Thursday, February 16, 2023

Baroque 'N' Roll

 I did not imagine that I was the first person to come up with "baroque 'n' roll" -   - the title of the chapter in S+A about Queen, Sparks, Cockney Rebel etc - indeed it seems like the kind of slightly unwieldly punnage that would be hatched within the UK rock press at some point prior, possibly by a headline writer.

Still, surprised to see that Brigid Brophy came up with it independently and quite early with the title of this 1987 collection of her essays. 

Apparently she was obsessed with the baroque aesthetic, it informed her own writing:

In Baroque-‘n’-Roll and Other Essays, Brigid Brophy observes features comparable to her practice of parody in the baroque genre: “Baroque is an open, sometimes an explosive embrace of contradictions, intellectual and of feeling. Ambiguity and puns are its raw material merely. Its essence is the ambivalence, in full deep psychoanalytic import, of emotions. It is a pair of giant curly brackets that clip together things irreconcilable” . Ambivalence and ambiguity... are... defined as the main components of the baroque aesthetics by Brophy....  

"Experimenting with classical material, playing with various styles and art forms jarringly superimposed, and testing the limits of reproducing a norm that degenerates in the text, in order to fashion a literary and linguistic baroque monster. Such a writing process, which quite literally places planting bombs within classical structures at the core of artistic creation and deprives its readers of the comfort of traditional storytelling, may lead to aporia. However, it also encourages readers to adopt new reading strategies, embracing instability, openness and inventiveness...

"In Brophy’s description of baroque paintings, “[t]he elements of the composition are convulsed as though by an explosion, the designer no longer seeks to balance one against another in a simulacrum of heavenly or geometric harmony; instead, he arrests and transfixes the explosion at the very point of disintegration”. The entropic motifs of explosion and disintegration that Brophy defines as key visual elements of the baroque aesthetics emblematize the parodic process at the core of the novel. In In Transit, the classical material of literature is overstated and complicated through various strategies of exaggeration, refiguration and metafiction in order to better display the conventions on which it relies"

Justine Gonneaud

Some correspondences here perhaps to Queen and especially Sparks's most outré excesses. 

Sunday, February 12, 2023

"dance music is not showbiz"

A bit from an interview with a Uruguay magazine about Energy Flash coming out in a Spanish translation and at the end was I asked about my work-in-progress Shock and Awe:  

Is there any link between glam rock and electronic music?

 Not really, although the great German techno producer Wolfgang Voigt is a huge fan of T. Rex. And there was a fad in electronic dance music the mid-2000s for schaffel, which is a rhythm that is related to the boogie feel of T. Rex and things like “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum. That sort of shuffling, bluesy groove. A lot of mostly German producers were putting out tracks with that feel.

I think the connection between glam and rave is simply this idea of kids going crazy and dancing. A lot of glam was all about rhythm – the desire for a stomping beat after a period in which rock had got very laidback and album-oriented and pensive.  The kids want to boogie. Slade, talking about their rise to popularity, say that everyone was bored with album-rock that you had to sit around listening to.  They say, “the kids just want to rave’ – i.e. have a band like Slade that was high-energy stomping music.

So as much as it was about costumes and make-up and camp, there was also a primal aspect to glam that harked back to rock’n’roll but also looked forward to  rave. It’s a continuum of music to go crazy to.

The DJ is a god?

 Not for me, strangely. I never got into the veneration of deejays. Some of the best deejays I’ve danced to are relatively unknown.  When I think of the best, most incredible dance nights I’ve had, often I don’t remember, or never knew, who the DJ was. It was the resident DJ at some club.

I have seen some amazingly skilled DJs who really add something through their techniques, but generally speaking, deejaying is  about playing good records in a sequence that works, that has highs and lows.  And at the end of the day, the DJ would be nothing without the producers of the music. Who sometimes are DJs, but not always. So if anything, I would say the producer is the god. 

But more than that, the crowd is the star.  I don’t like the thing of everyone dancing but staring in one direction at the stage. I prefer clubs where the DJ is to one side, tucked out of sight, in a little booth. There’s nothing to look at with DJs. It is much better to look at the other dancers, make eye  contact with strangers, or look at the gang of friends you came with. Or just close your eyes and get lost in music. Dance music is not showbiz.

[of course what I am forgetting here, historically, is disco, where there very much is an overlap between glam and dance music, at least in terms of fabulousness and dressing up. Also an overlap between showbiz / show tunes and disco.  Also EDM at that very moment was becoming all about spectacle and hi-tech display, even costumes with Deadmaus etc. Still in terms of my preferences it's a valid statement]

Saturday, January 14, 2023

"Send in the clowns" / "performance politicians" - antitheatricality + politics - the Comeback!

