Friday, 24 December 2010

And your 2010 Album of the Year is... Pitchfork and Rolling Stone have both declared Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the best album of 2010, but if you read those reviews, you'll note that both of them avoid talking about the core appeal of the album, choosing instead to prattle on about his talents as a producer (which are myriad) or his public persona (which is outrageous) or about a line or two that seems excessive (of which there are many). That the album contains some of the catchiest cuts West has ever produced is merely a sign of his continued development as a musician and his increased confidence as a producer: he'll plink three notes on a piano and loop a "LOOK AT YOU!" because he needs no more than three and is confident enough to speak over the shouting. But that's not why the album appeals: You can ignore all the lyrics of "Runaway" about toasting assholes that will, in fact, be toasted by actual assholes who think themselves worthy of a toast, because the only lyric in that song that matters follows them: "Run away fast as you can." The infectiousness of the song belies how deeply it hates itself: this is a song about a man imploring someone to flee from his own persona. (And by man I mean Kanye West and persona "Kanye West.") The entire album consists of braggadocio trying and failing to paper over some fairly large holes in a person. It's the lyrical equivalent of trying to use Saran Wrap to drywall a house—not only does it fail spectacularly, but everyone can see right through it. And that's the album's core appeal: voyeurism. In the wake of his mother's death, West has had numerous public breakdowns. Events and emotions which would (and perhaps should) have remained private instead played themselves on a 24-hour cycle of a stage and West wasn't ever comfortable playing the part. It's almost as if he's comfortable with the idea of playing a part until the moment the spotlight falls on him, at which point no amount of borrowed gamesmanship can make up for the fact that he is a wound as yet unready for the stage. And it's this quality that pervades the album—the fear of failure performed as songs that consistently undermine their narrator's persona. That undermining—the call to "run away" from the person West is perceived to have become—makes his lyrics feel like a transcript from an early (and generally successful) therapy session, and given Americans' deep and abiding love for privacy, it's no wonder the album's reached the critical heights it has. I just wish critics would stop writing around the issue and admit that their desire to peer inside the mind of celebrity is no less salacious than that of the "average" listener, whomever they imagine him or her to be.
Blah blah. "Blah blah blah," blah blah. Blah blah blah? Blah! I read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom because everybody else did and now distinctly wish I hadn't. It's a long book that's as artfully structured as it is poorly executed, which is the polite way of saying that everyone and everything in it sounded exactly the same—except for the inelegant passages that explicitly didn't.* Perhaps because I arrived at graduate school intending to study literature's most skillful mimic, this problem bothers me more than it would the average reader. Then again, I don't think it snobbish of me to insist that when portions of a novel consist of autobiographical fragments written by a broken woman at the behest of her therapist, those bits should sound different than the bits narrated by an omniscient third party. My logic feels particularly compelling when the chapters in question bear a title like "Mistakes Were Made: Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist's Suggestion)." Truth be told, the decision to title the chapters thus strikes me as an admission of failure: because Franzen neglected to capture his character's voice, the distinction between these chapters and the others had to be made explicit or the vocal homogeneity might have confused the reader. I don't think it would have, though: if the autobiographical frame had been removed, it would have read like the rest of the imbricated chapters. The decision to emphasize Patty's story by inserting her first-hand account of events makes a certain amount of sense, as does the decision to do so by having her write about herself in the third person. (Broken people needing distancing mechanisms when confronting their own lives and what-not.) But by writing her autobiographical fragment in the same style as the rest of the novel, what should have functioned as an attention-drawing peak in the mountain range of the narrative instead appeared to be just another hill among many. Moreover, in a book of this length, the droning of a single voice frustrates, especially when 1) everyone in the novel sounds like the narrator and 2) the events unfolding in the narrative are already known to the reader. It's the equivalent of hearing the same story told by the same person on consecutive days for the better part of a week. No matter how ingenious the story itself or its telling is, the differencelessness quickly becomes insufferable. (All the more so when, as in Freedom, difference is an unkept promise.) I'm giving the story itself short shrift, but only because I believe I would have found it more to my favor if I'd read it in short bursts instead of one long haul. That said—and this is a minor spoiler, so stop reading if you want to read the book despite my glowing review—someone needs to tell Franzen to stop putting women in refrigerators. *E.g. the elder sister-cum-yogi who says "verrrry" and the conservative caricature whose speech is limited to paraphrasing talking points from FOXNews and the Bible.

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