Saying No to Nostalgia

January 23, 2017 § 2 Comments

the_joshua_treeA couple of weeks ago, Pitchfork Media ran a story about U2’s plans to tour The Joshua Tree this year, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their biggest album.  In it, Kyle McGovern argued that U2 had finally succumbed to being a legacy act.  Of course, this being Pitchfork (or the Drunken Hipsters, as my friend Jean-Sébastien calls the site), McGovern couldn’t resist writing in the voice of a petulant 20-year old who spends too much time alone.  Thus, even while noting that touring The Joshua Tree is a ‘win’ for the band, McGovern couldn’t help engaging in the old back-handed praise.

Anyway. The Joshua Tree is my favourite U2 album, not surprisingly.  It was my true entrepôt to the band.  I was 14 when the album came out, and while I remember heading ‘New Year’s Day’ from the 1983 album War on the radio, this was the first time I bought a U2 album and listened to it start-to-finish.  The Joshua Tree tour visited Vancouver in November 1987, and I saw them at BC Place.  Well, sort of.  You don’t see a lot from the nose-bleeds of BC Place Stadium.  The album remains my favourite, though I don’t really see it as the zenith of U2’s creativity as a band.  I see it as the culmination of an epoch of the band’s history.  And I very much was into their 1990s output.  Since then, with the exception of the blip, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, I’ve found everything they’ve done since the turn of the millennium to suck.

I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to go see the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, especially because they’re headlining Bonnaroo this summer.  The festival takes place nearby.  When I was 16, my parents got all excited to go see The Rolling Stones at BC Place.  And they got all nostalgic about a band that had sucked for most of the past decade.  I thought this sad (though I did get them to snag me a Living Colour t-shirt, one of my favourite bands that opened the show).  I even mocked them.  They took it in stride.  I guess they figured my time would come.  And it has.  Many of my favourite bands of youth have reformed and toured, some of have even released new music of varying quality.  Some clearly reformed for the money (hi, there, Stone Roses), some reformed because they missed making music together.  And, well, nostalgia.

In 2004, the Pixies reformed and went on a massive reunion tour, wherein it seemed that they actually got along.  I saw them in Montréal at the CEPSUM Arena at the Université de Montréal.  It was a brilliant show. I didn’t buy a t-shirt, but I did buy the instant-pressed CD of the show.  I still listen to it.  It was entirely a trip in nostalgia.  The Pixies didn’t have any new music to play us.  And I hadn’t seen them since 1992, when they opened for, of all bands, U2 at the Montreal Forum.  They didn’t disappoint.  Their more recent attempts at being a real band, releasing new music, well, that’s a bit different.  The Pixies have moved on from being a nostalgia act.

Now nostalgia is not in and of itself a bad thing.  The brilliant late scholar, Svetlana Boym, argues that nostalgia shouldn’t be just dismissed as a simple glance backwards with rose-tinted glasses.  Nor should it be overlooked or patronised by scholars and journalists.  Boym studied nostalgia for communism in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and discovered it to be neither facile nor kitschy.  Instead, she argued it’s a ‘sentiment of loss and displacement.’  It is an orientation outwards; a reminder of loss and displacement, and is refracted through an ambivalence towards the present-day, and it is also a romance constructed by our own memories.

In the case of ageing rock bands, then, my parents went to see the Stones in 1989 and I saw the Pixies in 1994 because they were selling something we wanted to buy.  Even though the Stones were older and the Pixies were older, they were still symbols of our youth.  And we were there to worship at the altar of youth, our displacement into middle age for my parents, and my 30s for me.  So, of course, framed in this manner, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see our respective ambivalence towards the present-day and our ageing bodies and the complications of daily life.

