The Last Days of Disco: Abebe Remembers Donna Summer and Robin Gibb

Disco’s success at capturing glamour and sex as an aesthetic can be frightening — in approximately the same way it’s frightening to watch the world do similar things to weddings, turning them into sites of glittery yearning where one’s sense of self and love turns strangely prop-filled and expensive. This seems like one of the more-flattering reasons why rock fans treated disco with so much hostility: It’s a puritan’s gut instinct that there’s something dangerous about a sex-and-glamour bubble floating too exuberantly beyond the realm of reality, becoming too stylized and commercial. And of course straight, white, male rock fans were the ones who’d feel that fear and loathing most strongly: They’d have been the listeners with the least to gain from actively reimagining love, sex, and glamour. Disco claimed the audience with the most critical stake in reframing those things — gay, black, female, and Latino listeners chief among them.

Cf.

The Last Days of Disco: Abebe Remembers Donna Summer and Robin Gibb

I dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes — all the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

Michel Foucault (via viafrank). See also Clive James:

Whatever the subject, a real critic is a cultural critic, always: if your judgment doesn’t bring in more of the world than it shuts out, you shouldn’t start.

and Anthony Lane:

Of all the duties required of the professional critic, the least important—certainly the least enduring—is the verdict.

Extra Lives (review)

Extra Lives
What I love about Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is Tom Bissell’s ambivalent relationship with video games. This is a book by an enthusiast, yes (aren’t most books?), but he also hates them sometimes:

I was then and am now routinely torn about whether video games are a worthy way to spend my time and often ask myself why I like them as much as I do, especially when, very often, I hate them. Sometimes I think I hate them because of how purely they bring me back to childhood, when I could only imagine what I would do if I were single-handedly fighting off an alien army or driving down the street in a very fast car while the police try to shoot out my tires or told that I was the ancestral inheritor of some primeval sword and my destiny was the rid the realm of evil. These are very intriguing scenarios if you are twelve years old. They are far less intriguing if you are thirty-five and have a career, friends, a relationship, or children. The problem, however, at least for me, is that they are no less fun.

And that’s the thing. I’m reminded of Daniel Mendelsohn once again, from How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken:

Strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even… Critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken.

And Bissell is definitely a critic, and a very good one. He gets really annoyed when video games don’t try hard enough, or try to do things they really aren’t made for. Here he is in the midst of talking about Fallout 3 and other open-world games (the genre at the core of the book) in general:

The art direction in a good number of contemporary big-budget video games has the cheerful parasitism of a tribute band. Visual inspirations are perilously few: Forests will be Tolkienishly enchanted; futuristic industrial zones will be mazes of predictably grated metal catwalks; gunfights will erupt amid rubble- and car-strewn boulevards on loan from a thousand war-movie sieges. Once video games shed their distinctive vector-graphic and primary-color 8-bit origins, a commercially ascendant subset of game slowly but surely matured into what might well be the most visually derivative popular art form in history.

The art comparison comes up a lot. Here he talks about the idea of surrender and participation in art, which gets right to the core of video games’ special offering and really, really difficult challenge:

When I watch a film, the most imperial form of popular entertainment—particularly when experienced in a proper movie theater—I am surrendering most humiliatingly, for the film begins at a time I cannot control, has nothing to sell me that I have not already purchased, and goes on whether or not I happen to be in my seat. When I read a novel I am not only surrendering; I am allowing my mind to be occupied by a colonizer of uncertain intent. Entertainment takes it as a given that I cannot affect it other than in brutish, exterior ways: turning it off, leaving the theater, pausing the disc, stuffing in a bookmark, underlining a phrase. […] Playing video games is not quite like this. The surrender is always partial. You get control and are controlled. Games are patently aware of you and have a physical dimension unlike any other form of popular entertainment.

And later, tying in with Mass Effect, he talks more about the control that video games offer. It’s not just kinetic/spatial; it can be moral:

Games such as Mass Effect allow the gamer a freedom of decision that can be evilly enlivening or nobly self-congratulating, but these games become uniquely compelling when they force you to the edge of some drawn, real-life line of intellectual or moral obligation that, to your mild astonishment, you find you cannot step across even in what is, essentially, a digital dollhouse for adults. Other mediums may depict the necessary (or foolhardy) breaches of such lines, or their foolhardy (or necessary) protection, but only games actually push you to the line’s edge and make you live with the fictional consequences of your choice.

There’s one excellent extended passage—seriously: exciting, edge-of-your-seat writing about a video game—where he talks about a particular moment of Left 4 Dead heroism. I’ll let you find the details in his book, but it’s followed up with this sharp comedown experience:

I then realized I was contrasting my aesthetic sensitivity to that of some teenagers about a game that concerns itself with shooting as many zombies as possible. It is moments like this that can make it so dispiritingly difficult to care about video games.

Delightful sometimes. Infuriating sometimes. That’s video games for you. I haven’t really played video games since I sold my dearly beloved PlayStation and Dreamcast. This book made me miss them.

Super 8 as an Allegory on the Triumph of Digital FX « Pancake Dominion

When a filmmaker makes totally 100% sure that even the most moronic audiences notice some non-plot thing in his film, there’s almost always a solid reason for it.

