Monday, March 5, 2018

PRISONER OF NETFLIX


As I was researching a short, folksie blog-piece on NETFLIX, I ran across much more detail than I bargained for. The information was so vast and up-to-date that it was going to make any topical comment irrelevant. What I discovered was “personalization.” This is described in benign primers from the company: “Through multi-armed bandit algorithms, we hunted for the best artwork for a title, say Stranger Things, that would earn the most plays from the largest fraction of our members. However, given the enormous diversity in taste and preferences, wouldn’t it be better if we could find the best artwork for each of our members to highlight the aspects of a title that are specifically relevant to them?”
Corporate Sop? Stranger Things appears under several categories that may or may not matter to me. Tagged as “Science Fiction from the Eighties” or “Scary Science Fiction With A Hint of E.T.,” the show had plenty of press build up. Does the company presume to be doing me a favor supplying artwork that appeals to me personally as if appealing on a communal level wasn’t enough? Maybe the doctoring of indexed thumbnails will make me more apt to choose a title? I was going to watch Stranger Things regardless of the advertising. I dug the music too: “Moody 80’s Synth.” As wary digester of this content, I scroll through the “modified” list of titles and categories. New titles pop up for perusal based on what you watched previously. Because I enjoyed Godless, a fabulous Western – devoured quickly – they bring up Hickok, which was a lousy Western. Wild Bill with short hair? Come on! Are we lemmings? Don’t answer that.
NETFLIX content enters your home streaming without notice. So what if they casually tailor to your specific demographic and identity politics? Is that so wrong? No different from Google, Spotify or Facebook. NETFLIX effortlessly dishes up graphic sex and gooey violence like anything on HBO or SHOWTIME but it is fancier in its targeting. The doctored meta-data delivers images that go straight to the heart of the content. Are you looking for an evil man’s face or a partially clad victim as illustration? Perhaps a bloody knife? Not sure if they brand for that in their little trailers that run on an infuriating loop. Keep a lookout for ghastly morgue shots. Your favorite actors may show up on a slab with a red maw where their chest used to be. Strange categories stand out: Next to “Nordic Noir” is “Northern European Crime Drama with Murdered Teenage Prostitutes By A Lake.” You can’t go wrong. Please keep those coming NETFLIX! Some films are Oscar-ready so you don’t have to race off to the deafening Mini-Plex! Some Algorithmic Categories have no titles yet. Some are desperately thin and disappointing. If you are in a Casablanca kind of mood, you may search Humphrey Bogart and find only his Oscar-Winning role in African Queen. Millennials will ask Humphrey-Who? Search “Pedophile Directors” and you will find Woody Allen has only one film on NETFLIX.
The NETFLIX digital video-store came out of nowhere. Within a few years they nearly replaced cable and broadcast. It has lead NETFLIX to near monopoly of consumer entertainment. Billions is now being set aside for new top-notch content. A good thing. Big Stars are tempted to make NETFLIX ORIGINALS for the not so “small screen.” It’s a good career move. Has this increased the demand for high quality? It seems so. Actors and directors are fully employed. Scriptwriters reach new heights. Maybe NETFLIX will put dire Reality TV phenomenon out of business.
What is striking is the binge element. There is no waiting week by week to catch up on a show. You can watch a whole series in a night or two. Several series if you are unemployed. Is there too much? Never. Now, I’m annoyed when I meet the oddball who doesn’t have NETFLIX. They live on a different planet, Amazon Prime. I can’t discuss The Crown with them, Stranger Things 2 or Hitler’s Super Weapons. Sometimes we watch via my wife’s list of titles. She watches a lot of subtitled Foreign Films and Space Westerns. Are they modified too? Yes, the minimally invasive cover shots change! Is that really so worrying for George Orwell types? It goes further. I am informed by my tech-team that the next flat-screen we buy will have the NETFLIX embedded, making it even more ubiquitous, no PlayStation needed. Will it vacuum the living room rug next?  
  

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Too Much Social Media Is A Bad Thing



 As I pass middle age, I am starting to feel like the Old Gunslinger surrounded by new fangled stuff like telephones and horseless carriages. I am only required when a new gang of ruffians rides into town and the local council is afraid to act. They text me at the saloon and beg me to come out of retirement. My Dad noticed the annoying technology when he was around 85 living with modern kids and grand kids, the whole family plugged-in and lap-topping. He would lament, “Things have changed.” He was missing old-fashioned conversation and dare I say it, manners. 

 There are loads of platitudes about our new way of life. People swear their lives are made much easier with Smartphones! “I can save the planet and get on with my narcissistic life at the same time!” “Hilarious tweet, Dude!” Every aspect of life has an app. “I bought an electric car on Amazon!” “Got a ride home with Uber!” The worst offender is Twitter. Every insignificant faux pas blasted around the world for painful and wasted scrutiny. “Thanks, Vlad. Enjoyed my evening with your Russian Prostitutes!” The British prefer texting because they don’t like human contact. Imagine what Wyatt Earp would say. “It’s all a lot of horseshit.” He doesn’t want to message ahead so his Starbucks is waiting when he pulls up out front. “Double Whip Grande for Wyatt!” He wants to sit in the establishment (with his back to the wall) and stare at people to see if they remember the OK Corral. “Aren’t you the guy from Tombstone?” That is what he wants to hear. He wants to take time over an interaction and explain the difference between myth and reality such as it is. Yes. He would say we are shallow. He might remark about how his place in history is marked by several inaccurate films. “Those are mere entertainments, sir. Although, I am a big Val Kilmer fan.”
With all our wisdom and tech-aids we have succumbed to Pop Culture in a bad way. No wonder he world is on a precipice led by Reality TV presidents. Can’t I say “You’re Fired” and change the channel? Part of me wants to embrace the digital world and the rest of me says, “Horseshit.” This guy is an asshole, communicating with his asshole base with tweets unworthy of a fifth grader. These same unemployed people, victims of the world takeover by Silicon Valley, voted him in. How clever is that? Elect a rich New York developer who has no taste. I can say this because I have read Hillbilly Elegy and have sympathy for their plight. I even look like one of them. Picture little grey beards and old-school rock tee shirts in a Big Box Store. I don’t think of them as “deplorables” but certainly don’t fancy my future wrapped up with theirs. I am not a blue-collar fellow no matter what my circumstances. I still prefer art theory to conspiracies even though the former is no longer lucid. It has long since been taken over by single-track Anti-Colonial nonsense. What would Baudelaire say? “C’est dommage?” Art itself has taken a dive in the past ten years or maybe been subsumed by media. There is nothing to review besides world chaos. I figure this coincides with Steve Job’s evil iPhone. Have you ever noticed the logo’s reference to Original Sin?
Can it be true that Apple, Google and Facebook (GOOF) have replaced my father’s favorites, GE and GM? Those companies along with Kodak, Coca-Cola, IBM and Xerox gave nice benefits if you worked for them and paid nice dividends if you invested with them. They also made stuff. That was the American Dream with social mobility guaranteed to some lucky folks. What has replaced it? Consumers are held captive by the monopoly of digital companies with no regulation of any sort. I like regulation. Boundaries are good for me. Withdrawal from the present day is an excellent strategy. Though, it takes a decided effort to take yourself out of the spin-cycle in order to re-assemble a more thoughtful reality.
Back to leadership. How did this nasty uncultured stuff became so popular in the first place? Surely, not through mere political polarization. Fox News, Reality TV and the lowest common denominator won out because they ran around our narrative. The progressive movement reached it’s height. Let’s not be nice about it. They hate art. It is for snobs like me. That aside, the only reason it has come to this is because we haven’t evaluated our blanket technology. This leaves Steve Bannon-types free to utilize alt-right gamers in elections. These actions led us to perdition and a crisis that will last until the next 911. Until then, I will continue looking for a historical precedent for the speed of change that Wyatt can live with.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Evening With Sister Ray


Aficionados of the Velvet Underground were out in force on a freezing Thursday, December 15, 2016 for a commemoration of their performance 50 years ago at the Gershman Y in Philadelphia. The band had hardly begun in 1966, when they played a number of shows with their “producer” Andy Warhol and his Exploding Plastic Inevitable. This was prior to recording their first record, the one with the banana on the cover. I was ten, lived in the Atlanta suburbs and wanted to be The Man from Uncle. Little did I know that the ICA in arty Philadelphia had given Andy Warhol his first museum show in 1964. Apparently, he was scared stiff.
On the bill were Britt Phillips and Dean Wareham performing along with select Warhol Screen Test films and veterans Yo la Tengo playing all VU music. The night re-convened with Britt & Dean (formerly half of the band Luna) playing newly commissioned soundtracks from their latest album: Thirteen Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol Screen Tests. Some of these scores resembled softer Velvety tunes and paid homage (logically) with guitar echo and reverb while other songs featured electronic drones and digital drums appropriate to art events. It was interesting to see a band pair up their curiosity in Warhol’s films with their fascination of the Velvet Underground. There is a distinction.
Warhol’s screen tests are always compelling time capsules shot at 24 frames per second and projected at 12 so they resemble still portraits until the subject moves. 500 Screen Tests were made between 1966 and 1968 featuring New York’s underworld of poets, celebrities, porn stars and drug addicts. An early death awaited many of the Factory’s odd cast of characters – Andy escaped nearly his after he was shot in 1968 by disgruntled Valerie Solanis. His prodigy, Edie Sedgwick died in 1971. Model and singer, Nico is in full command of her test, swanning around for the camera. Dennis Hopper’s test is titled Herringbone Tweed after his jacket. Within the space of a few minutes, the actor creates a stern faced narrative punctuated by worried moments and finally a smile as if he had finally found his car keys.  I kept thinking how he ends up headless in Apocalypse Now. Lou Reed’s screen test with Coke bottle was the epitome of nonchalance providing a little levity behind wraparound shades.
Yo la Tengo stood in for the Velvet Underground once before in the 1996 film, I Shot Andy Warhol, but they are mostly known for furious flights of fancy and delicate songs with deadpan vocals much like the Lou Reed.  They are also known for carefully selected cover songs ­– see their silly video version of The Cure’s, Friday, I’m in Love. This night dealt solely with the dissonant side of the Velvet Underground. To start, drummer, Georgia Hubley (who can’t help but channel VU’s drummer, Mo Tucker) sang a few songs from The Velvet Underground and Nico. Yo la Tengo then launched into less radio-friendly VU territory with some signature noise, finishing the show with an hour of inspired feedback. Ira Kaplan’s guitar wall moved in and out, above and below the “rhythm section” creating a strange, swirling undertow punctured by staccato piano or growling viola. The barrage may have surprised the audience who might have been expecting a standard rock show or 60’s flashback. They forgot that much of the impact of the Velvet Underground was the sonic approach borrowed from contemporary art and progressive jazz. This is where the band (and those who re-create and expand the ouvre) diverted from Warhol and created its own lasting legacy. Melodies and lyrics are almost an aberration.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

FALL FASHION TIPS

I have accepted that ubiquitous cargo shorts are the uniform of Global Warming but have read recently that they are out. This is discouraging news for men who find them comfortable and suitable for Climate Change. There are all those pockets for phones, car keys, gum and duct tape. Add the skull tee shirt with gothic typeface and your look is complete. Some wives have been hiding the baggie shorts or throwing them away. Poor guys. They are merely adapting to weather conditions.
With no winter, who needs tight trendy jeans or L. L. Bean long underwear? If it snows you have your sweat pants. Hoodies when it rains. No one cares. It is 75 degrees in the living room! General tips: Never tuck your shirt in. No Chucks if you are over forty. Only white socks. They show you are athletic. Turtlenecks are for Bourgeois friends, uppity women and professor types. Don’t carry your coffee with you. Eat in the truck.
Global Warming brings with it fashion problems. Not all footwear goes with shorts. Construction boots are cool with cargos but what socks can you wear? Certainly not argyles. Ankle socks? They are OK hidden in the Timberlands. There is the plus of having your tattooed calf open to the world all year. Try to match your tattoo with your wife’s. No socks and sandals. But, you know that already. Only NPR listeners wear socks and sandals. Don’t do it.
If you live at the shore, life’s tougher. The government spent all its money on Katrina. Talk about an underwater mortgage! Not ready for the next 100 years storm? Afraid of flood insurance fraud? Some houses on Staten Island – to pass post-Sandy building codes – are now lifted up two stories onto concrete stilts. They look awful! 
To re-build you will need more than comfortable shorts with pockets for drywall screws. You will need flip-flops. They float. Be armed also with sandbags and a bulldozer to replenish the beach. Remember, storm surge will follow you inland. For those who have thought man-made changes in the earth’s weather was a hoax, you’d better buy camouflage cargos to be on the safe side. While still in stock, you might buy a few pairs of different styles. Naval camouflage is recommended for coastal regions. If you’ve got them, Global Warming will be a piece of cake.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

HAPPY RECORD STORE DAY!


Last month I picked up Ripped, a book by music journalist, Greg Kot. He’s also half-host of Sound Opinions on WNPR with cohort Greg DeRogatis. Their WBEZ radio show is a little lame, two white guys hanging on to punk as long as they can. Neither gets the split paradigm in music: that rock critics aren’t needed to review mainstream acts like Adele, Kendrick Lamarr or even Coldplay. DJ’s on the radio exist to keep underground music alive in opposition to all corporate endeavor and mediocre music! One of their fans left a recent phone message saying she’d given them a try and they failed. “You are just two guys from the Eighties.” That may sum it up.
Kot’s 2003 overview of the online music revolution is already old news. Remember Napster? My interest is not in the acquisition of the music but the evolution of Rock n’ Roll itself. Music started to be gauged by number of clicks rather than by any other consensus or critical acclaim. I’d be happier if we all shared music communally in a room or automobile rather than sequestered by individual ear buds. The undisputed shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting then nano-casting comes is a no-brainer. The real surprise is the resurgence of vinyl sales, un-ironic at 415 million last year. This happens amid the inevitable closing of record stores! Go figure. Does this mean there is hope for Alternative Music? Will Indie Rock live on?
The quote from Ripped that summed up music companies was from Moby: “It makes bad creative sense, and it makes bad business. Under the circumstances of the music business right now, Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac would have been dropped long before they had a hit because their first few records didn’t do that well. Prince’s first few were not huge sellers. So the major labels in pursuit of quarterly profits are shooting themselves in the foot by putting the lowest common denominator music that works on the radio but doesn’t generate any loyalty. There’s no room for idiosyncratic artists. You have to fit the mold. Right now, if you are not a teen pop star, an R&B artist, a hip-hop artist, a generic alternative band, or a female singer-songwriter, you might as well not even think about making records.”
Thanks, Moby. The charts in America are so mainstream that anything critically acclaimed will naturally be excluded. This leaves out a lot of cool music. As if Nirvana never happened. Curious. I like to imagine the Sex Pistols appearing on the Grammy’s. They make hard core Rap and winners of American Idol look a little tame. People say I’m nuts to watch the Grammies. The music awards represent everything I loath about contemporary music. But “mainstream” spectacle is compelling even if a salute to bad taste.
The whole concept of music as a thing that saves your life and soul is in danger. It happens naturally when you’re a teenager or if you are a musician but for the rest of society? I saw the White Stripes (or was it the Black Keys?) a few years back on the Grammies. I jumped out of my chair, sixteen again.
Kot uses Danger Mouse’s Grey Album as an example of the evolution in delivery of tunes by sampling extensively the Beatle’s White Album and fusing it with Jay-Z’s Black Album. In a musical sense it is the pinnacle of sampling but in postmodern terms it is perhaps over the top and not all that listenable. Danger Mouse was on to something but made little money from his acclaimed album. But in the end, it may be more about the business of music than music itself.
When I arrived in the UK in late 1984, Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart was in the top twenty and on sale in Woolworth. Over the years, the song worked its way into the public consciousness and now lives beyond the generation it was meant for. There is no such egalitarian example in the States. I would never miss Top of the Pops because one wanted to see the latest Indie Band breaking in the charts. The charts were singly interesting even to the “old punks” in case they missed something. What’s wrong with aging gracefully?
What would explain the characterless quality of popular music today? Is it the technology delivery system or have musical forms run out of dynamics? Akin to politics, “Regressive” forward movement and divisive diversity? There are vats of new eclectic music but it is swamped by the so called “popular.” Back to the Grammy’s. What would make meaningful critique possible? A perfect example was the Eagles appearing stone faced, mourning member, Glen Frey. Not a youthful Grammy trying to break molds. On the bright side, a great performance by Kendrick Lamar. It included every trope of slavery and incarceration he could cram in but so compelling! Lady Gaga doing Bowie totally made sense. What was I saying about spectacle? I was reminded of the 2015 Super Bowl Half-Time when sports worlds and music worlds collide. The NFL have long run out of big rock stars for TV numbers. So they dug up over-rated Cold Play who was not enough to hold our drunken attention. So Bruno Mars and Beyonce were added. Oversexed empowerment is now the norm with or without costume malfunction.
A friend of mine once said that she’d gone off pop music because it wasn’t made by geniuses anymore. Rose-colored glasses? I think the point is that back in the day, every record (and radio play) was a development or a breakthrough, part of a grand popular evolution. All classes, races and creeds could tune in.



Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Looking Back?


