Archive for April, 2012

Music: More To Life Edition

April 24, 2012

tenth avenue north is heart-breakingly good




Review: Hellstrom’s Hive

April 18, 2012

Most people first encounter Herbert through Dune (and all the subsequent books), and some of them go on to read his other stuff. I guess that makes me some sort of bastard child, seeing as I did read some of the Dune books before this. But I read them in my (very) early teens, and don’t remember much of them. For sure, they were more entertainment than tomes bursting with ideas at the time.

Seeing other people’s high regard for Dune, I feel that I owe the books a revisit with the maturity and wisdom of age. But to be fair, Hellstrom’s Hive, even though it has been described as “right at the lowest point of [Herbert’s] form and it shows”, is still pretty good, notwithstanding the anachronisms to be expected of most sci-fi written during the cold war.

The novel focuses its attention on the core idea of a human hive society, built on the principles learnt from insects, and it delves deep into the implications of that idea. It is not a campy one-dimensional take on an alternative social structure; it weaves a careful investigation and thoughtful consideration of the alternative society with a decently paced plot that gets the reader to the finish.

The book takes time to delve into the perspectives of multiple characters, both inside and outside the Hive. By moving between both Hive perspective and motivations, and the all-too-human pawns and powerbrokers in the secretive government agency investigating it, the book forces the reader to consider competing models of social organisation.

The instinctive revulsion towards the de-individualisation (and, presumably, de-humanisation)of Hive life that the book provokes is balanced by an unsympathetic portrayal of uncaring bureaucracy. I found it impossible to cheer for either side; the greatest sympathy I could muster was for an individual pawn of the agency and his personal struggle in a world devolving into madness. The presence of human characters in the book forces the reader to confront not just the philosophical implications of the idea being discussed, but also to evaluate our gut reactions and to consider tangible consequences of ideology.

The book ends at a lull in the action, leaving the reader wondering about the fate of the world as the power of balance shifts. It may be unsatisfying, but it also forces the reader to decide what sort of ending he would prefer, and what that reflects of his worldview and his attitude towards the invisible social laws and forces of human life.

Seven-Second Hook

April 4, 2012

The New Yorker occasionally publishes some delightful long form articles, and they rarely fail to captivate. This is one of those. Be warned (if you missed the sentence right before this one), it is the sort of thing that internet users tend to instinctively navigate away from without half a glance, “tl;dr” flitting through the mind as chipmunk-sized attention spans compel the fingers to find the next three minute long video of funny cats; it would probably be worse if the default layout had the article on a single page. It is bad news for authors and essayists who want to be heard on the internet, but at least it means magazines and long-form print journalism will outlive newspapers for at least a little while yet.

Neatly segueing into a discussion about attention spans and appreciation for artistry in writing would be pointless if the reader has not actually read the linked article, so I exhort you to take a little time to read it (I promise, if you have the time to be reading this you have the time to read the article, unless you happen to be reading this as a distraction to put off working to meet a close deadline,  like, say, 4pm tomorrow).

Good, you’re back. Now we can talk about music. More precisely, about the pop which dominates the airwaves: the muzak backdrop of our daily routines that insinuates itself into the crevices of the subconscious, depositing persistent and poisonous tunes like an insidious virus.

Call me a counterculture hipster reflexively rejecting the mainstream , or prematurely aged and capable of only appreciating the music of my youth, I will regardless maintain that Party Rock Anthem is no Bohemian Rhapsody. Pop radio has become a rotation of smash hits produced by handful of songwriters like Ester Dean and producers like Stargate, performed by stars who possess the necessary ‘swag’. And the goal of that songwriting, of that production, of that performance, is not art but money.

“You can have two or three hot singles on an album, or no singles, and that’s the difference between selling five million copies worldwide and launching an eighty-date sold-out world tour, and selling two hundred thousand copies and having no tour. That’s like a twenty-million-dollar difference.”

-Tor Hermansen, Stargate

Like all other pop culture art forms, pop music is beholden to money.  With greater potential for mass recognition and huge earnings come more slavish devotion to fortune-generating smash hits. Large video game publishers have more or less settled on a model of gambling tens or hundreds of millions into a single make-or-break project and hoping for the next multi-billion dollar series such as Call of Duty or Mass Effect. The slightly more mature movie industry makes the same gamble (case in point: John Carter was likely an attempt at the next Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean); the difference is that studios are rich enough, awards important enough, and filmmakers are influential enough that blockbusters are used to subsidise directors who want to win something at Cannes.

Pop music is no different, because there is so much more money in it than there used to be. The advent of online digital music stores has shifted the business from the album-centric model back to the days of hit singles. Goodbye concept albums, and hello iTunes top ten. Without albums but with customers able and willing to pay for singles 99 cents at a time, the business is all about smash hits nowadays. And what better way to produce a smash hit than pandering to the masses and exploiting their psychology?

“I go into the booth and I scream and I sing and I yell, and sometimes it’s words but most time it’s not. And I just see when I get this little chill, here— and then I’m, like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook.’” 

-Ester Dean, songwriter

Ester Dean is a pop songwriter that does her best work when she is not writing; at least, not in the conventional sense. Her songwriting is not so much a putting of words in order, a conveyance of meaning, a missive from the author’s mind and soul. It is more akin to a spontaneous and irresistible urge to dance upon overhearing an infectious beat, or a passionate, furtive, kiss snatched from a stranger in the doorway of a club before hasty flight. It is a sensual craft, focusing on the ineffable primal reactions we all carry. It is the song that sticks in our head all day long, the bait that awakens the appetites within. It is feeling.

And such is the fate of all pop culture. To chase money is to chase broad appeal, and to chase appeal is to exploit the instincts deep within that humanity shares. It panders not to any kind of artistic taste or appreciation for beauty or wit, but to base needs, to what feels good. As the New Yorker puts it, “The words are more like vocalized beats than like lyrics, and they don’t communicate meaning so much as feeling and attitude—they nudge you closer to the ecstasy promised by the beat and the ‘rise’, or the ‘lift’, when the track builds to a climax.”

There is, however, reason not to despair. As Stargate ought to know, public opinion turns faster than any one person can hope to keep up with. Adele, with her much more sensible lyrics and sudden widespread success could mean the return of lyrics instead of words accompanying synthesised tunes designed to hook the listener. Nonetheless, the role of public opinion in shaping (popular) art is huge, and likely to keep growing. Like how videogames have splintered into money-spinning franchises and indie developers making art games, or movies into blockbuster sequels and Oscar hopefuls, music will diverge into pop and not-pop. Thank goodness that the not-pop of the day often finds itself part of a genre with its own set of dedicated fans.