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The first picture on the Wikipedia page of Britney Spears is of her standing in the middle of two rings, garbed as a circus ringleader and toting a whip. The picture fills me with bitter laughter. Not so much at the (inadvertent?) admission that she belongs in a circus, which is true, but that she thinks she leads that circus, which is very far from the truth.

Now, nobody really believes this, but she said this about the creation of Circus:

“I’m writing every day, right here at the piano in this living room… This is my best work ever.”

Get a load of the actual authors of her songs:

Nikesha Briscoe, Rafael Akinyemi, Lukasz Gottwald, Claude Kelly, Benjamin Levin, Shelly Peiken, Arnthor Birgisson, Wayne Hector, Nathaniel Hills, James Washington, Luke Boyd, Marcella Araica, Max Martin, Shellback, Savan Kotecha, Alexander Kronlund, Christian Karlsson, Pontus Winnberg, Henrik Jonback, Kasia Livingston, Stacy Barthe, Henry Walter, Adrien Gough, Peter-John Kerr, Nicole Morier, Harvey Mason, Jr., Rob Knox, James Fauntleroy II, Frankie Storm, Ronnie Jackson, Guy Sigsworth, and finally, Britney Spears, herself, who co-authors three of the twelve tracks.

And the producer list:

Teresa LaBarbera Whites and Larry Rudolph (executive), Bloodshy & Avant, Benny Blanco, The Clutch, Nate “Danja” Hills, Dr. Luke, Fernando Garibay, Greg Kurstin, Guy Sigsworth, Jim Beanz, Claude Kelly, Let’s Go To War, Max Martin, Nicole Morier, The Outsyders, Harvey Mason, Jr., and Rob Knox

All told, there are fifty people responsible for the production and songwriting of Spears’ new album.

If her record company has that many people on the hook for songwriting and production, just think of how many more they employ in promoting, touring, roadying, sound-checking, rehearsing, lip-syncing, video-recording, photographing and otherwise selling this garbage.

Then it hit me: This album is run off an assembly line like a Model-T or a Mauser (Excuse the dramatic comparisons—they were the first to enter my mind.). Just look at all those nameless names. They are factory workers, utterly detached from the product at the end of the line. And most of them are good and honest people, just like you or I. 

And there Britney is, she the painted figurehead hanging from the bowsprit of a giant trireme, and there are a legion of galley slaves propelling her forward. But she does not steer the ship. She is too busy running from paparazzi, running from her rabid fans, running from the sex symbol she became ten years ago only to race back to it when she feels too ugly.

This is common practice for the Big 5, and has been. None of my retching will change that.

The record industry now sweats over peer-to-peer sharing. However, illegal downloading is not the only technology that has caused a contusion in their bloated cartel.

In recent years, digital recording has become relatively affordable, and there are now countless musicians making amazing, cheap albums on laptops in their basements. Anymore, a musician does not need to drum up the massive amount of capital it once required to make a professional sounding album. 

Beyond production, the Internet itself provides countless outlets for independent artists to sell, promote, and gig themselves. And these artists do it by themselves.

The record companies must surely see the big picture here.

This change is not an upheaval of the norm. It is a return to a stasis—albeit one rebuilt with this new-fangled technology—in which the artist has control over the art and bears the responsibility for its success or failure. But more importantly, the artist bears the definition of their success or failure. If an artist’s music never makes it past his front porch and the ears of those who gather on it—and he’s cool with that—then that is success, right? My friends and neighbors always appreciated my music the most.

Ketch Secor, of Old Crow Medicine Show, had a profound insight:

“It’s such a pivotal part of American music making, the sound that was created in the 1920s, before the radios, before bluegrass, before record sales were nearly as important–back in the old days when people thought that maybe they shouldn’t make records, like making records was a way that other bands would steal their live shows. That’s the way a lot of guys felt about it back then. They were very mistrusting of the A & R thing.”

Consider Robert Johnson or Charley Patton. Doubtless, they had their qualms over recording and plagiarism. And rightly so—but neither knew the influence they would have. Nobody exploited them. They exploited themselves—although, I don’t think you can call something someone enjoys exploitation. Not like being locked in a room with the instructions, here, go write seven surf-rock songs or ten teenie-bopper tunes by Friday.

