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From my new column in Taki’s Magazine:

The much-discussed death of Prince last week brings up an old question: Why do pop stars tend to be rather fey?

Granted, using Prince as an example of any statistical pattern is a dubious enterprise. Prince went through life as a sample size of one.

Read the whole thing there.

• Tags: Music 
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Click on “Watch on Youtube” to see the memorable 2007 Super Bowl halftime show in the purple rain. (Here’s what I blogged at the time.) Culturally appropriating three songs in a row by white bands (Creedence, Dylan, Foo Fighters) was a subversive gesture by a man who believed that American music together was bigger and better than black American music or white American music separately.

Screenshot 2016-04-21 19.30.05 I guess I should’ve known

By the way you parked your car


That it wouldn’t last

Prince’s 1980 “When You Were Mine” reminds me of 1979 guitar/synth classics from a few months earlier like “Love Will Tear Us Apart Again” and “Money Changes Everything” by very white bands like Joy Division and the Brains.

Prince didn’t believe in not getting paid for his music (which is why I can’t find a copy of “Raspberry Beret” anywhere on Youtube). So these videos will probably get taken down quickly. Enjoy them while they’re up.

Prince was an interesting figure in that there was an assumption from about 1965-1980 that musical stars get to impose their tastes in other realms upon us as part of the package. Prince, however, despite clearly being a pop music genius, was the first to be notably unsuccessful at imposing his non-music obsessions, such as purple paisley, on the zeitgeist. (I do own a couple of purple paisley couches, which we keep under tasteful sofa covers, so say not the struggle nought availeth.) But Prince was never all that cool.

• Tags: Music 
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Screenshot 2015-08-26 03.42.49From my new column in Taki’s Magazine:

A Tale of Two Suburbs

Two of the better movies of 2015 are weirdly similar musical biopics about bands from Los Angeles’ south suburbs. Last June’s Love & Mercy profiled Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who came from Hawthorne, Calif., while gangsta rappers N.W.A, who helped spread the South Central L.A. crack-dealer lifestyle nationally in the late 1980s, are lauded in the overly long but still entertaining Straight Outta Compton. Paul Giamatti even plays virtually identical roles in each movie as the crooked Jewish manager.

While the exquisite Love & Mercy topped out at $12 million in box office, Straight Outta Compton is already up to $111 million and will surpass the Johnny Cash movie I Walk the Line to become the highest-grossing musical biopic ever.

The Academy had better hope that some other Oscar candidates emerge in the fall to divert attention away from what so far looks like a battle for Best Picture between the superb white rock movie and the not-bad black rap movie. …

Granted, comparing Straight Outta Compton to Love & Mercy on aesthetics is like contrasting “F*** tha Police” and “No Vaseline” to “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” …

The expertise of both the Beach Boys and N.W.A at mythologizing extended to their suburban hometowns, which lie southeast of Los Angeles International Airport. The Wilson brothers grew up five miles inland from LAX in Hawthorne, while Compton, birthplace of Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, is eight miles farther east.

In the Beach Boys’ songs, their nondescript hometown seemed a paradise, while N.W.A glamorized the physically similar Compton as the capital of mindless black-on-black violence.

Read the whole thing there.

• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Movies, Music 
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Screenshot 2015-08-22 19.18.21

The Beach Boys’ Hawthorne and N.W.A.’s Compton are surprisingly close

Here’s my new movie review in Taki’s Magazine:

Love & Mercy is a superb new biopic about head Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s creative summit in 1966, the year of the groundbreaking Pet Sounds album (featuring the sublime “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows”) and follow-up “Good Vibrations” mega-single, the greatest Southern California track ever constructed. The film follows Wilson briefly into his rapid collapse into mental illness and obesity, and then skips to his slow but gratifying recovery in the early 1990s.

Read the whole thing there.

And from Walk Hard [NSFW]:

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I’m a big fan of the cognitive utility of the old phrase: “The exception that proves the rule.” But then I’m kind of an exception in that regard, since anytime I mention I like that, I get deluged with logical and etymological objections. 

I merely mean that an exception that is famous for being exceptional suggests a general tendency in the opposite direction. The canonical example is that Beethoven’s titanic fame as a deaf composer suggests that most composers aren’t deaf, while, say, the lack of obsessive publicity about painter David Hockney’s late onset deafness suggests that deafness isn’t all that big of a deal, one way or another, to painters. Judging from the immortal fame of Beethoven’s battle with deafness, we can assume that there aren’t many deaf composers, while the ho-hum response to Hockney’s deafness suggests that we can’t make strong quantitative assumptions about painters and deafness.

Recently in Japan there has arisen an exception to my canonical exception: a popular deaf composer named Mamoru Samuragochi. 

From the NYT:

Renowned Japanese Composer Admits Fraud 


TOKYO — He was celebrated as a prolific musical genius whose compositions appeared in popular video games and the competition routine of a top figure skater in the coming Sochi Olympics. His deafness won him praise as Japan’s modern-day Beethoven. 

It turns out his magnum opus was his own masquerade. 

On Thursday, Japan learned that one of its most popular musical figures, Mamoru Samuragochi, 50, had staged an elaborate hoax in which someone else had secretly written his most famous compositions, and he had perhaps even faked his hearing disability. 

Across a nation long captivated by Western classical music, people reacted with remorse, outrage and even the rare threat of a lawsuit after Mr. Samuragochi’s revelations that he had hired a ghostwriter since the 1990s to compose most of his music. The anger turned to disbelief when the ghostwriter himself came forward to accuse Mr. Samuragochi of faking his deafness, apparently to win public sympathy and shape the Beethoven persona. 

The scandal began on Wednesday, when Mr. Samuragochi publicly confessed that someone else had written his most famous works. These include Symphony No. 1 “Hiroshima,” about the 1945 atomic bombing of his home city, which became a classical music hit in Japan; the theme music for the video games Resident Evil and Onimusha; and Sonatina for Violin, which the Japanese Olympic figure skater Daisuke Takahashi is scheduled to use in his short program performance at the Winter Games in Sochi.

The timing could hardly have been worse for Mr. Takahashi, a potential medalist who won the bronze in the Vancouver Olympics four years ago. He said in a statement that he would continue to skate to the musical piece — he really had little choice with scant time left before the competition — and hoped the revelations would not overshadow his performance. 

… The reason for this sudden repentance became clear on Thursday when the ghostwriter revealed himself to be Takashi Niigaki, 43, a hitherto largely unknown part-time lecturer at a prestigious music college in Tokyo. Mr. Niigaki said he had written more than 20 songs for Mr. Samuragochi since 1996, for which he received the equivalent of about $70,000.

He said he felt so guilty about the deception that he had threatened to go public in the past, but Mr. Samuragochi had begged him not to. He said he finally could not take it anymore when he learned one of his songs would be used by the Olympic skater. He told his story to a weekly tabloid, which went on sale Thursday.

“He told me that if I didn’t write songs for him, he’d commit suicide,” Mr. Niigaki told a crowded news conference. “But I could not bear the thought of skater Takahashi being seen by the world as a co-conspirator in our crime.” 

Perhaps just as shocking was Mr. Niigaki’s assertion that Mr. Samuragochi was never deaf. Mr. Niigaki said that he had regular conversations with Mr. Samuragochi, who listened to and commented on his compositions. Mr. Niigaki said the deafness was just “an act that he was performing to the outside world.”


(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Music 
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From the New York Times:

Finding a Place in the Hip-Hop Ecosystem 

JAN. 27, 2014


A couple of hours after the Grammys on Sunday night, Macklemore [a white guy] sent a text to Kendrick Lamar [presumably a black guy], whom he had just beaten out for  best rap album. 

“You got robbed,” the text read. “I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird.” He added, “I robbed you.” 

As a private act, this was a love letter, a way for an artist to honor a peer. As a public act — Macklemore posted an image of the text on his Instagram account, although it’s unclear whether it was with Mr. Lamar’s knowledge — it was a cleansing and an admission of guilt. Not only did Macklemore want to show respect to his fellow rapper, he wanted the world to know that he understands his place in the hip-hop ecosystem and that he is still careful where he steps.

 Macklemore & Ryan Lewis [white], the Seattle duo that has spent the last year upending the rules about how hip-hop interacts with mainstream pop, won four Grammys on Sunday night, for best new artist and in three rap categories (best performance and best song for “Thrift Shop” and best album for “The Heist”). 

I’ve actually heard the song “Thrift Shop,” in which a white guy explains that he buys all his clothes used because you can get some real bargains. (I imagine this is a dig at black rappers, who mostly rap about how much money they waste.)

The rap awards were the most tortured, for artists and observers alike.


I’m glad I didn’t watch, seeing as how it was torture.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have experienced a very peculiar sort of hip-hop fame, one that has little to do with approval from the center of hip-hop, and it has unfolded largely without black gatekeepers, a traditional hallmark of white rappers through the years. Instead Macklemore & Ryan Lewis jumped straight from the independent hip-hop underground to the pop charts, which has left them scrambling to shore up their bona fides retroactively. 

So when he bests Mr. Lamar — and Jay Z [black], Drake [black] and Kanye West [black] — for a rap award, he makes sure he kisses the ring. “I robbed you” is a strikingly powerful phrase in this context: a white artist muscling into a historically black genre, essentially uninvited, and taking its laurel. This is the entire cycle of racial borrowing in an environment of white privilege in a nutshell: black art, white appropriation, white guilt, repeat until there’s nothing left to appropriate. 

To many, that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were nominated in the rap categories at all was an affront. Hip-hop purists love a good debate about boundaries and who gets to police them. (Almost certainly Macklemore was one of those purists, until he couldn’t be anymore because of his fame.) Last week The Associated Press reported that the two were almost eliminated from competition in those categories altogether by subcommittee members who felt they were, in essence, too pop — and, presumably too white. Like a border militia tasked with passing judgment on infiltrators, those voters attempted a sort-of Grammy version of jury nullification, to no avail. 

The idea was, of course, preposterous. Part of accepting hip-hop’s growth into a pop music juggernaut is to accept that its edges are fuzzier than they once were. “The Heist” is undeniably a hip-hop album, though Macklemore’s songs have more in common with those by rappers like Flo Rida or Pitbull, dance-music-friendly artists who are rarely heard on traditional hip-hop radio. But Flo Rida [black] and Pitbull [white] are not white. 

Pitbull: Not White

Actually, according to Pitbull’s Wikipedia bio:

He encountered problems early in his career as a rapper because he looks white with blue eyes, hails from the South, and is Cuban. 

But, America needs Cubans to demand more Hispanic immigration because Mexican-Americans don’t seem to be mediagenic enough, so Pitbull’s Not White.

Back to the NYT’s cogitations:

And part of consuming the Grammys is to accept that when it comes to niche categories, chaos will reign. (The Grammys are one of the few remaining contexts in which hip-hop could be called niche.) Voting in these cases remains a catastrophically broken process. Last week  Complex published an article by a Grammy voter detailing some parts of the system, which included this behind-the-scenes tidbit passed from one voter to the next: “be careful about greenlighting an album by someone who was really famous if you don’t want to see that album win a Grammy.” Macklemore isn’t more famous than Jay Z [not white] or Mr. West [not white], but the nature of his fame is different — it’s likely to have registered with a wider swath of Grammy voters who would be comfortable voting for him in a way they might not have been for Mr. Lamar. 

