Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Process Writing: "You May Ask Yourself, Well, How Did I Get Here?"

I’m comfortable with writing reviews for The Index, leading Naked and writing album or show reviews. I just wrote my first piece for Kalamazoo Local Music on the Fretboard Festival contestants. It felt completely natural.

Yet writing for this class has been much more strenuous than writing research papers or history essays this quarter.


Maybe it’s the over justification effect: getting a grade, an extrinsic value, removes the intrinsic value I place on writing. Writing is an conversation, just organized and it runs one-way. It keeps my brain together; I carry a journal wherever I go.

Regardless, it is all part of a larger theme of feeling uncomfortable.

For one, I never reviewed a book before. Art exhibit? I mean, those reviews for The Index may have had a “but” statement, though a lot of it was summary, description, and more of a look of how an exhibit came to be.

So what was my process when it came to reviewing something I lack sufficient knowledge and/or experience to feel comfortable and confident?

I took a lot of notes, then I threw them on my computer screen.

I did exactly what Amy Waldman’s described when she visited our campus. I dumped everything, and then I clumped quotes, themes, observations, and inferences together in order to make sense of out chaos. I filled in gaps, deleted some phrases, and tied in other clumps, and, somehow, a rough, rough draft appeared before me.

The live performance piece flowed right out of me. The first film review was not so bad--after we received feedback and I knew what to look for.

But after a bit of struggling after reviewing a journalists’ work, an art exhibit, and a book, I realized one of my problems is that I find my “but” statement too late. And it’s not a big deal to take it and place it at the top, but by then I usually ran out of my time or caffeine to sufficiently edit the other bits so my thesis would ring throughout my piece.

From jotting notes in a dark movie theater to joining a tour with elderly folks, this class has been uncomfortable. And I mean that in the best possible of ways. Challenge by choice: you have to immerse yourself in uncomfortable situations in order to grow.

I learned that opinions are expensive, and they must be bought thriftily and concisely with words. These are the days I’m cashing my checks.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Divine Comedy with a Mandate of Heaven

China's favorite dissident, Ai Weiwei, is making a rock album.

Dubbed "Shen Qu," or "Divine Comedy," the album will trace back to the 81 days Ai spent in prison without a charge. When he was asked to sing by guards he realized he never sang before and that the only songs he knew were revolutionary songs.

From the New York Times blog Ai stated he's mixing pop and rock with heavy metal. I'm curious whether his characterization of "heavy metal" traces the likes of Black Sabbath, the industrial feel of Nine Inch Nails, or if its something more dissonant.

There's a good chance that any modern piece of music referencing Dante will sound echo prog rock (Radiohead's Hail to the Thief comes to mind), but Mr. Ai will be collaborating with friend and artist Zuoxiao Zuzhou, who has been called China's Leonard Cohen.

The album will be referencing issues and politics surrounding the modern Chinese republic from the blind rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng to web censorship. A few months ago Elton John dedicated his concert in Beijing to Ai Wei Wei, further infuriating the Chinese government. After Elton John's comment, China's culture ministry requires all foreign performers to have at least a university degree.

Shen Qu will be released in three weeks, according to his interview with Reuters today.

My Submission

Out of 5,000 contestants the single winner in submitting a design for the Ground Zero memorial is a Muslim architect named Mohammad Khan. A born Muslim who ate pork, dated Jews, and never prayed. In wake of 9/11, the governor’s aid said “all over the Muslim world they’ll be jumping up and down at our stupidity, our stupid tolerance.”

Or at least this is what Amy Waldman hypothesized in The Submission. As a former New York Times journalist, Waldman utilized sharp details, but as a novelist she employed themes to tell a bigger truth out of fiction. While initially confusing with the emergence of new characters, The Submission worked so well as a novel because it doesn’t feel like a work of fiction.

Weaving the mixed narratives of an architect, a widow, the chairman of the memorial project, an immigrant, and a sleazy journalist, the different perspectives become alarmingly confusing. Though the novel built compelling tension from the very instance when Khan was announced winner of the contest, she introduced jumped perspectives too often that the characters could not fall into place quickly enough.

Once past this initial confusion, Walman projected her characters with varying motives. As a result of their different backgrounds, and placed within the context of vulnerable post 9/11 America, she crafted characters with purpose. She painted the image of juror and recent widow Claire Burwell with moral authority when defending Khan’s right to win the contest.

In another instance, Burwell’s influence dissipated when a fellow jury member told her to “get over it.” At this point she began second guessing herself, as Waldman wrote “In a comic book, power would be leaking from here like a liquid.”

The theme of doubt and self-image ran throughout the novel, as evocative analogies tied themes between characters. Khan out of his self-consciousness, he shaved his thick beard when supplying his photo to the submission.

