Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Viva Glasvegas! The Return of Recession Rock and Roll

Since the advent of rock and roll in the 1950’s, people have attempted to declare it dead, that it has run its course and there is nothing more the medium can offer audiences. This has occurred since 1959’s Buddy Holly plane crash to the present day with John Mellencamp writing an article which theorized the music industry is responsible for his lack of album sales (please insert your own Mellencamp joke here). Mellencamp argued it was impossible for rock music to get airplay yet tales of hard times and Americana are a little tough believe when they are written from a millionaire’s mansion. Powerful songs or struggle and perseverance tend to be written by those who have experienced them recently. The debut album of Glasvegas, a quartet from Scotland, is the best record I’ve heard in years and seems the most likely artist to epitomize the current worldwide recession.

A quartet whose songs are majestic yet simple, Glasvegas has a stripped down look and sound, which accents the soaring harmonies in many of their songs. Singer/songwriter James Allan could be a dead ringer for Joe Strummer or a 1950’s rocker. The entire band usually dresses in simple, black clothes yet their sound resembles the Arcade Fire, albeit with ten fewer musicians. Singing with his natural Scottish accent, James Allan is almost challenging audiences to accept the philosophy of no compromise. Rarely, if ever, has any artist achieved mass popularity if had an accent as strong as Allan’s. U2’s Bono is Irish and Tom Jones is Welsh but if one were to listen to their recordings without this knowledge, they might as well have hailed from New York City. Glasvegas’ adherence to their Scottish heritage makes some of Allan’s lyrics unintelligible but in doing so makes the songs more alluring and draws the listener into his passionate vocals. Coincidentally, U2 has recently announced Glasvegas will open for them for part of their upcoming tour.

In tough economic times, most people tend to cut back on extravagances, which can be shown in popular music during various eras of recession. It seems hard times often bring the best music. The 2002 recession may have been short, but it brought the White Stripes to prominence. A duo of just guitar and drums, Jack and Meg White’s minimalism was a welcome shot in the arm to the rock industry. A decade earlier, as the United States was going through the Bush I recession, audiences rebelled against the excesses of hair bands like Motley Crue and flocked to an unknown Seattle trio, Nirvana, en masse. Nirvana’s “Nevermind” became the anthem of early 90’s angst and even knocked the King of Pop Michael Jackson from the top of the charts. Nirvana had a minimalist approach to music as well. Although it can be argued produced Butch Vig slicked up Nirvana’s sound, their blistering live performances showcase a band in total deafening control. If “Nevermind” was the angry record of the early 90’s, REM’s “Automatic for the People” was the sad record. Abandoning their traditional, bouncy sound for sparse, melancholy arrangements, REM crafted an album which reflected the attitude of a generation abandoned by their leaders. A stripped down sound filled the record, which is still considered the band’s greatest achievement.

The rise of punk music in 1970’s Britain stands as the ultimate example of music upheaval during an economic crisis. Chronicled in the Julien Temple film “The Filth and the Fury”, punk’s assault and takeover of British youth culture was a direct result of mass unemployment, despair and bitterness young people felt toward their government, elders and society. The Sex Pistols encapsulated these emotions in their first three singles “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “God Save the Queen” and “Pretty Vacant.” The political fury over the band’s popularity caused the BBC to ban playing of “God Save the Queen” to prevent it from becoming the number one song in the country. When the Pistols performed live, it was a live action disaster flick. It became debatable if the band could really play at all, which was a ruse spread by their manager, Malcolm McLaren. The concept of band with questionable musical ability somehow managing to become the most popular artist in Britain was indeed a slap in the face to society. Truthfully, all of the Sex Pistols (even Sid Vicious) had decent musical chops. Decent enough to convince critics they couldn’t play. Like Nirvana, the Sex Pistols’ existence was short (approximately eighteen months) but their one record is still considered one of the finest rock and roll albums ever made.

Glasvegas’ self-titled debut album reflects a society different from the three decades previously discussed. Most western cultures are no longer impoverished on a scale compared to yesteryear. Many people who consider themselves poor still have an Ipod, internet and a big T.V. Yet many are still sad, the disconnection brought on by modern convenience has left many lonely and unappreciated. Glasvegas’ first single, “Geraldine,” describes a social worker who wants to “be the angel on your shoulder” who talks people “back from the edge.” James Allan celebrates an occupation often underappreciated. Drummer Caroline McKay’s simple yet strong backbeat pounds against the falsetto of Rob Allan, James’ cousin. Combined with James Allan’s passionate, accented vocals, “Geraldine” is a fantastic debut single that recalls classic music from the 1950’s with punk bombast and pure pop melody.

“Daddy’s Gone”, the band’s second single is a different take on the far too common problem of absent fathers. James Allan describes his father as “my hero, but you were never here though,” a bittersweet admission of unconditional love. The lyrics, along with Allan’s incredible voice, conveys gutwrenching sadness yet the chorus has tone of defiant resolve:

“I wont be the lonely one
sitting on my own and sad
a fifty year old
reminiscing what I had”

The lyric can be interpreted two ways, as a statement of pity or one of self-determination, possibly both. Many sons of broken homes have resolved to raise their own families the best they can, refusing to subject their children or themselves to the fate given to them by their own father. The song’s arrangement is minimal, repeating motifs of guitar and bass until the emotional final chorus, which incorporates 50’s harmony with punk passion. This synthesis of old and new is epitome of great rock and roll. Glasvegas brings us a new interpretation of the past for our uncertain future. Unlike many of the recession rock artists of the past, Glasvegas inspires us to think, not destroy; to be passionate about life and not nihilistic.

We are in an era where many of us are contemplating our place and our future in this world; an inclusive, yet distant society that seems to long for real emotion rather than those manufactured on television or fabricated on the internet. James Allan and Glasvegas bring us back home, back to the place of unshielded feeling. Many of us need a little bit more of that human touch, the place inside us which makes us care and rage with all our power, suppressing nothing and ideologically uncompromising. Glasvegas challenges us to recognize the world around us for what it is and truly feel it in our gut. The world is not a just soundbite on CNN or gossip item on Perez Hilton. It is a real, evolving entity; one we can shape if we choose to do so. Glasvegas are a triumph of emotion over calculation, belief over doubt. It is this attitude, the same attitude of Elvis Presley, the Sex Pistols and Nirvana, that makes music truly alive for us all.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Keeping Time on the "Watchmen"

Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 20th Century classic “Watchmen” is, depending on who you ask, visionary, uncompromising, confusing or nihilistic. Reviews thus far tend to rate this film as a classic (Roger Ebert’s four out of four stars) or a complete waste of almost three hours of your life (The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane). As a fan of the original graphic novel, I was interested mostly in how director Snyder would adapt certain portions of the text, what he would change and the potential justification in doing so. Although some purists may disagree, most of Snyder’s decisions enhance the overall “Watchmen” experience for those who have read the novel as well as delivering powerful cinematic entertainment for those who have not. Warning! The following contains spoilers! If you do not want to know that Dr. Manhattan has intense, philosophical discussions with Shrek, the outcome of a fight to the death between the Comedian and Chris Brown and why an exploding giant squid was left out entirely, please put this down and resume once you have viewed the film or just feel the need to spoil plot developments for someone else.

One of the major challenges facing Zack Snyder was to show the Watchmen in action. The novel itself is very talkie, with intermittent action scenes but the abilities of Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Rorschach, Comedian, Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan are left up to the imagination of the reader. Much of this may have had to do with the comics code, which was still enforced by DC Comics in 1987. The comics code placed limits on how much sex and violence could be shown in comic books. Artist Dave Gibbons mostly succeeded in implying the violent nature of the Watchmen, but the limitations of his era left some readers wondering how characters such as Nite Owl fought crime without getting their butts kicked. Snyder draws inspiration mostly from Batman, a hero with no real powers but physically gifted and possessing unreal combat skills. This is shown superbly in the fight sequence between Nite Owl, Silk Spectre and a group of thugs. Considered the two most relatable characters, the duo decimates the street gang with violent precision with little regard for the physical welfare of their opponents. Limbs are shattered with careless ease while our “heroes” are shown enjoying this combat. One of the few gaps in the novel left by Moore is how exactly the Watchmen become so hated and eventually outlawed. The alley action scene fills this in, albeit courting fanboy controversy in doing so. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are shown to be more amoral than Batman. Imagine a few vigilante Bruce Lee’s patrolling the street. Not a pretty result.

The sadism in the behavior of Rorschach and Comedian is amplified to the tenth power as well. Snyder interprets Comedian as completely amoral, an anti-hero with the hero completely removed. Comedian Eddie Blake saves exactly zero people and kills hundreds, some just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. He justifies his behavior by his belief that the world we live in is a complete joke, our sense of right and wrong is just a fallacy, the world is completely corrupt and he’s just enjoying the ride. Eddie Blake has no friends except his guns, his fists and desire to satisfy his unending appetite for violence. His murder is the framework around “Watchmen” is designed. Are we supposed to care that he was murdered or is his killing justification for all those he harmed in the name of justice?

Comedian’s trademark is the “smiley face” button affixed to his costume. The button is meant to symbolize the destruction and contradiction of the liberal lifestyle of the 1970’s. Smiley face buttons sold by the millions in that decade, yet the debauchery and free-spirited attitude brought on a revolt by the conservative population in the United States and Great Britain, with the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Zack Snyder wisely fought to keep Moore’s novel set in 1984, when much of the world was just recovering from a recession as severe as the one we are experiencing in 2009. Much of the world was in fear of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia, which was used by Moore as the background for the conflicts which develop in “Watchmen.” The use of the “smiley-face” in both novel and film, implies that the world could never really achieve any kind of utopia and those who believe in it’s possibility are as crazy as the Comedian, just on the opposite spectrum. Allusions to Thomas More’s classic “Utopia” are implied later, as the Watchmen are faced with a fateful decision, which will alter not only their lives but also all of humanity.

Rorschach (excellently played by Jackie Earl Haley) is the most realized character in the film. Almost Shakespearian in nature, Rorschach is the ill-fated hero, obsessed with justice no matter the cost. Haley’s interpretation of the character evokes more sympathy than Rorschach is given in the novel. Snyder sets up Comedian as the amoral hero and Rorschach as the heroic “Dirty Harry,” who blames liberal society for the proliferation of criminal activities. Rorschach only kills “bad guys” while Comedian kills just because he can. His past is similar to that of Bruce Wayne with his hatred for those who abuse others consuming his obsession for total justice without compromise. Snyder makes the viewer empathize with Rorschach’s behavior and abhor that of the Comedian. These lines are much more blurry in Moore’s novel but Snyder must have thought film needed a character to represent justice in a more overt way. Nite Owl is far too much a wuss for the audience to identify with, in more ways than one. Much credit should be given the Jackie Earl Haley, whose few scenes of facial expression are easily the most moving in the film. Haley’s final scene is more powerful than the one in Moore’s novel. Those with knowledge of the original novel must have felt they were experiencing the demise of Hamlet. Although the end is certain, the portrayal by the actor makes the scene new and jolting.

Possibly the biggest disappointment in “Watchmen” are the characters of Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias. Although proficiently acted, we are left wanting more from these intertwined characters. Admittedly, these characters are hard to crack in the novel. How do you really get inside someone who knows all realities, past, present and future like Dr. Manhattan or the world’s smartest person, Ozymandias? Both characters have a parallel staleness about them, a detachment that must be perceived as a lack of connection to humanity. Dr. Manhattan no longer understands it, while Ozymandias believes he is above it. Zack Snyder takes liberties with both characters, making Manhattan more human and Ozymandias more despicable. Similar to emphasizing Rorschach as a fated hero, Ozymandias is the flawed villain. This decision must have been made to give audiences a more emotional climax as Moore’s novel ends on an almost emotionless note. Granted, these characters and their motivations were probably the hardest to realize on film, but marginalizing their complexities results in a different emotional climax. Snyder’s biggest error may have been including Ozymandias’ mutant cat. All plot points revolving around it were omitted from the film, so why include the cat except to avoid fanboy scrutiny?

The biggest change Zack Snyder made to the source material of “Watchmen” and the one most likely to be debated, is the altering of Ozymandias’ utopia. Admittedly, a giant exploding squid would not be very believable for 2009 audiences, but his amplification of Ozymandias’ plan. In 1987, Alan Moore theorized one tragic event of human destruction would be enough to unite the world in peace. September 11th, 2001 and the subsequent political events following it changed this idea. Moore believed the world would unite after a significant part of New York was destroyed, forging a peace between all industrial super-powers. The fallout of 9/11 showed this theory was not feasible. Although the United States initially received outpourings of empathy and aid, this worldwide goodwill was squandered by excessive nationalism, suppression and over-reaching military activity by the George W. Bush administration. Snyder realized the catastrophic event which culminates “Watchmen” had to be farther reaching and affect each world power in the same fashion. Our world is far different than the one Alan Moore inhabited in 1987. We are more connected yet farther apart. There are several more powerful, influential countries in 2009. In his one time jump, the fallout of Ozymandias’ plan affects all the nations in play today, not those in 1984 where we were just worrying about the Russians. Snyder repeatedly shows the World Trade Center in his film, inviting the viewer to draw comparisons between 9/11 and the events in “Watchmen.” If all the world’s most powerful nations are attacked equally, will they unite, as Ozymandias theorizes, or we still doomed to the comedy of our humanity?

The film and novel of “Watchmen” end on the same note. Can we pretend to live in a peace that really doesn’t exist or will the knowledge of its fallacy consume our thoughts? Is an orchestrated peace better than a world filled with war? Is there a universal utopia or will it always be just a modern extension of Thomas More’s theory? Is the diary of a lunatic the voice of truth and justice? Are we doomed to repeat our errors regardless of intention? The question “Who watches the Watchmen?” permeates both works with little explanation on its inclusion. The answer (at least my interpretation of it) can be found in a subtle difference between novel and film. In his novel, Alan Moore never calls the group of crime fighters that succeed the minutemen “Watchmen.” In fact, it is implied the group never really formed at all, their one meeting turned into disarray by ideological differences between Ozymandias and Comedian. I spent a long time wondering why Alan Moore would remove his name from association with the film, but I think I’ve figured it out. “Who watches the Watchmen” is not a reference to a group of costumed avengers, but a question put forth to us. Who are our Watchmen? Do we trust them? Do we put our faith in their ability to right wrongs and look out for us? Who watches them, those we believe will lead us into a better world? Do we not put them on a pedestal when they are actually just like us: good, bad, lonely and lovelorn, simultaneously chaos and order, intelligent and ignorant, confident yet contradictive? If we are the Watchmen, then who watches us?