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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Psycho-Analyze My Jukebox Picks
Purchased for one American dollar at world famous Swannie's in Buffalo, New York last night. No conscious thought of theme or message.

1. Tom Petty - Breakdown
2. Tragically Hip - Poets
3. The Clash - Clampdown
4. Bob Marley - Get Up, Stand Up

(My colleague expressed shock at selection number two, but that song is totally underrated. Their last great single, really. You can have Bobcaygeon. "Lava flowing in Super Farmer's direction/ He's been gettin' reprieve from the heat in the frozen-food section, yeah-ah?" Genius. Plus, I totally hate poets.)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Unified Theory Of Stephin Merritt and Britney Spears
Recently on the Internet, a number of people were moved to debate whether Stephin Merritt, a Caucasian songwriter who is generally less popular than John Mayer, is a racist. For the most part the discussion was - though maybe not for Merritt himself - kind of funny.

First, because Merritt's actual attitude towards other races is entirely unknowable - especially since he is an unknowable artist, meaning that all of his actions are subject to potential irony. For instance, even if Merritt expressed an interest in Hitler and appeared to offer a Nazi salute, this would not automatically make him a Nazi (see Bowie, David). Similarly, even if Merritt was photographed hugging a number of black pre-schoolers this would not automatically make him a tolerant human being. He might just be running for political office.

Second, since Merritt's actual attitude towards other races is entirely unknowable, the discussion about Merritt's actual attitude towards other races came to be about everyone else's actual attitude towards other races.

It's the sort of thing Britney Spears might understand.

You see, while the Internet was debating Stephin Merritt's possible racism, the rest of the world was busy trying to come to terms with Britney's latest adventure in breeding. The reaction was largely negative and mocking, but this is nothing new. Because Britney is quite possibly the most criticized artist in pop music history. In fact, almost everything she has ever done, or seemed to do, has met with some level of criticism.

A small sampling of her alleged sins includes: over sexualizing young girls, succeeding without sufficient talent, not practicing proper hygiene, disrespecting the bonds of holy matrimony, falsely proclaiming virginity, falsely proclaiming natural breasts, not obeying local traffic laws, falling short of education standards and, of course, getting fat.

It doesn't really matter if Britney is guilty of anything. Indeed, she may be completely innocent on all charges. Her breasts might be real. And she was at one point, one assumes, a virgin. The easy and typical answer for the scrutiny that Britney endures is that she is merely unfortunate enough to exist at a time of unprecedented fascination with celebrities.

This is only sort of true.

What's more true is that we all secretly hate celebrities. Or at least enjoy hating upon them. And what's even more truer than that is that Britney exists at time when society, thanks to the Internet and Nancy Grace, has completely abandoned the pursuit of reasonable discussion. There are only sides now. Republicans and Democrats, Red Sox and Yankees, Brad and Jennifer, Kobe Bryant and The World, Taylor and Katherine, and so forth. Someone has to win. Usually the bad guy.

(This is not to suggest that, say, the 1950s were a period of great enlightenment when entire towns could gather after church to work out the problems of the day over Sunday brunch. Quite the opposite probably. But in 50 years we have gained all the tools and freedom to discuss whatever we want with whoever we want, only to discover we haven't the faintest idea how to actually talk about stuff. It turns out Sports talk radio didn't signal the end of civilization, it actually foretold the future.)

Issues that do not lend themselves to yes or no answers are, then, difficult to discuss. But they must be discussed. We want to discuss them. So we project them on to celebrities we find so fascinating/distasteful. Through Britney, for instance, we've been able to implicitly explore sex, the mysteries of success, proper hygiene, marriage, sex, cosmetic enhancement, traffic safety, education and, of course, weight gain. Also: sex.

Try and get through even a single day without thinking about at least one of those subjects (even if you eliminate sex, this is nearly impossible). Now try to think of a single public forum in which you could imagine a reasonable and balanced exchange of thoughts on said subjects (anywhere involving alcohol probably doesn't count). Such a place, if it ever existed, is not readily available to the majority of the population. So we have Britney - who is available to everyone, all the time - and after her an endless list of singers, actors, actresses, athletes, disgraced Survivor winners and synth-pop songwriters. Through them we can discuss anything we want from a reasonably safe distance.

So, sure, Stephin Merritt probably isn't a racist. But the world is probably a better place for him having been accused of such. Because that way, everyone wins. Except Stephin Merritt.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Mike Tyson: So Not A Rockist
Former champ to maybe join Westlife.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Programming Notes
I give it about six months before some enthusiastic entertainment journalist writes the inevitable 'Demise of MuchMusic piece' about how the nation's music station has lost itself and MTV is the way of the future. Don't get me wrong, MuchMusic isn't going anywhere (and it's really no worse than it's ever been - Gen Xers just can't resist playing the 'it was better in my day' card), but the station is making it way too easy to forecast its doom. (And, for really the first time ever, there's a decent alternative.)

For instance, tonight I flipped on the latest episode of Born To Be. Essentially, this program is supposed to document, through old interview clips and a strangely ridiculous voice over, how a given artist was destined for greatness. Essentially, its an infomercial.

Anyway. Tonight's subject was Nickelback. Any kind of 'indepth' programming about Nickelback is fascinating because Chad Kroeger is just so preciously self-serious and Much loves to replay his measured explanation as to why Nickelback does not, in fact, 'suck.'

The best part though had nothing to do with Prof. Kroeger. Instead it was creepy voice over guy informing us, in ominous tones, how Nickelback's record Silver Side Up had been released on (Gasp!) Sept. 11, 2001 and how (My God!) Nickelback were just ten minutes from the spot in Pennsylvania where United 93 crashed. Somehow, we were told, Nickelback managed to persevere through this adversity.

Pretty phenomenal television. Nickelback as victim of the worst ever terrorist attack on American soil. If you're a writer at MuchMusic are you submitting that just to see if your producer is clueless enough to include it or have you simply drifted so far from reality that you honestly believe as much? Could even Kroeger say that with a straight face?

The best part is: that isn't even the worst thing I saw on Much in the last week. No, that prize is reserved unquestionably for new VJ Tim's appearance on MOD. I knew he wasn't going to be very good. We all knew this. But I was completely unprepared for how bad he is. It actually kind of hurts to watch. You end up feeling sad for him. Sort of.

For the few minutes that I watched he was teamed with VJ Leah and it was like watching Mozart and Nick Lachey teach a seminar in classical music theory.

Obviously, he could get better. Surely, there's some kind of camp for cases like his. Or a pill he can take. But right now he's projecting to eventually challenge Rainbow Sun Francks' standard for Much VJ futility.

***

Meanwhile, Much quietly introduced new VJ Hannah Simone the other day, immediately rendering the whole VJ Search thing pointless. And she just so happens to have what must be the most impressive resume in the history of VJdom.

Born in England, raised in Calgary, Saudi Arabia, Cyprus, India and British Columbia. Previous work includes modeling, researching a book for Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, acting in the Vagina Monologues and developing cultural awareness programs for the UN. Plus, she likes Gwen Stefani.

Tim, meanwhile, thinks Blink-182 is one of the five most influential acts of all time.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

If Music Nerds Were Half As Sensitive As They Think They Are, There Would Be More Discussion Of...
This.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Greatest Pitchfork Headline of All-Time
Reminder: Sonic Youth on "Gilmore Girls" Tonight

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Another Thing I Find More Interesting Than Neil Young's New Record (II)
If you're anything like me, you probably saw the picture of Pete Doherty injecting a seemingly unconscious female with heroin and thought, 'That's some crazy shit. Pete's really outdone himself this time. There's no way he does anything more messed up than that.'

Well, if you're anything like me, you can take that back right about... now.

Blood paintings. And not just any old blood paintings... blood paintings to prove his innocence. His former manager explains:

"He was very careful, he used a new needle. Pete has become very good at using the syringe, either scratching it on to the paper or spraying an area. It creates an effect a little like a Ralph Steadman cartoon."

Well, I guess so long as he's careful about it... I mean, who are we to deny talent?

Anyway. I've changed my mind about Pete Doherty. I've come to think that there's no way he dies. I mean, let's say he overdoses tomorrow or gets in a car accident or drowns or whatever. Well, then he's just another idiotic/tragic rock star. And there's just no way he goes out like that. Because Pete Doherty is operating on a whole other level now.

(By the way, please don't be that guy who e-mails me to point out that blood painting isn't that weird because, you know, who are we to judge the personal nature of one's art? We're talking about blood painting. Blood. Painting. Painting with the blood of yourself and others. We're not talking about oil or acrylic or pastel or watercolour. We're talking about blood. Human plasma and cells. Blood. Generally speaking, normal people don't do this.)

Let's put it this way: if you heard tomorrow that Pete Doherty had eaten a puppy on stage, would you really be that surprised? What if you heard he was launching a career as a porn star? Or running for parliament? Or that he had been arrested for plotting to kill Dick Cheney? Would any of these things be the least bit shocking?

Actually, I think that last one might come close. If I heard Pete Doherty had pledged his allegiance to al-Qaeda, that would genuinely surprise me. But, then again, as I think about it, I can totally see that happening. I mean, I imagine even al-Qaeda has its standards and would likely reject his application, but that probably wouldn't stop Doherty from trying.

So why on earth would Pete Doherty go out like just another rock star?

See, I'm convinced he knows exactly what he's doing. I mean, I don't think he's generally coherent enough to drive, but I think he has a great amount of self awareness. He's a showman. (On the same note, I just read an interview with Robin Williams in which he says the one thing he wishes people realized is that he's completely in control. He knows what he's doing. All the seemingly random, stream of consciousness rambling and spur of the moment slapstick... there's improvisation there, but he's thought about it all. Same thing here.)

So there's no way Doherty isn't aware of how this is supposed to end. But there's also no way a guy who produces paintings drawn in his blood and the blood of others to beat a criminal charge is the least bit interested in how this is supposed to end.

He probably had his chance right after he left the Libertines. He could have recorded Fuck Forever (his All Apologies), shot himself full of a little too much heroin and called it a day. We all would have accepted this and dutifully added his demise to the official list of Important Moments In Rock N Roll history.

But now? He's upped the ante too high.

And that is why he almost definitely lives to be at least 97. Just to mess with us. In fact, sometime around 2037 I bet he releases an incendiary and controversial record denouncing Jeb Bush III and his illegal war on Norway*. And I bet he debuts it before an intimate audience in the cafeteria of the just opened Pete Doherty Institute of Art in London, England.


*Guesting on lead guitar: Keith Richards.
Another Thing I Find More Interesting Than Neil Young's New Record (I)
I keep waiting for the dream to end, but Taylor Hicks, the 48-year-old American Idol contestant, now has a one in four chance of becoming the most unlikely American Idol in the show's history. That he's even gotten this far is an impressive achievement. Primarily because it's difficult to explain how he did it.

He is talented. And sort of compelling. But who exactly is voting for this guy? Who is this guy's target audience? To the average 13-year-old girl he must seem a father figure. And no 13-year-old girl would ever vote for her dad for anything, except perhaps Grossest Thing Ever. Even to the average 13-year-old girl's mother, looking perhaps for an object of boy toy lust, he must seem a little old. I suppose there could be a previously discounted number of Randy Newman fans jamming the telephone lines. And there is the requisite Internet tribute. But otherwise he is truly improbable.

In fact, if he pulls this off, he might be one of the most unlikely success stories in modern American history - right up there with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hugh Hefner, Ed McMahon, Lil Jon and, of course, everyone associated with professional bowling. A grey-haired male singer with almost no ties to anything that's been popular for twenty years, he is basically the opposite of contemporary pop music. The Goo Goo Dolls are more relevant.

Simon Cowell says the silver fox is going to make the final two. Which is encouraging. But ultimately meaningless. Because here's the thing, if Taylor does anything other than win this, he's nothing - a curious footnote at best. To date, the only contestants from American Idol who have left any impression on Western society (no Ruben Studdard fat jokes here) are, in order: 1) Kelly Clarkson, 2) Clay Aiken and 3) William Hung. Of the three, Clarkson is the only one with any claim to legitimate success. Aiken and Hung existed momentarily as oddities and largely creepy oddities at that.

Taylor isn't quite creepy enough to rival the last two. So his only real hope is to win and use the resulting push to find the sort of success Clarkson eventually found.

This is still rather unlikely. In fact, I don't think he has much hope of winning. To be honest, I'd probably vote for the hot girl too.

But the possibilities are so tantalizing. Taylor could be the sort of singular star who changes the rules. An individual who could heal America. Bridge the gap between young and old, parent and child, baby boomer and tween - perhaps bringing the two sides together to formulate a long-term solution to the emerging Social Security crisis.

In short, the sort of icon Neil Young can now only dream of being.

Thursday, May 4, 2006

The Most Controversial Blog Post Ever
Neil Young's new album, "Living with War," is an incendiary, moving, totally American document of peaceful protest that is going to make a lot of people crazy one way or another.

