Lou Pearlman, the slippery impresario behind the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, O-Town, LFO, Aaron Carter, and about a half dozen other agreeably vacuous late nineties pop acts, has died in prison. Yes, the Lou Pearlman. The guy practically invented boy bands. I mean, he didn’t—he just ripped off New Kids on the Block—but he invented the most lucrative boy bands, and as he’d be the first to tell you, that’s the more major achievement. You couldn’t turn around in 1999 without seeing one of his acts: massively telegenic, deeply ordinary, somehow memorable. They had branded lip balms, bobbleheads, and throw pillows for sale. I know this because I spent a lot of time hating them. Read More
- In search of some cosmic horror, something to give you seasonally appropriate nightmares, something outside the realm of the usual Lovecraft stuff? Try William Hope Hodgson, who in the early twentieth century “envisioned the end of the Earth in the distant future: 1908’s The House on the Borderland features it in hallucinatory form, while 1912’s The Night Land is set at a point where the sun’s light has dimmed.” Or try Thomas Ligotti, in whose stories “the truths about the world that people discover are enough to tear them apart—sometimes literally. His protagonists often find themselves facing forces far beyond their ability to grapple with or comprehend. The therapist narrating ‘Dream of a Manikin’ is, ultimately, trapped in a series of collapsing realities; what begins as a simple, Twilight Zone-esque twist to the narrative gives way to a series of revelations beside which a simple ‘everything you know is a lie’ would be a comfort.”
- Since the Tin Pan Alley era, if not earlier, pop music has been likened to an assembly line: even today people like to joke about “the hit factory,” imagining the sleek, automated, international manufacturing process that generates our Top 40. But isn’t the metaphor a bit stale, by now? “A more accurate and illuminating way to understand today’s pop might be to think of it as post-industrial, a phenomenon not of the machine era but of the information age. Music is made today by mining the vast digital repository of recordings of the past, or by emulating or referencing them through synthesis, and then manipulating them and mashing them up—with the human fallibility and genius that have always laced popular music and probably always will. Indeed, it is accessing and processing—the methods that digitalization facilitates—rather than gearing and stamping for uniformity and mass production that distinguish twenty-first-century pop. Like machine-age plants everywhere, the song factories have closed, and the work of the day is being done electronically.”
- And just as we’re fond of the “hit factory” metaphor, who doesn’t enjoy a casual Grand Guignol reference from time to time? And yet who among us knows a thing about the actual Grand Guignol? “The Grand Guignol was originally founded in 1895 by French playwright Oscar Méténier. He purchased an old chapel located at the end of a tight alley, leaving the gothic, religious decorations intact. Wooden angels hung from the ceiling, and towered over the orchestra … In 1897, the theater was taken over by Max Maurey, who leaned into the Grand Guignol as a space for straight-up horror. Under Maurey’s leadership, the theater ran a variety of plays, ranging from comedies to dramas … He was said to judge the success of a given play by the number of audience members who passed out. As a publicity stunt, he also hired a house doctor to administer to those who were adversely affected by the horrors on display … Under Maurey’s leadership, the plays at the Grand Guignol began focusing on tales of insanity, hallucination, and, above all, terror … involving figures like a child-killing nanny, a mad doctor who performs a vengeful lobotomy, and jealous women who stick a pair scissors in the eyes of a more beautiful woman.”
- James Baldwin’s once splendorous home in the Cote d’Azur is in shambles now, as Thomas Chatterton Williams discovered when he broke in: He found “an extremely wide and shallow expanse of overgrown grass, orange trees, cypresses, wild lavender, and palms that gives sweeping views of the walled town above, the sun-drenched valley below, and, in the distance, the Mediterranean’s rippling sheen. The stone barrier wall had been broken a truck’s width and re-sealed with a chain-link fence that begged to be circumvented. I crouched and pulled out the cinderblock that stabilized it … I could not stop myself from attaching a deep significance to that ruined house in the foothills of the Alps, overlooking a distant sea. The thought that one of the most gifted and munificently alive writers of the twentieth century, the quintessential black American in France, would soon be rid of his only geographical footprint … struck me as unbearably sad.”
- Ai Weiwei ordered Legos in bulk. The corporation refused to fulfill his order, claiming that they “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.” This made Ai Weiwei upset, as one might imagine. He decided to procure Legos the old-fashioned way: through the sunroofs of BMWs. “Ai Weiwei would like to rent, borrow or buy second-hand a BMW 5S Series sedan, of which the color can vary, as a Lego container,” he wrote on his Instagram. “The vehicle must have clear windows and a sunroof that can be fixed open with a five cm opening so that people can insert Legos … The car should be parked and locked in a central location of the city that can be easily accessed by the public. The vehicle should remain in the parking space for one month or a longer period of time, preferably in a location related to arts or culture, indoor or outdoor.” Some laud his willfully bizarre effort to fight censorship. Others think it’s what Jed Perl has called “political kitsch”: “one wonders where the political dissent ends and the artsy attitudinizing begins.”
Taylor Swift’s passive-aggressive lyrics are “the realization of every writer’s narrowest dream.”
“I’ve never thought about songwriting as a weapon,” Taylor Swift said with a straight face to an interviewer from Vanity Fair while the magazine was profiling her in 2013.
No, not Taylor Swift. Not the author of songs like “Forever and Always,” written in the wake of her relationship with former boyfriend Joe Jonas, the better-looking Jonas brother, and featuring this lyric: “Did I say something way too honest, made you run and hide like a scared little boy?” Not her, who wrote/sang about her relationship with the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, “Fighting with him was like trying to solve a crossword/and realizing there’s no right answer.”
Not Taylor, who leaves the impossible-to-crack clues in her liner notes for each song by capitalizing a variety of letters that spell out the subjects in a very essential way: “TAY” for a song about ex-boyfriend Taylor Lautner; “SAG” for the Gyllenhaal one (as in Swift And Gyllenhaal, or that they’re both Sagittarius. I don’t know).
For Taylor Swift to pretend that her entire music career is not a tool of passive aggression toward those who had wronged her is like me pretending I’m not carbon-based: too easy to disprove, laughable at its very suggestion.
Don’t get me wrong—I say all this with utter admiration. Taylor’s career is, in fact, the perfected realization of every writer’s narrowest dream: To get back at those who had wronged us, sharply and loudly, and then to be able to cry innocent that our intentions were anything other than poetic and pure. Most of us can only achieve this with small asides. Taylor not only publicly dates and publicly breaks up, but she then releases an achingly specific song about the relationship—and that song has an unforgettable hook—all the while swearing she won’t talk about relationships that are over. Yes, date Taylor Swift, and not only will she shit on you on her album, but the song will become a single, then a hit, and then you will hear yourself shat upon by an army of young women at Staples Center. And then she’ll deny that she was ever doing anything other than righteously manifesting her art. It’s diabolical, and for a lifelong passive-aggressive like me, it’s made her my hero. Read More
I hate the summer. I hate the heat, I hate the humidity, I hate the pressure to have fun, I hate the sand-in-an-hourglass frenzy of it all. I hate summer movies and the crowds of people at outdoor events. I do like the tomatoes. But ever since it dawned on me that grown-ups don’t get summer vacation, I have not seen the reason for the season.
Apparently there’s a sort of SAD that affects some people in the sun. Something about the sun flips a switch in their brains so that, just as everyone else is at their happiest, they’re miserable. I don’t know about me—although the heat is a migraine trigger. But I do go strange in the heat. I’m not just cranky but furious and spiky, able at any moment to erupt in scornful rage. It is exciting, but tiring, too, like a summer film overlarded with special effects. Read More
- About a decade ago, Jonathan Gottschall pioneered “literary Darwinism,” a school of thought that interprets literature through the prism of evolutionary desires. By bringing biological concerns to English departments, he hoped to rescue the humanities from triviality: “the alternative is to let literature study keep spinning off into a corner of irrelevance to die.” Today, perhaps unsurprisingly, his career “is in a precarious place,” but hey, at least he’s writing trade books …
- Hardly anyone is writing love songs anymore—can we assume, from this, that hardly anyone is in love? “The traditional romantic love song has lately ceased to be as central to American pop music as it still was well into the ’70s. For now, while the pop charts are laden with songs about love, that love is often rendered in an anti-romantic manner that is sharply at variance with how love was customarily portrayed during the golden age of American popular song.”
- Lynne Tillman on David Wojnarowicz, whose photo-book Brush Fires in the Social Landscape was published twenty years ago: “In the 1980s, being infected by HIV and developing AIDS was an unchosen, horrific fate, fatal. People were very frightened, and felt hopeless. Not every artist or writer responded as Wojnarowicz did. His responses were unique, thoroughly felt, and driven by an urgent necessity. In his time, his work was extraordinarily moving—it stunned. It will never be experienced again as it was then, in that very dark moment.
- “Occasionally, unintentionally, triggered by a smell or an old tune, my mind drifts to that time when Paris didn’t resemble the USA at all … ” Nadja Tesich, the star of Eric Rohmer’s 1964 short film Nadja à Paris, on the French New Wave and filmmaking in the Paris of yore.
- As a boy, Julian Barnes experienced an artistic awakening—and it was Gustave Moreau who made the scales fall from his eyes. “I was uncertain what to make of such work: exotic, bejeweled, and darkly glittering, with an odd mixture of private and public symbolism, little of which I could unscramble. Perhaps it was this mysteriousness that attracted me; and perhaps I admired Moreau the more because nobody told me to do so. But it was certainly here that I remember myself for the first time consciously looking at pictures, rather than being passively and obediently in their presence.”
- John McPhee on writing, illumination, and mustaches: “Robert Bingham, my editor at The New Yorker for sixteen years, had a fluorescent, not to mention distinguished, mustache. In some piece or other, early on, I said of a person I was writing about that he had a ‘sincere’ mustache. This brought Bingham, manuscript in hand, out of his office … A sincere mustache, Mr. McPhee, a sincere mustache? What does that mean? Was I implying that it is possible to have an insincere mustache? … Across time, someone came along who had ‘a no-nonsense mustache,’ and a Great Lakes ship captain who had ‘a gyroscopic mustache,’ and a North Woodsman who had ‘a timber-cruiser’s guileless mustache.’ A family practitioner in Maine had ‘an analgesic mustache,’ another doctor ‘a soothing mustache,’ and another a mustache that ‘seems medical, in that it spreads flat beyond the corners of his mouth and suggests no prognosis, positive or negative.’”
- Pop music is heralded as one of life’s simple pleasures: a chance for pure escapism. Why, then, are so many pop songs really, really, really sad? “Love songs have always been more likely to deal with the yearning for love, the complications of love, love’s betrayal, or the loss of love (or even, sometimes, the loss of life) than the fancied bliss of love fulfilled … a strain of sadness has long been laced through the popular songbook. Music listeners’ likes have never been restricted to things that make them happy.”
- On Kingsley Amis’s misanthropic masterwork, Ending Up: “The finished product is short and brutal, a series of cackling vignettes of man’s cruelty to man, all conveyed in Amis’s crisp, beady prose. It is also very funny, growing funnier with each fresh misery, mishap and atrocity. The blurb on my Penguin edition draws attention to its ‘humanity,’ but it might more accurately have highlighted its inhumanity: few novels have ever been quite this bleak, quite this nasty.”
- The impressionists are often derided as “the painterly equivalent of easy listening,” but they still have much to teach us: “While Degas was in America in 1872 he was much taken with the Southern Creole women, feeling they had ‘that touch of ugliness without which no salvation.’ Let’s not get too politically correct here. His remark has a general application. It speaks to a shared aesthetic disposition. By ‘ugliness,’ Degas means ordinary life—a girl having her hair combed on a beach; women unperturbed, unself-conscious at their ablutions; a laundress stretching, yawning, another one ironing. They are the painters of modern life, in Baudelaire’s encapsulation. As modern as T. S. Eliot’s woman who yawns and draws her stocking up in ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales.’ ”
- “Jane Austen’s earliest writings are violent, restless, anarchic, and exuberantly expressionistic. Drunkenness, female brawling, sexual misdemeanor, and murder run riot across their pages.”