Thursday, May 22, 2008

3AM Sleepy-eyed American Idol Finale

"So it all comes down to this: Bush vs Kerry for all the marbles. Standard electoral strategy suggests that a successful candidacy depends crucially on making every possible effort to mean as much as possible to as many people as possible, i.e. to carry some appeal for a diverse group of voters, clear across the electorate. One cannot blame Kerry for sticking to this tried-and-true strategy. But what the Kerry camp does not know, and will not understand until all is lost, is that Bush and his campaign architects are planning a complete subversion of the normally accepted strategy. Bush couldn't care less about broad appeal, rather, he has a loyal and devoted base of support, and is working on growing it as much as possible. The Kerry camp underestimates the mobilization strength of the Bush camp in drawing new devotees to their cause, and overestimates it's own power to mobilize people against Bush. That is, Kerry thinks that if people don't like Bush and instead find him (Kerry) palatable enough, then he (Kerry) will have earned new voters. Bush knows that this is false, in the sense that he can trust his own voter base to a far greater degree than Kerry can trust his, and that the only way for Kerry to overcome the odds and draw out enough new voters to put him over the top is for him to put on a virtuoso performance and blow enough minds to the extent that undecided or fence-sitting voters simply have no choice but to vote for him. Bush feels that Kerry doesn't have what it takes to pull that off, and if so, then Bush will be able to cruise to victory while hardly breaking a sweat.

Hopefully it is obvious which of the Davids is Bush, and which of them is Kerry."

I wrote all that a few hours before Tuesday's show, and I'm posting it here to demonstrate how spectacularly wrong I was.

I wasn't the only one. Plenty of people have complained during this season of ups and downs that the show is in desperate need of a major shakeup, and a good place to start would be with the voting. Tens of millions of people vote each week, and yet the exact numbers are locked down tighter than the plot of the new Indiana Jones. Elections for public office don't draw this kind of voter turnout, and those numbers are laced with every statistical and demographic tidbit that the pollsters, press, and public can get its hands on. We've put up with seven years of cryptic clues and unordered "bottom threes" in a failing attempt to extract something -- anything -- about the vote tallies and rankings of the finalists from week to week. I don't just want to know who is going home, I want the actual RESULTS.

I suppose it's within the realm of possibility that Kerry really did impress enough people and inspire a swarm of Bush haters to rush to their telephones to vote for him or against his hated rival (whatever their disposition). But it's a lot more likely that David Cook dominated the voting from day one, which led to panicky AI producers -- fearful of a suspense-less season when ratings had noticeably sagged -- devising a way to convince the viewers that somebody else had a reasonable chance of winning. The judges amped up their gushing accolades for David Archuleta and practically handed him the title after Tuesday's show in order to try to make a contest out of the whole thing. What, all of this sounds like a crackheaded conspiracy theory to you? This is precisely what happened in Season Two, and producer Nigel Lithgoe even admitted it himself. Clay was miles ahead in the voting, so the show directed itself toward concocting a Clay vs Ruben rivalry based around their contrast in styles.

Now, one could argue that the proof is in the pudding vis a vis Season Two, that what could have been a boring season with a foregone conclusion was reshaped into a fierce, months-long battle that is still remembered fondly by fans of the show. On the other hand, we didn't get the season we asked for (and voted for), instead, we got the season that was assigned to us by the producers. Lithgoe's reasoning about people not watching if they knew that one contestant had a big lead simply doesn't hold water. To use another US political analogy, it's like saying that when Hilary had a 20-something percentage lead over Obama in the polls one year ago, then the nomination was effectively secured because nobody would bother supporting Obama when he trailed by so much and seemingly had little shot of winning. Or fine, enough with the politics, if you want an example from the entertainment industry, how about the 1997 Oscars, which was one of the highest rated Oscar broadcasts in recent memory purely on the strength of people tuning in to watch "Titanic" romp over the competition in one of the most obvious Best Picture wins ever. A lot can happen over the course of a season. Sometimes the favourites pick up more steam, sometimes they tread water and the competition steps up, sometimes the backlash kicks in and they wither under the pressure. All those possibilities make for interesting TV. And if it's known that two contestants are close in the voting (no matter where they are placed, but especially if they are on the bubble), the increase in voter urgency can result in plenty of "battles within the battle" and make for *really* interesting TV.

In the end, I couldn't stay awake for most of the finale, but caught the big finish with George Michael's performance and the announcement of the winner. That's pretty much a microcosm of my American Idol Season 7 viewing experience.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

American Idol Finale Anticipation

I didn't manage to get hooked by Idol's seventh season. Many times, I simply forgot to watch it (having to catch it on tape delay is an enthusiasm-buster if there ever was one), and news about its bad reviews and sinking ratings obviously didn't do much to motivate me either. I didn't see much star potential at the end of Hollywood week, and the early stages of the top 24 did nothing for me, so I more or less fell off the Idol wagon and just kept up with the weekly results.

However, Star World has been showing an Idol marathon this weekend, allowing me to do some catching up at my leisure. The March 25th and 26th episodes (singing songs from the year of your birth, Chikeze eliminated) was a jewel of an episode that featured a handful of standout performances. This should be the episode to show to nonbelievers in a few years time when they claim that season seven was the worst ever and the one where the show definitively jumped the shark (wrong on both counts in any case -- season three was the worst, and the show jumped the shark last season at the exact moment that Sanjaya Malakar went home and the ratings tanked).

Syesha's success is reminiscent of Nikki McKibbin's from season one -- her place in the top three doesn't make any sense now, and will make less sense in a few years time when nobody has the slightest memory about her or anything that she sang. She is far and away the least deserving top three contestant the show has ever had. Every other top nine finalist from this year is more interesting and unique than her "female R&B diva with a passable voice" persona, which is a style that AI has beaten into the ground and no longer represents what viewers want to see based on the talents of the rest of this year's field. Sure, Jason Castro sucks but at least with him I get his crusty dorm room freakshow appeal. David Archuleta is a Disney doll who was essentially deemed as the Anointed One from the start of the competition even though he has limited appeal to anyone over the age of fifteen. But again, with him, I "get it". Syesha is completely forgettable, and I'll never understand how she survived so many trips to the bottom three.

The March 25th episode had a bit of everything, from Kristy Lee Cook's blonde country girl patriotism, to Simon Cowell's eerily prescient comment re: Archuleta's svengali dad when he said that he had trouble believing that David picked the song because it simply "wasn't him" (although "You're the Voice" is a brilliant song that I've always felt was madly underrated), to Michael Johns pwning Queen and possibly guaranteeing himself a Constantine Maroulis Career in the process, to Brooke White's simpleton Joni Mitchell act (a more consistent performer who didn't screw up at the start of every song could have won the competition). David Cook's jaw-dropping version (of Chris Cornell's arrangement -- the spirit of Chris Daughtry lives on and lives well) of "Billie Jean" made me a believer out of me and there's no justice in the world of Idol string-pullers if that version doesn't see release as a single.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

NEWS FLASH: DJ Spooky in "Nature"

First it was L'il Louis appearing "Science" (sort of), then came a review of a Spooky-edited collection of essays Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture. All this, and the Jenna Bush dancing to Taj Mahal at her wedding! In which other surprising contexts and media might music appear next, especially as it pertains to science? Someday, it is possible that we'd see a nine-part essay series in "Nature" about scientific theories of music? Oh wait, we already have!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Old Flames

A few nights ago, I was walking home from the train station at night, along a dimly-lit street with sidewalks covered by low-hanging tree branches, and a live version of Godspeed You Black Emperor's "Gathering Storm" popped up on my iPod. I had just added it earlier that day, but was using the shuffle function so the timing here was not premeditated. As the song built up over the opening minute, I happened to walk past an electric pole, and on its concrete base, scrawled in black paint, were the words "KNOW HOPE". It was pretty much a perfect moment in music.

Anyone who never liked Godspeed surely just rolled their eyes and has stopped reading this by now. Anyone who was ever a fan has probably had a few moments like these, in which their music has fit the mood of the surroundings perfectly -- a quick, meaningless moment in life abruptly crystallized into a memorable opening scene of a sad movie set to exactly the right soundtrack. At the same time, I understood what was missing in the music of A Silver Mt Zion (Thee Memorial etc.), or essentially, what they subtracted in sacrificing kitchen sink drama for lyrical sincerity and raw vocalized emotion. ASMZ don't create these types of moments. GYBE still can, even if, as in this case, I hadn't heard this particular Montreal live recording in years. The new ASMZ songs reek of a band that has already said everything they have to say. On their last tour, they regularly played 30-minute versions of "Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come and Gone)" that ended in dark, sludgy drone and suggested a more haunted direction for the band's usual worldly paranoia. But instead of drawing future inspiration from that song's final fifteen minutes, they drew it from the first fifteen minutes, continuing with a style that now feels exhausted.

One month ago, I honestly couldn't have cared less if Portishead ever released another note of new music. Now that they've created the best album of 2008 thus far, what do I have to say for myself?

Ten years is a long time to wait for a band whose first two albums never fully clicked with me, albums that I wanted to like as much as other people did but couldn't. The golden days of trip-hop now feel as quaint and outdated as Beatlemania, so what was there to feel excited about in 2008?