A not-wholly unexpected resurgence of anti-theatrical tropesm with special emphasis on the circus, has erupted within political commentary, triggered by last week's GOP clown show of the House Speaker selection process in Congress, which occasioned much talk of how the new breed of MAGA congresspersons are "performance artists" as opposed to people interested in legislation or policy, and whose only concern is to appear on right-wing TV. 

For instance here is a bit from The Atlantic's newsletter:

The Ringmaster

Now controlled by its most unhinged members, the Republican Party has returned to power in the People’s House. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the ringmaster of this circus, is happily paying off his debts by engaging in petty payback, conjuring up inane committees, threatening to crash the U.S. economy, and protecting a walking monument to fraud named George Santos, who may or may not actually be named “George Santos.”

In the enduring words of Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends….

Kevin McCarthy will be fine with all of it, as long as he gets to wear the top hat and red tails while indulging in the fantasy that he is in control of the clowns and wild animals, and not the other way around.

Or this column from the Washington Post by Dana Milbank which invokes the  "bread and circuses" idea

Speaker McCarthy needs to stop ‘bread and circuses’ in Congress and start governing for a change,” [Republican Victoria] Spartz said in a statement objecting to the “charade” of kicking members off their committees.

It was an apt invocation of the Roman writer Juvenal’s lament 2,000 years ago that the people had abdicated their duties as citizens of the Republic in favor of “bread and circuses” provided by their imperial rulers.

... In truth, the new majority doesn’t have much bread to dole out (aside from the free doughnuts and Chick-fil-A that Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) offered reporters this week in lieu of answers about his fabricated life story). But it has more clown acts than could fill the Circus Maximus.... 

[spare you the details on the nonsense and chaos, stuff about Republican congresstwats shoehorning 
Taylor Swift and Marvin Gaye lyrics into speeches etc etc] 

"With so many committees overloaded with loons, it’s but a matter of time until things blow up. In an embrace of mayhem, the National Republican Campaign Committee adopted as its new slogan “bring the tiger,” Politico’s Olivia Beavers reports. That’s a reference to a mock lip-reading video of McCarthy’s famous fight on the House floor this month with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) in which McCarthy says “I brought the tiger.”

Yep. He brought the tiger, and now he must ride it. This is life in the circus."

A neat concept - or turn of phrase at least - in this Jennifer Rubin column about the fizzling out of the GOP's promised investigations a.k.a. show trials (itself an anti-theatrical term)

"The GOP’s conspiracy theories and unhinged accusations work best when Republicans are in the minority, when they can throw out half-baked accusations and make leaps of logic with little consequence. 
When they are in the majority, however, they must show their cards about supposed Democratic scandals. And that is already proving to be a problem for right-wing performance politicians for four reasons."

One question is when this "theatrical turn" started its rot within the GOP in particular and politics in general. 

Charles M. Blow, in the New York Times, traces it back to Sarah Palin

"Palin exposed a dangerous reality about the Republican base: that it was starving for disruption and spectacle, that it would cheer for anyone who annoyed liberals, that performance was far more important than competence.

Later Republicans "learned a lesson born during the Palin years: Spectacle produced fame, which produced power, which produced influence and possibly control...."

The person who exploited the new situation to the utmost was the person who already thought like Palin, who understood the power of image and projection instinctively: Trump. 

Then came the mini-Trumps. 

"During the Trump era, the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the party became rock stars among the base, even if they were jokes among their colleagues."

Talking of politicians as rock stars... 

In a bit of a reach, National Review's Jim Geraghty pens an op-ed for Washington Post, blaming it all on MTV's Rock the Vote campaign and its promotion of the notion that politicians needed to be "cool" and entertaining. 

"Everyone has a theory about why American politics today is so awful.

"I blame MTV.

"More specifically, I blame the music channel’s “Rock the Vote” campaign in the early 1990s. That’s the moment when the tastemakers of popular culture decided the widespread perception that politics isn’t cool was a problem to be solved. Politics had to be made cool. And therefore not boring.

"Call today’s politics whatever you like, but it isn’t boring. I can hear the defenses of “Rock the Vote”: That’s unfair! Politics and entertainment have long overlapped — even Richard M. Nixon was on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in 1968 saying “Sock it to me?”

"But there’s a difference between politicians trying to be entertaining and politicians seeing their role as primarily being an entertainer."

"... It wasn’t hard to discern MTV’s preference among the presidential options of the 68-year-old World War II vet incumbent, the nutty billionaire Texan with the charts, and the cool guy in dark sunglasses who played the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show.

"A few years later, John F. Kennedy Jr. came along with George magazine, “a lifestyle magazine with politics at its core,” giving political figures (Gerald Ford, Madeleine Albright, Pat Schroeder) the Hollywood treatment — when it wasn’t doing the same for actual celebrities (Kate Moss, George Clooney, Madonna — her again). Almost every page and profile and article screamed at readers: Hey, Americans! We know you think politics is boring, but look how cool and fashionable and fascinating these people are!

