• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

ONE WEEK TO DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!

A generous supporter has offered a $25,000 matching grant. So for this week only, whatever you can donate will be doubled up to $25,000! If you have the means, please donate! If you already have done so, thank you for your support. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Norman Fucking Rockwell! and 24 Other Favorite Albums

“Does the progress of civilisation depend upon great men? Is the lot of the average human being better now than in the time of the Pharaohs? Is the lot of the average human being, however, he asked himself, the criterion, by which we judge the measure of civilisation? Possibly not. Possibly the greatest good requires the existence of a slave class. The liftman in the Tube is an eternal necessity.” —Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse 

“Only the Marxian students seemed sound to her for they, at least, wanted people to have enough to eat. That was important, Oceola thought, remembering, as she did, her own sometimes hungry years. But the rest of the controversies, as far as she could fathom, were based on air.” —Langston Hughes, The Blues I’m Playing

Ann Powers of NPR upset Lana Del Rey and all of her fans with an excellent if qualified review of Ms. Del Rey’s latest work Norman Fucking Rockwell!. Such negative outpouring raised questioned about ‘Stan’ culture of crazed and obsessed fans. In the world of fake news, does anybody want real news, or do they simply want their opinion reconfirmed? Perhaps a worthy question but always one that disguises the policies and convictions of the right, which is to obliterate not only the press, but the process of finding the truth.

Ms. Powers writes such a dazzling review, with such insights into music, culture and history, one has to claim that her review itself is a work of art, almost up to the par of Ms. Del Rey’s fifth album. But what Del Rey had issue with were the ad hominem tilt of the review, from the LA Times: “Here’s a little sidenote on your piece,” the “Venice Bitch” singer wrote. “I don’t even relate to one observation you made about the music. There’s nothing uncooked about me. To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me. Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.”

Was the Los Angeles Times taking sides by calling her the singer of ‘Venice Bitch’ within the quote, therefore proving that she must have a brand, or were they simply making the correct statement, that she sung a song by this name?

But it reminded me of the last Presidential debates—I really would encourage everyone not to ever watch those things—it is disempowering, as basically all corporate TV is. There may not be a lot more to learn. Bernie has a glass half empty of shit, Warren, a glass half full of it, and everyone else has a whole glass of shit, which they all say is empty (as they eat out of it). But the commentators on the debate stage had some disturbing points of emphasis. They all agreed that the debates should not be about policy, but about personality, because that is what the American people are interested in.

Nobody cares about whether they will have a planet to live on, whether they will have health care to keep them there, whether their kids will have schools to go to for the only years of their climate disrupted lives, whether their water will be clean to drink, their air clean to breathe, or if their wages will rise enough to pay for any of these *privileges, including the rising rates of rent that can now take up well over half a paycheck, a paycheck that never gets saved, only sliced up into desperate bandaids leading to humiliation, anxiety and desperation while 3 men sit on more money than half of us have. Instead, it is nice to have a buddy! On TV! You can’t touch them, hold them, have them hear you, but you can make your choice between all these options!

Political events have long resembled sports matches (see the fascist state of our country exhibited by a full room of people at a NFL game watching a fight between grown men just because they were bored by the delay of the game). Does this say more about our attention spans or our entertainment or our passivity? But this debate felt cheaper than a sports event—Trump fans in their gilded jerseys pay 100 dollars a pop for their NFL throwdowns. The candidates were also too lackluster, too drained of charisma, to be anything more than a fast food combo meal. It was typical of ordering fast food. All the options were about the same, all would disappoint, but you could choose from a bright tacky menu.

On a personality note the humor of these candidates was just as disturbing as any of their policies. The many jokes were obviously pre-approved by an overstaffed campaign staff. I had to assume Klobuchar’s staff was still scared shitless of her, given the quality and frequency of her puns. Telling a joke with a pun is very easy to make funny but one of the keys is not pausing or even smiling. Just barrel through and let the language be absorbed. A pun is funny until one gives it the expectation of genius. Bernie, who tends to repeat himself, did have about the only good one of the night when he referenced his “damn bill” again (now that’s a brand too, of the grouchy old man, but still).

The debates were really a waste of time. How much time went by and nothing was learned about policy? Bernie and Warren took some nice shots at billionaires but other than those two plans on the climate crisis and health care were mostly made too confusing to understand. That’s before we get into issues of war and peace, which were never even built into the questions of Red-baiting that counted as foreign policy. Did the moderators or the candidates realize that there were no Republicans with a microphone that night?

Mostly the debate did what it was supposed to do: fatigue. Just get blitzed by exhausting but mediocre personalities who promise to help you but don’t say how. The number one criteria for running for President is to be boring. But this is all personality speculation again, which was the original critique. But what else was the conversation about? The commentators were more focused on Castro’s lack of “civility” than anything about climate change. And they are so dense about universal health care, we just went in circles around the same points which were self-evident.

But has art been reduced to this state? An album like Lana Del Rey’s which is perplexing, layered, obtuse and brilliant all at once makes one think that art has risen to its highest form. Not necessarily in its closest condition to the human soul, but its highest form. And other than at our most vulnerable, who really wants to just hear from the human soul? The human mind has the most to offer in terms of art.

How has Trump made us think about art? He wants to take it down, but like all his battles its a collision with other bourgeois children.

Perhaps there was a time, say in the days of Bob Dylan or Billie Holliday, when there wasn’t such a strict divide between the popular culture and the intellectual culture. But now we live in the age of neoliberalism, where intellectualism is associated with elitism. The election of Donald Trump was full of bewildering contradictions. The elites attempt to explain him as a working class hero. Forget the inaccuracy of the statement, seeing that he is a billionaire. Even if Trump was poor, what would make his decrepit character so working class? Which part of him seems working class? His dumbness? His meanness? His greed? His criminality? Where are people aiming here?

It is true that access to education, cities and the arts cost time and money that working class people simply don’t have. The shaming of the “uncultured” rural and poor people in this country never really seems to take this into account. On the other hand, time and money often do not lend themselves to making a person more cultured—in fact, it usually just makes one more arrogant, blind and greedy. Remember that Trump voters actually had more money than Hillary voters.

Nonetheless, there is certainly a more “high brow” culture on Broadway than there is in a strip club, even if both at the end of the day, produce roughly the same message, with a different amount of decoding allotted for those with enough time, money and energy to do so. I do not just mean that art more or less mediates between the voyeuristic and the phallocentric, although this is certainly the case. I more mean that the consumption and production of culture, whether that be upper class or lower class, exists primarily to distract one’s self from the conditions of an unequal life, where many people are hungry, most people are poor, and a few feel guilty about the excess money they have.

Perhaps this is being too hard on culture, but is one wrong to presume that it can like act any other medicine for a world that is so horribly cruel? This is not a criticism of culture at all. To the contrary, it proves culture does relieve people from the wretchedness of the world. I would hesitate to call culture a force that transforms or revolutionizes the viewer though. Why, if it did so, we would hate it, and become extremely uncomfortable around it. We would treat it like we would any other dissenter. We would cast it out, blame it, and do our best to forget it. Culture too almost always relies on mass crimes against humanity and the earth. It is Empires who have the highest culture. Industrialization and technology, both of which have been horrible for the earth, have created a more high brow culture in parts of first world countries. For all the stigma against the farmers who tend the earth and their lack of exposure to what we would deem “good culture”, we forget this point.

Presently, in appearance surely, but quite often in all ways, we are coming to the end times here in America. The American Empire is hallowed out. It can no longer provide for its people in the way it once did. Americans are working longer hours for lower wages, with longer wars and lower morales. Climate change looms as the coming apocalypse.

The dominant ideology in these times is neoliberalism, which is culturally rich, but I would also argue that it is culturally flat. Neoliberalism successfully separates culture from class. The rich, in appearance, are the most refined. Class is seen as separate, if not in opposition to, a thriving liberal culture. The mistake that the left too often falls into is separating class from liberalism. This mentality actually buys into the the neoliberal assumption that class and liberalism must be separate. Choosing to side with class is no doubt more brave and admirable but it nonetheless buys into the false choice. If the left wants to have a broad appeal, this approach must be abandoned.

