Saturday, November 2, 2019

broken time / brain strain




an article about how the 2010s played havoc with our sense of temporality and strained our brains to breaking point, by Katherine Miller

"This long and wearying decade is coming to a close, though, even if there’s no sense of an ending. People are always saying stuff like: Time has melted; my brain has melted; Donald Trump has melted my brain; I can’t remember if that was two weeks ago or two months ago or two years ago; what a year this week has been. Donald Trump tells the story of 2016 again. Your Facebook feed won’t stop showing you a post from four days ago, about someone you haven’t seen in three years. The Office, six years after it ended, might be the most popular show in the United States. Donald Trump tells the story of 2016 again....

"The touch and taste of the 2010s was nonlinear acceleration: always moving, always faster, but torn this way and that way, pushed forward, and pulled back under.... 

"In the 20 months between Hillary Clinton’s campaign announcement and Trump’s inauguration, everything from Apple Music to HBO Now to Apple News launched or relaunched; the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple Watch hit the full market; publishers established the current form and tone of the news push alerts that you receive; Facebook launched a livestreaming function and then deprioritized the function when people aired violence; Instagram launched the ephemeral, inexhaustive stories, so you can share — as they put it — “everything in between” the moments you care about; Twitter introduced the quote-tweet option, which formalized and democratized a function from the earlier days of Twitter, and transformed every Trump tweet into an opportunity for commentary.

"And, within a few months in 2016, both the primary catalog for millions of lives (Instagram) and the primary channel for news and culture (Twitter) switched from chronological to algorithmic timelines...."

As well as political churn, Miller also inspects popular culture:

"We’re living through an incredible boom of great shows. Often described, with a weary irony, as the era of Peak TV, this wealth of programming followed tech and traditional premium broadcasters finally figuring out how to commercialize streaming platforms in the 2010s. As a result, you the viewer can move in any sort of direction, watching in bulk something that aired last year, or on Sunday, or one scene again and again, freed from the now-or-never quality that TV once had. For decades, TV either made or ran parallel to the rhythms of American life: morning shows, daytime soaps, the 6 o’clock news, the playoffs, Johnny Carson. In between, the broadcast networks aired 22 half-hour episodes, weekly from September to May, at a fixed time, winding away in sequential order at a mass scale."

Yup, it's not so much that we've lost the monoculture, it's that we've lost monotemporality

Miller quotes Emily Nussbaum on how "time itself has been bent", with one factor being the pause button, which  “helped turn television from a flow into text, to be frozen and meditated upon.”

Certainly because it's  possible to stop the flow of televisual (or filmic) time, it becomes irresistible to do it at any and every excuse - watching a program or film becomes a stop-start experience with interruptions for urination, rehydration, snacks, unrelated conversational digressions, and then also rewinds to catch dialogue or plot nuances or repeat particularly enjoyable sequences.

Yet it's also likely to be subject to acceleration, with Netflix planning to introduce a 1.5 speed function (and YouTube already allows you to alter the speed of viewing) - which will make watching TV even more fitful and spasmodic.

Long before TV though, I noticed this disruption to the flow of experiential time when I got my first compact disc player in 1989 - with a remote control with pause and skip etc. Music became a frangible, interruptible thing.





Sunday, October 6, 2019

These Reboots Are Made For Watching and That's Just What You'll Do

"Déjà vu may be eerie and unsettling in real life, but on the small screen it’s comfort food. Familiarity breeds content..."

Vanity Fair feature by Joy Press  (a.k.a the Missus) on retro-TV - reboots of bygone much-loved series...  movie franchise-style prequels and sequels...  adaptations from the big screen to the small screen, including zoom-ins that take a second-level character and make them the lead protagonist of a new series.





Tuesday, September 10, 2019

retro- sexuality (LDR, NFR)

here's my review of Norman Fucking Rockwell!

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Watch out Adele! There’s another soul lady coming up behind you and her name is Lana Del Rey.” 

So said a Top 40 radio deejay last month, transitioning between “Rolling In the Deep”  and “Video Games”. This piece of patter wasn’t just a smart way to introduce an unfamiliar, relatively edgy song to mainstream listeners, it was a rather astute bit of music criticism. Think about it: Adele and Lana Del Rey are young women who’ve had their hearts broken and who sing about it in musical idioms that are overtly non-contemporary:  Etta James-style Sixties soul, with Adele, and in Lana Del Rey’s case, something less tightly anchored to specific sources but equally old-timey in its evocations of the Fifties and early Sixties.  The question both singers raise is “why do these otherwise thoroughly modern women express first-hand feeling s in such second-hand imagery? Why coat something raw and real in this vintage veneer?”

Lana Del Rey arrived on the scene too recently to make it into my book Retromania, but—like Adele—she is an absolute gift when it comes to talking it up: “look, see,  that ’s what I’m  on about!” . That said, they  represent different kinds of retro-pop.  Adele’s is unselfconscious, just an artist who’s embraced a decidedly old-fashioned style and reiterates it without adding much to it.... The hallmark of unselfconscious retro is not dressing the part, not looking like you’ve time-travelled from the era  in which the music is sourced.

Lana Del Rey is much closer to the hyper-conscious retro that’s endemic in indie/ underground music, where clothes and artwork reference a bygone era, while the lyrics and the music itself often teem with crafty allusions..... Retro of this kind, where a group’s sound-and-visuals incorporate citations and where spotting them is an integral part of the fan’s enjoyment, is not a new thing. It’s been part of indie almost from the beginning  (The Smiths’s iconographic record-sleeves, Jesus & Mary Chain or Butthole Surfers “sampling” riffs or backing vocal refrains from Sixties and Seventies rock legends). It can be traced back further still, through glam rock’s Fifties echoes to The Beatles’s Chuck Berry pastiche “Back In the U.S.S.R.” and Zappa’s doowop album (both 1968). At the same time,  there’s no doubt that this kind of conscious retro-activity has intensified in the 21st Century, partly as a result of just how extensive the archive of pop history is now (five or six decades) and partly because the broadband era has made accessing that history so damn easy. YouTube, in particular, is a vast, evergrowing repository of promo and music-on-TV clips along with every other kind of pop (and unpop) culture.  And YouTube is as much as audio library as a video archive. You can school yourself there, free of charge.

Which brings us back to Lana Del Rey. Her rocket-like ascent was propelled by videos she put on YouTube made out of footage she’d found on Youtube.  “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” put History in shuffle mode:  a miasma of Americana that drifts back and forth across the decades  but  is unified by its sustained elegiac mood of not-now-ness.  Amid the appropriated home movie footage of swimming pools and skateboarders and kids on mopeds,  specific allusions pop up: the Hollywood sign, Chateau Marmont, Lana in Lolita sunglasses from Kubrick’s movie, Lana in a racing driver jacket that suggests Evil Knievel or maybe the  70s road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, Lana in a white leather fringe jacket that echoes Easy Rider or maybe Elvis in Las Vegas. 

According to Del Rey, though, the recurrent invocations of places like Vegas and LA in her videos (and also her lyrics) aren’t really references so much as mood-tints.  “The thing that fascinates me about all of them is the colors of the places,” she says on the phone, in transit to another mythic-Americana landscape she adores, Coney Island.  “The muted blues and greens in California, the bright lights of Vegas...  People ask me about what the Fifties imagery from California represents to me, but actually I’m mainly just a visual person.   Sometimes when my producer and I talk about songs, we talk about them in terms of colors. In a way the  album was visually driven. “

Part of the nostalgia effect of the found footage in  Del Rey’s videos derives from the properties of the different kinds of film stock, including the specific way that it ages and decays.  The bleached and blotchy textures trigger a poignant sense of time’s passage, an inkling that even your most halcyon memories will fade to nothingness.  “Blue Jeans” explicitly forefronts the idea of “dead media” and antiquated formats with its opening footage of a hand grabbing a pack of Eastman Ektrachrome Super 8 film.

Lana Del Rey may, in fact, be about to become the first Hipstamatic pop star.  Photo apps like Hipstamatic, Instagram, and ShakeIt!, or Fuuvi’s new faux-Super8 device the Bee, offer a digital simulation of an analogue past. Something similar is going on with Lana Del Rey’s music : old-timey instruments like mandolins, strings, harps and twangy surf guitar make up much of its texture, but there’s also  unidentifiable sounds flying about that are clearly sampled and processed, while the beats on Born To Die are boombastic,  hip hop in impact if not actual feel.  The result:  the RZA meets Lee Hazelwood. Factor in Del Rey’s choices in clothes, hair, accessories and make-up, and it’s clear she’s the perfect pop star for the era of vintage chic. Not that she’s only artist around with sound-and-visuals that are pre-faded and artificially distressed.... 

