Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fatale Attraction: Oh, the new Britney!

Summer found its jamz early this year. Always a tricky proposition – the summer dance record. Of all the figures on the horizon, I find great surprise in offering that Britney Spears may have beaten any followers to the punch. Spears has turned in a new album brimming with contemporary dance floor marvels that sound more aimed at the shores of Ibiza than her older demographic, currently reigned by Nicki Minaj. Femme Fatale is a near flawless collection of pop-dance songs, with blinding production and a crafty redirect of Spears’ dubious public image. The new Britney’s as polished as ever, but it’s clear that in her newfound frankness there’s but one thing on her “dirty mind”: sex. Fucking, burning, hit me one more time, baby, turn me “inside out.” And for what feels like the first time, it’s all forefront. No nuance. No shame. Listen to the album’s most impressive moment, the Bloodyshy and Avant produced “How I Roll,” as Spears purrs most casually “I could be your fuck tonight.” It’s a lyric that really makes you track back in your iTunes to make sure you heard right. In part because she’s so matter of fact about the statement. Amidst the whirring digital blips and blops of the song this sex sounds excitingly banal. Where most pop starlets would deliver such a lyric like wasn’t-that-very-bold-of-me? Spears attitude echoes the overall agenda of the album. Which has all the fun in the world, arranging a litany of sex scenarios and drunken encounters, with no error found in such behavior but – more importantly – no real zeal in it, either. It’s, like, just good sex. Ya know? There’s no crazy Rihanna sex as metaphor / isn’t sex a mindfuck songs. Spears’ sex sounds so wonderfully pragmatic, terse in the way that only a truly great pop albums can achieve.

To me, the contemporary benchmark is still Kylie Minogue’s Fever album. Whether it was club thumper (“In Your Eyes”), trance number (“Love Affair”) or ballad-esque (“Fragile”), all the Fever songs were processed with the same tin-y tone, as though the album came out fully articulated, crafted like resin. A friend once described the sound favorably like thanksgiving cranberry sauce that, once served, still shows the ridges of its can. As the video for her smash hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” suggests, the Fever sound was post-disco pop that came from a fictional, futuristic city of filled with dancing hot robots. What’s more it was a modest album, concise. It doesn’t attempt at epic proportions, but maintains a consistency, a genericness, even. Like the CG city in what was likely Minogue’s most expensive video, it all seems a little cheap, but “cheap” like the Euro pop idiom from which the album emerged. Pitchfork Music tried to be all highfalutin when it came out and reviewed it as a new brand of adult pop music, some kind of lite contemporary fodder. Which is bull because that album was the same brand of euro dance music presented every year at Eurovision but, unlike most of those bombastic eye-rollers, these tunes showed commendable restraint or rigor. It’s generic sound was a finely tuned tone. As is the case with Femme Fatale, Fever came on the back of a startlingly successful comeback album, Light Years, in which Kylie shimmied back into the hearts of the British public in skimpy hot pants. That record was camp disco. Recorded and released over a year on the back of those pants, Fever was the expediently honed result of a finely-tuned market product and creative team.

The team behind Britney’s current endeavor is nothing new either. Longstanding heavyweight Max Martin (who fashioned Brit’s first hit, “…Baby One More Time” and recently breathed thrilling trills into Robyn’s “Time Machine”), “Toxic” hitwriters Bloodshy and Avant (who’ve worked with Spears since 2003) and relative newcomer Dr. Luke – who appeared on Spears’ prior album Circus. The only brand-new producer strikes out, the disappointingly ubiquitous will.i.am, whose “Big Fat Bass” continues his malodorous brand, which casts the artist as without a subject space, instead as a mechanical “MegaNigga.”

Like any convention, pop has its systems of logic and structural principles. It can be tricky to work within the idiom, since originality must also conform to certain formulae in order to produce a pleasurable listen for the consumer. What’s delightful about Femme Fatale is how it unpretentiously ropes in underground musical styles and theatrical arena pop to blend perfectly with its lyrics. Those lyrics which have evolved from the youthful follies of teen Britney, given the greater allowance for sexual explicitness from mainstream artists like Ke$ha and Rihanna, so that Britney now brings to the fore what was always subtextual in her music.

