Kim Jong Il was Supreme Leader of North Korea. He was also a prolific writer. Wikipedia tells us that “Kim published some 890 works during a period of his career from June 1964 to June 1994”. That sounds like a lot, though I hear most of those books were actually vampire/werewolf erotica.

This particular book is adapted from a speech the man gave in 1991, in the midst of the crash of the Soviet Union. It’s 54 pages in length, so quite a long speech—I hope nobody had to go to the bathroom. I read it to learn about the Juche school of Marxist-Leninism, and was disappointed. Kim Jong Il is not one for boring the audience with theory. His descriptions of how the Juche system works all go like this:

The Juche idea is a man-centred outlook on the world. It has clarified the essential qualities of man as a social being with independence, creativity and consciousness. It has, on this basis, evolved the new philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything.

The Juche idea has raised man’s dignity and value to the highest level.

In our socialist society, which is the application of the man-centred Juche idea, the interests of every
individual are respected.

Because it is the embodiment of the Juche idea, our socialism is a man-centred socialism under which man is the master of everything and everything serves him.

Fluffy stuff. I am reminded of the time Neil deGrasse Tyson proposed a nation called “Rationalia”, with just one line in its constitution. “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” It’s really easy to run a country: just make laws based on evidence. While I’m relieved that there’s such a simple road to paradise, in practice there seem to be devils lurking in the details. Likewise, a founding principle of “man is the master of everything” sounds good, but what does it mean? Is man also the master of other men? I suppose North Korea is a eighty-year experiment in answering that question with “yes”.

Hitler’s Mein Kampf isn’t my favorite book—it’s dull, and has some problematic bits (he repeatedly calls Joseph Stalin an “autistic [r-slur]”, and the chapter spent discussing his favorite anime shows is beyond the pale), but it’s big and hefty. There’s the implication of thought behind it. Even if it’s mad thought, it’s a believable and credible basis for a movement. You could use the hardback edition of Mein Kampf to club an enemy to death.

Kim Jong Il’s writing falls to the other extreme. Although light and readable, it displays no evidence of thought whatsoever. It’s just rah-rah feelgood nice stuff, emptily asserting that the Juche philosophy means certain things, regardless of how improbable or self-contradictory they might be.

Socialism is a new social system which differs fundamentally from all the exploitative societies that have existed in human history. As such, it has to blaze a trail despite fierce struggles against the class
enemies. Therefore, it may meet with transient setbacks in its progress. However, mankind’s advance along the road of socialism is a law of historical development, and no force can ever check it.

To be honest, it doesn’t “read” like something a Marxist-Leninist would write: it has the prose style of a tech CEO who hires PR firms to scrub his Wikipedia page of sexual harassment allegations. You could not beat an enemy to death with Our Socialism Centered On the Masses Shall Not Perish. Whack someone with this book and they would gain life-force somehow. Wrinkles would mysteriously disappear from around their eyes. The spring would return to their step. Only by staring at the page through a microscope can you discern any influence from, say, Hegel (note that the rise of socialism isn’t a fact contingent on particular circumstances, it’s a law. But somehow we still have to fight for it…).

The book swings like a weathervane from the banal to the palpably absurd.

The Juche idea’s approach towards people of different classes and strata is that they should be judged by
their ideas and actions

The pampered heir apparent of North Korea, gifted hundreds of totally undeserved jobs, positions, and titles by his father—could actually write (and say) this without provoking gales of laughter. Such was his power. I think I would prefer to live in a society that’s openly tyrannical and reft by classism, rather than a variant of the same that hides tyranny under classlessness. I can’t find the tweet that went something like “At least medieval peasants weren’t subjected to the humiliating fiction that their king wanted to have a beer with them.”

Pictured: a brave Hillary Clinton ventures into the house of a common person

It appears that Juche’s main point of disagreement with mainline Marxist-Leninism is its emphasis on North Korean independence and national identity. It’s an isolationist cover of a familiar tune. The very first line of the book is “WORKING PEOPLE OF THE WHOLE WORLD, UNITE!”, but Juche socialism was not based on any sort of global class unity. So far as Kim Jong Il was concerned, the working people of the world could go pound sand, jump in the sea, and throw a flying fuck at a rolling donut. Juche was about improving the standing of North Korea. One family in North Korea in particular.

This speech was made in 1991, when North Korea was clearly rotten to the core. Half a decade later, wracked by famine and stripped of Soviet aid, it had become possibly the worst place in the world. Kim Jong-Il would later refer to these years of starvation as “arduous march”; a hiking trip to some glorious destination that some citizens (perhaps three million) were regrettably not fit enough to survive. He still found ways to enrich himself. A slogan I remember from this book is “When the Party is determined, we can do anything!” He should have said “I can do anything”.

But again, you have to give Kim Jong Il his due. This is not a book, it’s a speech, printed and sold as a book for some reason. What can you expect? And it’s not like the audience had to be convinced. They were already “pre-sold”: maybe at bayonet point, that the Juche system kicked ass. Even though there may not have been a Juche system at all, just a blank unwritten idea that allowed the Kim dynasty—Sung Il, Jong Il, and now Jong Un—to impose their real ideas on their people.

You can either read this book or avoid it. There’s not much to it, either. It’s just 54 pages, and that’s with the lines of text ludicrously double-spaced, like a padded college essay. Those empty spaces should be funny, but they’re not. I gaze into them and unpleasant images flood out. Each seems to have starved and rotting bodies inside it.

No Comments »

Today I watched the legendary 1940s Fleischer Superman cartoons. I thought “they’re in the public domain. What do I have to lose?”

Everything, as it turned out. I had everything to lose. But let’s not think about that. This is my safe space, and I choose to fill it with happy things. Such as how Paramount acquired the film rights to Superman in 1940 and then contracted Fleischer Studios to animate a series of shorts based on the property and these came out between 1941 and 1943 and are regarded to this day as milestones of Golden Age animation and there were seventeen of them not sixteen not eighteen happy things happy things HAPPY THINGS

Was This The True Birth of Superman?

Superman changed greatly as he slid out of the cultural birth canal.

At the very beginning, he literally wasn’t a hero. In 1933, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster self-published a short story called The Reign of the Superman (read it here). Using a fragment of a meteorite from “the Dark Planet”, a mad scientist turns a homeless vagrant into a “Superman”, a megalomaniac villain who seeks to rule the world.

This character, of course, wasn’t Superman.

In June 1938, the Siegel/Shuster duo reinvented the character for Action Comics #1. This new Superman was a heroic figure: an intrepid crime-fighter who lives under the undercover identity of Clark Kent.

This character, again, wasn’t Superman.

Yes, the hero of Action Comics #1 has many similarities with Superman as we currently recognize him, and could fairly be called the genesis of the character. But he’s not all there yet. He’s not (explicitly) from the planet Krypton. He cannot fly (he jumps really high instead). He doesn’t live in Metropolis but Cleveland, apparently (in Action Comics #2, it’s mentioned that Clark Kent’s a reporter for the Cleveland Evening News). He apparently enjoys killing people. It’s OK, though—they’re gangsters or Irish or something.

The 1941 cartoons reflect another evolution of the Superman conceit. The Fleischers, faced with the task of animating the character, felt it would look stupid to have him jumping around everywhere (as opposed to every other part of Superman’s design, which is far from stupid) and gave him the power of flight. This is now Superman’s marquee ability. Additionally, many famous Superman phrases (“It’s a bird, it’s a plane!”, “Faster than a speeding bullet!”, and “I wish I had a third example!”) hail from the cartoon, as does the trope where he changes into his costume in a phone booth.

So do these shorts depict the “final form” of Superman?

No. The Superman of the Fleischer shorts doesn’t live in Cleveland or Metropolis, but in Manhattan. There is no mention of Lex Luthor or Kryptonite and no attempt to situate him in a world of other superheroes (which I always found odd—is he still Super if there are others like him?) Lots of other bits and pieces are missing.

So when was Superman fully complete as a character? Never. When we look at Superman, we see an endless sequence gradually evolving proto-Supermen, extending from 1933 up until the present day and likely into the future, but without a dividing line when the character “became” himself, just as there’s no point where monkeys became modern humans. To this day, writers and artists are still tinkering with him today: retconning bad arcs, resculpting his character (and world), drawing him in new ways, leaving their metaphorical DNA all over him. Nothing’s safe, not even the logo on his chest.

Image by Maurice Mitchell

Superman exists as a cloudy swirl of ideas, and whenever the sediment starts to settle, we stomp his visage back into mud. He will probably never stop changing, because he exists as a product positioned in an ever-evolving market. The primitive villainous Superman of 1933 is no more or less the “real” deal than the creepy mustacheless one in Justice League.

The Demon-Eaten Superman

The question of haecceity—the “this-ness” of a thing—underpins and undermines philosophy. Duns Scotus wrote about this issue in Ordinatio: when does a stone stop being a stone? How many pieces can you chip away before it loses its identity as this particular stone?

