Thursday, July 31, 2014

I've Been Busy!

It's been quiet hereabouts, for a couple reasons. One, I don't usually bother publishing anything the week of SDCC - the comics blogosphere is usually too crowded for anyone to pay attention to anything other than that, so why put a lot of work into a post that'll die on the vine? Two, I've been teaching a Summer Session course these last six weeks. Let me just say: as demanding as teaching a regular course in the space of a packed ten-week quarter may be, six weeks is positively deadly. I have a tendency to procrastinate that gets me into trouble in ten weeks, it's practically killed me in six.

But I have still been busy! My writing for the A.V Club has been going steady. This week, because there's some kind of comic book movie or something in the theaters, was Comics Week with a special focus on "Cosmic" Comics - which, if you know me, is so fully in my wheelhouse that I've got a cot set up in the corner. I contributed to this special all-cosmic Comics Panel, where I was happy to be able to smuggle Robert Crumb and The Sandman amongst the usual Kirby, Starlin, and Englehart suspects. But more importantly, I produced this feature length essay on Jim Starlin's Warlock - which I do not believe I've ever officially written about, despite its massive significance and my unabashed love for the run. Thanks to Oliver Sava for putting it all together, and for giving me the gig in the first place - now I can buy groceries!

I think it turned out pretty good, even if - due to a funny bit of crossed wires - I ended up having to write it in just a couple of hours. So, if you were ever wondering how well I can write under a tight deadline, the answer is officially "not well, but he can at least spell the words OK."