Though many of her are New York elites, from the likes of chairman Paul Rubin and Burwell, she captured the stress of an America in peril. From her different characters’ perspectives, she raise questions during America’s insecure social climate. When threading Rubin’s doubts of the memorial project as controversy of having a Muslim name goes on, he reflected on his country, “it would take more than a new memorial to unite it.”

Amy Waldman combined her skills of reportage with novelist detail in The Submission to 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Final Assignment Abstract: Indie is Not a Genre

This past week the New York Times and The Atlantic reported this has been the first time global music sales rose since the conception of Napster.

Therefore, with the advent of anti-piratacy legislation, improved technology (namely, smart phones), and the subscriptions to streaming sites/applications such as Spotify or Grooveshark, illegally downloading music is becoming obsolete.

Whether it is a Top 40 hit or some underground band from Austin, TX, it has never been so easy to find the music catered to a listener's taste.

This past week the band Fun. received a Grammy for Best New Artist, as the Los Angeles Times reported, the "indie trio" performed their hit "We Are Young." While Fun. releases their music through Fueled By Ramen records, which is a subsidiary of Warner Music Group, they also distribute through Atlantic Records. Both of these enterprises are major labels.

This assignment will be looking at groups dubbed "indie" while distributing music through major conglomerates such as Time Warner.

But what does "Indie" mean?

Indie is short for independent. It takes the "Do-It-Yourself" ethos in marketing and distributing one's own music, while remaining independent from the major record labels domineering an artist's direction. Yet, looking through the bands performing at the 2013 Grammys, when bands such as Fun. under Fueled By Ramen records or the Black Keys under V2 (of Universal Music Group), are dubbed indie but the word takes on a different meaning.

Thus, through the portrayal of indie music in mainstream media (Grammys, selected samples from major publications such as the LATimes) in tandem with the advent of streaming applications, smart technology, and anti-pirate legislation, the label "Indie" is has transformed from a category describing music independent from major record labels to a constructed consumerist genre in order attracts a particular market of young listeners.

This year 2013's "Indie" doesn't mean what it once meant in 2003.

Thank you for reading. And please, feedback, suggestions, and inquiries will be very much appreciated.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Seth MacFarlane Hosts the Oscars with the Witlessness of a Family Guy Episode

Commenting on Daniel Day Lewis’ acting prowess in Lincoln, Oscars host Seth MacFarlane delivered with a smug smirk “the only person who got into Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth.” And as silence filled the room, he quipped “What? 150 years later and it’s too soon, huh?”

This year’s Oscars was controversial not because of the nominees and of its winners, but because of the television show Family Guy creator MacFarlane spewing the crude jokes of a state school fraternity frat boy. While MacFarlane often pitched the easiest of jokes, it is comforting he could be so politically incorrect on live television; not only in front of the American masses, but also the Hollywood elite.

With the Oscar nominees of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Flight, and Inocente, the year 2012 gave the impression of awareness for racial inequalities. Macfarlane’s tastelessness (“if tonight’s show isn’t gay enough yet”) at least dismissed the illusion of an egalitarian society as America continues to struggle with social distinctions, as seen through the subject matter of these aforementioned films.

The night’s winners weren’t shocking, except when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall tied for Best Editing, as a tie has only happened twice before in 1932 and 1968. Anne Hathaway’s award for Best Supporting Actress was a given, though Christopher Waltz in Django Unchained was a pleasant surprise. Daniel Day Lewis gave a very humbling speech for Best Leading Actor, with giving his final thanks to the spirit of Abraham Lincoln.

And it was the humility in these select speeches that became the most refreshing moments of the night, in spite of the host’s self-indulgent humor and Quentin Tarantino’s narcissistic acceptance for Best Original Screenplay. The nominees for Best Picture were all great contenders, as director Ben Affleck of Argo sped through his speech in awe and gratitude. Likewise with Ang Lee for Best Directing in Life of Pi.

The live performances overwhelmed the awkward silences when Shirley Bassey sang “Goldfinger” for the 50th year anniversary of the James Bond franchise. Other acts included Adele bending her vocal range with “Skyfall,” and Dream Girls’ Jennifer Hudson stealing the show with “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

During a night of indecent humor, the Best Documentary acceptance speech for Inocente best reminded what the Oscars had forgotten when Sean Fine said “We need to start supporting the arts, because they're dying in our community.”

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Whether it's Dr. Seuss' anti-fascist cartoons, or '60s rock journalism, the most lively sources from the past are from the critics.

The critic's artistic medium takes form in written opinion. Given Oscar Wilde's platonic dialogue in The Critic As Artist, I thoroughly enjoyed the theory of a critic using another artist's work as raw materials in creating a new art; however, I disagree with Wilde when he claimed "It is very much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it."

