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Category: irreal10

Irreal Life Top Ten, September 2017.

Note: These posts have nothing to do with the Greil Marcus columns to which the title refers; nor is there anything particularly ‘irreal’ about all this, not by design anyway. This go-round, at least, it’s just a collection of short things glued together into a longer thing. I gave no thought to what I was going to write until I’d begun typing, and none after I’d finished the first draft of each paragraph. This post is a mess. But so’s everybody else and so are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. On we go. –wa.

  1. The Genius in the Writers’ Room: Every great TV show needs one, where by ‘genius’ I mean the caretaker of a coherent (read: generative) vision which backstops creative arguments and serves as a conceptual/thematic/imagistic home to return to. Buffy had one and arguably several; for a while Lost had a couple (but crucially not the showrunners); Game of Thrones started out with a whopper, GRRM and his vision for ASOIAF, but now obviously has none; The Sopranos had at least two after Matt Weiner joined up; The Gilmore Girls, which I can’t stand, obviously had one; Seinfeld had two, Arrested Development maybe more; peak Simpsons is said to’ve had a handful. Fawlty Towers and The Office obviously had theirs (the UK system has long been built around individual/paired writers, which isn’t always a strength), and even the American Office glowed for a moment. Mad Men and Deadwood are clear examples of one visionary master guiding an expertly assembled workshop, as is The Wire. The GITWR keeps the story from taking obvious or easy turns; she intuitively connects storyworld elements because her innerworld is so connected. This isn’t just a matter of craft — Chris Carter’s a miserable scriptwriter but was unquestionably The X-Files‘s GITWR, like the equally hamfisted George Lucas — rather a reflection of a holistic conception, an ability to serve the whole story at once. In music, think David Byrne, Trey Anastasio, Peter Gabriel: the one to whom the low-energy method never even occurs as a possibility, who holds the door open for everyone else in the Room to work at a level above themselves.

  2. Guardians of the Galaxy 2: The trouble with Marvel’s ‘cosmic’ movies is that they seem to think ‘cosmic’ means ‘great big,’ which is incorrect. ‘Cosmic’ is (should be) the opposite not of ‘microscopic’ but of ‘myopic,’ and that’s why GotG2‘s lack of daring was such a bummer. Not to link numbered items like some kind of hippie, but commercial formula and creative vision tend to end up in tension, and with Marvel, the formula has so far tended to win decisively.

  3. Peak Phish: I know I know, you just don’t care about Phish and you wish tasteless myopic Phish fans would stop going on about them. OK then lemme put it this way. Phish formed in 1983 and hit their creative peak in 1993-99, and if they were a normal band the story would end there. But since 2013, defying nearly every rock/pop precedent, they’ve been doing work that in some ways equals — and in some ways surpasses — their glory years. Consider their 2013 experimental album premiere; the Halloween 2014 theatrical production; Trey’s 2015 woodshedding, Dead guest gig, and triumphant return to a band inspired to mid-90s-level improvisation; and of course the 2017 ‘Baker’s Dozen,’ thirteen shows without a single repeated song featuring their most consistently successful experimental improvisation in nearly two decades. They can’t do what they used to, which is OK — no one ever has. (I mean that literally.) But as they enter their mid-50s in a bad that formed nearly 35 years ago, no other band in America can do what they’re doing right now. For weeks I’ve been trying to think of other popular musicians their age taking such risks, and am growing a little worried, because names like ‘Miles Davis’ keep coming to mind. And that’s just ridiculous. Right?

  4. John Wick 2: I know I know, you’ve heard the first film is a ‘cult classic’ and an ‘expressionist noir-action masterpiece’ and blah blah blah, but John Wick 2 is 70% unbearably dumb unfunny bullshit, and 30% witty balletic film art. Wait no, make that 85/15 with error bars pointing the wrong way. The risk the Wick flicks take is in depicting unrealistic (indeed superhuman) mastery in realistic-ish detail — John/Achilles is always reloading his guns (because ‘realism’) but he never ever misses (because ‘hero’)…which is an iiiinteresting, thoroughly modern approach. And the photography’s nice. But the vaunted ‘mythology’ is the wrong kind of stupid, the dialogue is always tedious (I did laugh twice, but at gunfire), and Keanu Reeves’s weary beauty is poorly served by his dirgelike line readings. I liked looking at the film, sometimes, but so what? I like looking at Chungking Express too, and it made me want to say things other than ‘Cool!’ How old-fashioned of me.

  5. Art as self-advertisement: It should be its own best reason for being, right? Beauty is enough, wisdom and wit are enough. But last year’s film Kong: Skull Island is all witless exposition and witless ‘character work’ until the first ape attack; then more witlessness, more ‘character-building,’ until the next big animal thing, and so on. John C. Reilly, some ‘jokes,’ then some computer graphics. Samuel L. Jackson giving a speech; computer graphics. The film has no personality whatsoever. Why not? Did no one with even a trace of wit or creativity touch the script? Did the director not realize how many strong comic actors he’d been given to work with? Even the usually effervescent Tom Hiddleston shows not a spark of life here, and I wonder: did someone, at some point, watch the dailies or just read the script and point out that this was a waste of time? The scenes not shown in the trailer may as well not be in the film, and hundreds of people worked extremely hard to make this movie. Not ‘but’ or ‘yet,’ just…’and.’ Aaah, Hollywood.

