Saturday, April 4, 2009

Inky and the Brain

A few years ago, I came up with The Ultimate Tattoo design (a skull, with a snake [barfing a rose] coming out of its eye socket, on fire, with a knife through it) but decided it might be construed as "aggressive" in today's economy. Various other designs have been considered, but what I really want is, like, a fucking gigantic tattoo. The walls of Jericho down my arm, or a pirate fight scene across my shoulders, or a a diagram of a cell. I'm not super interested in pretty, "girl" tattoos. I don't want a line of stars, or a line drawing of some lithe girl. Tattoos are mutilations; I want one that reflects that.

It's weird to think about tats as scarifications; it's like being freaked out by earrings. But it's true. And some ink is ugly. Ironic or joke tattoos are for assholes - you're going to have that jack-off ink until you die, bonehead. Ink that wasn't thought out makes people wonder if you're a moron (you picked that salamander out the book? How original). You shouldn't have to tell some epic saga when someone asks why you got one, but you should have a story, or a reason, or a clue.

The old-school really appeals to me: the stars on the elbows, for example. Classic! Anchors, pin-up girls, Death Before Dishonor, etc.: all good choices. Words also work. I'm a reader and a writer, and quotes (never names!) make sense. I love the colour and the aesthetic of a really beautiful piece of work, one with an old-timey feel to it. Tattoos should feel like maybe you acquired it during your stint in the merchant marines, not as the culmination of some drunken weekend with your sorority sisters. Oh, and they should be big: goofy little Kanji characters on the inside of your wrist isn't going to cut it, sister.

On the other hand, I feel like there's a lifestyle associated with the kind of tattoos I want. It's a punk-rock thing. I'm not a punk. I already wear a lot of black and have gauged ears. People already think I'm hard. (These people have never spoken to me; in reality, I'm goofy and kind of nervous.) I don't want to misrepresent myself, or seem like I'm part of culture that I'm not. It wouldn't be posing, because I genuinely like the look, but it could be construed that way.

But you know what? I don't really care. I'm not curing cancer, or defining myself by the way I change my look. It's not about that. I want an investment in something beautiful and tough.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Celine Dion Is Punk Rock

Yeah, you read that right. Celine Dion. Her heart's going on. She drove all night. Because you loved her. And, of course, it's all coming back to She is unstoppable, and awesome, and yet, when I whip her out as my unironic choice for "Artist You Would Rather Die Than Admit To Liking," I get groans and raised eyebrows.

I don't care. Celine is crazy. She is talented. Her music videos are always homages to windswept Bronte heroines. Her wedding made Luke and Laura's nuptials look understated (hint: they weren't): there were elephants and gold dresses. How can you not love that? She is unabashedly over the top. Somehow, when this characteristic surfaces in punk rock or the opera, everything's copacetic. But put in on Adult Contemporary and it's somehow the last word in trash? Give me a break.

Look, I know Dion is a nut. That's cool. Her songs are fun to sing along with. People need to quit defining themselves solely by their interests (see: Klosterman, Chuck) and get down with a little sing-along radio fun. Yeah, there was a tough moment there in '98 when you couldn't get away from that effing song. But mostly she's been big, silly, fun. She's country music without the hair; she's punk rock without the griminess. She is authentically goofy, and aware of her goofiness (no one rides an elephant to a wedding without knowing the answer to the question, "Will this make me look strange?" is an unequivocal "Yes, it will"), and celebrates it. Yeah, she loves a sequined outfit. So what? That's entertainment.

And good goddamn, it IS entertaining! Now excuse me. I have to somehow figure out a defense of those Disney soundtracks I still know all the words to.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Games (or, Why I Don't Play Guitar Hero)

When I was fifteen, I played my first video game.

Okay, I'm lying. I used to play educational games on the computer (Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? That was bitchin'), and I used to play some unco-ordinated Mario Bros. in the early 1990s. My parents never bought us a game console, so when I went to Ryan King's house to play, my little pixel-men were constantly falling in canyons and getting bit by venus flytraps. They displayed the same aptitude I did; that is to say, none.

But when I was fifteen, my friend Jo gave me an ancient, first-generation Game Boy, with a green-and-black screen. She also passed along a copy of Frogger, a maniacal street-crossing game which is impossible to win and crack-like in its addictiveness. Alas, not having been trained since birth in the electronic arts, I quickly realized that there was no way I was going to ever become good at video games. I abandoned that for loftier pursuits, like fighting with my parents.

But someone was bound to enjoy it. That someone was my younger brother. At the time, he was seven: the ideal age for introduction to an on-screen challenge. He took to it like a Sea Monkey in a mason jar. After mastering the clunky Game Boy (seriously, it was the size of a shoebox), he begged for an escalating series of consoles that played ever-louder games. There were controllers that vibrated in your hand, wireless headsets that allowed him to discuss fake game tactics with neighbours, and then, of course, the omnipresent war and music games.

I'm impatient with both categories, for different reasons. War games allow people who can barely pilot a minivan to believe they are crack shots with a Walther PPK. Music games let people who really can play an instrument think they're "practicing," when they get high score on "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" six hundred times in a row.

Full disclosure: I'm biased. I've been blown off by friends in favour of video games - notably by an ex-boyfriend and my brother, both of whom spent hours perfecting a music videogame instead of, you know, playing their guitars. And it's not bad - they both had tons of fun. It's just not a creative outlet, even though it looks like one. They both claimed that it was harmless, then spent dozens of hours hammering furiously on five plastic buttons. Sometimes, they would insist I watch. I'll gladly watch a musician play; I've paid for the privilege many times. But videogames? Yawn.

If I want to pretend to be a rock star, I'll get drunk and go to karaoke. Hell, I can flip a dollar towards a busker and get a viola rendition of "Free Bird" before I board the subway. I'm not better or worse that a Guitar Hero, but at least I'm getting fresh air. Want to shoot someone? Join the fucking army. Hell, these days, sign up for airport security - you'll at least get a few Tazer shots in. Gaming is an illusion. Even though it seems like what's being practiced is guitar or target shooting, all that's really being practiced is video gaming. Dressing up the controller like a Flying V ain't going to get you a record deal. Music games are just that - games - while making music is work.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Gone (Digital) Native

Liz, my smart, funny and well-read friend, was doing some intellectual name-dropping the other day and brought up the concept of the "digital native," a person for whom the internet is a given. Always has been. The digital native, who I imagine wears a banana skirt made of yellow cell phones, has never known life without personal computers, has had an email address since they could read, and uses Facebook, MySpace, and all the other online mansions to house their digital lives.

This is opposed by the digital immigrant, who remembers when telephones were attached to the wall, whose first response to a witticism isn't "Dude! Facebook status!" and who probably wears a babushka fashioned out of the last phone book ever printed.

Liz and I, being in our mid-twenties, fall right on the cusp. I've had an email address since I was 13, but I remember being totally fascinated by SimCity (especially when I purposefully made a disaster happen, like blowing up the 13 nuclear plants I built in downtown Little Sisterville) as a novelty. Now, a dozen years later, SimCity has been transformed into The Sims, a game where you literally play at being a human being. Nothing will ever be the same.

Most defenders of digital culture tell each other that the internet brings people together, and that it allows access to previously unattainable information. This is true: thanks to Google Earth, I now know what the roof of the West Edmonton Mall looks like. I can also use a borrowed cellphone to drunkenly call my sister from Michigan at three in the morning after having "a bad feeling," something impossible to do before she had listed her phone number on Facebook.

So, a mixed bag. I don't hate the internet. That would be like hating chairs, and I'm sitting in a chair right now. But Liz also brought up an interesting point: those Twitter and Facebook prompts? The ones that are all curious what you're doing? The only true answer to those is, "I'm updating my status." When I'm writing a new Facebook status, I'm not "going to Guelph" or "making green curry." I'm writing a new Facebook status. Pedantic? You bet. I am a pedant, and the internet is full of us.

But the world is full of people like me: we willfully avoid some of the technologies that seem faddish or garish. Granted, the same demographic that doesn't own cellphones (me) also can't drive (me) and don't have the internet hooked up at home (also me). I realize that, despite crunchiness in the Big Three these days, cars have gone past "flash-in-the-pan." The internet is the same way.

It's just wild to contemplate how much things have changed in the last 20 years. When I was in kindergarden, we all looked like we were from 1967: wholesome, and a little bit dazed. Cell phones were the size of a mattress, and personal computers were for sultans. In 2009 - and god, doesn't that sound like the future? - it's possible to jam a cellphone in your ear, carry a computer in your pocket, and call anyone, in the world, always. It's possible to call Bell Canada and yell at a robot ("Emily," who will pause, as if wounded, if you sigh "fuck off" into the phone). You can take photographs you will never actually hold. You can fall in love through email. If fax machines weren't some horrible outdated punchline, someone could probably fax you a sandwich.

None of this is bad, per se. It's just weird. It's a major cultural shift: a thousand webpages begat a million Facebook users begat a billion Twitter posts. It's biblical in its epic scale, and makes me wonder if our epoch's grand contribution to society - our Great Pyramids, our 1492 - is going to be LOLcats and Facebook stalking.

Oh, I know there's more to it than that (and I'm fully aware that I'm sounding very "you kids get off my lawn" despite being 25 and writing this on a computer), but I sometimes think that when you add too many blocks to the Jenga tower too quickly, the whole damn thing comes a-tumblin' down. The last couple decades have a distinct tinge of OHMYFUCKINGGOD colouring the edges, and I wonder: is it the computers, or is it us?

Whither the Awesome, OCAD?

It's no secret that I love Canada. It's not an us-versus-them thing; I genuinely like living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and even though people are quick to point out that it's not the same as New York (right) or Chicago (I know) or Boston (natch), Toronto is still my home. All home to both awesome cultural and education institutions, my city fits in, albeit with a different sensibility and a lot more parkas.

But what's the deal with OCAD?

I'm not shitting on The Ontario College of Art and Design as an school. Obviously, there are skills to be learned and trades to be honed. A fine, if over-accessoried, group of young people make up its student body; they are my friends and my Torontonian compatriots. But OCAD as a presence in the city is kind of...lame.

For comparison's sake, let's look at the Savannah College of Art and Design. They have an amazing array of programs, ranging from fibre art to video game design. You can get a Ph.D in comic books (they call it sequential art, but that's pretentious bullshit), you can minor in playwriting, and you can live in downtown Savannah while you do it. Savannah, a city bursting with parks, fixed gear bicycles and cupcake stores, is a gorgeous place to do an arts degree. The city is green in February and full of antebellum mansions.

That Toronto isn't blooming in the winter, or studded with pre-Civil War architecture, isn't exactly the city's fault. But OCAD is located in the heart of downtown Toronto, in a neighbourhood (Queen Street) known more for awesome teeshirts than great works of art. It's a commercial, not artistic, zone. I know - OCAD backs onto the AGO, but let's face it: a provincially sponsored museum isn't going to be filled with art from the emerging- and under-25 artist set.

Not only is OCAD rolling back some of its most interesting programs (it's been a slice, ceramics), but there's zero school presence in the city at large. OCAD doesn't sell school swag - you can't buy a mug or teeshirt emblazoned with the new building or the school acronym. I saw dozens of SCAD sweatshirts in Savannah, while I've never seen so much as a poster for Toronto's art school.

Nor does OCAD lend its students and graduates a helping hand. SCAD has a beautiful store devoted to selling its newly-made artifacts, and OCAD could benefit enormously from doing the same. The stuff it sells is gorgeous; furthermore, the store is staffed by students and grads who can actually talk about the work. The whole experience feels grassroots and organic, not sterile or commercialized.

Universities are constantly struggling for cash, and very few of them produce graduates who produce saleable work. OCAD is an exception, but seems unwilling to help itself out. It would be a boon to debt-ridden students, a potential money-maker for the school, and a way to imprint the college onto the landscape of Toronto itself. Allowing the school and the city to interact - even if it's through commercial enterprise - might mean the difference between school pride and apathy, and between cancelling programs and adding new ones.

So get with it, OCAD! Don't let Savannah push you around. Let's see some of those hand-embroidered pillows and those woodblock prints. Let's get that big ugly building on a tee shirt, and let's showcase your students and their place in the city. Those Southerners don't know what it means to rough it, either in the dead of winter or in an artistic dead zone; it's too bad that OCAD students know all too well.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Chuck Klosterman Is Full Of Shit

Look, I'm not going to say anything bad about Klosterman-the-person. I'm sure Chuck K. is a lovely, if slightly aggravating, person to interact with. His author pictures makes him look like a midwestern lesbian; he is a midwestern neurotic with a distinct habit of alienating pretty women, so the author picture is only one-third right. I'm positive that running into Klosterman at a bus stop or deli counter would be charming. He seems to have decent taste in tee-shirts and probably smells okay.

I'm just not convinced that he's a genius.

Obviously, Klosterman (whose name is both fun to type and pleasurable to say) is a smart guy. He's a fine writer and a clear example of a man who likes to think about things. It seems unfortunate, then, that he uses so much of his brainpower weighing out the culteral relevance of Saved By The Bell, or musing on the difference between Pot People and Coke People, or informing his readers that, in order to survive a trip across America, he'll need a minimum of 600 compact discs to sustain him.

Klosterman (for the record: Pot Person) is the kind of New Generation hipster writer who desperately wants to infuse the ephemera of life with meaning. This is the kind of lofty goal that inspires books about World War II or raising autistic children. Not having these kind of large ideas omnipresent in his life - Klosterman is unattached, and judging by his triad of failing relationships in Killing Yourself To Live, not especially good with women - he instead relies on the symbolic totems of his own creation. To wit: albums, television shows, breakfast cereals, bars, various cities, and cutesy reimaginings of pedestrian things. He calls his bed his "Sleep Machine." I have a feeling that the "Sleep Machine" isn't helping with the "relationships."

It's not his insistence that these things matter; clearly, they do, if only to him. However, he's convinced that these artifacts matter in a certain way (helpfully explained in his books), and that people who disagree with his reading of the pop-culture landscape are stupid. Not ill-informed: actually dumb. His tone - faux-academe punctuated with middle-school-diary shifts like "But ANYWAY" to signify that he's changing the subject - leaves no room for debate: you either live in Klosterman's world, or you are one of the thousands of unenlightened who roam the earth, doomed never to have a drunken, semi-coherent debate about the merits of J Mascis v. Kim Deal. If you can imagine.

Obviously, the people who have had this debate are in the minority. Most people are busy doing other things: going to work, watching TV, popping out kids, fighting with their spouses. Klosterman, aside from an abiding (and, one suspects, self-conscious) TV habit, participates in none of these activities. His work requires him to throw 600 compact discs in the backseat of a silver sedan and drive across the USA. This is not typical.

We all have our signifiers. A love of angel figurines for some; an obsession with Danish furniture for others. Music obsessions create a special conundrum. As a professional writer, Klosterman is well-versed in both writing creatively - that is, saying something new - and the power of symbols. He falls down on the job twice when he uses musical references as a crutch; first, by failing to say something new, and then by substituting an actual experience for its symbol. Instead of talking about love, for example, he'll write about love songs.

Klosterman doesn't do this every time. Still, it happens enough to be noticeable. It happens a lot. In books about music and pop culture, it would be weird if it didn't happen. But Klosterman isn't aiming for a general, all-encompassing experience; he talks about his own experiences. Is this the voice of my generation?

I suspect that people reading Douglas Coupland in the mid-90s felt the same way. Klosterman's written voice is so interesting - his blend of slang and highbrow is actually pretty fun to read - and he clearly has a larger-than-average noggin powering the whole escapade. So it's disappointing to see that fun, intelligent voice being wasted. Not that the Dixie Chicks aren't interesting - just that I don't need to know Chuck Klosterman's opinion on them. It sometimes feels like Klosterman does research by asking himself how he feels about a given topic. If he's feeling ambitious, he'll ask his friends. Because he is Chuck Klosterman , whatever comes out is irrevocably the right opinion. It's narcissistic, it's smug, it's shallow, and it's lame.

Ultimately, until he starts writing about topics that venture beyond pop-culture ephemera, Klosterman is not very interesting. He's very good at seeking meaning in imprints: the site of a musician's death, or a band's oeuvre, or a television show. These imprints aren't experiences, though; they're the second-hand version of what life and death is all about. Klosterman needs to get out of pop-culture bubble, quit mistaking songs for feelings, and start writing about people who aren't him. He's got the skills and the smarts. All he has to do is switch off the TV, climb out of the Sleep Machine, and get his head out of his ass.