Friday, September 20, 2013

Will The Future be Nice?

A high school-age American rap recording artist called Earl Sweatshirt recently interviewed for  The New York Times Magazine, when asked about his trip to Toronto opined that: "Canadians are weirdos..they are so nice - overbearing nice" and "Toronto is like a city of grandmas".  Apparently this young man's mother is a law prof at UCLA. That may explain why he recognizes our niceness. However that he equates it with folk of his grandparents age and finds it 'overbearing' speaks volumes about the current hip hop culture's take on life.

Rap as a form of black people's poetic social commentary with some rhythmic musical accompaniment, is not the first. Calypso preceded it by many years, as did blues. Calypso is softly ironic and the blues often melancholic. Neither however are abusive or rude and any misogyny in them is usually gentle.  Rap is often almost the antithesis. It's curt and tough, and very in-your-face.  Unlike calypso and blues, its practitioners are almost always young and so without much life experience. The gap between their world view and those of older popular music lovers seems to me greater than that between our generation's fathers who were brought up on swing and Frank Sinatra and ours on Bill Haley and the Comets, the Doors and the Grateful Dead.

It's fashionable to say that older people have always found the tastes of their young perplexing, but  the aggressive negativity and insulting innuendo of today's rappers is unmatched in  our Western history. Even the roughest punk or heaviest metal rock songs never matched the shear insolence of today's rap.

So what can we expect as the youths who listen to rap get older. Will they just end up like the once-rebel Pete Townsend of The Who?  The young Townsend sang that life after 30 wasn't worth living and yet now in his 60s is producing another version of his ever popular stage musical, Tommy and comes across as a nice polite English gent. Or is the protest in rap of a meaner and more sinister type than in the rock music of the 60s and 70s, and so as rappers age their staccato monologue style of speaking and frequently nihilistic viewpoints become the new normal for older folk?

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Little Spacecraft That Could

More often than I like to, I marvel at how few folk other than romantic old coots like me seem to believe any more that comprehending the universe beyond our planet is THE most compelling adventure of our era. Coming of age in the 60s and 70s when Sputnik, Apollo and moon landing were the uplifting stories of an otherwise largely bleak Cold War time, I am thrilled by anything that takes our understanding beyond the planet-bound. I am thrilled too that we're still here when many of us then thought we would have blown up the planet by now.

Voyager 1 passing out of the Solar System on August 25th was a epochal event, a fact recognized by a few quality journalists, although you'd never have known it from the limited attention it attracted from the mass media as a whole.  But think of it - a man-made device has LEFT our star system and is travelling into the Great Beyond!  In 40,000 years, all being well, Voyager One will meet another star.  Imagine time travelling back a hundred years and trying to get acceptance of a fact so far beyond the comprehension of any of our forbears.

Back in the late 1970s when the two Voyagers were launched many of us still thought that John Kennedy had it right in saying that entering space was the next great task for our civilization. Pundits like Arthur C Clarke in his Century stories assumed that well before today humans would be up there making fabulous discoveries. Yet somehow there was not nearly enough gas in the tank for that adventure.

Instead we find ourselves a half century on without any compelling vision of our future other than predictions that are highly dystopian, and where we overcrowd a warming and increasingly polluted world in which the social order is threatened to breaking point. The light has gone out above a picture where intrepid and optimistic humans sail away to see what lies beyond.

The way things are now, within our lifetimes we might see a few very expensive robotic space vehicles mining nearby asteroids for rare metals and one or two additional thinly-manned space stations operating, perhaps eventually even one on or around Mars. But the grand dream, so much beloved of SF writers, of 'generation star-ships' that travel bravely to found human colonies out on ‘The Final Frontier' seems to have died with Gene Roddenberry.

It is all the more important then for us to honour a little unmanned and primitive star-ship which is expected to continue sending us news from space even when I'm no longer. So sail on, brave Voyager, and keep the dream alive in your own small way