Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Coldplay Effect

Coldplay released their new album, Mylo Xyloto last week, to mixed reviews. I, for one, liked it. Certainly not their best, but it’s still better than most slickly produced, tritely written pop out there. Sure, Coldplay is no Animal Collective in terms of moving pop forward, but then Coldplay is not “indie” and never has been. They’re a popular band and popular for a very good reason: they make quite pleasant, addictive pop music.So why so many haters? Why is Coldplay hipster kryptonite? Why have most self-respect indie kids long abandoned Coldplay to the realm of painfully saccharine, popular radio-ready mainstream bilge?

I think the key words are “popular” and “mainstream.” The gist of it is simple: Coldplay is too popular. Too many normal people know about Coldplay and like them. It holds absolutely no esoteric “cool” cachet to say “I like Coldplay.” Everyone has heard of them and probably owns some of their music.

For hipsters and fans of the obscure and esoteric, this just will not do. They may have loved Coldplay and “owned” that affection circa 2002 when Parachutes was genuinely new and Coldplay was still little-known apart from “Yellow,” but once Coldplay began its meteoric arena rock ascendency and started showing up on Starbucks mix CDs, the cool kids disowned Chris Martin & Co. faster than you can say “meh.”

When asked, “what have you been listening to lately?” no hipster in his/her right mind would say “Coldplay.” They would say “Oh, I’ve been into ____ (insert Brooklyn indie band of the week). Have you heard of them? Didn’t think so.”

The world of indie music is a strange one, because while it favors quality it also favors–perhaps even more–the “hidden/esoteric” quality of little-known music. When a band is unknown to most people, their fans can boast a “privileged, secret knowledge” and have the privilege of being on the cutting edge or inner circle of something new and good. But when too many people get in on the “secret” and also start to appreciate the goodness of it, hipsters must move on to find the next little-known thing.

This is a puzzling paradox for a few reasons. First, if you acknowledge that a band is good and producing quality music, wouldn’t you want as many other people to recognize that fact and be able to appreciate it too? Wouldn’t the widespread public acknowledgement of the quality of your favorite new band be good news to you rather than the cue for you to abandon all ownership of it? And secondly, if you truly do like a band for its quality music, it doesn’t make sense that you would so easily abandon it once it becomes popular. If you do, then it’s clear that your affection for the band was never really about the quality of the music. It was always about the status and cool cachet that the band’s obscurity provided. Once that wore off, so did your affection for the music.

The Coldplay Effect is essentially this: Liking music when it’s convenient to your image (i.e. when not many others know about it) and abandoning it when it becomes mainstream. Of course it goes beyond music too. The same phenomenon happens in fashion, when a style is beloved by trendsetters for a bit but then anathematized when it becomes “on the shelves of Target trendy.” It also happens in food (pork belly is so last year), film (“your favorite filmmaker is Wes Anderson? Hmm… I prefer Truffaut”), and in a whole host of other cultural arenas.

The problem with this attitude towards culture (and I fall into this trap too, of course) is that the appreciation of quality gets subsumed under appreciation of status. The artistry of the work is demeaned when it is turned into a status symbol valued more for its obscurity than for its excellence. And this is a shame, because there’s a lot of stuff out there that may be wildly popular, but is also amazingly good. We shouldn’t ignore or deride something just because of its popularity. Not even Coldplay.

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My Fall Playlist

I’m really feeling the fall right now. In a good way. The weather in L.A. is getting cooler (at night at least), and in the right neighborhood a yellow leaf or two can be seen. More importantly, change is in the air.

In the spirit of change, of Autumn, and of good music, I put together a fall playlist of new music. Listen to it on Spotify here (if you’re on Spotify), or take a look at the tracklist below. It’s all music that has come out in 2011, and most of it in the last 3 months.

  1. Wilco – “Rising Red Lung”
  2. The War on Drugs – “Black Water Falls:
  3. Feist – “Anti-Pioneer”
  4. James Blake – “Measurements”
  5. Surfer Blood – “I’m Not Ready”
  6. Real Estate – “Three Blocks”
  7. Sara Groves – “Obsolete”
  8. Ryan Adams – “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say”
  9. Fleet Foxes – “Someone You’d Admire”
  10. Cowboy Junkies – “Square Room”
  11. M83 – “Wait”
  12. Lana Del Ray – “Video Games”
  13. Bon Iver – “Holocene”
  14. Willie Nelson – “The Scientist”
  15. Katie Herzig – “The Waking Sleep”
  16. My Brightest Diamond – “I Have Never Loved Someone”
  17. TW Walsh – “The Modern Age”
  18. David Bazan – “Virginia”
  19. Over the Rhine – “Days Like This”
  20. Girls – “Jamie Marie”

