29.7.10

Robyn

True story. Sitting over cocktails a close personal acquaintance reveals she doesn't really like Robyn. 'Dancing On My Own' (some remix thereof) had been burbling out of the speakers and I had been quietly grooving, hence the conversation. Alas, conversation was not really what was had. The revelation had robbed me of speech. I had never thought about exactly WHAT separates Robyn from the multitude of pop stars that populate our pop culture galaxy, partly because I never thought I would have to justify her in any way. Robyn just IS. She's undeniable. The possibility that she could be denied never entered my mind.

Over those cocktails I wasn't at my most... shall we say graceful. I didn't exactly blubber, but composure was definitely lost somewhere. Time and blogging may not relieve that embarrassment, but it can accomplish what I couldn't do then: put up a spirited, if not coherent, defence of Robyn.

Which must start with Robyn, the self-titled album, lauded the greatest pop album of the last ten years by Pitchfork and FACT and other right-thinking publications, give or take an M.I.A. Body Talk Pt. 1 was a bit disappointing for me, but we'll come back to that. First, 'Konichiwa Bitches'. Go listen!

Starts squelchy, powers up and blasts you in the face like a mushroomed-up Mario. Tinny rimshots cut up the track as a husky vocodered voice starts moaning aggressively. Four big booms, and Robyn enters the ring.

What I love about this song is that Robyn is basically battle-rapping, but she sounds like an eight-year old, her verses turning up the juvenile and silly to the max. I mean, come on!

"I'll handle your toe like a pediatrician,
Saw you in half like I'm a magician,
Tear you down like I'm in demolition,
Count you out like a mathematician."

This is shit-talk posturing taken to the absolute limit, where aggression becomes ridiculous, harmless. I just wish Jay-Z or 50 Cent had to come on after that. What would they say? Robyn's already done all of it so well that the game is over. It has been overturned, rendered meaningless. Robyn destroys mockery with mockery. No more fronting. The rest of the album can move on to matters of the heart.

'Cobrastyle' is the dark cousin of 'Konichiwa Bitches' -- dancehall aggro modulated by Robyn's cute patois. If there is rage here, it's rage at rage (the Broken Social Scene motto: We Hate Your Hate). Also not being taken seriously as an artist, in part because she's of the female persuasion. But the dark side has an upside: it's a killer tune to shake the behind to, and you get to say "foo" every 30 seconds. That's pop music, pure and simple.

'Handle Me' bumps and grinds like the first two, but a mournful cello sound drifts in towards the end of the verse, and an acoustic guitar strums through the chorus. We're moving from club banger to ballad.

Ahh, the ballads. In an interview earlier this year, Robyn talked about singing truthfully -- genuinely experiencing the emotion of the song as you sing it. I know what she means. Robyn's vowels ache. Her consonants hiccup. Her sentences choke. The notes sound strained, their passage into the air filtered through feeling. This shit hurts.

'Be Mine!' is probably the finest example of this. The despair is brutal. The chorus basically vocalizes Robyn repeatedly stabbing herself in the chest: "you NEVER were and you NEVER will be mine!" The spoken word bridge throbs with unrequited affection, before the pummeling begins again. Emotional masochism stretched over three and a half excruciating minutes.

'With Every Heartbeat' is calmer, oscillating between yearning hope and determined resignation. The entire song is a build to nowhere -- a house anthem that never explodes, only plods along hurting with every beat and heartbeat.

And then The Knife cut in with those massive drums of theirs. 'Who's That Girl?' has been rather finely written up already (scroll down). I'd just add that if anyone asked me what feminism was and I had an iPod to hand, I would play them this. And, brilliantly, the huge chorus heralds no dawn of realization. There is no answer to the question. The conversation continues one-sided. Robyn remains isolated, but she keeps dancing, because what else is there to do?

At the album's peak I feel like I should quit, although further treasures await in the second half. 'Robotboy' is built on a clumsy metaphor for aging, but through it reaches a grace, a wisdom, a compassion when those multi-tracked vocals hit. The bitter beatbox of 'Should Have Known' makes frustration very funky. And closer 'Any Time You Like' gets all quiet and heartbreaking again. Robyn knows she is running out of time, but she doesn't want to let go.

Needless to say how much I appreciate cleverness, and Robyn is very clever, attacking relationships with a scalpel, showing us its viscera in microscopic detail. Through these songs, she emerges with something still rather rare in our pop universe. A personality. WITH THINGS TO SAY. Things, I think, that are worth listening to.

The very least you can say about the music is that it is efficient, in that it picks your body up and moves it around. Which is why Body Talk Pt. 1 lacks a certain something. The opener was just limp. 'Dancing On My Own' splits the difference between 'Be Mine!' and 'With Every Heartbeat' without going beyond either. 'None Of Dem' lopes but doesn't skip until the very end, somewhat undermining the sentiment of the song. 'Fembot' is better. Robyn forms like Voltron and and blasts you with her shoulder missiles. If you split my heart in two, I become the unkillable slut-motor-powered supervillain out for vengeance. But really, the EP is all about 'Cry When You Get Older', an epic that can stand alongside the best from her previous album.

Indeed, I wonder if this is the Robyn song to unlock all others. I cannot be sure, because the lyrics are difficult to pin down. Robyn stands as an elder veteran of many a romantic entanglement, imparting sage advice to those green enough to still seek transcendence in love. You're asking for trouble that way, she says. Reality will hit you hardcore to the brain. That more than life feeling is fleeting. It won't last and you will be left wanting again. Love hurts when you do it right. But does that mean you DON'T do it? No. Go on. You can cry when you get older.

Almost everything that makes Robyn Robyn is here: regret at lost loves, the trap of expectations, masochistic voyeurism. And most of all, wisdom, compassion, humanity. Here, she understands. She reaches out. The music does too. The chorus, unlike in 'With Every Heartbeat', invites you in. The swooshing synths pick up the whole dancefloor, although the song does know when to pull back, get you bootyshaking, and then catapult you once more into that pop stratosphere. It is a song about being alone that includes everyone. And we're back at that most recognizable of Robyn themes. I'm dancing on my own, but so is everyone else. Maybe I'm not as alone as I thought.

That's about the best defence I can manage, so I'll stop. The above isn't even an argument really, certainly not a rebuttal. The only way you can justify art is by talking about how it makes YOU think and feel. Everything else is meaningless, in the fullest sense of the word. But it's also why Robyn is amazing, because she MEANS SOMETHING. To me, that is. She might not mean anything to someone else, and that's something I'll have to live with. At least next time over cocktails I'll have something to say...

20.7.10

On the Genealogy of Morals

Some very rough notes:

Friedrich Nietzsche strikes me as a nineteenth century version of Niccolò Machiavelli, in ideas to some extent, and certainly in temperament. Compare the former's dichotomy between aristocratic and slave values, and the latter's contrast between the civil religion of the Roman Empire and Christianity. "Rome against Judaea, Judaea against Rome".

Nietzsche hates transcendent ideologies, but I think he searches for a particular transcendence of his own:

"again and again one will reach the light, again and again experience the golden hour of victory -- and then stand forth new-born, indestructible, tensed in readiness for what is new, more difficult, more distant ... let me be granted a glimpse, just one glimpse of something complete, wholly successful, happy, powerful, triumphant, something still capable of inspiring fear! A glimpse of a man who justifies mankind..."

Nietzsche is asking for more fear, less comfort and cleverness. A return to antiquity, with all its blood and iron. I get the feeling he has probably been reading too much Homer, and thought that this shit was REAL -- that such Conan-like heroes really walked the earth. You get something similar with Machiavelli, who talks of 'admirably wicked' princes, although always in terms of practicalities. An approach that also leads him to prefer republicanism.

Machiavelli's twin concepts of virtue (male) and fortune (female) strikes me as similar to Nietzsche's unifying force behind history: the will to power. Nietzsche idolizes a human will that can impose itself on circumstances, indeed redefine reality in its own interest. Machiavelli's The Prince is basically a guidebook for how to do that.

The endless struggle between aristocratic values / the will to power on one side, and slave morality / resentment / Christianity on the other, has been internalized of late, according to Nietzsche. It has become a psychological struggle. You have a superiority complex telling you to go out and do things, battling with an inferiority complex telling you that everyone else has already done things, and that your contribution will be worthless. Here Nietzsche, like every writer ever, is talking about himself.

Harold Bloom describes him as a psychologist more than anything, and I would agree. His general project is to liberate the human animal from the cage of civilization. All those moralities that inhibit our vilest instincts need to go. The strong must be allowed to be strong again. The naturally servile will naturally be dominated. True relations will be reestablished. This, by the way, is why Nietzsche is crazy.

A sidebar on Nietzsche's view of love. Seeing as selflessness is just weakness, love is equated with respect, and ultimately, fear. There is no loss of individuality or assertiveness. Nietzsche's love must not blunt the will to power.

Another sidebar on whether Nietzsche is a Nazi or not. A stupid question, seeing as he died at the end of the nineteenth century. But speculation is fun, right? Douglas Smith, who is the editor and translator of my text, points out that Nietzsche was dismissive of political anti-semitism, seeing as it was grounded in feelings of resentment, rather than will to power. True, but then there is Nietzsche's love of Napoleon, the last great hero Europe has produced. I cannot help but wonder whether Nietzsche would have also seen Hitler in the same light -- a forceful ruler remaking a country in his own image, using anti-semitism for his own ends...

Final note. Nietzsche attacks science because he considers it the latest manifestation of a belief in transcendence. Scientists still search for truth, hence remain in thrall to asceticism. This strikes me as a fundamental misunderstanding of the way science works. All scientific truths are provisional, always and forever tested against the evidence. It's quite a good system for understanding the world, perhaps the best we have. Nietzsche wants to do away with it because it impedes the morality he is trying to promote: a will to power aloof from the limitations of worldly circumstance. His heroes create their own truth.

OK, really, final note. As Douglas Smith points out, this attack on truth ultimately undermines Nietzsche's whole argument. He is only offering HIS truth, which is in fact only a perspective. Here is Nietzsche on knowledge: "to have all the arguments for and against at one's disposal and to suspend or implement them at will". And here: "the more feelings about a matter which we allow to come to expression, the more eyes, different eyes through which we are able to view the same matter, the more complete our 'conception' of it". I wonder, is this why Nietzsche is crazy? Is he aware of the extraordinary nature of his proposals, but is arguing for them anyway, in order to provoke a response, to make you think through your assumptions? Whether it is done knowingly or not, I don't know, but that is certainly why reading his mad ramblings is of value.

16.7.10

Los Campesinos! / Frankie & The Heartstrings / Johnny Foreigner

I have a shiny new "Witicha Recordings Ltd." pencil, which has been used to record for the sake of posterity the continuing chronicles of Johnny Foreigner and Los Campesinos!'s occasional visits to London. Together this time around! With unknown (to me) interlopers Frankie & The Heartstrings! Fabulous!

I arrive early, not wanting to miss JoFo's set. My waterbottle gets confiscated by guards outside the venue. Bastards! How am I going to hydrate now? Go in, buy Guinness, move to dark corner and fume. Guinness hardly sipped before Alexei and friends take to the stage. Their opener I do not recognize, but follow up "With Who, Who And What I've Got" was recently released on the webz (go download!) and is bloody good. Hits follow: "Eyes Wide Terrified", "ShutUpAlright", "Spindarella", "Every Cloakroom Ever". Alexei tells us "Criminals" is about how rubbish London is, and how it's embarrassing playing it in London. It isn't. Gareth Campesinos! takes over singing duties for (I think it was) "Bullring". Looked pretty nervous and hid behind Kelly most of the time.

Should say I've never seen the band play a tighter set. Maybe less drink was had backstage, or maybe I was more lucid, but the playing was spectacular. Musicianship in a noisy pop punk band? Go figure.

Guinness finished by the end of the set. Cup abandoned, gents beckon. A note for the manager of the Garage: fix yr gorram taps! Out feeling filthy and suspicious of every gent in the room. Go to the charming people selling merch and procure myself a JoFo tee in resplendent black for a respectable £10. Wichita CDs are going for a fiver, and I browse. I own digital copies of like five of them already and nothing else catches my eye. Sorry Wichita.

Frankie and his Heartstrings roll out. A lot of them look like they belong in the 1950s. The music sounds like it does too. Frankie, who no question receives the award for hunk of the night, strikes me as more of an entertainer than an artist, but what do I know? Retreat to the sidelines and respectfully await the end of the set.

The Campesinos take an age to tune up, tho there ARE loads of them. Ollie's replacement is a tattooed young gentleman called Jason, who seems to know his way around the songs alright, although they hardly require Junior Foreigner levels of eight-armed awesomeness. "In Medias Res" drifts us in, "Through The Wall" tears us all up. Clarity dissolves. By the time "Beautiful, Doomed" is played, I'm screaming along with everyone else. "You! Me! Dancing!" finds me grooving passionately with my overarm satchel. Top came off just before I melted from the heat of a hundred jumping bodies. Gareth says some heartfelt words about the label that allowed them to switch sound and tone, from twee to noise. JUST DON'T CALL US TWEE! rings the alarm. However, the encore revisits "Tweexcore" and "Parties, Knives". Charming, though after a main set packed with new material, they really do sound like b-sides.

Thrilled, spilled, danced around. A good evening. Out and away. A text makes me smile. Home. Give the goody bag to my sister, who is well enthused. Keep a badge. And this pencil. Thanks Wichita.

15.7.10

Morality and Religion

"I think morality ultimately needs a notion of the sacred ... to make sense of unconditional rights or claims, we need to be clear that there is such a thing as universal human nature and that it has some intrinsic dignity or worth.

"To try and ground this independently of the idea of a transcendent source of value seems to me not finally feasible. People do, of course, make such claims, and do so in good faith, but I don't see how you can define a universally shared, equal, independent-of-local-culture-and-habit conception of human flourishing without something more. And for the Christian that means understanding all human beings without exception as the objects of an equal, unswerving, unconditional love." -- Rowan Williams

I've heard this argument before. It is a clever one. The idea that human beings are intrinsically BETTER than the rest of the universe is not something we have empirical evidence for. And yet it is what we ground much of our morality on. Killing humans for food is wrong. Imprisoning them arbitrarily is also wrong. Mutilating them for fun is REALLY wrong. And yet we do these things to the rest of 'creation' all the time.

Rejecting all definitions of morality helps nobody. So there are two choices. Either we do the very difficult: define rights for other sentient beings and stick to them. Or we do the easy thing: manufacture a 'transcendent source of value' that separates humanity from the world it lives in, and go on as we were. The Archbishop of Canterbury is almost saying you have to believe in SOMETHING, because otherwise logic dictates that you throw your lot in with crazies like Peter Singer.

I don't like being threatened. Arguing negatively is never a good way to convert people, and this line of attack just blows. On the other side, I am pretty won over by Peter Singer's stance. However, I'm just not strong enough to stop eating meat and become an animal rights devotee. This is profoundly illogical of me. And perhaps our current concepts of morality are as well. Unconditional human rights DON'T make sense. They are arbitrary constructs designed by emotional human beings. Perhaps someday they will become more consistent -- established on a firmer basis. More certain is the possibility that future generations will look back at us and regard us as monsters. As all future generations have done.

