Halsey – Badlands

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We seem to live in the comedown from Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga. A few years ago, a lot of women got on TV with weird outfits and bragged about how much sex they have and how much they drink. The parties didn’t have to look fun. Mostly, it looked like a bunch of cool people trying hard to impress you. What’s important is that you’ll find them profound, strong, going against the norm. As we know, nothing is more rebellious than drinking alcohol and having sex.

Only your mom is actually against partying, and even that population of anti-partying moms is dwindling. Pretty soon a new type of female Pop rose, one that was still about lots of sex and partying but acknowledged the fact that made your Mom despise those parties. Where there are people, there are feelings and getting hurt. People sometimes get hurt before, during or after the party. Sex is fine and all, but it’s not as easy doing vocal acrobatics and calling it a song.

Halsey is a latecomer to this scene, and it shows. Lana Del Rey may have kicked it off, but singers who came later didn’t stick to the formula. For all of the ‘alt girl’ posing on Tumblr, these singers did show there was room for personal expression in Pop music. Compared to what came before, these singers gave a voice to all the kinds of experiences you go through when young.

Halsey may be considered ‘generic’ in that movement, but it’s a movement that’s defined by not sticking only to bragging about sex. In fact, her personality is actually more solid than it first seems. If she seems like a stereotype of the dyed hair, feminist teenager that’s on Tumblr posting better content than you it’s only because she throws herself fully at it.

True enough, we need it. I’m not one to complain about how there aren’t enough Black people in a certain field, or how there are too many males in a different one (As we know, all males are exactly the same). There is something different about these lyrics of youth though, something that’s far from the rage and angst of the male-dominated rock genre.

Instead of tales of hatred, rage, and heartbreak we get tales of confused and confusing sexuality, of drugs that are fun and wrecking at the same. Overall, life is a huge set of contradictions. Now that’s emotional depth for you. In contrast to bands where sex was always a bad thing, where romance lead directly to agony here it’s unclear and blurry. “Strange Love” is about a relationship so messy we don’t even bother to define it. On “Hurricane” she manages to overcome the guy all the girls can’t overcome. All that confidence is gone on “Drive”, a contemplative, atmospheric song that’s soaked in the amorphous and somewhat profound thoughts of an over-intelligent youth.

I know it’s fun to assume young people are idiots – that’s why we got such a moronic educational system. They experience things, though. The best music of youth captures this spark and more. Halsey is at once a young girl who lets herself get carried away by her sexuality, is totally in control of it, utterly confused by it and has the wisdom of a sage – sometimes in the same song. “Hurricane” isn’t the best song here, but it’s the best example of when it all collides at once.

Can these lyrics be anything less than ridiculous? Actually, they’re quite excellent. They aren’t a bunch of vague lines about sex and pain strung together, but there’s a coherent idea connecting them each. The distinct subject matter is what helps the songs stand out. True, “New Americana” is awful, but that’s because it’s the only song where Halsey pretends to be important. Name-dropping Nirvana and Biggie especially sounds stupid. Isn’t she younger than me? Did she feel comfortable listening to “One More Chance”? Statement-making was far more convincing in “Castle”, a slow-grinding song where Halsey sounds like an overconfident youth with all the good that it implies.

She’s actually at her best when she throws herself at an idea. The more contemplative songs, where she sounds too grown for her age can blur together – “Hurricane” and “Roman Holiday” are cute, but “Gasoline” contains lyrics that in any other context would stupid. “Are you deranged like me?” is as attention-wanting as it gets, but it nails the feeling of being misunderstood with others on the internet. “Colors” is the big highlight about loving a guy who’s on the road to self-destruction. The lyrics may be sappy, but being young is about being sappy. If you got the bonus tracks then “Control” is another highlight. I have no idea how it didn’t end up on the album.

People talked about how Halsey is constructed, artificial and is ‘not real’. Is Lady Gaga real? Sure, she flaunted how her imagery was fake but we were supposed to take seriously the idea she’s not real – or whatever postmodern hullabaloo went over there. Music is performance, and what matters is how the performance goes. Halsey is dead-on in what she’s trying to achieve. I met the type of girls who are into this music and heard their stories. Halsey’s lyrics match their stories, if not in precise details but in vibe. In the end music is more about capturing a certain essence of feeling or of experience, rather than the exact details. While it’s true Halsey doesn’t have too many quotables – her peers are much better than her, as a whole her lyrics are fantastic. Few songs get what loving a dangerous and self-destructive guy is like “Colors”.

Badlands is overall a fantastic Pop albm with everything you’d want – great hooks, great production and enough personality to make it memorable. That personality can annoy people, especially if you’re too busy with authenticity or getting angry over weirdos on Tumblr. It’s also possible you’re too busy looking for things to make fun of rathe than experiencing the world. Irony culture has yet to produce something as fun as “Colors”.

3.5 sexy boys out of 5

 

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Kuuchu Burnako (Flying Trapeze)

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Often you’ll hear how being unique isn’t enough to make a good anime. That’s not entirely true, since being unique is overall a good trait. Why would you want to sit in front of a screen, watching the same thing over and over? What these people do get right is that mere uniqueness isn’t enough. Although in the end, all great works of art are unique and highly original, not all original works are great works. That’s because true greatness which comes from true uniqueness isn’t just a unique art style or a cool storytelling method, but a thematic depth.

All the problems with this anime are in this sector. It’s eccentric and utterly bizarre. Better anime don’t break their conventions like this, but in the end it’s all just quirks and a unique style that don’t reach any profound conclusion. As an aesthetic experience, it’s awesome with how wacky it is. As for its narrative, it’s just there.

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The narrative is fairly empty and the symbols, while cool, don’t mean anything. Having a psychiatrist and people with psychological disorders isn’t an automatic ticket for actual character psychology. The anime mistakes exaggeration for madness, like a 16-year-old kid who thinks a Facebook cover photo with blood shows how ‘crazy’ they are.

The anime deals with the old notion of ‘crazy’, something that I think the mental health institutions abandoned even before Thomas Szasz took an axe to their heads. Here characters don’t struggle daily with a disorder. The problem isn’t present in every fabric of their existence but, rather, explodes out of nowhere. Most of these characters lead normal lives until something triggers them.

Now, it’s true that a lot of mentally ill people function day-to-day, interact with people and buy eggplants without causing a massacre. Notice how their normality is only something we experience. They don’t. Someone who is suicidal (A major problem that the series oddly avoids) is always suicidal. Some days it hurts less, some days it hurts more. However, the normality is only an external thing.

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Inside, everything pushes him towards death. For the depressed person, every thing demands extra effort and the question of ‘why go on?’ is always present. That’s why mental illness is such a problematic thing and a lot of philosophers had to step in to redefine it. Mental illness is not a wound, it’s not a specific area of the body we can target and diagnose and seperate. Mental illness is an integral part of being. Depression isn’t a distortion of reality but a part of someone’s personal reality.

The characters here aren’t even reduced to their mental illness. They’re reduced to their onsets. Although we see them do ordinary stuff like jobs and family, we rarely get insight into how they exist with this. It’s all just build-up until the dude panics over not being sure if the stove is on. This prevents the show from having any serious psychology. In order for it to be truly psychological, it needs to present these people as whole human beings and it needs to show how the illness relates to the whole.

In truth, these aren’t really characters. Their disorder defines them more than anything. Most of the differences between them comes from that. The show belongs to the tradition of a main character who’s a vessel for other stories. In general these type of anime have a cool style and an empty narrative. It’s not just because there is no major conclusion – although it tries for something sappy like how we need to listen to others. Their problems are also very illness-orientated.

If mental illness was so exaggerated and obvious, we would’ve had an easier time dealing with it. We don’t. The problems these characters face tend to be only their illness. How it relates to other problems is unclear. Sure, it disrupts their day-to-day life but that’s not enough. How does it affect sexuality, social interactions, worldviews? The series loves to portray extras as cardboard, but in truth no one is cardboard for people. Our ilness and these passerbys are part of our lives. The anime treats mental problems like an obvious wound.

It doesn’t help that most of the stories involve OCD. I’m sure it’s a common disorder, but where’s schizophrenia, depression, bipolar? Perhaps because OCD is far easier to exaggerate. It has onsets, things that are easy to transmit visually. Depression is harder since depression is everywhere, showing itself in every action and relates to a person’s inner life. You have to show a worldview in order to portray depression. That’s why its status as an illness is such a problematic issue. Eventually, all these people with OCD blur into one another. The only thing that changes is how it works.

When a different illness comes, they fail to show its psychology. A person’s narcissism ends up being monotonous. The big problem isn’t narcissism, but a dude who can’t stop smiling. The whole agony of living in the past, in glory days that are never to return and trying desperately to re-create them isn’t there. Rather, it’s just a person repeating his shtick over and over. It’s an excellent example of how they take a serious issue and reduce it to a single symbol, stripping it of any depth.

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The surrealistic, bizarre art and storytelling also leads to an air of self-satisfaction. It’s not as bad as it looks from the outside, but it’s there. Nothing is particularly funny about these jokes, since they don’t point to any absurdity and hardly a taboo. So the psychiatrist gets off on vitamin shots. That’s kind of odd and amusing, but not out of place. Early on the anime establishes how wacky it is with these colors, so this is fairly ordinary. Irabu is also not really funny, just quirky and high-pitched. There’s also a sexy nurse who thankfully has little screen time. Her role is mainly to inform the viewer that the makers are totally fine with ultra-sexy yet placid women, some pathetic symbol of ‘sexual strength’. I don’t know. Nothing about her is interesting, including breaking into live-action. Overall, the series sets itself up as weird, but can’t ever up the weirdness.

It’s not all bad though. In fact, in its format, the anime is quite excellent. It’s the old format of a single main character whose a narrative device to show the lives of various characters, like Kino’s Journey or Mushishi and it does it so much better.

First off, merely dealing with mental disorders – an integral part of the experience of being – gives these stories a more emotional, personal angle. Already here it lifts itself up above the aforementioned anime. Unlike them, there is some sort of humanity here. It’s exaggerated, caricature-esque and shallow but it exists. The main driving symbol has a far more personal nature so the stories are by their nature more emotionally engrossing. The distance that harmed Mushishi is mostly absent.

There’s also concern and empathy for these characters. For all its exaggeration, the series has some awareness that underneath it all there should be humanity. The tone is not mocking, something that the aesthetics and the ultrasexy nurse hint at. Rather, it’s empathetic towards these little lost humans and their madness. Episodes don’t end with a complete return to normality, but with a way to cope with the madness.

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It’s this vibe and demeanor that prevents the anime from being only an exercise in aesthetics. There is a clear meaning underneath some of these symbols, like how cardboard-like people merely means these aren’t important characters. The mental conditions are caricatures, but at least they make sense – extreme worry is a problem. Even if the series isolates these parts, it does fit with the style. In a way, the series never pretends to actually be psychological. From the start it’s concerned more with flash than substance, but it has just enough substance and humanity to prevent it from being vapid.

As for its aesthetics though, they’re fantastic. It’s true there isn’t an anime quite like this one. You might compare its surreal style to Tatami Galaxy, but that one had an overbearing, total aesthetic. Here they take a realistic art style and utterly distort it, creating a weird clash of realism and cartoon. The storytelling is knowingly expressive, so much so that sometimes things don’t have meaning. There are polka dots everywhere, but then again why not? It’s self-awareness which doesn’t try to be clever. Knowing that none of it is real, they let themselves go with wacky, memorable images. It’s a style weird enough to hold on for 12 episodes even if there isn’t much variety among them.

Utterly bizarre and original, yet its lack of depth prevent it from being one of the greats. It had the premise and the aesthetic boldness, but it’s also satisfied in just being fun. Often we talk about how ‘just fun’ shows need to be unoriginal, yet this anime demonstrates you can have fun without aiming too high. Set expectations about how mind-blowing this is, and you’ll be disappointed. This is just another in the long line of episodic anime with a wide cast, but its one-of-a-kind style breathes life to the format.

3 crazies out of 5

Jennifer Niven – All the Bright Places

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I read plenty of crappy books. The world is, after all, a crappy place (That’s why people kill themselves). Never have I read a book that offended me as much as this. I’d rather read the file about the crimes of Ian Watkins.

Suicide is close to me. My relationship with it is special. I’m passionate about it. I hope to either die by suicide, or make assisted suicide a reality and help the community. It frames my life.

Let me be clear. I do not want to live. I live only because I have to. I live only because assisted suicide isn’t available. Nothing can change it, except perhaps becoming a godlike celebrity. The reasons for this aren’t just ‘depression’ or whatever.

