Sunday, August 12, 2012

Election 2012: The Investment Election

It's been quite a while since I've posted to this space, but with Mitt Romney's bold, risky decision to select Wisconsin Representative and conservative darling Paul Ryan as his running mate for the 2012 election, I feel compelled to return here and post some of my own thoughts on the selection. News and political sites, blogs, twitter accounts, and even tumblrs have already spent a lot of time analyzing the political implications of this pick on the race. I, however, want to take a stab at discussing some broader rhetorical implications of the selection, particularly in light of some of my own work.

At the Rhetoric Society of America conference back in May, I presented a paper that argued, among other things, that we're currently experiencing the emergence of a mode of citizen-subjectivity that can best be described using the ideograph "investment" (I have to use quotation marks because Blogger won't let me use the traditional brackets). Celeste Condit and John Lucaites define an ideograph as "a culturally biased, abstract word or phrase, drawn from ordinary language, which serves as a constitutional value for a historically situated collectivity" (From their Crafting Equality book, 1993, p. xii). It's a term that can have multiple meanings and uses but still has both a common thread that unites each use and such widespread popularity that its meaning is practically implied. Examples of ideographs include "freedom," "equality," and "family values." In my paper (which I'm still working through and revising), I argue that has become one crucial way that our sense of citizenship is being molded and expressed in the 21st century. In one of the examples of this emergence, I examine the current political debate that has now been sharpened by Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate. Here, I argue that many of the major political debates of the past few years have revolved around which view of investment we want to accept. Democrats argue that public spending constitutes an "investment" in the future of the nation (just look at the most recent budget recommendation put out by President Obama…the word "investment" alone appears just under 400 times!) and that spending on roads, bridges, infrastructure, energy, etc. are not wastes of money but rather are the way that we support ourselves and each other. Republicans, of course, disagree with this characterization and instead argue for a reduced role of the federal government so that citizens are free to invest their own hard-earned money as they choose to secure their own financial future. The government shouldn't dictate to people how their tax dollars should be used to pay for their own health care, retirement, or insurance against the potential for hardship. Individual citizens should make those decisions for themselves, the theory being that compelling citizens to take on more personal responsibility for these aspects of their lives imbues them with a sense of ownership and investment in their own lives and, by extension, the society at large. The first blueprint for this perspective was George W. Bush's "Ownership Society," but now I think it's pretty clear that the current blueprint is the Ryan budget (in all its forms and versions).

These are two radically different views of the relationship between government and the citizenry, but they both involve an invocation of . Both rely on the same concept to achieve their vision. With the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate, many political observers have commented that the election has now shifted from a referendum on President Obama to a choice election. The two sides have stark contrasts, and the voters will have a clear choice between them. I agree with this sentiment, but I'm less convinced of the specific question that decides the election. Some argue that this election now becomes a fight about the size of government, a fight that the two major parties have been having by proxy elsewhere but now moves front and center this fall. I actually feel (along with Jon Stewart, Dean Baker, and others) that the "size of government" debate is a red herring. There are places where Democrats want to restrain the size and scope of government, and there are places where Republicans are happy to use government control and largesse to impose their will on others. It's not about size, but rather where the pressure is applied. The point is, though, that this may be a way to think about the election--a debate over where government pressure should be applied--but I'm not convinced it's the best one. Paul Ryan has, himself, categorized the broader issues around the election as "individualism versus collectivism." To say the least, this reduction of the debate to -ism's is a stretch. No one's arguing for complete, leave-me-alone individualism, and no one's arguing for automaton-style socialist control. The advocacies are somewhere in the middle (notwithstanding Paul Ryan's extremely conservative record on the issues).

Instead, I want to suggest that a different question frames this election, one that grows out of my own research: what kinds of investments do we, as Americans, want to make? Do want to invest in the future privately, through our own personal avenues, with greater individual choice over our investments but greater risk? Or do we want to make societal investments to build a firm foundation for the next generation? In the 2012 election, those two have now become mutually exclusive. Paul Ryan's budget, which Mitt Romney praised (before backing away slowly from it once he chose Ryan) takes us down the road toward less state management of the concept of investment by cutting taxes and assuming that individuals will make the best investment decisions for themselves, which will, in turn, they argue, benefit the country as a whole. The competing vision that President Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and others have articulated suggests that, while entrepreneurs have a vital role to play in the economy, their role cannot be the sole focus of government policy to the detriment of everyone else's contributions to the health of the nation. Recognizing this broader view of the economy and country requires a more communal view of investment, one that suggests that paying higher taxes and prioritizing infrastructure, development, and innovation through government funding lay the groundwork for a future return on investment in the form of great roads, solid infrastructure, and technological advances that make the US competitive around the world.

Two very different visions for the country, but again, both ask us to utilize the concept of investment. The deciding factor may just come down to which side can articulate and defend their sense of investment better than the other.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Top 30 albums of 2010

Again, I'm not including a blurb about why I liked this album, like in years before. I just don't have time. Here, though are my 30 favorite albums of 2010.

30. The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang
29. The Weepies - Be My Thrill
28. Brian McBride - The Effective Disconnect
27. Four Tet - There Is Love In You
26. jj - jj no3
25. Yeasayer - ODD BLOOD
24. Ra Ra Riot - The Orchard
23. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
22. Jimmy Eat World - Invented
21. Local Natives - Gorilla Manor
20. School of Seven Bells - Disconnect From Desire
19. Jonsi - Go
18. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
17. The Radio Dept. - Clinging To A Scheme
16. Tokyo Police Club - Champ
15. Sambassadeur - European
14. Hot Chip - One Life Stand
13. The New Pornographers - Together
12. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
11. Beach House - Teen Dream
10. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
9. Holy Fuck - Latin
8. Girl Talk - All Day
7. Belle and Sebastian - Write About Love
6. Laura Veirs - July Flame
5. Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
4. Frightened Rabbit - The Winter of Mixed Drinks
3. The Tallest Man On Earth - The Wild Hunt/Sometimes the Blues Just a Passing Bird
2. The National - High Violet
1. Titus Andronicus - The Monitor

Top albums of 2010: Honorable Mention

I don't really have time to go into too much detail with why and how I chose favorites like in previous years. This year I'm just going to list records and leave it at that. I've been a little underwhelmed with music this year, even though there's been some really good stuff. Not as much has been all that classic, though. OK, here are some albums that I liked but didn't quite make it into the top of the year list.

Band of Horses - Infinite Arms
Balmorhea - Constellations
Azure Ray - Drawing Down the Moon
Delorean - Subiza
Maserati - Pyramid of the Sun
Midlake - The Courage of Others
Carissa’s Wierd - They'll Only Miss You When You Leave: Songs 1996-2003
The Morning Benders - Big Echo
She & Him - Volume Two
Allo Darlin’ - Allo Darlin’
Sufjan Stevens - All Delighted People EP
Stars - The Five Ghosts
The Books - The Way Out
CEO - white magic
Broken Bells - Broken Bells
Shout Out Louds - Work
Surfer Blood - Astro Coast
Vampire Weekend - Contra
Wild Nothing - Gemini

Top Songs of 2010

I know it's been a while since I last posted, but I honestly thought I'd be more active here. With the new job and the move, that's turned out not to be the case. Now that I've got some time in the holiday season, I'm able to post my annual top songs and albums posts. Here are some of my favorite songs of the year.

Titus Andronicus - A More Perfect Union
The National - Bloodbuzz Ohio
The Tallest Man On Earth - Burden of Tomorrow
The Tallest Man On Earth - Like the Wheel
Vampire Weekend - Giving Up the Gun
Stars - Wasted Daylight
Sufjan Stevens - Futile Devices
Local Natives - Who Knows Who Cares
Laura Veirs - I Can See Your Tracks
Kanye West - Runaway
Jonsi - Go do
Janelle Monae - Cold War
Hot Chip - I Feel Better
Frightened Rabbit - Swim Until You Can’t See Land
Broken Bells - The Ghost Inside
Belle and Sebastian - I Want the World To Stop
Belle and Sebastian - I Didn’t See It Coming
Beach House - Norway
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti - Round and Round
Arcade Fire - Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
Arcade Fire - Empty Room
The New Pornographers - Crash Years
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Say No to Love
The Radio Dept. - Heaven’s On Fire
Sambassadeur - Stranded
School of Seven Bells - Heart Is Strange
Shout OUt Louds - Fall Hard
Surfer Blood - Floating Vibes
Tokyo Police Club - Breakneck Speed
Yeasayer - Ambling Alp
Cee-Lo - Fuck You

Friday, April 02, 2010

My favorite album of the 2000s

I've been meaning to post my list of top albums of the 00s for a while now, but writing the dissertation got in the way. I'll just list my favorite album of the decade because for me it's a clear decision. Below that, it would take too much time and energy. Plus it's a bit late for that sort of thing right now anyways. So, here it absolute favorite album of the 2000s.

Arcade Fire - Funeral

I could write for a while on this album, but the simple fact of the matter is that this record, for me, is a total masterpiece. Every song, every note, everything works together so well. It's well written, well executed, and it always manages to conjure in me a wealth of emotions with every listen. The sheer depth of this record is unmatched by 99% of other albums that I have heard.

Also, I may have mentioned this before, but if Arcade Fire comes near your town, go see them. There is nothing like hearing their already impressive songs played live.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Top Albums of 2009

It's always fun around this time of year both to read other people's year end lists and to put my own together. I like the sense of people and groups sharing what music really worked for them, what really moved them enough to make them want to tell someone else about it. That said, not only am I listing my top 30 albums of the year, but I'd be happy to hear from you what were some of yours. Without further ado...

30. Cass McCombs – Catacombs
Great “guy + acoustic guitar” album. This record doesn’t always have the strongest singing, but the songwriting and the laid back performance give the sings a sense of sincerity that is quite endearing. Cass tells good stories, and you get the feeling that he’s genuinely trying his hand at honest expression through another’s eyes, which is never an easy feat. The result is quite lovely at times. A perfect example of this is “Harmonia,” which I forgot to include in my favorite songs list.

29. Memory Tapes – Seek Magic
I feel that I haven’t listened to this album enough to get a real sense of its full potential. I know that it’s a great listen, taking elements from disco, 80s pop, alternative, and dance. I can certainly tell that a lot goes into the crafting of the songs on the record. I’m still figuring out the moves and shifts on the album, but I know that it’s really good. The strongest song on the record for me is easily “Stop Talking.” It really shines with both the soft dance verses and the strong chorus. What I appreciate most is the diversity of sounds that go into the record. Album closer “Run Out” is also really pretty.

28. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
I am so torn about this album and band in general. I haven’t really gotten Grizzly Bear the way that many other people appear to. Yellow House just didn’t do much for me at all. I found it sleepy and difficult to engage. Veckatimest is a vast improvement for me, but it doesn’t do enough for me to fall in love with everything they do. The album has some real gems like “Two Weeks,” “While You Wait For the Others,” and “Ready, Able.” Some points in the record are good, and others fall squarely into the “I just don’t get it” category. Ed Droste has one of the nicer voices in indie music this year, though, I must say. You know that they put a lot of thought into the record. That doesn’t mean, though, that it all makes sense.

27. The Antlers – Hospice
This is the quintessential emotionally draining record. The Antlers debut with a concept album about an abusive relationship between a dying patient and caregiver. Yikes. And you really feel the anguish in the music too, all the way from the softest sung (practically whispered) verses to choruses that let out a yell. They really know how to play the highs and lows off of each other. This record is so thoughtfully constructed, but at the same time it’s such a tiring expression of despair. “Bear” and “Two” are probably my favorites on the record. Overall, it’s really good; just don’t expect this one to brighten your day.

26. Loney, Dear – Dear John
Emil Svanangen’s one-man show Loney, Dear is quite impressive. He makes high tension indie pop. There’s a softness that feels vulnerable. He clearly expresses feelings, and he adds in a lot of soft percussion for good measure. You get a good mixture of optimism and melancholy. “I Got Lost” injects a sense of melancholy realism before we get the sunny optimism of “Summers.” On this record, you get the constant struggle between both, lyrically and musically. Another great example of this is “Violent,” a song that simultaneously connotes tension and joy. That struggle, though, is where the beauty in the record shines.

25. Dodos – Time To Die
Dodos second album is a bit of a departure from their first. Visiter was aggressive and zany, especially for a guitarist and a drummer. At times the risk paid off, and other times, it was a turn-off. On Time To Die, the guys calm down and take a more measured approach to songwriting. The result is a really enjoyable album. This one is softer and a little more mature feeling. It doesn’t totally lose the edge of its predecessor, but some of the rough spaces have been smoothed out. I think that’s a positive development. Each of the songs has more space to grow and breathe some. Sometimes this really pays off, like “Fables” and “Troll Nacht.” Other times, you get songs that have great moments mixed in with disappointments. Examples: “This Is a Business,” and “Two Medicines.”

24. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
Honestly, I’ve gone back and forth on this album throughout the year. At times I think it’s a well crafted concept album, and other times I think it’s overwrought and pretentious. While I doubt that struggle will be settled once and for all, seeing the band perform the entire album in concert (from front to back) gave me a sense of appreciation for what they were doing. There are some really strong moments on this album (“The Hazard of Love 1” and “The Hazard of Love 4”), and then there are some serious WTF moments. They throw in a jarring switch from a light melody to this hard, proggy, slow riff that completely throws off the rhythm of the music. And they do this exact move (same chords and all), like, 3 times on the album. Some of it’s just off, but the stuff that’s on is really nice and fits well with the rest of their body of work. For that reason, I have it here.

23. Viva Voce – Rose City
I have been a fan of Viva Voce for years. Husband and wife team of Anita and Kevin Robinson have really been enjoyable, even when they’ve gone into more experimental territory. With Rose City, however, they’ve added a couple members and gone back to more traditional melodies while still keeping some of the edge that they’ve sharpened on previous albums. The result is a collection of songs that really shine and stay in your head. “Devotion” totally feels like a movie soundtrack song. “Midnight Sun” is a slow jam with a nice calming effect coming from the piano. The instruments have a great sound, and everything comes together well.

22. Kings of Convenience – Declaration of Dependence
The long awaited new album from this Norwegian acoustic guitar duo may not be as strong as the absolutely lovely Riot On An Empty Street, but it is a great album in its own right. They approach a broad range of topics from the death penalty to the trouble people often have reading each other’s signals. For two guys singing with guitars, these fellows are great at providing a full sound with little more than their instruments and their voices. Some of my favorites on the record are “Mrs. Cold,” “Boat Behind,” and “Peacetime Resistance,” but the entire album is a nice record that doesn’t impose upon you.

21. Ingrid Michaelson – Everybody
Ingrid has probably the strongest female singer-songwriter music out there right now for me. Her songs are generally optimistic, supportive, and heartfelt at the same time. Sure, they’re mostly about relationships, and they don’t really tread new ground lyrically. But the faith in the strength of companionship coupled with the solid musicianship make this a great listen. The songs don’t ask too much of you, and they don’t make you work hard. Sometimes, that can be the recipe for a nice album. That and it’s a good record to sing along to. Favorites of mine are “Soldier,” “Maybe,” “The Chain,” and “Mountain and the Sea.”

20. ZAZA – Cameo
This band shows some promise. Their 6-song EP mixes Radiohead-esque indie alternative (“Sooner or Later”) with some aspects of 90s style trip-hop (“Faith in the Faithless”). The music has an aura about it that makes it feel larger than the sum of the individual sounds that go into it. It’s a strong showing for ZAZA’s debut recording.

19. The Appleseed Cast – Sagarmatha
The Appleseed Cast is another one of those bands I’ve really liked for a while now. This album finds them relying more on their instrumentation than on lyrics, and the result is both a little challenging and really rewarding. The album opener, “As the Little Things Go,” clocks in at over 8 minutes, and the singing doesn’t begin until about 6:20. Oddly enough, I don’t miss the singing. I think that the instrumental moments are as expressive as the singing ones. It’s like the singing voice is just another instrument, not different stylistically from the other components of the music. The Appleseed Cast has really honed their sound, and I really enjoy the effort.

18. Burning Hearts – Aboa Sleeping
In an earlier post previewing albums I liked at the halfway point in the year, I mentioned this album sounding like a more organic version of Stereolab. I stand by that characterization, and more listens haven’t diminished my level of enjoyment with this record. Songs like “I Lost My Colour Vision” are just so peppy and engaging that you can’t help but be curious how the rest of the album is gonna turn out. Thankfully the duo doesn’t disappoint. I mean, there’s even a song that includes an old recording of irregular heartbeats. Through high and low points, the songs keep pushing along and inviting you along for the ride, but they don’t impose. Instead, they just pique your curiosity and make it worth your while to keep listening.

17. We Were Promised Jetpacks – These Four Walls
Here comes another Scottish band whose lead singer keeps his accent. I really enjoy these bands, and I had a couple of them on my list last year (including top album). This year has one on the honorable mention list (The Twilight Sad) and this one on the proper list. We Were Promised Jetpacks are kind of like a cross between Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad, if that’s even possible. They’re a bit on the emo side, but that’s ok with me because they resemble the kind of emo music I enjoyed a few years ago before it became popular and began sucking. WWPJ have a nice array of songs that really pack an emotional punch whether the lead singer is softly groaning or full-out screaming.

16. Balmorhea – All Is Wild, All Is Silent
Balmorhea is a great group of solid musicians that play instrumental arrangements that include piano, guitar, banjo, strings, and solid drumming. This album features not only some gorgeous melodies but complex movements that provide wonderful inspiration whether you’re paying close attention to every note and beat or just casually playing the music while working or talking with friends. It’s really emotionally evocative music, and while I don’t think this album is right for every occasion, it’s a really wonderful record for a lot of them. This record is a testament to the power of music to move you without the need for words.

15. JJ - JJ N° 2/JJ N° 1
Swedish group JJ have put together a collection of really solid indie pop. They put out two offerings: N° 1 (a brief release featuring two songs: “My Life, My Swag” and “My Swag, My Life”) and N° 2, the band’s proper album. The most interesting offering on the album is “Ecstasy,” a song about the rave drug backed by the four-note riff that is the backbone for Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop.” The rest of the album features guitar and sweet vocals in songs about love and life that don’t feel hokey or overdone one bit. Pop music this well crafted doesn’t come along very often.

14. Various Artists – Dark Was The Night
This compilation of who’s who in the indie music world might run the risk of self-importance, but this record is really quite a solid collection. It includes not only the biggest names by themselves but also collaborations between big names. That gives the album a great deal of diversity, and oddly enough, the songs by (what I would consider) the biggest names aren’t even the strongest ones on the album. Dirty Projectors’ collaboration with David Byrne “Knotty Pine” is a really solid album opener, and Yeasayer’s “Tightrope” is one of my favorites on the record. The Decemberists’ “Sleepless” is, for my money better than anything on The Hazards of Love. This is one of the best various artist compilations I’ve heard in a long while.

13. God Help the Girl – God Help the Girl/Stills EP
God Help the Girl is a side project of Belle and Sebastian lead singer Stuart Murdoch. He put in ads for singers and auditioned a few, settling on about three female leads who trade off throughout the album. The record is apparently part of the story that is set to become a film in the next year or so. The music has obvious B&S undertones (in fact, 2 of the songs on the record are renditions of songs from the last B&S album), but there are key departures that give this group an identity of its own, more prominent and consistent being the most obvious. The Stills EP came later with some extra tracks that didn’t make it onto the album proper. It’s pretty good, but the best stuff is on the album. Faves include “Musician, Please Take Heed,” “Come Monday Night,” and “God Help the Girl.”

12. Delorean – Ayrton Senna EP
This little EP came out of nowhere and completely surprised me. It’s just 4 tracks (5 if you get it through eMusic) of solid indie dance pop (and 2 of them are the same song…one’s a remix of the other), but it’s so refreshing and catchy that I find myself returning to it again and again. The mixture of synth, guitar, and disco-type beats really make this thing shine. The lyrics are uplifting, and every note is so bright that this has become my go to good mood record this year. If you want a sense of what this record is like, then hear “Seasun” (the original version, even though the remix is pretty good too). On an EP of great songs, this is the clear standout for me. The melodies are just so fresh and well executed that my only fault is that it’s so short. I would love 4 or 5 more songs of this caliber to make a full album.

11. The Mountain Goats – The Life Of The World To Come
John Darnielle has made some solid music dating all the way back to his days of playing and singing songs like “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton” into a home tape recorder (btw, you have to hear this song if you haven’t). This new album is a twist from previous records: the theme to this album is the Bible and its application to modern life in ways one might not expect. Darnielle names each song after a bible verse, and as usual, you can hear the emotional struggles that go into each verse, chord, and track. On the whole, the record is more subdued than some of his previous work, but that doesn’t mean that this record is safe or missing anything important. Rather, Darnielle has a knack for adjusting his songwriting for each set of ideas he wants to express. With songs about crises of faith, the importance of home, and even agonizing death from cancer, this record really brings a human dimension to the Bible in ways that I hadn’t considered before.

10. The xx – xx
Another surprisingly impressive record that came out of nowhere this year comes from the xx. This record exemplifies the notion of doing more with less. Some other albums on this list have taken a somewhat minimalist approach to their songs, but this one finds ways for just a few simple notes to fill tons of space. I don’t know how they do it. Couple that with the guy/girl back and forth singing through pretty much the whole album, and you get a very unique approach to indie pop. It’s like the two are singing private and intimate (emotionally as well as physically) conversations to each other. There’s such a sense of honest expression of affection and companionship to the record that it piques my curiosity to hear it again and listen more closely each time. It’s good to see this group getting some recognition for this album. (The xx will be touring with JJ next year… should be a good show)

9. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
I’d heard of Fuck Buttons before, and I was a little turned off by their previous album. It was good techno, but I thought they were a bit too noisy and experimental for my enjoyment. This record took a couple listens, but it didn’t take long at all for me to become enamored. They keep some of the odd sounds here, but those are mitigated by moments of pure beauty. There’s an undertone to the music on this album that employs soothing and refreshing sounds and builds on that. The song structure is both complex and reminiscent of post-rock. Even in the moments where they start to make odd noises that begin to feel uncomfortable, they quickly pull back into melodic arrangements that showcase a complexity. The length of the songs gives the movements time to build and fully reveal themselves, and that’s just really nice. They make techno that pushes the envelope, but the attention to melody and detail is so stunning that the risks totally pay off.

8. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – The Pains of Being Pure At Heart/Higher Than the Stars EP
2009 was such a good year for indie pop. Case in point: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Their fuzzy, poppy music jumped onto the scene around March, and they wouldn’t leave for the rest of the year. The songs are so catchy and retro-esque (combining some 80s new wave with 90s alternative and twee pop) that you can’t help but love them. Even if you feel that the songs are a little too retro-pop, you can’t fault them for it because they get the mix right so much that it’s so difficult to complain about their music. “Young Adult Friction” is a solid example of this phenomenon. It’s a love song set in a library, which of course adds hipster/nerd cred. The Higher Than the Stars EP even adds some more to the collection with a mix of clean and fuzzy guitars to stretch out their sound a little bit. This group has managed to create 2009 music that would fit well anywhere along the last 25 years.

7. Passion Pit – Manners
Speaking of surprisingly good indie pop, I was all set to dislike and dismiss Passion Pit when I heard about their album. They’d put out an EP that contained “Sleepyhead,” a wonderful song that got a little too much attention. Plus, they were part of the new craze that I was starting to hate (but eventually learned to accept and even enjoy) of indie dance music. Then I heard the full length effort, Manners. I was completely blown away with the first listen. The music is just so damn fun. This group pulls off a record of songs that relentlessly and unapologetically push through with shiny happiness, and they make it sound effortless in the process. The record includes “Sleepyhead,” which is a major plus, but the rest of the album stands up on its own as well. Michael Angelakos’ perpetual falsetto and the strong combination of guitar and keyboard create an effort that really gives you a lot to sing along to. There aren’t a lot of tricks or clever turns of phrase, just well executed danceable pop songs.

6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
What a great year for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They returned with an album that easily violates and exceeds expectations at the same time. If you’re familiar with Fever To Tell, you’re probably expecting them to craft another abrasive record that demands you to push through and recognize its strength, but no. This record finds YYYs smoothing out some of their rough edges and exchanging that raw nerve aggression for a more mature, synth-pop approach. The record that comes out is really quite stunning. Karen O hasn’t sounded better, and the synthesizers added to a cleaner guitar give you solid melody from start to finish. The album opener “Zero” is a head turner, but then it transitions into the best song on the album “Heads Will Roll.” After that, though, the album doesn’t end up sinking into mediocrity at all. The band tries out some slower material that harkens back to “Maps,” and what they come up with can give that ballad a run for its money. Don’t think that they’ve completely abandoned the harder edge, though. The middle of the album has shades of earlier rawness with “Dull Life” and “Shame and Fortune.” PS…this album is tied with another record for best album cover of the year. Guess which one.

5. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion/Fall Be Kind EP
It took this album for me to become a convert to the much loved Animal Collective. I gave the album a shot because of the hype, and I was really impressed at how accessible it was. Previous albums from this group have been hard for me to swallow whole because I felt like they were experimenting for the sake of experimenting. This record proved me wrong. They are able to emphasize pop crafting and melody here without losing the edge that earned them critical acclaim all these years. “My Girls” is probably the song of the year, but other songs like “Brother Sport” and “Summertime Clothes” are so catchy that they’ll stay in your head for days. Plus, the lyrics are surprisingly simple and sincere. They don’t go for grandiosity, just genuine expression. The LP came out in January, and the EP came out in December, creating good bookends on the year. Both are really worth your time.

4. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
It’s no secret that I thoroughly enjoy Neko Case’s singing. So it’s also no surprise that I’m inclined to like her album when it comes out. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m wrong about this album being completely great. She has one of the most unusual and beautiful love songs of the year with album opener “This Tornado Loves You,” and the entire album has such personality that it’s thoroughly lovely. This album also has the distinction of being co-winner of album cover of the year for me. By now you’ve seen it, right? Neko on the hood of a car wielding a sword. The cover both inspires confidence and sums up the spirit of the album. There’s a sense of love coupled with a fearless fighting spirit for that which is loved. Other strong points on the album include “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” “Middle Cyclone,” and her cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” played with a dozen or so pianos that she got for free from the internet. How can you dislike an album that has that kind of story?

3. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
I don’t remember how, but I came across Phoenix’s previous album,
It’s Never Been Like That a few years ago, and I was surprised that they weren’t bigger than they were. They had solid pop sensibilities, great melody, and catchy beats. Well, now they’ve finally hit the big time with this effort, and I say it’s well deserved. From the opening duo of “Lisztomania” and the ubiquitous “1901” (if you’ve seen a Cadillac commercial this year, you’ve heard it) to the closer “Armistice,” you get even more refined and cleverly textured pop music that is unafraid to be exactly what it is. Even the 2-part “Love Like a Sunset” provides a nice transition from the first half of the album into the second half. This is another group that I’m very happy to see get some recognition for a well crafted album.

2. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
I’ve really enjoyed Camera Obscura’s music, even dating back to when they basically sounded like Belle and Sebastian. Let’s Get Out Of This Country is a strong candidate for my favorites of the decade list. This album picks up where the previous one left off, and while it may not reach all the highs that one did, it’s got some of the most memorable moments for me this year. “French Navy” starts off the album innocently explaining the freshness of a new love, and then it transitions into “The Sweetest Thing,” which contains hands-down my favorite line of the year: “when you’re lucid, you’re the sweetest thing.” “Swans” is a peppy little number sure to get toes tapping. “James” is a sad breakup song that connotes the frailty of love. The title track is another solid song that has a nice disconnect between the somber lyrics and the upbeat music. Final track “Honey In the Sun” would be the best way for Camera Obscura to close an album if they hadn’t already done “Razzle Dazzle Rose” on the previous album. Each has a different tack: “Razzle” is kind of a dissolve ending that just melts away; “Honey” packs one final punch and sticks in your head all day. Great album. It makes me curious to see where they’re gonna go next.

1. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Dirty Projectors are another one of those bands who weren’t really on my radar much until this album. Like my previous two albums of the year, this one’s a grower. Bitte Orca might be more of a grower than earlier albums, but the payoff is as great if not more so. Each time I listen to this album, I find more and more that was packed into the songs, from additional instrumentation to the quirky but stunning vocal arrangements that frequently pop up out of nowhere just to give the song extra punch. Opening track “Cannibal Resource” is one of those songs that feels a little off the first couple listens, and then one time it just clicks! The opening guitar riff, the seemingly random falsetto notes from lead singer Dave Longstreth, and the backup vocal gymnastics from Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian all come together in such a mesmerizing way that it’s difficult not to appreciate the intricate thought that went into writing and arranging this song. And that’s just the first track! Each track has something like that. Some combination of instrumentation, singing, and songwriting just works both within the song and in the album as a whole entity. The beauty of the whole project for me is that I wasn’t really expecting many (if any) of the twists and turns that the album provides, from non-traditional time signatures to chord arrangements to uncommon harmonies. But it all works so well that I have to give the band credit. One wouldn’t think that a collection of nine songs could be as ambitious as these are, but the ambition is both palpable and rewarding. Other strengths (even though there certainly aren’t weak moments) include “Stillness Is The Move,” “Two Doves,” and “No Intention.” I went back and forth on whether I thought this was the best album of the year, and ultimately, I decided that the sheer ambition of this record combined with the talent required to put it together pushed it in their direction. Amazing record, and shame on you if you don’t have it.

There you go! Thanks for reading this far. Have a great holiday season and happy new year!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Top Albums of 2009: Honorable Mention Edition

As I said before, it's been a great year in music. This has led not only to a large number of albums on my favorites list but also complicates organizing the list. That said, I think I have settled on my top 30. The albums below are just under that cut. They aren't in a particular order necessarily, and they didn't make the cut for different reasons. Some were nice but didn't wow me as much as the top 30. Some I just recently acquired, so I haven't had enough time to listen to them enough to really get them. So, here they are.

The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
Venice is Sinking - AZAR
The Crayon Fields – All the Pleasures of the World
Regina Spektor – Far
Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
Maria Taylor – Ladyluck
Dinosaur Jr. – Farm
The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath
Brendan Benson – My Old, Familiar Friend
Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
Au Revoir Simone – Still Night, Still Light
The Bird and The Bee – Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future
fun. – Aim and Ignite
Headlights – Wildlife
Jonsi & Alex – Riceboy Sleeps
Mono – Hymn to the Immortal World
Metric – Fantasies
The Raveonettes – In And Out Of Control
The Twilight Sad – Forget the Night Ahead
A.C. Newman – Get Guilty

Later this week (hopefully), the proper list.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Top Songs of 2009

It's been forever since I've posted something. It might have to do with the project that was the subject of the last post. Well, I have finished my 2nd of 3 case study chapters, and to reward myself, I'm going to go through my annual favorite songs and albums of the year lists. This year, I will add a faves of the aughts list since that's so fashionable right now. I'm working on the albums lists, but for now I shall list favorite songs of the year.

Let me start off by saying that this has been an incredible year in music. I've been pleasantly surprised at both the number of albums released by bands I like a lot and albums by new or heretofore undiscovered groups that have caught my attention. There have also been really solid albums by bands whose previous work I liked well enough but wasn't too crazy about. Overall, I've just really enjoyed the quality and diversity of music that's come across my radar screen this year. So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite songs of the year, in no particular order.

Animal Collective – “My Girls”
Camera Obscura – “Honey In the Sun”
Camera Obscura – “French Navy”
Neko Case – “This Tornado Loves You”
Neko Case – “People Got a Lotta Nerve”
Phoenix – “1901”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Heads Will Roll”
Passion Pit – “Sleepyhead” (this one might be cheating since it came out in ’08)
Dirty Projectors – “No Intention”
Delorean – “Seasun”
Grizzly Bear – “Two Weeks”
The xx – “Crystallized”
JJ – “Ecstasy”
Viva Voce – “Devotion”
Maria Taylor – “Cartoons and Forever Plans”
Regina Spektor – “Eet”
Metric – “Gimme Sympathy”
The Twilight Sad – “Reflection of the Television”
The Bird and the Bee – “Fanfare”
The Appleseed Cast – “As the Little Things Go”
The Antlers – “Two”
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – “Young Adult Friction”
The Raveonettes – “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)”
A.C. Newman – “The Heartbreak Rides”
Burning Hearts – “I Lost My Colour Vision”
We Were Promised Jetpacks – “This Is My House, This Is My Home”
Andrew Bird – “Anonaminal”
Yeasayer – “Tightrope”
The Decemberists – “Sleepless”
Feist and Ben Gibbard – “Train Song”
The Mountain Goats – “Genesis 3:23”
Ingrid Michaelson – “Soldier”
Dodos – “Fables”

I didn't want to have too many repeat artists. Needless to say if you see the same artist on favorite song and album lists, I like other stuff on the album as well. Coming soon: favorite albums of '09: honorable mention edition.

Friday, August 07, 2009

My life for the next year

I have finally finished my dissertation prospectus, and I'm going to try a little experiment: posting some of it here. I've mentioned my project in at least one other post, so I thought that it might make sense to put some of it here. Ultimately, though, I'm doing this for a couple reasons. First, it feels like a monumental achievement (even though I know that the hard work is really ahead of me now), and I want to show it off. Second, I'm happy to hear comments, suggestions, etc. that might help make it better. In the interest of not overwhelming anyone, I'm going to leave out my literature review and just put in the stuff that outlines what my project will be. Enjoy!


A Brave New Economy: Rhetoric, Identity, Privilege, and Economic Citizenship in the 21st Century

On September 14, 2008, Lehman Brothers, one of the largest investment banks in the United States closed its doors and filed the largest bankruptcy in the country’s history ($613 billion in debt at the time of the filing). The same day Merrill Lynch, another large investment, bank, announced that it was being purchased by Bank of America. While the economy had been slowing down for all of 2008 prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, this unfortunate event became the most visible touchstone for a sharp, sudden downturn in the American economy, which in turn resonated through other economies around the world. This downturn has been referred to as the biggest since the Great Depression. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that “Over the past 12 months, the number of unemployed persons has grown by about 5.3 million, and the unemployment rate has risen by 3.4 percentage points. Half of the increase in both the number of unemployed and the unemployment rate occurred in the last 4 months.”[i]
Since then, the Federal Government has stepped in with a few substantial programs to address the financial crisis that has erupted since September 2008. On October 3, 2008, George W. Bush signed into law the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which established the Troubled Assets Relief Program, among other things. This program enabled the Secretary of the Treasury to use $700 billion to purchase or insure troubled assets owned by financial institutions that they could not get rid of or sell on their own because they would result in a huge loss for the companies and worsen the economic crisis. Measures authorized by this program included bailout money to some of the country’s largest investment banks, major American auto manufacturing companies, insurance companies, and mortgage brokers. On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which instituted a number of measures designed to stem the tide of economic decline. Among the measures included were tax cuts, expansion of unemployment benefits and other social welfare provisions, as well as domestic spending in education, health care, infrastructure, and energy. On June 1, 2009, President Barack Obama announced the bankruptcy and structured reorganization of General Motors, the nation’s largest auto manufacturer. The agreement resulted in the federal government taking a 60% ownership stake in General Motors. These events have shaken Americans’ perception of its economy to its core. As a result, the sudden and strong economic recession combined with numerous rounds of bailouts instigated a moment of reflection among individuals and groups throughout the country. Specifically, this cultural moment has opened a space to examine the way that identities are constantly made and remade. The identity of the CEO, the hourly worker, the union member, the consumer, the producer, and even the citizen are in question after the destabilization of the American economy in 2008. These identities are not just a matter of introspection but are always manifested in relationships that involve questions of power, status, and privilege.[ii] These questions of identity are both affected by and affect “the articulation of identities, ideologies, consciousness, communities, publics, and cultures.”[iii] The relationship between identity negotiation and questions of privilege and power are, therefore, necessarily rhetorical, since they involve “the mobilization of signs” for that very purpose.[iv]
In my dissertation, I would like to examine the relationship between privilege and identity that have contributed to the (re)definition of economic citizenship in the economic crisis and bailouts. I am interested in understanding how privilege and identity have come to be understood and have affected the way that American people have situated themselves both individually and communally, particularly with relation to the American economic apparatus. This project seeks to engage the following questions thoroughly: how have Americans come to understand themselves in light of the worst American recession since the Great Depression? What kind of economic citizen have discourses regarding both the economic crisis and the Federal Government’s response to it produced? How has this production happened? What are the conditions of possibility for this rhetorical reorientation of social relations in relation to the economic bailouts of late 2008 and 2009? How has our understanding of privilege shifted in light of these new circumstances, and how has this shift affected identity formation and negotiation on both individual and communal levels?
I argue that the rhetorical articulation of the bailouts in the United States at this time produces an economic citizen with an enhanced sense of personal responsibility to engage the economy in new ways. Overall, though, these discourses become configurations of a larger populist narrative that emerges around this time that has two prominent strains: one pits “the people” against Wall Street investors and CEOs who, from this perspective are primarily to blame for causing the crisis; the other sets “the people” in opposition to the Federal Government and finds fault with its response to the economic crisis. These two strands of populism presume a negative sense of privilege in its characterization of “elites,” a more positive sense of privilege in its positive view of “the people” in the United States, and various points along this continuum. “The people” presume the right to speak out against the injustices they see. They also demand accountability from the ones they hold responsible for the economic crisis, and they seek new ways of engaging with the broader economic landscape throughout the United States. This engagement takes numerous forms, and some of those forms will be examined as case studies in the chapters of this dissertation.

Case Studies
This project’s first two case studies will examine public rhetoric surrounding the to major types of bailouts effected in late 2008 and 2009: bank and auto bailouts (messages of economic bailouts that were widely public, not technical or esoteric discourses involving economic theory). These two case studies should exist in a dialogue with each other to outline similarities and discontinuities between bailouts of banks and automotive industries. The first case study will examine the rhetoric related to the bailouts of the banking industry in late 2008. I will investigate the way that these bailouts were discussed in popular discourses, focusing on issues related to the bailout including questions of fairness and responsibility in company and CEO practices. Specifically, this case study will examine speeches by members of Congress and President Bush around the time of the passage of the bank bailout bill, the public scrutiny surrounding exorbitant practices of companies that received bailout money, the “too big to fail” label given to banks to justify the government bailout of banks, and the testimony that bank CEOs gave to Congressional committees about the use of bailout money. This chapter will also investigate the practice of publicly calling the Chief Executive Officers of the companies involved in the bailouts to testify publicly before Congress. Such testimony concerned questions of both the extent of the companies’ need for federal assistance as well as the individual consumptive habits of the companies’ highest ranking employees (large bonuses, expensive accommodations, etc.). The rhetoric in these various discussions centers on questions of individual responsibility for the poor performance of the companies as well as their role in addressing the issues. This chapter will examine the relationship between the testimony and the practices to determine the extent to which the blame for the economic crisis is placed on the CEOs and what that sense of blame produces both in terms of public discourse and in terms of understood standards of practice for individuals and corporations. The discourse that singles out selfish CEOs who indulge themselves with lavish homes, offices, and modes of transportation can shed light on current modes of populism that have arisen in reaction to the recent economic downturn.
The second case study will focus on the rhetoric surrounding the bailouts of the automotive industry. It will specifically examine the institutional and bureaucratic differences between the auto and bank bailouts, the testimony auto company CEOs had to give in from of Congressional committees regarding their personal actions, the additional issues that presented themselves when discussing auto bailouts (unions, plan for restructuring, necessary sacrifices), and the theoretical distinctions between bank and auto bailouts (e.g. the rhetorical implications of “wall street” vs. “main street”). Auto bailout rhetoric presents another perspective from which to examine the new sense in which economic citizenship is undergoing a transition in the current economic moment. Questions of identity as in economic class (both in terms of income and in terms of type of profession, such as white collar vs. blue collar employment), location (in terms of both geographic location of the country and rural vs. urban locations), and education present themselves in relation to privilege. Populism takes on additional components as we look at the rhetorical effect of automotive bailouts.
Third, this project will continue investigate the populist resurgence by examining The Daily Show’s critique of CNBC’s reporting on the economy from March 4 to March 12, 2009, which culminated in an extended interview between host Jon Stewart and CNBC personality Jim Cramer. This chapter will also look at popular news media discussions of the exchanges, including segments where Jim Cramer appeared on other programs to discuss Stewart’s critique and commentary on the controversy by other news media shows. The episodes, especially the interview with Jim Cramer, garnered some of the highest ratings for the Daily Show so far in 2009.[v] In the exchange, Stewart takes a quasi-Marxist position, blaming both the CEOs for manipulating the stock markets to the detriment of the general public and CNBC not only for allowing it to happen when they had an opportunity to raise critical questions but also for cheering the CEOs and the financial system that created a situation where the general public suffered from said manipulation. Not only does Stewart point out an abuse of privilege in its most negative sense by the CEOs of the offending companies, he chastises CNBC for abusing their privilege (in the form of access to high ranking officials of these companies) to remain complicit (willingly or unwillingly) in the defrauding of the American economy. The exchanges between The Daily Show and CNBC concern both the role that the dissemination of information plays in the free market and the relationship between flows of signification (as information) and flows of capital. The critique becomes a call for a more engaged media, but there is little beyond that. In this sense of populism, a role for news media institutions becomes clear, and the relationship between a vibrant media and an engaged populace is evident. The only responsibility that Stewart speaks to, however, is that of the media to become something akin to political parrhesiastes (truth-tellers) that Foucault discusses in Fearless Speech.[vi] Stewart’s criticism leaves us with a crucial question, though: what are the conditions of possibility of engaging that truth in a productive manner in the current economic climate? What role can a properly informed citizenry play going forward in such a drastic economic recovery?
Finally, this project will interrogate another form of populism that I outline above by examining the conservative organization of tea parties around the country. These are populist protests that echo the famous Boston Tea Party that took place on December 16, 1773 to protest the American colonies’ status of being taxed without being represented in the British Parliament. The tea parties function in this current climate as a protest against efforts by President Obama and the Congress (controlled by the Democratic Party) to use governmental means (taxpayer money) to address the economic crisis. These protests have been promoted on right wing websites and on Fox News, and many of them have been planned for April 15, 2009, the day by which all Americans that earn an income must submit file their income taxes. This form of populism presumes that while the government has the privilege of controlling the taxpayers’ money, the people have the privilege of their voices to influence the government’s policies in a more libertarian (or fiscally conservative) direction.

This project’s methodological approach is, to an extent, implicit in the literature review. Overall, both the method and the approach of this project will focus on the construction of the subject, specifically the economic citizen subject as it relates to the economic crash and subsequent bailouts. The economic discourses that will receive significant attention articulate the citizen’s role in political life: ways that citizenship is understood and practiced, narratives that proscribe new limits and conditions for economic citizenship in the 21st century, and potential implications for citizenship’s construction and negotiation in the new economic landscape. It is under the broader theme of the new economic citizen that concepts like populism, rhetoric, identity, and privilege will operate within this project. These ideas inform the practice of economic citizenship and vice versa. Given the complex and multi-faceted nature of the issues in this project, I believe that a poststructuralist theoretical lens would be most advantageous. Specifically, I believe that Michel Foucault’s discussions of power, discourse, and truth-telling would be extremely useful in interrogating populism.[vii] His work from The Archaeology of Knowledge on discursive formations, statements (enonces), and discourse might be useful for examining the case study involving the tea parties across the United States. The parties involve not only numerous different (and occasionally inconsistent) factions but also paradigms that can both overlap and diverge from one another. The contingent collection of these diverse elements of American politics in the tea parties includes libertarianism, religious fundamentalism, and xenophobia. Foucault’s work will be particularly instructive in figuring out the function of these protests at this particular moment.
Given that Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have explicitly written about populism in the context of radical democracy, their discussions of articulation, antagonism, and hegemony will be helpful in discussing the final two case studies in particular, but they might also inform the first two to a lesser extent.[viii] Populism runs through each of this project’s case studies, and the approach of Laclau and Mouffe’s discussions of populism, radical democracy, and articulation provide a useful way of examining the diverse voices and statements that can be found in each case study. In the bailout chapters, for example, the collection of diverse perspectives from governmental, business, and individual voices articulate democracy, economic citizenship, and populism.
Gilles Deleuze’s numerous concepts provide some analytical tools that might push the project in new and exciting directions that may be difficult to see even at this point. His theories and those of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have influenced Ron Greene’s work on “communicative labor” and “money/speech” that will be especially useful in discussing case studies involving the act of bringing CEOs to Congress to testify for their actions in light of the substantial financial assistance they have received from the Federal Government. The implications of CEO testimony and the Daily Show interview with Jim Cramer reach both linguistic and non-linguistic levels. Similarly, the rhetorical strength of the tea parties can be found in both the signs and slogans that are present at these parties and in the relative size of different parties, the structural organization of parties themselves, and the relationship between the locality of the gatherings and the national scope of their news coverage (particularly by Fox News). Overall, the case studies themselves are highly complex, and traditional rhetorical approaches alone will not provide the robust theoretical tools necessary to examine them thoroughly. Poststructural approaches offer the richness that will allow for a thorough interrogation of the various ways that economic citizenship and populism have provided a new way of understanding the relationship between privilege and identity.

[i] U.S. Department of Labor, “Employment Situation Summary: March 2009,” United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 3, 2009,
[ii] Broadly speaking, I see privilege occurring when a person or group is able to enjoy a benefit or avoid a hardship that another cannot.
[iii] Kevin DeLuca, “Articulation Theory: A Discursive Grounding for Rhetorical Practice,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 32, no. 4 (October 1999): 346.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Daniel Frankel, “Cramer boosts 'Daily Show' ratings,” Variety, March 13, 2009,
[vi] Foucault, Fearless Speech.
[vii] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972); Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction; Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2001) See also Barbara Biesecker, “Michel Foucault and the Question of Rhetoric,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 25, no. 4 (Fall 1992): 351-364; Mark Cousins and Athar Hussain, Michel Foucault (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984); Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (University of Minnesota Press, 1988)
[viii] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2001); Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory; Laclau, On Populist Reason; Laclau, “Populism: What's in a Name?”; Mouffe, “The 'End of Politics' and the Challenge of Right-Wing Populism”; Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (New York: Verso, 2000); Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London: Verso, 1993).