Monthly Archives: September 2003

Well, I don’t think it smells all that sweet

Recently, a friend sent me a link to the website of another guy who shares my name (the link is dead now – sorry)…which was a little weird, to see my name, over and over again (the guy’s a bit of an egotist), when it wasn’t me being referred to. (No, I did not play Ricky Martin’s ass on an MTV awards show…but that incident does shed light on why the performance rights organization is called ASCAP…) Then again, it’s nice to know that I have my own little theme song if I ever need one. I knew there were several other “Jeff Norman”s out there – notably, a guy who’s done engineering and production work for everyone from the Grateful Dead to Captain Beefheart – and once I had the peculiar experience of having a student in one of my classes (I teach English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) with my name. (Both he and I were amused when, that same semester, a third Jeff Norman was mentioned in newspaper reports as having been arrested at an anti-discrimination rally.) My brother Greg, a musician who’s played with Alternative Tentacles band Pachinko, has the further complication of sharing a famous name (that of the Australian golfer) – and there’s also a Chicago-based studio guy with the same name. Still, I wonder if people with very common names experience that uncanny sensation more frequently – or perhaps not at all, having gotten used to being one of several Bob Johnsons long ago.

The reverse of there being too many people with the same name (so to speak) is not having enough of your own name. One of my current students is presently doing without a surname, more or less: not because she’s a rock star (although she does play bass in a local band), but she dislikes her ex-husband’s surname, and she’s not very fond of her birth name either. It must be a peculiar position, to not feel at home with either of one’s “official” surnames.

A while back I saw a documentary addressing the experience of encountering people who share your name (there should be a word for such people: I will nominate “cognominative”): Alan Berliner’s The Sweetest Sound. Berliner goes so far as to contact as many other Alan Berliners as he can (allowing for minor variations: Allen, Alain, etc.) and invites them all to dinner. A dozen or so make it, and the dinner and interviews with the other Alan Berliners make up the heart of the film. Along the way, Berliner researches various facets of naming, including varying traditions of naming (that of his own Jewish heritage, for instance), name-based clubs (the Jim Smith club, the Fred Society, and so on), as well as deflating certain “urban legends” around naming, most notably the claim that Ellis Island bureaucrats routinely changed and simplified “difficult” foreign names. It turns out that Ellis Island staff included speakers of nearly every language imaginable, and that they never, in fact, wrote out people’s names, so the opportunity wouldn’t have arisen to change them. Berliner speculates that either people changed the names themselves and claimed they were changed for them, perhaps to deflect accusations that doing so suggested abandonment of their heritage, or that employers were a more likely source for name changes.

What’s paradoxical about names is that while they’re in some ways our most personal possession, they’re most often given to us by someone else. Marx could have been thinking of names when he wrote that we make our own history but under conditions not of our making. And to me, that aspect of names represents our interdependent social status: we’re neither isolated on our own islands like Robinson Crusoes (we forget our Fridays too often), nor slavishly subsumed in others’ identities (like the outmoded tradition in which a wife’s identity is almost wholly swallowed up by her husband’s: “Mrs. John Smith,” with even her first name erased). Even the most self-sufficient and independent of us draws upon skills, ideas, and networks that others have built.

A useful metaphor for identity is Indra’s net, a net with reflective jewels set at each node, which reflect the images on all the other jewels, but each from its own unique angle and perspective. Those who imagine themselves to be wholly independent fail to note that others’ images are reflected in their own; those who imagine themselves helplessly caught in the net fail to see their own unique position, that no one else can see from where they are.

That other net, the internet, might perhaps reduce our sense of uniqueness (it was through the web that Berliner found his cognominatives), at least at the level of naming, since it becomes more and more likely that we find others who share our names. And this, curiously, becomes a new aspect of the once-vaunted notion, put forth by Marshall McLuhan in the ’60s, of the “global village”: in the localized village of the middle ages, there might be only one Roger, perhaps; but as the village expands, and another Roger moves in, each needs to find another way to identify himself: one, a smith, becomes Roger Smith; the other, one who arranges, designs, and sells shrubberies, becomes a Monty Python character.