"With celebrities dressed up on the cover as Betsy Ross (Barbra Streisand) or Abraham Lincoln (Harrison Ford), and the inside relatively devoid of discussions of government policy, George offered a version of politics for Americans who weren’t that interested in politics. Lots of sweet frosting, almost no cake."

Despite closing in 2001, "from today’s perspective, George was just ahead of its time."

He says people expect instant gratification and total satisfaction from their political-consumer choices in the way that they do from their entertainment-consumer choices. 

"Legislation isn’t like that. You’re going to have to compromise and get a bunch of stuff you don’t want. This hard fact of life is very much at odds with our on-demand consumer culture. Your music playlist, online reading list and video streaming options can be completely customized to your tastes, shaped by an algorithm. Legislation passed for the entire country or an entire state can’t."

And to keep people engaged, everything has to be dramatic, in both the eye-catching, shape-throwing (or shit-throwing) sense and the "all is doomed / all is saved" hype senses. 

"Maintaining people’s interest in politics week after week, month after month, requires convincing them that the stakes are always huge, inescapable and irreversible: This is the most important election of our lifetime! If we get this one wrong, there’s no coming back!

"The circus of politics means there’s never a shortage of doom-scrolling material on your phone. There’s always some new outrageous comment, some idiot state legislator you’ve never heard of proposing something ridiculous and blatantly unconstitutional. Every day, you can find some evidence to convince yourself that the inmates are now running the asylum, and that you, commonsense-blessed citizen, are an endangered minority."

Biden tried to go back to normal - a President who doesn't need to be in the people's faces all the time. (Only to get complaints that he was keeping too low a profile, wasn't communicating enough with the electorate). 

"The implicit promise of Joe Biden’s presidential run was that he’d work to make politics boring again, as he had for half a century. Didn’t happen. But that was the right idea."

"... This isn’t a call for not voting, for not paying attention during times of crises such as the Great Recession or the pandemic — or for yawning and shrugging off bad behavior by elected leaders or candidates for public office. This is just a plea — for politicians and the electorate — to stop regarding the federal government and 50 state governments as a stage for a giant, inescapable, never-ending reality show."

Forgotten what inspired this Molly Jong-Fast tweet, but it seems indicative: 

I saw the best (ish) minds of my generation destroyed by main character syndrome, starving hysterical naked, whatever ….

The concept of "main character syndrome" or "main character energy" - and related theatrical-ish tropes ("hero ingredient" as heard on the British Bake-off show)  seem related to this creeping cos-play superhero / videogame-atizing thing that seems to be at work with a lot of contemporary stuff (conspiracy theory that puts you in the role of code-breaker, investigator, researcher....   the yearning to be a figure of destiny, a savior, a rebel against the Dark Forces). C.f. Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death and the lure of "hero projects" as a refusal to come to terms with one's insignificance.  

Rounding things up, an opinion piece at WaPo by David Von Drehle that argues that the Biden-secret-papers-in-the-garage embarrassment-induced collapse of the Classified Papers at Mar-A-Lago potential indictment of Trump would actually be a good thing, depriving the attention-craving ex-Prez of the media prominence he needs to recharge his dwindled reelection prospects by amping up his presence on the national stage. 

"But it can’t be noted often enough: Only one person has occupied both the Oval Office and the world wrestling hall of fame. He got there by turning conflict into celebrity and celebrity into votes. Rather than reboot the old show as a courtroom drama, we must call off the conflict that feeds the beast."

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Vivienne Westwood as anti-fashionista

I was going write something about Vivienne Westwood (RIP) but then realized I already had -  twice last year, in effect. First through the long LRB piece on Viv's partner-in-culture-crime Malcolm McLaren. And then again with a S+A blogpost about Jordan - Viv's first model - which is reproduced here, with some small tweaks. (Possibly three times, indirectly, if you count this piece on Pistol)


Jordan - the most iconic shop girl ever; the original Sex Pistol incarnating the attitude before the band even existed - died last week. 

Before she was a punk - the first face of punk - she was a glam fan. There's a story about her turning up to a Bowie concert wearing amazing self-made earrings and Bowie leaning down off the stage and asking if he could have them - and she said "no!"

The glam connection spotlights the essence of punk - or let's say, a particular strand of punk (to me maybe the truest punk and certainly the most confounding nowadays to think about as a grown-up.    And that is a spirit of empty provocation. 

"Her face was the front of shop" -  shops plural, although all in the same premises: Let It Rock,Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die, Sex, Seditionaries. And what the face was selling was the idea of being looked at, but in a peculiar anti-attraction way. Call it atrocity-exhibitionism. Arrest the gaze and assault it. Kick the passer-by in the eye.