And there's no doubt that the centerpiece of the album, a song called "Let's Impeach the President," performed as a melodic, rocking campfire ode, will be what causes the most controversy.

(credit Fox)

Whatever the musical qualities of Neil Young's new album, it is almost certainly this: the least controversial record you will hear this year. In fact, it might be the least controversial record of all-time.

The vague concept of controversy likely had its peak when OJ Simpson was unsuccessfully accused of killing those two people. That was controversial. A celebrated football player with a promising comedic acting career, two grisly murders, a highway chase conducted at a reasonable speed, a racist cop, questionable science, the Dancing Itos and a wacky roommate. Regular people actually felt very passionately about this stuff. When the verdict was announced you were either over-joyed or totally pissed. There was no in between. You were not allowed to be indifferent.

Since then, thanks to the Internet and Nancy Grace, controversy has slowly lost all meaning.

Everything is controversial now. Jack White's ad for Coca-Cola. Hawaii's gas price-cap law. The judgment of a replacement umpire in Toledo. The sculpture of Kate Moss practicing yoga. The movie about the plane that passengers forced to crash on Sept. 11. And, of course, tomorrow's town meeting in Eastham, Massachusetts.

Of course, if everything is controversial, nothing is controversial. Identifying these things as controversial suggests that people are deeply split over their respective value. This is not generally true. Few people outside the clubhouse of the Toldeo Mud Hens are particularly distraught over the ruling of a replacement umpire in a recent game. Absolutely no one, not even Kate Moss, cares about a sculpture of the professional drug addict practicing yoga. These things are, at most, contested. Or disputed. Or merely interesting.

Now, the War in Iraq is actually controversial. Almost as much so as the time OJ didn't kill anybody. It, in fact, is the sort of thing for which the word controversial should be reserved. There have been public protests, presentations before the United Nations and even a Presidential election conducted on its merits.

But - and this is an important distinction to make - criticism of the War in Iraq and/or the President who led his nation into it, is not actually controversial. In fact, it's rather mundane.

According to an informal survey, approximately 3,982 records have been released since Sept. 2001, criticizing the President of the United States, the War on Terror and/or the War in Iraq. Several editorialists on television and in print have followed suit with dissenting opinions. Even Comedy Central has gone so far as to green light a program - working title: The Daily Show - dedicated entirely to criticism of the operation and its authors. At last count approximately two-thirds of those Americans who were bored enough to speak with a pollster agreed that the President of the United States was doing a rather poor job. Unless you are among the descendents of Samuel Prescott Bush, it is nearly impossible to go a day without hearing some criticism of America's latest adventure in democracy spreading.

None of Neil Young's relatives have yet invited me into their cars to listen to Young's new record. But I'm fairly certain I understand the gist. I also imagine that Neil considers his latest work among his most important and bold to date. It might eventually prove to be the first, but it is almost definitely not the second. In fact, it might be the safest record he's ever made.

Controversial would have been a sympathetic record written from the perspective of Mohammad Atta. Or a hit single about abortion (even if Ben Folds beat you to it). If 50 Cent announced his homosexuality and then released a single defending hip-hop's homophobia, that would probably be controversial. If Kanye West released a record exploring man's inherent racism, with each song built on a sample of a Wagner recording, that would count too.

A major artist at the peak of his popularity going on national television during a period of profound national crisis and calling the president a racist? Controversial. An aging rock star well past his commercial prime recording an album that only repeats what 338 leading historians have already argued? Not even all that newsworthy.

If Neil Young was really interested in making a statement he would perform naked for the duration of his next tour, hoping to demonstrate that old people are physically beautiful too. Or use his new album to lay out a specific alternative vision for America which he could then loan to the Democratic Party.

If he was feeling particularly heroic, he could even help OJ find the real killer. At this point it's arguably as interesting a pursuit.

***

Pearl Jam won't get half the credit (because, first, they're not important like Neil Young and, second, they're not Nirvana), but their record says all the same stuff with just as much rock and twice the eloquence. Young's Living with War is, for the most part, a blog post put to music. Someday this will surely be used to explain its enduring relevance.

***

Fun with hypotheticals: Imagine Johnny Cash was still alive and did exactly the same thing Young has done and the resulting record was of exactly the same quality. Only difference - Cash's record was a spirited and rousing defence of George W. Bush's vision for America. Would that record have received a 7.6 from Pitchfork?

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