Femme Fatale pack inevery relevant variety of dance music available, every de riguer sound. All of the effects and innovations that you’ve heard for months, all funneled into one taut pop gem. Bless Gaga for making the typically Euro-phobic American audiences fine with the trashier depths of this sound. And bless Spears for removing Gaga’s pretense. The most surprising ground broken here is the use of Dubstep, a South London underground club music style brought to the mainstream by La Roux and currently popping up in the sounds of Rihanna and Ke$ha. This grimey DIY genre gives an impressive edge to Spears – the round depths of dubstep’s warbling bass and the emphasis on churning treble seems to flesh out the sultry lyrics. Which is not to say that it’s a dubstep album. No, these producers spear the appealing elements of dubstep and set them loose on otherwise catchy pop tunes. With all of these genres floating about, it’s a testament to those producers that Femme Fatale is startlingly consistent from start to finish. It’s a seamless album that marvels at its own mass produced dexterity. My boyfriend frowned in disappointment when he saw the cover, a really stylized headshot of Britney with her blond hair spilling all over the place. “Safe” was the word he used to dismiss the image, but that’s the rule of the game, the whole reason in the Spears product. Now she can inflect her glossy tunes with hoodwinks as an imperfect diva, but the vehicle must show no signs of breaking, is so obviously beyond “her” at this point.

First breath of the album was breathed in a weighty teaser campaign that featured fourteen 10 second youtube clips for Britney’s lead single, “Hold It Against Me,” a song that bears so many entendres that it nearly spirals out of control, in a reverse movement from the Comet Britney that crashes to earth in its kitchen sink promo video. Of course, the song is a smart appeal to an audience that might have grown weary of this popstar’s pop music in the wake of her VERY public breakdown and marital woes. She peers into the camera, planefaced, imploring her lingering fanbase, “Would you hold it against me?” as clips from her past videos play on a Matrix-y column of Sony monitors. All the Britneys that have come before writhe and remind of more idyllic, devoted Britney. But that thought slips away like a lace nightie once she admits that, “you feel like paradise and I need a vacation tonight.” Brit’s obviously got more carnal thoughts in mind, “so if I said I want your body now, would you hold it against me?” Of course, a dirtier mind could also take a hint from the album’s erogenous tone and question to what she is actually referring with the song’s titular “it.”

The video features 6 outfits and basically there’s an edit on every beat of this high-octane number. There’s a Britney that models her product placement brands in a gesture just as forefront about the consumer demands of a popstar as she is about her sexual rapaciousness. The video serves as a frank cross-promotional ad for her perfume, a cosmetics line and Sony monitors. Then she’s in a two story tall white dress, suggestively spewing neon paint from the tips of her paint-gloves. The dubstep breakdown before the surging final chorus is a moment of rupture in the song’s pulsations. Top loading the tune with remarkably gratifying dance clichés, this breakdown is not merely kitchen sink, it showcases an adept use of style and timing. In the video Britney battles with her inner demons, literally sparring in stilettos with her double. The final chorus delivers pure Brit, a concert video-esque straight-forward powerdance with a crew of ripped black-leather-clad male dancers. Smoke cannons shoot plumes skyward and confetti rains down as Britney works her body triple time in muscularly choreographed undulations.

The second single, “Till The World Ends,” which opens the album, is perhaps a tad more predictable. Ravey with a wordless chant chorus, Brit promises to “get you off with a touch dancing in the dark” and to “blow your mind tonight.” More dubstep bass lines bring thrill to the table in a song strictly about “dancing” (till the world ends, of course). The delicious “Inside Out” is about being unable to break up with your boyfriend because you keep having really good break up sex every time you meet to break it off. “Let’s just give it up and get down. Won’t you give me something to remember? Baby shut your mouth and turn me inside out.” It’s a loose, low-tempo song, obviously penned for Brit, since it features references to two of her earlier hits “Crazy” and “…Baby One More Time.” “I Wanna Go” brings the pulse back up with a buoyant chorus that confesses “I wanna go all the way taking out my freak tonight. I wanna show all the dirt I’ve got running through my mind.” While “How I Roll” features the signature barrage of varied sounds that Bloodshy and Avant pour into their productions. Champagne corks pop and an auto-tune duets with Britney’s tequila (on the rocks!) induced trip “downtown, where my posse’s at. Coz I got nine lives like a kitty cat.” It’s a youthful, breezy song that glitters perhaps more brightly than any other moment on the album.

The dubstep continues on “(Drop Dead) Beautiful,” produced by Benny Blanco and Ammo whose obligatory female rap vocal (provided by Sabi) has a welcomed 90s tinge to it. Like Monie Love’s rap on Whitney Houston’s “My Name Is Not Susan,” it kinda feels more like a box being checked than necessary, thought it doesn’t detract, none. It gives Britney a personality to play off of as the two chuckle and cat call men, “your body looks so sick I think I caught the flu.” "Trip To Your Heart" is a smartly produced album track by Bloodshy and Avant that echoes their song for Kylie Minogue from the X album, “Speakerphone” in its listing of bodyparts (eyes, arms, lips, tongue). Though Britney never names the sex parts obviously on her mind here, the constant tease is fun. The low-fi sound of “Gasoline” is a nice diversion (her heart “only runs on supreme”), though the album ends on a slightly off note. The low-tempo “Criminal” is something of a grower. I’ve taken to the tune, and there’s an obviousness star textual element to the track in which Brit appeals, “Mama, I’m in love with a criminal but this kind of love isn’t rational, it’s physical.”

It’s SUCH an easy listen and a delight. Femme Fatale never shoots for epic stature and because of it Brit’s produced one of her most accomplished records to date. iTunes informs me that I’ve sped through the rounds nearly 40 times now, and I’m sure there’s tons more where that came from. Beach time jams and soundtracks for my tequila on the rocks. This is the most manufactured and professional type of ribaldry I can think of. Can you hold it against me?

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Madame X - An Absolute Ruler

Notes for Madame X – An Absolute Ruler Screened March 30, 2011 at Dirty Looks

We heard you’re going to Madame X. What are your reasons?

The wrinkles and creases on our faces are the registration of the great passions, vices, incites that called on us but we, the masters, were not home…

No, that’s not it.

I’m tired of the harsh light of success that rewards me with the revelation of my own mediocrity. I wish to escape from a crystallized identity, from the responsibilities of a canny maturity, which tells me to make the right moves at the right time. I wish to escape from the imperative of the next logical step in the upward mobilization of my talent and material expectations. All this in the name of a historical process that proliferates its refinements as some kind of inevitable social artistic progress. I am tired of the cycle of work, recognition, and more work imposed on me in the name of this progress. Perhaps you will say, “She has lost faith in her creative impulse.” Yes, of course that follows, for does not the product of this impulse also reflect a misguided faith in artistic progress to say nothing of the opposite side of that progressive currency – a despairing sentimentality and sense of loss. Read paragraph bottom in Sentimental Education:

“Having helped certain contemporary masters at the outset of their careers, the picture dealer, as a man who believed in progress, had tried to increase his profits while at the same time maintaining his artistic pretentions. His aim was the emancipation of the arts, the sublime at a popular price. All the Paris luxury trades came under his influence which was good in small matters but baneful when larger issues were involved. With his passion for pandering to the public, he led able artists astray, corrupted the strong, exhausted the weak and bestowed fame on the second-rate controlling their destinies by means of his connections and his magazine.”

Aaa… why kick a dead horse?

Let me go on: I can no longer accept public recognition for work that has been produced in the utmost desperation. And finally, I wish to escape from the oppression of a love that in itself has served as a distraction from the vicissitudes and discipline required of creative work. I have tried to immerse myself in erotic passion as a substitute for creative disillusionment. I had become bored and empty. I looked to passion. I LOOKED TO PASSION TO FILL ME UP AGAIN. And this time I felt a kind of recklessness. I didn’t want to think about the outcome or that my ardor might have painful consequences for all three of us. So I am fleeing from all this. From the obligations of a profession that no longer interests me, from a passion that could not consume me, and from my own emptiness. I don’t care where the ship goes. Satisfied?
-Josephine de Collage played by Yvonne Rainer

Ulrike Ottinger’s films are thrilling. Madcap and absurdist, they compile bizarre costumery, corny sound effects, oblique narratives and vaduvillian acting styles to create strange worlds of sexual intrigue. Surrealist histrionics might seem a peculiar platform for second-wave feminism. The crew aboard Chinese Orlando strikes a defiant tone, but the arbitrariness or impulsive nature of Madame X’s narrative progression can appear at odds with the earnest reasoning that characterizes the second-wave for most. In this sprawling feature, in which performances explode and quell and scenes seem scripted on the fly, where are the staunchly organized arguments and political tracts evinced in other feminist plights of the era?

In an issue of Afterall dedicated to Ottinger, Hildegund Amanshauser observes how Ottinger’s films “resist linear readings” instead “interweav[ing] multiple layers of meaning.” Instead of causal storytelling – the narrative tactic of dominant cinemas – Ottinger’s movies exist on a plane where meanings intersect, where cultural rituals, social conventions, and even time itself spills from one climate, one gender onto another in an echolalic narrative zone. Characters die and then reemerge in the following scene, sets shrink before their obvious, real-life settings, outfits steal entire scenes. This fluidity of meaning and anti-hierarchal structuring is Ottinger’s most exciting political tool. Dashing normative expectations for a straight-forward story arc, Madame X is a playful remedy to hegemony. And it’s all the more thrilling that Ottinger employs humor to engage her politic.