Many of our assumptions about the so-called liberal democracy in the United States has been thrown into disarray by a peculiar man named Donald Trump. As a man who relies almost entirely on instinct, Mr. Trump grasped that there was a real divide between class and culture that he ought to expose for his own gain. On the one hand, Trump is very rich. But he has very little self-control and he is a blotch on the culture of any serious rich person. No one seriously cultured then could ever accept him as one of their own. Hence, he is a resentful and bitter man. Donald Trump has gotten everything he has ever wanted in life. He cares little about who stands in his way, as he has made a killing on criminality. Trump is half gangster, half trust fund. A strange and dangerous man, to say the least. His grievances are that of a spoiled brat, but they are grievances nonetheless. He was able to channel the people’s legitimate resentment against neoliberal elitists and gain popular support.

Donald Trump really has no culture. His tastes are cheeseburgers, porn stars and reality TV. He is a glutton in a suit. He thinks only about himself, hence, he abandons curiosity. He sees no value in arts, science or education. Donald Trump is a man at war with everything and everybody. He cannot afford an ideology because this would mean a separation from himself. To remain ahead he must conform to the most winnable ideology. The rich like to pretend that Donald Trump is an outlier, but he has been an accepted member of their class for a long time. The rich have enough money to hide their savageries, but they also have enough money to get away with them, and to do them on a much grander scale. So in practice we find that the rich are often much less cultured than the poor. Nevertheless, as culture becomes money, the poor are left out in the cold. Even if they could fit in, they are not allowed to.

If there is anything Donald believes in, it is money. In this way he actually understands the world a lot better than the neoliberal folks do. He understands that money runs the world. Unfortunately he is on the wrong side of the class struggle. Nevertheless, he is at least fighting the same battle, and therefore can speak the same language. The Democrats (outside of a few on the more tolerable leftish wing) will have a very hard time vs. Trump in 2020. They simply do not understand that the language of class and money (and hopefully some policy as well) must be at the center of a winning campaign in a greatly unequal society. At times it appears that the Democrats do not even realize that America is a place of mass wealth inequality, or at least they think it doesn’t matter that much. Trump, having no interests besides winning, somehow grasps the existence of class difference while the Democrats have not.

Donald Trump has also brought along a frightening anti-intellectualism that dismisses facts, science, education, critical thinking and problem solving. Donald Trump is not just against intellectuals, he is against the process of thinking at all. He wants to bully his way to the top as if life was simply a matter of persistence and brute force, rather than a reality that contains webs of truth, law and justice. He has gained followers in this approach as well, but these ideas were in place for Trump. Thank the privatization of education, the mass increase in incarceration, the cutting of social services, the chaos provoked by climate change and widening inequality for a turn away from any faith in a society that thinks and works together. These problems can be laid at the hands of the elites, many of whom consider themselves quite cultured.

This brings us to the central contradiction of high brow culture—not in theory, but in practice. It has always relied on an underclass that builds up the structures that make a highly educated ruling class possible. It has always relied upon oppression and unfair, if not brutal, working conditions to form itself. The present day Empire, found in the United States and its allies, have such structures that span the globe. There are a few highly educated people with money but the world is mostly full of people struggling to get by.

High brow culture then is a bastard child. It is born from sin—the sin of class oppression. However, just because the child’s parents have sinned does not mean the child has. There are many things to be gained from culture—I think that Donald Trump’s lack thereof proves this. Abandoning education, critical thinking, science and art means that it will only be the richest of the rich who have access to these things. It also means that society will lose its ability to think, meaning that inequality will not appear as it should.

I don’t want to overrate culture in itself, for as long as the world has hungry people, it remains, well, a selfish thing. Giving what postures as selfless—charity, military service, spreading bourgeois bullshit and jailing the poor, we should be happy when the rich engage in selfish acts. Nor should the act of self-care and self-discovery that culture provides be sneezed at. But culture remains inconsequential compared to bringing people out of poverty.

One of the reasons for this of course is that culture itself must often be bought. If we really do believe that culture is a positive thing then we should be more focused on creating access to it. National Public Radio can call itself public, but until more people have the education and money to find it worthwhile, it is hardly public. I for one find most things on NPR to be quite a drag, but that is precisely because its scope is so narrow and self-congratulatory.

We should consider that expanding access to culture—both in its creation and consumption—would broaden its scope and its worth. But that is assuming that culture, the bastard child, is not still serving its parents. As noted earlier, most culture indeed is self-contained, as it justifies, rather than shifts, the class hierarchy. In other words, the change must be more than access, it must also be in purpose. For as long as culture remains to protect itself, it will have little merit beyond its own circles.

So why couldn’t a Broadway play be in a stadium? For one, they would have a hard time charging 12 dollars for a cookie at intermission. Another problem though would be that the whole attitude of the play would have to change. Why, most high brow culture today, whether that be golf, tennis, NPR, classical music, hip coffee shops, elite academia, fine dining or AMC/HBO, relies on a very contained and soft whisper. Oh, wasn’t that nice? Yes, really lovely. Why, it as if they are worried that someone outside will hear them and penetrate that secret space, disrupting the class difference such a production relies upon.

If high brow culture really is so great, why not shout it from the rooftops and open the floodgates? Why, it is because such a culture relies on class inequality to run itself. Both in its material production but also in its cultural assumptions.

The only good thing about the approach that high brow culture takes is that it is not sustainable. The rich are arrogant enough to think that poor people do not understand their culture. This could not be further from the truth. It is because they understand it that they know they are left out. It is the rich people who fail to understand culture, as they think that their self-serving narratives justify their rule. Donald Trump wants to eliminate culture. Neoliberals want to protect it. Someone who really loved culture would want to make it more accessible. Have it be, like the right to a living wage, a socialist principle.

I discovered Counterpunch’s favorite albums column with great delight not long ago so I decided to throw in my current list. I decided to just be completely honest about what music I most enjoyed, rather than attempting to make any sort of political statement, which seemed to be against the spirit of any such list of favorites. Unfortunately the moral implications of art has now replaced art itself, which makes us need art all the more. Art helps us imagine our most moral paths by creating new forms of expression. Reducing to its explicit meaning is usually a mistake, although with many boring artists, this is all it is.

I discovered a few things from this list. First and foremost, I don’t really care for old music. I like to play it around other young people to remind them (and mostly myself) there was a simpler and less desperate time that predated the present loneliness and anxiety that characterizes the music and lives of young people today. Also, there is merit in remembering that there was a time when the companies who make music for us were less powerful, and therefore there was something more authentic to the human condition in these times.

Yet, while today’s music may reflect a corporate agenda, so does every aspect of our consciousness. I don’t really care that no one believes in God anymore, it is mostly for good reasons (even if it remains a scientifically impossible position to be certain of). If we were to be more realistic about human organization of thought we could admit that the new God is the individual—and their ability to make a dollar and brand under capitalism. Of course the most sinister form of this comes from the religious right (of all religions, but more so the white ones, for obvious reasons).

Why not enjoy what is closest to one’s own human condition? It was in this spirit that most of the music on this list is pretty modern. I also think music really has gotten much better. The values may be deteriorating to corporatism. Heck, one could argue that most of the famous musicians and many of the alternative ones are not musicians at all but corporate hacks who can barely sing and can’t play instruments. Yes, true. But the music sounds better. And composition still matters, even if the ability to play is losing steam as classical and jazz—the two highest forms—die. Even rock, the most overrated genre, is dying too quickly, losing to its far less talented cousin “Alternative” music, which is only is alternative in the sense that it took the least alternative genre and took all the talent out of it.

Probably every one of these lists from most people includes The Beatles. I just don’t get why they are any good. Taylor Swift has already surpassed their pop aesthetic, and believe it or not, she did it with far less drama and aloofness. The Beatles are not as bad as Bruce Springsteen, who is the most insufferable working class caricature to ever enter the American scene. Anyone who wears white t-shirts and dirty jeans for style alone was certainly “Born in the USA”. I generally like the hippy and soul stuff of old but the production value is just far lower than most of today’s music.

Bob Dylan ages well because he relies so much on literary tools. Likewise, books have gotten worse as language has become devalued in the modern age. But any medium that doesn’t rely solely on words has probably taken many steps ahead.

1. Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral

2. Fela Kuti: Zombie

3. Ex Confusion: Embrace

4. Avicii: Stories

5. The Chainsmokers: Memories…Do Not Open

6. Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream

7. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City

8. The Mowgli’s: Waiting For The Dawn 

9. Madonna: Like A Prayer

10. Ravi Shankar: The Sounds Of India

11. Mariah Carey: Daydream

12. Radiohead: Kid A

13. D’Angelo: Black Messiah 

14. Talking Heads: Speaking In Tongues

15. CocoRosie: La Maison de Mon Reve

16. Janelle Monae: Electric Lady

17. Michael Franti & Spearheard: All People

18. Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

19. Pixies: Surfer Rosa

20. L7: Bricks Are Heavy 

21. blink-182: Enema of the State

22. Jean Grae: The Orchestral Files 

23. Peter, Paul and Mary: Around The Campfire

24. Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell!

25. Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak

More articles by:

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
October 14, 2019
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
Class Struggle is Still the Issue
Mike Miller
Global Climate Strike: From Protest To Power?
Patrick Cockburn
As Turkey Prepares to Slice Through Syria, the US has Cleared a New Breeding Ground for Isis
John Feffer
Trump’s Undeclared State of Emergency
Dean Baker
The Economics and Politics of Financial Transactions Taxes and Wealth Taxes
Jonah Raskin
What Evil Empire?
Nino Pagliccia
The Apotheosis of Emperors
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A Passion for Writing
Basav Sen
The Oil Despots
Brett Wilkins
‘No Friend But the Mountains’: A History of US Betrayal of the Kurds
John Kendall Hawkins
Assange: Enema of the State
Scott Owen
Truth, Justice and Life
Thomas Knapp
“The Grid” is the Problem, Not the Solution
Rob Kall
Republicans Are Going to Remove Trump Soon
Cesar Chelala
Lebanon, Dreamland
Weekend Edition
October 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
CounterPunch in Peril?
Anthony DiMaggio
Fake News in Trump’s America
Andrew Levine
Trump’s End Days
Jeffrey St. Clair
High Plains Grifter: the Life and Crimes of George W. Bush
Patrick Cockburn
Kurdish Fighters Always Feared Trump Would be a Treacherous Ally
Paul Street
On the TrumpenLeft and False Equivalence
Dave Lindorff
Sure Trump is ‘Betraying the Kurds!’ But What’s New about That?
Rob Urie
Democrats Impeach Joe Biden, Fiddle as the Planet Burns
Sam Pizzigati
Inequality is Literally Killing Us
Jill Richardson
What Life on the Margins Feels Like
Mitchell Zimmerman
IMPOTUS: Droit de seigneur at Mar-a-Lago
Robert Hunziker
Methane SOS
Lawrence Davidson
Donald Trump, the Christian Warrior
William Hartung – Mandy Smithburger
The Pentagon is Pledging to Reform Itself, Again. It Won’t.
Richard Moser
The Empire Is Running Out of War Stories. Or is it? Will American Exceptionalism Rise Again?
Roger Harris
Why Trump is Facing Impeachment
Doug Lummis
Everything Going Wrong in Okinawa
Ramzy Baroud
Administrative Torture: Free Heba al-Labadi, a Jordanian Citizen in Israeli Prison
Christopher Ketcham
Ode to the Drums of Ginger Baker
W. T. Whitney
Upcoming Elections Represent Testing Time for Bolivia’s Socialist Government
Louis Proyect
Building Soldier Resistance Under the Shadows of Fascism
Mark Ashwill
Reflections on General Giap and the End of an Era in Vietnam
Gabriel Leão
Killing the Messengers: Rising Violence Against Journalists and Indigenous Leaders Defending the Amazon
Graham Peebles
Climate Change: All Talk No Action
Arthur Hoyle
The Meaning of Donald Trump
Dean Baker
Those Quaint Corporate Scandals in Japan
Laura Santina
Take Their Feet Off Our Necks
Julian Vigo
The New Workers’ Revolution is Afoot
Robert Koehler
The Rights of Nature
Dan Bacher
New Report Reveals Oil Waste in CA Aquifers
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail