I’ve been thinking quite a bit about The Beastie Boys lately, and not because they’ve been one of my favorite bands (Licensed to Ill was one of the first two albums I purchased with my own money–six year old Mikey Dwyer picked it up on cassette from a Massachusetts record store in early 1987, along with the soundtrack to Top Gun). And it’s not just because the run-up to their latest album, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2, has utilized new media services and transmedia promotion with a sophistication and savviness not ordinarily associated with the major record labels. And it’s not because the album is, by the way, totally fresh. I mean, it is because of those things, and there are lots of worthwhile reads on those subjects. But it’s also because the promotion for this album has also featured the Beastie Boys seeking to reflect on, and finally redefine, their 1980s stardom, and perhaps offer a new vision of the 1980s as a whole.
One year ago today, I had given up hope.
Every Sunday in the summer of 2009 my partner and I went to a small donut shop in East Syracuse, ordered two donuts, and took a booth in the corner. Millworkers came in to buy coffee and lotto tickets. We worked on research statements and teaching philosophies. In late September we hung a map of the United States on the wall of our Syracuse apartment, and began to stick a pin in the map for every appropriate job listing we could find. By November there were 90 pins stuck in the map, color coded for tenure-track, visiting, and post-doc positions that each of us had applied to.
In February of 2010, The Mr. Roboto Project closed its doors, with no definite plans to reopen. Its closing left a considerable void for DIY arts and culture in pgh and the rust belt. Make no mistake, DIY music has and will continue to thrive without Roboto, but for everyone that attended a meeting, put on a show, saw bands or met friends there, Roboto was something special. It’s easy to be cynical about being young, punk community, DIY ethics and aesthetics, but Roboto worked. It just did. The first time I walked into Roboto, it felt like possibility. It never stopped feeling that way to me, or to many of the dear, dear friends I made there.
Personally, Roboto’s closing was another reminder of my changing relationship to music. During last year’s All Songs Considered Year in Review show, renaissance woman (and my perma-crush) Carrie Brownstein argued that music was becoming less and less social. In many ways, my experiences in 2010 bore this out. The memorable engagements with music that I once had in spaces like Roboto were in 2010 supplanted by extended headphone engagements. 2010 was, in many ways, a year of deep listening experiences–ambitious efforts by Kanye West, Titus Andronicus, The National, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Midlake and Sufjan Stevens proved that talk of “the death of the album” was premature. On the other hand, the chance encounters with music, the word-of-mouth promotion and direct relationship with artists that made Roboto so special to those of us who spent time there has in some ways been replicated by online music communities. Blogs like Can You See the Sunset and Rebel Frequencies, podcasts like Sound Opinions, aggregators like HypeMachine, sharing communities like Waffles and What, and sundry message boards and twitter feeds (like our very own @rustbeltrising) have all helped me keep music as an important part of my life. Without them, much of the music that follows would not have come to my attention. I’ve also been able to plug students in more directly to developing conversations in the music industry (special shout to students putting out albums of their own, including Sarah Aument, The Fly, Liz Lewis, and others that would probably be embarrassed by my endorsement.)
I’m past the point in my life where I could honestly try to compile a list of “best” music of 2010–best songs? best albums? best artists? best shows?–so instead, I’ll humbly offer my Mr Roboto Project Memorial 2010 Mixtape. So much music had to get cut from this 20-track opus: Beach House, Vivian Girls, Wiz Khalifa, She and Him, Girl Talk, Grass Widow, Reading Rainbow, Rot Shit, The New Pornographers, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, The Tallest Man on Earth, Best Coast, Joanna Newsom, The National, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Rural Alberta Advantage, Avi Buffalo, The Menzingers and lots more I’ve missed. What’s left is the music I spent the most time with and enjoyed the most this past year.
Track by track breakdown after the jump.
The October issue of PMLA, the official publication of the Modern Language Association, was among my favorite reads of the year. The special issue on “Literary Criticism for the Twenty-First Century,” however, has held top-of-the-coffee-table status for three strong months now. One of the reasons why, aside from the general quality of the scholarship, is what Jonathan Culler calls in the introductory essay “a motif of return.” One of my major research areas is the function of nostalgia–the much-maligned practice of mournfully looking backward that, in my work, I argue can be utilized for diverse and overlapping purposes. Far from being ahistorical, I argue elsewhere, nostalgia tells us about our affective relationships, which are always historical relationships.
It’s perhaps natural that literary studies would get a little nostalgic. Literature and literary scholarship are fascinated with the past. The discipline itself is derived from the tradition of the scribes charged with cataloging the history of their society. Consider its titanic figures–Homer, Shakespeare, Balzac, Hegel, Marx, Twain, Dickinson, Ellison — even literary studies after the age of critical theory has found itself ever drawn to the past. This is, of course, a great strength. One of literary studies’ primary functions is to retain, reexamine, and recontextualize the culture of past societies, and it utilizes its past to think through problems of the present. Retrospection does not equal regression, and many of the best works of criticism, critical theory, and literary analysis have profited from looking back over past historical developments (Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic), past texts (Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!”) or past figures (Holly Jackson’s work on Emma Dunham Kelley) . As such, the motif of return that Culler notes in his introduction comes as no real surprise.
But, I found myself wondering while reading the issue, what about media studies? For all of literary studies’ interest in its past, looking backward is much more taboo in the realm of media studies. A special issue of Screen or Cinema Journal subtitled “The Future of Media Studies” would, I’d wager, feature much less retrospection. Whether it is the discussion on social media networks, panels at the recent Society for Cinema and Media Studies convention, or job listings for new professorships, the emphasis in media studies certainly does not seem to lay in silent cinema, the industrial history of radio, or music archivists, but rather sexy fields like new media and digital humanities. This is, after all, the same attitude that has allows so much of film and television history to go unarchived, and reflected in something so basic as the Facebook News Feed or Twitter Stream, which updates constantly but allows little easy access to past records.
So how might we think about “the future of media studies”? Frankly, I’m not sure. David Gauntlett has issued a brave attempt here, though I think the 1.0 vs 2.0 dichotomy is one that breaks down under close scrutiny, and truly, one can hardly consider 2.0 to represent “the future” when it actually more closely approximates “the present” or perhaps even “the 1990s” (and, as one of the 1990s primary advocates, I say that without malice).
If you have heard anything at all about Blue Valentine, you’ve likely heard about its controversial NC-17 rating. The film’s rating had film blogs abuzz when the rating was issued a few months ago, particularly after it was announced that the rating would be appealed by the film’s distributor, The Weinstein Company (UPDATE: the rating was eventually overturned). Indeed, when the film played on the first full night of the 2010 Philadelphia Film Festival, the question of whether the rating was or was not deserved dominated discussions before and after the film’s screening.
This is a shame, because Blue Valentine deserves discussion on its own merits. The film, which juxtaposes the first exhilarating days of a relationship with the excruciating death throes of a marriage a handful of years later, benefits from tremendous performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams,who have established themselves as actors with talent and discretion. The film’s creative team shows remarkable command and control, technically (in its use of non-linear editing and handheld camera) as well as narratively (never providing its audience an “easy out”). Beyond its formal qualities, the production history of Blue Valentine provides an interesting model for independent film production in the contemporary film industry: the script won a grant competition financed by the Chrysler Corporation in 2007 before debuting in competition at Sundance in 2010. Of all the films I saw at the Philadelphia Film Festival, or all the quality films I’ve seen this year, this is, without question, the best, and most interesting.
With that said, the reality is that the controversy over the film’s rating has completely taken over the film’s buzz (and provided The Weinstein Co with some free publicity in the process.) The usual complaints against the MPAA’s arcane and opaque ratings processes have circulated, noting that Blue Valentine‘s sex scenes pale in comparison to representations of sex and violence that frequently grace screens in mall multiplexes. Matthew Thrift’s take is representative of these discussions:
It’s an honest (albeit hardly graphic) representation that garnered the film an NC-17 certificate in the US by the MPAA, it would seem that they’ve no problem with us seeing ever increasing instances of extreme screen violence but two consenting adults having sex in anything more than candle-lit timidity has them fearing for our safety as a society.
As Thrift rightly points out, the sex in Blue Valentine is hardly explicit. It features no “full frontal nudity,” as the saying goes – Gosling’s rear end is shown once, and Williams breasts are exposed only fleetingly. Considered against R-rated sex comedies or thrillers, the film appears quite tame. It seems to me, however, that it is not what we see in Blue Valentine’s traumatic sex scenes that the MPAA has deemed unsuitable for minors. Rather, it is what we feel, and particularly the feelings the film prompts about sex, that the MPAA has cast as inappropriate for viewers under the age of seventeen.
It is really only the film’s final “sex scene” that deviates from standard Hollywood practice. Dean and Cindy, in an effort to escape the pain of their marriage’s inevitable collapse, spend the night in a tacky hotel. Dean wants to have sex with Cindy, but Cindy doesn’t want to have sex with him. Very quickly, it becomes clear that this situation will end badly–Cindy acquiesces not because she’s threatened by Dean in any direct way, but rather as a coping mechanism (there are moments in the film that suggest that Cindy’s father abused her during childhood, which would account for her emotional detachment in this scene). Dean, for his part, can tell she has shut down emotionally and stops–embarrassed and hurt that she has effectively offered her body, but nothing more. The ensuing argument between the two is incredibly sad, but it is also grounded in the best intentions of two characters trying to keep some semblance of “family” in their lives. It is beyond dispute that Dean and Cindy did, in fact, love each other at one point, and even by the end there still is love in their relationship. Blue Valentine is the story of star-crossed lovers in which the stars win and the lovers lose. In other words, the film punctures a notion of romantic love that can overcome all odds, and instead shows a world in which things like “classed notions of success” and “gendered codes of behavior” have soul-crushingly real effects…and affects.
What interests me about Blue Valentine‘s rating controversy is not pointing out the obvious inanity/insanity of Hollywood’s rating system, but thinking through what Blue Valentine‘s rating might tell us about the relationship between adolescence, sexuality and affect in contemporary American culture. It is, after all, only young people who are explicitly barred from seeing the film with an NC-17 rating, and it is in the name of protecting young people that most commercial cinemas will not screen NC-17 films. Young people, who maintain a privileged position in our commercial media landscape, are at the center of nearly all representations of love and sex in commercial media. So what does it mean for American society to “protect” young people from the feelings regarding love and sex that Blue Valentine evokes?
It seems revealing that on September 24, a little more than three weeks before the MPAA handed Blue Valentine its NC-17 rating, Columbia’s The Virginity Hit got a wide release in mall multiplexes nationwide. Taking its cues from Superbad, American Pie, Porky’s and numerous other entrants in the get-laid-or-die-tryin’ formula sweepstakes, the film tells the charming story of real nice guy Matt (Matt Bennett) his fat lunkhead friend (Zack Pearlman), and their conspiracy to secretly videotape Matt’s first sexual experience with his high-school sweetheart Nicole (Nicole Weaver).
After he suspects that Nicole has betrayed him by sleeping with a college guy, Matt is heartbroken. In retaliation, he and Zack plan to distribute the video virally in order to “punish” Nicole’s betrayal. When that plan fails, Matt tries to have sex with Zack’s little sister, a graduate student doing sociological research on adolescent sexual behavior (uhh…what?), and finally, a prostitute. These efforts, of course, all fail until Matt learns something or other about what’s really important, clearing the moral terrain for him to have sex with Nicole. What a happy ending! For the totally sweet bros of The Virginity Hit, sex is not their manifest destiny as red-blooded American boys. It is also currency in their social system, a service to be purchased and rendered, and a product for them to produce, package, and distribute for their own personal gain–a notion, it must be said, that is not the invention of The Virginity Hit but rather the standard script for most representations of sex in popular culture, from Axe Body Spray advertisements to Sex and the City.
I’d argue that this episode illustrates that American attempts to shield young people from the kinds of emotional and psychological discomfort represented in Blue Valentine results in a society in which love and sex can only be viewed as a product to be not only consumed, but also packaged and distributed in exchange for capital (cultural or otherwise.) It is hardly a groundbreaking claim to argue that Hollywood commodifies sex–what I find interesting in this case is the explicit banning of “worthless” sex, of sex that provides neither pleasure nor power. The consequences for a society in which representations of sex that prompt uncomfortable feelings–despair, regret, guilt, or rejection– are considered inappropriate for minors, but representations of sex that unproblematically present it as a commodity–manufactured, distributed, consumed and valued through market processes–are the standard are both real and dramatic. Three days before The Virginity Hit premiered, a first year student at Rutgers University secretly recorded his roommate engaged in sexual behaviors and broadcast them to his peers. Of course, the ensuing tragedy cannot in any way be put in a causal relationship with any film, narrative, or ratings board decision. However, we can consider how media representations of love and sex that elide the possibility for pain, grief, or loss structure our understanding of human sexuality, and limit our capacity to feel at all.