Archive for January, 2011

in which i go off for no particular reason about music.

Posted in music, nerdiness on January 30, 2011 by darryl zero

I’ve probably written about this before, but I’m going to do it again.

I can’t put an exact date on when I decided irony (or the perception thereof) was killing music. Yes, my perceptions are clouded by the social climate of the city in which I’ve spent the majority of the past decade, but if nothing else, this means I’m a bit closer to the pulse of the zeitgeist–really, shit happens on the coasts before it happens anywhere else, and while the east coast tends to have marginal social groups innovating before anybody else, the west coast is where the dominant social paradigm seems to have stashed its younger, more creative selves. In short–the white people in the know represent the west side.

Lest I avoid a lengthy (and, yet, so typically Darryl) examination of my past and present relative to the musical scene at large, I’ll skip to the meat: the style of the youth, at least on the west coast of the U.S., directly relates to the music of the times. We’ve seen this pretty much since the transistor radio was plunked into cars around the country; whereas cinema is still too prohibitively expensive and time-consuming for the average (middle-class) Joe to contribute to much cultural change (although Youtube, for good or ill, seems hell-bent on changing this) and the finer of the fine arts are still the exclusive province of people with the luxuries of time and money to create, all it takes to record music these days is a decent enough microphone, your computer, and whatever instruments you can buy or borrow. (To phrase it better: how many “bedroom filmmakers” do you know–and no, you can’t count either pornography or Lars Von Trier.)

Somewhere between Kurt Cobain’s untimely suicide (really, he could have waited until he was old enough to see his first Rhino Records compilation rape his legacy before putting a gun to his head and subjecting us to the frustrating, if not amusing spectacle of Courtney Love raping it) and the awkward dueling spectacles of Kanye West’s id and Lady Gaga’s ego, music took hold of the emergent technologies available to it and, just as white people concocted the comparatively safe spectacle of the Beatles to create an iconic template for a safe, compartmentalized “revolution,” rich white males created a variety of interesting pop archetypes. Seemingly overnight, we got things like gangsta rap, to simultaneously keep the simmering Black urban youth from successfully integrating into middle-class culture and keep the rebellious white suburban youth from truly thinking outside the box by making it easier to rebel once they realized it’s a lot easier to ape Eazy-E than it is to, say, create and sustain a musical political movement. In fact, as a means of making sure the DIY rock scene never really achieved a level of relevance as the punk scenes once did, the cultural gatekeepers anointed their own safe, manageable proto-punk superstars (Green Day and, later, their legion of significantly lesser imitators).

I’m not telling you anything new, here–in fact, I’m pretty sure I’m treading on redundancy in my own corners of the blogosphere–but it still never ceases to amaze me how today’s musical (and, by extension, youth cultural) paradigm is so influenced by the superficial trappings of the 80’s that they completely missed the point of all of it. The 80’s, despite some of my vitriolic insistence to the contrary, did contain a lot of useful cultural details–but most of that useful, valuable culture developed as a reaction to the dominant culture of the time. It disappoints and disgusts me most of the time to see people completely having missed the point. To see spikes, mohawks, power chords and basic 4/4 songs in a time in which just about anyone with a couple hundred dollars and a little time on their hands can learn how to play their instruments well enough to sound like they actually care about how they sound is annoying enough–to see those useless anachronistic trappings carrying an ideology amounting to little more than “I like to get fucked up” borders on sacrilege.

Boring, nauseating, cringe-inducing sacrilege–and that’s not even getting started on the whitewashing of hip hop, by which I mean the dumbing-down to guarantee its listeners and advocates lack the motivation to reach any degree of social relevance. I do enough carping about that bullshit in shorter forms that I feel expounding upon it here would be useless–but I do think it’s especially telling about the designated social impact of rap music when the common justification for its existence in its current form is the condescending question of “well, don’t you want white people to buy it? Don’t you want some representation of ‘African-Americans’ in popular media?” Short answer: if that is the type of Black American archetypes white America wants, it’s clearly the exact OPPOSITE Black American archetypes that should be presented to young Blacks, and especially young whites.

Because anyone belonging to the dominant social paradigm is going to intrinsically be lazy about their cultural perceptions and projections. I don’t blame white people for that–well, okay, maybe I do a little bit, but y’all fucking deserve a little harsh judgment when people like me have to bend over backward to be nonthreatening in order to do something as simple as solve a workplace dispute (whoops–almost broke my silence on something I ought not to have) or, say, shop in peace. But, I digress. It’s unfortunate that white youth have become so lazy about their own culture and attendant subcultures that they go out of their way to find aspects of themselves in which they are marginalized. (And yes, I did just lump all white Americans into one culture. Deal with it.) With respect to music, it’s even worse (and prevalent) to see all young people marginalize themselves by staying within the comfortable confines of one paradigm. I’m referring to people who have to wear an immediately identifiable uniform, whose artistic sensibilities are as myopic as their worldview. Deliberately doing so is the trademark of a culture so ignorant of what the struggles of the marginalized were intended to accomplish that they take the pretty parts of that struggle and gloss over what it all was for in the first place, all the while claiming some winking meta-reference that never seems to be clear to anyone observing and certainly not for anyone involved.

Because, let’s be honest–not every winking reference, not every embrace of some stereotype for yuks among your enlightened liberal friends can truly be that well thought-out. If people really put that much thought into the content and observation intrinsic to their art, people like Jay-Z or Kanye West would be desperately digging through crates trying to come up with some catchy thing to mash-up with legendary producer Flying Lotus’s latest platinum-selling opus and selling it from the trunk of their car at Chuck D’s sold-out stadium tour. Hydra Head Records would be a major label, John Vanderslice would be as big as John Lennon, and Jack White would be perfectly content releasing his (admittedly) pretty decent music on CD. To put it another way–if everyone were truly “in on the joke,” there’d be no need for the joke in the first place. So, when I see acts like Die Antwoord or Das Racist getting paid for essentially embodying a subculture they’re ostensibly lampooning (pop for Die Antwoord, “underground” for Das Racist), or talented musicians like Lady Gaga adopting a meta-referential art-rock posture while churning out the same boring shit every other pop whore has been putting out since Madonna actually made pop whoredom somewhat interesting and provocative, I usually find myself trying as hard as I can to embed my face firmly in my palm. And, maybe most tragically, the thing that people like Robyn, Jemina Pearl, Jack White, or any of the slew of completely fucking soulless, ball-less, libido-and-soul-numbing-bitch-ass-wack-synth-pop-wink-wink-nudge-nudging-Soft-Cell-Gary-Numan-Depeche-Mode clones you read about in Pitchfork fail to comprehend throughout their peddling of their wares as some kind of postmodern interpretation of a classic theme is this: if it looks and sounds like the same old shit, it doesn’t matter how many “post” prefixes you slap on it–it’s still the same old shit.

Da Bears.

Posted in nerdiness, sports on January 27, 2011 by darryl zero

Even I’ve been surprised (and pleasantly so) at the controversy surrounding Jay Cutler and his early departure from what was, arguably, the most important game in Chicago Bears history. I think the best piece on the subject was Michael Wilbon’s ESPN bit from yesterday; in it, he takes the time to detail the Bears’s history of underachievers under center, roast the Bears’s management for failing to bring in and develop quality passers, and–most importantly–skewer Cutler for being an arrogant prick who constantly fails to live up to his own self-image.

I don’t want to say I’m on the side of Maurice Jones-Drew, Derrick Brooks, Deion Sanders or Torry Holt, who say that Cutler should have played through whatever injury he might have had. Especially in times like these, where greedy owners do their best to position themselves as ideological underdogs to greedy players in contract negotiations, I can’t fault a player for not wanting to put his career on the line over one game–nor can I fault team doctors or coaches for not allowing him to do so. However, I do think there’s something to be said for the fact that Cutler watched the second half from the sideline with that bored look on his face he always seems to have. He didn’t seem to be making any effort to help Todd Collins or Caleb Hanie (particularly damning in the case of the latter, considering he was probably more familiar with the Packers’s offense at that point than his own team’s), and I could have sworn I saw him listening to his iPod, waiting for the game to end so he could saunter off into the locker room and handle his business, which says a lot about a quarterback, really.

And I’m not talking about from a fan’s perspective, either. Okay, in a way I am, since I’ve never played organized football at any level (although not for lack of desire), but I’m speaking from the perspective of a person who has to have an awareness and understanding of team dynamics. As a coach, I’ve always stressed the importance of team–that interest in the success of one’s team is more important than anything else. The support of one’s teammates is the kind of thing that elevates the performance of absolutely everybody, and makes the team look better in general. A perfect example–Patty Mills, my favorite player on the Portland Trail Blazers, whose relentless enthusiasm for both the team and the community would make you think he’s an all-star, or at least the star of the team, when in reality he averages 11.5 minutes per game (less than a quarter, for you non-basketball fans). If you watch a Portland game–any Portland game–you can usually see Mills going apeshit in support of his teammates, whether he’s on the court or on the bench. Call me old-fashioned or silly, but that kind of energy feeds me a fan, and lets me know that the paycheck isn’t enough for a player and that he respects the fact that a team is willing to invest in him to play for them. Mills is a point guard, an on-court decision maker, and he realizes that he can’t do his job unless everyone believes in him. I have yet to see Jay Cutler–who leads more than twice as many people on the field as Mills does on the basketball court–demonstrate any real on-field enthusiasm for the people around him. That’s the honest truth. Cutler’s teammates can say whatever they want about what the guy may be like behind closed doors–he could be the most outgoing, charismatic, and supportive dude in the locker room–but he earns his money on the field, and no one can deny the fact that Cutler has a history of occasionally forgetting to show up on the field, to a point at which even some of his teammates (in Denver and Chicago, mind you) have doubted his dedication. In the piece I linked to earlier, I think Michael Wilbon summarizes the man perfectly:

“…Jay Cutler, who at his best constantly has the metropolis holding its breath, looking at games through spread fingers, praying to God he doesn’t screw it up by throwing it to the other guys. And at his worst, he looks for the perfect pass instead of moving the chains and managing the game and thinks his arm is stronger than John Elway’s, which is both stupid and immaterial.”

This is the Jay Cutler that showed up last Sunday, a guy whose high self-opinion failed to grant him the ability to complete a simple fucking out route, a guy who would take a seven-step drop, plant his feet and stand like a rock, a guy who was ineffective before his departure with a mysterious knee ligament strain. That’s the reason I’m pissed at Jay Cutler. It wasn’t that he bailed on his teammates in the second half; it was that he never got to the game in the first place. Whether he was overthrowing to wide-open receivers in the first quarter or underthrowing his way into an interception at the end of the second quarter, Cutler spent the entire first half of the biggest NFL game in 50 years shitting himself, effectively proving that he is not who Bears fans want him to be, not who the Bears’s management says he is, and–most importantly–he’s not who he thinks he is. When you look at the history of champion quarterbacks in the NFL, you’ll notice it’s rarely the most physically talented who take their team to the top. What separates Joe Montana, John Elway, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, or even Doug Williams from people like Michael Vick, Philip Rivers or Tony Romo isn’t physical talent or even mental talent–it’s the ability to inspire unfailing loyalty in all of their teammates at all times, the kind of loyalty that makes everybody step up for the better of the team. Hell, there are even people who haven’t won Super Bowls that inspired that kind of dedication–Dan Marino and Jim Kelly come to mind–but, despite their lack of champion status, their legacies as players can’t be denied, because that’s exactly who they were: players, consummate professionals who thanked the team for their successes and blamed themselves for their failures.

Probably the most unfortunate thing is that the Bears have essentially mortgaged their future to bring Cutler into the fold in the first place. Trading away incumbent Kyle Orton (who was and continues to be the consummate professional) was, by far, the most egregious error–not only was he cheap, but he was also gracious and never objected to coming off the bench. Just as bad, though, was the forfeiture of two first-round picks. I know my fellow Bears fans would say that not having a first-round pick prevents the Bears from bringing in another Rex Grossman/Curtis Enis/Marc Colombo–but it also prevents them from getting another Brian Urlacher. To his credit, Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo has done a decent job of bringing in decent role-players, but decent role-players, while solid, still need leadership. The Bears defense has a fair amount of role-players, but what has always put them over the top has been Urlacher’s leadership and field-smarts. The addition of Julius Peppers gave the team the star talent they’ve lacked since Urlacher’s gotten a bit older and isn’t as blazingly fast as he used to be–not only is there really not any star talent on the Bears’s offense, but last weekend, Cutler proved there isn’t any leadership, either–and, barring another lucky guess like with Matt Forte, there won’t be any coming through the draft.

All of this, of course, exposes the most glaring failure on the team–personnel management. People can say what they will about Lovie Smith, but it’s hard to deny the fact that his players (Cutler aside) are willing to push themselves to the limit for him. It’s a testament to his coaching ability that, every year, the Bears are considered also-rans by NFL talking heads, yet have managed to put together winning records in more than half of his tenure with the team. This year was especially telling–Smith took a team with no stars on offense, no speed on defense, and three washed-up or failed head coaches (Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz, Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli, and Offensive Line Coach Mike Tice) and put them one touchdown away from going to the Super Bowl for the second time in five years. The real problem is Jerry Angelo, a guy whose incredible knack for clinging to certifiable draft busts (Rex Grossman, anybody?) while ditching people who would go on to be solid performers (Thomas Jones, Cedric Benson, Orton, Chris Harris) would lead anyone to wonder why he still manages to have a job. Unfortunately, it looks like Angelo has a stranglehold on his job–meaning Bears fans will have to put up with Cutler’s mercurial lack of leadership for a while to come.

