“During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Whether you love or hate Donald J Trump, he easily ranks as one of the ten greatest US presidents of the past decade. He overcame many obstacles on the path to presidency: for example, the arts community didn’t like him.

They (allied with the media) deployed the full force of Vonnegut’s custard pie against his 2016 Presidential run. For example, they called him mean names. Really mean names, like Drumpf and 45 and Cheeto Mussolini and Fuckface von Clownstick. They called him fat and old and made fun of his hair. They drew him as an orange baby, and as a pile of poop. They drew him kissing Putin (the joke is that they’re gay, LOL!). Remember that cameo he had in Home Alone 2? Someone digitally edited him out! Ha! Surely Trump would never recover recover from that.

Well, despite this scorched earth take-no-prisoners campaign, Trump somehow became President anyway. From then on the mood of the politicized left became sad and resigned, like a beaten dog. The vibe shifted from “he will not divide us” to “another day in hell”.

This was a symptom of a broader crisis of faith among the left – they’d simply lost. Nothing they were doing was working. Their traditional weapons were all ineffective or had been subverted by the enemy. The working class were now wearing red MAGA  hats, chanting “build the wall!” Social media had become an attack surface for memes about how Hillary was running a Satanic pedophile ring under a pizzeria. And although Trump’s splenetic attacks on the media caused a brief #NotTheEnemy snuggling of the scribbling classes, nobody’s heart was in it. “Why are we pretending to love the media now? Isn’t Trump president because of the media?”

Tim Heidecker is an alternative comedian – a term he surely hates. His flagship shows – Tom Goes to the Mayor, Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories, and (particularly) Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job and On Cinema, reveal a man who enjoys reflecting media back upon itself in a broken mirror. On a shallow level, these shows parody badly-made entertainment, but they do more than that: they carve apart the edifice of mass media, exposing how hollow it is. Heidecker’s best work is gives you a “seeing the Matrix” feeling. Few men have penetrated so deeply (or funnily) into the corrupt heart of mass entertainment, and for that I commend Heidecker.

But then he started to take an interest in politics. Little by little, it began to ruin his comedy. On Cinema gradually devolved from a hilarious skewering of shitty podcasts to a legitimately angry political satire with Heidecker playing a cartoon version of Trump. His cleverness and self-awareness disappeared. Soon he was unironically participating in stuff like The Big Unfollow, a campaign to reduce Trump’s Twitter follower count.

In 2017 he released Too Dumb for Suicide, an album of Trump protest songs.  They were written quickly in various times and places and moods (usually “with the blood still boiling from whatever indignity or absurdity had popped up on my newsfeed that day”, as Heidecker once wrote). Some are exhuberantly filthy, others sound like a captive lamenting in Babylon. In short, it listens like a Greek chorus of the anti-Trump left, capturing its gradually deflating mood.

The songs are decent pastiches of 70s dad-rock. “Mar-a-Lago” is based on Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville”, with an easy, swinging cod-country rhythm. It contain’s the album’s most benign portrayal of Trump: a bumbling duffer manipulated by dark forces beyond his understanding when he really just wants to play golf. “Richard Spencer” is a Randy Newman ballad about punching people (sadly not Randy Newman). “Imperial Bathroom” is a late 70s Elvis Costello song about Trump’s bowel movements, complete with nasal paint-thinner vocals and a blaring farfisa organ. Lyrically it’s not far removed from late 70s Costello, either.

Generally, Suicide is good more than it’s great, and adequate more than it’s good. Heidecker can certainly write a tune, but he’s not a dazzlingly brilliant natural songwriter. He can sing and play guitar, but his performances usually make you want to listen to whoever he’s parodying. He seldom matches and never exceeds his influences. His voice is limited, and the arrangements of several songs almost bend themselves like pretzels to accomodate his narrow range.

Many of these songs are as ephemeral as mayflies, dashed out in response to something happening on the news. They don’t have much juice left in 2022, unless you want to Google obscure Trump scandals-of-the-week from half a decade ago (“hey, remember when he was trying to make his private pilot the head of the FAA?”).

Or “For-Chan”, he returns fire on people who were mean to him on Twitter. On “MAGA” he comes up with Michael Moore caricatures of Trump voters. Maybe this was hard-hitting satire in 2017. But now, a different picture emerges: Heidecker is a social media addict, doomscrolling Twitter like a junkie chasing the dragon, getting high on rage and misery.

Ironically, he’s getting played by the same cynical media he used to laugh at, and his comment about newsfeeds is revealing. The media wanted his blood to be boiling. They wanted him to think that Trump was America’s Hitler. How doesn’t he see that?

Although journalists individually may not like Trump, the media as an institution adores him. It only cares that you keep clicking and keep reading and keep getting angry, and Trump was crack cocaine. In Jul 2015, Huffington Post announced that they would only cover Trump’s candidacy in the Entertainment section, along with the Kardashians and the Bachelorette. “Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait.” One year later, the front page of their site had twenty-two Trump stories on it. I guess they couldn’t resist the bait after all.

And there’s still another side of Suicide, Too Dumb For: the naked, unreconstructed fantasizing. “Sentencing Day”, for example, describes a universe where Trump is finally held accountable for his crimes.

The jury was 12 to none
The case was cut and dry
The only question remains is:
Will he live or die?

On one hand, the song’s pathetic and masturbatory: like a teenage girl writing fanfic where Harry kills Hermione and marries her self-insert OC.

On the other hand, it’s real. Heidecker is giving voice to authentic emotions here, and this is something you seldom saw in his work up until now. He’s not being vague. He’s not building a clever ironic meta-universe. He’s just being a person, saying what’s on his mind.

And then there’s “Trump Tower”, which was written (if I’m not mistaken) on the day of Trump’s inauguration.

“Well, they can take me down to the bowels of Trump Tower / And put me on the rack next to all of my brown and black brothers / And make me pledge allegiance to the hashtag MAGA, no other/ And rip my arms and legs off while I’m crying for my mother / But I’ll be hell-bent to call that motherfucker President.”

It sounds like a bit, but when you listen to it, Heidecker sounds exhausted and sad and spiritually sick. He means every word. He did everything he could, and it wasn’t enough. The custard pie went splat, and Trump became President.

No Comments »

The first Helloween album is a classic of German power/speed metal. “Ride the Sky” in particular is one the most ripped-off songs ever. It was white-hot innovative in 1985, and still plays well today,

On the back of albums like this, Germany was the dominant country for power metal through the 80s, 90s and 2000s. (In later decades it ceded space to Finland and Sweden, which is also when the genre stopped being worth listening to, for the most part). There’s a “Teutonic” PM style you can easily recognize: Judas Priest style songwriting with lots of 16th note picked-riffs, and “rough” vocals that are more enthusiastic than good. This regional style is highly distinctive: you can typically say “yep, this power metal band’s from Germany” a few seconds after the needle falls.

Kai Hansen and Michael Weikath go about 50-50 on the songwriting here (most of the songs were written years earlier than 1985, for their various proto-Helloween bands). Hansen’s efforts are stronger, probably because he’s having to sing them and knows the limitations of his voice. “Ride the Sky” is an excellent opener, full of energy and riffs. (Also, is it the first known example of a power metal band rhyming fly with sky?) “Phantoms of Death” has wicked riffs and an excellent gang vocal chorus. It features a keyboard line, like a preview of the direction they’d take on their next album. Check out the Iron Savior cover, too.  “Gorgar” (which was written in 1981) has a silly, humorous tone: Running Wild and Blind Guardian certainly weren’t writing songs about pinball boards at this point. Helloween’s lightness set them apart from other bands – they weren’t serious about what they did, which sometimes helped them and sometimes didn’t. They have a lot of nerve crediting the intro track to “Weikath/Hansen” when it’s just the melody of “London Bridge Is Falling Down”.

Weikath’s songs are good but are all the exact same tempo (“Reptile” excluded), making them a bit repetitive. “Heavy Metal” is a Scanner kind of song, and “How Many Tears” is rampaging and furious epic, running a bit long at seven minutes. Hansen’s voice just doesn’t work here – he sounds ragged and out of breath in the climactic chorus. “Tears” more than any song demonstrated that the band needed to find a dedicated singer.

There’s a few different versions of Walls of Jericho hanging around. The original 1985 Noise LP is the definitive version. The 1987 CD edition has a bunch of extra songs, but it doesn’t listen as well: “Starlight” is worse than “Ride the Sky”, and “Judas” and “Murderer” have the exact same chorus (the songs are tracklisted at opposite sides of the CD, in the hopes you won’t notice!) There’s also a I really love “Warrior”. Hansen is in total command here. “Silent falls the hammer!”

