The Realness: Arcade Fire, Nixon in China, Odd Future, Clapping Music, Tahrir Square
by Seth Colter Walls
Since I had no economic imperative to do so and am talented at time-management, I decided against committing to the 3+ hour telecast of last night’s Grammy Awards — going instead with breaking news absorption through Twitter, along with watching a few relevant performances (Janelle Monae and Arcade Fire) via our janky, insta-uploaded-to-YouTube commons.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t walk through the New York City subway system these last few weeks. “MUSICisLIFEisMUSIC,” went the Recording Academy’s halfway inspiring but also inescapably vapid manner of posterboard tautology. That toothache you can’t get looked at without dental insurance? Oh, well, that’s life — which is to say, music! So be sure to enter your gaping recessional cavity into the “Best Wince-Inducing Pain of the Year” category during the next nomination window. (You will lose to the Peas.)
As David Shields would argue, our hunger for art is currently doubled over at veracity’s door, begging for entry and access to the real. But co-opting the real with entertainment isn’t media’s only option: cultural fakery is a force which can birth its own “truth.” So there’s no point in being upset when the climax of Arcade Fire’s ebullient post-Album of the Year performance of “Ready to Start” was interrupted by an ad for Hilton hotels, interpolated courtesy of the DJs in the telecast control room — presumably contractually bound right up to the final seconds.”Businessmen drink my blood,” for real. A line in the made-up song was made real, though not on the stage where it was being performed for a crowd that couldn’t tell how the home audience saw it. The line only became real for the people watching on television. Still — for the kids in art school who warned Arcade Fire that this would happen — Kanye West was right about the emotional undercurrent of their award.
Well, at least before he apparently deleted the relevant Tweet. (For being too real?) Still, the Merge Records outfit’s win over much bigger promotional muscles was to some degree a hope-conferring thing.
The oddity of media being overrun by history while you’re also making it has also been a tertiary feature of the much-more-consequential Egyptian Revolution. Those kids in Tahrir — while still subject to and bound by the lack of historical precedent when it comes to democratic transitions mediated by militaries in West Asia — nevertheless made something new. And they did it on the backs of what otherwise seemed like an absolute truth, flowing from Newton’s first law regarding strongman longevity.
Or else we could put it like this: “And every word, transforming us / As we, transfixed — made history.”
That’s a line of poetry spoken by a faux-President Nixon, upon landing in Communist China, during the first act of an opera currently playing at the Met in New York (as well as on these movie screens across the U.S. on March 2nd). Slightly upsetting yet not unexpected is how much the point of the opera “Nixon in China” has been missed in some corners of the specialist and elite press. In the Times last week, erstwhile executive editor Max Frankel — who covered Nixon’s real trip in ‘72 — waxed concern-trollic over the potential for art responding to very recent history to make us confused. “[By] appropriating and embellishing a recognizable history, the art may end up straining our credulity,” Frankel wrote. (About opera! Straining our credulity! Gambling in this casino!)
This shocking audience condescension — the idea that we’re unable to interpret real-life references that work both as signifiers and as something more mythic than the narrow historical particulars — found a strange bedfellow in the Observer’s Zachary Woolfe, who wrote: “In 1987, rendering Nixon as less malevolent than thoughtful, confused and lonely was provocative. But today the fact of Nixon as human is taken largely for granted, so the success of the piece in 2011 depends more on the things that always matter in opera: the production, the words, the music.”
Woolfe then went on to note several problems with the music and production on a bumpy opening night. (Many of which, at least to my eyes and ears have been adressed in the weeks since Nixon’s premiere.) But even on an imperfect opening night, I was not thinking just of orchestral balance, but of Egypt’s President Mubarak, who looked like he might have to repair to Sharm el-Sheikh (as has since happened). I was thinking about how, as Mao says in the opera, “founders come first, then profiteers.” Or how Madame Mao’s clever line break in her first aria (“When I appear, the people hang / upon my words”) seemed prescient during the pro-government thugs’ attempted siege on Tahrir.
It’s frustrating how inflexible classical music’s relationship with the media can be, relative to how pop and indie manage to behave. If those vernacular forms show an ever-increasing ability to ride the wave of post-millennial information overload, though, that doesn’t mean that some in the classical world have given up the pop-accessible ghost entirely, as this Angie Dickinson-Lee Marvin piece of video-collage (from the movie Point Blank) illustrates.
Minimalism’s reach is also identifiable in the new single from Tyler, the Creator (the leader of the sensationally misogynistic Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All collective). I’ve never been quite offended by the group, if only because their conceptual purpose seems so much more purposeful than pop stars who are supposedly “batshit crazy” for palling around with Armani, stylistically.
Tyler’s best line so far — from the title track to last year’s self-released album “Bastard” — was “Fuck a deal, I just want my father’s email / So I can tell him how much I fucking hate him in detail.” In an album rife with personas and unreliable narrators, it came across as fictionally 100% true. The opening line of the new joint, “Yonkers,” approaches that level with its opening couplet, which in high meta-fashion pillories artists who like to come across as more complex than they are. “I’m a fuckin’ walkin’ paradox / No I’m not.”