Are the VMAs Irrelevant?

Earlier this month, the Academy Awards announced that in addition to its other film categories there would be a new award, for achievement in popular film.  In other words, they’ve realized that elitism isn’t always the best policy and seem top be trying out compromise — you catch more flies with honey, not indie films that are only shown in 50 theaters nationwide.

This is not the first recent instance of a longstanding institution seemingly caving to the tastes of the public in a way that seems less than genuine.  Stoked though I was about the awarding of Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer prize, many couldn’t help but point out that the committee seemed to simply be awarding the album because of its popularity.

The latest award show, MTV’s VMAs, made this desperation more transparent than ever.  What’s more, although MTV has existed for a long time as the ambassador for new music and concepts, the former industry titan seemed genuinely confused about current music culture.

A Jennifer Lopez song won best collaboration.  I’ll admit, I don’t listen to pop a lot, but I didn’t even know she still had a music career.  Camilla Cabello won Artist of the Year, and Imagine Dragons somehow won best rock.

Throughout the night, casual mentions to actual artistry — dangerous, meaningful music like “This Is America” and N.E.R.D.’s “Lemon” — were relegated to technical achievements like editing and cinematography.  Thankfully, “This Is America” won best video with a message, and the song’s choreographer accepted the award and gave a speech.  She was played off by Rita Ora’s “Girls”, a song that has fetishized female homosexuality in a way that is exactly the opposite of any progress “This Is America” has inspired.  These sorts of contradictions were everywhere last night.  There were lots of displays of feminism, but then an artist like Meloma would get up and sing a song while flanked by tons of women in scant dress; I guess Latin Pop gets an exemption from #MeToo.

There were plenty of inflated egos on display as well.  The most frustrating example of course was Madonna’s “tribute” to Aretha Franklin that turned into a rambling session about her own career.  Not to mention Travis Scott’s enormous set that literally centered around a giant statue of his head (though he did earn some of this egocentricity with a fantastically energetic performance) and was preluded by a segment in which DJ Khaled came out, spouted some catchphrases, and reminded us that Astroworld is #1 right now.

Capture
Yup, that’s a giant Travis Scott head

The real kicker though was the Taco Bell commercial that aired right after Cardi B won her “Moon Person.”  “Congratulations to Cardi B for your VMA,” a voice said as zany animations and cartoon renderings of the rapper flew around the screen.  “You were famous, but now you’re, ‘Best New Artist VMA winner famous’.  You’ve had your face on magazines, but now it’ll be on bigger magazines.  You’re about to blow up!”

I know it’s just a commercial, but there’s something telling about the fact that MTV seems to think of their awards as a boon to an artists career.  Fact is, Cardi B already has blown up; the self proclaimed “King of New York” has broken record after record with her latest release, and consistently been the best part of each song she’s featured on for the past year; she’s changed the definition of what it means to blow up.  She doesn’t need the VMAs, or Taco Bell’s congratulations.

MTV appears to exist in an alternate reality, in which music listeners are at their mercy, and they decide who may be worthy to make it in the music industry.  Where an album’s merit is decided by its position on the charts, and how long it stays there.  Where DJ Khaled actually does something.

In the midst of all this, Post Malone’s closing act was surprisingly impressive.  He first walked out of a back room somewhere, dressed in what looked like smiley face pajamas as his hit song “Rockstar” began playing.  The instrumental boasted a pretty glorious sounding guitar accompaniment, presumably played by a guy in a fur coat standing in the middle of the stage.  “Switch my whip, came back in black, singin’ rest in piece to Bon Scott” sang Malone.

As with pretty much every televised performance, I harbored some skepticism regarding the authenticity of the performance.  These days it seems that nobody is really above lip-syncing, and it’s not really looked down upon either.  But any doubts I had were stripped away when 21 Savage stepped out of the darkness and came in gloriously out of key.  The crowd lost its mind anyway; in an age when the industry has music down to a science, such a dash of authenticity is welcome, even if it is technically incorrect.  The two rappers circled each other trading bars, reveling in the song’s lotus-eating ignorance.

As the song came to an end, the smaller stage gave way to a bigger one.  Post picked up a diamond studded telecaster and yelled, “ladies and gentlemen, it’s Aerosmith.”

It was.  Though years of living the exact lifestyle described in the previous song have clearly taken their toll on the band, they still showed an energy that most musicians today aren’t really capable of.  As they closed out an abbreviated version of “Dream On” I felt kind of annoyed.  It seems this is what pop music always does — uses a watered down version of a legendary act, for all the wrong reasons.

Then Joey Kramer launched into another song, “Toys in the Attic”.  Not Aerosmith’s most obscure song, but still a deep cut by 2018 standards.  For rockers going on four decades they held their own.  Steven Tyler still managed to sound decent, Joe Perry destroyed an amp, and Post Malone barely did anything besides play along.  The song ended with Perry, Tyler, and Malone singing into the same microphone: “Toys, Toys, Toys, IN THE ATTIC!”  One of hip-hop’s biggest names and music’s most promising talents, Post Malone, it would seem, was just happy to be part of the band.

