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Friday, January 2, 2015

On the duality of digital music and the vinyl record

You know that weird feeling you get when you predict a trend years in advance, at the time everybody tells you that you're crazy, then when it comes to fruition everybody thinks you're just jumping on the bandwagon.  The sense of smug self-satisfaction can only quell the hunger for universal recognition of your brilliance just so much.

That's how I feel about the growing trend of vinyl's reemergence.

When it became clear that mp3s where going to push the CD the way of the dodo, I saw this as clear as day.  I told everybody that vinyl records were going to make a comeback, and that eventually they'd be the most purchased form of physical music again.  Making a comeback was one thing, as you could define that however you wanted, because nobody was buying vinyl at the time, outside of people buying them at used record stores to simply use as wall art. Basically any sales at all could be framed as "making a comeback."  But I was saying much more, that they'd eventually surpass CDs in sales.  That was something insane to say in 2002, but I said it.  And now I'm just a bandwagoning hipster for saying it again. Hrumph and get off my damned lawn.

While admittedly some of this blog post is about a yearning for recognition of my jaw dropping prescience, now that we have that out of the way, I want to talk about the reasons why vinyl has re-emerged: why you could see this coming if you really thought about peoples' relationships with music (which record companies obviously never considered, probably because they think that they themselves dictate peoples' relationships with music).

First, let's talk about why vinyl went away, that is vinyl's seeming weaknesses.

1) They're expensive.  A vinyl record is a large, brittle, easily damaged disc that only stores music, that's made out of fucking oil.  It needs a large square holder to store it in, because it will warp if stored horizontally, it distorts if dust gets into the grooves, and circular discs tend to roll off shelves on their own.  It's expensive to make, it's expensive to ship and great care has to be taken in its upkeep.

2) They require large, specialized and expensive gear.  Turntables are very precise instruments.  You can play an mp3 these days on devices you already own (phone and computer).  A turntable is only good for playing music.  Bad ones sound bad and mess up your records.  Good ones are fucking expensive.  You can't carry a good one to your friend's house very easily.

3) They're difficult to transport.  DJ stands for disc jockey (not something everybody knows these days) and the term used to literally mean that.  Originally DJs weren't paid to beat match, or remix songs or really even worry about creating perfect set lists.  DJs originally were just paid because records were expensive and difficult to transport, that is they were paid to jockey discs (i.e. records).  So if you were having a party and wanted a wide variety of music, you couldn't simply find your bluetooth speakers on your computer and then surf over to spotify.  You had to pay a dude who had a shit ton of records and equipment to lug huge boxes of expensive and temperamental records across town and then stand there all night and change them as people desired.  You were a DJ simply because you were stupid enough to spend thousands of dollars on music and then cart it around town and socially awkward enough to not want to talk to anybody at a party.  You were not a DJ because you've cultivated the sickest EDM mixed with party favorites and you wanted to have sex with girls on ecstasy.

4) You can't play them in a car. While this is really just a combination of reasons 2&3, it was probably the biggest thing that brought about the decline of vinyl compared to 8-Tracks, tapes, CDs, mp3s and now streaming on demand music services.  People listen to a lot of music in a car.  You can't do that with vinyl.

Putting all of this in perspective, it's easy to see why vinyl faded from popularity relatively quickly.  Reasons 3&4 were the first to be addressed with the advent of the 8-Track.  You could beat the hell out of an 8-Track and it would still play.  They were comparatively compact.  They wouldn't warp too bad in the heat of a car.  These two alone were enough on their own to put the writing on the wall for vinyl.  Tapes really polished off reasons 1&2.  Tapes were relatively small, cheap to make, didn't skip, could be played with relatively cheap players that most every car included.

The CD was, in a lot of ways just an evolution of these trends.  They were smaller, and wouldn't slowly degrade over time unless you scratched them very bad.  Ultimately though the two big things that the CD had going for it were instantaneous track skipping and the multi-disc changer.  These two items are what ultimately killed the tape.

For the entire history of music up to this point consumers essentially had to choose between buying single songs you liked or the entire album.  If you bought the 45 single, you missed out on the artist's "entire vision" and were also paying more per song.  If you bought the album, you had to painstakingly physically skip to the song you wanted to hear.  With records this actually took skill, as you had to get up, count the grooves, pick up the arm, drop the arm onto the precise point in the actual fucking disc where the song was and probably still either start it too early or too late.    Tapes made this a bit easier, but still required you to hit a wind or re-wind button, which were huge culprits in slowly wearing out your tapes and you often accidentally went back too far anyway.  With CDs you could hit a single button and voila, your song was playing.  You no longer had to choose between a single and an album, you could have the full experience with both with a CD player and the full album.  Play only the singles if you want, or also play the entire album, the choice was yours.

The multi-disc changer allowed you to have a jukebox at your house.  This was actually a huge deal at the time, though we all take it for granted now.  With a push of a couple of buttons you could go from hearing The Allman Brothers Band to The New York City Orchestra playing Stravinsky.  This was previously only possible if you owned a gigantic and wildly expensive personal jukebox, or if you made a mix tape.  But mix tapes were fixed and whatever blend you made was that way until you re-recorded over it.  The CD and multi-disc changer allowed you to follow your whims and create your own musical adventure at the push of a couple of buttons.  I remember the first time my family got a multi-disc changer and were just awestruck by the goddamn shuffle all discs and songs button.  We'd hit the thing and we'd all literally sit there trying to guess which song it would play next.  It seems incredibly laughable now, but in 1992 it was a huge fucking deal and somewhat shifted our relationships with music.

The CD, however, was still just a physical medium for music.  This began to become clearer when people first discovered that you could actually transfer the digital content of a CD to your computer.  This wasn't much use at the time, since most hard drives were less than 1 GB (yeah, stunning) and thus could really only hold one CD before it filled the damn thing up.  But it was clear that this was temporary, as that was only a limitation of technology, not a limitation of form.  Eventually two things allowed this realization to become a practical fruition: mp3 compressing and larger hard drives.

Larger hard drives are pretty self-explanatory.  They just slowly (or not so slowly) kept having larger and larger capacity in smaller and smaller enclosures.  So, let's focus for a second on mp3 encoding.

MP3 encoding was born out of a desire to store music on space limited hard drives.  CDs were non-compressed forms of music.  They had their technical limitations that meant that they stored less information than records, but that's a highly technical, nitpicky side track we won't get off on, because it's basically irrelevant for our intents and purposes.  That meant that if a CD had 10 seconds of blank space, it took up just as much hard drive space as 10 seconds of Jimi Hendrix's solo in Machine Gun.  MP3 encoders also found a lot of other tricks based on the nature of how humans hear (we can't hear below 20Hz or above 20 kHz, we don't perceive soft sounds that quickly follow loud sounds and all other sorts of things).  MP3 encoders took these things and came up with a way to compress music, at varying levels of sound fidelity, so that it didn't take up nearly as much space on a hard drive (or any digital storage medium for that matter).

