Tag Archives: cultural criticism

Irony!

It’s been one of those days where I find myself slumped in front of the monitor. This widescreen, twenty-two inch Samsung behemoth is supposed to make things like blogging easier – it gives me more room to lay out work and organize windows so I don’t have to click back and forth between tasks. Yes, it should be a marvel of technology, but somehow it isn’t. Instead, I’m staring at two mostly blank Word documents, full-sized and side by side, with barely an idea passing through my mind. What used to be a potential twenty-two inches of pure productivity now seems a poster sized monument to writer’s block.

Frustration; mind-numbing boredom; a lack of fresh ideas – these are a writer’s worst enemies, so I don’t think I can fully blame the monitor for my troubles. I’ve stared at it for long enough, though, and come to one very big realization. I hate staring at it!

Modern technology is pervasive. I spend an inordinately large amount of time glued to some kind of screen every day. When I wake up in the morning, my waking urge is to open Firefox and check Google News for the day’s headlines, then use my handy extension Brief to keep up with my favorite RSS feeds. Whenever I’m in transit – whether by walking, subway, bus or train, I have an iPod plugged into my ears and a fixed gaze on the two-inch screen trying to decide if I’m feeling progressive enough for Yes or mellow enough for Brian Eno. On those weekends away from my main computer, that gaze is simply shifted to my smaller laptop screen. All that’s missing from this strikingly Orwellian nightmare is someone staring back at me on the other end (although that may already be the case).

Is it that scary, though? Part of me enjoys being wired into the world through computer screens. Take, for example, my awesome (read: better-than-yours) Samsung SyncMaster. It’s pretty to look at, takes up very little desk space, and is basically perfect for viewing anything: documents, images, video, and games – it all gets displayed in immaculate color. It has enough real estate to display full-sized documents and web pages side by side, with room left over for my IM client- all that, plus it’s clean and energy efficient.  Any item on this screen comes across so vibrantly that it’s become difficult to peel myself away from it.

As lost as I can get in the verdant greens of my desktop wallpaper, I also know what a double edged sword the display is. It is useful for my projects and hobbies, but sometimes I can barely see past its high walls and into the physical world. It’s dominating, and leaves me wondering what might be happening on the other side.

How many of us are stuck behind it? What happened to face-to-face conversation? What has the ‘civilized’ world come to when half our conversations now happen through Facebook and instant messaging? Are we so busy that going for a walk in the park once a week no longer fits into our schedules? Do we shun old friends because they haven’t texted us in forever? Earth still exists, and physical conversations still happen, but the convenience of technology has lessened the burden on our bodies, the burden that used to force us to pick up the newspaper every day, or go out and buy a book or a magazine. More often than not, our fingers are situated on a mouse and keyboard when we could be walking outside, enjoying the sensation of the bitter cold or the smell of the approaching spring. Technology hasn’t completely done away with personal interaction, it’s just cheapened it.

The internet, cell phones, and even television are all supposed to enhance our lives, making the things we’ve always done better in some way. They shouldn’t replace communication and relationships. Just to be clear – I’m not renouncing technology (though after a healthy dose of Battlestar, I often wonder if I should). I recognize how the web and its many facets keep families and friends in touch, and help tie the world together in a very real way. My gripe (which I place both on myself and on others) is that by allowing technology to encroach so much on our lives, we allow the precious little time we have with the living, natural world to slip away.

Now, for you Twitter-fiends who want everything in a nutshell, I’ll make my advice simple. Quit staring at your screen for a while. Go ride a fucking bike.

-Alex

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For Artists

In most occupations the question of responsibility is easily answered. A doctor must ensure the safety and health of their patients to the best of their ability. A scientist must pursue the physical truths of the universe with the greatest accuracy possible. A teacher must support their students in their pursuit of knowledge and provide the structure necessary to do so. Even with this seeming occupational clarity, there is one question which haunts some of us daily: What is the responsibility of the artist in the modern world? That condition of “modern” is very important to this piece; the rise of the internet has so drastically increased the world’s access to art that it cannot be ignored as a passing factor. What is the modern artist to do?

As with any piece such as this, I find it essential that I define our subject. In this case I would define an artist as a creator of entertainment or intellectual enrichment. This would include music, literature, graphic art, physical pieces and filmed pieces. Obviously quite a few specialties fall in between or are combinations of those qualifications, and they should be counted as well. What should not be counted is creativity in more practical professions. For example, there is a certain art to creating new medical equipment, a type of thought that innovates to serve directly. However, because its ultimate goal is to serve the health of the public and not to enrich intellectually, it is not part of this argument.

Amongst the few of us that have the mental disease that forces us to create instead of doing something more obviously useful to society, I have noticed a pattern. Artists are not only interested in their own area of work, but typically have very strong and educated opinions in other areas of art. This is evident throughout much of history as many great thinkers and artists have delved into other territory. Furthermore, most artists seem to have an attraction to philosophy and in turn, history and politics. This is completely logical as art uses all these things as a framework to deliver its message. While in earlier civilizations this was also linked to science and math, we have advanced far enough to separate the theoretical side of thought from that of direct scientific pursuit. Additionally, the modern artist has all of this information at their fingertips, making these varied artistic pursuits that much more complete.

For the purposes of this piece, I ask you to accept that artists in general are good at this type of theoretical thought. It is because we are good at it that we also enjoy it (ok, we enjoy it for other reasons too, but work with me). Though I am a writer and wish to do that for the rest of my life, I also invest quite a bit of time and thought in other forms of art without any promise or hope of turning that into an economic pursuit. That is a big factor in why Alex and I started this blog in the first place. This information is important and it must be preserved and spread. That is the first piece of the responsibility an artist holds.

Last Spring I attended a college radio conference and was treated to a lecture by Public Enemy front man Chuck D. While he told many stories and dispensed many opinions on the state of hip hop, he made two big points that have stuck with me. The first was that it is the responsibility of the artist to pursue information, you can’t expect to be handed anything and if you aren’t enthusiastic enough to put the effort in you should find something else to do with your life. The other was the responsibility of the artist to educate the public on that which they love. Specifically, he spoke on how the fall of the radio DJ has diminished the public’s knowledge of music. With no one to guide them to their next record, or perhaps the preceding record, most people simply do not put in the effort to find new music. In this case, artists are simply not being paid for their skills.

We all need to put food on the table, and one can certainly do so by creating art. Though even commercial art can be of great value to society, I believe the artist owes society something more than that. If we are equipped to think in a different way than most, it is our responsibility to provide these inquests to the general public. This responsibility should not only include our personal area of focus, but any other topics we are well versed in. Our skills may not seem to be needed on a daily basis, but they contribute in many important ways. Art often comments on the philosophical and political state of society. This adds another layer of responsibility; the artist must keep up on the overall state of the world, even beyond art. How could one effectively comment on a society that they don’t understand? Not that this would be a burden, as I stated prior this tends to be an area of interest for artists regardless.

This is not to say that those who are not artists have nothing to contribute, society would completely collapse without the more practically minded. A world populated by only artists would not be able to sustain itself for long. What I am saying is that the gift/curse an artist holds can be used to enrich the lives of the world. We are the stewards of free thought, it is our responsibility to preserve and enrich as many aspects of art as we can, because not everyone cares enough to do so.

Vinny’s unrelated video pick of the week!

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Keep An Eye On Your Music

Stage presence and its effect on you!

Old habits die hard, isn’t that right? Well, it applies to this week’s post pretty well, for two reasons. The first, I’m falling back into comfortable territory by writing something music-related. Sorry readers, but I tried with “Learn By Fragging” and though it was fun to write, I’m going to wait a while longer before writing about gaming again.

The other old habit I’m talking about is my propensity towards listening to heavy metal. My musical tastes have matured way beyond my expectations and now my iTunes is filled with varying genres of rock and roll, jazz and jazz fusion, classical, folk; anything you can think of. I come by it honestly, too – I’ve never felt the need to ‘like’ something just to culture myself. But I somehow always find my way back to the shredders I worshiped in high school, though not because my tastes have devolved. After listening to some of those tracks again, I found something new.

My fixation of late came after stumbling upon a live performance of Ozzy’s “Bark at the Moon” on YouTube. It was the type of song I used to load up when I felt the need to head-bang or tune out my thoughts. I’m sure it would still have that effect if I were in the right state of mind, but after actually watching this performance I noticed something wholly different than aggression and torment (Ozzy’s transparent lyrics aside, of course) – I found energy, and positive energy at that.

I’ll get the obvious out of the way first. “Bark at the Moon” is a fast song with rhythm that never really lets up; the drums and bass are constantly driving the song forward. The guitar is also ever-present with its staccato chord progressions and dizzying solo passages. But just listening isn’t enough, and I have definitive proof:

Mr. Your-Body-Is-A-Wonderland John Mayer once experimented (see linked video) with musical “kinetics” by playing Van Halen’s “Panama” whilst standing in place, just to see how much it would rock. It didn’t. Aside from proving that he’s a moron, he demonstrated that motion and the quality of a live performance are directly related; one cannot go without the other, at least where bands are concerned.

Therein lies the gooey, happy center of this Ozzy song, and it isn’t that creepy bat-eating skeleton hovering in the middle of the stage. I like Ozzy, but he’s not the world’s greatest front man, and the onslaught of arthritis seems to have put an end to his on-stage antics. It’s the musicians he surrounds himself with that make up for it by throwing body and soul into their performances. These guys steal the show.

In the back we see Mike Bordin pounding out the beat on his drums like the song is never going to be played again. When the camera actually cuts to his face the intensity is really visible. Some might call that his metal face, but all I see is passion and focus. The same goes for Rob Trujillo (now of Metallica fame) – his body constantly swaying in time, his feet stomping on the stage when the heavy notes of the bridge hit; he is the perfect image of a musician connected to the circular experience of playing for a crowd. It might look metal, but the intention is to transfer his energy and passion to the crowd in a palpable way.

And how could I forget Zakk Wylde? Firstly, I have to say that his down-tuned version of the song really adds some crunchy weight that the original recording just didn’t have. The guitar here sounds bigger – but that’s technical stuff.  As far as performance goes, he adds an otherworldly touch to the scene on stage. He’s the image of a Norse warrior, leaning back with his guitar (in place of an axe, of course), made complete by his long blond hair and beard. He tosses his head back at those moments where the music hits a crescendo or changes suddenly, acting as a visual and quite visceral representation of the music for the audience.

Put these three together, and they completely counteract the effects of the black hole that is Ozzy Osbourne and his immobility. And if the shots of the audience are any evidence, they’ve done their jobs admirably.

Music is meant to be heard and felt no matter the setting, but the feeling needs to be multiplied for live performances. Technique and playing ability are all well and good, but if a musician can’t convey the passion in their music to an audience, then they’ve failed. Metal is a good example because of how visible that passion is, though even then it’s often easy to miss.

If you’re looking to give an old song new meaning, though – find a live performance on YouTube. Then listen with your eyes.

-Alex

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Learn By Fragging

Online gaming can make you a less self-centered douche!

Since Vinny and I began this little ‘project’, all of my posts have dealt with my observations and feelings on music – i.e. what I like, what I don’t; where I think popular music is going, and so on. That’s all well and good, but a comment on my last post (Paul Picks Up The Pieces) reminded me that I’ve got plenty more to say about our multifaceted 21st century culture. As such, I will stick with something I know – something cozy and close to my heart: the endless killing fields of multiplayer online gaming.

Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of squeezing the trigger on a plastic light gun, vainly attempting to kill ducks flying across the small screen in my bedroom. My hand/eye coordination in those days was pretty atrocious, so when I actually took one of the quacking bastards out it was cause for celebration. For the time, it was a blast, but the limitation was how solitary my joy was.

The problem: single player games rewarded you with an ending and games with a 2-4 person multiplayer mode usually had you competing against the other players for a high score. Plus, it didn’t extend farther than one room and one television screen. Mario and Luigi could take turns doing ‘shrooms and making passes at the princess, or if you were cool enough to have friends, you could get a 4-player game of Goldeneye going in your living room. You’d play a few rounds, make fun of the dorky kid who constantly blew himself up with the rocket launcher, then have to stop playing because Mom asked you to explain why Jimmy was in the corner crying. (Who the hell invited him anyway?) When it was game over, you compared scores, and that was it.

Now, a couple decades later, games have skyrocketed in terms of content and complexity, but there’s still one ultimate goal that developers strive to give the player: the feeling of validation one gets after a job well done. That can be accompanied by the gnawing pain of defeat when one’s performance wasn’t up to par – but then, what would games teach us if we always won?

The big difference in 21st century gaming is that a game’s “ending” or getting the best score are no longer the primary points of validation. They’re still part of it, but the most important focus of modern gaming is that feeling you get after capturing the last flag with your squad of 12 through the use of combined arms and superior teamwork. Games have always been goal oriented, but now instead of the Doom one-man-army approach, there’s the Day Of Defeat U.S. Army approach. Gaming is no longer just an escape. If you play from the right perspective, it can be an exercise in humanity.

For simplicity’s sake (and because I have the most experience with them), I’ll only discuss online FPS-type (First Person Shooter) games. To be clear, I will say that many single-player shooters should absolutely be praised for their ability to tell stories, create suspense, and just be fun, but replaying the same campaign over and over will never be as fun as playing on a server full of human players with human advantages and human flaws.

For instance, Half-Life 2 was an excellent piece of gaming and storytelling. HL2: Deathmatch is the multiplayer component of the game, and while it has the expected fragfest-type game play, none of them hold a candle to Counter-Strike’s objective based play, or Day Of Defeat’s territorial tug of war.

I suppose a counter argument might be that circle-strafing a few newbs and racking up kills is a fun way to blow off some steam, but I can’t see how that feeling could last for very long. It’s just point-click, point-click, and repeat. Is it therapeutic? Maybe. But is it mentally satisfying? No.

Where is the tactical depth? Where is the communication? Where’s the suspense of trying to desperately defend the last flag and turn the game around? Racking up kills just doesn’t hold up against a game where relying on your teammates is the path to victory (though playing with a good team and losing anyway is rewarding in a certain way, too.)

I see it every time I log onto a DoD server: one person is the machine gunner, suppressing the enemy team, another is a rifleman picking off targets from long-range, while a third is assaulting a position and capping a flag. Now and then there’s the guy who runs off by himself, trying to be a hero, but his inability to be a team player puts everyone but the enemy at a disadvantage.

Okay, so maybe you’re still wondering what the hell I’m getting at. Yes, I prefer online FPS games where cooperation is paramount to success. But, there is actually an underlying social/cultural importance. (What? Games are culturally relevant?!)

Co-op online gaming is challenging a generation of people to work with players they don’t know and wouldn’t necessarily associate with in pursuit of a common goal. Sure, the goal may be artificial, but the underlying lesson is that “pwning” (while sometimes fun) is much less important than having the ability to effectively think, communicate and work with other people.

So, next time you see a teammate shooting at Nazi’s, be a friend – give him some covering fire.

-Alex

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Paul Picks Up The Pieces

And makes them rock.

It’s February! The time of year when temperatures drop to their most unbearable levels and we’re supposed to replace the warmth of our malfunctioning heaters with the warmth emanating from our hearts. What a bunch of delightful bull-crap. No, Valentine’s Day doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy, but I’ll tell you what does – pop songs rearranged and made into beautiful, much less simplistic, pieces of hard rock candy.

To reiterate a point I made a few weeks ago: modern pop music is dying a slow, painful death. The only cure would be a complete change in thought both on the part of the recording industry and musicians all at once. It isn’t going to happen, at least not in such a complete and obvious way. That said, not all pop music is necessarily bad when placed into the right hands. Obviously, this is something that runs on a case by case basis, and therefore I will once again be using examples familiar to me in order to get at the larger picture.

A couple years ago I discovered the guitarist Paul Gilbert during the last stop of the G3 Tour, and ever since he’s been the model I hold a whole host of other musicians up to. His technique, skill, range (with regards to his ability to successfully write and play music from varying genres), and his stage presence are in my mind unequaled. In the late 80’s, after his tenure with the metal band Racer X, he joined Mr. Big, a group who ran the line between pop, hard rock and hair metal. Well, let’s face facts – at the dawning of the 90’s that was popular music.

Their one relatively successful radio hit in the U.S. (they had a much larger following in Japan) was a song called “To Be With You” . It’s upbeat. It’s sweet. It’s a love song through and through. If the verses were shared, rather than dominated by frontman Eric Martin’s smooth (yet somehow raspy) set of pipes, the tune could easily fit into the Backstreet Boys library. A song like “To Be With You” would normally sicken me, but in my quest to explore the “essence of Gilbert”, I stumbled across something interesting.

I’m not entirely certain when the DVD was recorded, but sometime after his break from Mr. Big, Paul participated in a show called “Guitar Wars”, where he performed a very different version of the aforementioned song. The Van Halen inspired rendition is perhaps a bit ironic, as one will notice the opening riff is taken from “Ain’t Talkin About Love”, though the reason it resonates with me so well lies elsewhere. Here, have a listen:

Firstly, he begins the song in a minor key, which I think lends the tune a certain sense of desperation that just isn’t present in the original. That little added sense of danger turns the sickly sweetness of the original on its head. Paul throws in embellishments on the guitar from the very beginning, making the song sound thicker, and during the verses the chords are played in arpeggios rather than just strummed, which I think helps to change what was once a simple tune into something much more technically and artistically worthwhile.

Paul’s style of singing also throws away the fluff of the song’s previous incarnation. His voice is raw, which certainly fits better with hard rock, but it also adds to the atmosphere of the lyrics. Eric Martin’s vocals sound very confident, like the song’s subject female only needs a little pep talk to find her way into the arms of the right man – the way it’s sung sounds almost deceptive. Paul, on the other hand, first sounds as if he’s defending someone rather than giving a motivational speech, then with the chorus makes the longing and desire sound right. I wish I had better words for it, but the rawness of his voice makes the revealing words in the chorus sound more sincere.

