Saturday, January 28, 2017

Easy Listening #1

The Easy Listening Revival
New York Times
Sunday, February 5, 1995

by Simon Reynolds


IT'S OFFICIAL: IT'S HIP TO BE square. Collectors are paying top dollar for original albums from such 50's and 60's easy-listening fare as LP's designed for stereo testing and music played on Moogs and other primitve synthesizers. The music's quirky arrangements and zany sound effects, its aura of opulence and optimism, are providing light relief for latter-day hipsters who have tired of the heaviness -- musical and emotional -- of today's alternative rock.

There are the beginnings of a reissue boom: "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music," a 1993 anthology of avant-Muzak compositions by Juan Garcia Esquivel, has sold so well that the independent label Bar/None will release a second Esquivel collection this spring. Clubs have sprung up where martini-sipping nuevo sophisticates can chill to the mellow, mellifluous sounds of yesteryear. London has Sound Spectrum and Indigo, Los Angeles has the Lava Lounge and Mr. Phat's Royal Martini Den, and New York has Loser's Lounge at Fez, where the Kustard Kings, the house band, pays tribute to middle-of-the-road deities like Henry Mancini for a wig-wearing, lame-clad audience.

Even contemporary bands are re-creating bygone lounge-music styles: Combustible Edison, Love Jones and Friends of Dean Martin and, in Britain, the Mike Flowers Pops Orchestra and the Gentle People. On a less revivalist tack, bands like Stereolab draw inspiration from the quaintly futuristic sounds of 60's space-age Muzak.

Finally, mood music is enjoying critical rehabilitation. The books "Incredibly Strange Music, Vol. 1" and "Vol. 2" were the first attempts to take this maligned, neglected music seriously, and now they are accompanied by a series of CD compilations. Last year, Joseph Lanza pitched in with "Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy Listening and Other Moodsong" a scholarly revisionist account of post-1945 music that brings background sounds to the fore.

"Hip easy listening," the term used by devotees, isn't a genre as such but a confederacy of styles. It ranges from the pseudo-ethnic seduction soundtracks of "exotica" (Martin Denny, Les Baxter, 101 Strings) to the heavenly, heavily echoed strings and soothing harmonies of moodsong (Mantovani, Percy Faith, Ray Conniff); from the extraterrestrial electronic burblings of the Moog, theremin and other proto-synthesizers (Constance Demby, Dick Hyman, and Gershon Kingsley and his partner, Jean-Jacques Perrey) to music designed to exploit the newly invented stereophonic hi-fi (Mystic Moods Orchestra, Enoch Light's "Persuasive Percussion" series).

What connects these subgenres is their functional status (music-as-decor) and their association with the postwar explosion of suburban leisure culture. With its comfort and its aura of pseudo-sophistication, hip easy listening is at the polar extreme from rock-and-roll's raw passion and hunger for kicks.

Why has this music -- for so long synonymous with the bland and the prematurely middle-aged -- been rescued from the bargain bins as the soundtrack of the cooler-than-thou? One reason is that after grunge's breakthrough, underground-rock ideas began being picked up by the mainstream, and hipsters have been obliged to find new ways to differentiate themselves from the herd.
There is a built-in dynamic to hipster and record-collector culture that requires the opening up of new frontiers by reinventing the past. Fifteen years ago, it might have been obscure 60's garage punk bands or rockabilly artists that were highly prized and priced; now, it's early 70's German neo-psychedelia and hip easy listening.

For Andrea Juno, a co-author of the "Incredibly Strange" books, the collector is a pioneer, a heroic explorer. The easy-listening boom began, she says, "when people like us came across these LP's in thrift stores and flea markets and realized you could get a great album with a fabulous, garish cover for 25 cents. We realized when we did the first book that it would create interest and drive prices up, and, sure enough, these albums now sell from $2 to $15 and higher. But once a territory's been plundered, I move on anyway, as there's always new areas of cheap stuff to explore."


For Ms. Juno, the collector is also a critic. "Popular culture has generated so much stuff this century, and there's a real need for people with discrimination and categorization skills to sort through it all. There's also a transgressive aspect to tweaking the esthetics of 'good taste.' " Of course, this mischievousness can lapse into kitsch, a so-bad-it's-good celebration of the kooky, the corny or the merely third-rate.

Others -- notably Mr. Lanza and the British band Stereolab -- prefer to explore the unexpected affinities between mood music and underground rock. On albums like "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" and last year's "Mars Audiac Quintet," Stereolab blends the hypnotic trance-rock of iconic bands like the Velvet Underground and Neu! with motifs from Muzak and Moog music. "For me, Muzak, Moog, exotica, etc. did a lot of experimental things much earlier than other more respected, artistically serious forms of music," said the guitarist Tim Gane of Stereolab.

Mr. Lanza concurs: "Fifties and early 60's mood-manipulation music in many ways anticipated psychedelic and ambient music, in its studio techniques and the idea of escaping workaday reality." There are also striking parallels between 50's mood music and today's ambient techno: the use of echo to create a cathedral-like aura of sacrosanct space and the use of ethnic exoticisms -- like Polynesian percussions -- with scant regard to questions of authenticity.

If easy listening was suburbia's psychedelia, then the 50's playboy was arguably a sort of square beatnik -- someone who lived not for work, home and family but for leisure and pleasure. The 90's neo-lounge band Combustible Edison has seized upon the playboy ethos as a reaction to the slacker's downward mobility. After eight years in the punky pop group Christmas, the guitarist Michael Cudahy realized that "my ideas of cool were received, they didn't jive with my inner self."

Rechristening himself the Millionaire, Mr. Cudahy formed Combustible Edison and set about resurrecting the panache of 50's cocktail culture -- just at the point when the slacker sensibility was entering the mainstream. Edison's mock-tropical sounds and 60's spy-movie themes, as heard on its 1994 debut album, "I, Swinger," come wrapped in a fully developed tongue-in-chic ideology. Mr. Cudahy exalts "swankness, suaveness and strangeness" and exhorts the neophyte to "be fabulous."

If one thing unites the devotees of easy listening, it's the sensibility that could be described as passionate irony. It is a rebellion against the alternative mainstream and its ethos of authenticity. For hipsters, artists like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam strive so hard to be honest that they come across as histrionic and corny.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"And I, I will be king" : from fame monster to tyrant of untruth, the coronation of Trump

(director's cut of piece published in The Guardian, October 14th 2016)



When I was writing my new glam rock history Shock and Awe, I kept running into things that seemed like premonitions – previews of the scary and dangerous man running for the American presidency right now. 

In his mid-Seventies interviews, David Bowie kept talking -- in an unnervingly fixated way --about “a strong leader” destined to “sweep through” the Western World: a charismatic superhero who might emerge not from conventional politics but from the entertainment field. Sometimes Bowie’s tone was ominous and fatalistic, as if this scenario was inevitable. At other times, he’d make it seem like a necessary corrective to a Weimar-style state of decadence, talking with seemingly approving anticipation of “a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny” that would clean up all the mess made by the permissive society.

At his most extreme, unguarded and cocaine-addled, Bowie proposed himself as a candidate for the job, whether as British PM, as the “first English president of the United States,” or maybe even as ruler of the world. 

Another future-spectre of Trump was Alice Cooper’s pretend run for the presidency in 1972. It took the form of the single “Elected” and its hilarious, delirious video but nonetheless had a curiously convincing tone of megalomaniacal demagoguery about it, as Cooper boasted that he and his “young and strong” followers would take “the country by storm.”

On the surface, Donald Trump and the glam era’s stars couldn’t be further apart. What does Trump have in common with Ziggy Stardust, apart from orange hair?  The Donald is a bigot, a macho bully, a philistine, a proud ignoramus.  Bowie and the brightest of his peers were androgynous aesthetes, intellectually hungry and sexually experimental. 

And yet there are some unlikely affinities. As signaled by his gilded tower on 5th Avenue, Trump surrounds himself with glitz. Trump and the glam rockers likewise shared an obsession with fame and a ruthless drive to conquer and devour the world’s attention. Trump actually plays “We Are the Champions” by Queen (a band aligned with glam in its early days) at his rallies, because its triumphalist refrain “no time for losers” crystallises his Economic Darwinist worldview. 

A mirror of oligopoly capitalism, pop is a ferociously competitive game that sorts the contestants into a handful of winners and a greater number of losers.  Propelled by a stardom-at-all-costs drive, many of the principal characters in Shock and Awe - Bowie, Marc Bolan, Alice Cooper, Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel, Bryan Ferry –nimbly reinvented themselves and in some cases trampled people on their way up.  They willed their fantasy-selves into existence.  This same ethos of “don’t dream it, be it” (as articulated by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr Frank-N-Furter) could be seen in the type of fandom that glam inspired. It had an imitative quality never really seen before in pop: audiences dressing up like the star, copying the hair and make-up. For instance, Roxy Music’s fans - responding to the sophistication of the group’s image and artwork, to audience-flattering lyrical winks such as “sure to make the cognoscenti think” - costumed themselves as members of a make-believe aristocracy. Ferry recalled how some of their Northern followers would turn up to the shows in full black tie, as if attending the Academy Awards ceremony.  

Trump’s appeal is generally seen in terms of his doom-laden imagery of a weakened, rudderless America. But there is clearly something else going on too: an admiring projection towards a swaggering figure who revels in his wealth and entitlement, who’s free to do and say whatever he wants.  Even the sexual predator boasts caught on the Access Hollywood tape - “when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything” - sound uncomfortably close to the rock star / rap star fantasies of freedom and power that are so alluring to so many. Truth is, Tump is an aspirational figure as much as he’s a mouthpiece for resentment and rancor.

“I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump wrote in The Art of The Deal, explaining the role of bravado in his business dealings. “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” He and co-writer Tony Schwarz coined the concept “truthful hyperbole.” That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it cuts to the essence of how hype works: by making people believe in something that doesn’t exist yet, it magically turns a lie into a reality. As the American saying goes, fake it ‘til you make it. Bowie’s manager Tony Defries used this technique to break the singer in America: travelling everywhere in a limo, surrounded by bodyguards he didn’t need, Bowie looked like the star he wasn’t yet, until the public and the media started to take the illusion for reality. 

Early in his career, Trump grasped that – like a pop star – he was selling an image, a brand. As commentators have noticed, banks see him as a promoter rather than a CEO: licensed out, the Trump name gets affixed to buildings and businesses that he doesn’t own, let alone run. He’s an extreme version of what people on Wall Street call a “glamour stock”:  an investment that outperforms the market based on an inflated belief in its future growth potential or on even more intangible qualities of cool and buzz. Twitter has been described as the ultimate glamour stock, its attractive image vastly out of whack with its ability to make money.  A glamour stock is a self-fulfilling prophecy initially: a magic trick of confidence, its wins because everyone believes it’s going to win. A glamour stock will keep on winning right up until it loses: when the gulf between its perceived value and actual wealth-generative potential gets too huge, when reality finally disrupts the reality-distortion field surrounding it.   

Self-reinvention was the strategy used by glam stars like Bowie and Bolan. You can see the same chameleonic flexibility at work in Trump’s career. Once upon a time he was a Democrat, on genial terms with the Clintons.  Years ago he used Birtherism as the launch pad for a political career; now he’s dropped it as a political liability. Same with his recent rabble-rousing rhetoric about building a Wall. Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer analyses the agility with which Trump evades attacks by discarding ideas: “He merely creates new Trumps.”  That sounds eerily like the way Bowie conjured up new personas to stay one step ahead of pop’s fickle fluctuations and keep himself creatively stimulated. With no fixed political principles, Trump’s only consistency is salesmanship and showmanship: the ability to stage his public life as a drama. 

And it’s the drama that holds the public’s attention – the edgy promise of a less boring politics.  The New York Times recently quoted a voter who confessed to flirting with the idea of voting for Trump because “a dark side of me wants to see what happens if Trump is in. There is going to be some kind of change, and even if it’s like a Nazi-type change, people are so drama-filled. They want to see stuff like that happen.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Emerging after the earnest, authenticity-obsessed late Sixties, glam was a period in which rock rediscovered a sense of showbiz and spectacle. Pop history has repeatedly cycled through such phases of glam and anti-glam: Bowie/Roxy razzle-dazzle was supplanted by scruffy pub rock and street-credible punk, which in turn was eclipsed by the neo-glam of the New Romantics. A similar shift occurred in America when glitzy hair metal was displaced by grunge’s mud-slide sound and earth-toned clothes.  

Strangely, you can see similar dynamics at play in contemporary politics.  Hilary Clinton sits squarely in the unglam corner: a worthy but dull public servant, supremely accomplished at everything required of a politician and leader except what the public perversely craves - being an entertainer.  Hilary is the American political equivalent of a “value stock” – those dowdy companies that over time doggedly outperform the glamour stocks, but simply don’t inspire spasms of irrational exuberance in the markets. 

The real anti-glam leader of our age, though, is Jeremy Corbyn.  Bearded and low-key, he’s the UK politics equivalent of Whispering Bob Harris, the presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test - who couldn’t hide his distaste when visually flashy, image-over-substance bands like Roxy Music, Sparks, and New York Dolls appeared on the program. Corbyn is viscerally opposed to – and fundamentally incapable of – political theater, the very thing that has carried Trump so close to the White House.  Corbyn tried to change the format and feel of Prime Minister’s Questions, saying that he wished to “remove the theatre from politics”. In one particular PMQ, he responded to Cameron’s slick pre-scripted gags with the schoolmasterly reprimand “I invite the prime minister to leave the theatre and return to reality.”  

Oratory is not Corbyn’s strong suit: he seems instinctively averse to all those elements of spoken language - cadence, musicality of utterance, metaphor – that sway the listener irrationally, bypassing the faculty of judgement. But as Gary Younge argued recently, Corbyn’s plain-spoken delivery is taken as a token of sincerity by his following, who “have not come to be entertained; they have come.... to have a basic sense of decency reflected back to them through their politics.” 

This is how a personality cult has built up around Corbyn, despite his honest and accurate admission that "I'm not a personality.”  It’s very indie, very alternative rock, the way that the absence of charisma has become the source of a curious magnetism. But as with a taste for indie’s lack of showy drama, it takes a refined sensibility to see past the surface appearance. The general public want a leader to look like a leader. The performance of a public image is considered as important as the actual job performance. 

Once in a blue moon, a politician comes along who combines pop star allure and all the less glamorous qualifications like temperament, competence, and knowledge. Obama has both kinds of cool going for him: perfect comic timing at the White House Correspondents Dinner, calmness and clarity during moments of Oval Office crisis. Politics without any element of charisma is certainly a dry affair. But the cult of personality can be dangerous outside the realm of showbiz, its proper domain. 

I could see how easy it was to get a whole rally thing going,” Bowie said in 1974, recalling the height of Ziggymania in Britain a few years earlier. “There were times when I could have told the audience to do anything.” In another interview of that era, Bowie spoke with seeming admiration for the way Hitler “staged a country”, combining “politics and theatrics” to create the ultimate spectacle. “Boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience...  [Hitler] created this thing that governed and controlled the show for those 12 years. The world will never see his like.”  Fingers crossed, the Trump show gets cancelled next month.


Further reading

Rick Perlstein in the New York Times Magazine on the apocalyptic nativist dark side of American conservatism as roots of Trumpism - and the turn towards showbiz as a way of masking over the gap between the irrational rhetorical pitch to the voters and the cold-hearted reality of conservative governance:

The often-cynical negotiation between populist electioneering and plutocratic governance on the right has long been not so much a matter of policy as it has been a matter of show business. The media scholar Tim Raphael, in his 2009 book, “The President Electric: Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Performance,” calls the three-minute commercials that interrupted episodes of The General Electric Theater — starring Reagan and his family in their state-of-the-art Pacific Palisades home, outfitted for them by G.E. — television’s first “reality show.” For the California voters who soon made him governor, the ads created a sense of Reagan as a certain kind of character: the kindly paterfamilias, a trustworthy and nonthreatening guardian of the white middle-class suburban enclave. Years later, the producers of “The Apprentice” carefully crafted a Trump character who was the quintessence of steely resolve and all-knowing mastery. American voters noticed. Linda Lucchese, a Trump convention delegate from Illinois who had never previously been involved in politics, told me that she watched “The Apprentice” and decided that Trump would make a perfect president. “All those celebrities,” she told me: “They showed him respect.”


It is a short leap from advertising and reality TV to darker forms of manipulation. Consider the parallels since the 1970s between conservative activism and the traditional techniques of con men. Direct-mail pioneers like Richard Viguerie created hair-on-fire campaign-fund-raising letters about civilization on the verge of collapse. One 1979 pitch warned that “federal and state legislatures are literally flooded with proposed laws that are aimed at total confiscation of firearms from law-abiding citizens.” Another, from the 1990s, warned that “babies are being harvested and sold on the black market by Planned Parenthood clinics.” Recipients of these alarming missives sent checks to battle phony crises, and what they got in return was very real tax cuts for the rich. Note also the more recent connection between Republican politics and “multilevel marketing” operations like Amway (Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is the wife of Amway’s former president and the daughter-in-law of its co-founder); and how easily some of these marketing schemes shade into the promotion of dubious miracle cures (Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development, with “glyconutrients”; Mike Huckabee shilling for a “solution kit” to “reverse” diabetes; Trump himself taking on a short-lived nutritional-supplements multilevel marketing scheme in 2009). The dubious grifting of Donald Trump, in short, is a part of the structure of conservative history."

Peter York in Politico on Trump's "dictator chic" and the nouveau riche aesthetics of autocrat decor aka the Russian oligarch look.

"Architecturally, it’s gilt and mirrors, as in his famous marble-and-gold Trump Tower apartment, photographed many times over the years, with its canopy beds, fresco-style ceilings and colossal chandeliers. Trump’s design aesthetic is fascinatingly out of line with America’s past and present. If you doubt it, note that the interiors of the apartments his company actually sells bear no resemblance to the one he lives in. But that doesn’t mean his taste comes from nowhere. At one level, it’s aspirational, meant to project the wealth so many citizens can only dream of. But it also has important parallels—not with Italian Renaissance or French baroque, where its flourishes come from, but with something more recent. The best aesthetic descriptor of Trump’s look, I’d argue, is dictator style" 

York's 10 (or 11) rules of Dictator Chic

1/ "Go big. Dictators’ building projects are almost always ludicrously overscaled"
2/ “repro” aka “Louis the Hotel”- "Dictators might work in the grand styles of earlier centuries, but they don’t usually use old materials and furniture (antiques = too shabby). Everything is brand spanking new".
3/ "Think French" (Versailles)
4/ Hotel-style
5/ gold 
6/ glass
7/ marble (always new though)
8/ 19th Century big and bright paintings
9/ instantly recognisable "known-value" brand-name ornaments or furnishings
10/ life-size or larger paintings of the autocrat
11/ heroic animals (sculpted or stuffed)

On Trump's own apartment (largely designed by Henry Conversano, who has worked on casinos lots) - "No matter how you looked at it, the main thing this apartment said was, “I am tremendously rich and unthinkably powerful.” This was the visual language of public, not private, space. It was the language of the Eastern European and Middle Eastern nouveau riche."

"Domestic interiors reveal how people want to be seen. But they also reveal something about the owners’ inner lives, their cultural reference points and how they relate to other people... Trump’s apartment projects a kind of power that bypasses all the boring checks and balances of collaboration and mutual responsibility and first-among-equals. It is about a single dominant personality....  a startlingly un-American idea"









David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy on the Shallow State and Trump's war against depth and truth

"Trump’s team has seemed much more focused on offering up something that is more like a television show about a president than actual governance. It plays not to newspapers — which it seeks to discredit — but to social media, animated by the belief that the actions of a government can not just be explained in 140 characters but can consist largely of tweets and photo ops and packaged images. ... You don’t get a reality TV show president with no experience and no interest in big ideas or even in boning up on basic knowledge... without a public that is comfortable with that … or actively seeks it. Think about the fact that two out of the last four Republican presidents came from show biz (and a third gained a chunk of his experience as a baseball executive). There is no doubt that the rise of the cage-match mentality of cable news has undercut civility in American political discourse, but it has also made politics into something like a TV show. You switch from the Kardashians to Trump on The Apprentice to Trump the candidate in your head, and it is all one. Increasingly shows are about finding formulas that produce a visceral reaction rather than stimulate thoughts or challenge the viewer." 

Laurie Penny at New Statesman on "the coronation that dare not speak its name":

"When Americans elect a president they are electing at once a politician and a king - and that very knowledge flies in the face of everything America tells itself about itself. America is not, officially, a fan of royalty... But the iconography of kingship is everywhere....  This week, in this city, America is about to anoint an Emperor. It will take a great deal for someone to point out that the Emperor not only has no clothes, but is starring in his very own pornographic spoof of the presidential mode that plays perfectly to the auto-erotic tendency in American politics...  White America wanted a king who would pummel through its pain with his tiny entitled fists.This is why the most heartfelt cry of anti-Trump protesters today is "Not My President"...  For Americans, though, refusing to crown Trump in their own American story has symbolic value. It’s a way of resisting the unique power of kings.... In folktales and fairytales, the king is connected to the land. A bad, reckless king makes the land sicken, the people suffer, the crops fail; a good king brings rich harvests and success in battle. This is the level on which Americans of every political background understand the presidency. The President is more than a man, more than a politician - he is a little god, and too much resistance in thought and deed is heresy. It is a heresy that Americans will have to contemplate as they stare down the barrel of four years with a vengeful cartoon narcissist, half toddler, half tyrant, squatting in the Oval Office with his evil aviary of hawks and vultures."

