dunn made us more than welcome, and last spring invited me and pal Michael McManus (yes, the last of the Brunnen-G) to DJ one night under our Henhouse nickname, Debate Club (for our propensity to jawbone loudly about politics till closing time).

On the theme of #occupy-precursors that runs through this list, Michael decided we should intercut tracks of famous political speeches between tracks. It would have been a big hit if it had been six months later. Instead we eventually abandoned poor Mario Savio when cooler (but sweatier) heads prevailed and taught us girls just wanna have Robyn. I hadn’t DJ’d since the last time I supplied Wavelength with an iPod playlist, and had forgotten what a rush it is to play music very, very loud, like conjuring worlds, and sex, and astral projection. (Thanks also to Jacob Zimmer, Small Wooden Shoe and Dancemakers for letting me do it again at a fundraiser in December.)

The Henhouse has changed hands now, sadly for its denizens, end of an era. Ladies, you regularly made a room a festival and a roundup of strays into a small community, as best a bar can do. You’ll be missed, but I’m excited to see what you all do next.

9. Misha Glouberman’s Negotiation Class (winter/spring)

Along with assuming the role of author (along with our comrade Sheila Heti) of The Chairs are Where the People Go (about which I really recommend this Los Angeles Review of Books podcast, along with LARB in general), B2TW associate Misha embarked on another new venture this year: An experienced teacher of many forms of improvisation and facilitator of conferences and events, he began this year giving a class in negotiation and communication born of both his innate inclinations to and his concerted studies of  reason, compromise and low-bullshit ways for people to have difficult conversations.

I took the pilot-workshop version of it last winter, with mostly Misha’s friends in it, at a time that I was navigating some crucial personal and professional transitions; some parts worked out and some didn’t, but I’d been given new tools to break down what was happening and address it with, most of all, relative fearlessness. That’s what much of Misha’s work is about: how to cope with the fear that human exchange sparks, which causes us to act protectively in ways that read as irrational to the very people we want most to understand, and find productive alternatives. Generosity, he shows, is a more winning position – not #winning, but in the sense that there’s usually less substantial conflict than meets the eye. (The urge to win, itself, might be an evolutionary catch-22.) He’s teaching a short, intensive version of the course again next month at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

10. Quite Interesting (QI) with Alan Davies, Bill Bailey, Rob Brydon, Jimmy Carr and Stephen Fry (Sept., 2007)

Back to humour again: This is from a few years ago but I first saw it because over Vietnamese dinner Misha brought up the BBC quiz/chat/comedy show QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, so I spent an afternoon watching clips. And then I hit this, which (beginning at 0:22), makes me laugh helplessly and forgive Britain all its sins. I like to watch it any time I feel overwhelmed, with no straight lines to follow. Or maybe I’ll do it ritually every year, as a colonial amusement, the way northern Europeans watch Dinner for One.

PLUS

Melancholia, especially Charlotte Rampling as the archetypical Bad Mother, and Earth as the even more archetypical Bad Mother; Kirsten Dunst at the Cannes press conference for Melancholia; the BBC series Sherlock, the other BBC series The Hour, and the other (much less smart about Britain, class and war, but still absurdly entertaining) BBC series Downton Abbey; Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Paula Cooper and Alexander McQueen’s “Savage Beauty” at the Met (the two art shows I most regret missing) and “Alexander McQueen” (the song by Tomboyfriend); Ryan Trecartin’s “Any Ever” in Queens (the show I’m gladdest I didn’t miss); the Doug Loves Movies podcast and the (for me, unplayable) Leonard Maltin Game (throughout “Two Oceans 11”); the Slate Culture Gabfest (especially being on an episode, which was a thrill); The Ex with Brass Unbound at Lee’s Palace in May; two concert/tour movies about Canadian artists that I didn’t expect to like but that each made me cry, watching them in immediate sequence, Look at What the Light Did Now (Feist) and We’re the Weakerthans, We’re from Winnipeg (Weakerthans); the saving of Saint Mark’s Bookshop; the Smee jokes in Pat Thornton’s third 24-hour standup marathon at Comedy Bar; Tim Hecker’s pipe-organ concert at the Music Gallery; poems by Michael Robbins and D.A. Powell; John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene; Sandro Perri’s CD launch concerts at the Tranzac in November; Ty Segall at the Wrongbar in NXNE (June); Jeff Mangum at Trinity Saint Paul’s church in Toronto, Aug. 12; discovering this early-1980s scene from a Ron Mann art film featuring Jim Carroll and Jack Layton improbably together, both RIP, #occupymemory; as an epigraph to the year, these lines from “Hindsight,” by Richard Buckner: “Stricken as we stood/ Broken as we made/ Time for make-believe/ Stealing, when we should/ What we couldn’t give away.”

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Filed under books, carl wilson, chris randle, comedy, comics, events, lectures, literature, margaux williamson, movies, music, other, poetry, TV/video, visual art

Friday Pictures – Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s 24 hour “Who the heck needs a city’s infrastructure?” Executive Committee Meeting Marathon, featuring Mary Trapani Hynes, Kevin Clark, and Adam Vaughan / Toronto City Hall


Mary Trapani Hynes / Toronto City Hall / July 28 2011

Kevin Clark / Toronto City Hall / July 28 2011

Adam Vaughan (click on image for video) / Toronto City Hall / July 28 2011

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Enjoined Joy: “Gross National Happiness” and Pop Music in Bhutan

by Chris Randle

[This essay was first presented in slightly different form at the 2011 Pop Conference.]

Several years ago, the Nova Scotia think tank GPI Atlantic took on an unusual project: helping to redesign an entire country’s economic system. But it wasn’t invited to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan by the International Monetary Fund. The Bhutanese government intended to negate the very concept of Gross Domestic Product. GPI was charged with creating a set of indicators for the alternative measurement of Gross National Happiness, the sort of financial yardstick one might see if superproducer Max Martin’s disciples went around making structural adjustments in lieu of Milton Friedman’s. The four “pillars” of GNH – sustainable development, good governance, environmental conservation and cultural preservation – were divided into seventy-two quantifiable variables. Bhutan’s Buddhist-inspired embrace of “happiness economics” is no longer unique – indeed, it seems to be the unlikely starting point of a global vogue. Nicholas Sarkozy has asked the economist Joseph Stiglitz how to acknowledge “quality of life” in France’s GDP figures, while the British Prime Minister David Cameron, always alert for fluffy-sounding trends, told his country’s National Statistics Office to prepare a quarterly “well-being index.” Earlier this month, Coca-Cola Canada celebrated its 125th anniversary by “sponsoring a comprehensive study that will examine the idea of happiness across the country.”

Bhutan’s adoption of GNH is no fad, intellectual or otherwise, but that only heightens the importance of due skepticism. Unlike welfare benefits or public housing, happiness is a slippery, subjective concept, its artistic causes the most mysterious of all. What kind of policies has “cultural preservation” entailed? The notion of “national happiness” suggests universal contentment and chilled-out anti-capitalism, but what does the Bhutanese monarchy’s vision of “authentic” national culture mean in practice? Secular pop music, local or foreign, tends to be seen as counterfeit currency in elite Bhutan. If artists are society’s radar screen, as Marshall McLuhan put it, that sonic protectionism is a leading indicator of what ails Gross National Happiness.

