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10
Mar
11

SXSWHY

Line for the Fader Fort, 2010

South by Southwest is next week.  The deluge of showcase flyers and announcements started a few days ago and has now hit a fever pitch.  All hotel rooms in Austin are booked and have been for some time.  Flights are expensive.  Gas as well.

It’s hard to write a critique of either SXSW or CMJ without coming off as an over-serious petulant misanthrope.  So, for starters, a disclaimer: SXSW can be wayyy fun.  A lot of people are there, you get to meet and see tons of bands, and the weather in Austin is amazing (except for Saturday last year,  WTF was that).  Austin is also a nice town and well suited for something like SXSW, much more so than New York is for something like CMJ.  If you’ve never been and you feel a particular affinity towards what’s happening in music right now, you should go sometime.

But, more importantly for the purposes of this post, SXSW is representative of basically everything terrible about contemporary “indie” music and youth culture in general. I don’t really know how it used to be, but when I was there last year, my first and only time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone in attendance was part of a gigantic focus group. Cruise through some music sites and check out the showcase names for yourself. There isn’t much point in parodying something that already reads like a Mad-Lib where every blank is marked “Corporation”. For example: The “Fader Fort”, which is sort of like the Kaaba of SXSW, is brought to you by Hennessy, Vitamin Water, Pony Shoes, Guitar Center, TDK, Converse, Pepsi, Myspace, New Era, and, most prominently, Fiat (?!). Last year there was a giant billboard of Neon Indian drinking a Mountain Dew and sort of leering down on the main drag. If you followed his gaze you’d find a Hummer pickup full of ice and energy drinks parked diagonally right in the middle of the street.

I don’t know how many millions of dollars the whole thing generates but I can say with certainty that the musicians, theoretically the point of the whole gathering, get something in the neighborhood of 0% of it. That’s sort of the essence of the whole problem: The vast majority of musicians have to pay out of pocket to attend, and the supposed pay-off (i.e. exposure, record contracts? hype) is pretty suspect. The internet is much better at generating hype than playing some no-soundcheck show in a parking lot at 1:15 in the afternoon is, and the idea that A&R guys are running around with pens and briefcases full of contracts for hot new bands to sign is a myth. Because of corporate sponsorship, probably 95% of the entire thing is pre-meditated now which really takes the wind out of the idea that it’s a place where bands’ dreams come true.

But it’s not just the economics that make me sort of hate it. Part of me wants to say “HAH Fiat, no one is going to buy your weird little cars because you sponsored the Fader Fort, now give me free beer” but the sad truth is that people WILL buy those cars because of that. People WILL just accept that whatever band is the new best band is good because it is suggested or told to them. They WILL wait in line for 4 hours to stand in a room watching a band that, deep down, they might think are horrible because it’s cool. They WILL buy plane tickets and hotel rooms and spend 30 hours in a car to wander around a college town in a perpetual state of hungover confusion for three days, just because everyone else does it and that’s where and when it happens. The autodiadacticism and self-promotion that the internet allows theoretically negate a huge part of the “taste-making” industry, but people want their tastes made and that seems sort of sad. What’s missing isn’t the ability or even necessarily the finances but the courage, and in general people seem to prefer it that way.

On the way down there last year, I remember being the only one awake in the van, and driving through misty, rolling hills about an hour or two north of the Texas/Arkansas border. I was terrified I was going to hit a deer as it leapt out of the woods in the night and I almost did (three times). It seemed like the only other cars on the road except for semis were other vans full of bands and their friends. The windows were steamed over and silhouettes of people were strewn around inside in such a way that somehow you knew they were young and wide-eyed and excited. I was struck by how important it was that people were willing to spend hundreds of dollars and hours and hours of effort and planning and dedication to be somewhere. I still think it is important and amazing. But as it stands, it’s hard for me not to look at SXSW as an event whose central characteristic is the squandering of that enthusiasm and effort. A parade of ignored bands. A sort of hipster spring break, made just unrecognizable enough in comparison to Cancun to perpetuate itself without anyone catching on. Whether it’s the fault of youth that we are so readily subsumed and suggested into a corporate agenda, or whether its the fault of corporations for being so insidious and relentless with their pursuit of said youth isn’t really clear to me, but it seems like a collective loss of nerve in the face of an era of much more interesting possibilities.

If you do go, though, check out Heavy Times. They’re totally great.

