The 10 Greatest Slackers in Movie History

What, exactly, is a slacker? Your dad would probably be a good source for such a definition. How about your teachers, or your college professors? Maybe your boss or your wife could come up with a decent ID. Then there’re your friends, associates, buddies and other partners in passivity. By their very nature, slackers are sensitive to being mislabeled. Just because you work 70 hours a week and can’t find time to fire up a fat one doesn’t mean the purposefully prone should be citied for their seemingly endless ability to do so. In fact, when measured against the rallying rat race of this or any other future shock society, the slacker is our cup of good cheer. He or she is wish fulfillment in a Taco Bell shaped body. 

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How Kids Learn to Love Capitalism

Capitalism, according to the Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, is "An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market."

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Young and Restless in China

"I never thought there was such a big world out there," says Wei Zhanyan as she walks to work in a factory. A migrant worker sent to work at 13 in order that her brother could continue his studies, Zhanyan is proud of making 40 cents an hour and glad to feel independent of her family, who remain in the village where she was born. Offering a brief tour of her one-room apartment and reveling in her freedom to read a book or watch television after work, she pauses, briefly, to wonder about what might have been. "I always wondered how other parents could support their children's education, but not mine," she says. Taking off her glasses to dab at her eyes, Zhanyan apologizes to her interviewer, then readjusts. "I shouldn't have said that," she says. "It sounds like I am blaming my parents for not living up to their responsibilities. But that's past."

It is and it isn't. For even as Zhanyan lives her present life in the city she is also tied to her past. This much is made clear when she learns, just a few minutes into Sue Williams' Young & Restless in China, that her father has arranged for her marriage through a matchmaker. And so, Zhanyan announces, "I got engaged, just like that." Still, she muses, "I like to be free and independent." And so she faces a dilemma, caught between old and new.

In this, Zhanyan is much like the other eight interview subjects in Young & Restless, which airs on 17 June on PBS' Frontline. From 2004 to 2007, Williams' crew followed them, observing their professional and personal turns. The film's wide-ranging and mostly superficial structure -- cutting quickly between participants, narrating cursorily to set contexts, and offering brief "confessional" comments by each subject -- recalls alternately the Michael Apted's Up series and The Real World, a mix of pop cultural reportage and current events documentation.

Construction in preparation for the Beijing Olympics provides a recurrent image -- workers in hard hats, bulldozers, and scaffolding -- reminding you that the nation is looking forward to a "global coming out party" even as citizens struggle with day to day details. Workaholic Ben Wu has returned to Beijing after a decade in the States, with a plan to open a string of internet cafés, modeled on Starbucks, but bigger and glossier. As he leads the camera crew through the first opening, Britney Spears' Toxic wafts in the background, blue lights throbbing and stylish spaces less than crowded. The cash flow is good, he says, and his investors are happy. And yet, Wu reflects later, his wife is working on her accounting degree in the U.S., which means he's feeling lonely for much of the year. "I should just get on a flight and go to New York and be with my wife just for a weekend," he says. "My café is not gonna go bankrupt over the weekend, so why don't I do it? I can't answer that question."

Similarly dedicated to her career, public interest lawyer Zhang Jingjing sees her social and political formation initiated by the crackdown on student activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As preparations for the Olympics pick up speed in 2005, the government forcing "one and a half million residents" from their homes or erecting non-approved electric lines around their neighborhoods, Jingjing sues the state on behalf of affected citizens. Though she insists the case is not "opposed" to the government per se, she does want to ensure that the law is followed during the rush to get ready for the Games. "We targeted an illegitimate licensing procedure," she says, "We sued because we believe that people come first." Her commitment to the cause takes tolls on her own life, as she admits a year later, when her fiancé breaks off with her. She knows it's because she doesn't put him "first," but she's torn, too, and not a little hurt that he finds solace with another woman who "flattered him."

Hospital resident Xu Weimin also feels formed by Tiananmen, "the June fourth incident," and he too is frustrated by the lack of long-term effects on policy. Nearly 70% of Chinese have no medical insurance, narrator Ming Wen notes. The film shows Xu Weimin making his way through literal crowds of people waiting outside the hospital, seeking medical attention, mostly unable to afford it. As he succeeds, he must also consider those left behind, like his own parents, no longer insured, his daily existence reflecting the film's central focus on the split in today's China between "idealism and materialism." As opportunities increase -- one participant declares the new imperative to "Get rich as fast as you can and have a good life" -- large swaths of the population remain in limbo or fall behind.

Rapper Wang Xiaolei (MC Sir) has creative as well economic ambitions. "People look down on you if you don't make money," he says, as he explains his identification with black U.S. hip-hop artists. The walls in his bedroom (he lives with his grandfather; his parents are divorced) feature posters of KRS-One, while the stories he tells through his music are specific to his own experience, including his relationships and, as the film puts it, "ancient Chinese myth." Energetic and surrounded by fellow artists, Wang Xiaolei makes money as a DJ, but has plans to start an independent label and produce records.

His family problems loom large on Wang Xiaolei's landscape of frustration, but they're put in another perspective by the story of Yang Haiyan, a housewife whose mother was "trafficked" 18 years ago. Determined to find her mother and "bring her home," Haiyan and her husband finally track her down. The camera follows them to the village where she embraces her mother and listens to the details of her kidnapping and trauma. Now living with a man, "cooking and cleaning and sleeping with him," Haiyan's mother wants to return with her daughter but is also conflicted, feeling obligated to care for a new baby and, having lived so long feeling dread and shame over her situation, afraid to go back.

Such is the recurring rhythm of Young & Restless, found in tensions between yearning and restriction, hope and acquiescence. Even as Wei Zhanyan finds it in herself to reject the marriage her father has arranged, insisting on her independence, other subjects living in much finer surroundings, worry over money and obligations. The film reveals so many similarities -- in ambition, possibility, and material interest -- between China and the West. But the prevailing resemblance remains the tension between capitalism's promises and realities.

PopMatters, the #1 independent online arts and culture magazine, is international in scope and dedicated to documenting our times and promoting cultural understanding. Find more PopMatters content at www.popmatters.com.

The Unassuming Icon

It's 1955, and men in fedoras and overcoats patronize Times Square magazine stores, scoping the racks for titles like Titter and Wink, Escapade and Flirt. They peer sideways at one another, not quite acknowledging a common desire and sense of guilt (which only enhances the titillation).

"Do you have anything a little… different?", a narrow-eyed customer asks the clerk. "Anything with… unusual footwear?" When the inevitable raid begins, the men scatter into the night, heads down and clutching their coats around them.

This is the scene at the start of The Notorious Bettie Page, Mary Harron's smart new movie that is not, despite its title, quite about Bettie Page. Though Bettie (in a terrific performance by Gretchen Mol) appears in nearly every scene, the movie is more about the many forces that made her "notorious," the moral hypocrisies and sexual repressions that shaped the '50s and persist today.

That's not to say the film doesn't walk you through some biopic-ish steps. Bettie grew up in Tennessee, married a serviceman, moved to NYC where she met photographer Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his sister Paula (Lili Taylor). But these particulars don't string together in cause-and-effect relationships; instead, they establish contexts for Bettie's popularity, scandal, and eventual turn to Jesus when she left the "special interest" industry.

A glimpse of the Senate committee hearings on what chairman Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn) calls "the effect of pornographic material on adolescents and juveniles" cuts to pinup queen Bettie, with white gloves and pert collar, waiting outside the chambers for her turn to testify. She's nervous, potentially the government's Exhibit A in its case against the scourge of porn (the actual case involves an adolescent boy who has appeared to hang himself, either in emulation of an s/m scene, or in despair inspired by his interest in smut).

From here the movie cuts again, to Bettie's childhood flashback: girls posing for photos for a boy their age, hiking up their skirts and laughing under the caption, "Nashville 1936." Even as a reverend's voice intones, "Come all you sinners and be not proud," Bettie hears her father's voice, calling the kids back to the house to "do your chores." It turns out that young Bettie is to "come on up" the ominous stairway, lurking in the background of the shot: her face goes pale in close-up and dad clunks up the steps behind her.

The rest of The Notorious Bettie Page complicates and contextualizes the themes laid out in these first three scenes. Bettie grows up in a culture that presents itself as pious, adult, and responsible to its precious children, but which actually exploits, abuses, and menaces those same innocents.

Which is not to say she appears here as a victim. Bettie is more a product of conflicting expectations and ideals. On one hand, she's the perfect, unthreatening pinup, glancing back over her shoulder with a big smile, welcoming the most insecure of viewers to imagine that she wants him. She's also a popular fetish model, spike-heeled and corseted, bound and gagged, exposing herself and posing oh-so-outrageously with fellow model Maxie (excellent Cara Seymour). Bettie embodied both and all, having "fun" in front of the camera, claiming innocence concerning any uses consumers might have for her image.

Of course, not all of her experiences are copacetic: during an early solo foray into city streets, she's approached by a sweet-seeming boy who asks her to go "dancin'" with another couple. She ends up in the middle of nowhere, where she's threatened with gang-rape. Telling the slick-haired boys, "It's that time of the month," she enrages a fellow who was looking forward to "getting some tail." She's forced to give them "some kinda satisfaction" as the camera pulls out and up.

Following the off-screen attack, Bettie appears in classic '50s-movie framing, running from the woods into the camera, tearful and afraid. She pauses, gathers her sweater around her, and heads back into the city: the camera watches her walk away, a survivor of hick cruelty yet again.

That she doesn't press charges or otherwise right this wrong indicates, again, the era's restrictions on "girls." Bettie finds another way to make sense of her experience, riding a Greyhound bus to NYC, competing in beauty pageants, and at last, stumbling upon her calling. An off-duty cop with a camera, Jerry (Kevin Carroll), invites her to pose on the beach. A crowd gathers, then a uniformed cop, displeased that she's white and he's black. Jerry starts to apologize, but Bettie soothes him, "They're just prejudiced. I used to be but I grew up and got over it." (The girl's a saint.) Jerry smiles, grateful for her kindness, and when they regroup in his studio, he comes up with tricks for "better" photos, padding for her bikini top and a new haircut -- Bettie's signature bangs, to cut the shine on her "high round forehead."

Harron's movie juxtaposes Bettie's personal and performative virtuousness with the smarminess of other early photographers, a men's "club" who pay to snap pictures of barely clothed models. "I saw it! I saw beaver!" gasps one to another, and it's clear you're in the land of perpetual adolescents, thrilled like Beavis and Butt-head over the mere hint of genitalia.

"It takes all types to make a world," Paula tells Bettie, offering a kind of instruction on self-preservation while also teaching her to pose for cheesecake, wear vinyl, and wield whips. "What kind of types?" asks Bettie, ever the naif, and ever lovely for it. When the Klaws' friend and director/designer John Willie (Jared Harris) wonders what Jesus might think about Bettie's profession, she pauses to ponder, then says she's been given a gift to make people happy. As the film illustrates, this means forcing her smile upside down when a customer murmurs nervously, "I want the young lady to look very strict."

When federal investigation pressures come to bear on the Klaws' business, Bettie sets off on vacation in sunny Miami -- these sections of the mostly black-and-white film are shot in color, suggesting the pulsing, vibrant life of the place. Here she poses for Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), an erstwhile model who rejects the gear Bettie's brought along. "I believe the female form can stand on its own," she says -- and the perfect model has found her perfect photographer. "This girl has something special," Bunny notes in voiceover. "When she's nude, she doesn't look naked."

When one of their nude photos ends up on a Florida postcard, with yellow bikini added, Bettie feels like a star, and indeed, she's dubbed "The Pinup Queen of the Universe."

Certainly, not everyone loves her celebrity; her family worries that she's wasted her education (she wanted to go to college, and had the grades for it, but lost a local scholarship), and her boyfriend, actor Marvin (Jonathan Woodward) is shocked when he learns what's she's been doing for money (they met in an acting class, where he proclaims, "Acting is about truth"). But his stuffy response is set against a fan's question: "Does it make you sick to see guys like me grovel?" She smiles -- of course not -- because she's unphased by perverse devotions or Marvin's stern judgments. "Doctors write books about this sort of thing," he grumbles. "Do you understand what kinds of men buy these photographs?"

For Bettie, it's "just silliness." The condemnation and the masturbation both emerge from a lack of imagination, a desire to contain and possess "the female form." As Bettie works with Paula and Bunny behind the camera, or poses with Maxie (who's planning her own transition from model to photographer), The Notorious Bettie Page finds in these relationships mutual support, giddy fun, and familial trust. Without conventional melodramatic biopic trappings, the movie doesn't pretend to decipher the real-life Bettie Page (to this day, she's still preaching the gospel).

Men can ogle and evaluate all they want. The film's Bettie is what they've made, but she eludes them.

An Inside Job

New York is everywhere in Spike Lee's sharp new genre-bending movie. Not just in the sweeping-through-the-streets or creeping-along-the-sidewalk shots, but also inside the Manhattan bank where the film is set, inside the minds of the cops trying to solve the heist, and inside the exit interviews they conduct in tight, white-lit shots. New York is outside and inside "Inside Man", but mostly, it's in the incisive focus, impetus, and consequences of the film.

Ostensibly a heist movie of the "Die Hard" sort, with colorfully ingenious villains who reveal surprising motives, Lee's film (scripted by first-timer Russell Gewirtz) works within and without conventions, juggling a number of balls both familiar and eccentric. The detectives on the case -- hostage negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner Mitch (Chiwetel Ejoifor) -- appear first at the station, oblivious to the robbery that you already know is in serious progress. You've seen the foursome in painters' uniforms and masks enter the bank -- located, the camera notes from an ominous low angle, at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway -- disable the surveillance cameras, and take all the customers, workers, and security guards hostage.

When the scene cuts to Keith, he's on the phone with his stunningly beautiful cop girlfriend, promising her an evening with "Big Willy and the twins." Not the role Washington usually plays, but Keith is clearly a man of his environment, seated across two desks from Mitch and crabbing about an Internal Affairs investigation into a missing $140,000.

And then comes the call. Mitch and Keith light up when they realize they've got a chance to prove themselves, to get out from under the clamor at HQ. The captain's other, favored team is somewhere else, and so, as Mitch exclaims, they're off to "the show."

The crime scene is already taped off, a mini-city populated by shooters and uniforms, hulking vans and vocal gawkers. But even as the outside scene recalls "Dog Day Afternoon" (which Keith cites by name); inside, the machinery is grinding along: the robbers dress the hostages like themselves, move them from room to room so they can't get to know one another, and dig up a wall in the storage room. While you and the cops wonder what they're up to, Keith has to make nice with turf-protecting Emergency Services Unit Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe), still mad at him for some case they worked years ago, but also anxious to get this one off quickly and successfully.

Keith's got bridges half-burned wherever he turns, which makes him intriguing, if cryptic. Among the bridge's he's going to be burning during this adventure is a relationship with bank board chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who shows up partway through the calamity to offer "support," whatever he can do. The robbers have asked for a jet, which the cops recognize as a ploy (no one ever gets a jet, not since Munich, and everyone's seen the movies that make this point), but which Arthur agrees to right away. The cops, huddled in the corner of their commander-trailer, exchange smirky looks and send him off, understanding he's powerful and rich beyond anyone's dreams, but has no clue how to how to talk with people or grocery shop.

And so Case sends a minion, a very well-dressed, perfectly coiffed, excruciatingly intelligent fixer, Madeline White (Jodie Foster), introduced as she's arranging for Bin Laden's nephew to purchase a condo (what's more, she puts him off, politely, as soon as she gets the call from Case, whom she's never met -- that's clout). "Miss White," as she's called repeatedly, gets exactly what she wants when she wants it, at least for a minute: she bribes Keith effectively, she plays Case, she knows how to reach the chief robber in charge, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). And yet, she can't quite solve this puzzle, which involves a special personal safe deposit box inside the bank (though the answer to this puzzle is "Inside Man's" least effective move, by far).

Miss White's presence highlights a couple of ideas that drive the film. One, that folks with money do pull the strings, but they don't know (or want to know) the details of the wreckage they leave behind. This would be the purview of Keith, as well as Dalton, who has his own sort of insight into how the system works. Matching wits with the cops, he admires Keith's pluck and ingenuity, but presumes he is smarter, as all villains do. He spends some time with a couple of the hostages (mostly to beat on them and impress them with his virtuosity: "Anyone else here smarter than me?"), in particular, a small boy who plays a handheld video game, "Kill Dat Nigga" (the visual and plot basics recall the game in "Clockers"). Clearly, the violence exhibited by the robbers has nothing on what kids see and imagine every day in the city. Dalton voices his concern: "I've got to talk to your father."

Amidst the plotting, the film flash-forwards to exit interviews with the hostages, with Mitch and Keith cracking jokes and pressing them to confess their collaborations. Appearing in tight shots, the grainy hi-def exacerbates the interviewees' complexities: their pocked faces and the too-shiny surfaces surrounding them.

If this interview-pressurizing also recalls "Clockers" (where one suspect appears in Harvey Keitel's glasses), "Inside Man" makes smart use of Lee's other signature techniques (the street overview, the bystanders with attitudes, the moving sidewalk -- all deployed brilliantly here).

Tense, showy, and shrewd, the movie is -- like everyone's been saying -- Lee's most generic (i.e., "accessible"), but that's not what makes it brainy or galvanizing. Indeed, its cleverest moments involve odd, telling details: the credits sequence use of "Chaiyya Chaiyya," the white-guy who recognizes but cannot translate Albanian language, and perhaps most energetically, the Sikh who resents being profiled as "Arab."

Thinking he's one of the robbers, the cops tackle him, take his turban, then refuse to return it to him. When Keith and Mitch pull him into the diner they're using for headquarters to question him, he finally has enough. Tired of being profiled at airports and eyed on the street, the young Sikh wonders, "What happened to my fucking civil rights?" Keith smiles a little. "Bet you can get a cab though." Competing traumas, leveling oppressions, comparable resiliences -- it's definitely New York.

Trash and Treasures

"Dear Daddy, Remember that bus ride to North Carolina we took together. I would go through that a million times over just to be with you. I guess that now I have an idea of how you may have felt when I stopped writing you when you went back to prison after we were together in Arizona. Tim, you are ripping my hopes and dreams away from me. You and Justin are the two men in this world I want to love and dedicate my life to. What happened? Are you in love with someone else now? Why have my letters been sent back to me? Do you not even want to read what I have to say? Please tell me why this is." [sic] -- Found on a BART train in the San Francisco Bay Area.
" to be with. Joe loves me and I love him with the love you showed me. That is the gift I got from you. Love never dies and never will lessen, subside or disappear. We will meet again one day in Heaven and will love each other like there was no pause. Thank you so much for the gifts that you have given me -- I thank you & God for the relationships I've been lucky enough to find because of you. I hope you are happy I feel that I finally am. I love you S. Monkey! [heart] Always, Katie" [sic] -- Found tied to a deflated balloon in rural western Wisconsin.
It is the rare person who has not, at one point or another, felt like garbage.

For certain, all of us have at one time lost something, be it as innocuous as a CD or as momentous as a lover. We know the feeling, the comprehension of it, the very state of being that is "lost" as surely as we recognize humor or sorrow. We distinguish it from being "misplaced" or "hidden," because when a thing is lost, there is a sense of finality and hopelessness to the affair. The thing -- be it ourselves, an object, or an idea -- is really and truly gone from us. Even when it is the realization that we're lost in unfamiliar territory, it is our grounding, our ability to navigate space, that is stripped from us, and the fear of the moment is our despair that we have lost that ability forever, that we will never find our way back to a place we know.

For the creators of Found magazine, it is precisely the combination of trash and the lost scraps of our lives that holds a magical fascination. It's a simple idea: In the eddies of garbage that swirl about our feet, lie fluttering in gutters, and wind up wedged into nooks and crannies of objects and architecture, tiny scraps of our lives are floating about the world, each with its own back-story, each capturing a flicker of time and leaving a footprint trace of our being.

At first explanation, Found seems far less poetic. The magazine itself is essentially little more than photocopied pages of trash literally taped down to a backing with notations providing a title and the location where the piece was discovered. There is little commentary, and if there is much art to the arrangements of the pieces on the page, it's a rough collage at best. What you're left looking at are images of parking tickets, notebook paper, stationery, envelopes, school tests, stray photographs, scratch paper, torn scraps and recycled wrappers.

More often than not, these bits and pieces are torn or burned or otherwise damaged. They've been retrieved from storm drains, gutters, parking lots, fences, abandoned books, fields, windshields, bus stops, and culverts. They are pictures of honest-to-goodness trash.

But it's in how the scraps were used -- or more directly, what's written on them -- that the magic occurs. Here the human will to language and communication gets warped and ripped from the pages of context and offered back up to us as inscrutable artifacts of everyday actions, desires, and fears. These bits of paper are home to love letters, diatribes, class notes, test evaluations, grocery lists, family photos, legal documents, letters to parents, letters from parents, warnings, threats, break-ups, hook-ups, apologies, entreaties, affirmations, and prayers. In short, all of this so-called trash, once blowing around out in the wild, is the distillate sum of modern life, as communicated in a few short lines of handwritten chicken scratch.

Found challenges the reader to treat these scraps as anthropology. We take a handful of words and their meanings and extrapolate outwards, trying to get a sense of the situation that produced them, the hand that wrote them down and the audience for whom they were originally intended. We are granted an anonymous and incomplete form of voyeurism. We are spies and detectives. Can handwriting analysis, sentence structure and grammatical construction reveal the age, the education, the demography of the writer? What can we determine about the lives of the subject, audience or author from a brief and incomplete scene? Is there meaning in the way that a photo is torn, or the words that are missing from that mutilated Post-It note? Can we intuit pages one, two and five from pages three and four of this letter? Can our lives be boiled down and reduced to such minute essences, or do we want to see the invisible author on the other side of time and space as far more complex and unknowable?

The experience of Found is disorienting, yet funny, sad, poignant, disturbing and heartbreaking. Because these scraps are without context or commentary, we suspend judgment along with disbelief. We accept these things -- and these mysterious characters -- as more than true, malleable yet inert. Poetry is garbage.

Despite having heard about Found a few times previously, I first truly encountered the magazine and its creators all in one fell swoop. Attending the Denver performance of the nationally touring "This American Life" stage show -- a live recording of the phenomenal NPR radio program hosted by Ira Glass -- I had no idea that I was about to discover Found. But by the end of the show, despite being dazzled by the entire experience and having my absolute faith in the brilliance of Glass reinforced, I knew that I was a Found fan for life.

The theme of the "This American Life" performance-episode was "Lost in America," and thus it made perfect sense for Glass to include occasional contributor Davy Rothbart, co-founder of Found (along with Jason Bitner), in the show. What could be more about "Lost in America" than the scraps of ordinary American lives scattered to the wind, only to be picked up and collected?

In the company of some excellent, polished readings by Sarah Vowell and Jonathan Goldstein, Rothbart's presence seemed anomalous. Standing on stage in T-shirt and shorts, rambling and laughing through a handful of anecdotes and "finds" read out loud, Rothbart's "dude"-ish drawl and conspiratorial chuckle gave him the laid-back air of a guy chilling at the bar after a day of skateboarding in the park. In the moment, his portion of the show seemed off-the-cuff and charmingly nervous, and it was hard not to feel like Rothbart himself was a bit lost and out of place.

But as he wound his way through his presentation, describing how Found emerged from an idea, to a leaflet-posting campaign and a P.O. box, and finally into a real magazine entity, it was hard not to come under the spell of Rothbart's love for the whole concept of Found. Each scrap of paper he held in his hands was an actual "find," sent to the magazine and published at one point or another in its brief career, and he treated each piece of litter as carefully as he might a small treasure. When he read the notes aloud in all their grammatical inaccuracy, his wide-eyed wonder at the sentiment and emotion conveyed in each line shone through his equally grinning good humor.

Laughing along, Rothbart let us in on the joke, only to spring on us that the real punch line was how much pathos could be read into something as amusing as a fuming note to a cheating lover left on the wrong car, or as tragic as a desperate note to a long-lost parent that might never have reached its target. And all this humanity in a piece of trash.

The origin story of Found is both simple and humorous, and readily available on the magazine's website, so I'll leave that tale to Rothbart and Bitner to convey directly. But since June of 2001, the Found team has been steadily increasing the public's awareness of litter, encouraging us to watch our feet for some slip of the written tongue, and growing a network of sympathetic finders and readers who want to share in this strange language of the hidden everyday.

Each of the many faces of Found offers something slightly different. The original magazine format of Found is, of course, the standard bearer of the operation. Released annually, it is in itself a minor challenge to the accepted notion of art and publishing, offering up an odd collection to a niche market of readers who are in the know, or who are attracted by curiosity to the seemingly random content within. It's as though the magazine itself is a shiny piece of foil in a field of general interest and specialty journals, attracting readers like birds.

Ancillary to the magazine, the Found website is a fantastic resource in its own right, collecting some of the best finds and scanning them in their original form for readers to endlessly peruse, offering both some insight into how and why Found works and the same voyeuristic emotions of the magazine. Isolated into individual pieces, the website views aren't as collective as the magazine layouts, but that singularity also offers a more direct interpretation.

More recently, the larger publishing world responded to the grassroots support for Found and collected some of the magazine's greatest hits alongside a huge assortment of previously unpublished finds in book form. "Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World" is an amazing collection, and a strangely affecting read, pulling you into the lives of strangers in a way that combines the experience of epistolary fiction, photo collections, and scrapbooking all at once. Not surprising to those who've read it, the book became a runaway success, further catapulting this pet project into the realm of serious endeavor.

And, of course, there's the most recent arm of the Found empire, the Dirty Found magazine series -- where all the finds deemed too naughty or pornographic or just plain naked for the main magazine wound up finally seeing the light of day. Brilliant in its own distinct way, and often shelved in bookstores amidst the likes of Playboy and Swank, Dirty Found represents a faded and de-glamorized challenge to the fantasy of sex publications, as real and as heartbreakingly honest as Found itself.

Perhaps a part of the mystique of Found is that the whole project seems so organic and DIY, with Rothbart and Bitner stumbling across an idea so deceptively simple and homegrown that it's charming in its own right. Or maybe it's that the network of people involved built itself up so rapidly, that so many people understood exactly the allure of litter once the notion was brought to light. By all accounts, the pair was astounded by the nearly immediate success of a simple leaflet campaign requesting people send interesting trash to a P.O. box. But whether it's well-disguised skill in execution, or the simple brilliance of knowing how to let the objects speak for themselves, there's little doubt that Found has become its own small but impressive institution.

Rothbart has noted that one of his favorite types of "find" is the misplaced list. Be they to-do lists, grocery lists, or inventories, he maintains that lists offer a uniquely insular communication, where the author is in fact communicating only with the author herself. Yet, in reading over someone's private notations, we have the chance to read into their lives without mediation. Take the following example:
"Go for a walk with someone
Go out somewhere with someone
Talk to someone
Watch TV
Go on the computer
Play PlayStation 2
Go to the cemetery and talk to my mom
Listen to music
Go in my room" -- Found on the street in Arlington, Massachusetts.
This list is obviously meant to inspire the writer to action, but it seems even more telling of the writer's true state of mind. Certainly, they seem lonely, probably with few friends and family to encourage even the simple action of meeting a friend. It's probably safe to say that the person doesn't even get out of the house much, inferring as much from the vague assertions of going "somewhere". And what kind of indecision or torpor leads us to need to remind ourselves to watch TV, or listen to music, or even just go into our room? And then there's the touching, revelatory suggestion of visiting the dead mother in the cemetery. These short suggestions paint a picture of the author, letting us in more intimately than even a photograph might, yet with such minimal amount of language that the list may as well be a bank statement. And in the world of Found, even a stray bank statement may tell just as vivid a story.

This is the kind of archeological dig that Found inspires. It requires a sense of intuition and the mythmaking of a storyteller. It needs a frame-shift, a tilting of the head to look at life's castoffs from a fresh angle. No single story is complete, but the mystery provokes a desire to find the depths of what can be known and test the boundaries of the impenetrable. Or, at the very least, to find a laugh, a moment of pause, or even a tear from a scattering of fleeting instances.

One of the temptations inspired by this exploration is to compare and contrast these fragmented messages with the dialed-in ethos of contemporary communications. It would be easy to say that in spite of all the text, voice, and video conversations buzzing about the globe in an ethereal salon, there is an equally valid, equally authentic substratum of broken code lying at our feet, defying the broadcast. But Found doesn't really encourage that kind of analysis, nor does it place communication in such a binary framework. If it weren't for broadcasts and networks, Found wouldn't exist. Nor would it exist without the snatches of personalities left drifting in the dust. Found is simply the museum, its scrap collection an array of ciphers, and we ourselves are the only Rosetta stone.

I often find myself thinking about the original author of any of the stray notes, wondering if that person has since encountered Found, and whether or not they have found that tiny piece of themselves collected and pinned down like a butterfly, displayed to the public. I wonder if they are embarrassed, or amused, or simply confused about what kind of meaning a stranger could find in that tossed-off and tossed-out tidbit. I wonder if they are angry with us for spying in, wishing they could retrieve that sliver of themselves and either hide it away again, or destroy it forever.

Then I realize that I don't really know the whole, the real person on the other side of that communicative divide. The person I have imagined is a figment, a self I have projected onto the meaning of the artifact. I have read myself into that meaning. Maybe these scraps are only tiny mirrors. And I wonder how I would feel to be found, and what pieces of myself I've left lying in ditches, blown against a chain link fence, lying in a parking lot, or tacked haphazardly to a bulletin board.

An Interrupted Life

It just sounds like the way Spalding Gray would die. His would not be a life finished by old age, or the standard natural causes. No, Gray's existence was fated to end like most of his monologues -- with a kind of closure, but with so much more life left unexplored.

Anyone who's familiar with the peculiar performance artist/actor knows that his onstage stories attempted to mine epic emotions within the smallest of human moments. Whether it was filming The Killing Fields (Swimming to Cambodia), writing his one and only novel, Impossible Vacation (as described in Monster in a Box), or dealing with a potentially debilitating eye disease (Gray's Anatomy), Gray wasn't out to try and explain the purpose of being or answer the larger philosophical questions. All he wanted was to make sense out of the funny little muddle that was his world. Apparently, he fell short.

It's been over a year since Gray committed suicide, his body washing up in New York's East River. As part of the huge healing process necessary for his family and friends we are presented with Life Interrupted, an "unfinished" work by the dear departed. Not knowing its conception or creation, one would assume this to be a career ending entry, something to tie up the loose ends in Gray's artistic catalog while giving fans and the unfamiliar a chance to revel in his final musings.

Sadly, that is only part of the picture painted here. Gray does get a few pages to explain his 2001 car accident (the title piece), an event while on vacation in Ireland that lead to a deepening of his already tenuous depression. There is also a short snippet about his family (The Anniversary) and a look at the metropolis he loved to love -- and hate (Dear New York City).

Yet the 50-some odd sides that make up this material do not constitute the bulk of the book's 256 pages. Instead, longtime friend and writer Francine Prose gets a protracted introduction, and several of Gray's intimates and well wishers, most of them famous in their own right, eulogize the man as part of a closing collection of elegies and celebrations.

In essence, what we have here is a full funeral in print form. Ms. Prose prepares the wake, we sit shiva as Gray gets the last word, and as he's buried in our memory, a collection of his contemporaries finds ways to wax poetic and prosaic about their much admired and missed associate. All in all, very stoic, classy, and serene -- which means it misses what made Gray so great in the first place.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating a writer with words -- it's a standard in the realm of the scribe. But Spalding Gray was more than just a collection of thoughts. It was the way he presented those ideas, the way he connected with audiences and drew them into his imaginary world that really made the difference. Reading his monologues (there are several collections out there, from film transcripts to the highly recommended Sex and Death to Age 14) you can just hear his cooling New England edge, the spry speaking style that distinguished his efforts from those of his peers. Like radio man Paul Harvey, Gray had control and cadence in how he spoke, bringing life both obvious and hidden to his otherwise well-chosen words. Anyone who wanted to understand how performance could be art just needed to see Gray live. One minute inside his vocal volleys and you could literally feel dead synapses re-firing.

Sadly, none of that is here -- not in the efforts of other writers, not in Ms. Prose's words. For her, Gray is a misunderstood man who needed re-explaining one more time. As for the individuals who stand to sing his praises, they too act as if Gray was an unknown quantity that required some defense of his otherwise indefensible actions. This is perhaps the main reason why Gray's words feel like cameos in his own collection.

He was never a man to shy away from the insanity that drove his family. It was the basis for Monster in a Box, and his interesting novel Impossible Vacation. The man was literally, and literarily, an open book. There was no need to spend hundreds of pages protecting his public. They knew this side existed the entire time -- and many marveled that it hadn't conquered him before.

Then there is Gray's mini-monologue itself. Life Interrupted walks us through that fateful night when an ill-timed trip to a local restaurant lead to a near fatal collision between a delivery truck and the vehicle in which Gray was a passenger. He has a ball deconstructing the near-medieval Irish medical system, complete with a barracks of blaring TVs and a snippy drag queen attendant. As he's moved from hospital to hospital, marveling at the lack of European doctors and wondering why all this had to happen, we drift along on a cloud of acerbic candor and droll wit. And then it all stops.

Just as we reach the point where Gray's about to provide that transcendent moment, that phrase or narrative phase that moves the storytelling into the arena of true art, it's all over. Gray's getting better, he's pissed and he's questioning. Unfortunately, we never get the answers.

They don't come in The Anniversary either. This beautifully written look at familial life, ending with Gray and his son whooping it up on a carousel, is both exhilarating and bittersweet. The immense amount of love Gray had for his kids comes off the pages in waves of warmth and honesty. The observational moments, catching a glimpse of the boy as his eyes engage the ephemera with that simple kind of secret joy, turns a touching piece into something very poignant and elegiac.

Similarly, his note to New York, a kind of post-attack pep talk (Gray was apparently devastated by 9/11) radiates with the pure personal poetry that can only come from a man graced with a gift for words. Gray's talent was never really at issue, but Life Interrupted brings home the point that, with his passing, a great man has moved beyond us.

Had it been simpler, collecting everything and anything that he had attempted over the last few years, there would be more of a reason to rejoice at Life Interrupted's publication. Instead, the book feels superficial and surface, an effort to get to know a troubled soul that barely breaks the outer layers of his life. As a memorial, it's a well-intentioned effort, and as a celebration of Spalding Gray, the book has its memorable and affirming moments.

But Gray was much more than an incomplete performance and a couple of essays. He was a man of ideas both written and spoken -- and without the oral component, Life Interrupted can only be a partial testament. Thankfully, there are enough of his completed pieces to guarantee his legacy. Life Interrupted is just what it is -- a fascinating final footnote.

Bring on the Major Leagues

The success of the "Garden State" soundtrack and the glut of major label-released "indie" music by bands like Keane, Snow Patrol and the Killers made 2004 the year indie music established itself, proving (finally) that it could be the one thing the marketplace demands: sales.

With the existence of an indie ringtones service, once-indie darlings Death Cab for Cutie's major-label debut landing at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, Bright Eyes having two Top 20 singles, and Fox TV's ever popular "The O.C." driving up music sales, indie music may have reached its pinnacle of popularity.

Or has it? I don't mean to pronounce indie music dead -- writers can be overeager to proclaim the death of emerging genres, as when the British press declared that "punk was dead" concurrent with its birth -- but rather to argue that truly independent music has never really had a day in the sun. Defining bands like Death Cab as "indie" only serves to subjugate truly independent music: albums written, recorded and released without the aid of a record label.

Whether a band is signed to a major like Warner or an "indie" like One Little Indian, whether it's Sony BMG or Sub Pop, really doesn't matter: Neither can be considered truly independent. Though indie rock is still largely perceived as resistant to corporatized methods of production and distribution, and symbolic of anti-establishment sentiments, today's indie music world is becoming impossible to distinguish from the mainstream.

The truth is, many indie record labels are run like any other business: to make money. They pay for hip clothing and fancy press photos, and work like hell to get their bands publicity. The artistic freedom indie labels promise is supposed to distinguish them from the majors, but when was the last time you heard a mainstream rock band complain about its label dictating material?

Now you might be saying, "But what about the great Wilco "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" drama? A major label turned down an artistically adventurous album!" And yes, Reprise, a Warner imprint, dropped Wilco. The band was then picked up by Nonesuch, a diverse label with solid indie cred, who then released the album. So the indie world saved the day? Perhaps -- if you forget that Nonesuch is also a Warner subsidiary.

Another once-defining element of the indie world is amateurish production values meant to convey a DIY aesthetic, a rejection of slick marketability. Though there are many exceptions, the quick glance at indie's biggest and brightest turns up some of the shiniest, glossiest pop material in the marketplace. Is it any surprise that the slickest sounding bands -- Rilo Kiley, Postal Service -- have the most crossover success?

So in a world where the mainstream sounds like the underground and the underground acts like the mainstream, what happens to truly underground music? When major labels buy indie bands by the cart and the indie labels act and operate like major labels, how does a truly independent release get heard?

Pick up any indie-music magazine or look at any indie-music related website and count how many bands are self-releasing their work. You'd be lucky to find two or three in the entire lot. Of course, indie isn't just about self-releasing, and few would argue that Saddle Creek or K, even with dozens of bands on their rosters, are close to a major label. But such labels, which tenaciously preserve their integrity, are the exception to the rule.

For comparison, let's look at the latest installment from the prime purveyor of so-called indie music to the masses, "Music From the O.C. Mix 5." Of the 12 songs on the album, five are by bands (Subways, Rogue Wave, Youth Group, Of Montreal, Stars) who are on so-called indie labels (Wea, Sub Pop, Epitaph, Polyvinyl, Arts and Crafts, respectively). But none of those five made their most recent record independent of any label influence, i.e., label money.

Granted, many of these bands have been truly independent at one point in their career: Rogue Wave self-released its first album, and Kaiser Chiefs financed their first single themselves. But grassroots support for indie bands has been supplanted with the label-run Astroturf campaigns for megabands like My Chemical Romance. A band's credibility no longer seems dependent on paying dues.

It's possible that the reduced backlash against indie bands gone mainstream shows a willingness to go beyond the dichotomous thinking of previous generations. And that many once indie-run labels are now owned by -- or have become -- larger labels has not necessarily lead to homogenization. Since bottom-line-loving major labels treat bands as portfolio stocks, they clearly understand the power of diversification.

Indie's seeping into mainstream culture is perhaps best explained by the indie-music world adopting better business sense. The work of independent publicity teams to get Death Cab featured on "The O.C." or the Concretes' songs in a string of Target commercials reflects the modern approach to art -- one that rejects the very notion that a band can sell out.

As long as the music remains untouched, as long as the artist retains artistic control, the concept of selling out is so 20th century. Isn't having an audience important? Doesn't everyone want as big of an audience as they can get, a large forum for their ideas? Why should financial success negate artistic integrity? Couldn't it verify it? And as these bands get bigger audiences and more money for tours, albums and videos, the world becomes full of better music. Where's the harm in that? What's to get bent out of shape over? As Pavement quips, bring on the major leagues, right?

The danger lies in the classic wheel of hegemony. When emergent culture is sucked into the dominant culture, it fortifies that dominant culture and reduces emerging forms to mere transitional modes of creating -- a minor-league for the mainstream. If mainstream music sounds like indie music, then why buy real indie music?

As 2006 gets under way, the mainstream still pimps indie aesthetics. But during this heightened indie sale-ability, truly independent releases are suffering.

One truly independent release from 2005 was the band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's self-titled, self-released debut album. While garnering raves in the indie press, the band remains relatively unknown to anyone who is not hypermotivated to seek out new music. (Editor's note: As we you read this, the record is being heavily hyped in major U.K. music magazines.)

In comparison, look at the post-punk-cum-Strokes-aping band the Bravery. Their self-titled debut was released in March on Island Records -- a division of Universal and home to acts like Bon Jovi and Mariah Carey -- and sold 33,000 in its first week of U.S. release, going gold in the U.K. in barely one month.

None of this is meant as a knock against bands like Death Cab for Cutie or the White Stripes, or Nirvana before them. But if indie-oriented labels are continually sucked up into the mainstream, who will be the avant-garde? Who will push the boundaries of pop music, and how will it be discovered amid the clamor of major and major-owned minors with deep pockets? Will we be able to cut through label hype to find truly independent music to support?

Let me know when you find out. 'Til then, I'll be watching "The O.C."

A Different Kind of Family Reunion

"This is the voice," says Bree (played by Felicity Huffman), practicing her woman's pitch.

As if to do battle with the world, she prepares carefully before heading out the door, ensuring that her body is properly contained, her nails appropriately pink, her lipstick perfectly blushy. If she's not precisely the image on her Glamour magazine, she's as close as most mortal women might be. Bree means to make the case to her therapist Margaret (Elizabeth Pena), that she's ready for surgery: her year in transition is nearly done, her hormones are aligned, and it's time. "This is the voice."

Or maybe not. Sitting in Margaret's office at the start of Transamerica, Bree admits in a gush that well, she's had a phone call raising the wee problem of the son she fathered when she was "Stanley," and much as she wants to put that self behind her, Margaret insists that she integrate. "Stanley's life is your life," she smiles, soothing. "This is a part of your body that cannot be discarded."

This is the sort of language that makes gender so perplexing, and so rigid at the same time. What does it have to do with bodies, lives and names? How can it determine who you are, or at least how others see you, which amounts to much the same thing if you're inclined to want approval or feel desired or even just to get along. And so Bree must face that past she thought was over, in the form of a 17-year-old Calvin Klein-model-boy named Toby (Kevin Zegers). She heads to NYC to bail him out of "downtown lockup," where he's residing since he tried to shoplift a frog. Yes, the child is looking for help, and Bree pretends to be a Christian missionary, doing good work under the auspices of the Church of the Potential Father.

The fact that Bree is not only determined and focused but also rather clever, often at her own expense (or at least, at an expense that you get because you know her dilemma and Toby does not), makes her endearing. It also makes you wonder about the series of decisions she makes in order that the film earns its cutesy title -- she and Toby end up driving cross country, getting to know one another and meeting each other's families in order to find themselves.

First stop: Kentucky, where Toby's redneck stepfather lives in a trailer, apparently so stuck in his stereotype that he can't keep his hands off Toby even for an evening. Bree is horrified that her son has been so ill-treated as a youngster, and considers that this may explain his current cockiness and half-assed hustling. It also means that their journey will continue, as Bree can't leave Toby in Kentucky, having witnessed this horror. And so, because Bree can't bring herself to confess her actual relationship to Toby, and he's not inclined to take advice from a church lady, they ride along encased in a kind of dull tension, ever on the edge of revelation, yet hanging back... because the movie must go on for another hour or so.

The episodic structure of Transamerica isn't so tedious as its gentle pokes at conventions as a means to make Bree's situation both affecting and palatable for an imagined, mainstream-y audience. This means that the conflict between parent and child must accommodate or reflect the sorts of anxieties that such viewers recognize and smile at, tiffs that don't quite reach crisis points, but instead allow the free-to-be-you-and-me vibe to permeate the film. Toby announces, "It's degradable," in an effort to impress his kind driver to give up hustling. Bree can't help herself, and corrects him: "Degrading."

So now you know, in case you missed it the first five times, that Bree's a stickler and Toby now has a mission, to trouble her sense of order just enough to assert himself and disrupt her seeming security.

Or so he thinks. They're headed for an inevitable collision, occasioned by a loss of funds and Bree's decision to bring Toby to her parents' pink and beige home in Phoenix, where her parents, Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan) and Murray (Burt Young), revisit their discomfort with her "change." As Bree's car has long since died, they hitch a ride with the kindhearted Calvin Two Goats (Graham Greene), who takes a liking to Bree. The movie supposes that Calvin doesn't "know" her secret. By this time Toby has discovered she has a penis, having spotted it while she relieved herself during a roadside pause, rather carelessly, given all the concern she's displayed about hiding the details of her anatomy. And so Toby is unnerved that Calvin might find Bree attractive, as the "deception," as he sees it, replicates the one he endured.

At the same time, however, the film doesn't allow for much identification on Toby's part. He leans heavily on his little-boy-lost affect, going so far as to lay himself out on a bed and attempt to seduce Bree -- his thanks for her kindness and generosity. In his mind -- perhaps -- he's playing gay boy, girlish boy, and maybe even studly boy, all at once. That the movie can't explore or even spend much time on this particular transgression -- incestuous desire, ambiguously gendered to boot -- exposes a distressing lack of nerve. The pain and betrayal can only lead to forgiveness, Lifetime-style.

More compellingly, the film's resistance to grappling with the interrelations of gender and sex suggests an investment in artifice, which is not in itself a problem (gender being a lifelong series of performative gestures, as in "the voice" Bree works to perfect). And yet Transamerica stops short, settles for the familiar "alternative family" rather than questioning all those systems of assessment and measurements of morality that make the very concept of "alternative" necessary.

Copyrights and Wrongs

In case you missed it, April 23 was World Book and Copyright Day. UNESCO sponsored events in some 30 countries to promote "reading, publishing and the protection of intellectual property through copyright."

Intellectual property is indeed a big issue these days. There's a vibrant trade in pirated CDs and DVDs, counterfeit handbags and watches, and all manner of bootlegged digital files at swap meets in Dakar and in the vendor stalls of Hong Kong, not to mention along Canal Street in New York City and in dens and bedrooms across America. Intellectual property matters also figure prominently in trade relations between the United States and the developing world, especially China.

The intellectual property debate typically divides into two camps -- those who defend the rights of ownership and those who defend free speech. The first is championed in a recent book by Pat Choate, Hot Property: The Stealing of Ideas in an Age of Globalization (Knopf). The second is represented by Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity (Doubleday), by Kembrew McLeod

For Choate, an economist and Ross Perot's 1996 vice presidential running mate, intellectual property is about more than simply discouraging CD ripping, purse parties and peer-to-peer file sharing; it's about protecting the American way of life. Developing countries like China violate intellectual property regulations to gain unfair advantage, Choate charges, and it's costing America an estimated $200 billion a year. Not only that, counterfeit medicines and machine parts are making their way into the United States, threatening the safety of everyone. The answer is to secure intellectual property by any means necessary, including using front groups like UNESCO and the World Trade Organization to uphold the rights of owners and punish those who break the rules.

Yet intellectual property abuse has long been part of the American economy. In 1810, Francis Cabot Lowell stole the idea of the power loom from England and patented it in America, which at the time only recognized the intellectual property rights of citizens. This act of piracy gave birth to the American textile industry. A hundred years later, Henry Ford sold Model Ts even though the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers claimed violation of the Selden Patent. His crime made personal motor transportation affordable where it was previously a luxury. But now total intellectual property enforcement helps America dominate the global marketplace.

Intellectual property provisions are contained in the U.S. Constitution to encourage new ideas and reward those who create them, with the ultimate goal of furthering the interests of society. That it currently has the opposite effect is Kembrew McLeod's contention.

McLeod is a professor of communications studies at University of Iowa and a music critic for Rolling Stone, Spin and the Village Voice, among others. In 1998, he officially trademarked the words "freedom of expression" to point out the absurd state of intellectual property regulation. While this and the other high-jinks he reports on are amusing, McLeod's intentions are serious -- corporations are putting up fences against the free exchange of ideas to line their own pockets and everyone else suffers for it.

For one thing, the prevailing intellectual property climate impedes scientific progress. It's more difficult and expensive, for example, to do research on inherited diseases because of gene patents. Nor is the common good served when information about the safety and effectiveness of prescription drugs gets withheld under the cloak of "trade secrets." It often doesn't even make economic sense -- statistics McLeod cites from the Pew Internet and American Life Project show a positive correlation between MP3 file sharing and the rise in CD sales over the past few years, even as the record industry has waged jihad on suburban teenagers for copyright infringement.

While keeping the creative commons open for free expression is important, it isn't enough. The English Land Enclosure Movement of the early mercantile era wasn't about curtailing free speech, but about separating peasants from the traditional means of their livelihood and forcing them into sweatshops, creating both a new source of private wealth and a ready supply of wage labor. By the same token, the new intellectual property regime of the information economy wants to capture the very thoughts of workers, only to sell them back in pay-per-view. So from Palo Alto to Bangalore, hackers of the world, unite!

Being and Jewishness

What does it mean to be a Jew?

Rabbis, scholars, anti-Semites and ordinary people have struggled with this question for centuries. It's still an important issue with political consequences in the state of Israel. The answer is complicated. Judaism can be defined as a religion, a culture, a nation, a race, etc. It depends on who provides the response.

Journalist Abigail Pogrebin decided to find out the new, American way. For her book, Stars Of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish (Broadway Books) , she interviewed 60 Jewish celebrities and asked them about their Jewishness. Their replies varied in depth and quality, but there seemed to be general agreement about one thing: A Jew is anyone who calls him or herself a Jew.

Pogrebin's respondents include prominent Jews from many walks of life, such as Hollywood (Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, Kyra Sedgwick), the Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer), television (Norman Lear, Aaron Sorkin, Sarah Jessica Parker, William Shatner), journalism (Ellen Goodman, Mike Wallace), fashion (Diane Von Furstenberg, Kenneth Cole), Broadway (Tony Kushner, Neil Simon, Harold Prince), the left and right of politics (Al Franken, Dr. Laura Schlessinger), big business (Edgar Bronfman, Jr., Ronald O. Perelman), public law (Eliot Spitzer, Alan Dershowitz), athletics (Mark Spitz, Shawn Green), and elsewhere.

The most glaring omissions are Jews who rock. There's Beverly Sills, but no Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Randy Newman or many of the dozens of famous Jews who have publicly sang and spoke at times about their views on Jewish self-identity. Who knows, maybe that will be her next book.

While Pogrebin's choice of interviewees may seem odd, what seems more amazing is the fact that she had access to so many important people. She continually notes how busy many of her subjects are during her discussions. Their phones ring, palm pilots beep, secretaries buzz, and such while they chat away about their childhood memories or the taste of food from the past.

Very few actively practice Judaism today, take spouses who share their religious beliefs, and/or raise there children as Jews. Yet they insist they are Jews. If pressed many take what can be called the Jean Paul Sartre defense: I am a Jew because anti-Semites won't let me forget it. (In the French existentialist's tome Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre famously proclaimed Jewish identity was defined by those who hated Jews.) In a post-Holocaust America, no one wants to deny his or heritage because of pride in one's heritage and it would be futile anyway.

Former New York Times critic and current Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl states this idea most bluntly: "You know what makes Jews Jews anymore? The fact that the world won't let us forget. You can say till the cows get home that you're not a Jew, but the world keeps telling you that you are. And that's what makes you a Jew. What makes a black person black? No matter how white your skin is, if you are a black person, the world keeps reminding me that you're black. Ultimately it's others' definition of us that makes us Jews."

Reichl did not grow up in a traditional Jewish home, attended a French Catholic boarding school, and her son was not bar mitzvahed. Reichl also hates traditional Jewish cuisine, but she strongly proclaims a Jewish self-identity.

Not surprisingly, the most interesting responses come from those who still question their Jewish self-identity rather than see it as a given or as a part of how they were raised. For example, the young Israeli-born, Long Island-bred actress Natalie Portman tries to find a distinctive Jewishness that transcends nationalism. Meanwhile, Portman's role as a public Jew has been controversial. Writing in the New Yorker, Cynthia Ozick lambasted Portman's Broadway portrayal of Anne Frank as too sunny. Portman also was engaged in an Israeli-Palestinian controversy at Harvard University that drew the attention of The New York Times. Portman discusses these incidents with Pogrebin in an intelligent and informative manner. One may not necessarily agree with Portman's viewpoints -- i.e. the optimism of the Anne Frank play in light of the Dutch girl's fate raises issues Portman avoids -- but the actress has obviously given her role serious thought.

Pogrebin's most enlightening interview was with Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. Wieseltier grew up in an Orthodox household, attended Yeshiva in Flatbush, and then walked away from his Jewish religiosity to a more conventional American life of wine, women and pork. Much later in life Wieseltier returned to the practice and study of Judaism. He's openly critical of the Jews like the ones Pogrebin interviewed in this book for their laziness.

"I can respect heresy, I can respect alienation, I can respect Karamazovian rebellion, even Oedipal rebellion. I don't mind renegades or apostates... My point is that American Jews aren't renegades; they are slackers." Wieseltier condemns the a la carte Judaism of those who choose what aspect of the religion they like and leave the rest behind and considers those people incompetent because they don't bother to learn what they don't know.

One of these Jews was Pogrebin herself. She writes in an epilogue that her interview with Wieseltier had a deep impact on her. As a result, she began to study Torah, became more involved in her children's religious education and engaged more actively in Jewish rituals that she had previously not practiced. Then, at the age of 40, Pogrebin became bat mitzvahed.

Reading this book probably won't have the same impression on consumers as writing it did for the journalist. But it might have the impact of one who sees a photograph of oneself and says, "So that's how I look," and encourages that person to lose weight, get a haircut or dress differently. A person should want his or her religion to be befitting and relevant.

Preaching from the Choir

In a desperate attempt to fend off boredom, I found myself at home on a recent Saturday afternoon flipping through television channels in search of a diversion. After a few minutes, I stopped at one of the local public access stations, which was re-broadcasting a Sunday service from one of the area's largest and most popular churches.

By the time I tuned in, a middle-aged preacher was nearing the climax of his sermon entitled "The Lost Generation." "Kids growing up today don't care about nothin' and nobody," he insisted while dabbing a silk handkerchief against his chin to save his Armani suit from his own sweat, "All they want to do is party and have fun."

In spite of my instincts, I continued to listen as he enumerated the faults of the current generation of "hip-hoppers" who have apparently cornered the market on sin. "Hedonistic," "selfish," "materialistic," and "lazy" were just a few of the labels that the preacher assigned to my generational cohorts. After a few minutes, I could no longer suffer his rhetorical assault and changed the channel.

Still, I continued to replay the comments in my mind throughout the ensuing week, struggling to figure out why I was so unsettled. After all, everyone from Harold Bloom to George Will to Cornel West to my own momma has publicly lamented the moral status of youth culture. Why would I care so much about a random preacher? After a few days of reflection, the answer hit me.

According to much of America's ostensible moral leadership -- both religious and secular -- the hip-hop generation (those born between 1965 and 1984) is no longer in possession of the values, beliefs, and traditions that have sustained our predecessors. In its place, it is argued, stands a selfish and hedonistic individualism that prevents our moral and social development.

Unlike many of my peers, I can accept that analysis on its face, although I tend to resist the romantic version of the past in which it is often grounded. What troubled me, however, was that the stance was articulated by a preacher, who was representing the perspectives and interests of the "New Black Church."

By "New Black Church," I am referring to the current configuration of mainline black Christianity. The New Black Church, which has taken its current shape over the past two decades, is the progeny of civil rights-era movements, but can be distinguished by its increased materialism, questionable theology, and dubious politics.

While this description is certainly not exhaustive -- the erasure of denominational boundaries and resurgence of neo-Pentecostalism (spirit-filled charismatic worship) are also critical features of the New Black Church -- it speaks directly to the contradictions between the New Black Church's own practices and its critiques of the hip-hop generation, which have been used to fuel the current moral panic.

As a full-fledged member of the hip-hop generation, the shibboleth of "keepin' it real" that informs my worldview made it difficult for me to accept the preacher's commentary, because I knew that it was coming from a profoundly hypocritical place. Who was he, or anyone from the New Black Church for that matter, to diss us for having strayed from the supposed path?

Of course, I am not suggesting that the truth-value of the New Black Church's critiques is necessarily compromised by its own contradictions. To do so would not only be a logical fallacy, but also ignores the fact that Christian faith is grounded in the belief that flawed messengers can send right and exact messages.

Although the New Black Church's claims to moral authority are certainly betrayed by these contradictions, the larger issue is about its role in replicating, reiterating, and resonating the same ideologies and practices that its critiques are intended to disrupt.

This suggests that the hip-hop generation is not as directionless as others would have us believe. Rather, we are following the flawed moral compass of the very people waging generational war against us.

Money Ain't a Thing

Since the beginning of hip-hop's "ice age," circa 1994, showboating has been a linchpin of the culture. In today's industry, no commercial rapper worth his salt appears in a video without the necessary accoutrements: shiny jewelry, expensive cars, designer clothes and large homes.

Hip-hop's baller elite have even graduated to mainstream commerce, selling everything from sneakers to energy drinks. To be sure, such decadence lends legitimacy to claims of wanton materialism and consumerism among the hip-hop generation. Yet, a brief survey of the New Black Church's leadership would yield a remarkably similar conclusion.

Hip-hop's obsession with "flossing" and "stunting" (showing off) is matched only by the New Black Church's flair for the ostentatious. Many of today's superstar preachers are similarly lavish in their public appearances. For example, televangelist Creflo Dollar (real name!) drives a Bentley and owns a private jet worth $5 million. T.D. Jakes, the Russell Simmons of the New Black Church, owns several multimillion-dollar estates.

While this is certainly not a new phenomenon -- preachers have been driving Cadillacs and wearing expensive clothes since the first amen corner was built -- the stakes have grown considerably higher given the increased amount of revenue generated by the New Black Church. Best-selling books, tapes, seminars and mainstream films have all created new sources of wealth for today's preachers by turning them into household names.

The most profitable project for the New Black Church has been the development of the "mega-church." Founded on corporate business models, these super-sized sanctuaries draw tens of thousands of parishioners per week and hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Additionally, mega-churches create huge stages for superstar preachers to perform for their congregations, which include politicians, athletes, actors, and rappers.

Despite the remarkable wealth of mega-church congregations (or perhaps because of it), it is no surprise that the most bedazzling "Jesus pieces" in the building can often be found around the necks of the people giving the Sunday sermon.

Thou Shalt Not Be Poor

Few would argue that hip-hop's hedonistic impulses aren't at least partially rooted in the belief that financial prosperity is the ultimate measure of success. Given this market-driven logic, it is no wonder that hip-hop narratives abound with rags to riches stories that celebrate the individual over the collective and the material over the spiritual.

Artists such as Notorious B.I.G., who once rapped that "God meant me to drive a Bentley," argue that their enormous wealth is a divine reward, or what Jay-Z has termed "pro-jetic justice" for their impoverished pasts. And where would they get such convoluted values? A look at the New Black Church, whose good news has been reduced to "God wants you to be rich," provides a good answer.

Through their curious readings of Bible scriptures, depictions of Jesus as wealthy and belief that people are poor because they "ain't living right," the New Black Church reinforces the tired conservative argument that the problems of the disadvantaged are self-inflicted.

While gospels of prosperity have always been commonplace within the black religious tradition -- leaders from Sweet Daddy Grace to Elijah Muhammad have, to varying degrees, promised wealth as a consequence of religious devotion -- "name it and claim it" mantras have moved from the margins to the center of the New Black Church community.

Word-faith pastors no longer preach the virtues of struggle, sacrifice, or redemptive suffering, instead exhorting the poor to "get right" with God by accumulating capital for themselves. As word-faith preacher Creflo Dollar explains on his website, "When you find out how to live your life according to the word of God you will become a money magnet."

Of course, becoming a money magnet requires the congregant to share their bounty with the church. Dollar tells his congregation, "God is not coming back to a church in debt. [T]hat would be against his word" ("Changing Your World," 27 March, 2000). In other words, salvation comes with a price.

To ensure that the people pay it, many New Black Church pastors are beginning to ask their members to bring in tax returns to guarantee appropriate tithing. Others request that members submit their entire checks and allow the church to manage their finances in order to certify that they are appropriately sharing God's grace with their spiritual shepherds. Can anyone say Suge Knight?

The connection between New Black Church theology and hip-hop's materialism became no more apparent than when rapper Mase staged his 2004 comeback. As one of the pioneers of the shiny suit era, Mase was the poster child for hip-hop's bling-bling agenda. Disillusioned with the immoral underside of the music industry after becoming born-again, Mase retired from music to devote his entire life to the ministry that he built and modeled after his mentor and pastor, Creflo Dollar.

After being called back to the game (by God or his accountant, depending on who you ask), Mase dropped the disappointing Welcome Back LP. While the album was devoid of profanity, violence and sex, it remained chock full of pro forma references to his wealth of money, cars, homes, and jewelry. Although it was a commercial flop, the album was celebrated by the gospel community for its "positive message," which can be summed up by the final line to his verse on Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" remix: "I'm healed, I'm delivered, I'm rich. And it's all because of Him."

Poli-what? Poli-who?

When the Wu-Tang Clan released the single "C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)," the song reflected the hip-hop generation's developing profit-driven consciousness. It is this belief system that substantiates many critiques of the hip-hop generation with regard to its lack of political focus and activity. Despite the culture's ability to galvanize millions of youth, American hip-hop has become increasingly divorced from concrete political action.

With the exception of the intriguing but shortsighted "Vote or Die" campaign, the hip-hop generation has failed to live up to its political potential and muster a legitimate large-scale movement in the interest of social justice. Of course, comparable claims can be made about the New Black Church, which has grown increasingly detached from politics except under very opportunistic circumstances.

Since the days of slavery, the black church has been a fecund site for political organization and mobilization. Although its politics have never been radical, particularly with regard to issues of gender and sexuality, the church has always been a counter-public space committed to spotlighting and allaying the worst forms of social misery.

Over the past few decades, however, the church has grown increasingly unresponsive to the social conditions of its members. With annual revenues skyrocketing but less than 10 percent of the nation's black churches considered activist in nature, the New Black Church seems to have gained the whole world and lost its soul.

The development of the mega-church has created enormous possibilities for large-scale forms of social activism. Unfortunately, mega-church leadership often deliberately sidesteps controversial politics by not organizing rallies and marches or publicly supporting political candidates. Such moves, clearly done in order to avoid alienating particular segments of their congregations and losing revenue, are reminiscent of the notorious political coward Michael Jordan, who once refused to support a presidential candidate because both Democrats and Republicans buy his sneakers.

One of the more disappointing examples of the New Black Church's profit-driven cowardice came in January 2005 when President George W. Bush spoke to the First Baptist Church of Glenarden, a mega-church in Maryland. Pastor John Jenkins, an affirmative action advocate, refused to publicly challenge the President's stance on the subject because he considered it inappropriate to take a political stand against the President's policy from the pulpit.

Bishop Eddie Long, who pastors a 25,000 member mega-church in Lithonia, Georgia, encourages his members to "forgive, forbear, and forget" racism on the grounds that "we're already in the promised land" (Atlanta Journal & Constitution, 15 February 2005). By eliminating political protest from the church's agenda, these leaders effectively strip the church of its transformative potential while enhancing their own earning capacity.

While some observers have attributed the New Black Church's political passivity to the neo-Pentecostal focus on individual spiritual connectedness, the New Black Church has demonstrated that it is willing to join the political fray when the economic stakes are sufficiently high.

The best example of this came in light of the faith-based initiatives introduced by the Bush administration in 2000. In order to better position themselves to grab the money dangled in front of them, these churches have moved too close for comfort to white evangelicals on ostensible "moral issues," while endorsing horrific public policy initiatives, such as privatization of Social Security and the No Child Left Behind Act.

This proved particularly disastrous during the 2004 elections, when President Bush wooed several mega-church leaders with extremely slippery faith-based funds, ultimately convincing them to support his successful re-election bid. At least "hip-hoppers" have sold on their own terms.

Don't hate the playa

My point here is not to excuse the troubling condition of the hip-hop generation. Clearly, we have moral and ethical issues that must be resolved in order to approximate the level of service rendered by our forebears. I also do not intend to isolate or vilify the New Black Church, as they are not the first nor the only institution that fails to fully practice what it preaches.

Rather, I am responding to a pressing need to protect my generation from the feelings of moral alienation and historical exceptionalism that inevitably accompany the New Black Church's self-righteous onslaught. Hopefully, this defense will inspire the type of self-criticism and humility necessary for social change.

Tiger Beat

In 1976, Cory Daye recorded a song called "Sunshower" with Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. She was 24. The band were well outside a recording deadline from RCA; when the album was eventually released, the label failed to notify the band.

"Sunshower" has been sampled for almost 20 years now; there's a snatch of its warped Hawaiian guitars and splintered percussion towards the end of A Tribe Called Quest's "Can I Kick It?", but like attempts by De La Soul and Doug E. Fresh, it's just dressing. The appropriations always seem piecemeal and placeless: Busta Rhymes' "Take It Off" is slick, but not convincing. Ghostface Killah's "Ghost Showers" attempts to wholly inhabit the song; it swallows him whole. There's simply too much in the original: swooping Hawaiian guitars, child-like chants, ambient noise, guitar barely recognizable in a flood of in reverb. The percussion is so richly syncopated, so densely layered, that it leaves Daye's vocal somehow isolated, exposed, as if shimmering in a cloud of dust. The melody itself sounds free and ungrounded, and takes on an almost atonal quality. The groove is woodlike, organic, pulmonary. Nobody has done anything as remotely convincing, assured, or unique with the same materials. Until M.I.A.'s "Sunshowers."

The difference between the original and M.I.A.'s second single, produced last year by Steve Mackey and Ross Orton, is more than one of genre or period; it is a difference in aesthetics, a difference in the place given to popular culture. The original material itself is gutted. The slightly adrenaline bliss of Davy's chorus sounds highly phased, over-exposed, washed-out at the edges. A percussive bass glissandi, which in the original gracefully eases the song into a final elaboration of the chorus, is ripped out and looped throughout the piece. The groove is a relentless throb that hammers its way throughout the entire song, rattling and lurching between violence and grace. "Sunshowers" erases the spirit of the original as it goes along.

Where Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band brought a wispy lyricism to disco, a feeling of dreamy nostalgia wrapped in their elaborate big band arrangements, M.I.A.'s use of the song is -- like the rest of her material -- a blend of hard unsentimentally and poplike glee. It's a striking contrast: strident political stances sit alongside made-for-ringtone hooks. There's no middle ground on Arular, her debut album. Even the wordplay is taken to a level of abstraction, with playground chants in place of intimacy and wit. There is very little that deals with the minutiae of personal relationships; even "URAQT," a song about betrayal, revolves more around the exchange of postures than of emotions. Relationships are almost transactions. There is no trust in this music.

It's a stance that echoes the details of her life: M.I.A. witnessed at first hand the violence of Sri Lanka's civil war, followed by an abrupt relocation to a neglected council estate on the outskirts of London.

London shapes much of her music. The touch of gleeful -- almost naive -- joy in her sound recalls early British experiments with hip-hop. It is the sound of the Wild Bunch, of Fresh Four's "Wishing on a Star," of Carlton's forgotten The Call Is Strong, where the sing-song lilt of Lovers Rock met the swallowed aggression of dub, where the structure and confidence of American hip-hop met the residual brashness of punk and ska. Though those influences have been replaced in the contemporary sound of London by dancehall, crunk, grime, and American R&B, the aesthetic is the same -- and one unique to London. "The thing that I'm a part of," M.I.A. agrees, "is that I listen to everything. And so do the grime kids. There are grime tunes where Lethal B could rap over a Kylie Minogue backing, because he knows it -- he hears it: he's on a bus, he's in a cab, he's in a Chinese takeaway."

The vocal cadence that is a part of her singing voice -- the rise in intonation at the end of almost every line -- is now near-ubiquitous among Londoners of a certain age. It is not, curiously, part of her speaking voice, which is a fairly cool and unremarkable London accent. "Everybody has access to all kinds of genres of music every day when you wake up. So why not reflect that? It's way more realistic than me saying 'I only hear dancehall when I walk down the street. I only hear dancehall for eight years of my life walking around in this city.' That's wrong. Because that's not the case. Every day I wake up in this city, the cosmopolitan Westernized fast first-world amazing foreign land that's got amazing technology, amazing information access, speedway, highway -- let's not kid ourselves: we do hear everything at once, so whether it's through television, on the radio, on people's CDs, people's cars going past you -- so why not reflect that in what you do?"

While race relations over the last two decades in London have hardly been exemplary -- something M.I.A. knows about at first hand -- the capital's density and diversity have made possible a mixture of cultures that sets it apart from most other Western cities. Even so, M.I.A. sees this process as increasingly under threat. "I knew someone like me could never come out of America, and I knew that I couldn't come out of Sri Lanka either. It was really important to be in Britain to come out the way I did. But at the same time, I just think it's really, really sad that I'm the only person here, when there could be a damn lot more. There could be more people making a crossbreed sound and referencing each other's communities. But there isn't. The Asians do stick to the Asians. The Somalians stick to the Somalians. The Palestinians stick to the Palestianians. The Moroccans stick to the Moroccans. The white kids stick to the white kids. The black kids stick to the black kids. And that's only a new thing that's happening."

Since the late '90s, concerns have been voiced that "economic migrants" are using the UK's asylum system as a backdoor. This argument has increasingly come to drive British political debate (not to mention newspaper sales), intensifying around election cycles despite a fall in the number of people seeking asylum. Since 2001, the debate has taken on an additional overtone of paranoia and "racial profiling" amid fears about international terrorism. Local community workers admit to noticing a correlation between incidents of racial harassment and the intensity of the national debate. Steve Griffin, deputy director of Groundwork Merton, a local regeneration agency covering the area in which M.I.A. grew up, notes that, "You get Islamophobia going. There's been more attacks on Asians and more problems for Asians since 9/11 in this country."

M.I.A. is outraged by this situation -- and the smothering effect it is having on cultural interaction in London. "I've followed British culture, the underground culture, and musically I feel like I've been a part of different movements that have happened. But for the first time, everything is kinda just quiet, you know? Back when I was sort of walking around there seemed to be more of an identity amongst young people, and there was just stuff happening, and it was real sort of energetic and colorful. And then, it seems like everybody's bogged down by all this immigration stuff, and newspapers are like 'Immigrants go back home!' and for the first time they can say it on the front page without it being politically incorrect. And then with all this terrorism stuff where they're like 'Muslim kids are bad'. There's some weird atmosphere going on. Girls have started wearing yashmacs, and there's divides amongst communities and stuff. And that's when I decided to go, 'Look: the only thing that Britain always ever goes on about, and is proud of going on about, is that it's a cosmopolitan city, and it's multicultural.' So unless everybody starts waking up in England and starts shouting about it, and saying that's a really great thing, you're not even doing what you said you're good at doing in the first place."

Maya Arulpragasam was born in London in 1976. Her father moved to London in 1971 after graduating in Moscow with a master's degree in engineering. His name is sometimes rendered A.R. Arudpragasam, sometimes Arul Pragasam; his nom de guerre is Arular. In January 1975, he was instrumental in founding the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) in Wandsworth. In June of that year, EROS staged demonstrations at the inaugural cricket World Cup, prompting clashes between Sri Lanka's Tamil and Sinhalese supporters, and bringing the conflict in Sri Lanka to international attention for the first time. In March 1976 he was one of three EROS members selected to train for six months in Lebanon with Palestinian militants associated with the Fatah wing of the PLO. He left after three months of training, returning to Sri Lanka with his family. Maya was six months old.

By 1976, Sri Lanka was well on its way to the internecine ethnic violence that would erupt in full a few years later. Following the withdrawal of the British in 1948, and the electoral triumph of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in 1956, the island's Tamil minority was gradually coerced into a position of second-class status; economic discrimination went hand-in-hand with a gradual displacement of Tamils from the education and administrative institutions. A handful of bloody incidents -- on both sides -- eventually tipped the balance in favor of militancy: land grabs, armed attacks, mob violence, and the destruction of symbolic and cultural treasures, sometimes with official connivance. By the early 1980s, more than 30 Tamil militant groups had emerged, of which EROS was one.

In Sri Lanka, Maya and her siblings rarely saw their father. He was introduced to them as an uncle. They temporarily relocated to the outskirts of Chennai (then Madras), where they lived in a derelict house. Her sister contracted typhoid. They returned to Sri Lanka, and remained constantly on the move. She remembers a childhood "inundated with violence": the convent at which she attended school was destroyed during one of the government's aerial bombing campaigns. She watched as some of her friends died. Family members were incarcerated.

In 1986, they fled. Her father remained in Sri Lanka; the rest of the family made it to London. Maya was 11.

They were allocated an apartment in Phipps Bridge Housing Estate, a development in the borough of Merton, which sits the middle of the vast band of conurban sprawl that constitutes outer London. At the time Phipps Bridge consisted of five high-rise tower blocks and ten low-rise buildings. Of the 4,000 residents, about 65 percent were on income support. It was built in 1976, when institutional inertia and hamstrung development budgets continued to license the building of high-rise estates, despite mounting evidence that they anchored social deprivation and institutional neglect.

By the mid-1980s, life on Phipps Bridge was an experience in misery. Sue Johns, a local resident, wrote in a poem of "the piss-filled lift" and "the shells of wrecked cars," of "Fifties design faults holding on / By the skin of their teeth in the eighties." She pictured residents waiting for a long-promised redevelopment "Behind Chubb locks and net curtains." Television cop shows used the estate to film scenes depicting the most run-down, graffiti-stained dead-end estates in the country. It was hardly the perfect environment for an refugee family; Donna Neblett, a longtime resident and now a manager in the community center, remembers: "Police would not come onto the estate; they'd never come by themselves. They'd always be in cars, they'd never get out and walk. It was a very notorious estate. Everything: drug dealers, needles on the floor. Worse things than you can imagine was Phipps Bridge twenty years ago." Maya was placed in special needs education to improve her English. Her mother worked from home as a seamstress. Maya remembers watching as their home was burgled. When her radio was stolen by crack-addicted neighbors, Maya listened to hip hop from the teenage boy who lived next door.

Maya's family was one of only two Asian families on Phipps Bridge in 1986. The mid-1980s were hardly a golden period in British race relations. Steve Shanley, until recently a housing officer for the estate, insists that despite Phipps Bridge's reputation as a "a fairly tough estate," there were not "any racial tensions or any great problems." The local council records a relatively low number of reported racist incidents. By contrast, Donna Neblett remembers an estate rife with racist sentiment "There were people [living on the estate] that were the leaders of the National Front, so this is where they had their offices and their meetings, in the houses on the estate." The statistics may reflect the tiny proportion of black and ethnic minority residents at the time. "People knew not to come on Phipps if you were from the [black and ethnic minority] community."

Racial tensions -- conditions in general -- have eased considerably on Phipps Bridge over the last few years. But the obvious question is how an Asian family might have been placed -- in near-isolation -- in such an environment in the fist place. Local authorities are adamant that they are not in the business of social engineering. According to Steve Shanley, individual requests for location tend to be accommodated, but "one thing that councils make sure of is that they don't proactively put people together. It wouldn't be seen as 'equal opportunities' to find out people's nationalities and think, 'Right, well we'll put them there.'"

One resident guardedly confided a suspicion that "I think basically what they tend to do -- in my experience -- is that's where they'll put [black and ethnic minority residents] anyway. It's normally run-down, notorious, them sort of estates. That's how it used to be. I'm not going to say it's like that now, but I know back then it was. And that's when you ... that's all I'm going to say on that."

Maya used the aesthetic template of hip-hop to pull together her range of influences and interests -- at first in the field of visual art. She graduated from Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, and a book of her graffiti-influenced artwork was published by independent label Pocko. It caught the eye of Nick Hackworth, who in 2002 established the Alternative Turner Prize to critique the narrow criteria of Britain's leading art prize. Maya was among the six artists shortlisted. Hackworth -- arts editor of Dazed and Confused -- was immediately impressed by "the combination of the political content from her Sri Lankan background through the Tamil Tigers, with the kind of street aesthetic." He remembers a boldness of vision that fused well with the improvisational nature of her technique: "She was just spray painting on bits of board, so it was pretty DIY kind of stuff with the actual media, tying in with the spraycan-type aesthetic. So it's kind of rough, ready, and graphically quite powerful, because she doesn't use too many elements; she repeats some of the elements; she keeps it visually quite clean, she doesn't overload the images ... It's about graphic boldness. That was the best thing about it." The work attracted the attention of Justine Frischmann of Elastica, who commissioned an album cover and a tour documentary. It was on tour that she met electro-revivalist Peaches, who first showed her around a Roland 505.

Her visual style is on display on the video for "Galang," her first single. The video was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who notes that "using her artwork as a way to define her and inform people is very important. I mean how many other beautiful singers are performing in front of tanks, burning palm trees, bombs, Molotov cocktails, and helicopters? All of the stencils we made were completely based on her aesthetic, and were meant to be an extension of her. Many of them she either helped us make or made herself."

The video's imagery -- alongside the lyrical content of "Sunshowers" -- has attracted some criticism of her political stance. There are the brightly-colored burning trees, bombs, tanks, Molotov cocktails, London housing estates, and cell phones -- and the video is punctuated by images of a racing tiger, a motif that recurs in her concert visuals and designs. A portrait of a Tamil militant leader appears at one moment.

For some critics, this is simply revolutionary chic: an attempt to commercialize the color and exoticism of distant struggles while safely draining it of any real-world political context. Nick Hackworth is aware of that tendency. "I think it was that unusual combination which I hadn't really seen before in too much stuff. And also -- I suppose it sounds potentially pejorative -- it was slightly exotic, seeing something that dealt with non-English or non-European political problems in that kind of way, visually." There are long-standing European traditions of seeing the "orient" as repository of color, creativity, and vibrancy -- as a nest of cultures alien enough not to have to be inspected for political markers. Other critics are more troubled, arguing from her father's biography and a handful of details (for instance, for a brief period after the December 26 tsunami, her website carried links to an aid organization closely associated with Tamil militants) that she is a closet supporter of terrorism -- in particular, of the Tamil Tigers.

From the early-1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) quickly became the dominant body in Tamil militancy, and Tamil nationalism in general, not least because of the viciousness with which they dispatched rival groups. In April 1986, for example, hundreds of members of rivals TELO (the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation) were killed in a sequence of attacks, despite their being armed, trained, and supported by the Indian government. From 1987 the "Black Tigers" developed suicide bombing as a tactic, their victims including former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandi. UNICEF and Amnsety International have censured them for the forced conscription of child soldiers, including 40 since the December 26 tsunami. They have been accused of murdering civilians in border areas to induce population displacement. The Sri Lankan government, meanwhile, has continued a series of depredations, including extensive -- and sometimes apparently indiscriminate -- aerial bombing campaigns. Over 65,000 people have died; at one point up to 30 percent of the Tamil population was estimated to have fled the island, with over a million people -- from all ethnic groups -- temporarily or permanently displaced. A 1991 report estimated that perhaps ten percent of the population had been displaced. Sri Lanka is one of the most heavily landmined countries in the world.

This is a far cry from the revolutionary panache suggested by M.I.A.'s work. Some of the associative imagery of "Galang" and "Sunshowers" implies a connection to the Palestinian Intifada, the Zapatistas, the Black Panthers, and the anti-Apartheid movement. Some see these as a valid comparisons; Dr. Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam notes, "The LTTE also fights against linguistic, ethnic and class/caste discrimination and oppression. The methods might be open to question, the aim is certainly not." M.R. Narayan Swamy, author of Inside an Elusive Mind, the first biography of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, disagrees, citing the LTTE's murderous reputation. "This does not mean that LTTE has no support; on the contrary it does. It controls vast areas in Sri Lanka's north and rules a de facto Tamil Eelam. But it will be very difficult to say how much of the support it enjoys comes out of genuine respect or genuine fear. The support is real, and so is the fear."

M.I.A.'s stance, inevitably, is more complicated -- and conflicted -- than critics suggest, not least because of family involvement. Her father's group, EROS, reached a working arrangement with the LTTE as the other groups were being eliminated. When Arular returned to Sri Lanka in 1976, he was apparently in close contact with Prabhakaran; according to some sources, EROS established a training camp at a farm in Kannady which was used by the LTTE. Arular and Prabhakaran are reported to have shared bomb-making knowledge, equipment, and chemicals. According to M.R. Narayan Swamy, "Arular was never in LTTE. Yes, he was with EROS in the early stages, but he left it but kept in touch with most of the actors in the militancy scene." Arular's official biography -- which is to say, the one that appears on the jackets of his books -- insists that he now writes history, and has mediated between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. In any event, relations between M.I.A. and her father, whom she has referred to as "insane", are not close. She has not seen him since 1995. Arular is titled in an apparent attempt to bait him, citing her mother's complaint that "the only thing he ever gave you was your name." She has doggedly refused his request to change it.

What's more, if tiger imagery does predominate M.I.A.'s vision of the world, it's not necessarily advocacy. The overdominant LTTE imagery -- if indeed it is that -- does accurately reflect the totalitarian hegemony that the LTTE and Prabhakaran exercise over the northern part of the island, and Tamil nationalism as a whole. The tiger, as a symbol, has been associated with Tamil nationalism for centuries; her use of it does not necessarily signal support for LTTE, though the gesture may be somewhat naive.

But it's an issue that goes to the heart of her identity as an artist. She sees herself not as a individual, but a spokesperson. "In the beginning they told me [in England] that being an artist was about being an individual and reflecting society. And in Sri Lanka I was brought up with a different value system, which was that you talk for other people, and it's always 'we'. It's never 'me'. You never think selfishly. Nobody cares, nobody wants to hear what your particular opinion is. It's the opinions of thousands that count." Hence the urgency: "It's too soon for me to get censored before people know what I'm talking about. There's so much confusion about what I stand for and what I'm saying that that's the whole point: there have to be discussions; there has to be people talking, and there has to be young people talking about politics if they want. They have to have a chance to hear different opinions. And that's really what it's about."

There's a personal edge to this, of course: Maya was personally caught up in Sri Lanka's violence, and she's aware of the impetus that experience gave her. But the instinct is deeply intertwined with an instinct to represent others. "I feel the reason why I'm really like outspoken and stuff is because all of these things were inflicted upon me, and I never went and caused any trouble, you know? I just feel like I was kind of skipping along in some country and somebody decides to drop a bomb and shake up my life and then it's all been survival from then on. And that's the reality for thousands -- and millions -- of people today. Why should I get censored for talking about a life that half the time I didn't choose to live?"

Given the extent to which her viewpoint is grounded in personal experience, what is impressive about the maturity of her songwriting is her ability to write convincingly in the third person. "Sunshowers," for instance, outlines -- with some economy -- the fate of a victim of racial profiling who is not a clear stand-in for either herself or her father.

There's a sense, too, that western critics (such as they are) are simply missing the point when they object to the sense of indiscriminate violence in her music. Violence is not often represented in Western popular music; where it is it tends to be -- as in gangsta rap, say, or death metal -- ritualized at source and translated into a marketable commodity. Violence in the western popular imagination is abstract, organized, refined. In much of the developing world, Sri Lanka in particular, the experience of the last few decades has been one of arbitrary, unannounced, and spectacular slaughter. M.I.A.'s music and politics might sound like an assault without coherence or strategy; that doesn't necessarily mean they lack realism.

Ruben Fleischer, who directed "Galang," thinks "the principle idea behind M.I.A.'s artwork is to have pretty heavy/political ideas, but to present them in a poppy candy-coated wrapper. So someone might buy her painting because it is pretty to the eye, and not necessarily consider that it is a rebellious image that she is presenting. However, after they've had it for a while, they might start to think -- why do I have a pink tank on my wall? ... I think that ["Galang"] is a very successful video in that we have true images of revolution playing on MTV. However, because there's lots of pretty colors and a pretty girl dancing, no one blinks an eye. Hopefully we have succeeded in subconsciously starting the revolution."

The superficiality of M.I.A.'s chosen media -- graffiti stencil art and popular music -- makes politics a risky business. Her approach is the opposite of that of radical artists like Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino, who followed Franz Fanon in calling for an art that documented resistance while breaking down the barriers between spectator and artist. They called for artistic processes -- and exhibition -- that involved the audience directly, making them reexamine their role and forge a new, collective, identity. M.I.A.'s art and music, by contrast, are all spectacle. The two-dimensional stencils and the catchy hooks can only subvert the audience's role after their immediate appeal has worn off, and they lack the breadth to contain a full alternative program. What's more, the distance that comes from rendering real-world political conflicts in such a stylized, vibrant medium feels very much like the distance afforded by nostalgia, hero-worship, and romanticism. Graffiti -- like hip-hop -- is a superficial, ephemeral medium, with its own set of artistic risks.

But the realm of the image is what M.I.A. is most determined to contest: the media role models, the conformity of mainstream popular culture. "When [XL] first signed me, they sat me down and they were like, 'You know we only sign artists that are like "fuck you."' I was like, 'Hmm. What part of "fuck you" don't you get about me? Me being on MTV is way more "fuck you" than me not being on MTV.' Because of where I come from. I haven't seen anyone like me on there before. And that's what would be really fun to do."

The narrow range of images presented by "the commercial media" appalls her. "There's only so much controlled generic brainwashing you can do. And the thing is it would be fine if the audience weren't reduced to being so dumb. I feel like they constantly think that we're just stupid and that all we can handle is more songs about champagne and Bentleys ... We don't all have access to millions of pounds and Bentleys and £50,000 diamond necklaces. Where do those people go to be content with how they live, if constantly we're being fed images of 'this is what you need to aspire to be; this is what you need to aspire to be?'"

There's a common thread that runs from her concern with racism to the assumptions made about audiences. It's prejudice, the ugly side of London's cosmopolitan mosaic, and the DNA of Sri Lanka's remorseless conflict. "What I want to say is, just be careful how you judge people, because you never know. And I'm a living proof of that. Every step of the way, people thought I was shittier than I actually was, or people thought I was worse than I was, or people thought I exist as something bad on the planet. Politics shaped that in the beginning for me. But right now it's just a messy situation. All I want to do is exist as a voice for the other people that you don't get to hear from. That's all."

Da Vinci Code Turns Two

Dan Brown's mystery/thriller The Da Vinci Code is the kind of phenomenon for which the words "mammoth" and "blockbuster" were seemingly invented. Every now and again, an author manages to find the cultural sweet spot with surgical precision, and many trees are felled to print the billions of pages demanded by hungry readers.

In fact, the book has been at or near the top of the sales charts for more than two years now -- the first printing hit shelves in March, 2003. At one point, Da Vinci was selling around 100,000 copies per week. Two years later, and it's still hovering in the top five of the New York Times bestseller list. To date, it has sold more than 18 million copies and has been translated into at least 44 languages. Everyone I know has read this book. Everyone you know has read this book.

Indeed, Brown's efforts have spawned a kind of pocket industry -- a movie is forthcoming next summer (Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard are attached), and countless TV, radio and magazine specials on the book have already come and gone.

Da Vinci's success has also had the effect of spinning off dozens of "response" books by historians, quasi-historians and trivia-peddlers hawking insights into the secrets of the mothership tome. A quick Google of Amazon (O glorious technobabble!) returns several titles: Secrets of the Code, Da Vinci Code Decoded, The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code, Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, Unlocking Da Vinci's Code and Decoding Da Vinci. I am dead serious when I say Da Vinci for Dummies is on shelves now.

Of course, it's not uncommon in the book industry for a massively popular piece of work to generate companion titles looking to cash in on the action. The Da Vinci Code phenomenon is somewhat different, however. The relationship of these books to the source work is not as overtly parasitic as in other cases. (Does the world really need New Clues to Harry Potter, Book Five? No kidding, you can look it up.)

Instead, several of these response books are written by scholars and historians who take umbrage with Brown's claims to historical authenticity within the fictional framework of The Da Vinci Code. (Soon, the Catholic Church will be involved in all the factual hand-wringing, too: Seventy-year-old Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Archbishop of Genoa, was selected by the Vatican to officially pen their official rebuttal to Brown's novel in March.)

They are academic works, primarily, often published by a university press and crammed with the kind of obsessive footnoting that makes textbooks so much fun to read. The authors of these particular works aren't looking to attach their books, barnacle-like, to the hull of the mighty S.S. Da Vinci. (Although the association probably doesn't keep them up nights, either.) Instead, they have scholarly bones to pick.

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Da Vinci begins with a seemingly blunt declaration concerning the factual accuracy of historical artifacts referenced and described within the stories: All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.

Brown's preface, sort of the opposite of a disclaimer (a "claimer"?), is actually very canny. This one simple sentence has proven to be incredibly effective at coloring the experience of reading the book that follows. Many if not most of Da Vinci's readers seem to have interpreted the preface to mean a lot more than it actually does.

Look carefully, and you'll see that Brown employs some rather dexterous sleight-of-pen in that preface. At first glance, it seems very bold and compelling. Reread it, though, and you'll see that Brown is quite specific about the elements of the book he claims to be historically accurate. His descriptions of the artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in Da Vinci are, indeed, accurate. The story that surrounds them, however, is conjecture; a puzzle assembled from historical jigsaw pieces that have been rearranged to present another picture. It's a neat trick.

A big part of the reason the trick works so well is that the story itself is carefully researched -- it's apparent that Brown put a lot of effort into the details. The book proceeds from accepted historical subject matter. (As accepted as can be reasonably demanded -- there's a whole 'nother epistemological conversation here on what we think we "know" about history.) And the central "mystery" uncovered in Da Vinci is actually a fairly well-worn theory that's been floated in conspiracy circles for a very long time.

Brown naturally uses quite a bit of selective editing and convenient rearranging to power the revisionist histories he describes, and his characters come to conclusions that are wildly inventive, from a rigorous scholarly standpoint. In fact, it's clear that Brown takes creative license throughout the book, in regard to what's fact, what's fiction, and whatever's in between. The academicians can point you to many of the specifics, if you're interested (I recommend Bart Ehrman's Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code). But even the modestly attentive reader will conclude after reading Da Vinci that the story is, as they say, too good to be true.

Well, of course. Da Vinci is a fiction novel, and what's more, it's a thriller -- a page-turner designed to provide a hook on every page, and a cliffhanger in every chapter. The book's preface serves the same basic function as title cards in movie that read, "Based on a true story," or even more vaguely, "Inspired by a true story." It's for effect.

This is a familiar trope in cinema, and storytelling in general. You can rest assured that Mr. Brown knows exactly what he's doing. His preface statement heightens the wonder and excitement that Brown so effectively summons from the rich topic he explores. The book suggests not just an alternative history -- this could have happened! -- but a deliberately concealed actual history -- this is what really happened! The effect plays into what is perhaps the greatest strength of Brown's pop literary formula -- he writes efficient thrillers that make you feel smart.

Because Brown's fact/fiction misdirections are so subtle, and the "mystery" he reveals so astonishing, a massive readership has been incidentally (or perhaps skillfully) nudged into an interesting vantage point on history itself. For the first time, many readers are reflecting on their history classes and books, religious and secular, and on the nature of received wisdom. Who do you choose to believe? What do you want to believe? How do we know what we think we know?

Times being what they are, several parties are cleaning up by trolling this strange ancillary market. Brown suggests a massive cultural conspiracy that is historically actual. The more scholarly response books are falling over each other to tell you otherwise. The savviest critics are not actually responding to historical discrepancies in the fictional The Da Vinci Code, but to a readership that is taking the story literally. Meanwhile, the evangelists and trivia-peddlers assemble quickie books to mine the areas in between.

And everybody's winking, just a little bit.

Neverland Penitentiary

Only days into the jury selection process for Michael Jackson's upcoming trial, the carnival atmosphere continues to follow the Gloved One like his shadow. From agitated bands of courthouse protesters to Jackson's televised proclamations of innocence, the latest chapter in this tragic tale has the potential to outdo all of his previous legal encounters as the trial shapes up to be the ultimate theater of the absurd.

California is host to mudslides, floods, earthquakes, and forest fires, but these pale before the natural disasters that most fixate the media: celebrity criminal proceedings. California has treated the nation to these perversely fascinating spectacles on a regular basis, and Jackson's is sure to be more lurid than O.J., more exciting than Baretta and more entertaining than Scott Peterson. Order some cotton candy and grab a seat, the circus has come to town.

It's ironic that Jackson finds himself defending his person in the hallowed halls of justice, since he has spent the bulk of his adult life being tried in the court of public opinion. Before our collective eyes, he's evolved from his prepubescent days as the focal point of the Jackson 5 into an asexual MTV monopoly and embarrassingly wealthy pop icon, and then into a surgically altered oddity and compulsive water-cooler topic. His albums sold in the tens of millions, yet since Thriller his artistic talents have been continually overshadowed by his personal eccentricities. Curious onlookers have been baffled by the paradox he poses: Is he a little boy in an adult's body, or is there a serious psychosis brewing? Jackson continued to confound matters with his peculiar behavior and well-publicized affinity for adolescent companionship, thus changing the prevailing question to: Is he a delusional sexual predator who exploits the young visitors to his Neverland ranch, or merely an inscrutable man-child interested in sharing his fame and fortune with juveniles?

Regardless of the correct answer, Jackson polarizes societal sentiment, as admirers hold him in fanatically high regard while detractors ridicule him as a pedophilic freak. Contrary to race-card spin, ethnicity plays virtually no role in whether Michael Jackson is loved or loathed; his transformation over the years has left his image as colorless as his de-pigmented skin has become. Jackson is being prosecuted because of the grotesque nature of the charges levied against him coupled with his celebrity status. To suggest anything else sinks the case deeper into the muck and accomplishes the unthinkable; it makes Jackson a gratuitous victim of white society whose primary motivation is the figurative lynching of a powerful black man. Let the Johnny Cochrans of the world perpetuate this type of racist rhetoric; Jackson's fate should be decided strictly upon the merits of the presented evidence.

That said, believing that a pool of jurors completely devoid of biases can be impaneled is a fallacy. Violations to gag orders have repeatedly occurred, as leaks make their way to the media from parts unknown. Everyone has formed opinions based upon past news stories and gossip column fodder, with Jackson's legal dilemmas and antics making headlines for over a decade. Reports of questionable conduct behind closed doors, hush-money payoffs and additional alleged victims coming forward only muddy the water further.

Jackson hasn't done himself many favors either, staying true to form by releasing carefully orchestrated pleas for understanding and holding fast to his proclaimed devotion to children. Public-relations minions from both sides stand at the ready, prepared to affect damage control on a moment's notice, as reporters circle the spectacle like hungry buzzards. So how will Jackson get a fair trial amidst the chaos? He won't, despite what the judge assures him, as he and his past are simply too well known by even the most casual passersby. So it seems unlikely, in this climate, that justice will be served. Rather than come to terms with Jackson's guilt or innocence, the Jackson case is more likely to exemplify all that's wrong with the judicial system.

Should Jackson be found guilty, the empire he's painstakingly constructed around himself will assuredly crumble. He will be a convicted child molester, one whom the recording industry will cast aside. Defectors from his once-lavish payroll roster of assorted handlers and sycophants will seek ways to capitalize with book deals offering firsthand accounts of life in Wacko Jacko Land. Conversely, if Jackson is exonerated, he will never completely escape suspicion, or the hordes of litigious opportunists looking for a quick buck. He'll remain as alone in his world of surreality as he would be in a six-by-eight foot cell.

About a Book

Reading Nick Hornby is like sitting down with a good friend for a chat about books, movies, people, whatever. He's smart and funny, but he is not pretentious; or when he verges on pretension, he beats you to the punch, apologizing for his vanity (that's so British of him), vowing it will never happen again, or that it probably will happen again, but he's only human, right? In both his fiction (High Fidelity, About a Boy, and How to Be Good) and his non-fiction (Fever Pitch and Songbook), Hornby consistently exemplifies Kurt Vonnegut's maxim for successful writing: that the writer be a good date for the reader. The writer must not be too smart, or too nasty, or too obscure, or too obnoxious. The writer is to be polite, funny, engaging, courteous, friendly. Hornby is the rare writer who can say a whole hell of a lot without coming off as smugly proud of himself for being able to say so much.

In that respect, Hornby found a perfect fit in the Believer, a literary-magazine offshoot of Dave Eggers's McSweeney's. The credo of the magazine is to foster a positive environment for creative writers and artists. The editors pledge that their reviews will never be nasty or snide or, in their own words, "snarky," a malaise that they feel has gripped the mainstream book press. Their mission is admirable, even if they go about it in a somewhat adolescent manner (I mean, really, not everything can be good; certain things deserve negative criticism, no?). The Polysyllabic Spree collects 14 months' worth of Nick Hornby's column in the magazine devoted to what he'd been reading the past month. For all his amiability, however, even Hornby finds the editors of the Believer a bit zealous: the title of the book gently lampoons them, likening them the esoteric rock band The Polyphonic Spree, which consists of a large group of people wearing robes; he feels like a philistine and dullard when compared to this bunch of young, ambitious, hyper-literary vegans with strong convictions and hang-ups, living very much up in the ivory tower. In fact, when Hornby has something bad to say about a novel, he refuses to mention the novel by name, fearing the wrath of the Spree. That's what's so great about Hornby. His voice is one of innocence and curiosity, yes, but it is also the voice of a middle-aged man, tinged with a sense of realism and maturity.

Hornby's last book of essays, Songbook, was a collection of musings on his favorite songs and albums. The books was beautifully produced by McSweeney's to look like a mix tape, and attached to the inside cover was a CD containing ten of the songs Hornby discusses in the book. The Polysyllabic Spree is somewhat the same thing, but for books instead of music. At the beginning of each column, Hornby lists the books he's purchased and the books he's actually read during the last month. In the first chapter in the book, chronicling September 2003, the reader instantly notices that Hornby bought ten books, including a few hefty literary biographies. Does that seem like showing off? Well, Hornby wonders that too, writing:

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Emperor of Masculinity

I think anybody that explores American history can't help but be drawn to the question of race. – Ken Burns, "The Making of Unforgivable Blackness"

See, Johnson was a pure individual. He did everything exactly the way he wanted to. I don't think it ever crossed his mind that he should be anybody else's version of Jack Johnson. – Stanley Crouch, Unforgivable Blackness

The story of Jack Johnson is huge. The first black heavyweight champion of the world, 1908 to 1915, he was rowdy, smart, rebellious and proud. He was also resilient in the face of unrelenting racism. And, as Stanley Crouch observes in Ken Burns' Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, "There is nobody like Jack Johnson, because, first thing, when Jack Johnson was fighting, he could have been killed at any of his major fights. There were people out in the audience who were probably willing to murder him. He knew it, they knew it, everybody in the world knew it."

Talented and world-famous as a young man, as well as essentially unbeatable, Johnson was champion when (official, as opposed to underground) boxing was a wholly white province, when The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Jack London, all editorialized as to natural orders, in which African Americans were humble and inferior, and Caucasians were honorable, strong, and always right. And yet, as courageous and frankly brilliant as Jack Johnson was, his story is frequently forgotten in the wake of more recent flashy sports and other celebrities.

This despite the fact that he just about invented bling, at least in the form of gold teeth and fast cars. While the play and movie, The Great White Hope (both starring James Earl Jones, who serves as an interviewee for this film) complicate and celebrate Johnson's biography, this exceptional documentary fills in lots of blanks. At once wildly popular with most black audiences and grievously threatening for most whites, Johnson's achievements (his rise) are attached to his difficulties (his fall), most often, his relationships with white women, private relationships that he refused to hide. In his day, miscegenation was still an offense that inspired lynching.

With the man's elusive history in mind, it's appropriate that Unforgivable Blackness begins with a story that may or may not be true. Born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, he ran away when he was 12 – or so he recalls (his self-narration, from letters and his autobiography, is read by Samuel L. Jackson) – to meet the man whom he most admired, who happened to reside in Brooklyn. This was Steve Brodie, self-proclaimed "Champion Bridge Jumper of the World," following a reported jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Whether young Johnson actually made it to New York to shake Brodie's hand is unclear, but the story helps to form part of his legend – an ambitious, determined youngster whose rise was inevitable, despite all odds. He began boxing as a teen in the Jim Crow South, and, as the film shows through images of anonymous black folks of the moment, life was difficult, even for the hardiest, most resolute child.