Bhutan lies between India and China, high in the Himalayas, though its northern border was shared with another nation not so long ago. It’s smaller than Portugal and thinly populated by no more than one million people – over 60% of the land is forested. Buddhism arrived there shortly after it did in Tibet, becoming the dominant faith by the 9th century; the Tibetan strand of that creed, primarily influenced by Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism, is still Bhutan’s state religion today. Traditional Bhutanese music owes a similar debt to its occupied northern neighbour: the boedra genre is a descendant of ancient Tibetan court music, though zhungdra, its other main folk style, emerged from the valleys of Bhutan itself. The two societies also share certain instruments, like the dranyen. Surviving works of pre-modern Bhutanese literature tend to be written in classical Tibetan rather than Dzongkha, the underused national language. Bhutan’s very name is an anglicization of the Sanskrit term “Bhotanta,” which just means “the end of Tibet.” The inherited liminality of so much Bhutanese culture both explains and complicates the nationalism bound up in GNH “preservation” metrics.

English-language accounts of this nation date back no earlier than the 1700s, about a century after it came under the control of a monkish theocracy. European reports were therefore refracted through a colonial racial lens from the beginning, but their typical tone is a wary paranoia, unlike the covetous forays into India. One early English visitor tried his hand at music criticism, writing that Bhutanese ceremonial songs were “as disagreeable as they are continuous.” When the amusing humiliation of a Victorian envoy led to a minor war, the Empire decided that annexing a topological fortress wasn’t worth their trouble and agreed to pay Bhutan annual bribes if it would return two stolen cannons, give Britain a veto over foreign policy and apologize to the offended Sir Ashley Eden. The Bhutanese suddenly got much better press back in the UK. But their own ruling elite also became remarkably anglophilic, to the point of overthrowing the monks and installing a native monarchy in 1907. That Wangchuck dynasty still rules the country today.

Despite its new administration, Bhutan remained deeply poor and unchanging for the first half of the 20th century, a quasi-feudal society where the vast majority of people were scratching out a living as subsistence farmers. The capital Thimphu consisted of two dozen single-story buildings right up until the 1960s. However, when India gained independence and succeeded Britain as the major power in the region, King Jigme Wangchuck began a jarring process of modernization. His government freed Bhutan’s serfs, inaugurated the elected though fairly toothless National Assembly and created a Five-Year Plan for further reform. But the most important development for this paper was completion of the first road between Bhutan and India in 1963, smoothing pop’s sinuous path.

Rigsar was born in the late 1960s, when a Bhutanese group covered – or ripped off – the hit Bollywood soundtrack cut “Sayonara.” Local conservatives thus despised their country’s flagship pop genre from the moment of reception, disdaining it as a rootless echo of trendy foreign music. Five years ago, the young academic Sonam Kinga published an essay-length condemnation: “Rigsar songs are mostly solos about a person, usually a lovelorn lover singing to a beloved making very blunt statements about their love…In their similarity and association with English pop songs and songs of Hindi films, rigsar songs no longer function as a repository of and a medium for transmitting social values.” Over 150 rigsar albums were released in the past decade alone – a large number for such a tiny country – and Kinga worriedly notes that a Calcutta musician was composing riddims full-time for the largest recording studio. To put it another way, in the official statistics for Gross National Happiness, rigsar represents an unhealthy economic bubble.

You should decide for yourself, though. That music video above is the recent single “Tok Tok Heel.” There’s an emphasis on rhythm and prominent use of synth horns (“prominent synth horns” may be redundant), in contrast to this zhungdra song’s complex overlapping vocals. Some of the young Bhutanese people I interviewed said that rigsar is seen as being easier to learn or perform, which only feeds the anxiety about its purported inauthenticity. Yet the genre’s mimetic, provisional qualities are themselves deeply Buddhist. Marcus Boon’s recent book In Praise of Copying notes that Tibet’s oldest temple was built as a replica of an earlier Indian one, and that reciting the same mantra one hundred thousand times, Erik Satie style, is a standard rite of Himalayan Buddhism. At the risk of sounding like an ex-Usenet hippie, why would sampling or BitTorrent mystify kids who grew up surrounded by fractal mandalas? And rampant music piracy, a factor in Bhutan as it is everywhere else, would seem to be healthy for Gross National Happiness – just not for most of those working in music, a reminder that GNH can disguise negative externalities of its own.

As Sonam Kinga’s dismissive reference to “lovelorn lovers” suggests, the content of rigsar songs can also be controversial. But even the more lascivious tracks are relatively chaste. This music video may or may not be a cover of Chamillionaire’s “Peepin’ Me.”

I don’t mean to imply that Bhutan is puritanical; tourists reliably gawk at its sacramental penises, which are painted on numerous buildings in tribute to a 15th-century religious teacher nicknamed “The Saint of 5000 Women.” He once vanquished a cannibal demon goddess by seducing her. But public expressions of sexuality are still taboo in this country, although the restraints seem to be much looser in private.

Customary modesty hasn’t prevented Bhutanese kids from seeking out foreign pop music with more explicit lyrics, not when there are so many of them – half of the population is under 25. A radio DJ told me that his most common request is for “sexy R&B.” The government barred all television broadcasts and internet service until the end of the 1990s, meaning that twentysomething people often have charmingly random memories of their first encounters with western music. Ganchu Wangchu, founder and manager of the ecumenical FM station Radio Valley, recalled a teacher leading his class through a performance of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.” Another young man became passionately devoted to the Irish boy band Westlife after chancing across a dusty cassette of their first album. During my research I found an Ozzy-obsessed metal band called Tragic Attack, the Mos-Def-namechecking MC Bardo and a fan of the terminally Canadian hoser rocker Gord Downie. God knows what he makes of songs about martyred hockey heroes, but perhaps the Tragically Hip’s discography has a hidden resonance there: Canada and Bhutan are both cultural runts fidgeting beneath colossi.

And we’ve both struggled mightily to compensate for it, with varying degrees of success. Some of Bhutan’s approaches are noble attempts at getting fledging industries off the ground: the country produces an unusually high number of movies per capita, for example, so keeping their ticket prices the lowest at Thimpu cinemas seems like prescient taxation policy. In other cases, however, the authorities have just been reactionary. Pelden Dorji’s 2006 film Aum Chum, the story of a hip-hop-loving stepmother, was censored by film board members who objected to its extended breakdance sequence. Their rationale was that “Bhutan is not yet ready for the culture of breakdancing.” But I think Bhutan would beg to differ:

The problem is that Gross National Happiness doesn’t recognize pidgin pop as legitimate productivity: it’s the cultural equivalent of a marijuana grow-op. The first official GNH index, published in 2008, relied on indicators like “knowledge of traditional dances,” not knowledge of Dzongkha rap singles. And although the state broadcaster’s Bhutan Star talent search drew 800 hopefuls for its previous season – several times more than the 100 000 people who tried out during the last cycle of American Idol, proportionally – producers herded contestants into one of three rigid styles. Rigsar was grudgingly added to a pair of folk categories, possibly because the monarchy’s own GNH survey showed it to be the most popular genre in Bhutan.

