Friday 19 July 2013

Hip Hop is Undead

Sofia Coppola’s new film sees stupid, rich people “burglarizing,” rich, stupid people. In many ways it highlights the naivety of celebrities who rely on their voyeuristic relationship with the public. Leaving doors unlocked and keys under the mat, a group of teenagers sort of break and enter into various high profile actors’ houses without ever having to actually break in. And that’s the art of the film, nothing breaks in, no significance, no remorse, reality never breaks in, the victims and the criminals are all part of this extreme hyper-realized image. The film succeeds because it doesn’t build any tension, it is a short-circuiting of non-events – nothing happens that didn’t just happen – we just get to see a small spark light up in L.A..
In fact the film occupies that weird space where the kids who robbed the celebrities, themselves become minor celebrities, who of course then get played by other celebrities in the film. Celebrity culture and fame just seems to be so attractive to American culture, so accommodated in its worldview. It is no surprise that the belief, “in the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” came from an American artist. That fundamental delusion that fame would have any relation to equality is hilarious, perhaps in this light the kids were just calling time up on Paris Hilton, her sex tape lasted more than 15 minutes.
The male gang member tries to provide a critical stance towards the events, “America seems to have a sick fascination with a Bonny and Clyde kind of thing.” But no critical stance is really possible, because there is nothing to critique, it wouldn’t have any meaning if it was analysed or not. And this is where the music grabs my attention. It seemed as though when all the action was going down, the partying, the haze of communication, and the driving: we heard rap music. Yet when there were rare moments to pause we were treated to the underscoring of Oneohtrix Point Never. The rap music not only reinforced the image of the character’s stealing and dealing mentality but reinforced the idea that modern rap is devoid of any real message or space for reflection at all.
So it’s funny that the film has caused controversy. Given that the music the kids listen to glorify much worse things than what they actually do, it seems unfair that the film should take all the blame. Rachel Bilson, “thought it was weird to glorify something that was so upsetting for a lot of people,” and Mischa Barton was furious that she got mentioned for her DUI in the film. Why not get angry at the music? Mainstream Hip Hop has been saying far worse things, and glorified far worse things for a while now. Maybe music has just reached a stage further than film. In music we know it doesn’t mean anything or glorify anything but itself - a short-circuiting. It’s time film caught up.
The only person involved who seems closest to realizing the reality is in fact Paris Hilton. She offered her own house as a set for filming, allegedly crying during a screening at Cannes:
"During some parts of it, I literally had tears in my eyes and I wanted to cry. I knew what happened with the burglaries, but I had never actually seen it — so watching it happen, I was like, 'Oh my God, this really happened to me.
Paris understands that the real burglary happened in the film. Once she saw it, it became real. She even goes onto say that she wanted, “to, like, slap them.” Good idea. Grab a 2 Chainz CD, Google Emma Watson’s address and get in the car.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

3D Icebergs

Hot Sex on a Platter

The level of intolerance amongst film censors for anything vaguely sexual gives the impression that film is still a dangerous medium. The fact that music videos get away with the kind of sex charged scenes denied to films would imply that it is not as powerful anymore. The release of Titanic 3D and its censorship by Chinese authorities seems to support this.

The images thrown at the listener of a modern pop song are so quick and numerous that the lyrics fall by the wayside. But often it’s the words that reveal more. In Titanic as the two lead characters are trying to escape the ship, an old man is reciting Psalm 23, ‘even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,’ when the lead character bursts past him saying, ‘can you walk through the valley a little faster?’ In this one scene the key values of the film are revealed. This new world waits for no one. There is no time for religion or the old ways, we have to be free, and love, and make nude drawings before the whole thing falls apart. The funny thing about the Chinese censorship is that this Titanic attitude isn’t too far from the values of the Cultural Revolution…

To use a musical example, Rihanna’s song, Rude Boy, reveals much more in the lyrics than in the video. The video is just the usual three minutes of a female pop star asserting her freedom to grind up against whatever’s lying around. But all this distracts from the lyrics of the chorus, which actually paints a different picture:

Come here rude boy, boy
Can you get it up
Come here rude boy, boy
Is you big enough
Take it, take it
Baby, baby
Take it, take it
Love me, love me

The ‘love me, love me’ phrase at the end comes as a concession rather than a self-confident statement. What’s really wanted is left to the end. The taboo isn’t in the overtly sexual statements of getting it up and being big enough. The anathema is in wanting to be loved at the end of it all. Admitting something real behind all the imagery.