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Devil's Dictionary 2.0

9/11 (Noun)
1) An inside job.
2) A litmus test for aspiring engineers to properly understand the melting points of steel girders. Ex: The last question on the Structural Engineering final involved proving that there was no way the towers could have fallen on 9/11 without additional explosives planted inside the buildings.
Agenda (Noun)
A type of plan utilized by sinister forces to ensure the success of their political programme. Ex: I don't watch Hollywood movies anymore because I don't want to be brainwashed by the feminist agenda.
America (Proper Noun)
A country in North America founded by God-fearing Christian atheists who believed in the absolute right of every citizen to carry any type of gun at all times and to voluntarily opt out of observing whichever laws they please.
Apology (Noun)
1) The admission that someone, somewhere, may in some small way have done something somewhat harmful to another person.
2) Admission of weakness.
Apologize (Verb)
The only unforgivable act.
Atheism (Noun)
1) The belief that there is no God.
2) The highest expression of the rational mind.
Atheist (Noun)
1) A person who practices atheism.
2) A person who believes that reason and rationalism should be the first and only tools used by sane minds to solve problems. Ex: I asked Ted why he didn't use deodorant and he said he was an atheist who didn't see any rational need to suppress his natural scent. He then sent me a link to an article about pheremones.
Benghazi (Noun)
1) A supposed attack on an American embassy in Libya on 9/11 2012.
2) Proof that the United States government is being run by fifth-columnists dedicated to the destruction of America.
Birth Control (Noun)
1) A group of medical procedures and medications for the purpose of preventing unintended pregnancy.
2) Something women pretend to take so they can entrap unwary men.
Breaking Bad (Noun)
1) A popular television program.
2) The story of a real man who overcomes personal weakness and feminist interference to provide for his family the best he can.
Capitalism (Noun)
The dominant economic and political ideology in the United States of America.
Capitalist (Noun)
A person who engages in capitalism. Ex: I am a capitalist because I make minimum wage at McDonalds.
Capitalist (Adj.)
Behavior generally intended to enable the amassing of large amounts of wealth by an increasingly concentrated minority of hereditary billionaires at the expense of everyone else. Ex: I believe in a fully capitalist Jesus.
Communism (Noun)
A system of government in which all personal liberty is extinguished by oppressive government forces, economic restrictions ensure that the bulk of the population is relegated to the status of a permanent underclass, and personal initiative is systematically discouraged.Communist governments are noted for their repressive state police apparatuses and the establishment of a corrupt permanent ruling class who use government primarily as a means of attaining personal wealth. There are no meaningful elections in Communist states because all decisions are made independent of any recourse to popular opinion.
Courtesy (Noun)
The act of being polite to you. Ex: I expect courtesy from everyone with whom I debate the definition of "rape" online.
Courteous (Adj.)
Behavior intended to indicate respectful obeisance toward those with superior intellect.
Democrat (Proper Noun)
A member of the American political party dedicated to the dismantling of the United States of America, and the institution of Communism and Sharia law.
Discrimination (Noun)
The practice of giving special treatment to women or minorities.
Drought (Noun)
Condition of artificial scarcity created by Democrat congress in order to support a bogus global warming agenda and put family farms out of business.
Empathy (Noun)
Syn: Weakness.
Equality (Noun)
A hypothetical future state in which all white men are enslaved under the rule of feminists, minorities, and homosexuals.
False Flag (Noun)
A distraction intended to obscure another more insidious objective. Ex: Rape accusations are often false flags intended to silence male voices and ruin promising careers.
Fedora (Noun)
Crown of righteousness and sign of wisdom. Worn only by the Elect.
Feminism (Noun)
An ideology that teaches that women are superior to men and than men must be forcibly suppressed through violence and political disenfranchisement.
Feminist (Noun)
A person who practices feminism. Ex: That feminist didn't want to have sex with me even though I've been her friend for six months and I've wasted all this time listening to her complain about Brad.
First Amendment (Noun)
1) An amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America that ensures no person shall have their right to speech abridged by the federal government.
2) The right to say anything you want without fear of consequences.
Friendzone (None)
A limbo-like dimension, similar to Superman's Phantom Zone, to which innocent men who just want to have sex with women are banished. Ex: I don't understand why Carol put me in the friendzone, I brought her coffee every day for a month without her even asking me to!
Global Warming (Noun)
A hoax created by the Left with the goal of dismantling capitalism for the purpose of leaving America vulnerable to foreign invasion.
Gun (Noun)
1) The birthright of every American.
2) A potentially lethal weapon. Ex: I always carry my gun because I never know when I will be called upon to aid the coming insurrection against government tyranny and homosexuals.
Homosexual (Noun)
1) A person who engages in homosexuality.
2) Not me.
Homosexuality (Noun)
A form of behavior which must be eradicated lest it infect the innocent. Ex: I hate homosexuality so much I can't stop thinking about it. I think about homosexuality all the time. I have to stop homosexuality so I no longer have to think about big, muscular guys covered in oil thrashing around on a bed covered by satin sheets and lit by flickering candles.
Jesus (Proper Noun)
Ancient prophet who believed in free market ideology and the dismantling of big government. Ex: Although he is widely cited as a moral authority, Jesus' actual recorded words and teachings remain obscure.
Jonathan Franzen (Proper Noun)
The Great American Novelist.
Justice (Noun)
The implementation of the law. Ex: I may not personally like what Zimmerman did, but justice was nonetheless served.
Law (Noun)
Any exercise of force by the Federal Government against someone other than you. Ex: It is well within the law for police officers to implement Stop & Frisk policies in that neighborhood.
Libertarian (Noun)
An autocthonic and solitary entity who is unaffected by the actions of others and whose actions affect no one else.
Maker (Noun)
Syn: Job creator. Member of the creative class who are solely responsible for all productive innovation throughout history.
Man (Noun)
A member of an endangered species, often targeted by feminists for accusations of thoughtcrime.
Misandry (Noun)
The act of committing either psychological or physical abuse against the last disadvantaged minority.
MRA (Noun)
Acronym for Men's Rights Activist. A person dedicated to the idea that men are systematically abused and discriminated by and in need of protection against the overreaches of feminist culture. Ex: I became a MRA after seeing so many men go through the painful ordeal of being friendzoned.
Nice Guy (Noun)
1) A man who expects to receive sex in exchange for granting a woman the privilege of his friendship.
2) A man who is not mean or abusive or a liar like those other guys.
PC (Noun)
Acronym for Political Correctness. An ideology dedicated to restricting the First Amendment rights of men.
Police (Noun)
A class of outlaw against whom self-defense is illegal.
Pregnancy (Noun)
The necessary and completely unavoidable consequence of allowing a man to achieve his birthright.
Racism (Noun)
A category of behavior that officially ended on November 4th, 2008. Ex: The Voting Rights Act is no longer necessary because racism is over.
Rape (Noun)
A category of crime for which the only victims are men.
Republican (Proper Noun)
1) Member of a political party dedicated to compromising on every item of the Democrat agenda.
2) A once-proud institution corrupted by weakness on core principles. Ex: I used to be proud to be a Republican, until they rolled over and decided to rubber stamp Obama's communist agenda.
Reverse Racism (Noun)
The practice of making white people feel guilty for something they didn't even do.
Sex (Noun)
The birthright of every man.
Sexism (Noun)
A rationale offered by women to explain why they deserve special treatment. Ex: We have to let women be firefighters even though they're not physically capable of doing the job because they say it's sexism not to.
Sharia Law (Noun)
The legal system observed by practicing Muslims and based on the religious teachings of the Koran. Ex: Wake up, sheeple, Barack Hussein Obama is trying to impose Sharia law on the United States.
Sheeple (Noun)
Non-atheists. Ex: Wake up, sheeple, Benghazi was a false flag.
Silicon Valley (Proper Noun)
1) Business and research hub of the American technology industry.
2) Incubator for all the great ideas that are going to transform our lives in the 21st century. Ex: I made a lot of money in Silicon Valley by writing a new search algorithm that automatically reports any unusual searches to the federal government, while also managing to avoid paying taxes on income because I'm a Maker not a Taker.
Soccer (Noun)
A game popular in countries other than the US, as well as with small children not yet old enough to play real football, and women who have no other option.
Social Justice (Noun)
False flag rationale used to abridge First Amendment rights by citing special privileges for unfairly advantaged minority groups.
Sovereignty (Noun)
The right of every man to personally secede from a tyrannical government at his desire. Ex: I am exercising my sovereignty by refusing to pull over to the side of the road for ambulances.
Taker (Noun)
A member of the parasite class whose sole desire to is to drain wealth from private hands and into public coffers. Ex: I made a conscious decision not to work because I realized I could have a better standard of living on welfare and in Section 8 housing than I could by working at McDonalds. I guess I'm a taker.
Teachers (Plural Noun)
1) The least trustworthy and most duplicitous of all public employees, worthy only of your scorn and abuse.
2) The people who provide eight hours of free babysitting every day.
Tea Party(Noun)
1) Member of an activist political organization dedicated to the forceful implementation of conservative ideology.
2) True patriots who fight the tyrannical government to lower our all-time historically high tax rates. Ex: I support the Tea Party because I pay too much in taxes, just like my fathers and grandfathers who built this country.
TERF (Noun)
Feminists who hunt other feminists for sport.
Thoughtcrime (Noun)
A thought that is forcibly suppressed by feminists or other minorities because it expresses an commonsense truism not accepted by the PC police. Ex: I know the PC police are going to bust me for thoughtcrime, but I'm only saying what everyone else is thinking.
Tory (Proper Noun)
A member of Britain's ruling conservative party.
Tories (Plural Noun)
1) Plural of Tory.
2) British political party whose primary goal is to rape as many children as possible, and yet still retain the support of a large percentage of the electorate. Ex: I know the Tories are pro-pederasty, but what's their policy on immigration?
A violent criminal who is determined to impose its strange and perverse lifestyle on you by force whether you like it or not. Ex: Transgender people present a clear danger to our American way of life.
Trilby (Noun)
A kind of hat often mistaken for a fedora.
Tumblr (Noun)
1) An online forum for enthusiasts of genre television shows and movies.
2) Where you keep your porn.
Tyranny (Noun)
Any exercise of force by the Federal Government against you. Ex: Because we live in a tyranny, I got a speeding ticket while a bunch of blacks and women were going a lot faster than me.
Weakness (Noun)
A vice practiced by other people, but not you.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A Whole New World

