March 18, 2009

We're lovers here in Retro Land

I bet some of you squishes out there are thinking, "Hey, that retro revolution thing sounds kinda interesting, but gosh I just don't know if I'm ready to give up watching House and CSI and all my other favorite shows, or if I'm ready to stop going to see the latest blockbusters at the local multiplex, or hey, what about that newest Coldplay album I wanted to download?"

Never fear! The retro revolution isn't about giving anything up, it's about giving other things a chance. You think I don't have my favorite current TV shows?! You think I don't love the latest movie craze, whether it's Lord of the Rings or superhero movies or Coen Bros. flix?! You think I don't listen to The Killers or The Strokes or other new music?! Au contraire, mon frere. I LIKE new stuff. Some of my favorite pop art is new stuff. The retro manifesto isn't about scorning what's current, it's about loving what's past. Just because I can recognize the greatness of the past doesn't mean I'm blind to the great things that are happening right now. It's the people who scorn -- or worse -- who are indifferent to the past who are the haters. Here in Retro Land, we're lovers, baby.

The retro revolution isn't a "No" it's a "Yes!" It's not a "Less" it's a "More!" The retro way of life is about expanding your pop culture universe, it's about breaking free from mental slavery. The slaves are the people who unthinkingly accept everything the major mass media gives them and who never break free from the easy consumption of "what's hot now." The slaves have tunnel vision when it comes to their pop culture, they just keep looking straight ahead at whatever the culture masters have coming down the pike and never question if there's anything else out there. They never turn their head to see what other cool stuff might be around. They certainly never look backwards. But that's what retro lovers do, we look right, left, up, down, and most especially, back. The rearview mirror often has the sweetest landscape.

Video madness!

Don't be a Slave to the Age!

Humple Pie

Eat eat. Eat your humble pie, cretins. Nobody has any humility anymore. I was reading an essay the other day about education and the writer was arguing that students owe their teachers an attitude of humility in the classroom, meaning they should recognize that they, in fact, do not know everything and that great teachers and great books, etc. actually do have something to teach them. I had to laugh. Kids today with humility?! My sides are splitting!

The old dude was right, of course, but good luck getting any young people today to listen to him. "What a student OWES his teacher"?! Nobody feels they owe anybody anything in our culture today. Duties, responsibilities, virtues -- those went out with the garbage right alongside our cassette tapes and Slip-and-Slides. Now it's just about me, me, me, and "my feelings" and "my opinions" -- "that's just your opinion, that's all that is" -- everything's opinion now, so why should we care about stupid old boring books or weird boring black and white movies or corny old songs, 'cause in the opinion of the young lemmings those things are stoopid and boring and have absolutely nothing to offer their young, hip, iphoned lives.

But I say: eat some humble pie, people! Maybe our current culture doesn't have all the answers. Maybe there's more out there than what gets fed to us daily in the digital media stream of life. Maybe you think it's all a matter of "opinion" and "taste" when it comes to what's good art because you can't accept the fact that you're too impatient, too dull, too incurious, too narrow-minded, too brainwashed, too lazy, too whatever to take the time and step outside of your media jail cell. You're boxed in and you don't even know. When someone points it out, you don't even care.

Humility is the way towards freedom, strange as it may sound. Humility means being open to the smallness of your own experience. By making yourself small you open the way for the largeness of life and truth to enter. This is one of the keys to discovering retro. Once you realize that pop culture is more than just what the opinion makers of today feed to you, you've thrown off the chains and can discover the retro world. Cultural humility leads toward cultural freedom.

What's maddening to me is that it's so easy now to cultivate some cultural humility. We've got everything on the internet -- everything from classic films to rag time music to websites devoted to old school 20th century architecture -- it's never been easier to be a retro maniac, and yet more and more retro is driven underground, left for the obsessives and the freaks. At just the time when technology has made it possible to rediscover everything retro, we're turning our backs on our cultural heritage.

Cultural humility is just another way of saying Curiosity. The curious mind is the active mind; it's unwilling to accept the scraps that the current culture tosses its way and goes off instead to look for the feast found in the cultural past. The humble mind knows it has much to learn, so it sets out to discover all the things worth knowing and hearing and seeing. The dull mind turns around and looks to the past and sees all the dust on everything and says, "Yuck! Gimme my shiny, gimme my flashy new!" The humble mind turns around and looks to the past and wonders what riches might be underneath all that dust.

I'll leave it to you to answer which one lives in chains and which one is free.

March 17, 2009

A note to artists who are considering the retro manifesto as a way of life

The retro manifesto is NOT a license for artists to simply recycle everything from the past and call it a day without adding anything new or original to the equation. The retro manifesto isn't an excuse to be imitation artists only. There's room in the retro revolution for stuff like music sampling and Quentin Tarantino movies, but that can't be all there is. In fact, retro revolutionaries can be revolutionaries without having any retro elements in their art at all. The idea is that artists should study the past, come to love it, and then grow from it -- not just copy it. Understanding where we came from is the key to going forward -- if we want to resurrect the culture. Of course, a good homage is never going to be frowned upon here. Just saying.