For a while this technology laid dormant.  People already owned CD players.  Your computer with a dedicated program was the only available MP3 player.  On top of all that the CD-Rom was already a part of computers and thus it would play your CDs anyway.  In its advent the mp3 was a technology that fixed a problem nobody cared about.  The mp3 was a huge deal because it meant that you didn't need a physical medium for your music, but nobody really gave a shit for a while.

Then came the internet.

While the mp3 was originally invented so that we could fit lots of music on our hard drives, compressing it gave another advantage that was ultimately why people cared about it to begin with.  Eventually people kind of realized that we had this medium for transferring digital information and that music, first by the CD and then by the mp3 had become solely digital information.  It didn't take a scientist to figure out you could put the two together and and transfer music over the internet (well, actually it did take a scientist in practice, but not concept).  There was just one problem: the early internet was very slow.

To transfer a single CD over circa 1998 internet speeds would have taken multiple days.  To get this down to manageable levels, we needed mp3 compression (and often a whole fucking lot of compression, to the point where you couldn't differentiate the saxophones and violins on that sick DMB bootleg you scored on napster).  But this changed music consumption in the most fundamental way since the invention of the vinyl record itself.

If for the first time the vinyl record allowed people to listen to music without having to have it performed live, the mp3 and internet allowed us to have music without having to own it in any real sense.

At first the paradigm was viewed as if we owned it.  We did, after all, own the hard drives where by some sort of magic that none of us actually understands, it is stored.  But really, did we own it?  We almost never actually paid for it.  You couldn't hold it.  You could hold your computer, but you were then holding the device that you used, not the music itself.  When you held up an LP of Abbey Road that you bought with your allowance, you were holding a part of The Beatles.  The MP3 had divorced music from being a physical thing.  It also began to divorce us from the idea that recorded music was something we needed to pay for in an absolute sense.  Since we didn't really own music any longer in a physical sense, why did we need to pay for it?

For a while the mp3 was only a transfer medium, as mp3s happened so fast, and record companies were so against them. Outside of a desktop computer most people had no way to play an mp3 other than to burn it to a CD.  Which when you really think about it is profoundly silly, but we did it by the truckloads of burned CDs.

Remember how the mp3 was originally envisioned as a way for us to store music in a compressed form on a computer?  Well, here we were undoing that and putting it on physical disks again, that is writeable CD rom disks.  It was clear that this was a temporary solution, as it would be wildly more efficient to simply play the digital file on a device designed to directly play mp3s.  But those devices didn't exist at the time and everybody already owned a CD player.  But however much record companies tried to hold back the inevitable flow of history, in retrospect it was clear that the mp3 player would soon become a thing, no matter how much you didn't see it in 2003 while you were burning Phish's entire discography on discs that you painstakingly wrote out the track listing for with a sharpie (and then later used other files to make a mix CD for that road trip with the girl you secretly had a crush on).

There were other mp3 players, but it's pretty non-controversial to state that ultimately the iPod was the piece of technology that ultimately killed the CD.  We didn't need CDs to get music, we didn't need CDs to play music, ergo we didn't need CDs.  CDs, while once small and transferrable were now considered big and bulky.  They tended to skip with either hitting a bump in the road or if you scratched the disc.  With the iPod there was no disc to skip or scratch and you could carry tens of CDs worth of music on a device roughly the size of a single tape.  CDs held on for a while because car stereos had CD players and not mp3 players.  But this was a problem whose solution was as complicated as allowing you to plug in a cable from the headphone jack of your mp3 player into your car stereo.  That is ultimately a pretty damn easy problem to solve.

The next major product that finally put the nail in the coffin for the idea of music as a physical thing you own was the iPhone and always-on data connected to an mp3 player.  It took a while for people to put this together, but music transfers via data. The iPhone plays digital data based music. A data connection transfers data.  You can stream music that isn't even stored on any device you own to your ears!  Even if you paid for music now, via a streaming service, nobody had the feeling that they actually owned it any longer, and they were okay with that (Steve Jobs' original insistence that people would vehemently NOT be okay with this was about the only thing he ever got wrong about the way the music industry was ultimately turning).

That's where music roughly stands today.  There's really no physical aspect to music, we can play basically whatever music we want and we have no illusions that we own it.

Let's look at Steve Jobs assertion that people wanted to own the music they had.  Steve was a brilliant guy obviously, and he was probably the single most in tune person to the way people felt about music of anybody, how could he mess this up?  It's actually not because he was completely wrong, I think he was actually at least partially right, he just didn't understand that this yearning to own music already wasn't being fulfilled by the technology he was partly responsible for.

Steve took a sort of lawyerly view of digital ownership of music.  That is he believed people wanted to have digital music files that were theirs.  But I don't think people ever really felt this way.  People didn't really care how they got their digital music, just that they got it.  They never felt a sense of ownership over it, since it wasn't a physical product at all, and if they bought it at all, they bought it through an online store where they clicked their mouse over a portion of a screen and it automatically deducted money from their credit card.

I think Steve was absolutely correct that a lot of people want to own music in the way that a lot of people want to own art.  He just misunderstood what it meant for a person to feel an ownership connection to their music.  They never really felt that way with MP3s, even in the few cases where people were actually paying for MP3s.

Peoples' relationship with music is multi-faceted, but for our purposes here, let's separate it into two aspects.  The simple hearing of music, and the ownership of it as an act of owning a work of art.  To understand this let's think of the difference between owning a painting and visiting a museum.

You visit a museum, and let's say that the museum lets you take pictures of the art.  Maybe you pay for this visit, maybe you don't.  But you never feel like you own the Michelangelo painting you're looking at, even if you paid $20 to get in and you take a digital picture which you then put on your computer.  You don't have any illusions that you own that art.  You own a picture of the art, sort of, but you never feel like you own the art.  You enjoyed looking at it when you were at the museum (along with all the other paintings you viewed) maybe you even immensely enjoyed it, but you don't feel like you own it in any real sense.  Now let's say you buy an artwork from an artist at a fair.  You talk to the artist or salesman, you buy it, you take it home, you put it on your wall, it's yours.

That's what our relationship music is like.  And the current age allows us to scratch both of these artistic itches simultaneously, really for the first time in world history.

Previously because these two desires were bound together, the various mediums we used to fulfill them were always bound in compromise.  When we just wanted to listen to the music, the bulky physical form it had to take was an inconvenience.  When we wanted to be connected to art that we owned a gigantic mp3 track list felt hollow.

We have arrived to the point of complete physical disconnection of the listening aspect.  If you just want to listen to a song, virtually any song recorded since 1940, you can do it, instantaneously and at relatively low cost.  However, Steve Jobs was right.  A lot of people do have a desire to feel a physical artistic ownership connection to their music.

While we have now created a near perfect "music museum" allowing us to experience any music in the history of recorded music, the owning art aspect has suffered.  We don't really feel the same connection to our music as the teenage girl in the '60s felt to her copy of Meet The Beatles.  So let's think about what is missing.

Part one is the physical part of the music.  We are a people of physical objects, for good or ill.  We want stuff, we especially want meaningful stuff.  We really love meaningful stuff that we can touch and interact with.  We haven't had this since the CD, and even then we had what was a fairly bullshit version.  CD art was pretty shitty, a small booklet.  We almost always stored the mountains of jewel cases for our CDs in a dark closet and stored the CDs in large books we took with us.  Really we haven't had much a physical object connection to our music since... vinyl.

Part two is the view of a work of music as a whole.  2 minutes and 45 seconds is only sort of a work of art.  There's nothing wrong with just listening to a single and then moving on to another song by another artist, but it is a profoundly different act than listening to an entire album.  But people can sometimes be lazy and impulsive, even when they don't want to be.  Great art makes you work a little bit to understand it, to appreciate it.  When we constantly hit the skip button to our favorite songs, we are often just re-experiencing highs.  We aren't really attempting to understand anything new.  A great album is a work of art both in its particulars and in its whole.  Since the CD, we haven't really experienced that.  People rarely listen to albums front to back.  It's so easy to not put in the effort and hit skip.

Part three is letting the music wash over us in a meditative sense.  This is somewhat related to part two, but still different and important enough to warrant its own mention.  One aspect of music that we love is its ability to take us away.  That we can sit back and take 45 minutes of our day and relax and experience the sublime.  You can't really do this when jarringly different songs from completely different artists are constantly coming up.  We definitely can't do this when we are having to think "what do I want to hear next?" every 3 minutes.

Part four is going to a place, thinking about what we like, what we don't like and what we are willing to pay money for in order to have.  One under discussed aspect of the move to music as digital is that it's so easy to acquire it, that takes virtually no thought or physical action.  People don't read music reviews any more because the investment in reading the music review is larger than simply buying or downloading or streaming the album in the first place.  But there's something to be said for going to a record store, maybe talking to an actual person or maybe getting lost in flipping the titles and thinking "do I want to pay $25 for that?" that is an itch many of us need scratched.  As a teen I could spend hours just wandering around a music store going through the possibilities.  When I brought home the album, it was special, I immediately went upstairs and listened to it front to back, usually several times.  These days I have literally thousands of albums on my hard drive that I've never even listened to a single goddamn time.

Part five is a ritual of time and place and atmosphere.  My phone is every damn place I go.  I listen to music at my desk, in my car, on my run, while cooking dinner, while showering, while grocery shopping, while walking the dog, basically any time and place Im not actively engaged in a conversation with a person (and even then music is often in the background).  It used to be that your music player was in a place, a single place, and it was relatively difficult to move.  At my parents house exists a music room: a room dedicated to the playing and listening of music.  The speakers are in a certain spot that is good for sound, you sit in certain places to listen.  Music playing is something you engage in, not something that is happening in the same way that the wind is blowing.

Putting these together, the best medium we have to fulfill what is missing in our musical lives is fairly clearly the long passed by vinyl LP.

The vinyl LP is big, it has large art, the packaging in and of itself is art.  It takes up space in your life.

The vinyl LP is difficult to skip songs on.  It more or less forces you to listen to albums as a whole.  It forces you to stake out some time in your day when what you are doing is listening to music, where music is the thing you are doing, not a thing that is happening around you while you do other things.

The vinyl LP is most often purchased at specialized stores.  You usually flip through bins of thousands of albums, taking in the history of the music in the process and forcing yourself to think "what do I really want?" Because the decision is of some consequence, we often read things, and talk to people, or have a conversation with ourselves about what we really value in music and art and life.

The vinyl LP is played by a device, in a place, forcing us to be still.  There's a ritual of thinking about what you want to listen to, taking it out of the jacket, putting it on the player, sitting in your chair, putting your head back and really taking it in.  Rituals and stillness are important parts of human existence, no matter how much they may not fit in to modern life.

The vinyl LP fills a lot of these wholes in our existence.  And that's why it's coming back.  It's not coming back in spite of the incredible innovation of digital music, it's coming back because of it.  We have the best of both worlds these days.  We live in a world technologically advanced enough that we can have whatever music we want whenever we want it at no significant cost.  We also live in a society well enough off materially that we can waste a fuck lot of oil, and time, and space just embracing art in the form of a storage format that looked to all the world to be dead.

Because we pay so little for our digital music these days, and we're a relatively affluent society, we're freed to pay exorbitant amounts for our absolute favorite music in vinyl format.  Not many people are running out buying copies of Creed on vinyl, but the latest Sturgill Simpson album has sold more vinyl copies than physical CDs.  You're embarrassed to have a really shitty vinyl LP in a way that you're absolutely not ashamed if somebody sees your spotify most recent played list, or even your iTunes track listing.

The mp3 and the vinyl record are not at all at odds, they're the yin and yang of our needs from music as a part of our lives.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Lena Dunham, sibling sexual abuse and tribalism

Over the weekend, Lena Dunham went on a Rage Spiral via twitter over "the right-wing story about my alleged sexual abuse of my sister Grace."  Awesomely Luvvie has probably the take I agree with most on it.  And as others have pointed out, Lena's account of what happened doesn't even really make sense.  Notably, it seems improbable that her 1 year old sister was sitting in the driveway, without a diaper, unsupervised by an adult and able to stick 6-7 pebbles in her vagina, and then have the awareness to laugh about her family's reaction to it, as if it was what she had planned all along.  However, while this part was the most titillating aspect of the story, it wasn't, in my opinion, the most problematic.  In other parts of her book, Lena admits to bribing her sister for on-the-mouth kisses and, presumably as a teen, masturbating in bed with her sister, with a clear implication that her sister being there was part of the turn on.

Whether or not this constitutes sexual abuse is an incredibly difficult question, made even more difficult because Dunham is notoriously, in her own words, "an unreliable narrator."  The boundaries between normal "weird kid confusion about sexuality" and sibling sexual abuse can be really blurry in some, if not most, cases.  I certainly don't think Dunham should be punished for her acts between the ages of seven and maybe seventeen-ish (she doesn't make her age clear in any of the stories, except the most sensationalized one of looking at her one year old sister's vagina).  I certainly don't think a seven year old is capable of intentional sexual abuse.

But there are several issues I take with both sides' handling of the story:

1) The left has almost blindly supported Dunham, because she's "one of them."  She supports Planned Parenthood, she's a feminist, etc.  This has gone well past "we don't think she should be punished" to "aw don't fret over this Lena, it's not a problem, we all understand and love your delightfully quirky ways!"

Dunham, her own self, gleefully described her actions towards her sister as "the same things a child predator would do."  While her actions may have been done as a pre-teen to teenager, this language was used by a woman in her late twenties.  For a group of feminists who often take great issues over possible triggering language, to defend this completely gross characterization, it's just inexplicable.  Either Lena is saying she was predatory, or being completely flippant about child predation.  Both are extremely questionable attitudes at best.  If Lena really doesn't believe she was being predatory towards her sister, this is directly on par with making rape jokes, something I don't think any feminist would defend.

