Monday, March 28, 2011

Live Forever. The Rise and Fall of Brit Pop - John Dower

Brit Pop was my first window to popular culture. I liked it so much that I grew up believing that the United Kingdom was a sunny place where everyone was happy, optimistic, and full of enthusiasm. Time would teach me better. Let’s be under no illusion: the United Kingdom is a gray, rainy, and cold place with little social mobility. I eventually realized that songs like “Live Forever” are in fact aspirational anthems against a boring life with no future.

Live Forever. The Rise and Fall of Brit Pop is a 2002 BBC documentary that describes the years between 1990 and 1997, which is, according to the director, the year when Brit Pop died. In that year, Oasis issued Be Here Now and Princess Diana died. Throughout the movie, Brit Pop is presented as a spontaneous reaction against the Thatcher years which was co-opted by Tony Blair. From that perspective, Noel Gallagher is the betrayer who compromised the movement's ideals. The movie requires the viewer to be aware of some glorious moments of British culture, like when Liam Gallagher appeared on Vanity Fair’s cover. The documentary is hard to follow sometimes, since it does not have a narrator: the viewer only gets to see fragments of interviews with people without any introduction or anything.

But the biggest problem of this documentary is that it was filmed too early. If we believe in the idea that New Labour and Brit Pop were linked, then the latter died when either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown left Downing Street, not before. Granted, with the death of Diana the world re-discover that monarchies are ruthless and ossified. And Be Here Now might have been a bad album (I personally do not think so, but let’s assume it is for the argument’s sake), but other bands pretended to sound like Oasis after that, and even Oasis eventually sounded like What’s the Story again. The Crown’s reaction to the death of Diana was only the first deception of a generation that believed in the promise that we could ignore how our friends’ gardens grow. After Diana, came the support to the War in Iraq and the saving of the big banks. And Blair passed from being Bambi to Bliar.

In retrospective, it is now evident that the legitimacy of New Labour rested upon the following bargain: in the first place, the government closed one eye to the excesses of the City bankers as long as they paid enough taxes to keep the social programs running. The other side of the agreement was that the social programs would not create human capital or enhance productivity. Like in the rest of Europe, the British state has decided to maintain an underclass of people who make more money by being unemployed and receiving their unemployment benefits than working. In Cool Britannia, it is easier to sell the idea that any guys’ band can become rock ‘n’ roll stars and make money than telling them that their life will not be better than their parents’.

Labour left office a couple of months after Oasis announced its split. The sound-like-the-Beatles formula is exhausted, just like the idea that big taxes and generous social programs compensate for the lack of regulation. The United Kingdom is broke and its prospects are dim: the dullness and frustration of the Thatcher year will stay here for a long time after 15 years of partying. Things like Britain’s Got Talent just make the landscape even more depressing. 

Sorry for the kids.

We had a good time.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Keys to the World - Richard Ashcroft

Keys to the World is Richard Ashcroft's third studio album. Contrary to what happened to his first two solo albums, Keys to the World was well received by the critique. I really don't like it. I think that in Keys to the World, Ashcroft just repeats what he did in his previous solo albums in the best scenarios, and in the worst ones,  he just sounds like S Club 7. Richard Ashcroft failed to perform every artist's duty: betraying his public.

There's simply no point of comparison between The Verve's first albums and Ashcroft recent material. In almost 20 years, the concept of Cool Britannia was displaced by Londonistan and, more recently, Reykjavik-on-Thames. Ashcroft had children, so I guess that it's just natural that his music moves from drugs to love, from distorted guitars to melodic keyboards.

But then, is it valid that a singer keeps performing forever? Wouldn't it be more honest to simply retire and produce younger artists, or write poems, or something like that? By trying to remain within their style and repeat it endlessly, some artists just betray the memories of their fans.

There's one song that I like, though: it's called "Keys to the World". Here's the live version:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Buena Vista Social Club - Wim Wenders

Although six of the original members of Buena Vista Social Club have died since the band’s Grammy winning album was recorded, the band still tours around the world. This has taken some critics to say that Buena Vista is a brand more than a band. In reality, Buena Vista Social Club was always a brand (actually Ry Cooder’s), which brought Cuban son to the United States and Europe. Cooder has found a market niche in World music: his most recent offspring is a fusion of Irish and Mexican traditional music.

In the case of Buena Vista, Cooder gathered all the musicians (some of them were famous before Buena Vista; others were not), did all the promotion, and eventually took Wim Wenders to film the documentary about the band’s members and their performances in Amsterdam and New York.

 After the album and the film, Cuba’s tourism industry grew exponentially and, from what I have heard, you can find 50,000 bands (probably 5,000,000) in the streets of La Havana who play the same songs as Buena Vista. In a way, Cooder and Wenders have done more for Cuba’s tourism industry than anything else.

Cooder and Wenders has been criticized for showing just a part of Cuban folklore, making the Batista years looking like a golden age, and for commercializing Cuban music and making money. Probably they are, indeed, evil people, but even if they are, I am still of the view that the World is better off after re-discovering Cuban music. Probably there are 5 thousands (or even billions) musicians as good as (or probably better than) Ibrahim Ferrer or Rubén González, but we would not ask ourselves these questions without Buena Vista.  Those who are interested in the answer will always be able to go to Cuba and figure it out.

With the exception of the scene where González is playing in a children gymnasium, Wender’s documentary is awful: the handy-cam that records the scenes in La Havana never stops moving and the voices of the band members when they tell their stories interfere with the music. I do not know how to solve that, I just know that I did not like it.

But anyway, here is the trailer:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd

There will be no bands like Pink Floyd. Ever.

MP3 killed the idea of seeing music as a self-containing concept. Now, it's all about releasing a single, make some millions, open a bank account and pay whores with the interests earned.

And I will not post any videos when I post Pink Floyd. Just buy the albums.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Shower - Zhang Yang

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. As China is experiencing, modernization has human and social costs. Shower is a drama/comedy that shows how the relentless pace of progress impacts people’s day to day lives.

Da Ming is a successful businessman who lives in Shenzhen. After receiving a letter from Er Ming, his mentally challenged brother, Da Ming goes back to Beijing after a long absence.  Old Liu (Da Ming’s and Er Ming’s father) is the owner of a bathhouse in a popular neighborhood. Most of the attendants to the bathhouse are elders who have known Old Liu for years and have developed close ties with him. The bathhouse and the neighborhood are about to be demolished by the government (probably to build the Beijing 2008 facilities?). As the threat of demolition materializes, the characters also see how their traditional lives fade away. Two friends who organize crickets’ fights see all their insects dying.  

The film is as critical of the Chinese government as a Chinese film can be: the characters are sad for the destruction of their lives, but they see the process as inevitable.

Since Oliver Twist was published, we know that economic progress is a painful process where some fail and other succeed. Once a country enters into a modernization path, people like to tell how the old world is falling apart: I guess that the negative reactions to modernity are normal: after all, the past is a really comfortable place, while the future is full of uncertainty.

Eventually, countries “graduate” and attain some degree of modernity. China’s case is particularly interesting to watch because it has a tremendous potential to destabilize the World if the discontents of modernization engage into violent activities. The Maoist legacy is dormant but may not have disappeared. As of today, China is growing at an annualized average rate or 10% per year. This is enough to keep people relatively satisfied despite of the losses of some sectors of society, and to buy out groups of interest that can agitate the masses. The people who show the human side of the economic losers, are still a minority and their audience is composed mostly by intellectuals.

But crises happen, and nothing guarantees that China will grow dramatically until it reaches the standard of living of a poor OECD country (Mexico, Turkey, Chile, etc). In fact, given the inherent instability of the capitalist World economy, the most likely scenario is that China will suffer a big crisis in the next years 20 - 50 years, undermining the standards of living of the people who have benefited from economic growth so far. When that happens, the audience of movies like Shower will grow, the buy-out process of the Maoist dinosaurs will be harder, and eventually discontent will arise.

Something similar happened in Mexico in the 1990s and is taking place now in Brazil: accelerated economic growth allows reformist governments to buy out pressure groups nostalgic of the revolutionary past. But when bad times come (and they always do), governments lose legitimacy and leverage to placate pressure groups.

It is not easy to say how the Chinese government will react to an uprising by the discontents of modernization. On the one hand, it is clear that the Chinese political system is not democratic. On the other hand, there is evidence that the Chinese government tends to overreact when there is popular discontent (see the case of the Japanese fishermen), precisely because the democratic communication channels between the population and its leaders are non-existent.

That is a question for the future. In the meantime, the trailer of Shower is here:

And you can watch the entire film (highly recommended) here

Saturday, March 5, 2011

El Diablo - Giovanni Papini

(…) es lícito creer que una de las consecuencias de ese fin será también el final de la rebelión, o sea el feliz retorno de Satanás y de los suyos al esplendor de la eternidad.
-Giovanni Papini

Giovanni Papini fue un escritor fascista italiano que vivió durante la primera mitad del siglo XX. Sus dos libros más importantes son Gog y El Libro Negro, que presentan las anotaciones del diario de Mr. Gog, un excéntrico millonario que tiene encuentros y conversaciones con los personajes más influyentes y famosos  del mundo. Las descripciones y caracterizaciones de los personajes hechas por Gog son tan reales que, en algún momento, el lector duda si es un personaje de la imaginación o un hombre de carne y hueso.

Como la palabra fascista genera miedo, Papini ha pasado al olvido histórico, cosa que es una lástima. Sus textos arrojarían mucha luz sobre los vínculos intelectuales entre el catolicismo y el fascismo. Su Historia de Cristo, un panegírico descafeinado de los Evangelios publicado poco después de la Primera Guerra Mundial, cierra con una devotísima oración a dios pidiéndole por el establecimiento de una paz eterna donde reinen los valores cristianos y se eliminen los vicios que llevaron a Europa al conflicto más grande vivido hasta entonces. Los parecidos con las ofertas políticas y sociales de Mussolini no son coincidencia.

Papini está prácticamente olvidado gracias al pacifismo y al buenismo analfabetas, hijos de lo políticamente correcto, que creen que los males del mundo pueden desaparecer si los dejamos de nombrar. España es quizá el país más afectado por este deseo colectivo de ser analfabeta, como bien señala (y combate) Arturo Pérez Reverte en artículos como este.

Papini escribió El Diablo hacia el final de su vida. En él, Papini señala como producto del diablo, entre otros, a los siguientes personajes y acciones: volar en avión, la ciencia, las mujeres (todas), Paganini, Sartre, Lord Byron, John Dos Passos, Verlaine, Francia (es en serio), y un montón de cosas más. Como cualquier persona que crea lo que dice la Iglesia Católica, Papini detesta todo lo que huela a progreso.

Desde un punto de vista teológico, Papini reivindica la teología de Orígenes, según la cual dios, al ser amor infinito, terminará perdonando al diablo. (En este momento, y a fin de aumentar el morbo de mis lectores, quizá sea conveniente destacar que Orígenes se castró porque eso le pareció que decía un pasaje de la Biblia. La historia de la castración de Orígenes no está en Wikipedia, pero sí en este link)

Obviamente, la idea de un dios que sea todo amor no le gustó a la curia católica, que siempre ha tenido la idea de que dios es justicia infinita.

La discusión sobre la prevalencia de la bondad o la justicia de dios muestra que discutir sobre él no tiene sentido. Los hombres no podemos reconciliar la idea de justicia infinita con la de bondad infinita. Va más allá de nuestra capacidad. No obstante, asumiendo que dios exista, y que sea algo parecido a la idea que la mayoría de las religiones tienen de él (un ser superior que todo lo puede), él sería capaz de reconciliar los dos conceptos de formas que van más allá de nuestro entendimiento.

Pero entonces, la teología  pierde todo valor; el ejercicio de meditar sobre dios se revela vano e inútil. Quizá por eso a ningún teólogo le gusta lo que escribí en el párrafo anterior… (tienen que comer de algo)

Papini también dice que Berlioz es producto del diablo por escribir una ópera basada en el mito de Fausto: 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Live Licks - The Rolling Stones

From the booklet:

"The Rolling Stones once again redefined the rules of rock n'roll on their 'Licks' 2002/03 World Tour - a tour of 'firsts' that traversed four continents and spanned fourteen months.

It was the first time the band had created and produced a world tour that concurrently mounted three dramatically different shows - a concept which presented fans with the opportunity to experience the Stones in the intimate environs of a club, in an arena, and in the colossal spectacle of a stadium. It was the first time that audiences had heard the Stones play dozens of songs live - songs that ran the gamut from hits and classic b-sides to lesser known album cuts and covers - showcased by the band in diverse lists throughout the tour. It was also the first time ever that the Rolling Stones stepped onto a stage in India.

The 'Licks' tour was the perfect showcase for the Stones music - music made in jumpin' little joints and under blankets of stars - for audiences around the globe."

There was a controversy about the cover of Live Licks. A topless cartoon was too explicit for the US, so the American version of the album shows a girl on bikini, making the day of collectionneurs and of Virgin Records.

Fortunately, MP3 music will allow God-fearing Americans to stop worrying about covers and focus on censoring songs based on their lyrics instead.

Let's not become their beasts of burden: