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Introduction

Lady Gaga, known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta until quite recently, is a phenomenon. Although only 24, she already has six number one songs from two albums, The Fame and The Fame Monster. She has toured the United States and world as a conquering pop hero, whose ascent occurred at exactly the right time with exactly the right trajectory to propel her into superstardom. Gaga is not the only vocal artist to meet this kind of success. She is preceded by the likes of Madonna, Mariah Carey, Beyonce Knowles, and, to a lesser extent, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. But as of the writing of this post, Gaga has something that none of her predecessors had: The Method.

Markets in Music

In the past 100 years, markets have developed widely differentiated markets to satisfy an ever-more sophisticated melange of tastes on the part of humans. Before the 20th century, musical styles may have changed relatively slowly and catered towards small groups of elites and particular localities. Through the 20th and 21st centuries, the decreasing cost to the transmission of information along with increasing standards of living fostered a vastly increased consumption of music. People consume music in the sense that they listen to it and know it, but prefer more music to less, just as with any other good, all things being equal. Discarding old music is not a condition to further consumption, only the unsatiated appetite for more is.

In recent years, several notable artists have been able to maintain their position on the top of the charts by providing music that people demand. In some cases, their styles have changed to fit so as to please shifting preferences in the market. The most notable of this group of artists is Madonna and Mariah Carey. Mariah, whose traditional path to pop supremacy leaves little in common with Gaga’s, need not be addressed in this post. But in many ways, Madonna is Gaga’s most similar predecessor. Her example helps inform the path Gaga will take. Madonna burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s with music that was as catchy as it was interminable– I, for one, cannot get “Borderline,” “La Isla Bonita,” or “Like a Virgin” out of my head if I try upon hearing it. Within a matter of years, as she attempted to evolve artistically, she fell out of favor with the public. Madonna’s concerted effort to change her image into a sexually liberated dominatrix in her album Erotica and book Sex did significant damage to her brand. As her songs fell off the charts, Madonna’s increasingly desperate bid to remain in the public eye almost completely destroyed her. But Madonna was nothing if not resilient, and she learned from her mistakes. She remade herself for Ray of Light and never strayed too far from the cultural mainstream again.

By the time of 2008, pop music in the United States had become moribund with the same acts, being replenished only by American Idol contestants who were successful not because they rocked the boat, but because they excelled at traditional artistic convention. The market was saturated with typical romantic ballads, rap self-aggrandizing, and both gritty and soft country songs. The pop music segment, which consists mostly of young people whose tastes have not hardened fully yet, had consumed enough of the old. The time was ripe for something new.

The Method

Lady Gaga literally burst on to the scene. With the market so ready for something different, all it would take was a little “going gaga” to light a real fire. Her sartorial splendor ratcheted it up a notch. Was it just a temporary act? Nope: her music videos doubled down on the schtick and she rarely broke character. In fact, she told one source that she’s “Gaga 24/7.” She told another to never call her by her real name again: it’s Gaga from now on. From the impractical, yet somehow aesthetically interesting hairdos to the occasionally unflattering but always interestingly shaped dresses, Gaga’s method was simple and pure. She would push every superficial boundary right up until the breaking point while offering up pleasing, aggressive, strongly sexually suggestive music.

The most important element of The Method is not going past the breaking point. How would she know what it is? She doesn’t have a team of market analysts and economists looking for this mythical breaking point. She knows because we’ve already seen it: Madonna’s Erotica phase.

Madonna made the mistake of getting too personal. The market readily consumed her music, and even her behavior: she was young, after all. But they would not go for boundary-pushing content that seemed authentically representative of Madonna herself. Too personal, the material was perceived as representing the genuine sexual deviant she always was. There’s no faster way to stigmatize one’s self to the broader market to which, in reality, she wished to appeal. Indeed, she only became a hero to various small groups of people by unwittingly sacrificing broad appeal. She did not intend this. We know this because of how fast she dropped the routine. I suppose it is possible that Madonna converted to that phase out of commercial calculation, but whether she did or not is not as relevant as how it was perceived by people.

Gaga has not made any mistake like this. When she became a national figure in fall of 2008, she studiously avoided campaigning for her choice for President on national radio, saying that while her preference was well known, she would not say it to Ryan Seacrest on air, presumably because it would peel away a layer from the extraordinary artifice she had devised. Nothing personal to her previous identity, Stefani Germanotta, remains. What was Stefani Germanotta like? Check out this 2005 appearance by her on MTV’s Boiling Points.

Not too different from the rest of us, but a far cry from the Lady Gaga we know and… well… appreciate today. Our Lady Gaga has platinum blonde, dirty blonde, or bizarro color hair depending on the theme of the evening. A day dress? Try trash bag couture, the devil version of 1990’s chic, or geometric glamo-sportswear on for size. Virgin Media did us a favor by putting her “worst outfits” on display here. My favorite is her red lace outfit from the MTV Music awards, shown earlier, but focused on below.


There is something so revolting about this outfit. And yet, it is partly because of this, partly because of its newness, that I cannot turn away. The most compelling part about it is that it gets me using my imagination. Why did Gaga choose this? Can she see from under there? Whatever we say about the garment, it’s not uninteresting. Not only do we talk about it, we want to see more. It’s instructive to compare this to Madonna, and in more recent times, Adam Lambert. Madonna is sublime at what she does, while Adam Lambert is actually pretty good himself. But when Madonna gave us Erotica, it was hot, when it should have been cool. What I mean by that is that it seemed to represent her real personality. Adam Lambert’s 2009 appearance on Good Morning America was cancelled after a male performer simulated giving the singer fellatio at an MTV performance. It’s not just the homosexuality that bothered people. It’s that he warmed up to us too soon. We don’t know him. Maybe now we don’t want to know him. America’s okay with certain types of sexuality as long as it’s genuine, distanced performance.

This is what Gaga has mastered in her method. None of her outfits represents who she really is. Not her name, not her hair, not her food preferences, not what kind of animals she really likes, her hopes, dreams- nothing- all barred from us. Here are some of her lyrics from “Bad Romance”:

I want your ugly
I want your disease
I want your everything
As long as it’s free
I want your love

Since we cannot possibly take these lyrics entirely literally, we are forced to take them figuratively, metaphorically. Again: thought-provoking, but this is not authentic personal expression. She may say otherwise, that this is who she really is, but it isn’t true. It’s a well-crafted commercial persona for our consumption. She’s smart enough to stay in character, too. Whereas Madonna broached controversial Catholic imagery in her “Like a Prayer” video, Gaga is light-years away from taking on religion or war. Madonna discovered The Method too, but at a later stage in her career. Gaga knew it going in. Gaga is Stefani Germanotta’s avatar, in every sense of the word. And there’s nothing threatening to people about it because it’s purely play. She’s in on the joke.

Evidence for The Method

Recently, Lady Gaga and Beyonce unveiled their long-awaited 9 minute music video for the song “Telephone,” which is currently dominating your airwaves. The video is a terrific piece of circumstantial evidence that The Method is not something intrinsic to Lady Gaga, but something that can be replicated. Here is the video:

The first 5 minutes of the video aren’t particularly interesting and seem intent merely on connecting it to its prequel, “Paparazzi,” in which Gaga gets arrested after poisoning her boyfriend. But the last 4.5 are extraordinary. Beyonce also begins wearing Gaga-esque outfits and behaving like a “monster” as Gaga might say. Unfortunately for Gaga, Beyonce is the real star of the video, and as with their joint effort in “Videophone” (also a prequel perhaps judging by similar 1940s-ish wardrobe/hair in particular scenes), steals the show. But what I wish to draw your attention to here is the complete Gagafication of Beyonce. Beyonce adopts similar personality artifice, actually out-Gagaing Gaga herself. I love it.

There is another subtext here. Beyonce’s last album was called “I Am… Sasha Fierce.” This album is her best by far (so far), featuring “Halo,” “Sweet Dreams,” “If I Were a Boy,” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” The album title referred to Beyonce’s long-lived (though now deceased) alter ego, Sasha Fierce. According to Beyonce:

Sasha Fierce is the singer’s sensual, aggressive alter ego, but don’t expect her to surface anywhere but the stage. “Sasha Fierce was born when I did ‘Crazy in Love.’ People, when they meet me, expect that all the time, but that person is strictly for the stage.”

This implies that we don’t really know the real Beyonce very well either. As noted in my “Siren Paradox” post, we haven’t seen her real hair, or much of her real preferences and beliefs. She performed at the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, but she also performed with Destiny’s Child at the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush. Yes, one more likely represents her genuine vote preference, but things may not always be as they same. Beyonce is notoriously guarded about her private life. The artistic synthesis between Gaga and Beyonce, both using the method through completely detached, methodical commercial targeting is a beautiful thing to behold.

Predictions

But you know what they say: all good things must come to an end. I suspect that at some point Gaga’s exterior will begin to crack. She might have a marriage, a child, or late-night hotel altercation. She might get drunk, express a serious political theory, or get into a public personal bout with a rival. I wouldn’t bet on it any time soon, but she, like everyone else, has multiple desires in life that may shift in priority depending on her income.

To make an analogy, in economics there is the backward bending supply of labor curve. Above the reservation wage and halfway up, people tend to work more as they make higher wages. For this phase of the curve, we say that the substitution effect is greater than the income effect, which both continuously operate within us, but shift in priority as incentives as our wealth changes. At some point, they switch in importance, with the income effect overwhelming the substitution effect in our mind. That is, we no longer wish to work more hours at these higher wages, we wish to use more of our time for leisure. We just bought that 200 ft yacht and by gosh we’re going to use it, even if it costs $40,000 to fully gas!

Just so, at a certain income level, the odds are that Gaga will care less about appealing to the broad market and risk revealing herself more. At this point, she will probably never make quite as much money as she used to, but she will be more personally satisfied and the cost of her constant vigilance in obeying The Method will be relaxed. Let us hope that when the time comes, if it comes, that she can still stay in on the joke and, even if pursuing some random social justice issue, she does not take herself too seriously, as so many others have failed in doing.

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For thousands of years, in an unbroken but accelerating trend, humans have migrated from rural areas into urban ones. It’s not hard to come up with reasons why, but in conventional parlance we say that people can find more opportunities in a city than on a piece of farm real estate. Still, that’s only part of the story.

In ancient days, cities weren’t worth much unless they were built near water because it could be used for irrigation and trade. These same economic advantages still hold, but moreso for the latter reason. With more trade comes more goods and services to sate human desires — of which you can be sure there are an infinite number. The more these desires are fulfilled, the happier (so the theory goes) humans are. In general, this should be rather obvious. Looking at the extremes, places where there are no choices (North Korea, various indigenous communities), humans almost always prefer lifestyles with more choices. I do not mean to say that indigenous communities do not have intrinsic value, merely that humans do not prefer them, just as I wouldn’t say a 1992 Ford Taurus isn’t worthless– but almost everyone (Conan O’Brien excepted) would prefer a 2009 Nissan Maxima if all things were equal.

New York City is arguably the greatest city on earth, a place where interesting, growing culture and life can be found in even the darkest and smallest nook and cranny, which in my mind cannot be said of Los Angeles, Barcelona, (my beloved) Hong Kong or Vienna… and Paris is in no way as dynamic a place as NYC. Speaking of French food, you can get it 24 hours a day at fine dining establishments all over NYC — good luck finding delicious cuisine in Paris at 4 am. ( I’ve tried. And failed. ) In New York, there’s more than job opportunities: there’s family, transplanted and reformed nationalities, linguistic hot zones, and, oh yeah… art.

To look at a list and read out loud every gallery and museum in New York City would take you hours. ( I recently enjoyed this post by Joanne Mattera on a beautiful, tasteful private home-cum-gallery. ) The diversity and wealth of aesthetic experience, perhaps only possible in New York City, is a direct function of trade. Trade opens up people to new possibilities, and enables different parties to, based on the principle of comparative advantage, share what they are good at. The more people you have in a place like New York City, in a country that prides liberty and trade like America, the more possibilities.

So when I read this article in the New York Times (h/t Russ) on the New York Philharmonic performing for free in Central Park, consider how many improbable but beautiful elements of this there are: a first-rate world-class orchestra that has served as America’s ambassadors to North Korea and soon possibly Cuba (an effort I support, unlike many of my GOP colleagues), people of all income levels enjoying its artistic excellence, and a green space where time slows a bit (just a bit) from the world’s greatest city that surrounds it. The space, incidentally, enjoyed as much for its moments of artistic resonance as its jogging paths.

And so I wonder how cognizant the New Yorkers are of just how anomalous their experience that night on the lawn was: the people in that orchestra can play in many other orchestras, but they chose New York (let us blessedly avoid discussion of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for the time being). The painters and photographers whose work draws millions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions but make their home in New York could live in Paris, London, Milan, Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, or any number of other cities. But they chose New York. Why? In part because the pay is better. In part because there’s more creative possibility — and these parts are related, neither being possible without the freedom of expression and number of people. I suppose what I am trying to get at, but am not expressing very well, is that urban aesthetic experiences like this are built on the backs of business people (and their families), those like the traders of ancient times who founded and built cities on rivers — who, today, are the daring entrepreneurs, empire-building capitalists, and, yes, the heroes of any given Ayn Rand novel.