He spent years pursuing the chance to fight for the championship, which he won in 1908, in Australia against Tommy Burns. The reason that Burns, against the wisdom of most other white fighters, even gave the "Negro" a chance at the title, was the money – an unheard of $30,000; Johnson knocked him out in the 14th round. The fact that Johnson so plainly enjoyed beating up white challengers made him a fearsome specter. And as he always had, he refused to moderate his behavior. Taking "orders from no one," he posed what the film calls "a perpetual threat." When, in 1910, he and Jim Jeffries fought the "Battle of the Century" in Reno, Nev., stakes were high: it appears that every white American – save Johnson's many girlfriends (Roberts calls him "heroically unfaithful") – wanted the title returned to Jeffries (who had been retired for several years and came back to salvage the white race's good name).

Jeffries' loss, observes Roberts in the film, incited a kind of panic. "The press reacted as if Armageddon was here. That this may be the moment when it all starts to fall apart for white society." Indeed, race riots broke out in major cities, and Congress got to work on legislation that would ban the release of fight films, at the time very lucrative industry (Johnson's victories tended to play in black theaters, further distressing lawmakers and others). "His real crime," the film observes, "was beating Jim Jeffries."

Johnson persisted in traveling openly with white women (often, "sporting women," or prostitutes, one of whom, 19-year-old Lucille Cameron, he eventually married), and so he was eventually arrested and convicted, in 1912, of violating the Mann Act (Lucille's beside-herself mother instigated the proceedings, though Belle Schreiber testified against him). This despite the fact that the act, passed in 1910, outlawed the transportation of women in interstate or foreign commerce, "for the purpose of prostitution, debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose"; in other words, it was designed to stop commercial prostitution, not consenting individuals. But in the eyes of the white legal system, relations between black men and white women could not possibly be consensual.

Johnson fled the country (in a great story recounted in the film, he escapes by boarding a train with a Negro League team, unnoticed by authorities because they "couldn't tell one big black man from another"). When he eventually returned, in 1920 (after he had lost the title to a white boxer, Jess Willard, in 1915), he did his year in prison, where he trained aspiring boxers and then returned to his loving wife Lucille.

As Burns and his crew explain in the making of documentary included on PBS' DVD of Unforgivable Blackness, they were faced, for once, with an abundance of visual material (this was quite different from their own history, of scrounging for images, photos and papers concerning the Civil War or baseball or long forgotten jazz musicians). "Some fights were filmed from multiple camera angles," beams Burns. And while these shots were static and wide (no close-ups or no mobile frames), they did allow for editors to "crop in and recompose, to create medium shots."

These creations emphasize Johnson's remarkable smile – in the ring, on the street, on the vaudeville stage where he performed between bouts, to maintain his lavish lifestyle. The images are digitized and cleaned up images to look crisp, and the editors employed "classic techniques of montage to create a kind of urgency about boxing," sound designs that include crowd and punches and grunts, so the lengthy (25 or more rounds) bouts might be cut into digestible and exciting bits. As Burns has it, this sort of futzing around with the archival material was new for him, and the film has a "new, experimental feeling in the editing, the music, and the rip-snorting story."

The movie, based in part on Geoffrey C. Ward's book, is slightly less than "rip-snorting," in that it takes up a typically Burnsian pace, including period-style music (composed by Wynton Marsalis) and an impressive array of actors reading from letters and newspaper articles, calling him "the Negro," "the Ethiopian," and other more offensive terms (Amy Madigan as Johnson's mistress Belle Schreiber, Billy Bob Thornton, Alan Rickman), as well as interviews with a variety of experts (Crouch, Gerald Early, Bert Sugar, George Plimpton). The film's first part focuses on Johnson's professional ascent, the second on his takedown by U.S. authorities unhappy that the "honor of the white race" had been lost when he became "the strongest man in the world," or even better, "the emperor of masculinity." Yet, if the film's basic structure is pedestrian, Burns is right about one thing: Johnson booms off the screen in every image.

Many of these are stills – most posed for magazines, promotional posters, and newspapers, as well as others, apparently records of more intimate moments, with his mistresses and wives, and with his beloved sports cars (at one point, he owned five, which he loved to drive fast and to crank up the engines to ensure he was heard, roaring through city streets, and it's perhaps fitting that he died in a car crash following an excessively speedy drive instigated by his rage at his treatment at a Jim Crow restaurant). He was a beautiful man, large, looming, and voracious: he played the bass, resisted entreaties from moderate black authorities like Booker T. Washington that he behave as a proper role model.

Johnson's influence – his pride in himself and his blackness, his excesses, ambition, and fortitude – stretches into the future. And Burns' film, putting together the pieces of Johnson's remarkable life, reminds us not only of how it was, but also how it can be, when racism, combined with another sort of pride and excess, shapes legal limits and social attitudes. Jack Johnson, as he puts it, "was the brunette in a blonde town, but, gentlemen, I did not stop stepping."

Songs for the Dumped

After you've been dumped by your significant other, a magical thing occurs. Every single pop song is the story of your life, your tenuous emotional state-poignant and sad-realized in beautiful music.

Of course, the magic of music is the last thing on your mind during a breakup. Now I've broken off relationships in many locations: backstage at rock clubs, on the beach, in a restaurant, in Canada. As traumatic as those breakups were, (and try breaking up with somebody in a place as small as Boston. There are too many ghosts.) the worst one was my so-called First Boyfriend, who dumped me during a 3 a.m. walk on the Charles River Esplanade in a driving, pounding rain. It turned out for the best – I was a pawn standing between a love story of Dawson-Leery-and-Joey-Potter-sized proportions, and the soul mates are still dating today. At the time, I was miserable and all I could see was that I was really hurt at being abruptly dumped with such a lack of finesse. In his defense, however, we were nineteen.

My feelings were so confused after that breakup. It left me in a prime position to fall madly in love with something. It's an inverse of that giddy lovestruck feeling at the start of a relationship when every John Cusack character acts as an indelible reminder of your love. Instead of being in love with love, now every song with misery, angst, and pain becomes a secret code into my inner life! There were no friends waiting to hug me when I had my first breakup; I ran into the open arms of music, looking for solace.

I found it in the serendipitous discovery of Spoon. As a struggling music writer, I had to keep my eye out for new bands and there were lots of articles in places like Magnet and Spin plugging Spoon and their new album, "Girls Can Tell." My curiosity was piqued with the endless Elvis Costello comparisons and when I called my editor at the local alt-weekly to ask about the band, he said that the CD had just reached the offices that day.

Turns out that Spoon's new album was a total breakup album, and I was instantly smitten. Britt Daniel spends the whole album fuming bitterly and wistfully over some lost opportunity (the major label deal? his girl?) and the jumpy, poppy music laced with new wave keyboards adds an exciting level of god-what's-gonna-happen-next? tension.

Most importantly, though, in my super-sensitive state the album was clearly a lyrical attempt by Daniel to sing about my life. The first song's repeated, "I go to sleep and think that you're next to me," hit me right in my new empty bed. Even the most mundane lines worked for me with context of the seductive music and Daniel's sexy, raspy voice: "She eats right/ but hurts/ and says it could've been good by now." The regret and self-pity in the line is overcome by the feeling, the familiar "coulda shoulda woulda" idea that Daniel had felt and passed onto the listeners. I was in love with this album and found that it was perfectly sequenced, with a cathartic weeper as goodbye.

"Chicago at Night" has Daniel lingering on the visual of a lonely girl on a plane going to Chicago. She's gone away from him, maybe into a bright new future like that Liz Phair song "Stratford-on-guy." In Phair's song, the girl is "flying into Chicago at night," but the exuberant chorus realizes a kind of nonsensical Zen peace: "It took an hour/ maybe a day/ but once I really listened the noise/ just went away." Coming at the end of an archetypical college-girl breakup album, it's clear that everything will be alright with the zooming guitar and Phair's small glorious epiphanies about the nature of life.

The post-breakup mood gives music more emotional importance, something akin to the truth in that line that Jeff Magnum warbles, "sweet silly music is meaningful, magical." I invested so much of my break-up emotions in the Spoon album so that I could get over them. Emotions do shift, and my infatuation with Spoon lasted for the duration of a weepy month. Days passed, the sadness faded, and the album lost the luster of being a concept album about me. Eventually "Girls Can Tell" was just another excellent album in my collection.

Breakup albums can become a habit, a way to deal with pain (And do note that I mean breakup albums in relationship to the listener being "broken up," unlike the artist). It's very easy to trace your romantic history out in music. For me it goes something like Spoon, Fiona Apple, Veruca Salt, The Walkmen, and Lyle Lovett. Your mileage may vary – in a poll of my friends, I've found that there's usually a "bitter boy album" slot of the Elvis Costello variety or something that's emo if they're sensitive, the Dirty Three if their sensitivity transcends mere words, and many a girl has a mopey girl album in her collection, Joni Mitchell if she's annoying, Tori if she's loopy, and Fiona if she's smart.

In fact, Fiona Apple's "When The Pawn..." may be the best breakup album that's been released in the last five years. Apple's husky voice gives a real poignancy to her well-written songs that detail the regret of relationships through lots of piano and typical Jon Brion production, which utilizes a variety of oddball instrumentation. "I'll Know" portrays love through magician metaphors, "Love Ridden" gracefully pinpoints the loss of intimacy between two people (a hug, a kiss, until a wave), and "Fast As You Can" is a great "I'm too crazy and deep for you, boy" song where Apple's riding the beat like it's Outkast's "Bombs Over Baghdad." (Even better? Her song predates that classic.)

It's an act of utter cruelty to the recently dumped girls of America that Apple's long-awaited "Extraordinary Machine" hasn't been released yet. As a recently dumped girl, I know that right now I need a breakup album of epic proportions. In May I went through a wrenching split, the slow fizzling out of three years. It's been a terrible couple of months. He stomped upon my heart and all I have to show for it are jangly nerves and mercurial behavior, and this façade is all a front for how I feel vulnerable and emotionally bereft.

After three years with someone, you create a lot of memories together. Some memories are inextricably intertwined with music, like it's the soundtrack to the film of your relationship. I can't listen to Iron and Wine (I'd buy him those CDs!) or The Shins (he had an endearing boy-crush on James Mercer!).

I've been stuck on The Walkmen's "Bows and Arrows" for the last three months precisely because it didn't remind me of him. In fact, The Walkmen's Boston show last February was really a marker for the beginning of the end of the affair.

The moodiness of "Bows and Arrows" works well as an album leading to the end. The Walkmen improve upon the potential of their debut by becoming atmospheric where they once were ambling, aggressive where they once were pouting. Somehow, "Bows and Arrows" is stranger than the debut and in its strangeness it is both epic and grand.

There's an essential paradox to The Walkmen that makes them work: they're passionate and they're chilly. It's best embodied by Hamilton Leithauser, an intense vein-popping vocalist whose songs are mostly about alienation and urban ennui. The most affecting part of "The Rat" comes when the guitar's rattling slows down and Leithauser confesses, "When I used to go out I would know everyone that I saw/ Now I go out alone if I go out at all." Later in the album, the Christmas bells of "New Year's Eve" leads into the near-chant of "The music's loud/ in your room/ turn it down." It's an inherently anti-rocking sentiment (can you see, say, The Hives asking you to be quiet?) but the lyric works because it's a common city sentiment, familiar within their milleu.

In The Walkmen's milieu, they fret over the city and the mores of young men. When they do sing about girls, like in the lovely "Hang On Siobhan," she's "a mystery" to him. Leithauser is tender, even vulnerable, but as a vocalist he will never bleed for the girl, unlike Jeff Buckley.

Leithauser's vocals provide a strong contrast for the gorgeous music. The Walkmen are one of the tightest bands around, with ratatat drumming and the circus screech of well-placed organ sounds balancing out the aggressive and pretty guitars. The music pushes and pulls against the interior frustration of the lyrical content.

"Bows and Arrows" worked for me when I was alienated and numb. However, I soon realized that The Walkmen's anger and alienation morphs into utter melancholy when I'm drunk. I couldn't deal with that existential terror, so I decided to move onto a breakup album that had more to say about men and women and the damage they do. I went onwards to Lyle Lovett's "The Road To Ensenada," his 1996 album that was released after his divorce from Julia Roberts.

Now don't stop reading here – Lovett is a terrifically underrated artist, along the lines of Randy Newman when he was awesome, and he's not really a country singer, he's more along the lines of a Lucinda Williams, a country iconoclast. Country may be his genre, but he's certainly not hindered by Nashville limitations. "Ensenada" is the first album that I've cited that can be considered an artists' breakup album, along the lines of Beck's "Sea Change" or Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks," where every track is colored by the failure of a relationship.

Please note that Lovett's last album before "Ensenada" was a saccharine collection of odds n' sods called "I Love Everybody," which is particularly notable for Roberts' caterwauling as a backup singer. It received the worst reviews of his career.

Two years later, he released "The Road To Ensenada," a great album where his songwriting chops – wry, dark, and hooky – were back in full force. And the album's subtext can boil down to "Julia, you bitch!" because he's got it in lyrically for a girl from Georgia. The western swing of "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)" was jaunty enough to be used in a Texas tourism ad, but in the verses he leaves his Georgia girl on the side of the highway for asking, "How come you're always/going on about that Lone Star State?" It's funny, but it's a harbinger for the darker, sadder songs to come. Other songs have refrains like "I can't love you anymore," while other songs feature lonely and suspicious narrators who spend Christmas alone and figure that everyone's making fun of them: "But hey what could she mean by that/ perhaps I'm the fool she takes me for/ not anything more."

In the title track, Lovett's narrator is "sick and broken" in Mexico, with only the nuns to take care of him, and the sparse acoustic guitar to back him up, but his girl's not there, and they "ain't no friend to me." The refrain is utterly damming, and it's clear that someone has stomped upon his heart.

The narratives are rich and emotionally complicated. Lovett is a great writer of empathy, and he places you within these character's vivid lives. Although the mood is one that mixes a strange cocktail of sadness and wry humor, it's clear that Lovett's going to be okay in the end – particularly since this album is his best album, with affecting songs that use his singular combination of twang, blues, and swing to tell the stories of sad-eyed strivers.

Because if Lyle Lovett can get over Julia Roberts (and talk about ghosts – if your ex was the world's most famous actress, it's near to impossible to hide from her image!), and Bob Dylan can get over pretty models, and Spoon (and a host of other bands) can get over being fucked around by a major label, then you too can survive your breakup. Breakup albums are universal – everyone has their particular album or song that has helped them through a difficult time. I would argue that it's pretty difficult to make Awesome Breakup Mix #12 (and if you've proved me wrong, well, send it my way!).

The healing power of the breakup album is transference in action (And it doesn't involve sleeping with your therapist). But how do you know when you are fully healed? When can you love again? When will early, angry PJ Harvey or Helium stop seeming relevant?

For me, the clearest sign that I was ready to love again happened after my Spoon obsession. My bruises healed and I was far less world weary than when I was in mourning. And again, there was a song: Coldplay's "Shiver."

One day, in a coffee shop, a song with the most spectacular guitar line came on. It sounded Middle Eastern, vaguely cribbed from the Led Zepplin-isms of Jeff Buckley's "Grace." Over the guitar, this falsetto is claiming, "Don't you shiver/ Don't you shiver/ Sing it loud and clear/ I'll always be waiting for you." It sounded like a photocopy of a photocopy of a Jeff Buckley song, and it was majestic.

I don't like Coldplay, (again, it's the photocopy of a photocopy thing) but I searched out a listening station that held "Parachutes" and every day, I went over to Borders and listened to "Shiver." It was spectacular. Chris Martin was declaring his love and fidelity and he was so sincere about it. If Chris Martin could love me, then maybe, someday, I could love again. And so it goes, we breakup and we makeup and somewhere, somebody's singing a song about it.

Six Feet Over the Top

My adoration of Six Feet Under has always been tinged with mistrust. I worried that its existential indecision would take a wrong turn, that I would sour on its inability to decide whether it's inspired by Deepak Chopra or Jean Paul Sartre. Until now, it has taken television drama to new levels of introspection, but this season something slipped, like a priest's hand a few inches too high on your thigh. It has become crass, each episode an empathy decathlon topped off with ghoulishly deferred catharsis.

It seems the writers have developed an addiction to unnecessary trauma, like a poet I once knew who cut herself not because she was mentally ill, but because it would sound right in a future biography. The first segment to give me pause was the burial of Nate Fisher's wife (Lili Taylor). We had already been maxed out on Nate's (Peter Krause) grief, strung along from the point where she went missing, to a brief period where she was thought to have been abducted by a serial killer, to her rotted body washing up on shore.

On most shows, his Olympic grieving would be enough to indicate his loss. Not here. Nate decides Lisa must be buried as she had requested, with no physical barriers (such as a coffin) between her and the earth. He drives her body to a deserted hill, digs a grave, and flops her waterlogged remnants into the dirt, literally losing his mind as he hears her slop into the hole. This went beyond gratuitous.

It's not every series that can make you say, "You lost me with the psychotic crackhead mugger episode," but for what it's worth, there you have it. On the last episode I watched, David (Michael C. Hall) dreams he picks up a hitchhiker who beats him, demands he remove money from an ATM, threatens to kill him, makes him do crack and have anal sex, dumps gasoline on him, and leaves him for dead. All this is revealed in such detail and at such a languorous pace that it feels like a long, locked stare, grotesque and rattling. One can't help but wonder if the writers have come to view such behavior as universal, picturing a world of martyrdom and sadistic domination, punctuated by exquisite agony.

The show's sexual candor used to be its strong suit, but this season morbidity has taken root. David was sucked off by a plumber who helped to clean up a wading pool of corpse blood. Frederico (Freddy Rodriguez) snuck out on his wife (Justina Machado) for a hummer from a junky stripper to whom he ended up playing sugar daddy. These furtive urge-feedings reduce the characters to products of an ambitionless will to power, their moral anchors tissue-paper thin.

It appears Six Feet Under has surrendered its once heady interests for a relatively simple obsession with sex per se. Claire's (Lauren Ambrose) tiresome ennui got a tentative jolt from her recent bi-curious itch, which seems designed to satisfy the Penthouse Forum demographic, by bringing some hot girl-on-girl action to the small screen. David has strayed into casual liaisons even though last season his relationship was torn asunder by a string of threesomes. Nate drifts around, loving his wife more dead than alive, and salving his wounds with whatever convenient nookie he can find.

Even Ruth (Frances O'Connor) is having a headboard-banging fiesta of a new marriage, despite the fact that she barely knows her remote, trivial gnat of a husband (James Cromwell). This alone wouldn't make me uncomfortable. I love sex, and rarely get enough of talking about it, but here the sex is either pathological or too much like those fundamentalist conversion narratives where decadence leads the unbeliever to the path of conservative righteousness.

These elements of the new episodes have me reconsidering the motives of Alan Ball, who previously seemed like one of those harmless Unitarian liberals who know their Chai as well as their Tibetan Book of the Dead . Now I'm wondering whether he's a repressed Christian whose festering faith has him trying to reconcile nihilism, sexuality, and a universe in some sort of moral balance.

In this context, the series' grappling with religious questions has become more hodgepodge and accusatory than in previous seasons. Is Lisa's death punishment for Nate's wandering cock? Is Claire's abortion an indictment of her character? Was David "asking for" violence because he can't be monogamous? That I'm even asking such questions means I no longer trust Six Feet Under's framework. If the writers wish to be moralists, they should just get on with it, instead of panting over their protagonists' distress the way Mel Gibson did over Jesus.

Where I used to see an admirable ambiguity in the show's magic realism, I now see arcane hollowness. A surfeit of psychologizing and sarcasm relegates religious experience to the realm of hallucination, which may or may not have some reality to it. As the tension between godlessness and soul-searching teeters in favor of the former, the characters' notorious conversations with the dead increasingly reflect a belief that life is just a series of nervous breakdowns until you die a horrible, inexplicable death. The opening scenes of out-of-the-blue deaths now seem less like humorous reminders of our fragility and more like gruesome indications of our pointlessness.

As I struggled to find a defining trope for my discomfort, I kept returning to Brenda's (Rachel Griffiths) latest relationship, with her neighbor (Justin Theroux). Still recovering from sex addiction, she ends up with a nice guy who can't get hard without being humiliated, forcing her into the role of reluctant dominatrix, her simple needs distorted by someone who can't have intimacy without abuse, or more judgmentally, someone who fetishizes his own guilt. I feel like I've struck a similar Faustian bargain, looking for decent entertainment.

Six Feet Under used to provide thematic intensity and compelling characters, exploring the ambiguities and fears that our culture papers over with platitudes. But I don't want to watch sexualized suffering, a crack addict force someone to fuck him up the ass or de Sadean rewrites of The Waltons. Granted, lauded television dramas often slide into soap opera. Six Feet Under , however, looks more and more like a spiritual snuff flick, where God whittles off Faith and Hope because we like it that way. I'm nobody's bitch. I'm ready to leave this brand of emotional pornography behind.

Beyond the Super Freak Mask

While the untimely passing of musicians is always painful, the loss of Rick James is particularly troubling; not simply because he was a rare talent, but more so because he is destined to be remembered for the wrong reasons. Despite his skills as a multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter and producer, James will forever be associated with the larger-than-life image he created, a cartoonish alter ego fueled by the clichéd trappings of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. His name remains synonymous with a single song recorded a quarter century ago, and a lurid court case which exposed his inner demons to a perversely fascinated public. Yet beyond the "Super Freak" mask, James was a brilliant innovator and artist, one who broke down barriers by melding the past with the present so as to create a unique future for popular music.

To better understand James' legacy, it is necessary to briefly revisit his pre-Freak days. James' sensibilities were originally grounded in '60s rock, as he shared time with Neil Young in the Toronto band, the Mynah Birds. Bouncing from Canada to Detroit to London and back, James embarked on various musical journeys, cutting and pasting as he went in an effort to establish himself. Through his affiliation with Motown as a writer and recording artist, James incorporated R&B into his repertoire, subsequently conjuring an aural hybrid he proclaimed to be "funk'n'roll". The significance of this cannot be overstated, for James had followed the rhythmic lead of the Chambers Brothers, Sly Stone and George Clinton before him, blending nuances from different genres and making the final product sonically and visually attractive.

Eventually James surpassed his predecessors by way of accessibility: His most successful work, 1981's Street Songs, (the album that spawned "Super Freak"), enjoyed tremendous cross-over appeal at a time when punk and disco were waning, new wave and rap were in their infancies and arena rock was catching its second wind. Rick James exploded onto the scene in a cloud of thumping bass grooves, leather platform boots and shimmering costumes, platinum records and funked up braggadocio. He was everything from Ziggy Stardust to Earth, Wind and Fire, and unbeknownst to anyone at the time, he had created a masterpiece and a monster all at once; so successful and intoxicating was James' super fly, super freaky, super hero persona, that he soon stopped playing the role and actually became the role.

Commercially and creatively, the magnitude of "Super Freak" is astounding. Not only did it garner critical acclaim and million-seller status after its original release, but it was reborn a decade later as the foundation for the most successful rap song in history, MC Hammer's smash "U Can't Touch This." As a complete composition or simply a looped sample, "Super Freak" became one of the rare tracks to transcend musical boundaries; it grew far larger than a chart topping hit, evolving further into a piece of music's collective consciousness. Ironically, the song's impact was so great that all of James' subsequent efforts were destined for second place status. Perhaps the burden of this realization was the impetus for his descent into personal and professional hell, perhaps not, but "Super Freak" provided James with the financial latitude to immerse himself into depths of destructive hedonism that would have felled mere mortals.

At his best and most creative, James was the consummate showman. Oozing the raw sexuality of James Brown, the confident cool of Jimi Hendrix and the intergalactic style of Bootsy Collins, James took his Super Freakishness to a new level of performance art. Appealing to an impressively diverse audience in concert, on radio and video, Rick James became the supreme ambassador of funk for the masses. As a result, he opened the door to mass market acceptance for Prince and later, Lenny Kravitz, and paved the way for the remarkable mainstream triumph of OutKast. Offstage, James lent his often underestimated studio expertise to acts ranging from the Temptations and Smokey Robinson to Eddie Murphy. Even James' work with the Mary Jane Girls merits mention as it closely resembles Frank Zappa's creation of the GTO's and predates Prince's efforts with Apollonia and Sheila E.

Critics will say that James was a victim of his own addictions and appetites, surviving far longer than he should have. That may be true, but it still doesn't ease the sting of James' passing. The saddest aspect of the Super Freak saga is that after years of debilitating health and legal problems, James had seemingly found peace as a husband and father, and was performing and recording up until his death. The shame is that he was deprived of enjoying more of life's highs as Rick James, having finally put his Mr. Hyde to rest.

Ultimately it is best to look at his career beyond the scope of Super Freak, and acknowledge that Rick James was an artist blessed with as many creative gifts as he was cursed with human flaws. That said, the most fitting tribute might be to balance the positive and negative aspects of his life, then smile and think "you can't touch this."