Bob Dylan expressed his feelings and thoughts on criticism in a recent Rolling Stone interview,
"I try to get past all that. I have to. When you ask me if I find criticism of my work irrelevant or silly, no, not if it's constructive. If someone could point out here or there where my work could be improved upon, I guess I'd be willing to listen. The people who are obsessed with criticism – it's not honest criticism. They are not the people who I play to anyway."
And then he continued,
"Everything people say about you or me, they are saying about themselves. They're telling about themselves. Ever notice that?"
As a history major I immerse myself within primary texts, and regardless of the time period, I enjoy reading the journalistic articles the most.

I like feeling the bite of words.

So with my breadth of popular press from an expanse of history, here's how I see it: there's an ongoing negotiation between the consumers (readers) and the producers (writers). Let's take the aforementioned Rolling Stone magazine as it emerged out of the haze that was the San Francisco countercultural movement in 1967. These writers held their fingers on the pulse of underground rock 'n' roll. Perhaps best illustrated in a scathing review a Cream concert, Rolling Stone critic Jon Landau dubbed the guitar virtuoso Eric Clapton as "a master of blues cliche." After reading the article, Clapton realized it was the end of this power trio.

Thus the critic must be a trust worthy source for opinion and coverage. If not (according to Gramsci's notion of "compromise equilibrium") the consumers reject a producer's work.

As an aspiring musician and journalist I will embrace criticism because I want to improve. I'll set aside my ego, and I'll take risks because this is the time to grow. Echoing Bob Dylan, I will take careful note of constructive criticism, but I'll be skeptical of peers projecting their anxieties. Playing guitar on a stage can be simultaneously the most liberating and most nerve-wracking experience. Try it sometime. Do at a cabaret, open-mic night. There's nothing to lose.

From my perspective in writing original music and writing criticism, creating art in the moment is much more difficult than to talk about it.

Sure, music critics might end an musician's career with a particular band or coin terms like "sheets of sound" in jazz. They may make an artist's work last longer, seen by Gilbert's example of da Vinci's work in The Critic As Artist. Readers, scholars, and fellow history nerds can look back and say "for these reasons, this is why the Velvet Underground was great."

We covered in class that art is communication. I'll take it further: it is expression when words fail. Can words really capture the sheets of sounds in John Coltrane's solos, or express how a teenager suddenly wants to learn how to play guitar after watching Jimmy Page on TV?

Maybe I, as a critic, am merely projecting. In fact, I'm certain I am. But let's see you shred the guitar, critic. I'll be listening.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Presumptuous Reviewer, Noble Critic

“I was often accused of writing about everything but the movie,” film critic Pauline Kael answered in Afterglow. Although stubbornly opinionated, even presumptuous in her writing, Kael as a critic revealed greater truths of American culture through film reviews.
Popular film was her medium of criticism when she began writing for the sophisticated New Yorker in 1967. She embraced the pop appeal of movies, how energy flows out of them. She noted good directors, such as Altman with Nashville, use pop as a vehicle for art.

The magazine’s editor, William Shawn, noticed the average age of readers significantly lowering after Kael joined. It was her receptiveness that lead to her popularity her as a critic. Kael enjoyed big box office hits such as Jawsthe Matrix, and E.T, yet she dubbed The Sound of Music as “The Sound of Money.”

She criticized Hiroshima Mon Amour, and its reception, that the intellectual audience found “wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism.” Juxtaposed to E.T.,she described the viewing experience with a “lightness of soul.”

Yet her writings has not been met without criticisms. Renata Adler in House Critic denounced Kael’s writing as overbearing, and her mannerisms as overused. Despite attacking Kael for losing vitality after the ‘60s, even Adler emphasized “Whatever else you may think about her work, [...] she certainly does know about movies.”

Kael aimed to write film reviews as accessible and reliable. Kael consciously tried to write the way people talked about a movie when leaving the theater. Ken Tucker’s article on Salon.com cited Kael saying “the reader is in on my thought processes.”

She did not automatically praise art films because of its moral appeal, and she did not immediately oppose Hollywood films as a commercial product. Likewise, she wrote “I didn’t want to write academic English in an attempt to elevate movies, because I think that actually lowers them.”

Ken Tucker noted Kael asserted her opinion in spite of her editors, “the sort of critical independence Kael maintains is increasingly rare.” Kael wrote acerbic lines of talented actors, such as Paul Schrader in Taxi Driver  liking “the idea of prostituting himself better than he likes making movies.”

It was Kael’s receptiveness paired with her stubbornness that led to her everlasting influence. When a critic takes his or her medium seriously is when the critic is taken seriously.