Monday, June 29, 2009

Want to see an exhibition?

Of course, there is some good capitalist analysis of Michael Jackson's career out there. After a thought-provoking if rather scattered article in which he perfectly articulates the lure of Off the Wall and "Billie Jean", K-punk quotes Nietzsche on the artist, whose natural state is not freedom of the neoliberal variety but obedience to laws beyond conceptual formation. He goes on: "dancing is precisely a question of subordinating the body to "arbitrary laws" - and eventually, after the punishing dedication that Jackson put in, that subordination yields an inspiration that grips and micro-directs the body." While such subordination does not necessarily threaten Dionysian art, Greil Marcus suggests that Michael's art stagnated. It's a question worth asking: when does a performance become too rehearsed to honestly be called dance? Where is the line between commitment to dance and commitment to spectacle?

I just want you to recognize me in the temple

After a night on stage, Michael Jackson would sometimes sit in his dressing room drinking water and reading Sufi poetry, perhaps Hafiz. The sobriety, the Sufi poetry, the isolation: unsurprisingly, this picture brings Friedrich Nietzsche to mind (of course, he’s always within my mind’s reach these days). The parallel may be apt – men seemingly eaten by their own genius turned insanity – but I’m even more interested in the possible parallel between our recently deceased pop icon and the Dionysian artist towards whom Nietzsche gestures.

In Michael Jackson we see someone whose art was physiologically manifest, who gave himself wholly to rhythm and melody and was remarkably light on his feet. Even when the lyrics turned towards what could have been heavy-handed moralizing, the primal (?) rhythm and melody were still dominant. In a world of celebrities busy playing parts – perhaps pop stars more than all – Michael Jackson seemed to be one of the only performers not acting. “Let your self be in your deed,” says Zarathustra, and MJ’s songs, videos, and (most notably for me) his time on stage might well be perfect examples of what Zarathustra meant. More shockingly, Michael also seemed to inhabit his own system of valuing. He did not live within society’s moral code. He may have been courageously evil, or at least courageously fucked up.

Yet it is widely known that Michael Jackson strove not only for musical honesty but for worldwide popularity, courted through the sort of false affect Nietzsche scorns. My earliest enthusiasm for Michael had as much to do with Carl Orff, stellar editing, and ecstatic Romanians as it did with his musicality. The Dionysian artist, on the other hand, is eternal precisely because he is not timely, because his peers do not embrace him. In one sense, the world has not embraced anyone more than it has Michael Jackson. But it may be equally true that his peers did not or could not embrace him precisely because he was without peer. The best articles I’ve read in the last several days point to Michael’s near total isolation. Hua Hsu notes a “prominent, persistent loneliness in his music”:
Of course there were songs like "Leave Me Alone," "They Don't Care About Us" and "You Are Not Alone"--obvious expressions of distrust. But is there a more gruesome tale of going-it-alone than "Billie Jean," a more conflicted take on macho fierceness than "Beat It?" "Black or White," a pop ode to integration, ends with four minutes of Michael-as-Panther by himself, feeling himself (literally) and rampaging through a city block. One could never imagine him horsing around with the posses of "Bad" or "Thriller." The moonwalk was always a one-man-dance.
Michael Jackson was not one for celebrity chumming and that sort of social jockeying. His collaborations, rarely as popular as his solo work, were with icons of another generation, more his objects of study than his peers. I remember saying years ago, after I first watched his duet with Siedah Garrett, that he had more charisma with his own hat (and if Gotham Chopra is to be believed, Michael was just as nervous and unsure in his off stage relationships).

Consequently, I’m not much interested in reading Michael Jackson as a product of his time. Yes, everyone is historically situated, but I couldn’t give a crap about “post-racial” this or “monoculture” that, or even the claim that his celebrity destroyed him. People have spent millennia destroying themselves and each other without the help of the late capitalist media machine. Michael is interesting to me as a fellow human being, one who makes obvious both the depths of struggle and the heights of beauty possible for our species, and how the latter is rarely found without the former (I don't understand the pressing public desire to either deify or vilify, as if these are mutually exclusive options). I see in him the wonder and the terror that comes of determination and single-minded commitment to one’s art. In short, I see tragedy and... life.

So if they say “Why? Why?” Tell them that is human nature.

Friday, June 12, 2009

S-So Much Betta

When it comes to music, there are many people whose tastes I trust more than my own, people who might easily persuade me to love x or denounce y. Such is the case for most of the arts. The exception is dance. I have unwavering confidence in my appraisal of dance. Some dance is good, some plainly is not. Some choreography is good, some plainly is not. And now that the new season of So You Think You Can Dance has begun, I have a chance to exercise my most robust of aesthetic sensibilities on an even more regular basis.

The best routines on the show are, without fail, by choreographers who actually care about music, who choose the piece carefully and allow the music to work itself out in the bodies on stage. Unfortunately, Wade Robson is the only one who does this with any sort of consistency (unless they get Dmitri back to choreograph more samba: his dances are always brilliantly percussive). Of course, in my dream world, all the contemporary pieces would be set to Xiu Xiu, The Dirty Projectors, or the Talking Heads (the songs are so interesting that most of your work is done for you), and not to sappy singer-songwriter ballads that only know how to emote in one way (why did anyone ever think it was a good idea to dance to Lifehouse?). I fully realize that this world will not find its way onto prime time television, but what excuse do the hip hop choreographers have? My favourite hip hop dancers and choreographers are booking the best gigs there are (namely Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson) and these people do ridiculously interesting and intelligent stuff. Some people call it “new style” (think solo Justin Timberlake), and some hate that label, but whatever you want to call it, these dancers and choreographers know how to listen to the subtleties of the music and make the sounds visible.

Segue to this post’s actual purpose, to pimp my favourite dancers. First up: Misha Gabriel. He was recently hired for MJ’s London shows this summer, he choreographed an excellent video for Korean superstar Boa, and he can do this (he’s on the left):

Second: Jillian Meyers. She dances for Janet and comes up with sick choreography (note: after watching hundreds of dance clips on YouTube, I have come to the conclusion that “sick” is universally acknowledged as the appropriate term to express enthusiastic approval of dance… I like this). She’s the red head:

This is good dancing; this I love.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I can’t bring myself to write about music without a disclaimer, so here goes: I don’t know how to write about music. First, any attempt I make to categorize the music I like – even for the sometimes-worthwhile purpose of naming its ancestors and current intimates – falls horribly flat. (I once called Elliott Brood bluegrass?!?) Also, the ‘criticism’ I really like, the kind that translates aural experience into a similar prose experience, requires writing abilities beyond my ken.

But approximately once a year I write about music anyway. This year’s lapse is long overdue.

I first heard The Dirty Projectors last summer. “Rise Above”’s pacing and vocals (both back-up and lead - I love Dave Longstreth's voice) drew me in immediately, and the LP of the same name became one of my most listened-to albums of the last year. The concept – a re-writing of a presumably much loved album from Longstreth’s youth (Black Flag’s 1981 release also titled Rise Above) – is nostalgia put to creative use, and the delivery sounds vaguely (to use someone else’s discarded words, more for their awesomeness than their accuracy) “like Prince playing Prokofiev with a juju orchestra”. Their new album, which has not yet had official release, contains the same stuttering African guitar, similar idiosyncratic rhythmic shifts, and even better vocals from the duo/trio of beautiful women. But Bitte Orca contains fewer moments of powerful stillness and I miss lyrics like “this fuckin’ city is run by pigs” – such simple punk despair in conjunction with the band’s tentative hopefulness brought much of the magic on Rise Above.

So I was disappointed that their short set last night, opening for TV on the Radio at Toronto’s Sound Academy, drew only from their new album. There were some standouts – “Two Doves” was a brilliant opener, and “Remade Horizon” included a brief vocal prelude that really should have been included on the album – but I was not as moved as I had anticipated. The venue’s poor sound was partly to blame, as was the crowd’s serious lack of enthusiasm, the latter of which made Amber Coffmann look mildly desperate as she jumped around the stage during set-closer “Stillness is the Move” (a track that, despite its buzz, did not survive more than a few listens for me).

TV on the Radio suffered even more from poor acoustics (it really ruined the mix) and Toronto’s drowsiness. It should have been amazing but was not. Still, I’d never been more than a casual fan of the band until now and the show prompted me to pay more attention. And, predictably, “Wolf Like Me” provided at least one moment of euphoria.

It didn’t help matters that I’ve seen two of the best shows of my life in the last few weeks. I spent Monday night at The Casbah, Hamilton’s intimate little venue, seeing the Constantines for the fourth or fifth time. They remain my favourite live band, and hearing them in a room that small, with hardly a raised stage, standing just a few meters away from Bry Webb, the audience around me screaming along every word… hell, I could do that every night. All of their albums are dynamite (though Kensington Heights creates a rather smaller explosion than the rest), but the songs are still better live, particularly the standout tracks from their debut: “Justice”, “Young Offenders”, “Hyacinth Blues” and “Arizona” all far surpassed their recorded counterparts.

On May 19th I sat in the centre of the 14th row at Leonard Cohen’s Hamilton show. Cohen’s thoughtful sensuality is an interesting contrast to Bry Webb’s brazen virility, though both work to keep the audience breathless. Cohen’s own longings became the longings of all present, a whole stadium caressed into feeling together as a septuagenarian made love to us all. The players were awe-inspiring, the set list was perfection, the man himself was all grace and lightness (he actually skipped across the stage on more than one occasion), and even Copps Coliseum could not ruin the delicate sounds. I have no way of talking about that evening that does not rely on hyperbole and open-mouthed wonder, so I will stop there.

And thus endeth today’s attempt to talk about musical experience. I think it went rather well. I may try it again soon.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sublimity vs. Delight

One of the characters in the previously mentioned A Mixture of Frailties is the self-proclaimed chameleon of belief, Sir Benedict Domdaniel. The knighted conductor, originally of Jewish descent, apparently adopts whatever passion is required by his art, but his earliest soliloquies in the book suggest that he in fact an unabashed Nietzschean, who scorns the union daughter’s distrust of wealth and sees all the world divided between Eros and Thanatos (those who are for life and those who are against it). And so he provides me with a more succinct summary of Nietzsche’s take on music than I have yet to find in the latter’s writings:
That’s what music used to be for, you know—to capture the beauty and delight that people found in life. But then the Romantics came along and turned it all upside down; they made music a way of churning up emotions in people that they hadn’t felt before. Music ceased to be a distilment of life and became, for a lot of people, a substitute for life—a substitute for a sea-voyage, or the ecstasies of sainthood, or being raped by a cannibal king, or even for an hour with a psychoanalyst or a good movement of the bowels. And a whole class of people arose who thought themselves music-lovers, but who were really sensation-lovers.

The difficulty of discerning between distilling the beauty of life (Nietzsche speaks of idealization, but it seems to be the same idea as Domdaniel’s distillation) and creating effect or sensation is apparent in Davies’ work itself. He probably thinks he is telling quite the Nietzschean tale, but as I suggest below, it seems often like a romance.

What this all means for how I listen to music, I’m not sure yet, but I mean to find out. I have Nietzsche and Wagner’s entire correspondence sitting on my desk and A Tribe Called Quest and The Cocteau Twins on my iPod. I want to find what these things have to do with one another.

Of artists, archetypes, and wealthy benefactors

I am reading Robertson Davies again. Every time one of his novels appears in a used book store I can’t help but buy it. I have already purchased several copies of The Rebel Angels, only to give them away and buy more – a practice which has been long modeled to me by my sister, and seems to be one of my most active forms of proselytizing (dwarfed only by the need to give much-too-carefully-crafted mixed CDs even when they’re not entirely wanted).

It’s A Mixture of Frailties this time, which rounds out Davies’ first trilogy with a move from small town southern Ontario to his later much-beloved European world of the arts, a world which has likely never existed. This seems to me the problem with Davies. He writes what I have on occasion affectionately called “academic smut”. He excites his quasi-educated, partially-cultured reader with fantastical romps in which all the characters have in depth knowledge of Rabelais, Jung, and the lesser known operas, and in which all young women of some talent have enlightening affairs with their mentors. Christianity is come upon in great paintings and great music, and morality is something like the noble virtues of the Renaissance, or maybe even the Greeks who they attempted to model. This humanism is far from the democratic humanism which it has become, but the kind that demands individual greatness, and voracity for soaking in the greatness of ages past. It leaves me with a rather feverish desire to enter such a world, to commit myself to some work of genius and to all the characters I would meet along the way.

Of course, as with all smut, the desires Davies instills don’t correspond to any reality. Reality is filled with fewer artists and quaint small town folk, and many more bureaucrats. Reality requires a lot more patience. As filled as his books might be with some real insight on the development of character, the hard work never seems particularly like hard work and the existential struggles seem more romantic than actually agonizing. I love reading Davies for all these reasons, but I am suspect of this love.

Incidentally, I know someone who seems to me very much a character out of a Robertson Davies novel. Originally from a small Canadian town, he is full of stories of the illustrious personages he has known, from vaguely lascivious encounters with Oxford spinsters to the time he baptized several Huguenot children in a remote city in Switzerland. He personally knows the Archbishop of Canterbury, likes to carry on long conversations about gin and sherry, and still wears cuff links. He has spent the last eight years studying the drunkenness of Noah. I once spoke of my love for Robertson Davies in his presence and he grimaced; it seems he has no liking at all for Davies’ novels, and I find this rather telling. Those closest to the world Davies inhabited see only a heavy-handedness in his opinions: there is no subtlety here. Davies embraces the plain speech that his most well-loved character preaches (Dunstan Ramsay of the Deptford Trilogy), which, though a very affective sort of storytelling, makes it difficult to enjoy his works if one really truly disagrees with him. And those who have had any taste of the reality of these matters must undoubtedly disagree with him at some point because, as I strongly suspect, there is very little reality in the particulars of his stories. These are fairytales, or perhaps fables, for they contain the plainest morals I’ve encountered in novels of late. (Davies' conflation of religion and art, which intrigues me but is likely much too simplistic, is also part of the problem for the man I'm speaking of, and it's something I would love to write more about at some point.)

So whether fairytale or grad school harlequin romance, I’m not sure, but the flush on my cheeks won’t propel me to the hard work of genius. Finally this flush only engenders the voracity for more Davies.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Meet My Advisor

During a seminar:

Student - "What if we take God out of the equation?"
PTK - "What if we take the equation out of God?"

And that, my friends, might as well be a summary of all of Kroeker's thought.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Erich Heller on Wittgenstein:

He could not but have contempt for philosophers who "did" philosophy and, having done it, thought of other things: money, lists of publications, academic advancements, university intrigues, love affairs, or the Athenaeum - and thought of these things in a manner which showed even more clearly than the products of their philosophical thought that they had philosophized with much less than their whole person.
The sight of a thought that was detachable from a man filled him with loathing.

Kenneth Parcell:

Strawberries! Dick Whitman!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Guts of Good Taste

One cannot really advance an argument about taste. I think most of my generation is at least vaguely appalled by any attempt to take inventory, according to some predetermined standard, of those things which are in good taste. When my choir conductor called last year’s overhaul of CBC Radio 2 a struggle between high culture and low culture (Bach=high culture, 3 minute pop songs=low culture), he – and most of his ‘flock’ – was confident in locating good taste on one side of that divide. Establishing such an a priori divide at all seems to me to be in bad taste.

One cannot really establish criterion for beauty. I have long known this. Beauty, like Christ’s Lordship, must be its own argument. Of course, this does not mean we should shut up about beauty (or Christ). It just means that our claims about beauty have no ground to stand on but our own taste. This is a Nietzschean claim, but it – along with Nietzsche’s thought more generally – should not reduce us to some sort of relativism. Not everyone has good taste! Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but not everyone has an eye to behold it, and no one can always behold it. Taste is necessarily discriminating. Beauty may be resilient, and may be encountered where we least expect it, but it is not everywhere. Even an argument advancing aesthetic relativism becomes something of a theory of beauty, a criterion that obscures the actual encounter of beauty in some ‘places’ and not others.

A claim about the beautiful is therefore a risky business. One might be wrong. And it’s not as if we can simply find that principle or standard that will ensure our rightness. In judgments of taste, we risk ourselves. I could admire my conductor’s guts, his dedication to Mendelssohn in the face of CanCon and the simple strum of the acoustic guitar (Lobgesang is, after all, frighteningly good), but the problem is that for him there is no risk. His defence of Mendelssohn is a self-preservational claim, something resembling a political platform more than a confessional declaration.

I think I’m going to stick with Nietzsche for awhile. The academic world is one primarily interested in protecting itself with argument, and yet Nietzsche’s works are very respectable objects of study. Too many of these studies still are interested in protecting the academy from Zarathustra’s injunctions by dissecting him rather than wrestling with him (or dancing with him, as we might rather say), but I really do think there may still be room enough to keep him alive and, well, kicking, to allow oneself to be wounded (and blessed) by his demands on us. His demand, finally, is that we have courage enough to make claims about good taste because it is in good taste to make these risky claims. So let us be honest and brave enough to stammer “This is my good; this I love.” This is my good; this I love.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Gravely read the stones

Kierkegaard on cemetery plots:
Death does not say, "There is no difference whatever"; it says, "There you can see what the difference was: half a foot." [...] Thus in death life returns to childlike simplicity. In childhood the big difference was also that one person had a tree, a flower, a stone. (Works of Love, Series 2, IX)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Truthsome Television

I watch a lot of television. Streaming online video has only perpetuated a much older habit fostered initially by MuchMusic and the first years of the WB. As such an admission suggests, I have some pretty shitty taste, and a lot of the television I've watched in the last while has been particularly terrible. I have resolved (not for the first time, of course) to give up prime time soap operas. They're like Old Dutch barbecue chips: they taste awful but I keep eating them anyway (next time you find yourself in the potato chip aisle, you would be wise to heed this warning). So, I no longer waste my time (I don't generally believe in such a thing as wasted time, but network television may be a notable exception) on the scripted, two-dimensional lives of Private Practice, or on the Roman theatre of Gossip Girl. I briefly took up other rather more interesting though perhaps no more worthwhile hobbies (Firefly fanfiction, anyone?).

And then came Mad Men, which quickly took me back from text to the talkies. The show's creator and writer, Matt Weiner, is one hell of a psychologist, not the Violet Turner "let's all find closure" variety, but in the sense that Dostoyevsky is a hell of a psychologist. The characters are so true it hurts. There is no closure, there are no wistful soliloquoys on what it all means, just a bunch of people stuck in the stories they tell themselves and each other. Too many of the reviews I've read try to make this a show about alcoholism and sexism and anti-Semitism etc. , but the truly tragic character - the deplorable Pete Campbell - is not the one who is markedly more sexist, more alcoholic, more anti-Semitic, but the one who believes the stories he tells himself a little too much. He's not a self-styled bad boy. In fact, he's unnervingly earnest: he earnestly believes that he is entitled to more, that his adulteries are justified, that his talents are the greatest. His communication - with his friends, with his wife - must follow the script of these stories.

The reviews mostly get it wrong again when it comes to our anti-hero, Don Draper. "All men want to be him, all women want to be with him." "A ladies man." If this was his appeal, I might as well turn back to Seely Booth or Derek Shephard. But Don Draper is the man who doesn't justify himself. He can sit down to a lunch of two dozen oysters and nearly as many martinis, or share a joint with a couple of beatnics after work; he can woo his wife, his mistress, or the bright Jewish business woman, and none of these "guises" are guises at all. These aren't games he plays at - seduce the girl, climb the corporate ladder, tarry with the kids in the Village - they're just things he does with the people he knows, with the people who know him. And yes, I think they do know him, despite his reticence. He seems mysterious not because he hides the truth, but because people don't know what to make of someone who doesn't account for himself. For all of his pretty pitches, he strikes me as remarkably honest; he has the sort of honesty that has nothing to do with talking about yourself a lot, and is quite often hampered by it.

But another review called Draper a total bastard. That one might be right, too.

Well, I've gone and tried to give an account of why I like the show and probably been painfully dishonest in the process. I mean, I haven't even finished the first season. I won't try to justify my actions.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sunday, April 12, 2009

On Jesus and Dancing (which could well be the title of every post)

What has so far been the greatest sin here on earth? Was it not the word of him who said, "Woe unto those who laugh here"? Did he himself find no reasons on earth for laughing? Then he searched very badly. Even a child could find reasons here. He does not love enough: else he would also have loved us who laugh. But he hated and mocked us: howling and gnashing of teeth he promised us.
Does one have to curse right away, where one does not love? That seems bad taste to me. [...] Avoid all such unconditional people! They have heavy feet and sultry hearts: they do not know how to dance. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Fourth Part, "On the Higher Man")
Zarathustra seems quite certain: Jesus wasn't much of a dancer. A dancer is limber, yielding, light on his feet, and Our Lord and Saviour was lumbering and unwieldy.

I guess that cross was too damned heavy.

Where Zarathustra crowns his laughing one with a rose-wreath, Jesus had a crown of thorns.
But perhaps these are not so opposed as they first appear. I'm taking it upon myself in these next two weeks to explore the similarities between the rose-wreath and the thorns (or at least this will linger in the background of my explorations). Those who would wear either of these crowns are not those who seek to dominate the marketplace or the empire, but those who hear something above the noise of the mob. What they hear (a call of some sort?) leads to hardship, but not necessarily to heavy feet.

Zarathustra denounces the spirit of gravity: this burdensome dwarf weighs us down with alien words and values like good and evil so that we are unable to know ourselves. Does not Jesus also denounce the burden of alien words and values? Don't we call this grace? The marketplace and the empire cannot colonize a soul that has ceased to feel the weight of anxiety, calculation, and comparison--in other words, a soul that has truly heard the good news of Easter. Jesus did not curse that which he did not love. Rather, they find themselves cursed who do not love him, who are unable to put down the load and live in this grace, who are unable to join the dance of the light-footed.

For all the accusations of violence leveled against Nietzsche (I'm looking at you, Milbank and Bentley Hart), Zarathustra at least seems interested in a similar sort of grace.
You higher men, the worst about you is that all of you have not learned to dance as one must dance--dancing away over yourselves! What does it matter that you are failures? How much is still possible!
Sounds sort of like an Easter message to me.

And, I'll leave you with a dancing Jesus that places rose-wreaths on the heads of his disciples. So there, Friedrich.

Whew. That's a pretty substantial first post. I promise not to talk about Nietzsche and souls next time.