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Shopping At Target (2009)

Lines at the Target store, filled with products, anything and everything anyone could ever want or need. All needs are provided for, all desires fulfilled—we no longer have any variance in the economic system. In the future all economies will be the same, serving the purpose of making the all-comforting technocapitalist machine smaller and more efficient, less noticeable as all products become more altruistic—30% recycled! All organic and fair trade! Some proceeds go to benefit breast cancer awareness! In line, with my batteries and aluminum-free deodorant, I smile at the lady in front of and behind me, and they don’t return my glance. As the bearded guy at the register opens the clear magnetic chamber box that seals the DVDs, I can’t help but think of homo habilis—fiddling with tools, trying things, attemping.

“What if a thief had one of those keys?” I asked the bearded man.

“More power to him.” He doesn’t skip a beat. “Swipe your card,” he demands. I do. “You sure have a lot of ways you can pay,” I say, making conversation. He lowers his eyes conspiratorially. “Yeah…” he shakes his head and grimaces, “Wish we just took cash.”

“Yeah, the good old days…”

“Yeah…the good…” he mutters, his glasses sliding down the nose. “I wish we could just…you know…get back to bartering…”

“No economy, no jobs…”

“A sense of community…no more stupid uniforms” he says, toying with the lapel of his bright red shirt.

“Trading…we could trade all of our old junk in rather than sending it to the landfill.”

“We could trade…” he says

“I wouldn’t have to give you a plastic card” I say, delighted

“No money” he says

“No money” I repeat. He puts my products in a plastic bag. I stare into his bird-like eyes. “No bag for me, thanks” I pull them out of the plastic, “you save this for the next person,” I smile, satisfied with myself for reducing my carbon footprint, for my non-participation.

“Some people like the bags…” he says, crestfallen, “When it’s raining…”

“Have a good day, Sir” I say, and I mean it.

“You take care!” he commands. Another conspiratorial glance, seems to say We could burn this whole thing down. The automatic doors open soundlessly, releasing me back into suburban pseudo-nature, the rain and mist.

Rage Against the Dying Light (2011)

25c0a96e70c675af7eff6c40a116ba8b Growing up near Raleigh, I spent many years after high school getting lost on the one-way streets in the shadows of downtown. It’s a large inland city with no geographical features or monuments rising above the skyline to help orient you—all directions look the same, skyscrapers and art-deco architecture fading through a border of warehouses into stately old neighborhoods, some of which have been revitalized, others of which are in decay. When you leave the center city it seems to spin like a wheel of fortune, popping you out wherever it sees as fit. One night after a couple of beers at the Raleigh Times, I take a wrong turn in the labyrinth of skyscrapers and one-way streets and pop out in one of the neighborhoods that ring Raleigh—the rundown shotgun shacks, the rusted over country stores on lonesome street corners and the high concentration of guys in wife beaters wandering the streets. Through twists and U-turns, I somehow find my way back out to the escape hatch, broad Capital Boulevard, which shoots through downtown Raleigh like a vacuum tube. On Capital, I turn up the music, roll down the windows, and throw the car into high gear, speeding past the neon lights of the rotted boulevard—old warehouses, fresh-built gas stations, motorcycle shops and late-night Krispy Kreme donut shops. I’ve had a couple of beers and feel warm and relaxed inside, and lean back in the leather seat feeling, finally on the right frequency with the universe—mind and body feeling fresh, awake, and alive, aligned with the magnetic poles of fate. I made my way back to Hillsborough Street, that great college artery through town, which looks so different than when I first drove down it to shows at a tiny little rundown club where the Circle Jerks and Bad Brains used to play called the Brewery. Hillsborough is now cleaned up and redone—the lanes widened, all new businesses, and the old staple and flier-covered grimy old flickering streetlamps now replaced with a bright new energy-efficient model, positioned close together so that the entire boulevard is now brightly lit up like a pedestrian mall—shadows are kept at bay, and danger and darkness has been abolished in the general vicinity. I drive on past all the memories—the campus where I went to college, the street corner where we served Food Not Bombs, a house where I fell in love, on up the rode to the nerve center of the local youth culture, the Cup A Joe coffee shop, where the evening shift baristas are flapping out the rubber mats and emptying the mop buckets. I park right up in front of Cup A Joe and press my face up against the fliers taped up in the front panes of glass. By years of habit, my eyes are instinctively drawn to a photocopied black and white hardcore flier among the silkscreened posters for trivia nights, indie rock festivals and experimental theater performance. Four bands I’ve never heard of and one local band playing at a grimy bar downtown called The Berkeley. The flier says that the show is tonight and in fact started a couple of hours ago.