In crafting the retro manifesto I've taken my cue from the high brow folks who defend the Western Canon of literature. They argue that writers who wish to write something of quality, something that will last, must measure their work against the great written works of the past -- the Canon. Also, new writers can eventually find their way into the Canon when they write works that respond to, challenge, and draw inspiration from the classics already included in the Canon. In other words, literature should be a continuing conversation between the writers of today and the writers of the past, and today's writers can't join the conversation unless they know who they're talking to -- they've got to read the great works of the past if they want to get in on the conversation. Sounds good to me. I'm one of those conservative right-winger types who believes in the objective standards of art. Some shit is good and worth experiencing; some shit is weak tea and shouldn't take up too much of your time. It's so judgemental of me, I know, but whatevs. Suck it, relativists.

The retro manifesto calls on pop artists to start thinking like those Western Canon fuddy duddies, but you know, with Bugs Bunny and Orson Welles instead of with James Joyce and Beethoven. Our canon is American pop culture from the 1920s to the mid-1960s. That is the pinnacle. Never forget: the whole sum of pop art from that era was superior to the whole sum of the pop art we produce today. It's a fact; dig it and don't give me that "it's a matter of taste" bullshit. That is the heart of the retro manifesto. Today's artists need to love that era the way the young apprentice loves his old master, trailing after him in awe, honored just to hear his whispers. Today's artists need to start conversing with these genius ghosts. Today's artists need to get in on the action, they need to sit at the feet of the masters and join in with the only conversation that matters, the one that starts and ends with the golden age of American popular culture. That's how you join the canon -- you join in on the great, on-going "conversation." Don't worry about what's "cool" right now because "right now" fades; hitch your wagon to the good stuff, the great stuff. If you're unaware of what's great, how can you possibly make anything that will measure up? That's our goal: returning American pop culture to it's glory. Stand on the shoulder of giants and you'll meet Cary Grant in the sky.

Same goes for the audience: If you don't know the best stuff America's ever produced -- if you don't make a conscious decision to seek out the good stuff -- you'll forever be a slave to the hollow, soulless garbage the corporate media feeds to you year after year, day after day, second after second.

It's time to fight back. Take charge of your mind and your imagination and experience greatness. 1947 is just a Netflix click and a youtube link away...

March 16, 2009

Jammin' the Blues

Retro Manifesto

Our culture is dying, if it's not already dead. I date the decline at about 1996, the year The Adventures of Pete and Pete went off the air. I've been wearing my black armband ever since. It could have started earlier -- say, the year Pee Wee whipped out his pee pee in public -- but exact dates don't really matter. What matters is that our culture is pretty much cashed and nobody seems to care. Pop music is for shit, for the most part, with the only vitality left existing in the underground garage rock/punk scene. And yeah, I listen to Vampire Weekend and The Killers and some other radio regs, but a few new gems don't make up for the decline of the whole. Same goes for movies. There are some good recent movies. There will always be some good things in any medium. But the movies in general are stagnant. Hollywood either gives us garbage mind candy or pretentious borefests. The indie scene is still stuck shocking the middle class values of 1994.

Television is maybe the only bright spot. There's a dichotomy on the tube right now between shows that are valiantly trying to be pop art (Pushing Daisies, Mad Men, Chuck, Flight of the Conchords, Battlestar Galactica, Lost) and trashy/bland game shows that seem to devour any network or cable channel they touch. I've got nothing against game shows, but let's have some fun with them. Idol and Dancing with the Stars and Biggest Loser and all the other contest shows are as stale as Star Search. It doesn't help that the state of music and dance and all the other arts are in such decline, because that's all most reality shows are today: variety shows with shitty variety acts. Even our personalities are bad-trash, vapid nothings. These people didn't have to struggle for years honing their craft in vaudeville and night clubs; they didn't have the benefit of learning from true Hollywood craftsmen who were working to make something of value, like in the old days of American entertainment. Instead we get boring, plastic Bratz dolls and unfun phony "freaks" and before you know it MTV, TV Land, Nick at Nite, A&E, etc. have ceased to be the channels they were intended to be (music videos, classic television, arts and culture), and have instead been packed with a dusk-till-dawn, never-ending stream of reality television vomit mind-crack. The networks bump good shows from their line-ups and replace them with cheapy reality show knock-offs of rival network hits. Gone is Pushing Daisies; welcome back, a third night of Dancing with the Stars!

