Video games can never be art, Roger Ebert reiterates.
I was originally led to the above link from Penny Arcade, a webcomic I normally agree with, or at the very least enjoy reading. It’s disappointing their retort amounted to little more than “Shut up. You’re old.” Similarly, I find Ebert to be one among very few readable film critics, even when I disagree with him. His argument this time around is worth reading right up until the point that it tries to define art, or more specifically, tries to deconstruct someone else’s definition of art.
The only way to argue that video games aren’t art is to argue that they aren’t a medium. No sane person would argue that art in one medium has inherent value over art in a separate medium. Imagine a debate over which is better, “Stairway to Heaven” or Michelangelo’s La Pietà. It’s impossible to have, in any logical fashion.
But then again, no one would ever argue that song and sculpture aren’t art, so let’s use another example. Chris Ofili paints with elephant feces. In 1999 he took flak for painting the Virgin Mary in his signature turd-smearing style and surrounding her with photos of vaginal close-ups. I have trouble seeing this as anything other than a calculated move to generate controversy and, by extension, popularity. But I’m not about to knock the whole post-modern poop thing. How do I know the future won’t produce the shit-slinging equivalent of Rembrandt? The worth of a piece of art cannot be not determined by the tools used.
So it’s essential for Ebert to prove that games, by their very nature, fall outside the realm of the possibility of art. This is the closest he comes to doing that:
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a [sic] immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.
He is close to making a good point here. Yes, the game of chess and basketball are not art. But chess and basketball are not assembled by writers, directors, actors, and artists. I don’t see how victory conditions invalidate the work of those people. If anything, video games are far more concerned with the experience than “winning.” We’ve always known that winning a video game is meaningless. What’s the reward for beating Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda? New quests!
Ebert is right that you can’t win art. You can only win a game. But while working towards victory, you can admire the artistry in all the little details along the way. Even if you don’t want to call a Final Fantasy game art, no one could call Yoshitaka Amano and Nobou Uematsu anything but artists. That’s the point Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins (Gabe and Tycho) make in their comic, which sums up their argument much more clearly, concisely, and respectfully than the news post I linked to above.
Can something contain art, and not be art? Possibly. A reoccurring theme in the comments to Ebert’s article suggests that while chess is a game, not art, the craftsmanship that goes into making the individual pieces is art. In terms of video games, is that a distinction worth making? If a video game is well-written and beautifully rendered, is it not art because of its interactive, objective-based nature? What if individual components are artistic but others are not — a poorly-written but beautifully rendered game? God knows those are a dime a dozen.
I’d be interested to hear someone like Ebert’s opinions on these matters, especially the last question, since he’s a critic for the definitive collaborative medium: film. In terms of measuring artistic worth, would bad acting invalidate good writing and directing? Shouldn’t you still give credit where credit is due? Unfortunately, Ebert only skirts around addressing these more interesting questions. Instead he opts to spend time judging three supposedly artistic games based on a minute of footage and quickly determining why these, and therefore the entire medium, are intrinsically inferior.
There are a dozen interesting directions this debate could go. Is there a point when interactivity intrudes on art? If something is poorly made, does it cease to be art, or is it simply “bad” art? Should a collaborative work be judged by its distinct successes and failures or only how it works as a whole? But the only way to have these conversations is to enter it with an open mind. Step one? Don’t use the word “never” in your headline.
The animated character Murdoc Niccals, bassist and spokesperson for Gorillaz, has declared that Plastic Beach will likely be the band’s last outing. I doubt that statement very much, because (a) it came from a fictional character; (b) the unique nature of the band requires only Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett to collaborate, other members can come and go; (c) Albarn said the same thing after Demon Days; and (c) this album seems a very odd note on which to end.
Like fellow animated band Dethklok, Gorillaz have an elaborate, ongoing mythology that listeners can take or leave with the music. It gets pretty convoluted, so I’m not going to use this review to dive into what’s happening with Murdoc et al. It is important to note, however, that after “El Mañana,” the final single off Demon Days, guitarist Noodle went missing. Or possibly died, the mythology is never very clear. As a result, there is virtually no guitar on Plastic Beach. The album is more electronic than rock and more atmospheric than radio-ready. You won’t hear anything that rivals the instantly irrepressible bass line of “Feel Good, Inc.” or the crashing drums of “Clint Eastwood.” Nothing here will grab you.
Warning out of the way, I urge you not to judge the album on first listen. I had to listen three times, beginning to end, before I really got it. It doesn’t offer as flawless a package as Demon Days, nor does it offer the sprawling stylistic hopscotch of the self-titled debut. Plastic Beach embraces a different sort of experimental spirit. Albarn subtly applies elements of whatever unconventional styles he needs — traditional Eastern music, electronica, dub, commercial jingles — in the interest of building an overarching mood. That mood, a weird mixture of melancholy and a satirical snicker, glues the album together, creating the most consistent release to date.
I have nothing but good things to say about Plastic Beach as an album, but once I start breaking down the track list, and reviewing individual three and four minute sections, I can’t help but sound critical. “Stylo,” for example, is an odd choice for a single, between the unknown pronunciation of its title and lack of any lyrical hook. It was no doubt chosen as a single to make the most of its high-profile guest voices, ubiquitous MC Mos Def and longtime music industry vet Bobby Womack. “Superfast Jellyfish” seems a more likely single, but was likely deemed too goofy and too cartoony. “On Melancholy Hill” is lined up to be the third single, but I can’t imagine why, as it could just as easily be a song by Blur or The Good, The Bad, and the Queen.
The funny thing is, in spite of these criticisms, I really love all of these songs. I could point out minor flaws in every song, but each one also has some really clever, charming idea at its heart. “Glitter Freeze” is repetitive, but keeps repeating a really catchy, slightly escalating keyboard riff. “Some Kind of Nature” edits Lou Reed’s voice to somehow make him sound even choppier. “Sweepstakes” keeps adding successive layers of keyboards, drums, and brass over a short but complex verse rapped by Mos Def. My favorite track, “Empire Ants,” is divided in half, first with Albarn’s crooning over lightly echoing piano, second with Yukimi Nagano’s (of Swedish band Little Dragon) ethereal voice over the raised volume of an electronic arrangement mirroring the first half’s piano.
There’s a lot going on here, successful and otherwise. I didn’t even get around to mentioning guest spots by Snoop Dogg and Mick Jones. It’s a hard thing to qualify, which is why I’m glad I don’t use a review system that randomly assigns letter grades.
In my last review, on Spoon’s Transference, I mentioned Radiohead’s successful venture into electronic music, Kid A. I wish I had held off on that, as it’s infinitely more applicable here. Your thoughts on Plastic Beach and where it stands in the Gorillaz library should be directly proportional to your thoughts on Kid A. They’re both densely packed deviations from previous material, albums that reward multiple listens, and most successful at establishing mood. I’m still looking forward to future releases, regardless of what this guy says:
The aggregate criticism site Metacritic, forever on the lookout for new ways to crunch data, crowned Spoon as their best musical artist of the decade. This wasn’t an editorial choice; they received the award for being the only band to release four albums and have a critical consensus of “great” for each of the four.
If Spoon’s latest release, Transference, were dropped a month earlier, Metacritic would’ve needed to bump that number up to five. Spoon has managed to make a wholly listenable album that moves the band in new directions while keeping one foot on the signature sound that has made them one of the most distinct and beloved bands in indie rock today. Again.
Girls Can Tell (2001) saw Spoon planting itself firmly onto the indie scene — nothing earth-shattering, but the piano-infused melodies and reliance on the guitar as a rhythmic instrument saw the band building their niche. Kill the Moonlight (2002) defined it, by stripping away the excess and focusing purely on the killer beats, snaps, and hooks that make music infectious. Gimme Fiction (2005) kept those essential song elements in focus but complicated matters by layering chaotic bursts of distorted guitar and more complex song structure. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007) polished and refined the band’s sound into ten cohesive, distinct, and expertly crafted songs, proving that Spoon had mastered the sound they had been building for the past ten years.
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was Spoon’s OK Computer — a commercially and critically successful work from an alternative rock band at the height of their craft. In both cases, nearly perfect albums, completely devoid of filler. Both Radiohead and Spoon fans were left to wonder what to expect next. How to follow up a near perfect album? Radiohead took the most challenging route: changing styles. Kid A and Amnesiac rebuilt Radiohead from the ground up as an electronic band, wandering through ambient soundscapes that often drifted far from what most people would define as a “song.” Brilliant for sure, but hardly as palatable as their earlier work.
