Quote of the day: OPTIMISM

November 8, 2022

OPTIMISM

An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

–Howard Zinn


Quote of the day: UGLY TRUTHS

October 20, 2022

UGLY TRUTHS

Why has the big lie stuck? Maybe it’s because Donald Trump made it appear more plausible by attaching it to a truth. And that truth, for the blue-collar white men among his base, is a powerful sense of loss, suggested by the last word in the slogan Make America Great Again. Red and blue states increasingly represent two economies, with Republicans turning more toward agriculture, extraction and manufacturing, and Democrats toward high-tech and professional services. The gap between them is widening: Between 2008 and 2018, the nation’s Democratic congressional districts saw median household income rise to $61,000 from $54,000, while incomes in Republican districts fell to $53,000 from $55,000. They have suffered other losses too; white men living in Republican counties have higher death rates than white men living in Democratic counties, and the gap between those rates increased more than sixfold from 2001 to 2019. Poor rural white Americans also report less optimism about the future than do equally poor Black or Hispanic ones.

From “loss” Trump has moved the emotional needle to “stolen.” The right to work and remain maskless during a pandemic, stolen. Story of heroic America, stolen. Statues, stolen. Culture, stolen. White power, stolen. Old-time manhood, stolen. Election, stolen. With “stolen,” as opposed to the more circumstantial “loss,” it’s much easier to assign blame. For the stolen election: the deep state, RINOs, Democrats. For stolen white livelihoods: China, immigrants, minorities. And one thing more, many MAGA enthusiasts say to themselves: Donald Trump will save us. The Democrats are preventing Trump from saving us. He is being stolen from us. And Trump has moved the needle from “stolen” to “steal me back”….

Whether a grievance, or a promise, is based on fact can come to feel beside the point. A former coal miner in an Appalachian county where 80 percent voted for Trump in 2020 told me he had recently gotten back on his feet after losing his job and falling into drugs. “When Donald Trump came to town in 2016, he told us he was going to bring back coal,” he said. “I knew Trump was telling me a lie. But I felt like he saw who I was.” The storm is here, Mogelson’s important book warns us, in the threat of public violence and at the ballot box. It’s here because a loss has for too long gone unrecognized, and because a lie that ties itself to this loss can feel more compelling to some than a truth that ignores it.

–Arlie Russell Hochschild, reviewing Luke Mogelson’s The Storm Is Here in the New York Times Book Review


Quote of the day: Bob Dylan on Frank Sinatra

October 18, 2022

SINATRA

By the time Frank Sinatra stepped into the studio to record “Strangers in the Night” on April 11, 1966, he had already been singing professionally for thirty-one years and recording since 1939. He had seen trends come and go in popular music and had, in fact, set trends himself and spawned scores of imitators for decades.

Still, it was amazing that the soundtrack of the summer of 1966, according to the July 2 edition of the Billboard Hot 100, was topped by that little pop song. Amazingly, in the middle of the British Invasion, “Strangers in the Night” by Hoboken’s own beat out the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” and the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” Today, the charts are so stratified and niche marketed, you would never see something like this happen. Nowadays, everyone stays in their own lane, guaranteeing themselves top honors in their own category even if that category is something like Top Klezmer Vocal Performance on a Heavy Metal Soundtrack Including Americana Samples.

But Frank had to slug it out with everybody, even though “Strangers” was a song he hated, one that he regularly dismissed as “a piece of shit”…[He] may have hated the song, but the fact of the matter is, he chose it. And therein lies a tale. By the time we had heard “Strangers in the Night,” it had gone through at least two sets of lyrics and a few people had already laid claim to its authorship. It’s a confusing tale that spans a couple of continents…

And as far as I know, no one has ever contested the writing of Frank’s hit from the following year, “Somethin’ Stupid,” though it is worth mentioning that it was written by Van Dyke Parks’s older brother Carson.

–Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song


Culture Vulture/Performance Diary: Queer Black Artists, Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul, Arooj Aftab, THE AFRICAN DESPERATE, Machine Dazzle, and more

September 29, 2022

The fall season kicked in big-time last week.

Sunday: I swear the New York Times’ fashion supplement T Magazine under Hanya Yanagihara’s editorship has more overt gay coverage than the Advocate does. This week’s cover story feature on young, queer black artists under 40 grew out of photographer Shikeith’s despire to pay tribute to Marlon Riggs’s groundbreaking 1989 documentary Tongues Untied, a beautifully poetic celebration of black gay male culture. The T Magazine event had several facets to it, beginning in Red Hook on August 1 with one of those history-making photo shoots gathering 24 artists in one place.

serpentwithfeet, Jacolby Satterwhite, Tune Olaniran, Troy Montez Michie, and Texas Isaiah, photo by Shikeith

The following day, five of them sat down with journalist Emil Wilbekin for a free-ranging conversation. Adam Pendleton, who recently had a splashy show in the atrium at MOMA, spoke directly to the discomfort many artists feel about having a minority-status adjective (black, queer, female, etc.) attached like a label to their work:

Adjectives are terrible, but generosity and legibility are important. And what I mean by that is: A project like this is almost a double-edged sword, in the sense that any instance where you’re identified is a terrible moment, actually. When you’re claimed as something — when you’re named as something — that’s not necessarily a moment of celebration or liberation. And that’s kind of what this being released into the world will mark. It’s funny because I actually never thought about any of this, so when you keep saying “Black,” “queer” — that’s not the language I used when I thought about myself as an artist. I was just like, “I’m an artist.” That was it.

I totally respect that apprehension, AND I will say for myself that I came out in the first post-Stonewall wave of gay liberation, and for me it has always been exciting when artists identify as gay or queer. It always makes me a little more interested in them. Not because I assume they will conform to some idea of what gay or queer art looks like — just the opposite. I’m thrilled to encounter yet another example of how rich and different and multifaceted queer art can be. So while this T Magazine feature included a few artists I already knew about (Jeremy O. Harris, Brontez Purnell, Jacolby Satterwhite, serpentwithfeet, Jaquel Spivey, and Ato Blankson-Wood, in addition to Pendleton), I now have a bunch more queer black brothers – poets, actors, musicians, designers, and visual artists — whose work I’m curious to investigate. I actively want to know what they have to say about beauty and desire, gender and politics, love and life. The names: Don Christina Jones, Abdu Ali, Jonathan Lydon Chase, Miles Greenberg, Devan Shimoyama, Hugh Hayden, Saeed Jones, Jonathan Gardenhire, Danez Smith, Clifford Prince King, Eric N. Mack, Edwin Thompson, D’Angelo Lovell William, Tunde Olaniran, Troy Montes Michie, and Texas Isaiah.

You can read an extended version of the conversation online here.

Hilarious side note: Leon Curry curated a Spotify playlist that provided the soundtrack for the photo shoot, and the T article includes a link. But the trap-heavy playlist has been thoroughly scrubbed of curse words, and the result is that some tracks make no sense at all because of the frequent dropouts that interfere with sound, sense, and flow.

Monday: The title and the structure of The Nipple Whisperer by the mononymous Lui suggests that the book is a step-by-step guide to cultivating nipple eroticism. It is that, but it is also a lot more. It is ultimately a stealth manual for sacred intimates.

The author has carefully surveyed key encounters with clients and lovers, and he shares with readers his trial-and-error experiments in sexual healing with a huge amount of grace, wisdom, and excellent writing.

Tuesday night: Touring the US for the first time, the Belgian synth-pop duo Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul took Bowery Ballroom by storm. Their debut album, Topical Dancer, dropped earlier this year – fun, effervescent, quirky, playfully political.

Best demonstration: “Blenda,” a hot hot groove (Bolis is the one-man band) while she sings, “Go back to the country where you belong/Siri, will you tell me where I belong?” In performance, they’re energetic and physically unafraid.

For their last number, they both jumped off the stage and cut a Soul Train swatch through the audience, communing and boogeying down with the ecstatic crowd. (Their next gig is at a festival in Bentonville, Arkansas!) Our posse of Body Electricians met beforehand for a drink and a bite at Loreley Beer Garden, and we took a stroll down Freeman Alley checking out the ever-changing artwork.