Presumably Macklemore didn’t text his feelings to the others he bested, either because they didn’t need to hear them or he doesn’t have their numbers, or both. Of the three, only Jay Z was in attendance, though mostly to perform with his wife, Beyoncé [officially not white], and later dance with her in the aisles as Daft Punk [two white Eurotrash guys who perform in helmets like the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers so you can't tell that their 1979 Chic-style hit "Get Lucky" isn't being sung by blacks -- they could be Milli Vanilli under those robot suits for all anybody can see] performed. He also won the Grammy for best rap/sung collaboration, with Justin Timberlake [white, plays golf in case you were wondering].

Mr. Lamar, the least well known of that category’s nominees, “deserved best rap album,” Macklemore added in the comment section of the photo he posted. But note that he didn’t say album of the year, another category in which both were nominated (and lost to Daft Punk). If Mr. Lamar made a better rap album than Macklemore did, then didn’t he make a better album over all? Or was Macklemore ceding the traditionally black category while keeping his claim on the broader one? (Eminem [a white guy] has won the best rap album Grammy five times.) 

 In his effort to be gracious, Macklemore was uncomfortably splitting hairs. As has so often happened in the year or so since he emerged as a pop force, an act that was presumably meant to be selfless and open-minded instead came off as one of self-congratulatory magnanimity. It’s the same problem that bedevils him with “Same Love,” his song about marriage equality [gay marriage], which he performed at Sunday’s awards ceremony (accompanied by Mary Lambert [white, but fat and lesbian] and, perversely, a wild-eyed Madonna [by this point, mostly sinew, gristle, and steroids]) as the soundtrack to 33 weddings, gay and straight, over which Queen Latifah [black lesbian] officiated.

It’s an almost messianic song, and a deeply self-serving way to discuss an issue like equality. 

(Ronan Farrow [a Celebrity-American, who may or may not have inherited some genes for evaluating pop music] tweeted: “For a pro gay song, this sure does feature a lot of Macklemore clarifying that he’s straight.”)

 In interviews, Macklemore speaks readily about his position of privilege and the role it has played in catapulting him to fame. But incidents like the text to Mr. Lamar reinforce the narrative of Macklemore as tortured intruder, keen to relish his success but stressed about all the shoulders he’s had to step on along the way. It’s a transparent ploy for absolution, and a warning of robberies to come.

To prevent white people from robbing blacks, the only kind of popular music white people should be allowed to create is square dance calling. By the way, as Malcolm McClaren unkindly pointed out 31 years ago in “Buffalo Gals,” hip-hop was Stolen from the great white art form of square dance calling:

Commenters point out that rap was a popular country and Western genre in the 1960s and 1970s:

A 1972 version of a 1955 song:

After all, who cares about melody in a song? What’s important is to hear what today’s youth have to say.
(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Submitted by Andres Roca at the Open Borders logo contest Facebook page.

Song titles from the Kurt Cobain catalog appropriate for the Open Borders Movement:

“Come As You Are”
“All Apologies”
“Rape Me”

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Music, Nirvana, Open Borders 
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Here are the thoughts of two Spanish brothers on the kind of music they play in the famous Ibiza disco they own:

Ricardo Urgell, the son of a Barcelona engineer, built Pacha in the early 1970s on a desolate half-acre he bought for about $14,000. After its opening in 1973 the club came to represent ultracool debauchery and an escape from the conservative moral code of Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator. Native Ibicencos mixed with artists, hippies, thieves on the lam and those whose bronzed bodies were all the clothing they required. 

But as the scene grew, the elder Urgells eventually became disenchanted by the music that made them millionaires. 

“It’s monotonous sound and volume; it’s bodies squeezed together, it’s a little masochistic,” Ricardo Urgell said in a 2011 interview. “The great defect of this music,” he added, “is that it has to be accompanied by drugs. I took Ecstasy just one time in my life and found that out for myself.” 

Electronic music, Piti Urgell said last month, “hasn’t evolved in 20 years and is for idiots.”

Elderly Tourette’s Syndrome helps make family gatherings full of interest. 

Anyway, I’m struck that it’s older people these days who are the ones who most object to the relative lack of change in popular music. Perhaps us old fogeys are wrong and music is changing as fast today as in, say, the mid-1960s. But, it doesn’t seem that way.

My general theory of 20th Century pop music is the spectacular changes in taste in the middle decades of the century were driven less by the much discussed sociological changes (e.g., Baby Boomers, racial changes, etc.) and more by technological changes. For example, Bing Crosby was the first to figure out that the microphone meant that singing was no longer as much of an athletic feat and now a more intimate medium. Similarly, the evolution of the electric guitar from the 1930s through the 1950s had much to do with The Sixties.

In contrast, the electronic synthesizer, which began to appear on records in the 1960s, has proved (at least so far) to be the ultimate instrument. The subsequent digitalization of sound generation and recording now allows anything to be done. But this complete creative freedom has led to perhaps less creativity as musicians less often have to deal with collective challenges, such as the electric guitar and multi-track recording revolutions of the 1960s. Moreover, audiences want, and can now get, their precise subgenre of music. 

The result is a more stable popular music landscape. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of taste.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Neil Young has an autobiography out, which I haven’t read. I reviewed a massive biography of the rock star a decade ago for the first issue of The American Conservative (happy 10th anniversary), so I’ll just repeat my diagnosis of the self-confident singer:

The secret to Young’s career longevity appears to be that his health has steadily improved with age. Today, the superior physical and mental constitution he inherited from his mother Rassy, a tomboy champion amateur golfer, and his sportswriter father Scott, hard-working author of 30 books, is no longer dragged down by the polio, epilepsy, and drug abuse of his younger years. He now lifts weights, works out aerobically, and plays a lot of golf. Of course, some might argue that after hoovering up all that cocaine before his second marriage in 1978, a naturally robust individual like Young sends the wrong message about the danger of drugs to the mediocre masses simply by not being dead by now.

