Video Games

There’s too much media out there for anybody to keep track of. And considering how easy it is for amateurs to make music, there will always be way more music going on than anybody can know about. If you could distill all your musical likes and dislikes into a formula for the perfect band, the odds are in some basement or some garage somewhere, people are making something close. Unfortunately if you don’t do your own digging around you will probably never find it.

Commercial appeal in the music industry goes hand in hand with image. It’s hard to find famous musicians who aren’t sexy (or at least what passes for sexy these days). I can’t think of a contemporary musician with mass appeal who doesn’t cater to their audience with their image. A lot of the really huge musicians seem to exist only as an image, as their music is artless bullshit. The music is made to prop up the image, never mind if it’s completely repugnant and stupid.

Satellite radio is helpful because you have specialty channels and some eclectic shows. Finally a band like Can will reach some new ears. Even though Can made some of the most innovative rock music from 1968 into the 90s you’ll never hear them on Q107, Toronto’s idea of a terrestrial classic rock station. I heard Jenny Eliscu play Video Games by Lana Del Rey on Sirius XM Radio. Man, that voice! I don’t know why I was surprised when I looked her up and discovered what a foxy lady she is.

Lana Del Rey was blowing up just as her album was coming out. I saw that she was on the cover of Vogue UK. Then I read online that people were outraged such a new and untested performer would grace the cover of such a prestigious magazine. They didn’t use those words, but that was the message. The bit I was reading said that the cover of Vogue should be reserved for true icons like Madonna and Rihanna.

Then the haters came out in full force on Lana Del Rey. People were calling her fake, pointing out that she changed her name and developed this persona to sell records. A poorly-timed shaky performance on SNL seemed to get people riled up and message boards were cutting her to pieces. It’s as though people got mad at her for making her music.

This makes no sense. Any piece of art, be it music or film or whatever, adds to the sum total of human culture. A lot of it is very terrible and should be dismissed. Most of the music I hear on commercial radio is pure garbage. Sure, I’ll make fun of it among friends, but I take issue with very few of these musicians’ messages. I’m sure Rihanna’s “music” tests great in the pubescent demographics. I can’t take it, but I don’t wish her dead. I merely don’t care.

The Amorphous Woman

Obviously Madonna’s been at this game for a long time, but it seems to me that every major female star these days makes it a point to distinctly change looks every couple weeks. The major offenders off the top of my head are Rihanna, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and Lady Gaga. Madonna took a lot of flak for it but now it’s par for the course.

A large part of the appeal is the ‘wandering eye’ legacy of men. This stereotype is trumpeted by movies and TV constantly. It’s well documented that men respond to visual stimulation more than women. But all senses get bored, it’s a neurological fact. It’s an evolutionary development to give us a sense of normalcy; when we’re used to sensing something we notice it less. We’re all familiar with the idea of something hiding in plain sight.

To a record executive this means that their product should have constantly shifting packaging to keep the look fresh and new. So the perfect candidate is an empty shell of a woman with a pretty surface who takes orders. She’ll be everywoman for the consumers. She’s blonde, now redhead, now demure, now showing a tabloid cameraman she lost her underwear. From the record company’s point of view, it’s twenty for the price of one.

I’m glad Lana Del Rey has created this image. I dig it. Creating a persona seems an inevitable part of the game these days. And doesn’t she admit right off the bat she’s playing video games? The music is hit-and-miss, but she’s doing her thing and she’s compelling. The video she made for You Can Be the Boss is sexier than pornography. Don’t watch it with your mom, and don’t get too excited – she’s obviously talking to me.

Listen to the Music

Despite how much I enjoy watching that video over and over, I find the solution to frustrations like these are to shut my eyes and listen to the music. Am I in a puny minority because I’ll actually put on a record, sit, and listen to it? Without looking at TV or a computer, you can actually hear the music. Imagine that! What kind of weird world would it be if we judged musicians by their music?

It’s funny that nobody bats an eye at the idea of sitting for an hour to watch a TV drama, but sitting for 44 minutes to listen to an LP is somehow uncomfortable.

