• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    Madam must have absolute quiet

    Posted by Sean at 12:15, March 6th, 2010

    Eric posts about the wonderful movie villainy of Claude Rains; he mentions The Invisible Man, and a commenter mentions his most famous role, in Casablanca. But for my money, his most chilling performance is in Notorious, especially in the scene at the beginning of this clip, with help from the wonderfully named Leopoldine Konstantin. Watch out for that innocent-looking coffee:

    I’m not usually one to sit around pissing and moaning about how the movies have declined, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a recent movie that achieved anything like the quiet, oppressive horrifying-ness of that scene (even if the YouTube clip begins at a somewhat odd point). Maybe it’s not surprising that Rains once had to battle a speech impediment: his enunciation is always a little too purposeful to seem natural or sincere. (I mean in the movies, of course—he may have been the most forthright and jolly person alive off-screen.)

    Drink up the melody/Bite the dust, blues

    Posted by Sean at 08:14, March 1st, 2010

    Damn. Phoebe Snow has had a stroke. According to the short message from her manager, the prognosis is good. Glad to hear it. She’s been one of my favorites since I was little.


    This parody is as predictable as they come, but it’s still good, wicked fun (via The Unreligious Right). Write to “Ask Nanny State,” and she explains—very clearly and carefully so that it’s understandable even to, well, you—how abandoning silly old self-reliance and giving the government power over yet more of your life will make things work out better. Funniest post of all, IMO:

    Dear Nanny State:
    Like most Americans nowadays, I pay no income tax. So it really gets on my nerves when I read about the Nazi wingnuts wanting tax cuts to encourage economic growth or some such malarkey. What the hell is a tax cut gonna do for me? I don’t pay any taxes as it is! I may have failed math 5 or 6 times but ain’t nuthin’ lower than zero?????

    And another thing: why do rich people need ENCOURAGEMENT to make more money? Ain’t making lots of money encouragement enough? I mean, if I were married to some beautiful babe and having sex three times a night, would sending another beautiful babe over to my motel room encourage me to have MORE SEX? Is that idea stupid or is it me?
    – Progressive Tax

    Dear Progressive:
    You have a keen and perceptive mind like most people who agree with me. Tax cuts for the rich are just like taking Michael Moore to an all-you-can-eat buffet. I mean, what’s the point? And since people like yourself are no good with money (if you were, you’d have some, if you catch my drift) there’s nothing to be gained in giving you any. The best thing to do is to let government keep the money and do things with it that will benefit society instead of letting rich people spend it on themselves like the greedy b*st*&ds they are.

    Think of it this way: when Bill Gates buys a 757 airplane, it is Bill Gates’s airplane. When Nancy Pelosi buys a 757 airplane, it is the PUBLIC’S AIRPLANE and Nancy Pelosi just gets to use it for awhile. Only really smart people can grasp the subtle difference.

    Naturally, there’s a big Nancy Pelosi theme running throughout the page. American statism without Pelosi would be kind of like The Far Side without cows.


    This is the first article by Jonathan Rauch that I’ve run across in a long time, but it’s a good one (via Hit and Run). I’m not sure that I agree that the parallels Sarah Palin and George C. Wallace—seriously, read it before you decide what Rauch is trying to say—illustrate much more than that all politicians turn on the same shtick when courting voters, but it’s impossible to state enough how much disgust with the GOP comes from its fiscal irresponsibility:

    The House Republican leadership “distanced the party from the road map [by Rep. Paul Ryan] almost as soon as it was released,” writes the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy, who points out that Republicans’ recent rush to position themselves as defenders of Medicare makes it “pretty clear that the GOP isn’t serious about reducing spending.”

    It does seem serious about pandering to cultural resentment. Speaking to a conservative conference in February, Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota and a possible 2012 Republican presidential contender, denounced “elites” who “hang out at… Chablis-drinking, Brie-eating parties in San Francisco” and who look down on conservatives as “bumpkins.” The only substantial difference from Wallace’s resentful rhetoric is that Wallace did it much better (“They’ve called us rednecks…. Well, we’re going to show, there sure are a lot of rednecks in this country!”). When Pawlenty called on the crowd to “take a nine iron and smash the window out of Big Government in this country,” you knew you were deep into Wallace territory.

    I am not saying that today’s Republicans are a bunch of Wallace clones. Or that everything Wallace did or said was wrong, or that Republicans should shun all of his themes just because he used them. I am saying three things.

    First, with the important exception of race, not one of Wallace’s central themes, from his bristling nationalism and his court-bashing to his anti-intellectualism and his aggressive provincialism, would seem out of place at any major Republican gathering today.

    Second, and again leaving race aside, any Republican politician who publicly renounced the Wallace playbook would be finished as a national leader.

    Third, by becoming George Wallace’s party, the GOP is abandoning rather than embracing conservatism, and it is thereby mortgaging both its integrity and its political future. Wallaceism was not sufficiently mainstream or coherent to sustain a national party in 1968, and the same is true today.

    Of course, Palin’s record as governor is better than Wallace’s was (to extent that I know it), but the question of when she would stand firm and when she would strike deals remains operative.D

    Better man

    Posted by Sean at 17:26, February 26th, 2010

    I agree with Matt Welch that the proper response to this from Bush II wordsmith Michael Gerson is incredulity:

    Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post, is appalled and that Teddy Roosevelt has become “the conservatives’ new demon.” Excerpt:

    The problem with America, apparently, is not just the Great Society or even the New Deal; it is the Square Deal. Or maybe [Glenn] Beck is just being too timid. Real, hairy-chested libertarians pin the blame on Abraham Lincoln, who centralized federal power at the expense of the states to pursue an unnecessary war — a view that Ron Paul, the winner of the CPAC presidential straw poll, has endorsed.

    Cupla comments: 1) Libertarians have chest hair?

    Yeah, seriously. Except in the mirror, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a libertarian with chest hair. If I had, believe me, I’d have snagged him already. Of course, I’m mostly not relying on empirical data. Without making any effort to confirm one way or another, I’ve always had the vague impression that the Reason guys, for example, are all baby-smooth with those conical moobs. Don’t ask me exactly how that comes through from the way they write, but it does.

    Presumably, Gerson is talking, all metaphorical-like, about tough and uncompromising libertarians (GRRRRR! HOT!), but even then I’m not sure the point works. I’ve heard libertarians dourly obsessed with ideological purity say some pretty out-there things, and it’s not hard to imagine that some of them have, indeed, complained that keeping the Union together involved an illegitimate use of executive power. But not all that many of them. If Gerson is frequently exposed to libertarians with that viewpoint, you have to wonder what social circles he frequents. (Note that expressing reservations about some of the precedents those sorts of government actions set is tantamount to saying that they shouldn’t have been taken. Maybe Gerson does, but I think he’s wrong.)

    Added later: And hey! What about libertarian women? Dare I say Gerson could be accused of reverse sexism?

    Ode to Joy

    Posted by Sean at 18:36, February 24th, 2010

    If you’re not already disturbed by the degree to which contemporary life resembles the dystopian fiction you were assigned in high school, allow me to draw your attention to this jaw-dropping piece at Reason.com. It has everything: classical music as mechanism of punishment and coercion (as writer Brendan O’Neill notes, straight out of A Clockwork Orange ), a conditioning of perceived lower-caste youths to reject beauty (straight out of Brave New World ), and a camera-equipped flying arrest contraption (straight out of Fahrenheit 451 ). Some other goodies, which read like something in The Onion :

    A few years ago some local authorities introduced the Mosquito, a gadget that emits a noise that sounds like a faint buzz to people over the age of 20 but which is so high-pitched, so piercing, and so unbearable to the delicate ear drums of anyone under 20 that they cannot remain in earshot. It’s designed to drive away unruly youth from public spaces, yet is so brutally indiscriminate that it also drives away good kids, terrifies toddlers, and wakes sleeping babes.

    Police in the West of England recently started using super-bright halogen lights to temporarily blind misbehaving youngsters. From helicopters, the cops beam the spotlights at youths drinking or loitering in parks, in the hope that they will become so bamboozled that (when they recover their eyesight) they will stagger home.

    The weaponization of classical music speaks volumes about the British elite’s authoritarianism and cultural backwardness. They’re so desperate to control youth—but from a distance, without actually having to engage with them—that they will film their every move, fire high-pitched noises in their ears, shine lights in their eyes, and bombard them with Mozart. And they have so little faith in young people’s intellectual abilities, in their capacity and their willingness to engage with humanity’s highest forms of art, that they imagine Beethoven and Mozart and others will be repugnant to young ears. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    The dangerous message being sent to young people is clear: 1) you are scum; 2) classical music is not a wonder of the human world, it’s a repellent against mildly anti-social behavior.

    I wonder whether the authorities themselves listen to much Beethoven and Mozart, let alone Shostakovich, these days. It may not be just from the perspective of an uncultured child that they see classical music as punishment.

    Sweet dreams are made of this

    Posted by Sean at 11:59, February 12th, 2010

    The designer Alexander McQueen has apparently committed suicide, and this is the way Robin Givhan of the WaPo eulogizes him:

    In one of his early shows in 1999, which unfolded in a chilly warehouse along New York’s Hudson River and drew a packed house despite a tropical-storm warning, Mr. McQueen’s models splashed through ankle-deep water in a makeshift pool.

    The collection addressed female sexuality in triptych. In one moment, Mr. McQueen aggressively flaunted the female body in a boldly revealing and vulgar manner. Then, his vision of women turned strong and self-empowering. And ultimately, it shifted to sexuality as something completely hidden, as if the very mention of it was cause for revulsion.

    Female repression and disenfranchisement in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime had been in the headlines at the time, and Mr. McQueen put chadors in this collection and used them as a tool for exploring the politics of gender.

    In his finale, cloaked models swayed from trapeze-type swings, then suddenly the sounds of an electrocution reverberated around the vast room. The models’ frail bodies jerked and flailed into stillness. It was a deeply troubling fashion presentation grounded in social consciousness—and confusion, and frustration—rather than mere beauty.

    Thank heaven for that! Many’s the time I’ve observed people—on the street, at dinner, at the theater—and thought, You know, all this mere beauty being achieved in tailoring and dressmaking is a big bore. Why can’t some designer start helping people look slovenly and overtly sexualized for a change?

    I mean, you’d think that if you wanted to use the chador (I thought that was the Iranian version, BTW?) as a point of departure for fashion as social commentary, you’d think about how it’s part of a system that starves women for beauty and sensory stimulation—keeping them in their houses or literally under wraps when outside them. If you were a trained and skilled designer, wouldn’t you want to take the opportunity to offer gorgeous colors, touchable fabrics, and flattering cuts, to celebrate the possibilities precluded by sack-wearing? You might even raise challenging questions about modesty by making women look hot without falling out of everything, and raise disturbing questions about propriety by men look hot without seeming to be wearing their gym clothes. Then spoiled fashionistas who wanted an anthropology or comparative religion lesson could go to the NYU adult education program where such things belong.

    The unfettered imagination must be served, and if there’s enough money in the fashion world to mount runway shows that serve as “intensely personal therapy” sessions, why not? I believe in markets. Sitting in a bone-chilling warehouse watching faked electrocutions presumably has value for some people. (It’s not particularly helpful to real suffering Afghan women in any way I’m aware of, though.) What’s sad is that the state of things is such that Givhan leads with that, as if it were what the mass audience should remember McQueen for, relegating his real “social contribution” to page 2:

    Mr. McQueen was not merely flash and petulance. He was substance, too. Indeed, he was able to cut a suit with enough professional sharpness and reserve that no-nonsense women — including lawyers and first lady Michelle Obama — found a place for them in their wardrobe.

    He explained the decision in an interview with The Washington Post: “I come from Savile Row. This is where I learned my craft. For me, working with Huntsman is less about a trend in fashion or the culture and more about a respect for craftsmanship and attention to detail.

    “I realize that it may not be a big part of my business in financial terms, but I do believe that there will always be a customer who appreciates the art and the tradition of tailoring.”

    McQueen’s flagship label is too rich for my blood—and, in any case, I work in an industry in which showing up at the office in pressed wool trousers rather than jeans draws questions about your big dinner plans—but I have a little denim shirt from his diffusion line that’s one of my favorites. It has half-zippers where you’d expect piping, and when people notice, it always makes them smile. It’s also beautifully built. So are the McQueen suits and dresses I’ve seen others wear. That’s the real way fashion in a free society makes a political statement and shows social consciousness: by flattering individuals with distinct personalities that mesh with the designer’s.

