Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Layer 546 . . . The Rebellious Imperatives of the Self

It looks as though the word 'hipster' might be forcing its way into mainstream discourse, even though its meaning is still far from clear. For example, the Guardian's young film critic described the two lead characters in "Take This Waltz" as hipsters and was promptly and quite rightly denounced for it by various commenters. Even I could see that those characters weren't hipsters. The fact that someone lives in a funky part of town and is a self-employed "creative" type surely doesn't make them a hipster. To be a hipster means you also need a certain sort of attitude - self-consciously 'cool', smart, knowing, and fashionable in a bohemian kind of way. The couple in the film were actually the sort of people that 'beatniks' in the '50's used to call 'square' - meaning conventional, bourgeois and mainstream, with musical and cultural tastes to match. Their main aims in life seemed to be to exist in a kind of cosy and comfortable romantic bubble without too much connection with the outside world.

The rickshaw guy, on the other hand, was probably a hipster - a bedsit-dwelling, would-be artist; self-analysing, minimalist, sardonic, confident in his own sexuality, and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

We seem to need labels to describe human beings, whom we reduce to 'types' and tribes. Back in the Sixties there were Mods, Rockers, Hippies and Skinheads. Following that we had Punks, Yuppies, New Romantics, and so on.

College culture in the USA produced geeks, dorks, nerds and dweebs, based on young people's capacity for intelligence, social ineptitude and/or obsessive behaviour.

A geek is someone who's both intelligent and obsessive.  A dweeb is intelligent but socially inept. A dork is socially inept, obsessive and lacking in intelligence. A nerd is intelligent but also socially inept and obsessive. It's just about OK to be a member of the geek squad, but no-one wants to be a nerd, a dork or a dweeb.

As for hipsters, it seems we're about to see more of them on television.

How hipsters took over television

We've scoffed at them online and in books, but a new NBC comedy could be the first mainstream TV show to laugh at them.
It's a modern morality tale: the story of the hipsters, the counterculture phenomenon that ate itself. What began as a run-on from (anti-consumerist) slacker culture, wherein groups of wannabe artists with barista jobs congregated around urban areas (Hoxton, Williamsburg), has morphed into a multimillion-dollar industry trying to sell a mythical, neo-bohemian lifestyle.
With the kook well and truly out of the bag (and Urban Outfitters on high streets everywhere), a glut of anti-hipster literature grew against the seemingly self-satisfied and insular subculture, from websites and books such as Look at This Fucking Hipster, Stuff Hipsters Hate and Hipster Hitler.
Into this melee of so-called "hipster hate", steps comic Jimmy Fallon. His production company, Holiday Road, headed by former Daily Show boss Josh Lieb, is working on a sitcom about a decidedly unhip anthropology student who ends up living with the hipsters of Brooklyn, New York. 

Wikipedia says this:

Hipster (contemporary subculture)
Hipster refers to a subculture of young, recently settled urban middle class adults and older teenagers that appeared in the 1990s. The subculture is associated with independent music, a varied non-mainstream fashion sensibility, liberal or independent political views, alternative spirituality or atheism/agnosticism and alternative lifestyles. 
Origins in the 1940s
The term itself was coined during the jazz age, when "hip" emerged as an adjective to describe aficionados of the growing scene. Although the adjective's exact origins are disputed, some say it was a derivative of "hop," a slang term for opium, while others believe it comes from the West African word "hipi," meaning "to open one's eyes." Nevertheless, "hip" eventually acquired the common English suffix -ster (as in spinster and gangster), and "hipster" entered the language.
Jack Kerouac described 1940s hipsters as "rising and roaming America, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere [as] characters of a special spirituality." In his essay "The White Negro," Norman Mailer characterized hipsters as American existentialists, living a life surrounded by death - annihilated by atomic war or strangled by social conformity - and electing instead to "divorce [themselves] from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self."
A 2009 Time magazine article described hipsters thus: "take your grandmother's sweater and Bob Dylan's Wayfarers, add jean shorts, Converse All-Stars and a can of Pabst and bam -  hipster." It went on to say, ""Hipsters are the friends who sneer when you cop to liking Coldplay. They're the people who wear t-shirts silk-screened with quotes from movies you've never heard of and the only ones in America who still think Pabst Blue Ribbon is a good beer. They sport cowboy hats and berets . . . Everything about them is exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don't care."
In his 2011 book HipsterMattic, author Matt Granfield summed up hipster culture this way:
"While mainstream society of the 2000s (decade) had been busying itself with reality television, dance music, and locating the whereabouts of Britney Spears’s underpants, an uprising was quietly and conscientiously taking place behind the scenes. Long-forgotten styles of clothing, beer, cigarettes and music were becoming popular again. Retro was cool, the environment was precious and old was the new ‘new’. Kids wanted to wear Sylvia Plath’s cardigans and Buddy Holly’s glasses — they revelled in the irony of making something so nerdy so cool. They wanted to live sustainably and eat organic gluten-free grains. Above all, they wanted to be recognised for being different — to diverge from the mainstream and carve a cultural niche all for themselves. For this new generation, style wasn’t something you could buy in a department store, it became something you found in a thrift shop, or, ideally, made yourself. The way to be cool wasn’t to look like a television star: it was to look like as though you’d never seen television."
Is there such a thing as a sustainable counterculture? More to the point, is it possible for the broad mass of people to live authentically, to become their true selves, to discover their individual Tao and to live in ways that are independent, self-sufficient, creative, individualistic, non-materialistic and pay no attention to fashion, marketing and the insidious messages of the mass media?

Clearly things would be a lot easier for a lot more people in this regard if money wasn't such an issue. The cost of renting or buying a place to live in is, on its own, always going to make it harder for anyone to live according to their natural instincts, rhythms and cycles. People nowadays work far too hard and for far too many hours in the week doing largely uncreative and meaningless things just to keep the wolf from the door.

Plus there are millions of people doing important and meaningful work ranging from caring for the elderly to keeping the streets clean who are paid a pittance and nowhere near a living wage, and have no time or energy or spare cash for doing things for their own spiritual and mental wellbeing. Then there are millions of well qualified professional people who also do important work - teachers, doctors, social workers, engineers - but similarly work far too hard for too many hours of the day and often at weekends when they should be resting and enjoying themselves with friends and families, not rushing around doing household chores and basic maintenance routines the majority of their 'free' time. The idea of a work/life balance is a bit of a joke. Why is there no popular clamour for a four-day maximum working week? Because people are insecure and are afraid of demanding anything. Because people are often paid by the hour and need all the cash they can get in order to pay the rent or the mortgage.

Contrast this with what Ian McEwan said about his life in the early 1970s in London, "when it was very bliss to be alive" : 'I had the time of my life':
"It was very easy not to have a job, to live the life of a full-time writer. I had a huge apartment in south London and it cost me £3 a week. The occasional review for the TLS, the occasional piece for Radio Times, and I could very easily pay my rent, buy a few books, make a weekly trip to the launderette. There were no machines everyone needed, apart from a hi-fi. I didn't feel poor at all. At the risk of sounding like Virginia Woolf, I could live on £700 a year."
These thoughts come to mind when I think about my son's current lifestyle. Now that he's living rent-free he can afford to pick and choose when to work and thereby generate some income. He has time to look after his physical fitness and his recreational needs. He has time to read, to listen to music, and to watch movies. His musical tastes are quirky and eclectic. He takes his dog for long walks. He spends time with his son. He sees friends and he cooks with basic, inexpensive ingredients. He's working his way slowly towards building up his own business that enables him to use a range of skills and abilities - teaching, coaching, interacting with people.

He has no-one pressurising him and keeping him to a contract or a timetable. He's a sidekick to his best mate who regularly needs him to help with his building and carpentry business, and they have leisure time together to practice their climbing and scrambling skills. He borrows his pal's 600cc motorcycle occasionally, and he's looking forward to having a bike of his own just as soon as his insurance company pays up for his latest accident - which was caused by a wretched car driver not looking where she was going. I guess you could say he's living in the 'Now', having learnt some tough lessons along his Way, whilst looking forward to further adventures and satisfactions in the future. He's even thinking about a move to a place of his own sometime next year.

All in all a son to be proud of - an individual who's his own person. Whether he's a hipster or not is another question. He's certainly a "character of a special spirituality", as Kerouac put it. And he's certainly "on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self".

Monday, September 10, 2012

Layer 545 . . . The Paralympics Closing Ceremony, or Death By Coldplay

The final event of the 2012 Paralympic Games  - the closing ceremony - apparently had a worldwide television audience of over a billion people, so it was something very significant which was worthy of some attention. The problem for me is that the more I reflect on it the angrier I get. Maybe it's because I'm a patriot that I actually care about the quality of what Britain offers the world. This country is full of inventive and talented people who are too often stifled and sidelined by fuckwits who have somehow moved themselves into positions of power and influence. And so we ended up last night with a situation where the Paralympics Closing Ceremony was little more than a Coldplay concert.

It seems the guy who had the power to determine the content of the Olympics ceremonies was determined to have a band called Coldplay at the very centre of this 'ceremony' - just as he was determined to have the Spice Girls and Dead Freddy at the centre of the appalling closing event (which wasn't really a ceremony) of the Olympic Games. This guy is a national disgrace. Take a bow, Kim Gavin.
["Gavin, who made his name overseeing Take That's spectacular stage shows, said he had turned down other groups that had wanted to get involved because he was convinced Chris Martin's band were the only ones for the job." - The Guardian.]

It may be the case that Coldplay are very popular with the sort of people who enjoy mawkish, sentimental ballady songs that are not too challenging and serve as adequate musical wallpaper in lonely suburban rooms where people sit updating their Facebook pages and making digital contact with their "friends". It may be the case that Coldplay give financial support to worthy causes. I don't really know, and I don't really care. All I know is that their music appeals to a few million people who apparently don't pay much attention to song lyrics because if they did they would surely realise they've been spending money on absolute bilge when they could be spending it on something of value.

Take away those few million Coldplay fans and what you have left is the best part of a billion people worldwide who are thinking, "Who the fuck are these boring idiots and what kind of dull, turgid shit are they playing?"

This would be in contrast to the billion people who appreciated the music in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics that Danny Boyle had commissioned Mike Oldfield to write - original and appropriate music with soul, melody and rhythm; music to fill a stadium with magnificent and magical sound as a backdrop to fabulous visual stimulation.

It's possible to ignore the words of certain pop songs and still enjoy the music. If you ignore the words of Coldplay you're just left with some incredibly dull and unoriginal rubbish. So let's have a look at some of their lyrics. It seems a song called "Yellow" is one of their greatest hits.

Look at the stars
Look how they shine for you
And everything you do
Yeah, they were all yellow

I came along
I wrote a song for you
And all the things you do
And it was called 'Yellow'

So then I took my time
Oh what a thing to've done
And it was all yellow

Your skin, oh yeah, your skin and bones
Turn into something beautiful
D'you know? You know I love you so
You know I love you so


Your BONES? Go ahead and read the rest of it. It gets worse.

OK - so maybe this song isn't typical. Let's try another greatest hit.

The Scientist

Come up to meet you, tell you I'm sorry
You don't know how lovely you are
I had to find you, tell you I need you
Tell you I set you apart

Tell me your secrets and ask me your questions
Oh, let's go back to the start
Running in circles, coming up tails
Heads on a science apart.

Poetry it ain't.

Try again. Another greatest hit.

Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall (????)

I turn the music up, I got my records on
I shut the world outside until the lights come on
Maybe the streets alight, maybe the trees are gone
I feel my heart start beating to my favorite song

And all the kids they dance, all the kids all night
Until Monday morning feels another life
I turn the music up, I'm on a roll this time
And heaven is in sight

I turn the music up, I got my records on
From underneath the rubble sing a rebel song
Don't want to see another generation drop
I'd rather be a comma than a full stop

Maybe I'm in the black, maybe I'm on my knees
Maybe I'm in the gap between the two trapezes
But my heart is beating and my pulses start
Cathedrals in my heart

And we saw, oh, this light, I swear you, emerge blinking into
To tell me it's alright, as we soar walls, every siren is a symphony
And every tear's a waterfall, is a waterfall, oh, is a waterfall,
Oh, is a, is a waterfall, every tear is a waterfall

So you can hurt, hurt me bad
But still I'll raise the flag
It was a waaaterfall A waaaterfall

Every tear, every tear, every teardrop is a waterfall
Every tear, every tear, every teardrop is a waterfall

This one is a laugh out loud job.

