Z-Ro (a.k.a. Joseph Wayne McVey) is a Southern rapper known for songs about feeling lonely, depressed, betrayed or addicted to drank. Rob Ford is, at this precise moment of writing, still improbably the mayor of Toronto. Not the most intuitive pairing, one might think—unless you know that pretty much every popular musician of note secretly belongs to the Illuminati. (Remember when Biggie predicted 9/11?) For mysterious but undoubtedly sinister reasons, Z-Ro’s role in the conspiracy has forgone pyramids and alien reptiles to focus on Toronto municipal politics. Listening to his 2008 album Crack this week, I realized that it contained an intricately veiled prophecy of the Ford mayoralty. Only now can the clues be decoded.
On Wednesday, Doug Ford described his brother as “the people’s mayor,” more “accessible” than ever before, apparently referring to his habit of fielding phone calls from any stranger who makes one. But there are numbers the younger Ford clearly needs to stop dialing, as Z-Ro made clear five eerie years ago: “It’s a shame having a cell phone, but don’t want it to ring / Cause I don’t wanna deal with bullshit people and the bullshit they might bring / That’s why I send them to voicemail heaven (I don’t wanna talk) / Cause bullshit run a marathon, I rather keep it real and walk.”
The title of Community’s fourth-season (and probable series) finale, “Advanced Introduction to Finality,” pretty much sums up the absurdity of the show’s last year of existence. Having lost its creator, a notoriously cranky ensemble member and even its original start date, it has muddled its way through a dozen episodes of solid comedy that feel at times like an alternate-universe version of the show, or at least one more concerned with palpability than following its bizarre whims as far as possible.
So if “Introduction to Finality,” the season three closer, was about bidding adieu to the show as creator Dan Harmon conceived it, the fourth season as a whole has often felt like a chance to drift away from the show on the viewer’s own terms—the finality of having something taken away versus the finality of giving it away. This isn’t to say Community has been bad, exactly, but it’s been markedly different: less anarchic, less idiosyncratic, more of a standard sitcom in oddball clothes than a piece of esoteric art snuck through the network’s gate.
Cinema began with an industrial ritual: 46 seconds of workers leaving the Lumière brothers’ factory in Lyon, women playfully tugging at each other’s dresses, a large dog doing what hyperactive dogs have always done, every one nonchalant about their presence at the creation, this blank screen that, in the Scottish writer Gilbert Adair’s words, would bear “the myths, dreams, drives, lies, desires, archetypes, whimsies, crochets, psychic megrims, and occasionally the history, of our century.” Music video announced itself in kitschier terms. After the countdown, the moon-mission imagery, that American flag flashing with MTV neon, the Buggles’ elegy became its inaugural march, elevating them to immortal obscurity.
Their lament for radio stardom’s death wasn’t the first of its kind, but what one takes away from Spectacle, a new exhibit devoted to the form at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, is that this medium could only emerge as such once communications technology caught up with art. The curators identify numerous precursors—D. A. Pennebaker’s adaptation of Duke Ellington, Paramount Pictures short films featuring performers like Bessie Smith and Cab Calloway, The Girl Can’t Help It and A Hard Day’s Night, those slabs of Gallic camp known as Scopitones—yet none are the “music video” that immediately comes to mind. On day one, MTV VJ Mark Goodman declared “we’ll be doing for TV what FM did for radio,” and by importing radio’s demographic research techniques to the unsurveyed vastness of cable, the predictably anarchic network gathered a mass audience to validate mass culture.
Prince revels in confusion, defying definition and willfully obscuring his past—and, often, his present. How is it, then, that he helps us understand ourselves better?
When people ask me what the Pop Conference is, as they often did last week, I tend to describe the annual EMP-sponsored event as a gathering of music nerds, which may collapse the diversity of the participants into one disheveled middle-aged man talking about obscure soul records. There are disheveled middle-aged men talking about obscure soul records at the Pop Conference, sometimes to fascinating effect, but the critics, academics, fans, DJs and musicians who show up mainly come to see disparately smart people obsessing over each other’s ideas. The first time I went, it was to present a paper about 50 Cent’s video game, Orientalism, bad Damien Hirst art and American hegemony; one year later, my topic was Bhutanese pop music, on a panel with people discussing Treme or tropicalia compilations.
I didn’t present anything last weekend. Whether due to scheduling issues or to give organizers a sabbatical for once, the 2013 conference split into five concurrent mini-events, hosted by Los Angeles, Cleveland, New Orleans, Seattle and New York, each with its own theme. (Excerpt from the announcement for NOLA’s event, which must have had the best-fed attendees: “We’ll do the South by driving straight into its tensions: tradition vs. modernity, faith vs. transgression, racial nostalgia vs. new immigrant populations, authenticity vs. performance.”) The NYC program, unlike some others, was curated in advance, so I decided to take the year off and come simply as a spectator.