In the early Sino-Indic Buddhist text 大智度論, or Da zhidu lun (of disputed authorship, but traditionally attributed to Nāgārjuna), we find the following creepy story:

There once was a man who undertook a distant journey on assignment, and he spent a night alone in an empty hut. In the middle of the night a demon arrived carrying a corpse and placed it down in front [of the hut]. Then another demon arrived chasing after the first, and began shouting angrily at him: “That corpse is mine! How did you end up with it here?” The first demon replied: “It is mine! I brought it here myself!” The second demon said: “In fact I was the one who carried this corpse here.” The two demons each grabbed one hand [of the corpse] and struggled over it. The demon said: “Here is someone we can ask.” The second demon then asked the man: “Who brought this corpse here?” The man thought to himself: “These two demons are pretty strong. If I speak the truth I am certain to end up dead, but if I speak falsely I’ll also end up dead. In either case there is no escape, so what is the point inlying?” So he replied: “The first demon carried the corpse here.” The second demon was furious, grabbed the man’s arm, pulled it off, and threw it to the ground. The first demon took one arm from the corpse and affixed it back on the man. In this fashion, both arms, both legs, the head, flanks, and indeed the [man’s] entire body were changed [into the body of the corpse]. Thereupon the two demons joined in eating the [original] body of the man who had been transformed, wiped their mouths, and departed. The man thought to himself:“ I just saw, with my own two eyes, two demons eat up my body—the body to which my mother gave birth. Do I actually now have a body or not? If I do, then it is wholly the body of another. If I don’t, then what is this body?” Thinking like this made him horribly confused, like a madman.

(Text quoted from The Curious Case of the Conscious Corpse: A Medieval Buddhist Thought Experiment, Robert Sharf 2023, Reasons and Empty Persons: Mind, Metaphysics, and Morality).

We can consider this a variant on the famous Ship of Theseus thought experiment. A plank in Theseus’s ship is rotting away, so you pull it out and replace it with a new one. It is still clearly the Ship of Theseus. But one by one, the other planks rot away, and are replaced in turn, along with its sails and fittings. Eventually, none of the original ship remains. Is it still the Ship of Theseus?

Some continental philosophers (Wittgenstein!) try to rescue the notion of haecceic identity by connecting it to a process or a system. Consider the sequence of sets {a, b, c}, {b, c, d}, {c, d, e}, {d, e, f}. The last set {d, e, f} has no elements in common with the first {a, b, c}, but we still recognize it as a mutation, because the two sets shared elements in the middle. Their identity rests on the fact that they’re part of a continuous process. The state is nothing. The system is everything.

Is the demon-eaten man in Da zhidu lun still himself? Wittgenstein would probably argue “yes”, because he’s part of the same flowing river of consciousness, regardless of what atoms compose his body (it’s important that he remembers “his” old flesh). Likewise, the Ship of Theseus remains the Ship of Theseus, because its planks were replaced one at a time, new caulked against old. If there is a process linking the past to the present, the identity remains.

But then how do you allow room for a thing to become something else? Humans are distantly descended from primitive eukaryotes called protosterol biota, which lived more than 1.2 billion years ago. But humans are not protesterol biota.

And it doesn’t tell you when a thing actually begins. Most philosophers debate the point where the Ship of Theseus stops existing, but it’s equally fraught to say when it starts. When was the moment when the Ship first appeared? When the final nail was hammered in? Surely it could have sailed without that nail. When the lumber was fully milled? But what if a splinter broke off, and was left behind? Did the Ship of Theseus already exist in the trees before they were cut down? Or when those trees were seeds under the soil? When did the Ship of Theseus first amalgamate? Was it always with us, glistening with the dew of creation?

Superman is like that: a creature without start or end. He’s all process and flux, a red metal endlessly beaten into new shapes by the hammers of artists, never allowed to cool.

Biologist Richard Dawkins wrote his “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL” algorithm to prove that sophisticated order can emerge out of just two things: mutational pressure and selection. But this algorithm is simplistic: unlike actual evolution, Dawkins’ program has a defined goal to aim toward. Once the program has generated the words “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL”, its task is complete.

But real evolution has no end goal. Living creatures merely seek to survive and propagate more of themselves. So do nonliving creatures. Superman will never be complete, because no creative work is. Some artists say an artwork is “finished”, but they are lying. They merely got tired of working on it. Lock them in a room with their “finished” painting and they’ll last five minutes max before noticing something wrong. Something that offends the eye, and has to be corrected. They’d add a brushstroke, then a second, then one more. Artists are demons, devouring the limbs of their creations and sewing on new ones like ghastly dollmakers.

How Much Did the Fleischer Supermans Cost?

A lot. They cost a lot. You may have heard some variant of the below factoid:

“Superman was a cultural phenomenon, cartoon shorts were booming, and Paramount was ready to pay top dollar for an animated Superman. But Dave Fleischer didn’t want to work on it, so he quoted an absurdly high amount of $100,000 per episode, expecting them to refuse. But they accepted his quote! So then he had to make the shorts, with the biggest budget ever!”

This is broadly correct but needs qualification. Paramount negotiated the Fleischers down to a smaller budget of $50,000 for the pilot, with the remaining sixteen cartoons (eight of which were made without involvement from the Fleischer brothers) costing $30,000 each. The total budget was $530,000, or $3,117 per minute of animated footage.

Compared with the budgets of early animated movies, this is generous but not extravagant. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1938) cost $1.5 million, or $18,072 per minute of footage. The Fleischers’ own Gulliver’s Travels (1939) had a $700,000 budget, or $9,210 per minute of footage.

Even by the standards of animated shorts, a $30,000 budget wasn’t unprecedented. Many of Walt’s Silly Symphonies cost $30,000 to make, for example. (Source: Gabler, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, p214), and that was eight years earlier, during the Depression.

Nevertheless, the Fleischer Supermans are legendary for their high animation quality. That’s the main thing you’ll take from them: how good they look. The machines and the buildings look extremely lifelike: it’s early draft Katsuhiro Otomo, obsessed with gears and rails and steam engines. Things have a wonderful cinematic drama, as well as a Milt Kahlian sense of heft and weight. The Fleischer studio had clearly moved beyond Betty Boop.

The writing is…somewhat less excellent.

Does Superman Suck Balls as a Character?

I don’t get Superman. Putting aside the question of whether he’s interesting, how do you write compelling stories around a guy who can do anything? 404 Error: narrative tension not found.

Modern writers have a postmodern answer: debase him. Blacken his eye, and throw mud on his cape. He’s been built up on a pedestal, so pull him off it. Break down everything that’s good and pure in him, and reveal the lie of American exceptionalism. Make him Subman.

But Superman’s early 1930s writers didn’t do that. He is portrayed without a hint of irony in these shorts, and once their striking sci-fi flair wears away, they settle into a familiar pattern. A bad guy will build a visionary techno-gadget, use it to commit some laughably anticlimactic crime (like robbing a bank or stealing jewels), and then Superman will show up, and just…win. It’s never clear how the villain expects to overcome such a mighty adversary. They seem like idiots for even trying.

Also, Superman’s power level wildly fluctuates.

  • In “The Mad Scientist”, he lifts a toppling skyscraper.
  • In “The Arctic Giant”, he effortlessly overwhelms a Godzilla-sized monster.
  • In “Eleventh Hour” he pulls a Japanese battleship to the bottom of the ocean by pulling on its anchor chain.
  • In “Terror on the Midway”, he barely wins a fight against an ordinary black panther.
  • In “Japoteurs” he cannot get past a locked door.

In “The Mechanical Monsters” he uses X-ray vision, but otherwise the writers seem to forget he has this ability. There’s a maddening sense of nonexistence to Superman. Like he has no traits, he’s just whatever the writers need to get this month’s short out the door. Superman’s only consistent power is “he always wins, perhaps after grunting and straining in a suitably manly fashion”.

What’s the appeal of these stories, and this character? Possible answers:

  • Superman is closely entwined with America’s perception of itself, and nobody ever went broke with a theme of “AMERICA! FUCK YEAH!” Particularly not in 1941.
  • There are Rooseveltian political overtones to the character that people related to. Often, Superman’s enemy in the early comics will be a slum landlord, or a circus owner who mistreats his animals, or some other populist bugbear. You could call him New Deal Man and nobody would blink an eye.
  • It’s provocative to make the greatest American of all a foreigner—a provocation that I’m sure Siegel and Shuster (whose names were once Segalovich and Shusterowich) were both aware of and intended.

…But ultimately, Superman makes sense not as a character, but as the embodiment of an audience fantasy: the little man, made powerful. The reason we love Superman isn’t that he can fly or punch through walls, it’s that he’s Clark Kent. Don’t discount the man on the street! He could be a hero!