I think I rest my case.


But for the record, here are some other descriptions of Coldplay I've picked up on the Internet:

You didn't have to be one of those people who thinks Coldplay are the cloven-hoofed musical emissaries of satan himself to have been slightly concerned about how appropriate a booking they were.

Thanks to their ubiquity on TV soundtracks – tinkling away as someone departs The X Factor or the DIY SOS tells their tragic back story – a lot of their songs have become musical shorthand for "oh, isn't it a pity", designed to elicit sympathy for whoever is on screen.

In the event that you felt bored by Coldplay, there was always something to distract your attention . . . There was interpretative dance, which was nowhere near as disheartening as interpretative dance to Coldplay looks on paper.

- Alexis Petridis in today's Guardian.

I loathe Coldplay for their pretentiousness and the level of self-pity that seeps into their songs.
- ZellHolland

Pyrotechnics are not enough to distract from the show's longueurs, those moments when Coldplay try to rock. Their rock gestures just don't convince, not even when Chris Martin hurls his guitar skyward at the end of God Put a Smile On Your Face. He's clearly more Manilow than Marilyn Manson, thanking us for waving our "beautiful arms", for giving him this "wonderful job", gushing showbiz gratitude that is probably genuine, but doesn't entirely feel like it.
Tonight's show works best when Coldplay lean upon their soppier, soft-rock instincts . . . As the soft-rock confections reach their crescendos, with the confetti cannons and fireworks at full blast, Emirates Stadium feels like the set of some twee, manipulative, "magical" mobile-phone ad – but then subtlety counts for little in venues like this.

- Stevie Chick reviewing Coldplay at the Emirates for the Guardian last June.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Layer 544 . . . The Buzz, The Waltz and the Human Condition

Lying in the blazing September sun this afternoon in my fabulously comfortable rocking sunlounger I felt more relaxed than I've done in years, or perhaps decades. Is it any wonder when the past six summers, at least, have been so bad, or simply non-existent? We now know that this change for the worse in our climate is down to a shift in the position of the Jet Stream, which may or may not have something to do with global warming. Either way, it's been fucking frustrating.


In the Guardian magazine today there's an article written by Decca Aitkenhead under the title, The Buzz.

It seems there's a film that's about to go on general release called Hysteria, which "tells the true story of the vibrator".
The vibrator was invented by respectable Victorian doctors, who grew tired of bringing female patients to orgasm using their fingers alone, and so dreamt up a device to do the job for them. Their invention was regarded as a reputable medical instrument – no more improper than a stethoscope – but became wildly popular among Victorian and Edwardian gentlewomen, who soon began buying vibrators for themselves. For its early customers, a vibrator was nothing to be embarrassed about . . .
100 years ago women didn't have the vote, yet they were going to a doctor's office to get masturbated.
In 19th-century Britain, the condition known as hysteria – which the vibrator was invented to treat – was not a source of embarrassment at all. Hysteria's symptoms included chronic anxiety, irritability and abdominal heaviness, and early medical explanations were inclined to blame some or other fault in the uterus. But in fact these women were suffering from straightforward sexual frustration – and by the mid-19th century the problem had reached epidemic proportions, said to afflict up to 75% of the female population. Yet because the very idea of female sexual arousal was proscribed in Victorian times, the condition was classed as non-sexual. It followed, therefore, that its cure would likewise be regarded as medical rather than sexual.
The only consistently effective remedy was a treatment that had been practised by physicians for centuries, consisting of a "pelvic massage" – performed manually, until the patient reached a "hysterical paroxysm", after which she appeared miraculously restored. The pelvic massage was a highly lucrative staple of many medical practices in 19th-century London, with repeat business all but guaranteed. There is no evidence of any doctor taking pleasure from its provision; on the contrary, according to medical journals, most complained that it was tedious, time-consuming and physically tiring.
If the story of the vibrator tells us anything it is that men have been determined for millennia to deny the most obvious truth about women's sexual requirements. Explanations for this collective denial have ranged from profound fear of female sexuality to sheer laziness. Either way, Maines says, "The constant from Hippocrates to Freud – despite breathtaking changes in nearly every other area of medical thought – is that women who do not reach orgasm by penetration alone are sick or defective." Western society has steadfastly preferred to pathologise around 75% of the female population as frigid, hysterical or, as the Victorians liked to say, "out of sorts", than acknowledge the inconvenient truth that coitus might not be entirely satisfying to women.


Take This Waltz

Take This Waltz is the title of one of the tracks on Leonard Cohen's superb 1988 album "I'm Your Man". It's also the title of a film written, produced and directed by the multi-talented Canadian Sarah Polley, which has recently been on general release in this country. The film had an absurdly bad review by one of the Guardian's film critics, who gave it one star out of five. This man, who shall remain nameless, appears to be a complete cretin.


Cohen has written many songs that deal with frustration and longing, including "I'm Your Man" in which he recognises that people regularly cope with a host of unsatisfied desires and fantasies. With brilliant tongue in cheek humour Leonard declares that whatever it is someone might want, he's the man to provide it. It's only a chat-up line, of course: Len's too much of a realist to imagine that any complex human being can truly be satisfied for very long. The point is, so what? Only romantics go around imagining that things can be otherwise, even if some people pretend that all's well in their life by keeping schtum about their frustrations and their usually unspoken willingness to compromise and settle for safety and security when life with a particular partner turns out to be less than ideal. Buddhists recognise that the greatest causes of misery in life are unsatisfied desires and attachment.

In Sarah Polley's film a character called Margot is the one who's frustrated. In a neat role-reversal she's married to a steady, down to earth, practical, decent, domesticated guy called Lou, who's trying to write a book that consists entirely of recipes for cooking chicken. He spends his days cooking chicken in various ways, and writing up his food experiments. Whenever Margot gets bored with the travel guides she's trying to write and approaches Lou for some diversionary cuddles or sex he's invariably "busy" and not interested - even in bed.

Margot and Lou have an apparently wonderful "best friends" kind of marriage in which they regularly play affectionate little games and say "I love you". Lou's not exactly a physical kind of guy, and so he's perfectly happy with the marriage. Margot thinks the world of Lou and yet . . . she's bored. And frustrated. She knows she needs more. She wants sex and she wants passion, excitement, novelty. And true intimacy. Somehow "love" is not quite enough.

She also wants someone whom she can talk to, share thoughts with and explore ideas with. When she and Lou go to a restaurant to celebrate their 5th anniversary she suggests they might have a conversation. Lou's response is, what for? Isn't the point of going to a restaurant to simply enjoy good food and wine? Surely they can have conversations any old time? If only.

The film reaches its true climax with a long, circular tracking shot that cleverly reveals a series of episodes in Margot's future life with a new lover, whilst "Take This Waltz" plays as its soundtrack.

At the conclusion of the film it's not clear whether anything is resolved, other than Margot realising that there's more to life than coupledom, and maybe it's the journey that's important rather than finding a destination, or a refuge, or security, or any kind of permanence. It seems that Lou has also realised that he's better off alone than married to a woman he knows he cannot satisfy, no matter how kindly and decently he treats her. He is what he is. And she is whatever she is. Lou somehow seems to have discovered his niche - he's published his book and is contracted to write a sequel - with another 50 chicken recipes. Whilst Margot might just be back where she started - on the road to finding herself - but at least with an awareness that this is what she's doing, and what she needs to do. Which seems like a very Zen thing to have learned.

All in all this is clearly an "art" film, as we used to say, which is the antithesis of the standard Hollywood model with its fast-cutting, all-action, easy to follow story line about nothing very much, and unlikely to provoke any thought or reflection. Sarah Polley is a true artist who paints with long, slow takes of the camera and leaves plenty of time and room for contemplation, connection and consideration. She highlights several key aspects of the human condition, but doesn't tell us what to think about them and doesn't point to any simple conclusions. Her characters and relationships are complex, multi-layered and ambivalent. This is not a romantic movie. And there are no solutions to the human condition.


Leonard Cohen and his wonderful band are playing at Wembley Arena tonight and tomorrow night.