Monday, December 05, 2005

Main St., Guyville

A slightly different version of this article appears in the December, 2005 issue of The Seattle Sinner.

The Bell Jar Descends on Liz Phair

By Jeremy M. Barker

Saturday, Nov. 12--With a sense of futility I wandered around Neumos, bored, nursing a beer and waiting for the show to start. The crowd was frankly sad; the place was pretty full, but most people were either aging yuppies or valley girl types more at home at First Ave. clubs.

Oh Liz Phair, what happened?

For many people, Liz Phair is best known as a second-rate pop diva who scored a pair of minor hits (“Why Can’t I?” and “Extraordinary”) off her 2003 self-titled album. That album also killed most of her indie-rock credibility, since several songs were produced by pop-hit manufacturers “The Matrix,” the team that made folks like Avril Lavigne and Hillary Duff stars. In fact, you might even be wondering why someone like this is being written up in the The Seattle Sinner. That’s sad, because once upon a time Liz Phair was a great artist, and the fact that both she and her work have never gained wider acceptance is just plain sad.

Phair’s first album, 1993’s Exile in Guyville, is one of the great indie-rock albums of the 1990s. A purported song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, in one fell swoop Liz Phair reshaped the entire musical landscape in America, carving out a space for women in rock between riot grrl punk and sappy singer-songwriters strumming their acoustic guitars. Her lightly strummed electric guitar was messy and gritty without reaching back to hardcore punk music like her contemporaries Babes in Toyland or L7, while her fairly weak voice, with its smoky, country-music swagger, set her apart from soul-searching folk-pop artists like Sarah McLachlan. It was punk rock without being loud and brash, confessional without being therapeutic. And perhaps most notable were her sexually explicit lyrics. “Fuck and Run,” her ode to drunken one-night stands, has become an anthem. But in terms of sheer obscenity, the spoken-word piece “Flower” is almost unparalleled, with its singsong chorus of “Every time I see your face/ I get all wet between my legs,” and lines such as “Everything you ever thought of/is everything I’ll do to you/ I’ll fuck you and your girlfriend too” and “I want to be your blow job queen./ You’re probably shy and introspective;/ that’s not part of my objective/ I just want your fresh, young jimmy/ jamming, slamming, ramming in me.”

The follow up to Exile in Guyville, 1994’s Whip-Smart, produced Liz Phair’s biggest hit for a decade, the top-ten modern rock single “Supernova.” She then seemed to drop off the face of the earth for four years, while artists she’d paved the way for stole her thunder. Most notable in this is Alanis Morissette; early in her career, Morissette was a Canadian pop singer and dancer in the vein of Paula Abdul, but with the breakthrough of alternative rock in 1992, she switched gears and in 1995 released a pop-influenced rock album, reinventing herself as an angry-woman singer in Liz Phair’s vein. Propelled by the success of “You Oughta Know” (apparently unconvinced of the album’s musical quality, the record label issued a non-album version as the single, with the music done by Flea and then-Red Hot Chili Pepper Dave Navarro), Jagged Little Pill became one of the best-selling albums of the 1990s.

When Phair returned with 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg, she’d become more introspective and less abrasive, both lyrically and musically. It was a good album, but it wasn’t going to win her any new fans, really. And then another five-year break, and then 2003 and her reinvention as a pop star.

So I was approaching the concert with trepidation; I wasn’t sure, frankly, if I wanted to know what Liz Phair had become.

At first I was pleasantly surprised. Arriving on-stage alone and unaccompanied (and still drop-dead gorgeous at 38), she broke into the trippy, psychedelic “Stratford-on-Guy” from Exile. With its evocative lyrics and cryptic references to Galaxie 500, it’s one of the best songs from the album. Then two songs later she had abandoned her guitar altogether to gyrate her hips to audience hoots and hollers, while her backing band (who frankly looked like nothing so much as a poor man’s Counting Crows, poofy hair and all) smoothed out all her rough edges with well-produced pop smoothness.

The contrast between her newer material and the old couldn’t have been more drastic. For one thing, on the older stuff she drove the music with her buzzy rhythm guitar, whereas for the new her backup guitarist was unquestionably in the lead (on some songs, you couldn’t even make out what she was playing). She pulled a lot of material from her catalogue rather than her new album (the recently released Somebody's Miracle), with renditions of Exile classics like “Divorce Song” and Whitechocolatespaceegg’s “Polyester Bride” and “Johnny Feelgood.” She closed her main set with “Supernova” at full-throttle and during her encore she finally hit on “Fuck and Run,” but despite an audience chorus begging her, she wouldn’t go near “Flower.”

So what’s there left to say? Liz Phair’s still a hottie, a textbook definition of a m.i.l.f. In concert she no longer seems to harbor her once-infamous stage fright and is all beaming smiles and hip-shakes. In the end, I decided I couldn’t continue to harbor any resentment; she cashed in to pay the bills at 35 by selling out and going pop. Exile in Guyville is still monumental and will be remembered as one of the great albums of an era, a page out of indie rock history. But staring around as the lights glared off balding heads, as 40 year old yuppies gawked at her ass and bra strap, clinging desperately to half-dead college memories, I can’t help but feel Liz Phair deserved better. The Pixies cashed in recently, too, but they got to keep their credibility when they did it. I guess in the end, rock and roll is still guyville.

The Portland Lie

The following article is appearing in the August issue of The Seattle Sinner. For more information, please see below.

By Jeremy M. Barker

So, you might be asking why the first installment of my new column on Seattle issues is about pollution and development in Portland, Ore. The answer? Portland serves as an important example for Seattle. In two years as a Seattle journalist, I’ve heard Portland cited as an example for why the monorail will work, for why the streetcar is a good idea, for why high-density development is the key to sustainable growth. A couple months ago I even wrote a piece on how both The Stranger and Seattle Weekly use Portland to justify their wildly divergent views on how Seattle should be developed. But as a native Portlander, I’ve often questioned these assertions for two reasons: one, Portland tends to look better by innately skewing data, and two, because Portland’s many successes tend to obscure its failures.

So, consider this claim, from Nicholas Kristof’s July 3rd New York Times column: “Newly released data show that Portland, America’s environmental laboratory, has achieved stunning reductions in carbon emissions. It has reduced emissions below the levels of 1990, the benchmark for the Kyoto accord, while booming economically.”

That’s an impressive claim, so I decided to investigate the report it was based on, from the Portland Office of Sustainable Development, called “Progress Report on Local Action Plan on Global Warming,” which does in fact show that carbon emissions had fallen to 0.1% below 1990 levels. And, as I suspected, things were a little too good to be true. Here’s what I found:

Problem 1: The above Nicholas Kristof quote conflates two things: the city of Portland and the Portland Metro area. As the OSD report makes clear, the data refers to Multnomah Co., which contains the city of Portland. But the Portland Metro area is defined by its much-lauded Urban Growth Boundary, which limits high-density development. The UGB led to the renewal of most of downtown and is credited with much of Portland’s sustainable growth successes. However, the Metro area runs through three counties: Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington. Lest anyone think I’m nitpicking this point, keep in mind that the reason Portland is supposed to be a good model is that it managed to control pollution while enjoying steady population and economic growth. But much of that growth occurred in Washington and Clackamas Cos. Between 1990 and 2004, the same years the OSD report covers, according to US Census data, Multnomah Co. population grew by 15.12%. During the same period, Clackamas Co. grew by 30.28% and Washington Co. by a whopping 56.72%. All of which means that if you want to use Portland as a model for how to control emissions while enjoying steady growth, you need to look at all three counties’ emissions data, which leads to...

Problem 2: That data doesn’t seem to exist. Three weeks of research, including inquiries to the OSD, county and state agencies, three Portland State University professors specializing in environmental issues, and a thorough examination of publicly available emissions data from the EPA failed to turn up comparable emissions data for Washington and Clackamas Counties between 1990 and 2004. The counties don’t actually monitor emissions; the state Department of Environmental Quality does, which turns the data over to the EPA, who, it turns out, does not make the data available to either the public, the press or academia. What I was able to find was limited EPA data for the years 1985-1999. However, that data did show one thing...

