Category: Commentary


I’m having trouble processing the political situation in this world today, and, coupled with the difficulties, uncertainties, and fears of my own life, I’m losing hope.

New video footage of law enforcement killing a Black person surfaces so regularly, it’s as though the police’s strategy is to just keep ramping up the murder until the public becomes numb to it. Are the acquittals intended to send the message that the people will never win? How much absence of justice will the people accept until they “accept” the fact that there is no justice?

There are only two possible responses to this absence: giving up, or resistance. The system wants us to give up. The families and friends of the victims of police violence want us to resist.

Of course I would like things to get better, to calm down, to carry through to some kind of justice. But I know they aren’t going to, not without a fight, a mass struggle. Black people, simply by existing, by living peaceful lives, by struggling and surviving and doing what needs to be done, threaten the narrative of white supremacy in America. And so, more are being killed. This is to say nothing of those African-American voices that speak up clearly and unequivocally against this narrative, those African-American bodies who actively put themselves between the oppressor and the oppressed.

As more resistance rises, more people will die. It is the way of resistance, and it is hard to hear our consciences whispering it into our inner ear. “Things will get worse before they get better” is only one way of looking at it. It is not so much that conditions in society must get much worse before “society starts to care” about racist violence. The bulk of American society doesn’t care and generally isn’t going to. Those who say they care aren’t going to do anything about it, while the rest of American society is openly racist. We mustn’t wait for this society to start to care.

A clearer picture would be, “a thousand good guys must die in order to take down one bad guy. And then the fight has only just begun.”

This inescapable, dialectical fact scares me. As much as I want the revolution to happen, this type of continued destruction and death scares me into wishing it wasn’t necessary, wishing there was a safe way out for all of us. I just don’t know if there is. I don’t want anyone to die.

But I don’t see anything changing anytime soon. Body cameras will “malfunction.” Training will be flawed. Community policing will prove to be the idealistic liberal fantasy we already know it is.

People will advocate for these reforms, and while they are being tested on the flesh of Black bodies and proven ignominious failures at addressing the core problem, more lives will be lost on the road to real change, the road to revolution.

My sadness comes from knowing I will probably not be there to see it. But my hope is that humans of the future will be readier than we are, more knowledgeable, and more aware that the destruction of the current social order and financial system is a worthwhile goal if it means the creation of a world in which a person gets shot for being a racist, and not for being a race.

 

I don’t believe nature owes me anything, but I believe society does. Nature does not act with purpose; it just is. We perceive purpose in its actions, but it doesn’t. If the world ended tomorrow, nature wouldn’t care. It would just go on in a different form.

Nature is merely the means by which I am conceived and born. But society, in its various manifestations (parents, family, community, country, culture) is the cause, and society acts very much with purpose. No one asks to be born into this sniveling, pathetic excuse for a world filled with war, murder, racism, oppression, lifelong exploitation, childhood trauma, loss, sadness, disillusionment, confusion, and ultimately inevitable terrifying death. Rather, society asks that we be born, whether “society” means our parents who want to populate their lives with meaning, or whether it refers to culture, which tells our parents where meaning originates, or to our political system, which wants to prolong its “life” with a steady source of consumers and workers who all buy into that meaning. Society creates each individual person for these purposes which are alien to him or her; meanwhile, it creates or is complicit in all of its injustices and horrors.

In this way, while society brings us into existence, it presents us with very little besides the myriad reasons why we should regard that existence as a curse. The absolute and essential need for full-time employment makes alienated puppets of us all, contorting ourselves into our desk chairs or lifting and swinging hammers into concrete, turning our bodies into twisted, broken prisons consisting of one or another pain or preventable disease, and our minds into clenched fists of chronic stress that beat us into submission with refrains of “never enough time/money/status/possessions.”

“That’s life,” they tell us, as they were told.

Society wants to punish you for being born. It is completely ill-equipped to do anything else. Perhaps childhoods can be idyllic for some, but when “real life” takes hold, each person realizes what life has to offer, and uses what means are at his or her disposal to ignore this fact. Among the most common means for achieving this are drugs, alcohol, television, religion, unhealthy food, and expensive consumer goods at best; racism, xenophobia, patriotism, sexism, and imperialism at worst.

In essence, society brings us into this world and then gives us the means to kill ourselves, our hopes and dreams and aspirations for a better world. Rather than hand us a gun and have us blow our lives away, it prefers that we consume as much as possible before doing so, not because it eases any actual pain but because it enriches the people who benefit from society as it is. Mass infirmity, just like mass ignorance, makes those elements of society richer.

If we want to see any changes, however, we must not simply expect society to start giving us what it owes us. We must alter it as a whole. We must change its mechanism and purpose, from one that takes as much as it can from each citizen, to one that gives each citizen as much to live for—as much freedom, as much expression, as much value and worth, as much warmth and love and happiness, as much ethical fulfillment and consistency, as much support and solidarity, as much understanding—as possible.

That must be our goal. When we have accomplished it for everyone, we will have started to pay back the children of the world, and they will thank us, and then we can sleep peacefully, knowing they are safe.

There is an epidemic of mental illness splashed across my generation like a heart-shaped bloodstain. Why is that? Is it that doctors are too prescription-happy and get kickbacks from drug companies? Is it that all humans are, in some way or another, intrinsically damaged simply by existence? Is it that young people are insecure and simply grasp at any convenient sign of their own identity, and any pill to go with it, anything to make them feel more entitled to the benefits of being “normal”?

We like to forget that society produces the mentally ill people upon whom it imposes the many designations of mental illness it also produced. It created these designations to seemingly address the problem of mental illness. But before mental illness was categorized, it certainly existed, and now that it is categorized with as much gradient variation as geology, meteorology or any other science, it still exists. It even thrives, such that every deviation from the norm—overt anxiety, overt sensitivity, overt awareness, overt fear, overt particularity—can now be categorized, diagnosed, catalogued, and panoptically scrutinized by a chorus of licensed professionals.

Notice my use of the word “overt.” If these traits are not overt, if they are kept inside, they are not visible to other people and hence the need to categorize them diminishes until such times when the subject commits murder or pedophilia, to the extreme surprise of his or her familiars to whom he or she was “such a nice quiet person. I never would have thought…Sometimes you just never know.”

How could you “know,” how could you “have a thought” about something you ignore? Of course we are told to ignore the hateful and embrace the lovely, and of course we are taught to espouse it as well.  Even while we over-diagnose, over-medicate, over-scrutinize, we ignore and remain silent on the hateful aforementioned truth: that society creates its many segments, including the murderers, rapists, and corrupt politicians, because it thrives as it is through them. We are not taught to understand why a person commits murder or other crimes, except that they are aberrations, anomalies, and outliers, statistically insignificant, not signifying any greater message besides humanity’s ineluctable “dark side.”

Society puts dark ideas into our heads, ideas like “what is different is bad, what is the same is good,” or, “to dominate is to be right,” or “life sucks, get over it.” In the manicheistic pursuit of happiness, positivity, and self-interest, most of us tuck these lessons away to fall back on in the event of indecision. When we are not sure what to do with our lives, we can always rely on imitating the herd, the will to dominate (or, more likely, to be dominated, assuming its inherent virtue), and excusing the inequities and failures of life to steer us in the right and safe direction. This is what is considered “good mental health.”

But for the mentally ill, there are two other reactions to these adages. The first is total commitment i.e. taking it too far. These are murderers, rapists, pedophiles, the senselessly violent, hurting the innocent or defenseless, attacking minorities, preying on those they perceive as weak or different, and resolving any moral qualms with some variation of “life sucks, they’ll get over it. Life has winners and life has losers.”