 

 

Solo

Han-Solo-Movie-Trailer-Breakdown-Clues

We’ve reached a weird point in Star Wars fandom.  Back in the 70s and 80s there were few popular franchises that received the amount of attention and mainstream exposure that the series did and as a result lots of then kids and teenagers grew to be adults in the 90s when the “extended universe” took off through the print medium.  The fact that nearly two decades went by with no additions to the film canon allowed a solidification in ideas of what a Star Wars film should be.  The next three movies…were not that.  Although the prequels have been accepted by generation Z for different (mostly memetic) reasons, they have been overwhelmingly pegged as a stain on the Star Wars canvas.

Star Wars fans don’t like The Force Awakens because of its obviously pandering notes of nostalgia, and they don’t like The Last Jedi because of its painful destruction of that nostalgia.  All of this long-windedness is to say, we really aren’t sure what we want.  And it shows, in the way we have managed to lambast even the mostly inoffensive Solo.  By no means am I saying it is a standout film in the series, or even in this summer but it’s not terrible, and quite frankly I enjoyed myself while seeing it.

I’ll get the negatives out of the way first, because there are several.  For one, the movie is hopelessly infiltrated by the kitschy sense of humor that every pg-13 action film tends to have these days, and like with previous encounters it comes off as a bit awkward — quips here are far less endearing than when coming from the mouth of Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Pratt — like a senior citizen attempting to speak in contemporary slang.

There’s also a very sanitized sense of convenience that hangs over the story that, like this film’s brand of humor, is perfectly fine in a superhero flick but doesn’t work all that well in a story that’s supposed to be unpacking the deep mythology of one of pop culture’s most storied characters.  The Millennium Falcon loses both its escape pod and its satellite dish, Han meets Chewie, Han gets into debt, Han meets Lando, Han starts the beginning of the rebellion?  Everything falls into place in a way that just feels too perfect for the universe.

Speaking of Lando, Donald Glover’s anticipated performance veers sharply into caricature, while Alden Ehrenreich’s (much dreaded) turns out to nail the mannerisms and inflections of a young Harrison Ford pretty well.  At least enough to hold up with some reasonable suspension of disbelief.  I felt as though Glover was trying a little to hard in this role which tends to be what he’s known for, but his acting grated chiefly (I think) because Billy Dee Williams was never trying very hard at all.  He barely pronounced “Chewbacca” correctly and made it pretty clear through interviews that he knew little more than he needed to about the universe he took part in.

That’s a lot of bad things I’ve said about this movie but the truth is, it’s done quite well.  There’s action, adventure, and a budding friendship that many people have waited a long time to see onscreen.

Han’s meeting Chewbacca is actually one of the few instances of humor that works; Chewie’s confusion as Han struggles to wrench garbled (hilariously subtitled) shyriiwook from his vocal cords.  This is of course second only to the opening scene in which an enemy points out in response to Han’s thermal detonator threat: “That’s a rock, and you just made a clicking sound with your mouth”.

Other highlights include a full throttle landspeeder chase through a dismal, foggy, Corellia; a gravity defying train heist that provides a new take on the tried and true western staple, and Han 100% inarguably shooting first.

It’s time for us to accept the fact that from here on out every film bearing the Star Wars name is for all intents and purposes, a fan film with an extremely large budget.  Accordingly, nothing is ever going to replicate the magic of the originals.  Let’s start appreciating these films for what they are, and not what they can never be.

The Unique Artistry of Childish Gambino

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

–T.S. Eliot

There’s been a lot of hubbub lately about Childish Gambino (Alter Ego: Donald Glover) and his apparent plagiarism of underground rapper Jase Harley’s “American Pharaoh” in his nation-sweeping smash hit, “This Is America”.  While I won’t claim that these accusations are completely unfounded, in my opinion these reports have been greatly exaggerated.  Yes, they both begin with a choral intro transitioning into an afro-pop/ trap beat instrumental and feature lyrics with similar themes.  They are, however, very different.  “American Pharoah” is an anthem of triumph over oppression that cleverly uses Biblical and historical allusions to convey its point, and catchily at that. (Actually, Jase Harley has a lot of fantastic stuff, check him out!)  “This Is America” is a piece of performance art that combines audio with Hiro Murai’s fantastic directorial chops to create a truly unsettling but enthralling experience.  It apes contemporary rap music’s increasingly stereotyped characteristics like minimalist triplet flows and ad-libs delivered by Quavo, Young thug, and 21 Savage.  In its imitated simplicty, it is extremely complex.

However, whether or not Glover was inspired by Jase Harley is not really a question.  It’s pretty clearly impossible that he (or someone working with him) wasn’t somehow influenced by it, but the fact remains: borrowing, stealing, whatever you call it, is something Donald Glover has been doing for years.

To begin, let’s first listen to a classic track from Funcadelic’s 1971 Maggot Brain.  For the purposes of the point I’m trying to make, I recommend listening to it at 1.25 speed.

Now listen to this, a track from Gambino’s 2016 masterpiece Awaken My Love.

