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MTV VMAs: Actually About the Music

| Mon Sep. 10, 2007 1:46 AM PDT

VMAs

MTV's Video Music Awards show tonight was, of course, pretty silly. The Las Vegas hotel venue made the event seem more like a corporate convention than a musical event, and the "performances," such as they were, didn't even try to appear live, with many singers forgoing even a fake headset microphone. Britney Spears, as the New York Times said, was "awful":

Visibly nervous, she tottered around the stage, dancing tentatively and doing nothing that sounded or looked like real live singing. It's too bad, because the song itself, "Gimme More," is a pleasant surprise: brash and sleek and unapologetic.

And there, the Times finds the point—there was something to enjoy, and perhaps even to love, about this year's VMAs: the music. Fans of progressive electronic sounds and mashuppy remix action must feel disoriented, since all of a sudden, popular music is aimed right at them. Yes, Britney Spears is an embarrassment to humankind, but production-wise, her new song, "Gimme More," is a fascinating, groovy concoction of Timbaland-style dance beats and acid-house bleeps, with what seems like a glance back at my first favorite song ever, Hot Butter's "Popcorn." There's not much of a song there, but the sounds themselves are fantastic, something that was a theme throughout the night. The multi-song "tribute" medley to Timbaland himself (pictured above) proved the producer's sonic brilliance, with his hits mixing into each other like a fast-paced DJ set, although he should probably lay off the 'roids. Between songs, producer of the moment Mark Ronson and a small band performed funky remixes of hit songs by Coldplay, Amy Winehouse, and the Smiths; and of course Kanye West's "Stronger" uses a sample of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger," although it might have been nice to seem him perform the track in front of an audience instead of squeezed into a hotel suite. Alicia Keys mashed up Stevie Wonder and George Michael, and while 18-year-old Chris Brown's performance was all about copycat Michael Jackson dance moves, the brief interjection of the still-awe-inspiring bassline from Jackson's own "Billie Jean" was pumped up by extra vocals, completing the sense that just about everything we were hearing was being remixed in one way or another. While French duo Justice were nowhere to be found, their music was all over the show, with crunchy techno tracks from their new album covering transitions and walk-ons. On the rock side, there was less to love, except the Foo Fighters and Serge Tankian of System of a Down covering "Holiday In Cambodia," which MTV showed for about 10 seconds.

Bloggers are saying "Worst VMAs ever," and yes, from a showmanship or entertainment perspective, it was a terrible, sad wreck of a show. Behind the scenes, apparently Kid Rock hit Tommy Lee, and Kanye threw a tantrum over not winning again. Whatever. For those of us who are fans of sound for sound's sake, hearing so many current hits all in one place was oddly inspiring: American popular music may be stranger, engaged in more cross-pollination, and, well, Kraftwerkier than ever. During an acceptance speech, Justin Timberlake dared to bite the hand that feeds with an exhortation to MTV to "play more videos"; if his contemporaries keep making such interesting noise, it's hard not to agree.

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White House Advisor Appears to Taunt Bin Laden

| Sun Sep. 9, 2007 4:39 PM PDT

Speaking on Fox News Sunday about the latest Osama bin Laden video, White House Homeland Security advisor Frances Fragos Townsend told host Chris Wallace:

"Remember, the last audiotape was in June of '06. The last video was just before the election in October of '04. This is about the best he can do. This is a man on the run from a cave who is virtually impotent other than these tapes."

And in case one thought the "impotent" comment might have been a slip made by an administration operative feeling defensive for failing to get the chief perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks, Townsend said it again on CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. Townsend:

"But you know, we ought to remember, six years since the tragedy of September the 11th, we haven't seen another attack. This is a man on the run in a cave who is virtually impotent other than his ability to get these messages out. It's propaganda."

While the White House effort to reassure rather than frighten people is refreshing, and it understandably feels compelled to make excuses for why it has failed to devote the resources necessary to capture bin Laden, Townsend's macho rhetoric seems strikingly ill advised and eerily reminiscent of Bush's infamous "Bring 'em on." More than 3,000 US lives have been lost to the insurgency and civil war in Iraq since his reckless comments. Let's hope Townsend's words don't come back to haunt her -- and us -- in a similar fashion.

Chuck Hagel, Next SecDef?

| Sun Sep. 9, 2007 10:54 AM PDT

Ok, so Jonathan took me a little too literally when he wrote that I said Chuck Hagel's pending retirement from the Senate cleared the way for him to become Hillary Clinton's Secretary of Defense. However, Chuck Hagel would up the curb appeal of many a candidate. As a social conservative who's got great defense credentials, but who's been outspokenly critical of how the war is being handled, he could be a nice VP candidate for the Republicans—helping to keep some moderate Republicans and Independents in the GOP fold—so long as the top of the ticket was willing to be openly critical of Bush and what the surge has or hasn't accomplished. And his social conservative bona fides would help, say, Rudy Giuliani.

That said, I do like the scenario where a Chuck Hagel type is floated, ahead of the election, by the Democratic primary winner to be the next Secretary of Defense. It signals biapartisanship—which we are going to sorely need to take on Iraq, climate changes, health care, etc.—and the qualities that would make Hagel toxic to liberals (pro-life, etc.) are safely sealed off in that post.

Bill Clinton, of course, made Republican Senator William Cohen his SecDef.

News of the Weird

| Sun Sep. 9, 2007 10:28 AM PDT

First it was Jews for Jesus. Now Jews for Hitler?

See this from the BBC.