The second reaction is emotional resistance. This puts the young woman or man in a state of anxiety while taking a test comprised of arbitrary criteria, depression when life appears worthless, anger upon learning about the state of the world, and (antisocial) alienation while struggling in that harsh “real world.” Pundits would have us perceive ourselves as “soft” and “weak.” “Sometimes life is sad, get over it.” “Sometimes life is anxious, get over it.” “Angry? You should be grateful!” “If you act like a weirdo, you get what you deserve.” Notice the similarity to the refrains of the killers.

For the emotionally resistant, the body is willing, though only under duress, and the mind is not. The mind is unwilling to accept the terms of engagement that have been thrust upon it, coercively, not as a request but as a requirement, if she should hope to succeed, to live safely and well, and to remain safe from the social stigmas of “failure,” having “never quite made it,” “never quite fitting in,” being “uncooperative,” “immature,” “ungrateful,” “underachieving,” having had “all the chances in the world to get ahead and missing or messing up all of them.”

Perhaps there is some compassion, some understanding that one aspect or another of society failed, not the emotionally resistant individual. This sense of shame and of self-disgust, of non-acceptance of the self, is laid at her feet for her to voluntarily take unto herself—as though she was being told to climb into her own grave—in the form of social stigma and mediocrity, to exculpate the society as the ultimate robber of this person’s “success” (a hopelessly twisted and obscure concept) to whom it never gave a chance, and place the blame right where it belongs: on the shoulders of the prisoner who hates her prison, her prison-guards, her prison-owners, no matter how beautiful a cell is promised or delivered, no matter how wonderful a meal is reserved for those who really “work hard” at deserving it, at fitting in.

She remains diagnosed as “her own worst enemy,” unsafe alone, unsafe with others, generally too sick to be around. Keep her alone, and silenced, and unloved, because her anger, her revulsion, her rejection of what is baldly wrong and unjust, of what completely fails to live up to the potential she sees in her daydreams—where hope is unneeded and fears are acted upon, where nature thrives and justice prevails, where the eye looks where it will and not where it is directed, where people are free—might rub off onto you.

And then you would be to blame.

photo by seatgeek

Mr. Flame (R) and Steve Aoki. photo: seatgeek

Waka Flocka Flame, in the seminal track “Rage the Night Away” with Steve Aoki at the helm, presents two seemingly contradictory ideas in an exhortative manner to his audience. In the very first line of the song, he proclaims, “We don’t give a damn about money/we alive right now/all we do is party/and get high right now,” while mere moments later, and practically in the same breath, he implores the listener to “make yo money stack” [sic]. While Waka could simply be illustrating his own inner thought process (perhaps a daily reminder to continue making his own “money stack”), his tone suggests, not a reflective inner monologue, but an urgent message. So I assume he is speaking to me, recommending that I earnestly dedicate myself to the task of making my, as it were, “money stack.”

It is also unclear whether he means that a person who is attempting to “make their money stack” should be more concerned with constructing a single stack of money, a “money stack,” which I call the Noun-Level Stack (NLS), or with obtaining an amount of money so significant that it “stacks,” referred to as Verb-Level Stacking (VLS).

noun-level stack

Noun-Level Stack

Verb-Level Stacking is not a “stack of money” being constructed; rather, it is “money that stacks.” To elaborate, achieving the VLS depends upon accruing an amount of money that is so great, the money is capable of being formed, and perhaps even forms itself, into haphazard “stacks” of perhaps indeterminate but necessarily substantial quantities, and earning money to this extent is to be considered “making” (“making” in the sense of “forcing”) your money “[to] stack” insofar as you are forcing your money to be capable of being stacked by having accumulated so much of it.

Now that the distinction is perfectly lucid, it may prove worthwhile to add the following as an afterthought: I say “necessarily substantial” due to the fact that a very small amount of banknotes, say anything less than 20 count, would hardly constitute a “stack” but rather a small pile, at best.

verb-level stacking

Potential Verb-Level Stacking

 

Continuing on, in light of the fact that this apparent missive follows his proclamation that “we” don’t “give a damn” about money, are we to conclude merely that Flockaveli is indeed giving frivolous, contradictory advice? Is he that mercurial, airy, irresponsible?

Or is he attempting to intimate to the listener that, in order to “party” to such an extent that one could be said to do nothing but party, it is necessary to accrue a “money stack,” such that the expenditures associated with the traditional partying lifestyle (alcohol, food, nice clothing, cover charges, et cetera) are provided for, not simply sufficiently but many times over? Based on the rest of the lyrics, we can dispense with the naive and frankly apologistic idea that Mr. Flame is referring to any other manner of partying lifestyle than this.

This raises the question, assuming Waka does want the listener to follow in his footsteps and do nothing but party, how does he reconcile the need to earn the money (whether that money is to be accrued into one “stack” or, due to its bulk, to be in the process of “stacking”) with the desire to do nothing but party? Mustn’t a person do things other than partying in order to earn or obtain his or her prerequisite stack or stacks?

I’m going to stand tippy-toes on a stack of my own here and assume that that idea is so self-evidently clumsy and ignorant of the vicissitudes of modern life that it is virtually impossible Flockaveli—a person who comes from that very same modern life—could have meant it that way.

Rather, we can gather not only from the lyrics but from the feel of the song—high energy, blistering harmonic heat, pounding, surrounding bass, and anthemic, inarguable vocal fluorishes, certainly not something to be sustained indefinitely throughout every second of one’s waking life—that this song, itself, represents the attitude that one adopts when one is truly living, and that things done independent of this attitude do not constitute “living” in the same meaningful sense.

Therefore, we can derive that, of course it is possible to “do” nothing but party while also engaging in activities (i.e. jobs/employment/income) that make partying possible through the production of, first, a “money stack,” and then, one hopes, adequate levels of additional income such that one’s “stack” transcends the Noun-Level Stack and achieves Verb-Level Stacking, preferably to stay.

In this scenario, theoretically time spent not living would decrease commensurate to the degree to which one’s “money stack” is being made in the case of NLS, or the degree to which one’s money is “stacking” in the case of the VLS. This is the ratio of “living” to “non-living” which Mr. Flame would have his listeners improve upon, and which he has exemplarily perfected.

This is not meant to glorify mental affliction, but rather to explore what it is, where it comes from, and its function. It is not inherently linked to revolutionary inclination or consciousness; rather, some of it is the result of a society which demands the compromise of one’s conscience in exchange for the ability to “function” normally in that society—and for the greater ability to benefit from that compromise—and some natural psychological response patterns represent the capacity, the inclination, and the desire to resist these demands.

It is easy to see our mental symptoms as signs of weakness, as disgraceful and unseemly symbols of our own softness of character. From one perspective, they do weaken us to the onslaughts of daily life, the type which demands total complicity in an unfolding future to which we would rather not give our consent.

If only there was some pill to take that made us “just do it,” “just say yes,” or just ask “how high” whenever we are told to jump. But there are too many barriers, those which connote a sensitive nature, between our wills and the aims of our demanders.

Too many of us were raised with levels of privilege sufficient to grant access to the question why: why is what is “required,” required? Why are we being forced into this way of life in whose creation and shape we had no influence, but to which we are expected to either conform, or if we would not have it thus, to change entirely on our own when all the wise and wizened voices are entrenched against us, or to leave altogether if we don’t like it (and some of us do, for pity)?

Why does this seem such a simple demand, yet it quakes our bellies to contemplate fulfilling it? Why is it being demanded of me, when it only benefits those whose interests are as invisible as they are, yet their influence is as palpable and seemingly ubiquitous as snow in a blizzard?

Our “infirmities,” shaped by our chemistry, our upbringing, or our observations, are saying no on our behalf. They are telling us not to deal with “reality,” that we are not able to handle, to cope, to function. We are not able to accept and move on, to stay calm, to swallow. Our stomachs are upside-down for a reason.

This land, this language, these laws do not inspire insouciance. Or gross obedience. Our smile is reserved for ourselves when, for a brief moment, we feel at peace or a memory of peace or an idea of peace or of truly “living.” Meanwhile, we are required not only to compromise our hearts and minds, but also take up arms against them, to ravage them, to bury them, as we would the native enemy. We are required to conform, to consent, to forget there ever was a conflict between “what is” and “what should be.” The power of all of the forces beyond our control—the repressive and the ideological—are organized against us and that power is growing every day, commensurate with the growing level of powerlessness, incompetence, impotence, failure, and apparent halfheartedness of any organization of resistance that existed before or since. It seems there used to be outlets for people who dissented; there used to be an active community of antiestablishment freaks, for better or for worse.

Now, almost all such organizations demand first that we compromise, the type of compromise that created the situation in which we find ourselves. The only mechanism that works correctly is our conscience, scooting between the fragments of our thoughts as vague detachment, observant melancholy, itching fear, or the prospect of total paralysis in the face of a world that doesn’t care if you die—that didn’t care if you ever lived—but only that you succeed at the role to which you’ve been assigned: fool, simpleton, idiot, puppet, charlatan, traitor, taker, navel-gazer. And in our hearts we refuse to play these roles, even as we don the costumes and makeup and inquire as to the rate of pay.

It is a sad but liberating truth that part of our strength lies in our fears, angers, depressions, and anxieties, and only when we can listen to ourselves and to each other, no matter how much our hands and voices shake, and direct our feelings and thoughts at the society which produced them—as it produces so many criminals, addicts, indigents, and indolents that it would rather never acknowledge, address, or redeem—can we hope to wrestle the definition of progress away from “well-adjusted” people and derail their legacy: a perpetual shuffle in lockstep of our people, our planet, our potential, towards irrevocable doom, not psychic, not of the self, but of the thing itself. Suicide, seemingly originating from within so that the victim and her lack of strength can be blamed, in the face of mounting fear.

Our hope rests on moving the fight from the homefront to the enemy’s doorstep, from within against ourselves to without against “reality,” which is not a fixed and eternal concept just as we are not. Reality can be made just, just as our feelings of disgust can be justified, just as they can be clarified, directed, distilled down to their essence, and turned into weapons against those whose only weapon is coerced compromise, whose only refrain is “life is unfair, get used to it,” all while they make the rules, or got used to them long ago. They compromised their conscience, and look where it got them: doing the masters’ work for them, criticizing and crushing the hearts and minds of children, and making us brace ourselves to go silently through the meat-grinder, only because they can’t bear to hear us scream.

(disclaimer: I’m not trying to put ALL Baby Boomers into one category by what I write about here. I’ve spoken to a number of Boomers who don’t espouse the views that I describe below; I’m just trying to respond to the loudest description of my generation that I keep hearing repeated over and over by folks who are a generation older than me, and whose standpoints pervade the media, but whom I try to remember aren’t representative of everyone, just as a few of any large group shouldn’t be construed as representative of the entire population.)

I’m getting really tired of hearing folks talk about how my Millennial generation “doesn’t want to work” and “wants everything given to us for free.” Let’s just say there was any truth to that whatsoever.

WHO THE FUCK RAISED US? YOU DID!

So now that that’s clear, let’s discuss some of our supposed values. Millennials apparently don’t seem to want to follow the whole “go to college, get a job, get married, have kids” routine as much as our parents did. Why do you suppose that is?

95% OF YOU ARE DIVORCED.

and

DOING WHAT SOCIETY TOLD YOU TO DO WORKED OUT GREAT FOR YOU, DIDN’T IT?

I’m going to come back to this whole job-hating standpoint that is attached to us. Old fogies are saying their sons and daughters are too lazy to go out and “find a job” by “knocking down doors.”

These older people tell us that trying to do the things that we’re passionate about is “not good enough” and a “waste of time” and “no one makes real money on the internet.”

First off,

THE WORLD IS DIFFERENT NOW, GRANDPA. GET OVER IT. “APPLY ONLINE” IS NOT A REQUEST.

And secondly:

WHERE ARE THE JOBS? YOU PUT A BUNCH OF SCUMBAG PRIVATIZERS AND NEOLIBERALS (DEMS AND GOP) IN POWER WHO OUTSOURCED ALL THE JOBS, MADE BILLIONAIRES RICHER, AND CRUSHED ALL THE UNIONS.

We want things handed to us on a silver platter, without having to work for them.

YOU’RE THE ONES WHO BROUGHT US UP WITH PSEUDO-AFFLUENT CREDIT-BASED MIDDLE-CLASS VALUES THAT SEEMED TO PROVIDE YOU WITH GERMAN CARS AND MARGARITA-MAKERS EVEN THOUGH YOU WERE STILL CONSTANTLY WORRYING ABOUT MONEY AND WHICH WAS ALL A BANK-DESIGNED FARCE AND ULTIMATELY BIT YOU IN THE ASS.

They want to make us feel bad for having no values, goals, or passions, for “never playing outside anymore,” for being soft and flighty and fickle and over-medicated. Never mind that they’re the ones who medicated us, who bought us a million types of screens (on credit) just to distract us. A bigger point is this:

IF YOUR HIPPIE MOVEMENT HADN’T COMPLETELY FAILED TO ACHIEVE CHANGE AND YOU HADN’T ALL SOLD OUT TO THE SYSTEM, MAYBE WE WOULDN’T BE DISENCHANTED AND NIHILISTIC, OR MAYBE WE (AND OUR SPOUSES) WOULDN’T NEED TO COMPROMISE WHAT WE DO BELIEVE IN AND THROW ANY ACTUAL PASSIONS WE DO HAVE DOWN THE TOILET IN ORDER TO GET SOME FULL-TIME SOUL-SUCKING JOB JUST FOR BASIC NECESSITIES (LIKE YOU DID).

As I just hinted, or rather said outright, they want us to get business degrees and other credentials that completely negate our actual interests so that we can “follow in their footsteps.” Well where do those footsteps lead?

CORPORATE MISERY, DIVORCE, WORRYING ABOUT MONEY, HAVING A BIGASS MORTGAGE, STRESS- AND LIFESTYLE-INDUCED ILLNESS, AND FEWER SAFETY NETS SO THEY’LL BE EVEN MORE DEPENDENT ON US.

They think we’re ignorant.

WHO ALLOWED SCHOOLS TO BE DEFUNDED AND PRIVATIZED?

What kind of a world did they create for us?

POOR, POLLUTED, WAR-TORN, VIOLENT, AND RUN BY IGNORANT RACIST PSYCHOPATHS WHO ARE PART OF *THEIR* GENERATION.

So what the fuck are they blaming us for? Where’s the humility? Where’s the shame? I’d like to hear one, JUST ONE, Baby Boomer say something along the lines of, “Gee, ya’ll got kinda fucked over by us.”

So you’re angry with us? You’re disappointed with us?

BIG FUCKIN’ DEAL. I’M A DAMNED ADULT NOW AND YOUR ANGER DOESN’T MEAN SHIT. I’M ANGRY TOO, LESS ABOUT YOUR STUPID MINDSET AND MORE ABOUT HOW FUCKED UP THIS WORLD IS, AND SOON MY GENERATION WILL CONTROL THE ENTIRE COUNTRY, LIKE IT OR NOT.

If that scares the shit out of you, you might try changing how you interact with us.

And no I’m not “playing the victim.”

I’M TRYING TO HAVE MY STANDPOINT UNDERSTOOD AND ACKNOWLEDGED SO THAT I CAN MOVE PAST MY PERSONAL BULLSHIT AND START CLEANING UP THIS CLUSTERFUCK THAT YOU CREATED AND TAKE NO FUCKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR!!!!!

Is that so much to ask? You better be nicer to us. We’re getting sick of hearing about it.

