Feature Friday: “Stop Making Sense” (1984)

As time passes, I only like Talking Heads more and more. Recently I’ve been revisiting their discography, one album/week, and it’s just staggering. This week I hit Stop Making Sense, a film I’ve always admired, but found a newfound respect for when I tried directing some theatrical events a few years back (really amateurish stuff). Stop Making Sense makes it all look so easy; every second is flawless. And when David Byrne dances with the lamp, during “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” I swear, it’s just so beautiful and so perfect…

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What Were You Doing in 1979? (part 1)

Paul Simon was making One Trick Pony.

Art Garfunkel was starring in Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing.

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Why I Hate the Avant-Garde, part 1

[Update: Part 2 is here]

Re: Greg’s most recent post on the term “avant-garde”—I’ve already discussed this somewhat here, here and here, but to recap:

  1. The term’s early 19th-century Socialist origins have mostly been forgotten. And that’s fine—language changes—but, personally, I find it deliciously perverse that the original Avant-Gardists, the Impressionists, essentially stole the term from Socialists, for use as a marketing term.
  2. It seems to me that anyone who wants to use the term today—especially if they want to use it to refer to some progressive art that’s free from any capitalist influence—would have to account for that history.
  3. People mostly don’t, though. Instead, they just use it interchangeably with terms like “experimental” and “unusual” and “innovative.” I consider this conflation very wrong-headed, not to mention not all that useful.
  4. For one thing, it assumes an incorrect model of how art and innovation actually proceed. It begins by positing that there’s a single conservative high art world, which follows a long and noble yet conservative tradition, and that there’s a single low art world, which is popular and commercial (i.e., crass). And then it assumes that there’s a small band of daring creative pioneers, huddled in some corner of the culture somewhere, who pass all artistic innovation to both the highs and the lows. (It’s the art world version of Reaganomics.)

I don’t truck with any of that. I think it’s important to remember history (even as it changes); I think it’s important to be as clear as possible in one’s terminology; and I regret any and all myopic views of the culture. (Not to mention, the notion of the avant-garde is rather elitist and racist: it posits a view of history in which all innovation flows from middle- and upper-class white folks.)

One need only look at recent music history to put the lie to the term “avant-garde.” Today Facebook showed me the following ad:

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What’s So New about New Wave?


Vanity Fair, August 2008 (cover).

I’ve outlined some of the following in my Looking at Movements series of posts (more of which are forthcoming), but here I want to examine the New Wave tradition exclusively, and from a different direction. I’m increasingly fascinated by how that simple two-word term has been used over the past 50 years to describe so many different trends and styles, some of which have been fairly disparate. It’s a label that’s really traveled, and hasn’t finished moving yet.

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Where Do Our Desires Come From? (Want as Tradition)

Owl City: I steal, therefore...

I’ve been thinking about comments that darby and Mike Meginnis made on Amber’s recent post “I Don’t Like Crap Games.” In response, darby wrote:

[…] im saying dont think/worry about what editors want. dont worry about “what they like.” read what you like and write what you like. dont study a journal just to try to get published by them. first, you should love what you write. then you should love what you read. then think about maybe this fits here maybe.

Mike then added:

Yeah, I pretty much agree with Darby’s thinking on this. When editors ask me to figure out what they like I don’t think very much of them. That’s their job. My job is to make what I like. Sure, it’s possible to take that attitude too far, but editors who want fewer submissions can limit their window for slush or etc. I want everyone to submit to Uncanny Valley who wants to so I can choose the best possible, coolest work. I don’t want them worrying in particular about what I want. And I never worry too much about what they want.

I agree with Darby and Mike (and I admire Mike’s editorial stance); I’ve said things like this myself: writers should write whatever they want to write, and damn everyone else’s eyes.

But today I want to try thinking past that thought. Why do I want to write what I want to write? And is it really entirely my decision?

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Looking at Movements, part 5: New Wave (US)

Debbie Harry of Blondie

Part 1: The Post-Punk Revival
Part 2: Post-Punk
Part 3: No Wave
Part 4: New Wave (UK)
Part 5: New Wave (US)

In this installment, I’ll be looking at the late 70s American side of New Wave. Whereas British New Wave (The Stranglers, The Jam, The Boomtown Rats, e.g.) strikes me as emerging from punk, or at least leaning fairly closely to punk, US New Wave seems a pretty different animal. It has some clear punk tendencies:

  • looking backward nostalgically to “simpler” 50s and early 60s rock;
  • fast tempos, with aggressive basslines and drumming;
  • a minimalist tendency toward building songs around short, repeated melodic phrases;
  • shouted/declaimed/half-sung lyrics;
  • political overtones;

…but at the same time it’s also very different, being:

  • much more theatrical (and often more overtly bizarre and weird);
  • much poppier;
  • more willing to draw on “opposing” musical trends, such as glam, prog rock, and (later on) dance styles, such as world music and disco.

That all said, both US and UK New Wave share some similarities:

  • art/experimental overtones, resulting in complex songs often built around punk back beats;
  • an all-around angularity;
  • the heavy use of synthesizers;
  • an overall geekiness, with singers often exaggerating their faces while performing.

Not every band shares all of these characteristics, of course, but we’ll see plenty of them below…

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