Ironic License

Are you a despondent rapper, sick of horrified gasps and scandalized swooning over your evocative vernacular? Are you tired of prudish outcry against your self-expression? Well hold onto your grills, because you’ve just been given a mandate to degrade, disgust and demean to your heart’s content, free from public censure. And for every profanity you throw in, you’ll even be awarded a few extra IQ points.
It’s called “irony”. In a recent interview on US radio NPR’s Fresh Air, Jay Z boasted that the joke was in fact on his bra-burning critics; while the seemingly derogatory lyrics of his ‘Ninety-Nine Problems’ had feminists preparing picket lines and protest marches, his repetition of that b word was actually ironically-intended. The buzz word was strategically placed there to lead subscribers of the “offensive rapper” stereotype “down the wrong path”, scoffed Jay. If only they were a little more open-minded, they would recognise that his use of the term “bitch” is not denoting a woman at all, but rather a drug-sniffing canine. And if you play the track backwards in slow motion, you can actually hear Jay Z yelling a triumphant, “gotcha, girls!” 

Well, call me egotistical, but I still can’t shake the feeling that the lyrics were on some level directed at my species. It could have something to do with the line “if you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son, I got ninety-nine problems but a bitch ain’t one.” Jay Z’s brand of irony seems to me the most negligent excuse for anti-social behaviour since some psychologist hoping to get millions out of Russell Brand decided sex-addiction could be classified as mental illness. The star is setting a dangerous precedent for the free articulation of prejudice under the guise of heightened social awareness; “I don’t really believe owning a Lexus makes me a better person, I bought it out of irony. Didn’t you know I grew up in the Western suburbs?”; “I don’t genuinely think there are too many foreigners in Sydney, I was being ironic. I actually eat at Chinese restaurants all the time,” and so on and so forth. Next thing we know, Rihanna will be claiming irony to excuse condoning female objectification in her latest single, ‘S & M’ - oh wait, she’s already used the “metaphor” line. 
Sorry Jay, but this girl problem just ain’t buying your “irony” claim. And since as an English major, I’ll be lucky to wind up in a loft above some dingy pub, while you sip champagne in a Hollywood mansion without so much as a high school certificate, you’ve at least got to let me lay claim to a better grasp of language techniques as my consolation prize.


Aid and (Personal) Development

India: the new Spiritual buzz-word. Mention a recent trip there, that your anklet was hand-crafted in Mumbai (then traded for 5 cents and a turnip and shipped to Tree of Life who abused your consumer impulses and sold it at fifty times the original price), you’ve been experimenting with cumin in your cooking, you once dated a guy who was one-twelfth Indian (but don’t worry, he never made me pay for dinner) and in the eyes of hipsters everywhere you’ll be instantly transformed into an ethereal being, vibrating on a heightened level of awareness of self and the world. 
India’s growing reputation as a cultural and spiritual treasure trove is largely attributable to the philosophy of Vipassana, realized in a silent meditation retreat in the Indian village of Igatpuri. Getting there requires of the average Westerner thousands of miles of travel, a year’s hard-earned wages, and a vicious loathing of the left side of your brain critical to surviving the mandatory ten days of meditative silence. And before you even ask, no, you cannot achieve the same results with a much more economical trip to your uninhabited living room, how appallingly rational of you. 

You might remember Vipassana from such films as Eat, Pray, Love, that distinguished cultural artifact which inspired white women everywhere to give up on their careers and  abandon their families to develop their inner selves through the mass consumption of spaghetti. I’m not saying I wasn’t impressed by Julia’s dual possession of breathtakingly large mouth and microscopic waistline, especially given her setting in the carb capitol of the world. But I have a little difficulty esteeming a woman who travels through the desperate streets of India, peers out from her air conditioned bubble at the starving children clambering after her cab, and then goes and spends her days in an isolated room contemplating how to improve her own position in life. 
I get that, as an Indian tradition, silent meditation is a means of embracing the wisdom that lies beyond the precariously self-sufficient West. Indeed, our civilization of obsessive-compulsive communicators would no doubt reap more benefits from staring at a blank wall for ten days than following Charlie Sheen’s latest tweets. But taking the prosperity we’ve received simply from geographical fortune at birth and sewing it into our own personal happiness on the home turf of a nation suffering a 40% extreme poverty rate smacks of Western narcissism. If we’re set on the third world as an indispensable factor in the magical equation of spiritual enlightenment, we might just find that we learn more through getting our hands dirty in an Igatpurian village than gazing into the shallow chasm of one’s navel on a removed hilltop. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones whose got an innie, there’s only so much to be found in there.


A Letter of Complaint to the Sydney University Hipster

Dear Sydney University hipster,
You are making me feel uncool and frankly I’ve had enough.
As someone who once spent an entire pay packet on flared jeans the week before Kate Moss spread-eagled the side of every bus in Sydney in skinny legs, no-one was happier than I to observe increasing displays of outfit unorthodoxy, heralding a progression into a post-cool era. Anything goes in this blasé new world, where even the most obnoxious displays of individuality are more warmly received than Oprah by the Australian tourism industry: mentally unstable politicians can don cowboy hats in parliament; women can dress as men (Ellen Degeneres); men can dress as women (Justin Bieber); Gaga can adorn herself in a dress of rotting meat or mutilated Kermit The Frog dolls and still inspire twenty-seven “official” fan sites; Prime Ministers can have red hair. 
But thrift-store-browsing, Warhol-worshipping, right-brain-using hipster, your insistence on the continuing existence of “cool” imperils our society’s progression. Your androgynous army, assaulting the law lawns in identical hair cuts presumably sculpted by the rim of the same bowl, sacrificing fertility for ball-smothering skinny jeans and making sure the rest of us can’t get our hands on a Campos coffee without a forty minute wait in line, is selfishly imposing a universal standard of cool. Your growing conscripts are robbing the rest of us of the rare opportunity to feel legitimate in glasses worn for vision correction rather than to make an ironic statement, or a hat worn for sun protection rather than in imitation of a codeine-addicted dead guy from the sixties, in what would otherwise be a post-cool era.
Almost as confounding as trying to discern the gender of one of your waifish, over-sized-shirted specimens from the behind view, is the reality that your movement began as a counter-culture, a rebellion against the vacuousness of mainstream fashion and out to promote independent thought. Maybe it’s a coincidence that your asymmetric fringes all fall at the same 45 degree angle (from left to right, of course), and perhaps there was a special on thick-rimmed tortoise shell glasses the same day you all happened to stop by American Apparel. But you seem to be struggling a little with the practical side of being alternative in unison with the rest of your clan, thus inevitably ending up the same.

I’ll concede that your movement has not been an utterly unqualified strain upon the advancement of our society; your obsession with “eco-chic” may have turned a few minds to the issue of sustainability. But like the US ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein and then marching the country into a new era of violence and ungoverned pandemonium, what’s a stingy splash of good in a sea of oppression? One can only imagine the new heights of tolerance and social inclusion our post-cool society could be reaching if it weren’t being besieged by a sub-culture-turned-mainstream insisting that buttoned to the lymph nodes is the only way to wear a shirt. If you really value freedom as much as the message on your vintage tee proclaims, disband and liberate Eastern Avenue from this fashion autocracy once and for all!
But since one of the most widely recognized qualities of the hipster is a spectacular lack of self-awareness, you’re probably chortling along at “them hipsters” right now, so I won’t be holding my breath.
Hipster Hater Number Four Thousand and Sixty-Three, who may or may not tend an entire shelf of Penguin Classics, most of which she hasn’t read.


Don't throw the bath water out with the baby

For a man who wore leggings, you’d expect that Commodore Perry would’ve gone about making Japan’s acquaintance with a little more civility than trampling the “Display Only” sign on its West-facing doors, flailing his rifle and screaming “GIVE US ALL YOUR SUSHI!” And a little civility probably would’ve paid off too, for in all his screaming and rifle-flailing, the Commodore over-looked a cultural gold mine: communal bathing.

While in the West public nudity is embraced only upon nudist beaches by male perverts and the occasional hippie, our Oriental counterparts know how to get naked at any age or intimacy with the penal system. Buried deep behind Kyoto’s largest Family Mart (an illuminative experience in itself if you didn’t know you could buy the entire body of a squid sealed in glad-wrap with a quail egg in the place of its brains), my very first onsen experience saw me wedged between two eighty year olds comparing arthritis across my naked body.

I soon discovered that the crystal waters of the onsen is the ideal place to make some Japanese friends; nothing breaks the ice like a spot of nudity between strangers. As our muscle tension melted away in the 45 degree water so too did any tension over atom bombs, harpooning of endangered mammals or Gwen Stefani’s ostentatious prancing about Harajuku, (though I will say the energetic miming and flailing of limbs customarily employed to overcome the language barrier can become a little problematic when performed nude). But though I always made plans to meet my new onsen buddies for a plum wine, they rarely came to fruition; once you’ve shared a naked D & M you’ve kind of taken the friendship as far as it can go.

It was in Osaka, amidst the Octopus Balls (yep, that’s a food) and men with hair care regimes to rival Miss Dally herself, that I discovered my true destiny: Spa World. A delightfully brazen adulteration of Eastern custom by the Western maxim that bigger is better, this place was the Disney Land of onsen. I’m talking 10 levels, different themed, water of every colour of the rainbow, any temperature your heart desires, rose petals, muscle relaxant, coconut oil, even those little fish that suck the dead skin off your feet. If you can just get past the fact that everyone is wearing matching moo-moos and there’s a 100m² room filled with nothing but those reclining chairs that only old people buy, you’ll quickly stop feeling like you’ve suddenly graduated to a nursing home and start getting your relaxation on. I’m telling you, you don’t know the meaning of the word “relaxed” until you’re so Zenned-out that the fact that you’re sitting starkers in the Spa World cafe in a seat that’s met with hundreds of other naked butts being served edamame by a waitress who’s fully clothed doesn’t trouble you in the slightest.

It was my first day back at my Sydney clerkship, a lightness in my heart and a smile on my face as my boss condemned me to life as a street performer over my substandard positioning of a staple, that I realised the long term benefits of the onsen upon the spirit. Communal bathing could be the solution the Western world has been waiting for to its most abstruse problems. Would we really suffer the same neurosis towards our bodies if we grew up before a heterogeneous array of cup-sizes, muffin-top radii and intriguing mole locations? And how about that revelation that stress is a causal factor in seventy-five percent of all illnesses? And would we have needed water restrictions if the whole population shared the same bath water? And do you really think Justin Bieber would’ve assaulted us with his autobiography if he’d had the chance for the genuine self-reflection that only a long soak can deliver? Except perhaps my cousin who spent his summer detained by the Brisbane River with a game boy and a lone box of Weetbix. More water might not be so great for him. 

Note: An article celebrating water in Japan takes on particular significance since the tragedy of the recent natural disasters. My prayers are with that great place and its amazing people.


I smell a a polka dot dress.

Marketers, producers, authors beware: this is the generation that learnt to say “resistant reading” before we learnt “mama”. Our highly sophisticated crap-filters, honed by a steady diet of search engines and wiki pages that may well have been written by that paranoid aunt convinced the Boxing Day tsunami was born of a U.S. bomber, will see right through your attempts to exploit our minds as your own consumer playthings. So unashamedly devoted to critical pedagogy are we, that the universal third person will always be referred to as “she” over “he”, no matter how wanky it inevitably appears to our reader. But there is one chink in this otherwise impenetrable armor of cynicism and distrust: put a doe-eyed little mouse in a polka dot dress and we’ll be eating out of its hand like it was James Franco at a cougar convention.

Evidenced by the hundreds of thousands making the yearly pilgrimage to Disneyland; the soaring price of real estate in the Disney town of Celebration; the thirty thousand weddings hosted in Sleeping Beauty’s castle; and the steady number of Arts enrollees who evidently gobbled-up the Disney message that dreams - even those as far-fetched as a career in the arts - do come true, Disney is the Achilles heel of our generation of pop culture insurgents, even into our adult lives. And who could blame us? Simba exerts more sex appeal than any Hollywood superstar as he makes the transformation from pre-pubescent cub to strapping young lion in that log-crossing scene (is it weird that I’ve long nursed a crush on a cartoon animal?) At any rate, in an era that’s all about equal rights and the emancipation of the marginalised, it’s difficult to do anything but adore a rather camply-attired duck with a speech impediment. And in a society more afraid of aging than Peter Pan himself, Disney provides a pain-free alternative to Botox. As Henry Giroux writes in The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, the adult viewer “often discovers some nostalgic connection to their childhood when they enter the Disney cultural apparatus.” Just one session with the mouse in the white gloves will wind back years on the psychological clock.

This association with childhood, however, is the exact ingredient undermining our offensive as pop culture insurgents. It works to bolster Disney’s image as a paragon of innocence, whose fairy tales operate in an infantile zone beyond the insidious reach of social convention. Thus we turn to Disney for an escape from our adult world, leaving our Gen Y crap-filters at the door; but with a controlling interest in twenty television stations, ownership of the largest radio network in the US, three music studios, the American ABC television network, and five motion picture studios, the Disney empire is more realistically associated with the word “monopoly” than with “freedom” - and I’m not talking about the game. Funny, then, that old Walt described his company as “emphasising the story of what made America great and what will keep it great,” given the threat to modern democracy posed by such expansive corporations. As former Disney executive Michael Ovitz reflects “Disney isn’t a company as much as it is a nation-state with its own ideas and attitudes, and you have to adjust to them.”

Cue the slapping of “Biggest Killjoy Since the Hunter that Killed Bambi’s Mum” label across my forehead. But trust me, I’m not advocating a Disney bonfire - this would leave me with very limited entertainment options, since I never really liked vampires. I’m simply reminding you that a rodent in an adorable little polka dot dress is still a rodent. Simba, on the other hand, is a completely different story. I’ll always be a sucker for guys with shaggy manes.


If Mozart had Facebook...

In a rare break from the beloved tradition of blaming my parents for each of my ineptitudes, asymmetrical eyebrows, and the fact that I am not an elite gymnast (if only they’d been gangster enough to force fifty hour training weeks upon their five year old kid), today I summon Mark Zuckerberg to the stand. Before you call me the most unoriginal bandwagon jumper since The CW made The Vampire Diaries, allow me to bring my case. If it wasn’t for Facebook, I’m pretty sure I’d be retired by now and rolling around a mansion with those ridiculous stone lions guarding a front door with a knocker in the shape of an Ancient Greek’s head - completely unnecessary since I spend most of my time floating in my dolphin-infested pool and so won’t hear you knocking the Greek head. Instead, each time I dust-off my thinking cap, ready to conceive some miraculous invention that’ll bring in the billions, I am assaulted by an onslaught of images of strangers lounging on deserted beaches (oh how I regret accepting that random add from the Maldives); acquaintances from my English tutorial winning crab races at Scubar; single forty-something male work colleagues at Rihanna concerts (although this explained a lot, it’s the unexpected ones that really twist the dagger). It’s mighty difficult to sit alone in my room and concentrate on inventing an umbrella with built-in water harvester (who needs desalination plants?) with such constant reminders that I am the sole human being not out at the biggest party since Woodstock. Of course there’s no disclaimer warning that Facebook delivers a distorted reality and people don’t post about vacuuming or shopping for laundry supplies (with the exception of Kim Kardashian who has made a career of mundane banalities). Zuckerberg, on the other hand, makes his billions by ensuring that the rest of us aren’t doing anything productive so as to win them back from him. And as Lynn Tan’s “Summer Lovin” album has me packing my bags for the beach instead of finishing this post, I rest my case.

Creative License and Registration, please.

So perhaps I’m not as serious a Sufjan aficionado as I would like to think: I may or may not have mistaken his supporting act from Toronto for the man himself (to my defence I forgot my glasses that night and, at the extreme peril of my personal safety on vacation in North America, I still can’t tell the difference between the Canadian and American accents). Notwithstanding, if you’d asked me what I was expecting from Stevens, King of the Banjo, at his Sydney Festival gig, I can safely say that synthesized chants to ancient volcanos performed in thigh-hugging fluro would not have crossed my mind. Nor would an oversized auto-tuning helmet, producing a noise homogenous to what I imagine it would sound like if T Pain and that annoying dancing hamster they turned into a ringtone had a baby. 
Judging by the random eruptions of laughter from alternating regions of the audience, promptly morphing into coughing fits once the perpetrator realised they were in fact witnessing a profound moment of artistic expression, my fellow spectators were equally surprised. Nevertheless, Sufjan still inspired a standing ovation and after years of being denied by prudish old women and their Galilean binoculars, the Opera House seats finally got some action from boogieing behinds. Thanks to a decade of dependably disarming melodies and haunting lyrics, Sufjan has earned himself a creative license stocked with more demerit points than a Supreme Court judge.      

Surpassing the driver’s, gun and even the pen license on a scale of one to liberation, the creative license is a portal to social irreproachability. While the ordinary citizen who attempts a similar maneuver might be thrown in a straight jacket or sent to a government position in Tasmania, those in possession of a creative license can excrete into a can, sell it for its weight in gold, and be deemed sophisticated for doing so - as filthy (‘xcuse the pun) rich Italian artist Piero Manzoni knew only too well. 
Our generation is particularly flippant in awarding creative licenses (see: Lady Gaga and her meat shoes). Perhaps we believe that, like shopping at recycled clothing markets and eating acai berries, listening to experimental this-might-be-awesome-but-pretty-sure-its-the-most-negligent-thing-since-the-“iSnack2.0” makes us better people; indeed, as Triple J ratings propel the station into the mainstream, the perpetual quest to achieve the divine status of “alternative” is being pursued more fiercely than ever; though most of us are still stuck on the question of how to be alternative from everyone else being alternative. We’ve all experienced that violent self-loathing in a musically geared conversation as we fight the urge to rattle-off a bunch of obscure bands composed of three men and a lesbian and a pretentious oxymoron in their name. But if we can’t all be artists with licenses for incivility, the next most virtuous thing is to appreciate them. And since that darned spinning woman just wouldn’t turn right for me, I guess I’m in for more Sufjan tickets next time he visits.