The biographer I read was still shaking his head over how Young had taken over Crosby, Stills, & Nash at the height of their popularity through sheer brass.

In short, Young is by nature a jock. But, a sickly youth diverted him into the arts at a propitious moment (the mid-1960s), where he’s gotten a lot accomplished, although perhaps more by masculine force of will than by supreme talent.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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David Brooks returns from following Bruce Springsteen’s tour around Europe, where 50,000 Spaniards sang along to songs about New Jersey’s industrial wastelands, and writes:

It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all. 

Maybe this is why younger rock bands can’t fill stadiums year after year, while the more geographically defined older bands like U2, Springsteen and the Beach Boys can.

Probably not the main reason, but it’s still an interesting point. There is a real hunger among fans for a band to be from somewhere, even if they hadn’t actually gotten there yet. Kurt Cobain wasn’t from Seattle, he was from a hick town and then from Olympia, but he was hoping to eventually get to the big city. So, Nirvana got swept up in a narrative powered by the general rise of Seattle in the late 1980s (Starbucks, Nordstrom’s, Microsoft, etc.)

One big change is the decline of the Southern tradition in rock. A huge fraction of electric guitar bands were once either explicitly Southern or wanna-bes (the Rolling Stones at their peak in Honky Tonk Women era). But that seems to have gotten suburbanized away, with assertively Southern musicians going to Nashville instead of into rock. 

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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My new Taki’s Magazine column covers a lot of ground:

You probably haven’t heard of Get the Gringo, a recent Lethal Weapon-like action movie starring Mel Gibson and directed by his right-hand man Adrian Grunberg. Mad Mel plays Driver, an American criminal who makes a run for the border, only to wind up in one of those Beyond Thunderdome-like Mexican prisons where anything (except freedom) can be had for a price. 

You can watch the first eight minutes of Get the Gringo online here; it looks fun. So far, 9,949 reviewers on have given it a mean rating of 7.4 out of 10, which equates to “not great, but quite good.”  

Although Get the Gringo debuted on March 15, 2012 in Israel, there are no plans to ever let it enjoy a theatrical run here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Read the whole thing there.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Richard Wagner’s four opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung was even more influential in the later 1800s and early 1900s than J.R.R. Tolkien’s three volume The Lord of the Rings and its tremendous film adaptation were a century later. 

But, Tolkien always pooh-poohed Wagner’s influence on him: “Both rings are round and there the resemblance ceases.” Tolkien also argued that he read the medieval sagas in the original Icelandic, while Wagner read them in translations. 

Still, consider the autobiography of Tolkien’s close friend C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, which includes a chapter on the vast impact Wagner had on young people of his generation. I found a talk given by a professor of German literature, Edward Haymes, that argues the case for substantial influence of The Ring on The Rings. One excerpt:

German nationalists of the early nineteenth century saw a Germanic equivalent of ancient Greek and Roman mythology in the so-called Nibelung legend. It was common at that time to refer to the Nibelungenlied as the “German Iliad.” Mendelssohn and others were urged by nationalist thinkers to write an opera on the Nibelung subject. The goal was to establish a cultural past that was equal to, if not superior to the Greek and Roman literature they had all grown up on and to make it a part of the popular consciousness. Wagner hoped that his use of Germanic myth would somehow tap into this racial memory and speak directly to the soul of the German people.  

Parenthetically I might mention that Tolkien envisioned a very similar goal for his work. In a letter to a prospective publisher of the Silmarillion he wrote: “I was from the early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me) but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff.” Tolkien shared with Wagner the desire of providing a mythology for his own people. Where Wagner found medieval sources for his myths, Tolkien had to invent his. 

I would add to Prof. Haymes’ well-informed analysis my own idle speculation that English v. German nationalist rivalries might have played a role in Tolkien’s denigrating the impact of Wagner on him. Tolkien’s hyper-Englishness might have something to do with having a German name. From Wikipedia:

The Tolkien family had their roots in Lower Saxony – the homeland of the original Anglo-Saxons – but had been living in England since the 18th century, becoming “quickly intensely English.”

Moreover, Tolkien personally fought the German Empire in the Great War. The Battle of the Somme is the kind of thing that might leave a mark on a man’s feelings.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Back in January, I wrote in Taki’s Magazine in Goodbye, Mr. Chimps:

Although future behavioral taboos are notoriously hard to predict, it’s clear that within this decade America will end the use of chimpanzees in entertainment. I’ll go much further out on a limb and also predict that within a generation, and for much the same reasons, we will seriously consider banning child stars. … 

… [Because] having men play monkeys is better for all concerned, a similar question will suggest itself: Is it humane to use human children as professional entertainers? 

The digital technology enabling adults to portray kid characters is rapidly arriving. … 

One obvious problem is sexual exploitation of ambitious minors. A January 8, 2012 Los Angeles Times story by Dawn C. Chmielewski reports, “At least a dozen child-molestation and child-pornography prosecutions since 2000 have involved actors, managers, production assistants and others in the entertainment industry.” That’s not a huge number—one known case per year—but who can begin to guesstimate the number of unknown cases?  

The Daily Beast reports this excerpt from a new sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a male masseuse against movie star John Travolta. That Travolta would get sued by a man isn’t exactly big news to anybody paying attention. Heck, his 1978 romance movie Moment by Moment with a Lily Tomlin who looks just like him had people wondering back then what the subtext was. But Travolta’s explanation for his life’s course, as alleged by the plaintiff, is interesting:

8. “Defendant [John Travolta] began screaming at Plaintiff, telling Plaintiff how selfish he was; that Defendant got to where he is now due to sexual favors he had performed when he was in his Welcome Back, Kotter days; and that Hollywood is controlled by homosexual Jewish men who expect [to dole out?] favors in return for sexual activity. Defendant then went on to say how he had done things in his past that would make most people throw up.” 

9. “Defendant explained when he started that he wasn’t even gay … Defendant also said that he was smart enough to learn to enjoy it, and when he began to make millions of dollars, that it all became well worth it.”

In Taki’s Magazine last summer, I thought through various theories on what percentage of famous male entertainment celebrities are gay: Part 1 and Part 2. I’d say my thinking looks pretty good as of today. As for the demographics, well, on The Larry Sanders Show, producer Artie explained them to writer Phil here.

By the way, today President Obama endorsed gay marriage, which will, obviously, solve these problems. The only reason powerful gay men sexually exploit handsome youths is because society discriminates against gays by not letting them marry.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Here’s a map of rock bands in the metal genre per capita:

I’m too old to know anything about what’s going on now, but I can recall when Led Zeppelin’s Icelandic-flavored “Immigrant Song” about the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic was on the Top 40 charts in 1970:

We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.
The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!

And I recall as an eleven-year-old, thinking that, boy, they were on to something by combining heavy metal with Viking imagery. Apparently, a lot of lads in the North countries felt that fit even more strongly.

This sounds obvious today, but in 1970, heavy metal was all about riffing off Mississippi Delta Blues, so that its fate would end up at the polar opposite culture was quite startling.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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John Blake writes on CNN:

Listening to black music today is depressing. Songs on today’s urban radio playlists are drained of romance, tenderness and seduction. And it’s not just about the rise of hardcore hip-hop or rappers who denigrate women. 

Black people gave the world Motown, Barry White and “Let’s Get It On.” But we don’t make love songs anymore. 


I asked some of the stars who created the popular R&B classics of the late 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s. Their answer: The music changed because blacks lost something essential — something that all Americans, regardless of race, should regret. 

“We had so much harmony” 

Some of what we lost, they say, was an appreciation of love itself. 

Earth Wind & Fire keyboardist and founding member Larry Dunn says a new generation of black R&B artists is more cynical because more come from broken homes and broken communities.

I’m an old codger so my views should be taken with a grain of salt, but African-American music in the 21st Century definitely seems a lot worse overall than in most decades of the 20th Century. In contrast, electric guitar rock sounds about as good as ever, it just sounds the same as ever. I hear new songs all the time that would have been classics if they had come out in 1979. 
One question is whether it’s a supply side problem (as Blake, who I believe is black, suggests) or a demand side problem. The EWF old-timer’s supply side suggestion makes a lot of sense: 1970s black music stars were raised during the improving era for blacks after WWII and benefited from relatively stable upbringings. (This was also an era when blacks still felt like they needed to prove things to whites, so they worked hard on their crafts to be accepted.)
But, what about demand side explanations? One change is that popular music today is usually aimed at microniches. If you like, say, sludge metal but not industrial metal, well, you don’t have to put up with any of that horrible industrial metal on your iPod. You can have 100% sludge metal all the time. 
In the old days, people had fewer channels of music, so you had to put up more with stuff that wasn’t exactly to your taste. Earth, Wind & Fire, for example, was a black band that aimed more at women than men and more at 20ish people than teens, but they were widely respected across many demographics. If you were looking around the car radio dial for, say, the Stones or Zeppelin but could only find EWF’s September, well, you might listen to it because you didn’t have too many other choices and, while it definitely wasn’t crafted with you in mind, it was clearly of high quality. So, bands had incentives to be broadly appealing.

I don’t listen to black radio stations because I don’t like rap, but I’ve recently listened with some fascination to the big pop station in L.A., KIIS, the one with Ryan Seacrest as DJ. 

The biggest demographic group left today that wants to like what everybody else likes, that wants to be up on the latest fads, are teenage girls. So, mainstream pop music today reflects the tastes of just that narrow demographic. And the music industry has gotten used to catering to their desires, which in turn makes teenage girls more addicted to their urges, more in need of ever stronger doses. 
Commenter Title in Caps calls what they now want narcisso-fascism. As far as I can tell, most pop songs these days by female singers are about “I’m so sexy.” Meanwhile, pop songs by male singers aimed at the teen female market are mostly about “You so sexy.”
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1980s rock music is rather looked down upon these days, but it seemed pretty good at the time and seems not too bad in retrospect. Here’s a reader’s poll from electric guitar maker Gibsons  of 1980s songs. (There’s no requirement that they feature electric guitars, but, given the site, not surprisingly, they almost all do). One thing I would note is that this was still the long era, beginning with the Beatles, when the general superiority in stylishness of British rock music was taken for granted. Of the 25 tracks, 12 are American and 13 from the British Commonwealth / British Isles. Readers Poll – Greatest Song of the ’80s
1. AC/DC, “Back in Black” (1981)
2. Iron Maiden, “The Number of the Beast” (1982)
3. AC/DC, “Shoot to Thrill” (1980)
4. Dire Straits, “Money for Nothing” (1984)
5. Simple Minds, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (1985)
6. Roxy Music, “More Than This” (1982)
7. Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle” (1987)
8. R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987)
9. Van Halen, “Jump” (1984)
10. Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (1988)
11. Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House” (1983) 
12. Neil Young, “Rockin’ in the Free World” (1989)
13. Pixies, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (1989)
14. John Hiatt, “Slow Turning” (1988)
15. Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (1983)
16. Bruce Springsteen, “I’m on Fire” (1985)
17. Guns N’ Roses, “Paradise City” (1988)
18. Fine Young Cannibals, “She Drives Me Crazy” (1989)
19. John Lennon, “(Just Like) Starting Over” (1980)
20. U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name” (1987)
21. Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Pride and Joy” (1983)
22. Rush, “Tom Sawyer” (1981)
23. Split Enz, “I Got You” (1980)
24. Modern English, “I Melt with You” (1982)
25. U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (1984)

The Gibsons critics’ poll is decent, too, although their #1 choice, “London Calling” by The Clash seems curious. “London Calling” has always struck me as about the 17th best Clash song ever. It’s monumental in style, but seems underwritten, as if it needs another hook of some sort. I believe somebody could take the catchy bass line from The Pretenders’ “Mystery Achievement,” which was released the same week in December 1979, and add it to “London Calling,” and you’d have a better song. The critics poll:

1. The Clash, “London Calling” (1980)
2. Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (1988)
3. Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (1983)
4. Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle” (1987)
5. Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (1989)
6. AC/DC, “You Shook Me All Night Long (1980)
7. Prince, “When Doves Cry” (1984)
8. Def Leppard, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” (1987)
9. Van Halen, “Jump” (1984)
10. Duran Duran, “Hungry Like The Wolf” (1982)
11. Queen and David Bowie, “Under Pressure” (1981)
12. U2, “With or Without You” (1987)
13. Bruce Springsteen, “The River” (1981)
14. Bon Jovi , “Livin’ on a Prayer” (1986)
15. New Order, “Blue Monday” (1983)
16. Prince, “1999” (1982)
17. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, “I Love Rock ’n Roll” (1981)
18. U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (1984)
19. Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” (1981)
20. Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)
21. The Police, “Every Breath You Take” (1983)
22. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message” (1982)
23. Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House” (1983)
24. The Rolling Stones, “Start Me Up” (1981)
25. Van Halen, “Hot for Teacher” (1984)
26. Squeeze, “Tempted” (1981)
27. Run-D.M.C., “Walk This Way” (1986)
28. Dire Straits, “Money for Nothing” (1984)
29. The Smiths, “How Soon is Now?” (1985)
30. Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin’” (1981)
31. R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987)
32. U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name” (1987)
33. Motörhead, “Ace of Spades” (1980)
34. R.E.M., “Radio Free Europe (1981)
35. Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train” (1980)
36. Whitesnake, “Here I Go Again” (1987)
37. Madonna, “Like a Prayer” (1989)
38. Mötley Crüe, “Dr. Feelgood” (1989)
39. Beastie Boys, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” (1987)
40. Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Come on Eileen” (1982)
41. Michael Jackson, “Beat It” (1983)
42. Devo, “Whip It” (1980)
43. Guns N’ Roses, “Paradise City” (1988)
44. Big Country, “In a Big Country” (1983)
45. Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight” (1981)
46. AC/DC, “Back in Black” (1981)
47. Madonna, “Like a Virgin” (1984)
48. The Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian” (1986)
49. Sonic Youth, “Teen Age Riot” (1988)
50. The B-52’s, “Love Shack” (1989)

The fan choices are less diverse demographically than the critic choices. The fans picked overwhelmingly male groups (Pixies and Talking Heads had one woman each). The critics choices had two Madonna songs, a Bangles, and a Joan Jett, plus gender mixed groups Sonic Youth, B-52s, and Talking Heads.

Racially, the fans put Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean at #15 (kind of a hard song to avoid for a 1980s list), but no Prince or any rappers. Fan favorites Guns n Roses have a half-black guitarist in Slash and the Van Halen brothers are a little Indonesian. Fine Young Cannibals was a mixed race offshoot of the mixed race band the English Beat.

The critics were somewhat more open to black artists, putting not just “Billie Jean” but also “Beat It” (with Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo) on their Top 50. They also chose two Prince songs, and three rap songs by blacks. Not surprisingly, they are exactly the three you’d expect white critics to come up with: Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” Run-D.M.C.’s remake with the two guys from Aerosmith of “Walk this Way” (which helped relaunch Aerosmith, who had seemed washed up, but they turned out to be so much better than the fat black guys on that track), and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” from Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” (And Journey had Randy from American Idol as their bass player.)

It seems like music culture got more racially segregated over time. If you were conducting a poll not in 2011 but in 1981 of fans and critics interested in guitars of the best recordings of the 1950s, certainly Chuck Berry would have been heavily represented, plus Muddy Waters and some other blues musicians.

Offhand, I don’t notice any Asians or
Hispanics on the list, although Los Lobos’s 1987 remake of Richie Valens “La Bamba” might have featured some of the more thrillingly precise guitar playing of the decade.

Most of these artists had short careers at the top, with obvious exceptions such as U2, Springsteen, Madonna, AC/DC, Ossy Osbourne, and REM. I don’t know why 1980s artists tended to have short careers relative to 1960s-70s artists. Worse drugs? More competition?

I suspect fewer careers started quite as young as previously. The British Invasion bands were very young when they made a splash in 1964-65, but they were kicking in an open door. There was nobody ahead of them with a similar sound, so they could become stars when they were musically immature and then dazzle everybody by maturing into their peaks in their late 20s. With the Beatles, say, “Hey Jude” was a whole lot better than “Love Me Do.” They got a lot of credit not just for being as great as they were on “Hey Jude” but also for not being as bad anymore as they had been on “Love Me Do.”

In contrast, by the 1980s, outside of rap most of the obvious niches were already occupied. Artists were expected to be pretty mature musically by the time a lot of money was invested in a music video for them. By the 1980s, nobody was going to notice a “Love Me Do.” You needed to be up to at least a “Daytripper” level to get noticed. So, that left less time at the top.

Let me try a baseball analogy. It’s easier to get to 300 wins or 3000 hits if you can start in the majors at age 19 or 20. But if the competition gets tougher and the learning demands get higher so now you are expected to do, say, 3 years in college and 2 years in the minors so you don’t get to start until, say, 23, it’s just harder to pile up huge career numbers.

Can’t tell you how many of these musicians were gay. Freddie Mercury and one of the guys in the B-52s died of AIDS. Morrisey of The Smiths and Michael Stipe of REM are, presumably, gay. Joan Jett is, presumably, a lesbian. Michael Jackson was weird.

Lots of guys who seemed kind of gay turned out not to be: Bowie, Jagger, Prince. Elegant Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music has four kids. In general, guitar rock is pretty straight.

One of the genres I always liked was the Brideshead Revisited style of Brit Fop Rock where, typically, working class kids like Ferry pretended to be all genteel.  I was amused to learn that Ferry, the son of a pit pony driver (in a coal mine?) but now a Tory country gentleman, is the father of Otis Ferry, who is perhaps Britain’s most often arrested crusader for the defense of foxhunters’ rights — a character out of Evelyn Waugh. (In contrast, Joe Strummer of the Clash was a boarding school boy whose father, a diplomat who held the secret codes at various British embassies, was a good friend of Kim Philby).

Combining the the readers and critics lists:

6. Roxy Music, “More Than This” (1982)
24. Modern English, “I Melt with You” (1982)
10. Duran Duran, “Hungry Like The Wolf” (1982) (or “Rio”?)
11. Queen and David Bowie, “Under Pressure” (1981)
15. New Order, “Blue Monday” (1983) (or “Temptation” from 1981, where the real hook — “Oh, you’ve got green eyes …” — doesn’t emerge for many minutes)
20. Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (1980)
29. The Smiths, “How Soon is Now?” (1985)
I’d add The Cure’s “In Between Days” as another 1980s classic of jangly toff rock.

If you add together the 50 songs on the critics list and the 25 songs on the readers list, you get 46 from 1980-1984 and 29 from 1985-1989, which accords with my general perception that rock was losing momentum in the 1980s. Of course, I was losing momentum as I was getting older, too, but now I have statistical proof that my late 1980s complaint (“Rock music just isn’t as awesome anymore as it was in December 1979, and get off my lawn!”) was right.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Ever since Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, nice Westerners aren’t supposed to incorporate Middle Eastern motifs in their artworks, because that’s racist. Or Orientalist, it’s all about the same thing in the post-modern academic killjoy mind. Here, for example, is Rick Ayres, brother of Bill Ayres and recipient of a million clams from the Gates Foundation, denouncing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific for Orientalism. (The Anglican Said had a different definition of Orient in mind, but no mind.)
In 18th Century Europe, however, Turkish Janissary military band music was wildly popular. Haydn’s paternal grandparents were among the few survivors when their town was pillaged by the Turk in the 17th Century, but after the Turkish defeat in 1683 outside of Vienna and the peace treaty of 1699 removed the Turkish threat, a fad grew up for Turkish military music. Most of the percussion instruments in the symphony orchestra came from the Turkish music craze of the 18th Century — e.g., in Haydn’s 100th or Military Symphony, there’s the hilarious intrusion of percussion instruments about 1:30 seconds into this video of the second movement, and from 4:40 onward in the rollicking finale
My favorite recent work of musical Orientalism is Led Zeppelin’s 1975 song Kashmir, especially the 1994 live recording by Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, a Western orchestra and an Egyptian ensemble. This 9 minute video begins after the “I am a traveler through both time and space” opening verse, which is good because the instrumentalists are in better form than Plant’s vocal cords. The Egyptian combo builds tremendous tension toward end, which Plant and Page resolve startlingly and satisfyingly.

As a self-conscious era of 19th Century Romanticism, Page especially recognized that Orientalism is composed of Western desire as much as Eastern truths, and rather fantastic desire at that. That’s why the mystic epic they wrote about a slog through a parched desert [they got the idea for the song in Morocco] is named after a lush valley near the Himalaya … Plant and Page are clever gents; they could find Kashmir on a map. Such a “mistake” tells us that their core myth is not the wisdom of the East, but the heretical imagination of the West, an imagination that finds itself in transport.

Kashmir was a rarity for Led Zeppelin. Most of their myth-making energies were turned West, however: Tolkien and other English folksiness, Vikings, Delta blues, San Francisco hippiedom, and Sunset Blvd. hedonism.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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The great thing about the invention of brain scans is that they allow journalists to write articles about anicient topics as if they are news. 
And that’s a good thing! There are a lot of important and interesting subjects that aren’t “new,” that aren’t “growing” or “soaring” or “increasing” or all the other words that headline-writers feel obligated to use, but are still interesting. Fortunately, now there are brain scan studies coming out each month that reveal stuff we already kinda knew but are worth revisiting.
Here’s a model example from the NYT last month: “To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons.” I doubt if there’s much of substance in it that, say, George Bernard Shaw wasn’t writing about in his music reviews in the 19th Century, but it’s still worth repeating about why some music is better than other music.

One thing I noticed in this article was that one of the experiments mentioned involved vocalist Bobby McFerrin, who presumably has, like a lot of artists, some time on his hands. (His hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was back in 1988.) McFerrin is a ridiculously musically talented guy with ten Grammies, and I think studying the talented can be a useful shortcut in science.

For example, I went to a scientific conference in Russia in 2001 with a number of German ethologists who studied human nature by filming hundreds of hours of normal people in various situations for evidence about common facial expressions, body language, and so forth. (Here’s my article about Frank Salter videotaping would-be patrons approaching the bouncers behind the velvet rope at an exclusive night club.) My suggestion was that they could save time by videotaping a few professional improvisational comedians who make their living by exaggerating normal human reactions. For example, the old improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway? with Wayne Brady and others is a trove of common but unexpected reactions.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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From the LA Times, a story that cracked me up not because of the politics but because of trying to imagine the puzzlement of the Chinese audience over why they had paid all this money for tickets to see this guy.

At a time when many other American performers have been banned from China, Bob Dylan was allowed to play Wednesday night in Beijing, but with a program that omitted Dylan’s most famous ballads of dissent. Conspicuously absent from the program at the Workers’ Gymnasium were “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan’s set list had to be sanctioned beforehand by the Ministry of Culture, which in its formal invitation decreed that he would have to “conduct the performance strictly according to the approved program.” 

Still, the 69-year-old musician, clad in a white panama hat and drainpipe trousers, sung and strummed before a welcoming crowd of 6,000. He worked his way through a repertoire that included “Tangled up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” The only time Dylan paused in the workmanlike performance to address the audience was when he introduced the members of his band. … 

Dylan is so unknown in China that one newspaper, the Shanghai-based Xinmin Evening News, ran a story about his upcoming concerts alongside a big photograph of country music star Willie Nelson. 

During the height of Dylan’s popularity in the 1960s, China was entirely closed off to the West. Only in the 1980s did social and economic liberalization allow Chinese to hear rock music. But none of Dylan’s albums have ever been officially released in China. 

At the Beijing concert Wednesday, many Chinese attendees admitted they knew little of Dylan’s music or legacy. “His music is OK. But I don’t speak English, so I can’t understand what he’s singing,” Gao Mingwen said outside the stadium. “I hear he’s very famous though.”

I saw Dylan 25 years ago when he toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his band. The pairing sounded good in theory, but Petty’s good-natured showmanship just made Dylan look bad. Petty is no giant of American culture, but he works hard to entertain his audience, which Dylan didn’t. He just stood there and wheezed. And I can’t imagine that Dylan has become a more dynamic performer as he’s aged.
Tangled Up in Blu e” from as late as 1974 is a great, great song, but to appreciate Dylan as fully as his American acolytes do, you kinda had to be there in the pivotal year of 1965, which the Chinese most definitely weren’t.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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In response to questions about why East Asian parents are so enthusiastic for their children to be able to play Western classical music, I’m going to quote Amy Chua and the Chinese film director Chen Kaige of Farewell, My Concubine and Together.
Chua writes in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother:
“That’s one of the reasons I insisted [her two daughters -- I disapprove of Chua mentioning their first names and so I won't do it] do classical music. I knew that I couldn’t artificially make them feel like poor immigrant kids. … But I could make sure that [daughter #1] and [daughter #2] were deeper and more cultivated than my parents and I were. Classical music was the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness. It was a way for my children to achieve something I hadn’t. But it was also a tie-in to the high cultural tradition of my ancestors.”
Chua is particularly proud that she is descended in the direct male line from Chua Wu Neng, Imperial Astronomer to a 17th century emperor.
“To me, the violin symbolized respect for hierarchy, standards, and expertise. For those who know better and can teach. For those who play better and can inspire. And for parents.
“It also symbolized history. The Chinese never achieved the heights of Western classical music — there is no Chinese equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — but high traditional music is deeply entwined with Chinese civilization.”
Amusingly, Chua’s progressive Jewish art critic mother-in-law disapproves of the violin and suggests Javanese gamelan percussion instruments for her granddaughter as something simple, low-pressure, and multi-culti: “Could she learn to play the gong?” After all, Debussy had been captivated by the gamelan music and it helped inspired his shimmering Impressionist compositions like Afternoon of the Faun. Chua responds:
“Personally, I think Debussy was just going through a phase, fetishizing the exotic. The same thing happened to Debussy’s fellow Frenchmen Henri Rousseau and Paul Gaugin who started painting Polynesian natives all the time. A particularly disgusting variation of this phenomenon can be found in modern-day California: men with Yellow Fever, who date only Asian women — sometimes dozens in a row — no matter how ugly or which kind of Asian. For the record, Jed did not date any Asian women before me.
“Maybe the reason I can’t appreciate gamelan music, which I heard when we visited Indonesia in 1992, is that I fetishize difficulty and accomplishment. … Gamelan music is mesmerizing because it is so simple, unstructured, and repetitious. By contrast, Debussy’s brilliant compositions reflect complexity, ambition, ingenuity, design, conscious harmonic exploration — and yes, gamelan influences, at least in some of his works. It’s like the difference between a bamboo hut, which has its charm, and the Palace of Versailles.”
Movie director Chen Kaige comes from a more consciously cultured high stratum of Chinese society. One of his most searing memories is of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution smashing his father’s collection of Western classical LPs. His 2003 movie “Together” is about a 13 year old violin prodigy in Beijing. From my review in The American Conservative:
Asia has produced countless young technical virtuosos, but “Together” acknowledges that often their nimble fingers and admirable work ethics have not been matched by the emotional depths required by the 19th Century Romantic repertoire.

In “Together,” a working class father and his 13-year-old son move to Beijing to find a violin teacher who can help the prodigy fulfill his staggering potential….

Some American critics have praised “Together” for attacking modern China for becoming too materialistic, too conformist, too American. But that merely reflects the self-absorbed ignorance of anti-Western Westerners who confuse the unworldly Tibetan Buddhists with the worldly Chinese. The Chinese have never needed foreigners to teach them how to be materialistic.

Instead, Chen hopes Western classical music can educate his people in spirituality and individualism. “One of the biggest differences between Chinese and Western culture,” Chen said in an interview with, “is that we don’t have religion. We don’t worship anything. Western classical music has elements of love and forgiveness that come from religion. Chinese music is very intellectual, very exotic, but there is no love. You don’t feel warm after you listen to it.”

The cult of the Romantic hero, as exemplified by virtuosi like Franz Liszt, first emerged in a Christian culture whose theology valued each unique soul, rather than a Confucian culture that emphasized orderly social relations.

“I always hope one day we’ll see real individuals in Chinese society,” Chen remarked. “But we have to hope for the young generation; it’s too late for my generation to become real individuals. ‘Individual’ is a bad word in China…. Why did I denounce my father? Because of the fear I would be kicked out of society.”

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Steve Sailer
About Steve Sailer

Steve Sailer is a journalist, movie critic for Taki's Magazine, columnist, and founder of the Human Biodiversity discussion group for top scientists and public intellectuals.

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