Writings and Letters

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Tag: capitalism

Pork Soda in a Time of Tremendous Tremendousness

“Art” is malleable. Not only is a work’s meaning derived through the individual’s consciousness (both creator and interpreter), but the same consciousness over time. It is through this subjective-temporal evaluation that a larger appreciation, or contextualization of said work can be realized in its totality.

But as much as the observer is analyzing the work, the “Art” also acts as a tool of analysis on the observer, and as much can be said about the evaluator as the work being evaluated. Not only are the work and viewer being evaluated, both then and now, but the surrounding apparatuses that construct the scenario.

So when we revisit a painting, or novel, film, musical album, etc. we are not only attempting to arrive at a better understanding of the work, its creator’s intention, and all the like, but of ourselves and the extending circumstances we find ourselves in, too. These moments can give way to beautiful, personal intellectual satoris, but also act as wedges to reinforce particular myopias. We may very well emerge from the cage, shackles untethered, only to never realize we are inside a prison.

Not similar but running parallel to this risk of shortsightedness is the misreading of the past: events, works, or people. This type of thinking can be seen in certain opinion articles claiming certain actors in the past (Richard Rorty, David Foster Wallace, or even the Frankfurt Scholars) had predicted the rise of Trump and conditions of 2016 that would precipitate his election. These thoughts are a) flattering to the thinkers they label as prescient minds, b) fun to read and remember the pleasures of said thinkers, and c) completely ahistorical and thus silly.

The anachronism is best dismantled in Andy Seal’s critique from the wonderful USIH blog.

Neither Richard Rorty, David Foster Wallace, nor Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin and the rest of the Frankfurters were capable of reaching such heights of clairvoyance, no matter how brilliant they all were. To claim otherwise is a dangerous form of closed-mindedness and recklessly treats the past with little reverence, and history as a plaything.

Why. With such logic, one might credit the band Primus’s 1993 album, Pork Soda, as being much more than some “goofy” “amalgam of elements that have no reason to be joined together in a sane universe,” but an artistic cri de cœur against the decline of the human condition in this ever-modern world and a quickening doom at the hands of the 45th President. It would not be difficult to then say that Les Claypool predicted Trump!

trump-soda-3

It starts with a brief overture called, “Pork Chop’s Little Ditty”. A quaint intro of mandolin and faint percussion lulls the listener inward to this unknown world. Like a mixture of Disneyland’s Splash Mountain and the promises of Trump’s slogan, it seems colorful and wholesome until (with the slap of a bass guitar) you nosedive into the macabre of “My Name is Mud”. From that point forward, you experience a wholly different realm, one that feels very much like an alternate reality but in retrospect is a death knell foretold: it signals the undertow of hillbilly malice about to be unleashed.

For Primus is, in many respects, a more apt representation of white working class ethos than the sitting President or any member of his cabinet. It’s unorthodoxy is only matched by its simplicity, and its irreverence for what mainstream pop culture audiences (i.e. typical bourgeois consumers) is indicative in its apoplectic distortion, manic guitar solos, and un-artful lyrics which either offer cheekiness or champion quotidian life. One sees this working class attitude unveiled best in songs like: “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” “John the Fisherman” “Shake Hands with Beef” “Those Damned Blue-Collared Tweekers”: and particularly on this album we find “The Ol’ Diamondback Sturgeon (Fisherman’s Chronicles, Part 3)” and “DMV”. Primus is the soundtrack to white working class id. And in Pork Soda, the band is demonstrating this spirit from the very start.

The song”My Name is Mud” is concerned about a man who has, in the heat of argument (“a common spat”), murdered his friend (“sonsofbitch who lies before me bloated, blue and cold”). It is a chilling representation of the repressed rage of the white working class, who feels marginalized and whose concerns (mainly about their livelihood) are not taken seriously. So they have lashed out, mostly in the form of voting into office the only man who seemed to notice them, but also in the most extreme examples through reified hate (few though they maybe, still terrifying). It is a new reality we find ourselves in, to which Primus says: “Welcome to this World”.

The song perfectly captures the world to come over the next four years: a world of unfettered neoliberal economic policies that will enrich the already wealthy and place an unbridgeable gap of inequality in the void of gutted welfare programs designed to aid the lowliest, and where hardcore rightwing policies suppress goodwill and civil liberties in the name of national strength and homogeneity, cultish adulation, and “pink champagne and swimming pools”. For the sociopolitical atmosphere that will be unleashed on the nation will be tolerated by many for the sake of prosperity. But as the song suggests with its clownish melody, this is a mean joke. The affluence imagined by many but experienced by few cannot resolve the existential dilemmas of what it means to be human in this world. In the absence of meaning, with close to half the nation in a state of nationalist fervor, when the dreams of the left and the attempts of liberalism have failed against outright hostile capitalist hegemony and ruling class power, perhaps the only remaining option is the big fail for some. To excuse themselves from the world completely, which may have been what Claypool and the boys were getting at in the song that immediately follows: “Bob”. A song that tells of a friend “who took a belt and hung himself” in his apartment. A moving dirge of Claypool’s artistic friend “who drew such wondrous pictures in the apartment where he lived” and was found “dangling” by “his woman and his little bro”. It is a cry of pain, not only at the loss of a friend but what Bob represented. The closest expression of what it means to be human can only be found in those “wondrous pictures” or songs of Claypool, or in “Art” at-large. But in an ever-shrinking market world, aided by big data, where algorithms enhance a homogenous culture industry, and someone’s human worth is equivalent to their net worth, the marginalized artist is rendered valueless. For the survivors, like Claypool who learn of Bob’s passing, we are left with the same powerful image looping through our memories and the weight of its meaning, like the chorus that plays out the song until Claypool is reduced to illogical scatting: “I had a friend that took a belt, took a belt and hung himself // Hung himself in the doorway of the apartment where he lived”.

The album is full of these lamentations. It may have been unclear for people of the early nineties to understand or appreciate Pork Soda until now when the true genius can be appreciated some twenty-three-plus years later.

In fact, the fingerprints of 2016 are all over this album.

Look at the song “Nature Boy”—about a man who shelters himself in his room/house, gets naked, and masturbates to bottomless pits of porn, is irritated by the fact that his “genitalia and pectoral muscles aren’t quite what I’d like them to be”, and craves his privacy/secrecy: “But you don’t see me” “No one can/should see me”—which is a clear portrait of hyper-agro men’s rights Internet trolls who scurry through the web to prey on decency and spread their vicious hate-mongering, anesthetized by the veil of faceless avatars, deindividuation, and outright psychopathy. There is also “The Air is Getting Slippery”, a clear nod to the environment spinning radically out of control while Average Joes (portrayed by Claypool here) focus on Pink Floyd and hanging out at the bar, completely oblivious to the creeping doom set upon them. “Air” connotes two other thoughts. There is a nefarious quality to the use of the word “slippery” both used in the title and song. As if, this destructive change slips our grasp of it, or slips by and grows more dangerous by the year without our intervention. Of course, the other side of “Air” only  hinted at is the suppression or outright willful ignorance of vested interests in climate change’s cause. They try their best to evade or silence evidence and knowledge and let humanity rot because they: “don’t give a F***”.

“Pork Soda” addresses the confounding stupidity of modern life and our inability to comprehend it, to which consumer culture can only prescribe more capitalism: “Grab yourself a can of Pork Soda // You’ll be feeling just fine // Ain’t nothin’ quite like sittin’ ’round the house // Swillin’ down them cans of swine”. In one of the least-known songs of Primus, “The Pressman” is certainly a diamond in the rough. Not only does the song relentlessly drive at you with it’s haunting melody (again, simple but effective), hypnotic in its quality, but the lyrics Claypool writes vividly paint the picture of rightwing media in today’s society. A Bannonesque protagonist tells us of his days reporting the news: “I deal with fantasy // I report the facts”. A clear nod to the “alternative facts” we are accosted by daily, an endless spew of disingenuous half-truths, logical fallacies, misrepresentations, misquotes, and outright fabrications from this bile hurricane blazing across our news feeds. For Bannon and his ilk, they have done what hard-right reactionaries are best at: take the humanist logic of liberals or the left and use it as a cudgel for their own purposes. So, the rightwing media takes relativism (which they despise in theory, but use to their advantage in practice) and bludgeons our concepts of “facts” and “truth” until they are unrecognizable only to their own side. They gerrymander the American Mind, cutting out large swaths of the country like Swiss cheese, and build a wholly separate country with their “fountain pen[s]” and “stain” our memories, so that when we use history to look into the past we confuse the victims for the villains and carry this broken translation with us into the future.

Even the instrumental tracks carry this prescient, unwavering grief. How else can one explain the song “Wounded Knee”? Clearly, in the advent of the Dakota Access Pipeline (as it continues to unfold) one must not forget what happened at Wounded Knee. It cannot possibly be a coincidence that this song was released on Pork Soda! In any other year, on any other album, the song makes no sense. Only listening to this album in the context of 2016 can one truly appreciate all the correlations!

But the clearest example of the album’s instrumental disquietude comes in the song “Hamburger Train”. It plays out like a psychedelic jam session, only some joker slipped us a bad dosage of the electric Kool-Aid and we’re having a very bad trip. What better way to explain the emotional, psychological trauma we felt that night?** The song comes towards the end of the album, as did the election in that god-awful interminable year. While you listen, you can almost feel the walls melting around you and world collapsing as you did well into the wee hours of that night, only to realize it is the physiological reaction of your brain when hope partially dies. By the time the distorted guitar comes into focus again, bleating like a stuck sheep, so too does the realization of what is to come—paralyzing you in waves of terror. It summons a sense of cosmic dread to stay henceforth until the song collapses under the exhaustion of its own inertia right into the arms of the second rendition of “Pork Chop’s Little Ditty”. It plays again like a taunt to remind us civilization and barbarism are tied together by the same dialectical rope, and it has just swung quite negatively.

And so it makes perfect sense to close out the album with “Hail Santa”, which for obvious reasons is the band’s darkest, cruelest joke of all: combining imagery of the fascist salute with the personification of capitalist joy. It welcomes us to this new world by leaving with a wave and wink to the amalgamation of these two forces: our 45th President.


** Incidentally, the song for conservatives on November 8th was: “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” 

DET Talks: The GCC Future

(The following transcript comes from the March 5th Democratic Educational Technological Talks—sponsored by the United Bondholders of America for America Coalition (UBAAC)—in the Year of Our Lord, Trump 2019. The speaker, Rannick Hollandaise, founder and CEO of Compassionate Capitalist Solutions LLC, talked about his companies efforts to expand the human genome in new and exciting ways.)

The GCC Future

“I want to start by painting a picture for you. Not literally, I have no skills. [Laughter] But I want you to close your eyes and imagine a mother walking through a store with her son. Let’s say it’s around Christmas time. She makes the mistake of taking a turn down the toy aisle of the store. There the child is inundated with this wide array goods. All the brands, all the action figures, they’re all there. Of course the boy becomes aflutter with all these toys. He wants everything he can possibly get his little hands on. But the mother, of course, cannot afford everything presented in the aisle. She tries to reason with him, but he becomes greatly depressed, and even though they leave the aisle with two toys (which she really shouldn’t be buying for financial reasons and others) the little boy is still upset.

“Imagine now, another mother mistakenly walks her daughter down that same toy aisle… say they rearranged the store overnight so the women are understandably confused, it used to be the cutlery aisle after all. [Laughter] Anyway, mother walks with her daughter, but instead of coveting everything she sees, the daughter simply walks by as if she is observing paint drying. The girl doesn’t care. The two walk on. Nothing happens.

“Now, of course, we all might be thinking: ‘bad parenting’ or ‘greedy childish impulses’ are to blame in the first scenario, and applaud the mother in the second scenario for presumably her better parenting skills. Or we might think this is some sort of gender comment. Boys being impetuous materialists, and girls are not. We of course know that to be empirically untrue. [Laughter] We may even think the products appealed better to the boy than girl for whatever reasons, the mysterious waving of the invisible hand and whatnot.