The thought crosses my mind to just call it a night like every other night—to go home to my mother’s house and read until I fall asleep and then wake up early and do it all over again. I feel old and literary, separated by a chasm from the manic youth energy of the hardcore show. There was a laundry list of good reasons not to go—“you won’t know anyone. You’ll be the oldest person in the room. You’ve already spent 1/5 of your life standing around watching bands, why would you want to spend anymore?” But something inside, perhaps the booze coursing through my veins, urges me to break out from the castle I have built for myself and take action against silent despair. Once the fire of the self-dare is lit it’s hard to put out. I jump back in the car and speed downtown, skidding to a halt at the park across the street from The Berkeley. A couple of deranged looking youth—weird haircuts, big black-frame glasses, laughing, stumbling, outsiders—are hanging out against the brick wall outside of the club. Inside, the familiar grubby darkness and interlude music playing over the club’s speakers and a doorman wearing a Totalitar t-shirt. “How many bands left?” I ask him. “Just one…” he smiles. I reach for my wallet but he waves me in, “Don’t worry about it, go on in” he says stamping my hand. I get a beer from the dead-eyed goth bartender and then head into the cave-like interior of the Berkeley’s belly. The space is half-empty and black-clad attendees mill around idly browsing records and merch. A quick scan of the crowd returns the disturbing fact that I am the only one with a beer and am probably the only one old enough to drink—none of the kids in the crowd have a 21+ armband and they all look like they just got out of high school. So young and fresh-faced, the world of hardcore like an ever-expanding balloon that slowly fills up their lives with purpose. A band of punk kids that look like they’re trying to look like they’re in Judas Priest are setting up on stage—a huge, lead singer with long, flowing blonde hair and a leather jacket, like some kind of Scandinavian incarnation of Joey Ramone is stooped over and awkwardly adjusting the height of the microphone. Sensing that they are about to start, all of the kids move up toward the stage, standing around with crossed arms and backpacks, so excited for the entertainment to begin. “We’re Rational Animals” the singer mutters and they launch into a dissonant Priest-like metal anthem. Raleigh has always been a metal town—Corrosion of Conformity solidified that back in the early 80s and little has changed since then—its as if the town is protected by an orb that repels the corrupting cultural trends of the outside world. In Raleigh, scraggly-bearded, Southern fried metal lives on. When I was coming of age there spending my late nights at the Waffle House there was a brief, fleeting era of artsy hardcore influence but in the intervening years that seemed to have died—Today, the twenty year olds filtered into Raleigh from the surrounding towns of Fuquay, Cary and Apex to see capital-M Metal and hardcore in the classical style, as it was intended.

It was immediately apparent that these kids hadn’t yet dulled themselves down to the point where they came to shows out of ritual, to socialize and stand around with crossed arms not having fun. They were there to feel alive and they weren’t going to waste their chance. Passion burbled up in them from hidden wellsprings and they couldn’t disguise it, couldn’t control it—they were excited and were burning. 

One or two kids started whipping around and moshing and then the rest joined in—a petite little girl tore through the room, scattering the boys, bounding around like a kangaroo ballerina.

On A Plane

The lady beside me nods out to the closely packed plane. “Tight squeeze” I smile. “Sure is. Like a sardine can.” I crawl into my seat and we don’t say anything else to each other for the duration of the flight. I think about her though. She seems like a Midwestern business lady, flying back home to Chicago from a family tragedy or a somber business merger. I read a book about the discovery of America: the saga of Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish conquistador who wandered lonely and mad without any clothes, like some kind of proto-Christ-hippie centuries before Lewis and Clark crossed on their carefully planned, sober expedition. After having his ship stranded off the coast of Florida, Cabeza and his crew got lost in the Florida wilderness near Talahassee and were left behind by a Spanish legion of ships, who assumed they had met their end. Cabeza wandered across the Gulf Coats with a small gang, stopping in Indian villages along the way and convincing the Indian tribes he was a mystic in exchange for food—in this way he gathered followers until his company crossing the desolate Southwestern landscape on foot numbered in the thousands. The merry band shed their clothes, grew out their hair, and became stark raving mad for lack of food and water and possible consumption of peyote and other hallucionagens. While reading about Cabeza, I couldn’t help but periodically glance at my seatmeate, imagining what it might be like to be lost and hungry in a strange land, Christ-like wandering across a new continent, and then see a familiar person, like a font, a spring in the desert. Then the plane landed and the spell was broken. My seatmate pulled out her smartphone which blinked with a barrage of new messages, many of them containing the word “hedge funds”—our two hour flight with no cell phone reception had put her sadly out of touch. The old couple in front of us, obviously from the South, called home on their cell phones, the gray woman shaking her head after the short call. “They’re more paranoid about us flying than I am! I’m the one that has to fly!” her husband adding with that sweet Southern fatalism, “If something happens, what can you do? You know you’re not going to survive if the plane crashes out in that big ocean—what a joke! Even if you did survive, you’d be eaten by the sharks before anyone got to you.” The woman grimaced and said: “When it’s your time, it’s your time—ready for it, or not.”

Social Life (2007)

My social relations have flat lined, lost all their peaks and valleys. Rather than experiencing things with friends, struggle, danger, or even making the long journey through the night on a raft of booze, I have compartmentalized every cooperative human experience—friends belong during the day, with a drink, with a cup of coffee, shared human experience an excuse to ‘check-in’, “You good? Yeah I’m good” and thus stagnated—we share nothing, experience nothing, and essentially just share our small victories and our nagging problems with each other over and over in different ways, a Groundhog day of doing-things-with-other-people rather than the magic, binding adventure that it could be. I feel sorry for the lonely masses, but at least they dwell up on a spire of Cold Mountain rather than this kind of social Midwest, dull and flat and bland in all directions, and all my fault. I took no risks, I got no rewards. And the process itself was unpleasant.

Tattoos (2008)

Adrian’s arms look mangled. The full sleeve space scene that he got on his arm when he was young and drugged up looks blurry now, in the early stages of being lasered off. He regrets the tattoo, and has a hook-up at the laser place so he got a discount for the removal. I regret my tattoos but will never do anything about them. Sam’s grandfather was so ashamed of his navy tattoos that he tried to bleach them off—now his gristly arms are smeared with blurry dark patches. Andy got his tattoo when he was stupid and nineteen. It’s so bad I’m not even going to tell you what it is. He has spent the last ten years paying to get it lasered off. “It’s just not something I’m proud of” he shrugs. The first session was in 2002 then he didn’t go for almost another six years. “The first session, they put the numbing cream on me, and I was able to go for an hour and a half. The second time I could only go for 20 minutes. It’s unbelievably painful because you’ve got the burning and the stinging sensation put together, at the same time. Getting a tattooed lasered off is very expensive. Andy has gone into hock trying to get it done, and has even started volunteering to clean up the tattoo shop to pay off some of his sessions. “I think the body is a canvas. One day I’ll get it off and will be able to put another piece there.” He looks down at his arms, which are still mostly filled with the alien hardware, and little bits of pink skin showing through here and there, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon halfway through the makeup application. His situation reminds me of sharecropping, minus the institutional racism and for the fact that he actually made a conscious choice to get a very-stupid tattoo. There is so much vanity and boredom and identity-grooming that happens here at the end times. Young people working as unpaid interns at ‘cool’ digital companies, working so they can pay their rent and get more tattoos and records, working at the Apple genius bar so they can buy more Apple products, a kind of guinea pig wheel that has been built to keep us entertained and distracted and separated while the people at the top laugh and laugh and laugh and keep collecting.

On Death (2007)

These things are known to all the world.
         —Cormac McCarthy

Our ideas are in everyone’s mind.
         —Situationist International

I.

If you’re looking for a comforting way to conceptualize your mortality, try thinking of it as a cycle from sunrise until sunset: the way golden youth explodes on the horizon, reaching a bright zenith when you’re drunk and 20, in those brief ecstatic moments that you spend the rest of your life trying to recapture. At midday, you are at middle age and are cruising along steadily, amazed at being given a second lease on life. You can savor the rest of the day having learned how to take your time and make life work for you. You’ve found some degree of comfort and success when out of nowhere, uh-oh, the sunset years. The arc of the sun makes a drastic arc downward and death looms large as everyone you know dies off. If you’ve made it this far, you remain alone, waking up early to savor the sunrise and drink gallons of Folgers, ultimately humbled by the procession of life. The dark motor that turns the world slowly grinds to a halt and you fade away in a pink goodbye, like the end of a silent movie. It’s only natural to think of life as a progression, a series of logical stages heading towards ever-greater knowledge and dignity, toward a wizened Shakespeare-quoting end. Fewer and fewer people actually live out this anaesthetizing myth of our flickering moment here on Earth as a traditional narrative arc, where we laugh and smile all the way to the end. The vast majority of us will be taken out by car wrecks and put to bed by inexplicably persistent cancers, liver problems, heart attacks and bad knees; Even though we have notched up our life-expectancy significantly since Medieval times by the modern wonders of vaccination, central-heating and pharmaceutical medicine, a balance still manages to reassert itself. Life picks us off anyway, like a sniper. We can’t escape paying the ultimate price for vehicular travel, industrial culture, organ-pickling alcohol and heart-stopping food. The sun analogy doesn’t hold up because death is completely unpredictable, not only on an individual scale but across population patterns— people in fifty years will watch our modern movies and look at our casual cell phone use the way we view those charming people who chain-smoked their way through the black and white movies, wishing they could say to us, “What are you doing, you idiots? Don’t put that thing so close to your brain!”

The sun doesn’t threaten to fall out of the sky and plunge us into darkness every time we cross walk in front of a bus, get on a plane or have an inexplicable prescription interaction. It seems ridiculous to talk about  “coming to terms” with death; how could you not come to terms with something that will definitively happen? How could anyone really be prepared for that moment when death comes out of the wall like a demon from olden times and grabs us, dragging us down into the brine? Who among us will not scream and soil themselves at the moment of their departure? The fundamental trapdoor of mortality is that those moments can never be caught, isolated, and dissected by scientists. There will never be a “to bring” list for the journey that each of us will take—we vanish off the face of the earth, unable to communicate what it is like on the other side. We see the dead in dreams—that reel of our memory flapping wildly at their sudden and unexpected vanishing. Knowing what to expect in death would be a real letdown—we’ve already taken all the mystery out of this world by putting every town on the map, archiving everything we know and prodding away at things until we can replicate their subtle, natural mystery with artificial sterility. It would be a shame to do the same thing to the next world. At least in death, the magic and intrigue remains intact. It remains the last mystery, the last truly lonely voyage.

II.

There’s nothing quite comparable to the paranoid delusions that immediately follow a death. The inability to sleep, the abrupt realization that human goals and ambitions are utterly pointless when compared to continued survival. Soon after, the dreams and nightmares, the cycle of forgetting the dead as dead and only remembering upon waking. It’s that not only someone has died, but that we’re also re-confronted with the inevitability of our own death. Somewhere in this process emerges an unfounded mysticism, a belief in unconscious signs and symbols: while sequestering myself up in an icy cabin in the Adirondacks after a friend of mine died, I started to believe that his loves were my loves. In the snow and freezing cold, I ran around the lake at night, flapping my arms in the fogs and dancing on an ice-covered jetty surrounded by big black mountains. I yelled like I had drank ten thousand cups of coffee, and shimmied around in a way that to the casual observer must have looked like some combination of Michael J. Fox, and a black metal rendition of the final meadow scene in Harold and Maude.But we still can’t know what happened to our comrades who fell through to the other side of the looking glass. It’s a testament to these cinematic times that my natural inclination is to think of them as ‘off-set’, like two-bit actors who have been shuffled offstage with a cane and are now in the wings waiting by the catering table. In this reality show, the rest of us are still up on camera. We’re shuffling around awkwardly like fools, bad character actors who mumble and forget their lines, trying to get to the final curtain call. I tend to think of the dead as missing, and fail to really come to terms with their permanent corporeal disappearance. I keep their telephone numbers programmed into my phone, believing that they will eventually come back. If you have an active imagination, it’s easy to think of the dead as hidden away in your attic, giggling at you from the rafters as you grieve, like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral. It’s disorienting to have dreams where they are alive and then wake up and have to reassess reality: They’re dead. I’m alive. It’s been that way for quite some time. Only in the dreamtime giant of Sleep are we all joined together. I find myself dreaming of virgin Earth and dead friends, of golden mornings in some Paleolithic Garden of Eden filled with waterfalls and lush green plants, untouched by the withering hand of civilization. I wake up to find all the ancient forests cut down, the world manifested, all the maps filled: the sad, waking realization of the paved world, the natural frontiers that our rugged predecessors pioneered now lazily inhabited by the people of my epoch, who can never know true discovery.

III.

Death shatters the pacifying assumption that life was going to be like a placid, vacuum-like transcontinental flight with no turbulence. It immediately brings into question the pursuit of success in life using established standards–of the dream of some kind of endless escalator towards happiness, where you can actually reach the top and you’ve finally arrived, unharmed and self-satisfied by the long journey you’ve made. Everything but love and authentic effort seems so petty next to its high-contrast image.

The living are not the best ones—We are just the remaining ones, still here, unable to see our glaring flaws in the show that are so immediately apparent to outsiders. The dead are like giants, as if their genetics knew when they would bow out of the world and what their fate would be. For the living, there are off-ramps all along the highway for those who get tired of the voyage—religion, marriage, children, career or suicide all provide a fundamental sidestep that can rejuvenate or end life for the exhausted. I imagine swarms of blindfolded people noiselessly gliding down a dark river in canoes, each of us approaches that grim waterfall at a different moment. We’re able to hear the screams of others as they fall over the edge, but we never know when we’re approaching the precipice ourselves. It’s confronting to realize that I’ve already lived a third of my life according to a clinically optimistic average American male lifespan of 76—whether that’s a short time or a long time, its uncertain. Every second can be an eternity and years can flash by, unmemorable, both at once. So I take into account that with the theoretical 2/3rds of my life that I have remaining, even if I never found another job, 1/3 of that would be taken up by sleep, and probably another 1/6th by the traps of dull love and humorless conversations. With some occasional freelance work, the rest of my life is potentially booked solid with mediocrity. There’s got to be another way to live and live fiercely, aware of the clock that hangs above us. Dear Reader, my life is passing as I write this, and yours as you read it—Was it worth it? Did you feel anything? Did your time on Earth make you laugh and cry or was it bland and metallic-tasting like aluminum foil? In all the years lived how many brief moments have been seared onto you as wondrous and unforgettable, as horrible and crushing? How many hours have you been fully alive before you fell back down into the morass? It’s as if we wish for ourselves nothing more than a bland conformity to the norms most of the time, as if moderatism would save us. The comfortably numb stasis tastes like sleep, amnesia, and compromise. There is an indescribable other that we can’t understand. Death approaches steadily like an advancing army. Death beckons like a trumpet call.

At The Studs Terkel Memorial (2008)

90% of the attendees have grey hair. This is disconcerting, not on their part, but by the spotty attendance of people in the age range of 17-40. There is a long list of speakers. A neurotic New York woman of nebulous cultural import reads her dedication off a piece of paper, reciting the words in the ‘liberal radio voice’, a stiff dialect brought into being by the program This American Life. One of the following speakers, a woman in the same age range, diverges in the opposite direction. She has prepared nothing so she just gives emotionally charged account of Studs habits that hops from story to story, "And then one time…" in staccato, finishing each anecdote with a shrug that said "Oh, that was Studs!" She broke down and cried as she finished, the only speaker to do so. The folklorist Stetson Kennedy, a man in his eighties or nineties, took the podium and leaned in, wheezing in a thick drawl. He spoke of solidarity, of Studs getting blacklisted from Hollywood, of this country needing to experience real depression to buttress it’s waning character. He filibustered as if it was to be his last speech and it well might have been. Eventually the MC began to speak over him. The woman who had cried and taken too long in her speech came up and said something infantilizing, dragging Stetson away from the podium and back to his seat. I found the topsy-turvy nature of the event, obviously not a meritocracy, in a word, maddening. The stories Andre Schiffrin and others told about Studs placed him solidly in the role model category, skin thickened into jerky by the Depression and the injustice he faced as an actor. They spoke of his love for people—how he would jump out of taxicabs to catch the bus, where he could talk and meet with strangers. How he was the only white man inducted into the African-American writers hall of fame. How he spoke as if there was always a stoagie in his mouth. How when he conducted interviews with writers—he knew all their books better than they did, and brought copies of them underlined and marked up to the interviews.

There was a story about a burgalar breaking into his window while Studs was sitting in the dark in his living room. When the burgalar turned on the light, he was terrified by the sight of Studs just sitting there. Studs asked him not to run and ended up getting to know him. After a lengthy conversation he offered to give the burglar all the money in his wallet. He did this and then said,

“But that’s all my money. How am I going to live?” The burglar, pitying him, handed him twenty dollars. At some point during the presentation, I looked over at Sparky and her eyes were filled with tears. I couldn’t understand what there was to be sad about.

The Club (2008)

The video for the Black Eyed Peas chart-topping pop single "I Gotta Feeling" contains scenes that should by now be well-familiar to the average pop viewer: Dionysian spectacles of club revelry. Flashy bling, sunglasses and scantily-clad women pulling up their stockings in preparation for a night out, shots of smartphones swiveling open with technocratic ease, and the ever-cheery Xanaxed  masses texting, always texting, to fill the conversational void in between sips from fluorescent martinis. A rotating cast of multiethnic Manhattan hipsters, many of whom look like strippers, are pictured burning the night away and ‘Xpr3ssing th3ms3lv3s’ in a way that feels ubiquitous and familiar after decades of watching bubble gum, beer and soft drink commercials. At the end of “I Gotta Feeling’s” synthetically perfect, ecstasy-dosing intro, the Peas’ lead rapper Will.i.am pogoes up to the video camera and lip-synchs the words,

Tonight’s the night! Let’s live it up! I got my money! Let’s spend it up!

“Go out and smash it!” he follows up, “Like, oh my God!”

“I Gotta Feeling” is an audioanimatronic near-flawless pop gem, pumping away pneumatically, as if it were written by a computer program meant to prepare humans for a night of loose inhibitions. “I Gotta Feeling” is the Las Vegas casino of pop music—a lit-up, splendorous spectacle that by some voodoo makes the listener want to just give in and spend all their money, anything in pursuit of a ‘good time’. In this sense, the song is a slap in the face to the doomed young people of the Great Recession, literally born in the wrong era, who thanks to the hard work of their Baby-boomer parents will never get a chance to experience that pure 1980’s abandon of having vast floes of money to ‘spend up’ on leisure and cheap cocaine. A recent Department of Labor study found that last year, half of young American adults ages 16-24 were unemployed and alcohol sales at clubs were down by more than 10%. A more honest, mainstream portrayal of modern American life on a “good night” would be the glamorous clubgoers staying at home to huff computer spray cleaner and drink King Cobra tallcans. Really, in 2010, who can afford to “p-p-p-party every day”? The disconnect between American reality and artistic representation of America has become stark and feudal, out of touch, as evidenced by Jay-Z’s aristocratic “Empire State of Mind” which lords some  expensive, cadaverous ‘New York Lifestyle’ over the inhabitants of the rest of the country—as if Jay-Z is pistol-whipping the unemployed and hopeless inhabitants of the Rust Belt with his enormous New York schlong and saying, “Don’t you want to live here? Don’t you want to live in the greatest CITY IN THE WORLD?”

In 1997, Twelve years previous to the release of "I Gotta Feeling" a band called Chumbawamba released a #1 Billboard single called "Tubthumping" which, similar to the Black Eyed Peas song advocated binge drinking and the holistic benefits of “cutting loose.” The band, previously known mainly in the underground as a group of theatrical, anarchist squatters were quickly deserted by their former fans as punishment for their foray into the mainstream. “Tubthumping” was derided as an annoying fad song, an apolitical jock jam, proof that the beloved but ineffectual punk band had “sold out” on their former ideals. And as their betrayed, moralistic fans had feared, the song even became a de facto soundtrack for European football riots. Chumbawamba claimed that their newfound fame was more than just another feckless example of a band selling out. They had written ‘Tubthumping’ as an explicitly working-class anthem, they claimed—a song, like “I Gotta Feeling”, that was meant to be by everybody, and for everybody, a melodic manifestation of some kind of human Weltgeist that everyone could dance to and get behind. And it was: millions of people across the world drunkenly sung along, shouting, “I get knocked down! But I get up again!” or watched the video with some fancy CGI of a dancing baby. “Tubthumping”, Chumbawamba claimed, was a celebration of the people’s will and resilience, those people who were always getting ‘knocked down’ but then got back up again. In the liner notes of the record, the band wrote: "Tubthumping" is Shouting to Change the World (then having a drank to celebrate) It's stumbling home from your local bar, when the world is ready to be PUT RIGHT. Below their explanation there was a quote by Malcolm McLaren, the impresario who had created the Sex Pistols: People are sick everywhere. People are sick and tired of this country telling them what to do.

Both “I Gotta Feeling” and its Nineties precursor “Tubthumping” are pop songs, structured, written, and distributed with the intent of reaching the widest number of people possible and being palatable for mass consumption. But beneath both of the song lies the smoldering coals of the people’s will. After a couple verses The Black-Eyed Pea’s elaboration of what a “good time”,  they begin to implore that the listener that a good time is not only to be found in the trendy Manhattan clubs they appear to be dancing, but also in “smashing it up”, “burning the roof”, and “shutting them down”, activities that are more likely to be pursued at the recent G-20 protests in Pittsburgh than at the club on your average jello-shot swilling Friday night.

The club is a modern pleasure dome, a public relief center not unlike so many other late-capitalist retrofittings: gyms, psychiatrists, brothels, alcohol and the lottery all serve as pressure release valves for the citizenry of a frustrating, often-unbearable economic system. The club is a temporary cellblock, a juvenile detention center where young people can pay a cover charge and voluntarily keep themselves off the streets at night. Within small groups of left-wing radicals in recent years, a proposed alternative to the club has seen some praxis: the illegal street party. The intentions of the illegal street party are fairly innocuous: the radicals want to create a benign TAZ (a “temporary autonomous zone”) where leisure capitalism can be suspended, albeit briefly, and the Weltgeist can be allowed space to flourish, as it has for thousands of years before now. Unfortunately, these attempts at reclaiming public space often end in grim showdowns with authority and are brutally crushed by the police. The sad truth is that it’s hard to dance, have fun and build community in the streets while you’re staring down the policeman’s truncheon. To observe an illegal street party being dispersed by tear gas and loudspeakers is to watch the unbelievable pettiness of capitalism. As people are tackled to the ground and arrests are made, authority seems to say: Don’t want to dress up in high heels and short dresses, wait in long lines, pay ridiculous amounts for beer and cocktails that might get rufied, and in the end get groped by strange men? Too bad. Stay home, but don’t party in the streets. At the Brooklyn street parties, the cynical bystanders and bloggers of Bedford Avenue step out from the expensive bars they’re schmoozing in, and immediately ally themselves with the status quo before heading back inside for another round. “Well that’s what they get for blocking the street!” the hipster schills write on Gawker and Gothamist the next day, getting red and puffy in the face. The police and public opinion both shrug and in their own way say—That’s what you get for disobeying the rules. Now get back to the club.

Pompeii (2009)

When the excavators uncover the fantastic ruins and archeological remains, they will gasp at our last poses; our grimacing visage frozen forever like a Polaroid in black molten lava–thin waifish young men crouched under long boards to protect themselves from the fiery onslaught, post-Slacker jaws agape and Christ-like hair pulled straight backwards like a solid wave. We will walk in museum awe beside the preserved and labeled human forms, the androgynous male/female pairs standing in awkward contrapostos holding iced coffees. The Kias, Subarus and Zip cars all scattershot through the street, their drivers facial features reduced to the simplicity of stone golems–two charcoal holes for eyes and a contorted, gaping line for a mouth, a maw-like cave opening in the death masque–a car accident was inevitable, cancer, of course, a bad fall, alright–but who expected this?

The businesses and box store logos are indistinguishable now, the commercial details lost, like in the folds of those sensational and decadent Christo wrappings from a past epoch. The commerce corridors and bland two-story buildings are drawn across the landscape like some dusty unbroken plateau, blank now without the freshness of products and fluorescence, no longer containing within them the certainty of a mutually beneficial interaction between the buyer and the seller. No more cell phone rings or soothing background music, no more "Welcome to Chipotle, what can I get for you?" No more gushing conversations about gluten, soy, and vegan ingredients in the co-op grocery line. Now, just the dusty silence of the dead earth, the sound of shoots of weeds sprouting up after long rains. The Revivalist City Hall looks canonized and dignified, like a chocolate-covered Easter bunny of some Grecian temple. There’s no more government to run, no more order to keep, deficit to close, no more media to corral. The faces of the last bureaucrats (not that there were many of them in Portland) look the most disappointed of all–they had built up the tax base by attracting the mobile, left-leaning white middle-class interested in white picket fences and vegan restaurants. They had put in bicycle lanes and installed glorious public water fountains, and made it really easy to get food stamps, instituting all the modest policy ephemera of the welfare state, but perhaps no one was more disappointed by the end than these policy wonks who thought that human happiness could be engineered, tweaked, by these tiny institutional changes.

All of the urban farming initiatives and afterschool programs, dust. All the water conversation posters and the biodiesel filling stations, the energy efficient refrigerators and automatic shut-off hand dryers and sinks. All the recycling programs and gyms and healthy organic food wasn’t enough. “Rose City” imprisoned forever in black rock and muck like some massive LEGO architecture that got caught in a house fire—smeared and melted plastic faces, whole record collections, money, useless. The excavators who declare the site archaeologically sensitive will never know our brand names or quite understand what we were looking at inside those thin little boxes with cords coming out on tables that so many of us perished in front of, staring into with blank faces, as if trapped in cryogenesis.

The Office (2009)

White walls, white rooms, flat screens, needles, happy pore-cleansed faces, pharmaceutical products, biohazard disposal–the 21st century just makes you want to grunt, smear mud on your face and bash someone over the head with a rock, doesn’t it? Standing over the scanner at the office, my duty is simple: take the paper files, perfectly tactile and usable as they are, and turn them page by page into digital mimeograph copies, segments of floating bits and bytes. The files each have a name on them and a number—this way we can identify the applicant—and a little sticker pasted on them—red for rejection green for acceptance. Inside the folders, a bricolage of documents. Cobbled together, they give a photo mosaic portrait of personhood—birth certificates, headshots, resumes, copies of drivers’ licenses, long personal statements, letters of recommendation. The official transcripts from their different universities are the most stunning part—like foreign currency they are exquisitely colored, stamped, watermarked, peppered with bits and pieces of the ephemera of that unique place. USC, Notre Dame, Stanford, UPenn, Duke, Brigham Young University. The private, leftist-historical universities have correspondently bizarre transcripts—big, unwieldy things filled with course evaluations from the student’s “History of the Black Power Movement” class, their “Negri and American Empire” seminar. The Ivy league transcripts are surprising for their stark unpretentiousness—Harvard looks dashed off, barely identifiable to its blue-blooded legacy. Yale, Duke, and Brown are equally modest. Shuffling the hopes and dreams of these young people into the scanner before they are resigned to a mausoleum-like filing drawer gives one the feeling of being the furnace operator at the crematorium. They’ve been doing the right thing their whole lives, being upstanding citizens and members of society—fraternities, student newspapers, afterschool programs, churches, two or three jobs, a kid, and still volunteering on the side. And look at me—plucked off the street and being paid ten dollars an hour, clothes unwashed, rips in my jeans, with their lives and future careers placed in my hands—one smudge, one misplaced file could entirely derail an otherwise promising future. These blonde, pearly-whited prom queens and frat guys—church and charity, a life of service. They, unlike us more lumpen specimens, don’t mind begging society’s masters for a chance to be rejected. The outcasts and the freaks reject the whole system up front, vaccinating themselves against the possibility of failure—a ‘get them before they get you’ mentality. But something about all these kids—all these rejects…they were endearing, smiling, lovable. Marx wrote that the most forgivable flaw in his mind was naiveté. While hunched over a huge copier in a mailroom, scanning my life away, I began to hate the shadowy selection committee and their cryptic, indecipherable selection system, which seemingly grinds individuals through some complex mathematical formula for achievement and decides whether they are worthy enough for admission to the program. Rejection, rejection, rejection—the number rejections far outnumber the scattered few accepted. Many worthy candidates tossed by the wayside, judging from their resumes and fancy, cum laude Ivy League transcripts. It just goes to show that if you put your hope in the system, you’re a fool—it’ll reject you, abuse you, deprive you of insurance and set you on fire and try to kill your family. I’m not a Communist, but it began to dawn on me after the long endless days of filing that what The Selection Committee does in the public sphere-doling out money and credibility to a select few–the rest of us were all doing silently, stealthily, in whispered email conversations, in our own minds—ranking, filing, classifying, judging the others. Putting everyone in their place, always calculating and scheming to see who is ‘worth it’ and who was not. This is what the yippies used to call ‘the cop in your head’—policing, archiving, and creating hierarchies, human beings forever systematizing, emulating the machines. And in turn, as if to do penance for our secret wretched thoughts, we always put ourselves in a position to be judged by others. The weakness of the whole back and forth sham is horrid,  absolutely unbearable.