Early-1970s craziness of Manchette’s *The Mad and the Bad*

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Jean-Patrick Manchette’s bloody 1972 French thriller The Mad and the Bad is a recent release from the great New York Review Books Classics series. It’s quite crazy. I had that experience with it where I read half of it and got distracted for a few days, and then when I picked it up I’d lost track of a few of the plot points, which didn’t really matter much but added to the sense of sheer unmotivated perverse carnage.  In brief, a corrupt architect wants to get rid of his young nephew, who has fallen into his care.  He hires Julie, a young woman who has spent five years in a mental hospital, to take care of the boy, and then hires a brutal hit man with a bad ulcer, Thomson, to kill them both.  (I may have missed something here.)  The attempted execution goes wrong, Julie and the boy escape, and the rest of the book describes their attempt to elude the hit man and his fellow thugs.  The edition’s introduction explains that “for Manchette the world is a giant marketplace in which gangs of thugs — be they leftist, reactionary, terrorist, police, or politicians — compete relentlessly.”  There’s maybe a touch of R.D. Laing-style 1970s anti-psychiatry sentiment in the way the unstable Julie is the book’s only sympathetic character… But she’s pretty crazy, and not that sympathetic.  Society itself is a madhouse, as best exemplified, maybe, by an extended scene that could only be filmed by Quentin Tarentino in which the thugs shoot up an entire busy supermarket trying to kill Julie and Peter:

With stunning speed the store was transformed into a madhouse. More and more people started to run. A wake of detritus marked Julie’s trajectory through the aisles… Above the hullabaloo, by way of background, floated the sweet yet cannonading tones of an old Joan Baez hit, piped through speakers. The place was a bear garden…. Thomson could no longer see either Julie or Peter. He bounded down an aisle, knocking over an old woman who began to wail in terror. He trotted by Boys Apparel, his mouth full of bile…. This is exciting, I am enjoying this, Thomson told himself as he spat gastric juice onto the ground… Mothers were shielding their children by covering them with their bodies. The whole mass was shrieking. Thomson was doubled over with laughter.

I was imagining Mick and Keith reading this during the recording of Exile on Main Street in Keith’s villa outside Nice, although I guess the timing’s not quite right (recording was in 1971).  Still, this has early-1970s-craziness written all over it in a very specific way.

 

Hey, Who Enters the Sea of Passion? Five great recent world music cds

For some reason most of what I’ve wanted to listen to for the past few weeks has been these more-or-less “world music” albums (and Otis Redding– I’ve just wanted to mainline the most pure vocal emotion & soul, I think).

  • Live From Festival au Desert Timbuktu.  Not on Spotify, I bought the cd at Landlocked Music in Bloomington.  (And just to suggest how cool this store is, they had a copy in stock.)  Here’s a piece on NPR about it; I learned about it from Robert Christgau’s year-end best-of (he ranked it his #5 album of the year).  It’s the soundtrack of the annual festival in Mali which is “inspired by traditional festivals held by the Touareg people” but is in fact a polyglot modern hybrid; Western rock stars like Bono and Robert Plant have performed at earlier Festivals, but this CD is all-African and skews pretty raw.  A few tracks reminded me a little of the Konono Nº1 Congotronics cds (which are very primitivist, musically, but are themselves very far from any kind of pure “folk” music).  Inharhan sounds very much like the Malian desert blues of the great Tinarawen (here’s an earlier post of mine about them); Douma Maïga jams mesmerizingly on the kurbu which seems to be a simple guitar-like instrument; Mauritanian Griot singer Noura Mint Seymali is passionately amazing.  Here’s a bit from an interview with her that conveys a sense of the authentic-modern-polyglot synergy that characterizes all of the music on the cd:

WCP: What singers do you like to listen to?

NMS: I enjoy several Mauritanian singers, like Dimi Mint Abba of course, and Arab singers, blues singers like Etta James, and must admit to faithfully following the Arabic version of TV series, The Voice, and Arab Idol.

WCP: Who influenced your husband’s guitar playing?

NMS: Jeiche loves Dire Straits and Jimi Hendrix. There are several great Mauritanian guitar players as well who have influenced his playing.

WCP: Who does he like to listen to? Certain African artists? American funk or soul artists? Which ones?

NMS: All kinds of stuff—roots and dub reggae, Senegalese mbalax, some Malian artists like Oumou Sangare, blues artists like Magic Sam and Albert King. And we have both been listening to more Indian classical music since collaborating with Jay Gandhi, an Indian classical flute player whom we met at a festival in Senegal…

  • Qat, Coffee & Qambus – Raw 45s from Yemen.  Again, I bought at Landlocked.  This cd of Yemenese music from the 60s and 70s is incredible.  At $12 it includes beautifully elaborate packaging and liner notes, so quite the bargain, as well.  I have probably played it through a dozen times, and like it more now than the first time; it has that rabbit-hole-into-the-unknown quality that I especially love in so-called world music, in a big way.  The tracks sometimes verge on a cappella, often just a voice or two accompanied by a simple rhythmic oud and drums. From the label’s site:

Compiled by Chris Menist, Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen features vintage oud and vocal music inspired by the qat-chewing, coffee-sipping, qambus-playing culture of Yemen. Although part of the classical Arabic musical tradition, the music of Yemen takes its rhythmic lead as much from the East African coast (a mere 20 miles across the Red Sea) as the surrounding Arab Peninsula. Little has been written about the music and culture of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and each 45rpm disc gives a small glimpse of the poetic tradition, the unique local oud styles as well as an insight into people’s day-to-day lives, or the highs and lows of human relationships. Overall, the compilation gives a flavor of the sights and sounds of Yemen, with detailed notes that tell the story of the hunt for music that has mostly lain forgotten in the antique markets of the capital, until now.

One detail I enjoy, three of the nine tracks’ titles begin with “hey” or “hello!” in translation: “Hey You, Passenger!,” “Hey, Who Enters the Sea of Passion?” (incredible!), and “Hello, Welcome.”  Another great title: “They Made Me Fond of Love.”

Here’s one track, “Haya Abu-Saif” by Amna Hizam:

  • Orchestra Baobab La Belle Epoque 1971-1977 (Syllart).  On Spotify.  Orchestra Baobab were formed as the house band at Club Baobab in Dakar, Senegal, and started to attract a global audience in the 1980s.  If you’re going to start with them, you might go for the Nonesuch albums Pirates Choice, Specialist in All Styles, and/or Made in Dakar, but this is wonderful too.  Robert Christgau: “Jazz, r&b, soul, disco, reggae–no African band has ever emulated a New World music as gracefully as this Cuban-style unit… They released many (shortish) albums back when they were the toast of the post-colonial elite at downtown Dakar’s Club Baobab. Salsa was the rage of Senegal’s emergent ruling class, and there was always clave near the heart of Baobab’s groove. But cosmopolitanism was also on the agenda of a multi-tribally multilingual unit that could bring off its worldwide ambitions because its band sound was as solid and unmistakable as the Rolling Stones’.”  Pure pleasure; it is difficult to imagine anyone not enjoying this graceful, sinuous, beautiful, funky music.  Not weird and raw in the same way as the last two, probably more accessible.
  • Rokia Traoré, Beautiful Africa.  Another Malian singer.  This is the most conventional, cross-over-y of the five — she is a classic world-music chanteuse/ diva — and in truth I don’t love it quite as much as the others, but it has some high points such as the absolutely gorgeous and moving “N’Téri.” Here’s an intense live performance of that one:
  • Débruit & Alsarah – Aljawal. On Spotify. This one’s a bit different, yet less-“authentic” and more of a hybrid than any of the others I’ve mentioned, and arguably falling partly outside of “world music” as a category– kind of a trance-y dance music record. (I may have learned about it from this NPR world music top 10 of 2013 list, can’t remember for certain.)  Recorded in Brooklyn, “a modern, haunting take on Sudanese music heard through the sonic lens of French artist / producer, Débruit and the poetic, ethereal lyrics and melodies of Sudanese-born singer Alsarah.”  In the same universe as someone like DJ/ Rupture (and/or his radio show- I would be surprised if DJ/ Rupture were not a fan of this album), with Alsarah’s soaring vocals and Sudanese folk melodies woven through stuttering, throbbing electronic beats, loops & rhythms.  Probably my favorite is the amazing “Alhalim” (video below) and “Alhalim Suite” which has an electronic melodic line one might find on a Radiohead album.  “Louila” is nearly a cappella, beautiful, could almost be one of the 30-year-old more traditional tracks from the Qat, Coffee & Qambus cd.

Support authentic/ inauthentic/ weird/ indigenous/ global pop & folk music!  And consider actually buying music from your local record/ music store once in a while (I love Spotify – so wonderful to be able to, e.g., browse through Otis Redding’s entire catalogue when the spirit so moves- but I try to keep the cd purchase stream going too.)

Re: “That’s A Bad Lyric And You Know It”- Thinking About Value in Pop Lyrics

Eleanor-Friedberger

Eleanor Friedberger

BEST-COAST

Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino

I have some sympathy with this piece on the NPR music blog (by James Toth), since I too care a lot about lyrics within pop music, and I’m grateful to Toth for making me think more about the question of how we think about lyrics in pop today. I think the analysis is limited, though, in its treatment as an unaccountable oversight what is actually a highly developed and historically-conditioned ideological-aesthetic stance.  Toth complains that

a person taking a survey of several leading print and online publications might be forgiven for concluding that a song’s words are no longer a measure of its failures or successes, but an arbitrary component unworthy of serious discussion. Albums instead seem to be judged on a criterion of attitude, atmosphere and that nebulous catchall imprecisely referred to as “production.”

What would have been worth explaining, and thinking more about, is the degree to which post-Robert Christgau/ Ellen Willis/ Lester Bangs/ Greil Marcus pop/rock criticism (that is, something like Village Voice criticism as opposed to Rolling Stone criticism, in the 70s/80s context– at some point in the 1990s, the strands merged) defined itself significantly according to the tenet that the pop lyric must not be understood as poetry but as words-accompanying-sound. Christgau articulated this position in his 1967 piece “Rock Lyrics Are Poetry (Maybe).”

Perhaps you are one of those people who plays every new LP with the treble way up and the bass way down so you can ferret out all the secret symbolic meanings right away. Personally I think that spoils the fun, and I suspect any record that permits you to do that isn’t fulfilling its first function, which pertains to music, or, more generally, noise.

It is by creating a mood that asks “Why should this mean anything?” that the so-called rock poets can really write poetry–poetry that not only says something, but says it as only rock music can. For once Marshall McLuhan’s terminology tells us something: rock lyrics are a cool medium. Go ahead and mumble. Drown the voices in guitars. If somebody really wants to know what you’re saying, he’ll take the trouble, and in that trouble lies your art.

Christgau influentially argued that the worst rock lyricists were those who, like Paul Simon (Christgau actually later became a big Simon fan, FWIW), create highly-crafted, self-consciously poetic lyrics, as in

Simon’s supposed masterpiece, “The Dangling Conversation,” which uses all the devices you learn about in English class–alliteration, alternating concretion and abstraction, even the use of images from poetry itself, a favorite ploy of poets who don’t know much of anything else–to mourn wistfully about the classic plight of self-conscious man, his Inability to Communicate.

Christgau made the case here (and in all his subsequent writing) that the greatest rock/ pop lyricists were those who managed to create just the right compelling, memorable, weird, charismatic combination of language, sound, and noise. Like the New York Dolls’ David Johansen, or Lou Reed, or Patti Smith.  Their lyrics might or might not be “poetic”, but in tandem with their bands’ often-abrasive sounds, they became an autonomous art, rather than imitation poetry.  Bob Dylan was a truly great rock poet, but this was not because his lyrics functioned as poetry on the page, but because of a completely different alchemy that occurred in the performed and recorded musical song; “Once upon a time you dressed so fine/ Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” wasn’t in fact great poetry, but in Dylan’s timbre and with Al Kooper’s organ, Mike Bloomfield’s guitar, etc., it became unforgettable.  Same for David Johansen’s “Something must’ve happened over Manhattan.”  Or Lou Reed’s “I’ll be your mirror/ reflect what you are/ in case you don’t know.” And so on.

This position subsequently allowed hip critics to defend disco and seemingly “vapid” pop music against “rockist” Rolling Stone canonizing-type critics in the 1970s and 80s who tended to defend “well-crafted,” “lyrically-complex”, yet boring music in a singer-songwriter tradition (James Taylor, say) and to woefully under-rate the most exciting contemporary music in which lyrics were often minimalist and intentionally simple or even “stupid” (punk rock, Funkadelic, etc).  So, the argument gets extended to, say, the Ramones: “Beat on the brat/ Beat on the brat/ Beat on the brat with a baseball brat/ Oh yeah.”  Or Chic: “Good times/ These are such good times.”

What gets tricky here is to consider the difference, if there is one, between an effectively demotic/ colloquial lyric, on the one hand (a lyric that is good without being “poetic”), and on the other, a lyric that perhaps has no particular value on its own, but that works effectively within a great song.  So, is the Chic line itself “good”?  Or does it kind of not matter?  (I would argue that almost always, the lyric does matter, but that a strong lyric defines its own context and conditions for assessment.)

In any case, hip modern pop music criticism came to see as perhaps the worst possible critical error the knee-jerk, “rockist,” former-English-major tendency to approach pop music as lyrics that happen to be put to music.  Looking back, we were all very embarrassed to see some of the boring, over-crafted singer-songwriter dreck that was praised to the skies in the early Rolling Stone guides, while truly innovative, ground-breaking music was often dismissed as primitive or dumb.

So a critical de-emphasizing of pop lyrics became strongly linked with the championing of punk and disco and a denigration or at least down-grading of folk & rock singer-songwriters.

One could take a sociological perspective here to think about a disciplinary tension between literary analysis as taught in English and literature departments, vs. more musical or musicological analysis.  The average pop music critic was much more likely to be a former English major than a music student (or a musician), and he or she came to be a bit embarrassed about any analysis that invited the accusation of treating pop recordings as primarily verbal– precisely because that was what often came most naturally.  (I’m speaking partly out of personal experience here…)

I do think Toth has a good point that this “anti-poetic” perspective on lyrics has by now become so absolutely dominant within pop music criticism that it has, arguably, gone too far, to the point that a more old-fashioned, important American pop tradition of intelligently crafted lyricism, in the Tin Pan Alley or Cole Porter mode, say, tends to be under-rated.  Toth is right, I think, that “intelligence” and craft in lyrics sometimes is a good thing, that sometimes verbal “stupidity” and vapidity offers nothing beyond its surface, and that pop music today could probably use a greater degree of lyrical craft.

But, Toth should do more to acknowledge the context and historical development of the current critical stance.   And to admit that there is no way properly to evaluate pop lyrics purely on the page or as text. He implies that Eleanor Friedberger’s line “Today was perfection — the axis of bliss/ I was calm in your arms waiting for the kiss that never came” is self-evidently superior to Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino’s “And I don’t know why/ The sun’s in the sky.”

But it is pointless to argue over that without consideration of the context of the songs’ music, noise and attitude.  Since if either of these lines say anything at all, they say them as only pop music can.

