Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Way, Way, Way Downstairs (and don't even know it!)

So, last Sunday, after a long and boring drive home from Portland, I sat down with a cup of coffee to read my Sunday New York Times. After getting the real sections out of the way, I turned to the fluffier Magazine and came across an amusing little article by Walter Kirn ("The Way We Live Now: Way Upstairs, Downstairs," April 16). It's a meditation on growing class inequality in the US.

"There are studies that prove it," writes Kirn,
but I don't need to read them. I've seen the prices on the menus. I've also seen the pay stubs of the cooks. I've stood in the mansions, let in by the maids, and listened to the string quartets, whose players I've met in the coat aisle at Goodwill. I know what's going on. As predicted, but much faster than anticipated, the rich in America are getting richer (at rates that favor the very rich and the superrich). And at the same time, as wasn't quite predicted but still seems faster than anticipated, the nonrich are getting almost nowhere.

Fair enough, though as a professional writer and editor who, as it happens, is also currently unemployed, both professionally and personally I would have liked a bit more discussion of those "studies" he has no need of reading. But what struck me as most amusing cannot really be recorded here as well as need be: seriously, read page 11 of the physical copy and you see what I mean. Kirn writes, somewhat abridged by me, the following:

It doesn't help that the vocabulary of wealth and poverty hasn't been adjusted for inflation since the heyday of dimwitted 1960's TV comedy. We still call the very rich among us millionaires, even though lots of them are closer to billionaires. Words fail reality at the other end too. In 1974, I knew exactly what the grown-ups meant when they called a person "poor" ... It's a simple idea without a simple word now.

Meanwhile, the nonsimple words are taking over. The words with 11 bedrooms and 7 baths that are larger and finer than rich folks needed before the "differentiation" — which isn't merely an economic trend but a style, an aesthetic.

Now, what makes this particular comment so ironic and amusing is that it appears on page 11 of the magazine. Page 12, adjacent, contains the following advertisement for the Corcoran Real Estate Group:

Since the above image is no doubt too small to be read, allow me to quote the text in the bottom left: "It's not just where you hang your hat. It's who you are. So at Corcoran, we're dedicated to understanding you. The practical, ook-to-the-future you... and the dreamy, look-to-the-horizon you. Then we focus on hhomes that fit the needs and desires of both—the beds, the baths... and the breathtaking sunsets."

And who do you need to be to have the Corcoran Group care about you so? Well, a house of the week on their website recently was featured in a New York Post profile. Price? $2.3 million.

Of course, it's no surprise that The New York Times is, in many ways, an elitist institution. For all their liberal slant, their fairly good coverage of the broadening economic gap in America (Walter Kirn's rambling aside), they are also an incredibly expensive newspaper. A dollar for the daily edition and $5 for the Sunday on the newsstand; even my student rate is $20 a month, against which the cost of either The Seattle Times or The Seattle Post-Intelligencer pales.

And I'm not the only one to have noted this recently. Back in their April 17 edition, The New Republic published a cover story by Michelle Cottle entitled "The Gray Lady Wears Prada." In it, Cottle writes of the "Styles" sections on Thursday and Sunday, which, "if one were feeling ungenerous, could be characterized as a smarter, higher-end variation on Lucky."

"The Times is hardly breaking new ground with its foray into what may be best described as luxury porn," she writes.

Most metro areas with the proper concentration of wealth boast at least one slick glossy peddling the luxe life. And, hot on the heels of "Thursday Styles," last September The Wall Street Journal introduced its own shopping-on-steroids section, suggestively titled "Pursuits." But it's one thing for a bunch of glorified ad vehicles—or even the rampantly capitalist Wall Street Journal—to be hawking designer duffel bags and skin cream priced higher than Jack Abramoff's legal team. After all, these publications unabashedly promote—and generally cater to readers who share—a Trump-esque mine-is-bigger-than-yours attitude toward wealth and consumption. It's quite another matter, however, for the venerable Times to lend its imprimatur to a genre so awkwardly at odds with its own high-minded liberal sensibility and intellectual pretensions. This, after all, is the same paper that, last year, ran an eleven-part series on class in America, in which it described economic mobility as 'the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream' and exhaustively pondered its apparent decline.

