The Riff - February 2010

Captain America vs. The Tea Party

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 1:28 PM PST

President Obama may be secretly plotting to declare martial law, but the Tea Partiers now face a more immediate threat: Captain America. Conservative blogger Warner Todd Huston has checked out issue 602 of the long-running series and concludes that Marvel Comics is "making patriotic Americans into [its] newest super villains." The offending storyline finds Captain America and his African-American sidekick the Falcon in Idaho, where they encounter a Tea Party rally. They then scheme to infiltrate the antitax protesters as a way to get to their real target, a militia group known as the Watchdogs. The Falcon is skeptical: "I don't exactly see a black man from Harlem fitting in with a bunch of angry white folks." It's not the first time the Star Spangled Avenger has revealed his secret identity as a big-government liberal. Back in the '80s he battled Ronald Reagan when the Gipper turned into an underpants-wearing lizard man. And more recently, he met secretly with Obama to offer his services. 

Huston complains that the new plotline portrays the Tea Partiers as a bunch of crazy racists. Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada has tried to dodge the criticism by insisting, unconvincingly, that the antitax folks weren't even meant to be Tea Partiers, just a "generic protest group." As for Marvel's decision to portray the not-really-Tea Partiers as entirely white, The Stranger's Paul Constant quips, "An all-white teabagger crowd is probably the most realistic thing going on in that issue of Captain America." Quesada also suggests that upset readers hold their outrage while the plot unfolds, hinting that exciting stereotype-shattering plot twists lie ahead. So hang on to your tea bags.

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Deodorant and Desire

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 6:16 PM PST

The commercials during this year's Super Bowl were mostly dull and forgettable (and the pro-life ad from Focus on the Family, which we blogged about, turned out to be mild, ambiguous, and even kind of funny). Many of them were passingly creative attempts to capitalize on some pop cultural flavor of the moment like Auto-Tune. Rest assured, however, some ad agencies are still making advertisements that raise the quick sell to a form of compelling, self-aware folk art.

Yes! I'm using a lot of descriptive words, and I’m using them to write about "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like," a new ad from Old Spice with which I’ve become obsessed. The ad is a fast-talking, absurdist shell game ("Look at your man. Now back to me. Now back at your man. Now back to me." "Look down—back up. Where are you?" "What’s in your hand? Back at me." "Look again!"). It parodies the huckster's art of distracting and disorienting the mark, and takes place in a psychological landscape where objects of desire (ripped, shirtless hunks, tickets to "that thing you like," diamonds) and settings (bathrooms, boats, beaches) have no permanence—fundamentally changeable elements in the illusory universe of want. Also, the guy in it is really hot. Just watch:  

 

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Lil Warlord: Torturous Rap

| Mon Feb. 8, 2010 12:33 PM PST

It's been a rough 13 months for Charles Taylor Jr. In January 2008, a federal judge in Miami sentenced "Chuckie," the Boston-born son of former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, to 97 years in prison for his role as an enforcer during his father's reign of terror in the 1990s and early 2000s. (It was the first-ever conviction under the federal government’s anti-torture statute.) This past Friday, another judge ordered Chuckie to pay five of his victims a total of $22 million in damages; the victims testified that they had been tormented with electric shocks to their genitalia, raped at gunpoint, and scalded with molten plastic, to name a few of the alleged atrocities. And with Junior's father on trial in The Hague for war crimes, things aren't looking so good for the family.

But Chuckie may envision a silver lining: He's now free to work full time on his rap career. As Rolling Stone reported in a 2008 profile, "After he fled the collapse of his father's dictatorship in Liberia, Taylor recorded approximately 20 tracks at a studio called Eclipse Audio in Trinidad." He sent the magazine one of those tracks, "Angel," which you can listen to here (halfway down).

It's more than a little awkward listening to a love song performed by a thug who makes Cam'ron look downright angelic. But if it's any consolation, Taylor is no N.W.A. You can look for "Angel" and other Taylor tracks in the bargain bin, if they make it that far.

Ebony Bones, Freak-Soul Sensation

| Mon Feb. 8, 2010 5:02 AM PST

UK freak-soul wunderkind Ebony Bones is a woman possessed. Last Thursday I caught her intergalactic spectacle at San Francisco’s Popscene where it immediately wrangled me into its dance-inducing Funkadelic voodoo spell à la George Clinton. The wide-eyed songstress pushed onstage looking like a multicolored cartoon superheroine in her leopard-print space suit, purple and pink prosthetic lashes, hot pink tights, green boots, and large golden fro.