Cause it’s funny; Madame X is absurd. And that’s intentional. It’s something that gets lost in the translation to Ottinger’s obvious heir, Matthew Barney, where the patriarchal value systems that Ottinger so fiercely opposes, come flooding back with a vengeance. There’s a incredulous joy to be had when watching the star-headed Omega Zentauri performing a ritual dance in her silver wings and whirligig hat, as the crew prepare to slaughter a troupe of bourgeois boaters who have invited Madame X onboard for a bemusing sideshow. Zentauri bobs up and down, flapping her silver wings at the self-serious member of the leisure cruise, who turns his back on her in fatigue. Of course, the joke is on them and Madame X partakes in a murderous plundering of their luxurious means, retribution for their haughty insolence.

Madame X creates a new kind of sadistic dictatorship aboard the Chinese Orlando. She is the erotic enforcer, an architectural menace. An embrace could lead to sexual jouissance or dismemberment depending upon her animalistic mood. Such are the ways of power structures, Ottinger intones. But this new matriarchy is designed to ring beyond the bows of her ship. As Karsten Witte writes, “This film shows not a trace of fearfulness. On the contrary, it is calculated to evoke fear in those who put up resistance against the fascination of this ritualized and totally aestheticized power.” Like each of these women who respond to Madame X’s printed proclamation, it’s easy to become swept up in these thrilling exploits. The impulsive behavior of actors, script and scene frees up the film, creating a cinematic space no longer ruled by normative structuring principles. The film itself becomes a vibrant throes to become lost in. It dashes most formal devices employed by narrative feature filmmaking – including, in large portions, sync sound. Without a masterful understanding of structure, the viewer becomes lost in the film’s rhythmic unfolding of scenes, as if riding the waves that crash against Chinese Orlando.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rejuvinating Aesceticism

okay, so SO much has happened in the last week that I have paid about as much attention to this blog as that family in Oklahoma did to their kids. The past week was The Armory Show week in New York, with its proliferation of off-shoot art fairs, so my ass hustled a week-long blog for TheFanzine.com. After that, I was understandably exhausted. I made a lot of friends but the last thing I wanted to do come Monday morn' was talk to folks, and so I engaged in the kind of recharging that always helps to get me back on my feet. I watched five movies. Mostly from bed.

1. It Came from Kuchar. Still high off of (amongst other things) the Volta exhibition of George Kuchar's photographs - the booth bestowed with the Golden Fag award (aka best in show) by Art Fag City - I settled into Jennifer Kroot's 2009 documentary about the fabulous brothers, George and Mike, who made loving 8mm approximations of the Hollywood pictures they encountered growing up in the Bronx. It's a very well assembled documentary that even plays up the brothers' propensity for repeating themselves; one scene intercuts between a singular story recounted nearly verbatim by either brother. It's a situation mirrored by my recent attendance at a panel discussion between George and curator Ed Halter. George told many of the stories contained in the film, with less reserve. But, at the end of the day, the film is great to just watch George work with his students at SFAI as they toil on their yearly creature feature.

2. Did You Hear About the Morgans? Industrial filmmaking at its most dire. Lazy, thoughtless and chemistry-free, Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker play off their hum-drum star texts (cheating Brit and Uptown power Jewess, respectively) to produce little fizzle in this clunker. Then fairytale ending, which combines pregnancy, a thus redundant adopted Chinese baby and a palatial Central Park West apartment spins a fantasy narrative while sickening, far more honest and original than any of the preceding hour and twenty minutes.

3. The Manitou THRILL OF THE NIGHT. I can't help but recount the premise of this true delight to everyone I've wandered across since my viewing. A woman discovers that the cyst on her neck is actually a fetus that contains the reincarnation of a Native American medicine man! AMAZING. And there to make it more amazing is Tony Curtis! Circe 1978 Tony Curtis playing a cassa nova. MORE AMAZING. The ending must truly be seen to be believed when, after the medicine man is born, rational white man magic is used to defeat the midget witch doctor when channeled through the palms of its topless... mother?

4. Red Sonja What's there to say?

5. Disclosure I have to say, Disclosure is a really disturbing film. From it sputters the death rattle of popular feminism. When Demi Moore's disarming leads to a final victorious ain't-life-grand close-up of Michael Douglas, as his white face beams privilege from his corporate office, and this is the projected "happy ending," with accompanying revelry music, I was more than unsettled. But by then it was 2:30 and I just slumped off to bed.