Listless

I was going to do a list of consumer products I liked that came out in 2010. Books, videogames, films, music, that sort of thing. Many people do it. I started writing it a while ago, to make sure I had consumed everything I wanted to mention before the end of the year. It wound up feeling contrived though. There was no connection between any of the products other than the release date. That doesn’t reflect the way I read/listen/watch/play and it probably doesn’t for most people. Usually one work causes me to stumble on another and these works can be in different media, different time periods and they in turn lead me onto the next, perhaps tenuously related work.

The other problem with end-of-year lists is time. I can’t say what my favourite videogames of 2010 are when I still haven’t played Minecraft, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Heavy Rain (although I’m not sure if I can be bothered), VVVVVV, Sword & Sworcery EP, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood or Amnesia: Dark Descent. Partly that’s because I wasted so much time on schlock like Castlevania, but also because – with games especially – there’s never enough time in the day to fit all the new stuff in.

The end of year list does have its place, especially when it highlights marginal or overlooked work, or when it is highly personal and therefore idiosyncratic. Dennis Cooper’s ‘Mine for yours’ is a good example. It’s probably a list like Dennis’ that I wanted to post – one with all the artwork and titles pleasingly laid out. But for whatever reason it didn’t work when I tried it.

So instead of giving you another list, I’ll recommend only one thing that I liked that came out in 2010.

I first came across Masaaki Yuasa when I bought the DVD of his 2004 movie Mind Game after it was recommended by the (now sadly dormant) Kurutta blog. I thought Mind Game was very creative and unique, but on the first watch it was a little bit too frenetic somehow. Yuasa seems to work better in the TV mini series format. Kemonozume (2006) looks a lot like Mind Game – bold colours with sketchy lines mixed with moments of colour-tinted live action – but has more space to breathe.

The Tatami Galaxy (2010) is the story of an immature university student who, at the beginning of every episode, joins a new extra-curricular club to find his “raven-haired maiden”. At the end of every episode he fails to see “the opportunity [that] is always dangling before [his] eyes” and a large clock strikes as time reverses back to the beginning. This structure enables the show to tell a complex story without needed to include those tedious “Previously on…” sections.

I don’t want to describe it in any more depth because when I do it doesn’t work very well. I’ve been trying for a while to write something about Kemonozume, but I can’t. Masaaki Yuasa’s films always fill me with joy and that seems to leave me with nothing much else to say.

I’ll end with this: His visual approach is variable but recognisable and he doesn’t stick within a particular genre of story. Mind Game is a kind of Bildungsroman, Kemonozume is a horror samurai tale (and features a brilliant neoliberal villain), Kaiba (2008) is a sedate “sci-fi love story” and The Tatami Galaxy is a many worlds romantic comedy. They’re all often funny, visually extraordinary (along with playing games for the eyes, the depiction of nude bodies is very well done) and truly unique.

Broken windows. Also paint.

I can’t be the only one who finds the news coverage of the student protests bizarre and depressing. I know I’m not the only one who fails to feel an emotional attachment to smashed windows. We’re told that a policeman is dragged from his horse and beaten by protestors. But he wasn’t. The Prime Minister had less to say about a young man who was beaten by riot police and had to have emergency brain surgery. But let’s not talk about that.

There is a confusion about who or what the protestors are. They are naïve children one moment and the next they are seasoned professionals. First they are merely middle class then they are “vermin”. They cease to be children when they are surrounded and beaten and they stop being middle class when they fight back. They also, apparently, stop being democratic. A non-elected coalition government enacts the biggest cuts to the public sector ever without once discussing it with the public, doing the very opposite of what many of them said they would do before the election and it is the people protesting this situation who are the anti-democratic ones. This type of thinking is what leads to the ridiculous concept of the anti-democratic mob.

The other confusion is about the justification for the fees and cuts. That the cuts are never mentioned is part of the problem. The politicians’ justification is that the cuts have to happen and that students will have to pay instead. But then, when accused of making it impossible for anyone without wealthy parents to get an education past GCSEs, they say that the poorest won’t have to pay back the fees until they make enough money and if they never make enough money they will never pay anything back. But then what about the cuts? Weren’t the fees supposed to replace taxes lost to cuts? After this the argument turns to the uselessness of education. They say that only subjects that get people into jobs are valid. This is why they are cutting the arts and humanities (conveniently forgetting that there are in fact jobs in the arts and humanities).

The idea is that the university has to exist to train people for jobs. That this can be said and go unchecked while in the midst of a recession and huge unemployment rates is absurd. This recession was caused by unregulated loans and speculation, caused by the idea that there should be no restrictions on business. The call to make universities training centres for businesses at a time when the economic foundations that the business world is built on are at the risk of total collapse is madness. To subject universities even further to the excesses of the market during a time where the market is depressed more than it was during the Great Depression should be unspeakable.

We all laughed in Britain when Tea Party-types in the US slagged off the NHS for being socialist. We laughed because we know how well the NHS works, that we in Britain pay less for our healthcare than the US does and we have a better healthcare service than the US. But now the news media is filled with people taking the common (non)sense position that students should, in the interest of fairness, pay for their own education. Do they really believe that their taxes will go down if students have to pay? Have they forgotten what happened to the trains? Private train companies still get money from taxes and yet they manage to provide a terrible service and charge enormous ticket prices that rise higher and higher every year. With privatised services that charge the user at the point of entry, fees go on top of tax subsidies and create a poorer service that succeeds only in enriching private bureaucrats while making ordinary people foot the bill.

All this is justified with the word “efficiency”. You or I might think that efficiency means something/someone that does a job better and with less waste. “Efficiency” in business means getting more money for less work. In politics it means getting more tax money into private hands. The quality of the work doesn’t come into it. This is how the rail system – despite costing more, suffering from more frequent delays, despite the lack of seats and the more frequent accidents – is considered efficient.

This quest for efficiency is why the universities are only the beginning. The Tories have a last, fleeting opportunity to finish what Thatcher started, Major clung to and Blair/Brown accelerated: the privatisation of everything.

If the news media and politicians seem to care more about broken glass than beaten bodies it’s because they care more about private property than people.

The greatest hits of R&B: The-Dream’s Love trilogy


The-Dream makes pastiche that stands out as inauthentic even in a world of academic pop and R&B. In one song he’s squeaking like Michael, the next he’s getting knee-deep like Kelly, in another he synths like Prince. His gestures and tics should come with an index of references. Every song is like a karaoke performance; his singing is imitation, amateur. His lyrics are often trite to the extreme – “on planes that fly” – and when not standard loverman tropes of shack up and break up, revolve around the most banal activities: shopping, drinking and the V.I.P. section.

And yet. And yet The-Dream’s greatest-hits-of-R&B act has created a fascinating and inventive series of song-cycles. He has somehow managed to throw everything at the wall and make it stick. His concept-heavy albums have songs with themes that fall twisted on top of one another, whose structures expand and contract the possibilities of R&B.

For all his posturing and boasts, in videos he seems like a shy geek hiding under his hat, collar and sunglasses. He looks like a cartoon spy or the Invisible Man. It’s like he has to make up for his belly and jowls by working on the body of his songs instead. And some of those bodies are beautiful. Every album so far has featured love songs loosely revolving around a theme, first Love Hate, followed by Love vs Money, then Love King. Within each album there are usually one or two tight song cycles, songs that bleed sonically and lyrically into each other. Love King’s outrageous Prince pastiche ‘Yamaha’ – about the thrill of a new relationship – runs seamlessly into ‘Nikki pt. 2’, where this new romantic situation is complicated by the return of an old flame. Dream’s meta-narrative runs deep, as the Nikki of the title featured in Love Hate (the first album) and refers to his real life ex-wife. ‘Yamaha’ starts with Dream chatting a girl up with “Don’t know your name, little mama” and near the end, without warning, becomes about Nikki (“still got your name tattooed on my back”) then – as if the song doesn’t notice – continues being about the new girl until breaking into ‘Nikki pt. 2’ with “Nikki I miss you”. That song, wistful and remonstrative, slides directly into the anger of ‘Abyss’, where Nikki can “cry till you drown your face” for “it’s all because of you”.

These song cycles are Dream’s bread and butter. They seem explicitly designed to be listened to in order as part of an album and don’t work as well as youtube videos. Love vs Money’s title track packs a punch with the bitter line “wanted to take you home to my Mama” because it was said so open-heartedly in ‘Take U Home 2 My Mama’ a few songs earlier. But his masterpiece is a song that can stand alone (although it too shifts seamlessly into its successor). ‘Fancy’ is a six minute, slow building meditation on the high life, a song about “diamond rings and all those things”. Over a languid, hazy rhythm, the narrator tries to convince us and himself that he is happy with his lover and his wealth. The song is ostensibly about a girl, a “fancy” girl that Dream is spending this numbed bliss with. It starts with sweetness and excuses: “she made her way from nothing/can’t fault her for wanting something/she loves men that can afford”, but as the hollowness of their lives and their love becomes more inescapable – “She’s with me because she wanna live fancy/I’m with her because she’s beautiful” – the music starts to snap out of its reverie and when the beat finally drops the heavy 4×4 climaxes with… sparkles. The niggling sensation that everything is not right takes over and we go from the champagne laziness of ‘Fancy’ to the painful heartbreak of ‘Right Side of My Brain’.


But after all that the derivative charge still stands. It just may be that The-Dream is one of the few real world examples of the postmodern conceit that a clusterfuck of references can create something that transcends those references. And while Dream’s lyrics are often truly ridiculous (the stand out has to be in the aforementioned ‘Yamaha’ where Dream says to his girl “Police hate us/Why?/Because they never seen a girl with an ass so fat”) his delivery can make simple lines heartbreaking. ‘Mr. Yeah’ starts like a throw away with Dream boasting that “my publisher love when I do this”, but quickly turns into the humble admission of the cuckolded narrator that “you can always come back”. Just the soft, plaintive way he says “yeah” at the end of this song makes my heart melt. Pleasingly he cuts through the treacle at the last moment by adding “can we fuck now?” in the same sad voice.

The-Dreams albums are like an intricately structured trip through R&B past and present. Dream would be notable if he was only the co-writer and co-producer of two of the best big-hit songs of recent years (‘Umbrella’ and ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’) but his willingness to experiment with song cycles could open the door to a whole new R&B. Just a new R&B that is strangely antiquarian.