Daily Archives: July 24, 2010

Saturday Night Video: New York Underground


Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs “Maps”

New York, if it hasn’t always been the home of alternative music, seems always to have been home base — the place you’ve got to get to if you want to score.  Los Angeles has reliably turned out commercially viable music for decades.  But New York has just as reliably been the proving ground for the artistically adventurous but commercially tenuous: from the Velvet Underground to Patti Smith to Talking Heads to The Strokes and the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs.  And, oh yes, a tatty little punk band from Queens — the borderline-unlistenable Ramones — famously began their tour of Britain on July 4th, 1976 and ignited the culture-shifting punk movement there: almost as though the American Revolution had returned to its roots and left in its wake an entire subculture.

What has always defined the New York underground is the notoriously indefinable attribute of cool, an elusive combination of something and something-or-other.  It is tough and street smart, but has a surprisingly nostalgic streak manifested by poignant tunes with inviting sing-a-long choruses (see, for example, Karen O in the video above, apparently swallowing her grief throughout before spontaneously releasing one lone tear late in the song).  How?  Why?  It’s evidently life in the big city — you take it as it comes, but invariably take it home with you.  The key to it is irony, which, as Frye says, is the point at which we rather unexpectedly return to myth.

It would have made sense to present these songs in chronological order, but in this case it seemed more appropriate to begin in the present and move back to origins, if only to remind ourselves just how clever and variable and consistent the New York underground has always been.

If I may plug just one of these videos, it is Talking Heads’ “And She Was.”  As art school nerds, Talking Heads were as much interested in the visual as the musical, so their videos are always superior.  This particular video is 25 years old, but you’d never know that to see it.  It perfectly captures the whimsy of a song about a suburban housewife who possesses an unexplained ability to fly.

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Frye Alert


John Geddes in yesterday’s online edition of Maclean’s reviews a list of some of the best political books to come out of Canada, and then, out of left field, adds a book he thinks is missing:

Still, casting an eye over their catalogue, I’m reminded of how often the most penetrating political insights are found in books that we would not put on the politics shelf. I’m sure examples would spring to any reader’s mind. For me, Northrop Frye’s slim The Modern Century, published in 1967 to coincide with Canada’s centennial, is the prime case of a book that made me think differently about politics, even though it’s not about parties or elections or leaders.

Frye writes about how hard it is—given our age’s incessant soundtrack of commercial and political spin, ad copy, PR hype  and on-message blather—to keep from being bludgeoned into a passive stupor. Resisting everything in the air makes a person feel anti-social. “When propaganda cuts off all other sources of information,” he observes, “rejecting it, for a concerned and responsible citizen, would not only isolate him from his social world, but isolate him so completely as to destroy his self-respect.”

Thinking too much is stigmatized as snobbery. Let’s say you read up on global warming and conclude that a carbon tax is the way to go; The Modern Century prepares you to be dismissed as an out-of-touch elitist. “Democracy is a mixture of majority rule and minority right,” says Frye, “and the minority which most clearly has a right is the minority of those who try to resist a passive response, and thereby risk the resentment of those who regard them as trying to be undemocratically superior.”

A truly active, original response is almost always attacked. On the other hand, a phony sense of urgency is encouraged. We’re bombarded with messages pretending to be important, like so many emails flagged with red exclamation marks.

Linda Hutcheon, “Oh, the Humanities”


Linda Hutcheon’s post “Oh, the Humanities” at The Mark here.

Money quote:

The reason given for one of these cuts – that Comparative Literature has been so successful that every department now does that same theoretical and comparative work, and thus the centre is no longer needed – echoes, or perhaps parodies, Yale comparatist Haun Saussy’s famous lament about the institutional weakness and yet the great intellectual strength of comparative studies in Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, the 2004 report of the American Comparative Literature Association. But the negative implications of one of Saussy’s sobering conclusions are worth considering: “We may all be comparatists now – and for good reason – but only with a low common denominator.” In intellectual terms, this is hardly something to be proud of supporting.

Jacques Cartier


On this date in 1534 Jacques Cartier planted a cross on the Gaspe Peninsula and declared it for Francis 1 of France.

Frye in “Levels of Cultural Identity”:

Even careless populizers are more hesitant to write such sentences as “Jacques Cartier was the first man to set foot on Canadian soil,” which were fairly recent usage not long ago.  Even when the word “white” was inserted, the implication “first genuine human being” was often there. (The Eternal Act of Creation, 179)