The last time I managed to throw a Halloween costume together, it was Lord Summerisle from The Wicker Man (“a heathen, conceivably, but not, I hope, an unenlightened one”). I must have been fated, then, to join everybody else obsessing over True Detective, the show where Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson travel languid bayous to solve an increasingly vast case of ritualized murder, butch-sounding beers in hand.
The story owes much of its ominous atmosphere to the way it collapses and confuses existing genres, noir and Southern gothic and pulp horror, so that uncanny Mardi Gras masks or grim industrial vistas loom in the same frame as Lovecraftian occult sigils. Carving apart a standard police-procedural timeline—one set of scenes portrays the first 1995 investigation, while the contemporary one finds these ex-partners fielding questions about why its closure proved illusory—the interrogation becomes unreliable narration, as McConaughey’s Rust Cohle (severe, sinewy loner) and Harrelson’s Marty Hart (scrunch-faced jock) overwrite their past actions for some enigmatic purpose (heroic, it turns out).
BETHLEHEM SHOALS: So, seven episodes of True Detective down, one to go. I don’t entirely know where we’ve been. I have no idea where we’re headed. I guess I know where I am right now, but that could be a lie. Pasha, some help?
PASHA MALLA: Episode 7 seemed to most explicitly foreground True Detective’s intentions, at least as I see them. Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart claim that he’s writing a true crime novel has been the most meta moment so far, and Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle twice talked about how his life was a circle, or a spiral. Also, the schlocky moments felt especially schlocky. I’d like to think this was intentional, but the episode featured a repeat interview with yet another crazy person that also descended into a bout of revelatory histrionics, and the ease with which Rust was able to convince Marty to join him on this old case due to “a debt” was a little far-fetched. These are conventions of pulp fiction, which I think we’re being trusted to accept as such, but what is the show going to do with all this alleged self-awareness in the end?
The Internet has been a boon for losers—or perhaps, I should say, it has been a boon for me. Prior to the web, being “in the know” was as impossible a goal for me as climbing Everest or talking to a girl I liked without sweating profusely. Today, though, with an endless library of culture at my fingertips, suddenly that obscure Algerian film, new bar, or buzzy novel is easy to find, even for oddballs like me. The obstacle of discovery has, at last, been lifted. But, because nothing good can last, am I to understand that after all that, I have to now be worried about the rise of the secret Internet?
By that term, I don’t mean the dark or deep web—places like the Silk Road that are invisible to Google and, thus, most web users. No, the secret Internet is instead something hidden in plain sight: it’s the surprising return of the email newsletter as the way to stay on top of what people are talking about. It’s the proliferation of private mailing lists, an old standby that seemed to be approaching irrelevance until suddenly, it wasn’t. And it’s the rise of communities obscured from public view, almost like secret societies.
Victim in Pain, the debut album by New York’s Agnostic Front, turns 30 this year. At just over 15 minutes, it’s the perfect product of a fraught time and perilous place—an essential document of a Lower East Side that is, for better or worse, unrecognizable today.
Broad City began its televised run with a shot of stars/creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson talking over Skype because it was a clever way of referencing the show’s web series roots, and of showing that it has a trench-level view of twentysomething womanhood. Broad City used its second shot to reveal that Glazer was Skyping while cowgirling frequent sex-buddy Hannibal Buress because it was a clever way of displaying that the show is fucking awesome.
Through its first handful of episodes on Comedy Central (in Canada, it’s available on MuchMusic), the show—which is generally just some combination of Glazer and Jacobson working shitty jobs, hanging out and/or trying to get laid—has made the strongest case yet for porting over web series wholesale to television. It has an assurance of character and craft that comedies generally take a couple seasons to craft: the dynamic between the duo, who were partners at New York’s now-legendary UCB theatre before the two versions of their series, is so finely honed it sometimes feels like you’ve stumbled across some lost classic comedy pairing—or would, if the show’s subjects weren’t so thoroughly modern.
At this Sunday’s Academy Awards, Pharrell could become the first musician to win an Oscar for Best Original Song while atop the Billboard charts. The Academy and the People tend to diverge on greatness in music—whose taste is superior? We investigate.
Alec Baldwin comes off as an entitled, ignorant prick in his New York Magazine rant, which is a genuine rant, as in it conjures the image of a child swinging a plastic sword at elaborate bogeymen so wildly that he falls on his ass. This proves Baldwin’s point in a way he probably never intended, and more powerfully than any of the ways he did: lots of people, most people, behave like entitled, ignorant pricks in their private lives, but Alec Baldwin is an entitled, ignorant prick in the eyes of the world.
Famous people like Alec Baldwin inspire less reverence than they once did, for two reasons: 1) fame, or at least some form of public attention, is no longer that hard to attain; and 2) the lives of famous people are less insulated than they once were, in the sense that “there are cameras everywhere, and there are media outlets for [non-famous people with cameras] to ‘file their story.’ They take your picture in line for coffee. They’re trying to get a picture of your baby. Everyone’s got a camera. When they’re done, they tweet it.”
The main spoiler alert is that everything ends, but we’re also going to discuss specific endings, so watch yourself.
The Lego Movie begins with Emmet Brickowski realizing he’s the fabled Master Builder who can stop the impending collapse of his little Lego world and ends with the realization that it is all part of the fevered imagination of a kid in a basement whose dad is a little too eager to preserve his own handiwork. If you think about it even a little, it’s basically the perfect play for a toy commercial movie, but it’s not without its disturbing implications—namely, that the screenwriters have no problem picturing a kid playing through an apocalypse.
I recently wrote on a friend’s Facebook wall that, had the people who demonstrated against William Friedkin’s Cruising known what a hash queers would make of their own mass media self-representation, they might not have bothered making Friedkin’s life hell in the first place. I’ll confess that I’m slightly jealous of Cruising; I would rather have the “homosexual lifestyle” depicted as dark and dangerous, a place of arcane codes, furtive glances, and twilight predation than the current portrait of “us” as a collectivity of handsome cheery men (the fact that this representation ultimately favors men is another subject altogether) with nice jobs, nice apartments, nice friends, and nice sex lives. “We” are nice, and I hate it.
I put “we” in scare quotes not only because of my suspicion of such hyper-inflated generalities as “the gay community,” but also because I gave up on hoping to see myself represented by TV and movies a long, long time ago. It’s not that I’m part of an especially rare sub-demographic (Caucasian male, sub-genus gay Jew). But in the catalogue of gay mass media representation (again, let’s be honest: I can’t really use the term “queer” here, as the demographic outside of gay men still finds itself severely underrepresented), I could almost never find anything that would speak to my sense of criticality; that would articulate my sense of difference; that would express my political sensibilities; that would validate my eccentricities; that would affirm what I find valuable about queerness, and scoff at what I think are its vacuities.
During my first visit to New York City, I emerged from the subway near Lincoln Center—it was staging a John Adams opera—to find the intersection stilled. “Show’s over, folks, nothing to see here,” a police officer barked, waving his arms at dozens of people who disagreed; beyond him, somebody lay unmoving beneath an overturned van.
A block or so farther north, I walked past the musician St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark, who’d played up here only days before. I wanted to say “you were great in Toronto last week, Annie!” but a heat wave had begun since then: while she looked chic in a sundress and shades, I was a jorts-impaired apparition, shambling sweaty. So I let her and her friend move on towards another glancing encounter with death. Listening to the new St. Vincent album last week, also called St. Vincent, that afternoon seemed like a fluke example of her taste for jarring dissonance—stylish allure, in this music, being the weapon of choice as often as brute force.
Most aspiring scribes don’t dream of writing, say, the novel version of Man of Steel, any more than movie buffs dream of reading it. But the best novelizers in the game can speak to the art of translating a film into a new medium, and fan boys can speak to the fruits of their efforts.
There’s a weird combination of ownership and friendship at the centre of our love for a cult figure. The former emotion is maybe the more obvious one: the person’s status outside the mainstream means you can wear your allegiance like a badge, bond over it and trade it with the people in your circle. It’s not just taste but knowledge you can hold over those unfortunate souls who don’t know nothing that hasn’t been stuffed down their throats by morning shows and rush hour radio and bus shelter ads.
There’s also that have-a-beer-with factor, though, the thing we tend to dismiss in people who are picking presidents and prime ministers, but which we harbour somewhere, probably deep and hidden, in our psyche: we just know that if we met these people, we’d have something in common, something to bond over. Maybe it’s that their fringe fame keeps them on the hustle, something to which all of us non-famous can relate, or maybe it’s just that they seem nice and off-the-cuff in interviews, or maybe it’s just that their work is just so totally our life, like exactly what I was going through. Their humanity cracks through, though, and speaks to us in a way that is really no different from how, say, Harry Styles speaks to a 15-year-old girl, even if it may feel that way.
No wonder, then, that we get grouchy when our idols sell out. It’s not just distasteful, it’s betrayal.
The most dismal charts I’ve seen lately do not represent rising sea levels or multiplying extinctions. Responding to a lazy BuzzFeed post that dismissed the absence of any black artists from the Billboard Hot 100’s summit during 2013—the first time that’s happened in the 55-year history of the singles chart—as a statistical “aberration,” the blogger David Lee looked up data displaying a clear trend. His graphs show that the demographics of a given year’s biggest 20 hits have become ever whiter since 2008, with the share of crossovers from Billboard’s separate Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart (what is primly called “urban radio”) cratering similarly.
Blame the EDM-driven pop dominating this decade: “Radio say ‘speed it up,’ I just go slower,” as Beyoncé taunted. Blame the flawed Billboard methodology itself, which gives entire music videos and viral-meme snippets the same weight in its streaming songs tally. Blame a hundred other unmappable glitches and vagaries of the precarious music industry. Maybe most of all, blame the parallel economic marginalization of African Americans, who have less income to spend on those crucial iTunes sales. Four black women have reached the Top 10 this decade, and that’s counting Whitney Houston, who seems symbolic in the grimmest possible way.