The Music That Ate the Planet

If you want to know how hip hop is doing, then ask yourself: How am I doing? Where am I going? -Mos Def

We're not into that pigeonhole thing. Hip hop is such an anal [...] community, and people try to be so real about it all, and it's got certain criteria that make it that way. Everyone's got their own definition of what hip hop is really [but] we know what we like and we make music based on that. If people think we're not hip hop then... great. -Fingathing

Hip hop started out as a counter-culture expression of pain-laced, defiant joy by New York's penniless and angry. You make studio time and instrumental tuition too expensive for me, place me in ghettos I lack any means to escape or improve, cut off the power to my housing block, keep me locked down in a miserable job for pathetic pay and generally treat me as a politically powerless and racially inferior minority? I will mix records together with no respect for their discrete heritage or creators; set your anthems as backing vocals for the rhymes I've spent my fruitless hours of drudgery whetting with pent-up bitterness; paint your greyly hideous constructions wildly, vibrantly beautiful; and funnel the electricity from your streetlights into my decks and speakers, to dance with my peers in new and explosive ways that pay homage to our frantic, cooped-up energy. And I will tell my people that they are beautiful, and that you cannot hold us forever, for this raucous, rhythmic, illegitimate music will bring us together, and in its crude but irresistible power we will find and share our impoverished strength and soul once more.

When exactly hip-hop emerged as a musical movement is still the subject of some dispute – depending on who you listen to, the genre ranges from somewhere in its early 20s to a good decade more than that. What is certain is that, since the days when Kool DJ Herc created breakbeats by spinning two copies of The Incredible Bongo Band's cover of "Apache" into each other, turntablism, graf and breaking have all evolved radically and continue to slowly accumulate and elevate in their own directions, gradually becoming accepted by mainstream culture while retaining a certain underground cachet, doubtless due to the huge amounts of time and effort becoming proficient at them requires.

Meanwhile, hip hop and "its illegitimate child, hip-pop" (as Sarah Jones would have it) have become the music that ate the planet. It is all-pervasive in the charts and fills the clubs and homes of people of all colors, professions, and creeds. Its sales are such that the music business has had to go beyond platinum status to reward its superstars, who are global icons. Welcome to the diamond age of hip-hop, where R&B and (nu-)soul have become softened hip-hop beats with either the diva du jour or R. Kelly singing romantic or sexual vapidity over them, where hip-hop benefits from the finest production studios money can buy but lacks joy or spontaneity, where rap has risen (like OutKast) from being the gimmick of a couple of amusing novelty records to being the universally accepted medium on an ocean of CDs, where "hip-hop" has become double-barrelled. The pressure of competition and intensity of black pain have produced something of immense value, attraction and clarity, yet which is increasingly uninvolving, cold and sterile.

Hip hop has travelled so far from its roots in so little time that the girl living downstairs from me has a wallfull of hip-hop cds, yet does not know who Big Daddy Kane is (for the uninformed, this is a little like a modern rock fan not knowing who Jimi Hendrix was. Except that Kane is still alive, performing and peerless). Even more depressingly, I read a review of Jay-Z's "99 Problems" single in a "black music" magazine a few months ago in which the reviewer (and this, remember, is someone who supposedly loves the music so much he's dedicated his life to writing about it) criticised the rapper's "new rock direction." He's referring to the track's production, courtesy of the (white) Rick Rubin, who with very similar compositions changed the whole sound of the genre with people like the LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, and whose significance has now also apparently been forgotten.

Ironically, Jay-Z – the man who obscured Big Daddy Kane, arguably both the most critically acclaimed and publicly adored MC on the planet – has just withdrawn from the scene, if only temporarily. Shawn Carter's importance was and is far greater than this, however, for in his persona he combined remarkable oral skills with lightweight subject matter in a fashion that demanded (and got) respect for his technical abilities while winning him tremendous financial and dance floor success. Equally, he united those who gloried in the rising tide of conspicuous excess that was to overwhelm hip-hop style with those who scorned anything they considered un-"real" (i.e. not based in contemporary [ghetto] life) by boasting of his millionaire lifestyle whilst stressing his roots in, and adherence to, the violent and misogynist mind-state of the crack dealing thug.

While he lacked 2Pac's warmth and electrifying passion, or Biggy's relentless lyricism, in the void left by their murders he embodied gangster rap with nary a rival, bar Nas brooding on the outskirts of the scene, and Dr. Dre, who returned to prominence (mainly as a producer) with a verse ghost-written by Jay-Z himself. Perhaps most shameless though, as Jay-Z sought to become the culture's avatar (and commercial god) by encompassing within his multiple monikers all hip-hop, is the way he has liberally endorsed what was originally considered (and still is to most MCs and producers) the greatest crime against hip-hop culture and your fellow artists: biting, of both beats and rhymes. What better way to simultaneously obliterate and subsume the glory of past MCs than by shamelessly presenting their words as yours, to an audience mostly too ignorant of the music's roots to do anything other than love you for it? "I've got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one"? Ice-T? Who's that? And who the heck is going to replace Jay-Z if he doesn't return fairly shortly? Sadly, the odds are overwhelmingly against it being anyone who will unite hip-hop in order to lead it to pastures new.

Now, any musical genre that becomes so successful that it becomes the mainstream inevitably becomes homogenized, its own swollen girth obscuring beneath it many of its most talented originators. Indeed, many are those who have been loudly proclaiming rock's death for the last few decades. Yet hip hop has not become commercially marginalised, nor has it run out of fresh, hungry artists with something to say and an interesting, original way of saying it. It's quite the opposite in fact. It is just that hip hop bears within its body of listeners not just the usual commercial/obscurist rift, but also a Mobius strip-like cultural one, and the two intersect.

While non-black non-Americans may feel a deep understanding and kinship with hip hop (I know I do), we are not bound to its cultural significance in the same way; although I feel some hip hop is an expression of myself, this could be said of any music I love, and I will always be an outsider looking in because I was not there when it started, I did not grow with it, and I am able to take or leave whole areas of it because, while I may feel that I am part of hip-hop culture now, I do not feel it defines me. When Mos Def sang "all my people to be free/to be free/to be free/all black people to be free" on "Umi Says" I felt (and feel) in perfect emotional accord with him, but I will never really know his pain and for me the song is an expression of universal human need, tenderness and fear.

For many black Americans (and indeed for many black people I have spoken to, from all over the world), however, hip-hop is a shared racial background as much as cultural and historical property. They may not agree with it, in fact they may be sickened by the materialist, misogynist, homophobic and morally bankrupt brand name lifestyle that Rap Music (TM) has become, but in its omnipresence it still supplies a unifying weave and a message of hope: For all that was taken from us in the past, we have stolen back the music of the world and given it our shape, and now no one can deny our influence or success – we will be accepted as we are, or not at all. MCs and producers are idolized in an attempt to populate a present horribly bare of cultural heroes and heroines who aren't sporting figures and athletes – where else but in hip hop would 2Pac's textbook Madonna/whore complex and conviction for anally raping a female fan be swept under the rug in the face of nigh-universal female adulation?

With hip-hop as personal definition comes exclusion; the need to excise the "unreal," the "non-street," and inevitably, whether consciously or not, the non-black, whatever that is felt to be. It is no accident that the 5 Percenters, with their emphasis on linguistic supremacy and beliefs that blacks are the divine master race (and that woman is inferior to man), are so well entrenched in the violent priapism of "real" MCs, where being "gangsta" is a compliment and indeed a necessity. What really struck me about the recent Source magazine spat with Eminem was not that the white MC had, when younger, drunk and enraged at the black girlfriend he'd just broken up with, recorded a mindless vent at "black bitches." For me that was moronic but understandable, and indeed compared to the ways some of hip-hop's most beloved (black) MCs have refered to (black) women it was practically an endearment. Nor was it all that surprising that the Source wilfully misrepresented an interview in an attempt to take further (racial) pot shots at the rapper, as sadly their credibility as an unbiased journalistic venture has been on the rocks for ages now. Rather, what shocked me was something said by Bumpy Knuckles, an MC whose dedication to keeping rap raw and direct I respect, in the Source's celebrity feedback section on the issue: "What else do you expect from a white man?"

Eminem himself remains the Great White Mystery of hip hop, undeniably vastly skilled (while I do not think there is any one best MC, I don't think people who elect him to this position in contemporary hip-hop are being totally unreasonable), hugely successful, inimitably, evilly poppy, amusing and perceptive, laceratingly acerbic and personal, totally unique. He takes his own flaws and those of the white America whose hypocrisy he loathes and uses them to spark a self-immolating rage, his ascension as an MC leaving burning footprints in the cultural stratosphere. Eminem embodies the similarities between punk and hip hop; the need to find your own voice and speak out against the smothering uniformity that angers you. Yet his duality cannot be mimicked by black MCs because punk is, fundamentally, white anger at the pointlessness, excesses and blindness of mainstream white culture, whereas hip hop is rooted in the pain and paucity of the ghetto existence, a contemporary focus for the long history of racial abuse.

No black artist has become truly successful without a "ghetto pass," and while established, popular MCs and producers may bank good will to take hip-hop as a contemporary music scene to new places, they never stray too far from what is currently successful, or from the accepted norms that consensus elected back in the "golden age" of hip-hop. They would not dare; their reputation and acceptance as a representative of hip hop and therefore their own blackness is literally everything to them as artists. This need to "take it back," this nostalgic focus on the musical past means that the now unbreakable cycle of self-affirmation between the people and the music has become increasingly solid, dooming much in the way of experimentation to the outer margins, while consigning to cannibalistic repetition an art form whose greatest strength is its ability to embrace music of any shape and form.

Yet hip hop – the musical approach – has escaped from its creators and any cultural shackles anyone tries to put on it. Just as the music that America's cultural imperialism has forced on the rest of the world over the past few decades became ever more dominated by black "urban" music feeding off hip hop's blueprint, so inevitably as this music became increasingly popular, people worldwide became interested in its musical roots and sources. Thus we have the recent resurgence of electro (clash) and synth-pop, based as much on the attitude of the 80s (the aforementioned "golden age") as the electro that partly spawned hip-hop. Of course, white producers and musicians became interested earlier and dug more deeply, leading to a resurgence of the funk and jazz similar to that ransacked by hip hop's initial unrestrained sampling, born into completely different times and cultural contexts.

Instrumental hip-hop was freed from its partying and dance floor connotations in the minds of many by DJ Shadow's seminal Endtroducing..., its sparse rhythmic framework now frequently put to dour and brooding effect, or slipped and twisted into different skins by electronica, world music and, ironically, jazz. While punk mentality has been mostly put off by hip hop's glam cultural connotations and studio perfection, the progressive rock noodling it was partially created as rebellion against has also embraced aspects of hip hop, and is itself being used to create prog hip hop – as Sixtoo's recent "Chewing On Glass And Other Miracle Cures," starring a member of Can, displays to strange effect. Artists like Interloper, Four Tet, Caural, and Prefuse 73 create an electronic fusion that highlights the enjoyable immediacy of hip-hop beats while paring them to the subtle musicality and unpredictability of sampling in the hands of jazz musicians. Xela, Christian Kleine and a host of others wed warm, soothing beats to guitar strumming and atmospherics to create blissfully intimate, soothing concoctions, while people like Deadly Avenger and Fingathing really take it back, creating hip-hop hybrids with the raw sound of electro yet a modern approach.

If all of this is too electronic-sounding for you, DJ Dangermouse's now notorious take on the Beatles' White Album proves that hip hop can truly be applied to anything and yield interesting, satisfying results. On the other hand, RJD2's latest release, a one-man-crusade, channels '80s soft rock through a sampler and the hip-hop mind frame to create music of both startling energy and affecting sentimentality. And on, and on... yet while these myriad vibrant veins of experimentation and union infuse the rest of the musical world with vitality, frustratingly little is bleeding back into mainstream hip-hop culture, radio, recognition or record sales.

Perhaps the record industry and American cultural isolationism are to blame for this to a certain extent (not to mention the horrifying failure, in both financial and social/educational terms, of the "projects"), perhaps the recent gradual acceptance of such underground veterans as Jay Dee, Madlib and MF DOOM into the public hip-hop consciousness will have a snowballing effect on the scene. Perhaps my hopes for a racially unattached hip hop, where only the music and the MC's ability and personality matter, is both naive and potentially a setback for the black community.

Yet in their need to keep their music, and themselves, united, they are holding on to both the past and the populist present too tightly, stymying themselves and their art, limiting what could be a liberating outlet for all the facets of their souls to superficial party music presided over by ineloquent, aggressive stereotypes. Recent supernova 50 Cent may have the physique, the past and the production, but there is more intelligent life in the average dairy product than in one of his verses. Kanye West may finally have skewed the emphasis of mainstream hip hop back towards the everyday individual rather than some outlaw male ego trip, but his wit and ego hide vapidity and moral hypocrisy, and his production, while bringing some much needed musicality and suppleness back to populist hip-hop, is so smoothly arranged that it becomes a kind of easy listening take on hip-hop's energising, raw soul.

In the universally resonant words of Talib Kweli, "All my people, where y'all at? 'Cos y'all ain't here / and your heroes are using your minds as canvases / to paint fear." Hip hop has embraced the world and millions like myself embrace it back, irrespective of boundaries, upbringings and prejudices; united by the heartbeat of the drum and the fundamental message: One love forever, one love for all. If it is to stand any chance of representing a people, then hip hop must be allowed that most fundamental of human compulsions: to grow, to transcend its own limitations, to change. As it was in the beginning, so let it be in 2004 and beyond; this is hip hop, and it don't stop. Not for anyone.

Metallica in Therapy

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky could hardly have known what they were in for when they set out to make a movie about Metallica. Though they had brief contact with the band previously (in securing permission to use some music for their film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills), this time, the mighty rockers' label was paying the directors to document the recording of an album.

That album was "St. Anger," and it took nearly three years to make.

When Berlinger and Sinofsky arrived, the band was recuperating from the departure of longtime bassist Jason Newsted, who finally had enough of the group's perennial "creative disputes" and ongoing arguments between vocalist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. After 90 million records sold and more 20 years spent on the road and in studios, the hard-living pair appeared increasingly unable to collaborate, with guitarist Kirk Hammett's efforts at appeasement falling by the wayside. Their company, Q-Prime, decided to take drastic action, and hired "therapist/performance enhancement expert" Phil Towle (for $40,000 a month) to bring the boys back into some state resembling working order. Metallica, intones Towle, "needed to take a look at itself."

The film begins at the end of the process, with the band promoting the new record, acting almost as if it's like any other. Asked to describe "the span of his career" in one word, Hetfield is stumped and bored. The point is cut to emphasize how answering such inane questions, again and again, can become tedious, depressing, and daunting. At this point, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster turns the page, back to the moments when the album, Metallica's first studio project in seven years, looked like it wouldn't ever be completed.

Initially, Newsted's exit sends Metallica into something of an emotional, even existential, tailspin. In an effort to calm themselves, they bring on producer Bob Rock to play bass for the record, and set up a studio at the Presidio, apparently perceived as a restorative environment. Hetfield appears in his expensive sports car: "I really like going fast," he testifies. No kidding. The film repeats biographical information that will be old news for the band's fans. Since their inception in the Bay Area in 1982, the band notoriously careened from disaster to disaster, including the 1985 death of first bass player Cliff Burton. With ups and downs made incessantly public, they have endured a raucous blur of substance-abusing (they were once called "Alcoholica"), infighting, and raging at various external targets (their noisy campaign against Napster, in which Ulrich became most vocal, earned them a dubious distinction, as the "band most hated by their own fans").

As the sessions with Towle begin, the film patches together old concert footage and the Presidio rehearsal sessions, soon skidding to a kind of stop when Hetfield begins rolling his eyes at Towle's sketchy New Agey speak; when he asks if they can "sack" him, Ulrich says no, "the Phil stuff is important," an "investment in the music." Soon after, Hetfield removes himself to rehab (a stint that will last over a year), whereupon the filmmakers, band members, and management decide to pursue the project anyway. It's transformed into something else, a weird therapeutic exposé, partly self-defensive, partly confessional, and largely performative (it's no secret at any point that cameras are rolling).

One of Towle's first steps is to get the band to generate a "Metallica Mission Statement." Towle's sessions with the band take up a good chunk of Some Kind of Monster's 139 minutes running time (culled from some 1600 hours of footage shot). His techniques range from prodding his clients to "share" their feelings, to suggestions for behavioral changes. At one point, during Hetfield's absence, he convinces Ulrich to sit down with Metallica's former lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (who, on being fired by Metallica in 1984, formed Megadeath and carried a lasting grudge against Ulrich and Hetfield).

The filmmakers have never pretended to be "objective" documentarians, but in their earlier work, it was easy to take the sides they laid out, against the invasive news media Brother's Keeper (1992) or the prejudiced locals and self-serving legal system in Paradise Lost. Here, all the figures on screen appear flawed and vulnerable, by turns self-indulgent, spoiled, and struggling to make sense of their own perpetual adolescence.

Hetfield establishes that his family and home are off-limits (he not only restricts his work time to four hours a day, but also insists the other band members stop work when he does, all leading Ulrich to considerable spewing about what it means to be "rock band"). By contrast, mellow Hammett opens up his serene home amid rolling hills to cameras and agrees to cut back on guitar solos ("I'm actually very comfortable with my role in this band," he says, "I'm not a really egotistical person"). And by yet another contrast, Ulrich takes Towle to visit with his father, Torbin, once a professional tennis player, who leans on his walking stick and offers his blunt opinion of the record so far: "I would say, delete that." (Meantime, Ulrich is selling off his paintings at Christies for some $5 million, making the Napster business seem even more niggling.)

On Day 701 of the film's production, the band undertakes a video shoot, performing for prisoners at the California State Prison at San Quentin. (This would be used to promote the album's first single, ""St. Anger"": "I need my anger not to control. / I want my anger to be me.") Speaking to his tattooed, hard-bodied, mean-looking audience, Hetfield suggests that if it had not been for his music, he would have ended up in prison or dead. But it's clear that he's not like these particular fans here, that he's fortunate beyond words, if wounded in ways that he can't articulate.

By Day 715, Ulrich sounds nearly converted ("You can make something that's aggressive and fucked up with positive energy"), and the band is moving on, in part signaled by their search for a bass player for the tour: their selection of Robert Trujillo produces the film's happiest seeming moment, as he's giddy at the prospect. Shortly afterwards, the group does break with Towle, who's talking about accompanying them on the road. Hetfield puts his foot down: "We don't want to have our hand held through life." When he hears the news, Towle's upset is uncomfortable to see, as he accuses band members of denying their need of him and exposes what seems his own need of them. By this time, you've seen how complex and seductive their intricate pathologies can be, their strangely intoxicating and harrowing dynamic. More than anything, the film is perversely about itself, about producing analysis and performing selves.

Is Music Journalism Dead?

If ever there was a time when writing about music felt utterly pointless, that time is now. I sit at home nitpicking bands, trying to pinpoint the derivations of a sample or riff from the pantheon of music history, and the world burns. Natural resources careen toward depletion. Torture increasingly surfaces as an instrument of policy. Shortsighted tyrants, spineless power-mongers and heartless thugs vie egomaniacally, dangerously, for power. I turn up my MP3 player and tune out the world. At a time when I should be taking to the streets, I am listening to The Streets.

We music journalists are notoriously candid about the inanity of our chosen career path. After all, the field seems to aggrandize troubling personal characteristics such as bullish solipsism, inflated, bratty taste, and an unhealthy clinging to the youthful behaviors of all-night shows, binge drinking, and following around rock-stars like hounds. The way the rock-crit clique mimics one big boy's network – not unlike trivia-obsessed gamers or joystick dorks – doesn't help matters as far as wresting us out of our self-imposed perpetual adolescence. And because music is entertainment, even when it or its journalism does delve into politics, it seems possible only to skim the surface, dealing with issues of gender, race, class, politics and economics as afterthoughts or tangents to the sound.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that taste, aesthetics, and politics are often disparate lexicons, since lyrics, melody, and rhythm combine to alter the meaning of both the words and the music. Case in point: I dig on some Guns 'N' Roses even though Axl Rose was/is a bigot; Ani DiFranco's pro-woman queer pride doesn't change the fact that her music is annoying, and indeed her beliefs might even enhance her music's annoyingness. I like the message of Gang of Four's "Capital (It Fails Us Now)" but I happen to like the bass lines better. A lot better.

Yet, music journalism historically has also always been a place for writers to air their politics or figure out ways to discuss music with a political bent. Its charge since its birth in the '60s has been to infuse pop culture with an air of seriousness; to find the added meaning floating among the notes and beats. When the world changed in the '60s and '70s – via feminism, civil rights, gay pride, war, recession – music journalism was there, chronicling the trends and tides as they emerged on the airwaves and the charts. As popular culture increasingly is our culture, it continues to harbor the best, brightest and most entertaining of our creative consciousnesses. And yes, because it comments on everything we are – social, economic, religious, personal – it is also political.

Still, that doesn't make the line between any individual artist and any world event easy to draw, or even appropriate; nor does it make the escape that's also offered by music (and its criticism) any less valid. If journalism can turn pop music into a space where the reader/fan can be freed of all thoughts about the world in all its fucked-up-ed-ness, isn't that worthwhile, too? Or, shouldn't music journalism go where the politics of music is going? These days, artists from the Streets to Prince to Wilco have in one way or another been publicly embroiled in the sticky underside of the music industry's battles with technology and, ultimately, cultural politics. This has given eager reporters plenty of fodder to work with; not to mention one hell of a soap opera to narrate. But perhaps not enough of us have considered how and if these issues of music industry politics play into a larger political scheme.

Here, I think, lies the true crux of the matter. The real debate is not between engagement and escapism: music journalism as political and relevant or apolitical and superfluous. To me, the real question seems to be a matter of when music and music journalists lost their revolutionary dream. For there was a point, not that long ago, when people sincerely believed that music had the potential to effect change in the political realm.

In the '60s, it wasn't an issue of distinguishing between music and the real world, because rock, from the heavy hitters like Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" to the hard grooves like Hendrix's "Foxy Lady", was the real world. There have been glimmers of this belief in the relevance of music to society ever since, from '70s "women's music" and punk to '80s hip hop to '90s rave, each a unique movement to move the world through sound. But the politics of music today has yet to be made relevant to the world beyond itself. If music journalism seems vain and extraneous now, it is because music itself feels that way.

Maybe this shift has to do in part with a popular disavowal of the youthful idealism and countercultural mysticism that naively believed that the Man couldn't bust our music. If music is just music, a business like the rest and we've been wrong all along, then I guess I might as well go back to my music collection, my nitpicking, and my feverish debating. It's not to say that my work necessarily has to save the world. But why does it seem so often to forget that the world even exists? Perhaps the biggest fallacy is the disconnect between real-world politics and the politics of music. It's the end of the world as we know it and I don't feel fine. It may be easier to listen and hum along, but maybe I should be rewriting the lyrics.

Black Hawk Revisited

Reports and images of ongoing guerilla warfare in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities recall for some observers the events of October 3 and 4, 1993, in Mogadishu, Somalia. When Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott's dark and earnest movie about those difficult days, was released to theaters in late 2001, the war against Iraq was still an idea rather than a daily reality. Now, as Columbia releases the film on gorgeous (if extras-less) Superbit DVD, this version of U.S. troops in crisis comes full, and frankly disturbing, circle. This even as CentCom reports, on 3 June, the blocking of "Somali terrorist" Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki's "assets."

As is well known, the story of terrorism -- state-sponsored and not -- is increasingly intricate. Journalist and ex-marine Mark Bowden's book, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War , gets at it from one specific angle -- that of the U.S. troops on the ground (and sometimes, in their Black Hawk helicopters). First published as a 1997 series for the Philadelphia Inquirer, it is a nearly moment-by-moment account of events in Somalia, as the U.S. undertook to take out designated warlords and terrorists. Culled from radio dispatches, survivor interviews (both U.S. and Somali), military records, and media reports, the book recounts the battle that erupted in Mogadishu when the U.S. Army Special Forces -- Rangers and Deltas (D-boys) -- staged an "extraction" of several lieutenants to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and were met with armed resistance.

Praised by military and civilian press (and since its publication in 1999, read by Special Forces trainees), the book illustrates well the absurdity and chaos of urban warfare: There's no ground to be won, no victory to be claimed, only survival to be scraped up against horrific odds, no matter what side you're on. You look out your fellows as best you can: For the U.S. Special Forces, this takes the form of a credo ("Leave no man behind"); for the Somalis, it has a more immediate and more lasting effect -- there is no "left behind," only ongoing hardship.

That the U.S. undertook the war against Iraq, which had to involve urban territories, without extensive preparation of troops for what was in store for them, precisely, has led to disasters. Once again, Bowden describes the costs of U.S. arrogance and delusion in "The Lessons of Abu Ghraib," in the July/August 2004 Atlantic Monthly. "In the end, though," he writes, "context and perspective cannot mask what is universal about the events at Abu Ghraib... Americans are not a superior race, and American soldiers are not morally superior to the soldiers of other nations. The best we can hope is that they are better trained and disciplined, and guided by policy that is morally sound. Sadly, this is not always the case."