  6. Clarity and correctness: I used to tell students — excuse me, to pronounce self-importantly at students — that all edits are for clarity, the point being that you need first/most of all to know what the hell you’re trying to do, which will generate corrective impulses as you edit; ‘prettier’ and ‘more intense’ and ‘more exciting’ are side effects of ‘clearer.’ If the music is clear in your head then you’ll know right away which notes on the page don’t work, and part of the craft is learning to hear those infelicities as directional, i.e. indicating at least onedimensionally how a wrong note’s wrong. It seems to me most bad writing’s bad because of a mismatch between intention and attention, e.g. you (white Pundit) don’t want to share cultural privilege w/economically ascendant blacks/Latinos but also don’t want to be called racist so you instead write garbled nonsense about e.g. something called ‘black-on-black crime’ or go on about the e.g. nobility of racist historical figures, netting a plum job at the NYT opinion page. If you’d done your reading and had principles and written what you actually thought, you’d have produced a coherent and testable argument. Instead you produced an anxious one. The reason mainstream cultural/political pundits are bad is that they don’t (generally can’t) say what they think and mean. This is part of what Angela Nagle’s talking about in Kill All Normies: saying what you feel liberates certain energies which are, for a variety of reasons, unavailable to ‘respectable’ figures, which is why it’s taken so long for MSM pundits to know what the hell’s going on with Trump’s supporters.

  7. The First World War: George RR Martin says you should read about WWI rather than WWII; the latter has clear heroes and villains and a strong narrative arc, meaning it’s a freak occurrence in military history, while the former is a more conventional ‘bastards with armies force boys to murder each other in the mud’-style conflict, with an appropriately disastrous end that made a sequel inevitable. I’ve just read Norman Stone’s World War One: A Short History, 200 pages of witty insight from a British historian angrily dismissive of the rampant stupidity which it was his job to describe, and now I’m desperate to dig deeper into the subject — starting with Ludendorff himself, who presided over the collapse of the German military in 1918 and first spread the ‘stabbed in the back’ calumny which Hitler (whom Ludendorff legitimized!) and his angry mongrels turned into a cultural/political organizing principle. The Great War really was in a sense the death-spasm of an entire civilizational project, the beginning of a long-delayed reckoning with Europe’s changing role in the changing world, which (reckoning) wouldn’t end until August 1945’s two ultimate expressions of mechanistic modernity in the sky over Japan. As is usually the case, getting a strong dose of historical detail has reminded me that today is not 1914, nor 1933 — and reminded me, too, as Angela Merkel likely coasts to another term as leader of Europe’s dominant economic power, how much our historical moment owes to the decisions made during that decades-long crisis of modernity.

  8. An analogy: politics : identity politics :: political party : personality cult

  9. …by which I mean: David Runciman’s superb Talking Politics podcast recently did a ‘the year ahead’ episode, in which Runciman and his boon companion Helen Thompson expressed frustration with Emmanuel Macron’s almost fraudulent use of the electoral process to advance a kind of glorified personality cult (this is my gloss; as good Englishmen they were appropriately measured in their assessment). It occurred to me that Trump had, of course, run the same kind of campaign, with similarly disappointing results for his supporters, who’ve gotten nothing of substance from his administration. And I immediately thought of Mark Zuckerberg, the vicious resentful little dilettante who’s done more than any living person to convince otherwise sane humans that ‘social networks’ have something to do with actual healthy social relations. I can’t imagine Zuckerberg wanting anything to do with an established political party — they’re too messy, too compromised and compromising, too grounded in actual human-speed social processes to appeal to the millennial par excellence. Like Trump, Zuckerberg has given no indication whatsoever that he sees his cultural/economic position as entailing any responsibility; what I take to be his self-conception, his appraisal of his own ‘visionary’ talent (what rubbish), leaves no room for the political collective. Which is why Facebook has accelerated the gutting of coalition politics in the name of identity politics, at terrifying cost to representative democracy (a system whose innate conservatism mitigates its innate potential for radical individualism). Runciman suspects that Macron’s failure, when it comes, will come because he has no party, only a ‘movement’; notes that social movements are very easy to get going; and imagines Macron and Co. will be overcome in time by other, better organized, more sustainable social movements, Left or (let’s hope not) Right.

  10. …by which I MAYBE (but on the other probably don’t) (but) (but) really mean: Sarah Palin, the grifter whose sole political platform was ‘I feel aggrieved,’ was the real winner of the 2008 election.

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Irreal Life Top Ten, June 2016.

  1. William Steig, THE REAL THIEF (1975): Nominally for children — but more sophisticated in language, story structure, and moral outlook than kids are used to today — this is the story of a palace guard wrongly accused of thievery and the titular real thief, an abject soul every bit as sympathetic as the guard. (Spoilers follow.) The guard’s friends turn on him despite his obvious innocence, and the guilt-ridden thief returns the stolen treasure to clear his name; then he has to go find the guard, who’s in hiding. Their meeting is an extraordinary scene: the guard immediately forgives the thief, because the real villains are his so-called ‘friends.’ Together they agree never to reveal the thief’s identity. The rendering of the thief’s descent into compulsive criminality is believable and harrowing, and the inner life of the guard is vivid and immediately recognizable. Steig’s deft illustrations help bring the story to life, but it’s the writing — compact, insightful, slyly funny — which carries the day. The final sentence is a ‘happy ending’ on par with The Princess Bride. This is a beautiful book.
  2. ‘Video sports’: First of all, don’t call them that — they’re games, not sports, unless those words are to mean nothing at all. But thanks to my burgeoning X-Wing obsession, I finally understand the appeal of watching livestreams of nerds playing games. The danger, of course, is that the commentators will tend to be emotionally crippled manchildren with all the subtlety of humour that God in Her wisdom granted a piece of rotten fruit. The upside is that mainstream tabletop games have gotten extremely sophisticated in the last twenty years (thanks, Klaus Teuber et al.!) and video games are now every inch as ‘cinematic’ as the shit movies they’re stealing their visuals from (and donating their attenuated moral senses to). This high-level X-Wing match is a lovely bit of light comedy featuring two friends flying identical spaceship fleets. They go for each other’s throats and enthusiastically hug at the end. The commentators are personable and reasonably articulate and know the game backwards and forwards. We live in a dark age, but this is good news.
  3. Clinton: Her reputation was salvaged by her stint as Sec’y of State — though I’m sure the number of people who can name an actual accomplishment during her tenure is statistically equivalent to zero, and I’ve heard sound arguments that her job performance was anywhere from middling to disastrous. But she’ll receive an even bigger reputational boost from simple contrast with Trump. We’ve known for a while how this would go down: anyone the GOP could possibly nominate would be humiliated on the debate stage by the oiliest (and now most experienced) of Dem candidates, and the Trump nomination was the undreamt-of best possible outcome for Clinton. Now she has an delusional moron to run against. She is smart and ruthless, as transparently self-serving as Obama said, a shockingly inept campaigner — I hope she says a prayer of gratitude every morning for her opponent. She will win ugly, Trump’s political career will be over. And we’ll keep drinking neoliberal poison for eight years while the sea levels rise. There is, of course, one small danger: if something goes wrong for Clinton during this campaign, the upsurge in fascist sympathies may bring about open streetside conflict not seen since 1968.
  4. Sanders: He’d have been a terrible president. (Everyone gets that, right? The man’s admirable, moral, more thoughtful about foreign policy than he’s given credit for, but his own party would’ve had him running uphill both ways to use the goddamn bathroom, never mind the Republicans — and try to imagine a Sanders TV address on 9/11/01.) Yet we need to say it over and over or it will be true forever: by dint of his political beliefs rather than his sex or gender, Sanders had the harder race to run. And he came dangerously close to winning despite lacking even a single structural advantage (ignore the eagerly self-clowning Josh Marshall et al. when they snark that the caucus system is ‘rigged’ in favour of insurgent candidates). The essential Sanders postmortem right now is Matt Taibbi’s furious piece on Dems learning the wrongest possible lessons from this primary season — bookmark that page, by the way, since it’ll apply in 2020 as well, assuming Clinton’s serious health problems don’t recur before then.
  5. Max Richter, SLEEP: New Age music for the New Yorker crowd. Beautiful, then boring, then beautiful again as it pushes past ‘interest’ into simple coexistence — then boring all over again, this time for the rest of its eight-hour runtime, assuming you can bear to listen to more than an EP’s worth of orchestral swells and closing-montage piano chords. I haven’t tried sleeping with Sleep on the stereo, but by process of elimination it must be perfect for the task; after all, there’s little point having it on while you’re awake.
  6. GAME OF THRONES and VEEP: Two years ago you could make a case for these as HBO’s best shows: Veep, a merciless comedy about the venomous incompetence of Washington, boasts a couple of TV’s best comic performances and Armando Ianucci’s signature subtle comedy (which masquerades as a stream of profane insults but reveals its depth at quieter moments), and GoT was compulsively watchable even for those of us who realized how much richer the books were in every way. Both shows have missed the mark this season, though — oddly enough, for the same reason: they’ve had to go beyond their creators’ visions. GoT showrunners Benioff and Weiss are working without a complete book of George Martin’s to base the season on, and while they can still write a strong scene, they have neither Martin’s ambition nor his skill at crafting serial storylines. And they can’t begin to approach the scope of the books’ myth-history or social texture, its step-by-step depiction of the simultaneous rise of several forms of religious fundamentalism throughout Westeros and Essos… There’s a lot more fanservice and lurid nonsense in this season of the show, more big pointless declarations, more coincidence, and fewer moments of unexpected connection and revelations of vast scope. The first few episodes were merely stupid; it’s picked up somewhat, but the pacing’s been inconsistent and the Dramatic Plotty Bits (e.g. Daenerys’s tiresome born-in-fire rerun) haven’t quite hit. Meanwhile Veep has simply lost its verbal wit and its subtlety of characterization; it’s currently just a funny workplace sitcom. It’s surely too simple to blame the missteps on the showrunner transition from Ianucci (a cerebral Scot) to an American who worked on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I suspect the show has fallen prey to that old TV curse: they no longer have a Genius in the Writers’ Room. If you don’t believe me, watch a random episode from Seasons 2-4. Same with Game of Thrones, by the way (Season 5 featured some extraordinary cinema (Hardhome!) but was marred by e.g. Benioff & Weiss’s utterly cack-handed Dorne storyline, while Seasons 2-4 were as good as their word).
  7. Pulse: I’m writing about these other things because the news this week is horrible, and (even more horrible) no longer unexpected. My heart breaks for the families of the victims in Orlando. I don’t want to dwell on the rage I feel about the hypocrisy and capitulation of ‘sophisticated’ observers quick to pretend these murders were solely about American TV and not a specific murderous form of fundamentalist religious insanity. Talking about TV, or TV characters like Donald Trump, is easier at the moment than facing the horror of 50 dead and 50 wounded and millions terrorized. Forgive my lack of nerve.
  8. Luttwak on fascism: His LRB essay ‘Why Fascism Is the Wave of the Future,’ once ‘merely’ sobering, is now terrifying: ‘A vast political space is thus left vacant by the Republican/Tory non-sequitur, on the one hand, and moderate Left particularism and assistentialism, on the other … [T]hat is the space that remains wide open for a product-improved Fascist party, dedicated to the enhancement of the personal economic security of the broad masses of (mainly) white-collar working people. Such a party could even be as free of racism as Mussolini’s original was until the alliance with Hitler, because its real stock in trade would be corporativist restraints on corporate Darwinism, and delaying if not blocking barriers against globalisation. It is not necessary to know how to spell Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to recognise the Fascist predisposition engendered by today’s turbocharged capitalism.’
  9. Adulthood = childhood + discretionary income: The website narrative.ly ran a piece by an aspiring novelist, if memory serves, about how she was afraid to confess to her husband that she collected My Little Pony toys and did My Little Pony cosplay and went to My Litle Pony Conventions and so forth, but then she told him and he didn’t actually care because he collects stupid video game stuff. The deep message — being honest is important — is a banal but useful reminder. The surface content is deeply disturbing. I don’t actually object to adults liking children’s stories, not at all. I object weakly to adults filling their houses with children’s toys, but I recognize that this isn’t so different from filling a house with, say, statuettes of the Virgin Mary, which would seem weird and excessive but not contemptible. I strongly object, however, to the idea that the best use of adult time and money is reliving childhood fixations. Increasingly, the American ideal of ‘adulthood’ is about the freedom to ‘explore (and/or express) your identity’ rather than the obligation to join the community body — and the notion that your identity is what you own is so deeply ingrained that this woman is, as Freddie de Boer points out, the norm. She’s living the dream: her husband helps her surround herself with a fantasy of eternal childhood, and she gets an NYT byline out of it. Funny thing about that fantasy, though: among other things, it’s a recipe for absolute political apathy and cultural atomization. Which is another big reason Maria Cook and her My Little Ponies are in narrative.ly and you’re not.
  10. There is no ten.