Himalayan rockism is a secondary issue, however, compared to Bhutan’s most shameful act of “cultural preservation.” Nepali Bhutanese have lived in the country’s southern districts since the 1860s, when the British Raj began sending Nepalis to nearby Darjeeling for tea-plantation labour and for Machiavellian imperial purposes. They are also known as Lhotshampa. As in other societies from Kenya to Quebec, post-war modernization heightened the Bhutanese population’s ethnic consciousness, and though the government fitfully gestured toward assimilation or multiculturalism – at one point it was actually paying members of the Drukpa majority to marry Lhotshampas – its posture ultimately hardened. Michael Hutt’s study Unbecoming Citizens documents what happened next: citizenship laws were tightened throughout the 1980s, with the addition of requirements like “good knowledge of Bhutanese culture.” Hutt notes that GNH discussions of “cultural preservation” were accompanied by a national dress code and a crackdown on Lhotshampa using illicit satellite connections to watch Hindi music videos or Bollywood movies. Finally, in 1989 and 1990, tens of thousands of Nepali Bhutanese were stripped of their citizenships and driven from the country amidst growing unrest. Most of them are still awaiting return or resettlement in border refugee camps.

This story is complicated by the fact that, according to Hutt’s book, many of the refugees disdain “genuine” Bhutanese culture in turn, seeing it as insular and backwards. Some try to beat back the cosmopolitan influences that reach even UN camps now. It’s a small but striking piece of evidence for the Michael Hardt/Antonio Negri thesis that patterns of power are fragmenting, becoming less binary and more diffuse. Whether musical, political or both, there is thrilling potential in that process and the unruly hybrids it produces. But the radical disruptions can cause real anguish. Hutt quotes the poignant lament of a conservative refugee: “Am I the only person who cannot recognize himself? Everything is old: the sun and moon are the same old sun and moon, the days, weeks, months, seasons and years are the same, so how is it that the times have been transformed into modernity?”

The great failure of Gross National Happiness is its attempt to objectively quantify these subjective tastes. It replaces GDP’s economic inequities with exploitation via cultural capital. In certain areas, like environmental conservation, GNH provides a valuable alternative perspective, but its effect on Bhutanese music has been mere chauvinism. The Bhutanese intellectual Karma Ura once worried that this nature-preserve approach would make his country known for nothing more than “a penchant for picturesque attire and the capacity to ingest vast quantities of chillies.” And the very fixation on “happiness” denies any value or purpose to art that makes you feel angry, or shocked, or weepy: If the U.S. converted to GNH tomorrow, would “Morrissey fan” become the rhetorical replacement for “welfare queen”? Though hardly totalitarian, Bhutan’s current emphasis on nationalistic revivalism, in songcraft and everything else, sometimes echoes North Korean state music – that disturbing zone where poptimism meets Stalinism. But what’s the alternative for a country in its culturally vulnerable, economically impoverished position?

In his book Development and Freedom, the Indian economist Amartya Sen argued: “it is sensible enough to take note of happiness, but we do not necessarily want to be happy slaves or delirious vassals.” He proposed a different framework based on capability: creating conditions where underprivileged people not only have the abstract right to choose a career or an aesthetic but the resources and social space to realize them. For music, this might entail pluralistic suspensions of judgment. Why can’t Nepalis be Bhutanese too? And why would it somehow be “inauthentic” if a Rihanna cover won Bhutan Star? The Buddha would probably have a few philosophical differences with your average Ke$ha video, but I was struck by a Youtube clip where some Thimphu girls danced to “Tik Tok,” their moves mimicking those many-armed statues of him. Which culture does that spectacle belong to? Bhutanese iconoclasts don’t need to look westwards for their radicalism. Many centuries ago, a Chinese Buddhist teacher named Linji told his students to spurn the orthodoxy of settled doctrine; emancipated from uncritical veneration, they would find enlightenment. He illustrated this belief with a famous maxim: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Very punk, no?

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Pine Point: An Interactive Documentary by Mike Simons

by Carl Wilson

The furthest north I’ve ever been was in Grade 10, when I played second trumpet in the high-school band and we went on an exchange to Pine Point in the Northwest Territories. The dominant feeling of the trip was the sheer anxious thrill of being so far from home, billeted with a strange family, and playing concerts to audiences full of strangers. The kids in Pine Point were really fun and kind. But the other notable thing was that their town seemed kind of fucked up.

This wasn’t a secret: It was a mining town, and the mine was closing down; there was a big sign that we saw every time our bus drove out of the city limits to go play Hay River or some other neighbouring community, which read, “WOULD THE LAST PERSON LEAVING PINE POINT PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS?” I’ve always remembered that, as an unusually robust instance of gallows humour – in a town down south, the city and the cops would never have left the sign standing. Since then, people from other resource- or industry-dependent towns that dwindled have told me that someone there pulled the same prank.

But it wasn’t just that the town was in decline. It was also that some of the young teenagers in the band at the Pine Point school had their own apartments, where they lived on their own. After band practice we would go over there and party, and they had a lot more booze and drugs around than at the parties I went to back home. They threw around a lot of dirty language within earshot of their teachers and didn’t get hassled for it. All of this was pretty shocking to us, the Catholic high-school band that played adulterated versions of Handel and such (because “high-school band” actually is a genre of music that doesn’t quite correspond to anything people really listen to). It wasn’t just gallows humour here, but a kind of gallows culture.

We’d thought the town we came from, Brantford, was fucked up. And it was: It had been an industrial centre, home to one of North America’s biggest farm-equipment manufacturing plants, where half the town had worked. And when I was a kid, Massey-Ferguson shut down, plunging the city into a spiral of unemployment and underfunding that it didn’t really claw its way back from until well after I’d left town. Our downtown was a ghost town, battered by a series of unsuccessful renewal schemes, to the point that even now it’s a popular location to shoot horror movies. And I’m sure some of the kids who dropped out of school in Brantford ended up fending for themselves in shitty apartments, too (in fact I know a couple who did). But it wasn’t a fact easily taken for granted, whereas up here it seemed to be.

I just got a quick and confounded glimpse of what was going on in Pine Point, but it was enough to slap me awake a bit, punch some holes in the roof of my sheltered existence, get a mouthful of that taste that’s the vastness of the world. But those were days before the Internet, when long-distance phone calls were still expensive, and I didn’t keep in touch with any of the kids I’d met up north. I think a couple of my bandmates did for a bit, but I don’t remember getting many reports.

So when I stumbled across this beautifully made NFB interactive documentary called Pine Point, I had to struggle to remember for a bit – “wait, isn’t that the place …?” And then, there on the third page of the documentary (I’m sure there’s more accurate technical language in which to talk about this young medium, but I don’t know it) is a sequence that leads up to that sign: “WOULD THE LAST PERSON LEAVING … “

The narrative begins with a statement by its maker, Mike Simons: “Pine Point was the first place I ever went alone. I was 9, living in Yellowknife and travelled there for a hockey tournament.” So in some ways, he’s coming from the same perspective, as someone to whom Pine Point was a vivid but fleeting youthful flash. There were differences, of course: His was a 45-minute trip, while ours must have been the better part of a day – a 90-minute bus ride to Toronto, some four hours to Edmonton, another couple of hours to Yellowknife, then a terrifyingly small, rattling plane across Great Slave Lake to Hay River and another bus to Pine Point. He came for sports as a kid, me for music as a teen. And I think he was there a few years earlier than I was.

