Sunday, October 17, 2010

Who are the perverts that translate the Bible?

I recently became aware of a Bible verse that confounds American Evangelists, and causes them to lose sleep. The verse is Ezekiel 23, 20, and the story amuses me to no end. I'm completely secular, do not believe in God, and the only knowledge I have of the Bible is what I learned in school. And yet, it is very easy for me to see how silly their bafflement is. This is a good example of what ignorance can do to people.

Ezekiel 23 begins with Ezekiel telling us that he is speaking the words of God, and then he tells us the story of a man who wedded two sisters who were once prostitutes in Egypt, but then married him, and changed their names to Samaria and Jerusalem. Any person with a minimal knowledge in the history of the Jewish people realizes right away that the man symbolizes God, and the two sisters are the kingdoms of Israel and Judea. Then, continues the parable, the eldest sister prostituted herself to Assyrian lovers, and ended up being killed by them (in other words, Israel started to worship Assyrian gods, and ended up being destroyed by Assyria), while the young one survived, but became an even bigger whore than her sister. He blames her that she did not free herself from the corruption that was instilled in her back in Egypt, and now sleeps with everyone: Assyrians, Babylonians and whoever comes. In verse 20, he describes how the Egyptians corrupted her, and said that she lusted after Egyptian lovers, whose flesh is like the flesh of donkeys, and whose sperm is like the sperm of horses. Ezekiel is basically equating worshiping other gods with bestiality, and tells us that to worship any other god than the God of Israel is akin to sleeping with horses and donkeys.

The traditional English translation, known as King James' Bible, is quite faithful to the Hebrew original:

"For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses."

But apparently Americans today are unable to read English, and need translation to Americanese. There are many new translations of the Bible, and with every new one, the verse went slightly further away from the source...

New International Version (©1984)
There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses

English Standard Version (©2001)
and lusted after her paramours there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses

New Living Translation (©2007)
She lusted after lovers with genitals as large as a donkey's and emissions like those of a horse

Ooh! Kinky! Now we are talking about giant donkey dicks and massive ejaculations. Ezekiel wanted to disgust us, to make us feel like we are sleeping with a donkey, but in the new translations, it became a man with a penis as big as a donkey's, and the verse becomes alluring.

How did this subversion happen? I suppose it is because these translators grew into the modern world, and knew the expression "hung like a donkey". So when they saw the end of the sentence mentioning horse sperm, they translated "donkey flesh" into "donkey genitals" (there is no basis for that in Hebrew). And generations of Evangelists are now reared on this verse, and don't know how to explain it to their children...

Many of them, of course, also miss the symbolism of the chapter, fail to understand that it is a parable, and just read it straight. A Google search shows confused Christians asking why God uses such a language (since it is, remember, the word of God...), why he is so impressed by how Egyptian men are hung, and why he sees fit to bother us with a story about hookers. And nobody knows what to answer.

Worse, today there are Muslim clerics who use this verse to show Christians that their Bible isn't holy, and again, the Christians don't know what to answer them.

I'm telling you: by the time the Americans are done with it, they will turn the Bible into a great porn mag.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Multiculturalism has failed?

German Chancellor Merkel announced yesterday that the project of multiculturalism failed in her country. Others are saying it is dead. And not just in Germany, but all over Europe.

I am a firm believer in multiculturalism, and I don't accept that it is dead. But there's no point in a knee-jerk reaction against Merkel's announcement. One has to face up to the truth, and adjust accordingly.

The premise behind multiculturalism was that most people want to live in a free society, and given the chance, they would change their own culture and make it pluralistic. This did not happen. Some immigrant cultures only exploited their freedom to maintain a sense of isolation, supremacy and hate towards other cultures, and teach it to their children. I still believe that given more time, they would eventually change, but we are running out of time. The extreme right is exploiting the matter to gain popularity and spread hate against all immigrants, and anti-Western forces are using the immigrants as a breeding ground for their views. The more enlightened people need to adjust their views and come up with a better plan.

