“Business in the front, party in the back.” Why isn’t the mullet considered the coolest haircut on earth? Those locks flowing down the back of the neck announce that the mullet wearer isn’t some pencil-necked square who’s afraid of offending his boss or his business associates or anyone else. No, a man sporting a mullet doesn’t give a fuck who he offends. (And he doesn’t give a fuck about the difference between “who” and “whom” either, jerkoff.) But at the same time, he doesn’t surrender to chaos like those shaggy-headed pinko-hippie slackers. No, that crew cut on top announces control. The mulletista can party hard, but his focus is sharp like a wolf under the full moon. It also keeps hair from getting in the face, which is important when trying to start a fight, or play hockey, or do both at the same time. This unbeatable combination of chill and control—a double whammy of ice-cold masculinity—has its parallel in the dive bars of Williamsburg and the independent cafes of Toronto’s Queen West: the shaggy beard of the modern hipster performs a rugged nonchalance, while the precision-gelled coif above it announces a hipster in control. But this look is a mess: party in the front and business in the front? No man, that makes no sense. It’s an aesthetic shared by the forward-thinking Iranian imams—whereas the rebellious mullet is outlawed in Iran. Hipsters of the world, heed my advice: shave the beard and grow a mullet.
Can anyone tell me how to solve the animal version of the trolley problem? A runaway train is hurtling towards a fork in the tracks and there’s a chimp sitting on one side and a gorilla on the other, say. Or a chimp on one side and a rabbit on the other. Or twenty rabbits. You must choose which way to send the train, and thus who lives and who dies. The decision sometimes seems obvious, but why? What principle can you apply to justify your decision?
Critics have been more than a little down on Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl spot: it seemed like a sellout and an embarrassing one at that. As a recovering Dylan-obsessive I can’t help thinking there was a bit more to it than that, and not just because Dylan likes to confound expectations. To begin with, the song that’s playing in the background has its lyrics suppressed until the title line appears at the end: “Things Have Changed.” If you don’t already know the song, the point would therefore appear to be that Detroit has changed, that it’s back on the world stage as a serious producer of cars. But if you recognize the song from the start, you’re likely to view the whole ad in a different light. For “Things Have Changed,” written for the film Wonder Boys, is in fact a song about the waning of youthful ambition and the loss of meaning that entails. The title is obviously an allusion to “The Times They Are-A-Changin,’” the angry hope of that folksy but caustic 1963 song—“The line it is drawn/The curse it is cast/The slow one now/Will later be fast/As the present now/Will later be past/The order is rapidly fadin’/And the first one now will later be last/For the times they are a-changin’—now replaced by music that echoes the weary rock of Chris Rea’s 1989 “Road to Hell” and a refrain fit for the year 2000: “People are crazy and times are strange/I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range/I used to care, but things have changed.” This is, in other words, the perfect song for a sellout. It’s the song of a man and a generation for whom things just stopped mattering as they used to, for whom the prospect of actually resolving anything, personally or politically, grew further and further away right as material comfort made it all seem less pressing. Somehow he and they were both locked in tight and out of range. The song reflects the heartbreak of this cynicism and in doing so evokes a yearning that still beats. “I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road/If the Bible is right, the world will explode/I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can/Some things are too hot to touch/The human mind can only stand so much/You can’t win with a losing hand.” The order did not rapidly fade. The first one then is not now last. And the human mind can only stand so much. But if Dylan’s commercial activity in the last few years—Cadillac, Apple and Victoria’s Secret—seems like an attempt to get as far away from himself as he can, the Super Bowl ad was actually a little different. Because for all that the execution was clunky and idiotic, the idea itself—patriotic protectionism—is one that Dylan has flirted with for a long time, from 1983′s “Union Sundown” to the Farm Aid concerts of 1985 and 1986 and 2005’s “Workingman’s Blues #2” (“They say low wages are a reality/If we want to compete abroad”). And this should come as no surprise. It may be simplistic, both economically and morally—why exactly is buying American better than buying Korean?—but then again it’s also more or less all that the American left has been able to suggest in response to the economics of globalization. It’s a confused response to a confusing situation, and in that sense Dylan is the spokesman of more than his own generation. You can’t win with a losing hand.
In the past year, I’ve shifted coordinates with each season: Paris in winter, Chicago in spring, New York in summer, Chicago once more for fall. I’ve concocted various banal narratives on the ways in which I’ve grown, loved, unearthed sparkling crystals of wisdom that I offer to those who ask about my dislocations. But how do I convey the moments that were incommunicable—in other words, the only ones that really mattered to me? The pillars of voluptuous smoke billowing from a factory in the 13th arrondissement; the smiles of the two strangers from Martinique and Senegal who bought me roses and took me out to dinner; the rumble of the RER in the first violet light of daybreak; the homeless exhibitionist, leaning in towards me, on the MTA; the wind rippling through a plastic sheet on the side of the complex across from my window in Washington Heights; the hallucinatory heat that carried the stench of soured life. Laid out, these moments appear disembodied, inaccessible, useless for speaking to another; perhaps writing is in itself an attempt at suture. But the longer I reflect, the more it seems precisely the opposite: a refusal.
Apple’s advertisements usually promote Apple as an alternative (such as the think different or mac vs. pc campaigns), exude feelings (such as the itunes ads where silhouettes vibrantly dance over bright colors) or demonstrate product features (such as the iphone and ipad ads where flicking fingers get a lot done). However, the company’s most recent ads have focused on how we constantly and routinely use Apple products, appealing to their popularity and ubiquity (ironic considering their iconic “1984” super bowl ad). Each of these ads, a montage of beautiful and happy people of all races and places, all caught in a feel-good moment enabled by an Apple product, concludes with “every day, more people ________ on the iPhone than any other phone.” That they don’t try to impose some sort of narrative on our routine use of their technology makes them feel a little more honest than Google’s sentimental ads, but there is also something sinister in them. The altogether creepy “Our Signature” ad highlights this terror. “This is it. This is what matters: the experience of a product,” the voice-over begins, as the camera, in slow motion, voyeuristically pans in on varied scenes of people using iPhones and iPads. Later the voice tells us “we spend a lot of time on a few great things,” almost as if the un-royal we, like Apple, spend a lot of time with their products, so much so that everyday existence, everywhere, is unimaginable without them. But while Apple’s products have indeed inserted themselves into our lives (or at least the lives of those around us), there is nevertheless something extremely unsettling about their cold companionship. They’re supposed to help connect us with the world, but even when we aren’t feeling very connected, we’re still with our smartphones. Apple revels in this intimacy. By the end of the commercial the voiceover asserts, “you may rarely look at it, but you will always feel it,” as a girl joyously rolls over in her bed, caressing her iPhone. “This is our signature, and it means everything.”
I have an aggregator I turn to while the coffee drips. Look, it suggests, at this recent act of human tastelessness. Not violence this time, or government-sponsored disgrace. Now it’s the Halloween costumes, the blackfaces and recent victims of race-based killing. Now it’s the pair of English women who went as World Trades North and South. Blame, obviously, the women. Stupid women. Blame the costume contest and the club who threw it. Onward. Did you read about the huge athlete racist who made the grave mistake of letting someone record his racism? It’s because the NFL is full of disgusting aberrations like … look here, they tag this stuff so we don’t miss it during our morning laps. Let’s pull up another take on that appalling photo of those evil bitches from the UK. Here’s an aspiring young writer who really nails what’s so wrong about people like this. This guy gets it. He had that other sharp post about how the baseball teams are boring because they’re white. Very charged headlines. Heavy circulation. Wait, I am sorry, are those people falling from the Sharpied windows of South’s costume? And here they are out of costume, the sluts. Over here’s a bit more about the fat cornfed NFL fuck who embodies racial hatred. And what about these teammates standing up for him—how idiotic can you get? How bamboozled? I am wholesomer already and haven’t even breakfasted. Yes, this culture of invidious masculinity has indeed got to change! Now I can face the day. Now I can move nobly through the outside world, with its colorful people I do not even remotely hate while walking safely around them, and its women I can empathy onto and consider official equals while appreciating their lovely curves, yes, purely aesthetic, tights-as-pants, what a world, so flat, so equalized. There is no pesky topography for content—all clicks are equal, the currency’s value is set. Question: Is trafficking terror with warnings and explications a moral approach to trafficking terror? Answer: we still fear brown people and want to destroy women. Let’s make one thing absolutely clear: this is an argument for men who wonder why she won’t smile back. This is an argument for reading more novels.
God created NFL football to save America from Sunday afternoons. He must have. Even the most fundamental believers will accept this athletic exception to the otherwise day of rest. They have to: it’s essential to Sunday Night Sanity, to play prevent defense on the weekend’s fizzling malaise. The faith has its own commandments on football Sundays: Thou shall gorge on food; thou shall leave no beer unfinished; Thou shall be entertained; Thou shall rest—the week is not here yet. And why, my child, did you think Monday Night Football exists?
It’s embarrassing but undeniable: he had intended to be cool. Could he really claim that he wore those glasses by chance? Was that habitus an accident? Was that tone of voice not an achievement of sorts? But now the last drop of intention dissolved like ice in a glass. He had reached the apotheosis of cool: he was cool without trying. He didn’t even need to make a Point.
Inspired by the iPod feature of listening to audiobooks at double-speed, I started watching movies that way. It has completely renewed my appreciation of all films that don’t involve terror, violence and suspense. Most romantic comedies, foreign films, documentaries, and all those brooding masterpieces like Eyes Wide Shut or Knife in the Water (including the whole corpus of Tarkovsky), take on new significance when they are constrained to a mere thirty-eight minutes. And then there is what Brecht called the Verfremdungseffekt (alienation-effect) of double- or triple-time watching. I no longer weep at the tribulations of Barbara Streisand or Tom Hanks: I judge them. It has also made me rethink porn.
There has always been a leering disrespect between the arts and sciences, a belief that the two camps are made of radically different people who cannot and should not care about one another. But when considered carefully, it becomes clear that the two serve a vital, symbiotic role in civilization. Science attempts to answer the question “What the fuck is going on?”, while Art explores the vital follow-up, “Well how the fuck are we supposed to feel about that?” If we add that politics, when functional, considers the subsequent “Ok, but what the fuck are we going to do about it?”, it seems natural that all areas of achievement may one day get along without all the sneering or—as presently seems to be the problem—attempting to answer each others’ questions. Politicians do not know what the fuck is going on, scientists do not know how the fuck we’re supposed to feel about it, and artists haven’t got a fucking clue what to do. That much, at least, is clear.