So back to U2 and The Joshua Tree.  Should I go?  Should I attempt recreate how I felt when I was 14 years old?  No. Of course I shouldn’t go!  Why?  Because it’s been 30 years.  The Edge and Larry Mullen, Jr., are 55.  Adam Clayton and Bono are 56.  In other words, they’re a decade older than the Rolling Stones were when my parents saw them in 1989.  I don’t need to see this. I don’t need to hear and see their ageing.  I can see my own, thanks.  I don’t need to listen to Bono attempt to hit the notes he sang in 1987, when he was 26.  As he’s aged, Bono Vox’s voice has become thinner and higher.  This is what happens, of course.  But he can’t sing like he did 30 years ago.  And this will just depress me, because he can’t sing like he did 30 years ago.  And the band, while they have played together for over 40 years, well, they don’t and can’t play like they did 30 years ago either.

In other words, I don’t need a trip down Nostalgia Ave., to rediscover my lost youth, the idealism of youth, or anything else like that.  U2 were once my favourite band.  But that was a long time ago.  We’re all getting older.  I’ll try to live in my own life and time this summer, thanks.

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Leonard Cohen RIP

November 10, 2016 § Leave a comment

Leonard Cohen has died.  He was 82.

A few weeks ago, he released his last album, You Want It Darker.  I haven’t been able to listen to it, because I knew this was coming.  He has been preparing us for his death for some time.  In July, his first muse, Marianne Ilhen, died at the age of 81 in Norway.  He wrote her a final letter.  In it he said:

Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

Earlier this fall, his son, Adam, told us his father wasn’t doing so well physically.  So we knew.

But that doesn’t prepare us for his death.  Leonard Cohen is dead.

My mother introduced me to Cohen when I was a child.  He played alongside Bob Dylan on our stereo.  When I really got into music as a teenager, Leonard Cohen was waiting for me then, too.  He resumed his place on the soundtrack to my life.  His music, his poetry, his literature, have all been a constant in my world for nearly 40 years. It has soothed me, challenged me, inspired me, and sheltered me.

I chanced to meet him once, in Calgary, 20-some years ago.  I told him this.  He looked a little stunned, and then blushed deeply.  He thanked me.  We talked of other things for a bit. And then we parted.

Like him, I am from Montreal. He wrote that one never leaves Montreal. It is always with us. And he was right. He was a wanderer. Like him, I have wandered and now live far from home.  He has always been out there, wandering somewhere in the universe, comforting me.  And now he is dead.

What the Hell?

August 22, 2016 § 4 Comments

UPDATE: I thought this rhetoric about the Prime Minister couldn’t get worse. Turns out I was wrong; it can. And it has been for some time.

As every Canadian knows, the Tragically Hip held their last ever concert in their hometown of Kingston, ON, on Saturday night. Something like 11 million TV sets in Canada were tuned to the gig, broadcast coast-to-coast-to-coast on the CBC.  For those of you who don’t know, that’s about 1/3 of the population of the entire country. I haven’t seen numbers for how many of us watched on YouTube, as the CBC streamed the show worldwide.  Social media was full of pics, remembrances, stories about The Hip, a quintessentially Canadian band.  If you’re not Canadian, I simply cannot explain the importance of this band to most Canadians.  It’s something non-quantifiable.

The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was there in Kingston, one of the lucky 7,000 people inside the unfortunately named K-Rock Centre.  Gord Downie, the frontman who is dying of cancer, gave the PM a couple of shoutouts, particularly insofar as Canada’s abysmal record vis-à-vis our First Nations.  In the aftermath, a picture of Downie and Trudeau sharing a hug made the rounds on social media.  It’s a particularly touching image, and it shows Downie’s frailty.

o-JUSTIN-TRUDEAU-GORD-DOWNIE-570

But then Twitter happened.  A series of tweets from bitter, and mostly anonymous, Canadian conservatives attacked Trudeau for a variety of reasons, most of them just a sad bit of bitterness.  For example:

or,

These were relatively mild, however.  Others wished personal ill on the Prime Minister.  But the worst tweet I saw was this one:

What kind of person says something like this?  What has happened to the Canadian conservative movement that this can even happen?  FACLC’s tweet is simply the most egregious example that came through my timeline in the past few days.