After a long and occasionally ambivalent experience with Death Grips, seeing them live at Webster Hall on July 7th added only more thoughts and ideas to a long list from which I can derive no cohesive position of “like” or “dislike,” other than, “if it’s Zach, I need it.”

I have a fairly unique relationship with Zach Hill, Death Grips’ drummer. My old band, Rocket Surgery, opened for Zach at the Knitting Factory when he was guest-drumming with Marnie Stern on July 8, 2007. Here is a video of a piece of Rocket Surgery’s performance.

Additionally, here is an article written about that night from a blog called Don’t Quit Your Dayjob. It says some very nice things about me.

During Zach’s performance, “my mind was completely blown,” as the saying goes. I met Zach afterward and he and I discussed drumming and Plato. He was immensely down-to-earth, warm, and personable. He was the same way towards me when I saw him next, at his solo show (with Nick Reinhart) at Death By Audio a few years later. (He remembered me.) That night changed my life.

And that Marnie Stern show was also a turning point in my life in a way. Suddenly, my perception of greatness moved beyond John Bonham, beyond Jack DeJohnette, beyond Jaki Leibezeit, beyond Jimmy Chamberlin and Billy Cobham and Bill Ward, beyond Mitch Mitchell and Tony Williams and Rashied Ali (okay, maybe not quite beyond Rashied). These drummers would always be with me. But now there was a new essence, a new ideal, a new incomprehensible.

If you have not heard Zach, imagine drumming wherein the individual notes are played so fast and intricately, they almost constitute a “solid” sound. He essentially embodies the idea of a musician who is COMPLETELY a musician, who doesn’t give up his life to music but instead merges with music itself, his body becoming an instrument of orderly chaos or chaotic order, depending how you see the universe. You know what? It is easier to just look him up on YouTube.

So naturally, being that I believe no band on earth or in heaven could actually put his godly skills to adequate and complete use, I am both adoring and critical of everything he does. It is difficult to believe that anything happening around him could be as “good” as he is. He is Bobby Fischer, Harriet Tubman, Loki the Norse god of mischief, Rashied Ali, Orson Welles, Alexander the Great, Jackson Pollock, Serena Williams, and of course Jesus Christ, all rolled into one. I simply cannot be ebullient and gushing enough, because his level of skill—the degree to which he has tapped into the infinite—is simply so great. It starts to revive the now-dying Platonist in me, somewhat, and makes life seem, for a few moments at a time, intrinsically meaningful simply because such things as his drumming exist.

As you can probably guess, I am apt to involve my own prejudices and insecurities in any such critique of his music. For instance, I feel his solo album, Astrological Straits, of a few years ago was over-produced and overdone, at least compared to his work with Hella (the band for which he is most well-known other than Death Grips). I would have been much happier listening only to the tracks of his drumming, without all of the layers of synths, sequencers, processed voices, guest guitarists, and audio ephemera.

Part of me guesses that he includes all of those layers of sound out of some inferiority complex, as if to say to the world, with its narrow concept of what a “song” is, “I am a musician too, dammit, not just a drummer! I can make song songs, not just rhythms!” I probably assume that because that’s what I might feel, as a drummer, if I was making an expansive solo album.

He might very well bear no insecurity about his solo offerings. Similarly, he may not hold any misgivings about Death Grips, about whether or not it is “good” in any objective sense but rather that he is able to express himself in it and does his best at doing so. And that’s what gives it its value, its purpose, as far as he is concerned. Or perhaps he thinks it is of excellent quality; perhaps it fulfills him in every way. I suppose he wouldn’t participate in it if he didn’t. (Staying in something on principle? Again, that’s something I would do.)

What we do know is that Death Grips seems to be, by a large margin, Zach’s most popular act to date. Is this partly because of the extreme technological savvy with which they mount their publicity efforts? Is it because of a growing hiphop audience among young white males? Is it a sign that the indie rock circuit is indeed growing stale and boring and music-listeners are looking for a new “underground” sound? Does it have anything to do with the producer Andy Morin’s ear-crunching electronics that give shows a fun, dancey feel, despite Zach’s trillion-notes-per-second lines? Is it that “rock” truly is dead and must be merged with other sounds to relate to “the youth”? Or is it just that Hella’s fans, and fans of acts like Lightning Bolt, Melt Banana, Ahleuchatistas, Black Pus, and other “mathy” organizations, are simply swarming to yet another incarnation of what they like, namely machine-gun drumming and frenzied psychedelia?

I just don’t know. It doesn’t really matter a whole lot, but it’s something I wonder about. I’m not a music critic so I can’t really say with certainty.

Death Grips is nothing if not distinctive. I once read an interview with Zach in Modern Drummer where he says, “don’t try to sound like anyone else.” It is bold advice that he seems to embody to the fullest. Yet he is also highly collaborative, having participated in a long list of bands, ensembles, and guest appearances. I think there are many more artists who don’t think this way when it comes to sounding like other people; “lifting” and “borrowing” is as acceptable in “rock” music as giving chocolates on Valentine’s Day, or flowers on Mother’s Day. Which is largely fine.

“Great artists don’t imitate; they steal,” said Stravinsky. If Death Grips “steals” certain musical conventions—rapping, thumping dance beats, sexually charged lyrics, psychedelic feels—it does so in a brash, forceful, graphic way that directly engages the imagination of the audience, alongside Zach’s otherworldly, beyond-rational-interpretation drumming, to give everything a primal, almost destructive power.

And destruction is what it reminds me of, somewhat. Is it a grand musical statement, separate from “society,” or is it a tearing down of conventions, expectations, genres, AND society? Is it really a worthwhile use of my time trying to understand the artist’s intent?

Generally, I’m not a big concertgoer. I tend to think too much at shows. Also, I don’t like standing still for hours at a time, listening to opening bands that I didn’t come there to see, unable to move or leave (although I admit, I have discovered some life-changing music through opening acts. Plus, I know opening’s value to up-and-coming bands [like Rocket Surgery was]). I’m also not a big fan of encore songs. When the show’s over, I like it to be over. I’m that kind of guy.

The Death Grips show was ideal for me then; even though it started a half-hour late, there were no openers and no encores. It ruled. Also, I was not standing in one place the whole time. I was there in Webster Hall, bouncing, moshing, and shrieking my head off—letting out ALL the aggression—pretty much the whole time, along with everyone else. But the words, “what is this?” were constantly present in my head.

So what is it? The show is somewhere between psychedelic freakout, death-metal moshpit, and some of the most aggressive and fearlessly delivered rapping imaginable, from a guy who is super-jacked; Stefan Burnett reminds me of Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Pucciato with regard to stage presence: power, force, sweat. What it all adds up to is beyond comprehension, all right.

Maybe I spend too much time wondering if I like something before I can be fully “into” it. The complication is that I am very likely to like anything that Zach does, although I will often feel as I felt about his solo album; I could do without all of the ornamentation and just listen to his drumming. This is why I’d make a terrible music critic.

Anyway, I sometimes listen to Death Grips In spite of its lyrics. I’m not big on sexually graphic lyrics such as:

Ass clappin, dick suckin, lock the door to the bathroom – quick fuckin/
Find a whore and it could happen/

Or

We could do this like an orgy/
In the bowels of hell/
Where every Lucy’s hella horny/
And their pussies don’t smell/

Both of those excerpts are from the same song, “I Want It I Need It (Death Heated).” Basically male fantasy painted with burnt-bright colors. I also have a problem with “I Want It” because it uses Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” as its primary instrumentation. It is not simply that they sampled Pink Floyd that bothers me; rather, it is that they used a song by a guy who had drug problems (Syd Barrett) to make a song about drug abuse.

I guess this kind of problem with a song makes me “sensitive,” “critical,” “old-fashioned,” or, god forbid, just “old.” I don’t like sexually graphic lyrics because they make me uncomfortable. Part of the reason is that, when I hear them, I am forced to ask, “is this misogynistic?”

I don’t like men talking about women as whores. And you just never know what the artist will say if you ask them what they “meant” by something like that. “Irony” is the deflector shield of all critique that might seek to reveal a prejudicial inclination. I give Zach and Stefan the benefit of the doubt, and I say, “okay, this is art, and art is what it is.” But my own tastes do not have to morph to find their rhetoric agreeable to me, no matter how much I love Zach. I don’t think compromising one’s principles just to be accepted into the “cool club”—people who act like they have no ethical compunctions (whether that is actually the case, or they have just learned to ignore them) and doesn’t cringe at violent fantasy against women or anyone else, because “free speech,” Georges Bataille, or whatever—does much to raise the quality of a person’s character.

I also listen to N.W.A. with regularity. And I don’t like when they’re misogynistic either. But N.W.A.’s music is, in my opinion, socially and culturally rich and by extension politically loaded because it illustrates a social and cultural experience caused by racism and capitalism, and demonstrates an emotionally rewarding “fuck the system” kind of mentality as an added bonus. I like that about it. Of course, it falls to me to infer that context upon listening, allowing me to see through the surface of misogyny and violence and bear witness to the “musical statement” (whether intended or unintended) that lies beneath. So maybe I just don’t understand the greater context within Death Grips’ lyrical content.

The question is, then, does Death Grips provide any similar context in which potentially problematic statements serve to illustrate a social and cultural experience? Possibly, and I just haven’t dug deeply enough. It definitely has a “fuck the system” feel to it, just by being so disruptive in its sound: Stefan’s relentlessly delivered lyrics, Andy Morin’s crunching, spiraling synthesizers, Zach’s superhuman drumming….although there are familiar aspects to it, in its totality, it’s like nothing I’ve ever heard. The performance-art component registered by the likes of Bjork is not lost on me. Just the ability to express such raw feeling musically, outside of lyrical content, is admirable and something I try to do in my own music.

Glamorizing drug abuse is another thing I don’t like. If you read this blog, you know I’ve had my own struggles with drugs, and you know somewhat my feelings about drugs in general: ideally they would all be legal, and no one would use them because their lives would consist of enough support, purpose, and fulfillment to preclude the need for artificial stimulation, depression, or escape.

However, I don’t want to fixate on the societal implications of music to the negation of the individual experience. As described on Genius.com, “[Stefan’s] violent lyrics match his attitude and he focuses on struggle both versus himself and versus the world for inspiration.” Perhaps Death Grips’ message is located here: the description of a life which doesn’t afford him much in the way of support, purpose, or fulfillment necessary to cultivate respect for women or others or himself.

This is a state of mind with which many people can certainly relate. In a world in which the individual is relatively powerless, drug-induced oblivion, sexual domination, and basic destructive nihilism appear in men’s/people’s minds (and are placed there) as outlets for their frustration at feeling powerless.

99% of the people at the show I went to were male, and 95% of that group were white. So are THESE the people—white males—to whom society is most disempowering, most frustrating? Of course there’s nothing wrong with the white man liking the Black man’s music, but my next question becomes painfully obvious: does the white man’s “relating” to such frustration have anything to do with addressing or rectifying its source? Does it affect his outlooks, his prejudices, his proclivities, the ones that may very well contribute to the state of disempowerment that Blacks and other non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual people face?

My beloved Zach made a statement  about Death Grips’ 2012 album “No Love Deep Web,” whose cover image was a photograph of his erect penis with the album title written on it in magic marker (this link contains the image). “[The cover image is] also a spiritual thing; it’s fearlessness…it represents pushing past everything that makes people slaves without even knowing it.”

So an image of a white man’s genitalia represents fearlessness and pushing against slavery. I’m certain I’m not the first person to point this out, and it is difficult for me to even broach the subject because I am such a fan of Zach’s, but should we all seek to emulate the aforementioned phallus? Should we let it form our sensibilities, our values, our role in the world? I mean, a white member used for good would be a good thing. Maybe Zach meant that the white man, being the most socially privileged, possesses great power to overcome society’s ills but he must use his privilege to help others.

So the liberation of others—so they can stop being “slaves”—is dependent on the white man’s help, help which ultimately benefits him because it allows him potentially to maintain his privilege rather than relinquish it. Hm. That seems problematic.

So the white man must relinquish his privilege then? But then a white male member becomes, not a symbol of pushing, but of relinquishing. And IN SO RELINQUISHING, the white male is indeed PUSHING against the unjust system! Is that it? It might be it. I’m not saying it’s not it. I try to avoid absolute judgments as to a statement’s meaning, just as I try to avoid essentialist definitions of male and female and other binaries. I have a feeling this isn’t its intended meaning, though.

Never mind the intended meaning for now. I don’t know what’s in Zach and Stefan’s heads. What is the meaning that we can draw from it, based on what we have seen? Based on the image, on Zach’s statement, on the lyrics, and on the prevalence of white males at the Death Grips show, the “slavery” being fought against is some perceived slavery of white men (within, admittedly, a disempowering, de-individualizing system of neoliberal corporate capitalism), to be fought by whites, against…whom? Non-whites and non-males, NOT against those who perpetuate the disempowering system I just outlined: capitalist white men. So basically, let’s “fight the system” by swallowing our moral responsibility and completely assimilating to it: the oppression of non-whites and non-males by whites and males. Yay for the status quo.

I’m the first to admit that my deriving more political meaning from N.W.A. and less from Death Grips is based on my own interpretation. I hear N.W.A.’s music being about “creating respect within conditions of no respect,” as Ralph Cintron puts it: in impoverished, overlooked ghettoes and slums, the Black man does what he can to get ahead, including criminal acts, objectifying women, and saying “fuck the police” the entire time, knowing from experience that the white power structure is the real enemy. Maybe Death Grips could be heard in a similar way. Stefan seems to exhibit signs of self-disgust, perhaps caused by that structure.

Someone else might hear what Stefan says and interpret it in that way, indicating its subversive intent as opposed to the status quo intent I ascribe above. There comes a point, though, when saying anything at all—outright racism, sexism, and the like—could be interpreted by SOMEONE as liberatory in nature and defended by them no matter how violent, offensive, or retrograde the actual rhetoric might be. I am apt to put a limit on such overly liberal “interpretationism”; at a certain point, the artist must be judged by what is actually said. There aren’t infinite interpretations of words. There are only two: literal, and figurative.

There are those who will tirelessly defend the value of the figurative over the literal, and try to convince others that words can be used to mean whatever they want, whenever they want, and that if you are offended by the literal meaning of a word, you’re oversensitive and oppressive. It is usually easy to see, however, that those who regularly fight against literal interpretations in art generally have their interests tied to those interpretations. The white man might defend a figurative interpretation of the lyrics I quote above—find a whore and it could happen, for example—saying “never mind what Stefan is actually saying,” and asserting that a figurative interpretation can yield a liberatory meaning, something like, “when a woman becomes a whore, she is liberated to use her body and get what she wants from men! It’s SO freeing.” Just so happens that the LITERAL interpretation defends his privilege: that of being able to buy a woman’s body, to take out his anger and frustration on.

Being the person who looks for the “socially redeeming” qualities of art is not a role that I relish. I try not to let my thinking get one-sided or reductionist; I try to keep an open mind and not be dictatorial and absolute. Still, it’s hard not to be that person, at least to some extent, having studied the effects of racism, sexism, drug abuse, poverty, war, and other phenomena on levels of human suffering and disempowerment, and having been directly affected by them to varying degrees, yet remaining sensitive and angry that they exist instead of inured and desensitized.

At that level of concurrent awareness and sensitivity, it is easy to see that such mentalities pervade our society and are prevalent, and it is frustrating to see cutting-edge artists—including my musical gods—perpetuating them, whether out of irony or nihilism, whether out of “we’re just commenting on society by reflecting its prejudices,” or, “boys will be boys; whatever, it’s just a song,” when it just so happens be the case that the easiest way to really “get ahead” in music is to suit culturally prevalent modes of thinking instead of challenging them.

I get it; supposedly, it’s better and more democratic for art to reflect our reality than to try to shape it. People don’t like getting beaten over the head with a “message;” it’s easier for us to enjoy something when we can “relate” to it, when it “shows us ourselves” and how life “really is,” rather than trying to dictate to us how it should be. And people “really are” prejudiced: they really are racist, they really are misogynistic, they really are frustrated, etc.

I certainly don’t favor whitewashing and pretending injustice doesn’t exist. God no. It’s just that I think art can (and does) do both: it CAN reflect reality while pushing it to become better, as opposed to reflecting it in such a way (intentionally or unintentionally on the part of the author) that everything stays the same. It’s just frustrating.

It’s not that I want every band to be a “political band” (and not many things rhyme with “proletariat.” Lariat, I guess. Secretariat. Luke Perry’s hat.) It’s more that I feel every statement carries a political weight, and it would be nice if that weight was openly used for liberation and fighting against oppression, which I believe N.W.A. does, even while it expresses a lot of other bad intents.

I’ll still listen to Death Grips, still love Zach like an older drum-brother. I am very happy for him that Death Grips is bringing his art to a larger audience. I’m happy for Stefan and Andy too, because they are also deeply talented. Raw talent and distinctiveness should be appreciated more in our society, like they were when progressive rock and fusion jazz were becoming popular in the early 70s. In a way, Zach’s art is so technically advanced, expressing emotions so elusive and unsung, that to me it already signifies a positive threat to society’s complacency and conventions. I guess that’s another reason why no band is good enough for him, in my eyes: other artists dilute his message of absolute rhythmic expression with conventionality in various forms: lyrical content, guitar licks, structure….

Okay, so I’m biased. In the same interview I mentioned above, which is from 2006, Zach also says,

I want to change the world of my instrument in a large way. I want to get to the highest place with my instrument that I can possibly get and change the instrument for the better. I want to innovate. That’s what I set out to do, and that’s what I’m going to do, whether anybody’s paying attention or not.

Now, nine years after he said that, Zach does care if anyone’s paying attention, and he should care. He doesn’t want to remain obscure and avant-gardeist forever. I’m sure he’s got bills, he’s got obligations, he’s got hopes and dreams, he’s got to put food on the table. He wants the recognition damn well due a prodigious figure in the world of music, and he’s getting it. Death Grips plays to sell-out crowds; people are paying attention now. I’m sure Zach is proud of how far he’s come. He has succeeded spectacularly at innovating and is only succeeding more with each new album, each new project.

Maybe I just wish a person of Zach’s caliber could truly succeed in our society, and receive the deserved recognition and financial rewards, without needing to appeal to the masses, and the act of spurning that need and instead expressing the means for achieving greater freedom were what achieved mass appeal. Is that so much to ask?

And maybe it’s up to me to learn more about the musical visions of his collaborators, and determine that they, too, possess singular visions of greatness, as yet misunderstood by me. And then I might hear them playing together with him, instead of fragmentedly, “Zach, and everyone else.” I’ll work on that. But right now, if it was up to me, the sound would just be his drumming: standing as a statement on its own, leading the world forward and away from the mundane and oppressive, leaving “relate-ability” for others to concern themselves with, far behind.

Thank you for reading.

By “to aestheticize,” I mean “to turn into an object of expression,” or “to depict in an artistic way.”

By “text,” I mean any creative output, such as writing, film, photography, painting, design, architecture, or sculpture.


Who am I to say what is oppressive? I am a self-proclaimed theorist of ideology and culture, and I try to understand where oppression comes from in terms of commonplace ideas and the entities that perpetuate those ideas. I refer to these ideas as ideologies. What ideologies are used to justify war, prisons, police states, regressive taxes, laws against poverty and union organizing, and who espouses them? This is what fascinates me: the necessity of these ideologies to maintain the status quo, and who profits from that status quo, first and foremost.


When is it necessary to aestheticize oppression, specifically the oppression of women? Is it when an author wants to depict something that exists “in real life” and not gloss over the existence of such phenomena? Is the purpose of doing so to shock the viewer, to enlighten her, to educate her? Or is it to do the opposite of shock: to cushion, to carry, to create an affinity, a kinship? In short, to provide something that exists in reality, not for the reader to condemn as an oppression, but rather as a reminder of “the way it is,” for her to relate to, whether with the same jarring and helpless resignation she might feel if she were actually being targeted, or with the celebratory embrace of knowing one’s place and accepting it?

Of course, it can depend on the identity of the reader. If a person with a higher level of privilege, to whom the depicted oppressions do not apply or apply to a far lesser degree insofar as being the target of them, views the text in which the oppression is depicted, he may feel reinforced. He may feel that his place in society, which is not in the position of “oppressed,” is not only desirable but just.  At worst he will believe the oppressions which exist are necessary for the perpetuation of society as we know it, which is a desirable end because our society is a great and wonderful thing. He wishes to stand in for the author, as the author’s proxy, and enforce what he believes is the author’s will, putting him in a position of authority. And authority makes him feel strong, which makes him feel like a real man.

At best, much of the time, this privileged viewer will seem to acknowledge to himself society’s failings and the existence of the oppression, and he will thank himself for not being a contributor to it. Better to ascribe all the blame to society itself—the institutions, the media, the relations between men and women that have been passed down since time immemorial—than to feel responsible for an institutional ill, over which the mere individual has no control. At this point, he has bought into it, not even become inured to it but has come to “believe” in oppression, and when he views it in an aesthetic context, he will relate to it just as much as the individual described in the above paragraph, who essentially cannot envision a society without the oppressions, just as this “well-intentioned” fellow can’t imagine himself doing anything to change or remove them, for to do so would make him less comfortable. He remains comfortably silent and willing.

If the oppressed person views the text that depicts oppression, she may also relate, but in a different way. Rather than identifying with being in a position of power, she identifies with the opposite. She may feel understood by the author, insofar as she understands herself as a target of whatever inequity–violence, rape, or unfairness–constitutes the oppression. However, she may not categorize it as an oppression, because in identifying with a depiction of it in a text, she may feel empowered to embrace her role, her place, as a symbol and seemingly a positive one of her identity, for the alternative is to bemoan the preordained, the “given,” “the way it is,” and to do so would be negative and cloying. As Ralph Cintron describes in “Angel Town” in the context of inner city Latino youth, in an environment where respect doesn’t exist, one must create respect. Perhaps her acceptance, her seizure and attempts at ownership of her own oppression are necessary, not a necessary evil or a necessary good. A necessary act, simply for survival. And were these depictions to suddenly disappear, a certain comfort level of her own might vanish with them.

Is relateability, perhaps, the main reason for aestheticizing oppression, and in so doing, popularizing it? Whether to bolster its benefactors, or subjugate its sufferers? Where would popular culture be if it wasn’t for popular biases? Where would society be if it was based on contradiction and conflict and a constant search for more and better knowledge, rather than on a tight-knit, clear, and set understanding of who is supposed to do what and to whom and when? If men didn’t “know” that women are sexual objects that exist to please us, how would we know to pursue them? If women didn’t know that men are the powerful “doers” of society, how would they know to stand around and wait for us to “rescue” them from the dull, stigma-ridden state of being manless and impoverished?