Problem 3: The OSD report ignored economic impacts. The emissions data therein is divided into five categories: residential, commercial, industrial, transportation and waste. Although the overall emissions declined, only two of the five sources saw significant decline, the others remaining roughly equal to their 1990 levels: waste decreased by 55.06%, showing the undeniable impact of recycling programs, and industrial fell by 15.06%, reflecting a loss of industrial jobs in Portland. The EPA data for 1985-1999 showed emissions declines during the late 80s, early 90s recession, and the OSD report similarly showed declines occurring after 2000, a period during which, contrary to Kristof’s cheery assessment, Portland was suffering with higher than national average unemployment rates as the economy sputtered. Which leads us to...

Problem 4: Vancouver, Wash. This is Portland’s dirty little secret: although direct data is hard to come by, it’s common knowledge that many people work in Portland but can’t afford to live there. The UGB, while controlling sprawl, pushes up housing costs, forcing out low-wage workers and families. Between 1990 and 2004, Clark Co., where Vancouver is located, population grew faster than the three Metro counties, increasing by 64.84%. With Vancouver a 20-minute drive away from the city, it’s an affordable alternative, and the data backs that up. By 2003, according to Census data, of the four counties, Clark had the lowest median home values, second lowest median rents and the highest percentage of its population under age 25, all of which suggests that families recognize that it’s more affordable to live in Vancouver than Portland.

The point here isn’t to dump on my hometown of Portland but to make it clear that as Seattle grapples with its own development issues, it needs to be as aware of Portland’s failures as its successes. Environmentally sustainable development can easily come at the expense of affordable housing and therefore the poor and working classes. We have to thoroughly question environmental data because it’s become enough of an issue that it will be skewed for political gain (did I mention the head of the OSD is none other than Portland’s mayor?). And finally, we need to balance the economy with environmental issues: simply letting blue collar jobs evaporate and polluters move to another location isn’t solving the problem, it’s obscuring the issue.

Katarzyna E. Patora contributed significant research to this article.


The above article is shorter than it should have been due to constraints of space in The Seattle Sinner. As such, I wanted to use this space to offer a few notes expannding upon issues I addressed in the article.

The first thing I want to make absolutely clear is that when I accuse someone of conflating the city of Portland with the Metro area, I am referring specifically to Nicholas Kristof and not the Office of Sustainable Development. Kristof knows better; he was raised in Yamhill, a small rural community outside the city. However, the city government hasn't exactly been standing up and trying to make the nuances of geographic area clear, despite the fact that this report has made international headlines.

Second, I wanted to briefly address the issue of the data. Shortly before I sat down to write this piece, at the last minute as we'd been trying to find Washington and Clackamas Counties' emissions data, Kasia--who did much of the research trying to track down this data--commented in exasperation, "You know, maybe [George W.] Bush isn't full of crap when he says we need to do more research on pollution. Maybe he actually sat down and tried to find information about emissions and discovered it doesn't exist."

She was being facetious, of course, but only in part. If a journalist and economics grad student can't find simple emissions data on two urban counties for the last 15 years, there is some sort of significant information gap which needs to be addressed. More troubling is the difficulty I, as a writer, had trying to address all those problems of the data and how it's analyzed; that suggests to me at least that we need to be very critical of what journalists write on this subject. There is no one primary source for emissions data as there is, say, for employment data or other economic information. Because of that fact, any use of statistics requires an analysis of how that data was derived in order to determine if it's accurate and how it relates to other data.

In the above piece, I mention EPA data for the period 1985-1999. The data I refer to came from the EPA AirData program, listing carbon monoxide emissions by source by year for the three Metro counties. It contained strange inconsistencies which cause me to doubt its overall applicability, including an unexplained app. 400% increase in carbon monoxide industrial emissions for Multnomah Co. in 1990. The more complete EPA data program, the Air Quality System does not have data going back to 1990 for all the counties. In short, we could not find any data we felt comfortable trying to directly compare to the OSD data; if anyone has data we can use, I would be more than happy to eat my own words and know what it says.

Secondary to the issue of similar data to Multnomah County's is the issue of what data, exactly, the OSD used. According to the report, the data was calculated using the ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) "Clean Air & Climate Protection software version 1.0." The ICLEI is an inter-city government organization that makes its software available to cities to use to create pollution control measures. How it works is another question. The ICLEI only makes the software available to government agencies, but a fact sheet released by the creators states:

"CACPS [Clean Air and Climate Protection Software] contains thousands of emission coefficients for all of the major air pollutants and GHGs [green house gases] for a range of technologies, regional electricity mixes and fuel types. So, for example, if a state or locality planned measures that would reduce residential electricity consumption by 10 percent, the software would calculate the reduction in electricity demand (gigawatt hours, for example, or whichever unit the state or locality chooses) using a “before” and “after” scenario. Then, based on which regional electricity grid the state or locality is in, the software would apply the appropriate emission coefficients to calculate emission reductions."

In short, before you could fairly compare stats on emissions from the two counties, you'd have to determine how CACPS estimates its data. I don't dispute its accuracy, but until the method is determined, it's like comparing apples and oranges.

The long and the short of it is, analyzing emissions data is remarkably difficult. Good, clear emissions data is not widely available and it's unknown what data and estimating methods the OSD used, making comparisons impossible as of now. So what do I think Washington and Clackamas Counties' data looked like? Actually, I think it was probably pretty good. But below 1990 levels? Doubtful. Not with Washington Co. growing almost four times the rate of Multnomah. But the real issue I want to highlight is the greater issues of urban development, how the UGB and mass transit and "green" development have effected Portland. So, in closing, I'll leave you with these few further notes:

1. My claim that the UGB inflates housing costs is debatable. The Fannie Mae Foundation, for instance, published a study in 2002 largely refuting that claim. However, the study is problematic in that it compared Portland, with its UGB, to other urban areas that don't have one, and found that the UGB did not result in any statistically notable inflation. To be more accurate, though, it likely should have compared housing prices within the UGB to similarly accessible prices outside of it over a period of time. As I have already noted briefly, housing prices across the Columbia River are lower than in the Portland Metro area. Of course, a UGB is only one thing that effects housing prices; Clark Co.'s prices may well have been lower had it not had such intense demand. With over 60% population growth in the last 15 years, housing prices likely faced consistent upward pressure. The second point I would bring up with regard to the UGB is that a non-economic factor has been left out: politics. During the 1990s, the Metro Council, which adjusts the UGB every decade, was taken over largely by developers or their allies. Just because data may show the UGB forcing up prices over the last 15 years doesn't necessarily mean the idea doesn't work. Rather, it may reflect a failure to try to offset upward pressure on housing prices by encouraging the construction of more high-density and low-income housing.

2. The OSD report attributed part of the city's/county's emissions control success to the Max lighrail. An interesting point and one that should be of some interest to Seattle. According to Census data (admittedly a weak source due to self-reporting problems), Washington Co. was the only one of the three Metro counties that saw increasing commute times between 2000 and 2003. This was after the the $968 million west side Max line opened in 1998. Of course, one light rail line would have largely failed to accomodate such rapid population growth, but TriMet (the transit agency that operates Max and city buses) opened the line in a very strange place. The west side line runs from downtown Portland along the oft-congested Sunset Highway (Highway 26) through the West Hills, and then veers off through the suburban city of Beaverton and into Hillsboro. This was an odd choice: huge housing tracts were being built significantly north of the line along Sunset Highway, development not well served by the line (full disclosure: my family lives a quarter-mile off 26 on 185th St. Since the buses were rerouted to connect to the Max line rather than head straight downtown, the time it takes to get from my childhood home to downtown Portland has increased by more than 50%). Meanwhile, downtown Beaverton and Hillsboro are both relatively poor neighborhoods; I don't mean to suggest that the poor don't need good public transit too, but to point out that, out of necessity, poorer people tend to live closer to where they work, while commuter trains like the light rail serve longer-distance commuters. So why did they build the light rail through poorer suburban cities? Likely because the Max was designed to carry people from their homes in the city to work in Washington Co. The Max is very accessible if you live in downtown and work at Nike (whose world headquarters is in Beaverton) or Intel (which has three large campuses between Beaverton and Hillsboro; my sister as it happens commutes to work at one via the Max).