The more regulations a city passes, the higher taxes a state imposes, the higher the barriers to entry for artists. ( How many low-income artists are going to be able to hire a lawyer or consult with the VLA? ) Sooner or later, the people gathered in Central Park to enjoy a perfect evening with the New York Philharmonic will have to confront a startling reality: it’s not as easy, as obvious, or as likely, that these kinds of aesthetic experiences come as a result of charity and luck. Although such experiences may indeed be ends in themselves, make no mistake, the artists can afford it — and they can afford it because they’re already satisfied in so many other ways (financially, temporally, etc.). This seemingly simple and eminently enjoyable experience is inextricably linked to the thriving, dynamic commercial nature of the city.

( Picture credit: New York Times (2008) )

Some see Mandy Moore’s name and automatically recoil. As someone who grew up in Orlando, however, I take a little bit of pride in the fact that she went to school across the street from me and we had mutual friends. Still, Moore herself apparently has called her past music “just awful.” Since 2003, she has been trying to rehabilitate her image by taking on seemingly, slightly subversive movie roles and making “adult” albums, either of covers or her own original songs. Her most recent album is Amanda Leigh – maybe she’s establishing a Sasha Fierce type character, I don’t know. The album itself isn’t my type… but it seems to scrape at something that is. When I heard the song “Love to Love Me Back” I realized what that means.

A couple years ago, Minnie Driver released Seastories, an album with a lot of songs about love, self-knowledge, and forlorn hopes. I actually like this album probably more than I should, but I like her voice, some of the mysterious lyrics, and the stories she alludes to (and by the way, ending a sentence with a preposition is perfectly fine according to real linguists). I’m not a big lyrics go, so when I come across a song whose lyrics catch me and bring me along for a story, I get interested. Anyway, it turns out Driver was singing in jazz clubs before she was ever an actress — and she writes her own music these days.

Moore’s latest album seems like it’s a really, really weak copy of Seastories. And that’s the only point of my post. Side point: I strongly recommend Seastories.

Much of the history of Fiona Apple is a matter of easy-to-find record. Recently, by coincidence, I found some interesting news about Fiona: she has a very talented family. First, her father, Brandon Maggart, is a Tony-nominated actor who also appeared in several television shows. He has been married twice, and his second marriage brought us Fiona and her sister Amber. However, a half-brother from the first marriage, Garett Maggart, has numerous television credits to his name, including being the sidekick in UPN’s The Sentinel which ran alongside Star Trek Voyager in the mid-1990s. He’s still going strong, appearing soon in CSI Miami.

Of course, the second marriage is where things get really interesting from our standpoint. This brought us Fiona, to be sure, Amber is no talent pushover. Primarily known as a cabaret singer performing in major U.S. cities, she uses the stage name “Maude Maggart,” an homage to her paternal great-great-grandmother, Maude Apple. Currently, she is fighting her way through the business, taking on artistic projects of interest and gaining praise from the New York Times.

How did I learn about her?

Well… you know that with me, most things come back to Star Trek. Unfortunately, I am a Wolfram Alpha Star Trek computer (the name for Wolfram Alpha clearly being stolen from Memory Alpha… grumble). Maggart recently recorded an album with Brent Spiner, who plays Mr. Data in the show and movies from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here’s a video of how the album was constructed, with far too little of Maude (but check 3:25, 3:56, 4:20 are key moments):

It’s an album concept that works. You can hear the similarity to Apple’s voice, as well. A little research dug up that she’s done a lot more than just Dreamland. But at the same time I was thinking about writing these posts, I came across this article in NYT Arts section, one of the must-read links in my Google Reader:

As Maude Maggart rummages through several decades of popular music in “Parents and Children,” her bewitching new show at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, you have the eerie sensation that a precocious young girl is leading you by the hand into an attic where forgotten family secrets are stored. […] Singing these two songs… in a sweet, delicate voice whose rapid vibrato lends everything she performs a slightly otherworldly quality, her long-lined phrases, filled with twists and turns. […]

Like Ms. Marcovicci, Ms. Maggart acts a song with a fluid body language that lends everything she sings an added dramatic intensity. And like Ms. Marcovicci she wields old-time Hollywood glamor to cast her seductive spell.

