May The Vague Religious Allegory Be With You

May 27, 2007

The 30th anniversary of the most overrated franchise in movie history, Star Wars, is soon upon us. Millions of fans will take the day off of working at the comic book store or temporarily halting their two cents a word career writing for the Robot and Dragon Digest to pay good hard-earned money to watch a movie they have watched every single day of their known lives.

I’ve never quite fallen in love with Star Wars, and I have never really grasped it immense appeal. No particular reason, I guess; I was into sci fi when I was a child, and I still enjoy a good ole fashioned space opera just as much as the next mouthbreather. Probably because I was born just a touch too late; Star Wars was released on the year of my birth, and I was nary old enough to understand what would have been happening during the last of the original trifecta, The Return of the Jedi. Though I suppose this isn’t a valid excuse, since most of my friends were into Star Wars and they were just as old as me. I must be repressing some Wookie-related memory or something.

I would blame this on the old Star Wars/Star Trek debate, but, truth be told, I wasn’t really into Star Trek, either. At least the original series. I mean, yeah, it was kind of cool when I was a kid, but even back then I was unimpressed with William Shatner’s acting, and this was from someone who honestly believed that Inspector Gadget deserved some sort of Emmy. (Not the voice actor or the series, mind you, but Inspector Gadget himself.) And even I could tell that most episodes were derivative of each other, their ham-fisted plots about vaguely-veiled racism or the Vietnam War, and always ended up with Shatner throwing pink Styrofoam rocks around or getting it on with his own bad self with some green-skinned honey with big 60’s knockers and a skirt short enough all the way up to the Y. It wasn’t bad, mind you, and I kind of got a kick out of realizing that it was at least different, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it was better than Indiana Jones and the Millennium Falcon.

(Though I will admit that that episode with those scary looking flat transparent-skin-diseased things flew around the place and sucked on your epidermis really, really, really creeped me out. I mean, seriously. I can’t eat pancakes or date Goth girls to this day thanks to those nasty-looking things. Ick.)

But the overwhelming success of Star Wars eludes me. I don’t get the action-figure characters, the stale plot points, or the artificially induced dialogue. Aliens are fun and all, but when one of them is just a rug with googly eyes on it and whose range of emotion goes from “EEEOOORGH” to “EEEOOORGH” and another one is just a fat, punch-drunk, dyslexic Kermit the Frog, one has to wonder at what kindergarten they held the focus groups in. Not that that’s a bad idea, since kindergarteners are the ones most likely to have clueless relatives to buy all kinds of plastic Kenner dolls for their nieces and nephews (well, nephews, anyway) to lose without realizing that they would be worth something around three million dollars on the eBay just if they hadn’t spilled mango Capri-Sun all through the bendable joints and left it in the yard for your father to hit it with his weed eater.

And, seriously, Star Wars was nothing more than The Thorn Birds only with big white ships, cranky-looking machines that shoot CGI out of their eyes, and background shots made with black construction paper with pinholes poked in it held up against a 60 watt. Fans can dress it up and pretend that it’s all a rich tapestry of David vs. Goliath patriotism, good versus evil, and the innate righteousness of fighting for a just cause, but everyone just kind of wanted to know if Han and Leia were gonna knock boots once Luke got his skinny ass out of the way. (“Hey, Luke, boy, can’t you go away for like forty five minutes or so and Force up some pita bread or something?”)

I think I may have some ideas, though, as to why I’m just not impressed. First off, I didn’t really see any of the movies until I was nearly in college, not so much due to a lack of opportunity but more to not really caring all that much about it. I was too busy forging my apparent future career as a snare drum player in high school marching bands. But I sat down and watched them all at once one rainy Saturday, being mildly entertained but hardly blown away. At this point in my life, of course, I was already wowed by the special effects of Universal Soldier and the intricate plot development of Second Sight, so Star Wars was old hat.

More importantly, though, I think it’s just that I don’t appreciate what Star Wars did for the epic movie because I saw it after its impact was felt in the movie industry. Star Wars basically told audiences: There are no more pink Styrofoam rocks. There are no more aliens with pasty makeup or played by washout cameos from To Tell The Truth. The plots aren’t lifted from some boilerplate morality tome dictated from the suits from Standards and Practices or Mr. Ed only with aliens instead of that other horse down the road. But we can still get a good story and set it in a science fiction setting without it just being a kid’s show. Star Wars lifted science fiction out of the pulp and camp genres and make them into philosophical allegories about the I SAID HAN SHOT FIRST. NO, JACKASS, I SAID HAN SHOT FIRST. NOT GREEDO, YOU MORON. DID YOU NOT WATCH THE MOVIE? I SAID DID YOU NOT WATCH THE MOVIE? You HAVE? If you HAVEN’T, which I think is the CASE since only an IDIOT would say that GREEDO SHOT FIRST, then you just need to SHUT UP since you DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT. Seriously.

Anyway, Star Wars made a lot more money than I ever will, so I guess I am wrong about it. Star Wars rocks, not just because of its cultural importance, but mostly because I don’t want to get a thousand emails about how rotten Deep Space Nine is and how George Lucas needs one of those Jewish holidays named after him. Or something, I don’t know. Right now, I’m going to go look for that Jabba the Hutt action figure in my attic to see how much of my college debt I can pay off.


Canadian Lament

May 23, 2007

It had been quite some time since I was in Canada. To be fair, even those times in my childhood when I had ventured into the Great White North, it was no further than Niagara Falls. No offense to the folks at the National Parks Bureau or the Cheap Plastic Bottles Of Water Supposedly Filled From The Raging Waters And Charge A Sawbuck For The Damn Things Retailers Association, but saying that Niagara represents the Canadian spirit is like saying you’ve experienced the isles of ancient Greece by getting Combo #2 at the Gyro Hut down at the strip mall.

So during my much-needed but as-yet blissfully wasted vacation, I decided to visit Canada for a short trip to meet a friend. A trip to Canada is not one to be taken lightly. Due to the events of September 11th, of course, traveling from Canada to the United States, and vice versa, is the equivalent of Defcon Five. Visiting the AAA educated me to the fact that I (or, more accurately, my mother) would have to rifle through what I estimate to be six million cardboard boxes in our attic to find my birth certificate and cross my fingers, knock on wood, and chant the name of Tom Cruise’s agent that it had the divine Raised Seal on it. Thankfully, it did, and so my ticket to the frozen paradise was assured, assuming that a disgruntled Al Quaeda nutjob didn’t hijack a moose and toss a pipe bomb on the ice at Game Five of the Sens-Sabres game.

I decided that it was also time to invest in a passport. I didn’t really feel the need to have one up to this point; the only time I was going to go to any other foreign country besides Canada was the one time I almost hitched a boat to Bombay when it seemed my Dell computer was threatening to not be shipped out in an appropriately timely manner. Unfortunately, I found out that passports are to be personally inspected by the conjured dead ghost of Dean Rusk, since it costs approximately two month’s salary and takes about three presidential terms to arrive. Needless to say, the passport application sits contentedly on my desk, staring balefully at me, knowing that some day I’ll get the urge to book a trip to, say, Austria in three months and then who is going to be sorry, huh?

Driving to Canada, of course, was a chore unparalleled, unequaled no doubt since the days of Sieur de La Salle. There are four highways, all interchangeable, that are required in order to get to the Toronto area. They all have the same droning pitch that lulls you to sleep, the same food court amphitheaters with the same Sbarro pizza and KFC/Pizza Hut shops, and the same lack of adequate bathroom facilities if one discounts particularly hardy scrubgrass as cover. About the only thing to differentiate these highways is the fact that if you’re unfortunate enough to be using the T9 text entry mode on your cell phone, the Queen Elizabeth Way, conveniently abbreviated to QEW, also spells out SEX, which can create some highly amusing communications for those of us who are foolishly paying more attention to driving than typing.

Many people will tell you that, all things considered, America and Canada share enough cultural influence that it’s not all that different. To me, it’s comfortingly familiar yet exhilaratingly different. It’s like the entire nation is on Daylights Savings Time and no one has told me. They export comedians and decent beer and we send them ugly chain restaurants. That said, the culture shock is more than social, it’s mathematic. I can’t imagine the shock and amusement I provided to my fellow North Americans with the following exchange:

Canadian: So, are you cold up here?
Me: Nah, when I left Pennsylvania it was like sixty degrees out.
Canadian: Sixty!
[Awkward Pause]
Canadian: Oh, Fahrenheit.

The Metric Question was paramount in every accomplishment I made in Canada, which seemed to pretty much be relegated to irritating store clerks with American money and getting gasoline. The latter, I should point out, is a true-blue DP of a transaction in Canada, because you have to worry about the Liters-to-Gallon ratio as well as the Canadian-to-American-Dollar conversion. I could have been buying fifty gallons of leaded kerosene for a thousand dollars and I doubt I would have realized it.

Of course, this is nothing compared to the Tim Hortons-to-infinity ratio, which I’m pretty sure was close to one. I had always heard stories about how addictive Tim Hortons coffee was, and how there much be some sort of habit-forming additive in the recipe; an obvious elaborate fiction, much like how the makers of Carmex are accused of adding ground-up glass to their jars, crack cocaine is added to frozen Zingers, or how nicotine was surreptitiously added to cigarettes. But, damn, it was good coffee, and I would have gladly also partaken on what probably would have been the single best baked good of my choice had my companion not reminded me that my sugar intake for the trip would have rivaled Violent Beauregarde’s the time that Eastern morning fell on Halloween.

However, my friend also treated me to a breakfast pizza, which I found to be a quintessentially pleasing experience. Now, we certainly have breakfast pizzas in America, but all of the ones that I have managed to eat have garlic sauce and instead of meat have some sort of synthetic pig-related product that is crunchier than the cardboard used as its crust. These are almost exclusively found in horrible gas station kitchens, an insult to the word kitchen, and the occasional two-for-one special down at the hardscrabble convenience store. This breakfast pizza, though, was made with a wonderful red sauce, had real bacon on it, and the best cheese I’ve encountered since the last time I sat through Terms of Endearment. It was a delight, and I know no matter what ingredients I purchase, or what small nearly bankrupt mom-and-pop coffee shops I knock on the door of, I won’t match anything close to what I ate that morning.

One of my favorite things to do in Canada is look at the candy bars. Don’t know why, of course, since you can only rearrange chocolate, nuts, and nougat so many different ways. And yet the Canadians, via what appears to be a monopoly by the Nestle corporation, manage to do it pretty well. There was something called “spongy toffee,” a lie perpetuated by my companion into thinking it was sponge-like in texture, when in reality it was just toffee with a bunch of air bubbles blown into it and hardened to the consistency of a constipated diamond. And Canadians are apparently into bubbles-in-their-confections. I purchased about a half dozen versions of the “Aero” candy bar, which as far as I can tell is pretty much a chocolate bar that someone forgot to turn some random air valve off on when it was being molded into squares. They’re also really into maple, which is as close to a war crime as Ottawa is going to get to.

Traffic has an amusing spin about it, too. I noticed that plenty of roads seemed to have X’s painted on them, and I grew somewhat concerned that there was some metric traffic law I was not complying to. I was then informed that in Canada that simply means that there are railroad tracks ahead. A bit confusing, of course, since in America X’s on a road generally mean that construction crews have removed a bridge about 300 yards hence. There are other rather comical traffic oddities, such as bewildering flashing green arrows and the rule that apparently U-turns can be performed pretty much anywhere without repercussion, an act that in America sends you to Gitmo. There’s also the rather annoying habit of streets being renamed every fifty feet (excuse me, every fifteen and a quarter meters) to some completely unrelated and apparently random, which adds about fifteen unnecessary extra steps on Google Maps directions.

All in all, though, it was great to reconnect with the preferred vacation spot of my childhood. I got to connect with a good friend, experience a culture that is slightly different than my own, and realize just how forgiving the New York State Police are to speeding drivers. Eh?


The Platform of My Expertise

May 21, 2007

There’s something frighteningly alluring about the “Get a Mac” campaign. You know the commercial: two disparate representations of the PC and the Mac stand side by side getting paid scale and mugging it up for the ad agency. It’s not particularly subtle—the white space background is a psychiatrist’s wet dream’s wet dream, and the dialogue is snarkily understated until you reach the end of the commercial and suddenly realize you’ve just witnessed the manufactured equivalent of the whitest dozens ever propagated by the computer industry. It seems to have been engineered down to the core demographics of home computer buyers—college graduates with sudden disposable money and parents of 13 year old future meth mules who think that purchasing their child a computer will make them smarter, when in fact they’ll spend 18 hours a day playing EverQuest and looking up donkey-on-donkey porn.

Yet these commercials are shrewdly constructed, pointing out the flaws of the PC without being asshatish about it, retaining a standoffish smugness to make sure it doesn’t fall into helpless melodrama. Humorist John Hodgman (for those who know the difference between a humorist and a comedian, life presents a flavor more sweet the criminally uninformed will never know) portrays the PC, a stodgy, lumbering bundle of projects and competing platforms, fending off backhanded compliments from the Mac. Mac is portrayed by the smooth and slightly self-satisfied Justin Long, who somehow manages to craft fiercely cranky repartee without coming off as a completely soulless douchebag. These character actors, therefore, manage to portray their personalities to match those of the operating system they represent.

That said, it’s probably not the most effective commercial in the world. Watching it has showed me that, yeah, all things considered, the Mac is probably a superior computing system. Many of the irritants of the PC are completely absent, or at least heavily arbitraged in exchange for an inability to be connected to any kind of reliable network and waiting eight to twelve months to be able to play any game that console players and PC players have already bought, won, replayed, bragged about uselessly to their girlfriends, and sold on eBay.

Yet it’s not just that easy. Just as the Long’s slick presentation replicates the ease of use and rampant utility of the Macintosh, Hodgman’s PC doesn’t just point out flaws; he has the unintended consequence of familiarity. It also reminds us of the friendliness of the PC. Not in the come-over-this-lazy-afternoon-and-drink-lemonade-and-play-Atari kind of friendliness, but more along the lines of a baleful friendship long since forgotten. It’s a comfort zone kind of friendship. Yeah, the Mac may be more powerful and easier to use, but we like PCs because we’re used to PCs. And Hodgman’s portrayal of the PC is dead on—yeah, he may freeze up once in a while, and he may not be the best at multimedia applications, but he helped us when we stayed up all night to write that term paper due the following morning back in the spring of ’97 when that cute blonde blew us off right before dinner, so we kind of owe him.

I really don’t like getting into the operating system wars, of course, because no one will ever be convinced. Actually, that’s not true. Most PC users are at least vaguely aware that Macs are probably more efficient machines, but it just isn’t better enough to bother switching; likewise, the simple tyranny of the PC’s hold on the home computer business make doing a lot of things for the Mac inconvenient. But no matter what I say, I’ll probably get an avalanche of emails and painful correspondence dedicated to my complete and utter inability to grasp the simple concepts of kindergarten engineering that would crack open like the dead sea scrolls to me the knowledge that Macs are the evolutionary answer to all of life’s problems from Middle East peace to QuarkXPress, or that PCs are the harkened messiah in silicon form assuming the pinnacle achievement of the messiah involved the ability to play Sheepshead with an Australian housewife at four o’clock in the morning while an irritating graphic advertising mortgage payments with a dancing cactus flashes off to the side. Most people can’t seem to accept that in some areas PCs are superior, while in others the Macintosh is superior. And some jacked rivethead will always bring up the eternally oppressed Linux, like a latter-day Liberal Party MP or an RC Cola diehard.

Still, one has to feel impressed with the Mac advertising campaign. Macs used to largely be the sole province of publishers and Computer Science professors, with the occasional science fiction writer thrown in for good measure. Now, with a rather heavily aired campaign, along with sister products such as the iPod, iPhone, and iWhateverthehellthenextoverblownconspicuousconsumptioniconisgoingtobe, perhaps Apple will finally be able to crack more than single digits in the market share.


Old Man, Take A Look At My Wife

May 19, 2007

Joe Hardy, founder and CEO of the 84 Lumber Company and owner of the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, recently exchanged rings and probate court servers with a 22 year old salonist employed at the complex he owns. Or, rather, previously employed, though I suppose that goes without saying. Hardy recently reached his 84th birthday, so the age difference and standard deviation of wealth have raised more than just a few eyebrows. I’m sure it would take more than a few numerologists to divine that someone who named their lumber company “84” after the town it was started in would find a particularly creative way to celebrate their landmark 84th birthday, but I doubt even the most expert of psychiatrists would predict it would involve creating a future Anna Nicole Smith replacement. Nature, as it seems, perpetually abhors a vacuum.