2) The right has gleefully jumped in because this is Lena Dunham, a poster child for everything the traditional right hates about modern left women.  People that often defend the raping of drunk college girls because they "shouldn't have gotten so drunk" are equivocating looking at a one year old's vagina with sexual abuse.  They're then somehow making a segue-way from that to "feminism is awful and wrong and women should run from it because it protects kid rape if it's by a woman!"

3) The gleeful tone of Dunham's recollections, the complete ignorance of, regardless of any ill-intent, that she should at least in retrospect have respected her sister's body, is disgusting.  Regardless of whether or not what Dunham did was sexual abuse, it's clear that, at least when it comes to herself, she doesn't get it.  Lena doesn't get that her sibling that is six years older than her sister has no right to do those things, even if they don't quite breach the ill-defined term of sexual abuse.

4) Lena (and many of her defenders) doesn't get that even if her sister says it is okay now, a child cannot consent to sexual abuse.  Perpetrators of sexual abuse are almost always close, often dearly beloved, family members.  The vast majority of cases see the victim refusing to blame their attacker, because they love them.  Lena mentions that her sister is laughing about the whole debacle, in a clear indication that that means Lena didn't do anything wrong.  Often times victims of sexual abuse don't directly feel they were hurt, and refuse to blame their attacker.  Because of this, we cannot use the fact that the child victim says it was okay to prove it is okay.

In many of the victims of sexual abuse support groups I've been a part of, a recurring theme is the original denial of sibling sexual abuse at all, then the denial of harm, then an inability to put any fault on the sibling.  I'd say most victims, even if they were genuinely harmed, react similarly to how Lena's sister has, that is to deny any harm.

Again, this isn't to say that what Lena did was sexual abuse, simply that "my sister is laughing" doesn't mean it isn't.  And feminists know this, they've been the main forces pushing for this (correct) view of inability of children to consent to sexual abuse.  Yet Lena and her supporters keep bringing up her sister's couple of tweets that only indirectly implied she was not harmed (notably her sister has not endorsed what Lena said).

5) Sibling sexual abuse is incredibly harmful, extremely common and almost completely ignored.  For the reasons outlined above it's virtually never reported.  Parents, even when they do find out about it, which is uncommon, often hide it out of fear of hurting their children.  Or often times the parents are also sexual abusers themselves.  Best case scenario, Dunham is taking a disgustingly, recklessly flippant attitude towards the topic.  And then she's getting indignant that people are calling her on it.  And then her supporters are taking one of two tacts, depending on the audience, either "lighten up guys, it's Lena, she's one of us" or "shut the fuck up you conservative scumbag, you want to mansplain this to me?!"  Worst case scenario is that Dunham was  really a childhood sibling sexual abuser, who due to a variety of factors, never came to terms with that fact (most childhood sexual abusers never realize what they were doing was sexual abuse, so this wouldn't be unusual).

Ultimately the point I take away from this "debate" is a sad one indeed, and unfortunately it has almost nothing to do with the undiscussed tragedy of sibling sexual abuse and how to deal with it (spoiler alert, people hate talking about it because it's an absurdly difficult issue to deal with).  What I take away from it is the tribalization of our society.  Our pathological need to blindly support those "in our tribe" regardless of the merits and blindly attack any slip ups of any member of "the other side" as a condemnation of the entire tribe's ethos.  The left has been quick to say that nothing about this is troubling at all, despite the fact that such an attitude would undo much of the good work they've accomplished in helping the epidemic of childhood sexual abuse.  The right is quick to say that this is somehow a condemnation of feminism writ large.

We see this same issue in another controversy du jour, #gamergate.  Essentially gamer gate is a thing where some dudes who want gaming to be respected by the world at large as an art also want gaming to only be defined by what they want, which is mostly misogyny and violence.  Somehow harassment and rape threats to women are actually about ethics in gaming journalism.  Because there was an (verifiably untrue) allegation that some girl cheated on her boyfriend to get a good review of a (not so good) game that had feminist themes.  Or something.  Really it's an excuse that dudes are using to attack people that they don't view as being a part of their tribe.

And this would be not comment worthy if it not only wasn't for the fact that real women are now being harmed, but also because the reaction to it has been opponents characterization of #gamergaters as "them."  Somehow a fight ostensibly about video games has turned into an argument about womens' most basic rights to things like "not having to deal with rape threats."  But what the opponents of gamergaters don't understand is that by treating gamergate people as some sort of insane tribe, they're giving gamergaters exactly what they want: A sense of a tribal identity.  They very thing these people want is their sense of identity as gamers restored.  They don't really give a shit if that comes at the cost of the rest of humanity viewing them as disgusting.

Ultimately a lot of this simply boils down to personal identity is really fucking hard.  It's hard to have your own views, your own personhood.  We can be feminists and still think Lena Dunham's actions are questionable, and the way she wrote about it was completely disgusting, if not amoral.  We can be video game players and not think that anybody who questions misogyny in video games is our enemy.

In the case of Lena Dunham, my biggest worry is that because we identify her as a member of our tribe, we're each compromising a set of personal beliefs to protect some member of the group.  While groups of people are stronger than individuals, group strength should never come at the expense of our own ideals.  Child sexual abuse is a travesty and the fact that we seem to be willing to turn that issue into a left v. right pissing contest is all the more maddening.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Tractor

The song “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” always made me physically ill.  It was easy enough to dismiss it as just hating sell-out schlock country.  But I didn’t hate it in the way that I hated, for example, the Toby Keith song “Who’s Your Daddy?” which was by any objective measure much worse.  I got really anxious and felt something at the pit of my stomach.  I never knew why.  

When I was six I loved tractors.  I loved the woods, I loved trails.  The idea of riding a tractor through wooden trails was as close to heaven as could be reasonably obtained for the white trash six year old me.  When I was seven that all changed.  I didn’t grow out of liking tractors in the way that I grew out of liking GI Joes.  It was taken from me by a very sick man.

My step grandfather was a mean spirited alcoholic.  As far as I know he had no friends, and most of his family had disowned him.  As far as I could ever tell my grandmother just tolerated him, for some unknown reason.  I can’t picture what his face looks like any more, thankfully.  All I can remember is that he wore glasses, a metal stretch band watch, what would now be called a trucker hat, that he had a beer gut and a back brace from an accident at work before I was born.  

He was also a child molester.  

Because my mom was a drug addict and my dad had to constantly move around, as his profession was in the large plant construction field, I ended up living with lots of different family throughout my early life. I’d spend a couple of years with one set of grand parents, then a couple of years with my dad, then a couple years with another set of grandparents, then a few years with my aunt and uncle.  I guess looking back all this made me “at risk” or something.  