These songs even have weirdly similar album covers.  Nothing obvious that anyone would notice right away, unless the two photos of just a woman’s head were placed side-by-side.  That riff isn’t stolen — it’s original, and fantastic at that.  In using it in his song, Gambino evokes a long history of funk music and places his own music on that timeline.

It doesn’t stop there.  Atlantia, the FX show written by Glover and almost exclusively directed by Hiro Murai, borrows a lot from storytelling devices long used by black artists.  Not the way that writers usually borrow from literature — with parallel plot events (Basically any Coen Brothers film and its use of The Odyssey comes to mind).  Glover instead writes scenes in a way that is reminiscent of past material, but in no way derivative.  There are some moments in the show that immediately bring to mind Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the 1952 novel that brought to bear some revolutionary ideas about black identity in segregated America.  Not because of similar events, but because the two elicit a similar feeling of fearful confusion.  Take the man on the subway in the show’s pilot episode: he offers Earn a sandwich, and inexplicably becomes angry when Earn refuses to eat it.  It’s moments like this that nightmares are made of — bizarre enough to be unsettling, but lingering because of the real-life fabric of which they’re woven.

Much like this scene, there is a really odd moment in Invisible Man when the book’s nameless narrator is suddenly detained by a group of scientists and experimented  upon without explanation whatsoever.

Another moment in Atlanta is more of a parallel happenstance, in which over the course of an episode, Earn is approached by a woman appearing to know him, apparently having him confused with an old music industry contact of hers.  She gets him admitted into a party in which he begins meeting people, people who could give his managing career a much-needed boost.  But then the rug is pulled out from him when she menacingly whispers that she knows what he did, how he stabbed her in the back.  His assumption of a false identity comes back to hurt him, just as when the Invisible Man‘s Narrator assumes the identity of Rinehart, his apparent dopelganger with whom people keep confusing him.  Everything is fantastic, Rinehart seems to have a great life, until the Narrator runs into Rinehart’s enemies.

There are also many events throughout the series that are reminiscent in content to the “White Peacock” scene in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.  This is a book that has been hugely influential in its motiefery (recently very notably in Ta-Nahesi Coates’ run of “Black Panther,” in which he has translated Morrison’s themes of flight and its many meanings brilliantly into a super-heroic narrative) and mined for meaning by scholars for decades.  The scene is interpreted by many as an illustration of how white wealth or old money holds down those that possess it.  The white peacock cannot fly away because the lavish jewels it wears are too heavy for it to leave the ground.  Personally, I feel this scene stands in Morrison’s story simply as a bit of honest-to-goodness magical realism.  Season 2’s Teddy Perkins, or S1, E8’s “Invisible Car” fit this description.

Teddy Perkins in his terrifying glory

In the Atlanta episode “Juneteenth”  Earn and his girlfriend attend a party at the house of a rich white man, who is comically fascinated with African American culture.  During a scene, in his “Man Cave” of sorts — adorned with various artifacts from African Culture, Childish Gambino’s Awaken My Love is visible.  This clever placement could mean a few different things.  Is it a reference to the phenomenon that Glover has spoken about early and often in his career that his art is consumed by white people who don’t truly get it?  Is it just a simple Easter egg for fans avid fans?

I posit that it stands for something else entirely.  Donald Glover has spent his career sending up and modifying for new use past celebrated black art.  By doing what he does — stealing? borrowing? sharing? — Glover is placing himself and his art within the canon of African artists, and joining his place among the greats.

 

 

The TDE Championship Tour brings a new meaning to the phrase “Mixed Bag”

I first encountered Kendrick Lamar’s music when he participated in a remix of Imagine Dragons’ 2012 smash hit “Radioactive”.  I knew absolutely nothing about him, and since I was twelve years old, I definitely wasn’t allowed to listen to his breakout album Good Kid Mad City which was blowing up and propelling him to stardom.  His performance of the song on SNL really stuck with me though, and despite the fact that I wouldn’t get  into rap for about five more years his intensity and skill as a wordsmith impressed me.  “Bury me alive, bury me with pride/ Bury me with berries, the forbidden fruit and cherry wine”.  There was just something poetic about those opening lines that added a lot to the determined pop-rock anthem.

Three years later To Pimp A Butterfly came out, and I ignored it, as I did his next release Untitled Unmastered, which I saw as a new low in terms of music’s diminishing creativity.  In 2016, Lamar released Damn which came with quite a bit of hype given the extreme success of his last full length performance.  I had no plans to check it out, until I heard that Bono was featured on the album.  Curious I checked out the song, XXX.  I’ll be honest, as much as I’d like to say that it blew my mind on first listen, I was fairly unimpressed.  The first part of the song felt repetitive, and the second part with the feature from Bono was maddeningly short.

For whatever reason, I decided to give it a second shot, and I listened to the whole album.  Again, nothing stuck out to me but I realized that there was something big going on.  Kendrick was discussing compelling topics in a fascinating way.  My interest slowly grew until he became one of my favorite musicians.

Imagine my joy when I realized that He and the rest of the TDE crew were going on tour together, and what’s more, the tickets were listed for about $25.  Well, not quite, after ticketmaster’s fees and such they ended up to be more like $50 each, but I was still overjoyed to see a masterful artist in concert.

And while I had a great time, I’d be lying if I said that from a critical standpoint there wasn’t something missing.  The first act was SiR, who I haven’t really listened to enough of to have an opinion about.  He was fine, I suppose.  Not amazing, but not terrible either.

Next came Ab-Soul who fully embraced the goofy premise of the tour’s sports theme, walking out holding a bow and arrow.  As before, His set wasn’t terrible but not mind blowing.

Jay Rock, in contrast, appeared to take the theme very seriously, walking out in a basketball uniform and assisting a mascot in dunking a basketball at one point.  Rock made it painfully clear though, how obsolete his bling-era artistry has become in recent years.  The only songs he performed either featured verses by Kendrick Lamar that were cut out, or had his recorded vocals playing.  In the case of King’s dead, which was inexplicably a part of Lamar’s set as well, the best part of the song (Kendrick’s beat shift) was totally cut out.

Schoolboy Q’s performance was the first of the crews’ that I felt tangibly.  He came out with a full lightshow and a band (that sounded excellent).  I’m not a huge fan of his, so I didn’t know many of the songs save for a few (“Hell of a Night, Collard Greens,.. his hits) but I definitely enjoyed that set and the way he interacted with the band jumping atop the drum kit and hitting a cymbal repeatedly at the performance’s end.

By this point, I had been sitting in Hershey Park stadium for several hours so I went for a walk.  I was just walking out of the bathroom when I heard — seemingly reverberating through the floor — the instantly recognizable  cadence that starts any K-Dot fans head bobbing; “I got, I got, I got, I got!”.

I sprinted back fast enough to catch most of “DNA”, Kendrick’s epic descriptions of his own conflicting origins and motivations as a human being.  It’s one of his most braggadocious  tracks, but also one of his most vulnerable; “Power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA”.  After the beat switch came the screen behind Kendrick turned bright, fuzzy, white.  “Pulitzer Kenny” appeared written in scrawling black font, as though written with a giant sharpie.  This set the tone for the rest of the show, and confirmed the prior crewmembers’ purpose.  This tour was TDE’s victory lap.  Having built themselves up from a small, California label, they have become musical giants, and and arguably the foremost proprietors of intelligent hip-hop in an age where the genre is frequently everything but.

Keeping this in mind, I wasn’t expecting very many deep cuts.  I’d come to terms that there would be no ten-minute jam version of “Untitled 05” and probably no “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”.  We did get two tracks from To Pimp a Butterfly: “King Kunta”, and “Alright”, and to my delight Kendrick’s band, who’ve been confirmed by interviews as musical virtuosos gave every song that indescribable “live-music” quality that shakes you to your very core.  However, I couldn’t help feeling like this concert was for people who aren’t serious fans of Kendrick Lamar.  I frequently got the vibe that Kenny was almost embarrassed by the true sentiments behind the songs and the way they don’t exactly jive with traditional rap messages.  Kendrick preluded “Money Trees” a song about greed driving someone to do terrible things by saying “Let’s get this money”.

I recently saw U2’s Innocence And Experience tour, which is a masterpiece to say the least (a colleague of mine put out a write-up about it not too long ago).  U2 has written their share of satirical songs where they embody a point of view that is not necessarily the one they are trying to convey, such as “Acrobat” (a hypocrite), “Staring at the Sun” (a person drowning in ignorance) and “Until the End of the World” (Judas himself?).  They fit these songs into a narrative though by performing them in a block, and by making them clear that these were satirical performances (Bono did his Mr. Macphisto bit, it was terrifying).  I’m not saying Kendrick needed to go to all of that trouble — though I’d like to see him try — but It would have been nice if his setlist clicked as perfectly as his tracklists always do.

Kendrick followed “DNA” with “ELEMENT” another quasi-caricature of his own rap-image, and the “Big Shot”, a less lyrical cut that pretty much accomplishes the same goal.  This makes sense.  Later in the set though you get weird arrangements like “Swimming Pools”, a song that makes binge-drinking sound like the worst thing ever sandwiched between Rich The Kid’s “New Freezer” (a generic trap song by a generic trap artist) and “Backseat Freestyle”; a lyrically dense banger no less, but definitely not anti-alcohol.  These songs are awkwardly placed because they have conflicting messages.  I suppose an argument could be made that they represent some sort of nuanced irony, or the fact that conscious rap gets swallowed up by the negative messages that the genre loves so much, but honestly, I just think nobody cared enough to create a setlist that made sense.

Top Dawg is a musical force to be reckoned with, helmed by some innovative business men and some fantastically charismatic artists.  As a crew, they have managed to — in the slickest fashion — meld testosterone laden savagery with estrogenic grace.  The members all have fantastic chemistry when they work together, and I was looking forward to seeing that here.  Instead, any semblance of collaboration seemed to be orchestrated to provide just enough to quell any suggestions that teamwork was totally absent.  I realize that my expectations seem unrealistic, but are they really when it comes to Top Dawg?  We (I) have grown accustomed to a higher standard of quality from the label.  Innovative performances, and introspective, beautiful lyrics across the board.  That night though, Kendrick and company seemed content to have a good time.