The manufacturers of mass media want us to believe that we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves without the influence of the culture industry. People would stop working, men would stop fucking, women would stop producing babies, children would stop paying attention in school, and no one would vote, opting to “do politics” in other manners if at all. The funny thing is, they’re right, to some extent. If people were awakened to the oppressions reproduced endlessly in popular culture, whether by the complicit oppressor (whether he be the silent and willing, or the author’s proxy) or the “empowered” oppressed (without whose oppression she would have no identity), we might notice the injustices inherent to other societal systems—the workplace, the bedroom, the classroom, the government—and act on them. Some of us would work to end them, while others would work to maintain them, to hold onto their positions of privilege, to their dreams of absolute authority, with all the power of the political establishment at their backs.

This, however, is the picture of true progress: a struggle between the profiteers and the exploited. All depictions of oppression should be aimed at challenging the viewer to resist that oppression, and challenge the understandings of where such top-down oppression originates. I say “top-down” because, in the context of the oppression of women but it applies to all structures of oppression, if our society is controlled by men, and so many texts of female oppression and marginalization exist and are circulated, it could be posited that the male authorities which control our society sanction and allow these texts to be circulated, and in fact encourage it, and in fact profit from it, because the centrally-targeted white heterosexual male market is best exploited by being told they have power over and are superior to women, to minorities, to LGBTers, ergo what a wonderful and great society in which we live. And so the oppressions are perpetuated in the same way that the male pursuit of pussy perpetuates the existence of our species: ravenously, and with love only for the status quo which makes us entitled to it.

I work at a gym and recently a young man came in wearing this t-shirt:

nike unfair shirt

 

Thinking that perhaps I had encountered another member of the anti-sweatshop labor community (though being also confused by the shirt), I asked him, “Hey brother, what’s the deal with that shirt?” He said, “What do you mean?” I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “Mark, it’s your first week working here. Do you really want to bust out labor politics to a customer at your workplace?” So what I said was, “I thought it may have something to do with Nike using sweatshop labor.” I guess my answer to myself was “sure.”

He said, “Um, well as far as I know, it’s like some people are so good at their sport that they have an unfair advantage, that’s what it’s talking about.” I said, “oh, that’s very interesting, I can see that being a good marketing angle.” A little restraint never killed anyone. “Fantastic,” I continued. “My name’s Mark, by the way.” “Kevin,” he replied. “Good to meet you, Kevin. You have a great workout, aight?”

He nodded and scurried off, his brow furrowed but a little smile on his face, as if to say, “as long as I can walk away right now, we’re all good here.”

It seemed odd to have the word “unfair” written on a shirt made by a company so increasingly reputed to abuse its workers. So I did a little research. One of the first and only hits on Google to come up when I searched for “nike unfair shirt” was a tweet by Playfair2012, evidently a UK-based workers’ rights group concerned with the London Games, that read,

#Nike “UNFAIR” branded t-shirts tell the truth about how garment workers are treated. It’s time for Nike to play fair.

It featured the same photo I have provided above. The weirdest thing about it is that it serves as an ad for Nike almost as much as a criticism; was PlayFair actually saying Nike’s intention with the shirt was to acknowledge “the truth”? Probably not, of course. But the rhetoric of the tweet suggests the following: that Nike knows it behaves unfairly towards it workers, and now it’s time for them to act on that awareness.

Rather than the unfairness of its work conditions, what is Nike trying to imply by its use of “Unfair”? As Kevin mentioned above, the idea is that some people are better at things—in this case, sports—than others. Nike wants its potential customers to ask themselves this question: “*Are* some people better than others? Or is it just that they *believe* they are better? Is betterness determined by believing in yourself?” The answer, being yes, then is intended to lead that person to the “how” of the equation. “So *how* do I believe in myself more?”

It’s a good question: how *do* we demonstrate belief in ourselves? By being confident! By showing everyone else that we don’t care what they think of us, by working hard and “faking it til we make it,” and then once we have it, flaunting it.

And what demonstrates confidence? “The apparel doth make the man”! Of course, the jump that Nike wants you to make is that owning a Nike shirt might in some way symbolize your belief in yourself. And then, BECAUSE I believe in myself—of which ownership of this shirt is an expression—I can BECOME one of the “better” people who make life/sports unfair for everyone else! Soon, the word “unfair” will refer to how wearing Nike clothing—and the insane uptick in personal confidence and initiative it creates—gives the wearer an Unfair Advantage in the same way that being bigger, stronger, faster, or leaner can give you an advantage in sports (even though strength is cultivated over years of work and a shirt is purchased in a single afternoon).

Naturally, none of the thought processes I describe above are meant to taken literally as cognizant thoughts. For most of us, purchasing comes down to two things:

A) Does it function the way I want it to?

B) Do I like it (in terms of style/appearance)?

As for A), Nike is a well-known brand of fitness apparel with a huge list of professional sports endorsees and one of the most recognized logos in history. Obviously, the functionality of their products is a given based on their reputation; otherwise, they would not be so successful. Right? (I am, of course, speaking in the reasonable voice of the average thinker). And B)? Well, Nike simply wants you to think, “Yes, I like it,” and to buy the shirt. But what is it you like? What is the “style” they are selling you? The style is the idea that, by getting you to admit that life is unfair, and that unfairness is the result of not believing in yourself, Nike is nice enough as a company to provide you with the means of demonstrating belief in yourself  to such an extent that you have an unfair advantage, and now you yourself must be labeled “Unfair.”

In a 2001 article for CorpWatch, Alicia Rebensdorf describes how companies like Nike and others attempt, with some success, to repurpose the rhetoric of social justice movements aimed at them, to redirect the attention of the consumer away from the claims of a marginal and mercurial anti-corporate minority and towards the entrenched corporate authority figure. As FairPlay2012 above seems to suggest, companies such as Nike can win back their consumers’ credibility by appearing to “own” their shortcomings.

But the real purpose, bigger than asserting “ownership” over claims of foul play (and in part, conceding their validity), is valuable enough to justify any hypothetical cost. Such companies hope to undermine and co-opt the entire idea of social justice, to tie it to the oh-so-marketable state of “coolness,” and to then market themselves as “coolness you can buy,” which engenders buying the product and actively *consuming* it, and deriving a positive feeling and effect from doing so. The idea that it is somehow cooler to eschew the corporate exploiters, to *deprive* yourself of material pleasures, and to say and do negative things about corporations and society, are suddenly cast in a light of ridicule.

In the case of “Unfair,” not only is it “coolness you can buy,” but ability, talent, and hard work, to make yourself “unfair” to play against. The irony is that America possesses so much financial power throughout the world in part because of the neoimperialistic practices—such as worker exploitation—that Nike uses to keep costs down. In having corporations who do business like Nike, America *does*, in fact, make it unfair for much of the rest of the world, who, through poor work conditions and bad pay, are denied the freedom to ever believe in themselves. If they did, it would only be a matter of time before these workers forcibly removed the elite members of their often impoverished societies from power, who allow them, time and time again, to be exploited for the benefit of the richest country on earth, only to be told that “life is unfair, get used to it.”

Although he didn't actually say this. But it's interesting that we would falsely attribute something so defensive of the status quo to the richest man on earth.

Although he didn’t actually say this. But it’s interesting that we would falsely attribute something so defensive of the status quo to the richest man on earth.

I just remember, and still know, the feeling of thinking, “If I could just make a film, my genius would finally get out,” as though my distinct vision is so bold and vivid and demanding that it requires film—“the liveliest art”—to be fully realized. My first screenplay, “Paranoia,” was like that; brash and distinct, violently individualistic in its intentions, it was written in such a way that the camera would intentionally be visible in every shot, shockingly, invasively, capturing the horror of the life in which we live. Although I did sign up a director and a cinematographer, “Paranoia” was never shot, mainly because shooting movies is difficult.

But getting back to these days: recently I’ve been hooked on this Bjork song “Bachelorette” from the album Homogenic. It is a brilliant, immersive “emotional landscape,” to use Bjork’s words from another song, caked in briny, swirling orchestration like a magnificent whirlpool, dragging its victims down towards a dark ocean floor. Yet, it is a “song” like any other, short and structured and one of many. Only “eccentricity” can capture the ideas of some well-known visionaries, true, but not the outright mania required to avoid “songs” altogether and seek some completely new structure, some new system. It would seem manic indeed—quite irrational—to do so, because no one [but the avant-garde] would listen, understand, and buy. Although merely “eschewing the conventional” isn’t adequate for an unconventional and “unique” soul like Bjork, a complete and vast break with the extant systems and methods of expression would be too far.

Why must such “genius” cleave to “music” or “film” at all? True expression along these lines of originality—a “visionary” line—should reject all prevalent forms of expression and stop trying to “innovate” in such realms as painting and film where “everything has been done.” Even if the “new” field is somewhat derivative—like writing a novel on a stretched canvas and calling it a work of visual art—it is logical to assume that true originality, and therefore greater expressive fulfillment, would be more possible within such invented fields rather than the ones we see everywhere and from which most modern advertising techniques derive (see French New Wave). But most artists possess a desire to connect, to exercise their social instinct, to be seen and “recognized” in the Hegelian sense, i.e. that unless and until you recognize me and what I am doing, I have no personhood. And without that recognition, there would be a loss of feeling, for it is believed by these artists that art is based on feelings, and feelings exist for other people and cannot be only beheld by the emoter. To attempt to do so would create mental instability, whether from lack of recognition or just from being “bottled up,” and remaining unexpressed (same thing?).

So it is our society of affirmation and social validation (i.e. self-affirmation is impossible; teachers, bosses, friends and families exist to affirm our existence and performance: “Remember, George, no man is a failure who has friends” says Capra, admittedly) that creates this aspect of genius. Or that emphasizes it. It is believed that genius is original; but Edison- or Jobs-style genius is originality based on human need, which is not original; it is derived.

Is Bjork a genius? Or rather, sticking with our subject, am/was I?

There was a time when it seemed liked if I could simply harness the “total” or “complete” expression of my artistic vision, then “success” would be essentially guaranteed based on that vision’s ability to “change the world.” “Changing the world” is what people get recognized for, a lot. My mistake, perhaps, has been reliance on conventional forms of expression, and on a conventional idea of success. The obvious solution would have been to incorporate some aspects of human need fulfillment into the conventional art forms that I clung to. My third and yet unfinished novel, “Mere Love,” was going to be that. Instead of being exploratory, it would be linear. Instead of depicting deeply flawed characters who never learned and never progressed, its character would learn and change and mature. Instead of having an indeterminate number of “acts,” it would have three acts. I learned about all of these conventions from books and classes that teach people “how to write” and how to “succeed” at it. You have to give the people what they need in order for them to purchase something.

Instead of a having a spiritual or philosophical crisis, the main character would have material one, an “event,” that he has to deal with. That event was the death of his father, which I based on the long, slow death of my own, and is the reason I never finished “Mere Love.” Maybe I couldn’t handle “reality” enough to write about it; readers want true-to-life struggles, something they can relate to. Who can’t empathize with the concept of the loss of a parent? It’s practically universal. And universality is needed. But I couldn’t “hack” it, so I did not succeed. I couldn’t give the people what they need.

All art that is allowed to be commercially successful does so because it fulfills “established” human needs; it is unoriginal in form and essential content and caters to the same themes (love, death, war, self-sacrifice, family values, other ideologies), and forges a “human condition,” which is merely the “universally” dominant (i.e. repeating) themes in popular art that appear again and again because they are perceived to fulfill some human need, some basic human emotion, and in effect, to “recognize” it and with it the consumer. This is the comfort of popular art forms and their dominant ideological content: to validate and legitimize the needs of the consumer, and to tell that consumer, “it’s okay you feel that way,” whether about the ache of a broken heart, the importance of war, the desire to be and look “cool” like in hip action comedy films, or the desire to kill someone who gets in your way as you exercise your “individuality.”

{Aside: I am not completely contemptuous of the concept of “the human condition,” because I realize that there are experiences we all share to some extent. It would be inhumane to deny that all people are susceptible to suffering, loss, misery, et cetera, or that these experiences don’t “unite” us in some form. The distinction I am trying to make is similar to that which exists between the two types of nationalism: one type is the “nationalism” in the sense of Che Guevara’s call, “Patria ou Muerte,” where one believes that the attributes of one’s country are essential to it, outside of the authority of any oppressive state apparatus or another, and in fact those apparatuses are to be overthrown in order to restore those essential attributes that they have eroded. Whereas the “human condition” I describe above is akin to the other form of nationalism, the proto-fascist type, where a preconceived notion of a nation is perpetuated to justify certain oppressive conditions such as war abroad, racist policy at home, and the general destruction of civil liberties in the name of “national security.” The good forms of both “the human condition” and “nationalism” derive from the individual and shared experiences of human beings and in so doing preserve both individuality and community consciousness; the bad forms of “the human condition” and “nationalism” are manufactured and sold by authority figures (the media, and the state, respectively), and attempt to repress these tendencies.}

“True artists” who hope to change the artistic landscape are lost within this cultural dynamic, where art must fulfill some perceived human need—possess some use-value—just like any other commodity. And these artists are tricked into using conventional means of expression—writing, painting, drawing, filmmaking, photography, sculpture, music, dance, et cetera—to try to “change the world,” when in reality the last thing people want—and will pay money for—is to have their world changed. On the whole, they want their world reinforced, recognized, “related to.” And these “true artists” grow frustrated with themselves and believe themselves a failure, as I did and do.

The alienation of the true artists who seek to change the world with art results in the state of art under capitalism whereby, to paraphrase Adorno, the media, the press, and the other instruments and venues of communication—by which the arts are proliferated and made “successful”—are indeed just another business, which is used as justification for the “commercial” rubbish they deliberately produce. Anyone aiming to disassemble, deplete, or destroy the current social order—i.e. to “change the world”—has no hope of doing so in the popular arts if fame (i.e. mass recognition) and a decent paycheck are to be the ends. Foreseeing “failure” as an artist results in art being forsaken as a career and replaced with a dayjob or something peripheral to the arts themselves, e.g. a writer becomes a book editor, a painter becomes a gallery manager, a filmmaker becomes a camera operator, a dancer becomes a dance teacher, and so on. And the arts stay more or less the same, more “true artists” being born every day, who perceive that the world needs to be changed, and who will try to do it with artistic weapons that remain perpetually pointed at themselves, having been engineered that way.

The solution, then, is not for artists to withdraw into the world of feelings, but to learn about and attack those attributes of the world that make it in need of change, and to do so with all means at our disposal: high arts, low arts, new arts, old arts. Movies, TV, radio, visual arts, music, dance, drama, and everything in between. Make art as I described above, completely devoid of any connection to “accepted” media that defies and rejects all demands of fulfilling human need, to the best of your ability. OR, use conventional means, and specifically cultivate humanity’s unmet need to do something, to fight for good. Use that as the cardinal need that your work fulfills. Depict the world alternatively as it is—unjust, war torn, in the midst of inexorable change—and as it should be. Choose a target and blast it out of the water as best you can, in the voice that is the target of YOUR target. Want to end racism, sexism, homophobia, oppression and consumerism? Learn about and try to speak in the voice of the oppressed, and empower others to do so (but don’t culturally appropriate or resort to stereotypes. That’s bad). Don’t do it for money, don’t do it to be loved by everyone (but expect appreciation from the people you give voice to, assuming you do it well); do it because the world needs it. It doesn’t need you; it needs change. That is the role of the arts: not the celebration of the individual genius and the successful commoditization of her art, but of our ability to recognize injustice and attack it, and to validate people’s need to attack it also.