Category Archives: Culture

We Burn Books

Burning the library in slow motion: how copyright extension has banished millions of books to the scrapheap of history Boing Boing.

I came across this nice article by Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing wherein he makes some interesting points on how current copyright laws have censored the majority of books.

the legal changes introduced in the years after Fahrenheit 451 did more than just extend terms. Congress eliminated the benign practice of the renewal requirement (which had guaranteed that 85% of works and 93% of books entered the public domain after 28 years because the authors and publishers simply didn’t want or need a second copyright term.) And copyright, which had been an opt-in system (you had to comply with some very minor formalities to get a copyright) became an opt out system (you got a copyright automatically when you “fixed” the work in material form, whether you wanted it or not.) Suddenly the entire world of informal and non commercial culture — from home movies that provide a wonderful lens into the private life of an era, to essays, posters, locally produced teaching materials — was swept into copyright. And kept there for the life of the author plus 70 years. The effects were culturally catastrophic.

This issue brings to mind the hardest part, for me, of working in publishing—seeing how many books are destroyed and being powerless to stop it. You would think that out-of-print books are worth more, since the moment it is declared out of print it is limited edition, i.e. those that exist now may be the only copies left in the world. The book industry in the only one where retailers are allowed to return the product if it doesn’t sell. But if they hold onto the book after it is out of print, the publisher will refuse the returns. Thus as soon as a book has been declared out-of-print book sellers nationwide box up every last company and return them to the publisher, who, having nowhere to sell them, has them demolished.

Naturally, you are wondering why they don’t just donante the books to libraries or other book-hungry institutions. The problem is again returns: they assume that a certain percentage of these would find their way back to the bookstores,  who will return it for full price. On each of these books the publisher, author and distributor are then paying the bookstore for the book and making zero profit—a risk they’re not willing to take.

So every time a book goes out of print, it is also removed from the shelves and incinerated. Yay, capitalism!

Stomping on the Embers of 2009


While many will bravely take their birthday spankings, no secular ritual seems to incite more whining than that of the New Year’s Resolution. Those who do not participate do so with scorn and derision, you can almost see the spit fly from their lips with their ready quip about why they are better than such a ritual. Others list their resolutions with the temerity of a spurned lover waiting by the phone. For a ritual that more of my friends participate in than Christmas Mass, I can’t name anyone who actually likes New Year’s Resolutions.

Well I like them.

Yes, I understand that the first of the year is a totally arbitrary date. So what? So is Christmas. If you want to set goals in June, no one is going to complain. The problem is that most of us don’t. We hem and haw about how we don’t have any time and then another years slips by and our dreams sit in a tin box with our VHS tapes and our old photos and the rest of the things we never touch. They become memories, archival.

Whether it is arbitrary or not, the turning of a calendar year is end and beginning of a cycle, as much as the turn of the day into night or Spring into Fall. For us humans, the winter is our time of greatest hardship. It is cold. Food is scarce. The landscape is barren. It is why in this season we gather and feast. It is why we worship and *decorate mighty trees that leap inexplicably higher year after year, without death touching their leaves. It is also the time when the sticker shock of that big increase hits you: wait, 2010 is the end of the decade? Didn’t we just have the Millennium? Wasn’t that, like, yesterday?

Thus it is natural for us to think about the struggles we’ve faced and, in turn, where our life is headed. If looking at all the shit we didn’t get done last year doesn’t make us want to strategize about what to get done next year then I don’t know what will. We have made it through the dark heart of winter and spring promises new beginnings. You can have a say in what those beginnings will look like, or you can be one of those people who lets life happen to you.


I know, I know: now you are going to tell me that no one ever sticks with their New Year’s Resolutions for more than a few weeks. But if indeed we are so undisciplined that we only choose novel-writing, house cleaning and smoothie drinking over chain smoking, hooker shopping and pimple popping for several weeks a year than perhaps we should welcome even that brief period of accomplishment. And every time we fall off the wagon we have to put our panties back on, take two Excedrin, and hop back on it. Or rather, climb awkwardly up its wretched timbre, ignoring the hangovers of our chosen vice, cursing the splinters that imperil our ascent to righteousness. There’s no need to go all Amy Winehouse on our lives just because we suck at setting goals.

If anything, the problem with New Year’s Resolutions is that we need to spend more time on them, not less. We would all have shinier skin and resumes if April showers brought May resolution evaluations. The longest day of summer should be celebrated as a massive deadline crossing, wherein we get as much done in that day as we can, before dividing what’s left of our goals in half and throwing ourselves into renewed commitment. This occasion is marked by running through red tape, like winning a race, but we all get a turn. We may eat little white cakes with red check marks, and we are only allowed as many as there are achievements completed. When the fall trees lose their leaves, we should have a holiday for the slashing of our goals, a year-end-overstock-going-out-of-business sale for our annual To Do list. It would be celebrated by dressing like Used Car Salesmen and wishing people, “Act Now!”

Then when Santa’s checking his list, we already know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. And as the year’s end encroaches, we can see that the birth of the New Year is a cause for celebration. Because, arbitrary or not, history is about to put a great big lock on the filing cabinet of 2009 and that knowledge puts a gravitas on those of us who haven’t quite gotten our homework done. And isn’t it appropriate that the lightness of the foundling 2010 should be counter-balanced with commitments to all we hope this year should grow up to become? Who we are in 2009 has just become Who We Once Were. And 2010 is completely open, can only be defined as Who We Will Be. For those of us who look back in regret, it is an official chance for renewal. Either way, the looking back and forward is healthy, and to be encouraged. For those who accomplished much, we celebrate but, the old year being deceased, we are not allowed the humbrage of resting on our laurels. Instead, we collect our laurels along with our unfinished lists in a mighty heap, for everyone has at least one to contribute. Then we eulogize ourselves, burying the old with a baptism of alcohol poisoning, feasting, excess, and yes, fire: our laurels and our To Do lists will make such a beautiful bonfire, and the ashes, ink and rose petals must be trampled under our dizzy dancing feet.

2 Songs for the New Year:

*Thus cutting down a Christmas Tree is a sacrilege, like killing a Jew to celebrate Easter.

Society: Hipster Subculture Ripe for Parody – TIME

Time Magazines example of Hipsters. Lets find these people and piss on their shoes! Who cares if they look nothing like a hipster? Lets go be hateful!
Time Magazine's example of Hipsters. Clearly, these freakish aliens are nothing like you and I! Let's go piss on their shoes!

Yes, I am harping on this one again. I wouldn’t be, if someone hadn’t sent me a link to this article in Time under the subject heading “Well stated.” Below is my point-by-point response.

Society: Hipster Subculture Ripe for Parody – TIME.

Hipsters are the friends who sneer when you cop to liking Coldplay. They’re the people who wear T-shirts silk-screened with quotes from movies you’ve never heard of and the only ones in America who still think Pabst Blue Ribbon is a good beer.

MESSAGE: It is not possible that someone might have legitimately liked a movie that you’ve never heard of. Make fun of them. If you see someone drinking Pabst, make fun of them. Do not bother to ask them about their t-shirt or why they like that particular beer. You have all the information you need to wish that they would get evicted from their homes (no really, that’s how the article ends).

They sport cowboy hats and berets and think Kanye West stole their sunglasses. Everything about them is exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don’t care.

Berets and cowboy hats are not “hipster-ironic” fashionable. They are actually fashionable. As in, featured in regular department stores and sported by regular pop stars. Nothing “hipster” about it. So basically, anyone wearing a stylish hat is a hipster? Already in paragraph one and I’m questioning whether she knows what she is talking about.  Nor do I see how wearing a trendy hat is a sign that one “just doesn’t care.”

Annoying, yes, but harmless, right?

Annoying? We should all be annoyed at someone’s choice of sunglasses or hat? No, actually, I don’t find it annoying that someone wears a cowboy hat and drinks inexpensive beer. I find it exceedingly annoying that someone else would make a big deal out of that fact.

Not to hear their critics tell it. Hipsters manage to attract a loathing unique in its intensity. Critics have described the loosely defined group as smug, full of contradictions and, ultimately, the dead end of Western civilization.

Shamelessly hotlinking this from the Adbusters article she sites, which is even more absurdly offensive than this one.
Shamelessly hotlinking this from the Adbusters article she sites, which is even more absurdly offensive than this one.

Riiiiight. The psuedo-neutral tone of this article is aggravating. SHE’s not passing judgment on these people. She’s just pointing out that some people do. When the author will go on to imply that all hipsters are living off their parents, that they are annoying and shallow, and have no original ideas, she is merely passing on the beliefs of everyone else.

Though the subculture is met with derision in wider society, hipsters have been able to eke out enclaves across the country, chief among them the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood of Williamsburg. But now even that is threatened. The hip have been hit with a double whammy of economic reality (more are struggling to pay rent as parental support dries up) and population changes (the carefully gentrified neighborhood is gradually being infiltrated by squatters inhabiting Williamsburg’s stalled building projects). Hipsterdom’s largest natural habitat, it seems, is under threat.

Note the implicit assumption that people who drink a particular beer and wear a particular hat are all trust-fund babies. Don’t let that assumption slip by you.

Though the irony-sporting, status quo–abhorring, plaid-clad denizens of Williamsburg are a distinctly modern species, the hipster as a genus has its roots in the 1930s and ’40s. The name itself was coined after the jazz age, when hip arose to describe aficionados of the growing scene…

Hipsters were usually middle-class white youths seeking to emulate the lifestyle of the largely-black jazz musicians they followed. But the subculture grew, and after World War II, a burgeoning literary scene attached itself to the movement: Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg were early hipsters, but it would be Norman Mailer who would try and give the movement definition. In an essay titled “The White Negro,” Mailer painted hipsters as American existentialists, living a life surrounded by death — annihilated by atomic war or strangled by social conformity — and electing instead to “divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.” As the first hipster generation aged, it was replaced by the etymologically diminutive hippies, who appropriated their fears about the Cold War but embraced the community over the individual.

The word would fade for years until it was reborn in the early ’90s, used again to describe a generation of middle-class youths interested in an alternative art and music scene. But instead of creating a culture of their own, hipsters proved content to borrow from trends long past. Take your grandmother’s sweater and Bob Dylan’s Wayfarers, add jean shorts, Converse All-Stars and a can of Pabst and bam — hipster.

Apparently when the flapper-hipsters emulated black music, they were “aficionados.” When the beatnik-hipster emulated black music, they were “existentialists.” When the hippies became the counter-culture, they were anti-Cold War activists. But now that a new generation of youth emulates their past, they are shallow. The double-talk here is astounding.

Nevermind that the flappers, beatniks and hippies were all labeled as shallow in their own time. It is only in hindsight that we see the value of the bohemian artists. But here the author fails to see the chain of history in action, tricked by giving the Bohemian a new name and a new hat. Now she is saying that she respects Bohemians, just not THOSE Bohemians, you know, the ones that are actually relevant at this point in time.

Borrowing from trends long past is neither distinctive nor abhorrent. That’s all that fashion IS. Show me a fashion trend that is not “borrowing” from what came before. Moreover, if they are all borrowing from the same things, that shows value: clearly if a large group of people are all wearing their grandmother’s sweaters, they see a common value in it.

Overall, the people that I see that are commonly described by the H-word do have a common value with their fashion choices in that their thrift store finds are part of a common belief in anti-consumerism. Maybe they don’t feel the need to explain that to every person that walks down the street.

…Some of this ridicule is a bit unfair. As stores like Urban Outfitters have mass-produced hipster chic, hipsterdom has become a part of mainstream culture, overshadowing its originators’ still-strong alternative art and music scene. Those people, of course, no longer identify as hipsters, but they’re not the problem.

Wait, so the author is freely admitting that, like every counterculture, the aesthetic of the “alternative art and music scene” has been co-opted by corporate America, but it is not the phonies who are shopping at Urban Outfitters who are “the problem”? The REAL artists shop at Urban Outfitters and the poor schmucks who can only afford to drink Pabst and shop at Goodwill are the menace to society? WTF?!

And please tell me where in this article it explains why these people are a “problem”? This is the assumption slipping by again: we all agree that hipsters are a problem, but what is a hipster? seems to be the perplexing gist of it. The only annoyance and problem I see here is the continuing desire to ostracize strangers for belonging to a counterculture.

The hipsters who will be the dead end of Western Civilization are the ones who add nothing new or original and simply recycle and reduce old trends into a meaningless meme. It’s for that reason that when Williamsburg’s hipster playland is in crisis, there aren’t many who are concerned.

Right, nothing personal against them, we just all hope that they get evicted and go live somewhere else. But you know, only the Meaningless Meme ones! Those other bohemians, who look just like hipsters, they’re ok!

This is the crux of the matter. It is not socially acceptable to cast aspersions on artists, punks, hippies, ravers or bohemians of any kind. Fake bohemians, on the other hand are open season. But the beginning of this article shows a photo of New Yorkers who, for reasons that are inexplicable to me, are described as “hipsters.” Do we have any evidence that the people here are shallow? That their mothers pay their rent? That they are snobs?

Of course not. But because they have been labeled with the dreaded H-bomb, it is now ok to assume that they are the scum of society, and snobby at that. They are not real human beings enjoying a day in the park, who can now look forward to seeing themselves ridiculed in Time Magazine.  They are cartoon villains.

I’ve been told that my logic is circular on this subject because I am defending real bohemians, and the hipsters are the fakes.  But it is actually the opposite.  Any time I point to someone that fits all of the external descriptions but is neither dependent nor shallow, I am told that those people aren’t really hipsters. My friend who drinks $3 Pabst tall-boys at the Indie nightclub and plays kroquet isn’t a hipster because she’s a feminist lobbyist.  My friend who wears leg warmers and mismatched clothes is not a hipster because she is a freelance journalist getting her masters at Columbia. My friend who knows every person that works at the Stork Club in Oakland is not a hipster because she’s just a sweet little school teacher, and besides she listens to Brittany Spears, and I don’t mean ironically. Supposedly, I am not a hipster because I am neither snobby nor mean-spirited and I am (unironically, overbearingly) sincere. One will mistake my vintage Meatloaf t-shirt for some kind of ironic statement. But no—I got the shirt when I saw him in concert as a preteen. Once you get to know them, none of these people are shallow and they all pay their own bills. The list goes on and on: anywhere you point to the hipster, get a little closer and the stereotype evaporates under even the slightest scrutiny. Like all stereotypes, really.

But this is the argument: those people aren’t hipsters! The hipsters are the ones who look exactly like those people that I don’t know personally! The hipsters are “the ones who add nothing new or original and simply recycle and reduce old trends into a meaningless meme”! Fine, ok, you’re not generalizing people by the way they look at all! And when I hear someone describe a “hipster bar” or a “hipster coffee shop” or a “hipster neighborhood,” every single person inside that bar/shop/zip code is worthy of the derision of the masses? No, no, just lots of them. Which ones, then? That one, carrying a messenger bag and wearing a Cloud Cult t-shirt! Then we are back to judging them by the way they look, not based on who they are or their actions.

I suppose we could go into Ritual in the *Mission and ask every man in tight pants why he rides a fixie, drinks Ritual coffee, wears a messenger bag, and how much of his rent is supplied by his parents. But what fun would that be? Where’s the hate—er, fun—in that?

For the record, I have not met a single person that lives in the Mission that has access to any kind of a trust fund. Nor do I know any who sport the hipster look who shop at designer clothing stores. And, yes, I know tons of people that drink Pabst: no one is claiming it’s better than Tetley’s or Boddingtons. But it is much better than any other beer you can get for three bucks. Next time you want to give me shit for it, you best be buying me a Guiness.

My response to this article (and the dozens like it) is, essentially, fuck you. Fuck you for judging people who wear used clothes and support local businesses. Fuck you for judging people because they love art that you’ve never heard of. Fuck you for judging people based on their zip code. These people have done nothing to you and your sense of superiority is mean-spirited, short-sighted and shallow. Yes, shallow. This country is fighting two wars, recession, environmental collapse and cut-backs in all social services and you want to waste paper bitching about Brooklyn kids who wear skinny jeans? FUCK YOU. And the pitchfork-wielding, Polo-wearing mob you rolled in on.

*Ground zero for West Coast hipsters

Hipster Hunting

Janet said she wanted to go the Missouri Lounge to make fun of all the hipsters. Everyone agreed that The Missouri Lounge was just crawling with the little buggers.

I was surprised. Not about the Missouri Lounge—though I’d always thought the shack looked like more of a redneck dive—but that Janet wasn’t herself a hipster. She had the chunky, short-cropped hair and the thick black plastic glasses. But no. She was a hipster hater. How could I get them confused?

We ordered drinks and Janet picked out the most egregious violators and made fun of their outfits and drink selections. We did not stay long. Janet made a request from the DJ and there was some misunderstanding, or altercation. So we left.

That incident got me thinking. Did those people deserve to be made fun of? What made them worse people than Janet? What the hell was a hipster, anyway?

Since that day many moons ago, if I hear someone use the word I always ask them what it means. Two things quickly became apparent: 1) no two people seem to have the same definition 2) never have I ever heard the word used in a positive context.

For my money, a hipster is a person with an overly-developed sense of irony. But by that definition, the guy I know who is most likely to be a hipster is a 35-year-old Indian metalhead. He’s also the biggest hipster-hater I know. The “H-word” also seems to be associated with indie rock, though no one seems to know what the fuck that is either.

Here is what some of my research has come up with:

  • “Hipsters are trust fund babies who go to expensive private art programs.”
  • “Hipsters are people who wear mismatched, ill-fitting clothes and think they are hot.”
  • “Hipsters are the shallow types who live in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn.”
  • “Hipsters drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and ride fixie-bikes and make fun of normal people.”

Oh well then, that’s clear. If I am in Williamsburg and I meet someone in an art program I can assume they are shallow and living off daddy’s money. Additionally, if I meet a girl on a fixed-gear bike in Goodwill frocks I can assume she is a snotty bitch who can’t wait to talk about me behind my back. It would do the world a good deed to run off with her inexpensive union-made brew, taunting and laughing.

Much like the yuppies in The Last Days of Disco, “hipster” seems to describe a group of people whom everyone seems to agree is omnipresent and easily identifiable yet no one can find one among their circle of friends.

In case you can’t tell, this whole thing pisses me off. Being cruel to someone based on the way they dress, the music they listen to, their neighborhood or school of choice is discrimination. It may not be based on a thousand years of oppression like the prejudice we all like to think we’re too good for, but it is certainly the opposite of the moral high-ground the hipster-haters think they have.

The American College Dictionary defines Bohemian as “a person with artistic or intellectual tendencies, who lives and acts with no regard for conventional rules of behavior.”

I see very little to distinguish the hipster-hating of today from those who hated the punks and before that the hippies and before that the beatniks and on and on. No one can deny the fact that the hipster is the new bohemian, except the bohemians themselves, who’ve been tricked into thinking that the hipsters are the fake bohemians.

Cant wait to meet this friendly guy!
Can’t wait to meet this friendly guy!

Thus we have an odd scenario where sews-her-own-clothes girl (e.g. hipster) and shops-at-the-Gap girl (eg the anti-hipster) can both commiserate on how much they hate the shops-at-Urban-Outfitters girl (“fake” hipster). SewsHerOwnClothes thinks she is immune because she is more authentic than those people who shop at Urban Outfitters. But you can bet your best pair of Pumas that Gap girl and the Urban Outfitters “fake” hipster would be just as quick to make fun of the freak girl with the weird clothes she she probably made on her grandma’s sewing machine (as if that’s a bad thing).

The whole anti-bohemian attitude strikes me as a backlash against a group of people who feel slighted by those who have a different set of moral standards. An example would serve better than an explanation…

One of the definitions of hipster from Urban Dictionary:

Someone who thinks that they are being “special” and “unique” for liking some underground bullshit no one else cares about. And they pointlessly look down on people who don’t know anything about indie culture, because that’s the only thing they know anything about. They’re quick to call the rest of the world conformists when in reality, they are the ones conforming by partaking in a “too cool for mainstream so i am going to reject it by looking and acting like a grungy asshole” way of life only to seem uber-fashionable. They just end up looking like idiots.

Hipster: I won’t drink at starbucks, it’s too corporate.

Non-Hipster: I want a Louis Vitton purse because they are cool
Hipster: You’re such a conformist, haveing [sic] a Louis Vitton purse is so unoriginal. I like my purse I found in the gutter for $4 dollars.
Non-hipster: but it’s fugly
Hipster: yah, but no one else has it. It’s completely unique.
Non-hipster: that bum over there has something pretty similar though.
Hipster: You’re ignorant because you can’t see the real beauty in life.
I don’t have time for this, I’m gonna go to my cave of an apartment and listen to some indie rock you’ve probably never heard of….
Non hipster: You need to see a therapist
Hipster: I am my own therapist.

So the sad fashion whore who wrote that definition feels as though she is being judged because she doesn’t care where her clothes are made or how her consumption choices affect the local economy. And she’s right! I think the person who wrote the definition above is shallow and ignorant! I expect to be hated and unkindly labeled by anyone who thinks avoiding Starbucks is an example of “some underground bullshit.” That’s totally fine. Fuck that girl, and the guy who runs, we were never meant to be friends!

But when I see the anarchists, punks, queers, ravers and other manner of adorable bohemians bitching about the “H” word, it’s too much. When someone seeks to say cruel things about a nonconformist, hipster is the first word they turn to, even if the nonconformists themselves think a hipster is something entirely different.

The focus on the hipster’s inauthenticity as an outsider, art appreciator, or moral consumer is a defense mechanism based on the labeler’s own insecurities in those same areas. The Louis Vitton-lover in the example above is an extreme example because s/he can’t even conceive that anyone would care about the journey of their designer purse from sweatshop to landfill. Your average anti-bohemian likes to think they appreciate art and philosophy as much or more than any weirdos with their weird music and their weird hair and their weird clothes. The assumption is that any reasons for being different are not better or coming from any set of values, merely contrivances. In this way, anti-hipsterism becomes another extension of the big-city-elitist versus corn-fed-anti-intellectual debate that is the hallmark of the American class system.

When the freaks, geeks, queers and quacks take aim at hipsters they are supporting conformity, regardless of what they think it means when they are around other bohemian-types.

Let us celebrate the hipster. Let us drink inexpensive beer and wear used clothes. Let’s  listen to obscure music. Let’s have debates about crap surrealist literature and condone veganism. La vie Boheme, under any name: embrace it.

Edit: read the follow up to this post, Hipster Subculture Ripe for Parody [Time Magazine]

Song Lyrics and TV on the Radio

SeeqPod – Playable Search provided the songlist for the tunes mentioned in this blog

I have a long running argument with several people that love music but ignore song lyrics. Their thinking tends to be that they listen to music for the music, any poetry is incidental. I reply that by paying no attention to lyrics they are missing out on a huge facet of the experience, like watching a ballet without any music. True, not every great song has great lyrics. But finding out that a song you already love has an interesting story woven throughout adds a new layer of excitement to it. It allows a fresh discovery. I imagine this is one reason I am able to listen to some bands without tiring of them for months—because after getting to like the melody there is another whole layer to discover.

All art is simply communication—more stylized, beautiful, and complex but communication nonetheless. If one ignores the lyrics, that is like saying that you are interested only in the pleasure the sounds produce in your ears and not the idea the artist is using that music to impart. Thus, listening to music and ignoring the lyrics is a bit like kissing without affection. Most artists don’t sit down and just string together a melody. They usually have some idea of what the song is going to be about, at least a vague concept—love, politics, revenge. Just listening to an instrumental song, this is the most you can generally get out of it, an abstract feeling. Most artists have a more specific concept: “I’m going to write about how this person made me feel when they rejected me” or “I’m going to write a song about right now, lazing about on a Sunday afternoon.” All artists set out to express something, music is just their chosen medium. If they have taken the time to put words to the song, they’re giving you a message about what that song is about. As the music rises and falls, the lyrics correspond to that swell in emotion. You can speculate as to why the music crescendos and wanders as it does but if the artist has taken the time to write you a roadmap in the form of the lyrics, why not take a look at it?

How can one listen to “Both Hands” and not be drawn into the story about the woman on the third floor that listens to she and her partner’s “swansong”? Just the line, “I am writing graffitti on your body I am drawing the story of how hard we tried,” gives so much power and meaning to the song I am incredulous to imagine that you listen to the melody and aren’t moved by it.

Or the way Buffalo Springfield plings the guitar on the lines “Paranoia strikes deep/ Into your life it will creep…” That song is indelibly linked not just to the turbulant sixties but specifically to the clashes between cops and protestors. That song never had meaning for me until I listened to the lyrics. Now I can understand why it was a rallying call for a generation. The same goes with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.

All this I’m talking about I experienced again today with TV on the Radio. I’ve been absorbing their sound for more than two years now and I never gave much thought to the lyrics. Electronic bands tend to be weak on songwriting anyway. But I happened upon a fantastic live acoustic version (which you can enjoy here) wherein the lyrics are more clear and I was able to appreciate them for the first time.

First I listened to “Young Liars.” The wordplay is intriguing and makes me want to listen to the song over and over to grasp how the interplay of these lyrics ties to the larger work. It starts off: “My mast ain’t so sturdy, my head is at half. I’m searching the clouds for the storm,” putting a dark sailing image in my head. This is followed by a huntress, her “bullets bearing the name of each tigress who’s left to a tooth. Save the skins for a pelt and the rest for a belt.” Later he says, “my heart’s still a marble in an empty jelly jar.” That’s a fantastic metaphor—it captures how he is feeling physically, intellectually and emotionally. He goes on to say that his nervousness will become prescience and “I’m Making maps out of your dreams.” The song ends with “Young liars, (Oh I said) Thank you for taking my hands/And burying them deep in the world’s wet womb/Where no one can heed their commands.” TV on the Radio has a sound that is dark and ominous, the music has already given us that abstraction. But more specifically the lyrics suggest the writer’s fear of the future and what he is capable of. And he does this using images (the ship in the storm, the ruthless huntress, the heart-jelly jar metaphor) that create a picture in the listener’s mind. The lyrics, though still vague, take the song from a pleasant abstraction and transform it into a dark journey. It adds such a visual layer to the song that a music video is the only way to supplement it (and videos never seem to be the artist’s vision, but the director’s, so it wouldn’t be the same at all). Reading the lyrics, how do you not visualize them? I picture the huntress on a B-52 bomber, loading a revolver, her legs crossed, a stack of rifles at her side, dressed in the 1940’s splendor of the Safari. And all this, visually, is just a metaphor for how he is feeling. You may visualize it differently, but undoubtably the image as you experience it brings something new to the song.

Now that I had discovered their lyrics, I was excited to move on to “Dry Drunk Emporer”. I was in for a surprise. I had no idea that TV on the Radio even wrote vaguely political songs but this one is clearly about our commander in chief.

The lyrics, in full:

baby boy
dieing under hot desert sun,
watch your colours run.

did you believe the lie they told you,
that christ would lead the way
and in a matter of days
hand us victory?

did you buy the bull they sold you,
that the bullets and the bombs
and all the strong arms
would bring home security?

all eyes upon
dry drunk emperor
gold cross cross jock skull and bones
mocking smile,
he’s been
standing naked for a while!
get him gone, get him gone, get him gone!!
and bring all the thieves to trial.

end their promise
end their dream
watch it turn to steam
rising to the nose of some cross legged god
gog of magog
end times sort of thing.
oh unmentionable disgrace
shield the childrens faces
as all the monied apes
display unimaginably poor taste
in a scramble for mastery.

atta’ boy get em with your gun
till mr. mega ton
tells us when we’ve won
what we’re gonna leave undone.

all eyes upon
dry drunk emperor
gold cross jock skull and bones
mocking smile,
he’s been
naked for a while.
get him gone, get him gone, get him gone!!!
and bring all his thieves to trial.

what if all the fathers and the sons
went marching with their guns
drawn on washington.
that would seal the deal,
show if it was real,
this supposed freedom.

what if all the bleeding hearts
took it on themselves
to make a brand new start.
organs pumpin on their sleeves,
paint murals on the white house
feed the leaders L.S.D
grab your fife and drum,
grab yor gold baton
and let’s meet on the lawn,
shut down this hypocrisy.

Wow. That’s a statement as bold as any rage against the machine like “Killing In the Name Of.” Here all along the phrase “Dry Drunk Emperor” was meaningless to me.  I was liking the sound of the words strung together and nothing more. But it is so concise and apt. Bush is a “dry drunk” and those two words express so much—a history of irresponsibility, weakness and mistakes, the fact that he is dry implies that he is stifled, unhappy and looking for some other outlet, like war. “Emperor” is a better choice than president (which he isn’t) or even king—as the latter is related to kingdom while an emperor leads an empire, something liberals do associate with our government. More importantly, “emperor” reminds us of “the Emperor Wears No Clothes” which he alludes to with “he’s been standing naked for a while!

“Dry Drunk Emperor” is more than a pretty song, it is a call to action. Like the Buffalo Springfield song, the lyrics mark it to this moment in history that so many of us feel connected to. Prior to knowing the words, I enjoyed the song but did not identify with it. Now that the lyrics have provided a key to understanding what TV on the Radio sought to express I feel a personal connection to the song and thus the band itself. This is so much more meaningful. It can only add to my experience of the music. And to all those music-lovers that like the pretty songs, and they like to sing along, but they don’t know what it means—well I say you’re only hearing half the music.

Another Excuse For SUV Drivers to be Arrogant

Have you seen this commercial? A young girl asks her dad to drop her off on the corner; she doesn’t want her friends to see her parents car. Not because she is worried, as the old story goes, that her friends will know that she comes from poverty. No, all her friends’ parents are driving Hybrids and she doesn’t want them to see dad drive up in the SUV.

At first, this is heartening. Clearly this is an advertisement marketing hybrids to the middle class folks so invested in TV culture. And truthfully, this was how I felt when my grandfather wanted to drive me to my graduation in a monster-sized SUV.

The dad tells his daughter that, though may not look like it, the giant tractor they are riding in is a hybrid. The announcer proudly points out that this SUV gets 32 miles per gallon, the best gas mileage for any SUV.

Which is great because the soccer dads can continue doing their 150 mile-commute while feeling good about global warming by upgrading to a car that gets gas mileage approximately equivalent to a 1985 Honda Civic. Whoopdie-doo.

But then they ruin any joy I might get from the announcement of the inevitable energy guzzling hybrid. The daughter asks why he never told her before. His response: “Gee, it never occurred to me that I needed to.”

And this is not an offhand statement, it is the final line of the ad, the punchline if you will. What is the significance of this?

In a small sense, he is suggesting that daughters not be inquisitive, particularly about these matters that will drastically affect their lives after their parents are dead. More importantly, his snarky remark is tapping into (suggesting? chicken or egg?) some idea that hybrid cars and by association global warming and environmentalism are subjects not to be talked about.

Really? The ongoing debate about whether or not we should do something about worldwide global catastrophe has become a subject not discussed in polite social circles? The enlightened father in the commercial is somehow better than the mom’s and dad driving Priuses because they are the types who brag about all they are doing for the planet. When smart folks know that we are all slowly (very slowly) upgrading to hybrid SUVs so this whole ecological collapse isn’t really that big a deal. Just shut up about it already and buy a new car.

We Are Not At the Center

This blog is in response to Joysette’s beautiful blog “On the Passivity of a Generation” summarized briefly:
Have we become so comfortable, with our “on demand” society, that we’ve failed to struggle for the things that are truly important? Too distracted by the 47 ways to manipulate something as simple as coffee to understand the complexity of human nature?..I believe there was a time that people cared. I’m beginning to think that it’s not en vogue anymore. It’s not plastered on the cover of a magazine, nor can I sense that any periodical is telling the true story of our generation.

But what about the Zapatistas in Mexico, holding back the state with pitchforks and emails? What about the activists in India staging a worldwide boycott of Coca-cola for what they have done to their water supply? What about the 150,000 Australians that marched against climate changeon November 11th? Or the Cananea miners who have been striking for half a year? What about the tens of thousands mobilizing against free trade in Columbia? Or the 100,000 Burmese on the streets of Rangoon, demanding freedom from military rule as soldiers shoot people in the street. Or the undocumented immigrants on hunger strike in France?

We are the powdered ladies that play kroquet. We live like children and only know the world (death, struggle) from books. We are the ones who throw ourselves into activism like a timid child dipping it’s toe into the water. We cannot help ourselves. Our lives are comfortable. The desperation that we face to improve the world is no greater than the desperation to be beautiful or buy a house or pass the test or live out whatever dreams we realized before we knew the cruelty of the world is a call to action.

This is what it means to be middle class. Because if your water supply is privatized there is nothing more important to you than getting it back. If there are soldiers on every corner and tension and gun smoke in the air, what else do you think about but tension and gun smoke?

Maslow would explain it best: in the hierarchy of needs, people who are in fear for their own survival make that their fist priority. And those of us who have food, shelter, clothes, income — we worry about making sense of the world. So for different reasons, the peasant and the scholar may lay there body on the line. But when the scholars’ need for approval, when their job is threatened, when their life is uncomfortable, they are the ones to leave the movement.

You are right that many are blind, distracted, led-astray, unaware. As were the Yankees that didn’t lift a finger to help the slaves. As were the Americans that went along with the murder of the native population or didn’t blink at the phrase “manifest destiny.” So were the Germans as millions of their citizens were slaughtered by the Nazis.

There have always been people that fought back, just as there has always been a privileged class that didn’t have to.

Many thought that the appointment of a right-wing president would be the kick in the tush the country needed to wake it up to the problems of the world. And for some, it has been. But what do we expect from a country that still mocks the serious left-wing movements, has little clue how to organize, is afraid of the power of labor unions and thinks their only empowerment comes once a year at the ballot box? We are soft, like the late Romans. Perhaps it will be our downfall. Perhaps it is time for our downfall. But this–the struggle, the solution–is not about us. It is only about us in that we are the problem.

Your confusion is due to a lack of perspective. The struggle around us is carried out by armchair revolutionaries when it is convenient to do so. They are dedicated. They care deeply. But their lives do not depend upon it. The glaciers may be melting, but it is hard to feel that while we still have broadband and surround sound. But I do not think for a second that there are not people right now whose whole lives are wrapped up in altering the course of history.

The history of the world is struggle and it is not slowing now. If anything, it is accelerating at a deafening pace to what will possibly be the ultimate (anti)climax. It is not that less people care. All over the world, people are knee-deep in the thick of life or death altercations. Perhaps the great tragedy is that there are not enough of them.

And what are we doing? There are so many things I want to do. I want to start a website to measure the hope of the world. At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, I am privileged to hunger for truth. I want to paint it and poeticize it and blog it. I want to stand on a soapbox and shout speeches to the stunned masses. I want to start a radio station and prop my soapbox there. I want to wheatpaste and spray paint and sticker it all over the city. And there is time only for a fraction of these things. And yet even these things are not *real* in the same way destroying dams and tearing down cell phone towers is real. Partly I feel that my gift is one of truth and lies are what are poisoning this country so these are my remedies. But the truth is, I am too comfortable to take those kinds of risks. If I have shown a few people the seeds of truth then I will sleep well at night. Fortunately, I am not at the center of the fighting, the famine and thirst, the cacophonous brutality that keeps many, many, restless.

Update On the Neighbors

I am classist after all!

I was saying hi to my neighbor the other day, he is about my age, Mexican, drives an SUV.
I got up the will to confront him about throwing away furniture. I told him about the place up the street where they take furniture donations.

He said that that wasn’t their furniture at all. Random people had been dumping it by our trash. That is why they had started locking the gate at night (another thing they were doing that was really annoying because it doesn’t make me any safer and it takes extra time).

All it took was a little communication. Now to figure out why he’s driving that gas-guzzler.

To make matters worse, I found out that their aunt used to live in this apartment before she died. So at that time they had this whole complex all to themselves, one big happy extended family. I feel like an intruder. No wonder they are polite. We are like a ghost in the attic; they are stuck with us.

Frank Talk About Racism and Classism

I was sitting on a bench during my ten-minute break from work when I was approached by a young black man with dreds. His clothes were shabby and his eyes were damaged and baggy from the level of exhaustion that usually only comes with the assistance of drugs.

He offered me a quarter to use my cell phone. This reminded me of my boyfriend, who looks a little like a “terrorist.” We had an argument once because he walked a mile home to use the phone rather than asking a person on the street to use theirs. He told me that it never works and people usually get scared or annoyed. He would rather walk the mile than ask.

So it ocurred to me that it wasn’t easy for this man to approach me.

I also thought of all of the things my racist and classist culture has taught me: that he must be desparate and willing to do anything, that he is jealous of my luxury and riches and will not hesitate to hurt me in any way if it is to his benefit.

That I am willing to admit this thought even entered my head is only through years of analyzing class systems. I truly believe that most middle and upper class people only think, “he might steal my phone.” And then they make up a white lie (so aptly named!) to cover their racism (really, more classism, few are intimidated by a black man in an expensive suit.) that everyone else can see right through.

This angered me. What is more likely, that this guy needs to use a phone or that he
is part of some con to score a bunch of crappy, beat-up cell phones and resell them for a fraction of what they are worth? I have loaned my phone out to many people on the street, in retrospect all of them black women at the bus stop. This is less of a coincidence and more owing to 1) most black men wouldn’t bother to ask me for reasons stated above and 2) most white women have cell phones.
Additionally, I have borrowed many cell phones from random people. I never hesitate to ask because I am a white woman which equals harmless and demure.

I have never loaned my phone to a man, much less one that looked like a drug addict (now there’s another stereotype: so many drug addicts look as wealthy as they are. Cocaine, alcohol, pills, weed — desparate housewives live in fear of the crackheads and meth-heads sport these addictions of their own.). I admit I hesitated long enough to think all of these things before I handed it to him, which really only took a few seconds.

Ultimately it ocurred to me that I would rather my cell phone be stolen (which is unlikely, and besides I can outrun this guy) then contribute to the cycle of fear that racism and classism neccessitate, and this was the deciding factor. I gave him my phone and went back to reading my book. He was done in less than three minutes. A car showed up — I suppose he was giving them directions. He made sure to look in to my eyes when he gave the phone back.

He told me that it meant a lot to him that I wasn’t afraid.

He returned minutes later on a bicycle that is much too small for him. Then he told me that this bike may not look like much but it saves him from having to walk three hours to work. I told him that I also ride my bike to work but I don’t even look at jobs that aren’t in biking distance. He responded that with “the dreds and the skin color” jobs aren’t so easy to find. I admitted that things are tough; I have a bachelor’s degree and I work in retail. He took a moment to appreciate that as a sign for how fucked up the economy truly is: even a white girl with a diploma works in a shop and hasn’t had health insurance for years.

I know that our little exchange meant a lot to him and truthfully it meant a lot to me too. We each had to take a risk. Such a small risk, something so inconsequential, at least among people of the same race/class, becomes powerful and imbued with meaning simply because we come from different upbringings. We exchanged names and he promised to spit some poetry when next we meet.

I am truly looking forward to it.

Fashion Designers Have a Sense of Irony

I was in denial for a long time but it is time to admit the eighties are truly back in fashion. The teenagers that come into the hat shop wear flourescent colors and big plastic bracelets. None of their clothes match They sport bright polka dot leggings with black and pink striped shirts with yellow shoes.

Speaking of shoes, I actually saw someone wearing jellies the other day. Jellies! Where did they find them?

I’m not happy about this. While I am nostalgic about the movies and music of my childhood the clothing choices of the time are regrettable. It doesn’t help that the guys are still pants that hang to their knees and the girls are wearing poufy dresses from the fifties. And here I thought raver fashion couldn’t get any sillier (there are still ravers here. Don’t tell anyone, the closer it is to undergound the better).

I wonder what made fashion designers decide to go this route. Every shop window has something that looks like what I wore to P.E. before we had uniforms or a hideous pink dress from the Donna Reed Show. Is it a coincidence that the retro movements sweeping the nation (the 50’s and 80’s) are from the most conservative periods in recent history?

I like to think that designers are artists and they are drawing their ideas from their take on the movement of history. If we are going to act like neo-cons, then they will dress us like them.

This is totally unrelated to my dislike for the look, I swear. I feel so old. I never thought this would happen. But I just have to say, I just don’t understand the kids these days.