Friday, May 28, 2010
Facebook is one of the most useful, most popular websites in existence. It offers, free of charge, a number of services that nearly everyone wants—services that weren't even imaginable 20 years ago. You can let all your friends know what you are doing at any given moment, or you can tell them all a joke, or you can post a link to something and comment on it. You can post pictures of yourself or your cat or other people and share them with all your friends, or the entire internet if you want. You can post links to blogs like this one, or videos, or anything at all that has a URL. You can voice your support of a cause, politician, music group, or abstract idea by hitting the “Like” button or joining a group whose members can share relevant content and have discussions about that cause/artist/idea. You can invite your “friends,” many of whom you don't know very well or actually hate, to parties, political rallies, and flash mobs. You can play a variety of online games, some of which are not even disguised marketing schemes. And you can watch all of the people you share tenuous social connections do all of these things in real time. I'm on Facebook right now, and maybe you are too.
So why do so many people hate it?
Maybe “hate” is too strong a word, but many, many people have voiced criticism of Facebook in the last few months, mainly over the site's privacy polices. Wired ran a disturbing article about the site censoring the content of private messages, as well as a somewhat rambling op-ed railing against Facebook; Gizmodo listed 10 reasons to quit Facebook; Time published a somewhat critical profile of the company; and quitfacebookday.com is exactly what it sounds like. There have been other attacks from more obscure sources as well, like this blog entry, which I read because my friend linked to it on Facebook.
The meatier concerns over Facebook involve the site's privacy settings, which are complex and change every few months in response to user complaints. The basic problem is simple and practically unfixable under Facebook's current rubric: people want to pick exactly which of their “friends” sees what. If I want to share a status update that says, “Damn, I am really wasted considering it's not even noon,” I don't want my mother to see that. And I don't want my boss to see photos of me partying in a different city the night before I call in sick. But to Facebook, everyone is either a stranger, a “Friend,” or a “Friend of a Friend;” there's no way to differentiate between my family members, my coworkers, my oldest friends who now live in other cities, and the people I don't really know but friend anyway. We want to filter the information we give out on Facebook the way we do in real life, but we can't. Or to quote Marlo of The Wire, “You want it to be one way, but it's the other way.”
The way it is is this: Facebook is one of the first websites to take advantage of the internet's incredible, essentially unlimited capacity as a tool to share information. “Information” being not just academic papers, as in the days of ARPANET, but everything. Text, videos, photos, games, software, music--whatever the fuck you want, you can share and spread among friends, strangers, and people you've had sex with exactly one time, using a service not unlike what Facebook is now. The total, perfect, probably unrealizable form of the internet is communism on servers—everyone being able to access anything, all the time. Information is so plentiful it becomes free. The world's greatest library in history downloadable to every laptop without money changing hands. We could have that right now without any new technologies, except as the case of Facebook shows, we aren't ready.
For starters, users still regard information as private property. In the Time article, the author casually notes, “There's something unsettling about granting the world a front-row seat to all of our interests,” without further analysis. He's not talking about personal details like phone numbers, addresses, and other tidbits that could aid identity thieves, he's talking about a concern people have that people he doesn't know will know what he likes. What forbidden desires does he have that he doesn't want broadcasted? Similarly, Ryan Singel of Wired wants to “support an anti-abortion group without my mother or the world knowing,” which he thinks is a problem Facebook should be able to solve. Mr. Singel: if you want to donate money to anti-abortion cause, that is not something you need to tell Facebook. And if you fear that your peers will ostracize you for your political beliefs, maybe you need new peers. And are you really that afraid of your mother? I personally have no problem with giving the world a front-row seat to all of my interests, and I know a number of people who feel the same way. I like the Flaming Lips, sandwiches, and heterosexual intercourse, and I'm not afraid to let everyone know. One interesting question is whether the babies being born right now will have the same hang-ups concerning the sharing of interests that Mr. Singel and the man from Time have. Or will they use social networking sites as naturally as we use toilets?
I don't want to let Facebook itself off the hook though: it's not as if Mark Zuckerman and co. give a shit about my information-sharing utopia. The censoring of private messages between users is disturbing, but it comes from the attitude that they own the data that users choose to share with one another. This is spelled out specifically in Section 2.1 the User Agreement (linked to twice because if you use Facebook, you should read it), which says: “If you upload something, our company owns it just as much as you do.” The way Facebook chooses to use the information they own is to share it with advertisers, which allows them to make unspecifiably large amounts of money without charging its grouchy, constantly complaining users anything. The internet, despite its theoretical potential to become an anarchic hacker's wet dream of information-sharing, is run by for-profit companies like Facebook, and those companies generally make their by selling your personal information to other companies.
(This project offers hope to disgruntled Facebook users. I advise those folks to donate to the cause, but I'm holding my breath until I see a detailed explanation of who is going to be paying for these “seed” servers and how.)
The Time article warns that without more “transparency,” Facebook will become “the web's sketchy Big Brother, sucking up our identities into a massive Borg brain to slice, dice and categorize for advertisers.” That Borg model, of course, is exactly the model that will make Facebook and part-owners Microsoft the most money. Transparency and openness are for hippie programmers who don't conceive of the web as just another money-making machine. And what, really, is wrong with ads that target me based on my stated interests? If we're going to have advertising on the web, I'd rather see ads for things that I might actually use rather than ads for new cars I don't want and can't afford.
Like the Borg, Facebook is constantly adapting and seems impossible to kill. The recent changes to the privacy settings have made them (I think) fairly intuitive and easy to use, and whatever points Facebook's critics have, they haven't been very persuasive (quitfacebook.com has 23,000 committed quitters as of this writing, compared to over 4,000 Facebook users who want Slavoj Zizek to host Saturday Night Live). The truth is, there isn't a single website that does everything that Facebook does, except for maybe the still-imaginary Diaspora project linked to above. Someday, I imagine Facebook will be replaced by a sleeker, hipper replacement just as Friendster and MySpace have been replaced. But if that replacement site is just another for-profit service that regards information as a way to make a buck, and the population at large still imagines information to be the same thing as private property, expect exactly the same thing to happen.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
A while back, I found the most worthless thing on the internet. I thought that what amounted to a dryly written recap of a baseball game that never happened and never could happen would be the most useless thing ever conceived. I was wrong. This is the most useless thing on the internet, courtesy of Spin Magazine and apocalyptic Canadians Arcade Fire.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Monday is here again, and it means everyone has to go to work. Well, not everyone. If you are one of those parents who needed government-funded daycare to watch your children while you were at your job, you aren't going to work today, because, fuck, that daycare subsidy doesn't exist any more and you have to watch your kids instead. If you are a European who is approaching what used to be retirement age, however, you can look forward to many Mondays of hard work ahead because, fuck again, European countries are going to be bankrupted soon by all of their old pensioners living off of the government. I don't really understand exactly what happened, but all of a sudden there's less money in the world, and every single government in the world is poorer.
Ayn Rand's followers, those pillars of self-reliance who probably couldn't get laid in high school, might be rejoicing at the dawning of this new era, where even Europe is turning away from social safety nets. Then again, Randians had to deal with the embarrassing sight of favorite son Rand Paul* deliver a rambling defense of his criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, during which he somehow got around to saying,
"Do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says 'well no, we don't want to have guns in here' the bar says 'we don't want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each-other.'"
What? Maybe we should have laws against discrimination and bringing guns to bars, is that what's he's saying? Or is Rand saying that the government is forcing bars to serve the heavily armed? If so, I'm against it.
Meanwhile, oil is still leaking into the Gulf of Mexico, a bullfighter became an internet phenomenon after getting his throat gored open, and Brooklyn continues to fill up with dead animals. But on the positive side, neoliberal policies have had a positive effect on the US GDP! Doesn't that make you feel better?
*Yeah, Rand isn't a “true libertarian,” blah blah, blah. He's pretty close for someone who could actually get elected. And why would a libertarian run for public office anyway? Shouldn't they be busy enough being titans of industry or whatever? Read more!
Sunday, May 23, 2010
EMBED-We Are Lebron Video - Watch more free videos
The above video is what sports are all about. It's both heartwarming and heartbreaking—a collection of Cleveland “celebrities” who have to be identified by subtitles (like Peter Lawson Jones, the Cuyahoga County Commissioner, who I imagine does very important work) make a plea to LeBron in song form. LeBron James, in case you didn't know, can choose where to play next year, and if he chooses to play somewhere else than Cleveland, the Cavaliers will revert back to being one of the worst teams in the NBA, as they were before the Coming Of LeBron, and Cleveland will once again become a city without any winning sports franchises. Stripped of the half-sung melody, that song embodies the motto of every poor sports fan in Cleveland: “Please stay, LeBron. Please, LeBron, stay!”
But the fans have no control over what LeBron will do, just like they had no control over the selection of the ever-changing, always-inadequate supporting cast he had for the past seven years. Yet a whole lot of Clevelanders are going to be upset when (if) he leaves, or ecstatic if he stays. This is the problem with being a sports fan, this is why people who don't follow sports are mystified by the whole process: why do we choose to be emotionally invested in something we have literally no control over?
I'm not referring to the individual games, which can be frustrating, exhilarating, gut-wrenching, sometimes even fun to watch. The more maddening thing is the larger games that go on outside of the playing field: the free agent markets and the drafts of the various sports, the hiring and firing of the people in the front office who make choices about the players, the politics and economics of constructing new stadiums, the occasional departure of teams from cities—and in LeBron's case, the departure of a player who basically was the entire team. Franchises are affected for years by these decisions (in the case of a team's moving away from a city, they're literally destroyed), and the fans can do nothing about them.
This is worth complaining about because outside of the NFL--where short careers and a salary cap have made it possible for a team to be very bad, then very good, then very bad again in a short number of years—most franchises are mired in a perpetual slump. Baseball teams like the Mariners, Astros, Nationals (nee Expos), Royals, Rangers, Orioles, Giants, Padres, Reds, Brewers Blue Jays, Pirates, and Indians have gone an entire generation without reaching the World Series, and mostly without hope of doing so. It's sort of weird that the Pirates and Royals still have fans, actually. Why subject yourself to lost season after lost season? In the NBA more teams make the playoffs, but only seven teams have won any championships at all in 26 years—and that's because of the aberrational Mavericks-Heat Finals a few years ago. What is a fan of the Kings or the Bucks or the Pacers to do? Your team is just the guys who the real, actually good teams have to beat in order to play each other in the finals.
There's the pain of watching your team lose on the field, and that's bad enough. (My personal low was watching my Mariners, after winning 116 games in the regular season, lose to the Yankees in the 2001 ALCS. It didn't even go seven games.) But how much worse is it to know that your team is definitely going to lose even before they get on the field? Atlanta Hawks fans know this feeling, as do Kansas City Royal fans. Or if they do win one game, you know that it's a fluke, and the season is going to be another forgotten struggle to reach mediocrity. New York Knicks fans know this feeling, as do Seattle Mariner fans like me.
Fans of losing teams can't even claim to be “cursed” as some of the more famous losing teams in history have claimed to be. The reality is that most of the times, teams are bad for a long time because the people managing them are incompetent. The Knicks' Isiah Thomas years are one example (remember when he gave Jerome James all that money?), but less widely known is the case of Bill Bavasi in Seattle. I won't go through the list of bad signings Bavasi made, but you can read about them here, or just start typing his name into Google and “Bill Bavasi worst GM” will appear as a suggestion.
The Mariners finally fired Bavasi two years ago, but becoming a good Major League Baseball team, let alone a consistently good one, takes a long time and a lot of luck, and they aren't a perfectly managed organization by any means—they still believe that Ken Griffey Jr. is a Major League player, for instance. If I have any hope for the Mariners, it's that five years from now they will make the playoffs and probably lose to the Red Sox and then have their best players hired away by the Yankees. And I guess I also hope they don't leave Seattle and then start winning for another city's fans, the way the Thunder (nee Sonics) did. That's not inspiring. Someone once said, “The sports section records man’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures,” a quote that wouldn't be understood by anyone from Seattle, Cleveland, Buffalo, or Kansas City. Our teams fail and fail again, yet we feel bad each time.
If I wanted to make some broad connections between sports and society, I might note that nearly everything, not just the success of our favorite team, is out of our hands. (The Cold War was so terrifying because everyone on the planet might die for basically no reason at all, and without having the chance to escape. The recent financial crisis is upsetting in the same way—you might do everything right, or think you were doing everything right, and you lost your house or your savings anyway.) But let's keep it simple. Being a sports fan means subjecting yourself to years of rooting for the losing side, opening the paper to sad box score after sad box score, and you hope that your team winning a title will balance it all out. Does it? I don't know and I doubt anyone from Cleveland will know any time soon. Read more!
Monday, May 17, 2010
Good news everyone! Remember that damaged drilling operation that is now constantly leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico? The one where no one knows how much oil is being leaked? Yeah, well, problem solved, sort of, according to British Petroleum. But not really, since the tube that is now attached to the leak is a “stopgap measure” at best. Since the leak started, it's become increasingly clear that there wasn't really a plan for this scenario, and all sorts of increasingly absurd-sounding solutions have been publicly mulled over. Can we put a dome over the leak? Fuck, guess not! Can we use disgusting logs of hair (pictured above) to soak up the oil? What about hay? Hey, let's ask the general public for ideas! (My favorite: “Is setting the spill on fire an option?”)
You don't have to be a hemp-wearing environmentalist to think that this whole “Extracting poisonous chemicals from the ground” thing is overrated. But unless you want to go back to the pre-combustion engine days when everyone was churning butter, killing whales to get lamp oil, and worrying about the massive amounts of horse feces clogging city streets, there really isn't a way to stop drilling for oil. A bunch of you just said, “Wind power!” but that's not an option yet, as right-wing asshole Robert Bryce points out. Denmark, which is one of the “greener” countries in the world, gets 15 percent or so of its electricity from wind, but it also engages in a ton of offshore drilling, so much so that it actually exports oil. (Left-wing asshole Matt Wasson notes that CO2 emissions have been reduced in Denmark, but doesn't mention Denmark's drilling and coal importing.) And if one of the most wind-power-reliant countries in the world is getting less than 20 percent of its energy from wind, well, shit.
Update: More good news everyone! The Supreme Court decided (barely) that we shouldn't send teenagers to prison for life if they haven't killed anyone. I for one did not know the US was doing that. Are we still pretending that prison is a place to rehabilitate criminals?Read more!
Saturday, May 15, 2010
If you're like me, you enjoy eating, look forward to eating, and have assumed for pretty much your entire life that you would be able to keep eating for as long as you were alive. That is, if you live in a first-world country you have to figure that you will die of AIDS, cancer, heart disease, gunshot wound, drug overdose, nuclear terrorism, or car accident before you will die of starvation. Ha ha! Turns out you actually should worry about starving to death—at least, this British guy does. He argues that rising population, rising energy costs, climate change, and the crushing poverty that most agricultural workers worldwide live under could combine to create a “food crisis” not unlike the oil crises we've already seen. (It's a long article, but worth skimming at least.) He adds that the increased reliance on biofuels will mean that less of the crops we grow will be used for food, thus worsening the hypothetical future food shortage.
He lives in the UK, which imports way, way more food than the US does, so Americans shouldn't necessarily worry too much about this (not that Americans will worry about anything anyway), but the US now imports more food than it exports, and some of that food comes from China, which doesn't hold its food industry to the same rigorous quality-control standards that our FDA does in regards to American slaughterhouses. And while Tyler Cowen, who is smarter than me, isn't all that worried, we should remember that food is not infinite.
We might not end up actually starving, but food could get a lot more expensive if erosion, global warming, and random natural disasters/God start working together. For instance, the price of 40 ounces of beer in my neighborhood was be two bucks in 2006, and now it's three—a huge increase, percentage-wise. We should remember that most of the people who were born on this planet had to deal with food shortages, and this period of plenty is an aberration.Read more!
Friday, May 14, 2010
The other day I was emailing a friend of mine now living in Portland, Oregon, and I asked him if he had found any work. That's a pretty normal thing to ask the folks in my age/education demographic bracket these days—my bracket being kids in their early 20s who just graduated from prestigious or semi-prestigious universities who are mostly the children of middle and upper-middle class parents. Our bracket is getting the shit kicked out of it. My friend is living with his girlfriend (another bracket-mate, working as a nanny), on food stamps, and writing essays that he hopes to sell for low amounts of money. After sending out application after application via Craigslist and a brief, unhappy stint as a kickball umpire, my anonymous buddy has found work at a “really terrible smoothie shop inside of a gym.” This is a guy who graduated from my school a semester before I did, and who can presumably do something a lot better than telling gym rats exactly how many grams of protein is in the mango-strawberry blend. And he's not unique.
Some of my friends moved back into their parents' houses right after graduation. Others stuck it out in the city of their choice, but they usually got subsidized like a failing financial institution by their parents. Most, feeling the weight of their debt to their parents, took any opportunity to get a job that would give them an independent income—meaning they umpired kickball, scooped ice cream, applied to work at Home Depot just like they applied to Princeton five years ago, and learned the intricacies of government programs like unemployment, Medicaid, and food stamps. A surprising amount of them now play online poker for a living, which means they are smart, math-inclined, and disciplined enough to sit in front of their computer staring at numbers for hours at a time, yet they can't get a job. A whole lot of us work for the census, which is paying good money while it lasts, but knocking on doors like Tim Meadows isn't what we had in mind when we got those fancy degrees handed to us. Some of the people I know are going back to school already, either to get a more “useful” degree or to simply hide out in academia for a little longer.
But enough anecdotal evidence, which any competent economist or SABR-matician will tell you is a bunch of randomly occurring bullshit: here's a page of numbers. The numbers say that despite the progress the economy is making, 16 percent of 20 to 24 year olds are unemployed. That's better than the 16 to 19 year old age bracket, but the job market is always tough on 17 year olds—by the time you're in your 20s, you really should be able to get a job. So why can't my peer group get it together?
As with everything, there are a multitude of reasons. Number one has nothing to do with the economy: a four-year degree doesn't mean what it used to. College enrollment has been rising for decades, to the point where every middle class child is expected to grow up to attend the most expensive university that will have him. We did our duty and went straight from high school to college (which is basically high school where everyone gets laid), and when we graduated and got our piece of paper, we found out that everyone else our age had the same piece of paper, and that a bachelor's degree isn't the ticket to a white-collar job it once was. Even before money turned itself inside out, kids who were too old to really be called “kids” were moving back in with their parents after finding out that graduating from college doesn't automatically make you an independent adult. (The trend even has it's own Wikipedia entry.)
But in these troubling economic times, when “sub prime mortgage” is a part of everyone's vocabulary even if no one knows what it means, it's even tougher for young people to transition from college to a job to a career to an apartment without roaches to the final stage in life when you have kids and multiple bank accounts and don't stay awake late enough to watch The Daily Show. When my graduating class went into the job market we weren't just competing with each other but also with the swarm of older, more experienced workers who had just gotten laid off, for jobs that were getting scarcer and scarcer. Is it any wonder that so many of us are sitting in the basement bedroom where we used to masturbate three times a day as teens, playing poker for a living or scanning and refreshing Craigslist every five minutes?
I don't want to exaggerate—some of my friends, through a combination of luck, perseverance and talent, are doing very well, thank you for asking. But it's worth noting that the government, who is in the business of bailouts these days, hasn't done my demographic any favors. Extending unemployment benefits didn't help, since few of us recent graduates had worked enough hours to claim unemployment in the first place. Cash for Clunkers wasn't designed for people who didn't have cars. And I've yet to understand how the TARP money is going to trickle down to us. Politicians don't really care about young people—for all the talk about how the “middle class” and “small business” are “the backbone of our economy,” no one has mentioned what body part recent college graduates are supposed to be. (But I have a guess.) A while ago I had a daydream that the government would step in and directly create jobs through a new program based on the Works Progress Administration and smart, motivated young people would line up in droves to be part of it, but I guess that would be Socialism, and Socialism is what got us into this mess in the first place. (Wait, what?)
The irony to be found here is that the aspiring artists among my generation are more prepared for this economic climate than the rest of us. Artists expect to go through a period of destitution in their early-to-mid 20s. Hell, they practically look forward to it when they're teenagers. But now everyone is basically a starving artist, and that has created a new and weird hybrid economic caste—raised on middle-class values, educated like the upper-class, and now living below the poverty line. We buy organic food with our food stamps. We break off late-night discussions of Lacan and craft brewing to ask each other if the coffee shop down the street is hiring. We go to the library to use the computer and nod hello to the homeless guys hanging out there. We get mildly embarrassed when the rent check arrives from our parents, but that's wearing off. Most of us did actually work hard in college, and learned some skills that we thought would be useful, but no one is buying what we want to sell.
This sucks, right here.
I have no idea what the long-term impact of our demographic's mini-depression will be. At best, I suppose, we'll just be late bloomers when it comes to starting careers, buying homes, and raising kids. (Actually, at best we will rise as one and seize the country in the grip of revolution, but that's not happening.) At worst...who knows? Maybe twenty years down the road, ours will have turned out to be a generation of filing clerks and coffee serves who have whole libraries of unused knowledge in their heads. But I hope not. Read more!
Monday, May 10, 2010
Hey there, postindustrial worker bee! You probably think your life is tough because you spent the weekend getting enjoyably shitfaced, or watching that movie that is just an 80-minute Youtube clip of cute babies, or getting shitfaced and then watching the babies movie, and now you have to drag your ass to your air-conditioned cubicle and pretend not to be playing computer solitaire for eight hours or so, but things could be a lot worse. For instance:
Sunday, May 9, 2010
ESPN is a miracle of marketing. When they started, people didn't think there would be enough sports-related content to fill a 24-hour cable channel and now ESPN has four cable channels (not counting ESPN Deportes) and one of the most popular web sites on the internet. The miracle part is that for a massive organization devoted to sports, ESPN does a remarkably shitty job of analyzing and reporting on sports. There's the “east coast bias” that people often complain about—this time of year, it means Red Sox and Yankees all the time—but there's other things I hate about ESPN.com. The column topics that get recycled every time an athlete says something race-related or gets accused of sexual assault. The willful ignorance of statistics and an over-reliance on “the team that wanted it more won” cliches. The refusal to have any discussions about sports that are elevated above the level of talk radio. And finally, the times when they decide to roll out content that is so pointless it's somewhat mystifying.
Look at this. Look at this! This is a detailed recap, down to a play-by-play, of a game that never happened between the all-time great Yankees and the all-time great Red Sox. I realize not everything on the internet needs to be a great and enlightening bit of art (see Cheezburger, I Can Haz?) but holy fuck is this thing worthless. Just think about how ESPN made this thing: first it was conceived after weeks of editorial meetings, then web pages and text were produced, edited, and sent to multiple people for approval. Fan votes on who the best Yankees and Red Sox had to be tabulated, probably by a computer that was double-checked by some poor intern. All for something that could have been created by a slightly autistic statistician with a massive baseball card collection, some time, and a stained bathrobe. So good job, ESPN! Just when I think you've hit rock bottom, you find a way to keep digging.
[Ultimate Rivalry: Red Sox vs Yankees] Read more!
Friday, May 7, 2010
Sometimes, an advance in technology is so strange and exciting that you can't help but get your hopes up. When the TV networks started covering political campaigns, some commentators predicted that since ordinary people would see more of the candidates, it would be harder to fool them and more serious, issue-driven campaigns would result—ha! Similarly, the idea of cell phone “apps” is pretty cool, in practice: a whole lot of independent software designers working on shareware that will turn our phones into space-age Swiss Army Knives. The possibilities appear limitless, until you realize that, like with TV and the internet, cell phone apps will basically just allow us to watch bad movies, look at porn, and buy stuff. Any attempt to color outside of the lines will not be tolerated.
Case in point: Atari Teenaged Riot, everyone's favorite German electro-punk group, tried to include a feature on their new app that would cause riots, sort of, only not really—the “Riotsounds” feature would make the phone produce “noise sounds which trigger hysteria and panic within the audience." Sounds kind of ominous, but all the app really does is play some grating techno music. It's not like ATR have access to supervillian-level technology; “Maximum Carnage” is not likely to result. (Although the group did actually start a riot one time.)
Still, ATR's app smacks of intentional anti-authoritarianism—they advise people to play the Riotsounds on the largest speakers they can find—and that made Apple nervous. Acceptable uses of the iPhone apparently include finding restaurant reviews and giving people a multiplicity of ways to purchase music on iTunes, but not encouraging people to take up arms against the police, which is too bad. We already have apps that let capitalists track stocks and buy extraordinarily expensive iPhone cases—where are the apps for the hard-core leftists? It's good to be reminded that no matter how many ads Apple runs with cool, bourgeois hipsters endorsing their products, they don't really want you to rock the boat, which is why some people prefer Microsoft these days—at least they don't pretend to be the good guys.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
I don't really have that many regular readers, I know, but I thought I should make a short statement about a slight shift I'm making in the direction of the blog. We we still be focused on describing the ways this world is eating itself from the inside and commenting on the horrible injustices the populace at large just takes for granted, but we won't be publishing (or lately, trying to publish) multiple entries a week. Instead, there will just be one big essay every week, supplemented by more frequent short posts that link to articles that describe the hole of suck that is everyday life. I apologize in advance for becoming part of the endless cycle of reposting that is the blogosphere. Who knows? Maybe some of the shorter entries will run longer. And if anyone reading this has any interest in guest-blogging, I'm always open to that.
The reason for this change (as if you care) is that I'm busier. I don't discuss my life on this blog, but basically I'm doing a lot more work for other people (including Vice and VBS, which are worth checking out if you've never heard of them) and attempting to write more fiction (which will never appear on this site). I can't write three essays a week on that schedule, and hopefully this way I'll be more focused on the one essay and the quality will improve. Anyway, thanks for reading and check back here every Wednesday or so for new essays, and every day or so for new links. Read more!
Great pop songs tend to revolve around simple ideas. I Love You and This Is Awesome, I Love You and This Is Awful, Why Won't You Love Me, I Don't Love You Anymore And You Should Leave—those themes cover about 90 percent of the music enjoyed by the world at large. That's not a knock on popular music. There's a lot of variation and nuance that a good songwriter can squeeze out of those four standard tropes—if you don't believe me, listen to every Beatles album before Sergeant Pepper. (After that, the Beatles started writing songs about the topic that makes up the last 10 percent of pop music: We Are On Drugs and Shit Does Not Make All That Much Sense.)
But as some really excellent, really famous songwriters age (or alternately, start hooking up with really pretentious artists whose names rhyme with “Hoko Tone-o”) they try to branch out from these basic themes, either because they're tired of writing about love or because the Have Something Important to Say. Call it Sting Syndrome.* Like adolescents who just read A People's History of the United States, these songwriters stop doing (so many) drugs, look around the world, and discover, shockingly, that there are a lot of problems with it. That's how we get Michael Jackson's “Black or White,” Paul McCartney's and Stevie Wonder's awful “Ebony and Ivory,” and most of all, that's how we got John Lennon's “Imagine.”
Now, I don't know that much about Lennon's post-Beatles career, but I know that “Imagine” is his most famous song, a song I hear in grocery stores and laundromats, a song's whose legacy has lived on thanks to Yoko Ono, who acts like Gandhi wrote the lyrics and has constructed a monument of bullshit and light to it. It's one of the most critically acclaimed songs of the last century and number three on Rolling Stone's list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” And I hate it.
Don't get me wrong—it is catchy. It's got that nice gentle piano riff and a good melody. This is John Motherfucking Lennon we're talking about, after all. The man could have written a song about how much he likes Triscuits and it would have been musically interesting and probably a number five hit in the UK. But the reason everyone likes “Imagine” isn't for its catchiness, it's for its lyrics, which are put on a pedestal along with “Blowin' in the Wind” and the famous bits of the Bible. If you want to read the lyrics, here they are.
Yes, that John certainly is a dreamer. No, he isn't the only one. Many people imagine what it might be like to live in a world with no wars, religion, or countries. That would probably be pretty cool. We'd sit around playing the sitar, smoking really primo dope, and having sex with one another in a variety of positions. So what? Imagining is easy. Everyone imagines, and that's the fucking problem. The difficult part is when you stop imagining and try to get from point A (your shitty life) to point B (the sitars, the fucking, etc). Martin Luther King wasn't a great man because he had a dream, he was a great man because he was willing to get arrested, beaten, and even die for that dream.
Compare MLK's dedication to the worldview expressed in “Imagine.” The song doesn't advocate any action, it doesn't detail any specific problems or solutions it just sort of drifts along and says, “Hey, wouldn't it be great if things were great?” Not every song needs to be a treatise on geopolitics but shouldn't a “meaningful” song actually mean something?
“Imagine” could be the anthem of the ineffectual hippie movement, the people who “broke down barriers” by taking acid, listening to trippy music, and being promiscuous. The song fetishizes thoughts and fantasies and ignores direct action. It explicitly asks the listener to “join the dreamers” in order to make the “world live as one,” which is one of the least-subversive ideas I've ever heard. It's subtle pro-capitalist, pro-establishment propaganda: the institutions the hippies supposedly opposed (the military-industrial complex, big business, etc) would prefer that they keep dreaming—while they're sitting in meditation circles and seeking transcendence, they can be easily ignored. Actually trying to change things is too hard for most people, which is why as the hippies aged and realized that imagining didn't do anything for anyone, they started figuring out ways to make money.
Ironically, young John Lennon was way ahead of the hippies. The Beatles covered “Money (That's What I Want)” early on and wrote cynical, mocking anthems like “Revolution 1.” They realized that the most meaningful, resonant songs are about the endless permutations personal relationships, not just putting your schmaltzy personal philosophy to music. Then Lennon grew his hair out and turned into a caricature of a painfully earnest hippie.
Case in point: the “Bed In” protest he and his new bride Yoko Ono performed in 1969. Non-violent protest is supposed to draw attention to the brutal nature of the forces you are opposing—they hit you, and you don't hit them back, thus drawing attention to the justice of your cause and the injustice of your oppressors. By contrast, sitting in bed and getting people to pay attention to your “protest” because you are famous is just being lazy. I've praised lying in bed before, but not as a form of political action; you should lie in bed because it feels good. Similarly, you should have sex and do drugs and listen to Rock and Roll not because you are expanding your consciousness or breaking down barriers, but because it feels awesome. The problem with the Bed In, Ono's monument to “Imagine,” and the song itself is that they assume that just imagining is good in and of itself, that wishing for an impossible world is somehow helpful.
Maybe if Lennon had lived longer, he'd have the decency to be embarrassed by “Imagine.” Maybe he would have revealed that whole phase of his life to be a complicated satire on the soft and ideologically muddled state of the anti-war movement in the early 70s. But he's dead and, unfortunately, the song he left behind is a meaningless, maudlin, sap-filled ballad that doesn't care enough about its own ideas to examine them. Yes John, it would be nice if there were no countries, but if you want us to get there, we're going to have to kill some people.
*For the young people who are not rock historians: Sting was the frontman for The Police, who recorded some really awesome albums and had a string of hits like “Roxanne” and “Don't Stand So Close to Me” and “Everything She Does is Magic,” which were all great songs about love. Then Sting went solo and recorded the most serious, straight-faced, boring pop-jazz albums ever. Listen to as much of so-serious-it-makes-you-want-to-look-pensively-out-the-window-into-the-rain “Fields of Gold” as you can and then listen to “So Lonely” to get the taste out of your ears and you'll understand why Young Sting kicks Old Sting's ass.
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