Thursday, November 3, 2016

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XX

Andrew Lincoln in AMC's The Walking Dead.

I've grown to trust fan culture less and less as the years go on. There's a perfectly good reason: decent criticism ends up invalid in the face of it. Dedicated zealots will criticize a popular television show, but only within the confines the series provides – which means viewers will complain if a character they like dies in a manner they don't approve of, or if the arc takes an unpopular turn  but they don't think outside the confines of the show to examine what it is actually doing and why. This is what separates criticism (which asks why this and why now) from consumer reporting (which tells you what's cool to see and what's not). One form invites you to think and the other tells you what to think. And, if you haven't noticed, consumer reporters today find themselves more often employed than actual critics. (That's what makes marketing folks happy and many editors and producers relieved.)

A perfect example of fan culture criticism is AMC's popular zombie apocalypse series, The Walking Dead, which over the last six seasons has grown fascinated with splattering zombie brains each week (therefore trivializing death by endlessly numbing us to its gore). It even has an after-show gabfest, Talking Dead, where fans get to have their own variety show and the zombie is reduced to a lifeless commodity consumed to boost viewership and ratings. If people were fighting for their humanity in something like Night of the Living Dead, today people appear to identify more with the undead, as if true human feeling had already been gobbled up. The post-modern age has done much to chisel the tombstone of a more romantic and passionate response to death and destruction. In its place lies a comforting cool cynicism where folks distrust any form of rebellion against the norm. We're so inured to shock now that it's rare that a work of art even has the ability to cause a riot, or even perhaps stoke passionate debate. Until a couple of weeks ago.

When the latest uber-villain, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and his barbed-wire baseball bat, brutally and vividly bashed in the brains of two of the more popular living characters on the show, The Walking Dead suddenly prompted a number of its fans to walk away. (Talking Dead characteristically celebrated the season opener by screening it - without a whisper of intended irony - in a Los Angeles cemetery where the cast and fans could be wistful together and then jubilantly bring in a new season.) When it comes to the subject of death, The Walking Dead has long developed its own dramatic somnambulism. (Sometimes the corpses seem to be moving – and thinking – faster than the living.) But in the season opener, the creators pulled the cheapest trick of exploitation by prolonging the tension so that the audience would also get bashed over the head. (The most shameful bit of manipulation made the audience wait for an eternity to see if the hero, Rick, played by Andrew Lincoln, would cut off his son's arm with an axe to demonstrate his loyalty to Negan.) Where fan criticism might complain about the necessity of the gruesome violence, or bemoan the death of an adored character, a critic examines the larger issues. For instance, James Hibbert tweeted, "That The Walking Dead censors Negan swearing & won’t show nudity, but airs THAT feels like [a perfect] example of upside down puritanism." The Walking Dead is an ample example of "upside down puritanism."


This altered version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" has been making the rounds for some time now. No wonder. Parton's 1973 hit was about the fear of another woman taking her man away. But played at a slower speed, "Jolene" is an entirely different song. Where Parton sounds perfectly capable of handling herself, and you never doubt her victory in the end, a listen to the 45 at 33rpm reveals a much more mournful track full of fear and dread. But that's not all. The change in speed also changes the meaning of the song and the gender relationship at stake. You might also swear that you stumbled upon some lost track by Jesse Colin Young that might have worked wonders in the closing credits of Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. When you go back to Dolly Parton, at the song's proper speed, a new listen yields something closer to Alvin and the Chipmunks.


Unlike Devo, who wore their art on their sleeve, Stan Ridgway and Wall of Voodoo were much shrewder. Like expert poker players sneaking their way through songs that seemed like discarded Raymond Chandler plots, they came across as lost Americans who not only weren't sure what city they were in; they even had doubts that their country was a place you could call home.


Even though it was the psychedelic numbers (fine as they are) like "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" that got all the attention, tracks like "Comin' Back to Me" and "Today" were the secret heart of The Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow. "Today" might be the most beautiful ballad Marty Balin ever sung. With an opening guitar line suggestive of Jerry Garcia's for The Grateful Dead's cover of Bonnie Dobson's "Morning Dew," "Today" might be something of a sequel.

“Morning Dew” was an early Sixties protest song conceived at a time when folk music was attempting to change the world from one that threatened to turn to rubble into something new and egalitarian in spirit. The song is framed through a conversation, but is it between a parent and child, or is it two lovers? Who really knows? Who really cares? At the time, the exquisite darkness of "Morning Dew" laid clues that we could be facing a nuclear holocaust, but heard today, the singer could just as easily be describing global warming. The song is essentially a mystery novel waiting for someone to solve it. It was as if, just by singing it, you could unlock the door to its bottomless mysteries. Many have tried. All we do know is that there is nothing left of the world – but how and why it got to this state remains a secret. Unlike those many anti-war songs that dozens of people lined up to sing, as if signing up for a different kind of army, “Morning Dew” doesn't offer a clear message about what to sign on for. It opens a door.

"Today" might be heard as a song about the day after "Morning Dew," when out of all the destruction new beginnings are claimed and affirmations get earned. "Today" make you feel that the world might not truly end because the singer is certain that he won't let it.


Dave Marsh once wrote that on "I Want to Know What Love Is" Lou Gramm of Foreigner could sing rings around Bono. I think that on this track he does the kind of soul singing that Bono often aims for. But where Gramm gives into the drama of the song and it tears at him until the New Jersey Mass Choir and Jennifer Holiday bring him release, Bono would make sure to tell you that it's a drama, tell you that it tears at him, and perhaps tell you that you're lucky he's here to tell you so.


For the past number of years, as if checking in from some outpost on the margins of the planet, Randy Newman continues to take the pulse of the country he calls home. Before the end of the George W. Bush era, Newman painted one of those pictures of life in America called "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," a largely forgotten track on his Harps and Angels (2006) album. (You'll likely never hear it on the radio. No one heard it even then.) In the song, he tries to justify the leaders he's been living under in America by comparing them to some of the worst in history (Caligula, Torquemada, King Leopold of Belgium, Hitler and Stalin all make the cut), but the dark horrors of their regimes hardly helps him sleep nights under the current one. He followed up during the election of 2012 with a satirical rewrite of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" called "I'm Dreaming (of a White President)" that needed little explanation.

Now in an era where a raging narcissist demagogue like Donald Trump can be viewed by some as a viable candidate for President, Newman in his new song, "Putin," sets his sights on his equally pompous pal already running a nation (as if providing a preview of what could come here). With an ominous and hilarious Kurt Weill orchestral theme opening the song as if Newman were introducing Nosferatu, Newman checks in with the Russian leader demonstrating his prowess ("Putin puttin' his pants on one leg at a time") and his sexual allure ("When he takes his shirt off / He drives the ladies crazy / When he takes his shirt off / He makes me want to be a lady"). Before long, as he puts the hammer down (with the help of the "Putin girls" chorus), Newman unmasks the ceremonial megalomania with looming images of Lenin and Stalin putting the pursuit of a promised land in perfect perspective.


I've always had profoundly mixed feelings about Patti Smith. Sometimes I've thought that the self-consciousness of her art tied her to platitudes rather than releasing her into the wind. And, yet, she can still fly when she lets those primal instincts loose like a runaway subway train. On her single, "Dancing Barefoot," from Wave, she doesn't try to categorize the sensation of being carried away by love, but gives in to its scarier implications of possession. In this staggering performance, the tension between freedom and bondage is not only palpable, it is realized.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

1 comment:

  1. How about props to John Oswald, who back in 1988 on Plunderphonics gradually slowed down Dolly Parton's version of "The Great Pretender" (you can hear it here: