Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oscar Editorial on Sounds of Cinema

On today's episode of Sounds of Cinema I read an editorial about the (ir)relevance and (il)legitimacy of the Academy Awards.  Here is an excerpt:
The fact that the Oscars are decided by old white men is not exactly a surprise and the lack of diversity has been a longstanding issue for the Academy. As the article details, very few actors of color have been nominated or even brought on stage to present awards. Whether the Academy should more accurately represent the racial and gender constitution of the American population or if it should represent those working as professional filmmakers regardless of their identity is something that I’ll leave to be debated among people who specialize in ethnography and gender studies, at least for now.

However, the nugget from the Times article that is really most damning about the Academy has little to do with the race, gender, or age. Within the piece, the writers observe that hundreds of academy voters haven't worked on a movie in decades and some are people who have left the movie business entirely but continue to vote on the Oscars. What this means is that the institution that calls itself “the world's preeminent movie-related organization” of "the most accomplished men and women working in cinema" and that the mainstream press treats like the definitive judgement on motion pictures does not make its annual award decisions based upon the opinions of people who are currently working in the business.
Read the full essay here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Case Against Whitney Houston (or, Why Pop Music Fails As Art)

One of the major stories dominating headlines and newsfeeds for the past week has been the death of pop singer Whitney Houston. With all the publicity surrounding her death, we might be led to believe that Houston was a major artist or that her body of work is culturally significant. But that is simply not the case and her death, which occurred on the eve of this year’s Grammy ceremony, should be a reminder that much of what constitutes popular music is little more than inane tripe.

There is no question that Houston had great commercial success, as she was among the bestselling recording acts of all time and was the most awarded female musician. But this does not make her a great artist. Album sales are no measure of artistic talent. To argue otherwise would be like arguing that McDonalds makes good food because the fast food giant sells a lot of cheeseburgers or Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a good movie because it sold a lot of tickets. As for Houston’s accolades, most of these can be dismissed because the major awards ceremonies, especially for music and motion pictures, have little credibility. (Consider this: Ben Affleck and Nicolas Cage have Oscars for writing and acting, respectively, but Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Wells were only recognized with generic achievement awards.) These ceremonies are little more than three-hour advertisements for media conglomerates in which their most lucrative acts are displayed and awarded.

There is also no question that Houston, at the height of her fame, had impressive singing talent. Her performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV remains one of the most impressive renditions of the national anthem and many people who were teenagers in the mid-1990s will remember “I Will Always Love You” as a high school dance favorite (although the motion picture it was associated with isn’t remembered so fondly). But being a great performer is not the same as being a great artist. To be artistic requires creation or at least the arrangement or rearrangement of existing content into something new. Houston only wrote or produced a handful of her songs and none of those were her hit singles. She had talent and a voice, and sometimes it was a quite beautiful voice, but that is no more distinguished than the many forgettable winners of American Idol.

There is another important aspect of artistry that Houston, and much of pop music, fails to possess: substance. As she didn’t write the songs, Houston cannot be credited or criticized for their content. But even as the courier of music written by other people, there was nothing innovative or provocative about the music. Lyrically, her music consisted of cookie-cutter love ballads that had only the most superficial meanings. Pop music is generally intended to be filler, the kind of music that listeners appreciate more for the beat or the emotion it evokes rather than the lyrics. There is a place for that in the music scene; someone has to provide the tunes that young people listen to while dry humping on a Friday night. But the music’s utility is no excuse for its vapidity and we should not confuse it for great art.

The imbalance between Houston’s lack of artistic accomplishments and the importance being ascribed to her career are not new or unique. Plenty of dead celebrities get more recognition than they are due, especially if they pass under tragic circumstances. But the praise and significance being heaped on Houston’s memory does provide an opportunity to address the shallowness found in popular music and more broadly across the culture. I recently had the opportunity to examine the book and CD set Next Stop Vietnam – The War on Record, 1961 – 2008, which is a compilation of music and other audio artifacts from the Vietnam era. As I went through the thirteen (!) discs in the set I was astonished by the volume of music produced about the war, with some musicians supporting America’s military intervention (“It's America, Love It Or Leave It” by Ernest Tubb), others opposing it (“War” by Edwin Starr), and still more or reflecting on specific events or repercussions (“The Ballad Of My Lai” by Matt McKinney). I doubt a compilation of mainstream music reflecting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would exceed a single disc.

Music does not necessarily need to deal with headline news in order to be great. Affairs of the heart are just as worthy of examination. But there is a significant divide between the pop music that is being thrust at us by media companies and the realities of consumers’ lives. Case in point: in the fall of 2008, when the American economy was collapsing, the song topping the Billboard chart was “Whatever You Like” by T.I., an anthem to mindless consumption if there ever was one. Aside from Bruce Springsteen’s recent track, “We Take Care of Our Own,” I cannot come up with a single pop artist (especially one who is under forty years old) who has addressed life in the post-TARP era or the general feeling of frustration, betrayal, and anger embodied by the Tea Party and the Occupy movements. That kind of disconnection renders pop music artistically irrelevant.

Pop music seems doomed to this irrelevancy for the time being. Part of what art is intended to do is to challenge the audience. Pop music has an inherent problem because it is a product that large media conglomerates aim to sell without getting into trouble with politicians or shareholders. When an artist attempts to challenge the listener, he or she risks his or her standing with the corporate masters. And as CD sales dry up and the profits from legal downloading fail to make up for the shortfall, major labels will be inclined to make safer choices. This means less challenging work and more irrelevant music.