I remember the first time it happened, he asked me if I wanted to go on a tractor ride to pick up some hay for the goats.  It was a blue Ford tractor with enormous white back wheels.  It sorta reminded me of Big Foot, a monster truck I was obsessed with as a kid.  My grandparents lived on a small farm, though I have no idea if it ever actually made any money of any sort.  I was too young to really understand any of this, but I believe they mostly lived off a settlement he had gotten from injuring his back at work years before.  

The ride there was uneventful.  He drank an entire six pack of Milwaukee’s Best over the course of the twenty minute tractor ride.  He offered me some sips and I took them.  I wouldn’t say that I had liked him before, though I didn’t necessarily hate him, but at this moment this was the closest I had ever come to liking him.

We stopped at a barn to hook up the trailer that would carry the hay, or something.  He asked me if I knew that women made milk.  I said that I was aware of that, for feeding their kids.  He told me that men made milk too.  

Luckily I remember very few of the actual acts.  But I remember coming home after that.  I felt scared, and I felt dirty.  I jumped in the shower.  He had drank another six pack of beer on the way back and was drunk at this point.  He got angry that I was “using all the damn hot water” and went under the house and turned off all the water.  I stood in the shower freezing, with shampoo burning in my eyes that I couldn’t wash out.  I have no idea how long I stood there like that, but regardless of whether the actual measured passage of time was a few seconds or several hours, it was an eternity.  

At some point it got easier.  I started to think it was normal.  I knew he was sick, but I was a people pleaser by nature and I really didn’t think I had any other options anyway.  It still made me feel sick.  But for the time being eight year old me coped.

This lasted for about two years.  Then my grandmother died.  My grandmother, along with my aunt, were the two most significant figures in my life and losing one of them was absolutely devastating.  I’d cry for hours on end.  I’d never hug her worn soft gowns, never eat her perfect biscuits again.  But at some point I realized that this meant that my dad would be moving back and that I’d never see my step grandfather again.  A wave of relief flooded over me the minute I realized that.  It was in Wal-Mart.  I was holding a Ninja Turtle action figure.  My dad told me I could have it.  I felt enormous guilt for being relieved that my grandmother had died, but I did.  

Things didn’t end there though.  That’s the problem with sexual abuse, the actual act is only the beginning.  As a nine year old I began to wonder if I was gay.  There was a girl in the trailer park I lived in that was pretty and, looking back I’m pretty sure was also sexually abused.  She’d find magazines that her mom and dad left out.  We’d go out into the woods and copy them.  Thankfully they were relatively soft core, as evidenced by the fact that for a while I thought sex was rubbing stomachs together.  We had a lot of oral sex.  I guess I liked it.  I liked her, she was pretty and made me feel good about myself.  But mostly it made me feel not gay.  My dad caught me with her once and it was probably the worst trouble I ever got in.  But I didn’t care, she wanted me physically, which to me having her desire me was more important than any actual physical enjoyment I might have taken out of it.  I was nine.

As seventh grade approached, physical, temporal and emotional distance had grown to the point where when I thought about it at all, I wondered if it had ever really happened.  I remembered hearing about how memories could be implanted, especially false memories of sexual abuse.  For some reason this comforted me.  My dad had to go to work in Indiana, and I moved in with a different set of grandparents in a different city, as my dad didn’t want me moving around all over the country as he changed job sites every 4-5 months.  

Seventh grade was a period of adjustment, all of the kids there had known each other for years; social structures were in place and I was the new kid.  I made friends in my new neighborhood pretty easily, but there weren’t really any girls in my neighborhood my age.  As a seventh grader, not having a sexual relationship with a girl made me doubt my sexuality at times.  The girls in my class, like all seventh graders, were worried about popularity and new guys weren’t popular.  The bizarre part is that I never felt remotely attracted to any guy, but simply not having a sexual relationship with a girl was enough to make me wonder about myself.  

In ninth grade, just as I was starting to become moderately popular, and girls were showing interest in me, we moved again.  My grandparents moved into a much nicer house, in a much nicer neighborhood, in a much nicer school system.  It sucked for me, for the most part I hated all the kids there.  Luckily I lived directly next to the school, and could walk, so nobody knew that my grandparents drove a used minivan.  Everybody else was being dropped off in BMWs.  

Again, doubts about my sexuality crept up, again for no reason other than not having sex.  Towards the end of the year, one of the prettier girls started to, inexplicably, like me out of nowhere.  We both walked a similar route for the first part of the walk home and we ended up walking through the woods together a lot.  There was a large pipe that spanned a creek that could cut your walk time down a lot.  She was scared to cross it, and I’d hold her hand as she crossed it.  On the last day of school in ninth grade she kissed me after we crossed it.  I felt okay again.  I moved out of my grandparents house and in with my aunt and uncle the next week.  

I made friends more easily at my new school, but again tenth grade was mostly a lost year of reestablishing myself in the social structure of the school.  There were girls who thought I was cute, but for a while I was off limits for any of the popular girls, simply because nobody knew who I was.  

As eleventh grade approached, I was more popular and parties and alcohol also entered the picture.  No longer were my sexual longings weird, but now more par for the course.  Almost every person at my high school went to one of two large churches that were literally across the street from each other, competing with each other for dominance over the town.  It was considered a major slap in the face when one church bought land on the other church’s side of the road, the ultimate showboating of victory.  I went to neither of these churches.

In a lot of ways this made me something of an outsider, especially combined with only having went to the school for a year, whereas most of these kids had been together since elementary school and went to church together on sundays.  The preaching of no alcohol and abstinence only made a lot of young kids rebel, and we’d all have parties in the woods, under the power lines.  

And that’s when things started to get really weird.  Because sex for me had always been much more about the girl’s desire for me, a bunch of drunk girls just wanting to secretly rebel against their parents was literally disgusting.  Not in that I was disgusted by them, I cared very deeply for most of them, as they were my friends, but the whole idea made me feel literally sick to my stomach.  And it all came to a head one night under the power lines when an old man in a blue Ford tractor drove up and ran us off his land.  

It wasn’t him, he was dead, but for all the world I felt every ounce of fear, anxiety and a million other as yet unnamed feelings when he drove up to shoo us away.  I had an urge to throw a beer can at him.  The girl I was with saw it and stopped me, thank God, as jail would have been ugly.  I didn’t even know why I felt that way.  I didn’t make the connection until years later.  

I broke down for about a week, and nobody else knew it, I didn’t even know it.  I thought I was just scared because I almost got caught drinking.  I had been caught drinking before and nothing happened at all.  A dead man’s actions nine years prior were controlling large swaths of my life, and at the time I still didn’t know it.  

Sexual abuse is an STD, and it’s incurable.  You never get past it, you only maybe get better at coping with it.  And outbreaks happen.  Just this week I had an outbreak.  I was completely non-functional for two entire days, couldn’t eat or sleep, and betrayed the trust of my best friend.  I was angry when I shouldn’t be, I was ashamed of things I shouldn’t be.  And this will never completely go away.  

Sexual abuse takes things away from you as well.  Who the fuck gives a shit about tractors, but I’m mad as hell that they’ve been taken from me.  I’m mad as hell that barns make me feel anxious.  And I’m enraged that every sexual drought I have makes me doubt my sexuality, no matter how absurd I logically know that is. 

And that’s okay.  It’s not okay that it happens, but it’s okay that I’m broken and will never be completely fixed, because, well, there isn’t any other option, and I’m damn sure not letting him beat me.  I’m going to survive and do my best to help others facing this, and to do everything I can to prevent this from happening to kids in the future.  

But mostly I’m going to try to survive and do right.  I’ll probably never be able to listen to “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” or see a blue Ford tractor, but I guess that’s okay; John Deere tractors are more ubiquitous and John Deere Green is a better song anyway.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Throw In

As Marty's leather Sperrys carefully plodded their way down the hill, they were in perfect rhythm with his internal monologue, which was simply "no. fucking. way."  Left.  Right.  Left.  No.  Fucking.  Way.

Kelly's hair was lighter than he remembered.  It had always been blonde, but Marty's memory told him it had been more of a dirty blonde than the bright blonde on display now.  Her tight curls, however, were the same; they'd caught his eye from nearly a half block away.  She was running roughly in his direction.  Her hair was up in a ponytail just like all the girls in this game, as the warm, late summer Virginia air virtually demanded.  But somehow Kelly's ponytail managed to be different.  It had a life of its own, always gently brushing her face and neck in playful summersaults of tight, blonde ringlet curls.  It might as well have been a neon sign advertising her presence.

As she ran she stopped just short of the in-bounds line and let the ball fly; she seemed to be throwing the ball at him, which was preposterous, as he was a good seventy yards away.  Instead the ball found a streaking striker, who made one move before giving a crossing pass to a teammate who promptly beat the goalie easily.  It was a really good throw in.

Kelly was the same living Coca-Cola ad she had always been.  As she now jumped around with her teammates in celebration, you couldn't help but celebrate with her.  From a half football field away her smile still hit him.

He had photographed her smile a thousand times.  At least that many.  He had put one of those pictures on a stock photography website, and he still made roughly twenty-eight dollars a month from sales of it, mostly from small-time dentists.  It wasn't even a perfect smile, there were straighter teeth, brighter teeth, by negligible margins, but something about the way her lips framed them gave her smile a life that led many local dentists to pay upwards of fifty-eight cents to use it on flyers.

She was lightly sweating, and the big sulfur lights gave her a bit of an ethereal glow as the light bounced off her glistening, slightly flushed face.  He had a large Slurpee cup, it smelled more of Redbull and vodka than the cherry flavoring that was nominally on display on the cup's side.  He didn't have the slightest idea she'd be here.  As far as he knew, she still lived in DC.

Things might have worked, he was a decent guy by his own reckoning, but Hill workers and law students are a pretty unfaithful lot.  Everybody comes into both experiences with significant others, nobody leaves with the same ones.  He'd visited her a half dozen times, and she visited him maybe three times.  And by "maybe," deep down, he really meant "exactly."

In his moderately intoxicated state, it was just dawning on him that if she was playing on these fields, she must be a student at UVA again.  The game was now over and Marty didn't have anything so easily identifiable as a bouncy blonde ringlet ponytail to mark him; functional alcoholism, by its very nature, isn't easily noticeable from seventy yards away.

"Well," he figured, "I guess she'll tell me if she wants to."  It was the first big party of his last year in law school.  "There will be shit ton of first years there tonight, fuck it."

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Some Random Pro Tips For Picking Up The Ladies

Here is my basic strategy, in no coherent order:

1) Buy shots. Probably kamikazes.  (essentially just vodka and sour mix at most bars, upscale joints might throw in some triple sec)  Kamikazes are girly drinks without being girly drinks.  Buying a girl a purple hooter or something ultra girly shows a lack of respect.  The kamikaze is easy to put down, tastes good to most everybody, and says "yo, I think you aight, you ain't nothin' to be laughed at."  Lemon drops work if she is a bit more girly.  If you think you have a real woman on your hand, try a rattle snake (layered vodka, baileys and kahlua)

2) Ask her about herself.  Listen to her.  Girls like to talk about themselves (well, everybody likes to talk about themselves, but this is aimed at a certain type of social interaction, so please excuse the seeming stereotypes, they're more just general strategies, just go with it).

3) dance.  Yeah, you probably don't want to.  yeah, you probably look stupid.  So. Fucking. what.  Girls like to dance, on average.  If you don't some other dude will, who is probably a scumbag.  I have a theory that the reason why scumbags get all the girls and 'nice guys' finish last in many ways stems from the fact that 'nice guys' are too self conscious to fucking dance.  I hate it, believe me.  I'd rather chill the most to some Zep.  But there are worse things in life than having a girl rub against you while  seed 2.0 plays.

4) treat her like a real person.  again, the biggest reason why 'nice guys' have trouble with girls is that they treat them like they're some form of beautiful alien.  She's a person, just the fuck like you, but she has tits.  Yes, they're nice, but they're just fucking fat well proportioned.  She also has a vagina, but don't worry about that just yet.  Treat her like a real person, oddly enough she is.

5) touch her on the arm.  The butt is too much, the breasts, well, do you really want to get together with a girl who is cool with you grabbing her tits within an hour of meeting you?  The hair, I guess its okay. But the arm, gently, but not overly softly, is the best.  it says "hey girl, I like you, but I'm not about to rape you or anything."

6) Look her in the eyes.  Not like the whole time, that's just weird.  But make regular intermittent eye contact at key points in interaction.  If a girl is looking into your eyes, she'll often miss the ways in which you are otherwise ugly.  Most people have attractive enough eyes.

7) Bragging is dumb.  Nobody gives a fuck about whatever bullshit you've accomplished, most likely.  If they did you probably wouldn't be reading this.

8) don't try too hard to make her laugh.  Girls say they like a guy with a sense of humor.  what they really mean is that they laugh at every dumbass thing a guy they like says, regardless of how not funny it is.  Trying too hard to make her laugh gets you painted as a joker/friend.  Be funny in a natural sort of way.

9) if it's the summer, learn how to make a beastly good margarita.  Like this will serve you probably better than everything else above.  Like a margarita better than about any bar could make.  Yes, get real stuff.  Though don't spend too much on really smooth tequila.  Really smooth tequila isn't particularly great in margaritas.  Sauza or Jose Cuervo are good.  Buy really good triple sec.  fresh lemon juice.  some sour mix is okay (but don't over do it).  Shake it in a shaker.  On the rocks (blended frozen bullshit impresses nobody, no matter how much she says she wants it that way, that's just because she hasn't had your margarita).  With kosher salt.  Don't fuck this up.  every girl I've ever dated well out of my league, a margarita I made played into it in some way.

