Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: March 2012

Smells Like Freedom … Wait, No, That’s Burning Trash

Today was the big general strike in Barcelona and across Spain. I swung by Passeig de Gracia in the heart of the city just after noon, when a few thousand people had gathered–enough to shut down the big road, but things were pretty sedate at the time. Mostly tourists taking pictures and protesters eating sandwiches, while the police nervously kept an eye on things.

(This boring pic is mine).

A bunch of protesters marched down Calle Balmes on the way to the main protest, setting off (large) firecrackers and trying to bully local businesses to shut down in solidarity of the strike. Some store owners argued, while others shut their gate until the protesters passed, then opened right up again. Stores owned and operated by immigrants all seemed to stay open–locals protesting for their privileges and entitlements, while new citizens work hard. Typical.

I guess things picked up later, because as I swung by a local market, I noticed a big cloud of something nasty drifting down Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes. Turns out protesters set a bunch of garbage bins on fire, in between spray painting bank walls and picking in windows. In my neighborhood, they just overturned a bunch of garbage cans, but nothing was lit on fire … but it was all still very charming.


(Those great pics are not mine. Taken from AP).

Not that I am a mindless austerity drone. Clearly cut-cut-cutting is not going to revive the Spanish economy, and can be pretty counter-productive. But leftists protesting for “democracy”, just months after losing an election to a right-wing government that is doing just what it said it would do? Ugh.

If only Portugal started working on nuclear weapons and saber rattling, it would feel like home.

General Strike, Generally Annoying

Lucky us, here is Spain, we have a big general strike called for Thursday. I’m just happy I shouldn’t need public transport or any services that day, and I’m sure all the shops in my neighborhood will be open.

There is something inherently depressing about how economic ideas get warped whenever anyone tries applying any of them in politics. Not living beyond your means? Good idea. The fresh-water economics austerity drive in the face of the economic problems of the last four or five years? Bloody stupid.

But now that people are generally realizing the fresh-water school was full of nonsense, the left is re-exerting its own brand of nonsense on the debate. Yes, cutting mindlessly in a demand-driven recession is stupid. But there’s no arguing that Spain still has way, way too many bureaucrats and administrators, most of whom do little work. I’ve only been here a couple of years and am certainly no expert, but what I’ve seen looking incredibly wasteful and inefficient.

But of course we cannot begin to have a rational talk about this sort of thing without people from the left or the right hijacking the discussion and warping it into something else.

At least the demonstrations I have seen so far in Spain have all been well mannered and relaxed (with the smell of a lot of pot smoke everywhere).

PS: Funny comment from a friend of mine who grew up in Spain years ago:

I think things were better under Franco and I hated living under Fascism.

Science of the Pop Business
or the Business of Pop Science?

There’s a great look at how American pop hits are made these days in the New Yorker article “The Song Machine.” Of course, this sort of behind-the-scenes look at the sausage factory of pop music has been done before. But at the same time, pop music has never quite been how it is now. With hip hop having been transformed from into mainstream party anthems, the rise of “smart” pop (a la Phoenix, Peter, Bjorn & John, or Robyn), and rock mostly changing into party-rock, dance-pop has basically grown blob-like to absorb all of its former foes. Screw Goldman Sachs, today’s pop music is the true vampire squid.

Not that that’s a bad thing. Seriously, I think a lot of really good pop music is being made these days. It may not be Cole Porter, but it’s got a good beat and I can dance to it.

Great graph here:

Rihanna is often described as a “manufactured” pop star, because she doesn’t write her songs, but neither did Sinatra or Elvis. She embodies a song in the way an actor inhabits a role—and no one expects the actor to write the script. In the rock era, when the album was the standard unit of recorded music, listeners had ten or eleven songs to get to know the artist, but in the singles-oriented business of today the artist has only three or four minutes to put her personality across. The song must drip with attitude and swagger, or “swag,” and nobody delivers that better than Rihanna, even if a good deal of the swag originates with Ester Dean.

What a paradox, though, that in the most diverse musical age humanity has ever had, that one form should rise to rule them all.

No wonder K-pop is doing so well. Pop in the West is more uniform than ever, so how else can one exert one’s independence and rise above the crowd (and still be dance-friendly)? K-pop is like salsa for the next generation — catchy, danceable, and different.

But what do I know? I was at a Catalan bluegrass concert last night…

Globalizating TV

There is an interesting and insightful article about Fox Networks’ new show TOUCH, which stars Kiefer Sutherland (and reportedly features a surprising lack of torture). TOUCH is going to roll out in 100 countries at pretty much the same time, the kind of international push that is common for blockbuster movies, but less common for television.

From the article:

To Tim Kring, the show’s creator, the shift is stark. In spring 2007, six months after his show “Heroes” started in the United States, he watched hundreds of “Heroes” fans line up for an event in Paris, even though the show had yet to be seen on television in France.

“Every single person there had seen every episode. They had all gotten it illegally off the Internet,” he said in an interview. It was then, he said, that he realized, “Audiences will find these shows no matter where they are.”

The article points out that the king of simultaneous roll-outs of WALKING DEAD, which airs in 120 countries around the same time.

Now, I have little doubt that TV execs are mostly doing this because they have to, trying to make a virtue out of a necessity. But that is how and why a lot of big changes happen. And frankly the change was way overdue. Shows like LOST and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, with their rabid fan bases, would not only get uploaded immediately to the Internet, they would also get translated within hours. It was pretty mind-blowing (and funny, as the instant translations often were error-filled, along with the occasional apology by the translator for not understanding sections).

One of the first big examples of this change in TV releasing that I can recall was THE TUDORS. It was quite popular in Korea at first, but the distributor was getting screwed by piracy. So for the show’s second season, Sony set up a secure server where the Korean translator could watch the show and do her work a couple of weeks ahead of time, ensuring the show was ready to go with Korean subtitles almost immediately.

It’s a big change from when I first arrived in Asia, when terrible, long-since-canceled US television series rules the airwaves. It was incredible how much MR. BELVEDERE and ALF you could find, even in the late 1990s.

Of course, the Internet and globalization have not only forced Hollywood to give more respect to local audience around the world; they are the same forces that are allowing local cultures to get out of their home countries and find audiences elsewhere. Korean TV and music being the examples I am most familiar with. Some people complain that the world’s cultures are being homogenized; sorry, but from where I sit, I see people getting access to more choices from more places, and that’s a good thing.

Mammoth Science

So, everybody’s favorite cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk is apparently going to help some Russian scientists clone a Woolly Mammoth. Sweet. That’s just brilliant on so many levels.

Billboard Overboard

I can’t say I’m very surprised by the latest reports of trouble at Billboard magazine. Louis Hau (a big Korea booster who in fact preceded me in Korea with Billboard and several publications, although we never met) is out, along with publisher Lisa Howard and several top editors. Billboard Pro, the DIY-indie sub site, has been closed. Although for me, the most surprising thing is probably that the industry anachronism journal has lasted this long without the brutal bloodletting that The Hollywood Reporter has suffered (sure, Billboard suffered, just not as badly). I always liked my editors at THR, at least on the international side of things, even if the magazine was an out-of-date business model. But at Billboard … well, not so much.

The cronyism with the industry that the Billboard editors were supposed to be covering was much deeper and more endemic. It felt like they were constantly trying to turn the clock back to 1998, before that nasty Internet came along and ruined everything.

If there is a major takeaway I hope people have to my writing in general (and today’s story in the International Herald Tribune), it is that the Internet and globalizations have fundamentally changed the power relationship between artists (or “producers”), fans (or “consumers”), and the music industry (“who knows?”). Gatekeeping isn’t what it used to be.

Oh, a bonus chart from Digital Music News about singles sales, just for fun:

This .gif animation mapping changes in music sales over the past 30 years is pretty cool, too.

K-Pop Fun

I just had a new story about K-pop — “Bringing K-Pop to the West” — appear in the International Herald Tribune (first page of the business section) and New York Times (last page of the biz section, or so I’ve been told). It is kind of interesting to be running in the business section, instead of my usual Arts & Culture, and interesting to co-write a story with someone. I mean, having written for Billboard and other trade magazines for so long, I am quite familiar with culture business writing; but getting into the IHT‘s business pages felt a bit different. Anyhow, I’m happy with how the story turned out and the feedback it has been getting.

There have been a lot of stories appearing in the Western media asking “What is K-pop?”, but for this story I more wanted to ask “Why now?” Artists from all over the world are constantly trying to break into the American and Western market, and usually they don’t have much to show for it. Even Korean pop labels have tried several times.

I also talk a bit more about my thoughts and music in general over at Korean Indie, if you are interested. But there is so much more to address, especially about how the world’s music and culture markets are changing these days. Hopefully I should have some more stories coming soon talking about globalization and other big trends.

Fantasporto – Day, uh, oops

Well, I guess my plan to do daily updates for Fantasporto this year did not pan out very well. The festival is not over yet, but I had to return home yesterday. Very sad to be missing the Vampires’ Ball closing party, but I had a really good time again at Fantasporto, seeing a pretty wide range of films and meeting a whole bunch of interesting folks.

One of my favorite films was one of the most mainstream, The Holding — the story of a dysfunctional, all-female farming family, facing all sorts of challenges, when a mysterious stranger shows up one day. Vincent Regan, who plays the stranger, is really good.

The Spanish supernatural comedy Game of Werewolves was quite amusing. I’m quite surprised that it has not really been distributed, even in Spain, as it is a pretty mainstream, funny film. The part with the fingers and the sacrifice was especially good.

One film you might have heard about is The Bunny Game, a super-low-budget bit of “torture porn.” It is the story of a drug-addicted prostitute who gets kidnapped and tortured in the back of a truck. Really, that’s it — black-and-white torture while a teeth-rattling industrial-noise soundtrack blasts incessantly. It is about as extreme as cinema gets, but not in a good way. Some people have compared it Serbian Film, but I thought Serbian Film at least had a brain and a point of view (not to mention production values). Bunny Game, though, is more like something Alex would have been forced to watch during his reprogramming in Clockwork Orange.

The HP Lovecraft film, Whisperer in the Darkness, was also really bad. Schlocky and dull, without a hint of wit or creativity. Imagine HP Lovecraft as re-interpreted by Guy Maddin (that is not a compliment).

Most of the other films that I did not like were mostly bad because of budgets and other constraints, so I do not want to bash them. Most at least had the seeds of good ideas, interesting moments, or other redeeming features — perhaps not enough for a full-fledged endorsement, but not terrible either. I’m sure I’m forgetting some other good films, too, but that’s all for now.

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