Bones’ hour-plus set presented a psychedelic, psychic exorcism of electro-buzz, tribal beats, African punk, and FUN! Backed by two dolled-up singers prone to uncontrolled convulsions, she performed her hits “W.A.R.R.I.O.R.” and “We Know All About U,” along with a crowd-rousing cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in The Wall (Part 2).” At one point, unable to find her signature cowbell, Bones exclaimed, "Where the fuck is it?" before erupting into hypnotic, torso-pumping gyrations. Flanked by her backup musicians, she even busted out a little voguing number, which you should witness here.

Angelo Spencer Channels Kurtz

| Mon Feb. 8, 2010 4:30 AM PST

Angelo Spencer et Les Hauts Sommets
s/t
K Records

What do you get when you cross Miles Davis, Clint Eastwood's American West, and the festering wildness of Lord of the Flies? Answer: Angelo Spencer et Les Haut Sommets (translation: the high summits). Spencer, in fact, grew up in the French Alps watching spaghetti westerns—he now lives in Olympia, Washington, the rainy hometown of Olympia beer and K Records.

Out this week, his debut will probably be deemed indie, experimental, and alt-rock. But more than anything it is a cinematic, instrumental trip through the deepest jungle—full of cerebral harbingers of something along the lines of Joseph Conrad's Mr. Kurtz. While the 10-track album doesn't impart sadness, it delivers a dark tale without benefit of human voices. Les Hauts Sommets' music presupposes imagery, and what follows are some of the images I took away from the album, although I'm sure there are many others.

Film: What's the Matter With Kansas?

| Fri Feb. 5, 2010 5:00 AM PST

In his 2004 book, What's the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank probed the psyches of Midwestern "values voters" to explain why blue-collar Americans abandoned economic self-interest to vote for George W. Bush. This eponymous documentary begins as a retelling of Frank's book but ends as a timely exploration of how an obsession with a narrow moral agenda can be self-defeating.

Much of the film revolves around the Dillards and the Bardens, likable families who belong to the congregation of Terry Fox, a Baptist preacher who's been ousted from his church for his right-wing politics. The families follow him to a new house of worship in a gaudy auditorium in Wichita's Wild West World theme park. Fox convinces them to pour their savings into the park, which goes bankrupt under a cloud of suspicion. Still, this betrayal doesn't cause the Dillards and Bardens to question Fox or his beliefs.

There are fleeting hints of a shifting political climate. Hard times during the Bush years convince "redneck" farmer Donn Teske to forsake the GOP, declare himself a "populist without a party," and even praise the New Deal. Yet the film ends with a home-schooled Fox follower declaring that the framers believed "that our country needed to be founded on Christian principles" and a mention of the murder of Wichita abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. We're left to draw our own conclusions about what the next chapter of this story may be, but in the age of Tea Party populism and a reenergized conservative base, it's hard to see Kansas making an about-face.

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Celebrate National Advertising Day on Sunday

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 1:48 PM PST

It's right and proper that the ad has its own high holy day which, as Robert Lipsyte points out, we call the Super Bowl. After all, the ad has so much to celebrate. It's been the great colonizing force of our age. When I was younger, for a period, I subscribed to the trade magazine Advertising Age, not because I had anything to do with the business, but because I was fascinated by the fact that, no matter how obscure the subject, the ad had an interest in (and a perspective on) it.

In a sense, in this century, the ad has inherited the restlessness once associated with the American pioneering spirit. The Marlboro Man, it turns out, was more than a logo. The ad can't stay still. It's always searching for, and moving into, new territory, and then trying to settle down, often initially alone and under attack. It is expansionist by nature, never taking no for an answer. By my childhood, the ad had already redefined most common space as consumer space. In my lifetime, the ad has broken almost every taboo, and into just about every previously sacred (or profane or private) space. It's made it into the bedroom, first via the radio and then, far more strikingly, the TV set; into the school, the doctor's office, and the airport; onto the sides of buses, into and onto taxis, into elevators, onto gas pumps, and above urinals, as well as into your pocket, thanks to the iPhone and the like. You name it, and the ad's invaded its territory. One of the last largely ad-free bastions in the culture, the book, is about to fall to next generation Kindles, iPads, and other "readers" which will, like the rest of the Internet, be ad-friendly.

Books: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 5:00 AM PST

When Henrietta Lacks—a poor, African American tobacco farmer from Virginia—checked into Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer in 1951, she had no idea that tissue removed from her body without her consent would become one of the most important resources in medical history. She died soon afterward, but her cells, dubbed HeLa, astonished scientists with their still-mysterious "immortality"—they were the first ones to survive indefinitely in the lab, and reproduced at an unprecedented rate. HeLa provided the raw material necessary to develop the polio vaccine and many other medical breakthroughs. In this gripping, vibrant book, Rebecca Skloot looks beyond the scientific marvels to explore the ethical issues behind a discovery that may have saved your life.

Skloot pinpoints HeLa as the origin of many ethical debates that still define modern science, tissue research, and the ownership of the body. Since learning about HeLa in 1973, Lacks' husband and children have felt betrayed by what they see as a medical establishment that secretly experimented on and exploited black patients. Some of Lacks' relatives wonder why they shouldn't get a cut from what is still one of the world's most popular—and profitable—cell lines: All the HeLa cells ever made would weigh 22 tons; a single vial can sell for nearly $10,000.

Skloot spends nearly 10 years earning the trust of Lacks' daughter Deborah, who's also obsessed with learning more about her mother. She still runs up against the Lackses' understandable suspicion, such as when Deborah slams her up against a wall and asks if she's really working for Johns Hopkins—but Skloot persists, intent on paying homage to the flesh-and-blood woman behind HeLa.

Books: The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 4:06 PM PST

Jason Vuic, a professor of modern European history, could easily have written a straightforward takedown of the most maligned automobile since the Ford Pinto. Instead, he uses the Yugo as a vehicle for an insightful and witty look at car culture, a half-century of Balkan history, and the last decade of the Cold War.

Though it sold in the United States for only six years, the Yugo captured Americans' collective imagination—and not in a good way. Its countless defects ranged from the comic (driver's seats that dropped unexpectedly from their hinges) to the deadly (one was blown off a Michigan bridge). Happily, Vuic has an encyclopedic knowledge of Yugo jokes (Q: What's included in every Yugo owner's manual? A: A bus schedule).

Humor aside, Vuic argues that anxiety about communism and its consumer products helped ensure the Yugo's commercial failure. It was only the third car made behind the Iron Curtain to be imported into the States; remember the Czech Skoda or the Russian Moskvich? But what ultimately sank it was its marketers' miscalculation of how much Americans would give up for a bargain. The Me Decade demanded flash, and the Yugo was a "humble, almost fundamentalist product" with no frills to spare. Though it only captured less than half a percent of the American market, Yugo remains a household name—a Slavic synonym for "flop."

Books: The Devil and Mr. Casement: One Man's Battle for Human Rights in South America's Heart of Darkness

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 3:17 PM PST

In 1910, a British diplomat named Roger Casement traveled to a remote corner of the Peruvian Amazon to investigate reports that the local Indians were being enslaved as rubber tappers, and tortured and murdered if they resisted. The assignment was similar to one he'd carried out a few years earlier in the Congo, which, as readers of Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost may recall, helped expose the atrocities inside the Belgian monarch's private colony. In Peru, Casement found horrors that rivaled those in the heart of Africa (see "Blood and Treasure"), but this time, the crimes weren't being carried out in the name of a foreign ruler, but a public company based in London.

The outlines of this story are all too familiar: A firm enriches itself with the sweat and blood of people half a world away, far from consumers' consciences or the prying eyes of watchdogs. The Devil and Mr. Casement presents a fast-paced account of this groundbreaking effort to hold corporations accountable for their misdeeds, as well as a detailed portrait of Casement, a closet Irish revolutionary (and even more deeply closeted gay man) who becomes obsessed with beating "the devil" of the book's title, a ruthless Peruvian rubber baron.

It's not giving away the ending to say there's no happy one to this story. However, author Jordan Goodman buries a fascinating, disturbing detail that establishes his drama's continued relevance: The Putumayo Indians who were rubber slaves a century ago are the ancestors of the indigenous people in the recent documentary Crude, which follows their ongoing struggle to get American oil companies to take responsibility for polluting their rainforest home.