Monday, April 12, 2010

slow creep

Davis McAlary's character on Treme (who is incidentally based on a guy in New Orleans who didn't like me, then may or may not have begrudginly grown to respect me, but probably not) is really the most annoying archetype of a music snob you could write up. He's a white dude super deep in traditionally black music almost to the point of fetishization, as well as a long-striving musician who still sells "funk" CD's on commission at Tower Records. He screams "two decades ago" on so many levels. It's really easy to hate this dude on principal.

But, in his defense, New Orleans is one of, if not the only place in the universe where this dude really exists, is really a credible force for good and isn't insufferable. The New Orleans scene is a weird melting pot where everyone's broke, everyone grows up soaking in second line jazz and bounce music and goddamn "when the saints go marching in." The music scene is somewhat meritocratic to a point where race isn't much of an issue and an aging white funk keyboardist can get high with old black trumpet players and be the rule, not the exception. And it's the kind of place where a local rock radio station still might matter to everyone in the city.

And so I was thinking that New Orleans would be the only place where David Simon who is, let's be honest, an aging rich Jewish dude with a Bushwick hipster's music obsession for Dad music, could make a show abut a music scene that wouldn't be unbelievably corny.

Unfortunately, he couldn't, and it was.

Let's talk about the Davis/Mystikal scene, where Davis pisses off his "square" neighbors by bumping Neptunes-produced Mystikal tracks too loud for neighborhood consumption. Yesterday Noz tweeted something snide about the "over-under" on bounce music getting any kind of shine in the show. I was cautiously optimistic, as bounce wasn't a secret in Nola and even my private schooled ex-girlfriend waxed nostalgic about hearing "Monkey On A Stick" at her prom. So I thought "Bumpin Me Against The Wall" was a strange choice (to say nothing about Mystikal's rape charge: without passing judgement, I thought it was bold to use him), although not as strange a choice as the house party in season 1 of The Wire where they're playing Cage album cuts. But if you're going to use Mystikal, why not something earlier? "Big Truck Driver"? I don't know.

But that's just the rap nerd in me talking and ultimately I'm not really stressing that. What I am stressing is this scene which was apparently meant to highlight Davis's "connection" with "the scene" that "you people" just don't get. What theoretically makes New Orleans different and cool is that everyone in the city is in tune with the music in way that denizens of other cities are not. In New Orleans, what should have happened is Davis plays Mystikal real fucking loud and his neighbors are cool with it *despite* being middle-aged white dudes. What is actually depicted in the show just makes Davis look like an asshole and says nothing about the city.

And this is, in a nutshell, my problem with Treme. It's trying very very very hard to be "New Orleans," and the extent to which Steve Zahn's spazzy ass (and nutsack!) is being portrayed as a stoned Willy Wonka of the seedy underbelly of the New Orleans music scene is case in point. The Wire was about Baltimore, but it didn't try that too hard to be about Baltimore. The show said everything it needed to say about Baltimore simply by letting the various plots of the show unfold naturally. While the city itself was a character on the show and the show was about Baltimore as much as it was about the plight of (urban) America, it also doubled as a compelling crime drama.

Treme on the hand, is playing out like a commercial for post-Katrina New Orleans. It looks like a damn Zatarains ad.

"Authentic New Orleans" is the "hip-hop culture" of American tourism. At some point, it was a dangerous and fun place to go, with crazy things to learn, strange mystical traditions and a rich history which doubled as the story of modern America. Now rap music is poppy as pop can be and while there's still plenty of great, fun rap music being made in dangerous places, "real hip-hop" has been stylized and its history revised to a pile of safe cliches. In the same vain, while New Orleans is still a dangerous, fun place with crazy secrets and strange mystical traditions, the majority of those have been thoroughly assimilated into pop culture.

There really isn't anything "cool" about brass bands, crawfish etouffe, mardi gras, voodoo and Professor Longhair. They are national treasures, and a show about them can only really be as edgy as a show about the Lincoln Memorial. Except to an aging dude with pretty abysmal taste in music.

(Note: you don't even need to play any kind of race card to make this point, but it really doesn't help that New Orleans is sort of the cultural mecca of shucking and jiving. I wasn't mad at the Mardi Gras Indian scene at all, but it did scream "racialism." I hope there's more bounce music to come but if there isn' came in the Nolia on new years eve ha? You got stuck in that bitch and couldn't leave ha? It was hard for you to breathe ha?)

On the other hand, Kim Dickens' chef highlight's New Orleans cuisine with the subtlety that Zahn's does not bring to its music. Yes, she is a chef, but she doesn't waste her time rhapsodizing about the wonders of Cafe Du Monde. She busts her ass running a restaurant. And the same goes for Wendell Pearce, who is more concerned with paying bills than the rich history of his music.

So that being said, the show has potential. I wasn't that concerned with the pace, which seemed to be everyone's complaint. I like the rest of the characters fine. John Goodman is great as always and very believable as an (amateur?) historian. The hunt for sexy-ass Khandi Alexander's missing brother will be a compelling way to tell the story of one of the many specific tragedies of Katrina. I'm looking forward to more exposition about people who left town coming, or better yet, dealing with the struggles of their new location. Ironically, I would love to see some hustlers from the Nolia trying to establish themselves in Houston.

But unfortunately, Treme is pretty focused on New Orleans music and its music scene and, given that, I'm kind of expecting season 5 of The Wire quality, while I went in expecting season 3. Well shit.