“Whatever we may be thinking, we might not recognize that both situations present problems. The first is obvious, the child is upset and the mother is in worse-off financial standing for trying to satisfy the boy. The second, the mother and girl seem unharmed, but what about the companies that have made these toys? Won’t they be hurt? And furthermore, won’t the mommies and daddies that work at those companies be negatively effected by the no-sale? Maybe not in this one instance, but extrapolating from there, you can begin to see the larger issue at hand. It is an issue that has plagued economists, business people, politicians, parents, consumers, pretty much every person around the world. The human relation to consumption. What is it? How does it work? What are the components? Who are the actors? And so on.

“We’ve tried for centuries to understand the right balance of and conquer that ineffable social alchemy between survival, consumption, and purpose. But in today’s modern world this seems less and less likely to happen. More companies come out with more goods to satisfy more needs of more people. How could we possibly make any progress in satisfying people’s consumer demands and reach the admirable goal of full-employment? The simple answer is: we can’t. Not as the way things are. We are stuck is a vicious feedback loop of anxiety, consumption, debt, and work. We will likely be stuck in this pattern until we eliminate ourselves from the world theater. And that’s the optimistic point-of-view… [Laughter]

“For centuries, we have been looking outward for answers only to come up empty-handed. But now that’s about to change. At CCS, we’ve been working for years on a completely novel way to alter our behavior in a positive manner for America. And the key to cracking this code is a code itself, located within us. Our very own genetic code. Through a process of—what we call—‘genetic commercialization’ we have been able to go into the human genome and change the DNA in order to create certain favorable characteristics. These characteristics are related to human desire and relationship with consumerism.

“Through our genetic engineering, we are able to construct the human mind to have certain set wants and needs. By simply tinkering with a few chromosomes, we are able to properly effect the human brain so that, even as a baby, the human already craves certain types of goods and products.

“Now, I know what you might be thinking: How do I invest? [Laughter] We’re already working closely with some of the largest corporations in the country, and have received another large grant from the government to continue our research and implementation well into 2025. It’s very exciting for us.

“But I’m not here to gloat. Well, maybe a little. Why I think we’re seeing such support and cooperation is because the future needs to be a little more organized, and genetic commercialization is a necessity. No longer will we be plagued by a sea of goods, for we will already have our genes pre-programmed to enjoy certain things and be opposed to others. Certain percentages of the population will love Disney, Coca-Cola, Hershey’s and Ford Automobiles, where others will prefer Hasbro, Pepsi, Nestle, and GMC. And others more. It will be very much like now, but instead of inter-corporate consuming habits being a burden to us, it will become part of our nature. Buying General Mills products will become as easy as breathing air to us.

“With designated sections of the population genetically devoted to certain brands for their entire lives, companies can always guarantee profits, keep a consistent workforce, which means employees won’t need to stress about keeping their jobs, consumers will never spend too far outside of their income and therefore get into too much credit trouble, and we eliminate a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to handling the market. We will essentially create a predictable consuming world, rich with people consuming American products and boosting American jobs and lifestyles.

“There is no limit to what we can make our DNA do. But there is a catch. It is us. We cannot manipulate DNA of people who are already born. Every one in this room cannot be saved—I mean fixed—I mean genetically perfected—I mean… [Laughter]

“Us ‘old-fashioned’ types will have to keep doing things the way we’ve always known, but the next generation is the key. Fetal manipulation is necessary to properly enacting genetic commercialization. The process is a little too technical and complicated for this seminar, and I’m already running out of time, but to put it simply: we have to remove the fertilized egg from the uterus and perform the patented DNA-swap procedure—humbly called the ‘Hollandaise Maneuver’—to insert the new brand-specific DNA. Then we place the embryo back in the uterus and let nature take its course.

“We already know this works… this is a picture of our very first successful test subject. This is Adam. Last year we performed the Hollandaise Maneuver and Adam was born nine months later, perfectly healthy. Over the course of the last six months, we have been testing out products with Adam. One of the brands we implanted into his DNA was for Procter & Gamble, not Johnson & Johnson or other family goods companies. When we tried to use products belonging to competitive brands, Adam either shied away from the products, or (very interestingly) developed rashes. His body and mind were clearly rejecting the other corporate brands, preferring Procter & Gamble’s products. It was a revolutionary breakthrough. We’ve been testing his other brand-DNA characteristics and so far have been met with success. It’s a very encouraging development.

“And when Adam grows up and decides to have children (because we’ve reinforced the reproductive drive in his DNA, too), he will most likely pass along some of these commercialized genes to his children. Assuming we can implement matters the way we believe we can, Adam will meet an Eve with commercialized genes, too, and they will have children who crave one set of their brands or the other—so in addition to wondering whose eyes their baby has, or whose nose, they’ll also wonder if the baby has their love for Pantene and Cornflakes, or Neutrogena and Cheerios.

“As I mentioned before, we’re already working closely with corporations and the government. There are a few companies that are holding back cautiously, but we are certain they will come around to us. Much like the agricultural revolution, all it takes is one acting group to change the world. We just need one corporate entity to join us and the rest will follow. And we don’t have one, we are already working closely with more than twenty conglomerates. In addition, we are teaming up with the administration towards passing legislation that will make our genetic commercialization a routine part of the circle of life—at least for the latest crop of parents. Then within the next, say, twenty to forty years, we will have implemented our first genetically commercialized generation of Americans, and—might I add—advanced the human species.

“We’re calling this project ‘Genetically Commodified Children’ or  ‘GCC Kids’ for fun. Imagine it, an entire next generation of youths who know exactly what they want to experience and purchase, and an entire world of workers and businesses developed around those consumers, Supply and Demand working together in perfect harmony.

“It’s really not hard to imagine anymore. The future is now.”

[Vehement Applause]

Getting Burned: A Review of ‘The Flamethrowers’ by Rachel Kushner

Because it takes me forever to do most things, I’m finally getting around to writing down my thoughts on Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. That’s it. G’night, folks!

 

Kidding.

 

For the uninitiated, The Flamethrowers came out three years ago and was quickly praised by critics (culminating in a second National Book Award nomination for Kushner—the only author to ever be a finalist for the award with their first two novels), and shared a run of success on the New York Times bestseller list, and is being sold around the world (I saw its German-translated hardcover while spending some time in Frankfurt last summer.)

So good for her. No, really. I’m glad to see this kind of literature being well-received and appreciated—at least relatively. There have been some people who have quibbles with its passive main character, and more aimless-at-times plot (there was a podcast of this argument on Slate: starting around 7 minutes or so: interesting to note that the two men didn’t enjoy the novel as much as Hanna Rosin—not writing any meta-narrative, just interesting), but I don’t really give a shit about that. Plot is great and all, but as many wonderful novelists have taught us over the years, a novel doesn’t always need to lean on a solid plot. So fuck plot. And the idea that a character (in this case the main character) is rather passive and allows things to happen to her/him somehow makes the book less appealing seems to rely heavily on personal taste—which is fine, but generally unhelpful when considering the larger merits of a work.

No, plot or character aren’t what I want to talk about at all. What spoke loudest to me, and it is not a revolutionary observation (many other critics have picked up on this, too, in one fashion or another), are the notions of exploitation, and the inflammatory quality of a globalized world dominated by capital. To me, that is where part of the brilliance of The Flamethrowers lies.

First, let’s look at this notion of exploitation, for it is perhaps the most prevalent (and therefore easiest) motif in the novel. The nameless main character (I will be referring to her as “Reno” for convenience) recounts her experiences from the art scene of 1970s New York, and a brief window of time in Italy during the violent, frightening epoch of the Years of Lead. The nameless main character allows for a universal quality, inviting the reader to implant her/himself into the character’s shoes. There is also a quality to this namelessness that allows the novel to focus on the events and other characters happening at this period, rather than about “Reno.” For the novel really does have larger ambitions than to tell the story of some 21 year old’s experiences during the 70s. This ubiquitous quality to the naming convention (or nameless convention) reminded me of Ellison’s Invisible Man—also another character who allows a great deal to be forced upon him and allows the world and characters surrounding “Invisible” to speak just as loudly (if not louder) than the main character/narrator.

In her long journey, vacillating between New York and Italy during this provocative period, “Reno” experiences the constant fetishism of her male counterparts. Whether it is former lovers, current boyfriends, or random strangers, “Reno” is never without a man who is “using” her for his personal gain. This certain “utilization” of her, over and over, is reflected in the other habits of exploitation occurring throughout the novel. The reader first witnesses it as “Reno” and other women are treated poorly in the “boys’ club” of the New York art scene, then it morphs into the form of violent suppression of workers and students by the Italian state (its important to note that some of those workers and students during the Years of Lead were murderous terrorists—a point Kushner does not ignore), and lastly mentioned in a story about how the natives of Brazil were duped into labor during WWII to extract rubber for the Brazilian state to be sold to the United States’s war effort, only to never be paid and furthermore never be told the war was over until thirty years later (no really, this shit happened; fuckers kept working the poor bastards letting them believe there was a fat check waiting for them in the end). As “Reno” continues on through the story, either flitting from New York to Italy and back again, the reader becomes aware of how the story, too, flits from one example of exploitation to the next.

Sticking with this idea of “flitting” draws to mind how capital flits from one location to the next in its constant search for new means of accumulation (often through appropriation). In the novel, the reader learns of “The Flamethrowers” in the Italian army who constantly charged their enemies flames a-throwin’, and had their lives ruled by these violent bursts. Stay with me now, because if we think of capital accumulation in this way, we can begin to see more connections being made throughout the book, and we can begin to see how the novel chronicles the ways in which capital bounces from location to location, generating new piles of wealth—often through exploitation—before hopping off to some newer untouched area, leaving a path of destruction behind it in its constant charge forward. [Going back to “Reno” and her passivity for a second, it begins to make more sense as a creative choice when the main character is understood as a universal stand-in for people who continue to be subjected to the “flamethrowing experience” that is capitalism.]

This, to me, is what stood out most in Kushner’s work. This idea: Violence is inherent (and key) to capital’s success: is present in almost each page of the book. From enslaving indigenous people in the jungles of Brazil, to violently suppressing workers and unionists in the streets of Italy, to objectifying and exploiting women in the “open-minded” circles of the New York art scene, all these translate one into the other. So we must bear this in mind, not only as we read this wonderful novel, but as we live our lives: in a land of flamethrowers, we can’t help but keep getting burned.

 

 

[Palpable] Poetry

(Part One: Palpable [Poetry])

I found myself downtown on a job for my current gig. After work, I decided to visit the postmodern gleaming glass and cement megalith. I was interested to reconnect with the landmark. Over time it began to mystify my mind’s recollections, and I found myself looking back with a sense of kinship rather than disdain. What lied in that atrium moved me, for whatever reasons, and allowed me to connect with the inanimate—much like I have before with pieces of art.

As I walked up the steps via Figueroa towards one of the hotel’s few entrances, I was what can only be described as both nervous and curious to see what the atrium would reveal to me this time around—some five years removed now. What changed? What remained?

The stairs took me to the second level, and when I entered the atrium it exposed itself to me much as it had many times before. It looked almost untouched. The time-spatial oddities that once gave me a conscious dread, now felt quite welcomed. The fact that it was stuck in time was reassuring in a sense. The edifice provided an excuse to pretend I had slipped the realms of the present and fell back into that nebulous dreamscape called “the past.” Continuing around the pedestrian causeway I witnessed the same gift shop that had been there years before still remained, complete with the identical Coca-Cola clock and cardboard bikini model holding a six-pack of Corona. Strange pleasure was being extracted from surroundings, akin to visiting former pals. On the third level, I walked from red to blue to yellow to green sections—same color palettes; same well-nigh indistinguishables—passing many of the same fronts I had walked by years ago: the workout center, the Chinese spa, the hair salon (the same posters of models with hairstyles from when Desert Storm was still a thing), the tour guide offices that weren’t for traveling to Japan, but for Japanese vacationers to visit parts of southern California. In the red (or blue, or yellow, or green) restaurant corner were all my old friends (“Oh how I thought you’d gone. But here you all are!”): the Panda Hut, Cap’n Lee’s Seafood, The Healthy Winner, and even the Olive Branch falafel joint. I was certain they would have all vanished, replaced by some other generic storefront, but there they were. They had managed to survive somehow.

It filled me we a peculiar joy. Perhaps I was truly able to transcend time and find myself back in my own history? If so, where was I then? And what explained these new spaces: a tax lawyer’s office, an accounting firm? How was it that the man-made “lake” (once parched) now flowed beautifully with crystal water amidst this historic Californian drought? It was all very much the same, but different.

passed a Korean restaurant that appeared new. A normally encouraging site, but something was off. It shouldn’t have been there. Something used to exist in its stead. (It was not until I had returned home and researched some that the Korean restaurant had replaced the Mandarin West—a respectable looking place I never had the heart to visit.) And the more I walked about, the more haunted I became by the realization that not much had changed at all: most of the store fronts still remained vacant. The more I moved around the voluted cement landscape the more I witnessed this mesh of past and present. A woman on her lunch break (or maybe she was staying at the hotel, or had some other background my mind couldn’t think to narrate) kept passing me in the opposite direction at each level. I smiled every time. She nodded in recognition. This repetition called something to the forefront of my mind.

I thought of Frederic Jameson in real-time: “…architectural theory has begun to borrow from narrative analysis… and attempt to see… buildings as virtual narratives or stories… which we as visitors are asked to fulfill and to complete with our own bodies and movements…” So what are you trying to tell me, Westin? I wondered. What stories do you have for me to finish?

A popular sad song moved through the air waves. It was being sang by some kid whose dad was a mutual fund manager and bankrolled his fame–I read somewhere. I wondered about credibility and art and capital. I tried to realize some connection, but only managed to become frustrated and then depressed.

Ideas moved in a maelstrom of my wandering mind, and as I attempted to focus, to solidify they began to obfuscate, and then evaporate into thin air. All these flitting bits of information and knowledge just beyond my grasp. Where do they go? How can I grasp them? These questions ran aplenty by the time I reached the summit of the sixth floor. In many respects it was a representation of a representation of a representation of a concreted contradiction. Mr. Baguette (!) was still there, the portrait still much the same. The owner/manager remained almost fixed it seemed in that location behind the counter with begging eyes. Though this time a different cook stood behind him, staring at his smart phone. I chose to not make eye contact with him.

The closed Japanese Shabu-Barbecue-Sushi Restaurant remained just so. Most of the tables and chairs had been removed, replaced with brand new mattresses still in their plastic wrapping and assortments of lamps and desk chairs. It lost its ghostly qualities, the sadness it used to project was less strong—perhaps it was because I had become acquainted to it, perhaps I was giving up the ghost.

Rounding the last section of the sixth level, I came upon the Subway. A crowd of youngsters huddled in the corner, talking about getting a football game together and throwing around their group’s racial denigration to the point of rendering it useless, a playful sobriquet passed back and forth between friends. They sucked down their fountain drinks and ate cookies. I thought about the clever marketing around the use of “fountain drink” as I stepped up to the counter to order. While I was admiring the wordsmanship, I noticed the Subway now had five beers on tap, and six different bottled choices.

I ordered a beer, and a chocolate-chip cookie—because why not?—and sat down in the same spot I usually seated myself. I need to go on a diet after this, I told myself. The teenage boys continued to talk, and talk loudly in the obligatory tradition teenagers tend to do, the subject switching from music, to people they knew, to social politics of authenticity, then back to football. “What the fuck is a Cam Newton?” one kept saying, much to the enjoyment of the others. I watched the local news talk about the upcoming spectacle of sport: Super Bowl 50. The young man said it again when a photo of the football celebrity appeared. Then that talk died down and shifted into that wonderful cradle of misinformation as they traded anecdotal stories and hearsay, dropping in that meaningless hate word every now and then. The chapter turned on the news as well as the reporter described a flash strike that occurred at a Togo’s in Monterey Park—rolling coverage of workers shouting muted chants and holding signs of their protest in front of the store. I looked at the two workers behind the counter. I did not recognize them from my past, but I knew it didn’t mean anything.

Then I thought of David Harvey: “…leftists reorganize themselves in the same way capital accumulation is reorganized.” I remembered someone once told me in America during the 70s the biggest employers of labor used to be: General Motors, Ford, and US Steel. Now they are: McDonald’s, KFC, and Walmart. I ate my cookie while the words “forego organizing in the workplace for organizing the neighborhood” came out of nowhere. Who said that? The teenagers? My consciousness? Westin, was that you? I turned and looked out to the cement inner-city and tried to comprehend its story some more.

What did it mean: That architecture was now a story? That a building was a city? A city a larger representation of the whole means of production and consumption, an endless cycle of extraction and utilization from life into death, the struggle of existence? That such a system fabricated from the minds of mortals has evolved into something ethereal, beyond the bounds of human law. What did it mean: that the present folds right into the past, and we become subsumed into these fictions our brains create—that memory is fleeting and history fickle? Were any of these related, how?  All these thoughts swirling around me like the ephemera that consumed my life. Everything began to take shape much like a work of poetry. It all complimented each other in a rhythmic fashion, the meanings though left subjective. But there was something to this spinning mirroring of observations and thoughts: history and theory.

As I began to defocus, the clearer it all became. I could finally start to picture a story, but only in that indecipherable state. The only meaning I could gather was from a certain absurdity of this strange dancing balladry. And the more I thought about it along those lines, the more it began to make sense.

So perhaps this is the way to break through the poetry, and arrive at a different narrative completely. Then again, maybe not; but I’ll keep thinking about it, and hope one day the interior affects the exterior again in such a way that the paradigm shifts at least one more time.

 

A View of the Past in the Future

The following is a post from the Local Los Angeles section of the June 24th, 2021 issue of the now defunct The New York-Los Angeles Times:

“EL SEGUNDO – Beaches during the summer in Los Angeles are usually filled with people. Locals and visitors flock to the sunny, white shores of the Los Angeles coastal towns to partake in swimming, surfing, sunbathing, or just getting away from the continuous record-breaking heat of climate change the inexplicable will of God. It is usually a great time for towns and neighborhoods such as Santa Monica, Venice, Malibu, and Manhattan Beach who rely on the influx of people and the money that comes with them for their local economies. However, recently the number of beach-goers has fallen precipitously sense the passage of the Let the American Land go Free Act (LALFA), signed into power by President Trump® a year earlier.Academy2 The impact of the new federal act has dramatically changed many of the seaside communities, perhaps none more than the small town of El Segundo.

‘It’s just not worth going there anymore,’ says Yorick Carson, 45, who lives in nearby Hawthorne. ‘I mean with all that was there before it wasn’t a great location, but now you can forget it.’ Previously, El Segundo’s beachfront suffered from planes coming and going out of the international airport in neighboring Playa Del Rey, and the unsightly locations of both its Water and Power facility, and the Chevron oil refinery, but it still managed to have a good stretch of clean coastline towards the southern end of its beach area that generated a steady flow of visitors. That is no longer the case, however, now with the oil company taking advantage of LALFA and purchasing the land from the municipality.

With the passage of LALFA, the federal act that eliminates the possibility of the public trust, companies can now purchase land previously controlled by municipalities, states, etc. Even if a sale is refused, companies or wealthy individuals can sue for the land and (based on the landmark Delaware v. American Eagle Outfitters, Inc. Supreme Court decision) if the courts decide the compensation for said land is fair and the purchasers’ reason ‘within the sound and good taste of the People,’ the land can still be purchased. El Segundo did not hesitate to sell the oceanfront to Chevron, though. Strapped for cash after five years of 2016 Trump Tax Cuts for the Better of America®, and a third recession, the city like every other city and state throughout the country, has had to sell off public-controlled entities to ready and willing private hands. ‘The city thought, like most, that this was best for the citizens,’ said professor of Economics and Chicano Studies and Space Science and Communications and Theology at UCLA-USC, Shirley Ziggarratt. ‘No city or state in this country can afford to balance budgets without privatizing most things and severely cutting their workforce. Throw a rock in any direction, it will land in a place where the government body is having some kind of fire sale.’

Privatized beaches have popped up all across the coastal United States,Academy2 and especially in California where the Governor, Regenerated, Taxidermal, Zombie Ronald Reagan (D), has vouched to balance the budget through ‘true grit and a-sleeve rolling’ which has translated to selling off nearly 70% of the Golden State’s beaches to corporations–mostly oil companies like Exxon/Mobil, BP, Chevron,

Saudi Aramco and PetroChina–and approximately 49% of government responsibilities such as: public transportation, oversight of highway/freeway systems, all toll roads, and outsourcing agencies like the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the Californian chapter of the Environmental Protection Agency (all legal sales under LALFA).

 

The purchase of the beach in El Segundo has not meant soaring profits for Chevron, though.

As the Trump-Arabian War® enters its fifth year and expands into Iran, much of the Middle Eastern oil remains embargoed from entering the United States. The Executive Order signed by President Trump® at the beginning of the year has set oil prices at a historic low, below $.60 in most parts of the country. The hope behind the low prices was that citizens would have more money in their pockets to spend. However, in the middle of this third recession in five years, most Americans are still heavily debt-incumbent and intrenched in the credit system; any money saved from cheap oil prices has been applied to paying down their own indebtedness. So with the sluggish economy remaining quite asthenic, the immediate and sustained impact the low prices have had is a net-negative for companies like Chevron. The corporation has seen a drop of 16% in its stock in the first quarter alone. Chevron, like many of its ilk doing business in the United States, have started dramatically cutting their workforce in order to generate more revenue and meliorate shareholder expectations.

In an added effort to combat their financial losses, Chevron has decided to implement a new technique for transferring its oil collected from the ocean to the land-based refineries, called ‘stranding.’ Stranding entails oil tankers carefully positioning themselves some half-mile away from the shoreline, and then through a series of highly-contemplated guessing algorithms, the tankers release over four million liters of oil into the ocean and allow it to simply wash up on the shore to be collected and sent to the refinery for processing.

El Segundo is the first location for testing and perfecting stranding for global implementation. If estimates are correct, stranding might save the company tens of hundreds of dollars over a 40-year period.

 

The initial results have been quite predictable: death of any sea and wildlife in the immediate area, shorelines not only in El Segundo but from Playa Del Rey to Manhattan Beach covered in toxic petroleum, flaming tidal waves, foul and noxious smells for up to a 10-mile radius affecting over 150,000 residents. ‘All manageable incidents,’ spokesperson for Chevron, Vanessa Quaruulioss, said in a typed response. ‘There is nothing Chevron is not prepared to handle to ensure the quality product it produces will continue to reach its customers in a safe, affordable fashion.’ She went on in a follow-up email: ‘We’ve been a part of this community since 1911 when the main product produced was kerosene for lamps. In fact, the City of El Segundo (Spanish for ‘the Second’) was named after the refinery, then Standard Oil’s second in California. Today, the El Segundo Refinery provides jobs for more than 1,100 450 Chevron employees and 500 50 contractors, covers approximately 1,000 1,5000 acres, has more than 1,100 2,560 miles of pipelines, and is capable of refining 290 534 thousand barrels of crude oil per day. Transportation fuels–gasoline, jet and diesel–are the primary products refined from the crude oil. We are responsible caretakers of our land and the

environment, we operate our own electricity, steam, and water treatment facilities, and even maintain one of the only two remaining preserves in the world for the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly. Our quality improvement program is a large part of our commitment to produce the finest fuels. This refinery-wide program is designed to ensure that the transportation fuels we produce meet your expectations for performance, are delivered on time, and are manufactured safely and in an environmentally sound way. At its foundation is a climate of mutual respect and teamwork that fosters continual improvement.’ The same information could be found on their About page.

The erratic stretch of the ocean tides mean that the Chevron oil can land almost anywhere north or south of the intended target. However, the oil that reaches landfall is still property of the company, and so is that land it rests upon at least until Chevron can remove it. So there are parts of Santa Monica all the way down to Palos Verdes that belong to Chevron. And it does not just end there, the property rights extend beyond land.

Max Caydance, 35, and his daughter Nillie, 8, were walking along the beach in El Segundo when the oil started washing ashore.

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Unaware of what was happening, the next thing Max knew, he and his daughter were covered in Chevron property. ‘It was everywhere,’ Max recalled. ‘One minute we were walking with our feet in the water, then this big black wave comes and knocks us both over. We were pulled into the ocean. It was so hard to get out. I fought so hard to keep Nillie’s head above water, and not swallow any of it. It was so thick. So damn black. When I finally got us back to shore this guy was waiting for us and said we had to get in the back of his truck. He worked for Chevron. I thought he was going to help get us cleaned up.’

What Max and Nillie did not realize was that under LALFA (and upheld in the other landmark Finn McFaddion v Pep Boys Manny, Moe & Jack Supreme Court decision) they were technically owned by Chevron until all the oil was removed from their bodies. ‘That was a real shock, yeah,’ according to Max. But he is not the only person this has happened to. A reported sixty people have been recently struck by as little as a dollop of Chevron oil, and are now property of the company. ‘They say they know it’s theirs, too, because they fitted all the oil with micro-trackers. That’s also how they can find you at anytime. You know, in case you decide to try and make a break for it.’ Like the oil that is on them, the ‘human-capital’ must remain on the premises of the refinery.

‘They’re not being held against their will,’ Vanessa Quaruulioss wanted to make perfectly clear.Academy2 ‘That’s definitely not happening here. They can leave whenever they want, just as long as they are no longer technically our property. Until then, the human-capital must remain in the possession of Chevron in order to ensure the protection and maintenance of the product.’

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She then sent another follow-up email within minutes: ‘We have the right to protect our assets. It’s in the LALFA. No one can hold it against Chevron if they want to protect their valuables. And like with any of our products, either with living tissue or the natural byproduct of an ancient organic compound, we have every right to exploit them to our fullest advantage, and since they are property and unequivocally not workers, we are not obliged to compensate them.’ And then minutes later, another: ‘We’ve been a part of this community since 1911 when the main product produced was kerosene for lamps. In fact, the City of El Segundo (Spanish for “the Second”) was named after the refinery, then Standard Oil’s second in California. Today, the El Segundo Refinery provides jobs for more than 1,100 450 500 Chevron employees and 500 50 60 contractors, covers approximately 1,000 1,5000 acres, has more than 1,100 2,560 miles of pipelines, and is capable of refining 290 534 thousand barrels of crude oil per day. Transportation fuels–gasoline, jet and diesel–are the primary products refined from the crude oil. We are responsible caretakers of our land and the

environment, we operate our own electricity, steam, and water treatment facilities, and even maintain one of the only two remaining preserves in the world for the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly. Our quality improvement program is a large part of our commitment to produce the finest fuels. This refinery-wide program isAcademy2designed to ensure that the transportation fuels we produce meet your expectations for performance, are delivered on time, and are manufactured safely and in an environmentally sound way. At its foundation is a climate of mutual respect and teamwork that fosters continual improvement.’

 

These new slaves human-capital cannot leave the premises, cannot contact the outside world, are not allowed to speak or come in contact with any of the other workers at the refinery.

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‘It wouldn’t do us any good even if we could,’ Max informed. ‘Everyone there that isn’t marked doesn’t want to be touched. Because one touch, one drop of this stuff and you belong to them. So all the other workers are terrified of us. They don’t want nothing to do with us. They hate us really.’ The human-capital lives in what can be best described as a shanty town under-developed, squalid alternative housing units in the heart of the installation right next to the large hydrofluoric acid containers. ‘Fights break out at night because someone’s got something the other person wants. Food’s always short.

 

Or because someone is just pissed. You know it’s tough. They work us for hours, I don’t know how long. We can’t speak to anyone outside or that ain’t marked. It drives us crazy. And that’s not all. Some of us showed up with kids we haven’t seen since entering the facilities. They tell us they’re doing well and being taken care of, but I have no way of knowing.’

‘They’re fine. Everyone is fine,’ Vanessa wrote.Academy2 ‘The newer human-capital are just as valuable to the company as the older. There is absolutely zero age discrimination going on here at Chevron. It’s just, what with their smaller features and all, the newer human-capital are perfect for crawling up in pipes for cleanings and repairs, or larger machines to replace parts.

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So obviously we keep them a little busier than the rest. But that’s not necessarily preferential treatment. We’re an equal opportunity company.’ Then about ten seconds later: ‘We’ve been a part of this community since 1911 when the main product produced was kerosene for lamps… …At its foundation is a climate of mutual respect and teamwork that fosters continual improvement.’

With its beaches covered in the dreggs of the Earth’s deep past, and threat of privatization of the individual a wave away, most people visiting the Los Angeles area are sure to stay away from the beaches south of Venice. New protocols have been put in place toAcademy2 set off alerts for oil sightings in the ocean, and have plenty of Dawn soap on hand. However, life guards equipped with the necessary oil-avoidance training are now freelance workers, so people must pay for the protection before deciding to go into the water, or risk being completely on their own.

Perhaps if Max and Nillie had someone Academy2 looking out for them, they might not have had to worry about a sludge wave barreling towards them, altering their futures entirely. This is something Max does not consider: ‘Yeah, it’s a real shame to be covered in tar and have to work for the company in perpetuity without ever seeing my family or friends again. But I guess it was my own fault in the first place for being on the beach. I should have known better. You know, Chevron has been a part of this community since 1911…’


Editor’s Note: In early-July, Chevron announced a new plan to sell more of its oil to foreign countries rather than the United States in order to generate more profits: Mexico and China are the largest buyers.”

Infinite City: Barker’s Pub on 67th and Underground (2016)

In that corner sits this guy, Vic or whatever, there every night, old dude, sixty-something, maybe worse, sits there in that beat-up wooden booth, the one with the mermaid carved into its face now stained black from the years of collected dirt, spilt drinks, greasy fingers, and panoply of other unknowns and forgottens, alongside her (Esmerelda some call her. Why? Who knows.) are dozens of different names of gals who apparently give great this or that, who have arrows that connect them to crude qualifiers: “slags” or “tarts” or whatever a “Hure” is, which are in the vicinity of other sordids: “fuck” “shit” “cocksucker””cunt” but surprisingly low on minority epithets (apparently in Barker’s the drunks and no-goods are rather disparaging, but maintain a general level of civility and order when considering the issues of race, religion, and orientation–or at least at that particular table), countless games of tic-tac-toe one scratched over the other, a couple swirling symbols, a yin-yang, and myriad indiscriminate etchings that criss-cross all over. Anyway, Vic sits there–no, Marv, it’s Marv–Marv usually sits there alone and remains silent. Goes to the bar, orders his drink: some kind of Mule or Twirler, Flip or Dog: and sits back down in his corner booth. Barely speaks to anyone. The most he says anything to is Paulie, the bartender, which is a surprise given Paulie is about as cordial as a bucket of piss, but it’s usually “How’s it going?” Paulie’ll grunt “Thanks,” he’ll say lifting the drink. Without fail. Every time you’re in here you’ll notice it.

Some say he was tortured in ‘Nam. Some say his wife literally castrated poor Marv before leaving him for good. Others think he’s just another ne’er-do-well. Most don’t think much of him at all.

Deloris thinks this is bullshit. She says so: “This is bullshit.” She’s pointing towards the television. Two anchors sit behind a plywood dais, the words: “Channel 5 Evening News” sprawled out across. Their mouths are moving, but the television is muted. Captions roll below: “…are 13, 25, 26, 40, 69… … … and 12 and we are already being informed that the winning numbers were purchased… … … at a local liquor store in Toppers’ Hill so someone is already having a very good night…” “Bullshit!” Deloris pounds the lacquered bar. “Aye!” Paulie shouts. Deloris tosses her tickets at him. “There’s your tip, Paulie. Goddamn waste.” Vic (this time it is Vic) pats her on the back. “Don’t worry, Lori. Take it easy.” Everyone calls her Lori. “I don’t even know why I try. Goddamned thing is rigged.” Vic nods his head. “Don’t worry about it. What can you do anyway?”

A few more drinks get ordered. The room starts to thin. The place is already pretty bare considering it is a Tuesday night.

Lori leans on Vic. A guy sits nearby and gets his glass filled by Paulie. Marv sits alone. A few other stragglers are about the bar or booths. Lori is still talking about the news of the lucky bastard who won in Toppers’ Hill. “It’s just not fair, you know. Damned thing is rigged.” “We know,” Vic consoles. “We know, you told us.” “It’s just not fair. Some pricks get it all.” “Hey now,” Vic says, “it’s good for that guy. We should be happy for him. Regardless. We still got our healths. That’s all that matters.” “Yeah… but $827 million dollars wouldn’t have hurt at all.” “I hear you.” “We all do,” Paulie bites. “Cram it,” Lori tells him. “I can kick you out.” “Oh shut it, Paulie, would ya?” Vic says. Feeling attitudes on the verge on mutiny, Paulie goes back to cleaning his steins. “Christ. Can you imagine winning that?” “I know, Lori. I know.” “I read somewhere about if someone were to win and split the money, everyone in the country could get something like six million.” “Oh wow. Is that true?” The guy sitting nearby, “That’s actually mathematically impossible.” Lori and Vic give him a glance. Then ignore him. “That’s a lot of money.” “That’s what I would do. I’d give a lot of it away.” “That’s nice.” “Well, because it’d help with the taxes, you see. Plus I’m not greedy.” “That’s very good of you, Lori. Very good.” “I betcha that scumbag in Posh Town won’t be givin’ it away. Goddamn unfair that some rich asshole gets all that money.” “That’s the way it goes, huh?” “If I had all that money. Man, if I had all that money,” Lori stares at the decades-old television perched above the shelves of liquor. The pale glow of the screen reflects off the glass bottles and casts the bar in faint sterilized day light. “Just think of it,” Vic agrees. Both start to picture their new selves experiencing all the beauty their affluence would garner. They now ascend the ranks, floating above the brick and mortars of their current dwellings, transcending all previous barriers (both real and feigned) to the steel and glass mile-highs of Posh Town in Toppers’ Hill. Oh the lives they would have! “Actually, you were right earlier,” the guy interjects again, crashing their reveries to the bar floor. “The odds are so stacked. Did you know more money was spent last year on tickets than all winnings combined since the invention in ’85? It’s such lies, man. They’re just trying to get us to believe we are partaking in the same system. But we’re not.” He quiets for a moment, stares at his drink. “It’s all a ruse.”

Vic looks at Lori. She back at him. “Who is this guy? Hey guy, who are you?”

“I have to take a leak,” the guy says.

Taking a piss out back because the one toilet is still broken, guy comes out from the back door, careful to make sure the chunk of brick keeps it wedged open. The alley smells rancid, days worth of human fluids hanging out back there. Apparently the street cleaners only get to this area every other week (or was it month–or never?). Best to just hold the breath for as long as possible, breath under the shirt, all the other techniques, try to focus the senses on something else. The guy is trying one of these when another blows through the door and slams into the opposite wall. The door shuts hard on both of them. “Shit.” The other wanders over to the guy, unzips, hauls it out, and pours. Exhales in relief as if he hadn’t done it in years. He turns his head to the guy, staring at him with this glazed indifference. The guy is trying to wrap it up as quickly and get back in. It’s cold out. The wind is blowing. The other one leans in and says sotto voce: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men.” The guy looks. It’s Marv. “Huh?” he says, stunned at the context of the moment. Marv stares at him, confused and saddened. Then he looks down. “Never mind. I pissed on my leg.” And he walks away. The guy is still standing there with his dick in his hand.