Interestingly, the article goes out of its way to not mention her sister Fiona. Maybe this is just being fair to Maude, who may be a formidable artist in her own right, but if so, the comparison to Claire Danes in the article seems gratuitous.

Maybe I should have titled these posts: “The Royal Applebaums.”

Fiona Apple released her first album, Tidal, in 1997. The album stunned reviewers and regular listeners alike. While “Criminal” stormed the airwaves, back when MTV still played music videos, with its subject verbally contrite, but factually writhing with sexual restlessness, other songs captured the praise and admiration of critics. As a young woman, Apple was raped, of which “Sullen Girl” expresses:

Is that why they call me a sullen girl – sullen girl.
They don’t know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea.
But he washed me shore and he took my pearl –
And left an empty shell of me.

And there’s too much going on.
But its calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion.
Under the waves in the blue of my oblivion.

Personally, back in 1996-7, I thought “Never is a Promise” was the best song on the album. Apple conveys sentiments that I have heard many women, and a few men, struggle to express in words:

You’ll never see the courage I know
Its colors richness wont appear within your view
I’ll never glow – the way that you glow
Your presence dominates the judgments made on you […]

You’ll say, don’t fear your dreams, its easier than it seems
You’ll say you’d never let me fall from hopes so high
But never is a promise and you cant afford to lie […]

You’ll say you understand, you’ll never understand
I’ll say I’ll never wake up knowing how or why
I don’t know what to believe in, you don’t know who I am
You’ll say I need appeasing when I start to cry
But never is a promise and Ill never need a lie

The typical 1950s responses from us guys are not going to work on Fiona Apple. Sometimes a re-assuring hug or platitudes and declarations of certainties do little more than pour gas on the consuming fire — and risks explosion. During summer school in 1998, I was listening to this song when someone ripped my headphones off to listen to it. The kid waved the headphones in the air exasperated, “Is this the turkey bitch!??!” Although this term is listed in the Urban Dictionary, my esteemed colleague referred to Apple’s exhortation to stop eating turkey and turn to vegetarianism. By this time, she had also gained notoriety for a speech at the MTV Music Awards where she declared “this world is bullshit” and told viewers to stop taking their ethical and cultural cues from, well, people like her. Now, normally, these speeches seem contrived and just a little too cute (by far). Here, however, Apple is only 20 years old, she mentioned Maya Angelou, and she’s telling people to do something that probably hurts her market more than helps. And if the story ended here, you could still accuse her of just trying to get street cred and give the case to the jury feeling all right.

But over the next few years, Apple further developed her oeuvre, without much regard for market demand or the preferences of her record label. She released When the Pawn… [the rest of the Guinness Records-length title shortened for your sanity and mine] which proved a dismal market failure, but another extreme critical success ( For diametrically opposed readerships: Entertainment Weekly and Village Voice ). The album, like her first, is solid from the first song to the last, but none of the singles or music videos caught on this time. The closest she gets to mush, which is apparently what people expect from a woman who is writing her own music, comes at the end of the album in “I Know”:

And at my own suggestion,
I will ask no questions
While I do my thing in the background
But all the time, all the time
I’ll know, I’ll know
Baby- I can’t help you out, while she’s still around
So for the time being, I’m being patient
And amidst this bitterness
If you’ll just consider this-even if it don’t make sense
All the time- give it time
And when the crowd becomes your burden
And you’ve early closed your curtains,
I will wait by the backstage door
While you try to find the lines to speak your mind
And pry it open, hoping for an encore
And if it gets too late, for me to wait
For you to find you love me, and tell me so
It’s okay
Don’t need to say it

If you’re saying to yourself: hey, this isn’t mush at all, you’re right. That’s as close as it gets. This album is different. She talks about different things. She talks about familiar things in different ways. Her expressions are novel, sometimes graphic, and always force me to think. I had never considered that a relationship could take the shape where the woman ( a wife? a girlfriend? a partner? ) would wait like that. Is it possible that they could still survive it? It’s an intriguing thought. I guess the aftermath is for another song. But whatever the case: it’s new.

In her third album, Extraordinary Machine, well… I could never make heads or tails of it. But the story behind it is that she recorded it with a long-time producer, thought she could do better, and re-did it with another producer after a couple dozen fans started protesting the alleged imprisonment of her first go at the album. In fact, it was Apple, not Epic, that withheld the release. And it was her fans who stimulated her to get off her a-word and finish her album.

What emerges from this story is an artist who has seemed, at least until Extraordinary Machine, absorbed by her story — inhabiting the memories, her own personality, her relationships, the dynamism of all these things. Her artistry seems to have been consuming, in a way. I think that by Extraordinary Machine, she might have branched out into other subjects, new ways of expressing these things, with trepidation and tepid results. But I’m really interested in Apple’s seeming sensitivity to the people who interact with her music. The third album came out largely because of a few dozen fans. For other artists, this might not have meant much. But for Apple, it spurred her to finish the album and release it. She has responded in letters to magazines that have published critiques of her or her work. She used to engage with her work and the consequences of it — I wonder what she will do next.

Recently, and to a fair amount of acclaim (though not the fervent acclaim that met A Rush of Blood to the Head), Coldplay released its latest album Viva La Vida. The first time I listened to it, I thought the band had a colossal whiff — aiming for the stands and just plain missing contact with the ball. The second time I listened to it, I liked two of the songs a lot. Now I’m coming to terms with a few of the other songs. This is how I dealt with X&Y as well. I like Coldplay. As far as evoking passion, they don’t get much passion from me or anyone else from what I can tell. On the other hand, they’re absolute experts at … something, I can’t put my finger on it. And before you sophisticated music lovers start yelling, I don’t listen to the lyrics of any music really, so their possible insipidity does not bother me at all. ( But it’s best to not get me started on Chris Martin’s attempts to subject the Third World to existences of eternal poverty without trade. )

It seems, then, that this is not a band whose genius will grow into something legendary. Maybe it’s because they haven’t been challenged by a rival. In the 1960s, I have it on good authority that The Beatles and Beach Boys engaged in an “arms race” of sorts that propelled both bands to dizzying unforeseen heights of artistic expression. The story is worth recounting, briefly: Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, two of the virtuosos behind their respective bands, forced each other to get better with each album. They influenced each other, beginning with The Beatles’ Rubber Soul driving the Beach Boys (read: Brian Wilson, the only one of them worth a creative damn) to produce Pet Sounds, which Paul McCartney to this day calls the best album ever and moves him to tears with its melodies. In turn, McCartney went to the drawing board with John Lennon and they came out with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is often called their best album. According to some, this album broke Brian Wilson, whose prodigy was unleashed by the album but also broken by it. Wilson had, like perhaps Fermat grasping his Last Theorem or Nash contemplating Game Theory, become possessed by the art of the possible in his field. Unlike those two, and perhaps much more like MacArthur strategizing in Korea, he had to depend on others to realize his dream. Just as MacArthur’s vision of a united Korea and a free China was thwarted by Harry Truman, the fulminations of other Beach Boy members condemned Wilson’s potential magnum opus, SMiLE, to death. When Wilson recovered, he produced SMiLE as he thought it would have been. The result is unlike anything else that came from the 60s, or perhaps unlike anything that has ever been made. To me, the album haunts like a graveyard that evokes both a sense of the tragic and the bygone. Honestly, I have no idea what to make of it.

Chris Martin agonizes over a compound sentenceI think this story suggests that perhaps we have reveled in our glory of diversity and broadening of tastes too much to see a similar war. There’s too much terrain, too many niches, and too many diverse tastes for a sustained arms race to occur again. Jacks of all musical types and brands, but masters of none…? It’s a shame, for we may never know the realized potential of an artist without it. Coldplay will be doomed to just being good as opposed to being great.

Post-Script: Art criticism is difficult water to tread, if you ask me. Authors at The New York Times tackle it with brio however. In his famously scathing critique of X&Y, Jon Pareles basically writes that he hates the band because they’re full of cliches and commercially polished. Apparently, in the new era we won’t have any authentic feelings or expressions and we will cloud / shroud any and all genuine feeling with “oblique” references and metaphor. Yes, there is so much more artistry in that! How enlightened. In the event, it looks like there is still room for authenticity (“naivete” to an art critic) in the market, though increasingly less so. Ironically, the review crushed Martin and his bandmates to the extent that they allegedly consciously sought a makeover at the hands of Brian Eno. Hence, Viva‘s supposed break from past Coldplay albums.

The image of Richard Nixon is very powerful in society. Media are anxious to explain that the cynicism many Americans feel toward the Presidency, or politics in general, began at Watergate. Of course, the truth is far from that. Rather, and perhaps because of the media itself, cynicism toward politicians and political institutions had been on the rise for decades. ( One wonders if it has indeed been simply constantly high. ) In any event, discussions on Nixon inexorably return to this figure so closely tied with corruption, scandal, and disgrace.

Nixon was elected to two terms as President of the United States, and the second election by a blowout margin. Nixon’s policies were quite moderate, especially by today’s standards. Though a Republican, he supported price controls and other odd interventions to the economy. Though once a strident anti-Communist, he opened and formalized relations with the People’s Republic of China, engaging one of humanity’s most terrible butchers, the Chairman. Though elected to end the Vietnam War, he eventually fought it with relish, engaging in a spectacular set of foreign policy manipulations that brought America to the very tip of success. For all these reasons, and many more, Nixon is a character whose reality has not been fleshed out in standard media. In recent times, however, some have made more compelling portraits of the man, whose inner struggles and manifest contradictions might finally be brought to a more tempered and artistic fulfillment.

First, Conrad Black’s Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, does wonders for rehabilitating the man as a complex human to be studied — a man whose colorful and turbulent persona demands understanding. Black, who is perhaps best known these days as a Thatcherite persecuted for questionable financial decisions, renders as magisterial a portrait of Nixon as might be possible in the current time. He does not gloss over the darkness, and he wallows not too long in the light. As Christopher Wilcox writes in the NY Sun:

This is by no means the last word on the 37th president, but it is a magnificent one-volume summing up of his efforts on the world stage and, as such, provides a clearer picture of Nixon and his times.

Although I have not read the book fully, as it is 1100+ pages long, I have read several long portions of it in the library and look forward to purchasing it eventually perhaps for an… extended vacation. Black’s painstaking research and attention to detail well-serve the subject. However, if you’re like me, you want a biography more like American Caesar, William Manchester’s magnum opus and one of the finest biographies of any man yet written (it helps that the subject is Douglas MacArthur, about whom one can never say too little or exaggerate too much). Lots of drama, lots of glorification, and maybe even a touch of hagiography every now and then. You know, kind of like an opera.

If you are like me, then, you are in luck! For the other recent and compelling portrait of Nixon comes in John Adams’ Nixon in China, an opera recently performed in Denver, and four years ago in St. Louis. ( If you missed it, and I have a feeling you did, fear not for it will be released on CD “next winter” supposedly. ) According to The New York Times, in its second review of the piece:

The opera, it may be recalled (or inferred from its title), is based on President Richard M. Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China in 1972, though it plays out more in the psyches of the principals than in the action itself, which is chiefly ceremonial. And what dominates the Nixonian psyche in Alice Goodman’s libretto is a consciousness — a sort of split self-consciousness — of history in the making.

James Robinson’s production stresses that inner dimension in several ways, using what he calls “the romantic bluish glow of the television screen.” Rather than monumentalize, as aspects of Peter Sellars’s original production of 1987 did, Mr. Robinson tends to miniaturize, through images running almost constantly on as many as a dozen television sets spread across the stage. And those images, mostly from news video of the actual meeting in China, enhance the sense of history made in the moment.

Alas, perhaps this is too nuanced for me and I might have preferred the 1987 production. In any event, I think these productions bode well for our culture’s ability to cope with media-inflicted distortions and still arrive at the truth, warts, glories, and all. This post should not be read as one in the “Politicians as Artists” series, as such an assessment of Nixon’s art is well beyond even this critic at the time. The shades and echoes of the man must grow more full yet.

Appreciation for the arts has varied with time and with taste. For the nonce, arts of many kinds are in vogue — and we are surrounded by art, fashion, taste, vogue, music, and design of all manner. At a time when many believe that we do not have enough arts in schools because we are supposedly teaching to tests, and in a time when many decry funding for the arts, the fact of the matter is that humanity at all class levels have never been so aware of art in the entire history of humanity. This is not entirely due to technology, as it owes in part to the monopoly profits of strong intellectual property laws, but it is a fact.

So we have a tremendous amount of art in our lives. Humans have to use language to discuss art, and it’s too easy to employ hierarchies, ordering, and different degrees of adjectives to art. Some believe that, depending on our language, we are hard-wired to do so. In any event, one might wonder if, absent commentary and criticism, we might think that all art is equal — or given a certain specialty, perhaps *more* of it might be equal. (In the market, one might speculate this already occurs due to the primacy of goodwill value in the art, i.e. the value of a name.)