But that still doesn’t work for me. Clark Kent is not the average man. He is a bland boy scout with none of the flawed roughness that makes humanity interest. The average man on the street picks his nose, farts, and masturbates. He laughs at racist jokes, supports questionable political candidates, and leads a double life that’s spectacularly unheroic—the real Clark Kent doesn’t wear a cape, he has a secret second phone hidden at the bottom of his sock drawer, where Lois Lane will never find it. I keep hoping to find a flaw n Clark Kent. Instead, he’s an unnaturally perfect robot. You cannot write a paean to humanity and then fail to depict humanity.

To see this done right, watch Disney’s Mickey’s Rival, from a half-decade earlier. Mickey and Minnie Mouse are on a date together, when some smooth-talking jerk pulls up in a fancy car, and makes a pass at Minnie. Unbelievably, Minnie accepts! Mickey (who actually had a character in his early years) fumes and seethes and clenches his fists. Wilfred Jackson’s direction is masterful, and puts us squarely in Mickey’s shoes. He’s weak and he’s pathetic and he’s us. Despite all our rage we are still just a rat on a page. Mickey might be a ghastly quasi-minstrelsy rodent whose malformed visage is injected-moulded onto every hunk of plastic in the Pacific Garbage Patch…yet in “Mickey’s Rival” he’s more human than Clark Kent will ever be.

The truth of Superman is that he’s a children’s character who has attained an unusual place in the pop culture canon due to his longevity and influence. You can analyze him and make him seem deep and profound, but this is like doing X-ray crystallography on a cream soufflé. He’s just a kids’ character.

Ironically, I find this inspiring, and the exaltation of human humbleness that Clark Kent often fails to be. Even a kiddie comic can launch the most famous character of all.

“Monstrous Tracks of Unknown Origin”

One of the episodes, “The Arctic Giant”, features a dinosaur.

People have always loved dinosaurs, and all they represent. Ancient dirt, vomiting up implications of an ancient and unthinkable past. Dinosaur bones are like shadow puppets gyrating against the wall of the present.

Past generations had their Jurassic Parks. 1933’s King Kong really pushed jazz-age dinomania into the mainstream (King Kong’s influence is also strongly felt in the Superman shorts. In “Terror on the Midway”, the colossal ape makes an uncredited appearance!), but that’s only the most famous example. Dinosaurs feature prominently in Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books, as well as in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. A few decades earlier, the so called “Bone Wars” of early paleontologists had captivated the public. These monsters locked deep in time were awesome, partly because you could imagine them into whatever shape you wanted. There weren’t any of those “dinosaurs were warm blooded!” and “dinosaurs should be depicted with feathers!” types running around back then, damn it.

An important piece of early animation is Windsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur, which is from 1914 and remains highly interesting today. It’s arguably the first 2D animated short to develop a character. Gertie is shy and clumsy. She keeps doing the wrong thing and getting scolded for it. She’s a far more human character than Clark Kent, aside from the moment when she attempts to murder a woolly mammoth by throwing him into the lake—an act that the narrator expresses no disapproval for, oddly enough.

(But seriously, this is starting to worry me. Are there any classic animated icons that haven’t attempted homicide? What about Koko the Clown? Has he killed before? I’m joking. He’s a clown. Of course he’s killed before.)

A collection of 10,000 drawings on rice paper, Gertie not only precedes color and sound, but also the invention of translucent cel mattes. Notice the flicker of the background. There’s a “holy fuck” moment when you realize that they’re drawing the background over and over, thousands of times. I imagine McCay and his assistants breathed a sigh of relief whenever Gertie ate part of the scenery. One less thing they had to draw.

Anyway, Superman also features a dinosaur episode. (I know it’s not a TV show and doesn’t have “episodes”, but my heart insists otherwise). “The Arctic Giant” involves a team of scientists bringing back a frozen “Tyrannosaurus” from the wastes of Siberia. Unfortunately, it unthaws in the middle of New York or Cleveland or wherever we fucking are, and starts rampaging around the city.

The animation on the dinosaur is a bit lackluster (I guess here’s the part where they influenced DiC and Phil Harnage). You might question the scientific believability of a giant lizard living in an arctic climate. Well, obviously it didn’t live. It froze solid. You people need to pay attention.

The Tyrannosaurus lays waste to half the city in grand style (there’s a fantastic shot of the dinosaur stepping on a car and crushing it like a tin can), before Superman gets his butt into gear and overwhelms it. It’s an exciting episode, although the usual plot contrivances (Lois Lane is an idiot who gets into trouble, etc) appear.

The dinosaur is silent! It keeps opening its mouth, as if it’s roaring, but it doesn’t make a sound. I find this very creepy!

Other people apparently find the dinosaur’s silence odd. I found a Youtube fan edit that actually dubs Godzilla roars over the dinosaur’s silence.

Here’s something else creepy. Youtube has a new feature where it shows you the moment people generally spent the longest watching. Wanna guess what that huge bulge at the 1/3 mark represents?

The first time the dinosaur appears? Good guess, but no. It’s the first appearance of Lois Lane. Dinosaurs are cool to look at, but they’ve got nothing on PRETTY GOILS.

Superman as a Propaganda

In late 1941, the United States entered World War II: or was forcibly entered, you might say. The ripples from Pearl Harbor took a while to reach the Fleischer Superman shorts, but reach him they did.

The animation quality remains high in the back half of the Fleischer Supermans, yet the content turns sharply propagandistic. Superman is staged against the backdrop of omnipresent war, with his enemies becoming the Imperial Japanese and Nazis.

“Superman is a ready-made propaganda icon” is so obvious a thought that it’s hardly worth thinking, but it is striking how well he fits in his new role, despite not being created for that purpose.

Most propaganda works the same way: by pairing a triumphant “we are mighty and powerful, the enemy is pathetically weak!” theme with a “we are in an existential fight for survival!” counterpoint. This is a bit contradictory (how powerful are you, to be threatened by such weakness?), but propaganda is not known for its depth of thought.

This zone of cognitive dissonance is exactly where Superman sets up shop. He’s laughably all-powerful, yet strangely useless. He could probably win the war on favorable terms within a few days. But his actions involve capturing a hijacked plane and sinking a battleship. The task of fighting the Japanese is given to the US Army: it never occurs to Superman to volunteer himself as a tactical asset. He still works undercover, maintaining the fiction that he’s a reporter for the Fuckbutt Times or wherever. Like a standard propaganda hero, he’s both omnipotent and impotent.

World War II propaganda, particularly in the United States, tended to work on a “heroes, villains, victims”, model. It establishes the heroes (us!), the villains (Nazis!), and the victims (civilians, Europe) who exist as pitiful moppets who must be defended. It’s basically the “dicks, pussies, and assholes” monologue from Team America: World Police. Superman generally fits this mold as well. He is the hero. The villains are the Nazis. And the victim is Lois Lane—though in a quasi-feminist turn of events, she now has meaningful things to do. Her reporting is portrayed as critical for the war effort.

Hitler makes a brief appearance in the shorts. As I’ve said, the number of classic cartoon characters who haven’t canonically committed murder is quite possibly “zero”, and the same might be true of characters fighting against or collaborating with Hitler.

(According to the ever-helpful DC Fandom Wiki, Hitler’s Powers and Abilities include “Artistry”, “Military Protocol”, and “Political Science”.

Closing Thoughts

I had an idea for a story once. Real life superheroes, whose power is strange.

  1. There’s a man who cannot sign his name. Or he can, but it’s a different signature each time, as though a different person is writing it. Sometimes his signature will look flowery and feminine, other times clipped and jagged. He gets in no end of trouble with the bank and post office, but he simply cannot produce a consistent signature, no matter how hard he tries.
  2. There’s a girl who is never noticed at security gates. Ever. She can walk onto a train, and nobody will check her ticket. She can walk into a movie that’s already playing, and the usher won’t ask to see her stub. Many of us have gotten lucky this way. She has gotten lucky hundreds of times.
  3. There’s a boy who is ignored by pets. I don’t mean that in the usual “animals don’t give a fuck” sense. I mean pets literally don’t seem to see him. When he pets a sleeping cat, the cat doesn’t purr. When he’s left to dogsit a friend’s mamalute, the dog whines in abject loneliness, pacing the house as if it’s empty, completing ignoring him. You know how animals sometimes seem to see things we don’t? What would it mean if they somehow didn’t see you?
  4. There’s a man who doesn’t exist in history. He accomplishes incredible, amazing things…but by next year, they’re gone. He once killed a mugger in a dramatic home invasion. It was all over the newspapers, but when you look up those stories, they are different. No mention of him. He once won a marathon. But on the internet, the winner is listed as a different man. He lives a frustrating existence. He could take over the world, and the world simply would forget it’s ruled by him.

I abandoned this story. For one thing, it was too close to the plot of Mystery Men.

For another, I realized I was revisiting the same theme, over and over. Superpowers that imply you don’t exist.

