Category Archives: Theory and Criticism

The Aurora Massacre! Party Time! Excellent!

by Edward O’Neil

Save my City Aurora —Message written on a t-shirt, worn at a vigil for the victims of a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

Let me bring you up to speed. My name is Wayne Campbell. I live in Aurora, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. Excellent. Wayne’s World (1992).

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are 29 towns named “Aurora” in the United States. Before Friday, July 20th, 2012, most Americans of a certain age and cultural persuasion had heard of one, the home of Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, two twenty-somethings who host a public access show out of Wayne’s basement. The movie Wayne’s World, released in 1992, was based on a popular Saturday Night Live sketch of the same name starring Mike Myers as Wayne and Dana Carvey as Garth. “Aurora” is a kind of Anytown, representative of boring, straight, stiff, white American life. It’s the perfect setting for Wayne and Garth’s bizarre antics, including a “Bohemian Rhapsody” sing-along, Garth’s homemade Taser, and sticking it to “the man,” figured as a rich old dressed-up dude whom Wayne accosts at a traffic light with a request for “Grey Poupon.” Although Aurora is a boring-as-hell middle-American pit, in Wayne’s World, it becomes surreal, a place where the laws of probability devolve and absurdity feels just par for the course. The great joke of Wayne’s World plays out in the tension between Aurora’s obvious banality and Wayne and Garth’s peculiar fantasies. Wayne and Garth radiate an electromagnetic field that distorts Aurora’s diners and guitar shops into a theme park populated by post-adolescent grotesques. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays, Theory and Criticism

Recollecting Little Italy: Parm and Hip Red Sauce

Little Italy has not been a good place to eat, at least in recent memory. The encroachment of Chinatown on Italian territory, rising rents, dying families, and changing immigration patterns set an expiration date on the neighborhood. As classic restaurants closed up shop, only the most vulgar and bawdy tourist destinations survived. Those palaces of forgetfulness prostituted themselves to the lowest bidders—cheap spaghetti in canned red sauce? Louche lasagna, too sweet with cottage cheese? Floozy pasta e fagioli? All for sale on Mulberry Street. Although many tourist traps maintained a pretense of earnestness until the end of red sauce seemed inevitable, the best restaurants, the dim leather salons and family kitchens where regular customers kept the food honest, disappeared long before the neighborhood’s current decline. Today, however, hipster aesthetics have inflected mainstream consumer preferences. It’s hip to be square. So red sauce is back, baby, in all its kitschy glory. For be not mistaken, hipster isn’t campy. The aestheticization of lower middle class custom and culture does not transform life into style. Ordinary experience fails to and perhaps cannot achieve transcendental aesthetic value. Instead, the supposed disclosure of aesthetic value in ordinariness is a patronizing power play, an attempt to appropriate, rehearse, and eventually perform class difference as social fetish. Hipster red sauce cooking, alias Torrisi Italian Specialties, is the latest incarnation of an old school bourgeois impulse: “slumming it.” Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Columbia University, New York City, Restaurants, Reviews, Theory and Criticism

99 Problems and “The Voice” Is One

On the live finale of The Voice, Tony Lucca performed “99 Problems,” a rap track off Jay-Z’s The Black Album. During the judge comments, Christina Aguilera launched a blunt assault against Lucca. “The lyrical connotation was a little derogatory towards women,” Aguilera said, clearly upset at Lucca and his coach, Adam Levine. Aguilera took issue with the song’s central verse, “If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son / I’ve got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.” Lucca chose not to say the word “bitch” throughout his performance. Instead, he muffled his mouth and let out a percussive burst that, while sonically similar to “bitch,” managed to squeak past the censors. Given a chance to respond to Aguilera, Levine explained, “the ‘mmm ain’t one’ is life getting at you, things bringing you down. We’re not referring to women, we’re referring to everything.” “If you’re having girl problems,” Christina interjected, to which Adam said, “It’s called a metaphor.” While I believe that Lucca’s performance was problematic, I think Aguilera was wide of the target.

Generic brand white bread feminism—feminism as ideology—asks all the wrong questions. Such overly simplistic formulations of feminist thought criticize “99 Problems” as degrading towards women. Indeed, it is hard to deny that “99 Problems”—and much of the so-called “gangster rap” tradition—is misogynistic. The vocabulary of gangster rap is rooted in violence against women. It is just not that interesting or persuasive to denigrate “99 Problems” on the basis of its rhetoric. A more nuanced feminism might ask, “why is patriarchy so structurally entrenched in ganster rap? Why is gangster rap a discourse of sexual violence?” That is to say, I would encourage a more generous approach to “99 Problems,” one that does not hold the song to a particular ethical standard. A more productive and instructive method is to think about the song in its material, social, and historical contexts. “99 Problems” even speaks to criticisms like Aguilera’s: “Rap critics that say he’s ‘Money, Cash, Hoes’ / I’m from the hood stupid, what type of facts are those?” Like most of The Black Album, “99 Problems” looks back on life “in the hood.” In effect, the song comments on the ‘90s gangster rap tradition retrospectively. Jay-Z describes an incident in which a police officer pulls over a young black man for no reason and insists on searching the car. Although the song questions the legitimacy of police authority, the gangster rap music industry comes under fire, too. In a verse like, “Fiends on the floor, scratchin’ again / Paparazzis with they cameras, snappin’ them / D.A. try to give a nigga shaft again / Half a mill’ for bail ‘cause I’m African,” an image of rap stardom converges with the consequences of hood life. Criminal activity, gangster rap, and a police state are mutually implicated and inseparable. Therefore, “99 Problems” actually demonstrates how policing informs the culture, mores, and discourses of “the hood.” Violent language against women evolves from the complex distribution of power across police, cultural, and criminal authority. The status of “the hood” as a marginalized and exceptional space, a territory where the projection of police force is coded as white, where police politics slip into old racialized sexual politics—“the white man castrating the black man/black sexual threat” trope—explains the intersection of misogynistic discourse and “the hood’s” cultural product. Gangster rap, marked as subversive and anti-police but contained within capitalist and corporate logic, reproduces police violence as a fantasy of violence against women. What happens on the street is rehearsed in domestic spaces. The tension between the content of gangster rap and its material reality—its appropriation and consumption by white audiences—spills over into the objectification of women. Thus, I don’t find ethical criticisms of “99 Problems” persuasive in the least—the generic feminist criticism covers up for its policemen. I might go so far as to suggest that this generic feminism that cries “respect women” ventriloquizes the anxiety of white males. “Respect women” slides into “respect white women” all too easily.

My interest in discrediting the generic feminist criticism does not let Lucca off the hook. Muffling the word “bitch” castrates the original. The Lucca version cuts out the song’s profane power, transforming it into another fantasy of whiteness. By covering “99 Problems” as a country number, Lucca and Levine ripped the song out of its material, social, and historical contexts. Lucca skipped all of the lyrics specific to life “in the hood,” and so completely decontextualized “99 Problems.” Frankly, the performance came across as comical. I especially enjoyed watching the band member playing a washboard with “more life” written across the top. Lucca’s “whitening” of “99 Problems” derives from the same basic impulse as Aguilera’s generic feminist criticism. Aguilera and Levine, though in open and hostile disagreement, speak from the same ideology of racialized politics.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Television, Theory and Criticism

The Nasty Bits

by Andrew Luzmore, Cornell University

It is a central irony in high-end restaurants that those who prepare the food often never taste the fruits of their labor. With the exception of those involved in conceptualizing and creating the menu, the majority of the work force, consisting mainly those of Latin American, West African or Southeast Asian extraction, rarely have the means to dine at the restaurants in which they devote their lives. Instead, daily sustenance in the restaurant in which I spent my summer was taken from the quotidian tradition of the family meal: a meal made by a single cook on a rotational basis for the entire staff using whatever is lying around, and more importantly, cheap. Although considered a necessary evil by some because of the rushed and sometimes careless fashion in which it is put together, for most the family meal serves as a mechanism to share in the culinary traditions of others and a much-needed outlet to unwind after a long shift. Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Andrew L., Cornell University, Essays, Restaurants, Theory and Criticism

Notes from Best Fuzhou, Unabridged

Due to space constraints and certain so-called copy ‘rules,’ my latest column for the Spectator appeared in abridged form. Here, I am publishing the full version. It is not that the Spectator version is inferior—some may find it infinitely more enjoyable—but rather that it is different, both in aesthetic effect and implicit meaning. You will notice that in the Spectator version, all quoted source material has been excised. In this unabridged version, the quotations remain in their original, unattributed form. If you are interested in finding out where the quotes come from, I’m happy to answer any and all queries. Click here for the abridged version.