One last thought: Whitney Houston’s one major claim as a performer was her singing ability and many major vocalists of previous generations made their mark on pop music on that talent alone. But in recent years even that has become a diminishing commodity as voices are digitally altered in post-production facilities. This renders even a performer’s musical skill superfluous and ultimately reduces him or her to a spokesperson for a product.

This very issue was addressed on Grammy night. Because Houston’s death overshadowed most everything else at the ceremony, one acceptance speech went largely unnoticed. Accepting the award for Best Rock Performance, Dave Grohl of The Foo Fighters proclaimed that “learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do. . . . It’s not about what goes on in a computer.” Grohl’s comments, although nuanced and polite, were far more provocative than any outfit or stage piece employed by otherwise brain dead pop acts. This statement, spoken to a roomful of people who have made careers and fortunes from music as digitally altered as a cover model on a beauty magazine, was a moment of true rock and roll rebellion.

Artistic music will continue to be written, recorded, and listened to by a receptive audience. It may not find its way onto local Top 40 radio stations and it may not be as profitable as in the heydays of Bob Dylan or John Lennon or Nine Inch Nails or Tupac. But the fact that it exists might be more important than its level of exposure. Great art is usually countercultural to some degree anyway, so pushing musicians out of the mainstream or to its margins may effectively liberate them from the trappings of corporate culture and ultimately free musicians to be the artists that they want to be.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Reverend William Dailey on Up with Chris Hayes

Check out this discussion from Up with Chris Hayes in which the host and his panel discuss the recent brouhaha over health care reform, birth control, and Catholicism with Reverend William Dailey of Notre Dame Law School. The clip runs long but its one of the most intelligent exchanges about the topic that I've come across.


Thursday, February 09, 2012

An Open Letter to Catholic Women

Ladies,

I’m sure the last thing you want is another white male commentator suggesting what you should or should not do with your vaginas. Don’t worry – this isn’t that kind of letter. Instead, I want to lay out a few observations I’ve made since birth control has re-entered the public discourse, specifically the birth control mandates as a part of the Affordable Care Act. It seems to me that this is a critical gut-check moment and I hope the next few paragraphs will lead all of us to a more intelligent discussion.

The first thing to be said is that the fundamental conflict here is one of freedom. In letters such as this one, the government mandate is described as an assault on religious liberty. According to Catholic leaders, the government will violate the separation of church and state by requiring that Catholic employers and hospitals provide contraception or contraception insurance coverage. What these opinion holders want is for Catholics to be able to decide, based on their own conscience and convictions, whether or not to provide birth control and not have that decision made for them by the government. And that leads to the following irony: the Catholics are essentially making a pro-choice argument. The elevation of personal freedom and empowerment of individual conscience is fundamentally what the pro-choice crowd has been arguing for since the abortion debate began nearly forty years ago. This is also the same argument used by those who advocate euthanasia or birth control. So on the one hand the Church has finally recognized how grave it is to rob an individual of his or her ability to self-determination but on the other hand it still demands absolute obedience to its own dictates.

Second, this is not really a matter of religious freedom because providing health care is not a religious exercise. The administration of medication or the performance of surgery are not sacraments or rituals. Let me illustrate this with a hypothetical example. Say that a Christian Scientist became a medical doctor. (Granted, that may be a stretch, but go with it for now.) As a certified physician he or she must follow basic practices mandated by professional organizations and by government agencies. If this Christian Scientist decided that he could not perform the basic expectations of his job or follow professional guidelines, then he or she should not be seeking an exception. He or she should be seeking a new career or a new religion. So too should Catholics who cannot stand to be compelled to provide contraception. The religious clause of the Constitution reads that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” by mandating coverage of birth control, government is not prohibiting Catholics from the exercise of their religion. They can abstain from using birth control themselves. They can also choose not to administer it but that may require Catholics to make a choice between their career and their religion. That may sound like a cold proposition but religion is a lifestyle choice.

This leads to my last point, that this conflict is leading to a much bigger reckoning for Catholics and other religious communities. Although women are often shut out of religious leadership positions, they do make up the bulk of the active laity. According to studies, women are more religious than men and about half of Catholic women attend mass weekly while only about a quarter of men do the same. Since the clout of a religious institution is largely based on the size and loyalty of its members, that means women are the backbone of the Catholic Church. The mainstream reporting of this news story would have us believe that the majority of the Catholics are up in arms over this mandate, but there is a startling contradiction in the numbers. According to surveys, most American Catholics actually agree with the mandate and about 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lives even though the Church tells them that using contraception is a sin. This brings me to the most delicate of my observations: you cannot have this both ways. You cannot call yourself a Catholic, which by definition requires submission to the Vatican’s dictates, while flagrantly ignoring its rules. As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m not going to suggest that you flush your birth control pills down the toilet and get to church. Quite the opposite: I want you to be honest about where you place your allegiance. That means aligning with those who actually share your priorities and values. If you use contraception or believe in the integrity of controlling what does and does not go into your body, then there is a gulf between you and your church and it isn’t going to be resolved in an easy or coherent compromise.

There is a choice to be made here but it isn’t between religious freedom and national health care. The choice is between the status quo of pseudo-freedom in which men and women’s minds and bodies are subject to the whims of others and a new consciousness that is liberated from dead philosophies and ruined institutions. Breaking up is never easy but it’s the only way to get out of an unhealthy relationship.