An Artist’s Palimpsest: Otherwise Known as the Sequel to the Berlin Trilogy (David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’)

You probably know by now, but the almost 70-year-old David Bowie came out with his 25th album: Blackstar (or ): on his birthday last Friday (Feb 8th). And man is it a humdinger! Overall, he covers themes of mortality, morality, fame, feminism, capitalism, modernity, (possibly incest) time and being, (maybe castration) time and spatiality in direct relation to a lot of the aforementioned, and some more I’m sure. He also revisits an experimentalism with horns and synth that was heavily prevalent in his Berlin Trilogy days.

Needless to say, I’m sure he knocked more than a few people on their asses when they put this album on. I know it happened to me.

So now I’d like to go through the album and discuss what I think ole Davie is getting at with each song. Now of course, subjectivity, subjectivity, blah, blah, blah, art is very open to interpretation, yada, yada, yada, just one opinion, you get it.

One thing in particular that I would like to touch on, though, before diving in is how I read lyrics in general, but especially David Bowie lyrics. I have found this particularly helpful, and perhaps you will too. Approach Bowie’s lyrics much like you would an Impressionist painting. Move in too close, focusing on a specific portions leads you to experience cerebral dissonance. It is only once you are able to remove yourself and observe from afar that the entire image begins to take form. This will make more sense when considering the lyrics as they contemplate the obfuscation that is modernity, or more generally: life. It also may add the pleasurable effect of interweaving yourself with the “work of art.” As you begin to interpret the piece, it begins to take new shapes, which then affects you in a new way, and a lovely interplay takes off.

So without further ado.

***

“Blackstar” –  The title track has a rather chimerical quality to it (like many Bowie songs). At first it purports to be a contemplation of mortality and religious iconography, not-so subtle hints of Scott Walker (no, not that one, this one–though sans the meat punching), and then an abstract doom over self-reflection, and introducing a vaguely Arabian phrygian scale, breathing faint whispers into our ears, acting like a trigger warning in this age of terrorism to conjure thoughts of the Middle East (Bowie has denied any allusions to ISIS), shapeshifting almost every other minute until falling back on what it originally started as: a contemplation of a death foretold. It’s atrabilious quality is matched only by its amorphous one. Then, halfway through (in lovely progressive style) he transcends once again from the sorrow, loss and brutality into a euphoric ascension of synth and vibes constantly reminding us what he is through a series of chants and negation: he’s a blackstar, he swears! But it leaves us to think: What is a blackstar, David? What can that mean? And as we press him for this existential meaning (by listening on) the repetition begins to present itself almost as a state of delusion, and by the time we start to doubt Bowie’s legitimacy our confusion is signaled by the ghoulish moans that fade in from the abyss and then we descend back into the darkness when the woodwind plays that familiar but unnamed phrygian scale again.

Bowie is knee-deep in a meditation on humanity’s impermanence, and the perturbation that unfolds from it. And similarly how in songs like “Warszawa”and “Neukoln” from Low and “Heroes” respectively, add to our sense of dread over the modern world (more precisely how they evoke imagery of the Cold War and nuclear hellfire), so too does “Blackstar” help us deal with our imaginations over impending calamity, unspeakable violence seemingly on the verge of takeoff at any point, hauling up these dreggy moments of human history and laying them bare on the foreground of our minds. And in addition to the fear of everything outside, we still have to deal with the uncomfortable fact that even on the inside, we’re a threat to our existence. Perhaps not the most exciting, fun topic to introduce right off the bat, but many Bowie album’s often have the opening track act as an informal thesis to the rest of the album. It’s no different here. And if certain people aren’t comfortable with that… well… then bring in the whores!

“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” – [Quick background: The song title is in reference to the 17th century Ford tragedy’s: “‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore”. Since it’s where I went, and I have no intension of implying I knew this information from the outset, I defer to Wikipedia to provide the Synopsis of the play. The relation to the song is discussed below.]

Again in a Walkerian maneuver, Bowie begins the song with a man inhaling and clearing his throat, this seemingly useless fricative noise then becomes utilized, looped and incorporated into the song itself along with the drumbeat, synth, and growling horns. This is important, it goes on to form the idea of the song from the outset: something ugly and unwanted (a guttural sound that would usually be cut out during the mixing process) becomes subsumed into the very fabric of “‘Tis a Pity” and takes part of a new form.

Bowie then starts to sing. His voice strains, at times gargles and distorts completely. He exposes his fragility. He struggles with notes, utilizing his vocals much like the horn section in a jazz session, or as Fitzgerald or Holiday might have. Here we have Bowie taking his approach to jazz much like he does with many different types of music he encounters: rock, soul, funk, disco, Krautrock, etc. We get to see his (what I’ll call) “Plastik Jazz” on full display, and it will remain with us throughout the album. He sings as an old man remembering the sexual encounter with a whore during a war. The lines “That was patrol//This is the war” repeat throughout. So through this repetition of opposing demonstrative pronouns we are to gather a sense of difference. What happened on patrol was somehow different from the war. But it is a slight of hand, a misdirect. They are as uncoupled as entangled, and with this understanding of paradox we can see the war as both literal and figurative.

The patrol was this single encounter between man and whore (I imagine the dark-haired Temptress of Romantic legends, the one who breaks the will of men, the quintessence of lust, of sin, more appropriately the powerful passions that emerge in the face of fatality). It was where he was able to experience this sexual encounter. A sexual experience that obviously moved him enough to sing about it, now in the elder stage of his life in this haunting nostalgic ode. Both during and apart from the war, from the world, he had this moment [Note: it is unclear what the sex was: consensual or not, pleasurable or not, between strangers or not, etc. etc. All we are left to gather is that they were uncouth by societal standards.]. The lines “‘Tis a pity she was a whore” imply his remorse over the loss of that encounter, that he will not be able to experience such a moment again: such a pity.

It is his “fate,” his “curse,” he tells us to have these taboo desires that can only be satisfied through the conduit of the market, aided by this demimonde, while he is “out on patrol,” (again think of the cleared throat at the beginning of the song and now think of how “patrol” useless on its own enters another context, “patrolling” for the next whore who can satisfy his lust) but in the larger context of the “war” this interaction cannot be allowed by women who are not filles des joie. What Bowie points towards is a topic of conversation in feminist circles that is: in patriarchy, men have sex, women provide it.

Of course, the whore in Ford’s sordid play was Giovanni’s lover/sister: Annabella. So, if we want to make a bridge here, we can swap the idea of man sleeping with whore to man sleeping with sister, or sister-whore, and the incestuous aspect of the song takes it in a truly Gothic territory, which is fun. (Again, think of the spirant introduction and how it changed within the song. The same evolution is taking place here with the lament: “‘Tis a pity she was a whore.”) The taboo remains, of course, and the lessons of patrol and war can still be applied–though in a darker turn.

However one chooses to infer, we cannot enter this whirlwind of concupiscence unaffected. The swirling attack of the horns and thunderous pounding of drums environ us in this horror story of depravity, but it is what spurs this untowardness that is most intractably interesting.

Again think of the imagery of war as a backdrop, with the threat of death on the precipice, human beings double-down on their obsessions for life. Facing the inevitable with existential uncertainty breeds a certain mania, which seems to breed certain perversions such as sadomasochism in an act of desperation. It lends a helping hand to the patriarchal in the form of prostitution, and even devolves in the ugliest fashions: incest, rape, gelding or other sexual mutilations. These are all on display in “‘Tis a Pity” and you begin to realize the present and past-tense application of “to be” in the song’s hook is meant more chronological than progressive in difference; that the behavior of men towards women (and vice versa in other cases) “is” just as much as it “was” when dealing with one another in life and death.

Speaking of life and death…

“Lazarus” – Once more we see Bowie utilize religious imagery to focus on the themes of life and death. Though here with “Lazarus” the song appears to be contemplating a career as well as human temporality. The song is also featured in the new play by the same title, which Bowie co-wrote and produced. It is a sequel of sorts to the film he starred in: The Man Who Fell to Earth (which one of the film posters was also the cover art for Low).

In a unique way, the song stands as a form of paralleling between reality and fiction. “Lazarus” (both play and song) follows the character Thomas Jerome Newton as he has to deal with his reality now decades removed from the events in Man Who Fell. At the end of the film, Newton was a drunken wreck, who failed in his mission to save his world and family, instead living lavishly in a penthouse on Earth, left only with the ability to drink his riches away.

At the time Man was being filmed, Bowie shared similar doldrums with Newton. He had wealth and fame, was living in Los Angeles and being afforded with the pleasantries celebrity can provide a rock star: in David’s instance, cocaine. Lots and lots of cocaine. [There’s a particular story about Bowie that I find both tragic and fascinating. And that is while he was making Young Americans he was sustaining himself on a healthy diet of cocaine, peppers, and milk. And he kept his semen in jars out of fear witches might steal it from him. I don’t know if any of that is true, but hot ham and cheese is it a story!] Shortly after the release of the film, Bowie fled LA for the confines of France, and what would soon become known as the “Berlin Trilogy” as he started work on Low.

With this in mind, the song “Lazarus” becomes more complex than its face-value appearance of an alien, or ghost, angel, (Lazarus himself perhaps) who is looking down at the earth, reminiscing about his time spent down there, and he absentmindedly drops his cell phone down to the living world. A rather docile song about the interaction between earthlings and extraterrestrials, or living and dead, how the relationship between the known and unknown is an interwoven blur. The song instead, in the larger context (i.e. its relation to Bowie’s career and life) takes things one step further and looks to be about the rockstar (or ) coming to terms with himself, both past and present.

When remembering that Newton experienced his life in multiple times, perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think Bowie (through Newton) is exposing a simultaneous conflation of past and present Bowie. Nearing death, he can look back at a time in his life where he seemed both alive yet dead, in this purgatorial state (much like his Newton) and he had to be risen by force (in this case physically removing himself from Los Angeles) to become alive again–much like our biblical Lazarus. That his savior was music, which pulled him from the Cerberus-like clutches of a lifeless materialism and hedonism.

“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” – In keeping with this idea of a failed materialism, and the crisis of Self that arises from it, Bowie introduces us to “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” halfway through the album. This is key positioning, in my mind. “Blackstar” introduces us to the thesis of the album: coping with our existence: with the admittance of our ephemerality. “‘Tis a Pity” looks at how this knowledge affects the way we behave sexually (with specific focus on the male perspective). And the previous song reflects on how spatiality and time are simultaneous in the human mind, allowing us to contemplate our worth. Hanging on to this notion of worth, Bowie explores how we attempt to satisfy ourselves in the maelstrom that is modernity.

By far, “Sue” is the most frenetic song on Blackstar. The guitar and drums really drive the song along while the horn section lays out some of the most splenetic melodies (verging on cacophony), at the same time Bowie tries his best baritone crooning à la Walker. The kinetic nature of the music mimics the automized modern world, propelling us so quickly forward, heading straight on towards oblivion at high speeds. Before we know it, in that mad dash for accumulation and debt-aversion, we’ve managed to meet our end so abruptly.

On the surface of Bowie’s sad projections, we learn of a man who kills his lover for she lied about being with another man, or having another family; or it is a story about a woman who is depressed and takes her life while pregnant, or dies of an illness, or some combination of the two, or other impressions, it depends on how certain lines (“I pushed you down beneath the weeds” and “Sue, Good-bye”, “You went with him” and “You went with that clown”, and a few others) are interpreted. Perhaps the “him/clown” is a man, perhaps the angel of death. He might even be the ghostly Lazarus we left in the previous song. Who knows?

More importantly, we see the failure of the man as he tries to construct an alcove from the chaotic world around him through the auspices of wealth. He gets a job. He buys a house. He takes Sue to the doctor. He takes full advantage of the capital he has accumulated in this modern world to help satisfy Sue and bring about some level of comfort and joy in the world, but despite these best efforts, despite the best intentions of affluence, Sue still ends up dead (or, however you see it, he loses Sue).

His best is as meretricious as buying a tombstone. There he pays for the lapidary false admission of purity (“‘Sue the Virgin’ on your grave”). Even in this sentimental act, capital can only help bring about the end of life, not fulfill it. In the most obvious sense: “you can’t take it with you.”

The title points to this grim fact, and is laid out in the song. Exchange value renders human life null and void as monetization of a human’s being is reduced to a commodity, where satisfaction can only be realized through market practice of buying and selling. When the political economy eliminates the humanity from a society, we should not be surprised by the results, after all: “In a season of crime, none need atone.” So when Sue dies, or leaves him, or whatever, it happens while he is at work (“Ride the train, I’m far from home”), and all he worked for appears to be as full of meaning as the materials that helped him realize that moment.

The story of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” appears to suggest the limitations of capital and its helpless quality when facing our common malaise of modernity.

“Girl Loves Me” – This next song is perhaps the most pop of the whole batch. It’s no surprise as Bowie liked (or hated) to throw at least one or two populist bites out there in his more exploratory Berlin Trilogies–“Sound and Vision” from Low, “‘Heroes'” and “The Secret Life of Arabia” from “Heroes” and “Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ” from Lodger. Though the switch is that this song will probably not be played on the radio. Despite the hypnotic bass line and drumbeat that permeates down to your toes and gets them a-tappin’ more than any other song on this album, and despite the catchy (though NSFW) hook of “Where the fuck did Monday go?” and chorus “Girl loves me” repeated over and over again, the song intentionally plays more satiric than sensational–at least for mainstream airwaves.

Alongside the jejune melody, are largely nonsensical lyrics that evoke the slang of A Clockwork Orange and elsewhere. Bowie uses Burgess’s “viddy” and “cheena” and more throughout the song. He does so to disguise the more coeval lyrics one might hear from many pop songs today: mainly trying to sleep with women, get money, and/or score drugs. [Fun experiment: when testing the level of objectification a woman is experiencing in a song, simply see if the “woman” could be replaced with any other inanimate object that the singer seems to be equally keen on. For example, a man can easily “sleep with” a woman, just as he can “get” with her, “score” her, or “grab” her. In these instances, the woman is about as equivalent to whatever object the man covets. She’s just another form of fetishism. Ain’t sexism a bitch?] It feels as if Bowie is puckishly exploring our contemporary notions of taste in this brave new world of entertainment. And ultimately it is just superficial nonsense, and about as useful as the market in terms of trying to assuage our coming doom. [There might also be a nod to the Millennial generation in here. Whether it is a praise or damnation, I’m unsure, but I will confess this is probably my favorite song on the album…  :P]

The song also stands as a marker in the album. Here Bowie begins to ease us down from the headier, more macabre attention of the album into more tranquil, though still sullen tracks.

“Dollar Days” – In many respects, this acts as a coda to the previous songs in terms of lyrical meaning. Musically, it is Bowie’s atmospheric ballad for the album.

Bowie is looking back on his career as a musician, and the idea of making this album, trying to reunite that spark that made him want to be a musician in the first place, now with an added importance for the meaning it brings him so late in his life. He opens with an admittance of his wealth and fame, and with a bit of false modesty (or ernestness) he proclaims “It’s nothing to me//It’s nothing to see.” And if he does not achieve the goal he has set out (in this instance seeing the “English evergreens”–I think we can assume this is some form of paradise), it too will mean very little to him. He tries to convince himself by trying to convince us that he is rather irreverent about the whole thing, but the way he sings it, and the next lines suggest otherwise. He focuses on trying to write songs that audiences will enjoy “And fool them all again and again//I’m trying to” obsessed and frustrated with his own celebrity, and by the record label executives perhaps, or critics who claim he doesn’t care anymore, or is a hack. He vacillates between one moment being aloof, and then the next so impassioned. He is “trying” and “dying” to get to some ineffable something that he never tells us. We are only left to assume. But his message is genuine, the emotions all real. He is in the crepuscular phase of his life. The previous successes that he has reaped have little meaning for him at this stage, and he is now looking for some deeper connection with something and he knows it exists within him, and in some fashion is realized through his connection with the listener (“Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you”).

He wants to hear those words just as much as we do. Like him, we too are “trying” and “dying” for something.

And what is it? Well…

“I Can’t Give Everything Away” – The true final track on the album acts as a kind of afterword. Literally coming in off the tails of “Dollar Days” the synth ushers us in front of the Goblin King as he attempts one last time to hint at the cri de cœur of the album. Again the Berlin Trilogy is elicited as the harmonica from “A Career in a New Town” and the wailing guitar from “Red Sails” or numerous other Bowie tunes from that era book end the song. Is there something to gain from this allusion? “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” he tells us.

We hear of returning pulses for prodigal sons, and “blackout hearts with flowered news” and wonder what he is pointing us to, which he simply replies: “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Then in his most lucid stanza, he confesses to: “Seeing more and feeling less//Saying no, but meaning yes//This is all I ever meant//That’s the message that I sent” and the song shifts. Not melodically, it still remains the same, but in essence it changes from being about him to being about all of us. Bowie and the listener blend as we become the “I.” And when we return to the lines of prodigal sons and “skull designs upon my shoes” we see a portrait of people who only start to have a pulse when around extravagance, and how this materialism distorts our appreciation of our existence. Our privilege is standing in our own way of finding some kind of meaning. And the lines “I Can’t Give Everything Away” start to take a darker shade–one of bloated self-love and aggrandizement. The more we see, the less we start to feel, and our cynicism and desensitization allows our irony “saying no, but meaning yes” to run rampant adding to this effusive inauthenticity that becomes all we ever mean, and that is the message we send out to one another.

Me: Isn’t that right, David?

DB: “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Me: Goddamn you!

But before we can get anything more out of him the instruments reach crescendo, and then fade, and next thing we know the album is finished. Leaving us to try and make sense of the remnants left behind.

***

So what to make of Blackstar? Well… right off the bat, this ain’t for everyone. Bowie fans who didn’t particularly care for his Berlin Trilogy, or some of his more experimental moments will probably not have any patience for this album. And that’s fine. I like Let’s Dance, too. It’s a great album. And for those who might be interested in getting into some Bowie, well, this is a great place to start if you like more progressive, art rock and lyrics that heavily focus on the above.

And the themes of the album are not foreign territory for the Thin White Duke. He’s visited and conquered these lands before. He is merely returning. He reconnects with previous albums from the seventies (specifically the Berlin epoch), as he also absorbs jazz and musicians like Scott Walker, reusing and altering all he knows to create something quite familiar, but brand new.

If all that sounds like something you want out of your David Bowie, then Blackstar is going to be right up your alley.

But with all that has been discussed, I cannot help but sit back and still ask: What is Blackstar? What does the word itself mean? What can be drawn from it?

It is a contradiction. An oxymoron. For it cannot be both the representation of the brightest form of light we have in the solar system, and the quintessence of its absence, and yet it is. And from this understanding we can both extrapolate its meaning outward to how the world behaves in blatant contradictions. And we can recall David’s words at the very beginning: “I’m a blackstar” and start to believe him now, and believe in ourselves. That we too are blackstars.  That such significance can be drawn from such meaninglessness (such tenor from a baritone!), is nothing short of miraculous. And yet… we still find ourselves logically insensate because of the impossibility of the task at hand–the answer is the work, not the answer. So we go back at it, time and time again. We forget the lessons we learned in search for the answer, taking search from a different angle, thought up in a new way, ignored, criticized, revisited, accepted, forgotten all over again, and again, and again, and again.

We go through it. Bowie too. He visited these thoughts over time, specs of them run heavily through his earlier work. They are present in the Berlin Trilogy. Like us, he works on these. Album after album, over the decades he has collected a library of his own thought on the subjects. Adding and erasing notions, only to return to them later, different but brand new. The aporia is, in a sense, what leads to the palimpsest. A paradox that cannot be rectified. A pathos un-pacified.

In German, there is a rather profound compound word: “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” and it basically means “to cope with the past.” More specifically, though, the word is utilized by Germans when talking about reconciling their identities with their past in direct relation to the horrible atrocities of World War II, mainly the terrors of the Holocaust.

I’m not foolish enough to make a cursory comparison here, and state Bowie’s experience is in any way, shape, or form close to the philosophical, moral soul-searching German people have to go through as part of their identity. But I do like this idea of trying to come to terms with one’s past as a way of informing your current state of being–in a more general sense it’s what some people call “history.” With respect to Blackstar, I think their is an existential “Todesbewältigung” going on, a “coping with death” that Bowie is taking the listener through with him. He is struggling with the ideas, reaching back through his lifetime to help him better understand that this has been a Gordian knot he has been wrestling with all this time. In his intellectual sparring match, his search for catharsis, he has brought us along for the ride and with any bit of luck we too have participated in this dissonant thinking about our own absurdity.

Contemplating your mortality never gets any easier, especially when you draw nearer to it with every breath. To consider all the fame and fortune the man has wrought himself, the listener should take comfort in the fact their beloved Bowie shares a similar melancholy. And there is some comfort in that knowledge, at least for me.

The struggle is real. But you aren’t alone. David Bowie is there, too.

Tota mulier in… the Market

[Author’s Note: “To say anyone expected the kind of reaction to Camille Paglia’s The Hollywood Reporter article on Taylor Swift to be as big of a hit in the nation as it was would probably be disingenuous at best. But the now famous ‘Nazi Barbie’ article captured the country’s attention and fueled one of the hugest commercial successes ever.

Shortly after its publication, I was commissioned to do a story on the two about their thoughts and reactions. My story never ran. But it just seems like, considering all that has transpired, it’s a damn shame it never saw the light of day. So I’ve included the unfinished work below. Enjoy!”]

“Nazi Barbie: A Success Story”

    On a Tuesday evening I headed to the concert. I was given VIP access and allowed to park in the employee’s lot of the venue. It was a pretty large arena, one I never had seen any musician perform in before, only sports teams. Some fifteen thousands people were amassing outside the doors ready to see the blonde success story take stage that night. Taylor Swift was on the back-half of her tour. It was hard to state whether this was the height of this country-turned-pop star’s vertiginous career, or just another notch on her way to some other dimension of fame and fortune. Young fans clung to their favorite Taylor Swift albums, in their Taylor Swift T-shirts, at the merchandizing booths located all over the arena where they could purchase more albums (available in both CD-discs and vinyl), more T-shirts, Taylor Swift backpacks, posters, Keds, smart phone cases, custom sunglasses, candle sticks, picture frames, towels, Christmas stockings, bracelets, notepads, coffee mugs, and they could carry it all away in their very own Taylor Swift tote bags. In an atmosphere of endless conspicuous consumption of one person, it was hard to imagine anyone could possibly put a dent in this pop culture deity. Yet there I was to interview her about something some critic her fans didn’t even know existed (and probably wouldn’t until she acknowledged her) wrote about her in the entertainment industry’s (at times) third-most popular trade magazine. It seemed so silly, but that was journalism in the entertainment business.

    I was invited to watch the show from backstage. I barely paid attention, mostly checking my phone for football scores and if anyone said anything  about me on Twitter or Facebook. The crowd went exceptionally crazy at one moment when Taylor welcomed Drake and Chris Brown onto the stage during her performance of some song I had never heard before in its entirety. The production that went behind doing a single show was fucking mesmerizing. The level of labor that went into the two-hour show alone was dumbfounding. I could only imagine how much money I could have made off the VIP pass I was wearing around my neck (I mean, someone had to make this thing, too. It was customized, with gold lettering and little holograms and whatnot. Unbelievable.). I probably could have walked away with more than what I was commissioned to do for the interviews and called it a night. But something about integrity, or whatever, denied me that lucrative opportunity and I instead found myself in Taylor’s private room underneath the arena.

    Her manager took me back there before the encore, instructing me I only had a few minutes with her. “She’s very busy, and this tour is really taking a lot out of her. They always do, but she’s doing more shows than she’s ever done before.” I nodded my head, unmoved. “So just be as quick as you can. And no ‘gotcha’ bullshit please. I don’t want to have Security have to throw you out. Ya dig?” I nodded again. He opened the door to her room and let me sit on the couch near her seat in front of the large vanity mirror. “So just sit here and I’ll get her to see you soon. She’ll be there,” he said pointing to the chair. “Definitely don’t sit there when she comes in. That’d be rude. Don’t be rude.” He paused for a moment as if to reflect on his owns words. Then: “Please don’t be an asshole about any of this. Cool?” I flashed a thumbs-up. He left.

    Her table was crammed with every kind of bouquet I could imagine. A few acoustic guitars were leaning against the wall opposite me. A picture of what I could only assume were her parents and a younger Taylor was taped to the mirror. An entire case of Mountain Valley Spring Water was just underneath the table, unopened. Atop was an array of various beauty potions to keep her looks perpetually coeval. One in particular that caught my eye was an “FDA-approved” jar of pink and white hydrous substance that had some unpronounceable medical name to it. It looked like another anti-aging cream. Under the “Ingredients” section were more stupefying parlance, except one term I was able to make out properly: “manatee fetuses.” I almost dropped the jar when the door opened. I collapsed on the couch as Taylor and her manager came in. “OK. So like ten minutes tops, like I said.” I nodded.

    Taylor shook my hand and said hello, asking to be excused for her uncouth appearance due to her perspiration. I tried to set her at ease. After exchanging a few brief pleasantries, we got down to brass tacks.

Me

So by now, of course, you’ve heard about or read The Hollywood Reporter opinion piece. I’m sure you don’t really want to talk about it anymore–

Taylor Swift

And yet, here you are.

Me

Here I am. Have you given this a lot of thought? Do you care to share for the readers? Or do these types of criticisms not get to you?

TS

Well. I have given it a considerable amount of thought, actually. More so than probably justified. I mean I am trying to expand my art in different ways, too. I did just bring Drake and Chris Brown together on stage tonight. I think that was pretty powerful. The fans really seemed to respond to them coming together. I think that’s important for the music community, the fans, and society as a whole. I’m trying to use my music as a medium to bring about positive change in the world. So when I hear, and then read, about this critique of #GirlSquad, it bothers me a little. So, yeah. I’ve been thinking about it.

Me

And what have you concluded? Do you care to share that?

TS

Hmm… I’m still trying to work it out my thoughts in a cogent manner. This tour is kinda taking it out of me, intellectually–you know? It’s hard to try and wrap my head around things with this kind of schedule. But I suppose, to be short, I disagree.

Me

How so? How do you see #GirlSquad as a positive force for feminism?

TS

Well, it’s like this. I brought Drake and Chris Brown together on stage tonight so they could perform Kendrick [Lamar’s] portion on [“Bad Blood”]. And I thought that was particularly moving. When you consider the circumstances in which drove both guys to really be at each other’s throats over Rihanna (whom I adore), and then later Karrueche Tran, two guys fighting over two women. It’s just tired gender roles playing out there. Did you ever get a chance to read Gokova on gender stereotypes and the importance of breaking down those barriers?

Me

No.

TS

I was very moved by it. Especially when considering he wrote it in part to help men and women in Zimbabwe combat the horrifying HIV/AIDs epidemic that was ravaging the country. It’s a wonderful short piece. I’ll send it to you. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. So like, branching off Gokova, here this guy is talking about the importance for men to understand gender issues are simply not a battlefront for women alone. And that, on top of the oppression of women that patriarchy affords, it ultimately deprives men of their humanity, even though they are often the short-term beneficiaries of it. I mean, there was more to it, but that’s the gist. That men need to realize the negative impact they are suffering from as a result, too. I then I read this stuff between the two guys and I was like: “C’mon.” Right? So bringing them into the #GirlSquad, so to speak, was a big move. And I guess I just don’t understand what detractors have against that.

Me

OK. So do you think the crowd really got all that?

TS

How do you mean?

Me

I mean, that’s a particularly deep reading of two bros hugging it out tepidly on stage next to these fans’ idol.

TS

I don’t know if I’m their idol.

Me

OK, but you’re someone to these little girls–

TS

Boys, too.

Me

Sure. But mostly girls.

TS

Eh. I don’t know. But OK, whatever, go on.

Me

Right. Well… I suppose I’m wondering do you really think little tweens are going to understand the significance? Or… is it really as significant as you want it to be? I mean. This isn’t the “Jamaica Smiles” concert. You’re not Bob Marley standing on stage uniting the leaders of the JLP and PNP.

TS

I never claimed that. That’s on you.

Me

But you do think uniting Drake and Chris Brown on stage in front of a bunch of kids is going to stand as a larger representation of overcoming patriarchy?

TS

Yeah. Why not?

Me

Because twelve-year-olds aren’t reading Gokova.

TS

Doesn’t matter. They are seeing the moment happen before them. They see the representation of uniting over pettiness. That’s going to speak to them. I can’t, in the middle of my act, just bust out Mainardi and Goldman for them and explain the intricacies and permutations of sexism inherent in the system. They didn’t come for that. They came for “Mean” and “22” and all that. Not to be lectured about feminist theory. So, if I can drag out people and shed a positive light, however small the moment is, that acts as a contradiction to the horrid apparatus they’re subjected to on a daily basis–because they are. If young boys and girls see two grown-ass men get on stage and embrace and stand in front of them and acknowledge what they were fighting over (women) was stupid and primeval, then maybe they can return to their schools and recognize the pettiness they are either being subjected to or perpetuating in their lives. That’s what #GirlSquad is all about. That’s why I bring people out on stage. And share about my friendships on Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter and all that. It’s about promoting a community. That’s why I brought Drake and Chris out tonight, and had them sing together on “Bad Blood.” Like, hello? The song’s called “Bad Blood” and here two guys who don’t like each other and getting together to share this moment, and embrace. They are overcoming a moment. And those fans are going to see that, and that’s going to resinate with them.

Me

But didn’t you write “Bad Blood” about Katy Perry?

TS

Oh Gawd. No. No that’s not true. I’m sick of hearing that.

Me

Sorry. Another woman then?

TS

Whatever. I wouldn’t read too much into that song, OK? It’s pop. It’s supposed to be enjoyed, consumed. Don’t read too much into it.

Me

But… that’s kinda the point. You want kids to read into the embracing and the hanging out with celebrity friends, and see those moments in a larger context of promoting equality… but then not see the picayune songs in anything other than their confectionary quality, disregarding elements of pettiness and anxiety over falling in line with a popularity culture and reductive gender roles. I think, in part, that’s what Paglia was driving at. That these moments are so facile, mockable they end up only adding to a counterproductive, or self-defeating, or confused narrative.

TS

Hmm. I guess I just don’t see it that way.

Me

How do you see it then?

TS

#GirlSquad is about equality. At least in the sense that I’m trying to show positive female relationships in a very toxic atmosphere. And it’s no different from the things Paglia was championing in her piece. I mean… “Girl Power” is a better representation of women’s rights than #GirlSquad? Fuck. Off. [The] Spice Girls were made up in some British boardroom for fuckssake. At least I came up with this. She wants to call me bourgeois for communicating my message through social media platforms, but she’s writing in The Hollywood Reporter. [Exhales in disbelief] She thinks I’m effeminizing the word “Squad”… what about Nazi Barbie then? What about claiming I’ve lost my solidarity with other women because I’m no longer pumping out kids and cleaning up around the house with all the other seraglios. That’s not an effeminate approach to viewing our society and gender roles? So, like, I’m a bad guy because I take some selfies with Blake Lively, and other gals… and that’s adding to the anxiety and isolationism of women in the country… but saying we should try and reunite to a period in time that formed the origins of our subjugation… and like that will help end our suffering? What the hell? The community of women was constructed as a direct result of our exclusion from patriarchal society, only to allow us to be used when it was deemed fitting by the male bourgeois community… I mean, have you read Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy? Shit, I mean even Engels was writing about this back then… if he could grasp this, how is it that Paglia is totally ignorant of it? That we should be studying male bonding techniques and learn from them… because they “…have escaped the sexual jealousy, emotionalism and spiteful turf wars…” that women have not. Are you fucking kidding me?! I just pulled two jack-offs on stage to show how dumb they’ve been for pissing all over one another because they both nutted on the same girls. Kanye disparaging Amber Rose because she wasn’t as classy as Kim K[ardashian]? Please. PLEASE. Nazi Barbie… what a fucking asshole.

Is it a cursory agitprop I’m doing? Sure. Guilty. I mean the contradictions abound, man. I don’t know how you want me to account for all of them. I mean this is the stuff that just eats me up. It’s easy to shit on hope, man. It’s really fucking easy. Maybe I am guilty of being glib. But I don’t think so. So what? I like taking photos with girls, and trying to promote a very simple message of sorority and fraternity. I’m trying to combat petty mean girl mentalities–the exact kind of bullshit Paglia is guilty of. [In a bad nasally impression] Taylor Swift is taking a cliquey approach to empowering women and helping the cause. That’s gross. I don’t like that. Let’s call her a Nazi Barbie. Are you out of your mind? I really just don’t get it. I don’t get how I’m guilty of backsliding women into cattiness and thwarting the movement, but she calls me a fucking Nazi Barbie and claims we should model ourselves off of men and harken back to the days when we were mid-wives and second-class citizens and somehow she’s the voice of reason here? Are you fucking kidding me? Why? Because she’s not “dumb” Taylor Swift? Because she has a column in The Hollywood Reporter? Because she’s been spouting this bullshit for so long?

What’s her beef? What’s her justification? Sure, they’re perfectly attractive women and have spent endless hours with scores of beauty teams to help perfect their looks so they can fit inside a mold that ultimately satisfies that tingle in every guy’s pants, and engenders further reductive labeling and expectations for little girls and what not. I get it. I really do. We’re all entrenched in this system, though. It’s like Earth to fucking Camille: you’re not living outside the system, pal! None of us are. So if I try to make the most simplest of optimistic gestures by corralling some other flawless celebrity babes to join my cause of #GirlSquad, to help women out there try to band together, then what’s the problem, right? Why am I the bad guy?

Me

I’m not sure Paglia was saying it quite like that.

TS

Did you read the damn article?

Me

Yes.

TS

Well then you know I’m not misreading it.

Me

But… I don’t know. I guess I’m at a loss. If you understand all this, if you understand the crisis you and others suffer and the contradictions that set you and others back, and how difficult all those are to break through… then… why not do a little more with the #GirlSquad? Why not have intellectuals, or regular everyday women and girls, more men, all contributing to your idea, why not do that rather than parade out celebrities on stage or in photos without any context other than the nebulous #GirlSquad label attached to it? You haven’t really defined what #GirlSquad is. It could totally be what you are saying right now and no one would be the wiser. Or most wouldn’t. Certainly not your tween fans. Wouldn’t it be better to just put it all out on the line? Say what you’re really trying to get after? I mean, what are you afraid of? Losing contracts, people’s perception of you? What’s the significance of #GirlSquad if it’s just going to be so limited?

    Taylor’s physiognomy was pensive. She thought about her next words. In seconds, though, Swift’s manager entered the room. My time was up. Taylor smiled and thanked me for coming out to the show and talking to her about the subject. I thanked her for her time.

***

    Meanwhile, in the sleepy town of El Segundo, at the headquarters of Mattel a board of directors were plotting the next new hit of their young girls’ toy line: the Nazi Barbie collection. Based off the excitement generated from the THR article, the board felt they could capitalize off the buzz. Nazi Barbie came equipped with some of the most well-tailored outfits ranging from black to red to white and had some undeniably attractive accessories: a Luger 9mm, Storm Trooper helmet, a mansion in the Bavarian Alps, a remote control Volkswagen convertible,  personal Reichsadler flag, an easy-bake oven, buttons with the Parteiadler and SS death head insignia, and much, much more! Almost as effect as all the accessories was the storyline that accompanied Nazi Barbie. Thirty-six individualized “paths” were available for any little girl who played the freemium online and app-based games Mattel provided. All the stories ended with Nazi Barbie throwing a successful (of course) Nazi Party where all the inhabitants (especially the incredibly handsome Herr Ken) congratulated Nazi Barbie.

    The Nazi Barbie became uncontrollably popular. It took hold of the imaginations of little girls across the nation. It was by far the most popular Barbie product Mattel had sold in decades. It doubled the corporation’s stock. Camille sued, claiming copyright infringement. Mattel countersued, and eventually a settlement was reached outside of the court. No store could contain the doll or its products on the shelves for more than 24 hours. Mattel trucks were attacked in the middle of the night on the side of interstates or rest stops. Congress passed an emergency bill that allowed Mattel truck drivers to carry armed weapons with them at all times and were authorized to use lethal force on anyone who threatened the safety of the property.

    American Girl tried to benefit from the craze, too, with their own special brand of American Nazi Girl dolls. No one seemed as enthused about little girl dolls based off Fritz Kuhn, George Lincoln Rockwell, Henry Ford, and Charles Lindbergh, though.

    The success and proliferation of the Nazi Barbie toys was for all intents and purposes a huge and total commercial success. However, it did not go without its unpleasantries. Just before Mattel started shipping the doll to Canada, England, Germany, India, China, South Africa, Australia for test runs before international release, reports from all over the country were coming in about little girls being admitted to treatment centers because of their addiction to playing the freemium games, some took out loans from the Barbie Bank and now were as high as thirty thousand dollars in debt, others spent away their parents’ life savings, a few attempted armed robbery. More were allegedly getting sick from what their parents claimed were noxious gases coming from the Volkswagens, but when they ran the Barbie Smog-Check accessory (priced at $60) for the car the results always came back “Super-Positive!” In Kansas, a little faction of fourth graders defected from their class and began invading schools around the district, crying out something about “living space” as they busted into rooms and raided the cupboards and lockers for more Nazi Barbie outfits and bauble, once stabbing a teacher with a weaponized protractor (she survived her wounds). In Illinois, girls with American Nazi Girl dolls found their toys strung by the neck in the bathroom. The violence to the American Nazi Girl dolls was rampant. Some were found with burnt hair and melted heads, others dismembered. At one school in Mississippi, several girls found their dolls out back behind the school buried in a shallow grave with tiny bullet holes in the dolls’ backs. Girls started bleaching their hair without adult supervision leading to chemical burns and loss of hair. One article told the story of a little girl in West Virginia who tried to soak her entire body in bleach in order to be: “as pure as Frau Barbie.” In fact girls from every state were being hospitalized for trying to perfect themselves to the standards of Nazi Barbie. Tweens were found huddled in the corner of their rooms, strung out on tiny Nazi Barbie medicine cocktails, haunted by the image of their beloved.

***

    I reached out to Camille Paglia to speak about Taylor Swift’s comments and the recent success of the Nazi Barbie. Her publicist informed me she was very busy working on the script for Nazi Barbie: The Movie and wouldn’t be able to talk for very long. We spoke over the phone. After a quick congratulations, she thanked me and began telling me about the difficulties of writing a screenplay for the film. That her work was continuously sent back because the studio and Mattel wanted her to stick to the storyboards and character bios the toy corporation’s room of writers created, and that (if she was unable to comply with their vision) they could always get Christina Hoff Sommers to finish the script for them. So she was under a very tight deadline. “If it wasn’t for these manatee embryos, I’d hate to imagine what that might look like.” I thanked her for her time and summarized what Swift had to say.

Camille Paglia

She said all that?

Me

Yes

CP

Wow. I’ll admit. I’m a little more disappointed than before.

Me

Why’s that?

CP

It’s is abundantly clear to me that Taylor is suffering from the conventional feminist view point on a lot of things. I mean Mainardi, really? I knew Patty, we used to romp back in the seventies. She’s such a goddamn whiney prude. That’s a role model for her? No wonder she’s setting a bad example for everyone else.

Me

So you don’t think Swift has any point?

CP

Of course not. You see. I’m rock ‘n’ roll. She’s pop. She’s going to follow the simplest forms and methods and get by spewing that back out to the masses in the most obnoxious and superficial fashion imaginable. I’m rock ‘n’ roll. I play by different rules. That’s why I rub her the wrong way. I’m Led Zeppelin. She’s… Barbara Streisand. Get it?

Me

Well couldn’t you say that Led Zeppelin is pretty mainstream?

CP

Well… maybe now. But if you think about them at the time, no. You’re young. You’ll learn. I’m totally on a different level playing field than Taylor. Are you kidding me? Hello? Let’s get it together here. She read some books on whatever and thinks she’s knows some shit. Oh wow! Another person in their twenties who thinks they know it all. Get out of here with that crap.

Me

OK, but I think she makes two interesting points I’d like to talk to you about: 1) that you state in the article that feminists, or more precisely women feminists?, are too quick to blame men for their own faults and that women should admire and base their relationships off of male companionships, but she feels as though that is a form of idolizing the very structures that led to women’s plight in the first place; and 2) that you are just as guilty of superficial feminism and pettiness by labeling her a Nazi Barbie. That might all be rock ‘n’ roll, but it really doesn’t address her points. Care to discuss?

CP

You’re probably a huge Taylor Swift fan, aren’t you?

Me

Actually, I’m more of a Katy Perry guy, myself.

CP

Figures.

Me

How so?

CP

Come on. Don’t play dumb with me. It’s OK. I don’t care. You’ve got a dick. It’s all right. It’s like that one Rammstein song… how does it go? I love that song: [Singing in a bad German accent] “I’ve got dick-a, you’ve got a pussay. So what’s the problem?” Isn’t that how it goes?

Me

Uh… yeah, something like that.

CP

What’s the problem, big boy? You don’t like a little rock ‘n’ roll? Don’t worry, I’m not trying to fuck you over the phone. I’m too old and too gay anyway. But I’m not like these awful prigs you’ll come across at NOW.

Me

Uh… I love rock ‘n’ roll. I just don’t think you’re answering the questions at hand.

CP

What were they again?

Me

Let’s just start with the first one: do you not see a problem with telling women they should behave more like men, or male culture?

CP

I didn’t say that. I didn’t write that. That’s not true. You need to get your facts straight.

Me

But in the article you are stating the importance of female bonding is necessary because women have abandoned the old social structures that were in play which formed their communities, and now they are at the mercy of the “paparazzi culture” and “hypersexualization” and the “piranha shoals of the industry” but don’t you agree that the system in which all three of these areas exist is the same that forced them into their communities in the first place? Just a different manifestation of patriarchal society in which women are objectified and harassed by their male peers and scrutinized by females who try to hold themselves to these same standards. That is to say: don’t you think the problem is that women are comparing themselves to the male culture, which is what leads to their anxiety, their loneliness is directly impacted by “male malice.”

CP

Oh man. Another fucking moral Crusader. No. It’s not a guy’s fault that Taylor Swift pals around with other impossibly beautiful women, taking pictures, acting like little girls, sticking their tongues out and blowing kisses, and wearing all those hot, tight clothes, with their tits mashed together, legs and midriffs flashing, asses and vag’s nearly visible, all like something you’d find in a million different porn flicks. Projecting these images all over social media and so forth, isolating and making little girls that look nothing like that feel even more excluded and vulnerable. It’s not your fault Taylor Swift is doing this and making these girls feel like shit. Why are you defending her?

Me

Well if you want to take a sample of one, then I agree. I’m not the sole problem. But Swift isn’t doing that necessarily either. Those images are being utilized by the market, a market that is gearing particularly to males and which understands women will have no choice but to follow along with, it’s just a highly complicated form of fetishism of the female body, utilized and marketed to the appetites of male culture. You’re just sitting on the opposite end of the contradiction.

CP

Yeah. The winning side. Look. If you want to be a self-hating male, go right ahead. If Taylor Swift really wants to make a difference for women, especially young girls, maybe she should stop taking meretricious selfies and making cutesy, tootsy smiley faces and goofy looks and try to change the fucking world. She’s part of the problem.

Me

But aren’t you, too?

CP

Excuse me? I don’t have time for this bullshit.

Me

But you acknowledge the problems of inequality and the objectification of women in contemporary society, and yet you are claiming that the construct (or those who benefit directly from it) has no responsibility, but the burden of change rests on the shoulders of those who suffer. You’re not blaming the victim here? How can a society which is the cause for women’s alienation, the one that creates the callous paparazzi culture and renders the female body merely a tool for further exploitation not be at least partly responsible?

CP

Well men can be thrown into the meat grinder, too.

Me

Sure.

CP

Well then there you have it. Males are just as vulnerable to the market as women. So why in the hell is it their fault? Why can’t women work together and get past the sexualized market system?

Me

Because the market is devised to benefit men, not women. Sure, sometimes men become vulnerable, too. That’s not being disputed here. What’s being disputed is whether or not it is fair to hold women to a standard that disregards factors that add up to the disparity they deal with. Couldn’t the loss of solidarity women feel today be just as likely due to advancements of technology that lead to a “socialized” autonomy in which everyone is focused on themselves through the “sharing” market? Everyone can share their pictures, opinions, even labor time, they can all become friends with anyone in the most remote sense with the click of a button. Couldn’t that mixed with a further expanding neoliberal political economy, libertine social atmosphere, and all the while a continued industry that panders to the most basic impulses of men, couldn’t all of that contribute to the isolation and fear women feel in society? Isn’t that completely out of Taylor Swift’s control?

CP

It’s not her fault! Fuck. But she and all her other gal pals need to understand that they need to push past the superficial dilettantism they are promoting with their absurd social media bourgeois bullshit! It’s all bullshit. They aren’t doing anything to help the cause in any genuine, sustainable fashion. Fuck. Can’t you get that? How is liking a photo on Instagram going to combat the paparazzi culture? It just enables the fucking people to want more, you just cut out the middlemen in that instance. That’s about it. But that’s not enough. Why can’t you get that? Why is that so hard? She is supporting a jejune point-of-view that says [in a poorly constructed Valley-Girl Taylor Swift voice]: Look at me doing this little cutesy thing with this other Amazonian goddess, aren’t we cool? Isn’t this just like the coolest? Feminism, y’all! We’re fighting the totems of oppression one selfie at a time! Are you joking? Come on. Get real. She leaves her point void by virtue of this crude, thoughtless act.

Me

Isn’t that exactly what you did with the Nazi Barbie comment, though?

CP

Oh give me a break! It was a 1000-word opinion piece and everyone picked up and ran with two goddamned words. Two! Out of a thousand.

Me

Yeah, but your larger point was lost by the fact that everyone honed in on Nazi Barbie. Any point you were making, no matter how partially valid, got lost by that incredibly facile, offhand comment. Swift might be guilty of promoting silly publicity campaigns to better improve her career and ultimately not be aiding the women’s movement. But so are you.

CP
I’m not going to sit hear and get lectured by some lame, stupid self-hating popinjay. You don’t get it. I’m rock ‘n’ roll. I’m rock ‘n’ roll, and you’re easy-listening crooner bullshit. You just don’t get it. Come out of your shell and join me in the chaos, baby.

    And then she hung up.

***

    I walked out of the theater. It was dark, and cold, snow began to fall as evident in the thin layer coating the ground. So I pulled up my collar and zipped my jacket. The marquee shined in glorious purple, pink, and yellow neon. The black text read against the florescent white: NAZI BARBIE: THE MOVIE.

It wasn’t as bad as everyone was saying. The Rotten Tomatoes score was hovering around 14%. The plot was indecipherable, something about an evil group of “Party Poopers” trying to stop Nazi Barbie and her friends from throwing the greatest Nazi Party that could have ever been had. At least there were some character motivations, but each scene really seemed to set up another shameless corporate shill. I wanted to think about it all properly, but it was late and I was tired.

All I managed was to recall what I saw in the credits: Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Camille Paglia. “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift.