culture, music, and identity politics musings from a 20-something Australian-Asian living in Washington D.C.

Media Populism, Lou Dobbs and hatemongering September 8, 2007

Filed under: Race,Society — itslateagain @ 5:18 am

The last mention of China I glimpsed before departing the United States was unintelligible. This is just as well, because I’m sure it would have made for a decidedly bitter parting note. It was a ‘news’ story on Lou Dobbs’ nightly transmission of hateful populism, part of an ongoing segment entitled “Red Storm Rising,” which charts the apparent threats of China’s rising economic influence upon the American middle class. The television was muted and, without text to replace Lou and his team of vigilant reporters’ voices, I was unable to catch the quality reporting on display, balanced and ideologically neutral as it surely was.

I sincerely hope you caught the sarcasm in that last statement. Fox News, our current era’s globally-acknowledged founder and continuing leader of broadcast media populism brought tongue-in-cheek irony and the steadfastly literal uneasily close together with its slogan: “fair and balanced.” For this charming institution, whose role in the video game-stylized lead-up to the Iraq invasion and consequent events cannot be underestimated, we have a septuagenerian Australian to thank named Rupert Murdoch. His company, News Corporation, possesses holdings which include British rags such as the Sun, the majority of Australian media, and most recently, the Wall Street Journal. Lou Dobbs, then, is only the little chubby kid on the block compared to Godfather Rupert, one major difference being that Dobbs’ station, CNN, in supporting his evolution from favored CEO pitstop to self-righteous middle America blowhard quickly blurred what little distinction in journalistic integrity it might have once claimed over Fox.

Dobbs’ weekdaily program spends much of its hour discussing “The War on America’s Middle Class.” I can’t claim to have watched with particular frequency, but enough to be slightly unnerved by the tone in which he demanded an Asian interviewee use “plain, Anglo-Saxon” language and the thinly veiled disgust with which he refers to Central American illegal immigrants. I can practically hear the hateful slurs being thrown around living rooms across America, a giant churlish chorus of the disgruntled and distrusting, egging ol’ Lou on. The swarm are surely no less forgiving in regards to the “Red Storm Rising”, particularly given the recent explosion of xenophobia-propelled, if not unwarranted, health fears regarding products manufactured in China.

I find this particularly disturbing because I spent much of my life on the wrong side of populist sentiment. It was a rare week in which I wasn’t on the receiving end of a “Go home boat boy” from a passing car–having been mistaken as Vietnamese–or “Chink” or “Gook” slur dropped as I walked around the shops. Certain events will remain crystal clear. My father’s rare, unbridled furious riposte towards the man in a motel elevator who asked about eating dog meat; the seemingly tireless slanted eye/flat nose face-warping fellow elementary graders paraded before me. Far more consequential, however, was the persistent feeling of being wearily observed and judged. Mine was an Anglo-Australian town of such singular cultural hegemony, multicultural rhetoric as myth, that if anything, I’ve over-compensated for my yellowness. I couldn’t just be familiar with cricket, I had to know more of its history than anyone else. I couldn’t just celebrate this year’s Australia Day in Washington in private, so I co-organized the city’s expat gathering and convinced the pub owner to make meat pies.

This identity is forged, perhaps more than anything, out of the ignorance and mistrust of others. There are innumerable things about Australia which make me proud to tell others of my nationality; cultural tolerance just doesn’t happen to be one of them. I didn’t choose my hometown; rather, my parents leapt at moving there, over the far more publicly sanctioned anti-Sino climate in Malaysia. Which is why I felt something internal click when an acquaintance joked: “Wait…Mark’s Asian?” It’s also why I offer no platitudes when my students ask me why I don’t speak Chinese. I’m yet to meet an African-American whose family speaks Wolof or Yoruba at home. Clearly, my situation was dramatically less severe, but the same no-leeway mandate of “assimilate or suffer” ruled the roost.

So assimilate I did, to the point where one day during high school I partook in the same anti-Aboriginal humor my classmates learned from their fathers, something I had never done before. It was only when I was chastized by my best friend from early childhood, whose parents are South African, that I felt the circle closing:

“Hey. That’s not funny.”

I looked at him, his skin as brown as that of the people I’d just slandered at the cheap cost of earning some acceptance points, and knew exactly what he meant.

It’s why I find the lightly coated populism, and yes–racism–that Dobbs’ program issues forth so despicable. Perhaps he got tired of his corporate suit buddies and wanted to try on a more blue-collar hat. Or, perhaps it’s all one giant power-tripping guise, an elaborate response to tiring of the people who manufacture his goods or cook his restaurant meals. Who knows, he might actually care about the economic future of middle-class Americans, to which I say “very well” and hold no qualms. But international trade is an inherently political issue, and very often the ethnic or nationalist (or as in this case, both), “Us versus Them” card is simply too lucrative to turn down. CNN certainly didn’t. News Corp built its empire off of it. It bears little repeating, but last century ably displayed its utility for any aspiring Fascist movement. However, as the saying goes: you can’t have your El Salvadoran-cooked double cheeseburger and eat it too. Nor can you continue to buy the dirt cheap Chinese goods that fill your home and bite the hardworking hands that assembled them.

In my brief existence, I have personally heard enough slurs to fill a thousand bathroom stall walls: Australians slighting Irish, Chinese slighting Malays, Jews slighting Arabs, everybody slighting Jews, Indians slighting Bengalis, African-Americans slighting Africans, Africans slighting African-Americans, lesbians slighting gay men (but that’s another story), ad infinitum. St. Augustine once wrote that the world is a book and that those who don’t travel “read but only a page.” Well, I’m not sure what book he was reading but most of mine wouldn’t make for pleasant reading. I’ve been blessed to live with and visit a number of dissimilar people, fully aware that it’s an opportunity the vast majority of the world does not have (and that some, alas, have no interest in). Each country I visit, each culture I begin to understand, only reinforces my belief that people are, in essence, all the same.

This has meant for me that people are compassionate towards others, devoted to their children, and often friendly and generous, perhaps in varying degrees but never to the point of untruth. It also means that people are easily swayed by media and hearsay, largely ignorant of other people, and pointedly ethnocentric. Such aspects of our character manifest in qualities of hate, distrust and fear, all traits that politicians have utilized for millennia towards mostly destructive, ultimately worthless causes. We Western republicans entrust so much faith in democracy largely only because of the degree to which we distrust and fear despotic rule. As we commonly say: it is the least bad of our governing systems. But if anything, we have too much faith in pluralism as an end in itself, leaping blindly into its savior arms without considering preconditions to its success, such as an educated populace, an influential middle class, the rule of law or minority safeguards.

The purest vision of freedom I’ve seen played out in reality is the same one the United States has so neatly co-opted (like, as Neruda acknowledged, it’s own name). The American Dream, so to speak, is the globalized 21st Century Dream. It’s the reason that desperate young folks from countries like Guatemala or Honduras die each day in the hope that they can work washing dishes in a Georgetown restaurant; it’s the reason all of my friend Lang’s Chinese classmates have taken the GRE (over 90% of whom score an 800 on the math section, he mentioned). Without doubt, it’s the only reason I’m writing these words. When the government of New Zealand gave my parents an opportunity to attend university, even if it was motivated by economics, it epitomized a marvelous idea: that my parents would be judged and rewarded duly based on the merit of their work. Populism in democracy, more often than not, relies not on the merit of the idea and its logic, but by how many people happen to believe it. Good journalism serves its citizens by informing and enlightening their beliefs and public judgments, not by playing to the most base and vicious of human tendencies for popular or commercial favor.

I hope more Americans consider this as they go about purchasing their General Washington’s chicken (proudly China-free) at the local take-out. Smart Americans know that there’s more to the most populous country in the world than some Communist totalitarian state and over a billion poor, oppressed masses churning out their Nikes and contaminated toys. The stability and health of our tenuous Sino-American relations will depend on it. The Chinese seem capable of distinguishing between political regimes and their citizens, a skill which the Lou Dobbs’ of our media seem incapable of.


The Online Georgian Revolution and the overthrow of Arial and TNR June 30, 2007

Filed under: Art,Society,Type,Web — itslateagain @ 4:24 pm

Georgia love

I love typeface. I go through periods of hyper-sensitivity to various things: in high school, I obsessed over athletic shoes like Air Jordans and fancy runners; before that, I was extremely conscious of passing people’s bodyshapes. Now that I am in my twenties, I’ve moved past mere human beings to the fonts in which we cast our lives: our thoughts and desires, noble efforts to inform and, never far away, the desire to sell and manipulate.

Which is why I am so happy for the Georgian revolution, which is currently sweeping across online papers and publications near you.

I believe it was led by the New York Times, which over the past couple of years has transformed itself from an overly busy, smallish-print jumble into its current marvel of elegance and beauty. In large part, it was the work of Georgia. I’m not sure how long they’ve been using it, but I do remember noticing that it isn’t Times New Roman, a font whose place on a printed page I don’t mind, but whose role on the web page should be abolished, and soon. There’s nothing that says: “We live in a globalized, clever world capable of solving major problems and our civilization is not necessarily facing impending apocalypse” like opening a firefox window to the Times’ front page.

And how the others have followed! The Guardian, the Age in Melbourne, now even Wired magazine…all of my favorite news sources are jumping aboard the Georgia parade, in all its handsome, serifed majesty, overthrowing the turgid hegemony of Arial (itself a bastard child of Helvetica) and thus issuing in a new era in web aesthetics (“font 2.0”, anyone?). It doesn’t cost anything (to my knowledge) and offers all of us a more pleasant, beautiful online world in which to wander.

To who do I owe this marvellous graphic design coup d’etat? Who is the Lenin, the Mao, the FDR, the Churchill of this great movement?

Perhaps, Bill Keller, editor of the Times. To which I say, for all of us tired of the pure fugliness of Arial and TNR: thank you oh liberator.

A google search of Georgia offers the following: an IHT article which speaks of a Georgia ‘revival,’ that it was designed in 1993 by a Matthew Carter for Microsoft (wiki), and that it was designed specifically for the screen.

Now, if only I could work out how to change my own template’s body font to Georgia…

PS: How could I forget mentioning my beloved host, WordPress, and their own role as blogosphere Georgia trailblazers. Well done, WP!


Silverdocs 2007 Review: Fathers, Sons and Tyrants June 18, 2007

Filed under: Art,Film festivals,Humanitarian,Review,Society — itslateagain @ 6:24 am


Year Five of Silverdocs, June 12-17, 2007 was another wonderful, enriching festival with huge lines filling Colesville Road as documentary-lovers from around the world descended upon otherwise unknown Silver Spring, MD. I worked the festival for the second year after volunteering last year, with the critical added bonus (guised as obligation) that I got paid to watch movies one after the other all week.

Hmm…”documentary.” The word sends shivers down the spines of some, waves of heavy sleep vibes through others, and flashes of eternally curious excitement through a peculiar few. I happen to love the documentary medium, because it feels–for me at least–like the most direct connection between the subject of the film and its audience. I could spend the rest of my life listening to the stories of other people and times: about the history of something like the Helvetica font or the Chicago riots of 1968, or of folk singers whose songs I know but whose biography I do not, or of comic church groups spreading the “Stop Shopping” gospel.

Watching a good documentary is self-reflexive and introspective: we look upon each other intimately, in ways that are becoming increasingly rare in our modern, ossified existences. It’s the equivalent of arising from months breathing out of a waste dump and inhaling huge mouthfuls of delicious, unadulterated, flavorsome oxygen. Each film is filled with so many grains of universal truth and moments of pure comedy or tragedy.

By far the best highlight of the five days was that, as staff, I got to meet and chat with a number of filmmakers and film subjects. I was impressed by the profound absence of asshole-ish ego and superficiality one would associate with other film festivals. Such are the benefits of working a documentary festival, where the competition and subject matter stakes are so different. The vast majority of filmmakers seemed simply grateful for a chance to screen and talk about their years of obscure toil, staying behind after the screenings to chat informally with everybody in the audience who wanted to talk. I came out of the festival even more convinced of the democratic power of documentary, and respectful of the enormous amount of sacrifice involved in putting together each ‘labor of love.’

My favorite film of this year’s stellar selection was a gentle, humorous film from China named “Please Vote for Me,” a political allegory and cheery “Lord of the Flies” experiment built around the trappings of the democratic process. It features three candidates in a class of third-graders in Wuhan province competing for their classmates’ vote as new class monitor. The kids, naturally, are cute and very funny, whether gathering “fault lists” to use against their opponents or attempting to out-debate one another with their parents’ carefully scripted logic. Intimidation, questionable motives, character, bribery, ruthlessness: some of these darker sides of human nature were played out on-screen by three-foot-tall prima donna Chinese children in a rowdy classroom, edited in a way that was knowingly clever and affectionate. “Please Vote for Me” has moments of total mirth besides those of genuine tenderness, as well as a keen eye for the universal effects that power–no matter the scale–has upon human behavior.


The winners of the Audience Award, screened on Father’s Day, were both–in remarkably prescient manner–built around Father-Son relationships. The short winner, “Son’s Sacrifice”, provided a contemporary day take on long-worn themes, following the relationship between a Bengali-Puerto Rican named Imran and his father, as Imran attempts to prove his capability in taking over the family’s shop-front slaughterhouse in New York. The full-length, “Souvenirs”, tracked Shahar Cohen, a young Israeli filmmaker, and his ex-WWII ‘pappy’ as they retraced his war journey through Europe. On the way, they search for “souvenirs,” potential children that Sleiman left behind during brief affairs during his tour. I can see why it won the audience award: the camera captures some gut-wrenchingly powerful moments–such as when Sleiman is reunited with a Dutch girlfriend he hasn’t seen since the War–as well as the beautiful arc of Shahar and Sleiman’s bond, in a manner that feels so intimate and natural that it makes the socio-historical dimensions of the film quite tangential. I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that these Jewish/Muslim family stories happened to synch together so perfectly, particularly given last week’s disheartening events in Gaza. Bravo to the festival’s audience for such skillful voting!

The biggest draws of the audience, though, were a couple of the more left-field films in the mix. “Helvetica,” as its title suggests, is concerned entirely with the popular typeface (it means “Swiss” in Latin), which most people are probably more familiar with through its Microsoft Word bastard child: Arial. I have always been naturally observant about the types and design which flood our visual landscape–I can’t walk past a row of subway ads without thoughts about typeface choice or character spacing appearing–and it was totally neat talking to the filmmaker Gary Hustwit about our mutual idiosyncrasy. During the introduction, he asked how many people in the audience were graphic designers…at least three-quarters of them raised their hands.

“And so how many of you others are reluctant dates?” he quipped.

The film itself is clean and artful, with interesting sub-plots about the evolution of typeface in popular culture as well as my favorite score of the festival. According to Gary, half the music is from his iTunes playlist from 18 months back, but he also asked musicians to provide him with music that “sounds like Helvetica.” Little to my surprise, metronomic electronic beats with plenty of blips and syncopated rhythms are what ensued.


The other surprise hit was “Big Rig,” a non-traditional ode to truck drivers and their lives behind and away from the wheel. I had the chance to talk a little with Jesse, one of the truckers featured in the film. In my experience, truck drivers in Australia receive a lot less disregard than their American counterparts, and it was great to see a film cross that class/cultural divide so dramatically at Silverdocs.

Otherwise, I loved “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” which opened the festival and leaves you nostalgic for a more unified America in the midst of our current (and repeated) mess, and from what I caught of “Chicago 10”–about the 1968 riots–and “What Would Jesus Buy”–about Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping–were smart and engaging. “Garbage Warrior,” about an iconoclastic eco-architect who constructs houses out of waste materials like beer cans, plastic bottles and tires, received a rave reception. It comes off as a less preachy, equally worthwhile take on the global warming themes of “Inconvenient Truth.” Also, the film’s subject–Michael Reynolds–speaks his mind with utter disregard for convention or popular opinion, making him infinitely more fun than Al Gore.

Perhaps the most important film of the festival, in terms of sparking action, was “The Devil Came on Horseback,” an old-fashioned call-to-arms to stop the genocide that is taking place in Darfur. It is necessarily graphic and brutally honest about the atrocities taking place, but weaves such elements into a narrative that is palatable and accessible enough for a general audience to absorb. The key now, of course, is gaining widespread distribution and viewership, something that I imagine is a central topic during the Filmmaker’s Conference, held simultaneously at Silverdocs each year.


SilverDocs: Green intelligence June 12, 2007

Filed under: DC Sceneism,Documentary,Film festivals,Literary,Society — itslateagain @ 1:03 pm

BlcTonight, Silverdocs kicks off at the American Film Institute, Silver Theatre in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. A week of cutting edge documentaries from across the globe, all sorts of clever directors and producers shuffling along Colesville Road, looking lost…it promises to be as good as last year’s, even if it doesn’t pack the Al Gores or Martin Scorceses of 2006.

It runs from June 12-17, with documentaries indoors and outdoors, from morning through to midnight. Come check out a flick and get yo’ think on!

Of the myriad marvels on offer, I think the following are going to be particularly good:

Buddha’s Lost Children:

In the Golden Triangle region of northern Thailand, a Buddhist monk travels around the mountains on horseback. The stunning forests, covered in mist, appear as peaceful as the meditative practice of the monk. But their calm belies the reality: this remote region is dominated by the drug trade, and its hill tribe people are
desperately poor.

Khru Bah Neua Chai Kositto, the Tiger Monk, has devoted himself to helping the orphaned and abandoned children of this region. He gives advice to the villagers, he prays with them, repairs temples and takes neglected and  marginalized children into his care. Parents give sons as young as four over to the Tiger Monk because they know the little boys will have plenty to eat and a good upbringing.

In his Golden Horse Monastery, the Buddhist nun Mae Ead teaches the boys to read, write, cook, wash and brush their teeth. Khru Bah himself is strict. He was a tough Thai boxing champion before he found inner peace through Buddhism. His martial arts training required discipline. Children in his care have to take responsibility for themselves and their horses. Guided by the teachings of Buddha, Khru Bah’s mental training teaches them to tell right from wrong and live their lives with purpose.

The director of BUDDHA’S LOST CHLDREN, Mark Verkerk, sums up what is fascinating about Khru Bah’s story: He has translated the Buddhist ideal of infinite compassion and unconditional love into measurable action. The children he helps have been abandoned by time. He gives them the possibility of a future.

Please Vote For Me:

What does democracy look like in the world’s largest Communist country? Start small, very small. This impossibly charming film features a third grade class in Wahun province and the intense politicking in the race to become Class Monitor.

PLEASE VOTE FOR ME captures many elements of life in China today missed by all the magazine cover stories and astounding growth statistics. This story unfolds far from the giant factories, crowded markets, or even picturesque villages. These classrooms are state-of-the-art and the children’s homes look remarkably like middle class urban homes in the West. The film provides a private view of a microcosm of contemporary Chinese culture.

It is also a classic election drama, albeit with 7-year-olds. The three candidates, two boys and a girl, are chosen by the teachers, but they conduct real campaigns and are chosen in a free election. Ironically their goal is to become the student charged with maintaining order and reporting rule violations to the teachers. Director Weijun Chen travels home with the candidates, each a product of the one-child policy, where over-eager parents coach and cajole their child. They even participate in a little preelection gift-giving in an effort to manipulate the race so their kid will win! Systems of government may differ broadly, but human nature not so much.

Director Weijun Chen’s award-winning film TO LIVE IS BETTER THAN TO DIE was seen by millions around the globe. PLEASE VOTE FOR ME will reach over 100 million viewers as part of the international documentary project “Why Democracy?” scheduled to air globally in October 2007.


DC Area Premiere

Once in a rare while, a film comes along that draws an irresistible story from the unlikeliest source. First-time director Gary Hustwit’s HELVETICA is just such a film. This playful exploration of the font that defined modern type design is both a history of the titular typeface and an engrossing meditation on graphic art that decodes the subtle influence of fonts on our emotions, attitudes, and desires.

Conceived in Switzerland’s Haas type foundry, Helvetica was created to encapsulate the burgeoning postwar modernist movement and its hallmarks of neutrality and order. The font quickly became the default choice for corporate branding, street signage, and print design.

Inevitably, this ubiquity sparked a design-world rebellion, and the film gives equal voice to cheeky postmodernist detractors who came to view Helvetica as a tool of corporate hegemony. Reacting against uniformity, younger artists developed hand-drawn fonts, fractured layouts and an elaborate arsenal of outré methods intended to disrupt Helvetica’s “dull blanket of sameness.”

But Helvetica’s uncanny balance and cool clarity survived this onslaught, and a new generation of designers reimagined it not as a global monster of conformity but as an infinitely extensible tool that functions in any context. As the film’s cast of design luminaries trade barbs and debate the merits and pitfalls of the world’s most famous font, the mysterious ability of Helvetica to accept and contain an array of interpretations and sensibilities emerges. Like the film itself, it attunes and focuses our awareness of design and its impact on the world around us.

Hip Hop Revolution:

North America Premiere

In American culture, the affirmative impulses of hip-hop are all but completely overshadowed by the negative connotations of gangsterism, sexism, and consumerism. Women are exhibited and exploited and thugs are admired as empowered and in control. But when hip-hop started during the 1970s in the South Bronx, it was a movement of self-expression and self-actualization, advocating personal dignity and validating personal experience in the face of urban poverty, violence and disenfranchisement.

In the Cape Flats, outside Cape Town, South Africa the music of the South Bronx found a receptive audience who recognized in the American ghettos problems similar to their own. Economic apartheid is not so far from political apartheid, to the person trapped within. Despite isolation by the Western boycott during the 1980s and censorship by their own government, South Africans heard and found inspiration in American hip-hop—from early East Coast right up through Public Enemy and NWA—and in the break dancing and graffiti art that accompanied turntablism and street poetry.

The result is an indigenous South African hip-hop culture, rich with African rhythms far more explicit than the indirect influence of that continent on American R&B, and deeply expressive of the obstacles facing post-Apartheid youth: HIV-AIDS, poverty, unemployment, gangsterism, poor access to education, and gender inequity. In interviews with South African musicians and artists past and present, including members of the influential Prophets of Da City (POC), Weaam Williams gives voice to South Africa’s hip-hop subculture, and reminds Western viewers of the complexity of black experience, at home and worldwide.


Q Radio: A Collector’s Edition ITSLATEAGAIN Podcast!

Filed under: DC Sceneism,Music,Podcasts,Race,Society,Uncategorized — itslateagain @ 12:48 pm

7QWelcome to Q Radio: a Special Edition from ITSLATEAGAIN: The Podcast Series!

Q Radio is not a traditional podcast, or online radio show. Rather, it is a series of vignettes from various characters living around Q Street in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington D.C. Shaw has become a highly controversial battleground in recent months for the ongoing gentrification debate that permeates new developments in the district. Gentrification, the process in which lower cost neighborhoods undergo physical renovation and increased property values, and more importantly: an influx of wealthier residents who often push out the previous, poorer residents.

Q Radio is the word off the street, where the conversations get ugly, the race and class lines are clearly drawn and hostilities are shared against the backdrop of rising gang violence. But the voices of Q also offer glimpses of hope: unlikely friendships are formed, visionary young go-getters continue to inspire.

There’s Daniel, an Ethiopian immigrant whose perspective on being black in America is being reshaped through his daughter. Tony, the doubting patron of a local church accused of “slumlording.” And that’s not to mention Mel, the guilt-tripping young professional and Gustavo, with worries regarding MS-13 and human traffickers. These, and other characters, provide insight into the diversity of walks of life in Shaw, soundtracked by a groove-centric collection of songs and beats.

Look for tracks from Amon Tobin, Royksopp, Fujiya and Miyagi, Sam Cooke, Spank Rock, Talib Kweli, Andrew Bird and Mbongeni Ngema, among others.

I recently moved out of Shaw, and so would like to dedicate this pod-story to the kids at Kennedy Rec. I played ball there a number of times, and after breaking the ice, found many of them to be fun, good-natured young adults.

Collector’s Edition: Q Radio: Voices from Shaw

FascadeNB: All characters in this pod-story are fictional.

NNB: In the rare chance that you belong to a large music company and do not appreciate hearing particular tunes in this pod-story, do let me know and I’ll be sure to take it down, sans lawyer.


Coachella 2007 Review: Rage, Bjork, Julieta Venegas and dust May 3, 2007

Filed under: Concerts,Music,Society — itslateagain @ 5:35 pm

zack arm

“People of Coachella, lay down your arms.”

That was the straight-forward plea of bassist Nick Seymour of the reunited antipodean band Crowded House, addressed to the baying crowd of young men assembling at the foot of the main stage to see the headline act at this year’s Coachella Music Festival, Rage Against the Machine. Like silent assailants, they slid through the sea of festival-goers during fading light, an army of teenage boys in bandanas and black shirts with a post-Rage generation’s worth of testosterone to burn and little patience for adult pop more suited to their parent’s era.

“We want Rage! Get the fuck off the stage!,” came one chant, not long after one of myriad water bottle projectiles knocked over Neil Finn’s microphone during the omnipresent and prescient ballad “Don’t Dream it’s Over.” The fact that the song’s critique of apathetic middle-class malaise mines similar thematic territory to that of Rage’s denunciatory catalogue was lost, quite literally in this case, on the impatient youth. Worse still was the fact that this performance marks Crowded House’s first reunion tour since original drummer Paul Hester’s suicide two years ago. But the band soldiered on courageously, with a new Questlove-aping drummer and Neil’s son on keys injected into the line-up, amidst the sweaty thousands who had dutifully trekked out into the Californian desert to see a very different but similarly timeless band one more time.

“The Battle of Coachella,” read one popular knock-off t-shirt, echoing the infamous “Battle of Los Angeles” Rage tour of past. Their riotous live shows had quickly entered the realms of rock folklore, ever since Zack de la Rocha and the boys had shockingly split ways several years ago. And Coachella got what it had been thirsting for, delivered with all the majestic fury few bands have since touched. Rage Against the Machine, having raised an entire sub-genre—“rap rock”—through the blunt power with which they wield their tools, proved their continuing relevancy last Sunday with a stirring set of now classic songs. Emerging from self-imposed obscurity with a handsome new afro, Zack’s angry rhymes sounded as fresh and scything as ever, proving that even a vocalist as full-throated as Chris Cornell could never provide as satisfying an accomplice to guitarist Tom Morello and his signature pyrotechnics.

Opening with “Testify,” followed by the triumphant “Bulls on Parade,” the band tore their way through confident renditions of songs from each of their three studio releases. They surprised the audience with their popular cover of “Renegades of Funk” by Afrika Bambaataa before closing the main set with “Wake Up,” from their self-titled album. During the middle section of the song, Zach offered the diatribe the crowd had been waiting for, calling for the current administration to be “hung, tried and shot…in that order” as war criminals, which, surprisingly enough, received only an ambiguous response from the crowd. Rage soon returned to play an encore of “Know Your Enemy” which segued into “Killing in the Name,” leaving a stadium’s worth of fans with their flipped birds waving about in the air goofily, as if at a middle-school punk gig. Such irony was suitable for much of the crowd, for whom the band surely conjures memories of angrier, more hormonal years, a nostalgia quickly deflated by the wayward teens hurling themselves upon each other at the front of the stage.

As an Australian who grew up in the eighties humming Crowded House melodies before Rage caught my tortured teen soul at 15, effectively turning me on to politics and subsequent years of activism and advocacy, to me the irony made perfect sense. Only by obediently forking out almost three hundred dollars (!) and padding the pockets of both ticketmaster and music promoters could we earn the privilege of screaming hoary revolutionary epithets into the desert air. Though Morello continues to voice his Marxist politics with full conviction and de la Rocha’s lyrics call for open insurgency, the only bourgeois target who is assured of feeling the concert’s effects after Sunday were the mothers of bloody-nosed teens, washing their laundry after the show. As I rocked out to Rage’s three-minute thunderclaps before the massive red star backdrop of the EZLN–an anarchist group in Zapata, Mexico–I admitted internally that all of this was, at some level, a farce. The revolution that sounded so righteously forthcoming in junior high, now, just sounds righteous. A “fist in the air in the land of hypocrisy,” indeed.

Beyond the much-anticipated headliner’s altogether victorious return, Coachella itself was a joy-filled rollercoaster hajj of indie music: part post-modern reversal of the flight of the Jews, part Who’s Who List of 2007. Over 100 bands from an eclectic mix of musical walks, five separate stages, multiple extortion-lite beer tents and a curious mix of environmental booths and neo-apocalyptic vaudeville were laid out over Empire Polo fields in the diminutive town of Indio, California, where 70,000 odd revelers descended for this, the 7th year in the festival’s history. For three days, we parched under the cloudless sun, exacerbating our dehydration with cups of Heineken and greasy stall food before taking grateful relief under the preciously laid out tents. All this in the name of music, the established faith of secular young America. For this longtime Coachella aspirant, whose first year out of tertiary education engendered both the time and disposable income to make the pilgrimage, I was an instant convert. Though there are a number of yearly festivals now in practice throughout the United States, I know of none that can match Coachella, blow for blow, in terms of depth, quality and variety of musical fulfillment.

From the thoroughly fleshed out performer’s list, one can draw LA populist perennials Rage and Red Hot Chili Peppers, legendary reunited groups Jesus and Mary Chain and Happy Mondays, leading mainstream hip hop (Roots) and backpack (El-P, Busdriver) acts, scruffy buzz bands from across the pond (Arctic Monkeys, Fratellis) outstanding international talents (Manu Chao, Konono No. 1,), electronic mainstays (Tiesto, Gotan Project) and timeless country legends (Willie Nelson), to name but a few. The weekend quickly turned into a series of hard decisions, as adjacent acts of prodigious talent led to continuous dilemmas–“Air versus Lily Allen” (easily answered by the former’s tardy entrance) or “!!! versus the Decembrists.”

“Should I take the risk on (highly touted but unknown indie act) Coco Rosie in the Gobi, space out to trance with the ravers over at Sahara, or catch the cell phone waving to “Under the Bridge” back at main stage?” we asked one another, squirting hand sanitizer into our hands. Never before have I eaten a plastic plate dinner as epic as that soundtracked by Manu on one stage and Air on the other. Even an act as uncelebrated as pooping became epic: as I took a deep breath, dashed into the portaloo and tried to think of fluffy clouds, Blonde Redhead’s incredible “23” came shuddering through the plastic can to backdrop my dropping.

At the conclusion of each evening, I would reassemble with my crew of fellow revelers at our designated meeting spot, a giant tesla coil which periodically shot out bolts of lightning, offering even more entertainment to those for whom a dozen mini-gigs in a day was not quite enough. Past horse sheds we would trek, returning to our dust-covered cars for the snail crawl out of Indio to nearby Palm Springs, where we had taken out three condos for the weekend. Having washed from our tired bodies a peculiar mixture of sun block, spilled beer, sanitizer, grass seeds and human sweat (of which the majority was not our own), we reflected, analyzed and then strategized for the following day’s proceedings. Though the bands started playing shortly after 1pm, the less adventurous of us laid low until later in the afternoon, trading off heat stroke and more minor acts for the benefits of poolside cocktails and Nintendo Wii boxing matches. The fifth-year USC architecture majors amongst us snuck in morning thesis sessions; I studied set schedules instead, laughing as my diminutive friend displayed her surprisingly sharp skills as a joystick pugilist, pummeling her boyfriend out of the virtual ring.

Of all the acts outside of the frat-tastic Chili Peppers, perhaps Bjork was the most universally adored. Indie’s reigning princess-queen, she closed the first night’s proceedings in nothing short of regal brilliance. On stage, she is a lithe, dynamo performer, thoroughly engaging both in her nymphish physicality and the recurrently wondrous epiphany that such a remarkable sound is indeed emanating from the lungs of that tiny woman wearing the space suit. She played a handful of songs from her excellent new LP, “Volta,” but it was the singles which won over a rapturous crowd. “Army of Me” opened its wings slowly, almost ominously, before releasing itself over the refrain through Bjork’s electrifying, drawn out exhale. “Hyperballad” was the evening’s clincher, an emotive ballad which stands as a timeless high point in the Icelandian’s still ascending sonic travails. However, in the ensuing post-show analysis, a friend–himself a Bjork hyper-fan who had patiently waded his way to the front of the stage–pointed out what he saw as serious flaws in that song’s performance: apparently, when the pre-programmed bass came in, it was noticeably off-key against the horns, upon which Bjork modulated keys, somewhat unsuccessfully. It was testament to her skill and live prowess as an artist that the majority of the crowd realized nothing, but for the most tuned-in listeners.

As enchanting as it was to see the virtuosic queen perform live, it couldn’t match the intimacy of Julieta Venegas, who I had seen earlier in the day in the Gobi tent, the smallest of the stages, trafficked by more obscure acts. Julieta, a native of Tijuana, Mexico and long-standing crush of this non-Spanish speaker, writes cheerful accordion pop songs that your mother can hum along to. This being southern California, the crowd was majority Latino, and Chicano pride ran high.

Julieta y accordionI discussed Mexican indie bands with an art student from Bakersfield before our princess took to the stage in a bright purple dress, looking to all the world like God’s true gift to man as she grooved out to “Eres Para Mi,” which sounds like an Ace of Base B side. We cheered and hollered, before the men in the audience released a simultaneous sigh of collective yearning. Slapping away at her familiar red accordion, Julieta made the instrument look sexier than I’d previously thought possible, dispelling any remaining visions of suspender-clad polka bands as she spun her way through the dancier cuts and gently rolled through the ballads. Alternating fluently between Spanish and English to the largely bilingual crowd on topics of relationships (sigh) and marriage (longer sigh), her beauty and refinement stood as a light of hope for her countrymen here, the hidden thousands whose futures lie tenuously at the whim of xenophobic power. “Lento” and “Andar Conmigo“, a moving tribute to naivete and young love, were the two obvious crowd favorites. During “Limon Y Sal,” two men wearing pig masks and green fatigues took to Julieta’s flanks, briefly and curiously marching about on stage before quickly departing. Julieta ended with the single “Me Voy” from her most recent album, and for the first time in a long while, I felt butterflies take flight inside my chest.

Of the groups I had been less intimately familiar with, Andrew Bird and Faithless were two real standouts. Bird, a singer-songwriter from Minnesota who plays folksy, orchestral pop songs, reminds me of a young Sufjan Stevens, except that Bird actually plays the string parts in his songs. He moved fluidly between numerous instruments during the same song, and his lyricism, particularly on “Imitosis,” is already well polished. Not quite so new to the scene, British act Faithless rocked Sahara as hard as anybody I saw in the dance tent over the three days. Theirs is a silky mix of trip hop and jungle, with enough world influence to make references to Massive Attack and Morcheeba feel lazy. I also only caught short segments of Amos Lee and Teddy Bears, but was impressed by the snippets I caught. The former’s baritone voice is inviting like honey and his bluesy craftsmanship as a composer undeniable; Teddy Bears provided an all-out rocktronica party, bear costumes and all.

Coachella makes its name on indie bands, and I caught the obvious fragments I sought whilst drifting between various tents enough to make the extra effort out in the heat valuable. “Young Folk” by Peter, Bjorn and John was this year’s biggest sing-along amongst the Pitchfork crowd; “Let’s Make Love” by CSS and “Don’t Stop” by Brazilian Girls were road-tested, sultry favorites. I was too exhausted to truly appreciate LCD Soundsystem’s Saturday show, leaving early to pass out by Gotan Project, but Hot Chip and !!! both brought the dance punk might. I was pleasantly surprised to see the crowd grow steadily during Konono No. 1’s Sunday afternoon gig. The Congolese dance group provided a more subdued but polyrhythmically funkier soundscape for 20-something white girls to perform their “hippy white girl dance,” which, as one friend noted, after several decades, remains in persistent and unfortunately regular circulation. The only real disappointments for me were both of the British isles: Jarvis Cocker’s self-deprecating wit couldn’t hide the datedness of his solo material, and the Good, the Bad and the Queen sounded lethargic and flat.

I’ll leave it to others to gush, but let it be agreed that Arcade Fire is at present the world’s most important band. Their Saturday set on the main stage was nothing short of earth-shaking, though the material from sophomore album “Neon Bible” still didn’t match up to the highs from “Funeral,” the most superlative of which were “Wake Up” and “Rebellion.”

Besides the music, the crowd itself was a fascinating mix of largely 20-something music aficionados, young families, testy Rage heads and the sort of white dread hippies that invariably end up at such events. For the most part, the group was remarkably appreciative and self-controlled. Even the show grounds were being kept clean this year, thanks to an ingenious recycle-10-bottles, get-1-free deal going on water, the festival’s most precious commodity. Being consciously Asian that I am, I reveled in the hundreds (if not thousands!) of fellow yellow brethren, as well as the growing Latino and Black representation in an indie music community which remains largely pale of tone. Whilst waiting for Air, I struck up a conversation with a surfer couple from Long Beach who had brought their baby boy to his first Coachella. Going by his limited reaction capacity (he was drinking from his mother’s teat during our discussion), his father was convinced of his son’s appreciation for earlier performances. Now that is a truly great way to raise your children.

The crew I attended with happened to be split between a convivial collection of techy graphic artists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs from Texas and California now based in San Diego nearing their 30s, and recent private college grads just settling into our 20s. Being millenials, naturally, we claimed descents from Africa, Iran, India, Mexico, China, Vietnam, Australia and Europe. I find that as hackneyed and ossified as discourse around multiculturalism has become, I would put forth that our parent’s greatest victory last weekend can be claimed on the grounds of Coachella. Spread across a giant polo field, perspiring mercilessly beneath the desert sun, together we watched a gorgeous sunset over the main stage at an even more beautiful venue. And, though some immature tool might have knocked over Neil’s microphone during “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” the act which followed was infinitely more symbolic: on-stage, as they scrambled to readjust the mic, Neil motioned to the crowd to step in. And we did so with gusto, singing:

“Hey Now Hey Now, Don’t Dream It’s Over, When the world comes in/They come, they come/To put a wall between us/You know they won’t win.”

And, in this time of families being ripped apart by immigration crackdowns and wasteful bloodshed across other lands, it’s precisely such unity that lends hope to this particular dreamer.


“Howz…this shirt look?!” – The Metrosexualization of Modern Cricket April 11, 2007

Filed under: Cricket,Gender and Masculinity,Society,Sports — itslateagain @ 1:42 am

Kevin Pietersen and HairRecent headlines regarding the murder of Pakistan national cricket team coach Bob Woolmer during the ongoing Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean have aroused gentle interest in an enigmatic, but still widely mid-understood game. Somewhat remarkably, England’s greatest gift to her former colonies: cricket, has somehow slid into popular American discourse.

Cricket, that poorly understood sport whose popularity remains largely confined to date within the former British colonies, was once a game of the leisure class. Somehow, most Americans continue to carry some vague fantasy of bourgeois Englishmen and green pasture-like fields when I mention the sport. I suspect the white uniforms of its traditional five-day length form plays some role in this misnomer regarding an institution which remains, and I say this with pride, a lifelong obsession for this East Asian Australian.

This is slightly unusual, given that almost all of the people an average American might hope to see playing cricket are brown. In particular, they are South Asians, most likely graduate students, most likely found having a hit around on the engineering school fields at a university near you. And these young men, bespectacled and tamely dressed as they might be, only begin to hint at the now institutionalized obsession with which the game has infiltrated the sub-continent. As with many other nationally validated sports, cricket boasts a marvelously colorful history, one which mixes geo-political tension with steady dollops of racial and match-fixing scandal. The India-Pakistan rivalry is a not-so-subtle metaphor for the two neighbors’ tense relations; Sri Lanka’s rise to recent greatness is a glorious tribute to sport’s ability to transcend and unify despite prolonged ethnic conflict.

But as an Australian who fawns over his team line-up like an estranged widow aunt, much of the politics is abstracted. In previous decades, we boycotted playing against the South African team because of apartheid, and pummeling the usually hapless English team as an anti-colonial “sit and spin” got old many years ago. For well over a decade, in fact, for much of my life, Australia has been the world’s dominant cricketing nation by a significant distance. Due in part to our sports-driven culture, an above-excellent talent pool, or perhaps a particularly poor patch for our international rivals, cricket for Australia has become a pre-arranged cruise down self-congratulatory boulevard: where the Southern Cross flag waves as the boys (almost) always hoist the trophy, and look good doing it too.

Michael Clarke and partner

Ahh, the boys. With their blonde highlights and goatees, model-like girlfriends and surfer personas, the current Australian squad is a perfect reflection of the millennial metrosexual meme, currently needling a place into masculinity’s mainstream. They’re quiet yet brash, swatting opponents over the boundary lines as they stroll to another victory, as Matthew Hayden did in Australia’s recent demolition of Bangladesh. Body-wise, they wield toned, bronzed physiques, closer to the homoerotic models of Men’s Health magazine than the beer-happy, rounder figures of previous eras. At the same time, however, they retain the image of steady family men, willing to miss important games to ensure they’re in attendance for the birth of a child, as was the case with vice-captain Adam Gilchrist.

Merv and bookGone are the great characters of past years, the men whom I grew up imitating each day in the backyard. There was David Boon, a tubby little batsman whose affinity for runs on the field was famously matched by an even greater one for beer after the match. More humorously, there was Merv Hughes, a barrel-chested behemoth of a fast bowler, whose thick mustache and working man charms were a steady presence throughout the nineteen-eighties. These were men’s men of a golden era: proudly blue-collar, unassuming “blokes” who you could imagine holding a pair of tongs over the barbie, cracking politically incorrect Sheila jokes, and never mincing their opinions, ill-formed or not.

Throughout the nineties, such characters came to play a less prominent role in the cricket spotlight, both in the antipodes and elsewhere. They were replaced by men, who, much like myself, enjoy a lot of the pleasures our forebears indulged in, augmented however with the health conscious fetish dutifully instilled by school fitness regimes and the fashion sensibilities of our media-saturated lives. The metrosexual in cricket is only the latest in a now-established timeline of upstart cultural rebellions: just as Merv Hughes put paid to the confines of traditional gentility within cricket ranks–the Aussie larrikin poking fun at uptight Englishmen–so did the fearsomely fast intimidators of the West Indian pace line-up and beguiling Sikh spin bowler Bishan Bedi in the 1970s. In so doing, they blazed the trail as public figures, reclaiming cultural ground during the formative years of the post-colonial age.
Preparing to bowl/cricket archive

If any one man can claim responsibility for this most recent evolution of masculinity as reflected in cricket, it is a Bush Administration-denouncing politician, currently in office in Pakistan. Imran Khan, an all-rounder (one equally adept with ball and bat), was the original metrosexual prototype of international cricket, perhaps even professional athletics. He guided Pakistan’s side into maturity during the 80s: a supremely talented and wise cricketing mind, Khan was also blessed with particularly dashing looks–as lusted for in the homes of Middle England as he was throughout his own continent. Previously married to billionaire heiress Jemima Goldsmith, he later toned down his image as an international playboy to lead the Movement for Justice (Tehrik-e-Insaaf) in Pakistan, where he continues to be an outspoken figure in parliament.

Could this be the most rewarding example of cricket as post-colonial globalization turned full circle? More so than watching lily-colored English supporters cheer on their team players–peppered with names like Mahmood, Panesar, and Bopara–or even Irish and Kenyan and Canadian sides with similar sub-continental representation, it is this most recent transformation of cricketing masculinity through Asian leadership that I find most satisfying.

Now all I need is for Australia to field its first Chinese-Australian player wearing the baggy green cap and I’ll die a happy fan. That, and a close world cup final victory over Sri Lanka.

Chee Quee Richard Chee Quee – the first first-class Australian-Chinese cricketer whose mum apparently owned a Chinese restaurant in New South Wales (though sadly, he never made it to the international level.)