What a diarrhea of bad music the record industry has created with their defined roles and focus groups! I say, let them sink billions of dollars into suing and prosecuting downloaders. Let them own songs that other people wrote. Let them keep screwing the few decent artists they have left. They have turned music-making into a peopled machine, which, like the American car industry, will become bankrupt and irrelevant. 

Time for another puncture in the equilibrium. Now everybody—

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If I did my paperwork correctly, I should receive a small tax rebate this year of $335. Which is not enough to get back at the City of New York, who still have 417 of my dollars. But it is nice. 

In my hometown, five hundred people gathered outside the courthouse yesterday to protest the so-called “Axis of Taxes,” which is composed of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Clever signs read “Here comes Congress. Hide your wallet,” “Obama: Commander and Thief,” and “Let me spend my own money.”

I had no idea that these Tea Parties were happening until they had already happened, which is why I would be a terrible reporter. My friend and co-worker organized the protest here, and while I love her dearly, I’m afraid this Tea Party idea is a little late. 

My folks, who are good Republicans, are awash with anxiety over Obama’s budget. “We’re going down the path to socialism,” my dad says and adds, “And we’re gonna have inflation.” And on he rants, discrediting everything from global warming to medicare. 

My fifth grade students, most of whom belong to conservative Christian households, have even told me that Barack Obama is the antichrist. Which tells me that their parents actually believe that: The sense of apocalyptic doom. The devastation. 

But I must ask, why now? Why do these so-called conservatives wait until now to protest government spending in such an organized fashion? They were happy to look the other way the last eight years, while Bush Jr. ratcheted up government spending more than any president since Lyndon Baines Johnson. And yesterday, they were more than happy to ignore Bush’s hand in this year’s deficit spending.

But very few conservatives I’ve spoken to know where Bush’s last fiscal budget topped out at. He put forward a 3.1 trillion dollar budget just over a year ago (cf. Obama’s 3.6 trillion this year). Did my parents bat a fucking eyelash? Did anyone in my ultra-conservative hometown?

That budget also assumed that we’d be out of Iraq by 2009. 

No. The basic premise for most Republicans, especially the ones who voted for Bush, is this: Bush is against abortion and homosexuality, therefore, he can do no wrong. 

(even though did little—nothing, to be exact—to curtail either practice)

Before we assume Obama is the antichrist, let us consider where that budget money is going. Granted, Obama is going to have to appropriate nearly a trillion dollars of military spending that Bush failed to take into account last year. That aside, Obama is increasing spending on college scholarships, medicare, and energy. All those things are, in my opinion, more admirable than the deficit spending in which Bush engaged. Perhaps ill-advised, but still admirable. 

Contrast that to where most of Bush’s budget increases went.

Open-ended WAR—and on two fronts! Faced with the daunting task of reforming medicare and fixing the social security debacle, Bush decided to get Americans mind off of problems at home and turn them to nation building (or re-building, as it happens, for as von Clauswitz wrote, “In war the result is never final.”). 

Blowing shit up—evidently, that’s where Republicans want their tax dollars to go. Plenty of them will admit it, too. It is as if Republicans keep asking, “How many Arabs do we have to kill, so I can pay my heating bill?” And the parents of my fifth graders have their children expecting apocalypse, that fire and brimstone will rain down any minute, and that we’ll find the dreaded 666 stamped indelible on Barack’s black ass.

Sheer folly, I say.

So now Obama is going to spend more money. But this year’s budget is strapped with plenty of Bush spending as well, such as the $700b bailout under Bush’s watch that came only half a year ago. 

I’m a good Libertarian, so I really don’t like any increases in spending. But Republicans need to face the fact that their party and its leaders have been far from the beacon of limited government that they so often claim they are. And in basic principal, Obama’s budget and deficit spending are merely a continuation of the deficit spending of the Bush era. 

As long as Republican voters remain ignorant of their own party’s frivolousness, the budget will never be balanced. And who the hell likes taxes? Do Republicans think that they are the only ones who hate them?

In closing, I would like to say that I would rather have 60% of my income redistributed to the poor, instead of 10% of it sent to the United States military. As it stands, I’ll gladly take my tax rebate.

For further reading:

http://www.cato.org/pubs/tbb/tbb_0311_55.pdf

http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2008/02/01/bush-the-3-trillion-dollar-man/

I knew this was coming and braced myself for the worst. Six weeks after its release, I finally gathered my gumption and listened to Scarlett Johansson’s opus of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head.

When the news originally hit, many jerked their heads up, wondering what the fuck. The idea seemed, at best, overreaching and, at worst, utterly ludicrous. But of course, it was Scarlett—the hammer and tongs otherwise reserved for such an impostor were still holstered until we actually heard her efforts. Yes. We kept an open mind, albeit a wary one.

Which was a nice sentiment really: Why write off a set of songs just because the singer seeks to accomplish the unreasonable? 

Answer: For starters, she has nothing in common with Tom Waits, except some overlapping vocal range. And her voice is bad. But it is not bad because she has a few problems with pitch, and because the melody doesn’t always come through—after all, these qualities appear consistently throughout Waits’ work. Her voice is bad because it has no dynamics, and because her delivery is devoid of character.

Whenever Waits sings, he belts it. Or howls it. Or snarls it. Or blubbers it, but he certainly doesn’t lurk behind his soundscapes with a dump truck on standby to unload all the reverb that’s been piled on his voice. He’s out there, in front, warts and all, for the world either to swallow or to regurgitate with a countenance awash with horror. Naturally, he is the deformed mutant star of his own show. 

Scarlett Johansson, however, is not the star of this album. Her voice is too meek, too wooden, too boring to be the main event here. And that made me wonder about her acting career too, because after all the hoopla about her, I still can’t figure out what’s so impressive about her. But I’ll save that for another time….

As for the accompanying music, Waits’ originals strengthen their arguments even after dance-techno beats and ambient synthpads invade. Mr. Waits’ recent embracing of beatboxing notwithstanding, new-fangled digital technology has little place in his songs. When producer Dave Sitek wants the popping and hissing of an old LP, he generates it with a digital sampler, whereas Waits records a skillet of sizzling bacon. Everything Waits records sounds like it came before  WW2, but this sounds too much like everything else in indie-IDM-whatever-it-is that reviewers are creaming themselves over these days. 

If Sitek had run Johansson through a nightly regimen of whiskey binges, filterless cigarettes and scrap iron, and then sat her down at an off-key piano and had her belt out some of Waits’ classic bar ballads, this album could have been decent. For it would have been truer to what Waits actually put himself through.

Sitek fails to grasp the inherent insanity of Waits’ subject matter and arrangements. Waits’ most recent offering, 2006’s Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, showed the darkness he is capable of delivering. From the chaos and brutality of “Fish in the Jailhouse” (about a prison break riot), to the snarling Cormac McCarthy-esque “Lucinda,” to the dark and menacing necessity of “Heigh Ho,” Tom Waits’ Orphans left his fans with clear picture of the horror that consumes him. 

Scarlett Johansson is unable to reproduce even a flutter of that horror. Of course she can’t. Not when she’s 23, engaged, and being voted sexiest woman since Helen of Troy. She is quite limited to the soft side of Waits, which he hasn’t shown much of in the last ten years. She fails to capture that gravel that the man ground himself into, and how could she have? It’s arguable no one could. 

That said, at least this album doesn’t put on any airs—that is, apart from the rotten hubris of its very conception. But Dave Sitek doesn’t so much pour toxic waste on these songs as he dumps high fructose corn syrup and Crisco. Which is all wrong indeed. 

What gets me is that this album actually received some good reviews. Perhaps some critics imagined Scarlett in a cathedral somewhere singing on bended knee. The reverb suggests as much. Regardless, this album is still a disappointment, especially because many secretly hoped this album would add to their mythic rendering of her. Instead, it proves that Tom Waits was two steps ahead of us two years ago and is still an ineffable figure in popular music, untouchable by the sexiest woman alive.

*Other than his wife, obviously.