The look - hair, make-up, clothes, expression - mimes out a ruthlessness, that's brandished like a warning (I did this to myself; this is what I'm capable of; beware!).  It's analogous to, yet also the inverse of, actual terrorism (where the goal is to blend in with the populace - "we dress like students, we dress like housewives / or in a suit and a tie", Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime"). Political terrorism and cultural terrorism share a common goal: strike fear. But with punk (this kind of punk) it's all means, no end.  The means is the end: shockwaves rippling across the faces and minds of the normals.

Why so appealing, to be so appalling? 

For sure, it takes fearlessness. More bravery than I would ever have been capable of mustering. And to be the first, and all alone, and female, running the gauntlet of the street  - yes, that is fucking fearless.

Yet it is a peculiar sort of fearlessness. Not the courage of someone involved in the French Resistance, or Greek Resistance. Nor the bravery shown by an eco-warrior in a speed-boat squaring off with a whaling ship or oil tanker, tying themselves up a tree, lying in front of bulldozers.... 

Fearlessness combined with pointlessness.  

More so than even the Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (where there's some kind of smash-the-Spectacle politique), the filmic expression of this particular fashionista-as-terrorista idea of punk is Jubilee. Not smashing the spectacle but making a spectacle of yourself. Beauty as cruelty, cruelty as beauty. 

Jordan is the star of the show. And here, as Amyl Nitrate, she reads a paean to child-murderer Myra Hindley. 

She starts by talking about how her school motto was Faites votre désir réalité  - make your desires reality, and adds “I myself prefer the saying ‘don’t dream it, be it’ " i.e. the glam maxim first heard a few years earlier in The Rocky Horror Show.

In those days desires weren’t allowed to become reality, so fantasy was substituted for them – films, books, pictures – they called it Art – but when your desires become reality, you don’t need fantasy any longer – or Art. I always remember the school motto – as a child my heroine was Myra Hindley – do you remember her? Myra’s crimes, they said, were beyond belief – that was because no one had any imagination – they really didn’t know how to make their desires reality – they were not artists like Myra – one can smile now at the naivete.

"When, on my 15th birthday, Law and Order were finally abolished, all those statistics that were a substitute for reality disappeared. The crime rate dropped to zero… I started to dance. I wanted to defy gravity.” 

(That last phrase became the title of her autobiography, Defying Gravity)

Jordan's other big Jubilee scene is as a ballerina Britannia. (She'd trained as a ballet dancer as a child until an injury put paid to it).


The odd thing is that the memorials and tributes invariably mention what a sweetheart she was - kind and nice and lovely. 

So it's a false front - an image (Myra Hindley crossed with Margaret Thatcher with a bit of Ruth Ellis) that's the opposite of how you are inside.

There is a fascinatingly detailed Jordan interview transcript that Jon Savage has made available at punkgirldiairies - originally done for England's Dreaming

Jordan starts by denying that the way she dressed was designed to offend. 

"I liked to treat myself like a painting. I didn’t consider that people would be offended or outraged by it. It really never crossed my mind". 

That's a fairly typical punkoid posture of that era - a  profession of innocence combined with a feigned plea for tolerance ("we just want to dress like this,  why are people so closeminded"). See also this bit, which cues off tales of her commuting from Brighton to London wearing see-through chemises that showed her breasts, psychotic spiky hair, virulent make-up (a scene of this creating consternation among British Rail passengers - mums shielding the eyes of their kids, Jordan having to be moved to a First Class compartment by the conductor - is recreated in the new Sex Pistols TV drama by Danny Boyle)

"Some of the men got rather hot under the collar, paper on the lap.... There was absolutely nowhere you could go where people wouldn’t say something. It was just too blatant for them. People up on scaffolding would shout, there’d be tourists running, trying to get photos. This is long before it all burst, taking pictures of punks and what have you." 

[Note how these reactions are presented as if an unexpected byproduct of her dressing that way, hassle that she'd really rather not have gone through - rather than exactly the response actively sought and achieved with enormous effort]

As the conversation goes on, the front of "just wanted to dress this way" drops - it becomes  clear that symbols are being wielded in awareness of their likely effect, the goal is to goad

"People were very offended if you wore a Cambridge Rapist T-shirt; I got a lot of trouble on the buses at that time. They didn’t like people wearing them." 

[Bear in mind that "at that time" = when the Cambridge Rapist had very recently been an at-large rapist depredating on women. He wore a leather mask bearing the words 'Rapist' on it, so victims would have no doubt what was about to happen to them. Sometimes, if he couldn't break in to a house or flat, he would write 'the Rapist was here' on the window', just to sow fear and so his evening wasn't a total bust. Turning the Cambridge rapist into a "pop star" - McLaren & Westwood's provocation and act of "cultural terrorism: here - relies on exploiting the actual state of terror that women lived under]

Jordan on appearing on the TV show So It Goes 

"They got my back up because they wouldn’t let me wear this swastika armband, right, there was the biggest do about it. They eventually put a piece of sticky tape over it." 

On her later-phase twinset-and-pearls Thatcher look

"People found it very perplexing. The look was very rigid, the hair was always very tightly controlled." 

The opposite of a come-hither look.

"People were terrified of coming in [to the shop]. I’d heard reports from people who later became friends, that people wouldn’t go in because of me, that I wouldn’t say anything to them, I’d be horrible.... It was just my attitude. I thought I looked better than anyone else. I was very introverted, I know people thought I was an exhibitionist, but I was pretty stand-offish. Even today I don’t take pictures smiling, because I think I look better when I don’t smile. I felt powerful, and I think I looked powerful, I know I looked very intimidating. People were very worried, even the guy who eventually became my husband [Kevin Mooney of Adam and the Ants] was very worried about coming in to see me. Adam was the same. By that time I’d built this reputation for myself."

On Johnny Rotten's asexuality and her own ability to repel approaches: 

"He didn’t see himself as attractive in any way, I suppose, if you were to ask him. He didn’t want the trappings of a normal person. He was John Rotten, and much the same as myself, I didn’t go out with anyone either, the image was everything, in a way.

"People were scared out of their wits of me. Absolutely.

"I never got anyone saying they’d like to take me out.... I exuded that leave me alone-ness."


The thing about the dialectic of outrage is that there's a constant pressure to up the anti, as it were - you have to go from sticking a safety pin through the Queen's nose and comparing the Royal Family to a fascist regime, to recruiting an actual fascist on the run into the Sex Pistols ("Martin Bormann", symbolically not literally, but this is all symbol play). 

That then leaves you nowhere to go - you either have to escalate ("kill someone / kill yourself" as "Belsen Was A Gas" puts the options) or climb down, de-escalate, relapse into normal life, reveal that hidden niceness.

Although Too Young To Die/Sex/Seditionaries is considered a convulsion within the post-Sixties fashion-etc culture, a drastic break (symbolized by the "What Side of the Bed" T-shirt - with recent heroes consigned to the condemned side of the garment), really there's a fair amount of continuity. Not just with the shock aesthetics of glam (the swastika and iron cross play of the Sweet, Lou Reed and others; Alice Cooper's ghoulish make-up; Rocky Horror, with some of the cast reappearing in Jubilee of course). But actually there's a continuity with the counterculture and underground press. Think of OZ and the infamous Rupert the Bear comic strip that led to the magazine being prosecuted: there's the desecration of a children's favorite in pretty much the same way as Who Killed Bambi and the photograph of an actual dead baby deer with an arrow in its bloody throat (except that being Sixties cats OZ use Eros in all its hairy and tumescent graphic-ness, rather than Thanatos). 

You can see the anti being upped across the '70s in the escalation from defiling beloved images from children's literature (a priapic and monstrously endowed Rupert) to "celebrating" actual torturers of children (Myra Hindley, Ian Brady - both namechecked in "No One Is Innocent", the Pistols tune featuring Ronnie Biggs and "Martin Bormann". And then the brief infamous existence of a band called The Moors Murderers, featuring another exhibitionist later known for geometric make-up, Steve Strange).  


With OZ / Rupert the Bear and "Who Killed Bambi" alike, innocence - the sanctuary of childhood itself, not just its sentimentalization by grown-ups - is the target. And the assault comes from the adolescent, the ex-child who's discovered the power of cynicism

(Also assaulted: the innocence of domestic pets and wild animals: Vicious's "to think / I killed a cat", members of Clash shooting pigeons for a laugh, and the actual living creature killed for a scene in movie, Russ Meyer's aborted Who Killed Bambi). 

Another '60s pre-echo:Jeff Nuttall's 1968 book on the UK Underground,  Bomb Culture, has this passage on the Moors Murderers that rehearses the Jubilee / Jordan monologue about Myra as Artist: 

"Romantics, Symbolists, Dada, Surrealists, Existentialists, Action painters, beat poets and the Royal Shakespeare Company had all applauded de Sade from some aspect or other. To Ian Brady de Sade was a licence to kill children. We had all, at some time, cried "Yes yes" to Blake's 'sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse an unacted desire'. Brady did it."

Vicious lives this idea out... and the echoes continue through postpostpunk with Big Black and Rapeman, zines like Murder Can Be Fun and Answer Me! (a series of issues dedicated respectively to murder, suicide, and rape), the Slacker scene in which the aging radical academic exalts the "Texas sniper" Charles Whitman who gunned down strangers from the top of a tower...  

To this way of thinking, the serial killers, assassins, etc, aren't just Artists; they're superior to artists, more committed.  They don't act out ruthlessness, they take ruthless action. They dissolve the barrier between art and life, take their desires for reality. 