    But, of course, what gets top billing as McQueen’s legacy is, like, Maggie Rizer (or whoever it was) in a cloth bag having spasms on a trapeze. I don’t blame Givhan, who’s just doing her job as a fashion columnist, but it’s a shame nonetheless.

    Via Ann Althouse.

    Added on 13 February: Deep Glamour has a post up about McQueen, of course, that includes a link to a much better Telegraph obit and a comment in which Virginia Postrel links to this photo-post about McQueen’s career highlights.

    While I’m adding those, let me just expand a little bit on something I wrote above: I’m not trying to argue that fashion can’t make a political statement. Who wears what on what occasions has been bound by taboos and political rules since time immemorial, and there’s no reason that designers shouldn’t see political expression as an aspect of their work or that scholars shouldn’t then study it.

    My point is that, if we’re going to see some runway shows as political art, we have to judge them by the same criteria we’d use to judge, say, a multimedia installation in a gallery that treated the same issues. Has the artist risked something of himself by taking a position that could be debated and maybe found wanting (or, at the very least, framed the relevant political questions in a way that expresses a point of view)? Or has he just thrown a bunch of provocative stuff together, lunged at the audience with it, and then stepped back to chortle at how much he’s knocked people for a loop? Unless there was more meat to the show Givhan writes about than she describes, I can’t see how it adds up to much of value. Call me old-fashioned, but if you’re going to take the beauty out of art, you’d better have something equally compelling to put in it’s place. A bunch of fragmented images that convey little beyond how socially conscious you think you are doesn’t (ahem) cut it.

    Can we separate our Two Americas?

    Posted by Sean at 15:38, February 11th, 2010

    Dear Elizabeth,

    Normally I’d feel a bit cheeky addressing you by your first name, but by this point, I feel as if I knew you. Last night, I had a gossipy, ribaldly intimate catch-up dinner with an old friend, and I swear I walked out of that restaurant being privy to less about what he’s been doing with his nether parts lately than about what you, your husband, and all your former hangers-on have been doing with yours. I can’t seem to go two days together without clicking on one of my favorite news sources—blamelessly sipping my breakfast tea (Fortnum & Mason, from leaves) and hoping for a provocative new volley in the health-care or jobs-bill debate—only to come upon yet another installment in your little domestic dramas.

    You know, this would all be fine if you were entertaining about it…like, say, Diana, Princess of Wales (RIP), who had a saucy-glam fashion sense, threw herself down palace staircases in fits of despair, and had a host of royal-family elders and handlers arrayed, all espionage-thriller-like, against her.

    But you aren’t. You are not like Diana, Princess of Wales (RIP), who had a saucy-glam fashion sense, threw herself down palace staircases in fits of despair, and had a host of royal-family elders and handlers arrayed, all espionage-thriller-like, against her.

    You are, indeed, NOTHING WHATEVER like Diana, Princess of Wales (RIP), who had a saucy-glam fashion sense, threw herself down palace staircases in fits of despair, and had a host of royal-family elders and handlers arrayed, all espionage-thriller-like, against her.

    You are a fishwife.

    I don’t believe everything I read, but the stories of your high-handed treatment of staff members and aides are too consistent to be dismissed. And seriously, you’re entitled to grieve for your dead son as you see fit, but ABC says, “Among her purported demands was that Young donate $250,000 to the Wade Edwards Foundation, a non-profit group named for the Edwards’ late son, who died in a car accident in 1996.” I read that and think, If he’s so vile, why would you want his money anywhere near your son’s memory, even…no, especially…if it were part of some little revenge plan?

    And if fishman were a word, your husband would be one. He is a central-casting ambitious politician who fell for some adulatory-ass groupie woman, got her pregnant, and then tried to get the most willing adulatory-ass groupie man at hand to take the rap for him. It ultimately didn’t work. He will never be president of anything from here on, probably not even his college alumni club.

    You would be fully justified in jointly doing a Profumo and devoting your lives to anonymous service to others from here on out, but I’m not on crack, so I don’t expect anything like that to happen. Instead…I don’t know, Greece is in trouble at the moment. Maybe the four of you could buy yourselves a nice island in the Aegean and enjoy wrangling over who stole whose husband or sex tape or whatever until Kingdom Come, without its getting into the papers and spoiling my enjoyment of my tea (Fortnum & Mason, from leaves). I’m addressing this to you, still officially the lady of the Edwards household, because I’d very much like you to consider it an invitation. To go away.

    Yrs. faithfully,


    PS: Walter Olson at Overlawyered has some stuff about that law you’re trying to use to nail Andrew Young for “alienation of affections.” Of course, I’m sure you know all about how your legal team’s strategy works, being an attorney and all.

    Kiss and say goodbye

    Posted by Sean at 23:44, January 31st, 2010

    I didn’t know until the Grammys did the obituaries section that Kate McGarrigle had died a few weeks ago. How sad. I liked their ’70s albums as a child, but I loved Heartbeats Accelerating all through college and beyond. I have no idea what she was like as a person, but as a musician she was generous-hearted, mischievous, heart-gripping. RIP

    Dont’ worry ’bout my recovery

    Posted by Sean at 04:07, January 27th, 2010

    Unlike Eric, I don’t feel much pressure to live-blog the State of the Unions…er…Union address, and therefore plan to give it a dyspeptic listen in private. I will just note here, re. the Wall Street Journal article Eric links to, that this drives me bananas:

    The point people for the small-business initiatives will be embattled Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Small Business Administrator Karen Mills, administration officials say. Thursday, Mr. Geithner will travel to Minneapolis to tour a Honeywell factory and have a roundtable discussion with local business leaders.

    In the poll, just 11% of Americans feel positively about the Treasury chief. Nearly one in five have negative feelings about him, while more than half said they didn’t know his name or weren’t sure.

    Melissa Sharp, a spokeswoman for the National Federation of Independent Business, the small-business lobby, said the Hatch-Schumer proposal may be a step in the right direction. The organization, though, would like to see a broader measure—one that doesn’t just apply to the longterm unemployed.

    Hiring tax credits have been controversial. Some economists worry businesses could fire then rehire workers to claim the credit, or divide a full-time job into two part-time jobs.

    Yes, the best way to encourage entrepreneurship is to make the tax code more complex. People with big dreams and modest means love that, because there aren’t already enough little decision-distorting little rules plaguing their lives to begin with.

    I mean, don’t misunderstand: I’m for lower taxes as much as I’ve ever been. The part that drives me wild is that this is yet another example of the government-as-handyman approach, in which it’s assumed that Washington’s role in the economy is to push through yet another set of micromanage-y dicta to “help” enterprises of this or that description. I suppose I should be grateful that Sharp’s lobby isn’t powerful enough to wangle a bailout for its more luckless members. And along those lines, how is it we hope to help small businesses by visiting a Honeywell [!] facility and talking to people who are already business leaders in a major urban area? I’m aware of the distinction between long-running small businesses and start-ups, and I suppose the discussion could be intended to elicit ideas about what small businesses need in order to succeed. But, as Virginia Postrel was pointing out around the time of our last health-care policy-push fiasco, it’s hard for even economists to figure these things out in a way that produces “helpful” policy:

    Small business is, apparently, the opposite of the weather: Everybody praises it, and everybody does something about it. But all this posturing is based on bad economics and worse politics. Contrary to endlessly repeated conventional wisdom, small companies do not account for the vast majority of new jobs.

    That notion stems from the work of David Birch, a former MIT researcher who now runs a consulting firm called Cognetics. In the 1980s, Birch claimed to show that most new jobs came from small companies. His findings were trumpeted by small-business advocates, notably the Small Business Administration and my former employer, Inc. magazine. It seemed impolite to subject Birch’s research to normal scientific checking.

    But Birch has now recanted. He says, “The relative role of smaller firms in generating jobs varies enormously from time to time and place to place … Most small-firm job creation occurs within a relatively few firms–the Gazelles.” These “Gazelles” are, quite simply, high-growth companies. That growing companies hire more people than non-growing companies is hardly surprising. The “Gazelles,” says Birch, represent every sector of the economy and are extremely unstable.