Big doings!

Longtime readers may remember five or so years ago when I premiered the first installment of THE HURTING'S PARTY JAM PODCAST. You might also remember that a C&D letter from Blogger made me stop posting links to these mixes on this site.

What you may not know is that the PARTY JAMS never stopped, they just went underground. Over the last few years I've compiled a mailing list of interested parties, as well as regularly posting the links to Twitter. The series is, amazingly, all the way up to episode #49, sent out just this past week. Still, I'd be lying if I said that direct mailing was a wholly satisfying distribution strategy. But just this week I came across a new and seemingly (at least for the moment) legal means of posting the PARTY JAMS so that they can be appreciated by a wider audience. A little birdy passed on a link to Mixcloud, a site that allows users to upload completed mixes with tracklists for proper attribution, and which can be listened to on any browser. My page is here.

I've uploaded the most recent twelve and, time permitting, will post more. It's great to have them up like this, and I like the site's functionality - even with the ads, but that's a necessary evil. I remain unconvinced as to the long-term viability of the site: we've seen other quote-unquote "legal" mixtape services come and go before, so I would not be surprised at all if this one vanished in a similar manner before too long. But for the moment, it looks pretty good. You can get started with Episode #49, right here. There is also a widget in my sidebar right under the Twitter feed. So, basically, you can fill your empty lives with The Hurting branded multi-media content until the day you die.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Unstable Shapeshifter (Tempest, 1997)

The reason this card exists would appear to be primarily to take advantage of a rule that no longer exists. Unstable Shapeshifter automatically changes to become a Clone of whichever creature enters the battlefield. There are certainly a number of circumstances you can imagine in order to help you exploit this card, but the primary usage was almost certainly for the purpose of hosing Legends.

What are Legends? Legends are a card type that specifies only one copy of said card can be on the board at any one time. Whereas most creatures are not specific characters, some creatures (as well as other permanents such as Artifacts, Lands, and Enchantments) are specific characters that represent figures from the storyline. For instance: you can have as many Grizzly Bears on the board as you want at any given moment (allowing for the fact that you can only have four in your deck). Conceivably, two players could have eight grizzly bears total on the table at any given moment, or create a device to generate unlimited Grizzly Bear tokens, and that would be fine.

But let's say you have a Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir on the table.

Teferi isn't a generic creature or soldier, he's a specific person who plays a specific role in one of Magic's biggest storylines. As such, he has the adjective "Legendary" on his card type line. This used to mean only one of him could be on the table at any given time, and one of the consequences of that was the "Legend rule," which stated that if two copies of the same Legend were ever on the board at the same time, both of them would go into the graveyard. (Unless you had a Mirror Gallery in play.) This is intuitive: you can't have two of the same person on the battlefield at the same time. So you can see how a card like Unstable Shapeshifter was designed specifically to dissuade your opponent from playing powerful Legends. Why cast a card if it's going to be immediately sent to the graveyard?

The problem is that for a long time Legends were not regarded with fondness by many in Magic. They were considered a creative necessity in order to be able to use the game to reflect events in a storyline, but the Legend Rule also discouraged many players from playing even powerful Legend cards because of the chances of competitive cards becoming impossible to play. (If a card was tournament-viable and also a Legend, any opponent could sideboard the same card and be prepared to nullify that exact threat in the second match. It didn't make for fun play.) Compounding the problem was the invention of Planeswalkers, a new card type created in the late 2000s to represent certain very powerful characters from the storyline (characters who could walk between different planes, or different worlds, hence the name). Although they didn't call it the Legend rule when applied to Planeswalkers, they still operated under the same principle: no more than one version of Jace or Ajani could be on the board at any given time, for the simple reason that no more than one version of the same person can be in the same room as another version.

Two things happened that necessitated a change in the rules. One, Planeswalkers became an extremely popular card type, and a vanguard of the majority of tournament-viable decks. But the Legend weakness still meant that even the most powerful Planeswalkers could be countered simply by playing a version of the same character. Two, while Legends had never been the most popular card type, that changed with the invention of the Commander format (previously known as "Elder Dragon Highlander," or EDH). Without going into detail, Commander is a format built around Legends as a card type. The rise of Commander as a popular format meant there was a great deal of new demand for Wizards to produce more Legends, even though the restrictions of the Legend rule as it existed had historically made Legends unpopular with many players and designers.

So the rule was changed a couple years back. You can still only have one version of a Legend or Planeswalker on the table at any given time, but your Legends do not effect those of your opponent, meaning you can't be forced to put a Legend in the graveyard because your opponent was clever enough to have the same Legend in their deck. And if you do have two versions of the same Legend on your side of the table, both cards do not immediately go into the graveyard, only one. All of this means that Unstable Shapeshifter can't do one of the things it was designed to do. It can still do a number of other things - there are plenty of good non-Legendary creatures still hanging around the game that you might want to duplicate, after all. But at the time of its invention the card functioned as effective removal against a certain type of card, and that functionality doesn't exists anymore - unless you're stupid enough to play this before you play a Legend yourself, in which case this copy would just go into the graveyard. And while there may be one or two exotic circumstances when that might be useful, it's just not something that comes up very often.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Well, What Do You Know

Turns out DC is publishing a good Wonder Woman comic after all.

It just happens to be the digital-only Scooby-Doo Team-Up #9, by Scholly Fisch and Dario Brizuela.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Everybody's Rocking

Kanye West - "Slow Jamz (Feat. Twista & Jamie Foxx)" (The College Dropout, 2004)

I went through a Kanye West phase a few months back. I realized one day that although I had 808s and Heartbreaks, My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy, and especially Yeezus damn near committed to memory, I really didn't know his first three albums at all. (Fun story: I live with someone for whom Yeezus is one of their favorite albums - even though she's not usually a hip-hop person, for something like six months running that was her default car listening music. So I'm kind of sick of it now.) My excuse is simply that, from my perspective, 2004 was a pretty weak year, in the middle of a pretty weak period for commercial hip-hop.

This isn't any reflection of the what was actually happening in rap, but an admission that for the most part I tend to be an unimaginative hip-hop listener. I can point to The Roots' Tipping Point as one of my favorite albums from that year (I know it might seem strange, but in many ways I prefer The Tipping Point even to Things Fall Apart, even if I also acknowledge that Phrenology is probably the superior album to both). That was the year Madvillainy dropped. Ghostface released the fairly tepid Pretty Toney. Outkast and Jay-Z were still riding high off late-2003 blockbusters. Other than the artists I already followed, what I heard was 50 Cent, G-Unit, and a thousand clones of the same. I worked at the children's residential facility during the height of 50's dominance and that's the dominant memory I have of that era of hip-hop: a bunch of developmentally-challenged and mentally ill children putting pictures of 50 on their walls because he was the best masculine role model a group of disadvantaged orphans could find.

Given that, can you understand how someone with very little investment in contemporaneous hip-hop - and, let's be frank, very white buying habits - could have completely slept on Kanye West? I just wasn't paying attention, but I knew enough about hip-hop history to know that there are few less promising sales pitches than that of a well-respected hitmaker producer deciding to be a rapper and dropping a solo album. (I used to know a guy who was obsessed with Jermaine Dupri, which, you know, I guess there had to be one.) Sure enough The College Dropout spawned a few biggish singles, but nothing that stuck out to me at the time. But instead of putting out a medium-hot album and disappearing (which is how these things often work), he came out with another album a year and a half later, and in the context of a less crowded hip-hop scene this one made a much bigger imprint. This was due in large part to "Gold Digger," which was everywhere for approximately half a year back in the dark days of George W. Bush's second term. But not only was the song itself inescapable, but the controversy following Kanye's (completely justified) outburst at the aforementioned George W. Bush during the Hurricane Katrina television benefit catapulted the man from being a star to being, well, Kanye.