To top it off, the accompanying harmony vocals of bassist Mike Szuter, and the fact that Paul manages to sing and solo at the same time make this version really dynamic. Though, if one is a fan of  Mr. Big’s version, Paul does throw in the original guitar break towards the end as a nice tip of the hat.

I suppose after looking at pop music through a rock filter, I’d have to say that in some cases there are songs that have actual potential. The song might need a hard rock makeover, but I cannot ignore the fact that it had its origins in the pop world. Of course, that still means that most of what’s out there is complete and utter garbage, but once in a while I’m surprised by what happens to catch my ear.

-Alex

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The Mass Market Music Blues

The train – she’s a goin’ nowhere.

I was prepared to bore the readership with a story about my personal evolution as a music listener, or as Vinny might put it, a “music appreciator”. While it might have explained how I arrived at my feelings towards certain artists and genres, and illustrated the love I have for some and the contempt I have for others, I feel it would have bogged down the reader with needless personal information. Therefore, I will make this statement as simple as possible.

I admire artists who take chances with their material and who don’t conform to a cookie cutter formula when composing music. I love artists that show a high level of musicianship, who can allow their instruments to speak for themselves, rather than letting a lone voice speak for them – not to say that lyrics and a charismatic front man aren’t important, but artists who strike a balance between the two find themselves high up on my list. It’s really more complicated than that, but for the sake of blog sized writing, I’ll leave it there.

On to the point – the cookie cutter approach, modern pop music’s crutch. Plain and simple, it isn’t working, at least not for me. Since hindsight is twenty-twenty, and because  it was recent enough to remain relevant, let’s take a quick look at late nineties pop and apply it to the mold I’m suggesting.

Britney Spears had just exploded onto the airwaves, alongside acts like the Backstreet Boys, and any number of R&B artists – not to mention Limp Bizkit and other “rap-rock” type groups. They gained popularity not through the merit and quality of their music necessarily, but through image. A sexy schoolgirl with a pretty voice, five preppy guys who could melt hearts, a dumb white guy with a Yankees cap – they all applied to certain demographics (well, maybe not Fred Durst).

In a money driven world, and perhaps more importantly, money driven music industry, the mass market is subjected to what will sell. While these trends endured, more of the same kept popping up: Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, N’Sync, 98 Degrees, and so on. Were they all making the music they wanted to make? Maybe. Did they have any control over how the media would portray them? Doubtful.

To tie this in with Vinny’s argument about singles – the symptom is largely the same. Though I’m not an industry insider, I can say with some degree of certainty that artists have very little control over what songs from their album get chosen as singles. The recording industry decides what the mass market will like, and pushes it. What results are artists who are made to sound like they have very little to add to the music scene, even if other tracks on their albums are worthwhile. Because of the way the industry packages them, artists are unwillingly and unfairly categorized and stereotyped.

There are a few brave individuals such as myself who support artists that aren’t necessarily backed up by the full weight of the recording industry, but in general I think what we hear on the radio and see on MTV are representative of what marketers have decided the most people will enjoy (and pay to see more of).

But one can bet that when an artist branches out and tries something new, one of two things happens. They either become more successful, or really, really poor (or fall into obscurity, barely managing to eke out a living off of their small cult followings).

-Alex

Now, just for fun, I’ll toss in my answer to Vinny’s argument.

In the case that you believe my fears to be valid, what can be done to stop this from taking place?

Firstly, this is a valid fear, and it’s already happening. As for what can be done, there are a couple things. Looking from the top down – music is both an industry and an art, but money makes the world go round, and the same goes for music. Therefore, if labels were producing music solely for the sake of music and art, with profit only an idea on the backburner, we might see some more risky music falling into people’s hands. Until they stop trying to capitalize on every current trend and shove it down our collective throats, we will likely be faced with heavily marketed music. There’s slim chance that will ever happen, of course.

Looking from the bottom up, aspiring artists need to look at the musical landscape before them. The way things are now, if they want to make a living doing what they love, they need to play into current trends to some degree, or else they’ll never get picked up by a label. I’ve seen too many local bands with MySpace pages that want to “push the musical envelope” (whatever the fuck that means), but just end up sounding like everyone else – how many of them ever really “make it”?

Like any good revolution, it has to start from the bottom and rise to the top. There needs to be a collective effort on the part of aspiring artists to really differentiate themselves from all the other popular offerings out there. The problem is, paradigm shifting is a hell of a lot harder than sounding just slightly different than someone else. Yes sir, we’re in dire need of a game changer.

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