Spoon took a more conservative, but still difficult route: Don’t completely break the sound that gave you your success, just smack it with a hammer a few times. Transference‘s eleven songs are messier and choppier, deliberately lacking the perfectionist polish of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Spoon swerves in and out of the rough patches just enough to keep things interesting. In a lesser band’s hands this might sound like a rushed effort, but Spoon clearly hasn’t forgotten any of the lessons of their previous work. They’re just keeping the listeners on their toes by liberally applying two new techniques to disrupt initial expectations.
The first, the deliberate use of lower quality recording, appears about thirty seconds into “Before Destruction,” the album’s opener. Britt Daniel’s voice suddenly sounds distant, as if he took a couple steps back from the microphone. The amps are turned down, practically off, so we can hear the naturalistic chop of an electric guitar played acoustically. This technique appears again halfway through the album with “Trouble Come Running,” a short and fun song that sounds like it was recorded in a basement over a lazy Saturday (and I mean that in the best possible way). Few bands would elect to keep the various imperfections in the piano ballad “Goodnight Laura,” but Spoon does. Most bands would also probably use violins the fill in the empty air around the piano, but Spoon instead opts for simple humming. It’s all gloriously low-fi.
The second, disrupting song structure, is not noticeable at first. The listener will likely be short enough of expectations to take these songs at face value. On the second and third listens, it becomes very apparent. Songs will often end thirty seconds earlier than it seems like they should. “Is Love Forever?” and “The Mystery Zone” take it as far as cutting off mid-word. Other songs will continue for another thirty seconds after their apparent end. “Written in Reverse,” for example, briefly springs back to life after a fade out. Throw in an occasional disregard for typical verse-chorus structure, and you have a pretty good idea of the way Transference plays with the archetypal Spoon song.
Spoon has hit a sweet spot in their career arc. They have critical support and a solid fan base but aren’t famous enough to land the inevitable backlash. They are famous enough to sell out two nights at the 930 Club before this reviewer could get his hands on tickets (shakes fist angrily!), but independent enough to be nowhere to find on FM radio. For purely selfish reasons I hope they stay right where they are. It seems to me like the ideal position for Spoon to keep doing what they want and keep doing it damn well.
This editorial comes from The Wall Street Journal, but since it’s one of those articles that takes a tenuous conceit that you can build a headline around and stretches the metaphor way past the point of coherence, you’d swear it came from Slate.
Cultural historians are desperately seeking a precedent to the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien fiasco. They are looking in the wrong places. True, Pat Sajak, Chevy Chase and Joan Rivers all got axed from late-night talk shows after shockingly brief stints at the helm, but none of them got $32.5 million to take a hike. And none of them got replaced by the person they had replaced. And none of them pouted about getting canned for general incompetence while millions of their countrymen—who had not actually failed at their jobs—were unable to find work.
No, the most appropriate parallel to the debacle that has humiliated NBC took place in central Europe in the late 1930s. It happened at Munich.
Jay Leno, much like Adolf Hitler, is a master of making secret demands for foreign territory and then acting like the wronged party. First he pretended that he wanted to annex only the first half-hour of Mr. O’Brien’s “Tonight Show.” Here he was mimicking Hitler, who insisted that he merely wanted to annex the German-speaking Sudetenland, not all of Czechoslovakia.
Then, adopting the craven British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as a role model, NBC stabbed Mr. O’Brien in the back by agreeing to let Mr. Leno reoccupy the first segment of his old “Tonight Show” slot. NBC’s defense was that Mr. O’Brien had dismal ratings, and the show was a bit of a mess. But the same can be said about Czechoslovakia, a hodgepodge cobbled together after the First World War that never really got its act together.
I guess it says something about my tastes that I was more upset by the author’s unfair claims about Conan’s “pouting” than the hyperbolic comparisons of Leno to der Fuhrer.
2009 gave us a lot of success from musical projects that looked like surefire failures. The return from a long hiatus of a band with a deceased member? Check. The supergroup consisting of not one, not two, but three rock giants? Check. A collaboration between the Black Keys and the Wu Tang Clan (among others)? Check. Yet another Jack White side project? Check. Each of these projects far exceeded my admittedly low expectations.
But, much as I enjoyed all the above mentioned albums, none of them accomplished anything truly transcendent. Only one album really blew me away in a way that matched pure entertainment value perfectly with originality and depth: The Mountain by Heartless Bastards. I’m shocked I’ve seen virtually no mention of this album as the year ends and everyone and their mother organizes their opinions into top ten lists.
Album titles rarely carry much meaning, but I can’t think of a more appropriate one for the Ohio band’s masterwork than The Mountain. The album feels both immense and wholly natural. It’s a perfect marriage of conflicting themes; an unhurried pace and weighty emotions expressed through minimal production and loose, natural delivery. The album feels longer than it is, and bizarrely, I intend that as a compliment. It’s an epic accomplished in less than 50 minutes.
To get a feel for the album, listen to the slow, twangy slide guitar of the album’s title track. Or the gospel-like lyricism of “Witchypoo.” Or the mandolin/violin duo on the long but well-paced “Had to Go.” The album has plenty of highlights, but it’s best enjoyed all at once. Don’t expect perfection. A few songs, like “Nothing Seems the Same,” tend to sag under their repetitive structure. But these flaws are part of the charm of an organic album that feels neither rushed nor fussed over.
Onward to my top ten songs:
10. Cage the Elephant — No Rest for the Wicked
This was undoubtedly the weirdest song on mainstream rock radio this year, which is largely the reason I appreciate it. It tells the story of a prostitute, a mugger, and a priest who steals from his congregation, all trying to rationalize their actions. The slide guitar and speak-singing recall Beck, while the cast of amoral characters recalls the Cold War Kids’ first album. Imagine if those got together for a drunken jam session. But there’s something infectious about it. It manages to be catchy even while the lyrics don’t quite match the beat. Its sloppiness is part of its appeal.
9. Blakroc — Telling Me Things
It was a pretty dire year for hip-hop. Brother Ali and Wale were pretty good, but their music covered well-trodden ground. Inexplicably, the most original hip-hop album of the year came from the Black Keys, working with producer Damon Dash and a slew of big name MCs, including Mos Def and few Wu-Tang members. The Black Keys’ instrumentals and background vocals lent far more texture and subtle variation than one might expect over songs with otherwise mostly generic verses. The best example of the success of the project is “Telling Me Things.” The drums snap, the guitar echo with reverb, and RZA has some pretty funny lyrics about a former relationship based on ridiculous lies. (“I told her I was a clone/And there was probably three of me.”)
8. Band of Skulls — Cold Fame
Band of Skulls’ debut album Baby Darling Doll Face Honey was a completely unexpected joy from this past year. I only picked it up because it was ridiculously discounted on iTunes, after hearing the single “I Know What I Am” and reading a review that made the band sound interesting, even if the reviewer wasn’t too enthusiastic about it. Though short, the album progresses from catchy garage rock in the spirit of the White Stripes to acoustic ballads touching on the blues. The lead single is incredibly infectious, and would certainly be a candidate for this top ten, if not for the album’s closer “Cold Fame.” It gets off to a slow start, with soft drumming, guitar notes left to ring, and a vocal duet. It builds into a climax over six minutes without changing the volume much, but rather the earnestness of the singers’ voices and the strumming frequency.
7. Alice in Chains — A Looking in View
Replacing a dead member and returning after a decade-long hiatus sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Alice in Chains fared much better than anyone could have guessed. It worked for several reasons. One, Jerry Cantrell was probably more of a creative force musically than the late Layne Staley. Two, while new vocalist William DuVall doesn’t have the same rawness Staley brought to the band, he’s talented enough on his own and doesn’t sound like a weak impersonation. Three, the new lineup toured for four years before recording an album, taking real effort to establish a new dynamic instead of assuming the old one would remain. Four, the music sounds more like it’s picking up where it left off, rather than trying to recapture the glory days. “A Looking in View” definitely has a late AIC feel to it — heavily distorted metal guitar work under harmonious vocals that runs just a tiny bit too long. It’s an expertly made look back at a sound that’s been mostly absent since the mid ’90s.
6. White Rabbits — Salesman (Tramp Life)
White Rabbits’ It’s Frightening was produced by Spoon’s Britt Daniel, and it showcases the same effectively layered simplicity that has become Spoon’s signature sound. This is by no means a insult — more Spoon is always a good thing. Since nearly every song on the album is at about the same level of quality, I could’ve just as easily highlighted the Clash-referencing “Rudie Fails” or the piano-pounding “Midnight and I.” I chose “Salesman (Tramp Life)” because it’s one of the least spare and perhaps the least Spoon-like. Multiple guitars, distinct bass, and overlayed vocals are juggled expertly, creating a nice subtle escalation without sounding dense. This song’s the one that will make me return to this band in the future, no matter who’s producing.
5. Heartless Bastards — Out at Sea
Tough to pick a “best” track off the awesome and sprawling The Mountain, but “Out at Sea” manages to be the song I return to most often. And who could resist it? The guitar chugs out a few grungy chords while the drums add plenty of flourishes to a catchy and simple beat. Erika Wennerstrom’s vocals are effectively soulful, as always. On an album full of epic and sprawling tracks, the most consistently enjoyable track is this single-worthy dose of barroom rock.
4. The Dead Weather — 30 Feet Tall
In the documentary It Might Get Loud, Jimmy Page compares the escalation in “Stairway to Heaven” to the buildup and climax of sex. There’s a short list of songs that work that same structure truly masterfully, Metallica’s “One” and Lynrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” are obvious choices, but I’d also include Radiohead’s “There There” and Tool’s “Lateralus” (the latter having multiple mini-climaxes over it’s nearly 10-minute running time). After this year I have to add “30 Feet Tall” to that list. Easily the best song from the supergroup, it features a pair of explosive guitar solos from Dean Fertita, Alison Mosshart wailing like a rocker and crooning like a lounge singer, and Jack White impressively drumming on his original instrument of choice.
3. Rodrigo y Gabriela — Buster Voodoo
The guitar-playing duo from Mexico has a truly distinct sound, not very concisely described as acoustic Latin metal instrumental. It was a bold move to ever-so slightly tamper with that for their second studio album, and a massive surprise that it paid off so well. Each song on the album is dedicated to a different artist that inspires the duo — in the case of “Buster Voodoo,” Jimi Hendrix. It’s easy to hear the comparison. While the soloing in the middle still sounds distinctly Latin, the low notes of the main riff (and later, the understated use of the wah pedal) offer homage to Hendrix’s rhythmic crunch.
2. Them Crooked Vultures — Scumbag Blues
Them Crooked Vultures boasts one of the most impressive pedigrees of any supergroup I’ve ever heard: Josh Homme, Dave Grohl, and John Paul Jones. Tackling both lead guitar and vocals, Homme is clearly the dominant force, but Grohl and Jones add layers of depth and polish to his addictive hard rock riffs. The best example of this is “Scumbag Blues,” which nails the same perfect power trio blend perfected in the ’60s by Cream. In fact, the main riff sounds a bit like something Clapton would have written, and Homme sounds a bit like Jack Bruce during the verse.
1. The Thermals — Now We Can See
Sometimes all it takes to write a great song is your classic three-piece band, a handful of major chords, and a hook you’ll be singing along to on your first listen (oh-way-oh-oooh-oh-ohhh). The end result is deceptively simple, but worth so much more than the sum of its parts. This is one of those songs that’ll slap a smile on your face no matter how many times you hear it.
Maybe its the recent release of Dethklok’s “Dethalbum II,” but for whatever reason, music and murder (“Murmaider?”) have been on the brain recently. I have kind of a sick fascination with songs with violent lyrics that come from unexpected sources. If Cannibal Corpse pens a song about a shotgun to the face, we’d have to categorize it among their least imaginative in-song deaths. But if Elton John sang similarly gruesome lyrics set to the same sort of chords, rhythms, and melodies as “Crocodile Rock,” then color me intrigued.
Speaking of Elton John, and to get some sense of the type of dissonance I’m looking for in this list, take a listen to “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself.” It was an early contender, but I had to disqualify songs about suicide, since wow there are a lot of upbeat songs about suicide. No, for this list, it’s 100% “I-shot-a-man-in-Reno-just-to-watch-him-die” murder.