Irreal Life Top Ten, early April 2016.

  1. Loveless: Maybe one of the highest compliments you can give to a work of art is: ‘I go back and forth with that one.’ Well, with this one I do — some days I think the thin boring vocals are a perfect textural element, some days it’s better that they’re buried because they’re terrible and who cares about the lyrics anyway, some days ‘When You Sleep’ is 88% too cute, some days a perilously flat-of-affect alternarock guitar album covered in artful electrosludge really is an alternarock guitar album. Some days a private vision is best expressed by retreating from impulse to share. A song that can’t exist around a campfire is hardly a song, but then here we are watching the seas rise and this sound is in the world providing what diversion it can. And I could probably sing these songs around a campfire too, if I could find them. I enjoy Loveless more today than I resent it, but make no guarantees about tomorrow. What is there to say about the album? Take it or leave it. It’s not the first, last, or best of anything, but the most of something deserves (if not a listen then) a shot. Here’s a handy bonus lesson: right before MBV in my iTunes library is the unlistenable, genetically related Musica Transonic, which handily shows just how accessible Kevin Shields’s overrated masterpiece is.

  2. Family Week: My son’s kindergarten class welcomes one family per week to lead a class activity, do a little interview with the kids, decorate the Dramatic Play area, lay out a little ‘share table’ with mementos from home, and — this is crucial — provide a mix CD of songs that the kid likes. My son chose these ten tracks from the several dozen in regular drive-to-school rotation: ‘We Will Rock You’ (Queen), ‘Tightrope’ (Janelle Monae), ‘Single Ladies’ (Beyoncé), ‘Cantina Band’ (John Williams, Star Wars), ‘Look-Ka Py Py’ (The Meters), ‘Untitled Self Portrait’ (Batman’s song from The Lego Movie), ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ (TMBG’s cover), ‘The Passenger’ (Iggy Pop), ‘Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra’ (John Williams, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and ‘The Inner Light’ (The Beatles).

  3. Douglas Adams: My son has also been digging the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio broadcasts. He likes the silly bits (e.g. the mice), loses patience with Adams’s labyrinthine sentences, and — this is crucial — has demonstrated an ability to parse several British accents. My dad’s from the north of England so this is a survival skill. We just started in on the episode set at the Restaurant. (I recommend the rerecorded LP version, which features superior performances, much fuller sound, and an edited script.) I noticed again that Trillian doesn’t quite register. Pratchett’s women are humans, but Adams’s are just characters. Of course, the same is largely true of their men. Pratchett wrote stories about complex people which at times communicated interesting ideas; Adams wrote stories about complex ideas which contained funny characters. Nearly everyone in the H2G2 universe is ‘unlikable,’ and no one and nothing is lovable. (I identified with Marvin as a kid, and so overlooked what a vicious bit of characterization he was.) His novels’ moments of warmth — the Magrathean factory floor, the cavemen drawing Scrabble pieces, the sight of the burning trees — are genuine and memorable, but they’re always undercut by a hollow echoing laughter in the background: the cavemen are dying pointlessly, the earth’s reconstruction is cancelled by the mice because they’re bored, its forests burn as part of the mad Golgafrinchan currency revaluation program. It’s telling that Adams’s one nonfiction book is humane, empathetic, and largely about endangered African animals.

  4. King of Tokyo: Having played a ton of Richard Garfield’s King of New York over the last 6-12 months, I’d forgotten what pure pleasure its simpler predecessor still offers. Ideal for 5yo kids who read well, and perfectly suited to beer’n’pretzels adult play — the variety of cards and carefully managed randomness give it strong replay value, and the players’ fates are tightly coupled and unpredictable. Heartily recommended as a beginner board game.

  5. Rewatching The Force Awakens: It’s every bit as skillfully executed as it seemed, but the only things I love about it are the four central performances, which have a swimming-upstream quality due to the adolescent writing. Since Daisy Ridley’ll presumably have to carry the next film, let’s hope she’s a touch more flexible next time around. Most importantly — and unsurprisingly, if you’ve read anything I’ve written about the man and his work over the last decade — I see nothing in this film to suggest that JJ Abrams has ever had a human emotion.

  6. Drop bars: It was time for a new bike and the folks at Ace Wheelworks were happy to sell me one. For casual riders and commuters, the theory behind drop bars — y’know, the pronghorn-shaped things the fitness obsessives lean on while pedaling furiously to escape themselves — isn’t performance but rest. With a half-dozen hand/arm positions available you can ride long distances comfortably, varying posture and degree of stretch to maintain good kinesthetic order longer. It’s a little more acutely taxing, but more importantly it’s comfortable enough to tax you in new ways over the long haul; drop bars present new affordances. The American cult of pseudoathletic biking (wearing the padded shorts to ride a few city blocks at a time on the way to the code farm) is an embarrassment. The Euros get it: if you’re in the world, look at the world. But I can’t anymore use those upright stroll-through-the-countryside things. The load is such that I need the variety and power that a proper touring bike offers. So: drop bars, and the word ‘kinesthetic,’ and a promise to myself that I won’t wear those bloody padded shorts, which promise I’ll break at the first twinge of prostate discomfort in 3…2…

  7. Story Cubes: Rory’s, in our case, though the ‘off-brand’ stuff works just as well. For Family Week at my son’s kindergarten we’re making a giant set of Story Cubes with U-Haul book boxes. This is one of the best ideas we’ve ever had, the best family projects we’ve done (all three of us sitting crosslegged on the living room floor painting until bedtime) and you should do it too. Warning: tempera paint is flaky, some sort of varnish will be necessary before the end of the project. What a hassle. Still worth it though.

  8. Beyoncé: I’ve finally listened to a Beyoncé LP, her self-titled 2014 ‘visual album’ or whatever the PR folks call it. I haven’t seen the videos because the music doesn’t interest me. I don’t generally listen to contemporary pop music that isn’t written by its performers, and Beyoncé is widely said to have not one writing bone in her body; without autobiographical Significance, the songs are generally banal, embarrassing. The blowjob song (‘Partition’) is a fine piece of car-stereo pap, except for the line ‘I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker,’ which I choose to take (perhaps unjustifiably) as a deeply courageous comprehensive account of her contribution to the songwriting. The multipart ‘Flawless’ is completely daft: a series of greeting-card affirmations mixed with an extraordinarily petty bit of ‘Bow down, bitches!’ puffery and a dose of feminist Significance from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, opening and closing with the sound of Ed McMahon denying her teen rap group the top prize on Star Search, which presumably the listener is supposed to feel Beyoncé and her crew deserved — you know they lost to a white hair band, right? (Of course you do, that’s part of the point.) ‘Drunk in Love’ would be perfect without words or Beyoncé’s tiresome boor of a husband, ‘Jealous’ is gorgeous, ‘Rocket’ is conventional fun, ‘Blow’ would be better with some of Janelle Monae’s weird vibe, and the whole thing turns out to be stadium-pop in which not a single split second of accident or uninhibited risk-taking is possible or desirable. Effortlessly slick and proficient, and Beyoncé’s voice is gigantic — but help me out, didn’t somebody once sing ‘Your kisses are sweet like honey / But guess what / So is my money’ over a killer beat made by human beings sweating on a bandstand? She had a decent voice too, as I recall; could play the piano as well! — and the goddamn crown doesn’t pass until the Queen does. Respect.

  9. ‘Hacking’: You may not care that the word ‘hacking’ has been devalued to the point where it’s now applied to using an IKEA product for other than its intended purpose, or houseruling Dungeons & Dragons, or setting up a Gmail filter…but as an MIT alum, I remember the word ‘hacking’ being an honorific which you earned by demonstrating ingenuity and respect — by taking risks without seeking credit. This is not a minor semantic quibble. Everything is getting devalued the same way, have you noticed? ‘Genius.’ ‘Activism.’ ‘Identity.’ ‘Entrepreneur.’ ‘Angel,’ even. When the seas rise, we’ll wish we’d been more careful with them.

  10. Buy my books. Do it. Actually, buy them directly from me! I get more money that way. Your best bet is to drop me an email (waxbanks at gmail) or comment or Twitter message. I’ll write strange things in your copy, in addition to the strange things already printed inside. BUY MY BOOOOOOOKS!!!!

Irreal Life Top Ten, two days after the last one.

  1. The Invisibles: Not my first try with this book, but my first go-round with the 1,500+ page hardcover omnibus edition (via MIT Libraries — I don’t have $150 to spend on something like this), which makes the physical act of reading almost impossible but eases the burden of acquiring the damn things in the first place. Morrison is, let’s say it, one of the only geniuses ever to write a comic, and while The Invisibles isn’t his ‘best’ work — his shorter collaborations with Frank Quitely, e.g. We3 and All-Star Superman, are more perfectly formed — it’s his masterwork, showing off the full range of his powers, revealing his limitations and pushing eagerly past them. I’m surprised to find myself giving this advice to first-time readers: read up a little on Morrison’s interests, e.g. chaos magic and ritual uses of psychotropic drugs, just enough to convince yourself that the series isn’t just a grab-bag of impulses but an ecstatically weird longform improvisation within a system. Knowing that every single ‘random’ exchange has some mythic or ritual parallel invests the proceedings with their intended awesome significance, and even if you don’t buy into Morrison’s magical theories (which are much subtler and more playful than he’s credit for) you’ll enter into the reader/writer contract on the appropriate terms. The art, by the way, is all over the map. I’m head over heels for Phil Jimenez’s version of Ragged Robin.

  2. The Flaming Lips, instrumentals: I’ve rarely enjoyed the Lips’ individual instrumental tracks in context; as with a lot of rock bands accustomed to the singer being the center of attention, absent Wayne Coyne’s singular voice the Lips tend to rely on vibe and uhhhh sensibility rather than a compelling melody line or sensible harmonic movement or any of that boring old shit. (Remember how deflating ‘The Observer’ is on the heels of the merely perfect ‘What Is the Light?’ or the way ‘Yoshimi…Pt. 2’ seems unimaginative filler after three killer songs? At least the sleepy ‘Pavonis Mons’ actually moves…) But the goal-directedness of the Christmas on Mars soundtrack seems paradoxically to focus them: the album’s all but melody-free, yet the tracks get stuff done, sustaining a mood of lonely sci-fi psychedelia that perfectly matches the no-budget visuals of the (underrated) film. As I said in my 33-1/3 Phish book, the primitivist backlash of punk and hip-hop at the 70s/80s turn so shifted the critical Overton window that ambitious longform work now (still!) gets tarred as ‘pretentious’ instead of merely ‘ambitious’ and ‘long.’ The hell with that. Pair Mars with Cliff Martinez’s Solaris score for a trip into heartbroken innerspace.

  3. Phish and Bernie: Sanders was mayor of Burlington, the college town where Phish came up. Phish are one of the biggest rock bands of the last twenty years, and have always been good to their adopted home of Vermont. Their drummer and bassist have played Bernie benefits and campaigned for him. They’re also — believe it or not — a good band. I’m most interested in what goes on in the head of someone whose first and only response to [Sanders’s comments] (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/bernie-sanders-on-phish-one-of-the-great-bands-in-this-country-20160302) was to roll his eyes at what a shit band Phish are. Who still thinks that? Who ever thought that was the last word on Phish? Anyone who works harder than you ever have at something more complex than you can imagine deserves, if not respect, if not your ticket purchase, at an absolute minimum your attention, briefly, if you please. But Phish have never been the sort to ask. They just do what they do. How dare they.

  4. Vernacular: Anytime you’re motivated to use the phrase ‘Last one in is a…’ you should instead bust out the swinging archaism ‘…and the devil take the hindmost!’ It recalls the glory of warfare and the omnipresence of Satan; the Americanism, itself archaic, sounds like kids’ talk, which is — yes, I understand — The Very Thing in this relentlessly infantilizing shitscared world. As usual, the hipsters with their wonderful-childhood-wonder-that’s-also-a-little-sad fetish were ahead of the curve. The devil take them too.

  5. Playdates: Now that we have a 5yo son we have one party a year — his birthday — and never just ‘hang out’ with friends anymore, with the noble exception of my weekly ‘gentlemen’s night’ playing nerd games at Rugs and Lindsey’s house, and my roughly biweekly lunches with my bald doctor friend Jeremy. Our circle of close adult friends consists solely of other parents; our crew of beautiful curious children will run this world someday, if there’s justice and sense. And our social lives revolve almost solely around the children. As a result I’ve all but lost the ability to judge whether I’d hit it off with another adult. So if you and I were destined to be fast friends and I’ve sidelined that possibility in favour of occasional Twitter hellos and the like, don’t take it personally. Instead, get (someone) knocked up and in a couple of years text me about a playdate. There’s a couple of great parks nearby and the weather’s nice.