But he went searching for that memory on the Internet, and discovered that Pine Point no longer existed – not that it had just faded into non-existence, but that it had actually been totally demolished and carted away in the year after the mine closed in 1987. But many of its former residents had banded together on the Internet and started having annual reunions.

As Simons notes, the blurriness of hometown memory takes on a particular poignancy when there is nothing left to compare with it, when that place has really become just a concept, hung precariously on the consensus among a limited group of people that it was real. My uncertainty that Pine Point was the place I visited, that’s almost like a vulnerability in the system – like Tinkerbelle, or God, or other characters in stories that will flicker out of existence if no one believes in them. I reach crucial points in the documentary and think, “Woah, the high school burned down six years before I was there? I vaguely remember hearing that – or am I just synthesizing that memory now on the spot?”

Fortunately, Simons’ thoughtful, deeply textured project takes that private tapestry of images and stories and transplants it squarely into the more secure public realm. (This week it won a Webby, which is a medium deal.) Of course, it gets there through the work of an outsider, but Simons puts in the foreground the tenuousness of memory and the difficulty of preserving let alone communicating it. And that fragility finds an echo in the wounds and tragedies that many Pine Pointers turn out to have undergone in the decades of their dispersal.

They’re the kinds of stories you’d find if you followed any random collection of people over a few decades, as Michael Apted has shown, but just as having seen his characters as children renders even their more banal adult misfortunes wrenching for the viewer, somehow the way each individual Pine Pointer’s roots extend into the fallow frozen dirt of the vanished town (with its “beauty you almost feel guilty for noticing,” as Simons puts it), makes every further deprivation they suffer feel like a greater injustice. At the same time, though, he argues, there’s also a blessing in the fact that Pine Point is gone, as it can never betray them, by changing, or even being different than they imagine it. It is theirs forever, or rather as long as there’s a them to have it.

And this is the reason you never have to have been to Pine Point to appreciate Simons’ achievement here: Really it’s about mortality. The death of the town symbolizes any death, and the way that we each will be remembered, until we’re not. It’s why the interactive nature of the project is so suitable – it gently forces you to get your hands in there, not to try to stay out of this fray of life and death.

The documentary counsels appreciation of little things like teams, tournaments, hobby groups and parties, as well as those big bits of history that unite us, because they all serve as pegs to hang our quilts of memory on (Simons remembers the day a Russian satellite crashed near Yellowknife the way the Pine Pointers remember the high-school fire and the way we’ll all remember getting the news of Osama bin Laden’s assassination this week). And some day when they pack each of us up and cart us away, you want to have accumulated a nice healthy collection of those involvements large and small, so you leave people more to think about, more to recall you by, than that you seemed kind of fucked up, in that period when you were closing down.

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Temporarily decamped (to the Slate Music Club)

by Carl Wilson

I won’t be posting an original piece here on B2TW this week because I’m busy beating the dead horse of 2010 music with Ann Powers, Jody Rosen and Jonah Weiner over at the Slate Music Club. I posted my list of 50 picks – 25 albums, 25 singles, however you define those terms – this afternoon. (I’ll put the raw-data long list up on my own site Zoilus later in the week.) But rest assured that with that step out of the way, the talk from here will get more wide-ranging, disputatious and refreshing – it’s mainly a What Did It All Mean discussion, not the What’s On Your List And Why Isn’t Your List More Like Mine kind. (Though you bet it snaps right back to that kind in the comments.)

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Top 10 Moments, Gestures and Consolations of 2010

by Carl Wilson

[With a debt of gratitude to Greil Marcus's Real Life Rock Top 10, the Back to the World team is reviewing 2010 on a free-associative, nerve-impulsive basis. I've confined myself to things I haven't already written about at length on this site this year, and discarded all critical-game rules of rank, comprehensiveness or balance. Another week it might be another 10.]

1. Collective redemptions: Auto-Tune the Meme

Antoine Dodson, singer of the year

I don’t know how long it will last but for now it’s a blessing to live when whatever nonsense goes viral will be remixed with Auto-Tune, usually by the reliably silly Gregory Brothers. What was the sonic signature of high-end rap/R&B (and Asian and Caribbean pop) in the ’00s becomes the crazed sound of the inside-out unconscious of the Internet digesting fetishes in the ’10s. Which comes with a disturbing side, of course: What seems fair game for politicians and newscasters on the Bros.’ great, long-running Auto-Tune the News series, and unimportant when it’s Double Rainbow Guy, becomes more complex when it comes to Antoine Dodson losing his shit about a rapist in the Huntsville projects on a local news report.

Without music, it seemed nauseatingly clear people were mocking the way a gay, black man in a poor neighbourhood of Alabama spoke in a state of distress. But the music, I’d argue, really did transform that into a celebration of Dodson’s flair and sincerity, into a tune so distinctive that it can be played without words by a marching band (at a historically black university, fwiw) and still hit the same sweet divot in the brain pain. And the Dodson family was able to buy a house on the spinoff proceeds, inverting the usual consciencelessness of that Internet unconscious.

Would it be too treacly to say that it’s a reminder of how rhythm, melody and harmony are ancient technologies to mediate alienation and generate human connection? Definitely, but grant me an Xmas pass.

2. Candid-camera delusions of grandeur/grotesquery: Destroyer ft. Loscil, “Grief Point” (Archer on the Beach EP)

Destroyer, Archer on the Beach

Another angle on the music/reality blur zone comes from Dan Bejar: This song is how it would be if songs or albums regularly came with the commentary tracks we’re used to on DVDs of movies and television, presuming that the commentaries were written by self-excoriating poets of course. (There’s precedent in the Dr. Horrible musical’s musical commentary tracks, though to more blatantly comic effect.)

Dan voices notebook entries seemingly written while recording last year’s “Bay of Pigs,” the “ambient-disco” song apparently originally titled “Grief Point” (or “May Day,” or “Christine White”) that reappears as the closing highlight of the upcoming Kaputt album, about which much more in the New Year. The way this track keeps up the links in this three-year chain of significance/striptease is part of the pleasure.

I prefer the denser EP version to the superminimal “Making of Grief Point” that Loscil (Vancouver electronic composer Scott Morgan) released earlier in the year: This one better fulfills and thus escapes what Dan calls “the same old shit. A potential, complete ignorance of ambience, real ambience, in that: Can you really construct it, every last bit of it, and just let the listener feel its effects? And is this the right treatment? Always the same question.”

The paradox of the ambient, which is Loscil’s genre, has percolated since Brian Eno coined it: How to listen to music not designed to be listened to, only heard? This track revisits that issue as the life/art problem (blah blah John Cage blah) etched in blood: Trust Destroyer to come up with a genre one could call Brian Emo.

As Dan considers whether to quit music or to be happy that he hates what he’s recording because “it means I’ve changed,” he flirts with the lines between social-media-panoptical self-indulgence and self-celebritizing and the substantive mental torment inherent to making meaning.

That’s what many of the most vital artists’ work currently does – such as B2TW intimate Sheila Heti’s 2010 novel How Should a Person Be?, which found a surprising champion in The New York Observer this week; but then the Observer, name down, has always been the cultural voyeur’s broadsheet.

Yet Destroyer was in this territory well ahead of the pack – “your backlash was right where I wanted you/ yes, that’s right, I wanted you,” he sang, before having enough recognition to get backlash. And he approaches it with a half-careless swagger but also a wolfish hunger to make the risks count, this fucking time at last at last.

