Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tangled Up In Clues

In a recent (excellently written) article byScott Warmuth, the issue of Dylan's alleged penchant for plaigarism has again risen its ugly head. (You can read the article here.) The most recent accusation is that many of the lyrics from Dylan's new album Modern Times were lifted from Henry Timrod, former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Confederacy. The previous accusation was that Dylan's Love and Theft borrowed heavily from a novel by Junichi Saga titled Confessions of a Yakuza. If you take a look at the evidence compiled against Dylan, the similarities are clear. If poor Bob were a student in one of my classes, no doubt I would have taken him down for attempting to pass off another's work as his own.

But (and this is the point that Warmuth makes so eloquently in his essay), is catching Dylan in some Theify McThiefery really the point of his music? Do we really expect from songwriters the same strict sense of original expression that we expect from other writers? Isn't one of the great things about great songs the fact that they hit something strangely familiar? Or, even better, that they make something familiar suddenly, strangely, unfamiliar or new? I think one would be hard-pressed to prove that Dylan has ever been a radically "original" songwriter-- something that can doubtlessly be said about any American-influenced musician. Isn't it true that what is great about American music the fact that it all somehow derives from blues, country, gospel, or folk? And aren't all those musical forms just combination and re-combinations of the same 3 or 4 chords? the same 5 or 6 themes? the same handful of human emotions?

In my view, what has always been truly great about Dylan's music is its cryptic, compelling, fascinating, and maddening references. How many of us went and looked up "John Wesley Harding" after that album came out, or "Rubin Carter" after hearing Dylan's "Hurricane"? Or followed any other countless number of clues that Dylan so brilliantly embeds in his songs? Why do you think Dylan fans--and I mean the truely hard-core Dylan fans-- pride themselves on an almost encyclopedic and purist knowledge of his work? Dylan's music opens up the world in ways that few great songs are able... I, for one, will no doubt find myself embarking on yet another sleuthing trip after discovering this new Dylan reference to the poet Timrod. And I won't mind a bit that Dylan picked another intellectual pocket to send me there....

Bringing sexy back to Memphis....

In lieu of another blog on the recent controversy surrounding Harld Ford, Jr.'s campaign (which I just can't bring myself to write about, it's so awful)... I've decided instead to bring some good news from Memphis. I was recently informed by a good friend of mine "inside" the entertainment industry, that Justin Timberlake is re-opening Stax! If you aren't familiar with the Stax label, it was one of the greatest sources of rhythm and soul music ever. Memphis, in a complete lapse of historical consciousness, tore down the Stax studios about ten years ago... but then rebuilt them in the course of an urban renewal project. There are a lot of old Stax musicians still around in Memphis--mostly session players to whom life has never paid their proper due--so the idea that someone (even Justin) is re-opening it is probably the best thing that has happened to the music industry since No Depression.

Unlike many, I am not skeptical of Timeberlake's musical influences. He may have been an Disney/Orlando product at first, but he's a Memphis boy. And Memphis people have good music in their blood, in their hearts, in their churches and homes and cars and waiting rooms and elevators and anywhere else that you can wire up a couple of tweeters and a bass speaker.

For those of you who are familiar with Stax, let me know your favorites. I have my own list, but there is an archive of Stax tunes so large that not many people can't find something new in it.

Long Live Memphis Rock and Soul!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Say it ain't so, Junior

Well, I've been prompted by my good friend Kyle to comment on the local politics of my hometown, Memphis. What a mess.

Unless you've had your head stuck in a hole, you no doubt recognize the young Senate-candidate from Tennessee to the right, Harold Ford, Jr. He is one of the up-and-coming stars of the Democratic Party... smart, moderate, politcally savvy and, perhaps most importantly, African-American. As has been repeated ad nauseum in the last few weeks, if Harld Ford Jr. gets elected to the Senate, he will be the first black U.S. Senator from the South since Reconstruction. And he will be one from a state that elected Bush over their own hometown boy, Gore, in the last election. And he will be from Memphis, one of the few majority-African-American metropolitan cities of the South. In sum, this is a big deal.

Ford, Jr.'s Republican opponent, Bob Corker, recently ran a commercial that featured not-so-subtle allusions to Ford, Jr.'s attendance at a "Playboy Party" during the Superbowl in Tampa last year. (Ford, Jr. is single, good-looking and has responded to most of the mudslinging about this incident with the comment "I like football and I like girls." Hey, who can argue with that?!) The catch is that Corker's ad also featured a blonde, floosy-ish, white woman feigning a phone call and saying (in a breathy, sultry voice) "Harold, call me." And that's where things get messy.

The Democrats have (in my view, rightly) protested that Corker's ad exploits deep-seeded white Southern fear of miscegenation. Ford is a black man, the floosy in the commercial is a white woman, and white Tennesseans who see it will inevitably succumb to their unconscious revulsion at the prospect of a black man "knowing" a white woman, in the Biblical sense. I don't know if I can add anything to this basic critique of the ad... it seems like an obvious attempt to revive an age-old practice of demonizing black males by sexualizing them.

I do have this bit of local knowledge to contribute: Memphis politics is, and has always been, racially charged. A few little-known-outside-of-Tennessee facts: (1) metropolitan Memphis is actually divided into two political domains: Memphis "city" politics (which is primarily African-American) and Shelby County politics (which is almost exclusively white) (2) the state of Tennessee, for the most part, would happily cut off Memphis from its custody and hand it over to Mississippi or Arkansas, largely as a result of the widespread opinion within Tennessee that Memphis is the only "black" area of the state. (3) the Ford family is itself a legend, and by "legend" I don't necessary mean famous, but infamous.

Poor, poor, Junior. He's always been fighting an uphill battle. And despite the fact that I am turned off by much of his social conservatism, I actually like the guy. I lived in his Congressional district while I was in Memphis, served him coffee at the small neighborhood cafe where I worked 4 or 5 times a week, spoke with him in an informal setting often, saw him at bars and concerts in Midtown more often, and found him to be a generally accessible, responsible, extremely smart and generally likable representative. But it is just a fact that, in Memphis, the very mention of the family "Ford" causes many people (especially those of the white, suburban persuasion) to revert to their basest sentiments. (Google the Memphis Fords... much of it is not a pretty story.) Junior has risen to power in spite of his family in many ways, though it is certainly true that he never would have gained his current prominence without the family name (and political power) behind him.

I think it is true that the Corker campaign ad is exploiting a regoinal/cultural weakness in Tennessee, and that should be criticized. But what makes it more complicated is the way in which it is also exploiting a very local form of prejudice, one that NPR and CNN don't seem to have the time or energy to expose, but which would be far more illuminating (in my view) about Southern politics. These still-latent prejudices are what Junior will really be battling in the next election, which are the sorts of things that might sway otherwise "liberal" whites to vote against him.

Ahhhhh, the Delta. It ain't easy.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Please, History, Don't Repeat Yourself...

I recently viewed the excellent documentary "The Fall of Fujimori" about Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori was elected President in 1992 on a populist platform, during a time when Peru was being sacked by both radical insurgent groups and abject poverty. As you can probably see from the photo (left), Fujimori's win was surprising, as he championed himself the "President of the People" while, literally, looking nothing like them. (During his administration, Peruvians often chanted "Viva El Chino!" and hailed him as "Our President the Chinaman.")

After being sworn into office, Fujimori declared an unremitting "war on terror" against two insurgent groups: The Shining Path (led by philosophy professor and communist revolutionary Abimael Guzman) and the MRTA (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement). Without recounting in detail a whole decade of Peruvian history, let me just say that Fujimori's "war on terror" quickly devolved into a terrorist regime of its own. The National Intelligence Service formed death squads to eliminate (what we would now call) "enemy combatants," bribed and puppeteered most of the Congress, effectivly eliminated civil rights and shut down most of Peru's free press. Fujimori even pronounced a "self-coup" at one point, rescinding the Constitution and "suspending" democracy until he could get the country under control.

I highly recommend the film, which really needs to be seen in full to appreciate the comparison that I want to make. But, let it suffice to say that the resonances between Fujimori's administration and our current U.S. administration are more than a bit disturbing. Recently, I've been writing on Derrida's claim (in Rogues) that we must always remember that "the alternative to democracy can always present itself as a democratic alternative." Derrida was, of course, referring to the "suspension" of democracy in Algeria, but the insight here is hardly limited to Algeria (or Peru). Deferrals of democracy or basic democratic practices, in the name of protecting democracy, ought to worry us.

The recent decision to limit the rights of habeas corpus (overturning the Hamdi v. Rumsfeld decision) is scary. Especially given the fact that we still do not know the necessary conditions for being declared an "enemy combatant." Maybe it's too late to plead that history not repeat itself...

[PS- If anyone has ever read the book Bel Canto, I think the hostage situation in an embassy that serves as the central plotline of that story is taken from a similar event during Fujimori's administration. Watch the film and you can't miss the similarities.]

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


[NOTE: I know all of my Greek-y friends are going to want to respond to this post with some elaborate explanation of logos. Please refrain. Please.]

About a month ago, my housemate began making fun of my various pretensions of expertise by attaching the suffix "-ologist" to whatever it was that I was talking about. For example, when I make suggestions on how to cook dinner, she says "Oh, I didn't realize you were a porkchopologist" or when I speculate on why she should change lanes during a drive, she says "I'm sorry, I forgot you were a highwayologist", etc., etc., ad nauseum. I thought this was just a quaint little joke that we had established in our relationship as a nice way of saying "stop acting like you know everything and let me handle this." But in the last couple of weeks, I have been literally bombarded with the "-ologist" formulation!

On "America's Next Top Model" last week, they had a photo shoot that involved stylists from the famed inner-city "hair-wars." These are men and women who hold fashion shows with the most elaborate hairstyles possible, sometimes involving three or more feet of style, fabricated models of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, sometimes even moving parts to the hair-design. But, the point is, when they introduced the hair stylists to the America's next-top-models, they introduced them as "weaveologists." (I'm not making this up.) Today, again, I was listening to an NPR story on the recent school shooting in an Amish community in central PA, and as they were discussing the motivations and pathologies of the shooter, who shot himself at the end of his attack, they referred to someone called a "suicideologist." There are other examples, but these are representative of the sort of stuff I've been hearing. Now, I know that sometimes we become attuned to certain things and start to hear/see/experience them everywhere simply because they have been raised to the level of conscious attention. But, really, when did everyone become an "-ologist"?

So, I've been wondering: what are the necessary conditions for claiming such a status? Is it the case that you can attach the "-ologist" suffix to anything that can be formulated as a noun? Are there any restrictions here?

Can you be an "ology-ologist"?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Death By Red Tape

I know that we all have our own horror stories of bureaucratic asphyxiation...but recently in my life, I have found myself increasingly strangled by red tape. I suspect that it may be a particularly pronounced struggle in academia--maybe politics is as bad, but it can't be much worse--and I've found my patience (and diplomacy) wearing very, VERY thin. Is it my imagination, or is it actually the case, that the more simple a task or decision is, the more maddeningly complicated it becomes when peppered with a little paperwork? I have found otherwise intelligent and humane people completely transform into automatons when they have to traverse the maze of bureaucracy. And it doesn't even require some huge monstrosity of an institution to effect this, which brings me to the following story...

A few years ago, when I was still living in Memphis, I drove through McDonald's one day to grab some lunch on a break and had one of the most absurd conversations of my life with the disembodied drive-thru voicebox. Here is a more-or-less accurate transcript:

VOICEBOX: "Welcome to McDonald's. Can I take your order?"
ME: "I'd like a number 2 meal, supersized please."
VB: "We can't supersize tonight."
ME: "Excuse me?"
VB: "We can't supersize tonight."
ME: "Uh... okay...well, can I get a number 2 meal with a large coke and a large fries?"
VB: "Okay. Anything else?"

[NOTE: You may remember that, when McD's still had the "supersize" option, that all it meant was that you were getting a large drink and fries with your meal instead of medium size. At this point in the conversation, I was, naturally, perplexed... and made the mistake of trying to clarify]

ME: "So you got that order? A number 2 with a large drink and fries?"
VB: "Yeah. Pull around."
ME: "So why can't I get it supersized?"
VB: "We can't supersize tonight."
ME: "But why not?"
VB: "Because we don't have any large lids."
ME: "But that's okay, I don't need a lid."
VB: "Well you didn't say you wanted it supersized without the lid."


My first thought was: yes, of course, she's right. I *didn't* say I wanted it supersized-without-the-lid. Nevermind that it never would have occurred to me that such an option was available, or that one should avail oneself of this option when confronted with the problem of there-being-no-supersizing-tonight. And nevermind that this didn't even begin to explain why it was that the voicebox had no problem at all with serving me a large drink (not ordered without-the-lid) on its own. No, in my mind, I realized that I had clearly made the mistake. The voicebox was right. There was an impeccable logic to it and I was defenseless, hungry, and wrong.

Maybe this is not a perfect example of bureaucracy or red tape... but the point is that every time I run into red tape, this is the conversation that I remember. It seems so eminently illustrative of the kind of logic one has to battle, the kind of frustration that is engendered by it, and the manner in which--no matter how much you may protest to the contrary--you will ALWAYS be wrong.

Thank you, and please drive around to the first window.