The week between Christmas and New Years’ is unique. It is a mix of overlapping family activities, best of lists, nostalgia and some good honest reflection. The latter is my favorite part and can get morbid. In order to enhance this mood I put an old punk rock record on the turntable. Technology hinders my critical skills. This LP turned up in a spring-cleaning before heading off to Princeton Record Exchange to unload some excess vinyl for profit. On the way, we listened to Terrestrial Radio. WPRB in Princeton is still my fave, always random and surprising. My family introduced me to Spotify so I can hear anything at anytime exhaustively with a little cable connection to the cigarette lighter in the car but it is to fussy and leads to arguments.
As cultural critic, I feel somewhat responsible for summing up things generally rather than with specific examples. Twenty-Fifteen has been proclaimed “dark” by some in authority. Really? They may have in mind all the violent death and mayhem. It seems that deeper creative currents (insight) have given way to transitional memes that cancel them out. Wrap-ups of the best of 2015? What’s coming up in 2016? All ignore the real place we seem to be historically. Between eras possibly. Let me start with the lame rock and roll NPR show Sound Opinions. They seem to revel in their own middle of the road (unremarkable) tastes that are neither eclectic nor bland. Simply dull. In order to stay up to date they stick popular rap tracks in their lists. Commending 2015 year in music? Why? To be fair, they did a pretty good tribute to David Bowie recently. How could they not?
The list of excellent TV is long and full of popular shows that all have different audiences. No one show can claim a whole demographic except maybe the Walking Dead, Couch Zombies. It gives me nightmares. Speaking of monsters. Last year, I had an altercation with a real Pit-bull and have been considering buying a high-tech crossbow. Some of my friends were voting for the dog!
Political pundits have their own lists. They keep their noses close to the fray never standing back for a wider view. Whether the absurdity of election environment or the affect of Islamic Terrorists and what name they prefer, the Media is cautious, propelled across a shallow surface that never dwells on any meaning in particular apart from opinion itself. Who cares what people think about fleeting situations they don’t fully understand!
On the way back to Philadelphia, we noticed the Revolutionary battlefield at Clarke House. Oddly, the battle took place the week between Christmas 1776 and New Year’s Day 1777. As far as I know it involved the British coming from New York to face Washington’s troops after they crossed the Delaware to attack nasty Hessians in Trenton. That much is fact according the interpretative panels. The location of the record store and radio station in Princeton, New Jersey may be coincidence.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Best Year in Music?

 
When I heard WXPN was having a contest to choose the best year in rock music, I had to chime in. The ads are funny and surprisingly witty for a radio station that takes itself far too seriously. They say they are “Vinyl at Heart.” Don’t believe it. My view has always been that the station needs a good clearing out of all the DJ’s born before 1960! I was born before 1960 but I don’t wear my thinning grey hair in a scrawny ponytail that hangs over a tie-dyed tee-shirt. That is a parody worthy of Portlandia. Personally, I am sick to death of the re-playing of classic songs simply because they warm the heartstrings of rock and roll grandparents who went to Woodstock, drive Subaru Outbacks and fit the demographic. It isn’t that Janis Joplin is awful; I simply have no interest in hearing the songs ever again. Same for many others of that era. Born to be Wild? Did Steppenwolf ever write another tune? I’ve ceased caring. The station’s wholesale ignorance of Punk, the period (when art, subculture and music had an inspired relationship) is remarkable. In contrast, the in-yer-face spokesman for “1979” is a sarcastic hippy-hater decrying 1967. Wow. Putting down Peace and Love? That is mindful for WXPN! As for all the current music the station backs earnestly, there is another bone to pick. Roughly based on soulful or bluesy flashbacks with better drum production, it is the 70‘s repackaged without the danger. This may explain why a band like My Morning Jacket gets to their present, godly standing. They are the most banal, derivative group I have ever heard. I’d rather listen to Adele or Coldplay! Though WXPN promotes their college radio status as wild and crazy, they broadcast a constant stream of boomer-friendly tunes that are already hyped nationally. Don’t let the “Philly-Local” promotions fool you. There is tons of excellent music in Philly that never gets anywhere near the imaginary turntables of University City. Most of these are hardcore bands whose 7-inch 45’s (often pressed on red or yellow vinyl) fill budget bins at the last remaining record stores on South Street. So, surprise. I will cast my vote for 1979, alas. Not sure how that demarcation works. Why not ‘77 or ‘78? At least ‘79 includes Joy Division. If you work at WXPN, you may have to Google the doomed band (that became New Order) on your hippy Smartphone. And, just in case everyone thinks I’m a stuffy aged punk, I state here (in public) that I sing loudly along to any DOORS song I hear on classic radio. Especially when drunk, wearing black leather jeans and heading to my local Roadhouse for a beer.