Perhaps I was subconsciously reacting to Superman. He is the blandest, emptiest nothing I can imagine. In him, I feel the dark sky. The sea’s aphotic midnight swell. The black space that’s devoid of anything, even Kryptonite planets.

No Comments »

I like music but don’t like talking about it. It seems to be another way of talking about yourself, a prospect which makes me uncomfortable.

Music is the most emotive of art forms, the one most defined by the listener’s reaction to it. Musical tastes can get pretty weird: they’re like Bonsai trees, folded and wracked into confusing arabesques as the person they’re inside changes. A silent catalog of pasts and pressures. A person is a bottle. Their interests are a tree.

I’m more comfortable with books, which have an objective weight, and exist (to a greater extent) outside the reader’s mind. You can argue about what a book means, but you can’t change what it is: words, written in a certain order, circumscribed into language with a set meaning. Enjoying a book means accepting the iron tyranny of language: you can’t read an English book unless you understand English. You can easily enjoy music without understanding its “language”. It’s sensory experience, rolling over you like an ocean. A language-based encounter with music (“at t=3 there is leading tone X which moves into first inversion Y and…”) offers no pleasure at all.

A sentence’s meaning is confined by words. The bones of nouns and ligaments of verbs impose a skeletal structure of meaning—with limbs that can touch and be touched—and although their shapes can flex a little in the reader’s mind, they can’t do so infinitely. Most sentences (even tricky ones like “James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher”) only have a couple of valid readings. It would be hard to read 1984 and conclude that George Orwell was writing pro-totalitarian propaganda. But countless people play “Born in the USA” and think a pro-American anthem is ringing in their ears. Music, far more than any other art form, is a mirror that shows the listener their face.

And mine is ugly. I am judgmental and narrowminded. I will hate a song for unfair reasons: because I was pissed off the day I heard first it, or because it reminds me of someone unpleasant. That’s my problem, not the song’s. Whatever. I can’t change who I am, and don’t want to. If personal preferences were mutable and could be changed on a whim, they would signify absolutely nothing.

A huge predictor of me disliking an artist is “they have annoying fans”. Taylor Swift mostly exists in my head as “that person with a billion-strong street team who try to bully you into liking her.”

TAYLOR SWIFT’S IMPERIAL PHRASE IS ALREADY UNPRECEDENTED. IT MAY GET BIGGER.

This piece is written in an aggressive, almost confrontational tone, trying to batter some imagined Taylor Swift naysayer into submission with her sales and awards figures. Like “50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong!”, it seeks to cloak a subjective preference in a mantle of objective truth. Liking Taylor Swift is not an opinion! It is objectively correct!

Last year, Swift was the world’s most-streamed artist on Spotify, and five of the top 10 albums in the U.S. (including two rerecordings of old albums) were hers. This Sunday, Swift swallowed the Grammys, becoming the first artist to win Album of the Year four times and announcing her next album, The Tortured Poets Department—available April 19, preorder now—during her acceptance speech for Best Pop Vocal Album (just as she announced Midnights during her acceptance speech for Video of the Year at the 2022 VMAs). Next Sunday, her boyfriend will be in the Super Bowl, with Swift presumably looking on—which, in a sign of her status, is seen as a windfall for the NFL. In between, she’ll play four shows at the Tokyo Dome on the Eras Tour, which has broken revenue records both live and in theaters (and threatened to topple the ticketing cartel).

This writer is not a fan who loves a musician. He is a soldier in an army. He wants to win, and for his enemies (boomers, rockists, enemies of Taylor Swift in particular and millennial Girl Power in general) to lose. I find this sort of fandom incomprehensible and even a little scary. The pointless jabs at “right-winger” trolls and shoring up of any possible line of attack against Swift (“a cameo in Cats doesn’t disqualify her; that debacle clearly wasn’t Taylor’s fault”) make sense only through this lens: he’s a marine on the front lines of a culture war, and Queen Tay<3<3 must win at any cost. Just relax. You’re allowed to like Taylor Swift. You don’t have to dump her sales figures on me like a cop flashing his badge on a TV show. It’s cool.

If my dislikes are arbitrary, my likes are even more so. Often, I feel like I’m confabulating a logical reason for liking a thing, after I’ve already decided to enjoy it. In general.

One of my favorite styles could be described as “it lasts for 10 minutes and the ending is sad because you want it to keep going.” Tangerine Dream’s “Stratosfear”, Bowie’s “Station to Station”, Metallica’s “Orion”, The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”, Neu!’s “Hallogallo”, and DragonForce’s “Soldiers of the Wasteland” all scratch this itch for me.

But I also appreciate brevity, and doing more with less. It’s easy to create a sense of depth by padding songs out with section after section. But it’s fake depth. Phony depth.

I like old music, that conjures a different world. Like “She Wears Red Feathers”. How weird to think that popular music sounded like this once. Lonnie Donegan’s “My Old Man’s a Dustman” has a moment where he says “flippin'” and a woman in the audience squeals in delighted shock. Times have changed. The 50s weren’t so long ago. I like songs where, if I listen closely, I can hear the sand of an alien beach.

But I don’t enjoy classical music. I like it when it’s repurposed in a modern context (like the Bach references in Yngwie Malmsteen), but actual classical? Not a fan. This also applies to world music. For me, it’s most enjoyable as coloring in Western music.

Music has to walk a lot of lines for me. It can’t sound too sincere. Or too ironic. It has to be accessible. But not so accessible that I feel clearly pandered to. Maybe these are all post-hoc rationalizations, and I like whatever I like. If an artist is “in” with me, I excuse anything. When an artist is “out”, I forgive nothing.

My Favorite Songs

My actual tastes are a bit broad. I imprinted on metal when I was younger. I listened to only David Bowie for a couple of years. Lately I’ve listened to German Krautrock. But it seems strange to stick all these songs stuff in one list.

These are interests that exist inside little silos, unaffected by each other. I like books written by French decadents/surealists, and can rate their works. (A Rebours > Torture Garden > Les Chants de Maldorer). But I also like 90s cyberpunk (Vert > Snow Crash > Burning Chrome). And I can’t compare, say Torture Garden with Vert. It’s the same with music. It’s like picking your favorite sex position. You enjoy a good Reverse Hitler. But after a hard day punching the clock, sometimes what really hits the spot is a nice Pedo-Vore-Necro-Unbirthing session with Jeremy Clarkson Roleplay, done with someone you love. How can you rank them? You can’t.

Heavy/Power Metal

Most of these songs are very old. I went for variety: otherwise the list would be mainly Metallica/Priest/Running Wild songs.

Industrial Metal

Some of this verges on nu metal or kiddie music I liked as a young teenager.

David Bowie

Big artist for me. A lot of his discography is incongruous with any other part, and only works in context. I ended up listing songs in chronological order, otherwise they tended to form accidental and undesirable patterns.

I picked only one song from each of his albums. This meant skipping over obligatory hits like “Changes” and in favor of odder songs that mean more to me. Gotta give it up for a track like “Win” or “Suffragette City”, though.

Miscellaneous Other Things

I think I’m pretty judgmental with music.

Music I Abhor and Abominate

  • JUMPDAFUKKUP nu metal
  • JUMPDAFUKKUP hardcore
  • JUMPDAFUKKUP brutal death metal
  • this cancer
  • djent
  • Panterrible or any band more than faintly inspired by them (I do think Power Metal and Cowboys from Hell are great albums, but overall they were not a good influence. Metal would have gone to hell anyway, but Pantera sent us there in the HOV lane.)
  • Japanese “kawaii” nonce-core for people who belong on a police watchlist
  • “Pitchfork/Coachella metal”, aka a token metal band who Anthony Fantano hipster types gush over (Mastodon/The Sword/Myrkyr/Chat Pile)
  • “Remember the 70s?! Back when music wasn’t afraid to RAWK!” (Wolfmother/Greta Van Fleet/The Darkness)
  • late 90s post-grunge, a’la (the 2nd most boring style of music imaginable. This is so, so, so, goddamn boring).
  • smarmy, smirking shit like Fall Out Boy and Maroon 5 who sound like they hate every second of what they do and would press a button marked “DROP OUR ENTIRE AUDIENCE INTO A VAT OF ACID” if you wrote them a big enough cheque.
  • contemporary Christian music (the #1 most boring style of music imaginable. Some bands like Reliant K and Flyleaf actually combine CCM and post-grunge in one easy-to-hate package)
  • soulless, generic power metal with AI generated thumbnail pictures of dragons on Youtube
  • commercial alt-rock like REM and Foo Fighters

There’s also a lot of lyrical themes that really irk me, even if I do like the music.

  • “ME! ME! ME! ME! ME! ME!” (Alanis Morissette, Marina Diamandis)
  • “my life as a wealthy, beloved musician is SO DIFFICULT, you guys” (Pink Floyd, Eminem, Lady Gaga)
  • “activist” bands whose message is trite shitlib applause-begging of the lowest order (war is bad, pollution is bad, racism is bad, Trump is bad)
No Comments »