Tune Time: October & November 2016

Here’s what I’ve been listening to for the past two months:

Bon Iver’s 22, A Million.

1. I was an extremely casual fan of Bon Iver before 22, A Million came out, but the YouTube lyric videos pulled me in. I knew enough about Justin Vernon to know that his music swirls in the indie folk genre, and that Kanye West is a big, big fan.

2. When this album first came out, there were people on my assorted timelines who were upset about it — it didn’t sound like old Bon Iver, and it was too weird to be wistful about. First of all, artists are allowed to experiment and grow just like the rest of us. Second of all, it takes a few minutes to actually listen to the record and reflect. You’ll find that he’s working with the same variations on the theme of loss — like the dissolution of a relationship, an identity crisis — and adding new sonic elements suggests an even more violent break from the past. I much prefer 22, A Million to the earlier Bon Iver albums, because it seems far more urgent, visceral and profound. This is what I love about music — that artists can evolve and make something new and exciting.

3. This album gives me both Walden Pond and Blade Runner vibes, with a little bit of a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy influence.

4. Vernon is an exceptional lyricist, and I like that the lyrics of this album are steeped in biblical imagery. One of my favorite lines is from “715 – CR∑∑KS”: “Honey, understand that I have been left here in the reeds / But all I’m trying to do is get my feet out from the crease.”

5. I love the stylized song names, and also the use of the OP-1. My favorite songs are “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” and “33 ‘GOD’.” I hope that Vernon has more to explore in this vein, and that there are some cut tracks floating around somewhere.

Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo.

1. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve tried to sit down and write something about Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, and I always come up short or turn my attention to something else. I went to a Saint Pablo tour concert in October — which was incredible and magical — and I thought that with the amount of time I’ve spent listening to this album that I finally needed to get some words out about it. The first ones are that it is not a perfect album, but it’s still a masterpiece.When people on the Internet say that this isn’t a “good” Kanye West album, I know that they didn’t really listen. (I know there’s been a lot about Kanye the celebrity in the media lately, and I hope he’s doing okay.)

2. For my senior capstone project, I wrote an essay about Yeezus. I argued that the album was his ontological exploration of being a producer of music while also being a product as a celebrity, meaning that he makes art at the same time the public is shaping a persona and perceptions about who “Kanye West” is. After listening to and dissecting The Life of Pablo, I think that argument still holds up extremely well. This album is an extension of his Yeezus meditations, and even more so one on his public persona. The questions he asks himself on this album are “Who is Kanye West?”, and “Can I separate a private sense of self from the public sense of self I’ve created and the world has created for me?”

3. Let’s talk about “No More Parties in LA,” for example. Kanye talks about spending all of his money at Louis Vuitton, matted-out sportscars and buying pink furs for his daughter — and how that’s supposed to inherently mean something important, that the money signifies status and getting on Kanye’s level is unattainable. But the hook is “no more parties in LA, please baby no more parties in LA,” suggesting that he doesn’t want to be around people who subscribe to this hollow lifestyle. When you couple that with the lyrics that suggest he’s just trying to be an artist (“I feel like Pablo when I’m workin on my shoes” and his borderline-paranoid lines about driving around in an armored car), there’s this murkiness he can’t seem to clear up. Does he want to have that wealth and fame, or was it this huge stunt that he can’t get out of without sacrificing the level of exposure his art has? Or is he just playing with the image of what the public thinks Kanye West is? These are the questions I ask myself with every listen.

4. Rap music will never fail to be fascinating to me, with the incredible artistry of wordplay and how each line is dense with at least two or three levels of references and callbacks. It is poetry.

5. The opening of “Father Stretch My Hands, Part 1” is what dreams are made of, and you have not lived until you’ve witnessed the transition from “I Love Kanye” to “Waves” in a stadium with your friends and 17,000 other people. “Ultralight Beam” is one of the most affecting songs I’ve heard in a long time. If you have not listened to this album, you need to before the year is over.

Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited

1. 2016 has been my year of Bob Dylan discovery, and I have really enjoyed digging into this part of American musical history at this particular cultural moment. It’s been cool to listen to the music and read the interviews that were published at the time and oral histories, and I’ve been trying to better understand just how seismic this music was. Anyway, shout out to Jeff Bezos and Amazon Prime music for having most of Dylan’s discography on demand for free. So far, my three favorite albums are Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited.

2. Before we go any further, we should probably talk about his Nobel Prize. Do I think he deserves it, based on his literary contributions? I do. Do I also think there are a lot of other people who maybe deserved the Nobel Prize for literature a little more? Absolutely. That is the extent of my opinion on Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize.

3. I love singing along with “But you’d better take your diamond ring, you better pawn it, babe” in “Like a Rolling Stone.” What a great metaphor in a song about security and materialism.

4. It would be beyond awesome to do a road trip of Route 61 while listening to this album. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has had that idea, and I doubt I will be the last.

5. My favorite tracks are “Tombstone Blues,” “Ballad Of A Thin Man” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” but any of the tracks from the three albums I mentioned are great starting points for getting into Dylan.

What have you been listening to lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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Link Party: 11/28-12/2

If you're in LA or near it, go see the Picasso and Rivera show at LACMA.

If you’re in LA or near it, go see the Picasso and Rivera show at LACMA. It’s beautiful. 

What I’ve read lately:

1. The film J.D. Salinger nearly made of “For Esme, With Love and Squalor.”

2. New York’s dying diner culture.

3. Confessions of an Instagram influencer.

4. FiveThirtyEight asked 8,500 people why they leave comments on the Internet.

5. Donald Crowhurst’s heartbreaking 1969 circumnavigation hoax.

And a bonus: Wes Anderson‘s Christmas ad for H&M.

Have a terrific week.

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What I Read: October & November 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. I liked the three-sentence reviews I wrote for August and September, so I’m going to do that again. Here’s what I read in October and November:

Joan Didion’s Where I Was From.

Every time I read a Joan Didion book, I’m blown away by her genius and skill. In this nonfiction essay collection about California, Didion works through the disconnect between the myths of California’s beginnings and its present-day reality, and how that has affected the perception of California and its people. It’s the perfect example of writing that centers on something extremely personal and contributes to a bigger picture in a measured and articulate way.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my new favorite author, and I highly recommend her work. Americanah is a beautiful love story, but it’s also about a woman finding her identity and voice — all while painting a rich portrait of Africa you don’t see very often. This novel will make for an incredible movie, if done carefully and right.

Francesca Block’s Weetzie Bat.

This is a delightful young adult novel about a woman living in a Shangri-La version of Los Angeles, and I wish I would have discovered when I was a teenager. It’s whimsical and mystical in that you have to suspend your disbelief on some plot elements, but it’s extremely serious and honest in its themes, especially sexuality. Would recommend to a precocious teenage girl who loves LA.

Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child.

The Story of the Lost Child is an incredible end to an incredible series about two women from Naples and how their lives intersect and diverge. Believe all of the hype you’ve ever seen or heard about Elena Ferrante or the Neapolitan Novels. This series is one of my favorites, and I’m so glad I spread the four-book series out over the year — it was much more satisfying that way.

John Steinbeck’s The Harvest Gypsies.

This collection of newspaper articles describing California migrant camp life in the 1930s expanded my tiny bit of knowledge about the Dust Bowl. It adds some dimension to Steinbeck in that you can recognize inspiration for his novels, but it’s not necessary Steinbeck reading. If you really want to read Steinbeck, you’re better off reading or rereading The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden or Of Mice and Men.

Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another.

Okay, so — I picked up this book because I wanted to learn more about Martha Gellhorn and who she was as a war journalist. But the more I read, the more uncomfortable I was with the racist and classist language she uses to describe the people she meets and the places she goes in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. I finished the book, but I would not recommend it.

Kevin Starr’s California: A History.

I’m embarking on a California reading project (more on that later), and this was the first history book I picked up — I found it on several must-reads-about-California lists. California provides a really good overview of state’s history from the European exploration efforts to the Schwarzenegger era, but I will say it moves extremely fast. It’s a good starter book, and it’s definitely inspired me to read more about my state’s incredible history and culture.

What have you read lately? Tell me about it in the comments.

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Link Party: 11/21-11/25

I got new bookshelves and I am living.

I got new bookshelves and I am living.

Here’s what I’ve read lately:

1. The hygge conspiracy and the year’s most overhyped trend.

2. Authenticity in the age of the fake.

3. Reflections on Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, 50 years later.

4. What was “random“?

5. The Moon Juice gospel of self.

And a bonus: Homecoming, the podcast.

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Link Party: 10/29-11/20

My favorite daily reminder.

My favorite daily reminder.

There hasn’t been much Link Partying around here lately. I need to fix that, and I promise to be more consistent in the last few weeks of 2016 and into 2017.

Here’s a party to last you all week. Take your pick:

1. An interview with Frank Ocean.

2. Zadie Smith on the dancers that inspire her. (I can’t wait to read Swing Time.)

3. An American journalist spends 10 years abroad and comes back to his homeland.

4. Hillary Clinton and the glass ceiling.

5. Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam‘s collaboration.

