The Theorist: The End Of Music

By Spencer Davis. In the closing days of the Cold War, political theorist Francis Fukuyama argued that humanity had reached “the end of history”—not literally, of course, but as a shorthand to explain his notion that, after centuries of evolution, our systems of government had reached their final and logical endpoint in the global triumph of liberal democracy. No other system of government could ever better meet mankind’s inherent social and psychological needs, he maintained, and so we were now at the end of the road. Of course there would always be work to be done in terms of maintaining good governance, passing laws to address new problems, and so on—but the changes would be small rather than big. There would be no more seismic reinventions of government in our future, no viable contender to replace democracy wholesale (as communism and fascism had once tried to promise). History, understood as the story of man’s political progress, had already written its final chapter.

Setting aside the question of how rosy that projection now looks in the age of Trump, you might ask what the hell any of this has to do with this website? Well, I’d like to posit a theory of my own: that in the last decade, we have quietly reached the end of music. Continue reading

The Theorist: Pearl Jam & The Pursuit Of The Good Life

By Spencer Davis. For a kid whose love of rock music was originally sparked by the early 90s grunge movement, seeing Pearl Jam’s recent induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame was an odd sort of milestone in my own musical journey. Standing there together on stage, trying to find words to capture what the moment meant to their music and to their own personal lives, you could almost see Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Matt Cameron—along with original drummer Dave Krusen!—mentally struggling to grasp the enormity of the past 25 years. There was a childlike shock at being there, as if their adult selves were momentarily jettisoned and replaced with six naive, energetic, swaggering kids from 1991. And from that perspective, the whole thing was no doubt impossible to compute.

But watching on the television, knowing as we do know that, as this was filmed, the world was just weeks away from losing yet another legendary Seattle frontman in Chris Cornell, the induction of Pearl Jam took on a wholly different kind of historical relevance. With so many of their grunge-era contemporaries—Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots—lost or fundamentally altered by premature death, and so many others rendered defunct by eternal squabbling, lineup changes, or on-again, off-again breakups, Pearl Jam is now the last band standing. And there’s a monumental lesson in that about the nature of fame, creativity, and indeed life—either as musicians or just as people. Continue reading

The Theorist: Ending Franchise Continuity (As We Know It)


By Spencer. A recent piece on io9 examined the contrasting ways that two mega-franchises—DC Comics and Star Wars—have recently attempted to make their sprawling backstories more accessible to new viewers and readers. After rebooting their entire comics line in 2011 with the “New 52,” DC is un-rebooting its universe with the Convergence event, bringing together competing visions of characters like Superman and Batman from different continuities in another confusing reshuffle. Meanwhile, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens coming to theaters this December, new franchise-owner Disney is simplifying things. They are wiping the slate clean on the huge Expanded Universe of books, comics, and video games that, over the past two decades, has mapped out several thousand years of history in that galaxy far, far away. Now, only the movies and the two animated series, The Clone Wars and Rebels, will be considered “canon.”

The question you’re no doubt asking right now if you’re not a Comic-Con-attending cosplayer is, “who cares?” But I’ll go you one better, because I think it’s time that even the most obsessive fans start asking the same question. Why, if at all, does continuity matter anymore? Is it time to leave the whole concept behind? Continue reading

The Theorist: Is Rock Really Dead?

By Spencer. By now, you’ve likely seen the quote making its way around the internet from the interview Kiss frontman Gene Simmons gave to Esquire Magazine: “Rock is finally dead.” If you read the interview in its entirety, you see that he’s not really eulogizing rock music as a genre; he’s speaking about all music, insofar as the record industry has passed into irrelevancy as a means of financing and distributing it, and he’s critiquing the role that internet file sharing has played in making songwriting and recording a virtually profitless enterprise for the aspiring musician. Simmons isn’t wrong about any of that, and he’s not exactly treading new ground in pointing out what a thousand writers for Slate and Salon have been saying for a decade and a half now. I’m not here to add to that tired storyline.

I was much more intrigued by the question I thought Simmons was addressing: is rock music, as we’ve always understood that term, dead? Continue reading

The Theorist: Is Game Of Thrones Rewriting Film History?

game-of-thronesBy Spencer. If you’re interested in film history and like the idea of a college-level survey course on the topic – without any of the homework or exams – let me suggest Mark Cousins’s 15-part documentary series, The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (also available for streaming on Netflix, I believe).

Starting with the earliest silent pictures of the Lumiere brothers and Georges Melies and moving all the way through the digital film era of today, The Story Of Film: An Odyssey does a remarkable job pointing out all the little innovations over the years that, to the more casual moviegoer, are hiding in plain sight. I learned the very basics of composition – how cuts were first used to let the viewer know that two scenes in different places are connected by story; how close-ups and deep focus shots change our sense of scope; how directors actually had to learn over time such seemingly obvious concepts as orienting their shots so that two people speaking to each other in close-up are, you know, facing each other – and I earned my first introduction to such historically-groundbreaking (and often forgotten) films as Battleship Potemkin, Sunrise, The Bicycle Thieves, The Third Man, and Breathless. I learned about the technical innovations that gave rise to Citizen Kane’s tremendous reputation, the shift from fantasy to gritty realism that took place in the 70s with films like The French Connection or Chinatown or The Last Picture Show, and the criminally uncelebrated contributions of the film industries of China, Russia, India, Japan, South America, Poland, and Africa. And for the first time, I started to get my head wrapped what filmmaking represents as a single historical project: a universal language evolving piecemeal through the collective influence of generations of innovators, speaking to each other from every corner of the globe.

Which brings me to Game Of ThronesContinue reading