You probably thought I was building to some deep, philosophically important conclusion there, didn’t you.


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Pilgrims Progress No Journeys End

I was listening to Peter Gabriel’s Up, and I remembered again my first reactions to the album. On the one hand, I was impressed with the sonic detail, some of the textures, the overall quality of the sound…I liked it better than I thought I would. (I bought it only because I found a used copy for cheap.) On the other, my advance reservations were confirmed: “why does he have to take everything so damned seriously?” Even those aspects of the record I admired spoke to that overweening seriousness, along with the fact that it had taken Gabriel however many jillion years to record the damned thing.

But contrarian that I can be, I found myself questioning why that seriousness bugged me. It wasn’t that it was in service of trivia, or particularly egocentric: Gabriel seemed to genuinely want to engage with the fairly heavy-duty questions he typically considers. Still, I found myself wondering, where was the Gabriel who wrote “Harold the Barrel,” or “Moribund the Burgermeister”? Then I remembered that those songs feature a suicide and the plague, respectively…

Certainly, excessive seriousness can weigh down music, resulting in leaden, plodding numbers that threaten to induce sleep more than enlightenment. At the same time, there’s something a little too easy about always refusing seriousness, always selling oneself short. It’s safer: you can put up something simple and straightforward, and rely upon the listener to supply the feeling, the intensity, whatever depth the song might have for that listener, rather than doing so yourself. And it eliminates the need for a safety net for failure: if you’re going to fall from only a foot or so off the ground, you’re less likely to get hurt (or even have anyone notice).

But I think I begin to value ambition, particularly since it’s rarer than it once was in popular music, if only because in the current climate all by itself it indicates a refusal to play it safe. In another context, Matthew at Fluxblog regrets the way some musicians seem to limit themselves to the same sorts of arrangements, and he wished more would allow themselves the freedom to explore arrangement styles that they perhaps can’t execute in their sleep. I probably could go on at great length expostulating on the market conditions, cultural environment, and political realities that encourage musicians, like everyone else, to play it safe…but I’m trying to keep these entries a bit shorter, and to talk about music more often! So I’ll save those thoughts for another day, and end by wishing that more musicians would intentionally not do what they’re comfortable doing, even if the result is a failure. This is one reason I’ve always admired Elvis Costello and Julian Cope, both of whom probably could have made huge economic successes by writing the same songs and putting on the same images in perpetuity, but who instead chose to follow their own, rather thorny, and sometimes hopeless paths. And the title for this post honors another group of artists that practice the art of risk-taking, Wire – although I’ve rejiggered the punctuation to allow for alternate readings (you might place a comma after “progress,” which is a verb here).

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Teenage Head

In a discussion of Eric Alterman’s new book What Liberal Media? in the October 2003 Harper’s, reviewer Gene Lyons relays some disturbing and unfortunately unsurprising anecdotes about the media’s tendency to behave like a gang of wedgie-inflicting high-schoolers. Journalist Margaret Carlson confesses, in her book Anyone Can Grow Up, that “[Al] Gore elicited in [the press] the childish urge to poke a stick in the eye of the smarty-pants.” And while New York Times reporter Frank Bruni confesses in his campaign memoir Ambling into History that Bush displayed an “eerie blankness” and was in the habit of making “ridiculous statements,” during the actual campaign Bruni decided it was more important to make fun of the fact that Gore actually knew how to pronounce Slobodan Milosevic’s name and was capable of finding the Balkans on a map. Then there’s a lovely report from Time describing a group of journalists booing and hissing Gore during a debate with Bill Bradley “like a gang of fifteen-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd.”

Why isn’t this surprising? Among other reasons, there’s the fact that most reporters, particularly political reporters assigned to high-level action like a presidential election, are male (in fact, elsewhere Katha Pollitt points out that there are fewer female editors or executives in the media compared with five years ago)…and the most common masculine ideal evoked in the media today is essentially adolescent. How are men most commonly depicted in mainstream movies, television, and commercials? Jockish hordes of “boys” bonding over beer, sports, and talk of girls, drooling over fast cars, motorcycles (but only the cool brands), and high-tech gear, scornful if not ignorant of the finer points of running a household, incorrigibly slovenly and proud of it, prone to favor foods like burgers, hot dogs, fries, and hot wings: sounds like a model lifestyle dreamed up by a high-school sophomore. Okay, I’m aware that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is a big hit…but, uh, you’ll notice that it’s the straight guys who are in need of being saved from their adolescent lifestyles – and it’s not other straight guys who are presented as capable of doing it.

My own city (Milwaukee) recently was besieged by hordes of bikers celebrating Harley-Davidson’s 100th anniversary (the company’s based here) – and while a few people noted how incredibly white and male this demographic was, the only writer I’m aware of who called the bikers on what they are – nerds – was columnist Matt Cook in local paper The Press. Let’s see…an overweening desire to babble about “freedom”…obsession with cool mechanical toys…lots of talk about doing their own thing, being non-conformist, yet a rather noticeably stereotypical appearance? (I’ll bet when you read “biker,” you thought of a fat, fortyish guy, with long gray hair and a beard, dressed primarily in black: you just visualized a good third of those folks) Oh, and let’s not forget “show us your tits!” What high school boy can’t jealously relate to all of that?

The Harley phenomenon zeroes in on the key reason for the media’s ongoing efforts to maintain its male audience in arrested adolescence: since adolescents are unsure of who they are (understandable for actual adolescents), they tend to be insecure about themselves…and often shore up those iffy senses of self with readily identifiable lifestyle signifiers – often branded ones. It’s no accident that, despite having less spending power than older men (or women), the teen and young-adult male demographic is so desirable: convince this crowd that your product is cool, and they’ll buy it whether they want/need/like it or not, just to signal to others that they know it’s supposed to be cool. (Of course, the marketing of cool has been endlessly written about, most notably by Tom Frank in The Baffler and elsewhere.) But wait a minute (some genius advertiser once upon a time must have been thunderstruck), what if we can make not just real teenagers, but guys in their twenties, thirties, forties…hell, all the way up to retirement age!…worry about their self-image and self-esteem, and keep them always warily policing their image for the slightest taint of uncoolness? And why stop there – why not competing brands of coffins vying to outdo one another in how “extreme” they are?

And there’s the fact that for the adolescent male, the uncool is a scary hair’s breadth away from being – in the words of noted philosopher Lars Ulrich – unheterosexual. Wanna make a product cool in the eyes of these guys? Find an alternative to it…and make it ridiculous, even emasculating. Consider the whole ridiculous “quiche” thing in the eighties (it’s the Frenchness, the sound, and the “q”: call it “egg meat and cheese pie” and it sounds positively macho), or the way minivans are presented as the ultimate in vehicular ballslessness in ads for sports cars and SUVs. (Not that minivans aren‘t ridiculous, mind you…)

The problem is that, Kalle Lasn notwithstanding, “uncooling” something is harder than it seems. (Although taking up one of Lasn’s pet peeves, cigarettes, I’ve always thought a fine teen anti-smoking campaign would be based around the simple line “Smoking: It’s What Your Parents Do.”) Choose the wrong group of people to make something uncool, and they’re just…uncool. Choose the right group, and…their coolness transfers to the product or image (witness bad seventies fashions, bedhead, etc.). So as tempting as it might be to raise a flag against “cool” (I’m on a campaign against “excitement”…or maybe you’ve noticed?), it’d work only if you used cool against cool – and guess who wins?

And besides, such an idea misses the point: because the whole economy is based on luxury items (think about it…), advertisers have, since the 1930s, fought an ongoing battle against notions of responsibility, sobriety, thriftiness, and so forth: just hearing those words probably evokes a sort of revulsion for many, repugnance kicking in nearly as a reflex at the staid, dull, gray world those terms suggest. (And yeah, a little of those qualities goes a long, long way.)