  6. The rebooted X-Files: A frustrating mess. The TV showrunner usually ends up guardian or avatar of the show’s organizing vision, which makes sense; it’s usually her idea in the first place. But Chris Carter, like George Lucas, is a clumsy dialogue writer and ambitious but technically limited producer/director who misuses an excellent cast yet still manages to come up with one haunting tableau after another. (In both cases, an epochal soundtrack and excellent production values help.) The opening of ‘Season 10’ was an embarrassment, but for the middle three episodes the show went from strength to strength, showing off the key features of the original series — tongue-in-cheek Forteana, coolly intense small-group melodrama, sharp-eyed (if at times cack-handed) cultural analysis, genuinely subversive antigovernment (etc.) paranoia, and a moving sympathy for the mad and marginal — with newly softened edges courtesy of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, still one of the all-time great TV couples after all these years. (They’ve both aged miraculously, and Anderson in particular is now a formidable technician.) The show remains a fish out of water, poorly matched to the lazy credulity and banal partisanship of the post-9/11 era. But Carter’s vision of America’s inner schizologue retains some of its original power. Assuming we can stop the ‘critics’ babbling about the incoherence of the mythology and whether the one-offs were better than the serial eps (hint: ‘every episode is a mythology episode’) and Carter doesn’t completely piss away the goodwill he and his actors have built, The X-Files will be known as one of the essential premillennium American screen entertainments — among the most accurate maps of that decadent era’s unspoken urges.

  7. Apple and privacy: Now that no one’s paying attention but the hardcore — making this bullshit request at the height of an insane presidential campaign was pure coincidence, I’m sure — expect the government to reach up its sleeve and pull out something ugly. Then take a minute, or even just ten seconds, to ask whether you should be paying closer attention to what will either be a near miss for the good guys or a huge step toward the end of our democratic experiment.

  8. Wearing pants inside out: No big deal, really, as long as the pants are clean. You’re not making any kind of statement or pushing any boundaries but other than the zipper and pockets you’re not making life hard on yourself. Less daily labour than a mohawk, probably. However! If (like a certain 5-year-old boy in our damned house) you take a dirty pair of pants, a pair of pants you’ve already worn a couple of times this week because they’re your favourite gettin’-into-trouble pants and your favourite roughhousin’-with-the-lads pants, and put those on inside out, you will be taking a dozen floors’ worth of gross shit and just rubbing them all over your legs all day. Sonny boy, it’s important to make mistakes. But it’s no good making that mistake twice.

  9. Flying Lizards, ‘Money’: Knowing nothing about this track (off the Wedding Singer soundtrack) except that it was a cover of a song I knew from childhood, I played this for my son and experienced extremes of disgust, confusion, and elation over the course of 3ish minutes. A joke like this doesn’t take much follow-through — it sounds like a first take — but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny. Norr funny, mind you, though it actually is, thank God. All the way through! Robert Fripp was in the Flying Lizards at some point, which is even funnier; everything involving Robert Fripp is a little funny to start out with. If I were Barrett Strong and I’d written Motown’s first hit single and these no-talent assholes came along and pissed all over my song I’d be pretty annoyed, which is (I suspect) part of the point. That’s not funny, not even a little bit.

  10. Respiratory ailments: You live in the country, you get asthma exacerbations when you exercise. You live in the city, you get them when you stand up from the couch. Between these two poles is a poem I can’t write.

Irreal Life Top Ten, early March 2016.

  1. ‘White men must be stopped’: Headline at Salon. The use of the third-person plural in the halfremembered-Zinn tagline suggests that the writer is not, in fact, a white man; does that count as a conflict of interest?

  2. Janelle Monáe: Revisiting The Electric Lady now, after all the ‘Janelle is the future’ talk has died down, throws useful light on Monáe’s project, starting with the nostalgia that colours more than just her style. The back half of this self-consciously retro album has a disco-cabaret vibe down to the fun but awfully busy island outro, and the opening tracks’ Prince and Marvin homages have a weird dinner theatre quality, not at all lessened by her vocal limitations — Monáe sounds like the president of the college a cappella group, rather than a nouveau-soul superstar. I like that people got so excited about this album; I like her style; I like the world her music evokes. I love that an Afrofuturist robo-androgyne can get a project like this together, with a tight crew united behind a personal vision. But it’s a little worrisome that the two cameos from male sex gods (Prince himself and Miguel) so easily push her own performance aside, showing what real effortless mastery is.

  3. Game of Thrones, show and books: I strongly favour the books; the show throws out much of what I like about Martin’s ‘worldbuilding’ — i.e. his gift for thumbnail ‘backstory’; the regular irruption of Westeros’s mythic past; the suggestion of dozens of crosshatched worldwide conspiracies — in favour of conventional ensemble TV dramatics. I even liked the much-maligned fourth and fifth volumes, which I read as a single interwoven ePub file that alternated chapters and maintained much of the asteroid-crash energy of Storm of Swords. The first three volumes build to a perfect polyphonic climax; v4-5 form a complex interregnum in which, among other feats, Martin jumps from his Tuchmanesque Westeros to the eastern continent Essos and implies the existence there of a second, equally complex ‘game of thrones’ in a different (multi)cultural key. This structure left a lot of readers dissatisfied, but with v4-5 recombined, it deepens the books’ sense of both human-scale history and grand myth. (For the full picture, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, you really must read the World of Ice & Fire tie-in encyclopedia, which adds Lovecraftian shades and much deepens the story of Rhaegar, Lyanna, and Tywin — the fulcrum of the entire series.) The books are better than their reputation, which the show, by dint of its production values and ready digestibility, has managed to tarnish.

  4. Lice: Chemically resistant ‘super lice’ have been found in half the states in the union; they have evolved to be all but immune to common over-the-counter chemical remedies. There’s been much talk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria these last few years, though of course no one cares right now because Trump and #OscarsSoWhite and so forth. (We are a cowardly species, by Intelligent Design.) Of course, a bacterial infection that resists antibiotics could kill you dead, and you should worry a little about that. But small blood-hungry insects that you can only do away with by carefully shaving your head, which will otherwise crawl from your hair to the hair of anyone who touches you? Try and imagine the experience of riding the subway or going to ballet class or headbanging at the Middle East downstairs in a world where such a ‘minor’ plague was going around. You’re not 14th-century man, acclimated to constant endemic lice/flea infestations. You’d lose your mind. Lice aren’t a problem for adults without children right now, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how that could change, and quickly.

  5. The Senate: If Trump wins the GOP nomination, the presidential and Senate races bifurcate, with swing-state GOP Senate incumbents distancing themselves at every opportunity from the witless moron whose insurgent candidacy their own intransigence and fearmongering made possible. As I write, it seems almost certain that he’ll win the nomination — but there’s some small chance of a contested RNC convention, at which delegates are free to back whichever candidate buys their support after the first ballot. In other words: if the nomination isn’t locked up by convention day, it’s for sale. This would be disastrous for the Republicans, alienating the far right and disastrously misallocating the resources of the party machine. But the deeper story is this: Hillary Clinton’s going to win the presidency no matter what, barring the aforementioned asteroid crash or some terrorist flareup. Trump is toxic in the general election and, for different but related reasons, none of the other candidates has a chance. So the abacus-operators at GOP Hindquarters are working feverishly right this instant to figure out whether their best course this upside-down year is to do the unthinkable and simply write off the presidency in 2016 in order to salvage the Republican Party’s hold on the Senate. Sensible, no? Ruthless and pragmatic and almost admirable…until you realize that this calculation would never even occur to an organization for whom governance was a priority. But here’s something to remember: you accepted months ago that nothing substantive, nothing but the bare minimum necessary to operate this stumbling sickened country, would get done in Congress in 2016, because ‘it’s an election year, of course.’ And you told yourself, just as I’ve told myself, that it was the Republicans’ fault.

  6. ‘The deep state’: Title of a new book by former GOP Congressional staffer and Budget Committee analyst Mike Lofgren. Conspiracist thinking in the US is energetically derided and dismissed before the fact, so that accusations of conspiracy arrive tainted, untouchable. This is, as they say, no accident. The term ‘conspiracy theorist’ was coined in a CIA 1967 memo which outlined tactics for marginalizing those who accused President Johnson and others of murdering President Kennedy. (The Warren Commission report was issued in 1964, and was in doubt from day one.) Lofgren insists in a Salon interview that his book is not a conspiracy theory, but of course that’s what it is: secret collusion, covert activity, the works. True or not, his account faces an uphill battle for ‘hearts and minds’ even though most Americans surely believe — correctly — that elements of the US government regularly undermine democracy at home and abroad, routinely violate national and international law, and do so in the name of unbelievably vast profit. This is both ‘common knowledge’ and unspeakable heresy. The existence of a ‘deep state’ is old news, which is why no one but the kooks pays any attention. There’s ‘news’ to stare at, after all.

  7. ‘Girlbusters’: Obviously derisive term (with plausible deniability) for the forthcoming Ghostbusters remake starring Wiig, McCarthy, and a couple of women I don’t recognize. (I think they’re all from SNL — do people still watch SNL?) The trailer isn’t funny but does effectively communicate ‘this is a lowbrow comedy based on a movie which you, demographically desirable 30something with disposable income, loved as a kid.’ I’ve seen complaints about the trailer’s 20ish seconds of footage of the black lady playing a SNL-level Black Lady Type; one MeFi commenter wrote that a movie that ‘deconstructed’ the racial politics of 80s movies would be ‘dope.’ I wonder what the he’s talking about — in what sense that would be ‘dope.’ Does he think this multimillion-dollar cash-in could be some kind of cultural watershed moment if only the writers would bravely crank up the didacticism? Would he enjoy the movie (or just the trailer!) more if it had fewer broad jokes and spent more time making subtle digs at 30-year-old movies and the audiences who pay to see them remade? Most importantly: why are we gabbing about an advertisement for a movie millions of people will see out of a totally imaginary sense of cultural obligation? The movie will be good and funny or it won’t, but (1) there’s no way of knowing from the trailer and (2) whether or not it’s good and funny will have nothing to do with its politics, which (3) will be more complicated than the cack-handed advertisement has time for — among other things, the actual movie will be 6,000% longer.

  8. Flint: Hey remember how children’s lives are being ruined, their minds poisoned, their organs permanently damaged, by some of the worst human beings in the Western Hemisphere? It’s a wonder no one’s been murdered over this (other than those cute kids LOL). I count myself lucky that our family doesn’t live there, mainly because my son isn’t in that danger, but partly because I worry (as I drink my gorgeous Cambridge city water) that I’d be in jail for violent crimes against city or state officials. And you know what? If someone did seek bloody revenge against the vicious predators who poisoned those people, and I found myself on the jury at a murder trial, I’d think hard about nullifying that jury. I don’t know that I could blame the people of Flint if they decided to take matters into their own hands.

  9. Nine for the mortal men doomed to die.

  10. Antacid: I take more than I used to. You?