website, blog and vanity nexus of writer R F Brown

Posts tagged ‘history’

Laying Wait For Blood – book review of ‘THE HOUSE ON SEVENTH STREET,’ by Karen Vorbeck

Mystery genre is often the product of formula. webRhianna_Davies_final_hi_res_coverThe motivations of suspects are presented first and then the sleuth’s [reader’s] job is to piece together which motivation found a plot. Most mystery characters are a virtual police lineup of hyper-motivated and obvious schemers. What’s intriguing, and refreshing, about Karen Vorbeck Williams“THE HOUSE ON SEVENTH STREET” is it’s mixture of subtleties. The novel focuses on a protagonist who is rather ordinary and only ever in the proximity of danger. Or is she?

Winna is a middle-aged divorcee returning home to Colorado to clean out her family manor. In doing so she dusts off family secrets about adultery, hidden jewelry, and suspicious deaths. The deeper Winna digs into old trunks, the more it’s apparent that someone, someone inside her small circle of family and friends, may be trying, subtlety, to kill her. But why?

Williams’ story uncannily makes us feel connected to Winna. Like Winna, we are baffled as to how seemingly trustworthy characters could possibly be suspects, could be killers. It’s true everyone’s behavior toward Winna is slightly selfish or odd. The author inserts clues mostly in the authentic dialogue, hinting at underlying greed or resentment that any of us might be guilty of amongst our closest relations. It’s unnerving because we, as Winna, like the suspects and want to trust them. This is an ingenious strategy for crafting suspense. Who does-she/do-we trust?

One complaint with “THE HOUSE ON SEVENTH STREET” is the ending, which, for me, was a sort of a flat tire. The revelation of the culprit within Winna’s midst comes without any confrontation. There are also some secondary mysteries going on which are either red-herrings, or dropped when the book ends abruptly at what feels like an enforced three hundred pages. However, I don’t want to spoil the mystery or the experience. I think reading the novel is worth the reader’s time, even if the end is too bad. Williams is gifted in her atmospheric descriptions, drawing characters who feel authentic, and cooking suspense on a gradual roast.

REBLOG: When Fuck You Still Meant Something To People “A Brief History of Four Letter Words”

link: A brief history of four letter words.

A Brief History Of Four Letter Words

by Ester Inglis-Arkell

“Scumbag,” sounds like the kind of hokey insult that would get you laughed at if you used it. When it was used in a New York Times, it got protests from some older readers, because once upon a time it meant “a used condom.” Think about every time you’ve seen Batman refer, in children’s cartoon, to criminals as scum, and you’ll begin to understand how obscenity evolves.

There are people who say that animals swear when they, for example, growl or gesture aggressively at people. Although no one could mistake such things for friendly gestures, showing anger isn’t the same thing as swearing. Swearing is more complicated than just aggression. Swearing can be a form of affectionate teasing among friends, it can be a way of insulting someone, it can be a way of letting off steam or frustration, or a way of showing unbridled enthusiasm. The only thing all verbal obscenity has in common is the deliberate crossing of social norms. And this is why swear words are always changing.

The Newly Innocent Obscenities

Golly! Zounds! Gadzooks! These are the kind of things Captain Marvel would say. Almost any other superhero would be too mature for such, childish silly words. And yet, during Shakespeare’s time, they made him one of the more edgy writers out there. They’re not just random sounds, but contractions, meant to make absolutely shocking sentiments less outright obscene. Golly, zounds, and gadzooks were, in order, god’s body, god’s wounds, and god’s hocks. While thinking about the Almighty’s ham hock region might offend a few people, each of these words are the kind of things now deemed perfectly innocent. This shows a huge shift in social mores since the time of the Shakespeare.

A brief history of four letter wordsReligious obscenities, when half of Europe was at war with the other half over the right way to practice Christianity, were a big deal. Referring to God in the corporeal sense was a way to scandalize people. To take the Lord’s name in vain was to go against explicit Biblical instructions. These were some of the more obscene concepts of the age, but today are the most mild swear words most people can think of. God, hell, damn, and, to some extent, Jesus Christ, are no big deal anymore. Most people use them.

Ironically, the reason they got a toe hold in current society is the same reason they were so scandalous a few centuries ago. They could be genuine swear words, but they could also be expressions of religious ideas. Far, far back in Simpsons history, there was a storyline about how the kids got a lesson on hell in Sunday School. When asked, afterwards, about what they learned, Bart replied, “Hell.” When Marge scolded him, he told her that, no, they had learned about the literal hell, and kept saying hell over and over until Marge, tired of hearing a word she considered inappropriate when coming out of her son’s mouth, said, “Bart, you’re not in church anymore. Don’t swear.” The line between actual devotion and blasphemy is tougher to delineate than most censors, and most people, imagine. Eventually most English speakers just stopped trying to find it at all, and people saying things like, “Mother of God,” just became a noncontroversial emotional outburst.

The Animals Diverge From Their Excrement

A brief history of four letter wordsOther swear words, which managed to skate into acceptability under a protective barrier of literalism, are bitch and ass. Both of those started out as literal meanings – animals – and might have been used as insults in their own right in their time. Ass is actually two words blended together to become an obscenity. Ass, the swear word, started out as irs, which meant the back end of anything, not just animals. Over time it became arse, and eventually rounded out and emerged as an ass. The two words were so alike that it was easy to sneak some ass into everyday life. Who remembers the West Wingcharacters constantly calling each other “jackass,” which, being a donkey, was perfectly okay. In the next few years the first part of the word was peeled away, with the understanding that an ass still meant donkey, but eventually everyone stopped kidding themselves and allowed it to be another mild swear word regularly said on TV.

Bitch started out, and remains, a female dog in breeding condition. From there its meaning expanded to anything female in breeding condition, and eventually it expanded to become promiscuous women, angry women, angry or promiscuous homosexual men, or anything “especially disagreeable.” Sliding between the slightly sexual, the slightly referring to sexuality, and the literal meaning of the word got bitch into general conversation, and most television shows. It also helps that being “especially disagreeable,” rather than meek and accommodating has become a point of pride for both women and male homosexuals, and so even at its most insulting, the word has lost the power to shock as society has moved on.

As for things like pissing and shitting, which is what bitches, asses, and all other animals do, they’re old English words. At least one of which dates back to the King James Bible. (2 Ki 18:27 But Rabshakeh said unto them, Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?) These words, though not refined back then, have gotten both more abstract and a little more outré. This is an example of the way culture can continually reach for more delicacy. In France, “toilet” used to mean a small towel, which was kept near the chamber pot. It also meant the act of cleansing oneself. Old books often use the phrase, “She spent some time making her toilet,” which means grooming and preparing oneself for an event. “Toilet water” was a kind of light perfume. Since these actions happened in private, near a chamber pot, they were used as a euphemism for actually using that chamber pot. Eventually, the word came to mean the actual toilet itself, and not the things near it. After that, saying “I need to go to the toilet,” became indelicate, and people had to come up with more abstracted ways of saying the same thing. Cycles like this made piss and shit, while more commonly used in society, more vulgar than they originally were.

Four Letters and Starting With F

And then there’s the swear word that’s held steady for half a millennium; fuck. It seemed to spring upon the landscape fully-formed, and already an obscenity. The first instance of use of the word “fuck,” came from a satirical poem, written in Latin, in the year 1500. The line is referring to a group of friars, and runs like this: “Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk.” If it suddenly starts looking like Kryptonian instead of Latin after the word quia, it’s because it had to be written in code. Each letter of the word was swapped out for the letter following it in the alphabet. Remember that the alphabet was in a different order back then, and that Latin conjugates verbs differently, but gxddbov translates as “fuccant.” The overall line states, “They are not in Heaven, since they fuck the wives of Ely.” That is one racy poem!

The word was, and continued to be, the big daddy of all swear words in English for many years. It became one of the words that keptLady Chatterley’s Lover banned in plenty of places. The word was unutterable in polite company. It’s still banned from most television stations and most print media.

Still, it has always been used, and its increasing popularity means that it’s becoming less likely to be held back from media discourse. Lately things have been changing especially fast. The FCC lately had to change regulations about fining news stations that aired spontaneous utterings of “fuck,” in their news footage. It was found that the word has come to be something people use to express their frustration, instead of solely referring to sex. Frustration is not obscene, so it’s highly likely that fuck may be sliding its way into generally and even media acceptability. As soon as the word acquires tones that aren’t exactly the literal and obscene meaning that it was originally used to convey, censors relax. They have to. As we’ve seen, it’s too easy to play with language, hiding deeper meanings behind compound words, resetting context, and making words seem innocent. Is it only a matter of time before five hundred years of dirtiness becomes sanitized as a mere expression of frustration? And if so, what to do we say then?

Top Image: Guillaume Carels

Shakespeare Image: Guardian

Donkey Image: Klearchos Kapoutsis

Cartoon: Tomia

Via SlateBrazil TimesBostonNY Times, and SocyBerty.

Atemporal Pop Music In The Current Non-Era: How Ipod Jack-FM’d The Top 40

New Pop Music Sounds Like Its Predecessors – NYTimes.com.

July 15, 2011

The New York Times

The Songs of Now Sound a Lot Like Then

ONCE pop music was something by which you could tell the decade, or even the year. But listening to the radio nowadays is disorienting, if you’re searching for a sound that screams, “It’s 2011!”

Take the biggest hit of the year, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” The song is basically 1960s rhythm-and-blues tightened up with modern production. Everything about “Rolling” — its melody and lyrics, Adele’s delivery and timbre, the role played by the backing vocalists — gestures back to a lost golden age of soul singers like Etta James and Dusty Springfield. Then there’s Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You,” a hit from last year that’s still on the radio, and which moves a decade nearer the present through being steeped in the ’70s soul of acts like the Staple Singers.

Elsewhere on Top 40 radio you’ll hear a lot of brash, pounding songs that sound like ’90s club music. Recent smashes by performers like Black-Eyed Peas, LMFAO, Kesha, Pitbull, Taio Cruz, Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears recall the “hip house” sound of hitmakers like Technotronic and C&C Music Factory, or mid-’90s trance anthems by Paul Van Dyk and B T. It may require a mental exercise to bring out the true weirdness of this development: Imagine how peculiar it would have been if in the early ’90s the charts were suddenly flooded with music that sounded exactly like ’70s disco.

Figures like Lady Gaga and groups including the Black Eyed Peas reach even further back and throw ’80s flavors into the ’90s Eurohouse mix: the resemblance between Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was widely noted on its release this year. “Just Can’t Get Enough” by the Black Eyed Peas references Styx’s “Mr. Roboto,” while their song “The Time” borrows its chorus from Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life.”

Much of this déjà entendu dancepop is exciting in its crass, energy-drink-blast kind of way. So why does the aural overfamiliarity matter? Well, up until the 2000s pop decades always had epoch-defining sounds. Two or three (sometimes more) genres would emerge to achieve dominance or, at the very least, prominence in the mainstream. Musical styles usually build on the past to some degree, but these genres always took their sources in striking and fresh directions, and they often wrapped the music up in subcultural garb, with a distinct fashion element, new rituals and dance moves, and so forth.

The ’70s generated heavy metal, punk, disco, reggae and more. The ’80s spawned hip-hop, synthpop and Goth. The ’90s had grunge and the techno/rave/electronic explosion. But the decade and a bit that followed the turn of the millennium has produced — well, what exactly? Hip-hop and R&B have built incrementally, at times imperceptibly, on where they were at during the ’90s. Emo is a tuneful and melodramatic merger of pop-punk and Goth. True, if you venture into the musical left field, you will find various underground genres that can claim at least relative freshness: grime and dubstep in Britain, the post-indie sounds of Animal Collective and similar bands in America. But their effects on mainstream pop music has been minimal.

Those who don’t have much personal investment in the idea that popular music should always be pushing forward probably won’t be especially troubled by the current pop scene’s muddled mix of stasis and regression. But those whose expectations have been shaped by growing up during more fast-moving and ever-changing pop decades — which is basically all of them to date except for the 2000s — are likely to be perplexed and disheartened by these developments. In particular the innovation-obsessed ’60s and the cyber-optimistic ’90s instilled an ideal of pop music as herald of the future, a vanguard sector of the culture that was a little bit ahead of the rest of society.

The fading of newness and nowness from pop music is mystifying. But in the last couple of years a concept has emerged that at least identifies the syndrome, even if it doesn’t completely explain it. Coined by the co-founders of cyberpunk fiction William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, “atemporality” is a term for the disconcerting absence of contemporaneity from so much current pop culture. This curious quality can be detected not just in pop music but in everything from fashion to graphic design to vintage chic.

A prime example of atemporality is the fad for photography apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, which digitally simulate the period atmosphere of pictures taken in the ’70s or ’80s, using the cameras and film stock of the time. Instant-nostalgia snapshots are part of a culture-wide fascination with outmoded technology and “dead media” (Mr. Sterling’s term) that encompasses everything from the cults for manual typewriters and cassettes to the steampunk movement’s fetish for Victoriana to the recent movie “Super 8.”

Mr. Sterling sees the time-out-of-joint nature of today’s pop as a side effect of digiculture. One of the curiosities of the futuristic-seeming information technology that we now enjoy is that it has dramatically increased the presence of the past in our lives. From YouTube to iTunes, from file-sharing blogs to Netflix, the sheer volume and range of back catalogue music, film, TV and so forth that is available for consumption is astounding.

We can access all this stuff with incredible speed and convenience, share it and store it with minimal effort. But a potential downside of this sudden “affluence” is a flood of influences that can overwhelm the imagination of young musicians, who are absorbing five decades of pop history in a frenetic jumble. Their attention is also being competed for by music from outside the Anglophone rock and pop traditions, everything from West African guitarpop to Soviet New Wave music to Ethiopian electronic funk from the 1980s.

The musical omnivorousness that the Internet has encouraged and enabled is one reason atemporality is even more pronounced when you listen to alternative radio stations, which specialize in music by bands that consciously aim to have broad taste and to develop unusual portfolios of influences. Listen to KCRW (89.9 FM), the NPR-affiliated station in Los Angeles whose programming often wanders between genres and decades, leaving listeners to wonder if a particular track was recorded in 2011 or in 1981, or in 1971.

A few weeks ago the station played a gorgeously dreamy tune whose rippling, dewy-with-reverb keyboard part and yearningly melodic bass line seemed uncannily redolent of late ’70s Fleetwood Mac. Was this actually a lost Mac song circa 1977’s “Rumours”? Or was it an offering from one of the growing number of contemporary indie bands influenced by ’70s soft rock? The song turned out to be “Roscoe” by Midlake, a group of 21st-century soft-rockers from Denton, Tex. But it was a remixed version made by the British outfit Beyond the Wizard’s Sleeve with clear intent to bring out further the Fleetwood Mac-iness of the song. And then, to show they were in on it, the programmers at KCRW followed “Roscoe” by playing “Rhiannon.”

That 1976 Fleetwood Mac hit is the kind of staple tune you’d normally hear on a classic rock station rather than KCRW, whose sensibility is like a slightly more adult version of the online hip music magazine Pitchfork. And this shows how atemporality has not just jumbled up the decades, it’s eroded the barriers between genres. The iPod shuffle is the era’s defining music technology. One result on the radio dial is the rise of formats like Jack FM that seemingly mimic a middle-aged man’s iPod in shuffle mode: a restless drifting that nevertheless stays within defined taste limits.

The iPod shuffle and similar digital platforms for music listening have a contradictory result: on the one hand it serves to erode the historical divisions between kinds of music by its decontextualizing effect, on the other hand it enables fans to avoid entirely music they don’t like. So the programming on Jack FM (whose slogan is “Playing what we want”) slips back and forth between ’70s and ’80s, Old Wave and New Wave, with occasional excursions into the late ’60s (Hendrix, Creedence) or the ’90s (Sublime, Smashing Pumpkins). It’s a world where hip-hop and techno-rave never happened, but also where ZZ Top and the Clash are no longer on opposing sides.

Does the atemporality of so much modern pop music mean that when in the future we listen back to early-21st-century pop, we won’t be able to identify a sound that characterizes the period? Fans often identify periods of pop by their production hallmark. So they’ll talk (usually to complain) about ’80s drum sounds. If there’s a modern equivalent, it’s the superhumanly perfect vocals featured in so much current pop and rock thanks to Auto-Tune, the pitch-correction processor made by Antares Audio Technologies.

The slickness of Auto-Tuned singing seems to have a similar aesthetic quality to the design of smartphones and MP3-players and other hand-held gadgets, or to the C.G.I. effects in modern Hollywood blockbusters and the glossy hyper-real imagery in video games. Auto-Tune vocals even seem a bit sci-fi. Which is why in one Black Eyed Peas song Will.i.am sings, in heavily processed tones, about how he’s got “that future flow/that digital spit” (not a reference to saliva, but to rapping). Take away the Auto-Tune sheen, though, and there’s little about Black Eyed Peas records to indicate they weren’t made in the ’90s. The same applies to other recent dance pop smashes by the likes of Taio Cruz, Kesha and Lady Gaga.

Pop music in the 2000s may not have made any huge strides on a formal level (the way songs are written, grooves constructed and so forth), but on this cosmetic level of the digital gloss that’s been applied to the vocals you could say that it does sound of its time. (Which is also why the rasp of Adele and Cee-Lo Green is a deliberate throwback to the era of vocal grit and grain, a bid for “timelessness.”)

For better or worse Auto-Tune is the date stamp of today’s pop: it will date badly, and then it will go through all the stages of starting to see charmingly quaint, cute, cool. Who knows, at some point in the near future it might well become a revivable sound, embraced first by early adopter hipsters who will hunt down “vintage” Auto-Tune plug-ins in the same way that they currently collect antique synthesizers and old-fashioned valve amplifiers.

"Living In A Golden Age" by Icarus P. Anybody

The greatest Phillies team ever.  I often wonder if people recognized they are living in a special era.

link: Icarus P. Anybody.