Dispatch from the Society of Environmental Journalists Conference

| Sat Sep. 8, 2007 8:58 PM PDT

At this weekend's conference of environmental journalists in Palo Alto, the AP's science writer, Seth Borenstein, moderated a plenary session called "Covering Climate Change." A day before the event, he received an email from Marc Morano, a senior aid to Senator James Inhofe (R-Ok.)—the former head of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and an adamant climate change denier—urging him to question the panel's seeming assumption that scientists had concluded that climate change was a reality. Borenstein promptly forwarded the email to several other journalists.

Contrary to popular opinion (and Mother Jones' careful reporting), Morano wrote, scientists who challenge the climate change hypothesis are not a well-funded minority, but individuals whose research has held its own scientifically despite the PR victory of well-funded liberal fear-mongers.

You've gotta give it to Inhofe, whose major funders list reads like a who's who of energy and forest products corporations—he's really stuck to his guns.

But, back in reality, the experts at the conference indicated time and again that global warming was already hard upon us and that we need to act now to cap carbon emissions unless we want things to get really ugly. We also need to start planning for the consequences of climate change (the buzzword is "adaptation.") Phillip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said "there has been no thought given to this issue" in the United States, despite the fact that by 2050, 100 million people a year could be displaced by weather disasters—and research suggests that among the hardest-hit countries will be Mexico, making our current immigration problems look like child's play.

Goodbye Chuck Hagel. You'll be Missed

| Sat Sep. 8, 2007 6:23 PM PDT

Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) is retiring at the end of his term, and it's a loss for both Democrats and Republicans. hagel130.gif

The Democrats lose one of Congress's most passionate and articulate critics of the Iraq War. The Republicans lose an incumbent in an election cycle in which their ranks are already vulnerable.

Former Nebraska senator and governor Bob Kerrey, a Democrat, is considering emerging from retirement to run for Hagel's seat, and the odds he would get it are high. Add in the fact that John Warner, a Republican, is vacating a Virginia senate seat that will likely be won by Mark Warner, a Democrat, and you've got what looks like a much small minority for the GOP.

By the way, there was once tons and tons of buzz around a Hagel candidacy for president. I was a somewhat-tongue-in-cheek proponent. I never really wanted the man to be president, but he was principled, reasoned, rational, and sincere. He'll be missed.

Update: Ed.-in-Chief Clara Jeffery writes in and speculates that Hagel's retirement clears the way for him to be Hillary's Secretary of Defense.

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Neato Viddys on the Intertubes: Bugs

| Fri Sep. 7, 2007 4:11 PM PDT

From what I understand, the weight of all insects on Earth is more than the weight of everything else in the universe combined, or something. Well, I for one welcome our new insect overlords, and in an attempt to rectify their absence from the music video scene, I've collected some clips starring bugs, about bugs, or featuring a band named after bugs.

ZZT - "Lower State of Consciousness"
In which the latest bonkers techno club banger is set to close-up footage of, well, ants; the blipping, buzzing effects end up sounding like communications from the alien-seeming creatures.

Menomena - "Evil Bee"
In which the secret of how bees make honey is revealed: they get drunk on flower juice and then barf it up in large factories. Is that right?

The Bees (Band of Bees) - "Who Cares What the Question Is?"
In which the UK combo's sunny, Beatles-esque jam accompanies them on a claymation trip around the world

Osaka Popstar - "Insects"
In which the indie band's novelty hit is given a cute lo-fi animated treatment, with the band played by puppies pursued by scary bugs. Better watch out.

Gnarls Barkley - "Gone Daddy Gone"
And this semi-oldie but goodie, in which the band, as wee tiny buggies, proves life can be tough even for the chitinous.

Any more I missed, commenters?

Friday is Thy Day for Music News

| Fri Sep. 7, 2007 1:06 PM PDT

Common

  • Rapper Common pledges to stop "disrespecting homosexuality" and using the N-word in his music, after being approached by gay fans and, uh, Oprah, respectively. "I wanted to show a step for myself toward improving on certain things," he said, in an apparent attempt to imitate the sentence structure of Miss Teen South Carolina.
  • Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood: Okay, we're done recording our album, now we just have to "decide what we should do with it." Let us listen to it, maybe?
  • French singer/actress Charlotte Gainsbourg is recovering after brain surgery to remove a hematoma suffered during a water skiing accident. Gainsbourg, the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, released her album 5:55 earlier this year, a collaboration with Air, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon.
  • The AP says music videos are going low-budget, due to less cash on hand at the record labels, or maybe people just like treadmills and Zach Galifianakis.
  • Washington Times Editor Gets Desperate, Compares the Surge to the Battle of Midway

    | Fri Sep. 7, 2007 12:14 PM PDT

    Rambling screeds on right-leaning editorial pages are often stuffed with unintentional humor and unintended self-parody, but the op-ed by Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden in today's Washington Times really takes the cake. In between busily accusing Democrats of hoping for bad news on Iraq ("only bad news makes their hearts sing") and pretending some "Let's not pay taxes or follow laws" crazy on the internet is representative of the Democratic party, Pruden came out with this gem:

    Some of these doom-criers would have swooned in the miserable spring of 1942, when Rommel's unstoppable march across North Africa was finally stopped by the British at el-Alamein. Halfway around the world, the U.S. Navy turned back the Japanese tide at Midway.

    So if you're keeping track, Iraq is Vietnam, General Petraeus is Bernard Montgomery, the surge is the First Battle of el-Alamein, the insurgents are Nazis (or Japanese), and Democrats are (again!) a fifth column that only wants to see America lose, the terrorists win, and babies cry. Bravo, Mr. Pruden. Your achievements in convoluted overstatement are truly impressive. Bravo.

    — Nick Baumann

    We're Making Progress in Iraq! Heard That One Before?

    | Fri Sep. 7, 2007 11:49 AM PDT

    In advance of next week's big pro-surge push from the White House and Gen. Petraeus, MoveOn.org points out how many times we've heard that we're making progress in Iraq.