10 Transcendent Moments in “Life”

It’s been about a week since The Tree of Life came out on DVD/Blu-Ray, which means lovers of the film like me can watch, re-watch, dissect and pause to our heart’s content. As I’ve reflected on the film (I think I’ve seen it about 8 times now), I’m no less awestruck by its beauty now than I was in the beginning. It’s a film overflowing with the sublime, the transcendent, the holy. I’ve heard others call it a worshipful experience and I certainly concur.

The following are the scenes that get me the most, each time I watch Life. They are, in my opinion, the 10 most transcendent sequences of the film. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

Jessica Chastain’s opening voiceover sequence (1:55-4:17). “The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace…” These words from “mother” launch the gorgeous opening monologue of the film, set against images of childhood, cows, sunflowers, waterfalls, swinging from trees, and accompanied by the haunting and foreshadowing voices of Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle.”

Creation of the universe (19:45- 23:45). Following the death of her middle son, Jessica Chastain closes her eyes in grief and prays: “Lord… Why? … Where were you? … Did you know? … Who are we to you? … Answer me.” This prayer is beautifully, painfully juxtaposed with images of the birth of the universe: swirling purple gases, turquoise nebulae, celestial stained glass. Witnessing these awe-inspiring cosmic beginnings is like having a window into God’s creative process. And set to the mournful, operatic music of Preisner’s “Life: Lacrimosa,” it’s downright worshipful.

“Life of my life” (34:40-36:00). Immediately after the dinosaur scene, and as a transition out of the “history of creation” sequence, Chastain’s voiceover resumes: “Life of my life… I search for you… My hope … My child.” This is accompanied by Berlioz’ “Requiem” and magisterial images of Saturn, Jupiter, and an asteroid on a collision course with earth, bringing death to the dinosaurs and an ice age to the planet.

“When did you first touch my heart?” (37:10-39:10). Part of the beauty of this scene is that it follows the grandeur of the universe’s birth with something just as glorious: the birth of love, and the birth of a human baby. In this sequence, set to the achingly beautiful music of Respinghi, we see mother and father falling in love (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt), followed by what might be the most powerful, abstract cinematic depiction of a human birth ever. The baby’s birth is intercut with images of children being led through a forest by a woman in white (we see her at various points in the film… I take her as some sort of Holy Spirit figure), and a little boy swimming upwards through a submerged house (a motif we see a few other times in the film… Watch carefully at the end).

The boys growing up (47:00-50:10). Set to the stirring, full-of-life music of Smetana’s “Moldau,” this sequence, which starts with mother pointing to the sky and saying “that’s where God lives,” manages to capture so much truth and vitality–of life, of boyhood, of growing up–in a brief montage of the boys being boys: playing in the grass, playing with hoses/sprinklers, lighting sparklers, jumping on the bed, kicking the can, climbing trees, running in fields, putting grasshoppers down shirts, throwing balls up on the roof, playing tag, and then being called in for dinner at dusk. There’s so much youthful exuberance packed in to this three minute sequence, and it stirs the soul.

Jack’s prayer (57:55-58:55). The Tree of Life is in many ways a string of prayers. Roger Ebert says that the whole film is a form of a prayer. One of my favorite prayer scenes is when Jack sits down at his bed and proceeds to pray a genuine prayer full of petitions (“Help me not to sass my dad… Help me to be thankful for everything we’ve got… Help me not to tell lies”) but also full of questions/whispers that are more rhetorical: “Where do you live? Are you watching me? I want to see what you see.” All of this is set against a lovely piano rendition of Francois Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mistérieuses.”

Repentance & Grace (1:49:00-1:56:10). Following the extensive “fall of man” sequence, in which we see Jack discovering his own depravity (culminating in the BB gun incident with his brother), the tone shifts as Jack  seems to adopt a repentant heart (“What I want to do I can’t do; I do what I hate.”) and seeks forgiveness from his brother. Notice the score here: a slow, subtle piano quotation of the operatic Preisner theme from the birth of the universe sequence. Then there’s the amazing reconciliation scene between Jack and his brother (“You can hit me if you want… I’m sorry. You’re my brother.”), followed by a scene of Jack showing kindness to the burned boy he and his friends had previously shunned.

In the Garden (1:53:30-1:56:10). Part two of the grace/redemption catharsis begins when Jack joins his father in the garden. No words are spoken, but a new understanding is reached. Immediately following is Brad Pitt’s own moment of being humbled and brought to repentance. He loses he job and we hear his first (and only) voiceover of the film: “I’m nothing… Look at the beauty around us… I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.” The sequence climaxes with one of the film’s central voiceover expressions from Jack: “Father… Mother… Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” The music in this sequence is quite deliberate: A subtle piano rendition of the Respinghi theme from the film’s birth scenes earlier, perhaps to help define these moments as experiences  of “rebirth” for Jack and his father.

“The only way to be happy is to love” (1:58:30-2:01:30). In the final moments of the 1950s section of the film we watch the O’Briens as they pack up and move out of their Waco, TX home, to the music of Berlioz’ “Domine Jesu Christe” (from the Requiem). We see Jack somberly walk out of the street of his childhood one last time, then as the car drives away and the house grows smaller in the distance, mother leaves us with one last voiceover: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by… Do good to them… Wonder… Hope.” “Hope” is last word from mother in the film.

The end (2:03:00-the end). “Guide us to the end of time…” What can I say? Set to the “Agnus Dei” section of Berlioz’ Requiem, the final 15 minutes or so of the film are absolutely sublime… a montage of sight, sound, hope & belief.

Take Shelter

Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is a film for our paranoid, anything-could-happen, Harold Camping day and age. It’s a jittery, tense, unsettled film for the unsettled days in which we live.

The film is about the fears and anxieties of a modern-day working class man (Michael Shannon) who simply wants to protect his wife (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and young daughter in rural Ohio. He worries about a lot: tornadoes, agressive pet dogs, acid rain, strangers breaking in to his house, car accidents, etc. And he begins to have vivid nightmares about each of these scenarios. Is he going crazy? He starts to see a therapist. Others begin to take notice of his peculiar behavior–especially the passion with which he goes about building a storm shelter in his backyard. But is he actually crazy or simply a responsible protector of his family? This is the film’s nagging question.

It’s become commonplace for films to raise critical questions about the “culture of fear” and its attendant problems, as if our fears are unjustified and mostly just harmful to the supposedly utopian status quo. But what if our fears are justified? What if doomsday is coming and there are good reasons to take shelter and hide? That is the provocative question this film–a hit at Sundance this January–is willing to ask.

Take Shelter is a fascinating film–an intimate family portrait on one hand and a surreal apocalyptic abstraction on the other (perhaps akin to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia or, in a weird way, Malick’s Tree of Life). Like Jeff Nichols’ first film, Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter is a film in which the tension slowly escalates and the expectation of violence builds and builds until explosive moments of release.

The 90% calm, 10% crazy performance of Michael Shannon is indicative of the tenor of the film at large. But Shannon’s remarkable performance is also reflective of the larger mood of America right now. Are we losing our minds? Have we given up hope? As a financially downtrodden family man in the rust belt, at wit’s end about how to thrive in a world gone mad, the only thing that makes sense to Shannon’s character is to dig a hole, hunker down, and hope there’s something left after the storms have all passed.

We Have to Occupy Something

What exactly is the purpose of Occupy Wall Street? Apart from a vague sense of it  being the liberal progressives’ counterpart to the Tea Party, and a coalition of unionists, anti-capitalists and mad-as-hell twentysomethings angry about the rising cost of Netflix and Facebook’s infuriating shape-shifting, it’s sort of unclear.

As a “movement,” Occupy Wall Street doesn’t reveal an organized grassroots agenda as much as it represents a general climate of anger, frustration, and antagonism against the “haves”–a suspiciously narrow (1%), heartless, no good very bad group whose entrepreneurial success and capitalistic success apparently oppress the 99% of us have-nots who are being unfairly kept from sharing in the 1 percent’s riches.

Mostly, though, Occupy Wall Street represents the natural discontent of an entitled generation raised on the notion that we deserve things, that the government owes us something, that everything we want should be accessible, and that somehow we are not responsible if we don’t end up quite as successful in life as we’d hoped. It’s a blame-shifting problem. It’s an inability to delay gratification or go without that which we believe is our right or destiny. And it’s a problem both on the micro/individual and macro/government level.

