Saturday, December 22, 2007

In 2007: The Huck

By now, no one should be surprised by the apotheosis of Mike Huckabee. After the shock of the first polls worse off – the ones that showed the ex-governor weight loss success story polling even in Iowa with the Mitt-Magical Mitt Romney – the attention rapidly refocused from "How?" to "How come not sooner?" Especially after Brownback's early exit, the Evangelical right was lost in the wilderness, leaving figures like James Dobson to, if not jump into bed with a hypothetical Right-to-Life Party, at least start buying it a few drinks. And then there was Huckabee.

This year saw the Republicans switch their "it" candidate seemingly every news cycle, tapping Giuliani and Romney to lead the pack, then Thompson to take them down, then Paul to fill in when it seemed the GOP couldn't count on another actor-turned-politico to unite the factions of the coalition, bring Morning to America, and topple the goliaths of the Democratic ticket. Still, the Right's recent penchant for one-night stands of loyalty may justify the inclusion of any number of events on this list – perhaps most comically the precipitous fall in Thompson's numbers after he actually started running for President – but Huckabee is about more than the horse race. He's about identity.

In any political coalition, there is tension. The Democratic Party of the early 1960's were perhaps the case study of this when their tent was so large that it included both black people and southern whites who didn't really think the second word in that phrase belonged there. Johnson signed away the latter, and the Democrats are still struggling to pull together another coalition of voters that will give them a lasting majority. Today, the Republicans are fighting to hold theirs together. And at the seams, is the smiling face of Mike Huckabee.

It would be an oversimiplification and likely a misrepresentation to say that a Huckabee-Clinton race would be a social conservative/economic progressive against a social liberal/economic neoliberal, but it does point to a strange future in which we may yet find ourselves. The Democratic Leadership Council, Evangelical Christians, Labor Unions, and Libertarian-leaning Republicans are all trying to steer their parties in their direction, and nothing less than the very core identity of those parties is at stake.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

In 2007: Kanye Outsells 50. And it's Not Even Close.

Marking the latest cycle in American cultural preference away from the commercial bonanza of violent, misogynistic depictions of banging and the drug “game,” Kanye and 50 squared off in a media stunt for the ages… and Curtis Jackson got it handed to him. Bad. Bad to the tune of well over a quarter of a million units, as SoundScan reported in the week following the debuts of both artists’ new records. In 2007, a champion among reigning pop icons was officially declared.

Byron Hurt travels the nation and the world with his labor of love, the Sundance/PBS-approved documentary "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes." A gender violence awareness activist and independent filmmaker, Hurt’s work poses several interesting points regarding the societal roles of rap and hip-hop, including the interesting question of truly why gangsta rap has enjoyed such an extreme longevity in sales popularity. Several dynamics are covered by Hurt, but one especially bears repeating: no matter the era, audiences have displayed a seemingly endless fascination with young black men fulfilling every negative stereotype ever attached to them by willfully behaving like complete and utter savages.

Discussions of rap music’s largely middle-class-and-white patronage often overlook the implications of exactly what kind of hip-hop that public seems most often to choose. 2007 offered a curious new case for reflection, as the year’s biggest hood-certified blockbuster was crushed, the dominant marketing force subverted in favor of a new paradigm. Actually, the post-"Graduation" status quo had already been predicted by a host of modern cliches. “Politically conscious” MCs are co-opted by mall clothes megalo-marts. Emo-rap heartthrobs have rocked the teen-bop Lollapalooza. And representatives of the hardest of heavyweight crews could be seen at a college campus near you courtesy of the Cartoon Network.

As the new century unfolds, we are witnesses to the declining business done by the music Majors, but if there is anything we can learn from 2007 it’s that the major business of music will never go away- now it’s just Get Rich… and wear Lacoste. And so it seems that, following 2007, the planet’s best party tracks will still tire at around the millionth play, but now also sample Daft Punk! And while nobody could possibly see this as gangsta’s last gasp, 2007 might more than anything to assure us that white kids are still a target market to buy anything.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

In 2007: Executive Appointees Take The Fall

This year, several prominent hires by the Bush/Cheney administration left office following prolonged media controversies. Alberto Gonzales resigned following his “memory lapses” before Congress regarding the politicization of the Justice Department. Scooter Libby saw criminal conviction (and subsequent commutation of sentence) for perjury before a grand jury in the case of Valerie Plame’s compromised identity. Paul Wolfowitz edured expulsion from the Presidency of the World Bank (for misappropriating funds through an exorbitant pay raise for his girlfriend.) And longtime boogie-man Karl Rove finally abdicated his duties as Deputy Chief of Staff and general public relations nightmare. In a year of mounting frustration over Democrats’ inability to seize upon a coherent, collective policymaking agenda, the controversies that eventually ran these men out of town became the People’s latest referendum on the executive.

If the 2006 elections could be viewed as serving notice that the GOP isn’t about to be welcomed back into the White House anytime soon, 2007 perhaps signified the point at which the public mandated that Lame Duck status be attributed to George W. Bush. By the end of the year, with voice worn hoarse for his inability to speak more loudly than his critics, the president lost even the Big Stick he famously wielded with abandon since 2001 in his previously nigh-unchecked executive powers. Where formerly any lack of Congressional support cued a return to his “Kill ‘Em All, Let the Courts Sort ‘Em Out” playbook, this year left no stones whose overturning remained necessary- everything we had come to suspect about Bush’s cronyism was declared to be true, and the squandering of private capital that began in earnest with Brownie’s “heckuva job” resulted finally in a near total loss of confidence.

Most interesting about all of the President’s political proxy battles has been that it still doesn’t quite feel like the death knell of the Beast. Who knows how much the juggernaut has left in the tank for the agenda of 2008? If there’s one thing we’ve now learned from 2007, it’s that this is one that will go to any war under-informed, short of resources, and now perhaps outmanned too.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The King of Kong and the Eternal Struggle

In a certain sense, it's no surprise that The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, isn't getting much commercial play. It's not that The King of Kong isn't compelling; on the contrary, I'm prepared to argue that it's the most impressively told story this year, in any medium. But we Americans prefer our movies as fable, not fact. That's a shame, because The King of Kong is celluloid perfection, and a spot-on realization of the American mythos to boot.

The protagonist -- nay, the hero -- of The King of Kong is Steve Wiebe, a soft-spoken, hangdog family man who was left reeling after being fired from his job at Lockheed. To deal with this latest setback in a life even Charlie Brown would pity, Wiebe turned to Donkey Kong, universally acknowledged as the toughest classic arcade game ever created, and decided to be, just once, a winner.

What Wiebe can't possibly know is that his dreams wil put thrust him into a weird, insular world, putting him squarely at odds with the reigning King of Kong, Billy Mitchell. Per The Filthy Critic:

Mitchell wears cheap, patriotic ties that you might see on the clearance rack at Wal-Mart, has a mullet he blow-dries and fusses over, and a weasely face. He runs a chicken-wing shack, sells hot wing sauce and thinks he's pretty big shit. He looks like he's had at least one bitchin' Camaro in his past. He talks easily about how great and clever he thinks he is, even though his accomplishments don't extend beyond old video games. He doesn't do anything that won't directly reflect glory on himself. He also holds multiple records at video games, including Donkey Kong.
Worse still are the assholes in the record-keeping establishment that make sure Mitchell stays the champ. These men (and I use that term loosely) are the most richly drawn supporting cast in American cinema this year. Walter Day is the captain on this ship of fools. He's the head of the video game record keeping organization (imagine a nerdier Guinness) who dresses up in a tight-fitting referee jersey to judge officially sanctioned events. Brian Kuh, meanwhile, has devoted much of his life to defeating Mitchell's record, and would rather sabotage Wiebe than see someone other than him top it.

With the collaboration of others, they break into Wiebe's home to poke around in Wiebe's Donkey Kong, looking for a way to discredit him. They refuse to let him submit a videotaped record, even though Mitchell did. They make sure that Mitchell's record is met with fanfare (admittedly of the internet variety, but hey, publicity is publicity) and consistently try to downplay Wiebe's accomplishments.

Pitted against such an obviously corrupt establishment, Wiebe becomes the closest thing we have to a folk hero in the digital age. He is America's David, armed not with a sling but a joystick; he is Rocky Balboa in bermuda shorts. Ultimately, Wiebe's struggle is not just his own but our own, as only the earnest quest for purpose in a hostile world can be. We cringe at his failures and we exalt in his success. It's beyond Americana: it's the quintessential human tale, sung by Homeric bards and medieval troubadours, now set to the silver screen.

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