I don’t care how great a music video is, if the song isn’t compelling, it will fade into irrelevance behind all the music I actually enjoy. And even if a music video is a little uncomfortable and disturbing but the song is great, I’ll still push it on people in the hopes that they will listen to the music. Now go watch Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s new video for I See A Darkness. You could watch this with your mother, but she’ll think you’re weird.

Unconscious Dominoes

In 2010 Thomas Pynchon released Inherent Vice, one of his shortest, funniest novels. This was on the heels on his 1100-page sprawling masterwork Against The Day. Inherent Vice made me laugh out loud regularly, which is a feat novels rarely accomplish. It’s The Big Lebowski as written by Raymond Chandler. Lebowski, I know. It’s one of the funniest movies ever. But I realized that I had somehow never read Raymond Chandler.

I read The Big Sleep right away and was thoroughly impressed. Here was a guy who obviously discovered what he was meant to do.

Around that time I heard an interesting story about Freemasons. They had given some jewelry to one of their members, and when that member died, they asked for the jewelry back. I thought that was interesting. Who doesn’t love a good Freemason conspiracy-theory?

Shortly thereafter, I read a short story by Raymond Chandler called Pearls Are a Nuissance. It’s a classic Chandler first-person mystery. In the story a man tries to find a stolen string of pearls to impress his girlfriend. She asks him not to drink whiskey, but of course the case demands that he does. He gets more and more drunk as the story goes on and things get more and more hilarious. Chandler had me busting the proverbial gut, with gems like this:

 “A wise guy,” the fat man sneered again. “Down the hall, bud. Two-eighteen.” He waved a thumb the color and almost the size of a burnt baked potato.

A plan was forming in my mind even though I didn’t know it. When a few friends and I got together to experiment with a writing group, things aligned and I decided to write a short story based on these elements.

I decided I’d write a mystery in the first person about a piece of missing Masonic jewelry. This was intended as an experiment to get me writing in different styles, so I didn’t feel bad about loosely following the existing plot in Chandler’s story. But instead of whiskey, I went Lebowski’s route and had him smoking more and more cannabis.

Because I borrowed from Chandler’s original, I don’t intend to sell the story as my own. Instead I’m posting it here. Click below to download the PDF. Comments and criticisms welcome.

Freemasons Are a Drag

Enjoy.

 

 

 

Mind Kontrol

I’m naturally skeptical of people who flaunt democracy too much. It doesn’t really exist. Canada and America democratically vote for representatives, but that representative is given a lot of power because he or she has to expedite things. Real democracy is too time-consuming and impractical.

True democracy requires media. People need to know the issues if they’re to responsibly choose a policy. So a direct conduit of information is necessary from the government to the people. Hypothetically a government with an agenda can disseminate their message and emphasize, gloss over, and take advantage of margins of error, grey areas, and all my favorite buffer zones. Governments can simply deliver their form of the information.

Propaganda is effective because it’s unfortunately not that hard to condition behavior. So much of our personalities, so many of our beliefs and behaviors are conditioned that it’s impossible to know what a pure person, free of conditioning, should be.

Nazis got pretty good at it stirring up racial hatred. That was in the 30s and 40s. Think about how many more media outlets there are today. Consider that most arts and scientists progress with time, refining techniques and getting more effective through trial and error. Imagine how good governments might be at it now. When I hear American news stories about the Middle East or Islam I always have my guard up.

Nobody likes to feel manipulated. The more sophisticated you are about digesting information through media, the more you’ll notice manipulative messages. Overt messages might work on the mob mentality, but it’s more effective when the real message is subliminal. When people don’t notice they are being manipulated, they don’t erect any psychological self-defense mechanisms to prevent it.

The Canadian government has been running a propaganda campaign about drugs with ads on the subway and television. I personally find these ads offensive, and it’s a perfect example of how a government can deliver its propaganda. If you go to their website, drugsnot4me.ca, you can read about all the effects of illicit drugs. They mention paranoia, dizziness, distorted perception…but they never mention Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew or Revolver by The Beatles.

That’s not even what pisses me off. The commercial shows a young, pretty, brimming-with-potential-and-vitality, high school girl in her room. But then…the camera goes all weird because she takes drugs. Then she freaks out and takes her clothes out of her drawers! Then she puts on makeup badly! Then she cuts her hair! And by the end of the minute she’s a shriveled zombie. Besides the obnoxious fear-mongering, the commercial never even attempts to make clear what drugs they’re talking about. My guess is she’s ODing on Viagra.

I wonder how much this campaign cost, and where that money came from. Nicotine is a drug. Caffeine is a drug. What makes a drug one of the bad ones? Well, “health risk” obviously isn’t a factor because cigarettes would have to be illegal. So would alcohol. Actually, I believe cigarettes cause more deaths per year than all illegal drugs combined. Or is it alcohol? But I don’t get the impression their talking about legal drugs in these ads. On a hilarious side-note, Stats Canada apparently doesn’t track prescription drug-related deaths. That’s another figure I would be interested in. Maybe the government pays for this ad with all the tax money they make from the LCBO’s monopoly on liquor. (It’s fun to compare this anti-drug commercial to a beer commercial.)

The ads on the subway ask if I know where drugs will take me. I suppose I don’t. The people who made the ads don’t either, but they have some pretty strong feelings about it. I don’t like aspirin, but I do like coffee. Don’t tell me what I should or should not put into my own body. And I don’t like the idea of a municipal government deciding what goes in my drinking water. Big Governments have legalized aspartame and Acutane without any ideas about long-term effects. Where did that take them? Human suffering and class action lawsuits.

With so many outlets it’s tough to know who to trust. George W. Bush did win that election twelve years ago, right? There’s something to take from every media source, even if it’s just a better understanding of whose side that media source is on…plus it gives you a “fair and balanced” opinion.

Sometimes the hard truths come in the form of fiction. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell or Full Metal Jacket, directed by Stanley Kubrick.

“We turn off our minds for the same reason that we turn off our lights: we want to sleep in darkness.” – J. Mitchell Morse, The Underground Grammarian, Vol. 1, No. 9

Some Antics

 

Malign Sign

This road sign confuses me. Granted, I don’t speak French. But why is that Lego-haired Ukrainian gymnast lying there like that? My friend thought it was Janeane Garofolo in Spanx. It’s nice when a sign or symbol is unmistakeable from the idea it represents. But no symbol can ever be the thing it signifies. And our whole culture is semantic. Even language is symbolism – each word finds a resonance in the mental filing cabinets of the audience.

But our whole catalog of symbolic knowledge pertains only to what we experience (be it physically, mentally, emotionally, etc.). Language that pertains to what is outside of our experience sounds like noise to us. Try to imagine a modern banker explaining a mortgage to an ancient Native American.

“Bull market out there Little Feather.”

“Bull?”

Many things that seem fundamental to us are contained to our little sphere. North, South, East and West lose all meaning once you’re off the planet. So do the words “up” and “down”. Immanuel Kant thought even space and time were an a priori condition of our consciousness – meaning without a human mind, space and time don’t even exist.

Aliens would probably act in a way that seems like noise to us. They could be doing things right in front of us without our being able to see them, let alone talk to or be abducted and probed by them. Fortunately if that was the case, we might just seem like static electricity to them.

It’s very loud out there in the world. In the cacophony of news, street signs, iPhones, OnStar, TV, and our own ongoing inner monologues, it’s a good idea once in a while to detach from all maps and symbols. That way the programs running through our heads don’t condition our perceptions of reality. (There’s a reason they call them television programs.) Sometimes to get back to tabula rasa you’ve got to blow your mind.

 

That’s why the band Spiritualized exists. And as a symbol, the name says it all. Click the “Huh?” to read about their new album and hear the track “Hey Jane”. I was fortunate to see them play the Phoenix Concert Hall in Toronto this weekend and the show was golden. I brought home the new double LP (on silky white vinyl) and I’ve enjoyed it at neighbour-scaring volumes a couple times so far.