So of course the media ridiculed Al Gore (for all the wrong reasons: there were plenty of good ones): he was Fifties Dad brought back to life, lecturing about responsibility, reeling out wonkish reams of knowledge, generally evoking the epitome of wooden white malehood without a shred of the XtReEm, cool, “whatever” that even guys in their forties are supposedly to strive for. Whereas Bush – well, he was cool: he used to drink and do coke; he gave out nicknames; he had a flexible relationship with the truth and didn’t seem to care about that; and most importantly never ever made journalists feel as if he knew more than they did. Who do the cheerleaders go for? The clueless but charming guy who tosses the football, or the guy with the calculator talking about its windspeed velocity and rotational vectors? And the mainstream press today is nothing but a bunch of cheerleaders, more eager than anything else to be well-liked, and have “access.” Instead of the old-fashioned press card in the fedora, perhaps we should issue them kneepads.

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Mommy please come help

Every once in a while, a critic will usher in an entirely new paradigm for approaching the subject of their criticism. This article is an example of same. I’m torn between admiration and a fit of the giggles.

I think more records should be reviewed by fifth-graders armed with Sharpies and large pads of blank white paper. My favorite excerpt from the article is this: “One kid starts scrawling a guitar; the girl next to him immediately begins copying — an apt metaphor for music criticism.”

The author’s snarkiness aside, the drawings actually suggest that Radiohead’s music has achieved the goals it apparently sets for itself: several of the drawings do seem to reflect the emotional timbre of Radiohead’s music. If that music can convey its mood to an audience decidedly outside its targeted demographic, one almost wholly untrained in its vernacular, that’s a substantial triumph, I’d think.

The snide will argue that, no, it’s just that Thom Yorke is essentially a whiny fifth-grader…

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Boy with a Problem

One reason I’m not terribly guilty about very occasionally downloading copyrighted music for free: at other times, I’m the record industry’s complete bootlicking tool. For instance: A week or so ago I bought three Elvis Costello recordings…for the fourth time each. Rhino’s been reissuing them, after Ryko reissued them, and of course I bought the original Columbia CDs at some point, after having bought the Columbia LPs more or less when they were released…

While I’m glad to have the bonus tracks, and I like the format Rhino’s using better than Ryko’s (one disc of the original album, one disc of bonus tracks, compared to Ryko’s cramming a handful of bonus tracks after the original album’s track selections), in some ways EC’s liner notes are nearly worth the price of purchase. He’s a witty and self-perceptive critic, and while there was a while there when it seemed he couldn’t pass up any possible opportunity to throw darts at his Bruce Thomas voodoo doll, he’s generally amusing rather than self-indulgent. But the notes for the new edition of Get Happy!! are rather amazing, I think: he addresses, at great length, the Ray Charles Incident. I think I understand, strategically, what he drunkenly thought he was doing: having chosen his target (self-satisfied L.A. soft-rockers including Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills), and having carefully assessed exactly what they’d least want to hear – especially as it activated and irritated their own carefully buried hypocrisies – Elvis let fly with the infamous barb that, following suit from his own reluctance to repeat it in his notes, I’ll omit here as well.

Of course, the word “drunkenly” above is key, and throws everything else completely out of whack, since it allowed Costello to utterly, tragically miscalculate what would otherwise have been obvious: out of context, the nastiness of his remark had unintended targets quite other than he would have aimed at – as well as clearly illustrating the truth of the cliche regarding fingerpointing and the reverberation upon self of same. It may well be that Charles, recognizing that Costello meant no harm to him, has forgiven Costello for what he said, much as one forgives a child who publicly embarrasses someone else. Costello, however, knows he’s no child – and, it seems, is unable to forgive himself.

The prevailing emotion in that part of Costello’s notes is shame – and it struck me just how rare an emotion true shame is these days. Certainly, it’s an emotion alien to the buffoons, exhibitionists, and oafs trumpeting themselves on daytime TV – and it seems utterly foreign to certain unelected high government officials, whose arrogance in assessing what the public will swallow is exceeded only, and sadly, by the apparent accuracy of their assessments, since complacency is still our national emotion, and “whatever” our effective national motto. Since I’m trying (and will probably fail) to not make every one of these posts a political rant, I’ll sidestep that issue, and instead say a few words about the open-air confessionals indulged in by Springerites.

I almost think their inability to feel shame (or, when their problems are simply embarrassing, sad, or disgusting, their inability to just shut up) is based on a misapplication of truths learned, and proclaimed by, various personal liberation movements. The Springer crowd saw, for example, gay men and lesbians throwing off the chains of social disapproval and, more importantly, their own inappropriate shame, and proudly and publicly proclaiming themselves to be who they are.

This time, the key word above is “inappropriate”: no one should be ashamed of who they are, of their sexuality, especially since it hurts no one, and in fact only hurts anyone when shame is attached to it. But the more serious misbehavers of afternoon TV miss the point, and imagine it’s all about bullishly and loudly refusing to countenance anyone else’s inconvenience, ideas, or pain; and arrogantly proclaim themselves the Sun Kings of their own blinkered solar systems.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Catholic religion – but it’s always struck me that the utility of confession is that speaking the truth of who one is is a necessary first step to becoming a better person: “better” because more honest and self-aware (and in a weird way, that aspect of confession is analogous to coming out of the closet). But that’s only the first step: the rest is, having become aware, resolving to change. And again, we get back to inappropriate vs. appropriate shame: Elvis Costello knows not only that his remarks were hurtful and offered encouragement to hate-filled people, but that they spoke the bitter truth that he was a lesser person than he wanted to be. And drunkenness offers no excuse (and not because I’m some moralistic person disapproving of drunkenness): it only removes our usual public filters, allowing truths to leak forth. It’s not that Elvis Costello was a racist, in the sense of possessing an active hatred for African-Americans; it’s instead the realization that his own needs – to be clever, to point out hypocrisy, to be nasty, whatever they might have been – were deeper-seated than his realization of how painful his remarks might be for others.

I think, though, maybe he finally should forgive himself. The fact that twenty-three years on, he still feels such intense shame – and to me, the notes are painfully clear on that account – in itself says something. But I think, too, that it had an immediate effect on his writing. Prior to 1980, Costello was quite often a provocateur, his lyrics playing with fascism, racism, and interpersonal abuse in ways that seem almost too carbon-copy “punk rock,” regardless of whom such provocations might have hurt. I think the Ray Charles incident forcefully brought home for him the fact that words can hurt, that they can be intensely harmful regardless of intent. And in his lyrics after 1980, that sense of enfant provocateur is almost wholly absent. Instead, we get almost blatantly self-confessing lines (regardless of context) like “I wish I’d never opened my mouth almighty” and “I don’t mean to be mean much anymore.”

And this is why, from their voyeuristic and subtly sadistic views on high, the critics and others who long for the return of Angry Young Elvis are so wrong: that Elvis, however bracing his cynical, sarcastic insight, could also be just plain mean. And I guess I have a problem with those who so cavalierly wish to sit safely to the side and revel in the carnage. They’re not the ones who get hurt.

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A Third Unmeshable Thing

I am such a geek. A friend sent me a link to a site with a collection of randomly appearing lines from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and already I’m missing Buffy even though the first TV season after the series ended has barely begun yet. One of my favorites:

Cordelia: Why is it always virgin women who have to do the sacrificing?

Wesley: For purity, I suppose.

Cordelia: This has nothing to do with purity. This is all about dominance, buddy. You can bet if someone ordered a male body part for religious sacrifice the world would be atheist like that.

Oh well – at least Angel‘s still on. And the Firefly DVD’s coming out in December.

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The Sadly Abiding Influence of Jewel

So, Billy Corgan’s breaking up Zwan. I’m so distraught I think I’ll shave my head. But hey – he’s going to put out a book of his poetry.

Move over, John Berryman – the big ol’ Pumpkinhead’s movin’ in.

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