This brings to mind complaints about, for example, Mel Gibson’s detailed, graphic violence or Tarantino’s fountains of blood and foul language. It might be excess, it might be artistic signature, it might mean something. Note to self: it might be better to assume thoughtful intent, rather than be dismissive or complain about part of a movie/book/song I don’t like. Seek ye first to understand. Whether it works or not is another thing.

Super 8 as an Allegory on the Triumph of Digital FX « Pancake Dominion

my mortifying month

agrammar:

There needs to be room for music writing that’s not just about the author performing taste and making value judgments. So much of the life of music — the ways we hear it, the things we want from it, and so on — exist in a huge, complicated context, and someone needs to describe that context.

The difference is between sitting around listening to music and partying to music. You can’t just be walking back and forth on stage, otherwise it could just be a seminar.

Lil Scrappy on crunk, quoted in Dirty South. You could say that the music happens between fans and stars rather than between listeners and musicians. And like Little Steven says, performance relies on a working-class energy. And then there’s Elijah Wald’s observation that critics tend to be people that collect and discuss music, rather than dance to it.

It’s my theory that rock and roll happens between fans and stars, rather than between listeners and musicians—that you have to be a screaming teenager, at least in your heart, to know what’s going on.

Ellen Willis, quoted in The New Inquiry – Heroine: Ellen Willis on Rock Music. On a similar note, Daniel Mendelsohn says:

Strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even… Critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken.

See also both Little Steven and Elijah Wald on music and dancing.

Whatever the subject, a real critic is a cultural critic, always: if your judgment doesn’t bring in more of the world than it shuts out, you shouldn’t start.

Strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even… Critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken.

The Mad Men Account by Daniel Mendelsohn | The New York Review of Books

Although I can’t vouch for anything beyond the second season, Mendelsohn’s critique seems fair. (via)

Worst of all—in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues”—the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.

A few years ago, I read a collection of Mendelsohn’s criticism, most of it anyway, and found it quite enjoyable.

The Mad Men Account by Daniel Mendelsohn | The New York Review of Books

Riff Market: Theoretically Unpublished Piece About Girl Talk

I endorse this criticism, particularly regarding the uniformity of timbre/texture/tempo. And/or I’m just old and cranky and don’t understand kids these days. (via)

With Girl Talk, we get that blissful moment of recognition without having to suffer through the next three minutes and thirty seconds remembering exactly why it hasn’t been Hammertime for more than a decade now.

Also:

Girl Talk’s insistence on not being a pure DJ is a key to why the music sounds like it does, why it has only one speed, one timbre, and one density: if he lets a sample or phrase or loop breath on its own without some kind of additional percussion or secondary element, he is violating his own semantic scruples. Rule Number One of Girl Talk Club: Everything must be mashed at all times or otherwise the whole musique concrete / “art compounded from other art” rationale falls away, and Gillis is “just a DJ.”

This was intriguing, but has maybe been true for decades:

With Girl Talk compositions, one wonders how much of Gillis’s ease is a testament to his technical prowess, and how much is just an articulation of the fact that pop music has become increasingly standardized.

And also:

Forget art. The question is, without a public hungry for the references, is Feed the Animals anything at all? Does Girl Talk hold up as “music” without all the extratextual information? If you had no idea about mash-ups or hip-hop or “No Diggity” or “Epic” by Faith No More would you really be all that impressed? It would just be a long stream of unstructured pop drone. Imaginary straw-men that have lived in a underground bunker for fifty years would totally hate Girl Talk!

Riff Market: Theoretically Unpublished Piece About Girl Talk

The Simple Art of Murder – Raymond Chandler

Chandler on the detective story and how it resists criticism. This bit reminded me of Joan Acocella’s recent article about Stieg Larsson:

The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss, except whether it was well enough written to be good fiction, and the people who make up the half-million sales wouldn’t know that anyway.

A bit cynical, but there you go. Also provocative:

There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that. The growth of populations has in no way increased the amount; it has merely increased the adeptness with which substitutes can be produced and packaged.

And of course:

Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. […] I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.

See also Woody Allen on escapism. The next-to-last paragraph about the nature of the crime/detective story hero is also worthwhile.

The Simple Art of Murder – Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler – The Simple Art of Murder

Chandler on the detective story and how it resists criticism. This bit reminded me of Joan Acocella’s recent article about Stieg Larsson:

The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss, except whether it was well enough written to be good fiction, and the people who make up the half-million sales wouldn’t know that anyway.

A bit cynical, but there you go. Also provocative:

There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that. The growth of populations has in no way increased the amount; it has merely increased the adeptness with which substitutes can be produced and packaged.

And of course:

Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. […] I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.

See also Woody Allen on escapism. The next-to-last paragraph about the nature of the crime/detective story hero is also worthwhile.

Raymond Chandler – The Simple Art of Murder

Criticism can be instructive in the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic’s intelligence, or honesty, or both.

Criticism can be instructive in the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic’s intelligence, or honesty, or both.

Of all the duties required of the professional critic, the least important–certainly the least enduring–is the verdict.