Prolate Spheroids and the Many Problems of College Ball

“You can learn more character on the two-yard line than anywhere else in life.” – Paul Dietzel

On January 11, 2016, there was a football game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona called the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. The University of Alabama Crimson Tide played against the Clemson Tigers, and the Crimson Tide won 45-40. The game garnered 23.6 million viewers, the sixth-largest audience in cable television history. That I had absolutely no interest in watching it, or awareness that it was on, speaks to a disconnect between my own filter bubble and a large sect of the U.S. that seems to get pretty rowdy for the CFPNC. Nick Saban, the head coach of the Crimson Tide, was very pleased with his team’s performance, complimenting the team camaraderie and the fact that they’d overcome negative criticism at the start of the season to come out with the win. Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s head coach, was proud of his team and what they’d accomplished and looked forward to next season. Two white guys talkin’ football. Historic cable numbers. Big-time sports. Yet the spectacle fell flat to me, a sign of a bloated sports landscape, an abscess in need of draining.

I’ve had difficulty structuring my argument against NCAA football because my distaste for the whole system comes from some inarticulable place in my gut – I cannot recall ever being interested in the game, but I’ve always been repulsed by the overt sponsorship, like the Outback Bowl, Tostitos Bowl and Chik-Fil-A Peach Bowl, and a nagging feeling that the same Americans filling up college stadiums were voting for Bush and interpreting the Bible literally and driving Humvees around the suburbs. My animosity began as an irrational distaste- a meta-hatred due to the complexity of the conferences and the fact that there was no equivalent to the New England Patriots in the NCAA. Of course, to adequately argue a point or affect change in any way, I had to contain my ad hominem attacks and actually figure out just what is wrong with ‘college football’, so here is my attempt to do so, starting with a somewhat outlandish statement: the glut of the college football machine embodies the frenzied nature of late capitalism, a scramble to secure all potential monetary value from everything, and the result is laughable absurdity.

The media coverage of the NCAA and its attendant conference rivalries and bowl games are somewhat mind-boggling, in both their scale and their complete disconnect from the colleges and universities they represent. To some fans, it’s just more football, a competitive proving ground for the nation’s most accomplished and disciplined athletes, extra games to fill up the weekend. The SEC, Pac 10, ACC, Big 10 and others are basically pro-quality leagues without the salaries, illuminated by the cartoon glow of marketing efforts by conglomerates seeking to mainline a coveted source of revenue: eyeballs affixed to live TV. Popular college football is a combination of the efficient, vertically integrated media landscape and a wished-for cultural narrative of masculinity within the hallowed halls of the country’s oldest universities, signaling the end of what had long been imagined the last bastion of good ol’ sports for sport’s sake. NCAA football suggests that we’ve reached a point of no return with laissez-faire rapacity in the United States, athletics spun completely out of control into a strange, pseudo-provincial exercise in branding, a collection of corporate entities juking to reach a financial goal line that no one can clearly see, dangling carrots in front of the finest student-athlete-football players in the country, baiting them to sacrifice the bulk of their education to the Football Gods for the promise of an NFL career and the social spoils of modern day gladiatorial combat. It’s escapism and empty platitudes, brought to you by Stouffer’s Reheatable Snack-Paks- but diving touchdown catches are tight, though.

There’s a distinct line in the sand dividing those who watch college football at Buffalo Wild Wings and those who’ve never given college football a single thought. On the surface, the difference appears to be Red and Blue America- conservatives love college football and weird liberal types not as much, and the reasons are clear: the huge Southern universities like Alabama and Auburn and Ole Miss and Florida State have the most successful football franchises, and propagate conservative Christian values, so the big student bodies rally around their teams and show populist pride, presumably because there’s nothing else to cling to but prepackaged, provincial cultural allegiances. Many college football teams and athletic departments have been more than happy to sell themselves to private capital in crass ways, like state-of-the-art Jumbotrons and skybox restaurants. What’s more, the fascistic rage on display at college games, where ninety-thousand fans wear the same colors and chant (often racist) fight songs breeds aggression and violence, or at the very least reflects it.

Whether it’s time wasted watching, talking and reading about football, mostly from the comfort of my couch, or the fact that so many football players demonstrate such acute anti-intellectualism, football fandom is not without its fair share of egregious contradictions. I’m a fan of the New England Patriots, but I worry that my sports consumption is just a primitive trap meant to divert my energy from more worthwhile endeavors, and take my money- while watching others rake it in. It doesn’t help that through all levels of football there’s a head-slapping tendency towards masculism and misogyny. Watching football is not as cognitively rewarding as ‘reading a great novel’ or ‘going to a museum’ or ‘having a conversation with someone about something other than football’, but perhaps it is appealing both for what it is, which is straightforward, and what it isn’t- that is, difficult in any way. I mention this to offer up a more nuanced framework: the argument against college football as it stands isn’t about jocks versus nerds, or even conservative versus liberal. I get the appeal of the sport itself, and have no problem with the majority of the athletes who play the game. It’s the intermingling of superficial mainstream sports culture and the purpose of college: to, in the words of David Foster Wallace, learn about “the choice of what to think about”.

