Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Denouement: "Die with Me"

This is how it ends.

Except: Stakes being what they were and all, of course the fuckers wouldn't have the decency of cutting everyone else loose.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Ich Bin Europa

Clinton, who delivered laudatory remarks along with Zoellick, extolled Kohl’s singular skills as a statesman faced with more than a few daunting questions. Beyond the question of German unification, Kohl was faced with issues of European political and economic unity, the question of Germany’s role in NATO and the question of sending German troops abroad for the first time since the second world war. “He answered every single question correctly,” Clinton said, "correctly for Germany, correctly for Europe and correctly for the United States".
 Bill Clinton awards Helmut Kohl the Henry Kissinger Prize, May 16th 2011

The cost of reunification has been a heavy burden to the German economy and has contributed to Germany’s slowed economic growth in recent years. The costs of reunification are estimated to amount to over 1.5 trillion Euro (statement of Freie Universit√§t Berlin) (1.9 trillion U.S. Dollars). This is more than the national debt of the German state. The primary cause of this was the severe weakness of the East German economy, especially vis-√†-vis the West German economy, combined with (politically motivated) conversion rates from the East German mark to the Deutsche Mark that did not reflect this economic reality, resulting in a very sudden (usually fatal) loss of competitiveness of East German industries, making them collapse within very short time. Today, there are still special transfers of more than €100 billion every year to “rebuild” the eastern part of Germany. Providing goods and services to East Germany strained the resources of West Germany. Money-losing industries formerly supported by the East German government had to be privatised. As a consequence of the reunification, most of the former GDR has been deindustrialised, causing an unemployment rate of about 20%.
It's inconceivable that any German chancellor could have said, "I don't want Germany to unify." But it is conceivable that you could have had some long transition or a scenario where West Germany is not the surviving state and East Germany goes away, which was how we viewed unification. We had similar concerns about German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who also seemed to think of the unification process as more of a merger. I preferred to see it as an acquisition.
 Condoleezza Rice, interviewed by Der Spiegel, 2010 

'The Lord, the Lord!' he cried, shaking the lovebird in its cage. 'See the Lord! He's growing, he's growing!' Then he was tossed into the air with the cage, and he ran, flew, danced, staggered, and fled with the screeching bird, himself a bird. Taking flight at last, he fluttered across the fields in the direction of the sewage land and was heard shouting through the voices of the tommy guns: 'He's growing, he's growing!' He was still screaming when the two young Russians reloaded. 'He's growing!' And even when the tommy guns rang out again, even after Oskar had fallen down a stepless staircase into an expanding, all-engulfing faint, I could hear the bird, the voice, the raven, I could hear Leo proclaiming to all the world: 'He's growing, he's growing, he's growing...'
Gunter Grass The Tin Drum

Monday, 23 May 2011

Adams vs. Roses: Different Kinds of Retromania

On the surface of it, She Bangs the Drums by The Stone Roses and Summer of '69 by Bryan Adams are strikingly similar records. Both opt for a sort of ecstatic sun-worship aesthetic. Both draw on the guitar revivalist culture of the late eighties, standout early examples of what Simon is about to classify definitively as retromania. Both have acquired "anthem" status over the last 20-25 years (though in very different contexts). Both are, let's face it, very good, if not great pieces of music.

Classicism is of course the unifying thread. The Stone Roses were traditionalists far more often than they were acid-house-loving modernists, and nowhere is this more apparent than on She Bangs ..., at least on a strictly formal level. The snare drums are histrionic and drenched in reverb, the basslines treble-heavy, the guitars chunky and onanistic.

In fact, remove Ian Brown's vocal line from the equation, and this is, like Summer of '69, an almost G'n'R-style Californian rock party tune: Bill and Ted soundtrack fodder. Listen to the guitar parts in the respective tunes, to the almost identical mixture of Byrdsian jangle and vigorous melodic riffs.

Both She Bangs ... and Summer of '69 are songs of escapism. One pertinent reaction to the miseries of Reaganite and Thatcherite rule was to depart from earlier traditions of protest and critique and posit a fantasy world of endless summer and Dionysian moments. In Summer of '69, the social-critical mode of Springsteen is briefly invoked:

Me and some guys from school
Had a band and we tried real hard
Jimmy quit and Jody got married
I shoulda known we'd never get far

But this is undercut by a sense of nostalgia and conservative pessimism that is even more extreme than that of, say, Bon Jovi's Springsteen-lite Livin' on a Prayer. Aint no use in complaining, says Adams, with tragic pathos.

Summer of '69 may attain to incredible lyrical heights in its key verse:

Standing on your mama's porch
You told me it would last forever
Oh the way you held my hand
I knew that it was now or never
Those were the best days of my life

But overall it is a profoundly hopeless record, a record that both musically and lyrically succeeds in completely burying the energies of a past epoch (the sixties) by perfecting its form and refusing to go anywhere with it. No wonder the hypnagogic pop contingent finds solace in fetishizing this sort of MTV-era romantic-melancholia.

She Bangs ... is equally in thrall to the past. However, its variety of retromania differs crucially from that of Summer of '69. Here tradition is treated with exuberance and even iconoclasm, a fact that is underlined by some startlingly eloquent lyrics:

I can feel the earth begin to move
I hear my needle hit the groove
And spiral through another day
I hear my song begin to say
Kiss me where the sun don't shine
The past was yours
But the future's mine

There is a sense here of the past being positively appropriated. What must not be lost in the discussions about retromania is the fact that certain kinds of backward-looking music over the past three decades have attempted to drag the past into the future, by using classic templates as a means of cultural empowerment. If we need to be clear that this sort of "Britpop" ultimately ended in farce, we also need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water by privileging only radical futurism (which is actually only really possible at certain brief moments in the development of an art form).

For me, She Bangs the Drums embodies a spirit of newness and affirmation, a Motown-esque hymn to youth and the future. If Oasis and others would ultimately marry this affirmative impulse to Thatcherism and nostalgia, The Stone Roses showed that progressions of form could be nuanced and joyous - meaningful steps forward in a difficult period - and that this need not necessarily contradict an ethos of collectivism and subversion. Unlike Summer of '69, She Bangs the Drums was an emphatically hopeful tune of 1989, because it spoke to a living alternative community in a powerful way about the possibility of change.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Jeans 2

If in the 70s jeans were a subcultural uniform, by the 80s the jeans and t-shirt combination went mainstream and became the new uniform for almost everyone. Marketing types and other squares might wear jeans in their leisure time without fear of making a political statement any stronger than, “I’m cool”. Just as advertising had moved from images of the strictly demarcated cultural capital of oil paintings to flat, classless cool, so had jeans gone from having definite class and political connotations to being just something to wear at the weekend.

They also became part of high fashion. Calvin Klein had dramatically boosted its sales by making jeans that had the company logo on the back. Instead of the loose, utilitarian-derived shape of blue jeans, Calvin Klein – "the supreme master of minimalism" – made jeans that were slim, smooth and urban. (This look was a throwback to the 50s and was indicative of 80s regression) Along with its famous branded underwear, Calvin Klein and other high-end labels had created a new type of fashion: designer utilitarian clothes. The cheap-to-make could now also be the expensive-to-buy.

If the status of jeans in the 70s can be represented by Plastic Ono Band, the album cover that does the same for jeans in the 80s would have to be Born in the U.S.A. The record was Bruce Springsteen’s big shot at fame. He had beefed up in the gym and had written upbeat, forceful songs that would have a radio-orientated, synthesised sound – a marked change from his previous record.

The plan worked and the album was huge. The lyrics of the title track told the bitter story of a working class Vietnam veteran who can’t get a job when he returns home from a futile war. The chorus line of “Born in the USA” is sung both patriotically and with bitter irony, but – like the difference between First Blood and Rambo II – the nuances of Born in the U.S.A. could not survive the lack of subtlety demanded by 80s pop culture. Jeans were also part of this unambiguous position – all people saw was a guy on the cover wearing blue jeans in front of the American flag. Jeans vaguely represented America, so they were therefore good. Any connection with manufacturing or labour – as within America itself – was just a memory.

part 1