Almost anybody can join the circus these days, and, thanks to the success of Cirque du Soleil and other marquee shows, probably make a good living doing it. But as the industry finds itself on solid footing, it loses some of the danger and romance that once made it such a unique draw.
As big-box businesses continue to crowd Toronto’s Queen Street West, fewer and fewer strongholds remain. Increasingly, you’ll find the gleaming, homogenous façades of new chain stores settling in next to independent retailers in an insidious gussying-up of the commercial strip. There is one unsullied stretch, though, in the neighbourhood of Trinity Bellwoods Park, and right in the middle of it sits Type Books.
Type, which has been around since 2006, is special not just because it’s a bookstore—a modest emporium that puts a premium on the printed word in a halogen megamall world—but because it feels like a part of its local community. Before setting foot in the store, the window calls out to you. In the past year, Kalpna Patel, a part-time Type employee and avid craftician who is bewilderingly adept at multi-tasking, has transformed the storefront into a talking point for flaneurs, artists, readers and Instagrammers.
Country music is talking about racism, hip hop is talking about rape culture, and rock and roll, maintaining its title as Low Stakes Champion, is talking about itself. In Pitchfork last week, alt-folk workhorse Kurt Vile called punk ideals entirely irrelevant, about a month after John Roderick, singer for The Long Winters, railed against punk rock for 3,000 words in the pages of Seattle Weekly. Roderick was so widely denounced that his piece was taken down, while Vile, in what passes for “widely denounced” for critical darlings, got tweeted at extensively, sometimes by Titus Andronicus. In both cases, you got the feeling that fans of guitar music were just happy to have something to talk about.
While Brad Paisley and Rick Ross have somehow sparked discussions about real-world issues (willfully misunderstanding the Civil War, drugging girls), here are rock’s recent points of conversation: Coachella-goers failing to appreciate the Stone Roses; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame failing to induct, I don’t know, Supertramp?; “Is Ke$ha a rock star?”; and the aforementioned rock and roll musicians crapping on punk. Rock music has become such a non-issue that in the inaugural edition of Apology, the new culture/lit magazine from former Vice editor Jesse Pearson, Ian Svenonius breaks away from his usual “Rock as the psy-op stealth tool of the dominant power hegemony to crush human spiritual resistance” routine and instead devotes 20 pages to Wikipedia as slave labour. Clearly, the world has moved on, leaving all us thirty-somethings in ill-fitting band T-shirts to talk to ourselves, about ourselves.
Napoleon said caricatures “did more than all the armies of Europe” to defeat him. King Louis Philippe jailed a comic artist on grounds such a work “amounts to an act of violence.” Even the skilled propagandists of the Third Reich flailed in the face of unkind portraits.
At one point during the catalogue launch for 2013’s Images Festival, the annual celebration of experimental cinema kicking off today in Toronto, there was a sharply critical allusion to those exclusivity agreements that enable larger institutions like TIFF and Hot Docs to hoard premieres by the dozens, even when the only thing a movie might win from the Academy Awards is baffled incomprehension. That hasn’t reduced Images to scraping around film canisters. In its 25th year, the festival can still be counted on for formal ingenuity, inflecting its screenings with music, theatre and visual art. (The catalogue actually leaves one title all mysterious, an impish circumvention of any potential legal issues.) Here are six cases in point.
Opening Night Gala: Live Images with Tim Hecker + Robert Todd, SlowPitch (St. Anne’s Anglican Church, April 11, 8 p.m.)
Tim Hecker is the Montreal electronic musician who specializes in ambient environments with titles like “Arctic Lover’s Rock,” made up of flickering static and hypnotic echoes; Robert Todd makes miniature 16mm documentaries that study the shapes and light of their subjects with abstracted lyricism. This eerie collaboration will be preceded by SlowPitch’s audiovisual piece Emoralis, “a collection of moving images of transforming snails.”
The sight of Roger Sterling laid out on a psychiatrist’s couch isn’t the most striking image Mad Men has ever composed, but it’s maybe one of the most shocking. This is a show, after all, that literally chucked a psychiatrist’s work directly into the trash in one of its earliest scenes (and summarily dumped a psychologist as a main love interest in season four), and Roger is a man who guards his psyche with parrying daggers of wit and towering shields of vodka. Among the ad men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (and even the new ad woman of Cutler, Gleason and Chaough), there is plenty of wondering about what the buying public might want, and plenty of pensive cigarettes inhaled while stewing over their own desires, but the idea of just coming out and telling someone what’s going on—well, it seems to go against the characters’ shared ethos as much as it does the show itself.
What Roger talks about, though, cuts right to the heart of Mad Men: He’s complaining, increasingly existentially, about the way nothing actually seems to change. We go through doorways, across bridges, and our experiences, in his view, don’t alter us at all; we just pick them up and drop them in our pocket like pennies, wandering along in a straight line until there are no more doors to be opened.
An early scene in Bioshock Infinite provides a good litmus test for assholes. You are handed a baseball and told you’ve won a raffle. The prize is the first throw at a public stoning for an Irishman and black woman, and you can choose to throw the ball at the couple, or at the entertainer egging you on. In the end, the choice really shouldn’t be a choice at all, and makes one thing clear: This is a rare video game with a point to make about racism.
Having just been released at the end of March, the first-person shooter is notable for how it pushes narrative in a relatively young medium not known for being especially deep. You play as Booker DeWitt, who, in 1912 is charged with finding a girl named Elizabeth. She’s being imprisoned in the floating city of Columbia, an Aryan utopia where George Washington is worshipped as a saint and American hegemony is not a political ideal but an airborne reality.
Everyone knows that beloved ’80s kids show Fraggle Rock was all about two things: a theme song that surely ranks on many “Top 5 best TV intros” lists, and death. Wait, death? Well, yeah—at least, that’s what this very convincing supercut of every mention of our fleeting mortality on the show now has me thinking.
For those unfamiliar, the supercut, brought to prominence by Andy Baio, is a video in which “some obsessive-compulsive superfan collects every phrase/action/cliche from an episode (or entire series) of their favorite show/film/game into a single massive video montage.” Perhaps the most famous example is the “I’m Not Here to Make Friends” video that showed hundreds of reality TV contestants repeating the phrase.
While Sansa Stark watches a fleet of ships roll out of the King’s Landing harbour in the season three opener of Game of Thrones, she tries to play a game, spinning stories about where they might be going and what they’ll do when they get there. She’s rather quickly rebuffed by her handmaiden, Shae, who knows exactly where they’re headed, and tosses aside the game with an appeal to reality: “Why should I make up the story when I know the truth?”
As with nearly all Game of Thrones scenes, psychology and plotting are built on top of one another like stones in a castle wall, layered skyward: the yearnings of a girl who was trapped even before her family staged an open rebellion against the ruling clan versus the worldly knowledge of an ex-prostitute whose wits have kept her alive this long, watching over a peaceful harbour we last saw choked with warships and engulfed in an otherworldly green flame.
My plans for Easter mostly include nudity and gore, though not for particularly blasphemous reasons. On Sunday, the third season of AMC’s zombie-apocalypse drama The Walking Dead comes to a close, while season three of HBO’s sweeping fantasy Game of Thrones begins—and I can’t wait.
They are each oddly fitting shows for this particular long weekend, if perhaps in a perverse way. Jesus’ resurrection is a fable for the supernatural’s capacity to relieve us from the suffering of the here-and-now. These two big-budget series are like the inverse: visions of alternate spaces where the rules of today are cast off so that we might revel in the prurient underbelly of our desires.
How the trash-talking singer could be this generation's incarnation of the wonderfully disagreeable critic and novelist.
Some thoughts on the first paragraph of Renata Adler’s just reissued 1976 novel Speedboat.
The first celebrity I knew about was Pope John Paul II. In Poland he was simply known as “Jan Pawel” (John Paul), or “Pope” as if there had been no Pope before him or there wasn’t going to be one after him. He was special because he was Polish and in Poland he was bigger than Madonna, the gap-toothy one, not the mother of Jesus who was a dead celebrity.
When John Paul died, in 2005, I felt a tiny prick of sorrow, nostalgia for the years when everything was pure and had a cause. I had worshiped him and then I rejected him. Then I grew up and saw him as an old man, my grandmother’s age. Later, I saw him the way this new Pope will be seen one day—as the leader of a big, difficult religious institution, who will have to fix some things, while screwing up other things.
“JASH is the future of media.” If that headline hasn’t been written yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if it shows up in Google News soon. After all, the new comedy show and network hits all the right notes for those hyperbolic headlines about digital disruption. Instead of sticking to TV or movies, stars like Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera and Reggie Watts are going to make their new venture available exclusively online.
For a few years now we’ve been hearing how the web is going to upend traditional television. While that hasn’t really happened yet, the division between cheap and short online” and “high production TV” is now finally starting to muddy. In addition to JASH putting its celebrity weight behind a new YouTube channel, things like the much-discussed House of Cards or the return of Arrested Development exclusively on Netflix point to how the consumption of TV is changing.
Kickstarter and its clones have inverted that ancient cliché about the amount of time a fool can expect to hold onto his money. The modern sucker only knows whether or not they’ve truly been swindled after months of project updates, unexplained delays and then, maybe, grudging delivery of various rewards. In some cases a troubled campaign’s leaders unwittingly con themselves, receiving financial backing that wildly surpasses any initial goal before discovering that the shipping bills will too. You can count me among these people; the only Kickstarter I’ve ever contributed to, an attempt at relaunching the annual Best Music Writing anthology as an indie press title, now lies dormant, six months after books were supposed to arrive.