10) tell her she's pretty, but don't go overboard with that shit.  Its a fine line between being a dick and being a meat worshipper.  She's a girl, hopefully she's pretty, but she's still just a girl.  Treat her like that.  She may well be interesting, but if you treat her like some sort of beautiful alien that you're the most fortunate person in the world to have made first contact with her, you'll never find any of that out. Well, maybe like a year down the road as you become her bestie shopping buddy.

Now, take all this information with the knowledge that I'm a single 30 year old dude.  So I can't really say it's been terribly successful.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Creation v. Production and the future of intellectual property

As a photographer, I produce a lot of work.  What I mean by that is that the vast majority of what I do is take pictures that people pay me to take.  I show up at a particular place, at a particular time, and take a picture of something because somebody wants an image of that thing, person or event.  In order to do this properly, I must possess a certain set of skills and certain equipment.  I'm paid because there is only a certain supply of individuals with the time, talent and equipment to do that.  There is both a supply and a demand for these services.  I'm making a product.  It's not particularly different from somebody who produces any other product or service.  Sure, I have to have certain knowledge and skills and equipment, but so does a guitar luthier, for example.  

I don't have to worry about this work being stolen from me, because if I'm not paid, I simply don't take the images.  This is the key to producing a consumable product, you can demand payment because it's made to fulfill a demand, and it can simply be not made.  The laws of supply and demand can easily enough make a price that will either be paid or not.  

On the other hand, I also make some creative art as well.  A lot of it is moody cityscapes, but there are many other types as well.  These images are made simply because I feel a personal need to capture the feeling I felt at the time and place.  To capture something of myself in an image of the world.  The reward is in the capture and the release.  The capturing of that thought, emotion, idea.  The release of it to the world so that I might communicate a little bit of who I am to the larger world in a way that I can't just merely say out loud.  Most people will probably never care for these images.  But when they are appreciated by others, it's a special type of communication.  It's often a communication that can't be had with language and normal discourse.  It's a feeling that I made something of myself that somebody else gives their time and attention to.  When the creative art I make isn't appreciated, it's typically because these feelings aren't interesting, understood or otherwise valued, or perhaps I haven't the skill to adequately communicate through my visual images, or most likely some combination of all of the above.  But the first reward is the capturing and the release.  Sometimes the second reward is in the communication, appreciation and replication by others of something of me in the world.  A third benefit may be in the incidental payment from some other individual to me because of this artI made.  Perhaps they enjoyed it enough to want a higher quality print, maybe they want it signed, maybe they just liked it so much that they just felt I deserved some sort of monetary payment.  Those things are fine, but for real creative art they're incidental.  

Sure, download this image if it says anything to you.

This isn't to say that there is a firm, sharp dichotomy between creative art and productive work.  Many times things are a blend of the two.  When I cover a football game, I'm there for a purpose, to produce images that I believe the people paying me to be there will enjoy.  But I also use my eye, creativity and vision to that end, and I create images that I will like and enjoy creating as well.  But there isn't any secret or confusion about any of that.  

However, I think there can be a problem when creative art and productive work are conflated and/or confused.  If a woman in her mid thirties hires me to create a beauty shot of her, but I think her wrinkles are more interesting, and I take an image that brings her wrinkles to the surface, while she paid me for a standard beauty shot, I've conflated productive work and creative art.  I can argue with her all day long about which image would be better, but I've failed as a producer of work product.  She wanted X, she paid me to do X and I agreed to do X, but I did Y.  I failed.  Her tastes didn't fail.  I did.  

Then there's the idea of selling out.  We often enjoy the creativity of others.  We like to see them take something of themselves that's beautiful or interesting or empathetic and share it with us.  We don't so much consume that type of art as much as we experience it.  We learn something of ourselves and the artist.  It's both an individual and shared experience, when it's done right.  But part of the enjoyment of such art is the unstated agreement that we are experiencing something that's genuine, that they're not simply pandering to our tastes, but that the shared enjoyment and understanding is real and not them pulling our strings and pushing our buttons.  Part of the enjoyment of Pearl Jam's Alive is the belief that Eddie Vedder really felt this way, that those emotions were real, and we're having a shared experience every time we listen to it, that he wasn't simply applying formulaic emotive techniques designed to make us like it.  Part of the enjoyment of Duane Allman's fiery crescendo in the live at the Fillmore East version of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed is the belief that the fiery crescendo was his emotional release.  Not just a mindless replication of scales he practiced that he knew worked, but a musical expression of feeling and emotion.  It's that we like that we believe that they felt that way, and we appreciate it.  It's a connection, enhanced by the feeling that the music creates.  

But why doesn't anybody still really listen to Creed?  Or why won't anybody really listen to Nickelback in 20 years?  Because they made/make a product.  Because they're applying well worn formulas for music that a lot of people enjoy.  I don't really think there is anything wrong with that.  I can enjoy formulaic, pandering music.  You'd be hard pressed to really describe a technical way that the music of Pearl Jam and Creed differs (as Pearl Jam's critics often point out).  However, there is a difference and it's that Pearl Jam mostly (though not entirely) created music they liked and wanted to release, and if people bought it or enjoyed it, that was great (or not so great), if they didn't, they didn't.  Whereas Creed saw what Pearl Jam did, reduced it to a formula for success, and then created a product to be consumed.  The problem is that when you create a product, sometimes people want a different product.  People never tire of sharing genuine feelings and communicating real felt thoughts and emotions through art.  

To be fair, we don't really know that Pearl Jam didn't pander to our tastes and that Creed did.  However, that's missing the point.  The point is that that is how the two are perceived, and when it comes to art, perception is reality.  Creed was perceived as making a consumable product, while Pearl Jam was viewed to be making real art. It's a sticky line between the two.  Ultimately, this is part of the issue whenever you blend consumerist production with artistic creation.  If you're charging for your art you have no real grounds to complain when somebody accuses you of selling out or not being genuine.  Sometimes you get lucky and people view your calculated art as genuine, but more often your genuine art may be viewed as faked, a sell out.  Well, you are selling it, so you have no real way to refute such accusations.  If you're selling art, you give up all grounds to dispute that you're selling out, to whatever detriment such an accusation may be.

Today this issue is also becoming one of practicality as well.  When you charge for creative art today, you risk the 'problem' of it being 'stolen' and disseminated without payment to you or with your consent.  If I post a photo on flickr, and people love it, it can easily enough be downloaded and 'stolen' by just about anybody.  If I'm a musician and I produce a song, and people like it, it will almost certainly be illegally copied and shared.  

What's the solution?  Well, the solution is to deny the problem and quit trying to demand payment for creative art.  Accept that the payment for creative art is that part of you is out there in the world.  This doesn't mean that artists have to starve.  Almost every art can also serve productive purposes as well.  Musicians can perform live shows, where people pay them to produce a musical product for their enjoyment.  Because the performance, in real time and place, is the product, it can't be stolen.  Photographers will always be called upon to take great portraits that look a certain way.  Because you're better at it and have better equipment than most, there will always be some market for it.  Painters will always be called upon to make murals and paintings of certain things for certain purposes.  Because they're products with a demand, for a purpose, they can't be stolen.  Heck, you can even sell convenience and other aspects of the product.  A musician can sell a great vinyl record with a great cover image, with great artwork, and a great story, combined with the music.  A photographer can sell a signed print of some creative art you made, printed with special techniques.  Just realize that the age of selling creative art for the purpose of profit, to the extent that it ever really existed, is probably over.  We will never be able to put the genie back in the bottle of illegal downloading.  As long as images and music are able to be put in the digital world, they'll always be stolen easily, and be nearly impossible to 'punish' the 'theft' thereof.  And in many ways, that realization will enhance art, instead of becoming the ruination that many herald it to be.  If we are to create art, let it be for ourselves, and maybe we hope that others enjoy it, and maybe even want to just give us money, but realize if we want to demand money we should be making a product, and not creating art.  The two are different.  

Despite all the claims that illegal downloads will push musicians not to create, we have more music available to us than ever before today.  The amount of music I can find right now, produced within the last year, is greater than all the music available for easy consumption in the entire decade of the 1980s.  Despite the easy downloading of images on the internet, there are more photographers, producing more outstanding art than ever before.  There are more artists producing more art than ever before, not less.  Real art doesn't need a monetary carrot to be produced.  

If you want to make money you, like all other businesspeople and workers, must figure out how you will produce a product that people will buy.  If you want to create art, you must figure out how to express yourself in a way that satisfies yourself.  People just aren't going to pay for creative art any longer, unless you give them some reason why they might want to.  Then whatever caused that desire to give you money is the product, not the actual art itself.  If you want to sell a product, you need to make sure that it's something people want to buy and can't easily enough obtain without payment.  You can no longer really complain that your art is stolen.  At this point it's simply becoming an irrelevant, incoherent complaint.  The whole thing about creation of art is that once created, you don't really own it any more.  It's not yours to be stolen.  Sure, the physical vinyl record is yours.  The music that's on it isn't.  The platinum print may be yours, the picture and idea behind it isn't.  It belongs just as equally to anybody who has ever seen or heard it.  Whether they have a 'copy' of it is immaterial,  As soon as they heard it or saw it, it just as equally belonged to them.  

Creative art isn't produced and it isn't consumed.  It's created and it's experienced.  Conflating it with a consumed product only leads to problems.  I think we can view the digital revolution as a solution to this problem, not a problem to be solved.  We can get back to making products that people want to consume, and creating art for people to experience.  I think we'll all be better for it.  

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bourbon Review: Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel

Continuing this week's Heaven Hill Series

Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel - 90 Proof; Aged 18 years; Distilled at Heaven Hill Distilleries; Price ~$48

Preface: A single barrel bourbon, made from a barrel selected from the absolute middle of Heaven Hill's warehouse, this is probably the most affordable 18 year old whiskey of any sort you can buy.  66% of the volume in these barrels is evaporated away by the time this is bottled.  Meaning that for every barrel they mature this long, they only get 1/3 of a barrel's worth of bourbon.  Usually when bourbon is aged this long the oak turns it a bit bitter.  To avoid this, the barrels that were in the most stable temperature area were selected this, so that the bourbon didn't go as deeply into the oak as it would in an area where the temperature swings were more extreme.  Essentially three things happen when bourbon is aged: 1) Alcohol is evaporated off 2) water is evaporated off and 3) the bourbon draws more of the barrel flavors.  The primary flavors that are drawn from the barrel are caramelized sugar, from the charring of the sap; vanilla from a mix of the wood and non caramelized sap; and oaky-ness, from, well, the oak.

The surface of the inside of the barrel is where you get most of your caramel taste, so bourbon doesn't have to deep soak for that as much, even relatively young bourbons quickly pick up a nice caramel flavor.  The layer right past that is where you get the vanilla flavor, you can get this flavor from either large temperature swings or long aging.  Oaky-ness is the deepest layer and usually requires long aging and at least moderate temperature swings.

When whiskey evaporates, the two things that evaporate off are usually alcohol and water.  Especially water.  Thus, as a bourbon ages, it tends to have its flavors intensified.  It will also see a mild increase in its proof, since water evaporates faster than alcohol.  What typically doesn't evaporate are those caramelized sugars.

Putting this all together, what you will typically have from an older bourbon is a more intense bourbon, with more concentrated flavors.  Usually a powerful caramel flavor, with very present hints of vanilla and a very full feel in the mouth.  Unfortunately, if the barrels aren't chosen very carefully, a lot of older bourbon can also turn bitter, from the oak flavors.  While a hint of oak can be quite pleasant, when it is in extreme amounts, it isn't particularly good tasting (though some aficionados have convinced themselves to 'appreciate' extreme oaky-ness, most master distillers view it as a deep flaw of poorly made heavily aged bourbons).

Thus, not only does older bourbon lose a lot of its volume while aging, it also must be very heavily monitored or it can end up being a huge waste of money for the distiller.  The high price of older bourbon is only partially a marketing ploy, it really is very expensive to make, in both time and effort.  Sadly, on top of that, a lot of older bourbon simply isn't very good.  We are about to see if Parker Beam's Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel can hold up.

Packaging: Lovely bottle, though a tiny bit feminine for my tastes.  Gorgeous mahogany top with a cork.  very soft contour to the bottle.  The label is very simple, but elegant.  the painted on lines are a nice touch, and from the back you can tell they even continue underneath the label.

Appearance: Medium dark amber.  One of the darkest 90 proof bourbons you'll see

Smell: Oak, Vanilla and caramel are all there.  Slightly odd to smell oak pre taste.  Usually that's something you can only pick up on after you've taken a sip or two.

Taste: Caramel is very present yet not overwhelming.  Not nearly as corn syrupy as a lot of heaven hill products are.  Vanilla is there throughout.  After about a second the oak comes in.  Tiny bit of fruitiness comes in as well.  Overall a very balanced, rich taste.  Smooth, without being boring.

Aftertaste: gets a bit spicy at the end, with oak.  The caramel stays for a while and is still there throughout the aftertaste.  Not at all bitter.

Overall: In my mind, this is right up there with the very best, if not the very best.  I prefer this to the other main heavily aged bourbons that are widely available, Jefferson Presidential select and Pappy Van Winkle.  That Heaven Hill was able to get such a complex, full bodied bourbon, without even a hint of oak bitterness really evidences Parker Beam's skill.  A lot of the ultra premium bourbons end up not even tasting like bourbon, as they try to get overly fancy.  That never happens here.  This just tastes like really, really, really great bourbon.  Even though it's not cheap, I'd still call it a bargain, as it clearly blows away most everything in it's price range and even bourbons that are much more expensive.