Ah, Ms.'s all fine and dandy to deride the embrace of elitism by a liberal publication, but she's not one to talk. An simple examination of The New Republic's media kit reveals that TNR, long a bastion for cutting edge thought amongst the American left, is, itself, somewhat of an elitist institution. The average household income of a New Republic reader is a whopping $153,000, the average net worth an impressive $1.3 million. Compare that to their leftier competitor The Nation. According to their media kit, the median income of a Nation subscriber is a more reasonable $69,500, mean $90,000. As for net worth, the median in $377,000, the mean $786,000. Still far wealthier than this subscriber (to both), but more reasonable. The New Republic's readers are overall an affluent bunch: 93% own investments averaging $740,000. 65% travelled internationally yearly, 76% attended operas, the symphony or a dance troupe yearly, and 31% bought wine by the case.

Sitting listlessly around my Seattle apartment listening to Blondie, I am actually chuckling as I write this. It's always reassuring to think, by the demos, that I'm a member of such an elite club since I subscribe to TNR, and gives me some hope I will someday join their rarified ranks. Yet the troubling fact remains: most people of normal means aren't reading The New York Times or The New Republic, both influential and important publications. Perhaps it's a sign of our times, with the readily available supply of choir-preaching bloggers that people simply want to hear what they want to hear and need not be challenged by real news or intelligent analysis. Certainly our bitter political partisanship discourages non-partisan consideration of issues. Whatever the case, though, it's terribly disappointing to think that the only people exposed so serious consideration of increasing economic inequality are the ones coming out on top of the great class differentiation process taking place.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Outsider Art

An Interview With Eddie Argos of Art Brut

By Jeremy M. Barker

"I never went to university. Everyone else in the band went to university. I went to London to start a band."

It's early evening, Saturday March 25, and I'm sitting in the downstairs green room at Neumos with Eddie Argos, the lead singer of the British rock band Art Brut. Argos is roughly my own age, but he's retained the youthful charm and exuberance that daily life usually beats out of you by your mid-twenties. With a charming little moustache that makes him look just a bit like a playful young Salvador Dali, he's an unlikely rock star. He can't play an instrument and he can't sing either, at least in the classic sense of the word, but on stage later that night he becomes one of the most charismatic frontmen I've ever seen.

"I wanted to be in a band since I was tiny," he explains, "and I've tried learning everything: xylophone, clarinet, sax...anything, and I'm like rubbish, I can't do it. And I realized when I was like seventeen or eighteen: I want to be a singer...Lou Reed can't sing...he can get away with it, and so can I."

That's an interesting comparison, because in the song "Bang Bang Rock and Roll," from which Art Brut's first album gets its name, he announces in his slightly off-key voice, that "I can't stand the sound/of the Velvet Underground." When I point that out, he just laughs it off.

Art Brut has been on a crazy trip over the last 18 months. Overshadowed in the media by the flash-in-the pan hype surrounding younger bands like The Subways and Arctic Monkeys, Art Brut sort of quietly exploded below the mainstream media's radar. Despite the fact that their debut effort Bang Bang Rock and Roll isn't officially released in the US until May 23, it managed to score number 38 on Spin's best-of list for 2005 and number 3 on's. And Art Brut, despite a hazing last year in The New York Times, has been playing a sold-out tour of US clubs for the past couple of months, ending in a show at Coachella.

Named for a post-war French art movement centered around Jean Dubuffet, Argos explains the story behind the band's moniker.

"I wanted to call the band 'Bang Bang Rock and Roll,' but no one liked that," he says. "I was in Paris, and there's an Art Brut museum there, and I was in there and I was like, 'Ah! This stuff's amazing! All this art's amazing!' And I could sort of see a thing that we were a bit like that sort of art, and I texted [...], and was like, 'We're called this.' And so for the first time, in the guest book at the Art Brut museum, I wrote, 'Art Brut, Top of the Pops,' across the top of the page."

An obsession with the celebrity of rock music pervades the band's first album. "Top of the Pops," roughly the European equivalent of "Total Request Live," crops in two songs. As does Morrissey, NME and Axl Rose. When I ask Argos whether he's criticizing as an outsider or pining to be a member of the club, he again laughs it off.

"It's funny when you find yourself saying things that you read people in bands saying," he comments off-handedly. "'Oh that's such a cliche!' And then you're in the situation yourself and you find yourself saying it."

As Argos proclaims in their debut single (which he confirms was "pretty much" written in the fifteen minutes after the band formed), "it's not irony, it's not rock and roll. We're just talking to the kids." He's quite serious about playing "Top of the Pops," and asserts that since Art Brut has done it in Germany, it counts. (It goes without saying that the competitive British music scene is much harder to come out on top of, and despite Art Brut's success, they've yet to play "Top of the Pops" in the UK.) But he assures me that the songs are all true.

"I'm just trying to be conversational," he explains, referencing both the songs "Move to LA" and "My Little Brother." "It's the truth. I really want to hang out with Morrissey. My brother really made me a tape of bootlegs and B-sides." Which leads to the obvious question: is the band's plaintive love song "Emily Kane" about a real girl?

"Oh yes!" he assures me. In the song, he pines for his teenage girlfriend Emily Kane, and, mixing both an earnestness and cleverness in a way that makes his music so distinctive, he asserts: "I want school kids on buses, singing your name!" because of his song.

"For Radio One, we played a session, and a friend of a friend of a friend found me and gave me her phone number," he explains of the song. "We used to have a game where we'd take celebrity phone numbers from people, and someone's like, 'I've got the best phone number in the world.' 'Who is it?' 'Emily Kane.' It was amazing! I had to phone her and give her a heads-up that I've written a song about you...She's like—bless her—'Is it a mean song...? No, really?'...But she's got a boyfriend and stuff, really too bad...But it's funny, it's true, I really did think I still loved her, and then when I met her, I sort of realized that I loved being fifteen and being in love, I didn't actually love her. Thße band told me all along, 'Shut up. You're wrong. You definitely love this girl. You're gonna marry her, have kids.' And then when I met her...No, just nah. She's lovely, but no."

But, true to his claim that his songs are honest, later during the show, at the point during "Emily Kane" where he recounts down to the second how long it's been since he's seen her, he digresses with a new narrative explaining much the same story he told me earlier.

"I'm quite lucky in that I write the words and I can say whatever I like in the songs," he tells me. "It's nice, actually, being in foreign countries and people knowing all about Emily Kane or ask about my brother."

On stage later that night, Argos & Co. explode. The band's tightness in performance belies their scant year and a half together. Clutching the mic and a coil of cable in one hand, Argos is all over the place, while guitarist Jasper Future, in sexy tight pants, plays rock God to Argos' left. Argos, whose vocal parts are less lyrics than spoken word pieces, frequently digresses from the album version of songs to add or correct or simply entertainment. Halfway through the band's encore, in the midst of "Bad Weekend" (which features the memorable chant, "Popular culture no longer applies to me"), the band descends into a long, slow freeform jam backing up Argos, as he leads that audience through a chant of "Art Brut, Top of the Pops!" and later, in an attempt to connect to Seattle's music heritage, "Gruge! Top of the Pops!" The fact that grunge is long dead mattered little--Art Brut's music is a mixture of rebellion and homage. They would occasionally cut into other tunes--a riff from Metallica, the drum beat of "My Sharona." For all his carping, Argos is as much a rock music lover as a hater, he just happens to have a good sense of humor. On a series of acoustic in-studio tracks the band did for French radio, he adapted a line, one of the most famous, from "Formed a Band": "Every day we're getting more and more rock and roll, and this is still my singing voice." He's the devilish child poking fun and the pretension of British rock in the post-Radiohead era, while maintaining a refreshing intellectual honesty and artistic seriousness that other jokers—like Tenacious D—simply cannot.

So keep your eye out--the American cut of Bang Bang Rock and Roll features three new tracks not on the British version (which is available online) and watch for Art Brut to return. They're not to be missed.
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