Suicide isn’t the result of simple chemical imbalance. Suicide is a choice. There is a lot of philosophical depth to it. The communities are rife with ideas and arguments why do it. Reading what these people left behind, they’re hardly irrational. Calling them ‘depressed’ and therefore irrational is calling a woman irrational because her skin bleeds when her husband hits her. No one chooses to be born. People should at least be able to choose to die. What kind of sick world is it that people live in it against their will?

Niven lost a person to suicide. The subject is close to her. I’m sorry for her loss, but it doesn’t excuse how horrible the novel is. Her lack of understanding of the suicidal mind is in every page. That’s not surprising since understanding suicide is extremely difficult unless you’re there. People are hard-wired to survive. “Life is good” is an idea that exists in our genes. Thinking otherwise is rebellion against nature itself.

The main principle behind suicide is that life isn’t good, in and of itself. Death has its benefits, like the end of all needs and all suffering. I talked to many people about suicide and each of them thought we all operate around the same idea. They all thought suicidal people love life and simply feel terrible in this moment. Yet all the writings in alt.suicide.holiday says a different thing. These people value freedom and not life.

Niven can’t understand this, and that’s why her main character isn’t really suicidal. In order for him to be suicidal, I need to see these thoughts in action. I need to see the despair, the hatred, the failure and the lack of connection with the world, Nothing about Finch resembles a suicidal person. Even pro-life psychologists – who fool themselves into thinking they understand us – know a little about that mind. Another quality of it is that it feels trapped.

In fact, many of the people in suicide communities would kill to be Theodore Finch. He plays guitar and writes songs. There’s a rock bar where people know him and he’s been in bands. He had a lot of sex. He aggressively pursue a hot girl and instead of getting accused of harassment, he wins her. Clearly, Finch is in the beautiful and free. Perhaps he was abused, but a lot of people are abused without killing themselves. Perhaps his mother is absent, but that gives him so much freedom.

A lot of people also lead great lives and still kill themselves. Just look at Robin Williams or Ian Curtis. Despite being ultimate alpha males in the eyes of society, they decided to exit. This happens occasionally in my suicide forum. Someone mentions how, despite having everything they still want to die. I do believe them – they still feel a sense of pointless or trapped-ness or hopelessness.

Where is it in Finch? He pursues Violet with the confidence of a jock. He travels around and has a lot of fun. Niven is good at writing the ‘manic’ side of Finch. She’s just as in love with life, so she uses the character to escape to a teenage fantasy – Manic Pixie Dream Boy acts like a sex offender (Hot, so forgiven) and teaches a depressed (But popular and hot) girl how to live while travelin’ ’round.

We hardly get any moment of Finch’s ‘depressed’ side. Pessimism and optimism are weird things. It’s possible to find negatives and positives in everything and that’s how Digimon Tamers presented a good argument against suicide. Niven doesn’t present any arguments for suicide at all. Where’s the sense of hopeless? Of no direction? Where’s the feeling that no matter what happens, it will never get better?

Suicidal people often have a psychological need the can’t satisfy. They tend to have specific issues they want to live without. The fear of these striking again is why they prefer dying over living (If it can get worse, it can also get better). Finch doesn’t have that psychological need. He’s a male version of the females from John Green books. Despite being pretty bummed over life, we never get a reason why. Niven can’t even imagine a reason like “I will never be enough for that girl”. Niven can’t even give Finch a reason to die that suicidal people will frown upon.

So no, Finch isn’t mentally ill. He’s always manic and always full of life. Something in Williams’ and Curtis’ lives wasn’t enough. Despite being a big shot comedian and the frontman of Post-Punk’s top band, life still wasn’t good enough. There isn’t a single moment where Niven shows she understands what it’s like when everything is not enough.

As for Violet, she mostly follows Finch around and gives in to Finch’s aggressive pursuit. I didn’t mention Ian Watkins in the beginning for nothing. Finch pursues Violent with so much force that if he continued to live he’d probably end up like Watkins. Assuming, of course, he’ll have a hit song. Considering he’s hot I bet he has a good chance.

John Green is also a good comparison point. The book follows a nearly identical structure. The shared ingredients include two lovers who are meant to be weirdos, but are in fact total badasses. There are quirky best friends and a lot of traveling around. To Niven’s credit, she doesn’t focus too much on those so-called ‘best friends’.

There are also few and brief moments where Niven understands suicide. If you ever wanted to kill yourself you probably heard help is available and people care. They don’t. People are shocked by suicide and won’t care about you when you’re alive. Many people are afraid to acknowledge this and I’m glad Niven gets that. The character of Amanda also makes me hope that if Niven only read a bit in alt.suicide.holiday, she might’ve understood the concept of “Everything is never enough”. She’s the most realistic and fascinating character – a popular girl so trapped in her popularity she can’t imagine a way out but death.

If you hope to read this and gain an understanding of suicide, you will be disappointed. Worse, you might be fooled. Suicidal people aren’t illnesses. They aren’t thoughtcriminals who need to be re-educated. No one chooses to live and therefore people should be allowed to die. The anti-suicide attitude is in fact what drives many people to suicide. A lot of suicidal people aren’t fighting suicidal thoughts. They’re fighting life. Life is the problem, not the desire to die.

The novel is terrible for deeper reasons than a creepy romance and ripping off a ‘meh’ author. It takes an important and rich subject and doesn’t even simplify it. Suicide happens in the book, but the story is really about two hot teenage badasses being hot teenage badasses. If I lived like Finch I would’ve loved life. I really hope Niven – and anyone else who lost someone to suicide – finds support and continues to take care of themselves. It won’t suicide any less valid though.

zero stars

Mudvayne – L.D. 50

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Nu Metal always had its weird side, and Mudvayne are trying to take it to the extreme. “Dig” was an obvious single, but Mudvayne’s quirks are there. The hook is a catchy chant, but behind the chanting the band just beats the sound to the ground. There’s a messiness and intensity to the riffs that doesn’t match other Nu Metal bands. More is going on besides noise or groovey riffs.

The bounce of “Internal Primates Forever” only confirms Mudvayne are on to something special. The “jump!” screaming adds some fun to song that tries so hard to be complex. For all of its shifting part and Patton-esque vocals, it’s a fun rocker. Both of these songs are brilliant because the band sounds like they can do anything and still make it accessible and intense and moshpit-friendly. It’s a more complex but organized version of Slipknot’s early output.

The next two tracks are okay, but it’s hard to find the difference between them. The band had a great sound, but all of their ideas were done in the first two songs and “Under My Skin” which only arrives at the end.

What went wrong? There are interesting moments. The tempo shifts in “Death Blooms” are effective and the band sounds good in a more funky setting. The melodic beginning of “-1” isn’t catchy, but it’s an addition that still contributes and adds contrast. The band never sounds tired.

It’s so boring, though. It’s hard to make a loud album that wants to literally break ground with its anger. Some did it, but not like Mudvayne. Glassjaw had heartbreak that made every song stick out. My Ticket Home’s album was short and catchy. Nine Inch Nails made it an EP. Even Slipknot couldn’t drag this for a whole album. Melody made their music heavier, but they still ran out of steam at the end of Vol. 3.

It’s somewhere around “Cradle” that the album loses all potential of a masterpiece. The song doesn’t end where it should but literally restarts. It exhausts all of its ideas and restarts anyway. Worse, it’s not very different than what came before.

It turns out Mudvayne don’t do much with their intense sound. Most of the songs consist of the vocalist screaming while the band pummels in the back and being loud. Catchy hooks and funky breaks are rare, and they’re always too short and too late to save the song.

The attempt at rapping in “Under My Skin” is a blessing. It doesn’t matter whether the label ‘forced’ them to make it or not. You can actually find traces of Hip-Hop in previous songs, anyway. It’s a lighter, catchier and more organized songs than everything around it. The band finally sounds experimental as they want to be. Being experimental isn’t just removing hooks. It also offers the guitarist to play other riffs besides slow sledgehammers.

L.D. 50 deserves some credit for making interludes sound like a good idea. The interludes scattered around the album (which also steal all the best song titles) connect to the songs, and the weird electronics offers a nice respite from the chaos. “Dig” sounds more effective if you have the build-up of “Monolith”. If only Mudvayne used these electronics to create actual songs. Maybe we could have had a nice contrast of cold electronica and chaothic Nu Metal. There’s some fun to be had here, but it’s a band being ambitious without any idea what to do.

2 doses out of 5