Wednesday: MUBI subscribers get free admission to one indie-film-in-need-of-an-audience every week. This time it was The African Desperate by Martine Syms at the Quad, a very smart, edgy portrait of a black female artist’s last 24 hours in an MFA program at a rural upstate New York campus (filmed at Bard). It opens with Palace Bryant (a brave performance by Diamond Stingily) sitting for a final studio visit with her four white faculty advisors, each with their own brand of excruciating micro-aggressiveness. As she packs up for home in Chicago and navigates stolidly ambivalent farewell partying with her classmates, frenemies, and gender-fluid flirtations, the name-checking of art theoreticians flows as freely as the party drugs.

Syms gives herself a huge amount of freedom to play with the kind of jump cuts, layering, and sound games you’re more used to encountering in music videos and TikToks than in feature films, not unlike, say, Janicza Bravo’s Twitter-inspired Zola or Michaela Coel’s mini-series I May Destroy You. (Although didn’t the recently departed Jean-Luc Godard do all of that first?) I’m not the only person who referenced Gaspar Noë’s Climax during some of the extended, chaotic, nerve-wracking sex-and-drugs sequences. One of the quirks that cracked me up was when friends would be sitting around dishing other people and the soundtrack would blank out the names, as if they were blind items in a gossip column. Speaking of soundtracks, you can listen to the music from The African Desperate on Spotify here.

Thursday: Someone at the Metropolitan Museum’s Live Arts department had the inspired idea of inviting Aroof Aftab, the sublime queer Pakistani Grammy-winning singer, to perform at the Temple of Dendur. Taking the stage, Aftab declared this was the most epic performance the group had ever played, which is saying something because she’s been touring (a lot of festivals) continuously since the release last year of her sublime album Vulture Prince.

She’s an incredible singer in the ghazal tradition, which conveys fragments of poetry in long slow exquisite lines without being show-offy. But she also has a wonderful dry sense of humor. She noted that people tend to classify her music as sacred because so much of it is slow, somber, soulful. But she specifically included one song in English on her album (taken from a Rumi poem, its entire text goes “Last night my beloved was like the moon/So beautiful”) to indicate that all the songs she sings are about being intoxicated and unhappy in love.

After opening the show with the album’s gorgeous first song, “Baghon Main,” she chatted for a while, admitting to the audience that she usually talks a lot and tells jokes between songs but she was a little intimidated by the august venue, so maybe not. In place of her usual glass of red wine, she had whiskey in a paper cup to sip throughout the show. And she said she’s lately taken to tossing roses into the audience, but she worried that security would tackle her if she tried that at the Met. Well, after a few more sips of whiskey, all her inhibitions flew out the window, and she cracked jokes about her fancy outfit, which made her feel like a car (and which she swapped out halfway through the show for a more comfortable but still glam long silvery coat). And she doesn’t shy away from sly political commentary, noting that the Temple of Dendur “may or may not be stolen.” (It is, after all, located in the Sackler Wing, named after the family whose pharmaceutical company has been castigated and prosecuted for its part in the opioid crisis.) And one by one all those long-stem roses onstage wound up in the hands of pretty ladies who caught the singer’s eye.

The acoustics were perfect for her mostly acoustic band, an oddball ensemble of harp (Maeve Gilchrist, tall blond whose high heels doubled as percussion), guitar (Gyan Riley), violin (the gender-queer glory that is Darian Donovan Thomas), and bass (Shahzad Ismaily, who also adds some crazy spice on the synthesizer keyboard he balances on his lap). She said they’d learned a lot about song order on tour, so they closed with their “happy” number, their “banger,” “Mohabbat,” which only in the world of ghazal could be considered a “banger.” The show was being filmed so will undoubtedly manifest online somewhere, but if you’ve not yet had the pleasure of hearing this exceptional vocalist, I would encourage you to check out her “Tiny Desk Concert” filmed during the pandemic for NPR.

Friday: I returned to Forest Hills Tennis Stadium (where I saw Bon Iver and Odesza earlier in the summer) for another extravaganza featuring EDM superstars Jamie XX, Four Tet, and Floating Points. The latter two took the stage together, taking turns driving.