Who’s Afraid of Kate Winslet?

And that is where the censor’s fear lies: What is really going on? Apparently the Chinese aren’t afraid of the depiction of exposed breasts but that, ‘viewers may reach out their hands for a touch and thus interrupt other people's viewing.’[1] This is the kind of bland compromising that epitomises Western democracy, I thought better of the Chinese. Everything about this controversy seems to forget that the breasts aren’t really there. They are not real, and I can say this from personal experience. Perhaps groping the theatre air offended some of the women in the audience but I didn’t see them, and by this warped logic that means they weren’t really there.

One of the differences between the music video and the feature film is that where Kate Winslet’s breasts serve as an aspect of the plot, the music video plays with the nature of sexuality itself. Katy Perry spraying cream from her breasts in California Girls doesn’t serve any specific purpose to the song. It used to be that this play on sexuality was more dangerous than the simple depiction of it. Whilst a sex scene in a film will imply much about cultural norms and the like, the music video will openly reference them. Take the shock caused by Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ video depicting a black Jesus. Nothing too sexual is actually seen, but the implied imagery was too much for some audiences to handle.

Now it’s the real thing that is so dangerous. Having exhausted all the images and definitions of sexuality it is the simple image of a woman’s breasts that cause such controversy. Nothing in music right now feels that shocking (Odd Future deserve some amnesty). For the sake of mainstream popularity, rather than getting rid of the controversial lyrics, they’ve just been stripped of all meaning. They don’t shock, they don’t offend and no one tries to reach out at them in a cinema. Now it is not in the least surprising to see kids dancing to Lady Gaga’s Pokerface: “I won't tell you that I love you, Kiss or hug you, Cause I'm bluffin' with my muffin’”, or singing along to Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass: “when he gave me that look then the panties comin’ off.

We all make light of these lyrics, harmless fun no doubt. Maybe that’s why people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have been launched into stratospheric fame off the back of sex tapes. Everyone’s familiar with the video method and at the end everyone gets to applaud because two people actually screwed in front of your very own eyes. Something real happened and now you can buy their respective perfumes. ‘Find out what it smells like to be Star’ is Paris’ perfume tagline. The Kardashian fragrance ‘captures the many sides of Kim’s personality and glamorous style.’ Who would doubt them?

If there was something to be learnt from Titanic, surely it was that regardless of the endless hype and chatter about an unsinkable ship and its image of opulence, everyone failed to see the iceberg. The real iceberg made from thousands of litres of frozen water. The one thing it had to avoid. But nothing changes in that respect, as one Chinese victim of the Titanic censorship puts it.

"I've been waiting almost 15 years, and not for the 3D icebergs."[2]


Tuesday 21 February 2012

Don't Sweat The Critique

'If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers.'

Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

Music criticism is an unavoidable part of music culture. Aristotle noted the effect of the ancient melodies on listeners' emotions, Debussy wrote under the critical alias, Monsieur Croche, and The Source dished out five mics for rapping prowess. Yet criticism, both constructive and destructive, are frequently being overlooked. Too many album reviews either read too much into the music or just give some vague description on how the music made the reviewer feel. At some point the music has to be evaluated. Or maybe not... 

The artist, Kreayshawn, which as Wikipedia highlights is a play on the word "creation", had her song "Gucci Gucci" in Pitchfork's top songs of the year. Obviously the gimmicky hook is catchy enough to warrant the millions and millions of views she got on YouTube, but there was a mistake in letting her talk about the kreayshawn of the video - its a play on the word "creation."

"Everything that happened was just like, that's how it happened." 

This is the phrase that stands out, and it seems most people dont mind this unabated madness. There is a general disregard of criticism by a lot of  recent pop artists and their fans. As far as they're concerned criticism is just "hating". No one likes a hater, just let things happen no matter how bad you think they are. In the equally terrible pop song by Cher Lloyd, "Swagger Jagger", the chorus runs: 

"Swagger Jagger, Swagger Jagger 
You should get some of your own
Count the money, get your game up
You're a hater just let it go."

The thing is, hatred of these songs could be linked to the love of music. If you love music, if you love Hip Hop, or used to love H.E.R., you will be more protective of the values and messages certain songs of that genre send out. Mindlessly writing off critics as haters only reveals how mindless many of the songs are. Pretentious intellectualism isn't the answer, but neither is hash-tagging every nay sayer a hater. Rakim warned against skill getting in the way of the music, 

'It's cool when you freak to the beat,
but don't sweat the technique.'