Freedom requires responsibility, and a free society can exist only if all its participants take it upon themselves to respect the freedom of others. So for multiculturalism to work, we first need to ensure that every culture actually wants to live in a multicultural society. If there are certain cultures who are not so inclined, then they should change. And if they are unable to change on their own, then they should be forced.

There is no need to force the Western culture upon them. Every culture has the potential to change and become pluralistic, while maintaining its uniqueness and core tenets. And every culture has enough enlightened people who can realize that potential, and change their culture from within. The new plan should be to neutralize the negative elements in the group, and strengthen the positive forces in it, those who can bring about the change.

Europe still has plenty of time. I'm sure they will eventually find a formula that works.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Roger Waters throwing bombs

The Anti-Defamation League has accused Roger Waters for using Antisemitic imagery in his recent performances of The Wall. Here's the offending number:

As we can see, the bombers are throwing the symbols of the three major monotheistic religions, as well as symbols of giant financial conglomerates. So the immediate message that arises is not Antisemitism, but lament that we are killing each other in the name of religion and for the sake of profit. It is a legitimate artistic statement, whether you agree with it or not. So the accusations against Waters are not justified.

However, I'm not completely exonerating Waters. The clip begins with a bomber throwing Stars of David, followed immediately by a bomber throwing dollar signs. This creates an Antisemitic combination of Jews and money, which Waters should have been wary of.

And anyway, I'm tired of Waters' simplistic, outdated politics. You'd expect him to get wiser with age, to appreciate the complexity of the issues he sings about, but he only gets dumber. There's only one thing I find more tiring, and that's the constant whining of the Anti-Defamation League.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Five Years
Soul Love
Moonage Daydream
It ain't Easy
Lady Stardust
Hang Onto Yourself
Ziggy Stardust
Suffragette City
Rock'n'roll Suicide

The years 1970-71 were the time when the last traces of revolutionary tendencies disappeared from rock music. In the late sixties, the Hippies believed that they are going to change the world, and the music that they created reflected and fueled that notion. But when time went by and the new order failed to materialize, most rockers looked for other inspirations, and the music changed. Rockers now focused less on politics and more on the music, and regarded rock as a "serious" art form, removed from the "meaningless" pop world. And since "seriousness" in music was defined by the terms created in the world of classical music, rock started to adopt its maxims, and create long, slowly-developing pieces of elaborate musical composition. Instead of three minute singles, rock now focused on creating concept albums - that is, albums that are a cohesive piece, not just a collection of disconnected tracks. Some albums even had a plot, a story that unfolded from beginning to end, like an opera. They saw it as progress, but what this development actually did was to weaken rock music, not only as a social force, but as an art form as well. It made it lose the thing that made it unique amongst the arts, and that is its presence in the real world. Rock'n'roll was born in the era of mass electronic media, so a single that was carried on the airwaves was heard instantaneously by people all over the world, creating a shockwave that would reverberate through society and induce changes and new ideas. Thus, the world became a stage, on which the rock stars could perform, and present new identities and attitudes. A concept album, on the other hand, was something that you had to go out and buy, so its message would reach only those who were already in the know. Thus, the rock artists were relegated to the role of faceless musicians, and lost the theatrical side of their art.

Into this world, David Bowie dropped The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars, a concept album that had a narrative, and yet, did not suffer from the ailments of other concept albums. Because here, every song stands alone as a single art piece, and is not subordinate to the overall narrative, but rather tells a story of its own. The narrative of the album arises from stringing these stories together, and remains very loose and flexible. And, more importantly, the songs had presence in the real world, in such a way that the story of the album amazingly played itself out in reality as well. Bowie was the first rocker to be self-consciously theatrical, to present a character who turns the world into his stage, and at the same time reflect on the nature of the relationship between this character and the world. This is what makes this album so unique in the history of art, and when we analyze the album, we must also see how its theatre unfolded.