It’s nice to look up from the map to see the beautiful countryside.

 

Schmexperts

There is no such thing as an expert on everything. An expert is a specialist. When I need highly specialized work done, I’ll go to experts in that field because nobody knows it like they do. But specialists can be blind to how their discipline integrates with other disciplines in the world around them. Raymond Chandler, in his essay The Simple Art of Murder, talks about specialization in detective novels.

If you know all you should know about ceramics and Egyptian needlework, you don’t know anything at all about the police. If you know that platinum won’t melt under about 3000° F. by itself, but will melt at the glance of a pair of deep blue eyes if you put it near a bar of lead, then you don’t know how men make love in the twentieth century.

Obviously any given expert has a lot to teach about their interests. But narrowing perception to a single topic can obscure the bigger picture. And when we think of people as authorities, it’s easy to be misled. We spend our whole youth being told what to think by teachers, and we learn that school goes smoothly if we accept what is told unquestioningly. But teachers are fallible. Think of the people you went to high school with. Now think about some of them teaching your kids. Breathe deeply.

I once read a book by Clifford Pickover called Sex, Drugs, Einstein & Elves. Pickover is widely published on the topics of science, art, creativity, religion, and many of my other favorite topics, so I gave him a shot. Did I mention he has a lot of patents as well? He’s a pretty knowledgeable guy. An expert, even. So why did I find his book so irritating?

Pickover covers a wide array of topics in this book, each of them superficially, like he’s name-dropping. He admits to an ADHD-like tendency to wander through topics, though he never gets tired of telling us he has read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (a 1.5 million-word novel). He speculates repeatedly on fugu sushi. He talks about Terence McKenna’s experiments with DMT, a psychoactive compound, and goes on to describe how this drug can show the user a marvelous world populated with intelligent entities called “machine elves”. It felt like he was trying to sell me an image.

It comes out that Pickover has never done the drug and is apparently afraid to try it. So why is he writing about it? He brings nothing to the subject not covered in McKenna’s books, then writes that taking the drug might make him too smart. Shouldn’t he be directing people to real experts on the subject?

Pickover then gets this utopian idea about an intellectual co-operative where people could hang out, have pretentious conversations, and eat possibly-lethal sushi together without being judged by the dumb people of the world. He says the first criteria for entry into this club is to be published. So…Socrates and Jesus, you’re out. Clifford Pickover and Hitler, you will find the fugu right next to the ayahuasca.

Then it hit me. Pickover is an expert at being published. It is irrelevant that the content is questionable. And I don’t mean to pick on him exclusively because he’s obviously prolific and thoughtful. It just so happens that his book stands out in my mind as a great/terrible example. Maybe it was a temporary ego trip. That can happen when people treat you like an authority.

A major problem with the title of “expert” is that conventionally the experts are unquestionable. Stephen Hawking has definitive ideas about the beginning of the universe. The Big Bang was caused by quantum fluctuations, there is no God, etcetera. Though he’s one of the most well respected scientist in the world, I don’t believe him.

Naturally, our thoughts go something like this: “Well Eric, Stephen Hawking operates at a level of genius so far above yours that you couldn’t possibly understand all the quantum and cosmological nuance that go into his expertly-formed opinion.”

This is similar to what the Catholic Church used to say. Don’t question us – we’re the experts. Unfortunately, those experts burned people alive and went on the Crusades. Following dogma leads to expertise at following dogma, which relieves people of having to think for themselves. Experience and intelligence gives us authority to talk about a subject, not books read or credentials accumulated.

It was financial experts who stole billions from the taxpayers of America. This isn’t new; experts have been swindling the world for most of recorded history. It was experts who put Jersey Shore on television. Experts told us the security of the world relied on the U.S. invading Iraq to find WMDs. Sometimes I think there’s a conscious play to make heroes of idiots in order to lower our standards.

Naturally this applies to myself as well. Don’t believe anything I say. If it makes sense to you then either it’s right or we both need a major adjustment. Grains of salt for everyone.