5 Awesome TDE Songs, for the Uninitiated

  1. “Untitled 02” by Kendrick Lamar: An insane sax part that fuses jazz with trap rhythm, flanked by Lamar’s inebriated inflection, and some abruptly sobering bars.
  2. “Ab-Soul’s Outro” by Kendrick Lamar: Ab-Soul and Lamar team up on this track as the near-closer to his commercial debut Section.80 with a similarly jazzy instrumental that can be seen as foreshadowing for To Pimp A Butterfly which would drop four years later.
  3. Raw (Backwards) By Ab-soul (feat. Zacari): This song is an excellent example of what ‘Soul is capable of, as well as a chance to hear Zacari doing something besides the chorus of “LOVE”
  4. Redemption by Jay Rock (Feat. SZA): The title track off of Rock’s new album, this is the record’s most beautiful moment, made more beautiful by SZA’s sweet vocals.
  5. Broken Clocks by SZA: Simply a catchy song with an amazing hook that gives me goosebumps every time.

U2 — The Experience Tour

The day before the concert, when I saw our nosebleed seats for the U2 experience tour (a finale of sorts to their last two tours, the Innocence Tour, and The Joshua Tree Tour.  I figured the experience wouldn’t  be as good from our vantage point. But know this. Concerts aren’t designed to be predictable. That night, when 8:30 finally arrived, we got much more than predictability. Instead, we got a masterpiece of sight and sound. U2 played beautifully, and chose songs in a sequence revolving around around several major themes.

I’ll name two: America, and Greed. Using songs like “Sunday bloody Sunday”, and “American soul”, U2 was able to create a sort of lyrical weapon. Getting their point across beautifully; America is not protecting it’s people; It is corrupt; The system is broken; Make America a better place.

The second theme, greed, was was communicated through and revolved around songs like “Desire”, and staring at the sun. By using a face filter, Bono disguised himself as Mister Macphisto, representing the devil — alluring us to fame, and other mere earthly, and material substances — saying things like,”I just love it when people use the bible to justify anything they want!”, before launching into a chilling rendition of “Acrobat” the devilish figure onscreen cackling wildly.  When wearing  Macphisto’s tophat, he communicated this message, while at the same time, incorporating the hits every U2 fan loves into the show.

Bono also proclaims how fame threw him off track, and he had to fight off it’s infamous side affects, Using songs like “Vertigo”. With the engaging messages, and the marvelous array of instruments, I almost forgot it was 12:00. U2 ended with some of their best songs, like “One”, and “City of Blinding Lights”.  With a dynamic stage, an engaging screen, and a circular on the other side of the show, U2 turned our seats into a sight and sound throne of sorts, fit for watching only the best show. That show of course was, The ultimate U2 experience.

Town Of Salem

Most of us are familiar with some variation of the party game mafia.  Some know it as Assassin, Werewolf, or Serial Killer.  The game is very simple.  People use some form of random selection like a hat full of names to decide who will be the killer; sometimes there is a medic, or a policeman; and the rest of the people are citizens.  Everyone closes their eyes and the killer opens their eyes, points to who they are going to kill, and then closes their eyes.  Any other roles follow suit and then everyone opens their eyes.  The game-master (that title isn’t official) relates what happened last night.  Its more fun if this is done with a needlessly elaborate scenario.  Town Of Salem is essentially a browser-game amalgamation of all of these games, facilitated by a computer program which eliminates the hassle of needing a human being to run the proceedings.

As with all things internet, this does sometimes get taken less seriously than it might in real life.  It is common for users in a pregame lobby to agree upon a theme for their names — fruits, politicians, and movie characters are common choices — and base in-game choices upon these names.  Orange constantly bodyguards Apple, but it turns out that the player named Batman was actually killed by Joker.  All this while players poke fun at one another with memetic sayings and alternate curse words to which the server auto-corrects (“flummery”, “tarnation”, and my favorite “child born out of wedlock”).  TOS is a tightly managed server with very little room for cheating or anything else gamebreaking.  The real issue is the game itself, which is easy to play, but nearly impossible to master.

Here’s a little play-through from youtuber InHouse Gaming to give you a feel for the game.

As you can see, the odds of winning the game are not usually in your favor, as roles are chosen randomly and many roles, such as the serial killer have the odds stacked against them.  A win as a role like that one can come down to something as small as a well placed comment in that chat log that sways mass opinion away from your own guilt, and towards the innocent townie who’s claim to the role of Medium seems just a little suspicious.  Conversely a serial killer that systematically takes out all the townspeople under the radar runs into a brick wall when all that are left are mafia who outnumber them.

Town of Salem is a bizarre test of one’s digital pokerface and their ability to act natural while psyching out fourteen other players.  It is a weird marriage that pits nervous teamwork against incognition, trust against doubt, and logic against luck.

Shakespearean Tragedy in Avengers: Infinity War

Well, it’s been over a month since Avengers: Infinity War was released.  This is going to be less of a review of the film (because, lets face it, these things are review proof anyway) and more of an in depth analysis of how it is a textbook Shakespearian tragedy.  With that said, there are some major spoilers so if you’ve been trapped under a rock and haven’t seen the film, and have managed to be a member of contemporary society without having this film spoiled by “I don’t feel so good” memes and coworkers snapping their fingers winkingly then do not read on.

It goes without saying that AIW is a tragedy.  It’s probably the most tragic thing a major studio’s had the guts to release with a PG-13 rating in the last couple of years and 100% the most tragic of the superhero genre.  Instead of killing off one just-introduced character that nobody is attached to, Infinity War goes for broke, snapping Loki’s neck, impaling Heimdall, throwing Gamora off a cliff, crushing vision’s head, and turning just about everyone else into wispy clouds of dust.  People have attributed how disturbing this scene is to the fact that we have spent the last ten years getting to know these characters in a grand saga that spans nineteen films.  What’s more we expect them to win, like they always do; to save the day, not be brutally beaten.  But the fact that the tragic nature of this movie resonates so deeply owes lots more to the literary structures created by William Shakespeare.

A Shakespearean tragedy contains specific elements that must be included.  They are:

The Struggle Between Good and Evil

This is a crucial element, though a fairly obvious one.  The gaggle of heroes fighting for the fate of the universe here are obviously the good guys.  However, this film goes above and beyond to make Thanos out as the bad guy.  Marvel’s last few villains have been very well written, and fairly relatable.  Spider-Man’s foe was not the cackling green-glad Vulture, but Adrian Toomes, the working class family man forced to take matters into his own hands.  Similarly, Eric Killmonger is almost an antihero in his misguided fight for justice.

External Conflict

This is another fairly obvious one.  The gigantic battle for Wakanda serves as the largest source of conflict in the film.  I have to say, just as a sidenote, that this sequence didn’t really do a lot for me.  As the inaugural gigantic battle sequence, it’s fine, I guess, but I can’t honestly remember a single standout moment except for a lot of really terrible, forced one-liners.  Of course, this part of the film is as much a staple to the genre as a gunfight to a western, but that doesn’t stop it from lagging considerably.

The Tragic Hero

There are several cases one could make for who the Tragic Hero of the story, but the most obvious candidate is Peter Quill: Starlord.  Tracing his arc from its beginning back in GOTG, he has actually had a pretty messed up existence thus far.

As a kid, he watched his mother die from cancer, only to be abducted by space pirates shortly after.  Escaping them, he drowned his sorrow in sardonic humor and one night stands.  Then he finally discovers his father, only to find that he is the true killer of his mother.  He is forced to kill his father, and his abusive father figure who he has grown attached to dies in the process.  He finally begins to find true love in his blossoming relationship with Gamora, but then her spark is extinguished as well.  By the midpoint of the film, these circumstances have turned Starlord into a seething, uncontrollable, vengeance machine.

 

Hamartia

This anger is Quill’s fatal flaw.  At the point in the film where Mantis has nearly subdued Thanos, and the Avengers have almost separated him from the Infinity Gauntlet, which is the source of his power, Quill cannot let go, the death of Gamora.  He lashes out in anger at Thanos, waking him up, and cementing his ability to end half of the world.

 

Internal Conflict

Here is where the way the film adapts to Shakespeare’s format gets interesting.  Whereas a Victorian era play would feature the same character experiencing Hamartia, tragedy, internal conflict, and external conflict, the Russo Brother’s split it up.  Each member of the avengers is part of a single organism.  While Quill experiences the fateful anger, Dr. Strange is the one  who undergoes the internal conflict.

With The Eye of Aggamoto, he is able to see the future, and he is able to see the inevitability of Thanos’ victory.  He has probably the most difficulty decision to make: whether to save Tony Stark’s life, or give up the timestone to Thanos. He ends up doing the latter, for reasons that will probably be explained in the next installment.

Supernatural Elements

Do I even need to explain this one?  Norse men in metal exo-suits blast extraterrestrial invaders as an adolescent tree and a talking raccoon fight alongside Actual witches and magicians.  It just serves as a reminder of just how much comic books have become our modern mythology.

Comic Relief

This one’s also pretty clear.  I actually didn’t find the humor to be great in this movie, but I recognize the purpose that it serves.  Like in a tragic play the comic relief takes some of the tension out and makes something that would normally be unbearable enjoyable.

Lack of Poetic Justice

I think we don’t really appreciate enough, the guts that went into the decision to kill virtually all of the Avengers.  Yes, we know they are going to come back, and yes, most of them have movies scheduled, but the very presence of a scene where more than a majority of the Avengers disappear into dust is a big deal.  Also, this is really driven home when the heroes effectively lose.  This is another thing we’ve absolutely never seen before in a film of Marvel’s caliber.

Catharsis

This is the one aspect of Shakespearean tragedy that is technically not present.  The beautiful release of emotion, despite the awful thing that has happened.  However, it is coming.  I’m usually not a fan of the way that studios split films into part 1&2.  It usually seems like a cheap way to make money at the expense of film quality.  However, in this case, we are able to have a devastating, emotional, and actually meaningful tragedy; all the while still getting our good old super-heroic ending.

Jack White: Boarding House Reach

Image result for boarding house reach

When you spend your free time like I do — mostly listening to music, speculating about music or watching videos where other people speculate about music — an album like this one tends to be quite a delight.  It’s especially enjoyable when something like this comes along, if you happen to have written a pretty strongly worded piece describing that rap music is going to absorb rock music or vice versa, because this album definitely proves the beginning of that point.  Whether you see Jack White as a visionary or a pathological poser (I see him as a little bit of both) Boarding House Reach is a fantastic album, both for listening, and for breaking down.

From the beginning of the album’s second teaser track, “Respect Commander”, one catches some serious Rage Against the Machine vibes.  Through some sort of Pavlovian conditioning (listening to Evil Empire a LOT) I heard Zack De La Rocha yelling “come wit’ it now” the first ten or so times I listened to it.  But then it sets itself apart, jumping into a faster rhythm (sped up by one-quarter) and shooting into a variety of increasingly insane musical sections.  There is a weird screaming that gets more and more prominent as the song goes on, a bongo beat that just makes it feel more alive somehow and what might as well be rapping from Jack during one of the slower parts.

Corporation is an equally zany track of a pretty similar variety.  This song really emphasizes the album’s jazzy structure.  In an interview in February, White told Rolling Stone that he aimed to emulate Miles Davis’ album making process, switching things up instruments and musicians, just seeing what happened.  I wondered if that would even be noticeable on the album, but it really comes through on songs Like this one that sound like six-minute jam sessions with dance breaks and solos incorporated into the mix.

I just described the two most normal parts of the album, because believe me, it gets weird.  “Abdulia and Akrasia” is a spoken word poem accompanied by some demented strings that gives off a kind of pirate-y vibe, with some clever wordplay that all amounts to a guy simply asking for some tea.  Ezmerelda steals the show is another poem that seems to be about White’s annoyance with people having cell phones at concerts — hence the special lockboxes at all of the shows on his latest tour that keep your device out of your hands for the duration of the show — that I would have thoroughly gotten behind a year or two ago but seems a little bit on the nose now.

Hypermisophoniac (which means “hatred of sound”) is a bit of an uncomfortable listen.  beginning with the beeping of some medical instruments that never stop their sounds, this is an abrasive and borderline unpleasant song that grows on you — after maybe the fourth sitting the listener can almost tune out the incessant background noise and appreciate the steady piano and the rhythmic guitar solo.

This record isn’t for everyone, but it’s albums like these that rock music needs right now; Albums that take risks and do something weird even though it might not sound great (this is true for several parts of this album).  Rock has been trapped for many years in an endless cycle of nostalgia.  Back in the early 2000s, The White Stripes did a little to dismantle this.  Their stripped down sound was the musical equivalent of hitting a concrete wall with a sledgehammer, needless to say, that didn’t have a long-lasting impact (Check the billboard 200 for rock.  The top five are three Imagine Dragons songs, a Foster the People track, and “Feel it Still”).  Instead, Boarding house reach is a tiny breaching charge, that is plenty explosive.

Judah And The Lion, Colony House, and Tall Heights

Tall Heights

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see one of my favorite bands: Colony House at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C.  They weren’t really headlining, Judah and the Lion was.  I had never really given their music much of a shot — I’d heard a few of their songs on the radio and it kind of just sounded like basic alt-rock.  Everything I had read indicated a weird mix of Rock, Hip-Hop, and Folk Music but I felt like that wasn’t the case; it mostly felt like alt-rock with some banjos.  but hey, a concert’s a concert I figured.  Tall Heights took the stage first.

Theirs was one of the most electric opening acts I’ve ever seen.  It was clear that they knew their place.  Their allotted portion of the stage was so cramped that the musicians could barely move, and yet the Boston trio played with the energy to fill an arena.  Frontman Paul Wright played a cello on a strap with some pretty heavy preamp effeccts on it.  Most of the time he used it as something of a more organic sounding synth, but a few high points saw him shredding it like a guitar.

Then Colony House came out and played the best show I’ve seen them do yet…I’ve seen them four times.  I feel kind of a weird relationship with CH, having been there at NEEDTOBREATHE’s “Tour De Compadres” where they were the opening act for the opening act, to now where they are playing second billing at sold out shows.  They’ve grown as a unit each time, their stage game getting tighter and tighter.  They still set up in a slightly unique manner, with drummer Will Chapman positioned on the left of the stage and keyboardist Parke Cottrell taking the back space where the drum riser normally is.  Will’s brother Caleb takes center stage in front of a giant neon sign — evoking images of a 50s truck stop — that ties the whole thing together.

For about 40 minutes the band rocked out with an indescribable energy, most notably to their riff-rock banger 2:20.  My one regret is that the considerably hipster crowd didn’t seem to want to mosh, all that standing in one place is tough on the legs.

From left to right: Will Chapman, Caleb Chapman, Parke Cottrell, and Scott Mills

Finally, It was time for the main event.  Maybe fifteen minutes passed, and spotlights began to swing about as lights dimmed. David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” began to play and attention turned to the stage.  The song ended, and faded into a spacey, ambient backtrack.  The crowd was ready for the band to come out…only it didn’t, for ten more minutes.

After an agonizing and confusing wait, someone walked out and turned on a booming hip-hop beat with an echoing artificial clap sound.  From out of nowhere a disembodies auto-tuned voice began chanting.  The rest of the band walked out dressed in all manner of bizarre attire.  A guitarist with princess Leia buns, a mandolin player in pink flowered overalls and the lead singer, Judah wearing a white Steven Curtis Chapman (Will and Calebs father) t-shirt.  He picked up a white guitar and they launched into their early adulthood anthem, “20 something”.

Image result for judah and the lion live

Throughout the show, the band completely proved wrong my original assessment as they fused 808 laden trap beats with dizzying banjo solos and fist-pumping power chords.  Cutting the fat off each genre for the most fun experience possible J&TL’s focus seems to be on fun.  Judah is one of the most eccentric performers I’ve ever seen.  Engaging in silly dance moves, sillier callouts and occasionally pulling  his shirt up over his head so it covered his face (true story, he did it like five times).  During the performance of the band’s hit single, “Going To Mars!” Judah left the stage and reappeared in the club’s balcony.  Standing atop a small barrier wall, practically touching the ceiling screaming out the song’s chorus “We, can do anything we want/ We’re going to Mars!”.

 

Dave Grohl’s Documentaries

If you are any kind of rock music fan, you probably know who Dave Grohl is.  Nirvana’s drummer, and front man of the Foo Fighters, he has played a large part directly and otherwise in shaping the modern rock landscape.  When grunge began to die and Nirvana ceased to make music, he started the Foo Fighters, first as a cathartic release and then as what became a definitive post-grunge outfit.  When that sound began to cloy, he led the band into their current position as pop cultures’s foremost meta-modern powerhouse.

Here’s what you might not know about Dave.  In addition to all his musical achievements, he has succeeded where the many of the world’s greatest filmmakers have failed, in directing a picture that received a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Sound City, released in 2013 told the story of a small studio in California that helped to bring to our ears some of the greatest albums of all time — The likes of Fleetwood Mac and Rage Against the Machine made their debuts there and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers recorded a large portion of their discography in the studio as well.  Grohl does a great job telling about this largeley unsung but extremely vital part of music history using interviews and narrations that flow almost as if the subjects are gathered around a living room reminiscing about the good old days of the studio.

Grohl shows great humor, at one point seemingly citing a studio worker’s propensity for making guacamole as part of the place’s vibe.  Most hilariously in his interview with Rupert Neve — creator of the unique recording console that allowed Sound City its success — Grohl cuts to his own face midst a long winded explanation of some complicated recording concept and raises his eyebrows.  A subtitle appears at the bottom of the screen; “Wow, he must know I’m a high school drop out.”

As only a musician could, Grohls song cues are consistently on point, though thats’ probably the easiest part of his job considering the fantastic artists that he gets to talk about.  In Back and Forth he takes us through some 40 years of music through a smartly timed montage of song clips.  Everything is as immersive as possible with dug up footage both as filler and as illustration of major points made.  When unable to use video, Grohl uses what he’s got.  At one point he shows a picture of a singer belting it out, and when the song hits a piercing high note, the image suddenly shakes back and forth, possibly more visceral than any video could be.

These documentaries prove Grohl’s prowess as a superior oral historian.  He draws from all corners of the music world with interviews ranging from Rick Rubin to Buddy Guy.  There is no lack of credibility or opinion.  These films are not just entertainment, they are authoritative compilations of rock history.

This isn’t to say that these docs are perfect of course.  Grohl delves into pretty cringey territory with voiceovers about kids with nothing but their songs and a dream to keep them going, and a  lot of the “behind the scenes” footage feels staged or disingenuous.  Plus, there’s a super indulgent  performance at the end of each piece, so for Sonic Highways that’s eight indulgent performances, with Grohls silly lyrics flashing on the screen in an “edgy” font.

However, one has to admire the way he lays his shortcomings out completely in the open, almost masochistically.  In Back and Forth, Grohl dedicates a whole segment to his inability to relinquish total control of the band, even going so far as to completely replace one drummer’s tracks.  In another instance, Grohl more or less invited a guitarist to be in the band and then edged him out because of creative differences.  These are things that happen in a lot of bands, but they usually get brushed under the rug.  The fact that they are borne to the world here suggests serious growth and maturity over time.

Dave Grohl is less of a visionary artist than he is a phenomenal entertainer.  He unabashedly retools classic sounds to create nostalgic rock music, and makes music with trailblazers of the past.  His methodology in film matches that of his music.  His documentaries are celebrations of Rock; where its come from, and where it still may go.