I read some interesting commentary on this subject and it’s hard to come by. In a lengthy NYT bio of legendary pianist and Texan Van Cliburn, there’s some debate over the merit of piano competitions. How do judges decide, after all? It’s similar to many types of art competitions in that the dilemma is what categories do you select for judging and how do you pick which is better in any given category? How does one grade feeling in piano performance? Is it easy for the judges to  be biased? All these and many more questions challenge the convention of judging in art for the sake of competition. Van Cliburn himself has never been a judge, and never wants to be. He explains:

“I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I’ve never been on a jury. It would be the hardest thing ever for me to do. I’m too understanding of why a person did a passage this way instead of that way.”

Could this be a paradigm for future aesthetic appreciation competitions? Or discussions?  [Apologies for errors, brevity, and lack of coherent thought as I typed this at 0330….]

No doubt, at some level, politicians are artists. Whether we use broad definitions or narrower definitions that say art involves scenario-building or vision of some kind, politicians build a kind of art. We may not admire their art. Indeed, we may be terrified of it — coming out of a century of industrialized murder (Stalin, Mao, Hitler) — it’s easy to feel that way. But it could still be a kind of art. Unfortunately, that would lend some kind of aesthetic credibility to that hack of a human being Kim Jong-Il, who still runs concentration camp gulags in the Hermit Kingdom.

Apparently, the New York Philharmonic has accepted an invitation to play in North Korea. From one perspective, this performance occupies an important role in scenario-building: one of engagement, understanding, and unity. This is history, from the NYTimes article:

The Philharmonic’s trip, which has generated some controversy among orchestra musicians and commentators, will follow a venerable line of groundbreaking orchestra tours that have played a role in diplomacy, the most famous one, perhaps, taking place in 1973, when the Philadelphia Orchestra traveled to China soon after President Nixon’s historic visit and amid what came to be known as Ping-Pong diplomacy. In 1956 the Boston Symphony was the first major American orchestra to travel to the Soviet Union. The New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein, went three years later.

There certainly will be critics with very good arguments. There are artists who would much rather play for dictators in North Korea than leaders of the free world. The author of this blog is a strong proponent that North Korea remain on the list of state sponsors of terror. Its bombing of Korea Airlines flight 858 could no sooner be forgotten than North Korea’s wanton axe slaughter of American servicemen in 1976. I support any and all artistic engagement with the regime, so long as it is done with open eyes. The New York Philharmonic appears to be on top of things, again from the NYT article:

[The conditions for performance sought by the Philharmonic] included the presence of foreign journalists; a nationwide broadcast to ensure that not just a small elite would hear the concert; acoustical adjustments to the East Pyongyang Grand Theater; an assurance that the eight Philharmonic members of Korean origin would not encounter difficulties; and that the orchestra could play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

A US functionary of dubious honor, Christopher Hill, said that he thinks the conditions have been met. If he’s right, but only if he’s right, this would make performance an acceptable and honorable political act. Nothing will change the fact that the ruthless dictators of North Korea will brainwash its citizens (and American tourists, including a once-dear friend of mine) into thinking that the Pueblo Incident was America’s fault. Nothing will change the fact that the murderers of Pyongyang tell their citizens America is responsible for them not having any power, despite the fact that Pyongyang was once the capital of the industrialized half of the Korean peninsula. During the Japanese occupation, the Empire only allowed development far away from Japan as they viewed the peninsula as a dagger pointing into Japan’s heart. Forty years later, the situation was drastically reversed.

No, nothing will change any of that. But at least we can say that we acted in good faith and shared our art with them. Maybe one person will stop and say that heart-felt beauty like this could not possibly come from a terrible imperialist nation. We may gain something, however small, and at no cost whatsoever.

Check out who is listening to what and where. Very cool. Quick observations:

  1. Note the difference, just going across the border, between American states and Canada: no Carrie Underwood!
  2. As you get to Iceland, the music map starts getting a bit dicey.
  3. The trade deficit with China doesn’t appear to be as pronounced in music, but nevertheless, if all we’re (as in, the West, not Canada) exporting is Avril Lavigne, we’re in trouble.
  4. We are going to war with Russia. Soon.
  5. Korea is to America what Andoria is to Earth: completely foreign, but allied… I’ll take it.

( h/t Information Aesthetics )