And let's not blame the artists alone. It is the audience that enables them. The audience watches/listens/buys tickets for this shite and the artists and media makers respond with more, more, more. The culture is dying because everybody -- the artists, the executives, the audience -- has ignored our cultural history. That's my grand theory. Only a handful of people have any interest in the pop art of the past, the rest just glide through life pretending history started the day they were born. And don't tell me that's how it's always been. Say what you will about the Baby Boomers (stupid hippie fuckers), but when they were in their twenties they worshiped Bette Davis. Even the culture of the 80s and early 90s knew enough to know that cool had existed long before 1969. Today, ask a kid if he likes old movies and he'll say, "Sure, Star Wars Episode IV" -- blargh! -- "is pretty good, but a little cheesy. Al Pacino was badass in Scarface." That's right: 1977 is "old movies."

A little bit of truth: The pinnacle of American popular culture was from about the 1920s to the mid-1960s. Deal with it, retro haters. After that there was mostly decline, though pockets of genius existed and still do, i.e. movies in the 1970s, New Wave music in the 1980s, the television renaissance that started with The Sopranos and seems to be in its last phase as I type this. A culture can always produce quality stuff, even if it's living in Guttersville in general. But for about 45 years, American culture was tops. Golden Age Hollywood, jazz and jitterbugging, Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, I Love Lucy, Sinatra. It was our gift to the world! It was the true American spirit at work in the arts! You're welcome, everybody. (But yeah, sorry, World, about the Deal or No Deal-ification of culture we've got going on now. I'm working on it.)

Nobody's saying "copy the past," but: Know the past, appreciate the past, respect the past, learn from the past. Hang on to the old masters and use them as your teachers and guides both as producers of culture and as consumers of culture. If a sitcom is twenty steps down from the hilarity of Lucy -- watch Lucy and wait for the new guys to come up with something better. If rock music on the radio is samebland, samebland, samebland -- keep rocking out to the Cramps and the Ramones until something equally good or better comes along.

Usually, if today's culture produces anything of value it's because the artists are aware of and have respect for their cultural past. Why is Mad Men so good? 'Cause those dudes know their early '60s pop art! Why is Lost a modern masterpiece? 'Cause they're trying to replicate the glory days of their youth, when The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were a sci fi geek's parallel dimension heaven! Why are the Detroit Cobras the kings/queens of the Detroit rock scene? Because all they do is cover old mid-century music with a garage punk sound! It's not that these artists are stealing from the past or out of ideas or copycats. Don't mistake Matt Weiner or Quentin Tarantino for the people who keep shoveling out shit sandwiches like The Dukes of Hazzard movie or the Knight Rider remake. The ones who cynically try to make money by remaking stuff from the past aren't retro lovers; they have no respect or passion for old stuff. They simply have no imaginations of their own and just want to make a quick buck on people's nostalgia. The dedicated artists, the ones with their eyes and hearts steeped in the past, don't even necessarily have to make retro-tinged products, they simply have to know and appreciate their cultural heritage and their art will be better and more lasting because of it.

I hold my biggest bitch stick for the audience though. There are a few good egg artists out there making stuff in Music Land and Movie World and on TV's vast Trash Heap. But the audience keeps lapping up crap, so there's no incentive for the culture to get better. The Obamabot youths of America have zero critical thinking skills in their facebooked brains, so their ability to be curious or intellectually adventurous in their media consumption is practically nil. They can't seem to figure out the images of a black and white world, so they fluff it off as irrelevant. And that's the god of 21st century education: Relevance. Unless it's "relevant" to the kiddies' limited, echo chamber world (meaning it's something that fits in their comfort zone and doesn't challenge any of their notions about art or the world or their teleprompter Jesus), then teachers will reject it. I know of what I speak. When I tried exposing students to culture from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, most reacted with antipathy or confusion or indifference and who can blame them really. Why should they and why would they care if they've never had to confront anything else like this stuff for the previous eleven years of their schooling?

Retro needs to be the watch word. If we're going to salvage the culture in any way, we need to start championing the great stuff from America's past and blaring the best stuff back out into the culture at large so that it remains ever vibrant and vital to the everyday people who consume popular culture unthinkingly. Maybe if our culture can rediscover the pride of American pop art we can have a second golden age (though I don't hold my breath for that starry-eyed fantasy). I'm not talking about hiding out in our little online communities of die-hards and obsessives either. We already know and love the past; right now we're just circle jerking ourselves. But the ignorant kids and brain-dead twenty-somethings need a shake-up, and their parents too need to be reminded that there were better days, even fifteen years ago when Nick at Nite still played shows in black and white. I'm talking about going out like missionaries to spread the gospel of retro to the wide world.

Retro forever! Retro IS better! America's culture was better in the past, get used to it relativists and crapweasal enablers of the empty cgi anorexic pop culture of today.

If you can't tell that Cary Grant is infinitely, objectively better than lame-O George Clooney then you're an idiot who should just do the rest of us all a favor and crawl back into your basement and play your X-box until your brain melts. Keep your dirty dreams off our internet, liberal weeny mouth-breathers!

Retro forever! Retro IS better! Viva 1947!

March 15, 2009

What the fuck is this?!

New blog but why? Who can keep up?

Brain exploded, insanity coughed this up. Retro manifestos are coming soon.