One thing I find fascinating about hip hop is that it lets you become the biggest musician in the world while releasing basically no music.

Isis Naija Gaston exploded in August 2022 with “Munch”, a 1:44 minute long track. Since then, a year has passed; an eternity in Social Media Time (read Wikipedia’s page of 2022 internet memes and marvel at how they already seem covered in the dust of ages—remember Morbius? The Liz Truss lettuce?). In those fourteen months, hip hop’s hottest new star has managed to release a single EP, titled Like..? It has a runtime of 13:08.

By way of comparison, from August 1968 to August 1969 James Brown released seven studio albums, plus a live album, totaling just under five hours of music. Is that unfair? Yes, but what’s staring me in the face here is that Ice Spice has become the “crown princess of Bronx drill” (Richdork Media’s words, not mine) off the back of less than half an hour of music.

She appears to be speedrunning (slowrunning?) the career of Cardi B, a woman described by Wikipedia as “one of the most commercially successful female rappers of her generation” and whose total recorded output over eight years consists of one album and three mixtapes. You can put a positive spin on this, or a negative spin. The positive: young rappers are at the cutting edge of a changing musical business, embracing a social media-driven world where “albums” and “physical media” are increasingly less relevant.

The negative spin is that maybe music isn’t very important to these people. That they view it as a hook to hang a brand on. Whatever value “Munch” has as a song—with its rapid shuffling hi-hats over deep smears of bass, and Ice’s cotton-batting soft voice—it has far more as a vehicle to get Ice out in the public eye, so we can notice and respond to her swagger, her style, her physicality. Some people want to be celebrity rappers. Others want to be celebrities who are rappers. There’s a big difference.

In How Brands Become Icons, marketing expert Douglas Holt lays out his theory that brands aren’t built on products, they’re built on spectacles. A successful musician doesn’t make good music (lots of people do that and nobody listens to it) but instead transforms their music into something bigger than itself: a splashy, attention-grabbing event. That’s what a lot of rappers amount to. Event merchants. They aspire to create as much hype as possible with as little music as possible. They are tiny pebbles that cause tsunami-like waves.

An “event” can be anything. It might be a hit song. It might also be a feud with another rapper, a shooting, a car accident, an overdose, or a death. Anything that bleeds, anything that makes it impossible to look away. The album cover of We Can’t Be Stopped by The Geto Boys shows rapper Bushwick Bill being wheeled out of hospital (an odd promotional choice: he’d been injured by a firearm while attempting to murder his girlfriend). In his review of 50 Cent’s The Massacre, Alexis Petridis noted that the album seemed to be banking on Fiddy’s reputation for violence. Your success in this game depends on how well you can deliver a drip-feed of exciting “events” to your audience without crossing a line and ending up dead.

And that’s how we get to the situation today: the average rapper’s Wikipedia page has a two line discography and then 3000 words on their Arrests/Legal Issues/Controversies/Sexual Assault Allegations. It’s not that they’re good boys who went down the wrong path. The wrong path was the point. That’s the product we’re paying for: shock and outrage. No beat goes as as hard as a bullet.

But here’s where Ice breaks the mould, because she’s mostly notable for not being controversial in any way. Raised in a comfortable middle-class family, she has no gang affiliations and no criminal record. Maybe this is another sign of hip hop becoming gentrified. More likely, the industry is sick of building up new talent only to have them die face-down in a puddle of Xanax vomit two years later.

Is Like..? any good? Glad you asked. Not really. It’s an EP of songs written around Tiktok and Spotify playlists. Each track is a tiny, self-contained manifesto on who Ice Spice is, demonstrating her strengths and flow. She’s getting paid! Guys are hitting up her ‘Gram! She’s from the Bronx! Each song is a miniature “intro” event, designed to be the first song you’ve ever heard by her.

The trouble is, after 5 or so tracks, we already know who Ice Spice is. We don’t need to meet her, over and over. Ice’s lyrics are limited. We see no signs that she’s a born storyteller, or has a perspective, a sense of humor, or any other quality that might be desirable in a rapper.

If this shit’s drill, I need Novocaine. The constant “Grrah’s!” and “Raggh!’s” get annoying. Nearly every song is produced in the same mannered, sterile way. Indeed, it’s probably smart that Ice hasn’t yet released an album. Her strengths (energy and steel-cool confidence) stop being interesting after a few minutes, and her weaknesses (her voice) become impossible to ignore. Ice’s intonation is petal-soft. As soon as the beat does anything other than “soft bass and hi-hats” she gets stomped to oblivion. The music has to stay kiddie wading pool shallow, or she drowns in it.

I’m old enough to remember arcades. They had games that seemed compulsively addictive, and always left you wanting more…but as soon as you bought them for home console, you were bored of them instantly. Ice Spice seems to be the rap version of that.

In the end, she just feels too well-behaved in the end. Like a rap robot, with some of the mannerisms of the real thing but none of the essence. Not that I like the essence, in any event. I’m probably just not a rap person.

(Also, Like..? sounds like a file designed to annoy Unix sysadmins. You wanna throw some asterisks and slashes in there, too? Maybe a “rm -rf /” while we’re in business?)

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Living dolls are an ancient obsession, found everywhere in story and song. Pygmalion’s ivory bride; Hephaestus’s automata; Hidari Jingorō’s statues; the golems of Prague; Pinocchio; Sir Cliff. We seem fascinated by the idea of sculpting a soul, of concatenating a consciousness, of seeing sparks glimmer between turning gears. In a way, the creation of life is the final goal of art. Mona Lisa smiles because she has to. Imagine a painting that smiles because it wants to.

No artist has ever succeeded, unless you count God. According to Genesis, he formed us out of dust from the ground, so in a sense, we’re living toys. But why would you even want to give life to a toy, assuming you could? Toys are defined by a relationship with their maker: in Aristotle’s classic schema, we are agents (actors), and toys are patients (acted-upon). A living toy is a contradiction, inhabiting both and neither role. Children’s movies can bring toys to life, but they always raise existential implications that are never properly dealt with.

Long before Alan Menken brought Broadway to Disney, there was Richard Williams’ Raggedy Anne and Andy: A Musical Adventure. Toys are preparing for their owner Marcella’s seventh birthday when a pirate captain breaks out of a snowglobe and kidnaps Marcella’s birthday present, a bisque doll called Babette. A loyal Raggedy Anne doll goes on an adventure to rescue the lost gift.

The film was a box office bomb that ended up as airtime space filler on CBS and the Disney Channel. It has a thin plot, and relies on Williams’ animation and Joe Raposo’s music to carry it. But again…toys are alive in the film, and conspire to make the life of children wonderful. Are they slaves? Do they have free will? Do they have the ability to judge? To hate? The point of toys is that they’re not alive: they’re a tabula rasa you fill with your personality and wishes. Researchers at the Kibale National Park have observed adolescent chimps using sticks as toys, but the males use them as weapons or tools, while female chimps cradle them like babies. That’s what a toy is: a shadow of the one who makes it. The idea of a living, talking, thinking toy, with a will insubordinate to your own, is a weird one that seems to naturally slide toward horror, like a stone rolling downhill.

The toys in Raggedy Anne and Andy exhibit Nietzsche’s slave morality. They are fully subservient to Marcella, not because she’s nice or worthy, but because she’s a girl and they’re her toys. They seem to possess awareness and will. Raggedy Andy displays shame at being played with by a girl. The Twin Pennies are curious about what life is like outside the playroom. Most disturbingly, Raggedy Anne feels pain and discomfort at Marcella’s rough playing—the first thing she does is complain that she’s popped half her stitches. However, they seem to at peace with the life they have. They can’t imagine freedom. The only characters who rebel are Babette and Captain Contagious, the villains.

The movie is charming, and beautifully animated by 1970s standards (until the production ran out of money—you’ll notice when this happens, believe me.) Of special note are Tissa David’s sensitive Raggedy Anne and Andy, Art Babbitt’s Grecian-tragic Camel With Wrinkly Knees (with each of his humps embodying a different personality!), Emery Watkins’ voracious sucrose ocean Greedy, and the typical brilliance displayed in Richard Williams’ “No Girl’s Toy” sequence.

It’s also shamelessly schmaltzy, and at times feels decades older than 1977. I’d always assumed Raggedy Anne dolls were based off Anne of Green Gables (red hair + freckles), but this is not true. This is a movie based on a doll patented in 1915, and then a children’s book written in 1918, and you really feel those years. Raposo’s music is straight out of Tin Pan Alley.

Did you know that the film was (possibly) funded by the CIA? It was distributed by the ITT Corporation, a shady manufacturing conglomerate with ties to the US executive branch: their involvement in Augusto Pinochet’s coup is now well-established. This was around the time the CIA was waging a so-called Cultural Cold War, which involved promoting “American” forms of art such as Broadway musicals. The source of funding was apparently an open secret among the film’s production team. Here’s a second or third hand story shared by Steve Stanchfield (by way of Garrett Gilchrist):

(Not speculation at all). Talked with Dick [Williams]. A friend had visited him and talked about how the CIA had funded the film. When I was talking with Dick about Emery [Hawkins] being fired, I asked if that was the CIA. Dick’s hands went in the air and he said loudly “those were the guys!!” and started to tell a story. His wife quickly came over and said “we’re not going to talk about that right now”. Later, while I was at the national archives searching for Private Snafu materials, I made a request to see material related to the CIA, ITT and Raggedy Ann and Andy. The freedom of information act is a wonderful thing. ITT was in trouble in GB and the states for being a front for the CIA. This led to the assassination of a candidate in South America, leaving egg on the face of ITT. They produced some childen’s programing to show they are a solid company with family values (and, of course, that idea is as ham-handed as it sounds). The programs were the Big Blue Marble and the animated feature Raggedy Ann and Andy. Raggedy Ann was to be released, at the latest, in the summer of 1976, in time for the big celebrations for the Bi-Centennial of the US. ITT bought Bobbs-Merrill for this purpose. Once the film was finished, they sold the Raggedy Ann film for $10 to Bobbs-Merrill and, somehow, allowed their assets to be sold back to itself. It is now owned by Random House. This is public record, and there’s many, many pages (thousands). I’ve just seen a handful.

If the ITT Corporation was indeed a spinnerette for taxpayer money, this could imply that part of the film belongs to the US public—ie, it’s public domain. As a pundit joked when obscenity charges were brought against a Robert Mapplethorpe photo of a flaccid penis, it probably won’t stand up in court, but I definitely feel less guilty than usual about giving this film the Captain Contagious treatment, if you know what I mean.

I don’t know that I’ll watch it again. Raggedy Anne and Andy is pleasant enough. “Unsung masterpiece” might be going too far.

The problem? Pacing. The film is brutally slow, larded down by musical numbers. There are SEVEN musical numbers before the first vestiges of plot emerge, and I’m not joking. It’s a “Musical Adventure” with MUSICAL in all caps and (adventure) in a tiny-sized font.

What little plot exists is episodic. Raggedy Anne and Andy make a new friend, get into trouble, escape somehow, then repeat as often as needed. 

But even the movie’s flaws—the leisurely pace and incidental storytelling—curiously work. It perfectly captures what it’s like to be a child, cooped up indoors on a rainy day, playing with your toys and making up an adventure for your head. Or rather, what it once was like to be a child.

What would a kid born in a year starting with “201” think of this film? Would it provoke wonder? Or would it simply seem as an alien relic, undecodable and indecipherable? When I see children today, I am struck by how few of them still play with toys. Instead of Raggedy Anne, their hands are wrapped around a glowing shard of magic glass. It sings to them, enchants them, dreams for them, hurtles them algorithmically into an adulthood they’re not prepared for. Young girls are memorizing rules on how to diet and dress and say correct words and have correct thoughts. Their brothers watch aspirational lifestyle videos by a bald sex predator. The past depicted seems strange, but that’s not true: the world of 1977 is set in stone, remaining the same forever. We’re the ones mutating. The film thinks we’ll recognize ourselves in Raggedy Anne and Raggedy Andy, when actually we’re the Greedy.

In the future (if not the present), this movie will look like footage of a rare jungle tribe. Or maybe research notes of those chimps in Kibale National Park. It depicts a way of life, a piece of the past that’s coming unravelled in memory like Raggedy Anne’s stitches. For this reason alone, it’s worth watching—or at least, knowing about.

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The abduction scene is fantastic; six minutes of such sustained, unrelenting horror that it almost melts the lens. It might have been better to not actually show the aliens (they look like Baby Groot), but I’ve never seen such a good evocation of how a nightmare feels from the inside. Shadows: screams; reality slipstreaming away like oil; visceral helplessness. I felt like a mouse dying in a cat’s mouth.

It’s good that Fire in the Sky has that scene, because the rest of the movie isn’t worth a tinker’s damn.

It’s a poor man’s Twin Peaks (Twin Molehills?) about lumberjacks who witness a UFO, with narrative focusing mainly on how they unpack their experience. Will they come to terms with what happened? Will the townsfolk believe them? Will Flannel Guy #1 mend his feud with Flannel Guy #2? And so on.

On any reasonable scale of importance, “alien visitation” scores a 9.7 out of 10, and “personal dramas of a small-town yokel” scores a 1 or a 2 (unless the small town yokel is you, in which case you might bump it up to a 3). These characters are not interesting and almost cannot be interesting next to the narrative’s inciting event. We’ve seen aliens. We do not care about anything except the aliens. Can we talk to them? Reason with them? What do these fey goblins from beyond the void want? Maybe the movie’s point is that there are no answers. If so, it fails to fill that silence with anything compelling. It delivers a flat and unengaging soap opera instead.

The script is just wrong, and I wouldn’t know how to fix it. It has one interesting event, which happens at the start, and so most of what follows is setting up a joke that we already know the punchline to. This causes repeated problems. For example, the movie expects us to care whether the lumberjacks pass or fail a lie detector test. But we already know they’re telling the truth (we saw the spaceship!), so there’s no tension to the scene. It’s dead as a dynamited fish.

One of my favorite horror books is Picnic at Hanging Rock, which tries something similar. A mystery at the start goes unresolved, until a town almost shreds itself apart on the axle of that question. You should read it. It’s one of the classics that lives up to the hpye. Hanging Rock was able to blend form and content in a compelling way. The town in that story seemed to be collapse into weird cultlike denialism that was as creepy as the disappearance itself. You’re almost convinced that certain people know what happened, and want it forgotten.

Fire in the Sky, by comparison, is made of standard soap opera ingredients. It tries to tell a small, personal story, but does so against a speculative backdrop that’s far more interesting. Imagine a man filming a fly, with a nuclear bomb detonating in the background. Why would you zoom in closer on the fly? The film produces frustration, then momentary horror, then frustration.

It’s based on a true story. I wish I could send this movie back to my 12 year old self. He would have loved it.

I was obsessed with UFOs and alien visitations. I read every book I could, and could recite the “classic” abduction stories (Barney and Betty Hill, Allagash, Strieber, Vilas-Boas) chapter and verse. I’m surprised I didn’t remember the Walton account (which forms the inspiration for this film), but I’m sure I once knew of it. I used to stare up at the sky, and hope to see fires of my own.

Then I grew up, and did as the Bible commands: put childish things away.

Questions are an addictive drug. Once you start asking them, it’s hard to stop. Why do descriptions of aliens always mirror contemporary Earth technology and interests? In the Middle Ages, UFO sightings were of crosses or glowing balls. In the early 20th century, they looked like airships. Now that the “flying saucer” meme is firmly embedded in our cultural neocortex, that’s all they look like. The appearance of the aliens themselves tracks closely with how they’re portrayed in popular culture. Skeptic Martin Kottmeyer acerbically noted that Barney Hill’s abductors (as described by him under hypnosis) bear striking similarities to a monster in the previous week’s The Outer Limits.

And is it likely that an alien race would be bipeds with multi-fingered hands, two eyes, one nose, et cetera? Is it likely that we would be able to breathe their air, and they ours? How could a race of aliens clever enough to avoid detection by the combined firepower of NASA, SETI, and 12 year old Australian boys with binoculars be so clumsy as to be seen by Walton? Where does the invasive “probing” trope come from, if not our horrors of animal vivisection? Wouldn’t they be able to learn about our anatomy through radiographic imagery? And so on.

I still regard UFO stories as interesting (they’re too common and culturally universal to ignore), but they are probably a psychological artifact—the call is coming from inside the house. Aliens might exist somewhere, but barring a revolution in physics, I expect their civilization (or ours) to die in the shadows of space before we ever encounter each other. The only alien intelligences we are in contact with are the homebrew ones at OpenAI and DeepMind. And yet…

“Oh, those eyes. They’re there in my brain (…) I was told to close my eyes because I saw two eyes coming close to mine, and I felt like the eyes had pushed into my eyes (…) All I see are these eyes…”—testimony of Barney Hill

…The best UFO stories—and notice that I don’t specify whether they’re true—have a horror pulsing under the skin that leaves me enthralled. They’re signposts pointing to a very dark place: either out into the chill of space, or inside, into the wilderness of our minds. No matter where we turn, we cannot escape the horror of not being alone. “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”

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