This is probably the most crucial part of the argument I'm trying to formulate (and the one I've touched on least): Seattle and Portland right now are enjoying a strange uban renaissance due to sociology. As much as our mayors would like to take credit for urban renewal in Northwest Portland or Belltown, the reality is that these cities are home to rapidly changing new industries which attract educated young professionals. These twenty-somethings are marrying--or at least having children later--and choosing an urban lifestyle over a suburban one. This has led to massive amounts of urban renewal, but unless these cities do more to create urban centers that are attractive to families and people of all incomes, if and when the tide of popular taste changes and professionals start flocking out of cities for the green suburban pastures, we might find that our cities are once again where they were back in the mid-1980s, when Hawthorne, now one of Portland's hippest neighborhoods, was a drug and crime infested hellhole.

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Of Spaghetti Monsters and People

From the August issue of The Seattle Sinner.
A Parody Religion Takes on Creationism and Intelligent Design

By Jeremy M. Barker

“Let us remember that there are multiple theories of Intelligent Design,” Bobby Henderson wrote in a letter to the Kansas school board in June. “I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

Confused? Well, you wouldn’t be the first. But let’s take step back: In order to understand how a Flying Spaghetti Monster has become a global protest, it’s necessary to understand the long, sordid story of ID (Intelligent Design). ID has recently replaced gay marriage and stem cell research as the front-line of the culture war; from small town school boards across the country to the front pages of The New York Times, from the floor of the Senate to the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian, ID is being debated everywhere. To its supporters (including the President and the Senate Majority), ID is an important theory that deserves classroom time alongside the theory of evolution. To critics in the mainstream science community (who refer to it as “neo-creo” for “neo-creationism”) it’s just another attempt by evangelical Christians to get Jesus back in the classroom.

Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species pretty much killed creationism in the eyes of serious scientists, but Christians pushed on. In 1925, a Tennessee schoolteacher named John Scopes was convicted of violating state law by teaching evolution in what is widely regarded as one of the most important court cases in American history, the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial.” Despite being taught throughout the country today, evolution has never really won the culture war. Only in a 1986 court case, Edwards v. Aguillard, was creationism finally ousted from school curriculums on First Amendment grounds.

Conservatives set out to find a loophole, and that loophole, such as it is, came in 1993. Bruce K. Chapman, a former Seattle city council member and one-time liberal Republican, came across an article by Stephen Meyer, a historian and philosopher of science at a Christian college in Spokane, about ID. Chapman connected Meyer to his old friend George Gilder. Over a dinner at the historic Sorrento Hotel, according to a recent New York Times article, Meyer and Gilder found common ground in opposing what they saw as the secular-materialist bent of modern science and, with Chapman, set out to create a think tank to promote their oppositional religious theory. The result was the creation, in 1996, of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute here in Seattle. From the Institute’s offices in the Melbourne Building at Third and Pike, they set out to defeat Darwinism.

The result was Intelligent Design in its modern form. To skirt the Constitutional prohibition on teaching creationism, ID takes a novel approach: Discovery Institute scientists collected a handful of mostly weak criticisms of evolution, argued they point to the presence of an unnamed “intelligent designer,” and set out to get equal classroom time. Although the Institute has worked with Catholic and Jewish organizations, its greatest success has been piggybacking on the success of evangelical organizations. By working with large national organizations like Focus on the Family, the Discovery Institute created a grassroots movement by distributing its materials to small-town ministers across the country, who in turn used the power of their pulpit to lobby local school boards to adopt ID curriculums.

But there is one crucial flaw in the ID argument: in order to dodge Constitutional restrictions on promoting one religion over others, it doesn’t speculate as to who or what its “intelligent designer” is; it suffices to criticize Darwin, assuming that its own theory points to some sort of Judeo-Christian God.

Enter Bobby Henderson. A 25-year-old, out of work physics student from Oregon State University in Corvallis, Henderson had a late-night revelation born of “a combination of insomnia and mounting disgust over the whole ID issue”: people could just as well have been created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. The joke was funny enough for him to send a letter (available at his website) to Kansas school board members as they were debating adopting ID curriculum.

In the letter he set out to prove, using the same sort of dubious logic employed by IDers, that the world was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster (or, in the preferred on-line shorthand, “FSM”).

“Pastafarianism,” as the belief has come to be known, has, according to the letter, over 10 million adherents. “I’m sure you now realize how important it is that your students are taught this alternate theory,” Henderson wrote. “It is absolutely imperative that they realize that observable evidence is at the discretion of a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Furthermore, it is disrespectful to teach our beliefs without wearing His chosen outfit, which of course is full pirate regalia.” The website includes a graph demonstrating compelling evidence which links global warming to the decreasing number of pirates worldwide.

In an e-mail interview, Henderson admitted, “I have no idea how FSM got so big. I think it must have struck a nerve with a lot of people. [The websites] Fark and BoingBoing are responsible for a lot of it. I would say it’s 99% an Internet phenomenon. The newspapers have picked up on it now, but that’s a result of it becoming so popular on the Internet.” Indeed, what started out as a joke has become something of a global phenomenon. A Google search for “Flying Spaghetti Monster” returns over 201,000 hits as of Aug. 28th (up from 155,000 only three days earlier). Henderson’s website includes endorsements from well over 20 Ph.D.’s from around the world, and FSM has been reported on in sources as diverse as The New Scientist and England’s The Guardian newspaper.

Asked his opinion of ID, Henderson responded “...the [Kansas School Board] is trying to prove [an] a priori position.  They are rewriting the definition of science to conform to their personal dogmatic views.  Teaching ID is maybe ok, but not in a science classroom.  The fact that the KSBoard has changed the definition of science to allow supernatural explanations is a good indication that they don’t understand what science is, and it’s obvious they have no business deciding the science curriculum.” His website lists responses from three board members opposed to ID, one even commenting, “Thanks for the laugh. Your web site is fascinating. I will add your theory to a long list of alternative theories I intend to introduce when it is appropriate. I am practicing how to do this with a straight face which is difficult since it’s such a ridiculous subject; it is also very sad that we are even having the discussion.”

Henderson, asked whether any ID-supporters on the Kansas board had responded to the letter, wrote, “The majority members still have not responded to the letter, but I have it on good authority that they’re receiving dozens of e-mails a day by loyal Pastafarians, so I’m hopeful they'll respond soon.”

Not that FSM hasn’t earned Henderson some harsh critics. Asked about hate mail, Henderson provided an remarkably grammar-free message concluding, “fucking humans, your all pathetic. you dont know shit bitch.” A similarly grammar-challenged e-mail informed Henderson, “"This is obviously a slap in the face against Creation. I can only say I will obviously give you mention in Church to pray for you. You are obviously an atheist. It is obvious I am a Christian. It is also obvious that you are living in the ignorant bliss of humanism. It is also obvious that we both disagree. I can also say that I have considered evolution in years gone by and that any obviously discerning and intelligent person who is willing to think beyond the blind acceptance of science and it’s theories will come to the conclusion that obviously the world in all of its complxity's and
diverse lifestyles is not an accident but was created by a far superior intelligence than I see you or I obviously possess.”

Henderson himself isn’t actually a particularly strident atheist. Asked if there was anything he wanted made clear, he replied, “One thing I think a lot of people are missing is that this isn’t about science vs. religion, it’s about thought vs. dogma. We oppose what the [Kansas School Board] is doing not because of their views of our origins, but because of the way they’re using specious reasoning to push these views into classrooms. ID shouldn’t be taught in science classrooms because it’s not science.”
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