His acute awareness of the many stakes in war, the many occasions for failure on small and large scales, makes Bowden's account of Mogadishu engaging for a variety of readers -- those who abhor war, those who see it as necessary, and those who see it as a rite of manhood. And in this context, it's striking that, as hard as Bowden worked to document what happened, as it was perceived by those who were there, he concludes by noting the troops' lingering sense of unreality, of "feeling weirdly out of place, as though they did not belong here, fighting feelings of disbelief, anger, and ill-defined betrayal."

Unsurprisingly, Scott's Black Hawk Down, produced by the indefatigable Jerry Bruckheimer, takes something of an opposite approach. An action movie dressed up like an art film, it is not about betrayal or anger, but heroism and patriotic fervor. Given that the film was completed well before September 11, the fact that its triumphant tone seems so completely suited to the current zeitgeist is not a little alarming.

Black Hawk Down is careful not to dredge up particular aspects of the past, say, the famous television images that haunted that U.S. mission (and, indirectly, the next one in Iraq) -- the bodies of two U.S. soldiers stripped and carried through the streets, the frightened eyes of Black Hawk pilot Mike Durant sent out during his 19-day captivity by Aidid's men, or the U.S. forces' hasty retreat following the operation, owing to the outcry of the back-home viewing and voting public. Rather, the movie allows that not only do the right good guys "win," but also endure enough difficulty so that this victory, though not recognized in 1993, might now be appreciated for what it is.

To do so, the film establishes Mog's menace, such that U.S. soldiers are repeatedly beset by faceless Somali snipers and hordes, while omitting any references to reasons for the aggressive response to the U.S. invasion. It opens with a series of typewritten facts, just enough to sketch clear moral lines: In 1992, 3000,000 Somalis died of starvation, when Aidid stole UN food deliveries and killed UN troops. In October 1993, the U.S. mounted what was supposed to be a routine extraction, Rangers in Black Hawk and Little Bird helicopters and Deltas in a humvee convoy.

The troops do get their men, but the mission is costly. A note at film's end reminds you that 18 U.S. soldiers (all named in the credits) and "about" 1000 unnamed Somalis died during those 15 hours of firefighting. Taking the U.S. boys' perspective, the film becomes a surreal thrill ride, a well-crafted and compelling surface of color, movement, and noise. Cinematographer Slavomir Idziak and editor Pietro Scalia have put together a masterful hodgepodge of intense close-ups, spectacular chopper point-of-view shots, fast cuts and pans, well-composed surveillance images and grisly prosthetics and effects -- it's hard to walk out of this movie without feeling shaken.

Of course, this perspective also has limitations, and that's the point. You see the SOAR chopper pilots appalled by Aidid's men attacking a Red Cross food station, unable to intervene unless they are shot at (this detail is helpfully included as explanatory dialogue). Shortly after, the cowboyish Deltas, led by the charismatic Sgt. Hoot Gibson (Eric Bana), are whooping and hollering, shooting wild boar to serve up as a tasty treat for their bored-to-tears comrades. As General Garrison (Sam Shepard) discusses the futility of chasing Aidid with a detained gun merchant (George Harris), cigar smoke swirls ominously around the prisoner. Schooling his fellows in the morality of their situation, idealistic Ranger Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) observes that "there are two things we can do: We can help these people or we can watch them die on CNN." When he declares that he's in it to "make a difference," the gung-ho good-guyness of the Americans is clear.

By the same token, the film underlines the villainy of every character of color, save for the single black Ranger with a (minimal) speaking part, Kurth (Gabriel Casseus). Once the fight begins, the U.S. troops are alone sympathetic, tossed about in a melee of handheld shots and smash-cuts. Not only are the scrambling, distant Somalis demonized, but as well, Pakistani members of the UN squad only obstruct action, apparently reluctant even to follow orders that lead them into harm's way.

This attitude riles the U.S. soldiers, who have, of course, suffered for hours. While more than 100 of them entered the fray, the film focuses on a few that it types recognizably: resourceful Grimes (Ewan McGregor), fearless McKnight (Tom Sizemore), Elvis fan/Black Hawk pilot Wolcott (Jeremy Piven), steadfast Steele (Jason Isaacs), Shakespeare-loving Richard "Alphabet" Kowalewski (Brendan Sexton III, who went on, following the film's release, to complain publicly about its revisionist history; see http://alternettest.wpengine.com/story/12508/AlterNet article); and newbie Blackburn (Orlando Bloom).

D-boy Hoot is the most assured of the soldiers, able to make his way in and out of combat areas with stealth and accuracy. His advice to Ranger Eversmann early on haunts the rest of the film: "Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes out the window." The film illustrates this shift in consciousness with a visceral ferocity. But as they realize that their mission is not so in-and-out as they had imagined, they see the problem in their surroundings, not in their approach. This makes their surroundings as familiar as the characters are: Mog is yet another heart of darkness, populated by unknowable and frightening "others," whom the troops call "skinnies" or "sammies."

Unremarked by the U.S. troops is the fact that the Somalis' skinniness is an effect of real life conditions, not only their oppression by brutal local warlords like Aidid, but also their "Third World" status, their lack of access to a "global" economy and political agenda, their oppression by the "First World" that is represented by the mighty Black Hawks. Where the Americans are understandably appalled to see their birds go down, one can only imagine the thrill that this same display must have brought the shooters. It was probably a lot like the feeling that the injured, weary, and desperate American soldiers felt when they saw the back-up forces finally arrive, and blow up the rooftops from which Somali snipers were firing.

Neither does the movie address why the "sammies" would be inclined to carry American bodies through the streets. You do see one body hoisted from a downed chopper, then a quick cut to other action, namely, the efforts of Durant (here played by Ron Eldard) to stave off his capture, firing at whoever comes by, until he runs out of ammunition. Cut again, to Durant's view of a crowd of black faces as they swarm over him, and, somewhat later, a brief bit of his battered face as he's lectured by his captor, Aidid's man, Firimbi (Treva Etienne): "In Somalia, killing is negotiation. You think if you get General Aidid, we all stop killing? There will be no peace. This is our world."

Firimbi's observation is the closest the film comes to articulating a historical and political context beyond the U.S.'s particular concerns. The resolute absence of any glimpse into "their world" -- the pain, rage, and hopelessness that shape "their" daily experience -- ensures that any movie, Black Hawk Down included, will not get at the multiple dire stakes involved, for Americans and Somalis, as well as, more recently, Iraqis and Afghanis.

The Black Woman on Channel Two

Once upon a time, black folks couldn't get enough of themselves on TV. There were no complaints about being portrayed as criminals on the news; we simply didn't exist on the air, save for a few sitcoms or the occasional movie rerun. In his memoir "Colored People," Henry Louis Gates, Jr. recalled the excitement that rushed through the Piedmont, West Virginia of his '50s youth at the merest rumor of a black sighting:

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The Dead Go Shopping

In 1968, George Romero changed horror film history. Inspired by Richard Matheson's gripping novel, I Am Legend, the independent filmmaker from Pittsburgh envisioned a trilogy of films depicting a chaotic world where the recently dead are reanimated and viciously attack the living. Also known as Anubis (the Egyptian God of the Dead), Romero's "dead trilogy" presents the irremediable collapse of authority and order.

The initial film of the series, Night of the Living Dead (1968) takes place during the first night the dead come back to life. Dawn of the Dead (1979) happens a few weeks later, during the last stages of social collapse. Finally, Day of the Dead (1985) shows the beginnings of a new world, where survivors learn to domesticate the zombies. Though they tell a single story, the films are quite different. Romero has said that each mirrors the cultural and political climate of the decade in which it was made, including critiques of racism, the Vietnam War, military and family institutions, and consumer society.

Timed to coincide with March's theatrical release of Zach Snyder's remake, Romero's Dawn is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment. It begins at a Philadelphia TV studio engulfed in chaos. A scientist appears on screen, presenting the basic facts of the nightmarish world originally depicted in Night of the Living Dead: the dead are coming back to life to feed on the living, and they can only be "killed" by destroying their brains. When a producer insists on airing a list of inoperative rescue stations, technician Fran (Gaylen Ross) confronts him. Rather than fight this particular good fight, her pilot boyfriend, Steven (David Emge), thinks they should flee the city in the TV station's news helicopter.

Like most of Romero's films, this one doesn't concern itself with how the crisis originated, but instead focuses on the collapse of social structures brought on by human stubbornness, selfishness, and greed. The living humans repeatedly appear more brutal than the zombies. When the Hispanic inhabitants of a tenement building protest the government's disposal of their dead loved ones, the military raids the building, killing the protestors.

At the time of the raid, SWAT trooper Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) invites his colleague Peter (Ken Foree) to run away with him and his friends, Fran and Steven. Their helicopter escape shows how the zombie menace has spread across the state, and how overconfident members of the National Guard and the National Rifle Association use the crisis as an excuse to have BBQs and zombie-hunting competitions.

Their arrogance leaves authorities unable to deal with the crisis seriously. Running short on gas, Steven is forced to land on the roof of a quintessential suburban American symbol, a shopping mall. Tempted by all the products in the stores, the survivors barricade themselves inside the mall and wait for an end to the crisis. At the beginning, this seems a good idea. However, Steven and company fall prey to the temptations of their now extinct consumer society. They take money from the bank, expensive clothing from designer boutiques, and fancy watches from jewelry stores.

From the TV producer who is willing to endanger people for a rating, to the members of the Hispanic ghetto who respect their loved ones even after they become flesh-eating ghouls, to Steven's desire for worthless luxury items, everyone is willing to kill and die in order to maintain a way of life now rendered meaningless.

Even the living dead can't abandon habits they had before dying. As Peter explains, the zombies gravitate towards the mall, not because they know there are survivors hiding inside, but because they remember the place as an important part of their lives. The zombies are, of course, the ultimate consumers. They wander aimlessly inside the mall, unaware of each other, resembling the crowds of shoppers we see any day at the mall. As Peter concludes, "They are us."

From the first frame, the film makes such thematic connections visual. The tv studio's deep red carpet looks forward to the bloody overkill that will follow. Terrific work by special makeup effects maestro Tom Savini brings to mind the spirit of the colorful 1950s EC horror comic books, and establishes the aesthetics that would become typical of the gore film in later years.

The gruesome aesthetics and complex narrative structure of Dawn of the Dead are underlined in the new, uncut DVD incarnation that features a pristine new transfer of the U.S. theatrical print. Even so, the DVD's highlight is an insightful audio commentary by Romero and Savini, detailing some of the hurdles they confronted. For example, Romero was only able to film at the mall during the evenings when the shops were closed, and he had to stop shooting during the Christmas season, due to the holiday decorations.

In its emphasis on the tragic effects of human failings, Romero's film looks beyond Snyder's latest version, which is, until its closing credits sequence, less bleak. In the new film, humans and monsters are clearly differentiated, and survivors quickly learn to work together in spite of their differences. Ironically, this makes Romero's Dawn of the Dead look more relevant today. Consider that our current times are characterized by terrorism, wars, financial scandals, and economic and political turmoil. Romero's apocalyptic vision looks more like prophecy than fiction.

Speaking Through an Interpreter

It seems that South Africa's most famous woman ambassador -- who doesn't actually exist -- is making ripples all over the world. The man behind this Evita Bezuidenhout-like puppet, Pieter-Dirk Uys (pronounced "Ace") is a talent of unquestionable integrity and sophisticated wit. Indeed, he and his puppet have a firm and tenacious grip on the ridiculousness of the ongoing status quo in South Africa.

Born nearly 60 years ago, a white gay Afrikaner in a racist, homophobic land where hatred was legally sanctioned, Uys had a lot of issues to work through while developing into an adult with integrity. The child of an Afrikaans father and a German Jewish mother, he has quipped in his autobiography that he belongs to two chosen peoples (Elections and Erections: A memoir of Fear and Fun, Zebra 2002. Since reaching maturity he's been banned, he's been threatened, he's had the finger of officialdom wagged at him -- but he has yet to be silenced. "They could have put me up against a wall and shot me," he commented, regarding the regime of apartheid that he mocked so overtly for so long, in an interview for the New York Times last year.

The New York Times offered a story of trouble brewing between Uys and our current State President, Thabo Mbeki. The article was a preamble to Uys's recently written play "Foreign Aids," presenting an Aids-awareness shtick to thousands of schoolchildren all over the country, which he took to the world after developing it in South Africa. This play, which was cushioned in the drag-lampooning style for which Uys has become known, had a hard-hitting core . It deals very directly with AIDS awareness and his president's notorious and public pussyfooting around the issue in apparent avoidance of the crisis. A vignette is cast in "Elections and Erections":

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Dispatches From a Film Festival Part 2

This is the second in a two-part series. Click here to read Part 1.

Business Unusual

After attending a few of these film festivals, one begins to recognize and interpret certain tell-tale signs. For example, if a cheer goes up at the appearance of the boom operator's credit in a movie, this means that his or her family is in attendance at the screening. If certain segments of the crowd boo or hiss the appearance of the editor's credit, this means that members of the cast are in the crowd. And if the filmmaker introduces a film by explaining that it took eight years to edit, this means that the film, too, will be as rambling and incoherent as a George Bush monologue after the teleprompter breaks.

Trading With the Enemy, unfortunately, was introduced in just such a fashion. The film that followed was doubly disappointing because its subject offered such potential. The documentary tells the story of Terry, an enterprising fellow whose main occupation seems to be smuggling Cuban cigars into the United States. The film follows Terry on one of his business trips, recording his efforts to collect the cigars from various factories in order to sell them at a massive mark-up to upscale lounges and bars back in America. The trip is not all business, though. Along the way, Terry finds time to carouse in local cantinas and spends time with a variety of young, pretty Cuban women. Their company represents still another form of illicit commerce, as it is clear that Terry's money is what keeps them around.

Trading With the Enemy, then, could be a probing look at alternative economies of exchange, informed by the ongoing trade embargo the United States maintains against Cuba. We do see glimpses of this idea, as Terry's associates are shown at times complaining to the camera about conditions in their home country. One scene shows a drunken local ranting about his hatred for the all the American presidents. When he asks a passerby to chime in, though, the man looks pointedly at the camera and politely refuses to comment, hinting at the specter of government repression.

For his part, Terry shows little interest in the politics involved with his cultural exchange. Instead, he methodically collects his cigars, consorts with local women, and drinks Cuban beer. What's more frustrating, however, is that the film for the most part seems to share his attitude. Rather than giving further screen time to examining the embargo's effect on the country, it opts for a variety of cinematic montages, showcasing slow-motion scenes that feature dancers at local clubs or sunbathers at the beach. The random introduction of such tangents speaks to the difficulty (eight years' worth) in editing Trading With the Enemy into a coherent whole. What's worse, they interrupt the film's narrative and keep it from exploring the social or political context of Terry's business activities in any meaningful way.

A more successful documentary dealing with the other side of business is Slasher, a documentary by John Landis (Animal House, Blues Brothers). The title refers not to horror flicks, but to the moniker given to used car salesmen. A "slasher" is a traveling selling specialist, brought in to bolster the regular salespeople by dramatically reducing the ticketed price of the cars.

The film follows one such specialist, Michael Bennett, who arrives at a Memphis dealership to invigorate a sale being held over Memorial Day weekend. In tow is Kevin, Bennett's hand picked DJ, and Mud, a mercenary salesman from Washington selected by Bennett to bolster the local crew. The trio's arrival is looked upon by the regulars with a mixture of reverence and expectation, as legends about their selling prowess precede them. Before the sale, though, the three seem more like old high school buddies than seasoned professionals, bragging, telling war stories, and roughhousing around in the days leading up to the sale.

The main focus, however, is squarely on Bennett. He is introduced in the film preparing for his trip at the last minute, throwing clothes into a suitcase and hurriedly kissing his wife and children good-bye. No time to eat, Bennett instead pulls two beers out of the fridge on his way out the door. It's 7:00 a.m.

As the scene indicates, Bennett is at once a devoted family man and a relentless alcoholic. He ¡s the kind of character few scriptwriters could produce. A bundle of manic energy, Bennett is also a study in constant motion. Unable to sit still, he is constantly talking, which perhaps explains his success as a salesman. He has an uncanny ability to hypnotize the listener with overwhelming emissions of verbiage. Bennett is so full of energy and talk that his behavior seems more pathological than a personality trait.

Once the sale begins, though, Bennett is in his element. Dressed in a tuxedo and with a microphone in hand, he dashes around the lot exclaiming, "Price sells cars!" and encouraging patrons to "Buy a car, be a star!" As the sale drags on with less success than expected, Bennett becomes an increasingly sympathetic character, engaged in a Herculean effort to part customers from their hard-earned money.

Ultimately, Bennett and his crew are selling not cars, but themselves. The art of the sale is the film's focus, then, as director Landis revealed in the post screening Q & A. The project was originally intended to investigate the ways in which President Bush "sold" the idea of Saddam Hussein's involvement in September 11th and his possession of weapons of mass destruction. After realizing that news footage cost 400 dollars a second, however, Landis hit upon the car salesman as a suitable substitute for examining the workings of salesmanship.

Such a focus is an appropriate one for SXSW. Whether contemplating the ways in which cars are sold or the ways in which the legal economy is circumvented entirely, both films are on offer in a festival that is itself a venue for a particular kind of exchange. The films of the festival are essentially being sold, to studios, to distributors, and to audiences. Some, like Slasher, are well worth purchasing and others, like Trading With the Enemy, are better left on the shelf.

The Indie Aesthetic

The "independent" label is thrown around with reckless abandon these days. And lately, the term has come to signify more than just an institutional outsider. Where once a film was independent because it wasn't financed and distributed by one of the major studios, films today are discussed as having an indie "feel" to them. Super 8 footage, a disjointed narrative, or the appearance of Vincent Gallo alone may be enough to earn a film indie cred, even though it may enjoy a full studio backing. This slide from a question of economics to issues of aesthetics speaks to the rising popularity of "alternative" films (the arguable legacy of successful indies like The Blair Witch Project), which somehow seem hipper or more authentic to audiences by virtue of their unconventional aspects.

The other side of the coin is the issue of legitimately independent films that act like their studio counterparts. Not every film outside the pale of big budgets and catered lunches is reveling in its obscurity. There are, in fact, a great many indies dressed in studio clothing, trying desperately to imitate their conventional brethren in the hopes of national (or global) distribution. Interestingly, the final official day of the film portion of SXSW offered an indie film trying to be mainstream, and a mainstream film striking its best indie pose.

The night of its screening, Killer Diller had all the trappings of an indie darling, playing to an enthusiastic crowd composed primarily of the film's cast and crew and what must have been their extended families. The film tells the story of a group of delinquent young adults somewhere in the deep South, who get a second chance at life by staying at the "Back On Track Again (BOTA)" house at a Baptist college, a halfway home operated by Ned Sears (played by the always hilarious Fred Willard).

Ned's idea is to rehabilitate this troubled youth through music, and so he leads them through a series of tuneless hymns for various small audiences around the college. All this changes, however, at the appearance of Vernon (Lucas Black), an autistic piano player who is discovered by the group's guitarist Wesley (William Lee Scott). Despite flying into uncontrolled rages that can only be alleviated by sliced tomatoes, Vernon is a musical genius, and his addition to the mix turns the group into the Killer Diller Blues Band (borrowing one of Vernon's favorite expressions).

It's not hard to guess where things go from here. The story of a group of misfits doing well for themselves in the face of impossible odds is nothing that hasn't been done before. (The film, actually, is based on a Clyde Edgerton novel of the same name). Killer Diller has "heartwarming" written all over it and is riddled with cliches and tired formulas designed to tug at audiences' heartstrings. The stodgy dean of the local college is (for no apparent reason) bent on shutting down the BOTA house and ending the Killer Diller Blues Band. Will the group overcome this obstacle? Will Vernon gain independence through his newfound friends? Will the film end in a musical montage that speaks to the "triumph of the human spirit"? The answers to these questions are never in doubt.

As a result, Killer Diller is entirely predictable and predictably safe. It could easily pass for a Disney film if it wasn't screening as an independent at SXSW. As such, it is also an important reminder that independent does not always mean interesting or different. The tired formulas trotted out in so many studio films provide equal fodder for those films that are simply trying to join the club.

One such club member that would sooner deny its affiliations is Blind Horizon. The stars alone (Val Kilmer, Neve Campbell, even Faye Dunaway) mark this film as mainstream long before the Lion's Gate distribution credit rolls. Still, the film does its best to adopt the narrative and visual techniques pioneered in independents like Memento.

Kilmer plays Frank Kavanaugh, a dark stranger in a rural town in New Mexico who has the misfortune of being shot in the head and rendered an amnesiac. Soon after he awakens, Frank's wife Chloe (Campbell) shows up, much to the suspicion of local sheriff Jack Kolb (Sam Shepard). Frank and Jack set about trying to piece together the circumstances surrounding Frank's assault, while Chloe tries to ease Frank's troubled mental state.

This trouble increases when Frank realizes that he is somehow aware of a plot to assassinate the President. The plan, known ominously as "Rhombus," is revealed piecemeal in a series of grainy flashbacks that feature Frank with some underworld types (including Faye Dunaway) discussing an unspecified plan to be carried out according to unspecified directions.

Like many conspiracy movies, the film draws heavily on the Kennedy legend, dropping terms like "triangulation of fire," the "kill zone," and even showcasing shady dealings held inside a movie theater. It's not this obvious historical derivative, however, that's most distracting about the film. Instead, Blind Horizon is rife with weak attempts to out-Memento Memento. Frank (and the audience) is tormented by tantalizing clues about his connection to the assassination plot, all of which are rendered in speedily cut flashbacks that increase in frequency as the movie progresses. Rather than using his character's amnesia as a way to subvert conventional narrative (as in Memento) though, the film is fairly predictable fare that is so punctuated with these flashbacks that they become simply cuts for cuts' sake.

The difficulties of both Killer Diller and Blind Horizon point to a blurring of the line that separates notions of independent and studio film. One the one hand, "indie" is an aesthetic pose to strike by major studios in a bid to capitalize on the success of less conventional, less visible films. This is not to presume, however, that this pose is the goal for every film. The slick, safe formulas that have proven successful staples of major studio films are as likely to be adopted by independents in their own bids for success. As both of these films demonstrate, the grass is always greener on the other side of the indie fence.

Land of the Free Market

James' Journey to Jerusalem, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's first feature, joins a growing list of thoughtful, often dark, films about the casual exploitation of illegal workers sucked into the world's voracious capitalist economies. Movies such as La Promesse (1996), Code Inconnu (2000), and Dirty Pretty Things (2002) have exposed globalization's flipside, the hugely profitable trade in the economically and politically dispossessed.

On its surface, James' (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) odyssey is conventional: a latter-day Candide sells his innocence for lucre, recognizing how much he has lost only after his increasingly selfish actions leave him a rich man with no friends and no dreams. Alexandrowicz, however, takes this familiar narrative in unexpected directions, set in the bustling, sparkling seaside city of Tel Aviv. Abjuring the solemnity of drama, he fashions a satirical black comedy that skewers not only the hypocrisy of global capitalism but also the mores of contemporary Israel.

As the promising young Christian leader in his rural South African village, James is dispatched on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, an experience intended to sanctify his succession as the next pastor. At Tel Aviv airport, he fails to realize that being "invited" for a customs interview might well lead to his immediate deportation, and instead asks the young, female, and very bored immigration official if she is one of God's chosen people. She mistakes his exuberance at reaching the land of the Bible for a hackneyed con designed to win a "blackie" entry to the country's workforce, and briskly dispatches him to prison to await the next flight home.

Ironically, in the first of number of delightful reversals, the immigration official's refusal to allow the pilgrim temporary entry turns him into exactly what she dreads most -- an illegal worker. In the dead of night, the hen-pecked and very dodgy entrepreneur Shimi (Salim Daw), who uses his links with a corrupt immigration cop to staff his businesses, "liberates" James and three other illegals into the maelstrom of 21st-century capitalism.

At first, James' innocent insistence on his mission as a pilgrim to Jerusalem acts as a protective charm. In Shimi's overcrowded lodging house, he meets fellow Africans, one of whom speaks his native Zulu. He wins an easy work assignment when Shimi's somewhat cantankerous father, Sallah (Arie Elias, in a little too obviously a caricature of the cosmopolitan Zionist migrant who traded persecution for a tiny corner of the Promised Land), takes a fancy to him. Unlike the ever-hustling Shimi, James takes the time to talk to the old man, play backgammon with him and, most importantly, restore Sallah's dead wife's garden to a lush greenness.

But Sallah, the most sympathetic of the Israeli characters in the movie, again reverses expectation by initiating James' corruption, when he explains to him the slang expression "frayer" means sucker, someone who is continually exploited. James cannot forget the contempt in the old man's voice as he spits out the word and within weeks, his dream of seeing the Holy City is lost as he now seeks only one profit opportunity after another. Fallen angel, yes, but frayer? No.

