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Monthly Archives: May, 2016

Favorite albums: “Kilimanjaro” by Superpitcher

What is Friday Afternoon? Is it an open bar, or leaving the workplace at 4:30 (instead of 5:00) to jet off to Florida or Michigan or wherever the hell people leave cities like Chicago for when the weather starts to go gray? Is it #TGIF and “working for the weekend”? It’s all this bullshit, if you have a certain center to your life.

Throughout the second half of 2009 and most of 2010, Friday afternoon was just another day for me. Between freelancing and adjuncting at a community college, there was neither dread at Monday arriving (I rarely did anything on that day) nor relief at Friday descending from the heavens. TGIF? I would be writing more “Top 5 Schools for a Psy.D in the Midwest” mini dissertations then, just like I had been on Tuesday.

The weekend is a bookkeeping trick; you need a “week” that is somehow less than ideal for the “end” of it to be in any way distinct. As we know it in 2016, the weekend was crafted by the organized labor movement and it is being undone by  the long reach of email, the iPhone with Good or Slack on it, and – for a far larger audience than the white-collar Twitter power users who have succumbed (in many cases seemingly with glee) to the last two – the unpredictable service industry schedule, under which Starbucks cashiers, for example, hurry to the mall at the last minute to fill a newly assigned shift.

“Lack of entertainment…”

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Superpitcher’s second album, Kilimanjaro, was released in 2010, following up 2004’s “Here Comes Love.” Superpitcher is the artist name of one Aksel Schaufler and a mainstay of the German house music record label Kompakt.

Kilimanjaro plays out like two halves of a Friday night; it even has a song called “Friday Night” that concludes the album’s upbeat first half. This half is filled with images of being “too drunk,” with Schaufler insisting in the song (and first album single) “Rabbits in a Hurry” that with so much alcohol “you’ll get used to the confusion,” but at the same time “too drunk to fuck.” Elsewhere, in “Friday Night” he unspools a tale of it being “Friday night, and I’m not dancing,” which gives him free reign to imagine a potential acquaintance doing cocaine without him, leaving him with a “lack of entertainment.”

On top of these hedonistic hypotheticals, he tells a tale of being a “country boy with blood on my teeth” (“Country Boy”) and asks an unnamed second person “why do you why do you why do you voodoo?” (“Voodoo”). There is an intersection here between a mythology that Schaufler’s character has bought into in the album’s first five songs, and the banality of”Friday night” in particular and weekend culture in general. The voodoo-curious, superhuman “country boy” with a taste for blood ends up walking down to the beach all on his own, with the orgiastic scenes of “Rabbits in a Hurry” lamely playing out (replaying?) in his head as he wrestles with the idea of his own confusion, imagining that everyone else will be just as misguided if they drink as much as he does.

The “Friday afternoon” of Kilimanjaro is a burst of glory that is imagined, played out, and rejected in rapid succession. It is Friday afternoon as conceived by someone without any of the social structures – a white-collar job with “professional” colleagues, more than anything – that could make it a predictable, enjoyable respite from the stupid-ass 9-5 grind. The Kilimanjaro narrator is grinding all the time, weekend or not. Even the album’s first track, “Prelude,” provides the context of church bells, suggesting that the images of a weekend escape – the romps of “Rabbits in a Hurry,” the drug-fueled ecstasy of a song actually entitle “Friday Night” – are not being entertained on a dreary Tuesday evening, but in the heart of the weekend proper.

I remember sitting around my dusty Pulaski Rd. apartment in 2010 around the time Kilimanjaro came out, and having similar fantasies of an “escape” from my part-time jobs and precarious situation at all times. It wasn’t the precise structure of the weekend I looked forward to, but the possible, sudden arrival on any day – a sunny Wednesday afternoon, or a Monday morning – of news of some new opportunity that would end the doldrums. But with everyone else working on those weekdays in particular (which were meaninglessly different from weekend days to me, but not to them, I imagined), the counter-narrative of me continuing to miss out would rise up right away as an antithesis to my magical thoughts.

“Had a rough time, had a tough time…”

The middle song of Kilimanjaro is “Moon Fever,” an instrumental that uses vibes to create a wintery vibe. It is also a transitional number, marking the end of the energetic delusions of the first half and the start of the empowered depression of the second half.

Once it finishes, we get “Give Me My Heart Back,” a song that would seem to be doomed by its ridiculous title, but which manages to split the difference between country and house somehow, with plenty of guitar to go with Superpitcher’s typically lush sounds. From there, the album wanders off to a shadowy hookah bar, a studio apartment lighted by a single pole lamp, a dance hall on the cusp of closing – any place to which someone might flee to escape from the archetypal weekday grind, in “Who Stole the Sun?”

This song is effectively the album’s title track, with its bewitching whispers of “Kilimanjaro” throughout the intro. The samples and subtle guitar – again – seem dark and smoky to me, making me think vaguely of the venues I cited above, but even more so of a rundown Providence apartment I visited in 2008 while on a tryst worthy of the first half of Kilimanjaro. The front door was a broken screen, the steps the same colors as the walls, the room on the second floor a sunless box with black curtains.

Schaufler’s character is now reduced to wandering around such a space, with his thoughts in tow, wondering where everyone is while he has been through  “a rough time….a tough time.” Yet the sinister confidence of the vocals here and across the songs in the second half, as compared to the more skittish and impressionistic takes of the first half, reveals someone who has in effect seen through the weekend myths long ago and has been keeping up the edifice of a normal 9-5er/weekender only with difficulty and at no real benefit to anyone.

The comfort of the “darker” second half persona is obvious in the epic “Black Magic.” Schaufler unfurls a thick, dancey baseline and and adds a Spanish language vocal from the great Mexican techno artist Rebolledo about black magic. The myth making of the first half – “Voodoo,” “Country Boy,” “Rabbits in a Hurry” – is made more inscrutable here (to an English speaker at least) and yet much more aggressively sensual, with the words oozing and dripping. It’s one of my favorite Superpitcher vocal performances.

“Joanna” brings back some upbeat tunefulness, although its words – here highly specific, as compared to the nameless abstractions who populated the scenes imagined throughout the first 5 songs – are not uplifting. “Holiday Hearts” has a jarring beginning and then proceeds to end the album with an echoey, bizarro Beach Boys outro.

I listened to it this album all the way through many times in 2010 and 2011 while I was winding down the nightmare of my immediate post college years. The two-faced structure and the vocals are its calling card, but the way it tackles ideas of the weekend is what has kept me returning to it, especially as work-related burnout sets in and makes me alsmot nostalgic for the times when all 7 days of the week “had no feel” to them.

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The “data-driven” cliche

Two weeks ago, a website I write for recently decided to “pivot” (to steal another unbearable term) to being more “data-driven.” I asked the editor for the site what this shift would mean for the writers, and he explained that we should include more stats, mostly, and presumably fewer sentences of innumerate rambling. My first attempt in the new mode was a two-part series written in the voice of a Carl Diggler-esque character who likes to reference H.P. Lovecraft alongside stats from the U.S. Green Building Council.

When talking about being “data-driven,” whether in regard to marketing, writing, political forecasting, or running a startup, it is important to think about what proponents of such an approach are ostensibly pushing back against. There seems to be this widely shared notion that in fields as diverse as politics, sportswriting, art criticism, and business, there are vast hordes of people who can’t understand math and science and are finding their paths instead through intuition and personal experience (indeed, the Diggler character was willfully created as a parody of pundits who trust in “gut” and “personal experience”). It is a sentiment that dovetails nicely with the widespread myth that there is a “STEM shortage” (easily disproven) and that the best use of young people’s intellects is in helping organizations work on basically finished products that require little more than basic Excel skills and 8th grade algebra.

This attitude takes many forms. There is the lieutenant governor of Kentucky telling students not to major in history (the governor said something similar about French literature), and there’s the website FiveThirtyEight repeating slogans such as “I believe in Math” to push back against people skeptical of the site’s opaque (but “data-driven”!) statistical modeling that somehow failed to predict Donald Trump’s dominance or the breadth of Bernie Sanders’ support.

OK, so I’m one such skeptic, not just of FiveThirtyEight in particular (and its absurdly wrong predictions about the results of the Michigan and Indiana primaries in the Democratic Primary in 2016) but of the “data-driven” cult in general. To give them a fair hearing, though, let’s look at what the proposed benefits of this approach are. Here’s a sentence from a Forbes piece about Uber:

“In today’s data-driven sharing economy, pricing, tasking and hiring decisions are all based on the cold hard logic of computer models and data.”

What is “data,” though? Data is the result of what you have chosen to measure. For Uber, germane “data” might include the price of a discounted Uber ride versus a standard taxi fare, but not the amount of car insurance paid by its drivers or how much of its clout comes not from the free market “innovation” principles it cherishes but from the cold, hard logic of deep-pocketed venture capitalists (Google among them). Data is manmade.

The assumed infallibility and rationality of computers is a quaint idea, held by the same sorts of New Economy types that would be simultaneously dismissive of a sincere belief in God, despite such faith being almost indistinguishable from blind trust in Data, The Market, Algorithms, or any number of manmade institutions. Not only are computers of any type manmade (with particular baggage in the Cold War era) and capable of being stuck halfway between their binaries, but the way they work isn’t even an accurate approximation of human consciousness, i.e., the way that we experience anything. The brain is not a CPU running algorithms on data.

Yet you get the likes of John Gruber writing stuff like the following, about Facebook’s news curation efforts:

“The irony is that machines don’t have a point of view — they are ‘objective.’ Over the last half century or so, mainstream U.S. journalism has evolved in a way that has writers and editors acting like machines. They’ve made it easier for themselves to be replaced by algorithms. Most readers won’t even notice.

I do two things here at DF most days: find interesting things to link to, and comment on them. An algorithm may well beat me at finding interesting links. My job then, is to be a better writer — smarter, funnier, keener, more surprising — than an algorithm could be. When I can’t do that, it’ll be time to hang up the keyboard.”

“Machines” are whatever you make them; they follow their creators’ rulers. They don’t merit special authority for the particular way they solve problems, not any more than the the Old Testament did because it was written right to left in Hebrew instead of left to right in English. Being “better” than an algorithm is a meaningless statement; the human brain is not running algorithms itself, and the ones that it comes up with for other contexts depend entirely on intent. An algorithm has no sense of whether anything is “funnier, keener, more surprising” – it’s a fucking set of numbers! The impression it leaves is all in the interpretation.

The cult of data-drivenness has created both unbearable resignation (“time to hang up the keyboard,” gag) and equally off-putting arrogance. For the latter, look at the prima facie absurdness such as Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob saying that a team had never been built “around the 3-pointer ” before Silicon Valley VCs got involved in the NBA via the Warriors franchise (however, his statement did produce this amazing parody piece about the Cleveland Browns’ algorithm-driven approach to winning a future Super Bowl).

Like anything, obsession with “objective” “data” is not new. I recently re-read Aristophanes’ Frogs, a play about Dionysus descending into Hades to witness a debate on literature between Aeschylus and Euripides; it’s sometimes cited as the first major work of literary criticism. In Paul Roche’s translation, there is this passage about how Euripides analyzes drama:

“OLD SERVANT: We’re going to see something great:
            Poetry sold by measurement and weight.”

XANTHIAS: What, tragedy on the scales like pork chops?

OLD SERVANT: Yeah, with yardsticks and measuring tapes,
           Words’ll be fitted into little boxes an’ …

XANTHIAS: You mean, like making bricks?

OLD SERVANT: Sure thing, with rulers and setsquares,
          Cuz Euripides says ‘e’s going to analyze
          Poetic tragedy syllable by syllable.”

Data-driven analysis! No matter how much I rail against the arrogance of the data-first crowd, I could never come up with an image as striking as Euripides putting words into “little boxes” for analysis. Were those boxes determining what  was the “smarter, funnier, keener” #content placed before Dionysus? That’s for humans to decide.