Monday, January 01, 2018

48/17

I did not write on my 48th birthday, breaking a long-running streak of annual check-ins. It just seemed pointless, and I felt I had nothing to say or discover that I did not already know, or that anyone would care about.

Singing "Mr. Positive" at my 48th birthday.
Photo by Mark Jordan.
The rest of 2017 replayed and reinforced those feelings, and looking back there is much cause for unhappiness.

I write the following from a physical and mental location that can accurately be described as "my happy place".

My fury still burns for all who enabled Trump: The dupes, cynics, and self-serving cowards who voted for him. The lazy fools who did not vote at all. The useful idiots that voted for Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. Most of all, the corrupt-in-every-conceivable-way GOP and GOP-controlled Congress who continue to smash away at decency, goodwill, cultural norms, and the rule of law to achieve their ends.

While much of the legal damage being done can be reversed with time, it will take much longer to repair than it has taken to smash. Judges, laws, respect, trust. Real damage has been done.

One is torn between adopting and implementing the tactics of "the other side" with a fresh viciousness in order to "win" (at the cost of losing so much) or continuing to act with principles and dignity and suffer more short-term losses. 

When I think of our political future, it smells like blood and fire and sounds like an angry mob. History will not be kind, assuming we last long enough to write it.

Little respite was found in the arts. I listened to and watched much of what the new gatekeepers said was important and noteworthy. 

A bright spot was the new album from Slowdive, which suggested it is possible for old bands to simultaneously recapture what is best about their old albums while moving forward. Album closer "Falling Ashes" provided an eerie/beautiful soundtrack for the fires which burned so much of California.

U2's new album, however, was perhaps the polar opposite: a cartoonishly bad album by almost any standard, and the kind of thing that casts negative, unflattering light on their previous work, by showing how fragile and meager their abilities can be. At this point, U2 are nearly at the Rolling Stones inflection point of having been a terrible (or worse, mediocre) band longer than they've been a great one.

I find much current and popular hip-hop unlistenable. Perhaps it is because I am old, but the lyrics lack internal consistency, and what words can be deciphered are nihilistic and narcissistic (and not even in a cool way), lacking even the power to shock in any meaningful way. It's depressing like late-period hair-metal, with poses and imagery offering endless variations on tired and uninteresting themes. When an act stumbles across something approximating a "sound", they and everyone else reproduce it until it is meaningless. It doesn't even sound good, swerving from tinny and pinging to massively overcompressed. And it all quickly starts to sound the same.

Taylor Swift's latest album suggests that her aw-shucks mask seems to be slipping and showing the sociopath underneath, and not to good or interesting result. Her professionalism is solid, but her overwhelming desire to succeed means her songs are a Frankenstein's monster of current sounds and parts, bereft of soul and meaning.

The flipside here would be something like St. Vincent's new album "Masseduction", which finally allows her to subvert and comment on pop music and desire by becoming a sexy pop star and making a great pop album. 

The attention and energy dumped into superhero movies and Star Wars and its attendant mythology has stripped me of any real desire to see these kinds of films. Still, I am sure I will diligently trudge to the multiplex. I remain astounded at how the public continues to demand Big Media pander to them more, and how upset people get about the details of said pandering when it isn't exactly perfect, like children demanding pancakes and then screaming because they're not perfectly round or shaped like Mickey Mouse.

There's a larger point to be made about the lack of cultural literacy. The public "reads" content and critiques it on the basis of how well the characters conform to the public's ideas and ideals about how "real people" could and should behave. It's as though the public has never considered that these are not real people, but simply cardboard cut-outs being waved around in a frame for storytelling purposes. Treating them like real people, and grading the authors on their verisimilitude is absurd.

And perhaps one should ask further what the purpose of the storytelling actually is. (In most cases, the primary purpose is for you to give them your money/attention/time/data and the secondary purpose is to program your values and validate the values that have been programmed).

In fact, much of the fury and debate around these fictive endeavors was that their imaginary, created worlds did not conform enough to people's desires about what the world "should" look like, either by being insufficiently conforming to canonical ideas or by insufficiently demonstrating commitment to real-world political ideals and positions. 

Yes, there is probably some "good stuff" on screen, especially when calibrated by the standards of those who grew up with 3 big networks and lazy sitcoms. It's still just a way to kill time while time kills you. "This show changed my life", they say. Really? How? What did you do differently the next day?

I look at the wall of shows on Netflix and it reminds me of the sinking feeling I used to get in video stores. Or when I look at the endless rows of suggested albums in Spotify. There's too much. And it's all nothing. 

If you want to get really depressed, read the "criticism" or, god forbid, the recaps. 

At a higher level, 2017 showed that, at the moment, the culture cares far more about the artist than the art. Tear down the Picassos, because he was an asshole. But celebrate mediocre-to-bad art if it was created by people we like, with the right credentials or background or politics. As the public asks whether artists should even be allowed to use certain words or images or ideas -- or even have studio space -- we edge closer towards a world of truly corporate art. Rather than challenging or surprising us, we demand the content do the opposite: Comfort and conform and reinforce. 

2017 also marked the triumph of capitalism. In a time when people have no shame, the weapon wielded by both sides is economic exile: We'll have you fired from your job. For what you did on your own time. For your thoughts. For whatever. 

It's OK, though, you can GoFundYourself and if you do it right, end up ahead.

All of this darkness and bleakness is against a backdrop of what was mostly a good year for me, and somehow that made it all worse.

The author in Tokyo, October 2018.
I'm healthy as can be. In good shape. I like my job. I finished an album or two's worth of music that I cannot wait to release...to no one. I made a few new friends and tried to help my old ones. I had a nice coffee this morning.

The sun pokes through the gray skies and glitters against the churning ocean. I read over this and wonder if it's too dark, too bitter. Maybe. That was 2017 and 48 for me. Maybe too dark, too bitter. But there you go.

2018 is right around the corner. See you there.

1 comment:

Erin said...

I may be the only fuck under 30 using an RSS reader, but it means random anu bursts among the overwrought aspirational recipes, so fair enough.

2017 saw me trying to spend less time on twitter and more time re-reading yellowed paperbacks. Didn’t really work, but the attempt was nice. Probably drinking too much as well, but the world is burning so I’m forgiving myself.

Sonically, leaning into the despair with joy division, new order, and the smiths.

Finding new music feels like work. At least right now.

Cheers for a tolerable 2018