6. The barnacle queens of Galicia.

7. Instagram geotagging is ruining nature.

8. Yet another brilliant conversation with Elena Ferrante.

9. The wave of all-women art exhibitions.

10. The preserved shipwrecks in the Black Sea.

11. President Obama on his legacy and America’s future.

12. Behind the scenes at the Butterball turkey hotline.

Have a great week.

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Think Tank: About Last Week

"Abuse of power comes as no surprise," by Jenny Holzer. H/T Call Your Girlfriend.

“Abuse of power comes as no surprise,” by Jenny Holzer. H/T Call Your Girlfriend.

You know, there’s only one real way I’ll ever really be able to describe last week, Nov. 7-11, 2016. That week was a total dumpster fire, so vast in its width and depth that we can still see the orange glow of flames deep below the bags of trash on the surface. It’s like we threw the world into the dumpster, gathered up every highly flammable thing we possibly could, put it all in the biggest black bags we could find, doused the whole thing in gallons and gallons of gasoline and lit it with a blowtorch.

Depending on how you feel about the presidential election results in the United States, you may find that metaphor to be an understatement or an over-exaggeration. And that’s fine — I don’t really need your opinion to legitimize the way I feel about it. I’ve had a lot of conversations with my family and friends, and every day the shock of the results wears off a little bit. But I’m still sad, and I’m still angry, and I’m still worried. I’ve thought about writing this post for days, but wondered what contribution my opinion would make to the noise and if I could even effectively articulate it.

It’s taking me awhile to sort through all my feelings about my nationality and how the people of this country think about the concept of me, and I recognize my privilege as a white, heterosexual woman in that process. There are millions of people in this country whose lives have always been in much more danger, and this turn in our country’s history has made those lives even more precarious.

I’m extremely nervous about how the president-elect, his administration and the Republican-owned Congress will dismantle the progressive legislature and initiative in this country. But I’m more upset about something else. The vitriolic rhetoric of his campaign made ignorant white people think it’s okay to do and say hateful things about minority groups under the guise of making the country great again. America has never been great for everyone, with a history steeped in inequality and violence. From the very beginning, minority groups have been denied their rights and fought to their literal deaths for just the tiniest sliver of the so-called American dream. Relatedly, one of the things that has stuck with me the most from this election is this passage from a New Yorker article about Trump supporters (emphasis mine):

In the broadest sense, the Trump supporter might be best understood as a guy who wakes up one day in a lively, crowded house full of people, from a dream in which he was the only one living there, and then mistakes the dream for the past: a better time, manageable and orderly, during which privilege and respect came to him naturally, and he had the whole place to himself.

And for the white people who didn’t vote for him or didn’t vote at all, we’re still complicit in that behavior. I feel guilty about living in a liberal bubble, and not truly realizing how ubiquitous white supremacy really is in other parts of the country. I feel guilty about not making an active effort to canvass for my candidate. I feel guilty about not calling out the people I know who supported a racist, sexist and xenophobic candidate. I used to think I was a pretty informed person, but this election has made me realize I have so much more learning and work to do.

That’s more than just wearing a safety pin on my clothing, or getting caught up in this endless cycle of shared Facebook posts — which, by the way, is really just “performative” activism. I want to be a better advocate for the causes I believe in, and a better ally to marginalized groups whose lives are in incredible danger. I need to be more diligent at calling out racism, sexism and homophobia when I hear and see it. I must remember that social progress is a 24/7, 365 kind of deal beyond the markers of an election cycle.

So what do we do now?

All of us can stay informed about political issues, and pay more attention to our local and state elections. We should donate to the causes we believe in, whether that’s in the form of money or time. We must refuse the normalization of our president-elect’s language and past behavior, as well as the normalization of his supporters’ language and behavior. We need to make more space for people of color, the LGBTQ community and women in the political and cultural spheres, and treat their perspectives with dignity and respect. We have to support the dying investigative journalism industry that does such important work. And we will continue to make art for the voiceless, the disenfranchised and the past generations of people who fought for equality. You know this is an arts and culture blog, and I believe with my whole heart that art and the humanities will be our solace for the next few years.

And more than anything, we need to make sure that we’re also doing the support work in our private lives, and channeling our feelings into something productive. As someone who works in higher education, I now realize that it’s more important than ever to dutifully serve the students at my institution, and make them feel welcome and empowered.

It’s been absolutely incredible to see the visceral reactions people are having to the election results, and I hope we don’t lose the momentum or the power of those emotions. The future is scary and uncomfortable, but I am ready for the responsibility.

Toni Morrison, in a reflection after the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush, said:

I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, “How are you?” And instead of “Oh, fine—and you?”, I blurt out the truth: “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election….” I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: “No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”… There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

It’s time to get to work, and it’s time to put out that dumpster fire.

 

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Think Tank: The Future of Vine and the Internet

(This is still my favorite Vine.)

A few months ago, I wrote about Vine, the joy it brought to my life and its cultural significance — focused around its announcement that you could start posting longer videos. Vine is and was a gem of the Internet, and I am still floored by how six seconds of looping video can be so mesmerizing and hilarious in a way that speaks much deeper than traditional comedy ever could

When I first found out that Twitter, Vine’s parent company, was shutting the social network, I was pretty upset about it. My family can attest to that — I walked around the house saying “What am I gonna do without Vine?” for at least three or four days. But now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I’m actually really concerned about what Vine’s shutdown suggests about the future of the Internet.

It brings up important questions about the Internet’s permanence. 

The first thing we need to lay out is our understanding and expectation of how these social media networks fit in with our lives. It’s hard to think about a big company, like Facebook for example, ever leaving our cultural stratosphere. The pull is too strong, and billions of people use their products every day. But everything has some kind of expiration date, whether it’s brought on by a decline in usage or a pivot in company direction. The audience’s wants and needs is the most important component for longevity, but in theory the company can ignore the audience and discontinue their product. Vine showed that that was possible.

Companies like Facebook, Twitter, et al. are really only interested in one thing — monetizing their platform. They first get people to join under the guise that it’s easier to stay connected to people and informed about things they’re interested in, but after awhile the company has to figure out how make their platform profitable and grow their audience. Vine has had this problem from the very beginning. Six second looping video is pretty cool, but the platform did not offer monetization and had a hard time gaining larger user numbers.

But anyway, archiving the platform also costs money in the longterm. The Vine team at Twitter has said that while they’re shutting down the mobile app, the desktop version of Vine will still be available. In their press release on Medium, they said, “We’ll be keeping the website online because we think it’s important to still be able to watch all the incredible Vines that have been made. You will be notified before we make any changes to the app or website.”

I immediately have several questions. They didn’t specify an amount of time that they’d keep, so does that mean the desktop website will eventually come down? Will there be a searchable archive in perpetuity, and will access always be free?

What I’m most concerned about in this turn of events is whether or not Vine’s shutdown will set off a trend of this Internet erasure. Beyond being an entertainment depository, the Internet serves as a digital archive of information that everyone has the right to access — for scholarly purposes or otherwise. To all of a sudden say that the content, which was a cultural barometer for the millennial age group with unfathomable reach, won’t be available anymore because it costs too much isn’t fair. It’s like losing the library of Alexandria all over again, except that this time it’s in a dumpster fire.

You might be thinking, “Zoe, you’re reaching.” But I don’t feel all that bad about making that comparison. Let’s look at the “what are those” Vine, for example — “What are those” became a signifier that Vine users could understand and assign meaning to. They created variations that are pretty funny. It became a facet of a culture and several subcultures (see black youth culture) that will eventually be dissected and analyzed, in the same way people today recognize and trace the trajectory of “To be or not to be” from Hamlet.

The best case scenario, and I don’t know how feasible it would be, is that Twitter gives the database to the Library of Congress so that the Vines are recorded and accounted for. I read a headline this afternoon that suggested Twitter was open to selling Vine, but as far as I’m concerned the cultural damage has already been done.

This complicates the relationship between technology and art.

The art that lives on the Internet derives a lot of its context from its digital medium. You can interpret a carefully composed Instagram shot differently than you would a painted portrait hanging in a museum. You could use different analytical criteria for a poem written on Tumblr than what you’d use for a long epic published in a book, and a 140-character tweet may have different layers of nuance than a print story in the New York Times would. It’s what makes the Internet so interesting and wonderful — it’s the primary form of record in today’s world, and it helps us derive meaning from our daily lives.

But when you think about how much power technology has over our lives — what it can giveth, it can taketh away — it’s kind of scary that we’ve come to rely on it for our most intimate confessions and artistic expressions. What would we do if it all just evaporated?

The Vine shutdown also makes me reconsider both how I use the Internet as a creative outlet, and how I feel about Internet culture. I had never really thought about what it would mean for a part of the Internet to be nonexistent or inaccessible, and how that would affect its future shaping. Now when I look at a piece of Internet art, I’m hyperaware of its level of permanence and more appreciative of the fact that for now, our culture still has it to admire and understand.

Let’s have a conversation about this in the comments. What do you think?

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