Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

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Imagine if your average pop singer – Katy Perry, Rihanna, Kesha or Lady Gaga made a song called “This is What Makes Us Girls”. Actually, you don’t have to imagine that. There are songs called “We R Who We R” and “Run the World (Girls)”. In the world of Lana Del Rey though, girls don’t run the world, and who they are isn’t something to be proud of. The teachers said they’d never make it out alive, and Lana sings it with a sad agreement. The girls are not united, and instead they put their love first (Can’t run a world like that). The most telling moment is when Lana’s sing her best friend’s line – “Lana, how I hate those guys”. Lana sonds so vulnerable in that line, the complete opposite of the images other Pop singers are trying to project.

In a world saturated with empowering anthems, Born to Die is a dark album exploring the psych of the girl who’s attracted to bad guys, hard drinks and all that excitement. Happiness always comes with gloom. The aforementioned song makes it most obvious, but there’s also a summertime that’s full of sadness, and all the mentioning of swimming pools, make-up and Cristal in “Off to the Races” can’t cover up that insane reality. As soon as the chorus hits, it gets heavy. The hard drums don’t bang like a dance track, but are aggressive in the same way the drums rattle in Drill tracks. As the choruses go on, they get darker. Lana’s character is crazy, misbheaving, and wasted and falling down. There’s no joy, except perhaps a little spite at herself. When she sings “you are my one true love”, it’s not an expression of romance but of dependency.

The music is just as a departure as the lyrics. While it’s not exactly a sonically experimental album, it has a clear, unique sound that fits the lyrics. If most Pop singers drive their empowerment anthems with triyng to reach the highest notes, Lana’s singing is more subdued. The choruses, as catchy as they are, are never big and anthemic. Lana’s calm singing is closer to Dream Pop than anything. Even when she uses her higher voice, it never reaches Stadium territory. “Off to the Races” is the most energetic thing here, but its chorus is more aggressive than anthemic, something an Industrial Rock band would feel comfortable covering.

Where Lana departs from her male friends who revel in their self-loathing is in her treatment of it. Lana’s gloom is not as oppressive as Local H’s or Sadistik, and she doesn’t punish herself like Trent Reznor or Marilyn Manson. “This is What Makes Us Girls”, again, is the best at illustrating it. They might be no joy in “Off to the Races”, but when she mentions her beauty queen friends and partying all night in “Girls”, there’s a sad nostalgia in it. As if she’s saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if all this fun didn’t come with all this sadness?”. Perhaps this is why Lana was bashed as ‘antifeminist’. She explores her flawed and broken characters, but she doesn’t suffocate them with regret, or paints them as utterly clueless and shallow. There’s a reason bad boys and hard drinks are attractive. They’re fun.

That’s why there’s still room for gorgeuous pop melodies. Even if you strip away that concept, you’re still left with a ridiculous amount of great pop. Every song here has a great melody, and every one can be a single. After you manage to get beyond the first four tracks – it’s hard, they’re all brilliant – they quickly become just some more good songs. The sequencing is just as great. “Girls” appear at the end, wrapping up the album’s themes while “Born to Die” appears in the beginning, which gives us the basics of crazy relationships with crazy guys.

Some on internet go off talking about her being ‘manufactured’, faking her past, being antifeminist and behaving awkwardly in interviews. Reznor was also not that tortured while making The Downward Spiral, but that doesn’t it any less gripping. Music speaks for itself, the singer doesn’t. While the antifeminist accusation make more sense and are more interesting, they’re missing the point. Born to Die does more than tell girls how cool they are. It gives them a voice, explores their issues and talks about their falls and shortcomings without beating them up. Women are equal to men, and just like men deserve to have their issues explored and expressed through music. It sure answers a lot of questions than just telling a 15-year-old with a crush on a weirdo that she runs the world. As for how she acts in interviews, I’m a banana octopus.

4 bottles of diet Mountain Dew out of 5

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VilleBillies – VilleBillies (2006)

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Only now I understand why a serious Country Rap movement hasn’t emerged. These genres are perceived as targeting very different demographics. Country is for white rednecks who probably never seen a black man, and rap is for black people, preferably ‘real black’ who don’t act like whites (Also, white rappers try to be black and steal black people’s music). Even weirder is that whenever there were attempts to merge the two genres, they came together so smoothly. They blend together even better than Rap and Rock. There were Nappy Roots, who have some Country influence and a few OutKast singles, but VilleBillies are a full-on Country Rap band.

