24 February 2009

Get On Your Boots(traps)

Get back to work...at the job you don't have

I didn't watch Obama's faux State of the Union address, I admit. However, I did tune in on time to see Lousiana Gov. Bobby Jindal deliver the Republican response. Gov. Jindal is a rising star in the G.O.P.; a university president, congressman, and governor all before his 40th birthday, Jindal is obviously a man of great intellect, talent, and ambition, and it is easy to see why the Republicans would pin their hopes to him as opposed to many of the stale faces that make up the party's leadership within Washington. Furthermore, Jindal is the son of two Indian immigrants with something of a Horatio Alger background – presumably he, like newly-elected party chairman Michael Steele, serves as a shorthand for the rebranded G.O.P., willing to reach out beyond the Republican faithful and unprepared to cede to Obama the high ground of optimism.

Yet Jindal's message, rebutting the President's speech on the freshly-minted stimulus, was disappointingly trite. He opened with what can only be described as a curious mix of condescension – basically "Gee, isn't it neat-o that we have a black president?" – before attempting to co-opt Obama's mojo by reminding everyone that he, too, comes from what a shallower man would characterize as a "non-traditional" background. He then proceeded to engage in the kind of vacuous pro-America fluff that constitutes the G.O.P.'s message in the post-Reagan era, best summed up by the title of his response, "Americans Can Do Anything." What is "anything" you ask? Couldn't rightly say, although we got some great lines about how we need to pull together and how we're much wiser than the folks in Washington. A smart man might say, "Hey, governor, when we want to pull together – isn't that a core function of our federal government?" Of course, not, stupid: if you should have learned one thing from the Bush Administration New Deal Era it is that government is a self-perpetuating tumor destined by design to frustrate the incredible ingenuity of the American people. Nevermind the fact that we all have electricity now and there aren't any more cholera outbreaks.

While Gov. Jindal did not refer to the stimulus as the "porkulus" – Rush Limbaugh's preferred term – he did bemoan the inclusion of money for mag-lev trains and volcano monitoring as representative of its contents: frivolous bonbons that a money-drunk Democratic Congress couldn't help but stuff into government's pockets. Nevermind the fact that an effective stimulus by definition requires massive and quick amounts of spending, or that modern infrastructure or emergency warning systems – replace "volcano monitoring" with "hurricane monitoring" and you catch my drift – are precisely the types of investments government should be making. Also ignore the fact that Louisiana is slated to receive $3.8 billion in funding from the stimulus, though Jindal has indicated that he will only accept $3.7 billion on principle – doesn't want to have to raise taxes on business to support expanded unemployment benefits.

Speaking of tax cuts, why, if you guessed that they were Gov. Jindal's solution to the problem, well, you'd be right! Nevermind the fact that unemployed Americans don't typically have incomes and ergo don't pay income taxes. Or the fact that Obama's plan actually does contain enormous tax cuts in addition to the Bush legacy. Tax cuts remain the panacea that will fix every problem, dot every i, and put a chicken in every pot. Why, Bobby's cut taxes six times in Louisiana! Nevermind that sticky fact that the federal government – read: you and I – have been pumping money to Lousiana hand over fist since Katrina, or that we're chucking another $4B their way, or that Louisiana has some of the most grinding poverty in America, why cutting taxes works like a charm! You'd be a fool not to cut away! Also, while we're on the subject, can I interest you in some tax credits for exploratory drilling for oil and natural gas?

Jindal, like many Republicans, has also found religion on deficit spending: we mustn't borrow from our children in order to fund today's trillion dollar stimulus. Of course, borrowing from our children was a-OK when it came to funding an elective war in Iraq or cutting taxes for the Bernie Madoffs of the world. Frankly, I wonder if our children might not be happy that we borrowed from them if the choice was between deficits later or, you know, another Great Depression today. Naw, they would just say, "But mom, dad, don't you know that Americans can do anything? Don't worry about us, we love sleeping in the car and eating all of our meals out of a can! We can huddle next to each other for warmth! Anyways, we don't want you taking any of those soul-crushing, character-depleting handouts from our European-style socialist government on our account."

Most frustrating, perhaps, is either the complete disingenuousness or obliviousness that the G.O.P. continues to display in the face of its epic ideological failure. It breaks my heart every time I see a Republican pol like Jindal get up and tell some horrible story about how his father had to find an extra job in order to pay for Jindal's delivery at birth, and then, rather than saying, "Hey, we ought to do something about that," goes back to the same old bootstraps-and-ingenuity razmatazz that is basically G.O.Pig latin for "sink or swim." Essentially it implies that Americans who are unable to overcome serious economic hardships are somehow morally defective and ergo undeserving of having their most basic human needs met. The disappointment/absurdity was only compounded when Jindal assured the audience that the Republican Party stood for universal access to health coverage, and then in the very next sentence derided the possibility of a government health care scheme. To me, this sounds like, "The Republican Party stands for extinguishing fires, but not if it means adopting a big government solution like a fire department. I was thinking that if we gave the town's wealthiest citizens another tax cut we could convince them to collectively stand around burning buildings and urinate." Of course you know how the story will end: they'll take the money and still won't piss on you to put the fire out.

iTunes Game

Hats with polo shirts? Why, it must be 2004!

To reassure you that I haven't given up (completely) on this space, I'm picking up on this from a whole bunch of different places:

Number of Songs: 17,728
Number of Albums: 1,593
Most Recently Played Song: St. Vincent, "What Me Worry?"
Most Played Song: The Thermals, "Pillar of Salt"
Most Recently Added Album: Juana Molina, Una Dia

First Song Alphabetically: Vampire Weekend, "A-Punk"
Last Song Alphabetically: Pavement, "Zurich is Stained"
Smallest Song Numerically: Animal Collective, "#1"
Largest Song Numerically: Patti Smith, "54321/Wave"

Shortest Song: John Mayer, "Blank" (0 seconds)
Longest Song: LCD Soundsystem, "45:33"

First Album Alphabetically: The Beatles, Abbey Road
Last Album Alphabetically: Neil Young, Zuma
First Band Alphabetically: A-Ha
Last Band Alphabetically: Zounds

First Ten Songs That Pop Up on Shuffle:

1. Duran Duran - "Wild Boys"
2. AC/DC - "Let Me Put My Love Into You"
3. The Police - "A Sermon"
4. Cat Power - "I Believe in You"
5. A.C. Newman - "Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer"
6. The Beatles - "I'll Cry Instead"
7. Dim Stars - "The Night Is Coming On"
8. Broadcast - "A Man Is Not a Bird"
9. The Rolling Stones - "The Lantern"
10. Animal Collective - "Turn Into Something"

18 February 2009

Tumblr Censrshp

Too small to be Blogger, too big to be Twitter

Tumblr has apparently instituted a policy of deleting blogs on its service dedicated to stalking other bloggers, reblogging their posts and adding demeaning, often profane commentary. This NYT blog piece focuses on one Julia Allison, who has characterized herself as "internet famous" (never heard of her) and evidently contributes to a widely-read blog. Anyways, somebody set up a Tumblr called Reblogging Julia, indexed on Google here, making fun of the actual Ms. Allison. Bearing in mind that I haven't read much of it, I wouldn't characterize anything I've seen as being beyond the pale. Mean-spirited, certainly, but crossing some sort of societal bright-line, no. At any rate, Tumblr has characterized the behavior in which "Reblogging Julia" engages "harassment" and announced a policy stating that "Accounts with the sole or primary purpose of repeatedly harassing or abusing specific members or groups within the Tumblr community will be suspended."

Isn't part of "internet fame" learning to deal with "internet criticism?" Even from the anonymous? (Frankly, the anonymity angle is played up in the piece, but I can't understand why; would it be better if Julia or whomever had a name or address or something? Would she send them a nasty e-mail, or attempt to change their mind about her? I mean, I know that anonymity is largely associated with cowardice – although I'd point out that the Federalist Papers were all written pseudonymously – but I'm not sure why that rankles so much in the world of internet snark. Btdubs, I just compared Tumblr hecklers with James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, et al.) Seriously, while I think that there can/should be limitations on internet fora, in terms of threats, posting personal data, etc., simply mocking someone who trades on their blogger celebrity seems not only to be relatively harmless but wholly within the spirit of what the internet is basically all about. Without Tumblr or services like it, "Julia Allison" wouldn't exist; the democratic beauty of the technology is that people who have an opinion about her one way or another have a platform with which to praise/discuss/disdain her which is equally accessible.

Admittedly, I feel a little bit like Campbell Brown here: I'm telling you something you already know, and, more than likely, I'm even having the same "well, duh" reaction as you. Still, it is kind of bullshit that the very same people who exploit the internet to go from essentially non-entities to elevating the most banal facets of their existence into "content" get pissed off when people actually take a couple of pot shots at the sitting ducks. E.g.:
Dan: People will not stop asking me about Mary's haircut.
Me: HAHHAHA are they talking about how I'm fat, too?
Me: I've been getting that a lot lately. "Julia looks like she's about to implode" was my favorite.
Dan: No, no one who talks to me says you're fat.
Me: Oh that's good. That's a plus.
Dan: They all agree with me that you hang out with too many people that are anorexically skinny. And if you are around normal sized people, you look tiny, because you are, in fact, tiny.
Me: I just feel like my face is fat. I feel sort of ugly and fat bc of fashion week. I think one tends to lose perspective.

P.S. Though I'm not really interested into going into it, evidently there's a personal connection b/w Allison and Tumblr CEO David Karp; plus Allison, though she denies asking Karp to take the offending blogs down, isn't exactly broken up about the whole thing.

16 February 2009

Grow Young and Die Together

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button could not have existed without Brad Pitt, and I mean that not only commercially (though it is difficult to see a major studio bankrolling this picture without a top-tier star attached), but artistically as well. The present day Pitt is the film's big reveal, what the audience is led to anticipate for the first two-thirds of the film's run time, and when he does arrive, Cate Blanchett's Daisy sums up the moment with almost hilarious economy: "You're perfect." After two hours of watching Pitt shed special effect after special effect, turning him from a prematurely-pruned toddler to a long-haired Donald Rumsfeld look-alike to a, well, 60 year-old Brad Pitt, the moment the man himself does arrive has the punch of every magazine cover that has ever borne his image behind it, eliciting a Pavlovian response that is much a comment on the demi-religious nature of celebrity worship as anything the picture itself might intentionally hope to raise. That most of the film's final third closely tracks a Calvin Kline ad – sailing, moonlight trysts on the beach, Brad Pitt – only cements the effect.

I liked Benjamin Button; many did not. All of the criticisms are deadly accurate: it's three hours long (nowadays a sub-Lawrence of Arabia film can only presume upon an audience for two); sharing a screenwriter with Forrest Gump, it sometimes too closely tracks the former picture, though Pitt never shakes hands with FDR or anything; and it seems almost perilously naive about issues of race given its setting in Jim Crow-era New Orleans. Yet none of these flaws are fatal, and none undermine what is essentially a simple love story, albeit one with quasi-sci-fi underpinnings and the sweep of much of the twentieth century behind it. Director David Fincher, who delivered his masterpiece last time out with the vastly underappreciated Zodiac, brings his impeccable eye for composition and visual detail to bear here, though the ostentatious trickery that marked his mid-period work (Seven, Fight Club, Panic Room) is largely absent. All in all, I imagine that once the intense scrutiny of awards season has faded (and after the equally problematic Slumdog Millionaire has claimed its Oscars), Benjamin Button will be more kindly reassessed as a small picture ensnared in the body of an epic. That it sheds the lugubrious trappings of self-importance as its runtime wears on – and distinctly improves as a result – is either the film's slyest metaphysical conceit or an extraordinarily happy accident.

09 February 2009

The Middle of the Road Ain't a Bad Place to Be

Is that a dude in a Robert Plant mask?

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand is a perfectly fine, tasteful, modest little record; that it won the Grammy for Best Album last night is not surprising in the least, and even though I'd like to say that if it weren't for Plant's name on the plastic, it wouldn't have sniffed a Grammy, I'm not even sure that'd be true. Well, sure, Grammys go to names or sales (and Plant sold a million copies), but musically Raising Sand radiates a folkified West Coast pleasantness that signifies as middlebrow class. It isn't hard to imagine an academy of aging voters (a lot of these people were in the record business when Led Zepp were around) listening to the bombast of Coldplay, the willful obscurantism of Radiohead, the profane verbal gymnastics of Lil Wayne, and the detached loverman-ness of Ne-Yo, and settling on a well-executed minor-key bluegrass record for which they are the raison d'ĂȘtre. Still, even if you're miffed that Lil Wayne didn't walk off with the hardware after producing the consensus media event record of 2008, you can't be too mad at Robert Plant. Raising Sand is no Two Against Nature or Genius Loves Company; it's a record with a quiet vitality that suggests a path forward for its principals rather than a gaudy headstone for Led Zeppelin. Just listen to "Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)" and if it doesn't move you a little bit, well, there's a reason I don't do money-back guarantees.


Never gets old

Alex Rodriguez has admitted to taking banned substances in an interview with ESPN following news reports over the weekend that he had tested positive during a confidential survey test undertaken by MLB in 2003. The revelation is a bombshell: Rodriguez is the highest-paid player in the game with an astronomical 10 year, $275 million deal; he plays for the New York Yankees, the most heavily scrutinized franchise in professional sport; and, most importantly, he is the active player most likely – perhaps nearly certain – to surpass Barry Bonds' tainted career home run record, currently standing at 762. For all of his flaws both on the field – his perceived inability to perform in the clutch – and off – uh, getting caught on film with strippers who aren't his wife, evidently alienating the rest of his clubhouse, his general "I live in a bubble" mentality – he stood as something of a rejoinder to the Steroids Era. A-Rod's superhuman performance (though not super-superhuman, a la Bonds, McGwire, or Sosa) was attributed to a natural giftedness and an unparalleled work ethic. He stood for the proposition that the genuine article was possible, that Ruthian heights could still be scaled without the illicit shortcut afforded by PEDs. Well, as with Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Roger Clemens (another one with a vaunted work ethic), Rafael Palmeiro, Miguel Tejada, et cetera, et cetera, A-Rod is now tainted, removing the last shred of doubt that much of the last two decade – probably the whole post-strike era – was a massive fraud perpetrated against baseball fans.

Frankly, I don't know whether or not A-Rod's scarlet 'S' will ruin his legacy the way it did Bonds'. A-Rod has already admitted to taking PEDs, thereby skipping the Giambi "weasely vague non-apology" apology and heading right for the Andy Pettitte "yeah, I did it but only because of x." Whether A-Rod's x, coping with the pressures of earning an insane $25 million a year to hit a ball with a stick, will equate to Pettitte's x, recovering from injury at a relatively advanced age, remains to be seen. My guess is that it's not even super relevant, at least to Yankee fans. As long as A-Rod didn't lie to federal investigators, and there's no suggestion that he's even spoken to them about PEDs, then he's in no real jeopardy of being sanctioned under the law or by MLB. (Of course, Congress could haul him in for a dog and pony show, but that's beyond anybody's control at this point.) This circus will go on for as long as the media wills it, which, given their love of A-Rod as a punching bag at home (and the already-simmering distaste/hatred for A-Rod and the Yanks on the road), will last at least through the rest of this season.

However, A-Rod is signed up to be a Yankee for the next nine seasons; furthermore, it's not likely that he'll approach the vaunted 763 HR milestone for at least another six or seven years – sitting at 553 homers right now, he would need at least five season even if he produced at a highly-unlikely 50 homer pace. The intensity surrounding this story isn't apt to last that long; by admitting to taking PEDs immediately, A-Rod has probably pursued the best course of action available in terms of putting this story behind him. Now speculation will likely be focused on a) how the other Yankees (most pivotally, Jeter) will react to the revelation, b) how Yankee fans will react to A-Rod, c) how fans on the road will react to A-Rod (Red Sox fans: I am looking forward to some clever signs), and d) who are the 103 other players who tested positive? Three of those four questions will answer themselves sooner rather than later, and the fourth concerns A-Rod only tangentially.

[Of course, there is one caveat to all of this, and that is the caveat A-Rod himself inserted into his admission: he claims to never have taken steroids as a Yankee. I expect, in part, that this bit of probable wishful thinking will catch on with gullible/willfully-blind Yankee fans who want to pretend that his achievements with their team are completely untainted. Of course there is always the possibility that new evidence will surface that A-Rod did in fact juice in pinstripes (oh what I wouldn't give for a photo of Jeter injecting A-Rod in the ass to surface), thereby ripping off what is already sure to be a very tenuous scab. If he gets caught lying now, it will be about 10 times as bad, if that is even possible.]

My gut feeling is that A-Rod's public act of contrition, coupled with a couple of clean piss tests and the passage of time, will put a damper on the public's appetite for opprobrium. After all, I think a large part of why America hated Bonds and Clemens so intensely was a) that both men behaved supremely villainously – in the WWE sense – both on and off the field and b) they refused to admit what was obvious to the rest of us. (To Bonds' "credit", he told a "take-it-or-leave-it" lie; either you believed him or you didn't. Whereas Clemens, apparently advised by his lawyer, engaged in an incredibly bizarre act of P.R. self-immolation, essentially staging an inconclusive show trial of his accuser and inadvertently hanging himself in the process.) A-Rod can ride this thing out now that the cat's out of the bag; it's difficult to imagine people really working themselves into a lather year after year, apart from the smattering of boos likely to greet him on the road with every first at-bat.

The real losers in all of this are the Yankees. The opening of their brand new Xanadu-esque ballpark, already tainted by tales of excessive abuse of the public till, will now be overshadowed by the year of A-Roid (credit to my Yankee fan friend Vinnie on that one). Their planned promotional push surrounding Rodriguez's drive to 763 homers will invariably have to be scaled back, costing the team potentially hundreds of millions in revenue. Vis-a-vis the actual team, we know from Joe Torre's book that A-Rod already doesn't have the best of relationships with his teammates; this certainly won't help matters. (Though it is delightful to imagine Mark Teixiera and C.C. Sabathia getting YES Network mics shoved into their faces and being asked about Rodriguez night in and night out – welcome to the Bronx!) Of course, as a Mets fan, the best thing that can happen apart from a Mets World Series win (sign Manny) is watching the Yankees devolved into some vintage Steinbrenner-esque chaos, so this is like a gift from the baseball gods.

07 February 2009

U2, Brute?

U2 - Get On Your Boots

"Get On Your Boots" is really no better or worse than the rest of the late period singles the band has intermittently pumped out since 2000's "return to form" record All That You Can't Leave Behind. Lyrically, it's no prize winner – "If someone's into blowin' up/We're into growin' up" – but then again, who could forget the "mole diggin' in a hole" from "Elevation" (or "El!Ev!A!Shun!")? Sonically, "Boots" is in keeping with promises that No Line on the Horizon would be a more adventurous record than its immediate predecessors: low end up front with the bass pushed to the edge of distortion, the vaguely "Sunday Bloody Sunday"-esque drum-stomp at the bridge, the substitution of fuzztone for the Edge's typically windchimey guitar – it's fair to say that U2 haven't tried to sound this interesting since Pop. On the whole, it will help the band sell 2 million copies of the record, and give them at least one new song they can play on their inevitable forthcoming world tour that won't send fans streaming for the restrooms. Given the recent Springsteen debacle, I suppose that's more than we can ask for from our rock and roll dinosaurs at this point.

On the bright side, "Get On Your Boots" gave me an excuse to listen to one of my favorite U2 songs, "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)". The video, directed by Wim Wenders and based upon his Wings of Desire, features, if possible, an even douchier Christ-complexified Bono: