Saturday, September 29, 2007

Life with ADD

Things I’m thinking about:

1) I’ve almost finished Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman’s 2003 collection of essays. It’s largely entertaining, though the basic formula goes like this: Most people think something A about some pop culture or philosophical dilemma B. But it’s the contrarian position C which is really true.

You can apply this, and here I’m consciously aping his breezy conversational style, to his essays on Saved By The Bell, The Real World or Pamela Anderson. It’s fun to read, because he doesn’t get bogged down with supporting his points, or the self-realization that often he’s simply ascribing an underdog position to one that most people share with him simply because it’s a rhetorical technique to make his positions more sympathetic.

Roll in a lot of clichés, which are all true (he repeats this about a thousand times, a post-modern exercise in asserting the truth to make it the truth [in an especially recursive way]), but he gains gravitas through the use of the trappings of literary theory and the use of footnotes.

That I, and I suspect many people, unconsciously mimic the style of whatever we’ve last read, makes Klosterman a dangerous read—it’s like watching one of those “I Love the Decade” shows on VH-1, entertaining and facile—if I bite his style, I fear coming to the same facile conclusions. He once astutely labels his writing as “philosophy for shallow people,” which is just exactly true.

Luckily, easy doesn’t always mean wrong, and he’s got enough interesting insights and enough of a voice that it’s hard not to enjoy the act of reading whatever he’s put down on paper. It’s like a pub buddy who you think is utterly full of shit with his grand theories of existence, but whom you can listen to good-naturedly.

2) Red beans and rice. Ok, so I put on the first disc of The Atlantic New Orleans Sessions, which is (as far as I can tell, I got it off the internet because it had the Eureka Brass Band, a band I’d had recommended to me on ILX) a great big sampler of New Orleans jazz, and which turns my apartment into a Zatarains commercial.

And it made me think about the recent rumors over Condoleezza’s lesbianism, because Condoleezza’s living with a woman named Randy Bean. Bean and Rice.

I had never imagined Rice having much of a sex life—that she was single didn’t necessarily mean that she was gay, and neither did having a same-sex roommate. I mean, I had a same-sex roommate for years, and we only made constant jokes about being gay and sucking each other’s cocks and buggery, because that let our friends know that either we were straight, or they weren’t going to get a straight answer if they asked (you know, just like Mick Jagger).

Anyway, I never imagined Condoleezza’s sex life because a) it was none of my business, and b) she was ugly.

I don’t believe that point b is sexist, just to deflect the criticism that I reflexively think of. I think that Rice looks like a glaring Romulan who crushes walnuts with her forehead, but I mean that in the same way that John McCain looks like he’s half-melted and stuffed with spray-insulation.

Besides, there’s no way that a woman of her intelligence (which I believe she uses for evil, but I’ve always had a grudging appreciation for the mad scientists) would hook up with a woman named Bean. There are just too many jokes there, from racist to sexual (Randy Bean pretty much equals Aroused Clitoris, right?), and you can tell that Condi’s a woman who has been made fun of her entire life. Everyone who was a nerd in high school knows the one friend who’s gone round the conservative twist, unable to deal with being an outcast and desperate for some sort of punitive and powerful moral force that will teach a lesson to everyone who thought they were better than them. I imagine that Rice is like that, in her private moments.

If it is true, if Beans and Rice are an item, it’ll do two things—It will be another blow for the Bush Administration, because the conservatives will freak out, and it will be a blow to support for gay marriage, because otherwise liberal Democrats will suddenly associate lesbianism with Condoleezza Rice and her glowering. The fence-sitters, the people who voted in Michigan against Bush and also against gay marriage, they’re the ones who this will affect the most.

What I’d like to see happen, but won’t, will be the ultimate realization by the populace of the utter humanity of gay people—that there are evil ones who aren’t child molesters or prison rapists, people too far from the American conception of normality, and who aren’t good archetypes of evil homosexuals for a variety of reasons (most child molesters are straight and most prison rapists don’t identify as gay). But Condi? She’s an evil we all understand, the sour-faced bureaucrat who uses her smarts to advance dumb and venal causes. Her evil would have nothing to do with her homosexuality.

That, and a growing acceptance of homosexuality among black people, which won’t happen because Condi is only grudgingly accepted as black, working as she does for the most cracker-ass president we’ve had since Andrew Jackson. In some ways, the black people I know relate to her as an anti-Tiger Woods. Woods is always affirming his identity as multi-racial and not primarily black, which is at odds with how he’s perceived in America: the best golfer comma black. And how he’s perceived by my black neighbors: black, best golfer.

Mostly because the black people I know are mostly right-thinking about sports, in that they realize that golf is deadly dull to watch.

So, if everything worked out and Beans and Rice were, shall we say, “on the menu,” being a black, gay, evil smart woman would become one of our accepted cultural archetypes, and everyone would be able to say, “Yeah we had one of those, now it’s not a big deal.”

3) Amy asked me how the Smashing Pumpkins became a major cultural force, or at least a “huge band” for a while in the ‘90s, especially vis-à-vis Pavement.

I came up with a couple things, briefly sketching the narrative: Gish was a well-respected indie rock album in a time when indie needed more rockin’. Siamese Dream was a huge major-label debut, and had a couple of good videos. “Disarm” made them a household name, because it was a totally emo song about Billy Corgan’s parents hating him.

Then they put out Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which was a pretentious, muddled, overlong mess that had great videos and was thus exactly the right thing to do at the time. In thinking about Klosterman’s theory that regular people make the lyrics the primary focus of listening, I think “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” proves him wrong because it was so stupid. I think the song was good because it had a killer riff, despite having retarded lyrics that make me never want to listen to it (I don’t own the album anymore).

Amy thinks that Klosterman’s still right (she read the book first and faster) because while the lyrics were brain-crushingly stupid, most people could relate to the sentiment of, despite all their rage, being a rat in a cage.

But that’s about it, right? The Smashing Pumpkins kind of disappeared, Billy Corgan became a big fat bald weirdo who dressed in sacks, then he fired the rest of the band (including their awesome drummer Jimmy Chamberlain) and released a terrible Nine-Inch-Nails knock-off album.

He’s then spent years trying to figure out exactly what did make them so popular and then do it again, when what made them so popular was being in the right place at the right time with the right videos. (This is where Klosterman would insist that there’s some deeper sociological meaning to why those videos were the right ones at the right time, but I disagree.)

In fact, let’s expand on that parenthetical—I don’t believe that there’s really any greater reason for bands becoming popular or that there’s any discernable insights from focusing on what resonated when. There are interesting moments, and there are some broad theses to be advanced, but for me, the interesting part is always the music, and not using that music to advance a meaning. I don’t really believe there are large meanings or narratives in life, and I kind of resent talking to people who do. I believe that we have the power (and the responsibility) to create our own meanings and associations, so anything Klosterman believes and states quite fiercely and discursively as true may not be true beyond his front door, and many of his most broadly true arguments are the ones that are least interesting.

But deeply subjective insights lack the broad appeal that makes them either easy to write about or easy to market; they lack authority. If you can say, well, everyone knows this, and phrase it in a way that most people will agree, you can count on the authority of the reader. If I read that the Arcade Fire were a decent band that’s been over-rated, I’ll agree and instantly give more credence to the author. If I read that all women are like this, and it jibes with my limited experience with a couple of them, or with what I’ve seen on television or in a movie, I’m likely to think, “Well, that seems right. He’s probably right about all women preferring a fantasy of fake love,” or whatever other stereotypical half-thought is endorsed tacitly (most galling is his repeated belief that friendship between men and women is impossible, which doesn’t match my experience at all).

But my experiences don’t bear this out, because I tend to notice when things don’t match up with patterns, and, frankly, get annoyed when people posit their identities toward me as, say, the Real World characters that Klosterman believes we all know.

Gosh, I’m back on him, aren’t I? That’s what makes him fun to read, for me, is that he’s so wrong about so many things, usually through a shallow reading of some broader phenomenon and the misuse of “deconstruction,” which he assumes just means a brief examination of any given pop phenomenon.

Back to the Smashing Pumpkins, as I’m halfway through revisiting Siamese Dream, in order to see whether it has any songs that I could put on a mix for an iPod challenge (another 1200 words coming on that sometime soon). Man, there are a lot more emo-whiny ballads on here than I remember.

I remember being told at a Poison concert that my pal Amber took me to that they reason why Poison worked was that they had enough balls-out rockers so that guys could buy their albums without being called homos, and enough ballads that those same guys could play it for girls and get laid.

The same formula would seem to work with Smashing Pumpkins and a certain type of girl who lived in the mid-‘90s. One of the most depressing things that happened due to the late-‘90s boom in indie rock is that albums no longer have to have a certifiable rock tune in order to be something a self-respecting heterosexual guy can buy. I realize that if people want to buy Wilco, and it’s OK to buy Wilco, that they should buy Wilco. I just cling to the vaguely impolitic position that it shouldn’t be OK to buy Wilco, and that quirky smarts shouldn’t have replaced rocking as something that is a guy’s birthright.

Radiohead hurt the cause too. No longer did you have to have ballads for your “deep” sensitivity, but were at least able to escape into the “Geek USA” after “Soma.” Now it’s all middling bullshit all the time (not really, I like some of it, but often I feel this way).