The tongue is a lean muscle. It swims through linguistic fluid, writhes over benthic riddles, stiffens and retreats like a sea slug crawling across strange corals. Like a pig’s tongue—snuffling tree roots or extended in squeals—the human lingua, from to root to apex, is a fleshy, muscular organ “divided into lateral halves by a median fibrous septum which extends throughout its entire length and is fixed below to the hyoid bone.” Without the tongue, we could neither taste nor speak—the essential consumptive and expulsive functions of the oral cavity would be rendered pleasureless. I feel sorry for the pig who gave his tongue for our dinner at Best Fuzhou. What a dull and inarticulate life! But if the mouth of the righteous is sodden with wisdom, the perverted tongue will be excised. I have personally performed a glossectomy of necessary and delicious ends. Cooked in soy sauce and chilled until dense and gelatinous, my pig’s tongue tastes like curses and corned beef. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Columbia University, Dining Suggestions, Essays, New York City, Restaurants, Theory and Criticism

Gioia’s Deli Chases Trend, Swallows Tail

Gioia’s Deli has a blog. It’s sleek, attractive—more visually appealing than this blog in fact!—and seductive: “Psssst. . .Psst. . .Hey you. Gioia’s wants to hook you up. Join our Mailing List to receive great deals on great food. Just click the picture. Ssshhhh, don’t tell anyone its a secret [sic].” Besides “Al’s Blog,” which so far has detailed “The Gioia’s Deli Philosophy” (1/18/12), “A Day in the Life of a Boxed Lunch” (1/14/12), “Gioias is the Healthiest Option on The Hill” (1/3/12), and “What to get a foodie” (12/1/11), the website offers a “Gallery of Deliciousness.” Unable to resist, I clicked the link and browsed a collection of food porn thumbnails—no amateur shoots, only AVN quality stuff here. Clearly, Gioia’s has decided to bring the business into the 21st century; the deli’s streamlined web presence speaks to any number of contemporary restaurant trends, most obviously, foodie-ism and nutritionism. The desire to capture new market niches would not be so surprising if Gioia’s had not occupied the same plot at Macklind and Daggett for 94 years. Challie Gioia started a grocery there in 1918, and since 1980, the Donley family has operated the store as a deli. At the original grocery, Steve and Johnnie Gioia served “Salam de Testa” to the lunch crowd. Today, the Donleys call the Gioia recipe “Hot Salami”—they serve it on chewy blonde bread, and it has attracted attention from St. Louis foodie rags like Feast. The “Hot Salami” is an excellent sandwich and deserves all the praise it has received. Nevertheless, the disconnect between Gioia’s web identity and its physical reality is disconcerting. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Restaurants, St. Louis, Theory and Criticism

Neerob, Or A Bangladesh Bronx Lunch

I traveled an hour and a half for lunch, which seems insane until you consider my destination: Neerob, New York’s most famous Bangladeshi restaurant. As Dave Cook writes in his review for the Times, “good Bangladeshi cooking is hard to come by in New York.” Switching from the 1 to the 2 to the S to the 6 (Parkchester Local) to the 6 (Pelham Bay Local) is, in my estimation, a fair price for an exceptional meal. I convinced two friends to come along; I studied Serious Eats, Chowhound, and the other relevant scholarship on Mohammed Rahman’s cooking; I bundled up in a barely heated subway car and read graffiti on abandoned auto shops, eavesdropped on audio backwash, scraped gum off my shoe and buffed fingernails on my canvas jacket. It’s 2012 and the Bronx isn’t burning, but buildings and faces still show scars—hard, shiny, wounded surfaces covered with keratomas, knotty swellings of numb trash growing on shop windows and noses. Across the subway aisle, a man watches me the whole trip, eyes almost closed, head plugged with earbuds, secure in his hostile indifference. At the last stop, he disappears down the stairs and we—Jason, Frankie, Wally—are alone on Westchester Avenue. The street is empty, except for cars speeding towards the Cross Bronx Expressway and three white boys running across traffic. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Columbia University, Dining Suggestions, Essays, New York City, Restaurants, Theory and Criticism, Travel