It’s not a gimmick, either. The band shows perfect understanding of both genres and why they work. The rhymes are often simplistic, but they sound like people who did listen to a lot of rap, and they have no problem using different flows and styles. There’s fast rapping on “Whisky”, laid back on “Rolling Stone” and energetic on “I Got Moves”. Same with with the country elements. They know Country music is not just sticking acoustic guitars, some sliding and a banjo there. It’s not exactly the Alt-Country of Drive-By Truckers (There isn’t a lot of rocking), but they borrow the simple and catchy melodies of Bottle Rockets and the O Brother soundtrack. In some places, it’s more of a Bluegrass-Rap record than anything, sort of like Old Crow Medicine Show with breakbeats and rapping.

All of these makes for a very strong set of songs. Only “Mr. Brown Bag” and “Hey” are a drop in quaklity, and both are from bad either. The former has a fairly weak chorus, and the latter is a fun experiment in Punk that’s just not as attention grabbing as anything around it. The highlights though are just brilliant. “Whisky” is one of the best tribute to the distilled beverage, “Greatest Moment” is a perfect closer, “Mary” has the best melody and “Rolling Stone” is just gorgeous. No obsession over a song lasted as long as that one.

An underrated, brilliant gem. The band is still extremely unknown, but I’m glad that, at the time of writing, they’re still together.

Philip Pullman – The Subtle Knife

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Opening a portal to our world was a pretty bad idea. It causes some bad stuff to happen to our characters, but that’s okay because they’re just characters in a novel. It’s bad because, somehow, more cliches came out and infected this series. They don’t overwhelm it – there’s a scene near the end which defines exactly what Pullman is good at, but it does its harm.

Will is the biggest problem, and for a character who takes the center stage is pretty lazily written. Will is a tortured anti-hero who, aside from feeling pretty shitty from time to time is doing pretty great. Unlike Lyra, who has personality flaws that hinder her progress from time to time and thus make her interesting, all Will has is a ‘troubled past’ which makes him feel bad. Pullman doesn’t completely drop the ball with him, and he does write scenes where Will is not doing so great, but mostly he just feels bad all the time. The only thing that holds him back in the book is a nasty wound, and that’s an external thing, not a personality flaw.

Lyra suffers from his presence, too. She’s still an interesting character, with charming qualities and flaws in her personality, but Pullman turns her into Will’s sidekick. Whenever she takes the stage, it’s great. There’s a scene where Lyra fucks it up pretty bad, but about halfway through she decides – or at least Pullman does for her – that all she will do is help Will. Lyra does have a case for idolization, like she did for Iorek, or the witches but it makes little sense here. Iorek is a huge, strong and alien creature. The witches are powerful and older than your used Volvo. Will is a child like her. A troubled past is nothing to idolize, and while he can fight, he doesn’t have the commending personality of Iorek or the wisdom of the witches. Yet, this rebellious girl now exists only to help him.

Like in the first book, Pullman is much better at ideas than plotting. His plot still feels like a C-RPG of sorts. The character go there, receive that item, use it to advance to the next level and so on. There are less scenes this time where characters interact and let Pullman explore various ideas, but the few there are here are actually better. One good example is a conversation between two doctors, one of which is aware of the novel’s plot and the other isn’t. The one who isn’t will clearly damage our heroes’ journey if he gets his way, but Pullman doesn’t paint him as a villain or a terrible person. He’s merely ignorant of the main plot, so it’s perfectly reasonable from his perspective not to care about all these big events and Plot Coupon collecting. There’s also a scene where he starts to agree with William Golding in the whole adults vs. children discussion (In fact, parts of this book can be isolated and be turned into a nice retelling of Golding’s classic)

He also didn’t fall in his treatment of violence. The Subtle Knife has more gore than its predecessor, with more battle scenes, chases, and character deaths. He still refuses to sensationalize it, and even if Main Characters have to hurt others to advance in the plot, it’s not viewed as totally justified. When the main characters end up hurting some people in order to get the knife, the moment is not very celebratory. Instead of celebrating our heroes’ success, Pullman shows us how it affected others. The best scene in the entire book is when a character has to fight off a lot of mooks. Even if they exist solely so the guy would have something to fight, he doesn’t remain indifferent to the violence. Mooks, in reality, don’t exist. They’re still human beings, and even if they appear for barely a paragraph, The Subtle Knife and its characters acknowledge it. Perhaps parents should stop demanding non-violent content, and instead ask for books like this, which don’t treat violence as just a tool to advance the plot.

Pullman’s strength and weaknesses remain the same, aside from weaker characterization. If he didn’t drop the ball with Will and Lyra, it would’ve been just as good as the first. This is still a very good book, because Pullman doesn’t succumb completely to the new tropes and lets the characters occasionally act beyond “Sad guy” and “Hero’s Sidekick”. The direction was wrong though. Let’s hope he fixes what was wrong in the climax.

 

3 Specters out of 5

Philip Pullman – The Golden Compass (Review)

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I was going to write how Pullman doesn’t fall to the bad tropes of Epic Fantasy. There are no pages dedicated solely to what food is being served. There are no hundred details that can only be useful in a crossword puzzle. Not everything is being described, only what is needed to set the mood. Saying something is not as bad as terrible crap though, is not much of a compliment.

Reading this again, there was a scene that nailed down what Pullman does best. Two side characters are having a debate, and Pullman makes both of them sound right. He managed to display two opposing views without degenerating one to a straw man, and they weren’t discussing just whether to bake the potatoes or make french fries. This extends to how, no matter how strange things get, nothing is portrayed as “That other, strange thing”.

It’s easy enough to see how the gyptians turn from these funny people into a culture as rich and interesting as the scholars of Oxford. While the bears do remain a bit undeveloped (He passes it off as ‘enigmatic’, but I’m not sure it cuts it), they are still displayed as serious sentient beings, not just slightly smarter animals. The best is when he portays his adult characters. Although they are seen as scary, alien and not having a single clue by Main Character, Pullman writes enough scenes to show us their point of view. The most telling one is at the end, where two important characters who are seen as pretty awful are given a scene to show them as more than two megalomaniacs. It’s a scene that tells us that just like children, they have their own ambitions, fears and passions. Mrs. Coulter is still the bad guy, but Pullman showed me it’s just a part of her character, not her whole.

His treatment of violence is also, by far, one of the more mature ones. Violence is not seen as sensational, and it’s ‘shocking’ not for how cool it is but how devastating it is. There are various descriptions of wounds and gore, and they always read like nasty stuff, even if the bad guy is wounded. There’s a very bloody character death that in any other book, we’d be encouraged to be happy about. The good guy won! The bad guy is getting dismembered! Only there is no joy in the ritual of plucking a heart and eating it. The frank and blunt description makes it sound ugly and sad, not glorious.

I wish this maturity also made it to the plot structure. Although it’s devoid of bullshit, the plot consists of Lyra moving from one place to another, with NPC’s telling her where to go to next, or offering her a ride to the next act. She’s given a little more to do than the protagonist in Diablo II, and she occasionally makes her own choices, but all she tends to do is keep moving.

It’s a shame because Pullman had a pretty good character in Lyra. Any criticism of her that she’s not a very unpleasant person misses the point. She’s supposed to be flawed. Children are flawed, and can be pricks. Her character shows, if anything, how well Pullman understands children. They get into stupid rivalries for the sake of it. They exaggerate already scary stories just to spook each other. Some things hold their curiousity and make them obsessed. Other things bore them to death. They view adults both as people to admire and people to fear, and they view some people as just ‘wicked’.

Most of the character moments though are in the beginning, where there’s less of getting to the Final Stage, and more of just exploring and doing side quests. There’s also a prophecy thing that doesn’t contribute anything whatsoever to the story. Lyra’s specialness of learning to read the aleithometer is good enough to make others take her seriously. It’s not like a skill Pullman landed on her, either. I kept forgetting about this prophecy thing, because Lyra kept making choices and doing things out of her own volition. Maybe it makes sense in the next books. In this one, though, it’s an attempt to give a motive to a character who already has one.

The Golden Compass avoids most of the cliches everyone hates about fantasy, and is more mature than not just children’s literature, but than a lot of adult literature. Children will enjoy its weird characters and busy journey, but there’s more to it, even if a good chunk is some unrealized potential due to a dull structure. I read this again becaue I put off reading the last one for too long, and it was even better the second time around.

3 Armored Bears out of 5

Neil Gaiman – American Gods [Review]

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It’s been a while since I read a terrible book, the kind where I have to stop reading because the author just wrote something so asinine. I can’t believe this is the same author of Stardust. Both books are trying something similar by playing on folklore, only Stardust gets it, and American Gods just does one stupid mistake after another. Stardust relates the myths to human experience,American Gods is concerned with a bunch of super-beings whose struggles bear little resemblance to human lives.