    As a celebration of a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy, Birch’s vision is appealing. It holds up on anecdotal grounds. Birch cites such Gazelle successes as AST Research and Federal Express. But his research has absolutely no predictive value. You identify a Gazelle by looking at its past growth, not predicting its future prospects. The implication of Birch’s research is that no one, including David Birch, knows where new jobs will come from.

    Not that that’s going to stop them from pretending they do.

    Speaking of big dreams and the inability to engineer the future, Sarah Hoyt has another guest post up at another blog, this time discussing whether current science fiction deserves more readers than it gets:

    The other part of this is that no one can cast a future world without thinking through things like economics, sexual roles, politics, mass movements. No one can write a world no matter how bubblegum—oh, all right, maybe seventies French sci fi porn (I only read it for the spaceships)—without putting his or her thoughts into it. If you don’t believe me, go and analyze Star Trek. Or even better read one of several volumes of serious analysis that already exist. Messages are not what you think. Moral fables with pre-determined outcomes are rarely entertaining and besides, if you have children, go and look at what they read in school. They’re immersed in these “the world is unjust and we must wallow in it” screeds. Full up. If anything this turns them off reading. Why should they go looking for more of this boring stuff on their own time?

    I’d like to say these are my very reasonable and reasoned suggestions, but I feel more like all this has been simmering for years (and panels) untold and now it’s 1517 and I’m Martin Luther, nailing my theses to the door. I fully expect a storm of excommunication. But some things are worth saying.

    Relax your grip around science fiction, gentle ladies and kind gentlemen of science fiction publishing and critique. Allow writers to dream and they will. Allow stories to inspire dreams and the readers will come. And perhaps one of those young people attracted by the “impossible” FTL process will be one who invents a way to travel almost painlessly to and amid the distant stars. Because his high school teacher will say it’s impossible and our reader will be mulish enough to prove it all wrong. Perhaps one of the young women who just missed out on reading another screed on how she is oppressed for being female, will create bio-wombs that will free women from the physical hardship of pregnancy. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

    Stop trying to push people toward dreams you’ve envisioned for them, yes.

    On a not-entirely-unrelated note, the three youngest kitties in Mark Alger’s household were born a year ago last week, at the very dawn of this era of hope, change, and promotion to executive-branch positions after non-payment of taxes. Happy birthday to them.

    On a bizarrely not-entirely-unrelated note, here’s Olivia on rejecting high-handed attempts to help with “Recovery”:

    Added later: Combining the themes of Sarah Hoyt, not pigeonholing people, and kitties, Sarah has a post up about cat names. Priceless sentence: “Dead cats aren’t particularly safe.”

    Added on 29 January: I knew I had a photograph of my parents’ Romeo and Ludwig in full superiority-complex mode:

    The dryer wasn’t even running, BTW.

    Is this my most incoherent post ever? I think it might be.

    Posted by Sean at 20:25, December 13th, 2009

    Eric writes about who’s intimidating whom lately:

    President Barack Obama has told the Republicans to “stop trying to frighten the American people.”

    Surely he jests.

    There are a lot of things that might be said about the Republicans, but right now they are no position to frighten the American people. They couldn’t frighten their way out of a paper bag.

    No kidding. And I don’t think it’s just lately. I bought the Rolling Stone decade wrap-up issue, more out of habit than anything, to read on a train ride I had this past week. I perversely enjoy reading overwritten rock reviews. Occasionally, I’m even prompted to buy an album that has songs I’d always liked but that I was never moved to buy when it was released. And this round of nostalgizing was especially entertaining, since the re-flowering of U2’s and Bruce Springsteen’s careers gave the geezer bloc at RS a chance to heap them with the same accolades they used two or three decades ago. Naturally, I disagree with the rankings, but who cares?

    This is all related to what Eric wrote because, on the 2004 page in the year-by-year retrospective, there was a sidebar headlined “Rockers Speak Out Against Bush.” The subhead was “Hard-fought John Kerry campaign sows the seeds for 2008’s unprecedented rock activism.” Wow. What sort of hard fighting did our valorous rock stars participate in? Well, you probably remember most of it: the Vote for Change tour, Green Day’s American Idiot album, the Dixie Chicks’ shame at being from the same state as W, and Kanye West’s claim, after Hurricane Katrina, that Bush didn’t care about black people. RS called that last outburst “awesomely off-script,” but while that may be true in literal terms, it isn’t in any larger sense. All these were standard-issue flip-offs by multi-millionaires who faced no punishment for their political candor beyond the alienation of part of the market, which makes it somewhat strange to call what they do “speaking out.” For decades, but especially since the advent of the Internet—which predated the Bush administration, of course—famous musicians have eagerly told us what they think about child-rearing, plastic surgery, dieting, Our Environment, spirituality, exercise fads, making relationships work, and plenty else on which Kindness itself must conclude that their expertise is, to judge based on empirical data, shaky. That those who add politics to their roster of natter-about-in-front-of-a-microphone topics should be credited with boldly “speaking out” is not obvious, at least to me. Thrilling as it may have been to pretend to be all scared by Karl Rove, none of these people risked anything close to the midnight knock at the door.

    And as for “activism”—baloney. I’ll never agree with leftist policies, but I respect those who get down in the dirt and do the patient work of reasoning with the opposition one person at a time, which is how minds get changed. The day a rock star counts as an activist is the day Natalie Maines goes door to door through a town in north Texas to explain to citizens why they should vote for Big Government.

    Of course, all this would be easier to forgive if so much superstar output weren’t so lame. Mark has some thoughts on that—not new, but very succinctly put:

    There was a reason that music overtook the consciousness of so many people in the ’60s and it didn’t have anything to do with hippie ways or political movements. It had to do with who was running the record companies and their outlook toward their “product.” In fact, I would peg the start of the decline in the industry that we see the other end of today to the period in time when use of the term “product” to describe music became current and acceptable.

    I think those who approach music-making as professionals can produce really good stuff. Kylie, for example, has never deluded herself that she’s an artiste; she’s an entertainer, and in an odd way, that allows her to pour herself into everything she does in a way that makes it persuasive. She’s a girl who enjoys playing dress-up for concerts and acting in videos and being the diva in front of a microphone. She genuinely seems to love being a star, in a straightforward, un-ironic, princess-fantasy way. When her first album after her recovery from breast cancer didn’t consist entirely of songs about her new-found love of life and living each moment as it comes and finding inner strength, some people complained. I cheered. Good on her for not milking a private matter for sympathy downloads, I say. A woman who has just faced death and says, “What I really want to do now is get back on the dance floor and make my fans happy!” is an international treasure.

    In the main, though, I think Mark’s right. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the best-selling act in the world, but when it’s obvious even in the music that your highest priority is raw numbers, the magic is lost.

    And it’s not just the music that seems manufactured. Just take a gander at this post about Kylie’s and Madonna’s elder sister in divadom, Olivia Newton-John. Olivia has great bones and a fair complexion, a combination that usually ages to a moving, lovely, crinkled-kidskin softness when nature takes its course. But Olivia is a rich woman, and it’s 2009, so nature is not taking its course.


    And let’s not even talk about Madge, who until five or six years ago was doing us all proud by keeping the procedures discreet and unnoticeable. At least, to this point, Kylie’s only excess in that area is with Botox. I’m sure the blatant face-yank is coming, though. She may end up looking even scarier than a Republican, though the American mass audience is unlikely to see enough of her to decide. At least, given precedent, we can probably count on her not boring us all by becoming an “activist.”


    Posted by Sean at 21:07, November 29th, 2009

    Gorgeous, gorgeous weekend—I think the entire population of New York that wasn’t away for Thanksgiving until tonight was outside until dark both days. Absolutely lovely.




    momidji-ba wo / nani oshimiken / ko no ma yori / morikuru tsuki ha / koyoi koso mire

    Nakatsuka Kyoutomo Hirashinnou


    For what did I rue
    the passing of maple leaves?
    Tonight the first sight
    of the moonlight filtering
    from between the trees

    The Imperial Prince Kyoutomo Nakatsuka

    A relatively straightforward poem, that: the poet had originally felt sadness, both at the falling of the autumn leaves and because poetic ache is traditionally the proper response to the beauty of the moon in autumn, but now takes pleasure in realizing that their passing has made possible the new and special kind of wintry beauty of the moon visible between close-growing trees.