Rallying against college football is nothing new- in 1939, then-president of the University of Chicago Robert Hutchins withdrew the Chicago Maroons from intercollegiate football, writing in the Saturday Daily Post, “it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without ever learning to write one”. There have been a rash of books on the problems of college football recently, because business has been booming. In Billion-Dollar Ball, Gilbert Gaul rifles through boxes of tax documents and internal university financial records, pointing out myriad fucked-up tax loopholes awarded to athletic departments and the exorbitant salaries of coaches like Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, who are the highest-paid public employees of Ohio and Alabama, respectively. While Gaul’s book is necessary, financial inconsistencies are a given when you’re talking about handshake-happy country club types. Florida State professor Diane Roberts’s book Tribal profiles the Southern allegiances to big-time college football and built-in emotional rivalries, and Christian fundamentalism, but again, I would argue that her critique fails to offer a substantial enough indictment of college football as a whole. One need only tune in to ESPN to see some footage of Alabama coach Nick Saban going fishing and then golfing, and then maybe fishing again, jabbering about how golf is “kind of like life”, wearing an immaculate moisture-wicking polo shirt, to understand that college football is where a particular brand of American identity is attempting to assert itself, and where a significant rethinking of the game’s support structure needs to take place.

IT PRETTY MUCH IS IT WHAT IT IS

There are now billion of dollars flowing into and throughout Division I football programs, and there is real opportunity for both professional and personal success, but athletic achievement has come to represent a self-actualization in American consciousness that belies the fleeting benefits of a life dedicated to sport. For a student-athlete, being famous and on TV and a player permeates pretty much everything. Cardale Jones wasn’t wrong when he tweeted, “I didn’t come here to play SCHOOL”, and the bloated system of recruitment, scholarships and hype surrounding athletes is itself a predictable mill of prepackaged storylines, a bubble of importance that we inflate with mimetic recognition. The fame causes creatures like Johnny ‘Football’ Manziel to emerge, who, after winning the Heisman trophy and entering a much-publicized draft, has been cut from the Cleveland Browns, dropped by his agent and is now despised on a national level. He played poorly in the pros because his scrambling technique, in which he utilized his speed to exploit the weaknesses of opposing defenses, failed against the monstrously agile linebackers of the NFL, and he kept showing up to work hung-over, or not showing up at all. Without a team or agent, all he’s been left with, strangely enough, are his millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter, who seem to be serving him fine. Famous for being famous. Get in where you fit in.

In the enormous gear-work of the televised sport machine, ‘College Football’ is entertainment designed to crank out our favorite pumped-up stars and generate maximum advertising revenue, with little regard to the players themselves. ESPN is the most successful television endeavor in history, and its lucrative contract with the NCAA- $7.4 billion over 12 years to broadcast the college playoffs and National Championship game- is unprecedented. That’s where characters like Manziel come in. A well-crafted narrative was produced, linking his impropriety with any number of factors including stress, idiocy and alcoholism, and the story chugged along at a cinematic pace. The blank-faced audience (us) were spoon-fed soundbites, enough to develop dissenting opinions on the matter: he’s either a spoiled piece of shit, or he’s due for a major comeback, or somehow it’s Justin Bieber’s fault, or whatever gets you talking beside the water cooler. The press have played up the divisiveness and downward trajectory of his story arc to great effect, when in a just world, he would have been left alone, or helped, or not thought about ever. The real ‘lesson’ to ‘glean’ from Manziel is that in America, you’ve got to make it on your own, because it’s survival of the motherfucking fittest, and if you cannot hack it then you don’t deserve to live.

There have been scandal-prone players throughout NCAA history, but Manziel is different: within the current big-money dominance of the sport, there is a magnified quality to his woes, the lens zooming in on him so that any misstep has been a failure of duty to God and country, his mid-air engine stall acted out live for all of us to see in 1080p. Manziel is one example in a larger, shallow menagerie of human narratives shaped by college football. The cliches put forth are ludicrous- clowns like Tim Tebow and Case Keenum, and head coaches like Urban Meyer and Hugh Freeze can be found tweeting Bible verses, peddling a saccharine brand of Chicken Soup for the Soul Christianity, attributing every meaningless win to the Guy Upstairs. The performative politics of college football are as hilarious as they are obvious, making it perfect entertainment, a product to put on the same shelf as Avengers and Star Wars, to pair with commercials for Sandals Resorts and Bud Light. College football commodifies Christian conservatism and turns it into a parody of itself, and the fans down South gobble it up by the millions.

The surreal line between college football players and reality- the fact that students can see the players in class and around campus (though many athletic departments have built state-of-the-art private tutoring facilities), is intrinsic to all sports and is part of their appeal. These semi-famous student-athletes are in a weird limbo stage where they are playing on national TV and seen as ‘role models’ by fellow students, who see the social spoils of a televised athletic career- i.e., tons of women and partying. For young athletes, the intermingling of media and corporeal existence establishes identity, or requires a retrenchment thereof, and the student bodies echo that sentiment, placing student-athletes on a pedestal. When Jameis Winston was caught stealing crab legs from a grocery store near the FSU campus, he pointed to the fact that they gave food away to players all the time- a community effort. Much has been revealed about the more lenient academic requirements for athletes, allowing them to pass classes with very little actual coursework. In a media-saturated world, coverage denotes significance in a way that nothing else can. In a country where you can become famous for doing a backflip in a weird place or being a rat carrying a slice of pizza down stairs, any inkling of stardom is blown out of proportion. We are living in a glut of celebrity and individuation, which is carrying college football to it’s current chaotic brink, sponsored by Capitol One, all praise due to Jesus Christ.

Americans bang the drum in celebration, valorizing athletes, supporting a competitive attitude towards challenges- “it’s our time!”, “hard work and dedication pay off!”, the idea that sheer will and stamina will earn you victory. Football, more than any other sport, embodies the technical efficiency and specialization of the U.S. economy, echoing the ruling class sentiment that you must do your job and compete, play the ‘game’, and abide by the rules, and you will experience the conventional notion of ‘success’. What is strange is that, given the absolutely brazen display of consumer culture in college football (Phil Knight’s endorsement of the Oregon Ducks comes to mind), the NCAA still refuses to allow players to be paid even a meager stipend, indicative of a classic conservative dilemma: sometimes outmoded systems and ways of thinking simply aren’t worth preserving. On top of the ideological violence in the college football machine is the forgotten fact that these teams represent schools, which represent learning– what could be a brief respite from the harsh, crass world of late capitalism in America. Instead, ESPN and the NCAA and the various athletic conferences have chosen to reinforce conformity and exploitation.

“Huh huh, duhhh, football!”

What deserves consideration, also, are the traditions that are being clutched to, the flags being waved in the name of a particular college. Torbjorn Tannsjo, writing in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, argues that the exalted status and bloodthirsty allegiance to an abstract image- a mascot or logo- is a form of Nazism. The fervent fan base of the Alabama Crimson Tide worship the symbol and the colors above all else- death to all rivals (especially Auburn). Tannsjo argues that it is fascistic to believe that “the nation can get strong, it can be successful, even if each and everyone of its citizens suffers”. One need only see images of a crowd of 90,000 crimson-clad Roll Tiders screaming at the top of their lungs to understand that there is a deep-seeded “contempt for weakness” that was at the core of Hitler’s nazism, the unified fury of the crowd on par with the Nuremburg rallies. Again, college football encourages an abstract fanaticism revealing the weakness and hypocrisy of conservative ideology, especially when it is mined (and undermined) for profit.

THE EYE OF THE BEER-HOLDER

It’s challenging when writing or thinking about sports to broach something that often goes unacknowledged:the absurdity of throwing a ball around a field and scoring imaginary points. Though it might sound histrionic, a consideration of the intangible value of sports is more useful than ever. With increased media coverage at every age range of competition- high school highlights are shown on SportsCenter Top 10 all the time- the vicarious experience of sports is going to become more and more disappointing, especially for men who feel alienated from traditional displays of masculinity and family values, or Norman Rockwell notions of community. We’re far beyond the old adage that ‘sports build character’ or are good for health- they are a huge cultural institution, and no other sect of that institution is more in need of rethinking than college football.

The most important stakeholder involved in college football’s continued success is none other than ESPN. Forget the traditions of each stadium, the decades-old rivalries and legendary match-ups.While not the first or only network to broadcast NCAA football, ESPN takes the dramatic moments and blows them out of proportion, setting the scene for the world that we are living in now- a virtual bed of sports to lay in at any time, whether in the morning, while at work, as we fall asleep or even as we fly over the country, spewing CO2 into an increasingly wrecked atmosphere. We are whisked through a pleasant coterie of off-season moments, trade rumors and humorous Vines, all linked to properties that ESPN controls. It’s a media monopoly that dictates how we see the game, how the players see themselves, and how large swaths of America see their culture. Yes, the dream world offered is pleasant as such- riding a televised wave into the future, replete with iridescent manicured grass, the very thing we miss while we watch. One hope of mine would be that conservative America finds a way to divorce what ESPN, and by proxy the entire culture surrounding college football, has taught us to think, whether it be the artificial narratives and emotional arcs of the teams or the blatant clarion call to consume, which permeates every corner of every stadium- and decide for ourselves what we find worthy. We still control our own thoughts, actions, and eyeballs when it comes to entertainment, which is still only one facet of life, I think.

Posted in Features | Leave a comment

an analysis of drake’s album “if you’re reading this it’s too late”

Drake-1The picture of Drake above is our contemporary existence captured in a single image. Note the perfectly off-kilter snapback hat, the obscure hand gesturing in a middle finger to society/haters/everyone doubling as a mysterious gang sign, his blue Solo cup containing codeine or booze or both and the camouflage sweater recalling the endless Canadian forest juxtaposed against a crude cut-out of Cash Money artists Birdman and the Hot Boy$. Drake is the idea of Drake, a postmodern pop culture icon at once hyper-aware and completely delusional. His props are the most important signification of Drakedom. He is both a product of the culture and an important barometer that gives some indication of where our generation is going. Here are some thoughts on his new album, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.

First, some notes on the album title, of which immediacy and realness is its chiefest concern. As you’re reading this, Drake is, much to all of our amazement, Drake. He of the Dom Perignon-splashed paradise lifestyle. The best you can hope for is to live vicariously through his new album, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. It’s too damn late for much else. I’ve always been a fan of hip-hop, even finding myself concerned with it’s “realness” in middle school, when conscious rappers where much more prescient. Since the early 2000’s, I’ve listened to a lot of rap, sometimes guiltily, sometimes like a badge. I can recite “Gimme the Loot”, “California Love”, and “C.R.E.A.M.” verbatim, much to the dismay of everyone- but come on. Inspectah Deck’s bars in C.R.E.A.M.? “We got stickup kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks and/Stray shots, all on the block that stays hot”. It’s a perfect song. I’m such a cool hip-hop head!

It’s been hard to rationalize my love for hip-hop against a super white, upper-middle class suburban upbringing. A solid education and very linear path to college were essential truths for nearly everyone I grew up with. The cops in my town were either breaking up overcrowded and sloppy-drunk house parties or making sure that no one was smoking weed in a facsimile of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. Concord, Massachusetts is the polar opposite of the inner city. I mention this only because it all comes back to Drake. It always comes back to Drake. He’s the first mainstream “gangsta” rapper that can’t legitimately claim any real hardship growing up. His is another suburban bildungsroman, smoking weed and bugging out to rap videos on TV. His music is liberated hip-hop, free from the confines of gangsta rap and/or the Golden Era. Unfortunately, his art is still confined by a matrix of commercialism.

Drake’s album begins with “Legend”, where he declares that when he dies, he’ll be remembered forever, because he’s a motherfucking legend. We’ll see. Hip-hop is still a relatively new genre of music, so most of its originators are still alive. It’s a fickle culture, too, obsessed as it is with shiny newness. Drake is enjoying unprecedented fame and wealth in 2015, where he has “shit mapped out strong”, but in the rapid culture that he so willfully embodies, our attention spans are basically nil. The key element to his public persona is a sense that we all are able to partake in his debauchery and epicurean pleasure-seeking, but at the same time we are complicit in the creation of the Legend of Drake. One of the great, cathartic aspects of hip-hop is that it just throws the rapper’s ego up on the side of a skyscraper- he straight up says that he’s a legend. He needs us though.

Acting out the Legend of Drake is no easy task either. On the lead single “Energy”, he takes on an accusatory disposition- everyone else is just sapping him of his energy: “I got enemies, got a lot of enemies/gotta lotta people tryna drain me of my energy”. I get a sense that Drake is becoming somewhat exhausted with the business of being Drake. The song marks a particularly negative alienation and paranoia that I can’t recall in any of his previous songs. Hip-hop has always embodied an intense alienation, but here, it’s a fatigue due to the constant onslaught of women and haters, and he takes a more aggressive tone, threatening, “I’ve got real ones living past Kennedy Rd./I got real ones with me everywhere that I go”. During an interview with Joni Gnomeshi, he explained his aggressive lyrics “kind of come with the territory”, so as to say, the mainstream rap genre has distinct codes (violence) that he is obligated to embody. Still, the song remains firmly coded in the context of his oeuvre. His aggression is an intentional departure from his “nice guy” image, though just so. He retains his lyrical clarity throughout.