I surmise, then, that Ziggy Stardust was the first serious attempt of rock'n'roll to reflect on itself, to figure out what it is, and what is its place in the world. When rock'n'roll sprang into the world in the fifties, it created a generational gap, and became the language of a youth culture that saw itself as more lively than the previous generations. In the first years of youth culture, there was no need for self-reflection: rock'n'roll just kept moving by its own inertia, providing a steady stream of great records and novel experiences, and constantly breaking new grounds. But when the Hippies took over, the rebellion became more serious, taking revolutionary tones and aiming to actually overthrow the order created by the previous generations. Rock'n'roll changed into the more stern music that was called rock, and the Hippies looked back at the three minute outbursts of early rock'n'roll as merely the budding of a new rebellious spirit, which now had to become more "serious". But the Hippie revolution failed, and only served to take all the fun and liveliness out of the music and culture of the youth. In his 1969 album Space Oddity, Bowie provided harsh criticism of the youth culture of the time, through allegorical stories about characters that have lost their way. This criticism continued in his next album, The Man Who Sold the World, but here he also delved deep into philosophical realms, and found a personal answer in the Nietzschean concept of the Superman. And in his next album, Hunky Dory, he turned his philosophical eye back on youth culture, looking at it through his Nietzschean prism, and aiming to point its rebellious spirit in another direction. The inquiries of Hunky Dory provided the blueprint of what needed to be done to save rock music, and put youth culture back on track. Now, with his next album, Bowie doesn't just point, but takes it upon himself to be the agent of change, to put his conclusions to the test. Ziggy Stardust, while seemingly playing the rock game of creating concept albums, undermines this game by going back to the source, back to three minute rock'n'roll, to unearth and scrutinize its most primal instincts, and rekindle its spirit.

So, in what way does the album subvert Hippie dogmas? First of all, it is an urban album. The Hippies preached a return to nature, to a rural Garden of Eden that supposedly existed before it was twisted by Western civilization. Bowie accepts their claim that the urban world causes alienation, but rejects their solution, and looks for the answer within the urban world, a world dominated by technology, mass media, shifting identities and cultural multiplicity. He does not look for a lost past, but for a new future, creating a science-fiction fantasy. Marc Bolan already showed the way, when he took his surrealistic imagery out of the Hippie fairytale land and into the big city, and Bowie follows his lead (and acknowledges his influence in 'Lady Stardust'). Another obvious inspiration is the urban poetry of the Velvet Underground, which he already paid tribute to in Hunky Dory, and is felt as a presence in this album as well ('Lady Stardust' evokes 'Femme Fatale', 'Suffragette City' nicks from 'White Light / White Heat', and the Spiders performed some VU numbers live). Stanley Kubrick's urban-futuristic nightmare A Clockwork Orange is another reference point, manifesting itself in the early look of the Spiders, in the electronic version of the 'Ode to Joy' used as the opener for the concerts, and in the word "droogie" dropped into the album. The back cover of the album invokes the sci-fi of Dr. Who, while the brilliant front cover puts Ziggy in urban settings, setting its nightmarish atmosphere, the backdrop to his tale.

The main theme in Hunky Dory is spiritual desolation, a feeling that all paths have been tried already, and there's nothing more that can excite and unite us. Ziggy Stardust picks up where its predecessor left, with two songs that intensify the feeling. 'Five Years' tells us that there is no future, nothing to look forward too, and 'Soul Love' expresses inability to find someone or something to love. The Priest appears in the first song as someone who people turn to for answers in such times, but in the second we find that his answer doesn't work. A little later in the album we find Bowie's cover of 'It ain't Easy', which expresses the desire to get to Heaven, but tells us that it ain't easy to get there in our current situation.