That is, of course, unless Cutler somehow can’t play. Anybody have Lavar Arrington’s phone number?

LONG MLK-inspired race rant.

Posted in Uncategorized on January 18, 2011 by darryl zero

NOTE: I’m well aware there are other, just-as-pressing cultural concerns in U.S. American culture today. I’m not trying to deny or undermine the struggles of many non-Black people in this country. I am, however, taking time to randomly ejaculate thoughts on the myriad Black experiences in this country, because that’s the experience I have.

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, Black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s very difficult for me to write at length about the great Black thinkers, speakers, and activists who emerged in the 50’s and 60’s. Part of it has to do with my own disdain for rigidly adopting ideological, artistic, or spiritual dogmas of past paradigms–gods know I hate operating within one musical style or language, after all. The other part of it is that, while I have a great deal of respect for all of those who came before me, paving the way for me to have the right to be a contrarian asshole, I’m often so infuriated with the prevailing notion that the work of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, etc. is “finished” that I can’t express myself as articulately as I’d like.

Like most things related to my race, it all begins with my father who, while being fairly politically active in his own right, was never one to make grand public statements, particularly regarding those of his own Blackness. Or, at least, he never did over the course of my life; I suppose that’s the natural result of marrying a white woman, an act that people somehow seem to think is one constituting the repudiation of one’s Blackness. I only mention this because Dad, to his credit, made as much of an effort to hit people over the head with his Blackness as humanly possible, something I try to do today.

It’s no understatement to say my Blackness is questioned more than my father’s ever has or ever will be. Part of it’s my own doing; when I was in my teens, largely inspired by Doug E. Doug’s character in Hangin’ With The Homeboys, I made a point of exaggerating the tendency of those of my race to blame adversity on racist white hegemony. In retrospect, I realize the error of my approach, if only because a considerable portion of people on whom I employed the tactic either a) didn’t catch the intrinsic facetiousness, or b) were truly dealing with their own issues surrounding both Black people and my atypical representation thereof. I’ve always been something of an attention-whoring pseudo-provocateur (cue the nods from the peanut gallery–I know my grasp of the obvious remains undiminished); my experiences being at times violently marginalized because of my race while my family lived in Hawaii made me feel so thoroughly isolated in my Blackness that, when surrounded with the more subtle, refined classist-inspired racism back in central Iowa, I reacted in the only way I could–by subverting communication styles and patterns of those around me and making it a caricature of itself.

Really, that’s the way my Dad, whether he knew it or not, always hit people over the head with his Blackness. Whether or not they choose to admit it, white people are culturally programmed to perceive those who look different from them as being inferior. It’s not always a conscious thing (although I think it’s a lot more conscious than most white people will admit), but it’s an attitude present in imagery, language, and action. White supremacy thrives on the idea that Euro-centric culture is something people from other cultures are too primitive to understand; my father (who, at six-foot-six, two hundred sixty pounds at the time, extremely dark-skinned, and having grown up poor in the projects, could not have been more different from most of the people surrounding him once he moved to Iowa) not only easily understood the trappings of Eurocentric American culture, but in fact knew it better than the white people around him. Dad’s ability to code-shift constantly challenged white people’s notions of what Blackness really was, and it was this which made white people most uncomfortable around him. It was hard to look at my father in his mid-20’s and declare oneself physically superior to him, and even harder to listen to him speak and declare oneself intellectually superior to him. And it pissed white people the fuck off.

Because, let’s face it–for as much as this country as accomplished over the past sixty years, people don’t fear the Black person’s physical ability or facility with firearms. White people have the numbers, and the general class advantages to counteract those. The real problem, the real threat, the one thing white people fear most, is a Black person being right–because, while things like money and guns and physical prowess can be easily stripped away, the only thing keeping Eurocentric cultures in power is, essentially, a belief system. I tend to shy away from things like “knowledge is power” (largely because it’s not really true–power consists of knowledge, resources, and determination at its core, sure, but there’s more to it than that), but the admission that Black thought is equal to white thought is tantamount to admitting American culture is constructed on a lie.

But, I digress.