But in this modern music is there any technique at all?

"Everything that happened was just like, that's how it happened."

Saturday 11 February 2012


Pop music requires the age-old notion of masking. People have assumed musical identities to sell shows throughout history. But masking isn’t just for the sake of the performer. The audience too need to know that what they project their loves, lusts, hatreds and fears upon isn’t too real. The mask signifies that the performance is indeed an act and not a documentary. Everyone involved in this interplay has to be aware of the mask, conscious of the fact that pop music is made for television, for radio, for the perpetual playing to the masses. Recently this has led to a problematic paradox. Increasingly music has just become ‘pop’ – popular characters basically offering the same types of music under different guises – and the music that grounded these masks in authenticity and reality have been put aside. The paradox is that whilst the greatest character masks still tap into a reality the music used to provide, it is never desirable to stray too far from pop world conventions.

People want to identify with real music but are uncomfortable when the performers become too real. So on the one hand no one wants real pop stars that live in the everyday world, but on the other hand we want to believe that what they sing about and perform is still relevant to us, the average listener. Of course the songs that speak best happen to be the ones that come from a real place and person. It is the dilemma the lead character from the cult classic film Videodrome faces. In a sci-fi world dominated by soft porn and TV violence, there’s something about Videodrome that separates it from the rest. The problem is that this something happens to be the fact that Videodrome is real. He realises the distinction that where many people will enjoy watching pornography, few want to watch snuff.

Nowhere is the mask more sacred than in America, where Disneyworld staff rooms are for ‘Cast Members Only’ and radio listeners mistake HG Wells for the news. Recently America has been churning out better pop stars because they can actually believe in the mask modern pop culture demands. Nowhere is this seen more than in the MTV VMA ceremonies. In 2009 Kanye West infamously wrecked Taylor Swift’s award speech. By 2010 this had become the material for Taylor Swift’s performance at the very same award ceremony the next year. What had been a real event in 2009 had become part of the character masks by 2010.  Taylor Swift becomes the mature model of forgiveness when faced with adversity:

While Kanye languishes in his boyish arrogance and the burden of his obvious genius, “lets have a toast for the assholes”:


And remarkably all was forgiven despite none of these events ever leaving the surreal world of the music award ceremony, something Taylor Swift even alludes to at the beginning of her performance. Pop will eat itself and enjoy it too. The success of the performances lay in their ability to offer some real feeling within the comforts of the MTV world, unthreatening, safe – unreal. The script couldn’t have been written any better.

However, for one person this system has gone horribly wrong. Her character is Lana Del Rey. A name formed from a Golden Age Hollywood actress and a Brazilian car. She released a video for her song "Videogames", which brought her to the pop arena quicker than perhaps any other internet meme, and people don’t know what to do with her. What they have done is drag her through a never-ending series of interrogations about her authenticity. What separates Lana Del Rey from the plethora of female artists is that rather than being too fake, she isn’t fake enough. The music she has become famous by is very good, "Videogames" has topped numerous songs of the year polls, but people are more interested in whether she used to be called Lizzy Grant and whether her dad is rich. It’s as if she created a character for genuine musical/aesthetic reasons that has now found its self embroiled in a world where music is irrelevant - pop.

When Katy Perry released “I Kissed A Girl”, she became a huge hit, but no one questioned the authenticity of her song. Maybe its because the nature of the song and her character are so dramatically overblown that it put everyone at ease that things weren’t getting threateningly real. Lana Del Rey produced a song that really hit the public consciousness, because the public are desperate for genuine songs, and people have become obsessed with the authenticity of the character. The charge against her is that Lana Del Rey isn’t real enough.  The truth is Lana Del Rey isn’t fake enough. Unlike successful pop artists she doesn’t believe in her own mask.  After the reaction of her Saturday Night Live performance she has cancelled her world tour[1]. She has even stated that there might not even be another album because she has said everything she needs to say[2]. These aren’t the actions of a pop star, though of course all this could still yet prove to be a publicity masterstroke.

Right now the success of Pop comes from knowingly teasing the audience into a character relationship. We put our unreal expectations on them and they live up to it. It takes on the role of voyeurism. Everyone feels plugged into the music, but really we are all just looking through keyholes as pop seduces us. Our experience becomes as deep as the eyes that can sense it, and it stops anyone seeing the bigger picture. There is a huge value on the authentic feeling because it is so fleeting in our age. Perhaps this is why popular music gets away with the most incredible superficiality. Perhaps this is why Lana Del Rey has been hounded so relentlessly. In any case what Lana Del Rey has shown is that the pop world isn’t like a videogame, it’s more like videodrome.   


Saturday 10 December 2011

Night of the Gifts - Oneohtrix Point Never at St Giles-in-the-Fields

November 24th, 2011
Oneohtrix Point Never
Babe Rainbow

Thursday evening - St Giles in the Fields replaces its altar with an electronic array of keyboards and controllers. The pews hold the hunched over faithful. Out of the sound system, twisted electronic music fills the chamber. At a superficial hearing many people seem to think that Oneohtrix Point Never is just another name drop in the ocean of nostalgic pop and chill wave that dominates the short-term memory of hipster IPods. What I saw at the beginning were a more geeky crowd getting up to take pictures of the various audio devices that were ready to power up on stage. Having arrived early I was able to enjoy the atmosphere and the brilliantly eclectic playlist that served the interludes, artists ranging from Screwball to Japan.

Babe Rainbow took to the stage with a call for no applause, which he got anyway – classic audience. I find with these kinds of laptop gigs the stage acts like a window into the artist’s bedroom. You get to watch the process of creation in the performance, even if that amounts to mainly clicking a mouse and staring at a screen. There were some really beautiful moments to the set, with songs I have failed to track down since, which in itself sums up the general vibe of his music - half remembered sounds slipping through your fingers in failed Google searches. It was the perfect warm-up for the night, with a set that eased into the ambient sound world most people were no doubt expecting. Twenty minutes of noise later…

After five minutes of industrial, grinding samples attacking your ears, you begin to realise that this is it. No chords, no progressions, you are listening to this and you don’t know how long its going to last. Upon this realisation the Spanish group next to me became increasingly agitated, to the point of fury. You’re not in Sonar anymore Dorothea. Helm’s set really forced the audience into submission, and it was a masterstroke. At first I had some sympathy for my disgruntled neighbours; it grated against the previous set, and seemed to start off so slow. But then he began playing with the sounds some more and it became something else completely. I guess it’s like stepping away from a pointillist painting after trying to dissect every single detail, and perhaps feeling like every single point of the brush had been poked into your eyes. Whether or not you choose to connect the works of people like Oneohtrix and James Ferraro under a Hypnagogic Pop label (courtesy of the Wire) their music still builds on the principles of noise. The sounds are still ones of outmoded mediums and forgotten technology. If Helm’s application of this was brutal, it was still as emotionally charged as the ambient works. By the end of the set I felt as if I would break down at the touch of a pinprick.

Lopatin’s music has always stuck with me for some reason, both as a solo artist in Oneohtrix Point Never and in his shared project, Games. I first heard “Physical Memories” on his MySpace page and played it on loop while replaying GTA Vice City. I felt that the two went together perfectly, as no matter how pretentious the genre can become, Oneohtrix Point Never’s music always stays real, retaining the grittiness of a used universe. For me this amounted to listening to backwashed 80s synth sounds while wasting pixellated goons under the neon skies of an outdated videogame. The concert showcased music from his latest album, Replica. Once again laptop positions were assumed, this time with accompanying video projection involving kitsch, prehistoric internet icons and cold digital artifacts, with some cartoons spliced in at some points. It made a slightly disjointed impression, that didn’t always work, but was effective in mirroring the explorations of the brave new world being amplified out of Lopatin’s machines. The church added a murky reverb to all the sounds, the beautiful piano chords on “Replica” particularly resonating with the venue. The album itself follows the same format as Returnal (2010), a more focused development on Rifts (2009), if not as comprehensive. There’s a great track commentary, highlighting the minimal approach to the album's haunting textures here:

Another stand out track for me was “Andro”, though I cant remember whether he actually played it in the concert, or if my memory has confused listening to the track beforehand with the event itself. If you don’t read the rest of the review I guess its all summed up in that last sentence. I went home and before falling asleep read Borges’, The Night of the Gifts:

‘I’ve told this story so many times I no longer know whether I remember it as it was or whether it’s only my words I’m remembering.’

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Replica review:

P.S. London audiences: when the performer is playing you don’t talk.