3. Sex is so much more than sex: You Can Have It All, a performance by Mammalian Diving Reflex, Feb. 12-13, Toronto

"The Best Sex I've Ever Had"

Perhaps Ontario, the home of the old-lady sex Yoda, Sue Johanson, may inevitably eventually have generated something like this performance, but we’re lucky to have artist Darren O’Donnell to nudge it along.

Having advertised on telephone poles and bulletin boards for people “over 65 and still thinking about sex,” he gathered an incredible panel of women and men to first workshop and then publicly talk about their erotic lives in intimate, funny and often wrenching detail.

I can’t reproduce the effect here, except to say how exhilarating it was to hear how recent the participants’ greatest sexual experiences (in their opinions) often were. And conversely how intense it is to talk about great sex with someone now dead. … Funeral speeches that never were.

For all their universality it’s also a very local conversation; every community should bring in O’Donnell to root out these words stirring unspoken among them.

But the thing I was left thinking about most was that all the straight men on the panel dropped out before the performances: Was this just a generational blip or does it reveal something deep and hard to uproot about gender, power and vulnerability? (Including O’Donnell’s own power dynamic as a director, though that seems too simple.)

4. Past, unpassed: Richard Harrow (played by Jack Huston) on Boardwalk Empire

The best TV show I watched in 2010 was no doubt the third season of Breaking Bad, but the best thing on TV was this extraordinary character on an otherwise mediocre series.

Sniper-turned-hit-man Richard Harrow is a veteran of World War 1 whose face was so maimed in battle so that he wears a painted tin mask in public – a historically accurate representation inspired by this Smithsonian Magazine article. He befriends one of the central characters, fellow vet Jimmy Darmody (the anemic Michael Pitt), whose mutilation is less visible but similarly soul-obstructing. Together they use their skills to make themselves other-than-disposable to men in power the one way they know: murder at someone else’s command.

Yet Harrow (despite his wince-worthy, typically Boardwalk Empire-showboating name), as image, and in Jack Huston‘s physical and vocal dance (he is the mess of tics we all would be in his place, but never a cartoon), more than even Steve Buscemi’s ever-virtuosic lead, inspires a sympathetic vibration very near love. At one point, to soothe spooked children, he jokingly calls himself the Tin Man (referring to the book, not the yet-unmade film). Huston (grandson of John, nephew of Angelica) earns the parallel.

Boardwalk Empire‘s fatal flaw is its jones to emulate its media-gangster icons, from The Sopranos (on which its creators worked) to The Godfather and the best films of producer Martin Scorsese. But to do something memorable with the dawn-of-Prohibition lawlessness it aimed at, it needed someone more like David Lynch, who could capture the uncapturability of those silent-film years: the way its sensibility is just out of reach of an audience for whom history really begins with the talky mass-cultural connection that’s come to spell “20th century.”

That there was a 20th century before the 20th century is a fact the tapes in our cathode-ray lizard-brain stems don’t readily disclose. (As a music guy, I’m sad their takes on Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker don’t gel, though the Hardini-Houdini’s-brother riff had legs.)

Thus the series can’t give us the uncanniness, the unheimlich feeling of meeting Freud’s day on its own terms. Except with Richard Harrow. In his face we get a time before medicine was anything we’d see as fit for the title, when the compromises had other stakes – the spasms that pushed the modern out its birth canal. Upheavals still felt like phantom pains in today’s post-everything pathologies. What a story that could have been.

5. Mantler, Monody

There were days this year I wanted to live in a ditch. I wanted rats to nibble at my shoelaces and beetles to replace the pupils of my eyes. Too often I got right down in that culvert and dug my elbows into the grime and let the parasites feast on my shit, then come back up and spit it in my ears.

If I knew a little better any given Sunday, though, I’d put on Toronto singer-songwriter Mantler‘s record and then the goat-footed balloon man would come laughing, “Have you forgotten the word ‘mudluscious’? What’s wrong, fetish not got your tongue? Displace a little up-up-and-away into me, and wrap your troubles in dreams till they’re helium-drunk and far and wee.”

That most hospitals were never told about this miracle cure is one of the true scandals of 2010. That it had been six years since the last release of the absintheian elixir that Mantler (Chris Cummings) pours generously out of a cauldron full of white suits and colour organs and herbs that taste like bells is the occasion of every party you should have been invited to when some sad bastard forgot your name.

6. Not ready to make nice: Bernie Sanders’ 8-hour semi-filibuster

Bernie Sanders: Mad as hell and he didn't have time to go round and round and round... but did it anyway, dammit

What I don’t really want to talk about, despite how much it weighed through 2010, is how hard it was to keep supporting Barack Obama (if Canadian support counts). Especially after November, when the tax deal, in particular, seemed to squander a vital “lame duck” opportunity to counterbalance the upcoming bullying of liberty, logic and economic justice by the Republican House.

But then there was this bit of performance art in opposition to tax cuts for millionaires at the expense of the vanishing middle class (and not just in America) by the only avowed democratic socialist in federal American politics, and nearly the only mensch (well, along with Barney Frank). It was just what I wanted for Christmas and Hanukah. This shit is the gelt.

Sometimes you speak truth even knowing power is deaf. And abusive. And would rather look good at basketball than take, to revisit a theme, a goddamn risk.

7. Stretching for substance: Taylor Swift, “A careless man’s careful daughter” in “Mine” (Speak Now LP)

From the "Mine" video: I didn't post the rest 'cuz it's awful

This year Taylor Swift fell into a tabloid-tell-all mode that’s warped the naturalism that served her so well, not to mention overmilking the princessy crap. And where her nemesis Kanye at least freaked out creatively about their encounter of the 2009th kind, making it the sub-theme of his fine (if overpraised) new record, she was all too level and dull on the topic, on an album that marks her predictably awkward transition from teen songwriting prodigy to young-adult celebrity.

Notwithstanding, a key line in the record’s lead single has followed me through the months: “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.” It may be the most writerly moment in her career, at least in a chorus, with its un-Nashvilley cram of syllables. You can tell how proud she is of it because she puts it in the repeated pivot point of the song. You almost want to come back with the old saw of writing-advice, “Kill your darlings.” But a songwriter in her position might need her darlings in a way a poet or novelist wouldn’t, as a creative love-rival to fame’s blandishments.

In “Mine,” we never hear anything more about the father, but the line tells us enough about who the protagonist is, and who the boyfriend is (his version: “I fell in love with a careless man’s careful daughter”) to double the narrative’s heft.

That reversal of P.O.V. when the boyfriend assuages her fears could seem rote as craftsmanship, but in pop, rote narrative moves that sync up just right are the ones that get you teary-eyed. Hell, it’s not that dissimilar to the move Stephin Merritt makes in one of my favourite songs, “Papa Was a Rodeo” – it just lacks the knowingness about itself as a move.

I’m not sure why it’s so effective at lumping my throat. Maybe it’s that I’m a careful man’s more careless son. I’ll keep mulling the question in 2011. But I hope that in the next few years, Swift stays proud of it and fills more of her songs with lines like it, till they become adult stories. She’s a country songwriter, after all, and she’s got examples like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard to show that if you hold true to your craft, hang your heart on those pivot points, they can take you anywhere. It’s not about being as fancy a syllable crammer as Elvis Costello, who just as often is hoist on that petard. There’s so much that suggests Swift could get there, and so many reasons to fear that she won’t. Grant me another Xmas pass here while I bet against the house.

8. The medium isn’t such a mess-age: The San Francisco Panorama


After years when there’s been nothing but gloating and/or despairing obits for the print media in which I mostly make my living, I want to give thanks to McSweeneys/The Believer for demonstrating that death isn’t the only possible future.

Their one-shot example of what a glorious print newspaper could look like (it came out in late 2009 but was widely available in 2010) may be starry-eyed, but it makes concrete what I often say to my peers: Losing the position of first choice for news every weekday morning doesn’t doom newspapers. Play to strengths: weekend features, investigative reporting, physical scale and, well, “eye-feel” (the way foodies talk about mouth-feel). And – well, maybe not a 96-page books section, where the publishers played too aggressively to their strengths, but a books section, because those other people of words are allies. I think people would pay, and they’d stay.

My paper took baby steps this direction this year but those booties need a harder sole (soul).

9. Chatty Kathy

Has any cultural source made me regularly happier than Kathleen Phillips’ video blog in 2010? Her live character comedy came close, particularly when I got to help program her (playing a deluded actress-turned-writer) as part of the Scream in High Park this summer. But can that compete with The Ballad of Four Feet Joe? With her other animations of the inanimate? Oh, world, you will never look quite the same and thank Heaven or whatever department is in charge. Even if Virgin Mobile ripped it off in the name of Christ.

10. Sex is so much sexer than sex: The collected works of Tonetta; Good Intentions Paving Company by Joanna Newsom, 4:35 to end.

It’s been a long year. Remember when all we could talk about was Lady Gaga?  But finally some serious sensual competition came along in the struggle to make humans delirious, delusional, demented by delight. Toronto’s own Tonetta might have occupied my whole year if I were still writing a locally centred music blog (good thing there was someone around to fill in). You could shorthand it as Jandek meets Gaga meets Iggy in your pervert uncle’s basement, but the catchy hooks and obscenity and freak-flag-fluttering come with a poignant sense of a man finding himself in the act of losing himself (this is his post-divorce project). Social-media-voyeurism comes in for a lot of bashing, but Tonetta suggests one of its graces: Helping us discover what in us is worth gawking at.

Joanna Newsom has had that kind of gnosis for a long time, even too much so – she’s less sharp about what to leave out. Still, there are also great grasshopper artistic leaps on her 2010 album Have One on Me, including a verse that leaves me dizzy with desire – not for its singer (however deserving, vide the lascivious montage above), but with thoughts of people in my life who can reliably and relentlessly render me this way:

But it can make you feel over and old, Lord, you know it’s a shame / When I only want for you to pull over and hold me/ Till I can’t remember my own name.

And as she casts this invocation, horns and strings rise restless from every corner as if to redecorate the room for their sex-magickal rites. (RIP Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson.) May that be your benediction in the gloaming  of 2010, and as 2011 rises, aroused.

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Architects of Troubled Sleep: A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, by Owen Hatherley (2010)

by Chris Randle

Until now, Canada was spared from the worst consequences of global economic chaos; the elimination of our federal deficit in the 1990s is being touted as a model for other budget-gutters. But similar medicine awaits us too. And that raises an overlooked question: What will happen to urban architecture when “austerity” becomes involuntary?

Few polemics come recommended by both the Daily Worker and the Daily Telegraph, but Owen Hatherley’s Guide is about Britain’s built environment, and perhaps that least abstract of media allows for wider common ground. When Tony Blair won a landslide there in 1997 after two decades of Tory misrule, he asked the delirious nation: “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” His vacillation would prove telling. Blair deluded himself into believing that an advanced economy could thrive on property, finance, tourism and the “creative industries” alone, all entwined in a blurry loop of speculative greed.

Before the economic crash ended that particular fantasy, Blair and Gordon Brown promised to regenerate the cities devastated by Thatcherism. Dilapidated housing blocks or post-war concrete landmarks were razed and replaced by privately financed edifices, flashy but often built on the cheap, typically containing many more luxury apartments and many fewer spaces for the poor. Back in power and fixated on slashing spending, the Tories have no money left to alter this landscape; they want to finally cleanse the proles from inner cities instead. The “pseudomodernist Blairboxes” that Hatherley documents are the visible legacy of New Labour’s Third Way, and his architectural critique doubles as a savage, despairing political verdict.

Hatherley was born in Southampton, and the book begins there too. The city became Britain’s major passenger port in the early twentieth century, but unlike its predecessor Liverpool, there was little civic identity to draw on when the human visitors drained off to Heathrow. Surveying this blankness, the author writes: “I used to be annoyed by the way that whenever my home town was mentioned in a work of art – from Lennon’s ‘Ballad of John and Yoko’ to Wyndham Lewis’ travelogue Snooty Baronet – they never said anything about the town itself. It was only as a place to pass through.” For one famous ship that passage was terminal, so the city council is building a new Titanic Museum. Most of its doomed crewmen were local slum-dwellers whose families never got a penny of compensation.

Park Hill council estate, Sheffield, England

The relatively prosperous south isn’t Hatherley’s focus, or his true object of affection. Only one of the eleven travelogues happens in London. It’s dwarfed by his “unrequited love letters” to the former industrial cities of northern England, places where Old Labour socialists made ambitious and impassioned plans for a New Jerusalem. That trail of detritus leads to such remarkable buildings as Sheffield’s Park Hill, a huge council estate (British for public housing project) whose communal “streets in the sky” were meant to check modernism’s alienating dark side. The Human-League-quoting property developer Urban Splash is turning it into mixed-use flats. One of their employees proudly tells Hatherley what a longtime resident said: “People think we live in a slum. They don’t realize that I live in a penthouse looking out over the city.” But he can’t recall where the council has moved her now.

More dispiriting still is the chapter on Newcastle. It’s the largest city in Northumbria, or northeast England. My dad is from the next town over; his childhood home was built by the great Aneurin Bevan’s Housing Ministry. Bevan’s local counterpart T. Dan Smith, an ex-communist miner’s son, took control of the Newcastle Labour Party and then Newcastle City Council in 1958, on a platform of “massive rehousing programs.” He tragicomically declared that his town would become a “Brasilia of the North.” Smith didn’t fail half-heartedly. Hatherley notes that he almost got Le Corbusier to design the master’s only British building, and gave Newcastle the first planning department of any English council. Much of Tyneside’s physical shape today is his doing. The problem was that Smith couldn’t realize these grand dreams with the budgets and architects at hand, let alone his visionary scheme to reorganize political power in Britain and end the absurd dominance of men in ermine.

The other problem is that Smith served a six-year prison sentence for corruption. After leaving politics for private business in the late 1960s he founded a company run by the crooked architect John Paulson, later fictionalized as a capitalist monster in David Peace’s Red Riding series. Paulson’s eventual downfall ensnared Smith as well, and Hatherley makes a virtuosic attempt to reconcile the early idealism with the unconvincingly justified business links. He concludes that “T. Dan Smith appears here as the ultimate political curate’s egg: fascinating and charismatic, creator of an impressive but often despised landscape…a corrupt mandarin who intended to create a decentralized socialist Britain.” It almost sounds logical that way, though equally depressing. You could call the human contradiction of utopian socialist/dodgy accounts-fiddler a classic Northumbrian type. I’ve met a few of them.

I’m much less conflicted about A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain itself. Hatherley can get verbose – he has a weakness for double adverbs – and the production values are, well, about what you’d expect from a fiercely independent lefty publisher. But his self-deprecating wit and incongruous pop-music subplot make up for any number of small, crap photo illustrations. I just wish the residents of these places were more visible here. In a recent interview, Hatherley mentions the TV show Demolition, which features Prince Charles-damaged citizens voting on the evil modernist eyesores they want to annihilate forever. He notes that one of their punching bags, the elderly brutalist architect Owen Luder, actually turned up for argument’s sake and managed to sway several panelists. Why not make such a dialogue (or dialectic) part of his own project?

If there’s any hope to be found in Hatherley’s bleak denouement, it might be the possibility of rage giving way to greater political engagement – not just with the inane noise of horserace coverage, and not only with those who love your own monuments. That seems especially urgent in Canada right now, where our own city-loathing Tory government is preparing another austerity budget. Toronto’s new mayor is a conservative defined by his robotic repetition of talking points and his desire to run municipal government like a Kinko’s outlet. He needs to be resisted. But after finishing Hatherley’s book, I felt ashamed by how little I know about the people who influence this city’s architecture – or the lower-class suburbanites who decided to shift its politics rightward. You can always vote out a Rob Ford, after all. How do we get rid of Richard Florida?

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Moonbeam Over Marin: “California Uber Alles” and Jerry Brown

by Chris Randle

During my transition from a teenager who played competitive Magic: The Gathering to a teenager with dubious facial piercings, I rode the subway downtown to a cavernous vintage store on Queen Street West. The scruffy nave of local music and art in the 1980s, that neighbourhood has since become almost totally gentrified, but it felt like Weimar Berlin after coming from my leafy, ultra-middle-class corner of Toronto. The thrift shop clung on – still does – by hawking beat-up trenchcoats and black punk-band shirts. My favourite T circa Grade 10 featured a militaristic, sinister-looking emblem in lurid colours. The stark text “DEAD KENNEDYS” soon appeared in its owner’s passport photo, although that was a dumb oversight on my part rather than an attempt at radicalizing airport security.

I don’t remember exactly when I became a fan of the band, but I do remember how: “California Uber Alles.” The menace created by East Bay Ray’s guitar (surf rock for the sharks) and Jello Biafra’s manic sneer of a voice was intoxicating. I didn’t follow all the lyrics – I understood they were mocking some long-gone California governor with New Age leanings. Surely he must have been better than Reagan? But I got the joke. The notion of a serenely Zen fascist leader was just plausible enough for its indelible absurdism to work. Hippie hatred unites punks and neoconservatives like nothing else. It only serves the interests of the latter.

Jerry Brown, the DKs’ day-glo Fuhrer, made an unlikely comeback as governor of California this week. My teenage self probably would’ve been nonplussed, but now the news is a delight. That doesn’t have much to do with policy proposals (though Brown will be far, far better on that score than the billionaire cipher he defeated), and it doesn’t make up for the depressing loss of Sen. Russ Feingold in this grim midterm vote. Brown’s return appeals to me on a symbolic, even sentimental level. It implies that hopeless eccentrics can still get elected in a major U.S. state. The governor-to-be has never lived his life as if worried about potential attack ads.

That notorious oddness is sometimes exaggerated, and not just by a certain hardcore anthem. Brown acquired the inescapable nickname “Governor Moonbeam” when he suggested launching California’s own communications satellite – a crazy-sounding idea in the 1970s, a visionary one now. (Like Tony Benn on the left of Britain’s Labour Party, Brown was a starry-eyed futurist.) He did appoint a Beat poet to the California Arts Council, though, and espoused Buddhist economics, and lived in a commune for a time after leaving office. Later he interviewed Noam Chomsky for Spin: “The economists have a word, ‘autarchy,’ which they use to denigrate the notion of local self-reliance.”

It’s not surprising that Jello Biafra praised Brown’s insurgent campaign against Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic primary, lamenting the caricature he’d helped create. They had way too much in common. (Maybe Biafra also realized that some conservatives would take the idea of “liberal fascism” all too seriously.) The ’92 Moonbeam backed campaign-finance reform and condemned free-trade deals. If indie rock was succeeding punk as a centre of countercultural attention, he knew the kids better than Jello did; Brown stumped econo, refusing to take contributions higher than $100. Most came through a 1-800 number. He would hold it up during debates, deadpan, like he was selling OK Soda.

This lefty populist nonetheless championed a regressive flat tax designed by supply-side guru Arthur Laffer. That wasn’t especially surprising either. Brown has always been slippery ideologically, yet his weird mysticism makes the fluidity seem authentic, the core of his aura (in Walter Benjamin’s sense). As one right-wing admirer put it: “Nearly every politician dreams of being all things to all people; Brown found a way to treat that inconstancy as an Aquarian virtue.”

He was a contradictory governor of a contradictory state. California, epicentre of the New Left, is also distinguished by the virulence of its right. In Before the Storm, his book about Barry Goldwater and the American conservative movement, Rick Perlstein notes that Orange County alone swelled to 38 John Birch Society chapters, plus a Bircher congressman. When he ran for re-election in 1978, Jerry Brown carried Orange County.

“California Uber Alles” kept moving too. Dead Kennedys recorded an angrier version about Ronald Reagan in 1982, calling it “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now.” That could almost pass for contrition by hardcore standards. Numerous covers followed, each one diminishing the original’s effect. Biafra himself remade the song after the recall putsch of Governor Arnold, comic-Nazi accent and all, but Schwarzenegger lacked the earlier targets’ surrealism or extremism; he was just laughable, a celebrity feebly pantomiming the big persona, kind of like Jello Biafra.

I don’t mean to pit one subculture against another, hippie politician versus punk warbler. That game is boring. (We won’t even mention the H-word.) Fraught, tangled lineage is a more accurate framework. My friend Jonny Dovercourt once argued that indie rockers hate hippies because “they remind us of our embarrassing younger selves…Indie kids are descended from punks, who are descended from hippies.” A “crushing sense of disappointment” has been passed down through each semi-failed movement. Maybe he was right. What else could Dead Kennedys’ name signify? Groovy RFK, tribune of the ’60s New Politics, bleeding out at Nixon’s victory party.

During his rambling acceptance speech this week, Jerry Brown said: “While I’m really into this politics thing, I still carry with me that missionary zeal to transform the world…I’m hoping and praying that this breakdown that we’ve been witnessing paves the way for a breakthrough.” I could close by quoting my blog comrade here: “Punk is easy, adulthood is hard.” But I’ll be mercurial and cite Crass instead: “I’m the same old monkey in the same old zoo / Same old message trying to get through.”

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Mary Margaret O’Hara at Pop Montreal, Oct. 3, 2010

by Carl Wilson

Sometimes people speak of the “physical genius” of an athlete such as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky or Roger Federer – the way what they do, in the bugged-out eyes of self-consciously-more-mortal players and spectators, can seem beyond not just rational understanding but even instinctive possibility.

Malcolm Gladwell tried to define it as some kind of combination of practice and a certain breed of imagination, and David Foster Wallace more exquisitely wrote about “kinetic beauty” – “It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” And there certainly exists a parallel kind of performative genius in artists, which in cases such as Bruce Springsteen or Tina Turner bears a near relationship to that athletic quality, and in others such as Elvis or Prince a closer kinship to the preacher’s or shaman’s power. (And all of them, to contradict the great DFW for a moment, have plenty to do with sex and cultural norms – in fact, they’re a leading cause of both.)

But the most intense experiences of performative genius I’ve had, perhaps because of whatever kinetic handicaps I carry with me, tend to be of a slightly different stripe. I’d like to think that they would be equally universal if as many people could see them. On the other hand, most of the artists who bear this gift seem to become stuck in the “cult” category of the entertainment business, so maybe it’s not so. You might call it psycho-kinetic beauty, or Tourettic beauty: It’s a rendering of the mind-body problem without reconciliation but also without compromise. As if the mind and body were reversing their positions in the usual conflict, such that the body is thinking and the mind is dancing, or the body is writing a sonnet and the mind is having an orgasm.

Either way, it doesn’t exactly look like a person becoming more-than-normal, superhuman; it looks like a person becoming other-than-normal, extrahuman. With apologies to Wallace again, if any mode of human activity almost escapes sex and cultural norms, this would be my pick. Although that’s also what’s sexy about it.

David Thomas of the band Pere Ubu ranting and screeching; Ornette Coleman, his saxophone twittering not in musical notes but in the tongues of beasts; the Dutch band The Ex turning themselves into a collective star cluster or the bumps of a spine twisting in epileptic convulsion; Shane McGowan of the Pogues, his body wrecked, propped up against the mic stand like a sail hung on a mast or a patient on an IV stand, yet singing with the power of Prospero summoning a monsoon. Wherever it arises, when you’re in the room with it, you are very likely to feel that you are seeing the best performance that ever happened in the world.

As Wallace says of Federer, this quality doesn’t quite survive transmission or recording by other media; finding out why not, whether by science or phenomenology, would make a good dissertation (title it “The Federer Paradox”).

The answer may have something to do with the career path of Mary Margaret O’Hara, who was introduced almost rudely not long ago by CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi as someone who is perhaps less famous for what she’s achieved (primarily, the 1988 album Miss America, which regularly appears on lists of the best pop records ever made) than for what she hasn’t (mainly, getting famous, or making any more albums since then).

It obviously has to do as well with the music industry’s discomfort with her sort of unclassifiable gift, with Canada on a bunch of levels (as experienced from within, as perceived from outside) and with her own eccentricities: Until this week, partly due to missed chances but mainly because chances are scarce, I’d never seen her give a full-length concert. Only cameo appearances at other people’s shows, where she’d sometimes be stunning and other times stunned — seeming as if she was totally unprepared, hesitant to join in, derailed by the whole situation. On occasion she barely sings at all.

It might be, as my friend Michael likes to think, that she sizes up the situation rapidly and thinks, “There’s no music going on here, nothing for me to do.” It might be modesty and spectacular shyness. Or maybe she is just prone to confusion.

Even then, Michael might be kind of right: At her show in Montreal last weekend, the kind of unexpected treat-out-of-pop-legend-history that’s one of the Pop Montreal festival’s specialties, you could see that she’s less tuned out than overly tuned in. She would notice someone dropping their phone halfway back the hall. She would catch a word in the middle of her own sentence – whether singing or speaking – and start free-associating hilariously on it.

She would seem to notice a half-hoarse intonation in a note she’d sung and jump on it, twisting it into an actual horse braying and snorting, then seamlessly return to the groove or the melody she’d been teasing around the stage a moment before. Remember that her sister Catherine O’Hara is part of (one or two of) the past few decades’ most important clutch of improvisational comedians. This is that, as music.

And as comedy too. The hardest part of writing this is to explain how funny Mary Margaret is. Telling us we were a great audience, she mumbled, “You’re all so nice, you should be treated like baby seals.” (Petted? Clubbed? Eaten?) When there was a call-and-response bit on a chorus, and the audience, uncoached, failed to come in the very first time, she immediately sneered, “Losers.” You maybe just chuckled now. We gasped, we literally fell off of our plush little cabaret chairs. It was the mass and velocity of the gesture and verbiage that was coming at us, like tennis balls being fired by some out-of-control pitching machine, that was overwhelming.

It all happened by micro-instants. It was like Koyaanisqatsi or some other stop-motion photographic film, compared to the linear, zoom-in emotional arc of most performances. It was everywhere if it was anywhere. As Michael said, as soon as you can guess where she’s going, then she goes somewhere else. She was throwing away ideas and emotions as quickly as she generated them, and while it could read as careless it was actually rigorous: Why keep them? They’re already done!

But then she would freeze the strobe and simply sing the heaven out of some ballad, like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or her own “Dear Darling,” in a way that made you reflexively think “Billie Holiday,” not because O’Hara’s voice sounds similarly but because you thought this must have been what it would like to be in some 1940s club hearing Holiday interpret every syllable and note with such extreme musicality, humanity and particularity. At times, with her tendency to reticence, O’Hara would call up a guest, and then ask them later to come up again, and they’d call out from the crowd, “Mary, I think people want to hear you sing.” We were always so grateful.

Aside from Miss America tracks and the few covers I knew, I couldn’t tell which songs were her own (and her collaborators’, guitarist Rusty McCarthy chief among them for more than three decades), because she’s in the league of the standards composers as a maker of melodies and lyrics. That element’s often downplayed when Miss America gets praised, just because her voice is so conspicuously out-of-ballpark. Let’s do hope, in defiance of all sense and reason, that these new ones make it to another record.

It was all like an inside-out version of how you feel reading a great novelist, the kind – Dostoevsky, Robert Musil – who implicitly tell you that laughter and weeping are one and the same because, as Andre Breton said, “Beauty will be convulsive if it is at all.” It makes nonsense of their separations into genres or even into “beats” in a drama – scenes are “light” and then “get dark.” The body knows in its spasms that light and dark are part of one thing, the flicker of reality.

There were calls toward the end, at the encore, for one of her best-known songs, “Body’s in Trouble.” She shrugged them off for her own reasons, but it is her manifesto, with its caressing but also battering rhythms and textures: not the reconciliation to having a body but the realization that the body’s will, its wisdom, its stubborn it-ness, means that “having” a body is not at all the right description – it has you, and that’s its problem.

Oh you just want to take somebody
Your body won’t let you
You just want to, want to hear somebody
And a body won’t let you
You just want to ride somebody
Oh a body won’t let you
Who do you talk who, who do you talk to?
Who do you talk to? Who?
When a body’s in trouble, a body’s in trouble
When a body’s in trouble, in trouble, in trouble
When a body’s in a trouble
Oh, when a body’s in trouble
Who who who do you talk to?
Oh who oh who oh

Some moments of Mary Margaret O’Hara – but remember Federer’s Paradox about reproducing kinetic beauty, much less the psycho-kinetic kind.

An early appearance with her first band, Songship – must be circa 1980? The host describes her, awkwardly but tellingly, as a “combination of a sex symbol and Howdy Doody.”

Classic performance of “When You Know Why You’re Happy” on Night Music, early 1980s.

The Body’s In Trouble video

A newer song

In 2007 at the Edmonton Folk Festival

At her annual Martian Awareness Ball (for St. Patrick’s Day) in Toronto

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