Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Calm Before the Stork

I am going to try my hand at something like improvisational cultural criticism right now. No editing. I think.

I want to put a few things into play:

1) This morning after walking Sonia to drop her off at preschool, I was listening to the RZA-produced Kanye West song "Dark Fantasy," the kinda-title track off his much-lauded album that came out late last year. As I walked and listening, I was thinking about the refrain can we get much higher? in relation to two more things I want to put into play—

2) The Lil Wayne song "I Feel Like Dying" from The Drought is Over 2 (Tha Carter 3 Sessions), one of his 2007 mixtapes.

3) The continuingly spectacular decline of global capitalism.

4) The last piece I want to put into play is where the really bad pun of a title for this post comes from. This afternoon we are scheduled to induce birth for our second daughter, now twelve days overdue. The wait for her these past couple weeks has been a strange anticipatory quiet (and in the way of things in our family, included the death of a parent, Kate's stepfather). A calm, a waiting. I don't know if it's what makes me want to write. Maybe I just don't take time often enough lately to write about music. In any case, in a few hours my second daughter's birth will begin, if not before. So here we go.


I'm watching the video for that Kayne West song now, for the first time. (Does anyone actually watch music videos on TV anymore? I'm guessing they don't.) It opens with a shot of what turns out to be a meteor, but on YouTube I first saw it as a shuttle launch or an oil well fire. Both symbols of a recent past that marks the present—an imagined future of the 1960s that involved various flying things and space travel; and the age of oil, that spectacular commodity.

But no, it's not oil burning, it's a meteor, which is in keeping with the weird latterday fairy-tale overtones of the video—slow-mo deer, forests, and Kanye in a fancy car. "I fantasized about this back in Chicago." The deer, you think? Or maybe Milton Friedman had this dream—millionaire on the open road. Anyway. Next shot of the meteor looks a little mushroom cloud. Another iteration of 20th century dreams of American self.

After about two minutes its clear that this video only has three elements—meteor, forest/car/Kayne, and deer. It's really leaning on the strings that the song really leans on to create its atmosphere. Meteor hits car. Trees hurt. Car/Kanye/deer are ok. Turns out the meteor was a female angel—I briefly hoped it was Nicky Minaj, but it wasn't—probably a lucifer reference there, since the devil shows up in the song in a chrysler lebaron—sucks to be the devil, I guess. Then Kanye shows up what he really fantasized about in Chicago—his moment of action movie slow-mo-walking-away-from-explosion-holding-passed-out-girl.

So it turns out the video is kind of boring—but what about that refrain? Can't get higher. And these lines: "Teacher how do you respond to students / refresh the page, restart the memory." There's something there. A death wish, a wish for renewal, for a clean slate. Wishing he could've been consumed by the meteor/shuttle/oil/20th century, back when there was a future and things were awesome. But instead he is forced to relive cliche moments from that century with these f**king deer that won't die.


"Only once the drugs are done, I feel like dying." There's no video for this song, but that YouTube has a great picture of Lil Wayne looking like the drugs aren't done. Because he is more talented than Kanye, Lil Wayne actually formally messes with the death wish that is late capitalism. Check out what he rhymes with the refrain's 'dying' in the song: lying, flying, frying, buying. Or this couplet: "And violets are blue, roses are red / Daisies are yellow, the flowers are dead." The list of drugs to sustain the high lilting chorus, like the xanax might push the dead of Wayne's monotone into the bright rafters where the sample echoes. (And oh the magic of sampling: hard to believe that came from this.)

What I want to say is that both of these songs are about the moment just before the crash, the long intoxicated pause in the early hours before it is properly tomorrow, when things begin to spin and look beautiful-ugly, shiny with the sweat of it all falling apart. In that moment, in these songs, we hear the late 20th c., still the obsession of the early 21st: but wishing the high would last is knowing already that it's over. Only once the drugs, the $, the oil, the enlightenment, "America," the spectacle—only once it's all done, is the dying feeling of the morning of the new century.


But that's a weird place to end something I'm writing on the day my daughter will begin her birth. And that's why I needed to include this fourth thing. Because, people, today we are still human. Today of all days we are truly human, we are alive and soon more of us, more of my family at least, will be. And tomorrow will be written by us people—it will have to be. So I am ending in this hopeful calm place—that we are alive, that we are human, that we can make something new. Gentle now. I insist. We love you, everyone, get up.

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