It’s not just the stylized form of Lana Del Ray’s songs that feels out-of-time, it’s the emotional content too:  a language of romantic excess that harks back to Roy Orbison’s most over-the-top ballads or Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World”. Love as malady and madness, delirium and delusion...  and at the ultimate degree, death. “Dark Paradise” is a song of morbid fidelity, an abandoned or bereaved lover who prefers to keep the company of ghosts: “There’s no remedy for memory...  I wish I was dead.” Elsewhere, Lana sings “I’m not afraid to say that I’d die without him.”

“I don’t really condone relying on another person to the point where you’re going to die without them,” says Del Rey.  “Something I never really expected was to have gotten into a relationship that ended up being very tumultuous.  But I had met someone who was so magnetic and made me feel differently from the way that I felt for so long, which was sort of confused and bored...  and because in the end we couldn’t be together, it ended up having a  do-or-die element to it.  That was an experience that struck me and I kept on falling back to that place in terms of inspiration for the songs.” 

Born To Die goes beyond retro-romance, though, to retro-sexuality, retro-gender.  All those yielding, doe-eyed ballads of abject devotion...  seem to look back in languor to a time when men were men and women were thankful. A pre-feminist world, or more precisely, America before Betty Friedman’s The Feminine Mystique  was published (1963).  So in “Without You”, Del Rey coos “I can be your china doll if you want to see me fall”, while “This Is What Makes Us Girls” seems to define femininity as being a fool for love:  “We all look for heaven and we put love first/Don’t you know we’d die for it?/ It’s a curse.”  At the other extreme, there are songs about women who uses wiles to get what they want. “Off to The Races” recalls Ginger, the Casino character played by Sharon Stone, except if Ginger actually enjoyed being a kept woman and was as docile and adoring as DeNiro’s Sam Rothstein hoped.  She’s a moll, wasting a rich man’s money (“give me them coins”), breaking into a Betty Boo squeak for the lines “I’m your little harlot, starlet” and purring “Tell me you own me”.

 “I’m an interesting mix of person,” says Del Rey defensively, with just a hint of annoyance.  “I am a modern day woman.  I’m self-supporting. I went to college. I studied philosophy. I write my own music. But at the same I also very appreciate being in the arms of a man and finding support that way.  That feeling influences the kind of melodies I choose and how romantic I make the song. Maybe it ends up giving it a slightly unbalanced feeling.”  Asked about the references in other songs on Born To Die about good-girls-gone-bad  (“degenerate beauty queens” is one memorable lyric), she points to David Lynch’s movie Wild At Heart as not so much an inspiration as a parallel with phases in her life. “The way I  ended up having relationships and living life, it sometimes mimics those more wild relationships.  Wild At Heart was an influence – in terms of the way it was shot, but also the love story.”

Right from the off,  commentators have talked of Lana Del Rey in terms of  David Lynch’s dark dreamworlds. They’ve also mentioned singers linked to his work such as  Chris “Wicked Game” Isaak and Julee “Falling” Cruise, whose songs  evoke a bygone era when the brokenhearted died inside but did it in style.  The Lynch connection highlights a curious quality of Lana Del Rey’s whole shtick: not only does it hark back to the Fifties and early Sixties, it inevitably also recalls the Eighties’s own echoes of that time. Movies  like Lynch’s  Blue Velvet, Jarmusch’s Strangers in Paradise and Mystery Train, the S.E. Hinton adaptations Rumblefish and The Outsiders. Musicians as various as Tom Waits,  Alan Vega, Mazzy Star. 

This Sixties-via-Eighties syndrome isn’t  unique to del Rey  by any means. As much as R&B originals like Etta, Adele recalls forgotten Brit soul revivalists like Alison Moyet, Carmel and  Mari Wilson. The scene that Frankie Rose belongs to—Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls—reaches Spector’s wall of sound and the Sixties girl group’s via Jesus and Mary Chain and the “C86” movement of bands like The Shop Assistants. Then there’s The Men, as featured in this issue, who draw from the harder side of mid-Eighties British psych-revivalism. On their song “( )” they filch not just the riff from Spacemen 3’s “Revolution” but a chunk of the lyric (“And I suggest to you/That it takes/Just five seconds”) along with lines from another Spacemen song “Take Me To the Other Side”.

If retro culture has reached the point where we’re seeing revivals of revivals, citations of citations (Spacemen 3 remade Stooges songs while “Revolution” itself is an already-somewhat-hokey homage to MC5), what are the implications for music going forward? As time goes on, signs are becoming more and more detached from their historical referents, hollowed out.  All these sounds, gestures, time-honored phrases, are entering into a freefloating half-life, or afterlife, where all they are is pure style.

This appears to be the ghosty place where Lana Del Ray comes from.  In “Without You”, she sings “but burned into my brain all these stolen images”  and I can’t help thinking of Blade Runner and the android replicants who are given transplanted memories.  Her lyrics are full of sampled clichés (“ walk on the wild side”, “white lightning”, “feet don’t fail me”) or references to iconic brand-names (“white Pontiac heaven”,  “Bugatti Veyron”).  But she says that the Pontiac allusion isn’t for its pop-cultural associations (Two Lane Blacktop and other 70s movies, songs by Tom Waits and Jan & Dean) so much as “just the sound” of the word. Likewise, the name “Lana Del Rey” was chosen for its lilting loveliness, rather than its rippling resonances (a Hollywood movie idol with platinum blonde hair and a turbulent private life, a California beach town, a make of 1950s Chevrolet). It was “a big risk” renaming herself, she says, “but my music was always beautiful and I wanted a name that was beautiful too.”

“Beautiful” is a word that crops up repeatedly in Del Rey’s conversation, as it does in her lyrics. She seems to be intensely susceptible to the splendor of appearances, to the point of vulnerability. “You look like a million dollar man/ so why is my heart broke?”, she beseeches plaintively in “Million Dollar Man”.  In “National Anthem”, she sings about “blurring the lines between real and the fake.”  The gap between image and reality is an obsession. So is fame, portrayed as the dangerous desire to lose oneself by merging into a glamorous facade. “I even think I found god in the flashbulbs of your pretty cameras,” she sings in “Without You”, while the words “Movie Star Without a Cause” flash up in the video for “Blue Jeans”.

Then there’s “Carmen”, seemingly a song about a 17-year-old starlet who’s dying inside and only comes alive when “the camera’s on”, but really more like a perturbing self-portrait. “‘Carmen’ is probably the song closest to my heart,” says Del Rey, who seems vaguely put-out that I’ve heard it. “’Famous and dumb in an early age’—that’s fame in a different way, in different circles, for different reasons. Not really for being a pop star. It’s sort of like, my life”. Once again, you have to wonder about an artistic imagination so colonized by old movies and old songs that it can only express things that really happened in a real life through this “cinematic” prism.  Is this a distancing mechanism, a buffer to manage the emotion? Or was the actual love affair itself contaminated by fantasy and role-play?

^^^^^^

What we have with Lana Del Rey is the problem of the undeniable talent who is also a throwback, and who therefore sets back the cause of musical modernism. (See also: The White Stripes).  She’s not a  straightforward revivalist: the music and the presentation are diversely sourced and the end result is a sophisticated concoction (in that respect, she’s closer to The White Stripes than Adele). But it still falls, ultimately, within the domain of pastiche, memorably defined as “speech in a dead language”.  Given her passive persona, it’s tempting to say that the ghosts of pop culture’s collective unconscious speak through her....   

[disco edit of Spin, 2012 piece for their Retro-Activity issue]

[full length mix here]

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

OPM (Other People's Memories), or, The "lucky bag" principle of aleatory record buying applied to photography

aka Why Do Some People Develop the Lost Camera Films of Total Strangers?

Amelia Tait at the Observer, er, observes this strange subculture of hobbyists who purchase rolls of undeveloped film and then develop them - sometimes getting a bunch of blank grey images, sometimes nondescript snapshots, but occasionally something weird or poignant:

"Those who sell mystery film often don’t set out to trade in the stuff, instead it’s usually picked up by chance at house clearances, inside old cameras or in charity shops. There are many tragic reasons why these rolls could have been forgotten about – divorce, death, dementia – and many mundane ones: film processing is expensive and it’s easy to set aside a half-used roll to be finished later and simply forget about it. Used film can sell from £1 to £100 on eBay, and more and more people are gathering online to celebrate their hobby....

"For Levi Bettwieser, a 33-year-old video producer from Idaho, an interest in forgotten film can be both expensive and risky. Bettwieser estimates he has spent “upwards of $10,000” on rolls of film over the past five years, and says he “can get 10 rolls in a row that come out blank” due to the film being degraded. “A couple of years ago, I was winning and buying every single roll of used film on eBay,” Bettwieser says. “There’s always a feeling of overall excitement that you might get something amazing, something historically viable. Or you might get more cat photos.” Bettwieser now runs a non-profit scheme, the Rescued Film Project, where he encourages people to give him their old rolls which he then develops. “Part of the reason I’m doing it is because I like the idea of being the first person to ever see these images; even the photographer has never seen them.”

It's a bit intrusive.... a bit peeping-tom-ish, if you think about it.

It's also archive fever finding a new zone to flex itself in - again the idea that everything deserves to be preserved....

“I love so many images for so many reasons,” says Bettwieser, when asked about his favourite photo he’s recovered. “I try and look at every image I rescue as if I’m looking at it in 50 years – everything I rescue is history. People hold on to rolls of film for years and years in the back of a drawer, because we all know that pictures are history, whether it’s just a birthday party or not. Pictures are our only defence against time, our only evidence, sometimes, that we ever even existed.”

Postscript August 1st - 
interesting thoughts on this subject from Xenogothic, who is a collector of such images and is drawn to them for their "alterity"

"The main thrill comes from seeing something radically out of context. The anxiety of the unanswerable question that haunted Roland Barthes instead becomes a perverse thrill — indeed, as it was for Barthes though he seemed reluctant to admit it.


Like an object found on the beach in a ghost story, the energy trapped in a photograph like a fly in amber is a special thing that is highly susceptible to romantic flights of the nostalgic subject and, as such, to find such things in the world of the vernacular image is far past the pale of cliche...."

Xenogothic also says that another place to find such images is record covers

Saturday, June 1, 2019

dead pop stars and their profitable afterlife

Interesting piece on the pop hologram phenomenon by Owen Myers at The Guardian, featuring some quotes from me, specifically on the exploitation of dead stars .

Here's the full responses I sent to Owen a week or two ago:

My gut insta-reaction is that it’s a new way for the old to tyrannize the young – because you can’t get any older than being dead. So the next step beyond the reunion tours, and all the legacy acts that dominate festival line-ups, is the hologram tour: no longer alive artists extending their brand power beyond the grave.

The syndrome raises all kinds of ethical and philosophical questions. To what extent are these performances in any real sense, given that a performance (whether showbiz entertainment or performance art) is by definition live, involving the unmediated presence of living performers, whereas the hologram tours  are  “unlive” and involve  non-presence? 

On an ethical and economic level, I would liken it to a form of “ghost slavery”. That applies certainly when done without the consent of the star, by the artist’s estate in collusion with the record company or tour promoter. 

But even if an artist might consent while still alive and legally grant the posthumous rights to  their image, voice, etc, for exploitation, that doesn’t make it right or proper. Nor does the fact that there might be a consumer demand for this make it a wholesome development. 

It’s a form of unfair competition: established stars continuing their market domination after their death and stifling the opportunities for new artists.

It’s reminiscent of Marx on  capital as the spectral vampire of dead labour, which when living and working had surplus value sucked out of it and then turned into yet more finance capital, thereby continuing the dominion over and exploitation of  living labour for generations to come.  But it’s Das Kapital crossed with Freud’s writings about the uncanny.

Hologram tours are very much an extension of the syndromes discussed in Retromania. I don’t think they existed as more than a rumour when I was writing the book - there might be a brief mention of them in there. But I do discuss the idea of movie stars being reanimated and how that was happening then already with figures like Audrey Hepburn being used in commercials using digital trickery. 

It does seem  like another facet to this that will soon be possible is that the technology will emerge such that the vocal timbre and mannerisms, the facial expressions and bodily gestures, conversational speech patterns, etc etc, of performers can be captured digitally - through assimilating and analysing the sum total of all their existing recordings, performances, videos, films, etc etc -  and that you will get a sort of digi-simulacrum of the artist singing new songs, guesting as vocalist or rapper on other people’s records, appear in videos or movies etc. That seems totally conceivable to me. The simulacrum would probably not be able to do convincing spontaneous stage banter or appear on chat shows, but who knows?  In those circumstances, they could be remotely ventriloquized by someone offstage, so that that person’s voice – or even written text – would be spoken by the simulacrum’s real-seeming voice.  In the recording studio, you’d just need the software which would generate the voice, or the instrumental performance.

In response to a question about whether watching a hologram performance was really any different from watching, say, an old Marilyn Monroe movie on TV.... .

No, I think there’s a greater dimension of wish-fulfillment and suspension of disbelief. The spectators are allowing themselves to half-believe that they are in the presence of the star. That’s why it’s like a ghost – a ghost could be defined as a “present absence”, neither here nor there, neither now nor then, but in some ontologically queasy interzone between being and nonbeing.

It’s eerie, it’s fascinating, it’s troubling.