Even the most sombre moments on "Portishead" didn't suggest that they were capable of making something like "Third", an album that's as offstandish and mechanical as it is beautiful. Like all the best ideas that are floating around and waiting to be picked out of the air, it all feels so simple and obvious, not least because the entire album has a raw, lo-fi feel that makes it sound as if if was recorded for a few hundred dollars. Why haven't more bands made torch songs like "The Rip" that abruptly shift gears into the motorik rock of early Kraftwerk or Cluster? Why haven't more bands pillaged the idea of sounding like a mashup of Joy Division's "Heart and Soul" and Silver Apples' "Sunlight Serenade", like Portishead do on "We Carry On"? Why didn't Xiu Xiu record "Machine Gun" before Portishead did? Trent Reznor should be taking cues from that track and using it as a springboard for the major sonic overhaul that his most latest albums so desperately needed. And "Threads", which is heavier (more in a black metal way than a blues-y way) than anything on their first two albums, clatters toward it's bleak conclusion as everything sinks to hell while Beth Gibbons finally becomes unrestrained and wails us down with the ship.

"Third" is an outstanding achievement that gives me new hope for the prospect of formerly great bands returning from the dead and coming back better than ever (crossing my fingers with the MBV reunion) (fortunately, I have heard a bootleg of "The Coral Sea" and it definitely all that and a big bag of chips).

Monday, May 05, 2008

Depeche Mode, "One Night In Paris", "Live in Milan"

I am years behind on DVD purchases. Give me some time to catch up.

I saw concerts on both of these tours, and the differences between the shows were considerable, not to mention my levels of enjoyment. So it goes with the associated DVDs.

The "Exciter" tour was the band's first in support of a "proper" album in eight years, but sadly (for those who had waited so long to see them live -- I'd like to pretend that the "Singles" tour didn't exist for my own reasons) the album turned out to be one of Depeche's weakest. The mellowness of the music mirrored the, ahem, maturation of the fan base, as the energy level on stage and in the crowd was ramped down several notches from past tours. On the other hand, "Playing the Angel" was one of the strongest albums of the band's career and proved to be more suited to anthemic singalongs than any of their albums since "Violator". A few more songs were rescued from mothballs ("Shake the Disease", "Policy of Truth") and the resulting tour setlists were arguably the strongest of any tour the band had ever done.

"One Night in Paris" is unmistakably Corbijn. He uses long, steady camera shots and a minimum of camera angles for each song. These shots are angled to provide maximal attention to the details of lighting and shadowing. When the camera focuses on one of the band members, it usually remains there long enough to permit intimate study of virtually everything that person is doing. In several instances, the angle and duration of the shots felt almost like an intrusion of Dave Gahan's privacy, picking up everything from his strained, in-the-moment facial expressions, to the slow drip of sweat falling from his body. The show gives plenty of time for reflection on the band's music, on the words they are singing, and on the personality of the performers. The slow pace of the "Exciter" songs certainly helps in this respect. The show feels more like a documentary than a rock and roll show.

"Live in Milan" is like Depeche Mode performing on the MTV Video Awards for two straight hours. The camera rarely stays still, constantly jumping through rapid-fire cuts, fast zooms, and extreme close-ups. The generous use of fuzzy, blurred effects and grainy video has the look and feel of handheld camera footage. This, along with plenty of crowd shots (which are *very* rarely used by Corbijn), and the ADD-editing, are intended to communicate the feeling of "being there" among all the frenzy and disorientation that one expects from a great concert. There are occasional pauses to focus on crotches, tattoos, and fingertips, seemingly in an all-out effort to portray the band as sex symbols and legendary rock stars. Once the DVD was over, I realized that I could remember very little about the stage design, lighting, and video displays (the stage was designed by Corbijn, incidentally) -- with all that jumping and cutting, there wasn't enough time to get a good look at any of that. The "scenery" vanished from my memory, but the way the songs sounded remained perfectly clear.

All in all, when each DVD ended, "Live In Milan" made me want to be back at the concert I saw in 2005, while "One Night In Paris" made me want to watch the DVD again. The high quality of the "Playing the Angel" tracks and the energy of the performances made that tour exceedingly special, particularly for a band in its 25th year of existence, and when it really comes down to it, the music matters most and everything else is window dressing in comparison. This implies that I had a strongly negative view toward "One Night In Paris", but it shouldn't be construed exactly as such. In a sense, the "Exciter" tour *needed* to be expertly captured on DVD in order to make up for the various weaknesses of the "Exciter" tour and album, thereby elevating "Exciter" to a greatness that it couldn't achieve on its own. As a viewing document to be enjoyed with the lights down at home, "One Night In Paris" is easily superior.