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26
Oct
10

visual display of plaintive information

Not sure if everyone is familiar with Edward Tufte’s work, but I imagine a lot of you Ghost Islanders would enjoy it (Visual Display of Quantitative Information being the most famous, I think).  This animated map, illustrating the fallout of the bust in ’08 based on Bureau of Labor statistics, reminds me of a Tufte piece although it’s not really as abstracted and mind-blowing as some of his finer works.  Similar, though, in that it gives you a sort of flyover of a massive amount of information in a manner that is easy to process and absorb a narrative from (without spinning or dumbing it down), which I think is important.

My home state of Michigan, of course, gets top marks for it’s ability to lose jobs early and often throughout the timeline presented (August 2010 – No More Jobs to Lose!) but it’s interesting to see the pockets that remain blue throughout the whole meltdown.    Any other regional insights?  WTF southern Texas?  Is that drug money that keeps the growth moving?

Closing thought:  The rise of the Tea Party strikes me as a classic kind of desperate times/desperate measures situation.  Their ability to seem authoritative and confident despite offering no concrete information whatsoever about how they would actually enact any of their atrocious ideas (beyond laughably simplified nonsense) is a sort of cynical masterstroke in a climate of fear and uncertainty.  They feed off of the malaise and desperation that accompanies the unemployment and economic hardship that you see settling over the land in the above map.  Presumably, a path towards stability will also undermine their appeal and, as I believe and hope, the Tea Party will be a historical footnote, limited to the tumult following the dramatic downturn of 08/09/10.  Either way, it’s a scary and, to a generation that enjoyed stability and prosperity in their youth, informative reminder of the kind of blind madness that accompanies times of fear and desperation, even in an incredibly affluent modern society.  The flipside of that is the possibility that we’re collectively sliding towards a Age of Desperation, driven by environmental crisis, resource scarcity, and economic realignment.  If that’s the case, this might just the first frost of a long winter.  Strange days.

11
Oct
10

Dion McGregor: Sominiloquist

Dion McGregor, pictured above, was a noted sominiloquist whose off-the-wall, impeccably precise dream narrations were released on three albums (one in 1964, two posthumously in the 90s/00s).  There seems to be some debate as to whether or not the material released on the albums was actually recorded while McGregor was dreaming or if it was some sort of bizarre attempt to gain recognition (McGregor was, after all, a stuggling and frustrated songwriter).

The first album, released on Decca Records, which apparently was really rolling the dice on new talent in 1964, is far tamer (and to my ears faker sounding) than the two later albums culled from the same archives as the first.  The later albums are chock full of profanity, deviance, and shrieks, while the diction on the first album seems almost impossibly measured for someone who was sleeping at the time.  But, if they are fake, they must’ve required a huge amount of effort and some serious trickery to get them released.

Either way, it’s some interesting listening.  All three albums are available here, and here is a sample of one of the shorter ones to give you an idea of how weird this shit is.

Also, if you’re in the mood for something a little less terrifying and insane, I’ve been enjoying this Coma Cinema stuff recently, especially these two songs.

25
Aug
10

UVB-76

Many of you have probably heard of numbers stations at some point (“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is named after and features samples from a transmission on a numbers station).  If not, they’re basically short wave radio signals that are mostly static but occasionally bleep and blurp out weird coded signals that are generally agreed to be transmissions from government agencies to embedded spies.  The idea is that the spy would know from some other source when to tune in to the station and would have some sort of decoder established to understand what the transmission was telling them.

Numbers stations, like all things spy and radio related, are mostly a thing of the past at this point, but recently there’s been a flurry of activity on a station of Russian origin called UVB-76.  You can check out a Wikipedia entry for the station here.  Scroll down a little to see all the recent transmissions, and check this one out for an idea of how weird these things are (Russian file-sharing site seems sketchy but it’s legit). There are a couple of levels on which I find this interesting.  The primary two are probably that blogs (and by extension, subcultures) like this exist where people who spend their evening hours listening to solar wind and Russians speaking in muffled tones moving boxes around a radio station congregate and share information.  It’s sort of like a distant cousin of noise music mixed with the Boy Scout dweebiness of HAM radio enthusiasm.  The other level is that somewhere, someone is huddled over a little radio jotting this stuff down knowingly.  At this point the information is probably devoid of all the Cold War era intrigue and deception, but there were probably times where it was a matter of life and death to hurry back to wherever the radio was and listen to a disembodied voice repeat numbers over and over.

A few years ago there was a big box set called the Conet Project that compiled tons of numbers station clips from over the years.  It’s available for free here.  Definitely worth checking some of it out.  A lot of them have passages of music before or during the transmissions that are an interesting listen.  Some of them are just sort of spooky.

Some more information about numbers stations here.