While I can certainly understand a deep-seated dislike, even hatred, for a Prime Minister (i.e.: Stephen Harper), I do not know anyone who tweeted vileness like this, who wished personal ill on the Prime Minister of Canada  FACLC and anyone who supports such viciousness should be deeply ashamed of themselves.  So should anyone who posted such vileness in the first place.  This is not Canada, this is not who we are.

The Five Foot Assassin

March 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

Phife Dawg, also known as Malik Taylor, died a couple of days ago.  He was only 45.  Phife is a hip hop legend, one of my favourite MCs of all-time.  His music as a member of A Tribe Called Quest and his single solo album from 2000 have long been part of the soundtrack of my life.  The Five-Foot Assassin was a perfect foil to Q-Tip’s smooth delivery, with his guttural growl and ability to drop a patois.  He also wrote wicked rhymes, tougher and more menacing than Tip.

Tip was the unquestioned leader of Tribe.  And eventually, egos got in the way of old friends.  Phife always said that he felt especially excluded because both Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the DJ, had both converted to Islam and he had not.  And he was largely absent from the 1996 album, Beats, Rhymes, and Life as Tip’s cousin, Consequence, was featured (why, I have no idea, he couldn’t hold a flame to Phife’s abilities).  I remember buying Midnight Marauders in the fall of 1993 at Zulu Records on West 4th Avenue in Vancouver.  I was with my friend, Tanya.  It was one of the first CDs I ever bought.  I still have it.  The fall of 1993 was when I moved back to Vancouver from Ottawa, transferring to the University of British Columbia.  I lived in the Mötördöme, with three other guys I didn’t know all that well. I worked with Steve at the Cactus Club (or the Carcass Club, as we called it) on Robson St.  We also lived with Skippy, who had a law degree, but preferred to play in punk bands, and J., who was also in a punk band.  That was the fall when I took the #22 bus to work on weekend mornings, I rode with Chi-Pig, legendary front-man of SNFU.  Punk was the regular soundtrack at the Mötördöme; Fugazi and Jesus Lizard were our favourites.  But we also played a lot of Fishbone and Faith No More.  And when we were in reflective moods, we dropped some Tom Waits on.  Skip, Steve, and J. were not fans of hip hop.  But I insisted on playing Midnight Marauders as well.  And when me and my main man Mike rode around Vancouver and its environs in the Mikemobile, a 1982 Mercury Lynx, Midnight Marauders was amongst the albums we rotated.  I listened to the album on my long bus ride to UBC on the #9 Broadway bus.

Everytime I listen to that album, I am immediately dropped back into Vancouver in 1993.  Similarly, their last album, 1998’s The Love Movement came out the year Christine and I moved to Ottawa, so she could begin law school.  I had just graduated from Simon Fraser with my MA in History and would soon begin a long run at Public History Inc., which launched me back into academia.  I got to Ottawa a month earlier than her.  And in a small flat, in a very hot Ottawa summer, I listened to The Love Movement almost obsessively.  It’s generally not regarded as Tribe’s best, but Phife’s rhymes, especially on “Find A Way” and “Da Booty,” made the album.

I got backstage at a couple of Tribe shows back in the day.  I got to meet them.  Phife was unfailingly the nicest, most polite dude you could imagine.  He was just a genuinely nice guy.  He was always humble, he also seemed kind of surprised he was a big deal.

I am listening to Midnight Marauders right now.  Hip hop has lost one of the greatest MCs of all-time.  And he was too young to go.

The Dangers of the Internet of Everything

April 1, 2015 § 2 Comments

Courtney Barnett is this week’s sensation.  She’s an indie rocker from Sydney, Australia, and she’s making it big in the UK, and even here in the US.  She plays retro 90s guitar rock, for the most part.  Close your eyes and it’s 1996 still.  That’s not a bad thing, she also writes great songs, she tells stories, most of them autobiographical, and mostly funny.  Her music is catchy as all get out.  Rolling Stone is drooling, giving her new album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, 4.5 stars.  But RS‘s review also steps a bit off the deep end in this 90s revivalist kick.  In the loudest song on the album, Barnett plays around with gender stereotypes and her frustrating life pre-stardom.  The chorus goes:

Put me on a pedestal/And I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me that I’m special/And I promise to exploit you
Gimme all your money/And I’ll make origami, honey.

RS calls this “so-totally-Nineties anti-corporate lyrics.”  Fat load of good the alleged anti-corporate tenor of the 90s did.  On Sunday, Evgeny Morozov commented on a new app, FitCoin, in The Guardian.  FitCoin, based on BitCoin, seeks to monetize our visits to the gym and other attempts at fitness.  FitCoin “is the first Proof of Human Work digital currency,” in the words of the app’s designers.  That’s right, using FitCoin, you can earn digital currency, which you can then use with participating sponsors like Adidas for discounts on gear, etc.

As Morozov argues:

FitCoin might fail but the principle behind it is indicative of the broader transformation of social life under conditions of permanent connectivity and instant commodification: what was previously done for pleasure or merely to conform to social norms is now firmly guided by the logic of the market. The other logics don’t disappear but they become secondary to the monetary incentive.

The ability to measure all our activities remotely is opening up new avenues for speculation, as anyone – from corporations to insurance firms to governments – can now design sly compensatory schemes to elicit desired behaviour from consumers chasing a quick buck. As a result, even the most mundane of daily activities can be linked to global financial markets. Eventually, we’ll all be trading in derivatives that link our entitlement to receive specific medical services to our physical behaviour. This is how fitness and health are gradually subsumed by the realm of money and finance.

Wonderful.  Sign me up.  Morozov rightly notes the dangers of this, though I think anyone with a pulse would recognize the inherent dangers in the commodification of basic human behaviour such as working out.  Or whatever.  This works, in many ways, on the same principle as newspaper websites.  Take, for example, my local daily, The Boston Globe.  I have discussed the descent into stupidity by the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby.  Jacoby, however, is a very intelligent man, and is capable of making complex arguments.  But he doesn’t any more.  His descent is tied to the larger descent of The Globe into irrelevance for anyone with a working brain.  This is made all the more bizarre when one remembers that Boston is also served by the populist, right-wing tabloid, The Boston Herald.  I guess The Globe wants to be a liberal tabloid.  In this descent to stupid, The Globe has realized which columnists and stories get the most clicks, and therefore make the most revenue. Jacoby works, because he riles people up.  And then there’s Kevin Cullen, who likes to use words like “punk” to describe Whitey Bulger (yes, he’s still carping on Bulger).

Thus, The Globe continues its race to the bottom because people want tabloid-level articles on the Boston Marathon Bombing Trial, or the murder trial of former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez.  Real news gets pushed deeper and deeper down the webpage.  In the physical newspaper, real news is buried deeper and deeper as the front page is dominated by these two trials, as well as Cullen’s vapidity and Jacoby’s cage-rattling.  The Globe makes more money off this than real news.

Human behaviour in terms of a newspaper is commodified, but we, the humans who follow the clickbait do not benefit economically.  FitCoin, on the other hand, takes that economic benefit and puts it into our digital wallet.  And many people will think this is a great thing.  But it is not.  Tying all human behaviour into ‘the internet of things’ will necessarily lead to the monetization of our behaviour, and this will lead to the “triumph of market logic” in all aspects into our social lives.  As Morozov argues,

[I]f permanent connectivity is essential for that logic to exercise control over our lives, then the only autonomy worth fighting for – both for individuals and institutions – would be an autonomy that thrives on opacity, ignorance and disconnection. A right to connect is important – so is the right to disconnect.

In other words, we enter into the type of world imagined by Dave Eggers in his 2013 best-seller, The Circle.  In it, Mae Holland gets a job at The Circle, an internet of things corporation, thanks to the fact her college roommate is an executive there.  Mae, as she climbs up the corporate ladder, is seduced by The Circle and its various apps that allow her to track every single aspect of her life in the cloud and on social media, from her health, to her late night escapes to kayak in San Francisco Bay, to her sex life and her parents’ health.  Her ex-boyfriend, meanwhile, is a craftsman and objects to Mae’s attempts to popularize his hand-crafted woodwork and wants nothing more than exist outside the all-seeing eye of The Circle and the internet.   Meanwhile, first politicians, then nearly everyone wears body cameras for transparency.  Then cameras are embedded everywhere, in the eyes of The Circle’s CEOs, this is good, because, like with Google Street View, people can travel the world without leaving their living room.  But, cameras everywhere lead to a surveillance state.  Mae, meanwhile, becomes increasingly embedded, and loses her critical ability to see what is happening.

Then there’s Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org, complete with the slogan, “The More We Connect, The Better It Gets.”  The TV ads for Internet.org are what I would call creepy.  They are set in the Developing World, and focus on people, usually young people or children, who build things like windmills, effectively inventing it for their part of the world.  Then the narrator of the video informs us that they don’t have the internet, and asks us to imagine what we lose globally because Mehtar and Mostek don’t have the internet.

And while certainly, the internet can be a good thing.  It can democratize.  It can get news out of places like Egypt during the Revolution there in 2011, which I watched unfold in real time on Twitter.  Or with the Ferguson protests last summer, which I also watched in real time on Twitter.  And it can bring knowledge to Mehtar and Mostek.  And maybe Zuckerberg really just wants to bring the internet to everyone.  But the internet also Americanizes the world. And it commodifies the world.  And there is a sniff of imperialism in these ads.

Belgian rapper Stromae has a brand new video for his track “Carmen.” In it, Stromae is caught in a hell of internet addiction, driven by love and consumer culture (you need to scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the video)

Eggers’ dystopia is fiction.  The FitCoin future and commodification of everything is very real.  And why should we be surprised?  As Tony Judt argues in his brilliant Ill Fares the Landsometime in the 1980s, during the era of Margaret Thatcher and Reaganomics, western society became completely and totally obsessed with money.  The end result of this is that, despite the alleged anti-corporatism of the 90s (honestly, I am not entirely sure what this is about, even counter-culture superstars like Nirvana were on major labels), is the monetization of everything.  Greed drives us.  And as the game proceeds, it will be harder and harder to opt out.  Morozov’s “right to disconnect” will disappear.

Reflections on Feminism and Class

February 6, 2015 § 2 Comments

I watched The Punk Singer, the documentary about Kathleen Hanna, the frontwoman of the Riot Grrrl band, Bikini Kill, as well as Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, the other night.  Hanna was, essentially, the founder of the Riot Grrrl movement back in 1992; she wrote the Riot Grrrl Manifesto.  I’ve always been a fan, and I remember going to Bikini Kill shows back in the day.  Hanna would insist the boys move to the back of the crowd and the girls come down to the front.  And we listened to her.  She was an intimidating presence on a stage.  The girls came down front so they could dance and mosh and not get beaten to a pulp by the boys.  Early 90s mosh pits were violent places, and they got worse as they got invaded by the jocks after Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and a few other bands went mainstream.  Bikini Kill never did, but their shows, as well as those of L7 and Babes in Toyland, still attracted these wider audiences, at least the gigs I went to.  Hanna and Bikini Kill were unabashedly feminist.  If you didn’t like, you could just fuck off.

Yesterday in class, in a very gender-segregated room (women on the left, men on the right), we had an interesting discussion.  We were discussing Delores Hayden’s The Power of Place, about attempts to forge a public history on the landscape of Los Angeles that gives credence to the stories of women and minorities.  So.  I asked my students if women were a minority.  To a person, they all knew that women are not a minority, at least not in demographic terms.  Women are the majority; right now in the United States and Canada, around 51% of the population.  But.  Women are a minority in terms how they are treated in our culture, how they are second-class citizens, essentially.  The women in my class all knew this, they were all adamant about it.  The men stayed silent, though they nodded approvingly at what the women were saying.

Despite the fact that close to nothing has changed in the mainstream of our culture, that we still live in a rape culture that is designed to keep women de-centred and unbalanced, I was so happy that my students knew what was what in our world, and I was so happy that the men knew to keep their mouth shut.

In The Punk Singer, Lynn Breedlove, a queer feminist writer, singer, and punk, noted that feminism is about the struggle of the sub-altern, about the struggle of the oppressed.  And feminism should fight for the oppressed, no matter the fight, be it race, sexuality, or class.  And I had this lightning bolt moment.  This is why I have always been pro-feminist.  I had a prof in undergrad who argued that men cannot be feminists; feminism is a movement for and by women.  Men could be allies, in fact, they were welcomed, but it was a women’s movement.  Hanna reflects this, she has always worked to create a space and a voice for women, and men were welcome, but in a supporting role.  I like that.

I was raised by women, and my mother instilled this pro-feminism in me at a young age (thanks, Ma!).  But, feminism (along with punk) helped give me the tools I need to emancipate myself from the oppression of class.  From these two movements, I gained a language of emancipation.  To recover from being told by my high school guidance counsellor that “People like you don’t go to university,” because I was working-class and poor.  Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, in a 1993 book, talk about the ‘hidden injuries of class.”  Hidden, yes, but still very real.

Memory and the Screaming Trees.

January 26, 2015 § 4 Comments

Memory works in odd ways. So this course on space, place, landscape & memory.  Last Thursday, in addition to that article on Western Mass, we read Doreen Massey’s article “Places and Their Pasts,” from way ‘back in 1995.  And, this got me thinking.  About music.  I’m currently in a hard rock phase, where everything I’m listening to has loud, very loud guitars.  And inevitably, when I am in one of these phases, I come back to the Screaming Trees’ 1992 album, “Sweet Oblivion.”  My favourite Trees’ song, “Nearly Lost You” is on this album.  But, the album as a whole is one of my favourites of all-time.  I first bought it on cassette tape, back when it came out in the fall of 1992.  I bought it at the Record Runner, a legendary record store on Rideau Street in Ottawa, that closed in January 2006, after 31 years in business due to gentrification and condofication.  When I moved back to Vancouver the following spring, 1993, my best friend, Mike, had the album on CD.

We spent a lot of time driving around the Vancouver region that summer and fall, in his 1982 Mercury Lynx, which I had dubbed the Mikemobile. Mike had a Sony Discman, which he plugged into the cassette player of his car to listen to CDs.  It was incredibly moody and jumped when the car hit bumps.  Nonetheless, “Sweet Oblivion” was in constant rotation that year.  There is, however, a difference between the cassette and CD (and now, digital) versions of the album, however.  Track 6, “For Celebrations Past” was not on the cassette version.  I listened to the cassette version of the album a lot, but I’ve listened to the CD and digital versions of the album even more.  I’ve listened to this album hundreds of times, and I’d estimate at least 80% of those plays are either the CD or digital version.  And yet, every time I hear “For Celebrations Past,” it feels like a rude interlude into a classic album of my youth, even though I like this song, too.

I find it interesting that my initial memories of this album trump the memories of the version of the album I’ve heard many more times over the years.  I’m not sure what to make of this, really.  My memories of Ottawa in 1992-3 are not all that happy, though there was the diversion of Montreal and the Habs’ last Stanley Cup victory, but by the time Guy Carbonneau lifted Lord Stanley’s mug that spring, I was back in Vancouver.  So it is bizarre, I think that, my initial memories of the album trump the happier ones, back in Vancouver.  And yet, listening to the album, as I did last night, doesn’t transport me back the sub-Arctic cold of Ottawa anymore than it puts me back in the passenger seat of the Mikemobile.  Unlike a lot of the music of the early 90s, it’s not evocative of that time and place.  Maybe because I’ve continued to listen to the album in the years since.    Yet, for me, the proper version of the album lacks “For Celebrations Past” and goes straight from the organs and guitars of “Butterfly” into the vicious punk-inflected “The Secret Kind.”

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