[stares and remains silent]: Lou Reed Was the Meanest/ Funniest Interview subject Ever

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Excerpts from his 2010 Spin interview:

You’re so closely associated with New York. But you haven’t written explicitly about the city since — 
I wrote a song for Cartier that you can download from my website. Have you heard that?

Yeah. “Power of the Heart.”
I did two songs for [2007’s] Nanking documentary: “Gravity” and “Safety Zone.” Have you heard those?

Not “Safety Zone.”
Research, research, research. It means everything. [Sighs] You were saying?

..You know, it’s funny. It’s making me think, like, if you were talking to Bill Burroughs, would you have said, “Now, Bill, they put together the new version of Naked Lunch. What do you think? Do you still feel the same way, Bill?” Can you imagine being put in a position where you’re trying to justify Naked Lunch? How are we supposed to answer that? You gotta be kidding me.

…Berlin has got this rap that it’s depressing. Are you joking me? You can’t handle it? You ever read Hamlet? Who are you talking to that’s so stupid? Are you joking? You’re kidding me.

Singing about gay life on albums like [1972’s] Transformer was definitely transgressive at the time. But now, playing with sexuality and gender is part of the mainstream. Do you feel like the center has come to you?
That’s truly a critic’s kind of question. I have absolutely no idea about anything.

Is that really true, though? Do you think your music has been something of a guide for people to learn about behavior they might not otherwise encounter?
[Reed stares and remains silent]

It’s easy to think of New York as this great incubator of bands. But that wasn’t the case for the Velvet Underground, was it?
Is this going to be all about the Velvet Underground now?

…This has nothing to do with music, so I don’t know why you’re asking, but fine.

What other younger bands do you like?
I’m not gonna list bands for you….

…Everything affects the way I make music. I don’t understand what you want to know. I could say “yes.” Would that be better?

From what I understand, tai chi has a spiritual component as well as a physical one. Has that spiritual component found its way into your music?
It’s a really profound study. I couldn’t possibly sum it up for you. The problem is that I don’t think you know what you’re asking about. When you say tai chi, you’re just saying a generic thing like yoga. If you want to ask a question, you should know what you’re asking about, don’t you think?

…It’s hard to find a story about you that doesn’t mention your reputation as a difficult interview. Does that perception bother you?
You could judge for yourself, can’t you? You want me to comment about other critics as though they matter. You save this question for last? I don’t know why you brought it up, seeing as we got along fine. Unless I’m mistaken. What answer do you want?

I want to know how you feel about the way you might be perceived.
You’re talking about critics and journalists. Listen, you’re not talking about music. I don’t want to get into this stupid subject with you. You brought it up. You shouldn’t have. We had a good conversation, and now we’re done. You feel better now? Did you find your angle? Do you think you did a good job?

The question wasn’t a trick.
I didn’t think you were trying to trick anybody. This is the kind of shit you wanted all along, and you saved it for last. What should I say?

I’m not looking for any particular answer.
You could’ve talked music, but this is what you wanted.

Haven’t I been asking about music this whole time?
You’re not interested in music. We’re done talking.

Pere Ubu in Bloomington, Rodriguez, and the Sorites Paradox

We saw that documentary Searching for Sugar Man the other night.  An amazing story and a fun movie, although I actually found it just slightly manipulative.

Here a summary from Rolling Stone:

The Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man tells the almost unbelievable story of a Mexican-American songwriter whose two early Seventies albums bombed in America, but who wound up finding a huge audience in Apartheid-era South Africa. Sixto Rodriguez had no idea he was a legend there until a group of fans found him on the Internet and brought him to the country for a series of triumphant concerts.

Rodriguez is an incredibly appealing character… so peaceful, zen, sort of ego-less, at least apparently.  After his career tanked (or went nowhere) after recording a couple albums in the early 1970s, he started doing construction work in Detroit, ran for city council, and lived a thoughtfully progressive, low-income life until (we’re told) he was re-discovered in the late 1990s.  The Rolling Stone piece buttresses my my sense that the documentary has its manipulative side, though.

By the late 1970s, Australian concert promoters tracked down Rodriguez in Detroit. He arrived in Australia with his two teenage daughters for a 15-date tour in early 1979. “He was just stunned by what we put together for him,” promoter Michael Coppel told Billboard at the time. “He had never played a concert before, just bars and clubs.” He played to 15,000 people in Sydney, almost as many fans as Rod Stewart drew a few weeks earlier.

The movie does not mention this at all, and implies strongly that from the moment Rodriguez’s American career failed, he lived in total obscurity until the events of the 1990s chronicled in the movie, when a couple of South African fans and journalists tracked him down.  This Australian late 1970s interlude totally messes up the narrative.  And that was my larger problem, that the movie so clearly arranges the story for absolute maximum surprise and sentiment, in ways that occasionally felt a little untrustworthy to me.

Anyway, though, it’s certainly a fascinating story.  Even if it sometimes puts its thumb on the scales, it does underline the ways that the rise of the internet absolutely transformed the meaning of fame and stardom.  So incredible that Rodriguez could be a superstar in South Africa in the 70s and 80s, selling hundreds of thousands of albums and viewed as a musical icon, while living in obscure ignorance in Detroit.  We all lived in comparatively isolated pockets back then, and values, reputations, and images could remain bottled up, not communicating at all with the rest of the world.

I thought about Rodriguez when I saw Pere Ubu play at the Bishop Bar in Bloomington a week ago.  Pere Ubu meant a lot to me in the 1980s when I was in high school and college — I ranked them with Television, the Talking Heads, Blondie and so on as among the greatest and most important post-punk/ late 1970s groups.  (Strange to think about how recent that was then!) “Non-Alignment Pact,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Final Solution,” “the Modern Dance” were some of the best, weirdest, most gnarly post-punk non-hits of that era, led by the lumbering, broodingly intellectual, Boris Karloffian David Thomas, one of the most eccentric frontmen in rock and roll history.  The Modern Dance (1978) and Dub Housing (1979) are both incredible albums — the latter especially is a bizarrely compelling synth-punk, Cold War masterpiece I still feel I’ve never gotten to the bottom of.

Pere+Ubu
So, I went to see them in 2013, 35 years (!) after their first album, at this little Bloomington club, not really knowing what to expect (although I also saw some version of the group in maybe 2000 in Chicago).  Certain ontological questions are raised by this kind of performance.  Is this Pere Ubu?  Or a single band member with a capable backup band doing cover versions of old Pere Ubu songs?  David Thomas is the only original member.  But is the concept of an “original member” even relevant?  What if the transition occurs slowly, with band members dropping out and getting replaced gradually over time, à la the Ramones?

The problem is a version of the so-called “sorites paradox” or the philosophical problem of the “heap”:

The sorites paradox is the name given to a class of paradoxical arguments, also known as little-by-little arguments, which arise as a result of the indeterminacy surrounding limits of application of the predicates involved. For example, the concept of a heap appears to lack sharp boundaries and, as a consequence of the subsequent indeterminacy surrounding the extension of the predicate ‘is a heap’, no one grain of wheat can be identified as making the difference between being a heap and not being a heap. Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap. We are faced with paradox since from apparently true premises by seemingly uncontroversial reasoning we arrive at an apparently false conclusion.

When does Pere Ubu become not Pere Ubu?  The simplest way to think about this might be in terms of minimum number of original band members.  Can it still be the Pixies without Kim Deal?  But then, is it still the Beatles without Pete Best?  It can’t simply be a matter of numbers– I suppose one would need to measure from some moment of peak achievement or success.

Anyway.  There couldn’t have been more than 50 or so people at the Bishop which did not feel quite right for such an incredibly important band in the history of modern rock and roll.  David Thomas is a creaky, slow-moving dude now who performed seated from a chair, possibly out of medical necessity.  He was very cranky and sarcastic, mostly in a witty way; I was occasionally scared he’d say something awful or disturbing (as when he engaged a young woman in front in an extended, not entirely consensual dialogue about her love life), but he never really did.  He talked a lot about “the ladies” in a mordantly amusing way.  Best line was something like, “look around you.  For every woman you see at a Pere Ubu show, know that there will be five other kinds of people there.  And for every 58-year old, balding, ponytailed dude you see, there will be five other people who didn’t come to the show.”

They or he did “Final Solution,” “the Modern Dance,” “Street Waves,” and “Heaven.”  (No “Non-Alignment Pact” or “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”)

I kind of felt as if David Thomas were Rodriguez, stuck in a world in which he’s in disguise as an unknown obscurity.

I don’t know if this was really Pere Ubu, but it was great to hear those songs.

[cp my experience seeing Jonathan Richman, also at the Bishop– Richman is a somewhat comparable figure to Thomas in certain ways.]

Can Pop Culture be Toxic? Call of Duty, the Geto Boys, etc.

Interesting piece in the NYT by three forensic psychiatrists, “Does Media Violence Lead to Real Violence?” making the case that recent research suggests that yes, in fact it very likely sometimes does.

There is now consensus that exposure to media violence is linked to actual violent behavior — a link found by many scholars to be on par with the correlation of exposure to secondhand smoke and the risk of lung cancer. In a meta-analysis of 217 studies published between 1957 and 1990, the psychologists George Comstock and Haejung Paik found that the short-term effect of exposure to media violence on actual physical violence against a person was moderate to large in strength.

This makes sense to me.  I’ve long felt that progressives and First Amendment champions can get themselves into a corner on this issue.  Whenever there is a mass shooting, conservatives reflexively start looking for a link to media violence.  Since lack of effective gun regulation is so clearly the more immediate condition for most such acts, and since the turn to blame “the media” so obviously seems to serve as a distraction technique deployed by gun-freedom absolutists, the liberal-progressive instinct is to insist that violent video games and other media must have absolutely no relationship to actual violence (and/or other social dysfunction).  It’s as if the only choice is all or nothing: violent video games and movies cause and are to blame for dysfunction, or are irrelevant to it. But while of course unregulated gun ownership is the overwhelmingly more significant problem, this does not mean that it is not a problem when emotionally damaged/ depressed/ angry young men spend years in basements in effect massacre-training on games like Call of Duty.  After all, as Buddha is sometimes said to have said (though maybe did not actually), “what you think, you become.” Consider Anders Behring Breivik, gunman in the July 2011 Norway massacre, who “played video games such as World of Warcraft to relax, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for “training-simulation”. He further told a court in April 2012 that he trained for shooting using a holographic device while playing Call of Duty. He claimed it helped him gain target acquisition.”  Or Adam Lanza, who, similarly, obsessively played Call of Duty. Does this mean Call of Duty “caused” the shootings?  No. But it does suggest that a hyper-violent video game could, in some contexts/ for some individuals, become toxic in extended exposure.

I thought about these issues when reading a fascinating interview in the magazine Sang Bleu with Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys, one of the founders of the “horror-core” genre of hip-hop incorporating imagery and lyrical content from slasher and horror films.  The Geto Boys produced the wonderfully laid-back, and oddly melancholy, classic “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangster” (which Office Space turned into a kind of anthem for white suburban wanna-be’s) but also songs like “Assassins.”  Sample lyric (decided just to keep it to one line): “She screamed, I sliced her up until her guts were like spaghetti.”

The “conservative” position on horrorcore, or on other similarly extreme forms of pop culture (e.g. “torture porn” horror films — although of course there’s a race angle w/ the Geto Boys that isn’t usually a factor in those), is that it’s degenerate, probably dangerous, and should be banned or heavily restricted.  The usual liberal/”progressive” position is that while the lyrics/images may be disturbing, this is free artistic expression, and that if we try to ban or restrict it in any way, we’re behaving as bourgeois audiences always have in response to challenging, boundary-pushing art.

The interview with Bushwick Bill suggests that both positions might offer one necessary but incomplete piece of the full picture. To the typical (especially white) middle-class listener in 1990, a song like “Assassins” was unnerving, more unnerving than a slasher film, because it felt less mediated, more purely the self-expression of an anti-social, violent, and misogynistic point of view.  But Bushwick Bill in fact comes across as a thoughtful, surprisingly well-read guy who saw the Geto Boys’ music as not that different from what someone like Stephen King was doing in fiction or Alfred Hitchcock or Wes Craven in film — like them, exploring the potential of horror as a genre.

I was trying to be like Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe on that “Chuckie” song, and “Mind of a Lunatic” was my version of Psycho…. I always thought it was creative how they [horror film-makers] captured a mood in a moment—like a fear of the unknown. I grew up watching The Outer Limits, where people were afraid of what they didn’t know. I compared that to being an artist with a group from Texas. We were the unknown, and we had to give them intriguing or questionable stuff so they’d say, “Man what’s wrong with these guys? Why they saying that?” In order to be noticed in the South, we had to be shocking…. On the first Geto Boys album called Making Trouble, they had a song on there called “Assassins,” and that was really my introduction to horror core rap. That was my first time hearing rap like that. I started comparing it to movies. That’s what a New Yorker’s mind is like, you see a movie, you compare it to the things you see in the hood. That’s just how New Yorkers are, we compare it to things we know, things that we are familiar with, just like our graffiti names come from TV and comic books.

The interviewer asks, “You mentioned morals… You went to a biblical school, you were about to go on a mission in India, so how do you go from that to making these dark rap songs? Did you ever feel guilty about it?” Bushwick Bill replies:

It was never an issue. To me it was just being creative. I never in my wildest imagination ever believed that anyone would think I had done anything like that or was capable. To me, it was just being creative…. I applaud any musician that can be creative enough to make people feel like they are watching Wes Craven, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg or Steven King. It’s no different than Orson Wells reading the War of the Worlds. What the difference? It’s supposed to be entertainment. That was the sole purpose: to entertain.

(Not quite explicitly articulated in what he says about why the Geto Boys were viewed differently from Wes Craven is what could be called the Trayvon Martin effect, that is, how scary young black men appear to many Americans.) BUT — it gets more complicated as B.B. talks about how he felt it subsequently affected him to keep working in this style.  He started getting into drugs, and he now says that he lost his way in part because he was so entirely immersed in the Geto Boys’ violent, misanthropic material.

I was rapping about horrific situations and psychotic mentalities everyday. It started becoming a habit…. There wasn’t a balance, we were always talking about death and killing all day long, that’s it. Could you imagine that being your only food for thought?

To me, this points to certain limitations to the absolutist First-Amendment “progressive” position on media violence. Certainly horror and the horrific can produce valuable art and of course need to be protected by First Amendment principles.  And violent video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto can have a lot to offer beyond their more obviously sensationalist content, e.g. clever and imaginative game design, the construction of virtual spaces and geographies, etc.

But “you become what you think,” the culture we consume does become our food for thought, and Bushwick Bill’s comments suggest that at least for some of their consumers and producers, the most extreme, violent, and misanthropic forms of culture can in fact, as the conservatives always insist, become toxic. And I don’t think it does the progressive position any favors to pretend that is never the case.

Brilliant Clog-dancing to Siouxsie & the Banshees

I find this kind of mesmerizing.  I think it partly has to do with the sad backdrop — the scrubby trees, cheap picnic table w/ umbrella, gas grill — contrasted with her total exuberance.  2:05 is one especially great moment; and 2:39. This also makes me wonder if I need to go back to Siouxsie, about whom I’ve never cared much (forgot about this great song).

Rock on, you clog-dancing banshee!

h/t to Dangerous Minds.