I like Bruce Wydick’s perspective on it for Christianity Today:

Like most protests, the Occupy Wall Street folks are better at identifying something that is wrong than identifying a way forward that is right. But even if the protestors don’t understand much about financial economics, they have a clear sense that something is wrong. That something, however, lies deeper than the behavior of a relative handful of Wall Street moguls. That something, I believe, is a sense of material entitlement that has crept into the American psyche. This sense of material entitlement has infected our personal choices, our politics, and our financial system.

Wydick places the blame not on one entity but on the spirit of entitlement that pervades both individual Americans and our government institutions. In his assessment of the side-effects of the spirit of entitlement he includes the ubiquity of debt, the real estate crash and uncontrolled government spending. “Our financial crisis is a crisis in American values for which we all share blame,” he writes.

The thing is, “sharing blame” is hard for us humans to do. We’re infinitely averse to admitting our own culpability. In almost anything. Whether it be our own financial hardships, or those of our communities, or the high taxes under which we suffer… We have to lash out against someone. We have to go occupy something.

As Christians, though, I think we must first and foremost look within for the blame. We must own our share in the mess. Beyond institutions and hegemonies and Wall Street tycoons, how are we responsible for the trouble we’re in? True revolution begins here. True change begins with what we can actually control: our own lives, an awareness of our weaknesses and potentials, and a commitment to working to improve.

If we have to occupy something, let it be the dominion of our own culpable Self, the guiltiest of all institutions and the one we are likeliest to spur toward positive change.

Notes on the Legacy of Steve Jobs

It may be too soon for a “legacy” commentary on Steve Jobs. But part of Job’s legacy is that he helped popularize the “having a mobile device that can do everything, from anywhere at anytime” quickness of contemporary communication. His devices helped facilitate the cultural shift toward on-the-go, real-time media consumption. Because of him (and others), we can now hear about news, process it with others and, yes, even write a blog post about it as quickly as we want to. That I’m writing this on my Apple MacBook Pro is not meta irony as much as it is an unavoidable reminder of this man’s prodigious legacy and his brand’s revolutionary reach. How many of you who are reading this now on an Apple product?

The Twitter flood of memorial thoughts this evening underscores the extent to which Jobs achieved iconic, hero status in this generation. In the last few hours I’ve seen him described as a Walt Disney figure, a Thomas Edison, a visionary and genius, a force of nature, a wizard behind the curtain. The man was regarded as a figure beyond a celebrity–a single-minded innovator who didn’t trifle in the trappings of fame, wasn’t soiled by his conquest of capitalism, but instead hunkered down and made things happen: in garages, in laboratories, in the dark rooms where inventors invent things that will change the world.

And change the world he did. He was a populist advocate for technology, bringing it out of the provinces of geekdom and making it more user-friendly, accessible, intuitive. In an era when technological progress sometimes felt overwhelming and gizmos and gadgets too complicated to bother with, Jobs and his Apple brand focused on simplicity, user-friendliness, and an attitude of “even you can understand this device!”

But it went beyond utility. Jobs also reimagined technology as something that was more than a tool, something more than a gizmo with buttons. He declared technology to be something with personality. Something with style.

The significance of this contribution cannot be overstated. In the Jobs generation, technology became an accessory and friend rather than just something we use. With our “Macs,” our iPods and ear “buds,” and above all our beloved attached-at-the-hand iPhones, we learned to have relationships and emotional attachments with our technological devices. We feel lonely when we are without them. We turn to them in boredom, in sadness, in madness. They facilitate our every social move. In a very real way, Jobs pioneered an attitude toward technology (as a social, relational, emotional hub of our human experience) that paved the way for social media like Facebook and Twitter.

Jobs made technology elegant, sexy, beautiful. He made it something inspiring and easy for students, writers, artists, designers, musicians. He made it friendly. The first time I got an iPod I immediately got a little “sock” covering for it– to keep it safe or warm or something. I don’t know. It was a little sidekick, something that I swear appeared to be smiling back at me as I ran my finger over the little wheel thing to find the song I wanted to play. Maybe it was the neon colored ads, or the soft white rounded aesthetic, or the precious manner in which “i” was a pre-fix to everything. Whatever it was, Apple mastered the art of making technology seem simultaneously simple, futuristic, homey, sweet, hip, necessary, gender neutral & fun.

The technological landscape was altered significantly by Jobs, perhaps chiefly because he helped fuse the technological to the human landscape. If there had never been a Steve Jobs, we probably would still be living in a world where technology was an indispensable part of our daily lives. But I bet that world would have been far less pleasant than the iWorld Jobs has given us.