The richest pleasures in Alexandrovicz's movie come from the skill with which he runs his indictment of capitalism parallel with his indictment of the fractured dreams of Israel's founders. The first is more obvious. In Shimi's crowded lodging house, James discovers that free markets foster class distinctions and racism, even amongst those who have nothing. The white workers sleep in one part of the house, the Africans in a dormitory next to the kitchen. The white workers gather in the kitchen to drink and eat: the Africans are confined to their bunks. The brutish Moldavian foreman lets the white workers watch his TV, for a fee, but won't tolerate sharing the screen with Africans. Even religion is corrupted under capitalism: when the pastor of the African church James attends chastises James for missing church to work, he follows up his reprimand with the suggestion that a substantial donation to he congregation might renew God's favor.

The latter theme, the "state of Israel" that obsesses so many of her citizens, is more complex. It's hard not to see in James' corruption the loss of the late 19th and early 20th century dream of Eretz Israel. Advocates of immigration like Theodor Hertzl shaped for the founders of Israel a vision (if not the reality) of an altruistic, agricultural, socialist state. The ease with which James is seduced by capitalism is also the ease with which the Jews of the Diaspora were seduced into capitalism alongside an intolerant nationalism.

This transition from idealism to pragmatism also plays out in the angry relationship between Shimi and Sallah, which articulates the deep rifts that cut across Israeli society today. This is a struggle between the generations who fought for Israel's very existence, and those who have, according to their elders, grown "soft" in the years of relative peace and prosperity since 1973, seeking personal prosperity before national survival. Sallah operates on emotion and sentiment: he fears that only the value of the land on which his house sits keeps his son interested in him, while Shimi operates on globally sanctioned but selfish logic, and simply cannot understand why anyone would not exchange a rickety shack for a million dollars.

This could easily grow didactic, but the film's satire remains sharp and broadly applicable. In a "Director's Statement," Alexandrovicz writes, "I think each of us has his or her Jerusalem toward which we aspire to reach. Whether we reach it, or even remember where we were headed, is another issue." At heart, the film is about the erosion of dreams under the grind of reality, an inexorable process that one can mourn but which only unprecedented luck or pure goodness can avert.

Dispatches from a Film Festival Part 1

(In Which a Scene is Made)

The film festival is a kind of cultural trapeze artist. It must negotiate the wavering, unsteady tightrope that separates obscurity from commercialism. By screening too many big budget films with too many big names, festivals like South by Southwest risk becoming just another tool of the studio system, a glamorized, de facto ad campaign. On the other hand, without any buzz to lure in audiences and media types, the festival risks irrelevance.

The question of relevance might be posed anyway, regardless of what's being screened. In the new age of indie vogue, film festivals -- once rare and vital vehicles for showcasing independents -- are now a dime a dozen. (The tote bag handed out at registration included a "Film Festival Pocket Guide," listing over 48 pages of festivals taking place around the world this year.) What makes SXSW particularly important then? What makes this year's installment, the film festival's eleventh year, unique?

"The audiences," festival producer Matt Dentler told the crowd at this year's opening screening. Citing the enthusiasm of the full house before him, Dentler implicitly made the distinction between the genuine fans that populate SXSW theaters and the jaded industry types that frequent the other festivals. Certainly, SXSW traditionally plays for a large percentage of locals. Austin is a well-known enclave for the arts in Texas, and residents flock to the festival as volunteers and attendees. Again, though, the festival can only matter by transcending this kind of regionalism in order to appeal to the film industry at large. The bind between distinction and relevance returns.

This precarious position is neatly encapsulated in the festival's choice to open the proceedings this year. Code 46 stars Tim Robbins (most recently of Mystic River) and Samantha Morton (Minority Report, In America), and is directed by Michael Winterbottom (most notably the director of 24 Hour Party People ). Star power, then, was on offer, but the film to which these names are attached is a far cry from an industry standard blockbuster.

Set in the indistinct near future, the film focuses on the love story between William (Robbins), a fraud inspector, and Maria (Morton) who is guilty of selling passes (known as "papeles") that grant citizens "cover" to travel to different cities. Winterbottom's camera contemplates vast stretches of desert surrounding these cities, hinting at some kind of post-apocalyptic dichotomy between "inside" (the stark, monolithic, yet safe confines of the city) and "outside" (the lawless, barren world of exile).

Both realms are rendered by the film's cinematography as beautiful and stark at once. The empty glow of the desert finds its counterpart in the empty glow of office buildings that surround the characters. Garish sunlight and oppressive halogen soak the screen as figures maneuver against a backdrop of impassive buildings and immeasurable sand dunes.

Taking its cue from this setting, the film's narrative is equally detached. Both William and Maria undergo memory removal in different parts of the film, which sends the story into miniature loops that repeat the action, although in a different context. In addition, the characters' very language is disjointed, an amalgamation of English punctuated with expressions in Arabic, Spanish, Italian, and French that drift in and out of conversations. The world has seemingly become more global, but more fractured at the same time. The result is a film that renders its subjects as isolated and unaffiliated cogs in a futuristic, sterile machine.

Code 46, then, is perfect for SXSW. Big names draw in the crowds and lend the festival a particular kind of industry cred, but an innovative and challenging narrative will satisfy the independent minded auteurs who sit in judgment of the mass minded visions of the studios. As I filed out of the theater with the capacity crowd toward the premiere night after-party and the promise of free drink tickets, I found myself wondering if the rest of the festival could manage to achieve this same kind of balance.

Politics as Usual

Documentaries have long been a staple of SXSW. Since few, if any, docs make it into national release, the festival is an important vehicle for these films. While many viewers may be simply satisfying their reality TV cravings, the films often focus on socially minded subject matter. (Last year's expose on an attempted coup in Venezuela, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, is just one example of such.) And though Revolution was a departure from last year's musically themed documentary selections (Rising Low, Lubbock Lights, Off the Charts: the Song-Poem Story), this year, the focus returned squarely to politics.

For the most part, this brand of politics is left-leaning and (for the past four years at least) pissed off. Hosted in the heart of Dubya country, SXSW (like a good many of its fellow Austinites) has long had an uneasy relationship with the conservative stances of the current President, who occupied the Texas governor's mansion before he took office in the White House. Fittingly, the stately manor is just a stone's throw from the Paramount Theater, which this year hosted the world premier of Bush's Brain.

Unlike in 2002, when George Jr. was a portrayed as an affable goofball in Alexandra Pelosi's Journeys With George, reporters James Moore and Wayne Slater have a much more sinister take on Bush. In their book of the same title, Moore and Slater (the latter a figure that Journeys viewers might remember as the Dallas Morning News reporter who broke the Bush D.W.I. story during his campaign for the presidency) expose the "co-president" of the United States, a ruthless politico who shadows George Bush and informs his every move: Karl Rove.

The film is ostensibly a video version of the book's arguments, but they are compelling and disturbing in any medium. In the film's introduction, Bush is shown strolling confidently toward a podium amid cheering soldiers and blaring fanfare, a pertinent question flashes onscreen: "How did this happen?" The remainder of the film answers this question with a litany of anecdotes that stretch all the way back to Bush's first botched attempt at state Congress. Although the stories are different, they are tied together by the thread of Rove's purposefully downplayed influence.

The film traces the authors' arguments in the book, illustrating Karl Rove's dangerous and unmitigated influence on the President and, hence, the rest of the nation. Tracing Bush's rise to power, the film interviews a host of Texas politicians and newspaper writers, whose collective commentary paint a portrait of an evil genius in the form of Rove, an arch-conservative who will stop at nothing to win political victory. Democrats like former Texas governors Mark White and Ann Richards are shown as victims of Rove's insidious whisper campaigns, the former losing an election after Rove "finds" a bug planted in his office, the latter having to deflect questions about her sexual orientation circulated by the Bush advisor.

According to the film, not even fellow Republican John McCain is spared the wrath of Rove, who reportedly circulated questions about McCain's mental state (as a former prisoner during the Vietnam War) to push Bush over the top in the 2000 South Carolina primary. Rove, of course, has vehemently and consistently denied all of these allegations. Tellingly, however, he denied many of them in a letter to Moore and Slater before the book was even released. Allowing that he had received a manuscript copy "in circulation," Rove is countered by the authors who claim to never have circulated the book before its publishing date. During the Q & A after the screening, Slater further revealed that he was just audited for the first time in his life, only after the release of the book. In light of these shadowy circumstances, Bush's Brain may well serve suspicious minds (or angry Democrats) in the coming election in November.

And if the specter of an underhanded government run amok wasn't enough to boil the audience's blood, Super Size Me followed on the footsteps of Bush's Brain, documenting the equally insidious, and potentially more life-threatening, practices of the McDonald's corporation.

First-time filmmaker Morgan Spurlock brought this film to SXSW on a wave of publicity. His nod for best director at Sundance, coupled with the "coincidental" decision of McDonald's to eliminate its Super Size menu options, had generated a fantastic amount of buzz around the film. Fortunately, unlike a great many festival darlings (last year's hyping of Phone Booth springs to mind), Super Size Me seemed to genuinely deserve all this praise.

The film documents Spurlock's decision to turn himself into a human guinea pig. Eating exclusively from the McDonald's menu for 30 days, Spurlock also limits his exercise to mimic the slothful lifestyle of the "average" American. The results are shocking. Not only does Spurlock increase in weight and body fat substantially, his liver becomes toxic in a way the puzzles and concerns Morgan's doctors. His McDonald's diet is literally life threatening by Day 17.

Spurlock manages to stick things out for the remainder of the month, however, and makes some convincing arguments about the health risks posed fast food industry in the process. As he readily admits, such an extreme experiment is not the norm for any typical American, but his case is used to prove a point about the rise of obesity in the United States. (One statistic, of the many offered by the film, that stood out was that medical costs for diabetes have doubled in the past five years.) In the wake of Congressional efforts to ban lawsuits against the fast food industry, Super Size Me offers some forceful support for reforming the ways that McDonald's and its fat-peddling ilk market to children specifically. Happy Meals are no longer the harmless treats of youth, but the insidious first steps toward a lifetime of over-consumption.

The film, however, is far from a gloomy polemic. Spurlock laughs at his growing gut throughout the film, and encourages us to laugh along with him. The result makes for a more effective argument, pointing out the absurdities of our fast food nation rather than shaming us for behaving thus.

While Super Size Me does make for a good laugh, the film, along with Bush's Brain, is more an invitation to pause and consider the state of the nation more carefully. After these films, crowds left the theater shaking their heads in an apparent mixture of disgust and amazement, as likely to vote Republican as they were to eat a Big Mac.

Family Values

South by Southwest's third day saw the festival building momentum as it continued to tiptoe between big names and independent visions. Nursing their Saturday night hangovers, SXSWers were nonetheless buzzing about this night's premiere of Jersey Girl, the latest Kevin Smith project which showcased Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez -- the first time they could be seen onscreen together since the roundly savaged Gigli. In the midst of rumored sightings of Smith film staple Jason Lee (Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma) at the local Starbucks and rampant speculation about a Ben-n-J.Lo reunion, I eschewed the hype in favor of less noticed fare, fully confident that Jersey Girl would be coming soon to a multiplex near me.

The question of paying notice, however, can be a tricky one at film festivals. The critic's ideal is to happen upon an empty theater and being the first to discover a cinematic genius that had been previously denied a venue to showcase such talent. The reality, however, is that empty theaters are generally just a sign of bad movies. Just as a film can be too big budget, too formulaic, and too unoriginal to matter, so can an independent film be too stilted, too amateurish, or too pretentious.

The happy ground is generally in the middle, as offerings like Code 46 had already demonstrated. Young Adam (playing to a full house) looked as if it might follow in the same footsteps, marrying mainstream talent with a project that sought to create a more daring cinematic vision. The film stars Ewan McGregor as Joe, a Scottish bargeman who lives and works on a boat with a family of three. After discovering a woman's body in the harbor, Joe experiences a series of flashbacks that relate his connection to the victim as an old girlfriend. In the meantime, he carries on an affair with his boss's wife Ella, played by Tilda Swinton (Adaptation), in the restricted confines of the barge and under the seemingly oblivious nose of husband Les (Peter Mullan).

What follows is a brooding study in amorality. The barge moves the characters slowly up and down the river, the tensions between them ebbing and flowing. Joe soon moves from Ella to her sister, to another landlady, and (in the flashbacks) to his old girlfriend Cathie (Emily Mortimer), and his character is reduced to an expression of base carnality. Joe has sex in rowboats, on barges, under trucks, in alleyways, and in strangers' beds with every woman with whom he seems to come into contact. In the meantime, an innocent man goes on trial for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Rather than acting in any forceful manner, he smokes and drinks whiskey in the local pubs.

Young Adam is a challenge then, asking audiences to follow a protagonist whose morality and inactivity make him generally repugnant. A particularly telling scene shows Joe, during an argument with Cathie, beating the unfortunate girl with a stick before covering her with custard, ketchup, and a variety of other condiments and having his way with her on the bedroom floor. Joe's insensitivity goes from mysterious to ridiculous here, and the film does little to redeem his character (the only one we really spend any time with in the film) for the audience. This is not to demand a "happy" film or even likeable characters. The most frustrating aspect of Young Adam, though, is that its content seems to wallow in its own lasciviousness, without any apparent notion as to what point to make about such behavior.

Such pointlessness, however, seemed to be precisely the idea behind 24 Hours on Craigslist. Documenting the San Francisco based website's influence in the span of a single day, the filmmakers sent out eight crews all over the city to create a montage of the bizarre stories behind the site's thousands of posts.

For the uninitiated, craigslist is a sort of virtual Greensheets. Anyone can post ads for goods or services (to sell or to buy) for free. Since the site's creation in 1995, craigslist has grown from San Francisco to offering the same service to over thirty cities around the world, with plans to provide for dozens more. The posts are also almost entirely uncensored (some drug references are coded to avoid prosecution), which makes for some extraordinarily compelling ads. Consider this post, taken off the Austin craigslist at random (apparently in honor of St. Patrick's Day):

"Looking for some Irish charm, Gaelic sensuality and wit? I'm fit, fun, and very skilled in the Hibernian oral arts. Find out why 69% of the world's women, when given a choice, choose Irish men. Looking for single women and couples for a wee bit of sensual fun. Discreet, honest, and eminently trustworthy."

This, then, is the stuff of 24 Hours on Craigslist. The film documents such rare characters as a male Ethel Merman impersonator looking to start a heavy metal cover band, a couple interested in setting up a support group for owners of diabetic cats, and a gay porn star advertising his services as "porn star massage." The film spends time with a multitude of similarly "unique" people, all of whom are inclined toward their own particular brands of idiosyncrasy.

The movie is careful to make the case, however, that craigslist is more than just a meeting place for freaks. Following the antics of a flash mob (those groups who descend en masse to pre-designated meeting places as instructed by text messages on their cell phones), the film draws a parallel between these groups and craigslist users as members of a community. We are all unique together, the argument goes. In this sense, the documentary is an interesting example of postmodern anthropology, looking at a group whose only affiliation is via the World Wide Web.

For groups or for individuals, both 24 Hours on Craigslist and Young Adam explore the notion of the alternative. Whether it's anonymous encounters with Scottish housewives or a husband and wife Judo team, the films turn a critical eye toward the accepted standards of what passes for "normal" these days. The idea seems an apt one for SXSW. As midnight struck in Austin, revelers turned toward the city's drinking quarter, housed on the (in)famous 6th street. Music blared over the asphalt, drunken buddies careened arm in arm down the sidewalk, and a man wearing a Burger King crown and sunglasses slapped away at a bass guitar, singing into the night. Vive le difference.

Look for the second and final installment of South By Southwest Festival dispatches soon.

Queering the Mic

"The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House"
-- Audre Lorde

"My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge
That'll stab you in the head
Whether you're a fag or lez"
-- Eminem

The Lorde quote has always haunted me for both the way it sears open an entire realm of truth to power and the ways in which it's clearly too pat; particularly when the master's tools are the only things lying around. In hip-hop, this quote seems to run on a loop in my head as I watch video after video of consumer gluttony gone bling with women just one more thing to accumulate.

Don't get me wrong, I love hip-hop. For someone enamored with language the way I am, there's nothing like the pleasure of listening to a genre where words are minted by the minute and meaning gets telegraphed to your booty through lexical stunts of brilliant rhythm. But I got issues. Even the margins of hip-hop are plagued with Promise Keeper views of women and tedious dependence on the crutch of homophobia. (e.g., Not two minutes into the latest MC Jean Grae, we're treated to diss all of the "faggots" who don't tremble in her path.) It's worse listening to the mangling explanations which come forth, that usually end by illuminating the fact that they're not just really calling someone a homosexual, but doing so with a back handed gesture of sexism. I guess this means that the categories of gay and lesbian has become a toxic waste dump for leftover bigotries that can no longer be expressed in polite company.

The energies of prejudice can be impacted into gays because there are still several socially acceptable rationalizations for the hatred. Still debating our existential validity, just recently given legal permission (at least partially) to be who we are, queer folk still operate as frighteners in public debates where religious psychotics still reign over a major political party and forge their selves and sense of mission from the number of freedom pyres under their belts.

Talking to gay artists about their sexuality and art can be a tricky task. Every time I do it, I'm confronted with the low-grade hostility that emanates from a human who feels caged and constrained by a label. Nobody wants to drag around such an oppression nametag as a point of entry for recognition. It's the same burden African-American artists struggled with and, in many cases, have largely overcome through ubiquity. Saying "gay" rapper, comes with an undercurrent of stooping as if to say "Oh, look dear" or "My, my, what a surprise."

Having wound my way through the house of a thousand caveats, I still set out to find out whether or not Lorde's axiom holds true for queers, and whether or not GLBT people could make countercurrent inroads in a genre deeply invested in keeping them as a place holder on the bottom of the totem -- just below "yo mamma" slams.

Some cry "racist" when hip-hop's homophobia gets nicked because, they retort, rock 'n' roll is just as predisposed to hate queer folk. It's total bullshit, of course, because while Steven Tyler might privately pass fag jokes amongst his friends to stabilize the currency of his masculinity, rock 'n roll's lyrical content has never been rife with the denigration of gays and lesbians that hip-hop has. To the contrary, recurring currents of androgyny and sexual deviancy checker rock's history. Sociologists might point out that hip-hop at least partially emerged from the practice of "doing the dozens", a cadenced dialogue of insults designed to rhythmically axe an opponent's ego. But that just begs the question. Tradition hardly excuses bigotry.

Part of the aura of untouchability when it comes to criticizing a genre so heavily peopled with minorities comes from an excess of liberalism's success. People mistakenly assume that humans who've suffered culturally get some sort of pass for their intellectual shittiness. This privilege of those who have suffered can lead to the most egregious forms of exploitation: Think of neo-conservatives who accuse every critic of Israel as being a closet Holocaust sympathizer. It is breathtakingly stupid for someone who has experienced oppression to pass it along to someone else without, for a second, recognizing the irony. But it's wrong to assume that people learn from being oppressed. For some, the lesson is simply that it's better to give than receive.

Moreover, the "master's tools" frequently pit one trammeled group against another, as if freedom and equality are a small tray of finger sandwiches in a starved stadium. Many African-Americans bristle at the comparison of civil rights to gay liberation (though many don't as well), because it's believed that homosexuality is a choice whereas race is not. That, of course, has the inadvertent moral effect of arguing that if it were possible to scientifically alter skin color, black people should just combat racism by choosing to be white. This inability to see homophobia and racism as parallel practices makes it all the easier for people in hip-hop to elide the implications of slandering the out group du jour. No one's status as a minority should magically ward off criticism. The achievement of equality should never be about the assumption of untouchable virtue. The psychology of quite a bit of hip-hop is royally skull fucked and there's really no nice way to put it.

New York City's Cazwell has the kind of swaggering style that belongs on billboards. He talks to me from the ass end of a brutal hangover (it's Tuesday) and speaks with refreshing candor, punctuating long riffs with a dismissive "and whatevah". His sound makes promiscuous use of other genres; a rowdy skim of club music, electro, and hip-hop, with lyrics that celebrate sex with the kind of horny abandon where no one gets hurt and everyone only wants to touch themselves a little bit more.

Cazwell sees one of the main obstacles to a successful queer rapper is the desire to meld into the hip-hop canon, a fantasy he dismisses as "I can't wait until they invite me to the Source awards." He doesn't believe that the music industry has an intrinsic homophobia as much as they have a fear of not making money. He takes it further, adding, "One thing you learn as a gay artist is that you have to create your own space with your own thing going on and invite people to come to you. You want revenge? Make a hit record!" Cazwell believes that hip-hop's homophobia comes from its predominance of straight men who hang with straight men whose only contact with gays might be the occasional stylist.

Of course, ignorance doesn't quite adequately explain why people would need to trade in the degradation of people they know nothing about. Cazwell clearly does what he does without apology; rhyming about how to give a good blowjob and doing a pair of brothers, in an off-handed way and with a casualness that puts the ball in your court. If you have a problem with it, it's your problem. He eschews the gay label, and not just for its limitations or its inaccuracy when applied to his sound. "The problem is if you become the gay anything people start saying you do gay rap. Does that mean Rupert Everet does gay acting?" he says.

Listening to transgendered rapper Katastrophe is like listening to Eminem without the Oedipal casualties: Katastrophe has a fresh, combative sense of politics. Taking on the gay community's own closet, Katastrophe, explores the sticky thicket of being transgendered in a world where categorical ambiguity invariably freaks out even the outlanders. His flow has a sinister edge, a liquid quick bitterness that gives his rhymes the heaviness of a potential threat. Katastrophe sees the gay bashing in hip-hop as a simple case of a braggart's fallback, since the worst thing to lose in a war of machismo is your stereotypical manhood.

At this point, I can't help but wonder aloud how funny it is that aggressive masculinity needs to prefaced on this sort of fearful policing -- a united front against individuality. But then I've always believed it takes more courage to be a drag queen in our culture than it does to be a typical man any day, in any way. Katastrophe definitely sees his music as a response to the hostile terrain of hip-hop, noting that "I think it is impossible to be a queer creating hip-hop and not somehow reflect on the fact that as of yet we have no place in hip-hop. Just the act of me being openly queer and rapping about it is absolutely, directly going to respond to the blatant homophobia that goes along with hip-hop and its culture." Far from coming off as a victim amongst victims, Katastrophe carves out a ferocious space of critique with a morbid sense of humor and a bulls-eyed rage.

When I began trying to set up an interview with queer hip-hop goddesses, Scream Club, I knew they were gonna be rowdy fun. Their answering machine sounds like a slumber party in the wee hours of the morning when all everyone can do is roll around on the floor and laugh at absolutely nothing. Bridging the missing link between Salt n Pepa and Peaches, Cindy Wonderful and Sarah Adorable rip through tracks about girl on girl love and sexual politickin'. If you can't have fun listening to Scream Club, you're probably Mel Gibson, and that's sad.

"We're down with queers!" Cindy shouts and both of them start laughing. They seem to have given much thought to the questions of genre and bigotry, to an even broader extent than I had. When I asked them about being "lesbian" rappers, Sarah piped in with "I prefer queer because lesbian is too rigid. It doesn't leave room for including trans people and it doesn't question categories like 'girl' and 'boy. Basically, it doesn't leave much room for many different kinds of gender expression." Cindy definitely wants to counter what she sees is wrong with hip-hop, "I'm really aware of it (homophobia). Not only is hip-hop homophobic, it's also very sexist. I didn't use to think of what I was doing as a response to that. I was doing what I liked. But recently I've really wanted to make music that directly responds to that."

The idea that they might be pigeonholed doesn't faze them. Sarah replies, "We're definitely queer, that's who we are, so if we're described that way, that's awesome to me." To be frank, this was the most heartening gesture of solidarity I heard. While I fully understand the desire to steer clear of the queer artist box, the effect of that avoidance can sometimes be premature gentrification; like queer people moving too quickly to the deluxe apartment in the sky without acknowledging a debt to a struggle. I'm not accusing anyone I've interviewed of that, but I do believe that there has to be a more nuanced, halfway mark for gay artists making their way in the world. There has to be a way to identify to the civil rights of gays and lesbians while simultaneously asserting the autonomy of their creativity.

It's too early to test the hypothesis that it's queers that are going to take hip-hop to some next level shit, since none of these artists have garnered the ink they deserve, though all of them are more than capable of that "hit record" vengeance Cazwell mentioned. I've never supported censorship, even when it comes to hate speech, because I don't believe anyone has the right to be pampered out of the beautiful and ugly reality of difference. But I fully acknowledge that on an unleveled playing field, the speech battle can be a bit like trying to flood the world by taking a piss.

When all is said and done, I came away from these conversations with a huge sense of hope about the evolution of hip-hop as well as a greater commitment to calling out people who traffic in homophobic, king-of-the-hill cheap shots. These are just a few of the people out there mapping out a wholly new and innovative artistic homeland. It's a shame that hip-hop's cultural ascendance has come with such short-changed introspection. Perhaps it's just a phase that will soon be superseded by people with mad skillz and no baggage -- people who won't need the dubious prop of an underfoot Other. People who will make incredible music without becoming the master's tools.
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