The story itself is not great. The actual events consist of running around and talking to people. This is because Gaiman has no real story and he wants to show off the research he has done. Everything is written like a cheap thriller without the energy. Cliched sentences are all over the place. Paragraphs are dedicated to what may or may not happen. Pseudo-omniscient third person narrative, switching points of view because everything has to be told. The main character is passive and does things in order for us to have eyes to look at things, and because Gaiman had no better way to move the story along. He later almost develops this passivity. There’s a moment where someone comments on that trait, and a crucial scene at the ending. All of this has very little bearing on the plot and doesn’t take it to a different direction. Main Character also suddenly changes his behavior because it’s good for the plot. There is no deep psychology for the main character. Gaiman pulls a reason out of an ass at the end, but it was easy to guess it because it’s the most immediate reason, the one that requires little thought. It’s also a reason out of the character’s control. It’s not exactly a psychological trait, and Shadow could have said “Hey, cool story, but I don’t care”. That revelation, in of itself, does not explain the sudden change.

There is one salvageable part in the extended ending (Which goes way after the books run out of steam) when a mystery that appeared halfway through is solved. The conclusion and the scenes are pretty interesting, and if Gaiman wrote a straightforward thriller set in a small American town he’d have more access. He could have been explored his subject better, and relate this God business to actual human lives. This is the only time he does that. Later, a non-existent story arc gets an unimportant closure, where Gaiman tells us a lot of details and personal history of a character that appears for five pages. The plot would’ve changed little if this was removed

I could forgive the non-existent story if the ideas here were worth it. American Gods doesn’t pretend to be a story-centric novel anyway, but the whole premise it relies on falls flat. The war is, supposedly, between polytheism and technology, but were they ever at war? By the time the Industrial Revolution came around, monotheism ruled the west. Somehow, nobody from Judaism, Christianity or Islam makes an appearance. A few people do mention Jesus, and there’s a scene with some Arabic guys, but it goes nowhere. Thinking of it now, I have no idea what that scene with the Arabic people meant within the context of the story. Does anyone know of a pantheon that was common in what is now Islamic territories?

The idea of a “God” is also very vague. His modern gods include Media, Computers, and some people called Mr. Town, Mr. Stone, Mr. Wood, and like that. What does believing in these mean? They all exist, but when does the simply using ends and the worshiping starts? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have gods representing ideas like right-wing, left-wing, capitalism, communism, veganism, feminism, and other such ideas, which are truly abstract? It could even add an interesting dynamic where, while all of these are very modern, they also don’t agree with each other on everything. Oh look, here’s a much cooler premise – follow a bunch of characters representing these ideologies, who have to survive together despite their disagreements. Doesn’t sound that original, but much better than having a passive guy running around with Odin to show off Gaiman’s research.

He says some things about how Americans (Oh! Look at all these fat and stupid people!) switch gods frequently. Let’s forget that the book can’t decides what a god is. What is wrong with the zeitgeist constantly changing? In fact, it’s a good thing. Progress is change. We haven’t reached a utopia yet, and we’ll probably never will, so why not try to change? Not every change is good, obviously, but changing is the only way to improve. The gods probably feel pretty bad about it, but they exist only in the context of the novel. There is no explanation about why “a land bad for gods” is bad for humanity. This brings up another thing: American Gods is one of those novels that are detached from the human experience, where fantasy is not used to mirror or say something about humanity but is used to curl up in it.

The worse is the random bits of shitty writing. Very early, Gaiman tells us Columbus didn’t really discover America. He might as well have said, “This is for ignorant people who barely read the paper”. A character kisses Shadow out of nowhere. The same character goes off before on a monologue which has brackets in it. Nobody speaks with brackets. Digressions are something else. Schrodinger’s Cat gets mentioned for the sole purpose of, “Look! Science can be so cool!” and “Cats! Cats!”.

More offensive was the way the grieving of one character was treated. There’s a death early in the book which affects a few characters. One of them vanishes, only to reappear later in a very convenient way to move the plot from A to B. Said character’s action are framed as vile, and she gets called a ‘cunt’. I don’t want to spoil, but that tragic event isn’t going to make angels out of anyone, and if you’re considering her limited point of view, plus all her grief, her reaction is perfectly reasonable. It may harm our hero, but I can’t hate her. In her world, she’s the main character, not him.

No story, premise that makes little sense, attempts to comment on real life that mean nothing and some very bad writing. This doesn’t sound the guy who made Stardust. I had no idea what happened here. I remember choosing to read American Pastoral instead of this, to ‘get it out of the way’ because this seemed more fun. How wrong I was.

One pantheon out of five