It wasn't possible to ignore Kanye after 2005, but it didn't necessarily follow that I immediately came around. I thought "Gold Digger" was pretty noxious and patently misogynistic (which it still is, to be fair). His follow-up, the similarly-huge Graduation, made the further mistake of sampling Daft Punk on "Stronger," which I dismissed out of hand. he was hitting for the bleachers now - touring with U2 made him want to be a rock star, and he was already playing on a bigger canvas than just about anyone else on the pop music scene at the time. And, all things considered, I would have been perfectly happy to continue ignoring him if he had continued producing ubiquitous pop crossover hits and working with pander-bears like Adam Levine and Chris Martin. But you all know what happened next.

And this, for me, is the embarrassing part, at least in hindsight. There's a stereotype of the male white amateur/semi-pro rock critic (which, never forget, I was for a long time) that I sometimes still find myself falling into - rockism, for lack of a better or less loaded term. I couldn't come around to Kanye until he started producing "interesting" music, i.e., conceptually and musically "weird" in a way that "mere" mainstream hip-hop could never, or only very rarely, be. These were purely knee-jerk responses ingrained by decades of listening to and reading and writing about pop music with a very specific set of cultural blinders. Rock and roll was the dominant paradigm in pop music - or, to put it another way, rock was perceived to be the dominant paradigm in pop music - for so long that many could not recognize when the paradigm had passed.

Because it has passed, and the acknowledgement can't help but come as a bitter pill for anyone who ever bought into the myth of rock and roll as a universal, totalizing cultural force - as opposed to a cultural expression of a very specific time and place in history, primarily championed by a very specific demographic. I've spent a lot of time trying to work past these prejudices over the last few years. Teaching a class on aesthetics over the past year has done a lot for me in terms of breaking some of the most reflexive habits of rockist thinking. The majority of my students don't listen to rock, and furthermore do not have good associations with the genre because of the perception that it is the province of pissy upper-middle-class white people. Which is untrue, but . . . in the year 2014 not not true, either.

When I first heard "Love Lockdown" I immediately knew that this was something really interesting and really different. The individual elements that made up the song were familiar - the minimal Kompakt techno throb, the tribal drums breaking in the middle of the song, Kanye's auto-tuned Sprechgesang - but the way he put them together were new. The raw emotionalism was also novel, at least in the context of mainstream hip-hop waking up from its decades-long superthug hangover. People didn't know how to metabolize this at first - I remember 808s & Heartbreaks received a lot of mixed and confused reviews when it came out. But sure enough, in a year or two everyone wanted to sound like Kanye on "Heartless," and futuristic R&B was the vanguard genre in pop music for a good couple years after.

So I became a Kanye fan, and when My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy hit, it was perfectly calculated to tickle all the old-school rock critic soft spots - ambition, conceptual heft, songs poking up near the ten minute mark, even more of 808s self-excoriating lyrical content. Kanye was obviously making a capital-"S" Statement, no longer aiming for Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt, but Exile on Main Street, Dark Side of the Moon, and Sign O' The Times. And we all ate it up, even if Kanye's commercial fortunes had begun to falter with 808s. Yeezus marked an even greater departure - if My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy had represented the logical apotheosis of all the strains of Kanye's music up to that time, Yeezus was the sound of Kanye throwing everything in the shredder and listening to German techno and Chicago drill. It was Low, Metal Machine Music, and Prince's Black Album all rolled into one. Kanye's still playing the game: in interviews he's made explicit comparisons to Springsteen, calling Yeezus his Nebraska, and likening his forthcoming album to Born in the U.S.A. If he follows through on this promise, his critical dominance will continue apace.

With this context, going back to Kanye's early albums - particularly The College Dropout - was something of a revelation. I had heard the singles but hadn't paid them any attention. If I had bothered to listen to the albums themselves I would have seen that all the most interesting facets of later Kanye - not least of which the aforementioned, cliched "ambition" - was there from the beginning. He had a personal narrative from the start, starting with "Through the Wire" and onto "Jesus Walks," that set him apart from just about everyone else. He was doing something different which stands out even in the context of ten years of subsequent Kanye West music.

But all of that goes under the rubric of hindsight - slotting individual albums into the narrative of a larger career trajectory influenced by the standard artistic precedents that every pop critic carries around in their heads. That's a tempting and in some ways still efficient shorthand for understanding artistic evolution in pop music, but also essentially misleading. Even though Kanye himself would appear to invite these comparisons, they're reductive. He almost certainly does it, at least in part, to flatter the imaginations of music writers: he knows full well that getting the critics on your side is the best way to ensure career longevity, even if sales waver. Yeezus was his worst-selling album by a wide margin, and yet it was also arguably his most discussed.

The point is, Kanye doesn't need the hindsight. He emerged fully-formed, and only those who were willing to dismiss him on the basis of his genre - that is, mainstream, commercial, popular hip-hop - could possibly have missed what was going on. And it's not just the personal storytelling on "Through the Wire," or the ballsy religious turn on "Jesus Walks" - both of which I had heard and gave tacit approval, even if it took me a long time to really appreciate them. No, I think the best song on The College Dropout was also the biggest single, and the most baldly commercial song on the album - "Slow Jamz." (It was technically first released as a Twista song in late 2003, but really, Kanye is in complete control from the very beginning.)

It's a masterpiece of production and composition. It's just over five minutes long but packs in more ideas than most albums. It's a song with no less than three featured artists and a prominent vocal sample from Luther Vandross. (It's been so long since I've paid any attention to early Kanye production that the sped-up Vandross sample sounded for the life of me like a woman's voice. Isn't it amazing how at one time that was his primary gimmick, but you don't even notice it anymore?) Jamie Foxx actually carries the bulk of the song. I was about to say that he sings the chorus, but the funny thing about this song is that it's actually all chorus - there's no standard verse-chorus-verse structure. The whole thing is built on the same repeating loop that escalates into the same descending bass figure like clockwork every ten seconds or so. Even though, technically, the chorus is Foxx's "She wants some Marvin Gaye, some Luther Vandross . . ." section, musically, the chorus is the same as the verse structure. Kanye knows the hook, and he knows not to bury the lede - especially at a time when any misstep could have cost him his nascent career.

Foxx's voice is the glue that holds the song together, with Kanye's verse followed by Twista. (Best Kanye line, obviously: "She's got a white-skinned friend looks like Michael Jackson / Got a dark-skinned friend looks like Michael Jackson.") Everything fits together perfectly: the three vocalists create a sense of place as well as a consistent tone. It feels like a party. This is a club track - but just a bit ironically, it actually has a pretty frenetic beat, contrary to the song's stated purpose of providing a "slow jam." Way back in the late 90s and early 00s, the idea of doing pop crossover hits with hip-hop and R&B elements was a bit controversial - that's one way Ja Rule turned himself into the Richard Gere of hardcore hip-hop, after all. (Well, that and getting on the collected bad side of Eminem, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, and just about every other person in hip-hop.) But Ja Rule actually serves as an object lesson in the way rap has changed in the last decade or so, and how Kanye was instrumental in bringing this change about. The moment Graduation outsold Curtis it was clear that there was a new paradigm, and it no longer mattered if a rapper did R&B crossovers, or slow jams for the ladies, or wore a giant teddy bear costume. Pretty soon it wouldn't matter if rappers sang on their records, or sampled 70s prog rock, or made fantastically indulgent videos with their topless white wives riding a motorcycle in front of a greenscreen. Drake still gets some flack for being soft, but that didn't stop him from having a Wu-Tang posse cut on his last LP.

Musically, "Slow Jamz" is one of Kanye's most complex constructions - the only real peers it has in this regard are "All of the Lights" and "Lost in the World," both off My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy. No one in the world of pop music can do this quite like he can. The fact that he someone avoided getting lost in the wilderness of technique and knew when to step back and punk it up is all the more impressive, considering that the follow-up to My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy could easily have been an even more complex, layered, and demanding work - which is was, but in a completely different way than anything that had preceded it or anyone was expecting.

So, yeah - Kanye is pretty impressive. It took me a while to come around to that, and part of the journey for me was figuring out how to listen past my previous dismissals. "Slow Jamz" is one of the most brilliant songs I've ever heard, and I offer no excuse for taking so long to realize something so obvious.

When I went through my Kanye thing a few months back, I put together a "Best of Kanye" CD-R for listening in the car. This was hard! In just over a decade he has amassed a pretty impressive body of work. I dismissed anything with Adam Levine or Chris Martin, even if they had been popular - sorry, folks. (For what its worth, he doesn't need the crossover gestures anymore - instead of crossing over to pop, pop has essentially crossed over to him.) I didn't find anything on Cruel Summer - a pretty lame disc. But I picked the hits, and the highlights, even though there were a number of close cuts, as you can probably tell. Overall this turned out to be a preternaturally solid disc that stayed in rotation in my automobile for a good few weeks.
Best of West
1. Through the Wire
2. Slow Jamz
3. Jesus Walks
4. Touch the Sky
5. Gold Digger
6. Diamonds from Sierra Leone
7. Can't Tell Me Nothing
8. Stronger
9. Flashing Lights
10. Love Lockdown
11. Heartless
12. Power
13. All of the Lights
14. Runaway
15. Otis (with Jay-Z)
16. Ni**as in Paris (with Jay-Z)
17. New Slaves
18. Bound 2

Saturday, June 21, 2014

How Louie Lost Me

The best moment in the season finale of season four of Louie wasn't even a Louie moment - it wasn't a misunderstanding or a missed connection or a miserable shrug, or even anything Louie did. Halfway through "Pamela Part 3," Marc Maron appears on the left of the frame, almost literally pushing his way onto the screen and to a seat at the table opposite Louie. What follows over the next minute isn't any kind of good-natured ribbing, but an actual heartfelt talking-to, with Maron in the position of the finally successful journeyman comedian lambasting the man who used to be his best friend for having abandoned him during a rough patch and not even trying to hide his obvious jealousy at their reversal of fortune.

It's bracing. Maron has matured into a commanding television presence, and sitting opposite Louie - affecting his shy awkward everyman persona - the contrast is not flattering to Louie. It's very much what would happen if John Cassavetes wandered onto the set of a Woody Allen movie: in the midst of understated, stylized character moments, suddenly there's a bull charging through the heather, saying exactly what he means and staring down the camera with literal-minded aggression. Comparing Louie CK to Marc Maron really isn't a good idea - as performers, they couldn't be more different, even if much of their comedy mines similar veins of self-deprecation and misery. Red apples and green apples. But at the same time, it was hard not to think that Maron walked away with the upper hand: put an understated performer like Louie next to a dominating presence like Maron and obviously one of them is going to look pallid.

But then, that's exactly what Louie wanted. The whole episode was perfectly manufactured: after a season of halting personal growth on Louie's part, being forced to confront his most galling deficits as a friend and a professional right at the moment of his apparent triumph - well, that was exactly what Louie needed to keep the last episode from sinking too deeply into a saccharine morass. Right after the encounter with Maron at the nightclub, Louie gets a pep talk from his new girlfriend Pamela about just how meaningless that kind of success really is - TV shows and high-profile bookings and financial security and all that. And it's all OK, because the jealousy has been countered, Maron's achievements have been placed in context, and Louie gets to enjoy his walk into the sunset.

The problem is that the moment didn't quite work the way Louie intended, and it didn't work in the same way that a number of similar moments fell flat for Louie this season. Look at the scene in context: Louie is counting on his audience knowing that the two comedians are more or less reversed here. Louie was the first to get massive success from a TV show, following the aborted first run of Lucky Louie back on HBO. In the four years since Louie premiered on FX his star has risen precipitously, elevating his status from that of a well-respected comedian's comedian to practically a secular saint, a comedy genius ready to take his place in the pantheon alongside George Carlin and Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks. Given this, the backlash against Louie CK and Louie was inevitable. And, at this juncture, at least somewhat justified.

Because, and this is crucial, Marc Maron didn't succeed before Louie. He struggled through the wilderness far longer than Louie, only achieving his current prosperity after the surprise success of his podcast. His TV show, now in its second season on IFC, is obviously influenced by Louie, and it's unlikely he would even have a single-camera basic cable sitcom at all if Louie hadn't already popularized the format as a showcase for comedians. So there's every reason to believe that Louie, in ventriloquizing Maron for "Pamela Part 3," was tapping something deeper than merely a necessary story beat. Louie's long and troubled relationship with Maron is public record, after all, and even formed the basis for Season 3's "Piano Lesson." This territory is fair game for both men, who are never unwilling to dredge up the most embarrassing and self-excoriating personal details for their comedy. The problem is that in reversing their positions, putting Louie's words in Maron's mouth, and then having Pamela Adlon deliver a pep talk to Louie about the relative meaninglessness of success, the effect is not so much Louie appearing humble and contrite, but Louie appearing to diminish Maron's achievements.

There are a few moments like that throughout the season, where the contrast between Louie-the-Character and Louie-the-Writer results in the appearance of Louie trying to have his cake and eat it too. He can humiliate Louie the Character however he wants, he can have Louie the Character do any number of terrible things, but it's just a character, and the worse TV Louie looks, the better Real Louie seems in reflection. At a certain point his lovable schlub everyman persona starts to ring false. Willa Paskin, writing for Slate, explains the problem better than I could:
Every time Louis C.K. takes Louie down a peg, he burnishes himself. When Louie is behaving horribly, C.K. knows it. When Louie is being embarrassed, C.K. is being gutsy. Moments that puncture Louie make C.K. look good. When Louis C.K. writes a speech about how a man with a TV show is “just a guy,” he contributes to the myth of himself, so upstanding he keeps humbly insisting he’s regular, which is proof positive of his irregularity.
The season's second episode, "Model," rings similarly false after the punchline, wherein Louie the Character is saddled with a ruinous $5 million settlement after accidentally disfiguring an astronaut's daughter. It;s funny, but it - along with the episode's running joke about Louie being the enormously wealthy Jerry Seinfeld's whipping boy - would have been funnier if it hadn't premiered just a couple weeks before Louie made headlines for buying Babe Ruth's Hampton's estate for $2.5 million. Is that relevant? Louis CK is hardly the first comedian - not by a few hundred, at least - to make money off an everyman persona while raking in money. How is his doing it any different from, say, Roseanne, who made her fame by appearing much poorer and whose TV show made her much richer than Louis CK?

Maybe it doesn't. But it nevertheless left a sour taste in my mouth, and it took me a while to figure out why it bugged me in a way that, say, Roseanne didn't. It wasn't until the "Pamela" series that I figured it out: Louie is starting to believe his own hype. At a certain point he started reading his reviews and believing the rapturous hype from his legions of fans. And that's poison. That's the moment every comedian dreads, because that's the moment after which it becomes harder and harder to be funny.

Every comedian with ambitions beyond merely making people laugh runs into this eventually. Bill Cosby did. Robin Williams did. It's the point where, instead of being content to make people laugh, they want to make people think, and they become convinced of their own profundity. A good stand-up makes you think without condescending. A good stand-up becomes a bad actor by thinking their wisdom - the kind of wisdom a good stand-up keeps on the edges of his or her material, hard-earned and painful and wry - can stand by itself, when it usually can't. Remember when Robin Williams used to be funny?

Am I overstating my case? Look at the evidence from the first two parts of "Pamela." The first part features Louie assaulting his putative girlfriend in the front hallway of his apartment, closing the door on her and wrestling an extremely unpleasant and grudging kiss from her. It's a terrifying scene. It's brutal. It's a woman's nightmare - Louie, you can easily see, isn't a particularly bad man, he's not a rapist in a dark alley, he doesn't fit any profile of a sexual predator. And yet he does a terrible, terrible thing, assaulting Pamela, closing off her means of escape, and extorting a kiss. I was flabbergasted at the scene when it broadcast. Surely there was some point to this. This was precisely the type of tone-deaf and dangerous behavior that we'd just spent weeks discussing during the aftermath of the Santa Barbara shooting and the "Not All Men" hashtag backlash. For Louis to do so, it had to mean something. It couldn't simply be, as presented, merely a comedic aside in the comedy of errors that was Louie's long-term courtship of Pamela. There had to be something more at work here.

Sure enough, most writers who discussed the scene qualified their reaction by pointing out that this was only part one of a three-part story, and that there was plenty of room left for Louie to deal with the repercussions of the act. The week after "Pamela Part 1" aired, the series was interrupted by the extended (and laborious) flashback "In the Woods." Two weeks later the second and third episodes of "Pamela" aired as the season finale. Viewers who turned in looking for Louie to deal with the consequences of the assault were left grievously disappointed. Not only was the incident not addressed, it was even repeated. After a romantic date, Louie and Pamela return to his apartment. She tries to leave. Again, he blocks her way. He was expecting sex. He says so explicitly. She didn't want to. When he finds out she's being serious, he unbars the door and retreats to the living room, where he proceeds to sulk. He lays out a monstrous guilt trip which eventually forces her to concede to his desires, and they finally have sex.

Now, there are a number of things going on in this scene. This is meant to be the climax of Pamela's courtship, after all, and her chronic mixed signals are one of the major factors in the relationship being as fucked up as it is. There is a legitimate conversation to be had at this point in their relationship regarding her inability to commit to Louie, despite her having frankly and explicitly stated her interest and then (more than once) having withdrawn it. Louie is, all other things being equal (and sexual assault having been magically forgotten), completely justified in at least part of his frustration - not the frustration at feeling he is "owed" sex for having taken her out for a date, but certainly the frustration of being legitimately confused by her inability to properly articulate her mixed feelings. But instead of expressing any of this in a reasonable, nonthreatening manner - or, more to the point, simply walking away and allowing the situation to defuse itself for the moment - he attacks her, then sulks and broadcasts his hurt feelings, putting the responsibility on her to make him feel better after he tried to force himself on her. And then they fuck and everything is OK, and they're boyfriend and girlfriend. And that's a happy ending.

Now, the onus is not on Louie the Character to be perfect. Far from it. But the onus is on Louis the Writer to be responsible. This is, after all, the overriding theme of Louie, from the very first episode of the first season: how to act ethically in an amoral world. Most comedians are moralists. This is where good comedy comes from - the dichotomy between how people should act and how people do. Every great comedian figures out how to articulate a vision of the world and the people in it through their humor. The problem happens when the comedian steps out from behind his jokes, and takes it upon himself to propound a utopian vision without the leavening effects of self-laceration. It's what separates early 80s Robin Williams - high on coke and unafraid to humiliate himself - from the Robin Williams of Dead Poet's Society and Patch Adams. And it's why Roseanne never crossed the line, at least during her comedic prime - she was always the first to acknowledge just how absurd her foul-mouthed and overweight everywoman persona really was, and she was always the first to laugh at herself.

In order for Louie to succeed, Louis CK has to be not just funny, but his aim must be unerringly true as well. Pointing out the foibles of the world only works if you remember that your own foibles are the most important of them. Comedians have to be their own ombudsmen. In completely misjudging the way sexual assault plays in parts 1 & 2 of "Pamela," for using Marc Maron to voice his own feelings of resentment in "Pamela Part 3," for dislocating his shoulder while patting himself on the back for his enlightened view of fat women in "So Did the Fat Lady," Louie proves that he's losing his capacity for self-judgment. Rather than appearing wise and wry, Louie now seems shrill and smug. Who knows if he'll be able to right the course. For the time being, Maron has far eclipsed Louie. Marc Maron isn't quite so convinced of his own faultlessness, but more importantly, he's just funnier.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014