Category Archives: Book Reviews

Overstaying Your Welcome

I’m spending my Saturday night sitting at home, drinking diet Dr. Pepper and watching Norah Jones on PBS. Yes, I am a fan or Norah Jones. I think she’s actually just a solid composer and performer who has been able to avoid the conventional story arc of being attractive and talented. She can actually sing without the assistance of auto-tune or over-production, she can actually play keyboards and guitar really well, and her band are very obviously hired guns but rather than work hard to make her sound, I have a feeling she makes the hired band really sound good, if not they all perfectly complement each other and adapt well to each others’ styles. It’s a live performance from 2012, her backup band look like they’ve been stealing from Wilco’s closet, but watching this made me realize something most important about Norah Jones’ avoidance of the conventional pop-star story arc: she’s yet to peak and drop.

Earlier in the night I watched Get Him to the Greek for, surprisingly, only the second time (the first time was in theatres shortly after its release). For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a film about a rock star (portrayed by Russell Brand) experiencing his own post-peak drop while a record label employee (Jonah Hill) attempts to escort the drunken, drug-filled, lonely, and depressed rock star to a comeback concert. Though it plays on a lot of rock’n’roll lifestyle stereotypes, I think there’s something to be said for Brand’s character’s situation in the film. After gaining a cult following being the degenerate and debaucherous rock star that people could only imagine actually existing during the 70s and 80s, Brand’s character releases his “slump” record: one that experiments with world music and but comes off as an attempt to show a charity-focused side to a performer obviously only obsessed with his own public image and self-indulgent lifestyle. Of course, by the end of the movie, we realize that Brand’s character is more complex than his drug use and public persona and all the actually wants is a really good friend.

While watching this, I realized that there is something very familiar about the peak and drop that so many popular and contemporary artists experience during their careers. Be it the Offspring strangely experimenting with hip-hop (while poorly trying to parody the suburban lifestyle that has adopted the urban gangster culture), Metallica putting out relatively safe biker-rock records, or even something as simple as Kiss taking off the makeup, everyone has an artist whose career they followed and there is one moment leaving us yelling out, “What were they thinking?”

Chuck Klosterman has a similar argument in his book Eating the Dinosaur, but Klosterman obsessively dissects a single example of the peak-and-drop: Nirvana’s In Utero. Before we go any further, let me clear something as so we can understand some of my frame of reference as I approach this. There were only two good parts of Nirvana: Dave Grohl and Kris Novoselic. Those two were possibly the most solid rhythm section that came out of the 90s. Unfortunately, everything else about Nirvana feels like a constant argument attempting to legitimize itself. For Klosterman, In Utero is what he repeatedly described as “guilt rock.” Essentially, Klosterman is saying that in an attempt to reassert Nirvana’s own legitimacy, every choice behind In Utero (from selecting Shellac and Big Black legend Steve Albini to produce it to the choice of guitar tone and song structure) was solely to make In Utero as unlistenable and inaccessible as possible.

Klosterman’s second and third books, Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and Killing Yourself to Live, are a huge reason why I write the way I do. The accessible language and diction coupled with the choice of topics surrounding popular culture Klosterman often uses in his essays and non-fiction shaped much of my own writing style. Killing Yourself to Live especially has a harsh honesty that most writers strive to achieve, but mostly still wind up trying to hide behind their work rather than display themselves in their work. Klosterman was especially good at creating narratives throughout his essays and arguments as well, increasing the accessibility of his work and making his ideas relatable on many different levels. Both of these books boosted Klosterman’s reputation as a solid non-fiction writer. As I’ve tried reading his later books, I have to wonder if he’s experiencing his own peak-and-drop.

