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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Huey Lewis Factor

The next time you walk into some corporate retail outlet with canned music, check your watch. Time how long you have to wait for a Huey Lewis song to be played. If you spend more than fifteen minutes doing whatever it was you went there to do, I can assure you that you’ll be treated with The Heart of Rock and Roll or one of his other mega-turd hits. I developed this game in an effort to lessen my annoyance with entirely second-rate corporate canned music. It’s not that I consider Huey Lewis to be the most gruesome example of bad pop singing, but for some reason this rather mediocre artist seems to be particularly ubiquitous in the world of force-fed music. His appeal in this genre probably has a lot to do with the completely inoffensive nature of his music. Corporate America has nothing against art, unless there is even a hint of controversy associated with the work.

For me, his music brings back extremely painful memories of a childhood spent living under the totalitarian regime of lousy FM radio. I won’t go into explanations of just why, in my teen years, radio stations across the Midwest were universally horrible—and they probably still are terrible—but even as a kid I knew that there were sinister forces at work force-feeding listeners dreadful pop songs. If I had a dime for every time my local FM station played a Huey Lewis song when I was growing up, I would spend every penny of that $999,999 bazillion in therapy to undo all of that suffering I lived through.

The play lists in the average FM radio stations were so incredibly paltry that their entire album collection could have fit in one milk crate. It is difficult to imagine a time when kids like me couldn’t afford to own their own music. These days when a single MP3 player can hold 40 gigs of music, when music can be downloaded effortlessly from file sharing sites, and the transfer of music via CD and DVD burning is so prevalent, we take for granted our ability to control our own music choices. Back then the only choice I felt was available to me was to turn off the radio. This left me at the mercy of my parents’ record collection which was top-heavy with Broadway musicals. I’ll take The Man of La Mancha over Huey Lewis any day.

A lot of what is supposed to pass as entertainment in America is not the cream that has risen to the top. The only aspect of popular entertainment that is completely driven by merit is sport. In athletics it doesn’t matter who you, or who your parents were, if you can’t play you don’t get in the game. In music, film, and publishing, factors like nepotism, cronyism, and favoritism can make a career for even the least gifted artist. I don’t mean to pick on Huey Lewis because he wasn’t completely without talent, but he was just the garage band that someone decided to elevate into superstardom.

Most would say that the free market determines what we see and hear in entertainment, but I think this is probably less than half of the story. The other half of the equation is what the big record, movie, and television producers want us to hear and see. Back in the 70s and 80s the big record companies paid huge advances to a small number of bands and then marketed them with a vengeance. This explains why radio stations across the country played only a handful of artists. The same is true today. The New Yorker magazine is owned by a huge media group. The magazine will review completely awful movies unfit for its reading demographic. The magazines' two reviewers are fairly sycophantic with regards to the major movie releases, and they reserve their most savage reviews for small, independent films. It is the movie reviewer’s equivalent to picking on the kid who doesn’t have a big brother to stick up for him.

The same motivations that drive canned music companies to include harmless and insipid pop tunes in their repertoires also is responsible for everything that is wrong with the film industry. If you sit through a series of previews at the movie theater, you would think that there are only about 15 human beings who are qualified to act. By keeping the pool of actors so incredibly small, the industry folks are better able to market and keep their product devoid of any controversy—at least any unexpected controversy. Tom Cruise is really just the Huey Lewis of modern film. As far as I’m concerned, Tom Cruise is about as welcome on the big screen as Huey is on the radio.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Language Break

Language Break

I am turning whatever creative energy I have these days into learning Portuguese. My current obsession with Brazilian chanteuse Ana Carolina is fueling my desire to crack this language. As I already speak Spanish, Portuguese is fairly easy. I would be happy to email an mp3 of one her songs so you can hear for yourselves the heartbreaking beauty of the language sung by a voice unlike anything I've heard in American pop music. Leave you email address in my comments box and I'll forward a song along with the lyrics.

I have been in love with Brazilian music for years but now I have decided to understand the lyrics. There is so much great Brazilian pop music that you have to think that every resource in that country goes towards building soccer players and great singer/song writers.

Ana Carolina's music is my absolute favorite right at this second. I love it when I become totally obsessed with a song. In this particular moment it is one called A Song Played at the Wrong Hour ( a cancao toccou na hora errada). Her song is my Rosetta Stone for Portuguese. I have had crushes on songs that have driven me to learn to play piano. Now I am being compelled to learn another language. When I fall in love I fall hard.

Ate logo.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

It's the Weather, Man

It's the Weather, Man

Seattle weather can be broken down into a few simple elements. There is rain, sunshine, cold rain, warm sunshine but not Miami warm—more like 48ยบ North warm, freezing rain, partly cloudy but rain can be expected, driving rain, sunshine that is not exactly warm but you can take your hands out of your pockets, and light rain. For several months of the year, especially March, these disparate elements can be experienced all in the same day. I have never owned so many coats in my life since I moved here and there have been days when I could have worn every one of them to counter the ravages of the meteorological vicissitudes.

You can look out your window to make your coat choice for the day, but if you are planning to be outside for more than five minutes this casual approach to coat selection will probably come back to haunt you. Let's say that I look out my kitchen window to check the weather and the normal oblique view of the Olympic Mountains is obscured by what appears to be a water cannon firing directly into my open window. I will struggle with both hands to close the window, turn on the bilge pump to drain the kitchen, file the requisite insurance papers, and then leave the house wearing a rain parka and carrying an umbrella.

What I failed to calculate in my choice of external wear was wind velocity. Two steps out of the front door to my apartment and my umbrella explodes. My umbrella is now garbage and my shoulder has been torn out of its socket. I stuff the umbrella into the first trash can I pass which is filled with other dead umbrellas. Most Seattleites never bother with umbrellas, which leads me to believe that I will never truly be a local. I continue to use umbrellas, and there are even days when umbrella use is appropriate, but more often than not it will quit raining and I'll be stuck carrying this now useless appendage. I would feel slightly less self-conscious walking around downtown wearing a bikini than carrying an umbrella when the sun is shining.

The weather forces upon Seattleites choices that don't end with coat selection; there is also the matter of transportation. Say it is pissing down rain and you have to travel six blocks. Do you drive, walk, take the bus, ride your bike, take a cab, or stay home? While staying home is the safest option, being cooped up in an apartment half the size of Anne Frank's hiding spot forces you to make one of the other desperate choices. Even Bill Gates probably balks at springing for a cab every time he walks out in the rain (October through the July 4th weekend). I'm too lazy to drive, walk, or take the bus which leaves the most foolish option: the bicycle. Do you remember that summer when you were a kid and you rode your bike off the end of the dock? Riding a bike in Seattle in the rain is like the last part of that ride except it's not summer.

Then there is the question of style. In hurricane conditions the only sensible coat choice is a Gore-Tex parka but if it stops raining, and it probably will, you are stuck wearing a dorky rain coat instead of a more stylish jacket or no coat at all. I am too vain to wear fleece in any environment where man-made objects are visible even though this would be a practical choice on many occasions. I'm sure that the lousy weather is responsible for making Seattle just about the least fashionable city in the world. I can’t tell you how many times I've been sitting in a nice restaurant trying to figure out the identity of the grunge band at the table next to me only to decide that they are a soaking wet family of four.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Sharia Law

Sharia Law

It's no wonder that people from these places hate those of us who live in the free world. Their self-imposed strict moral code must be like wearing a chastity belt that is three sizes too small. They pride themselves on adhering to devout religious teachings and the law of God but they all seem miserable and uptight to me. Whenever I read news reports from these awful, far away places I shudder with fear. I certainly would never consider living there and I don't have much interest in even visiting. Yes, South Dakota is really a shit hole.

The governor just signed legislation that would ban most abortions in that state. South Dakota only has a single clinic which performs legal abortions. It seems to me that by closing this clinic what the governor is doing is giving every forward-thinking adult in that state even one less reason to stay in South Dakota. I have news for you Gov. Rounds, Mount Rushmore is not going to keep the best and the brightest in your state from exiling themselves to liberal enclaves like San Francisco and Seattle.

If you live in downtown Seattle like I do we just take it for granted that almost everyone around us is hyper-liberal. Encountering a conservative is about as likely as coming across a dead body. In both instances no one would blame you for poking them with a stick. You have as much chance of spotting a rare arctic owl on the streets of Seattle as finding someone who still clings to the idea that the war in Iraq was a good idea. Rarer still is anyone who believes that abortion is anyone but a woman's business.

I think that the religious right's entire idea for a more moral America is analogous to conservatives' views on the war in Iraq at its onset. As with the war they are trying desperately to impose their will on the country while those of us with a clearer grasp on reality can see that the outcome will be disastrous.

I think it is fair to ask just how far to the right do conservatives wish to take this country. What model do they hold up as an example of the kind of country they want us to become? As a liberal I would cite countries like Finland or The Netherlands as the kind of country I think that we should emulate, at least in some ways. If you listen to the leaders of America's religious right you would think that Afghanistan under the Taliban would be the model they are trying to copy. The governor of South Dakota has pushed his state a little closer to that ideal.