12.7.10

Crash

Very indicative of my preferences, this, but I found JG Ballard's introduction to his novel rather more interesting than the novel itself. On the latter, Martin Amis pretty much sums it up in his 1973 review:

'the glazed monotony of its descriptions ... aren't designed to convert or excite the reader, merely to transmit the chilling isolation of the psychopath. Granted this generous rationale, however, Crash remains heavily flawed: loose construction, a perfunctory way with minor characters, and a lot of risible overwriting...'

Ballard can produce stunning poetic passages, but he is not disciplined enough with his style, and he often slips into self-parody. I think I came across about seven mentions of a "benign" or "benevolent technology" as I read through. It just gets silly after a while. Which is a shame, because the ideas that inspired the novel are fascinating.

And so, back to that introduction. The twentieth century has, according to Ballard, been dominated by "the marriage of reason and nightmare", "sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy", "science and pornography". The modern world has made our fantasies easy to access and indulge in. So much so that reality has become a fiction: "mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen". The outside world has become a "realm of fantasy and the imagination", and the only reality we have left "is inside our own heads".

In which case, the nineteenth century novel, with its examination of "the sources of character and personality" from an omniscient moral standpoint, becomes unsatisfactory. The author "knows nothing any longer". He can only offer his own reality, his own head, "his own motives, prejudices and psychopathology", in order to "test them against the facts". This is my brain. Does yours work in the same way?

This shift is perhaps less fundamental than Ballard makes out -- authors have always written with motives and prejudices. But Ballard is committed to presenting his own firmly in front of the reader (the narrator of Crash shares his name), and he avoids any moral judgment whatsoever. This is my brain, he is saying, take it or leave it. Furthermore, while Austen or Dickens spend much of their time exploring "the most subtle nuances of social behaviour and personal relationships", Ballard does none of it. His characters do not know each other at all. They only know each other's fantasies. James and Catherine's relationship is based entirely on the thrill of their extra-marital affairs. Vaughan's life is a series of film star poses. Everyone plays a role for everyone else. That is the only way the characters in Crash engage with each other.

And that's not TOTALLY a bad thing. Ballard hints that a "harnessing of our innate perversity" and irrationality may conceivably be "of benefit to us". We'll get to understand our brains better. But the key word there is "harness". The car-maniacs in Crash have a sexuality fatally linked with mutilation and death. Their fantasies kill other people, and they cannot help but indulge in them. The motor car is a symbol for all the possibilities open to man in today's world. It is the nexus for all our inner desires now made easily available, and so becomes an erotic object in itself. But what happens when our inhibitions fall away, and our technologically enhanced sex-lives begin to kill people?

This is what Ballard is talking about when he describes Crash as "the first pornographic novel based on technology". Its "ultimate role" is "cautionary" -- be wary of the seductions, the dehumanizations, of the modern world, where everything is at our fingertips and there are no rules any longer.

Personally, this warning doesn't get me panicking all that much. Ballard portrays the modern world as a dystopia: technology necessarily makes us infantile hedonists, and thus dangerous. Being so easily sated, we will inevitably push further and begin eroticizing the worst kind of atrocities. Writing 40 years ago, Ballard basically predicted rule 34 of the internet, and told us to be afraid, be very afraid. But 40 years on, should we be all THAT afraid?

The flipside is that technology can make our fantasies easier to regulate. There may be endless stimulation on the internet, but there's also a lot of other things. Human beings, thankfully, are not just stimulation machines. They think and feel, they have an interest in the real world. Technology can foster those impulses as well as give us new and alluring fantasies to get lost in. We use tools in lots of different ways. We use cars, planes, the internet to find out things, to communicate, to be human. I don't think we need to fear that.

1.7.10

Whatever Works

Brain has short-circuited. Currently running on joy and My Bloody Valentine. Will be back when I've relearnt how to function like a human being. Whatever Works is miles away from being the best Woody Allen film, but it will forever be my favourite.