I’m a big fan of Floating Points (a happy bespectacled nerdy Brit named Sam Shepherd) and his bass-heavy grooves; he put out an extraordinary album last year called Promises featuring the London Symphony Orchestra and the legendary jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who died the day after the Forest Hills concert. Four Tet (another Brit named Kieran Hebden with very eclectic tastes) used his turns to conduct noise experiments that didn’t thrill me. A group of five little girls danced and frolicked behind them every so often. After an hour, Four Tet got the stage to himself and got more fun.

Jamie XX (aka James Thomas Smith, former member of the XX) definitely knows how to please a crowd by mashing up his own tuneful beats with surprises for the audience to sing along to (“Psycho Killer”! Ariana Grande’s “Into You”!).

Andy and I met up with our friends Jay and Paul, who just moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey and needed to let off some steam. Mission accomplished!

Saturday: Our friend Allen was visiting from San Francisco so Saturday afternoon we took him to the Museum of Art and Design and introduced him to the genius that is Machine Dazzle, who gets two whole floors to display his “Queer Maximalism.” The fifth floor showcases some of the mind-boggling outfits Machine created for Taylor Mac’s “24-Decade History of Popular Music.”

The fourth floor covers his non-Taylor costumes for shows at the Guggenheim, at Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts, and for the Dazzle Dancers.

The detail and the beauty is insanely overwhelming. You could make separate trips to the show just to study the handbags, the shoes, and especially the kkkkkrazeee headdresses.

After beers at the 9th Avenue Saloon, Allen went off to Brooklyn, and we continued the day of Queer Maximalism by seeing the David Bowie movie MOONAGE DAYDREAM.

Not exactly a documentary, it’s more of a cinematic essay that collages rare concert footage, talk show appearances, and period cultural artifacts to present Bowie as more than a rock musician or pop star and more of a philosophical artist on a quest for meaning, for understanding his place in the universe. It’s written, directed, and produced by Brett Morgen, but the real wizardry is Morgen’s spectacular editing.

Sunday: I was feeling a little overwhelmed and oversaturated, but I raced down to the East Village on an electric Citibike (the trains were not running properly) to see Mud/Drowning at Mabou Mines at 7:30…only to learn that the show was at 2pm that afternoon. I rescheduled for this coming Friday, sandwiched between Monochromatic Light (Afterlife), the Tyshawn Sorey concert staged by Peter Sellars at Park Avenue Armory, and two very different shows on Broadway — MJ The Musical and Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. Next week: another wacky, eclectic marathon starting with Flying Lotus at BAM, continuing with David Greenspan’s one-man version of Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts, and at long last Funny Girl on Broadway!


Quote of the Day: SOCIAL MEDIA

September 20, 2022

SOCIAL MEDIA

Jeremy O. Harris: One of the things I worry about is that the little gay boys and girls I’m friends with don’t meet people their age IRL. They only know people through their oomfs, right? The oomfs run the world.

Danez Smith.: What’s “oomf”?

J.O.H.: An oomf is an “O.O.M.F.” — “one of my friends,” as in someone you know only in a digital space, from Twitter or Tumblr.

D.S.: Oh, yeah, one of my followers.

J.O.H.: The idea that people are discovering their sexuality and their expressivity online is a beautiful thing. I have a 12-year-old niece who’s a she/they pansexual, and she learned about all of those things on TikTok. But there’s also a troubling thing where people become only what you see in 160 characters.

Adam Pendleton: But, Jeremy, it’s even more than that because those spaces are mediated spaces.

J.O.H.: Yes.

A.P.: So if you find your way into something, you might never find your way out. It becomes a prison.

D.S.: Look, if I can make it out the church, they can make it out of Twitter. [All laugh]

“What Happens when Your work Gets to Move Past Argument?” New York Times T Magazine

photo by Shikeith; clockwise from left: Don Christian Jones, Abdu Ali, Jeremy O. Harris, Jonathan Lydon Chase, Miles Greenberg, Brontez Purnell, Devan Simoyama, Hugh hayden, Saeed Jones, Jaquel Spivey, Jonathan Gardenhire, Clifford Prince King, Eric N. Mack, Edvin Thompson, D’Angelo Lovell Williams

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