Growing up and attending mostly-white schools, I naturally had Martin Luther King’s story (or, at least, the child-friendly version they allow in schools) forced down my throat. At the time, of course, I was too young to really get it–remember, at that time, I was living in an incredibly diverse neighborhood where race was simply a means of differentiating one person from another (and barely at that)–but my father’s constant dismissal of Martin Luther King confused the living daylights out of me. In 1990, the year my family moved to Hawaii, I had the good fortune of finding my dad’s copy of Malcolm X Speaks. While I wasn’t entirely old enough to grasp everything in the book, the most telling part of the book was the transcription of a speech in which X denounced King as being–and I’m paraphrasing–the kind of civil rights leader white people wanted, rather than the one Black people needed. I never really agreed with all aspects of X’s pre-hajj philosophy, but I also understood my disagreements were as much a reflection of his time as it was of mine–same as with King, and with other Black civil rights activists.

Because it’s the time separating them from the Black Americans of today that really poses the most challenges. From 1492 all the way up until 1968, Black people in this hemisphere dealt with, if nothing else, the threat of a white power structure holding all the metaphorical cards could and would do as they wish to them, until eventually people began to figure out ways to use emergent technology to resist marginalization. To their credit, the civil rights movement of the 60’s succeeded in changing ideological paradigms across the country, if only through shaming the U.S. and subordinate state governments into making their biases more subtle than before; however, the white power structure never went away, and never lost its fear and hatred of losing dominance that technology and a common genetic lineage galvanized them into wanting to achieve. They took advantage of Black Americans’ lack of cultural continuity (going right back to their very DNA”) and simply made the American experience more complicated for anyone whose cultural paradigms didn’t at least parallel those of Eurocentric cultures. Part of the strategy, of course, was to strengthen the divide between rich and poor, partially by attrition (very few poor white people are in legitimate positions of power and influence) and partly by design, as a means of deflecting attention from the fact that race is just as important as gender and social class in the United States (and, arguably, the capitalist world). The divide also actually created the convincing myth that white people have somehow now ended up on the list of marginalized groups; by demonizing Affirmative Action, Welfare, Heatlth Care, and even taxation itself as slanting the playing field unfairly against them, white people–instead of meta-leveling their struggle within the contexts of others–buy into the white power structure’s notion that white people should abandon the notion that white privilege exists.

The end result is a completely different struggle for Black Americans than the one that existed in King’s and X’s times. A directly aggressive, “by any means necessary”-style revolution clearly isn’t the answer–not only would the collateral damage completely invalidate the morality of the revolution in the first place, but who would do the fighting in this generation of Black men? The thugged-out niggas on the streets now, whose aggression doubles that of previous generations, yet whose exposure to white-controlled media leaves them nowhere near as educated, motivated, or mentally trained? The new Black thinkers, so trained to keep a tight leash on their anger lest they lose their position to present any kind of lucid resistance to the white power structure? No. The post-civil rights group of rich Black people, the professional athletes or musicians whom white people have positioned to be more influential to Black youth than teachers, scientists, or their parents? Yeah, right; they’d have more to lose than any white person in the struggle.

So, then, is the response to take the tactic King suggested–that Black people are to rely upon diplomacy and messages of harmony and inclusion in the hope that white people (and, eventually, the white power structure) will somehow see non-white people as human beings? Fuck no. It’s that kind of attitude that gives white people license to change the rules of the game, allowing them the luxury of time to plan and change the system in the first place. By giving Black people token acknowledgements like Black History Month and Martin Luther King Day, all the white power structure is doing is providing Blacks with a place for all of us to gather while they destroy our culture by dangling a rope ladder leading to their positions of leisure and acceptance, only allowing a few of us to reach it on the backs of everyone else.

So, what’s the answer, then? Shit, I wish I knew. The only thing I know how to do is observe and report, to be honest. The only thing I can think to do is to change the game on my own terms–to treat my racial experience as my American experience. Rather than stick the term “African” in front of my being American, rather than cling to the notion that my true heart and soul is connected to some continent thousands of miles and a dozen generations away, I isolate my racial experience to myself and call myself “Black American.” For as much as I respect the struggles of those who came before me, to abandon the idea of obtaining self-actualization in favor of adhering to an outmoded school of thought making me somehow less “American” is contrary to what I think their struggle suggested. To make race personal, to find a way to succeed, to help others succeed, regardless of their race–to stand for knowledge and the maximization of human potential–that’s the only real thing I can do. That is, of course, unless I figure out a way to do more without undermining my own ability to succeed; the white power structure loves Black martyrs.

I dunno; just thinking.