Production values? What are they? You hear reverb-drenched Marshalls and not much else. Whenever the songs get fast or busy, the music kind of flies to pieces in your auditory canal like a pinata, but that’s much-loved tradition of Teutonic PM too.

(It’s also a tradition to have questionable band names. Helloween got its name because, as Hansen explained once, “Halloween comes but once a year, but you can have Helloween every day“. It’s actually one of the better names Germany has to offer: other bands include Chinchilla, Edguy, Pink Cream 69, and…ugh…Custard.)

 

No Comments »

Quarxs is an early computer-animated TV show from 1990. It was produced three years before VeggieTales and Insektors, four years before ReBoot, five years before Toy Story, and thirty-two years before Morbius.

Created by digital artist Maurice Benayoun, it’s a fake documentary showcasing imaginary lifeforms called Quarxs. They have a strange relationship with space and time, and their behavior in the physical world is peculiar. For example, the Elasto-fragmentoplast wraps around small curved objects and smashes them, while also turning liquids into solids. The Spiro Thermophage lives in pipes and causes hot water to flow faster than cold water. And so on.

Basically, the Quarxs are gods of the gaps. Everything confusing about our universe (from dark matter to the missing socks in tumble-dryer) is directly or indirectly caused by them. The show consists of a rambling Attenborough-style scientist capturing Quarxs and putting them in a cage and demonstrating what they do. Credits.

If this sounds like a waste of time, consider yourself warned. Quarxs is an art demo for a new medium (computer graphics). It was supposed to wow people at SIGGRAPH demos and get cited in post-predeconstructive media studies journals. It was not supposed to be particularly compelling TV.

You have to force your head into a weird space to enjoy it. Think how an abandoned internet message board from 1999 feels. Empty, irrelevent, superseded, and chanting with an eerie, hypnotic aura, as though its sheer deadness gives it power. That’s the space where Quarxs lives and dies.

The media landscape of 1990 was different in ways that barely make sense now. Battle-lines were drawn up and fought over digital art – even whether the concept could exist. Computers were regarded by artists as business tools – “computer generated art” made as little sense as “cash register generated art”. One of the challenges for historians of computer-generated art is that many rejected the title.

Quarxs had a hard row to hoe. There were no TV shows like it, and few precedents in the art world, either. It’s one of the founding examples of digital art, along with Frank O. Gehry and Heath Bunting. It’s a piece in a puzzle that’s been solved for so long that it’s hard to believe that there was once nothing here, just a blank space.

(Fans of classic gaming will remember a similar shift happening at the same time. PC games in the 80s were branded as “intellectual” fare: meaning flight simulators and CRPGs and text adventures. Action was the domain of consoles. Then, within a few years, a flurry of fast-paced action games for DOS shattered that preconception: Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Prince of Persia. “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen” – Lenin)

To be sure, CGI was limited in 1990, which cramps Benayoun’s visions greatly. Half the time, the determining factor in a given Quarxs’ abilities is “can we animate this on a SGI IRIS with 2MB of memory, y/n”? The Elasto-fragmentoplast turns liquids into solids. Why? Mostly because it saves the animators from having to render fluid physics, which would have been a pipe dream in 1990. Unlike Steve Speer’s (probably even more groundbreaking) short “The Only Taste Is Salt”, the show consists of short and simple camera movements, and there are no human characters.

There’s some entertainment value. The narrator of the show (a self-described “esteemed cryptobiologist”) is obviously quite insane, and makes frequent references to some unknown people (or things?) persecuting him for his views. His explanations of the Quarxs are questionable but hilarious. Why does the Elasto-fragmentoplast pursue rounded objects? Because, as a male, it has a fetish for curves.

Benayoun seems to be laughing at the conservatism of traditional media artists. Near the end of the show a new species of Quarx is discovered, the Mnemochrome, that vandalizes priceless works of art by swapping bits of them in and out of each other (with a prominent digital scanline effect). The narrator has an aneurism.”Good heavens! They have no respect for anything!”

Is it true? Is technology the end of art? Probably only to the extent that it’s the end of everything. Evolution is a ladder seemingly without an end: no creature can command the top forever. We only exist because other animals don’t. Soon there will be something else standing above us, and the ruins of our world might then seem as strange as Quarxs does in 2022.  “Remember Man, as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you soon will be, together in Eternity.”

No Comments »