Category Archives: lectures

Carl’s Baker’s Dozen of Things He Loved in 2012, Not Previously Discussed Here, in Alphabetical Order

By Carl Wilson

The slogan of B2TW is “Untimely Talk About Culture,” so while we like doing year-end best-of lists, we like to wait a while with them, like till after Chinese New Year so everyone’s more on the same page. Sorry that’s so inconvenient for Christmas shopping. Margaux posted hers last week, Carl’s is today, and Chris’s will be next week. Hope you enjoy.

1. BackStory podcast

I’m pleased this list begins with maybe the geekiest thing on it – what’s more, not produced in any conventional cultural capital but at the University of Virginia.

backstoryThe M.O. of the weekly podcast and public-radio show BackStory is simple: It seizes on a topic in the recent news (or an occasion such as Thanksgiving or the election) and squeezes it through the wringer of American history. The chatty and casual hosts are three UV history professors, the “American History Guys”: “18th-Century Guy,” “19th-Century Guy” and “20th-Century Guy.” The latter has the rawest deal because the other two are kinda automatically fascinating. Though they are all white men, they invite female historians most often as their guest experts and they are highly conscious of the racial dimension of American history, as how could you not be.

Drugs, gun control, voting, infectious disease, the postal service, attempts to control the weather, presidential inaugurations, courtship, public education – just start with whatever most gets your attention. You will find out that colonial Americans were basically drunk all the time and Christmas was illegal. You will fill up your store of “Did you know?” stories for any dull moment in conversation. And you will be trained painlessly in historical thinking: that it was never “ever thus,” that most stories have so many sides that they are smooth ungraspable spheres and that common knowledge is often neither. This should comfort you in the bleakest moments and vice-versa.

2. Borgen, Season 1 (TV series, Denmark, 2010)

 The glut of great Danish television is no secret by now; the country seems to be picking up from HBO’s 2000s in the 2010s. This drama about Birgitte Noyberg, who nearly by accident becomes the first Danish female prime minister (which proved prescient), is tense, enlightened, funny and human. The acting is as good as the furniture and the political analysis better than most journalism. (“Borgen” means “the Castle,” which is what Danes call the main government building.) The episode in which Noyberg has to deal with a scandal in Greenland – which is basically to Denmark what Nunavut is to Canada – treated aboriginal issues more perceptively than I could ever hope for on a Canadian series. It was wrenching.

borgen-greenland

3. Dead Authors Podcast, Chapter 12, with Laraine Newman and Paul F. Tompkins

Character comedian Paul F. Tompkins is the single funniest person to hear on any of the endless flood of comedy podcasts that come from L.A. now. I was disappointed at first with this literary-history series, in which the conceit is that H.G. Wells (Tompkins) uses his time machine to kidnap writers from the past (played by other comedians) and interview them in the 21st century. It seemed flat and mumbly early on. But then I heard this episode, with a live audience, and with first-generation Saturday Night Live comedian Laraine Newman impersonating Mary Shelley, discussing feminism and Frankenstein and what pricks the Romantics were. And more recently, the latest one with Jen Kirkman gender-bending into the role of Abbie Hoffman going on endlessly about “pigs.” Again, with a live audience.

It seems difficult to do really good improvisation without an audience or at least more participants – it’s difficult to keep a two-person feedback loop going in a vacuum unless you are Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, or having sex (or both). In any case I love the tension between mockery and respect here. Kids would get more out of books in school if we told them their writers were not only great but also nuts, and had lives that were amazing and also ridiculous. Just like theirs.

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 4. James R. Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (published 2005)

I’m excited about the upcoming first book by my friend John Shaw in Seattle, which is about the intertwined histories and meanings of the songs This Land is Your Land and God Bless America. He told me many times that Evening in the Palace of Reason is the best book about music he ever read. This summer, I finally started it, on a stay at my friend Julia’s cottage. I read it all night and all day; I don’t think I even stopped to go swimming.

Like John’s book, it’s a double-threaded story: It weaves together the backgrounds of two Prussian dynasties, the Bach family and the Hohenzollern line of rulers, leading of course to J.S. and Frederick the Great, climaxing in the famous “Musical Offering” in which Bach composed a series of ever-more-complex fugues on a theme supplied by the hobbyist-musician king (which Frederick had assumed would be impossible).

You might see why I didn’t rush to read it when John suggested it.

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But it’s about so much more. For one thing Frederick’s father and grandfather were insane assholes – his grandfather, for instance, literally had a collection of “giants,” tall men whom he had abducted from their home villages and held captive so that he could fetishistically enjoy watching them walk up and down the courtyard. The Bachs were strange in a whole other set of ways. And James R. Gaines has the most compulsively readable prose on Earth. But along the way he also makes subtle arguments about the relationships between faith, art and the Enlightenment. I think the implication is that art is a bit like A.A.: It doesn’t have to be a god, but it helps to serve a power higher than the self. 

5. Title cards of Girls, designed by Howard Nourmand

There are many other things I could name to admire about Lena Dunham’s inexhaustibly discussable HBO show – Adam Driver’s performance and character arc is the first to come to mind for me; Margaux pointed out several others – but they all coalesce at the beginning of each episode when after some pungent set-up, the screen clears and we see, for a brief moment, the stark colour-on-colour card that says GIRLS.

It has so many simultaneous pleasures. I can think of one for each letter.

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G: It respects the way we often watch television now, in multi-episode saved-up or downloaded or streamed bunches of episodes, which means you don’t want to sit through some long credit sequence repeatedly. (When I rewatched all of The Sopranos in the early winter – it held up remarkably well by the way – I couldn’t fast-forward through the credits quickly enough, even though I love that theme song.)

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I: Instead it’s like a silent-film title card, a cheap solution, a low-tech necessity. It could be held up on a square of construction paper. Girls does have a silent-comedy feel, if a silent film were really, really talkative; Lena Dunham is a little like Charlie Chaplin, if Charlie Chaplin were naked all the time. It’s a rebuke to the expectation of realism, a tip of the bowler to the potential for farce.

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 R: Of course it’s also a hashtag-style punchline to whatever’s just happened or is about to happen: Hannah is eating a cupcake in the shower? #girls. Shoshana is describing a reality show where people reveal their “baggage” and saying hers would be “that I’m a virgin of course”? #girls. Or, best, Ray and Charlie, rehearsing their stupid indie band, ransack Hannah and Marnie’s apartment and steal Hannah’s diary? #girls. It’s self-deprecating and disarming but simultaneously sardonic, kissing the stereotype off blithely.

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L: It’s oddly soothing and utopian. The colour contrasts pulse like an orb from space or a Brian Eno iPhone app or a pricey sex toy. This goes nicely with the theme music, composed as far as I can figure out by Michael Penn (Sean’s brother btw), which is just slightly more elaborate than the sound your computer makes when it powers up. So it is like the show, like Girls as a technology, is powering up. (On Windows the startup sound was of course itself composed with Brian Eno.)

GIRLS

S: Finally, there’s also a cumulative effect: The trivial-but-felt suspense of wondering what the colours will be this week. The instant-dopamine rush of familiarity and celebration: Yes, it’s here, it’s on, it’s that time again, the all-too-short season has not ended. And the anticipatory awareness that soon you will be echoing it in some conversation or another: “Did you watch this week’s G I R L S yet?”

girlstitle4

Here’s a nice set of pictures from the designers showing all the stages they went through to get there. I don’t like a single one of them better.

6. Aimee Mann, Charmer

In the past I’ve always liked but perhaps underrated Aimee Mann, former singer for 80s Boston synth-pop band ‘Til Tuesday, married to the aforementioned Michael Penn, and composer of the main music for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. I might have compared her unfavourably for instance to Sam Phillips, who makes equally pretty (you’ve likely heard her sighing la-la’s on Gilmore Girls or more recently Bunheads) but more obviously barbed and painful songs. But this album kept resurfacing and insisting on itself, at a time when I wasn’t even listening to that much music.

I liked the theme that runs through it, of either being or dealing with the charming person, who may or may not also be a functional or decent person. I’d become aware that Mann is friends with a lot of comedians I admire, and I could detect a comic knowingness in the voice of her writing, almost as if each piece were a sketch. But most of all, and this is odd because I never say this, it was the craftsmanship of it – the way that each proficient melody was fitted perfectly to the words, and rhyme to rhyme, and structure to theme. It’s like a meal of fresh ingredients perfectly cooked, though there’s nothing exotic about the dishes. Just exquisite care, to be savoured.

Yet you didn’t hear people talk about it the way they talked about, say, Grimes (whose video for Oblivion would be on this list if I hadn’t mentioned it on this site already – I hope it wins the new Prism Prize for Canadian videos next week). This is the curse of the mid-career artist these days and I think even more so the female mid-career artist. That’s the not-so-funny joke behind the Portlandia sketch in which Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein hire Mann as their cleaning lady, keep telling her what big fans they are, but then keep scolding her for how she does the laundry.

It’s good to see her comedy friends helping her out in real life though, as when Tom Scharpling directed the videos for Charmer, including the one for “Labrador,” which remakes shot-for-shot the minor-80s-iconic Til Tuesday video “Voices Carry,” featuring among others Mad Men’s Jon Hamm.

7. Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go Round” (from the upcoming album Same Trailer, Different Park)

From a veteran singer-songwriter to a great newcomer: My friend Jody Rosen turned me on to the wordplay and emotional wallop of Nashville’s Kacey Musgraves last year – “Merry Go Round” was a minor radio hit this fall, and her first major-label album is just about to come out in March. I had hoped Taylor Swift might mature into this kind of voice as she grew up, which doesn’t really look to be happening. But Musgraves simply begins from there, doing with country music what it often seems only country music can – address white people who have much more to worry about than “white people problems.”

(Or so I say in the middle of this very damn white list. There are a couple of exceptions coming up, but just wanted you to know that, yeah, I see it.)

8. The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory, New Orleans

This I mentioned quickly on B2TW in the summer but it deserves note again. You know the old line that writing about music is like dancing about architecture? Here’s the architecture you can dance to. A collective led by street artist Swoon and others turned a set of dilapidated structures (not exactly hard to come by in New Orleans) into a playable, amplified, megaphoned, wind-driven, synthesized, climbable, jammable, avant-gardable, neighbour-kid-interactable structure called the Music Box, on a none-too-affluent NOLA block. It was full of horns you could blow into and weather vanes that played chimes and organs and drums and looping devices embedded in all kinds of crannies. I visited it the last day it was open and wished I could spend many more days there with the local children and teens who were enchanted with it and the vital spirits who built it. Luckily, though it’s over, it’s not over: The Dithyramblina , like the Hacienda, must yet be built.

musicbox

9. Eddie Pepitone at the Dark Comedy Festival, Toronto

I could name instead Maria Bamford’s set at the same festival, which was a lot like her amazing special that she performs for just her parents; or Kathleen Phillips volunteering as a foul-mouthed sacrificial “virgin” in a lame Satanic ritual in a Halloween comedy show at Double Double Land, but I have talked a lot about those two hilarious women. Eddie Pepitone was new to me this year. Not sure how that happened, it just did.

And I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so cripplingly continuously – while being moved and politically challenged and thinking about psychoanalysis and the entertainment-industrial complex, and slightly frightened because he would bomb out into the crowd to sit in any empty seat and heckle himself (because who else could heckle him so effectively?) and I had an empty seat beside me – in my life. I could try to repeat jokes to you but that never works. Pepitone also had a very affecting interview on the Marc Maron podcast, talking about his mother’s mental illness and his father’s frustrated ambition and growing up on Staten Island. I’d like to see the documentary about him, The Bitter Buddha.

EddiePepitonecreditrebeccarotenberg_jpg_627x325_crop_upscale_q85

10. Jerzy Pilch, My First Suicide, translated by David Frick (Polish 2006, English 2012)

A stroke of serendipity: John Darnielle (aka the Mountain Goats) mentioned Polish novelist Jerzy Pilch on Facebook one day last spring, and I asked him which book he’d recommend. He told me a different one, but literally a day or two later there was a charity book sale at work and this was there for $5. I read it the next weekend on a beach.

pilch

This is basically the biography of the viewpoint character – apparently autobiographical though the deviations are difficult to plot – in linked short stories, in what turns out to be the distinct counterculture of Calvinist Poland – like Garcia Marquez, but with Eastern European dour humour, he creates an entire world.

And then he tears it down, with a crash of vodka bottles, deactivated cellphones and dubious liaisons. The only lesson one could take from it is never grow up.

But it is fiction that is indelibly itself, with a voice that gets right into your duodenum and I will read anything he writes that I can find. The lesson I take from that is, sometimes you get lucky.

11. Three dances on the This American Life live special, The Invisible Made Visible

 Last May the Chicago radio show did a live concert that was simulcast into theatres all over the continent. I couldn’t make it to any of the screenings but I downloaded the show later. There are lots of nice things in it but three great ones, all dances: Ira Glass was inspired to do the show because he sensed his audience would love the blend of virtuosity and clumsy dailiness in the work of choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, but of course he couldn’t put a dance company on the radio. This turns out to have been a very smart instinct: I’m no dance expert but I’ve seldom seen anything (though Toronto choreographer Ame Henderson’s work with Public Recordings comes close) that posed such effective solutions to the issues of the form’s artificiality – an artificiality that we desire because it’s beautiful, but might also find irrelevant because it is rareified. One Barnes dance here was based on audience behaviour at a James Brown concert; the other involved having a lot of cardboard suitcases being stacked by and then thrown at a dancer. (I took it to be about moving house.) They were gorgeous and funny and breathed a recognizable flavour of air. I told a friend they felt like a Trampoline Hall lecture in dance form. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

monica-bill-barnes-and-anna-bass

The other dance was by David Rakoff (who was from Toronto by the way) talking about the cancer that cost him the ability to dance, and then doing it anyway. This performance is already kind of famous. He died not long later and a lot of people who didn’t know him are still heartbroken about that, including me.

12. Reggie Watts at the Mod Club, JFL42 festival, Toronto, Sept. 21, 2012

 A continuing theme of the comedy-related items here is that I am not quite sure how to write about them. I can do it in the immediate wake of those experiences, but retrospectively they have an elusive quality. That’s both more and less true of Reggie Watts. In a sense I am on firmer ground with him because he’s also a musician, but what happened in his show was hard to keep track of even while it was happening – he would begin speaking about soda or about some street name he saw that day, and it would become this involuted R&B riff and a keyboard solo and then a falsetto rap about the constellations. He is a virtuoso in a form that doesn’t exist until he creates it, and then demolishes it. Like the best comedy and in a way the best music, it is at once profoundly intellectual and boldly stupid. The best way I can communicate it I think is to let you watch his TED Talk, which also operates very gratifyingly as a demolition job on the whole once-promising and now-bloated phenomenon of the TED Talk.

13. Your Sister’s Sister, a movie by Lynn Shelton, 2012

I guess I didn’t see that many movies in 2012, considering that I have only seen one of the nominees for Best Picture in the Oscars next week. But one that stuck with me is this film written and directed by Lynn Shelton, who made the quizzical but compelling Humpday, also starring Mark Duplass, in 2009. Her ken for sexual farce is carried forward here but into a much darker, sadder place. The funny thing is that there are things terribly wrong with this movie, including at least one chokingly bad and unbelievable twist on which the whole story hinges and a resolution that seems completely pat and again hard to swallow considering the ordeal the film’s just put you through. But the acting and the dialogue in the rest of the film make that completely unimportant. Duplass, Emily Blunt and my current favourite actor in the world, Rosemarie DeWitt, are completely present and incarnate in every frame and every second of their inappropriate triangulation, such that I felt like I was breathing and aching right in rhythm with them. The story is minute and intimate and dwells on the completely central but not-often-enough-grappled-sincerely-with subject of how people can be remotely decent to each other when they need so much and are so basically fucked up from the first dice toss. I almost wonder if the hard-to-credit happy ending is simply a vote on the side of, “Let’s say we can, even if that’s probably a lie, because otherwise, ouch.” Which is a violation of logic and form and honesty that I will take from a movie, if it’s already convinced me we are copacetic. How are you supposed to end a story, anyway? It’s always a feint. True stories don’t really end so much as stop. Like this.

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Filed under books, carl wilson, comedy, dance, lectures, literature, movies, music, other, TV/video

Žižek, The End of the World, The Clock and some other things at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche

by Margaux Williamson

photo of “Glow in the Park” from Jaclyn Blumas and Robert Cram of Heretical Objects

I saw Christian Marclay’s The Clock this weekend at 5 am. The Clock is a 24 hour video work. It’s made up of thousands of scenes from movies and some television shows. The scenes all contain evidence, like clocks and watches, of the time represented in the specific movies and television shows. That time corresponds to the real time where the work is being screened.

It was playing during Toronto’s all night arts festival Nuit Blanche, an event that takes place between 7 pm and 7 am. Picturing the line-up at The Clock, I hadn’t planned to go. I had seen a few good things earlier in the night. I had thought to go to Slavoj Žižek’s talk in Toronto’s City Hall Council Chambers, but figured it would be too crowded and went home. My fellow blogger Carl was there at City Hall, he was part of the overflow from the Council Chambers that moved up to the roof and, in the cold, listened to Žižek talk about “The End of the World”  through loudspeakers. That might sound even more special than sitting in the audience in the Council Chambers, though I have to say –  arriving home, a few miles down the road but still in the center of festivities, making my way through the moving crowd that included a lot of children and drunk people, to get to my covered-in-tiny-bits-of-smashed-beer-bottles front stoop – to at  that moment, receive a text message about how your fiends are standing on the roof of City Hall listening to Žižek talk about “The End of the World” through loudspeakers might have been the most special.

I had planned, at that point, to go to sleep,  but a rogue DJ was parked on a flatbed truck outside my window. In addition to music, he had a microphone and a lot to say. Hours went by. I watched television shows I had never thought to watch: Gossip Girl, Lost, Wilfred.

When the police on bicycles put an end to the DJ, it was 4:30 Am and I was wide awake. I got on my bicycle and made my way across town to the Power Plant Gallery where The Clock was. It was pretty out, bits of garbage floating around and the highways empty.

When I arrived, there were no line-ups but the couches were all taken, a few with gently snoring people, and others on the floor, leaning against the wall. I saw my other fellow blogger Chris in one of the sofas. Later, I found out he had been sitting there for 6 hours. I went to the floor at the front and made a pillow with my sweater.

Though The Clock is a 24 hour video that has no continuous narrative apart for what time it is, it’s still made up of some of the most compelling narrative movies of all time. Movies that are meant to take you out of the place where you are and bring you entirely into the world where they are – an aspect of storytelling that our culture has become masterful at.

It was funny to come to it after having watched so much television just before, television that is meant to eat your time and make you forget about where you are.  It was strange, in that room at the Power Plant Gallery, to have that very familiar feeling of being taken away from your world combined with continuous reminders of what time it is in your world. Every few moments, when you remember what time it is in your world,  you inevitably remember where in your world you are, lying on the floor at the Power Plant at 6.18 am, 6.19 am 6.20 am. It’s like being at home watching television but the television isn’t lying to you. It was as though the fundamental elements of being in someone else’s world and then being in your own world were being tied together, a rhythmic loop that feels both impossible and also completely natural. Nothing felt forced or awkward about this tie, it felt like something that could be easily tied together and finally was.

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Filed under events, lectures, margaux williamson, movies, visual art

On the Genre of “In Conversation”: David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, Authors at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Sept. 19, 2012

(Picture swiped from Hazlitt.)

by Carl Wilson

There were some high points to the staged discussion this week in Toronto between musician/much-else David Byrne and author/Internet activist Cory Doctorow, on the occasion of Byrne’s tour for his terrific-sounding book How Music Works. But they didn’t stop the feeling that this conversation shouldn’t have taken place in this form  at all.

For example, Byrne recounted a conversation with his 22-year-old daughter about copyright, in which he said that under current rules his work would go on supporting her financially long after he was ­dead, and that he thought this was kind of a bad thing, both for the art (which would not join the public domain as it should) and (he implied) for her own autonomy. Sorry, honey!

For his part, Doctorow passionately made a case that the business model that evolved in the 20th century for musical cover versions – the original creators can’t prevent anyone from covering their songs as long as they’re paid a royalty – should in fact be a model for how all copyright, especially online, works. He elegantly argued that music as a human practice long predates the existence of commercial markets for it, and that the only sane way to develop systems of regulation is to make them true to the spirit of the historical norms that surround it, such as that anyone ought to be able to sing any song, in public, and that any reasonable definition of public in the 21st century includes, for example, YouTube.

But there were assymetries in their conversational style that made for an uncomfortable evening, and not in a particularly enlightening way. Byrne is an artist whose social awkwardness (although much mellowed by age) is part of his essential makeup, as is his logical but lateral thinking, and his kind of savant-ish gift for deriving abstract proposition from experience via free-associative rumination. (It’s how he finds himself a city, picks a building that he wants to live in – it’s over there – water flowing underground, into the blue again.) And while he’s a very savvy user of technology for someone of his generation, I don’t think he has immensely much to tell us about the Internet that any intelligent person who’s been paying attention doesn’t also know.

Doctorow, meanwhile, is a professional opinion-giver, a whip-smart advocate for strong positions on contemporary technology and society. Where Byrne conversates a bit like a chickadee lighting from twig to palm with a beakful of seed, Doctorow expounds like an eloquent atheist preacher at the digital pulpit.

Guess which one took up most of the verbal space? Not the person most of the audience was there to hear. As I joked afterwards, when a lot of the audience heard the publicity for a conversation between David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, they heard, “David Byrne and Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah.” (Insert Peanuts teacher voice/Far Side “Ginger” cartoon here.)

That’s no slight against Doctorow. The situation did him the greater disservice, making much of the audience turn against him, frustrated they weren’t hearing more from the better-known personality (at least in the demographic that is likely to attend a $25-ticketed literary conversation). No one was going to hold it against David Byrne.

Much beyond the specific miscasting of these two as conversational partners for an audience (I’m sure as conversational partners on their own they’d have a great time), there are general lessons here.

A while ago, I was very kindly brought out to Portland to do a presentation about my work to a university audience. Even more kindly, the organizers thought that since I’d come all that way, we should put on another public event in town. Who else should be on the bill? Portland has a lot of interesting personalities, and to my surprise after some casting about, Frank Black (aka Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis of the Pixies) agreed to participate.

Come that night, even though the themes of our conversation were organized around my book, of course most people who came to the show were there to see Frank Black (in the Q&A they kept trying to get him to sing songs). I was the “Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah” on that bill. The only real option for the relatively obscure critic-author on stage with the famous musician was to fall into the role of his interviewer. Charles was extremely gracious and I really enjoyed the experience on many levels, but ultimately, as an event purportedly about my book, it didn’t make much sense.

Let’s derive a few rules of thumb from these stories. (I’m indebted to post-show conversation partners, Misha Glouberman, Chris Frey, Rebecca Payne, Emily Keeler and Charles Yao.) They may even apply to life beyond staged events.

a) When two people are going to be “in conversation,” in public, they ideally should be about equally familiar to the audience. Or something about the situation might mean that they each attract half a crowd, to whom one is familiar and the other is obscure and vice-versa, and your goal might be to introduce these two publics to one another.

b) The subject matter should be something in which they’re both fluent, though hopefully from different angles. (It also should be neither unhelpfully general nor smotheringly specific. A pointed question is a good starting point. The Harbourfront event’s question was “Wassup Internet?” Enough said.)

c) When that’s not possible or desirable for some reason, don’t play the less-well-known person for a patsy. The simplest thing might be to say upfront that they’re interviewing the better-known person. Bonus points: A very good trick can be to have the better-known person be billed as interviewing the less-known person. This can bestow a glow of generosity to the whole proceeding.

d) If that’s not what you want, there is a solution: a moderator, who relieves the speakers of visible responsibility (and blame) for guiding the conversation. A good moderator will help keep the share of time in balance. A really good moderator can also lend shape to a conversation that might otherwise ramble on endless tangents. A great moderator can do all that while seeming invisible.

e) If all else fails, you can alleviate a great many sins by bringing the audience into the conversation. At heart why should a question-and-answer period be so much shorter than the period speakers spend deciding the subject matter? The crowd is often much more dynamic. Obviously, again, a moderator needs to keep the Q&A on track, but I’d be as happy to go to a show that was all Q&A and zero meandering speaker as vice-versa.

In fact, the nicest moment the whole night was when a very young man came up and asked Byrne if he could repeat the name of the song he’d said he heard as a young man himself, whose sound “let him know there was something else out there.” Byrne paused for a moment, confused, and then answered, “Oh, you mean by the Byrds?” I think so, the young man said. And then very carefully copied in pen on his notepad, syllable by syllable, echoing Byrne’s answer out loud: “Mis-ter… Tam … bour… ine… Man?” In case we needed reminding that you can never assume worlds overlap. (People laughed, but it was just amazingly sweet.)

Ultimately, any form of entertainment that solely consists of somebody or somebodies speaking, if they are not just telling jokes, is dicey. It is only so much fun to listen to people talk and not to talk back, unless it’s very lively and engaging. There are a million ways for it to go wrong and the only way for it to go right is for someone to think through, carefully and conscientiously, “Just what is this going to be like?” Otherwise it is dubious that it should be done at all.

And this is worth talking about right now because these kinds of staged conversations and lectures and such have retaken a central place in our culture – the decline of print and rise of the digital-virtual somehow combining to generate a keener hunger for physical presence and non-fiction discourse than previously in my lifetime, like a return to the days of the chalk talk and Mark Twain. And, as it was then, it’s becoming one of the few ways writers can make a living. If that’s how it’s going to be, it should itself be a kind of art, not an afterthought.

PS: If you’re interested in this general subject, this series of video chats between Misha Glouberman and speakers’ agent David Lavin might be worth watching.

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Filed under books, carl wilson, events, lectures, music

Friday Pictures – Hennessy Youngman

 

ART THOUGHTZ: Post-Structuralism (THE CLEAN VERSION)

 

 

ART THOUGHTZ: Relational Aesthetics

ART THOUGHTZ: The Sublime

 

HENNESSY YOUNGMAN’S ART THOUGHTZ – Artist talk and screening with Jayson Musson at the Drake Hotel January 31 2012

 

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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

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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Filed under chris randle, lectures, music, other

The Bands that Don’t Reform, by Antony Harding and Darren Hayman

by Carl Wilson

Hefner, in their salad days, with singer Darren Hayman at left, drummer Ant Harding second from right.

I’m beavering away on my lecture for next week’s 2011 Pop Conference in Los Angeles, where both Chris and I will be presenting among tons of other prominent nerdz. I’ll be schematizing the various ways artists have violated or repositioned the “fourth wall” in their music and how that may or may not relate to reality TV, creative nonfiction and other recent phenomena. I’m not sure if this example is going to fit into the talk (it’s a bit slight) but it tickled me to stumble across it.

Darren Hayman (last seen on B2TW posting a song a day in January) has just put up a single that he recorded with his ex-Hefner bandmate Antony Harding a couple of years ago, “The Bands that Don’t Reform.” The meta-reflexive-whatchamacallit of the project is evident in the title, of course: Here are two members of a band that’s not reforming nevertheless semi-reuniting,  and flirting with the subject in an era when many groups of their ’90s vintage such as Pavement and the Pixies were getting back out on the road to finally get a payday proportionate to their reputations.

But the wink gets more strobe-like in velocity on the very pretty song itself, which turns out to be the story of a couple in the throes of disillusion: “Something here ain’t right/ I loved you at first sight, so why don’t I love you tonight?” They run down all the traits that are driving them apart and reach out in desperation (“tired of getting no sleep”) to “count the things we both believe,” of which there seems to be only one: “We love the bands that don’t reform.”

It could read as a pretty thin joke about a couple of those aforementioned nerdz realizing that they only have their petty music-fanatic dogma left in common, but there’s a second, more bittersweet layer: If they don’t think even the relatively minor business of a rock band trying to reunite has any hope of a good result, then why are they trying to glue together a couple of split-up hearts?

These scenarios seem to melt into each other as the song goes on; many details involve driving from place to place and having mishaps (though also seeing beautiful scenery) like a band on tour. As they explain elsewhere, the love story is a camouflage: The song is about how “they were both crazy when they were in Hefner,” and aren’t crazy anymore, and so won’t ever take the chance of starting that project up again.

Which is another mirror-within-a-mirror: In the song, they’re the audience not wanting their favourite bands’ selfish profit- or glory-seeking to spoil memories of things past; but behind the half-opened fourth wall, they’re musicians with private reasons not to reunite though their fans persist in wanting them to.

Although they don’t say reunite; they say reform, with its other meaning of  shedding bad old habits, becoming a healthier, more law-abiding citizen, not crazy anymore. So the song whispers under its breath, “You don’t want us back like that, anyway, reconstituted as some bland grownup working unit. You want us crazy.”

As Bill Hicks once put it, “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked! I don’t care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart! ‘Mommy, the man Bill told me to listen to has a blood bubble on his nose.’ Shut up and listen to him play!”

On the other hand,  Bill Hicks is dead, and while it was cancer not the drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, it may be his own reform came too late. Besides, Hefner were never exactly the trashing-hotel-room types; they were the critics’-darlings-who-look-and-sound-like-critics kinda band.

So this song sees both sides, tells its ambiguous story with a loping, lullaby-like lilt rather than a Hicks-like roar. They still play from their hearts; those hearts are just calmer, and heavier, now, and they play them as they lay, and let sleeping bands lie, in both senses of the word, as we ought to expect by this point.

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Filed under carl wilson, lectures, music