07
Jul
10

lists

Johuat’s mention of a “murder” of crows reminded me of a list of collective animal nouns that I saw in the “Book of Lists” one time.  I dug it up and there are some pretty great ones.  I googled them to see if they’re actually used and apparently they are.  If you happen to be trying to figure out a name for your neo-folk band right now this might be the ticket:

murder of crows
clowder of cats
leap of leopards
sloth of bears
rafter of turkeys
smack of jellyfish
skulk of foxes
labor of moles
peep of chickens
crash of rhinoceros
paddling of ducks
siege of herons
rag of colts
drift of hogs
charm of finches
trip of goats
knot of toads
shrewdness of apes
parliament of owls
troop of kangaroos
gaggle of geese
pride of lions
watch of nightingales
muster of peacocks
exaltation of larks

My personal favorites are “smack of jellyfish”, “parliament of owls” and “charm of finches”.  While I was googling them I turned up this even more exhaustive list of bird specific collective nouns, which includes different terms for when the birds are flushed out of the bushes, on the ground, or flying in a V (e.g. “bouquet of pheasants vs. “covey of pheasants”).

Is there a regulatory body for these names?  Was there?

Also, on the topic of lists, I found this list of cognitive biases while I was reading about the hacker that revealed the identity of the soldier who leaked the video (known as “Collateral Murder“) of an airstrike in Baghdad to Wikileaks.  I’m definitely guilty of every single one of them, but maybe it’s good to know that they are “official” so that I can try to avoid them.  I was struck by how many of them seem to be fundamental principles of advertising.

21
Jun
10

“it shall raze again from the ashes”

I thought my fellow Ghost Islanders might be interested in this article in the New York Times about proposals to raze some of Detroit’s most blighted neighborhoods in an effort to move towards a more viable urban structure than the one that currently exists.  I think that for someone who is unfamiliar or only vaguely familiar with this debate in Detroit, the article does a good job at sketching out the various rifts and factions at play: urban planners, wary citizens, wary and angry younger activists, and of course a criminally corrupt (literally) political machine standing like a cement wall in between the way things are now and any actual progress.  I should note here that David Bing, Detroit’s current mayor, seems to have some distance from the real undercurrent of corruption that plagues the city council, aldermen, and various other appointed offices, and the NYTimes doesn’t really do him any favors by pointing out that he refused to comment on a incredibly complex and possibly damaging issue.

I have to say that the urban homesteading and return to wilderness approach sounds really tempting but it’s also really utopian and a little pie-eyed and would need some serious federal intervention to work properly.  Right now, anything that the city touches just hemorrhages money and gets so woefully mismanaged that it not only fails to solve the original problem but usually generates new problems as well.  This is less true now than it was in the 80s and 90s, when some truly forehead-slappingly bad ideas were implemented (see: the People Mover) but giving the city domain over any sort of project like the ones mentioned in the article is dangerous.  Also, the demolitions in general are pretty controversial because some really beautiful and historically important buildings are getting caught up in the wave and are getting torn down with little or no input from residents.

The idea of large-scale demolition underlines one of the biggest problems Detroit faces as it makes this bold next move, however (and it is preparing to make a move, for sure).  A lot of the buildings that people want to save have long ago become irrevocably damaged by water and mold and corrosion, and would survive only as facades if they were ever to be re-occupied at tremendous cost.  This idea that it is a giant expanse of buildings ready to be squatted in and commandeered is only partially true, and becomes more false each year that passes as more and more buildings fall into terminal neglect.  Many of the lots could very likely contain measurable levels of lead and heavy metals that would render yields from urban farms harmful (although this could be worked around).  There isn’t some sort of quick, amazing solution, and the idea of little burghs interconnected by greenways is much more likely to occur by passive forces than active ones.  And, obviously, the idea of razing neighborhoods and moving people to new areas is logistically problematic and doesn’t really have too good of a track record.

But, there is an element of it that is tantalizing, and on a good day Detroit has to be one of the most fascinating places in this country even now, before these grand plans begin.  I think that most likely things will proceed haphazardly and sort of meander their way along. The idea of riding a bike from a cluster of gothic skyscrapers through a pheasant-filled forest to an old late-Victorian neighborhood to catch a show or something is pretty amazing, but I think the reality is going to be a little less arcadian and a little more “Escape from LA”.  There is always the chance that the federal/philanthropic combo will come through with a major works project to get something like the ideas discussed in the article moving but that also seems unlikely, especially for the immediate future.

17
Jun
10

unfair advantage

So either the age on ESPN’s World Cup player bio pages is automatically calculated from the birth date which in this case was input incorrectly, or the Slovenians have a distinct advantage in fielding a time-travelling, -17870 year old  midfielder (presumably here to disrupt some horrific event before it occurs) in Friday’s match-up with the United States




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