Laurie Penny at the New Statesman on how fake news sells because people want it to be true, and how Trump is the king of telling it like it feels

Greil Marcus on the Hair  Metal President - "a pornography of money, fame, and domination, all for no reason outside itself” (actually from '92 essay on Rock's Death, a bit about his disgust at a Poison video)


George Monbiot at the Guardian with a Trump-triggered essay on how celebrity culture is more than just harmless fun, it’s an essential component of the systems that govern our lives:

“An obsession with celebrity does not lie quietly beside the other things we value; it takes their place. A study published in the journal Cyberpsychology reveals that an extraordinary shift appears to have taken place between 1997 and 2007 in the US. In 1997, the dominant values... expressed by the shows most popular among nine- to 11 year-olds were community feeling, followed by benevolence. Fame came 15th out of the 16 values tested. By 2007, when shows such as Hannah Montana prevailed, fame came first, followed by achievement, image, popularity and financial success. Community feeling had fallen to 11th, benevolence to 12th.... A paper in the International Journal of Cultural Studies found that, among the people it surveyed in the UK, those who follow celebrity gossip most closely are three times less likely than people interested in other forms of news to be involved in local organisations, and half as likely to volunteer. Virtual neighbours replace real ones.... This helps to explain the mass delusion among young people that they have a reasonable chance of becoming famous. A survey of 16-year-olds in the UK revealed that 54% of them intend to become celebrities.... Celebrity has a second major role: as a weapon of mass distraction. The survey published in the IJCS I mentioned earlier also reveals that people who are the most interested in celebrity are the least engaged in politics, the least likely to protest and the least likely to vote.... The survey found that people fixated by celebrity watch the news on average as much as others do, but they appear to exist in a state of permanent diversion.... In Trump we see a perfect fusion of the two main uses of celebrity culture: corporate personification and mass distraction....  During the presidential elections, his noisy persona distracted people from the intellectual void behind the mask, a void now filled by more lucid representatives of global capital.... Celebrities might inhabit your life, but they are not your friends.... Let’s turn our neighbours back into our neighbours, and turn our backs on those who impersonate them."

Slate, channeling The Washington Post, on Trump's image-based approach to recruiting office-holders in his administration (and his facial-hair phobia):

“Presentation is very important because you’re representing America not only on the national stage, but also the international stage depending on the position,” Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller explained.... “[Trump] likes people who present themselves very well and he’s very impressed when somebody has a background of being good on television because he thinks it’s a very important medium for public policy,” [says] Chris Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of Trump... “That’s the language he speaks. He’s very aesthetic,” said one person familiar with the transition team’s internal deliberations … “You can come with somebody who is very much qualified for the job, but if they don’t look the part, they’re not going anywhere ... ”

"The Majesty of Trump"  by Will Wilkinson at The New York Times

Forward's Jake Romm with a convincing reading of Time's Person of the Year cover, analysing the staging of the Trump photograph (by Nadav Kander) as a slyly subversive deconstruction of his regal pretensions:


"The masterstroke, the single detail that completes the entire image, is the chair. Trump is seated in what looks to be a vintage “Louis XV” chair... The chair not only suggests the blindly ostentatious reigns of the French kings just before the revolution, but also, more specifically, the reign of Louis XV who, according to historian Norman Davies, “paid more attention to hunting women and stags than to governing the country” and whose reign was marked by “debilitating stagnation,” “recurrent wars,” and “perpetual financial crisis” (sound familiar?). The brilliance of the chair however, is visual rather than historical. It’s a gaudy symbol of wealth and status, but if you look at the top right corner, you can see a rip in the upholstery, signifying Trump’s own cracked image. Behind the bluster, behind the glowing displays of wealth, behind the glittering promises, we have the debt, the tastelessness, the demagoguery, the racism, the lack of government experience or knowledge... Once we notice the rip, the splotches on the wood come into focus, the cracks in Trump’s makeup, the thinness of his hair, the stain on the bottom left corner of the seat — the entire illusion of grandeur begins to collapse. The cover is less an image of a man in power than the freeze frame of a leader, and his country, in a state of decay. The ghostly shadow works overtime here — suggesting a splendor that has already passed, if it ever existed at all."

"'We found that reality TV stars were the most narcissistic of any group of celebrities including actors, musicians and comedians,' says Mark Young, who studies the entertainment industry at the University of Southern California and co-authored The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America. Young says a talent vacuum in most reality TV stars means they have to “act out” to stay in the public eye, while typically also losing self-awareness to paranoia and insecurity. “Reality TV has normalised outrageous and inappropriate behaviour,” he says. Viewers demand it, meanwhile, “since they are primed for this type of entertainment and stimulation”. Young identifies a comparable feedback loop of outrage in Trump’s presidential campaign. “He didn’t have skills in the political arena so … he was able to keep himself ‘fresh’ by being outrageous,” he says. He calls Trump’s victory “the greatest ending to any reality TV show in history”.

Trump's unprincipled flip-flopping and opportunistic beliefs as revealed in this 2000 interview when he tried to run as Presidential Candidate with pro-immigration, pro-health-care, pro-LGBT etc positions: "Last fall Donald Trump shook up the political world by announcing he was joining the Reform Party, a major step in exploring a run for president. The pundits laughed, claiming that the real estate mogul knew more about glamour than politics..."

Laurie Penny on the "performative bigotry", hate-speech cabaret and "pageant of insincerity"  of alt-right trolls -  "the insider traders of the attention economy," with Trump as their Gordon Gekko (Medium)  

Donald Trump as actor playing the part of "Donald Trump"  in a Goffman-esque, "presentation of self in everyday life" (psycho-)analysis by Daniel P. Adams (The Atlantic):

"As brainy social animals, human beings evolved to be consummate actors whose survival and ability to reproduce depend on the quality of our performances. We enter the world prepared to perform roles and manage the impressions of others, with the ultimate evolutionary aim of getting along and getting ahead in the social groups that define who we are. More than even Ronald Reagan, Trump seems supremely cognizant of the fact that he is always acting. He moves through life like a man who knows he is always being observed. If all human beings are, by their very nature, social actors, then Donald Trump seems to be more so—superhuman, in this one primal sense."

"Asked to sum up Trump’s personality for an article in Vanity Fair, Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard, responded, “Remarkably narcissistic.” George Simon, a clinical psychologist who conducts seminars on manipulative behavior, says Trump is “so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of narcissism. “Otherwise I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”"

"The similarities between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump do not end with their aggressive temperaments and their respective positions as Washington outsiders.... They named Jackson “King Mob” for what they perceived as his demagoguery." 