What is the way out, then? Hunky Dory suggested another possibility: if we can't get to Heaven by ourselves, then someone can reach down from Heaven and lift us up there. But Heaven doesn't necessarily have to be the afterworld – it can simply be another world, like Mars. And so, 'Moonage Daydream' presents Ziggy, an invader from outer space, who comes to endow us with a spiritual alternative.

Does this mean that Ziggy has come to take us to another world? No. The conclusion from Hunky Dory is that Heaven is not a place but a state of mind, a state of mind that is created when we go through a process of transformation, brought about by fusing ourselves with something alien. That is the secret of rock'n'roll, the thing that was lost when it became rock. Rock'n'roll sensations were always the outcome of someone fusing elements of their own culture with elements from an alien culture. In the American mind of the fifties, the perception was that "culture" means taking man further and further away from the jungle, so when white boys like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis sang and moved like blacks (considered as people who represent the jungle), it was something that was completely contrary and alien to the logic of the time. But many white kids felt that there were also positive qualities in black music, so identifying with those performers enabled them to internalize these qualities and make them part of their own identity, recreating themselves as something new and exciting. The same thing happened when the Beatles fused English working-class attitude with American rock'n'roll, when the Stones brought together Mersey beat with African-American R&B and existentialist attitude, when Dylan merged folk with beatnik poetry and rock'n'roll, and so forth. They all managed to put together things that previously did not mix, and created a new experience, a new identity. In 'Starman' and 'Lady Stardust', Bowie describes that spiritual moment of encountering an alien, and feeling more affinity towards it than towards anything you've ever experienced. He depicts the initial fear to admit that affinity, and the joy of allowing yourself to be conquered and transformed. If he wanted to transfer the story of the album to real life and revive the thrill of rock'n'roll, Bowie had to find a way to create a similar fusion. He spent the first half on 1972 perfecting the new identity, and when he performed 'Starman' on Top of the Pops in July, the story of the song materialized, and scores of kids who watched the show were forever transformed.

So what were the ingredients in this new identity, this new fusion, which created the desired alien effect? First there is the language of the album, a combination of the hippest American jive talk with old cockneyisms, and references taken from poetry and classic rock'n'roll records. Then there was the futuristic feel, achieved by the glittered-up Clockwork Orange look, and the sound coming from Ronson's guitar pyrotechnics and Ken Scott's gleaming production. But the two main ingredients were Ziggy's sexuality, and his stardom.

Ziggy's sexuality destroyed all the neat categories created in the Victorian age. He was neither male nor female, neither hetero nor homo. His sexuality was amorphous, and appealed to those many kids who felt that they did not fit into the existing categories, giving them someone to identify with. On the album, it builds up slowly: in 'Five Years' we already meet "the queer", who seems to be the one with most sensitivity and perception, the one throwing up at the ugly sight of the world, while other people are still drinking milkshakes obliviously. The queer stands out of society, so he can see things more clearly. In 'Moonage Daydream' Ziggy introduces himself as a "mama-papa" and a "bitch", hinting at his epicene sexuality. In 'It ain't Easy', it ain't easy to tell if the woman calling from inside is an actual woman, or a woman that is inside him (in the original record, it is clearly another woman). And it peaks in 'Lady Stardust', where Ziggy appears in all his multi-sexual glory. Ziggy turns out to be the queer who sees the world for what it is, and sings songs of darkness and dismay. On the way, Bowie gives shout-outs to gay icons Judy Garland (in 'Starman') and Lord Alfred Douglas (in 'Lady Stardust'), and even throws in some Vaseline for good measure. To bring this sexuality to life, Bowie hired his friend Freddie Burretti, a brilliant gay designer, to fashion clothes that would create the desired effect; performed obscene sexual acts on stage with his guitarist Ronno; and gave interviews in which he admitted to being bisexual. And just like 'Lady Stardust' follows 'Starman' on the album, so was the shock of seeing the alien on Top of the Pops followed by the shock of learning of his outrageous sexuality, at least for most of the public. Bowie intensified the attack with the 'John, I'm only Dancing' single, with its ambiguous lyrics and campy video, and opened a new era. The impact on our society is felt to this very day.

Next on the album comes 'Star', and guess what? Bowie/Ziggy did become a star shortly after the TotP performance. What was alien about stardom? It was alien because Hippie culture stayed away from the showbiz game of stardom, regarding it as "fake". What was behind this perception was the old notion that truth is something that is eternal, something that is beyond Man, and anyone who makes himself the center of the world (like stars do) is holding on to something that is fleeting, and therefore fake. But for Bowie, the truth is something temporary, something that should be sought in the here and now, and then turned into the center of your identity. And stardom is a way to turn this truthful identity into the center of the world, and allow others to feel this truth as well. Therefore, he went against Hippie dogma, and gave birth to a star. Learning all the tricks of past movie and rock'n'roll stars, and drawing from Warhol and his crowd, Bowie transformed himself into the shiniest star of them all. Ziggy wasn't just a star, but a starman, someone who has stardom as an innate quality of his nature, someone actually made out of stardust. And, like the plan he drew in 'Starman', he used the electronic media to project his image, and turn the world into his stage.

And so, Ziggy manages to do what the priest in 'Soul Love' failed to, and bring love into our lives. Instead of the divine love of Christianity, Ziggy introduces the church of man love. When a group of kids are transformed through adopting the alien image, they become as one against the rest of the world, and experience a feeling of togetherness and love. The birth of this brotherhood is presented in 'Starman', where the kids hide their newfound experience from their parents, but contact each other to share it. It peaks in 'Lady Stardust', where the band is altogether and everything is alright, and carries on into 'Hang Onto Yourself'. And let's not forget the anthemic 'All the Young Dudes', the battle cry of a new generation.

But 'Hang Onto Yourself' tells us something more: if you want to maintain this perfect state, where you feel at one with yourself and with others, you must constantly hang on to the essence of your identity, and not lose it in the exciting rollercoaster that your life has become. And since the essence of this identity is being an alien, Ziggy had to keep reinventing himself as an alien to hang on to himself. So the next move was to come on like some cat from Japan, with kabuki makeup, Kansai Yamamoto's clothes, and a red mane copied from a female Japanese model. Thus, Ziggy managed to remain an alien, and keep the community together a while longer.

But eventually, it has to end. After a while, the thing that was alien becomes normal and loses its effect, and the sense of camaraderie it brought with it also dissipates. The two main ingredients in Ziggy's identity – his sexuality and his stardom – eventually bring his downfall. In 'Ziggy Stardust', we see that Ziggy's stardom, the very thing that initially brought everyone to converge around him and unify in love, now becomes the thing that puts him above all the rest, and destroys the community. And 'Suffragette City' shows the sex taking over the love, and Ziggy sinking into a world of carnal pleasures, giving up his friendships on the way.

And so, the exploration into the nature of rock'n'roll ends with 'Rock'n'roll Suicide'. And suicide is indeed inherent in the nature of rock'n'roll: that unique fusion that puts you out of any preexisting category can work its magic only once, and for a short period of time, but when the world gets used to it, it becomes just another category, and then it loses the magic forever. Eventually, the unique fusion that Ziggy personified stopped being exciting, and he could no longer reach the same heights as before – he killed his own uniqueness by springing it on the world, committed spiritual suicide. He is left to wander the streets alone, wondering what he's going to do with the rest of his life, now that his personal truth has lost its power to thrill. This is what happened to rock'n'roll in the late fifties, when the first wave died, and again in the late sixties, when Hippie euphoria died. But 'Rock'n'roll Suicide' provides the answer: that certain fusion may die, but rock'n'roll doesn't die, because it is always possible to create another fusion. In the early sixties it was the Beatles who saved rock'n'roll and brought back the thrill, in the early seventies it was Ziggy who did it, and now, someone else comes and reaches down to Ziggy, to pull him up once more, and take him to a world of joy and love. And that's how the album ends: Ziggy may not be rock'n'roll anymore, but rock'n'roll will keep on living.

But here is also where the course of reality diverged from the course of the album. Because Bowie was not about to wait for someone else to come and save him, and take him out of the Ziggy identity and into another identity - he was going to do it on his own. When he saw that the processes of downfall he described in the latter part of the album were beginning to unravel in real life, he proceeded to perform a preemptive suicide, and free himself from Ziggy. At the end of his mid-73 tour, just before the final encore, Ziggy told a stunned audience that this was his last show, and then, in perfect theatrical timing, launched into 'Rock'n'roll Suicide' for the very last time. Ziggy Stardust was dead.

The audience might have been less shocked if they paid more attention to the development of Bowie's thought. Since 1967, when he became part of Lindsay Kemp's troupe, Bowie's aesthetic approach was that the artist should be a Pierrot clown, who presents a mirror-image to human race and exposes its faults. But in 'After All', one of the songs that presented his newfound Nietzschean direction, he made a slight shift in his perception of the clown, as he observed that "man is an obstacle, sad as a clown". So the clown isn't just a mirror to the faulty side of Man, but to Man itself. Man, Nietzsche said, is an obstacle that needs to be overcome, and replaced with the Superman, someone who has learned to draw joy from every aspect of human existence. So Bowie's characters would now be a clown that represents Man and his failings, enabling Bowie, the aspiring Superman, to transcend these failings and learn how to draw joy from everything. Ziggy, the clown, was a mirror-image of the rock'n'roll stars of the past, who were mere men, and were therefore bound to fall. But through him, Bowie could foray into the field of rock'n'roll stardom and experience all the joys of it, while evading the bad sides.

Actually, the Ziggy saga already had some precursors in Bowie's art, songs that told essentially the same story, and prepared the ground for Ziggy. Take 'Width of a Circle', for instance. It starts from a feeling of meaninglessness, but then, through homoerotic intercourse with a being from another world, the hero transcends to heaven. But after a while, that same intercourse drags him down to hell, and although his mind screams at him to let go, he is too much into it, and lets himself be taken all the way down. Through his intercourse with the Ziggy character, Bowie made it to rock'n'roll heaven, to the highest spiritual plane, and unlike the hero of 'Width of a Circle', he did break away in time, and saved himself from going down.

And even before that, there was 'Space Oddity'. Major Tom uses a man-made spaceship to transcend his world and float in blissful beauty, but then he relinquishes control to his spaceship, and it takes him to oblivion. In the same way, Bowie created Ziggy to transcend his world and experience the joys of stardom, but unlike Major Tom, he never lost control. He passed through the madness of the Ziggy period, and when he emerged out of it he was still at the helm, ready to stir his spaceship to explore new galaxies. Ziggy Stardust was dead; David Bowie was just getting started.

iamamiwhoami does something new

One of the most intriguing musical projects of the year was the mysterious appearance on youtube of a female singer who identified as iamamiwhoami. Her first video was uploaded on January 31:

What followed were some more short clips, each about a minute long, with cryptic names. Many people were hooked and subscribed to the channel, forming a community that tried to solve the mystery and figure out the identity of the singer. After a while, she started to upload videos oc complete songs, which were all quite enchanting, combining surrealism and ecology. But her face was always distorted somehow, to prevent recognition.

Every video exposed a little more, and eventually, as the community practically guessed already, she was revealed as Swedish singer Jonna Lee. Several weeks ago she released the final video of the project:

This project will be remembered as the first time that someone employed the fact that youtube has become the new center of pop culture, and found a way to use it for artistic expression. I enjoyed being part of it when it happened, and when it ended, I wondered what she was going to do now. Was that the end of iamamiwhoami, now that we know who she is? Apparently not, because today she uploaded a new vid, in which she asks her subscriber community to pick a volunteer. It seems there's something new brewing.