And to close a little bit from the LRB piece: 

"When he flew to Manhattan to bail out Vicious and hire the best defense lawyer in town, McLaren’s next plan was to record a Sid solo album packed with showbiz standards , including the Brecht-Weill song about ruthless killer “Mack the Knife” (which features lines like “On a Sunday, Sunday morning / Lies a body, oozin' life.”)  Alive, Spungen had been seen as a manipulative junkie leading Sid astray; dead, she was just a bump in the road to Vicious’s superstardom. In the New Yorker recollection, McLaren notes with admiration his partner Westwood’s lack of sentimentality: “Vivienne didn’t spare a thought over the death of Nancy. We designed a new T-shirt for Sid: “She’s Dead—I’m Alive—I’m Yours.” 

 "Popular culture is a contradiction in terms. If it's popular, it's not culture."  

Vivienne Westwood

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Anti-theatricality + politics - Grand Finale!

The revelation that Trump is an obsessive fan of Sunset Boulevard almost buggers belief.

 From Olivia Nuzzi's New York magazine glimpse into the Final Campaign 

"He had wanted to be in the movie business. It’s important to never forget this about him. He watches Sunset Boulevard, “one of the greatest of all time,” again and again and again. A silent-picture star sidelined by the talkies, driven to madness, in denial over her faded celebrity. When he was a businessman, he showed it to guests aboard his 727. When he was president, he held screenings of it for White House staff at Camp David.

"He once showed it to his press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who later described how “the president, who could never sit still for anything without talking on the phone, sending a tweet, or flipping through TV channels, sat enthralled.” And he once showed it to Tim O’Brien, the biographer, who wrote that when Norma Desmond cried, “Those idiot producers. Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again, so help me!,” Trump leaned over O’Brien’s shoulder and whispered, “Is this an incredible scene or what? Just incredible.”

The first thing that stirs incredulity is that it is evidence of taste, a capacity to be engaged by art.

Then there's the apparent fact that he identifies with the diva . Who lives in delusion, a bubble maintained by a flunky who secretly fabricates fake fan mail and gives it to her, so she'll believe she's still adored and not forgotten (as is actually the case). Identifies with the deranged diva without realising that she's the bad guy in the story,  or at best, an object of apalled pity. 

It's all just a bit too on the nose to be believable. 

Nuzzi returns to the Billy Wilder movie for a closing twist of the knife: 

"Do you remember how Sunset Boulevard ends? Norma Desmond shoots and kills the writer, a fraudster who has fallen under the spell of her charisma, just as he summons the courage to walk away. Her sycophantic butler flips. There are no enablers left to protect her. A final fantasy, a fake movie set, is staged in the mansion’s entryway. The lights go on, and she is lured before the cameras, where the police are waiting to haul her away."


Although it would make for a climactic ending - it's unlikely ever to be topped - this probably won't in fact be the last ever anti-theatricality round-up. Tropes based around the stage and showbiz are sure to continue cropping up in political reporting and commentary. 

Still this is possibly a good pause point to unpack what my angle is....

It's double-pronged, the prongs pointing in different directions, or even towards each other, in a self-cancelling thrust

On one hand, like any sane and pragmatic "let's get stuff done" person who votes Democrat and would vote for Labour if still able to remotely,  I'm aghast at the extent to which political theatre has displaced governance and policy for one entire half of the political spectrum. I anticipate being nauseated by the string of stunts and photo ops that the new House of Representative majority will be staging for the next two years, rather than fixing problems and making people's lives marginally better.  Same for the vindictive theatrics unfurled by various Republican governors simply to play to their sado-populist base via the TV. 

On the other hand, it's not that I imagine that there is or ever could be a form of politics purified of the theatrical or the image-based, that could decontaminate itself from the realm of appearances and spectacle and soberly base itself around truth, expertise, facts and policy. 

Democrats are beguiled by their own favored brand of wish-fulfilment entertainment, it's just that it's the Sorkin sort, or harking back further still,  the civics fantasy fare of Jimmy Stewart / Frank Capra / Mr Smith Goes To Washington, also all those films about newspapers investigating and exposing corruption etc. Not as bombastic and pageantry-oriented as the right wing's ever more openly fascistic theatrics, for sure. Tad more tasteful and restrained -  but still corny, still peddling heartwarming happy endings. The Jan.6 committee hearings, for instance, were nothing if not great TV -  a brilliant sustained feat of narrative structuring and story telling. 


After the mid-term elections were settled, my intention was to tune out Trump-related news coverage (and as much of the antics and theatrics of the Republicans in the House as I could manage)  on the grounds that

 A/ it takes up too much of my mental bandwidth 

B/ staying  "informed" about this stuff serves no purpose ( other than sickening me and pumping me full of anxiety), given that there's nothing I can do about it...  

I have to assume the Democrats have got contingency plans and the hard-ball will to manage and sidestep as much of the barrage of nonstop evil nonsense as is possible...  what happens to Trump  depends on internal Republican Party maneuvring, on the seething id-driven impulses of their voting base, and on the activities of various attorney generals and prosecutors.... 

No, there's absolutely zero point in me "keeping up" with things; the next time I'll be of any use is as a presidential election volunteer in the summer of 2024, when the identity of the enemy will be known.  So why not have a break for now, pay attention to the many other interesting and important things in the world? 

Certainly I do not need to read yet another in-depth psychological portrait of the dictator-diva fantasist.  His internal mechanisms and churnings are thoroughly known. It's still my New Year's Resolution to cut down the intake drastically and free up the bandwidth for otherstuff.

But I couldn't help myself, had to read the Nuzzi piece. Regrettably it remains a compelling if interminable saga, and in these (hopefully penultimate) narrative throes there is a grotesque drama of decline and decay, every bit as mesmerizing as Gloria Swanson descending the staircase in Sunset Boulevard.   

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Sparks and American Rock Critics - a Hate Story


One star review and skin-crawly loathing from an early '90s edition of Rolling Stone Albums Guide - not sure who M.C. is (Mark Coleman?)

But wait, there's more!

Propaganda [Island, 1975]

Admirers of these self-made twerps certainly don't refer to them as pop because they get on the AM--for once the programmers are doing their job. So is it because they sing in a high register? Or because a good beat makes them even more uncomfortable than other accoutrements of a well-lived life?; "Never turn your back on mother earth," they chant or gibber in a style unnatural enough to end your current relationship or kill your cacti, and I must be a natural man after all, because I can't endure the contradiction. C-

Introducing Sparks [Columbia, 1977]

On its five albums for Bearsville and Island, this skillful brother act compounded personal hatefulness with a deliberately tense and uninviting take on pop-rock. But with their Columbia debut, Big Beat, they began to loosen up, and here one cut actually makes surf music history, in the tending-to-hyperconsciousness section. This is tuneful, funny, even open. But the fear of women and the stubborn, spoiled-teenager cynicism is still there, and it's still hateful. B

No. 1 in Heaven [Elektra, 1979]

Anglophilia's favorite androids were destined from day of manufacture to meet up with some rock technocrat or other, so thank Ford it was Giorgio Moroder, the most playful of the breed. They even got a minor dance hit out of it--"Beat the Clock," a good one--but that's not the point. The point is channeling all their evil genius--well, evil talent, then--into magic tricks. Like the ultimate voice-box song. Or the title tune, which sounds like "Baba O'Riley" and then breaks down into Eno (or is that Gentle Giant?). Fun fun fun. B+

That's from Dean Christgau's running compendium of judgments on anything and everything. 

But this relatively recent snit takes the biscuit - item in a Greil Marcus Real Life Rock Top Ten from only last year

Since 1972, Sparks, a.k.a. the vaguely incestuous brother act of Ron and Russell Mael, have followed the path of effete cabaret. They are the epitome of the cult band: anything resembling a hit, anything suggesting that everyone knows who they are, would erase their whole reason for being. It’s worked: while most of the world has ignored them, all kinds of people adore them, including Leos Carax, who more than two decades ago made the completely uncategorizable Pola X, perhaps the least likely literary adaptation in the history of cinema — it’s based on Melville’s nearly impenetrable Pierre; or, the Ambiguities — a movie I’ve always found impossible to remember in any detail and impossible to forget for its drive toward self-destruction. The result is a very long picture starring Adam Driver as an L.A. stand-up comedian who is above laughter — all of his routines seem to be based on King Lear — and Marion Cotillard as an opera singer with a two-octave range, and not a moment of believable human feeling in its 140 minutes. And the Maels have nothing to fear from Hollywood: the film cost $15.5 million and took in $3.1.

Peculiar things about this take:

- "vaguely incestuous", followed closely by "effete cabaret"  - American rock critics of a certain generational stripe really do seem viscerally unsettled by the not-quite-maleness of the Maels

- "the epitome of the cult band: anything resembling a hit... would erase their whole reason for being"

Erm, they were pop stars in the UK and in bits of Europe! I know the United Kingdom and Europe don't figure in the Greil-i-verse,  rock being inherently American. But "most of the world has ignored them" - not quite!  

When pop stardom started to slip away, Sparks tried a series of maneuvers to recover it - including teeming up with Giorgio Moroder, the biggest hit-maker in the world at that precise point. And it  worked: they were in the UK pop charts again with "Number 1 Song in Heaven" and "Beat the Clock".  Hardly sounds like a group content to be a cult.  Moreover, Sparks desperately wanted to match their overseas pop success with similar chart impact in America. So in the gap between the glam-era Brit stardom and the Moroderized Eurodisco recovery, they toned down the popera aspects for a couple of more conventionally rocking albums (like the boring Introducing, which garnered Xgau's tempered approval). Then in the '80s, they went New Wave (having prefigured it to some extent), teamed up with Jane Wieldlin from the Go-Gos, etc. Over the years the Mael bros have tried again and again and again to have hit records.

(Also - why would it matter if they'd cultivated culthood anyway? Vulgar Boatmen, Mekons, Sleater-Kinney and other GM-approved outfits aren't exactly in the business of pop universality.) 

Right about one thing, though - Annette was awful, I could only get about half an hour into it before turning it off. 


The running theme  - or closely entwined themes - to Sparks-aversion among US rock critics of a certain generation is the feeling that the Mael Brothers are:

1/ un-American

2/ unmanly 

An alternative title for this post could be: Springsteen or Sparks - the Choice is Yours.

Even back in the 1970s -  when unexamined assumptions about substance, integrity, truth, were like microplastics in the generational bloodstream, when  people believed in a thing called "street credibility"... even back in the '70s, it's hard to see how someone could attend a Springsteen concert and see it as less theatrical than Sparks - as somehow more "real" or "true".  

Here's a counter-view from one of those Britkids electrified by Sparks on Top of the Pops, reviewing a best-of around 1990. 

(Proximity to someone else's review of The Animals oddly appropriate - Brits infatuated with Black America versus Sparks as Californians injecting Gilbert & Sullivan into rock 'n' roll). 

In this review - like a poptimist to the manor born! - I do some crafty transvaluation: taking exactly the sort of negative terms (whiteness, hysteria, overwrought, highly-strung, castrated, perverse, baroque) applied by Yankcrits (see also Dave Marsh on Queen) and positivizing them. Not that at the time of writing I would have been aware of how hated Sparks were in their homeland.  For me and other Britkids now grown up and trying to explain to ourselves the fascination of the Maels on our TV screen, it is precisely  Sparks's distance from "rootsiness" or "feel" or the category of "the natural" that makes them interesting and exciting.  

Obviously, the Brit Rock Experience starts with unrootedness and inauthenticity. Sparks-as-Anglophiles amplifying that English not-quite-realness and cleaning up in the U.K. - it makes sense as a historical phenomenon, but more than that, it's bound to hit a Brit on a vibrational level. What's that they say about Sparks?  "The best British band to have come out of America". Or perhaps it was "the most English group that isn't actually from England"  Either way, the deficiency of Creedence-ness is what gives them credence - where we live, at least. 

Sparks: Huysmans at the hop. 

Against Nature 

What on earth is there not to like? 

Saturday, December 3, 2022

anti-theatricality and politics round-up

update 12/9/2022

"A fashionable critique of much political punditry is that it’s theater criticism, too focused on personality and superficial action, not focused enough on the real stuff of policy.

"But we’re talking about Kyrsten Sinema today, the senator from Arizona who loves to create drama. And that’s the best way to understand her announcement this morning that she has changed her affiliation from Democrat to independent.

Here are two conflicting ways to understand Sinema’s move: In one, she was never really a true Democrat anyway, and this simply ratifies what everyone already knew. In the second, she’s still a Democrat, this is nearly pure performance, and she will continue to be a crucial and mostly reliable member of the Democrats’ thin majority. Both of these views might prove right."

- strangely the rest of this Atlantic piece by David A. Graham does not sustain or even return at the end to the theatrical metaphors of the opening gambit 

"Democracy is boring. It’s bad for ratings and clicks. It requires compromise. 

"Fascism is exciting. The strongman lands blows on the enemy! Compromising is seen as weak. 

"Too many people want theater."

Teri Kanefield

"Trump likes to say a secret of his "success" is he understands show business. If he really did tho, he'd know there was a reason why there was never a sequel to "Pluto Nash," "Ishtar" or "Battlefield Earth." And his first crack at the WH was a much bigger flop than all of those."
 - David Rothkopf 

"Unfortunately, fantasies can be generated faster than reality can puncture them. So off we go with a repeat of an old show—written, directed, and performed by a production company oblivious that it is chasing box-office success by remaking a three-decade-old flop. - " 

David Frum on the Republican Congress's investigations of Hunter Biden as a replay of the Clinton  investigations (not sure if he meant Bill or Hillary - either works)

"The Republicans keep giving you theatrics. Really since Reagan, it's been theatrical politics. Ex-actors. A series of theatrical candidates."
- Joy Reid, MSNBC, after defeat of Herschel Walker

"It seems to me that [Trump]'s doing what he always does: Write a script and try to force everyone to become actors in his show."

-Teri Kanefield 

 "She killed my admiration by her talk. Her talk. The enormous ego, false, weak, posturing. She lacks the courage of her personality, which is sensual, heavy with experience. Her role alone preoccupies her. She invents dramas in which she always stars. I am sure she creates genuine dramas, genuine chaos and whirlpools of feelings, but I feel that her share in it is a pose … This false self is composed to stir the admiration of others, inspires others to words and acts about and around her"  
- Anais Nin on Kari Lake

"In the Elon Musk show, facts don't matter.

It's all about the show."

-Teri Kanefield 


Baroque 'N' Roll

 I did not imagine that I was the first person to come up with "baroque 'n' roll" -   - the title of the chapter in S+A a...