"In Trump’s own words from a 1981 People interview, the fundamental backdrop for his life narrative is this: “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat.”....   As Trump has written, “money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score.” The story instead is about coming out on top."...

"Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why"

Beats me really why no one has yet made the blindingly obvious point - no one that I've read anyway - that Trump's psychology - Trump's performance-mode (free associational grandiosity/fragmentary-paranoia)  is at core identical with rap's. 

Greil Marcus on Trump as Ubu Roi and Beyonce as Trump (in Tages Anzeiger)

"Her fans, her followers, the people who think she understands them.... : They are in love with her apparent power. She seems to own the stage she walks on, she seems to own the air she breathes. And we breathe that same air at her dispensation. The aura that surrounds here and that she’s created around herself and other people have created around her is very similar to the aura that has been created around Donald Trump. This sense of authority, of absolute power, a sense that one has reached a point where he or she can do absolutely anything and be beyond criticism, alone face any consequences. I don’t want this to be misconstrued. Donald Trump is a racist, Beyoncé is not. Donald Trump wants to destroy people, and I don’t think Beyoncé does. They’re entirely different, but the linkage between the two is that they worship power and the appearance of power....

"[That SNL sketch about how] anybody who doesn’t like Beyoncé is hunted down and thrown into prison. Anybody who likes her new album but not the seventh track loses his job and is attacked by the FBI...  the Beygency hunting anyone that doesn’t bow to her - this sketch actually gets to the question: What if Beyoncé was Donald Trump? And Donald Trump was a dictator? And to criticize him became a crime?" 

Trump as King - blogpost at Followers of the Apocalypse on the royalist and restorationist currents of "neo-reactionism":

"Is Trump a king? Well he does try to act like one… the royal court, the favoured children, the droit de seigneurthe whole Louis XIV decor… and [neo-reactionist polemicist] Moldbug does call for a CEO as king (he suggested Elon Musk). But on the converse he’s actually not a very good CEO (by any reasonable measure), and he’s a bit – well – common. Aesthetics and decorum are a huge deal for the neo-reactionaries: they want nobles who are truly noble (with elegant, long, royal fingers…). But he’s a placeholder. Now we’ve normalised the idea of CEO as global leader it’s easier to argue for a better CEO, using the intervening time and Trump’s love of being hated to remove democratic checks and balances as far as possible" 
Rowan Wilson on the failure of mass democracy and the triumph of Trump's theatrical politics (New Statesman)

"... an incoherent series of crowd-pleasing postures,... Trump’s real aim was not to do anything as president but simply to be president, to be the most important man in the Western world. This election represents a divorce between the electoral process and the business of political decision-making. It is the ersatz politics of mass theatre, in which what matters most is the declaration of victory.
As such, it is the most cynical betrayal of those who are disenfranchised. It confirms that they have no part in real political processes; they can only choose their monarch...   The politics of mass democracy has failed. It has been narrowed down to a mechanism for managing large-scale interests in response to explicit and implicit lobbying by fabulously well-resourced commercial and financial concerns...  For significant parts of a population, “theatrical” politics comes to look like the only option: a dramatic articulation of the problems of powerlessness, for which the exact details of economic or social reality are irrelevant. This delivers people into the hands of another kind of dishonest politics: the fact-free manipulation of emotion by populist adventurers."

A counter-view from Sam Kriss that goes back to Plato to examine the inherent theatricality of politics and how we've always been "post-truth" (Slate) : 

"... in The Laws, Plato describes Athenian democracy as “wretched theatrokratia,” rule by the theater, a society on the precipice of tyranny... Science is a discourse in which the categories of truth or falsehood make sense; aesthetics is one in which they don’t. Politics is something strange, however: It’s far closer to literature than it is to science—disagreements over political principle can’t be settled through a practical experiment... the power offered by politics is always the power to imagine something unreal. You can dream of (for instance) a National Health Service, or an end to all war, or the liberation of women. You can dream of things that don’t yet exist and are by any binary definition untrue and then begin to bring them into being.... It’s not that facts aren’t good for anything, but a politics consisting of facts and nothing else isn’t politics, but management. This is what our politics are actually turning into: rule by experts and fatalism....Politics is where people can gain the ability to actively reshape the world, rather than just describe it. It’s as false as the Athenian theater, and this is no bad thing. Of course these aspects of politics can give rise to monsters like Donald Trump; dreams always raise the possibility of a nightmare.... "

Counter-counterview from Bernard-Henri Lévy (in The Telegraph)

 “If Trump is possible, then everything is possible... As for Le Pen it is unlikely that she wins but it is possible, and that is partly because the people have lost interest in policy, instead focusing on personality.... they even seem less concerned about whether the candidates are telling the truth or not. They are more interested in the performance, in the theatrical quality of what is said than whether it is true. And as we know, a fascist can put on a very successful performance.”

C.f.  performatism

c.f. the famous clash between George W. Bush aide versus Ron Suskind:  History's actors versus the reality-based community with their judicious study of discernible reality, the expert sifting of facts and data


Trump as Roman Emperor and maestro of "crass showmanship" as the new political norm - Katy Waldman at Slate

"He is America’s capricious kingmaker, the impish, omnipotent ringmaster of a grand circus in which he’s taming CEOs and the liberal media and Mexico and Mitt Romney and lions—big, beautiful lions—in all five rings simultaneously. The changing weather of Donald Trump’s temperament and his thrilling and sinister ability to enact his fitful will—these are the themes of a mass entertainment that has taken the place of traditional presidential politics. “One of the announcers, I have to tell you, from ESPN,” Trump told his followers on Thursday night, “he said, ‘That [election night] was the most exciting event I’ve ever seen.’ ” Every time Trump injects chaos into the system or subverts our expectations, he makes the spectacle better, and America worse."

Trumpism and the Weimar analogy / decadence>authoritarianism syndrome (Chris Hedges's "It's Worse Than You Think" at Truthdig):

"We have replaced political discourse, news, culture and intellectual inquiry with celebrity worship and spectacle...  '“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Noam Chomsky told me with uncanny insight when I spoke with him six years ago.... 'The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen....'.... The rot of our failed democracy vomited up a con artist who was a creation of the mass media—first playing a fictional master of the universe on a reality television show and later a politician as vaudevillian.  Trump pulled in advertising dollars and ratings. Truth and reality were irrelevant.... Trump is emblematic of what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” A society in terminal decline often retreats into magical thinking. Reality is too much to bear. It places its faith in the fantastic and impossible promises of a demagogue or charlatan who promises the return of a lost golden age." 

"There's No Check on Trump Except Reality" - Wayne Barrett, Village Voice man interviewed at The New Republic

From Barrett's book's Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: "His fatalism allowed him hold himself blameless; his determinism convinced him he’d be a winner again. On the public stage where he’d played out every act of his life he was too much of a showman to be embarrassed by a single disastrous performance. The cumulative effect of this life view—so deep seated it appeared to be instinctual—was the confidence that all of this would come and go.” 

from the interview: 
on Trump as gambler / speculator / fabulator:

"Donald in ‘88 and ‘89 was doing incomprehensible deals that were unsustainable on their face, thinking he could not lose. Almost every one of those deals blew up in his face. It was like one lemon after another in a manic, manic state. I thought he was on the same kind of manic run the last two years. I thought he had damaged his brand and that it was all going to explode. I thought he was like on a 1988-89 re-run. And then it turns out that he wins. In the 1990s, he was anything but manic. He was extremely subdued....  he was hiding in the ‘90s. He was just glad to be alive. And biding his time."

on his success as a triumph of optics belying the reality of failure: 

"The glamor is intoxicating. He understood that carrying this big dick, having a blonde on his arm, getting into the casino businesses where everything seemed to convey a fast life, when it’s really a dead end for so many people ... Trump Tower is really the only great project that he actually built....  It’s a triumph of a project. That can make your name. The triumphs are what last in this culture. He seemed to have it all, and that stays in the mindset. So he has a track record of bankruptcy and failure, but there’s also this narrative that he’s the embodiment of brashness, boldness, decisiveness, and that’s what people choose to see. You see that plane ... This plane is in every American living room. Night after night after night, with his name emblazoned on it. What better conveys great wealth, unbelievable success? "




Jamelle Bouie at Slate on the aspirational nature of Trump's lies - 

'“The essential characteristic of fascist propaganda was never its lies, for this is something more or less common to propaganda everywhere and of every time,” wrote... Hannah Arendt///  “The essential thing was that they exploited the age-old Occidental prejudice which confuses reality with truth, and made that ‘true’ which until then could only be stated as a lie.” Put in plain language, fascists didn’t lie to obscure the truth; they lied to signal what would eventually become truth."

Chris Ott aka Shallow Rewards on Trump as "The Contestant" (subscribe here)

"His only interest was in the contest itself, because he is a gambler. He did not get into the casino business randomly: his dream of owning a casino was an augmented reflection of his innate obsession with outcomes.... Trump likes to watch the wheel spin. He likes to blow on dice....    It has become clear Trump was only interested in winning. This has been suggested from the beginning: my point is that it is now incontestably clear, clear enough that he must answer for it. He has spilled his drink on the roulette table to ensure nobody wins, but more importantly, he doesn't lose.... Trump's flailing transition trainwreck is evidence of his disregard for the prize he has won. The presidency is merely a trophy to him, a ratings victory following another reality show." 

Slate's Julia Turner on Trump's Stunt Presidency:

"[Stunting like the Carrier Deal] bypasses the abstractions of administration and substitutes visceral image-making instead... To understand how fiendishly effective this tactic might be, it’s worth considering the facsimile of “business” presented on Trump’s reality show... What’s striking about the show, though, is not how phony it seems but how masterfully it presents its version of “business” as real.... The viewer comes away with the idea that running a company entails performing well at a set of random, atomized, concrete tasks. Turn an empty storefront into a pop-up bridal boutique. Develop a new menu item for a chicken chain.... The Carrier deal is the first hint that Trump may approach “governance” the way his show approached “business”: as a set of small, tangible wins to be stacked up week by week. The approach is opportunistic rather than strategic, concerned with short-term victories rather than the unglamorous work of building something enduring and strong... No matter how engaged with policy Trump turns out to be, his 12 years of presenting business acumen as a series of memorable stunts will have a deep impact on the way he governs us. He’ll serve up his own presidential prowess with similar élan. Trump’s whole campaign testified to his knack for making America’s troubles seem tangible for voters—vivid, simplistic challenges to which he offered vivid, simplistic solutions.... It’s almost as though he sees the problems facing the country in episodic narrative form. The challenge then for journalists is to become more than tart recappers of this unfolding show"
     



Trump as the hip hop president - blinging, boasting, belittling, feuding - at Who.What.Why.  (via Fernando Ramírez Ruiz):

"Trump’s unlikely relationship with hip hop began in the late 90s, when he was making a comeback as both a celebrity and a businessman following a rough patch earlier in the decade... An article in Vibe magazine in 1999 about Trump’s attending Sean “P Diddy” Combs’s birthday party at the luxurious Cipriani restaurant painted Trump as the bridge between old white money and new hip-hop black money... Trump also appeared on Wu Tang Clan rapper Method Man’s 1998 album, “Tical 2000: Judgement Day,” at the request of his friend, Russell Simmons.... Method Man returned the compliment, saying, “I like Trump’s style. It’s like ‘I’m rich, fuck y’all, I build my buildings and put my name on them. Fuck y’all.’”... Hip hop publicist Jessica Rosenblum noted that it was hip hop that embraced Trump when he was spurned by white traditional businessmen: “He’s socially shunned by old money, but now hip hop is saying ‘hey you’re our own kind,’ and he’s saying ‘hey, cool.’” In Rosenblum’s eyes, Trump had a “ghetto pass.”... Trump was also tight with rapper 50 Cent, who called the mogul “a friend of mine” in a 2007 red carpet interview and complimented Trump’s “marketing” skills.... As recently as 2015, 50 Cent called Donald Trump “amazing” and declared that what linked them was their shared “personality flaws.” It could be said that Trump has approached politics the way 50 Cent has approached rap music. 50 Cent made a name for himself by mocking and belittling fellow rapper Ja Rule, and has had feuds with several other rappers... In the Republican primary, he acted more like a battle rapper than a traditional politician, taking out his opponents with insults instead of critiques of their policies and views... Trump gave insulting nicknames to his opponents like “Crooked Hillary,” “Low Energy Jeb,”  “Lyin’ Ted,” and “Little Marco.” He also used a term popularized by hip-hop culture, “hater,” to describe the judge overseeing his Trump University case."

Slate's Katy Waldman on the Trump / Kanye meeting 

"When two stars swing close together, it’s interesting to see whose light bends first. This meeting, taking place on Trump’s home turf, cast West as a character in someone else’s pageant. For the transition team, Kanye served as a useful provocation and a distraction from Trump’s Cabinet controversies, unkosher business dealings, and alarming links to Moscow. West is also a prominent black artist who supports the Republican president-elect. That makes him at once a prop and, because Trump’s political calculations can’t be unsnarled from the narcissistic Trump Show playing in his mind, a bauble for the kingpin to gloat over....   Trump’s use of West on Tuesday morning didn’t just feel indelicate, given that the rapper had just been released from psychiatric care. It seemed like a cosmic sign that insanity is baked into this transition—that in Trump’s America, the loss of contact with reality that is a hallmark of psychosis is indistinguishable from political strategy. Trump and West share an aesthetic, too—the taste produced by a fragile vanity feeding obsessively on ever more glittering signifiers.   .... it may not be shocking that Kanye, whose visionary tirades about the potential of the artist have a fascist undertone, gravitates toward a bully like Trump. Mussolini’s favorite thinkers exalted the heroic, and curiously amoral, promise of man hurtling toward perfection; West speaks in similarly bombastic terms when he declares that, as a musician, “I can do whatever I want to do. … If I’m gonna take a stage and like, open up a motherfucking mountain I can do that.”...  West and Trump’s dynamic—the artist and the strongman—evokes a traditional symbiosis between aestheticism and fascism. In the visually ravishing films of Leni Riefenstahl, the crisp goose-stepping of smartly uniformed troops, the propulsive fervor of futurism, we’ve seen politics married to the pursuit of the beautiful before....  ... Trump and West share an aesthetic, too, one that transcends the mogul’s longstanding resonance with hip-hop. It is the gilded ostentation of the hotel lobby and of Watch the Throne (with its gold-plated album cover)....   It is the taste produced by a fragile but overweening vanity feeding obsessively on ever more glittering signifiers. “I alone can fix it,” this bad taste insists. “I am a god.”..... The scary thing about Trump’s (and West’s) taste is that it turns everything around the person into a proxy for that person. Every luxury object exists to sing his praises. Every associate is just a metonymy for his terrificness." 

Justin Charity at The Ringeon Trump / Kanye summit

"Since 2003, West has seduced people with his brand of only-child narcissism — now the template for all millennial life .... What Kanye offers in the way of unique musical brilliance and, for the most part, good taste, he consistently undermines with feats of egomaniacal spectacle...  Kanye’s speeches are purely emotional appeals filled with energy and intent, even when they’re devoid of any factual or literal meaning; which is to say, he was speaking Trump’s language for years before Trump entered politics.... I suspect the general interest in Kanye’s spectacular platform is maybe — just maybe — related to Trump’s ability to game the news media so successfully that he won a U.S. presidential election by coupling celebrity value with trolling. So here we are, now forced to consider that any celebrity’s Q-rating could ferment as political credibility overnight...  for personally obvious but philosophically unclear reasons, [Kanye] respects Trump’s skill for massive provocation....  from inside the matrix, where I’m writing this post, I can tell you it’s not only the U.S. electorate, but also serious people in media and politics who have somehow all agreed that celebrity, per se, is the low bar for entry into presidential politics....  At every level of our politics, narcissism is the only virtue that endures in America, and the only popular cause is the self. In which case, it naturally follows that publicity, for better and worse, is the only qualification that matters."

Me on the Weeknd as the king of WeimaR&B  - decadent dirges that glamorize giving in and giving up - the sonic prequel to the Trump Takeover (the Guardian)


Glamour, noun – 1. (archaic) visual illusion, a magical haze in the air causing things to appear different from how they really are (as in “cast the glamour”). Etymology: Scottish, variant of Scottish gramayre,  “magic, enchantment, spell”.


Trumpery, noun -  1.  worthless nonsense  2/ practices that are superficially or visually appealing but have little real value. 3. (archaic) tawdry finery.  Etymology: Middle English (Scots), trumpery -  deceit or fraud;  from Middle French, tromper – to trick, as in trompe l’oeil.