Monday, 25 March 2019

Never the Twain 

Amy Wright

“Labels.” A perfectly fine and useful concept that has fallen into some ill-repute in recent decades. “You are just labelling” and “I don't believe in labels” becoming quite popular refrains particularly among the “enlightened” and “woke” of the world. Or at least the “Western” portion of it. What such grand gestures of virtue and progressiveness fail to take into account is that the use of labels is both useful as well as natural. Before you light your torches let me explain.

The idea of “labelling” in terms of people originates with the respected social researcher Howard Becker and his creatively titled Labelling Theory. Becker noticed that categorization, far from being the roots of prejudice, was an independently occurring process that helps people understand things.
A key example of this is the plethora of genre labels applied to music. As with all great and brilliant ideas, there is a downside. At times getting excessive. At times to the point of the ridiculous. Some seeming to be under the impression that style means more than substance and music isn't something you can just enjoy.

Nearly as firm as they are plentiful, there are some genre lines that should not and have never been crossed. There have been combinations that have worked. Rockabilly for example and Folk Punk. Though they also tend to be at least similar in their origins and have something in common in terms of instrumentation and surrounding culture. There are are others, however, such as Rap-Metal which, like experiments in vivisection, did not work out all that well.

There are genres that really seem like they should not go together. The culture and ethos around them being not only opposite but often in conflict. Oi and Rap for example. Oi being most associated with White Power culture, having been lifter wholesale from the distinctly non-racist British Punk band The Cockney Rejects. Rap, on the other hand, is most associated with urban black culture. This being where it originated. Yet there is such a thing as White Power Rap. Bringing the messages of Oi to the beats and rhymes of Rap.

Another pair of genres with a less than civil history are Classical music and Heavy Metal. Classical music being most associated with snobbish high society and Christianity. Heavy Metal with devil-may-care street level culture and appeals to the trappings of Satanism. Whether this was literally true or not. So acrimonious were they that the two sides have been known to literally fight fire with fire. Metal fans in Norway having a history of burning down churches and Bible groups in America burning Heavy Metal records en masse. The flames thought to expunge the albums of their evil.

Despite troubled history, the two go together surprisingly well. Being very similar in terms of structure. Especially int terms or rhythmic and melodic construction, themes and repetition. The music theory term “coda” literally meaning “repeat.” This becomes most clear, when Heavy Metal compositions are played on more traditional instruments. Such as the plethora of piano cover versions available online.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Tartan Rage 

Amy Wright

There has been much made in recent years about the near sanctified importance of Culture. Far from being arbitrary signifiers made up on the fly and legitimized and entrenched over time, despite what those pesky “Anthropologists” might “prove,” Culture is the most important aspect of any human being. As such, it behooves all of us to be as protective as possible of our own Cultures and be as insular as possible, like the United States managed to be though most of the Second World War, only caving in at the 11th hour after being directly attacked. Rightly so too. Sod “the greater good” countries must look out for themselves. This is what Germany did in the 1930s and just look how well that turned out.

There are, of course, brainwashed negative nellies who will say that this out look is cynical or even “prejudiced” but this is only because they have been foolish enough to fall for the obvious lie that so-called “Cultural Exchange” makes life “richer.” A notion with absolutely no evidence behind it except the fact that “trade” has gone on as long as people have had the means to go to other countries and the majority of modern Cultures are at least influenced if not outright hybrids of older ones. But what was that prove?

As such, I would like to join the choir of the outraged belting out screeds against everything from saris outside the Indian community community to dreadlocks on anyone not black (despite the fact it only applies to Jamaican culture and not “black” culture in general) and stand up for my own Scottish culture, which as been exploited, abused and mocked for far too long. Not only did the Americans bastardize the proud Scottish spirit of whisky, first distilled in Scotland in 1494 before the first North American colonies were even dreamed of, they cannot even spell it correctly. “Whiskey” my royal Scottish bottom! In a perfect world, in which the principles of “cultural appropriation” are applied properly and equally, no one who is not Scottish or at least of proven Scottish ancestry, would be allowed to destill, bottle, sell, buy or consume this staple of Catalonian brilliance.

Even more egregious is the crass and callous use of plaid, particularly by the younger generation and those, ironically enough, most concerned about Cultural appropriation and critical of those who engage in it. As long as they are sufficiently melanin deprived. Plaid is not simply a pattern, like polka dots or paisleys (also Scottish). It is the way that clans used to identify and define themselves in all aspects of society. A role similar to that of familial sigils and coats of arms. Like these alternative forms, a clan's tartan is representative of a elaborate and important history and a source of deep personal pride. To see them now worn “ironically” in the form of an overpriced shirt by every second millennial and hipster, the poorly secured patterned ties only adding insult to injury, is a grave affront to my people, ourselves no strangers to oppression particularity, by the English.

Monday, 18 March 2019

A Nice Place

Amy Wright

Travel. One of the oldest and greatest of human endeavours. From the time we were able to fashion sea-worthy boats, the first of these apparently being made out of hemp (it really can be used for anything!) we have been going hither and yon on this little pale blue marble we call home.

Things have only gotten better in recent centuries, despite the best efforts of those in power. Intercontinental travel is not only possible but safe, easier and more comfortable and, most of all, faster, than it has ever been before. Something to remember the next time there is a flight delay at the airport. A few hours being rather piddling in the face of the few months endured by our ancestors (they didn't have big enough bathrooms or bags of peanuts either).

As always happens when things reach their natural zenith, there comes to be something of a backlash against it. This is partly what is behind the Renaissance in vinyl records in response to the onslaught and alleged dominance of “digital” music. Similarly, people have started either exploring within their countries of birth and even forgoing travel all together, terms such as “stay-cation” slowly creeping into the vernacular (if not yet the dictionary, thank Oxford).

One local well ahead of the curve in this respect is Victoria, British Columbia, which is on the West Coast of Canada. The capital city in fact, despite the fact the majority of the world assumes that it is Vancouver. Which is sort of like thinking that the Capital of New York is Manhattan and rather than Albany (a no brainer really) or other the national capital of Australia is Sydney, or Melbourne or Brisbane and not the obvious and logical choice of Canberra.

Since the early 2000s, cast your minds back kids, the local tourism board has been encouraging citizens of the Greater Victoria Area to “Spend Time In Their Own Town Like A Tourist” and, really, it is easy to see why. Not only does Victoria proper combine all the noise and issues of a big city with the size and lack of amenities of a small town, packing 86,000 citizens (1,387 of whom are homeless adding sum local colour in the form of pan-handlers and street musicians) into 7.52 square miles, it has some of the best weather in all of Canada with, aside from the occasional, biannual snow storm, nary a flake of the white stuff. 23 inches of rain per year but hardly any snow.

There is also all the wonderful history to investigate, embodied by the cities famous “heritage buildings”, like the Empress Hotel, built in 1901 or, up until they tore it down, the famous Johnson Street Blue Bride, designed by the same engineer behind the Golden Gate Bridge as well as the bridge at the Winter

Like to shop? You are in luck! Victoria is chock full of all sorts of commercial opportunities, most within walking distance of each other given the relatively small size of the downtown core. Parking might be a problem, there being an estimated 73 metered parking spots though the public transit system is second only to Vancouver in terms if quality and edges out the New York subway system in terms of simplicity of routes.     

Friday, 15 March 2019

In the Garden of Good And Evil

T.K. McNeil

The battle between good and evil has been a core theme of narratives nearly as long as there have been stories. From Michael casting Lucifer into the pit of Hell to Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star, there have been sides to take and characters to love and to loath. In the new Millennium however, things have gotten more complicated. Largely gone are the easy distinctions and glorious victories in narratives of the past, replaced by complicated structures and characters intentionally cast in shades of grey. A change that largely stems from a general recognition that not all systems are neatly organized and sometime people do the wrong thing for the right reasons and vice versa. One of the best examples of this new paradigm is the Game of Thrones universe.

Slightly ahead of the curve, the first of the books being published in 1996, the series is notorious for sudden, shocking deaths and a lack of an easy moral centre. There are no "heroes" and "Villains" in the traditional sense. While there is the occasional inveterate psychopath here and there, most of the characters are acting in their own self-interest and/or on what they think is right, much of the time what is called "justice" and what is referred to as "revenge" being interchangeable. So in an essentially brutal system, in which it can literally be kill or be killed the question becomes not whether a given character has blood on his or her hands but whose blood, how much and why was it spilt. This is the primary distinction between hated characters like Ramsey Bolton and Jamie Lannister and loved and missed ones like Ned and Arya Stark. Ramsey and Jamie are both men of violence as in a love of violence. It is not just something they have to do but something they like to do. Ned and Arya are nearly pacifist by comparison. They do not look for trouble and when they do kill there is almost a sense of somber duty about it, particularly in the case of Ned. There is also the fact that, in almost every case, this occurs in the context of war, state sanctioned execution and/or self-defence. Rather than killing because they like to, they do it because they have to, in many cases simply to survive. A similar case can be made for Tyrion Lannister who, despite his turn-coating ways, has never killed anyone he did not have to or did not deserve it and seems genuinely concerned for the future of the Seven Kingdoms.

Another case where this comes up is in The Hunger Games. While the world in which the story takes place is undoubtedly brutal and corrupt, when it comes to characters it is vital to distinguish between those who are part of the system and those who are trapped in it. Katniss Everdeen is clearly and firmly in the latter group. Despite this, she does not have the tone of rage so often associated with such situations. Author Suzanne Collins gives Katniss an observant, matter of fact voice, like somebody who is already deeply jaded. A perfectly realistic characteristic given the context in which she exists. What is most interesting about Katniss as a character, in addition to her heroic attributes, is how she came to possess them. Not even a reluctant hero so much as a surprise one, much of what keeps Katniss alive in the arena originates not from hate but from love. It is carefully established at the beginning of the novel that Katniss has basically been the head of her family since the death of her father. An event which made her mother emotionally distant, leaving Katniss to care not only for herself but also her little sister, Primrose. All of her skills, from her speed and resourcefulness to lethal ability with a bow and arrow were cultivated as a means to be able to hunt in order to keep her family together and alive. As a result, when she is thrown into the free-for-all of the arena, again to save her sister who Katniss knows could not survive the games, she displays more mercy and morality than anyone would have reason to expect. She keeps not only herself but Peeta, the baker’s son who jokes about his most fearsome skill being camouflage, alive but also takes on Rue, who by any definition would be her mortal enemy, Katniss having enough perspective to realize that the much younger girl is no real threat to her. That this does not end well in no way negates Katniss’s intent. Rue’s death serves as a reminder of the brutality of the system and re-establishes Katniss’s baseline personality as a caregiver. It also leads to the only time in the first part of the narrative in which Katniss kills in anger and only one of three instances overall. The other two being an act of desperation involving the dropping a nest of mutant insects on lurking enemies and what amounts to a mercy killing.

One of the main promoters of this idea of evil as a verb is, of course, Joss Whedon. From the brooding struggle for self-acceptance in Angel to the stark role-reversal in Firefly/Serenity, Whedon has become famous for morally complex characters and intricate plots. Whedon’s first and definitive statement on moral complexity goes all the way back to the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997. At the end of the the episode "Lie To Me" (2.7), Buffy and her Watcher, Rupert Giles, talk about what she has just been through, having to kill someone she used to know who made a deal with Spike, one of the season’s Big Bads, to turn him into a vampire to avoid dying of brain cancer.

One of the clearest recent examples of this overall ethos put int series form, for both Whedon and in general is in the short-lived series Dollhouse. As with The Hunger Games the question of good and bad has less to do with the system, which is shown to be corrupt, than how people act within it. This is most clearly shown by three of the most morally questionable characters, Dr. Sanders, Mr. Dominic and Topher. What a medical doctor would be doing working for an organization like Dollhouse, whose business consists of hiring out brainwashed operatives for all manner of legal and illegal activity, is potent one. Though if one looks at Dr. Saunder's actual behaviour in the show it becomes clear. Rather than being an active participant in the goings on, her role is essentially reactive. Rather than inflicting suffering she is there to mitigate it when it occurs. She is also something of an outsider in terms of the corporate culture. She does not fit it with the environment and seems to be aware of this. Dominic, despite his swagger, is little more than an employee doing his job, which is to protect the integrity of the corporation. It is easy for viewers to hate him be cause he is set up to be against the main character, Echo, whom he has correctly identified as a threat to the business. From purely functionalist perspective he is not only not evil but, in fact, correct. It is also interesting to note that, aside from his justified suspicions of Echo, he does not do much that could be considered particularly "villainous". Topher is a very interesting case. The architect of the technology used for brainwashing the operatives, referred to as "Actives" or "Dolls", it would be very easy to cast him as a cackling mad scientist. Yet he is not. Enamoured more with the fact of his achievement than what it actually does, his greatest sin is not being able to distinguish between if something can be done and if it should be done. An outsider like Dr. Saunders, Topher is also quite funny, though with a tendency to say the wrong thing. Also, if one looks at his actual conduct, he is relatively kind, if a little goofy and in no way aggressive, actively backing down from physical confrontation and treating the Actives gently, particularly in their child-like "resting" state.

 There is a scene in the episode "The Target" (1.2), showing the results of one of the Actives going insane and attacking anyone in his path, that is character moment for all three. Dr. Saunders comes off as having been traumatized, conscious but barely responsive. Dominic is in his element, all business and barking orders. Topher is shown as being sad, worried and out of his depth. There is also a large blood mark on the front of Topher’s shirt with no wound to go with it. Strongly implying that he came across a wounded Active and tried to help, speaking to his basic humanity, despite arguably being the progenitor of every thing evil that happens within the system. A prime example of how even fundimentally good people can do bad things.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

For the Love of Animals 

Amy Wright

Humans are complex creatures. Indeed, there are mystery of our own species that the brightest and most rigorous minds have had yet to solve, at least in any satisfying way. One of these is the massive, echoing gap that can exist between intention and perception. Especially when it comes to comedy. Humour itself is subjective as is what one finds to be funny. This is a large part of the reason there are so many different types and modes of humour, developed over decades and sometimes centuries. There is nearly literally one for every taste and which one or group of them one prefers depends on individual perspective. 

Despite this fact, and the general acceptance of the fact that humour is a subjective matter of taste, there are still some modes that are consistently looked down on if not seen as downright harmful. That some forms are more popular than others, particularly in different times and places, is a given. For a few, select types of comedy to be more or less marked out for censure, often on grounds that are exaggerated if not entirely made up is another.

One subset of comedy that never seems to get a fair shake is the so-called “Screwball Comedy”. Generally regarded as brainless stupidity at best and socially irresponsible at worst, no matter how well they are done, these Comedies, usually films, tend to end up on a lot more hit lists that any other. One of the most recent examples of this is when, in the throes of a massive scandal about sexual harassment and assault at a college fraternity, a comparison was made to the situation being like a “21st Century Animal House.”

Rather than commenting on the case directly, the charges being serious issues I personally take very seriously, I would rather like to explore more generally how such a misunderstanding of both the theme and content of a film like Animal House could come to be made in the first place. There are several basic misunderstandings about both the theme and the content of the film though it really comes down to three basic ones.

1. The Stars of the Show
While the descriptor of the title can be used to refer to both the film as a whole as well as the Delta fraternity if focuses on, the real protagonists of the story are Kent and Larry, played by Tom Hulce who would go on to an Oscar-winning turn as Mozart in Amadeus. Not only are they the first characters we see, they are also the characters through whom the audiences experiences the story.

2. Sex, Sex, Sex Nothing but Sex
Sex related jokes are nothing new, dating back at least to ancient Greece. Many modern comedies also use them and not only in styles like “Blue” humour which are notable for it. While there is certainly an undercurrent of sex running through Animal House it is handled in a very interesting way. Despite a general reputation for raunchiness and being made in the late 1970s, the film is hardly a fight song for rape culture. It has exactly three scenes with nudity, both male and female, only one of which is in an overtly sexual context. In all three cases the scenes are played for laughs at the expense of a male character. There are more scenes that are sexually referential but they tend to brief and either consensual or with the male as the butt of the joke. There is exactly one instance of what could be considered sexual assault in which a woman is kissed without her consent and even here this is done by a character who is clearly a villain. So rather than being presented as someone to follow as a role model this incident serves as yet another reason to hate the guy. Such instances are also often used to set up a punchline usually to make a greater point.

This is seen clearly in the scene in which Larry is taken upstairs by a girl he invited to a party. Things go basically as expected the girl as excited about the situation as Larry is. The humour starts when the girl, apropos of nothing, suddenly passes out. There then follows a variation on the angel and devil on the shoulder trope in which Larry decides not to go ahead with the coupling and, not owning a car, takes the still unconscious girl home in a shopping cart, stopping the cart outside, ringing the bell and running away before her dad, who turns out to be the university dean, answers. Whether or not this is funny depends on your individual sense of humour but there is an even more important point. Rather than giving in to temptation and hurting an innocent girl, Larry does the right thing, not only not harming her but taking responsibility for her safety. Despite all the craziness around him, Larry really is really an okay guy and so are most of the other characters in the Delta fraternity.

There is even a case to be made for John Belushi's character Bluto. While by far the most unruly of an unruly lot he is also fairly sympathetic when viewed in a particular light. It is made clear that he does what he does because it is really all he has. He is basically a failure with a 0.0 GPA who steals food from the cafeteria because he is poor and drinks and pulls pranks to forget about his problems and fight against his lot in life. While he can be a bit of a letch, he is also almost always the butt of the joke. Sure, he is a rowdy, drunken buffoon with a mouth like a sewer and a mind like a gutter but he is far from dangerous, except maybe to himself.

3. There Is No Real Meaning
There has been some debate over the film's meaning. Most tend to see it as a stupid but harmless comedy that hasn't aged terribly well. Others see it as retrograde, sexist trash from a bygone era they're glad is over. Both of these are fair enough but also completely miss the point. The real themes of Animal House are those of friendship, unity and individuality. Despite the cheap jokes and occasionally questionable politics if the film is anti anything it is anti-authority. Bolstering the underdog and the misfit against the arbitrary and often cruel structures of society, as represented by the university dean and the rival frat made up entirely of the sort of cruel, petty, racist, sexist, rich kids who go on to choice positions in the Free Masons and The Bilderberg Group. 

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

A Field Guide to Goths

Amy Wright

Sub-cultures have a tendency to be misunderstood. An inherent risk of going against what the what the societal puppet-masters decree. From Flappers to to Emos, the different and the rebellious have long gotten flack, mostly from those in regular society, “normies” to the rest of us, with little to no real idea of what is actually going on. For a “modern” example even Millennials should be able to follow, look no further that the “Dark Web.” There a lot of pretty crazy stories about what goes on on this dark and mysterious “basement of the internet”, though these are mostly, and most loudly, repeated by those with no direct experience with it an have gotten all their their information through hearsay. Are there criminals on the Dark Web doing dastardly criminal deeds? Probably but you don't go fire-bombing an entire city just because there might be a few terrorist hiding there. That would be insane.

Few communities have gotten more more vitriol than the Goths. Little more than a branch of the Post-Punk movement in music, Goths have been suspected and blamed for all manner of nastiness over the years. From the idea that Goth is “mostly a gang phenomenon” to mass murder and school-shootings none of these assumptions are actually true. I have been around for a while an have never seen or even heard about a “gang” of Goths. A group yes, even a “gaggle” but never an “gang”. The associations with violence are just weird, most cases either being assumed to have been done by Goth with little to no actual evidence. Even in the (very) odd cases when perpetrators of the Goth persuasion, blaming the actions of disturbed individuals who happen to have adopted the Goth style – emphasis on the word “style” - is like making blanket statements against rabbits and mascots every time a shopping mall Easter Bunny snaps.

Gradually, normies are beginning to realize they might have been a bit rash in condemning an entire sub-set of people as freaks and murderers (one step at a time), while the popularity of the Goth scene has remained more or less steady for the past thirty years, despite bad press like Columbine and, the greatest threat to the survival of the scene, Hot Topic. In the spirit of endurance and understanding, I would like to offer the following guide to Goth culture.

Black As Night, Black As Coal
Black is, of course, a major part of Goth culture. It is the colour of mourning in the Western world, with the exception of Mexico, and Goths are known to have an affinity for motifs of death. Morbid as this may sound, it is not as it weird as it is often assumed to be. The emphasis on death by the majority of Goths is a tradition with its roots in ancient Egypt. The general idea is to accept death is the best way to truly appreciate and celebrate life. At least that is the theory. Though it should be noted that dressing in all black all the time is also a marker of a newer member or a really literal person. Seasoned Goths mix it up with grey, red, blue and purple.

Painted Ladies (and Gentlemen)
While not common to all Goths, make-up is used by many and to varying degrees. From basic mascara and eyeshadow, on boys and girls, too full face paint and lipstick, make-up has been a part of the Goth scene more or less from the beginning. It is unclear how it started but has become a major part of the style.

Learning To Love Your Stoneface
It is a stereotype to be sure but it is not for no reason that Goths are know for being a bit dower. It is a impression some put a good deal of effort into maintaining. While this used to be standard operating procedure, more recent generations, since about the late 90s have lightened up on this mostly arbitrary “rule.” It is now okay for goth to be both amused and amusing, to the point there are a few goth-ish theme comedians such as Noel Fielding and Aurelio Voltaire.

Like A Hole In the Head
There has been a trend in recent years towards putting holes where none were before. Though, to be fair, this apparent preference toward post natal perforation seems to have more to do it the rather recent association with facial piecing and rebellion, particularly in the young, than anything specific in the Goth tribe itself.

Food For The Soul
Arguably the most important aspect of the sub-culture Goths have a much wider musical pallet than it might first appear to outside observers. There is, of course, the music most associated with “Goth” that came about in the 80s. Bauhaus, The Cure, Specimen, that sort of thing. Though there is also the Death Rock incarnation of post-Punk all which it is all based, as well as the dark synth pop of the likes of Depeche Mode. On the gentler side there is the etherial stylings of The Cocteau Twins and the neo-classical epicness of The Vernian Process. Something for everyone!

Monday, 11 March 2019

To the Roots

T.K. McNeil

The term “going digital” can have some odd associations. Though it really only means content stored on a computerized device, there can be some peculiar assumptions made about what digital content is and should be. While there have been new genres and formats created or at least inspired by the new, digital infrastructure (blogs, vlogs, podcasting etc.), there is also a good deal of content in traditional styles that are available mostly, if not exclusively, online. 

In such cases, the web being used as a promotional tool as opposed to the platform itself. Much like when music videos were broadcast on traditional television to promote artists, while live performances and records were the primary commodity. 

An element that stands out in the music currently available online, is how staunchly traditional some of it is. At times to the point of the anachronistic. There are the intentionally jocular “Pirate Metal” stylings of Alestorm, which are basically high-powered sea-shanties, and the partially a Capella pieces of Ye Banished Privateers, some of which are literal sea-shanties.

On the darker end there is Arkona who blend Russian Folk music and Death Metal in a counter-intuitive combination on par with peanut butter and chocolate. Even deeper into the roots is Patty Gurdy. Primarily the hurdy-gurdyist and second vocalist for the 6-piece German Folk Metal band Storm Seeker (who also include a keyboardist and cellist), Ms. Gurdy also has a successful online presence on YouTube with a combination of instruction videos on the hurdy-gurdy as well as solo performances and collaborations with other YouTube musicians and members of her band, such as the acoustic version of the band’s song “The Longing” she did with the band's cellist. 

There are also acts such as Faun. With a name referring to a mythical creature and using instruments that pre-date electricity by hundreds of years, all manner of descriptors can, and have, been used for their music, some of them more accurate than others. Though the fact is, the style of music they tend to do is so old that it pre-date the concept of genre itself. There is also a strong element of pre-Christian European paganism in the band's themes, instrumentation and visuals which point to a firmly Medivalist orientation. 

So, perhaps the web is not destroying traditional art forms, as many have claimed, so much as helping them spread and flourish. Switch they have always found a way to do. A large part of the reason they have lasted this long.