Adam Krims, a noted music theorist described rap lyrics to require a “symbolic collapsing” of the artist onto the performer- i.e., Drake’s lyrics are, within the context of rap, taken to be true. Krims evokes Phillipe Lejeune’s “autobiographical pact” in his analysis of rap lyrics as the poetics of identification, stating that we interpret the work in a completely different way when listening to lyrics if we believe them to be autobiographical. That autobiographical pact has remained one of the single most important elements of rap, and particularly gangster rap, of which Drake has always straddled the line. If you don’t buy what a rapper is saying, that rapper is fucking wack. Hip-hop is a genre that gains its strength from authenticity. It’s also the most important element of Drake’s appeal. That’s why his self-representation on IYRTITL is a really important indicator not just of rap, but of contemporary ideas of the good life, success and authenticity.

Self-identity and authenticity are major themes on track 4, “Know Yourself”. Drake seeks to establish “realness” by injecting obscure references and codes. Even for the experienced rap listener, it can be virtually impossible to make out exactly what he’s saying, but that’s kind of the point. He borrows the slang of other street rappers and Jamaican patois to construct an authentic persona. He begins the song with a string of code-names- “that Oliver, 40, Niko shit man, 15 Fort York shit ya know Boi-1da, what’s poppin’?” and continues that in the main chorus, where he’s “riding through the 6 with my woes”. In appropriating cultural signifiers, he’s once again asserting his hip-hop authenticity. That the song is called “Know Yourself” is a curious irony. It’s posturing, but like most music Drake makes, it sounds cool.

“Yeah, I stay up late at night, thinkin’ ’bout my life
Want a lot, will I get it all? Ain’t no tellin’.”

I have a hard time believing that Drake receives his checks in the mail, as he claims on “No Tellin'”. He’s all but rapped his Hidden Hills street address in other songs, so I can’t imagine he’d be receiving seven and eight-figure checks by snail mail- he’s probably on that direct deposit tip. Drake seems to gain a sense of himself, and plays with the autobiographical nature of rap lyricism, through the mention of seemingly mundane details into what are otherwise contextual raps. On “No Tellin'”, he raps about eating Alfredo pasta in the kitchen, which, regardless of context, is an image that’s not usually associated with a global hip-hop star. It matches another line of his, from a guest spot on Rick Ross’s “Stay Schemin'”: “Spaghetti bolognese in the Polo Lounge/me and my G from DC that’s how we roll around”. Of course, in both instances, his eating pasta is a display of wealth and luxury, but even the mentioning of food brings Drake down to a more human level.

Where his pasta references resonate, Drake’s treatment of women is a cloying kind of objectification. While not as graphic as Lil Wayne’s bars, Drake’s lyrics- “I saw potential in you from the go, you know that I did/I don’t know if you know, but I know who you are”- place him firmly in the realm of misogynistic rappers. In their paper “Woman of Color in Hip-Hop: The Pornographic Gaze”, Margaret Hunter and Kathleen Soto write that there are two categories of women depicted in hip-hop- the “video hoe” and the “loyal girlfriend” (i.e. the “ride or die”). They connect the proliferation and popularity of porn to increasingly misogynistic and pornographic hip-hop lyrics- a interrelationship that Drake’s lyrics and music videos are definitely indicative of. Considering that the Alfredo pasta in “No Tellin'” is eaten at V-Live, a popular strip club in Houston, it’s pretty clear that Drake isn’t moving the dial forward at all on this album in regards to his treatment and depiction of women. He’s always struggled to consolidate his “nice guy” image with a persistent misogyny. In an interview with Katie Couric, who presses him about it, he tells her candidly, “sometimes you just gotta chalk it up to hip-hop”. He doesn’t own his words but instead blames his misogyny on the essential culture codes of rap. It’s a cop out.

The significance of Toronto in Drake’s life is essential to the album, and remains a central element in rap music in general. For IYRTITL, he’s adopted a new moniker, 6 God, in reference to Toronto and his god-like status within the city. On several tracks- “6 God”, “6 Man”, “You & the 6”- he juggles fame and wealth with his personal desire to stay true to his roots and rep the 6. Like a handful of tracks on Nothing Was the Same, he emphasizes that fame hasn’t changed him, but it’s changed the way people treat him. Fame is pretty complicated terrain to navigate, especially in the context of rap music, and Drake has openly grappled with its trappings, rather unsuccessfully. His subject “I” becomes conflated, both the Drake of humble origins and niceness and the rich Drake clutching bands and spending $100,000 in one night at the strip club.

ifwt_drake-ig-2“Preach” is primarily concerned with Drake’s fast-paced and consumptive lifestyle. He’s always been emblematic of a gross conspicuous consumption that has been a blight on rap, but his is a newer, sharper form. “Glo’d up off a gate way, man, you can’t afford me”. The freedom that immense wealth offers is, for many twentysomethings, the goal. The best symbol for it is the private jet. It’s a common theme cropping up in mainstream, luxury hip-hop. My favorite lines about the enviable wealth of rappers come from Jay-Z and Kanye on “Otis”: “Can’t you see we getting money up under you/Can’t you see the private jets flying over you?” There’s a new sense that these rapper-kings are winning and untouchable, having tapped into a career above wage labor- as Krims puts it, “like professional sports, a way to preserve individual integrity while still making money through legal means”. Drake is no office worker, strumming on a computer keyboard in a cubicle. He is a business in himself, flying high above. Preach.

On “Used To”, he raps, “Only see the truth when I’m staring in the mirror/Lookin’ at myself like, there it is there/yeah, like there it is there,”. That ethos is pretty clear in every single moment of Drake’s album, if not his whole career. His particular brand of self-actualization is a natural endpoint for commercial rap music. By the late 90’s, rap had already become an unprecedented global phenomenon. The genre’s popularity has risen parallel to an overall process of globalization, led by the rush of technology and rise of international and infinitely profitable media conglomerates in the last 30 years. S. Craig Watkins writes, “hip hop matters, quite simply, because it is the voice of the streets.” Drake’s chief concern on “Used To” is to “make sure the plane have a phone now/so when we bout to land I can call to tell the wolves I’m home now”. When you erase community and connection and replace it with empty capital-collecting gestures and private jets, the “movement”, an amorphous and difficult-to-place political and social movement called “hip-hop”, is flushed down the Gulfstream V’s toilet.

The debate over “real” and “fake”  has always been a huge point of contention in the game. When I was in middle school in the early 2000’s, I loved listening to Outkast and Mos Def, both of whose CD’s I actually purchased from actual stores. Drake was not much different in his hip-hop education. He didn’t learn the culture from the streets. He downloaded mp3’s, traded CD’s, and watched music videos on TV. Bred not from a real urban environment but from a Baudrillardian simulacrum, “the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere”, he consumed hip-hop while generating his own image of authenticity. That he was on television for years before his rap career is no accident. Drake is a new breed of fiercely capitalistic, confessional rappers that must generate meaning in an increasingly vast and cold world of late capitalism. On “6 Man”, Drake owns the means of production, which is himself: “no ho shit/I don’t need no fucking body, I run my own shit”. Rather than defying the confines of the inner-city, however, Drake’s rapping breaks the shackles of a larger, more life-threateningly boring system of wage labor.

On IYRTITL, he continues furthering the sonic world that he’s already established. Keeping true to a long tradition of rap about the trappings of wealth and the necessity to stay true to to where you’re from, Drake name-drops his hometown of Toronto- “I’m managed by the people I grew up with/I’d rather give that 15% to people I fuck with”. On “Energy” he raps, “I got two mortgages 30 million in total/I got niggas that’ll still try fuckin’ me over”. The career that Drake has built, and strengthens with the release of IYRTITL, is one that deals chiefly with authenticity and authorship. Drake is a real individual living his life on this planet. His commercial and critical success speak to the resonance that his music has with people across the world. Yet still, as if beating his hands against an invisible wall, he hasn’t truly broken free from a larger, limiting context of commercial rap. Drake’s freedom is merely an economic one.

Posted in Features | Tagged , | Leave a comment

We Need A Real-Life Batman

The Dark Knight

James Eagan Holmes walked back into Theater 9 at the Century 16 in Aurora, Colorado two years ago in a gas mask, assault vest, and groin and throat protectors armed with a 12-gauge Remington 870 shotgun, Smith & Wesson M&P15 rifle, and tear gas grenades. It was the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s newest and final installment in the Dark Knight Trilogy. Audience members thought he was part of a publicity stunt, until he fired his shotgun at the ceiling, then directed it at the back rows of the audience. The most up-to-date figures account for 12 audience members killed and 70 injured, but staring at the death toll fails to relay the devastation. According to newspaper reports, police found Holmes standing by his car in the theater parking lot, claiming to be the Joker, and he’d dyed his hair a toxic shade of Cheeto- orange. We still don’t fully understand what compelled him to open fire in a sold-out movie theater, but his rampage is shocking for its capriciousness as well as its grim link to a pop culture phenomenon. While the shooting took place during The Dark Knight Rises, there’s no doubt that the film which held a psychic grip on Holmes was its predecessor, 2008’s The Dark Knight.

I was attending a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in the pungent broccoli mecca of Santa Maria, California, 1,156 miles west of Aurora, and I was inappropriately excited about it. Having just graduated college, TDKR was a convenient bookend to my higher education. Four years earlier, the summer before I left for school, I saw the midnight premier of The Dark Knight, and to say that I enjoyed it would be to disregard a significant aspect of my post-high school worldview, especially as it pertains to art and commerce. I’ve received plenty of eye-rolls for my near-frantic effusiveness for The Dark Knight in the past six years, but even as much else has changed, I’ve remained steadfast in my belief that TDK is an astute social critique whilst concurrently serving as one of the greatest escapist action movies ever. The battle between Batman and the Joker is a colossal, Miltonian morality play, set to a pulsating Hans Zimmer score in a hollow, metaphorical Gotham. There is an abstract tension throughout that raises it far above the level of comic book super-heroics, a Platonic cogitation that, with box-office profits totaling over a billion dollars, was a glimmer of hope that a film can indeed be both a commercial and artistic success.

At the risk of sounding like simply another mainstream sycophant, Nolan’s serious take on what is a fairly ludicrous world of costumed vigilantism transcended Bob Kane’s source material. The flitting, dead energy emanating from Heath Ledger’s Joker, who, since the release of TDK, has come to rest on the mantle within global film culture as a kind of tragic icon, is a bright star exploding rather than fading out. He traipses around Gotham caked in grotesque make-up, wandering into Savatore Maroni’s blue fluorescent hideout and Bruce Wayne’s penthouse cocktail party with equal parts nonchalance and menace, and throughout, it is unclear what exactly he wants from Gotham’s inhabitants or Batman in particular. Without a past to speak of, he’s a strange, anonymous terrorist who is seemingly willed into existence by Batman’s nobility. He starts to reveal himself when at the bedside of a freshly disfigured Harvey Dent, he explains:

“I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. I just DO things…I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.”

Joker-billionaire-burning-money

The Joker’s speech limns a society requiring the purge of a pure anarchism- ruddy-faced and corrupt politicians, amoral Banks- and in that moment, the Joker is iconic, if not charismatic. He relishes in the destruction of system and order. On the one hand, he’s like precocious 14-year old listening to too much Rage Against the Machine and reading too much Catcher in the Rye; on the other, a radical political terrorist. It’s not hard to see where the Joker is coming from. When taken as an isolated gesture, his incineration of a gigantic mountain of cash towards the end of Act II is an act of radical political protest (it’s also perhaps the most unrealistic scene in the film). There’s a cathartic edge to his actions, and in that scene, he’s gone into a netherworld that is neither good nor evil- it’s freakish and absurd.

Where is Batman during most of the Joker’s killing spree? He’s relegated to playing catch-up. With no rhyme or reason to the Joker’s targets or motives, Batman is a troubled and quixotic do-gooder. It’s impossible to stop the Joker from blowing up Gotham Hospital or killing Rachel Dawes, or planting explosives on two passenger ferries and orchestrating a psychological experiment in fear and cynicism. If a villain’s motivation is to burgle a big diamond in a museum, or take over the world, as the League of Shadows aims to accomplish, Batman’s action steps from point A to point B are relatively clear: stop them from doing that thing. When the thing that Batman is stopping the Joker from accomplishing is unknown, Batman can’t do much of anything. Salvatore Maroni describes this when he tells a frustrated Batman that everyone is “wise to your act. You got rules. The Joker, he’s got no rules”.  Our hero’s only option is to set up a complex surveillance system using sonar technology on every cell phone in Gotham, turning them into tethered waypoints, a prospect which his advisor Lucius Fox has serious moral qualms with. To stop the Joker’s terrorism, Batman must adopt extreme, invasive security measures.

Back to reality: Holmes had been stockpiling weapons for months, purchasing guns from Bass Pro Shops and other Colorado weapons-sellers and gearing up for a full-mounted assault. A PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Department at the University of Colorado, he had dropped out of school that June. He was “bright”, albeit heartrendingly awkward. All told, he was a white 24 year-old living in Aurora, Colorado, watching Batman movies, spending time on dating sites like OKCupid and AdultFriendFinder, and eating Subway sandwiches. He played Neverwinter Nights. He had a history of mental issues but there were no obvious or actionable red flags. Not much else is known about him, as his trial has yet to begin and there has been a gag order placed on any information relating to the case. Holmes seemingly appeared out of nowhere with a single, unprovoked goal.

No one could have predicted that Holmes planned to pervert his obsession with the Joker into such senseless carnage. Waking up to the news of the Aurora shooting the day after the film’s release was heartbreaking. Whatever sense of significance and moral weight that was to be gained from Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy had manifested into something much darker and more qualitatively evil than could be fathomed. Holmes’s assault proved, unimpeachable to the world, that “evil” continues to exist, regardless of how obfuscated and postmodern our moral barometer has become. Within the neatly crafted world of Gotham City, Batman has an omnipresence that allows him to arrive at any crime scene just in time to prevent serious loss of life. In Aurora, there was no superhero to counteract Holmes’ villainy.

Alfred Pennyworth could be describing James Eagan Holmes when, as Bruce Wayne struggles to understand and defeat the Joker, he tells him:

“…some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Posted in Features | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Facebook is an Infinite Loop

There’re already too many “The Way We Live Now” think-pieces associated with technology and the Internet Age, touting apps that allow us to broadcast our more unique bowel movements and raise money for Goonies 2, to instantaneously speculate about minutiae and global events with equal rigor.  Everywhere, the culture is saturated like butcher paper with grandiose verbiage heralding the next new era in Tech, dripping with profit and optimism. With 1.2 billion Users, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is the leviathan of the Information Superhighway. Marshall McLuhan claimed over 40 years ago that we were moving towards a “global village”- well, with the help of Mr. Zuckerberg, we blew past the village and created a web-based megalopolis. But we lose when we worship at the altar of Zuck.

Facebook, Inc. is just that- an incorporated Silicon Valley firm, with Zuck and Co. acting upon shareholder interests. When tasked with ascribing the platform a purpose, like any ubiquitous cloud-based intangible technology, the company’s PR department figures that the ubiquity of the brand trumps the need to risk any potentially divisive philosophy. Facebook continues the trend of ergonomic multi-platform tech entities by offering up a broad and amorphous Mission, probably thought over a game of ping pong or glow-in-the-dark mini-golf at the office’s Recreation Zone. Here’s Facebook’s most recent Mission Statement:

Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.

It’s a big open sky of communication, the same azure hue as Facebook’s background color. Zuck said himself,  “The question isn’t, ‘What do we want to know about people?’, It’s, ‘What do people want to tell about themselves?”. In a cascade of selfies, infinite terabytes of uploaded pictures and updates and Likes, we document our lives. A tidal wave crashing through darkened bedrooms lit by LCD screens, Facebook rips apart intimacy from the inside out, inverting conversations into pixel-drawn hypertext superimposed on a programmatic structure of tables and one-click buttons. Our corporeal bodies, beating hearts and misguided impulses, our doubts and fuck-ups, uncooperative hair and skin sensations, are erased at the altar of straight lines and HTML code. Like a mall, Facebook surrounds us with mirrors and clean surfaces, perfectly lined rows of friends, family, acquaintances, that one person you met when you were drunk at a party and never saw again. It twists our drive towards rationality into a collection of digital content.  The most apt metaphor for this onslaught of self-rationalization is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill- it flowed relentlessly, mucking up natural beauty, injecting millions of gallons of man-made sludge daily into the world at a speed heretofore impossible without technology, a force too great to plug up.

We cast our updates off into the ether like model sailboats, watching as our comments float through the proper channels, rooting for our missives. In creating a marketable “personal brand”, we are complicit in what is certainly a dark point in late capitalism- turning both our public and private lives into pure commodity. To harken back to McLuhan, “the medium is the message”- so on Facebook, a social marketplace, we are both consumed and consumer. Through willfully touting ourselves as a collection of preferences and connections, we cede our right to a real, fluctuating self-hood.

It is more and more difficult for us to imagine the real, History, the depth of time, or three-dimensional space, just as before it was difficult, from our real world perspective, to imagine a virtual universe or the fourth dimension.
Jean Baudrillard

It is this writer’s belief that the most significant and damaging aspect of the Facebook platform is the News Feed, which “updates a personalized list of news stories throughout the day, so you’ll know when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again.” Since the dawn of time, human beings have been social creatures and there has been a proverbial “grapevine” of communication through which news (read: gossip et al) would spread. With the News Feed, Zuck and Co. have eliminated the need for real connectedness by replacing it with automatic, ever-shifting array of posts and updates from the farthest reaches of our social circles, bereft of any work on our part to actually risk potential discomfort by interacting with one another. In yet another part of our lives, we’ve ceded control to automation, algorithms, and the screen.

With the News Feed, we are engaged in a level of ambient awareness that has been proven to have deleterious psychological effects on our mood while also contributing to our general habit of social consumption rather than participation. Friends become morsels, their status updates, pokes and Likes akin to Nestle Dibs. It’s either an extension of the truth of existentialism, as if we’ve all finally settled on the fact that we’ll never truly know anyone else, or it’s a temporary illusion that we’re forced to live through until the system collapses and from the rubble, we realize what we’ve lost.

Posted in Features | Tagged , , | Leave a comment