I haven’t read any of his fiction yet, and admittedly I’ve yet to read his newest book I Wear the Black Hat (which looks at how people often relate to villains better than heroes), but while trying to read IV (which is more a collection of observant magazine articles) and especially Eating the Dinosaur, the deep personal points or relation to the topics he writes about is almost gone. In fact, he almost comes off arrogant because he writes his point of view so far above the topics he looks at. Klosterman has starting writing as though he were Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre where the premise in his topics are meant to be modern, but the thoughts and arguments are too obscure for the topics he’s writing about. Admittedly, Klosterman’s cult readership is only expanding the more he writes, he must be doing something right. But none of his books since Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and Killing Yourself to Live have received any of the same media attention or critical acclaim.

But who am I to talk about media attention and critical acclaim? If I were to pick a Nirvana record as my favourite, I would pick In Utero.

Klosterman’s diction has increased, he’s formatting his books in new ways, and he thinks about the world in different ways than he did a decade ago. That’s actually a good thing. Because if we’re not complaining about how different Americana sounds from Smash or how much slower Reload is from Ride the Lightning, then we’re complaining about how every Nickelback record sounds the exact same. I think the only real happy music fans are fans of the Mars Volta or TV on the Radio, because they expect each record and each side project to sound to different and that everything they do is artistically minded and a little off the wall. But, at the same time, if they record something that sounds like an earlier record, then they’re being “self-referential” and totally “post-modern.” Two terms that bands like the Mars Volta and TV on the Radio and their fans would be very comfortable with.

This then begs a bigger question: is the artist’s creative process or the output and the product attached more important? When Paul Simon made the Graceland album, people were pissed at the process, saying that Simon should have avoided what was a still apartheid enforcing South Africa. But the very same people criticizing his process couldn’t help but say that Graceland was the best thing he did since parting ways with Art Garfunkel. I read Eating the Dinosaur and understand how much work Klosterman put into his analysis and arguments. I understand how much time Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus spend on thinking about literally everything and how hard it is to cram that much thought into books. I’m just having difficulty reading them.

I’m sure somewhere there is a magical land where the process of growing and experimentation collides with an output and product that doesn’t alienate established audiences. Even small deviations from set forms can cause fans to turn their backs. Hardcore band Strife experienced this with its last record before their recent reunion, Angermeans. Strife’s influences from non-hardcore bands like Sepultura and Helmet were obviously showing. The backlash from the militant straight edge communities that Strife helped build through the 90s instantly disowned the band. Was Strife ever really that dissimilar from Sepultura and Helmet to begin with? I don’t think so. But I also haven’t been straight edge in almost a decade.

Do I fully get why artists overstay their welcome? No. But it’s an interesting trope that has arisen over the years. Especially recently there seems to be more and more stories of artists who try something different and fail. What we keep forgetting is that failure isn’t a bad thing. It just means you put yourself out there and tried. Not everyone will like everything a hundred per cent of the time. But at least you tried.

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Pop Culture and the OASIS

I recently finished reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. And yes, this essay will have some spoilers. It’s not a review, nor do I really spoil all that much. There are certain scenes I need to reference in order for my argument to make sense. But there’s actually a lot going on in this book that I won’t be touching on and even if you read this essay before you read the book it’s still definitely more than worth the read. So, I won’t be insulted, if you want to venture elsewhere for now because you want this book to be all surprise when you read it, I’ll more than understand.

For those of you still venturing forth without reading the book first, let me try to capture the basic premise of the book in a few sentences.

In the not so distant future, all energy resources are depleted. As such, the world’s economy is basically taken out behind the barn and shot. There’s no work, the world’s pretty disgusting, and people who live day to day are usually addicted to crystal meth and really horrible. But, most people have an escape in a video game software program called OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). In short, it’s a virtual reality where an entire simulated universe exists. Kids go to school in the OASIS, most people who have employment work in the OASIS, and accessing the OASIS is entirely free. The designer of the OASIS believed that technology should be accessible to everyone. On the day of the designer’s death, word spread about a game he set up in the OASIS universe where people plugged in can perform tasks to find keys that open gates; the first player to find all three keys and gates wins the designer’s fortune.

I’m not going to go into details about characters or conflicts or anything like that. What is interesting to note is that all of the main characters are adamant in completing the game themselves, by themselves. They even address the possibility of working together, but decide against it at every opportunity except for once.

Towards the end of the book, when the third gate is found, it requires three keys to open it. But each player can only hold one of each key. Which means a team of at least three has to open the last gate.

I’ll tell you why this interests me and helps bring up a point I’ve been thinking about.

A lot of this book rests on two things: gamer stereotypes and pop culture references. All the tasks and challenges the characters face in this book are direct references from pop culture from the late 70s to the early 90s. Because a vast knowledge of pop culture from this era is needed to complete the game and potentially win the prize, the characters in this book study and memorize pop culture, resulting in extreme fanfare of everything from John Hughes movies to Rush records to Atari games. The entire culture surrounding this not so distant future world is entirely dependent on this game designer’s favourite games, books, movies, and music.

The protagonists in the book each represent archetypes of gamer stereotypes: they each have their unique back stories and social problems, but they are all introverted, shy, insecure, and despise the world around them. And that’s the whole reason why they plug in to the OASIS. It’s why they’re all so obsessed with finishing this game and knowing all of this pop culture trivia: it’s all they have that’s worth living for.

Frankly, this has been my own experience with pop culture as well. Especially growing up. In wasn’t athletic, I wasn’t good at school, friends were few and far between: in short, I was the weird kid. I fit the stereotype perfect. I hated school, I hated everyone I went to school with, I purposely made myself sick just to avoid leaving my house for another day. I remember there being entire summer vacations when I didn’t leave my house unless it was to go to Blockbuster and rent another video game or another movie.

If it wasn’t for Playstation, Star Wars, and Iron Maiden, I don’t know how I would have turned out. Each school day was survival, knowing that at 3:30, I got to go home and read comic books, play guitar, and, most importantly, be by myself. I couldn’t stand people, especially people in my own age group. I tried to make friends, but it was like I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Most of the kids in my neighbourhood just wanted to play sports all of the time. I knew nothing about sports. I watched hockey occasionally, but that was the extent of my sports knowledge. Even then I had no idea was icing or offside was until I was in my 20s. My brain had no room for that. I had to memorize the maps in Quake and Greedo’s lines in Mos Eisley (before this fills my comments section, yes, I know, Han shot first).

Something happened as I got older. I started actually finding kids my own age into the things I liked. I remember who I sort of consider my first friend. He kept his love for Star Wars under the radar in hopes that the other kids wouldn’t find out. He found out I liked Star Wars and introduced me to a card game taking place in the franchise. He started showing me other card games too like Magic: The Gathering, Battletech, and Marvel Overpower. Soon, we found a few other kids into the same games. I had basically the same group of friends throughout the latter half of elementary, junior high, and a bit of high school. We all wound up interested in other things by the time high school ended and I don’t remember the last time I talked with any of them. But, when I look at my group of close friends now I realize that we connected on the same things that my friends from school and I did as well.

And that’s why there needing to be three keys to open the third gate is so important. What that says is that being into the pop culture is great and all, but what really matters is the people you connect with based on your love of pop culture. The connection might start with just being into the same movies. Suddenly, you’re showing each other different books you both like. You start trading CDs and going to shows together. If you’re the creative type, you might even start working on projects together. And this isn’t even something that happens when you’re young. A week after I started dating my girlfriend, I posted an article on here that talked about how “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel was one of my favourite songs. I shared the article on my Facebook page and she commented on it saying that Say Anything is one of her favourite movies ever. I`ll get her to watch Star Wars soon enough.

Throughout Ready Player One, the designer of the OASIS, James Donovan Halliday, becomes one of the most prominent characters in the book. He`s never actually present or even alive in the book, but the entire design of the OASIS and all the challenges in the game give a full picture as to who this man was and why pop culture as so important to him. But, most of all, he didn`t just design the game to see who would get his fortune. He wanted to share all of his favourite games, movies, and music one last time. Because the world sucks and escaping is great; but, it’s always better to have a great group of friends to escape with.