Sometimes I worry that laptop speakers, or the terrible white ear buds you get with an iPhone, will be the downfall of civilization. They’re too weak. They betray the sound of life with their rough timbre, void of body and presence. How, with such limited tech, can one give the proper attention to the bassline that thrums like a pulse beneath House of Cards?
With its second season set to land this Friday, I thought again of the low-end undercurrent to the Netflix drama. If you watched the show on the wrong screen, you may have missed it. It is an indistinct thing, rolling in at the start of the theme song like dark grey clouds over a shoreline, as if someone is turning up the volume on a song that was already playing. At other times, it simply creeps in during transitions, just to remind you it’s still there. For reasons I can’t quite explain, though, I feel as if it’s never really gone, as if during the show it doesn’t stop as much as occasionally drop to frequencies we can’t register—that, like power and sex and desire in the show, it hums constantly in the background.
If there had been any doubt about The Beatles’ place in the pantheon—that a too-large portion of the population considers them the greatest band ever—it was dispelled Sunday night. Facebook pages and Twitter feeds became real-time paeans to the televised 50th anniversary celebration of the band’s first Ed Sullivan broadcast, during which artists from several succeeding generations paid obeisance to those four men to whose page in cultural history they can only aspire to be footnotes.
There is, of course, no such thing as the greatest band ever. But to get a glimpse of why so many people think there is, and that The Beatles are it, or that they at least occupy a similarly lofty place alongside other musicians from the same decade or so—a Rushmore on which there’s no more room to carve—let’s take a look at Tom Junod’s latest, in the February issue of Esquire: “Seven Questions for Bob Dylan.” Lord.
In the Oxford American’s most recent Southern Music Issue, Rosanne Cash writes about her father Johnny’s long-time bassist Marshall Grant and his wife Etta:
“The drama, love, schisms, and reconciliations of Dad and Marshall’s relationship were played out for the most part in public, but no one saw the heartbreak of Mom and Etta’s inevitable separation after my parents’ divorce … Etta put a stool in the hall outside her kitchen next to the wall phone so that she could sit and have long conversations with my mother every day. In one conversation Etta recalled my mother saying, in reference to the Carter Family traveling with my dad’s show, ‘Etta, I’m a little concerned about Anita.’ Etta said, ‘Vivian, you ought to be a little more concerned about June.’ Prescient, to say the least.”
A continuous transition between distinct modes of history—the grand narratives that guide traditional rock biography (a singer’s feuds with his sideman; the archetypal romantic duet) and the ones (such as intimate conversation between two women at one remove) that usually don’t—is what gives Cash’s new album The River & The Thread its sense of anti-nostalgia.
He played a critical role in exploding the taboos of postwar American culture while influencing generations of artists. But the centenary of his birth—coming days after the overdose of Philip Seymour Hoffman—demands a fuller consideration of the Burroughs myth.
He certainly had his defenders—not the least of which was Tina Fey, who included a thinly veiled parody/tribute version of him in the first seasons of 30 Rock—but for me, Jimmy Fallon’s run on Saturday Night Live was notable mostly because he managed to be even more annoying than Chris Kattan. Though Fallon was a reasonably talented impressionist, his most popular recurring character was the smirking dink who could not keep himself from laughing at the much funnier people around him. His whole shtick seemed to begin and end with a boyish excitement about the whole enterprise: he was like a contest winner who somehow parlayed a background appearance in a sketch into a six-year gig.
Looking back now, those actually seem like ideal qualifications for a late-night show host: Fallon has managed to find one of the few reasonably prestigious entertainment jobs where fawning, giggling, and convincing everyone you’re having the greatest time, even when you’re just going through the motions, is utterly crucial.
Slowdive, a band I’m sure is very good but that I care not a whit about because I am one of those lost and lonely few in 2014 who gives zero damns about shoegaze, is reuniting. You won’t see too much complaining about this online, because a) music writers love shoegaze like it was the dove of Christ newly sprung from their chests, and b) Slowdive might come to your town! And that’s fine: kneejerk dismissal is always a drag, especially when applied in the wholly arbitrary fashion typical of critical groupthink. This quiet acceptance is rare, though. Whether it’s The Eagles or The Police or Blink-182 or even some band that was good at some point, the overarching belief remains: reunions are the product of a morally corrupt nostalgia machine that crushes and gnashes our innocence like the cud of a dystopian mechanized bull. Or something like that.
But what are the specific arguments against bands reuniting, really? The most immediate one is that, except in very rare instances (see: The Pixes … at first, anyway), the band reuniting will not be, objectively speaking, as good as they were during the original run. It’s rock and roll, theoretically a young person’s game, and the reunited band will be much closer to the ends of their lives than when they started. Plus, unless they’re writing new material that somehow encompasses the wisdom that comes with the nagging terror of looming death, they’ll be performing the same callow bullshit they started with, pantomiming youth while looking like soil erosion. This phenomenon is—and I say this in the interest of maintaining the all-important sense of objectivity necessary for discussing arrested developed halfwits hopping around on stage wearing hip-slung basses—pretty bad.