May-December romances always seem to cause a bit of a stir when they happen, even though, historically, they’ve been rather common. Back in the day, gentlemen with, shall we say, a significant amount of life experience routinely courted mere teenagers as their wives, partly because in a day and age of rampant consumption, violent, drug-free childbirth that was the medically necessary equivalent of seamlessly passing a watermelon though a screen door, and the socially acceptable requirement of breeding enough children to field both teams, and the fans thereof, of a standard baseball game, it was encouraged that middle-aged men find fertile, study young women as their lifemates. Plus, they were pretty much old horndogs.

With gender equality came progress, though, and young maidens no longer had to be held as prizes for established merchants or reputable gentry to procure as a fruitful and subservient means of production. As the sexual revolution entered the mainstream, women were now free to be held as prizes for freshly minted middle managers and young appliance salesmen to procure as a fruitful and subservient means of production.

As society settled down to equilibrium during the sleepover Eisenhower years, marriage tended to be among equals—most courtships were between high school sweethearts, so unless the groom skillfully avoided getting assaulted with the smart stick for long enough and skipped about every other grade until he passed remedial study hall, the age among both parties involved reached near parity. So much so that couples often graduated together, started getting cancer screenings together, got sick of each other and cheated on each other together, and got that letter from the AARP and then discussed exactly how old they are and how they wasted their lives buying Frankie Avalon albums and voting Republican when all they really wanted to do is drink highballs and smoke duty-free cigarettes playing blackjack at the Indian reservation together.

Because of this, the incidence of the golddigger/trophy hunter match-up always gets people’s attention. It’s unusual enough as it is, though it’s perfectly explainable. Women tend to find constancy, maturity, and success as desirable traits in a man, while men tend to gravitate towards nubile innocent young things with a rather cavalier grasp towards socially accepted sexual mores. Pairing these two things up will often lead towards marriages of unequal ages. (Please note that this paragraph contains some atrociously sweeping generalizations, most of which women will find incredibly insensitive and men painfully indifferent. Such ham-fisted oversimplications will no doubt cast aspersions on my analysis, but it will certainly be enough to pass muster on, say, The CBS Evening News.)

The extreme forms of this occur in cases like Joe Hardy. It’s not terribly common, but hardly unheard of, as many old men realize that their sell-by date is fast approaching and they might as well get all they can while the getting is good, lest their shrew ex-wife get a portion of his money when he dies. It’s not too much to think that he might as well split the pot three instead of two ways while getting his rocks off in the process. Depending on their theological inclinations, of course, such transgressions will no doubt be either erased by the vanguards of history or, at least for Lutherans, eliminated with a healthy dose of God’s good grace.

It’s strange how, often, the females end up with the shadier reputation in these partnerships. Many of them are portrayed as stiletto-heeled vixens perfecting the art of extracting his wallet while staring at the ceiling. Yet nary an aspersion is cast at the man, who could just as easily be painted as a predatory pervert throwing greenbacks around in what is generally considered to be borderline prostitution. Perhaps it’s latent jealousy, perhaps it’s society’s expectations, but most likely it’s the fact that most old men with money have gotten to the point where eHarmony isn’t exactly going to be sending out boatloads of responses on a regular basis so they might as well go to the strip club for prospective wives.

To be honest, I’m surprised things like this don’t happen more often. I mean, every man wants some eye candy to wake up next to every morning, and every woman laments for financial stability. And if love isn’t defined as the appropriate arbitraging of sex and money, well, then, I don’t know what it is.


Dance Like A Girl, Clap Like A White Boy

May 13, 2007

As many would correctly presume given my disinclination for merriment and my laughably sedentary lifestyle, concert-going is not my preferred choice of entertainment. I certainly do not begrudge anyone else this indulgence; for those who wish to stand in either a intimately crowded, sweltering barroom swilling warm beer and getting jostled by strangers listening to criminally disorganized acoustics or a stadium-packed starlights-and-pony show with all the intimacy of receiving a manufacturer’s rebate check, a concert can be a fun activity even when one realizes they have paid $100 for doing something they could have done in their back yard with a case of Corona Light, a poolside radio, a tire that has just been set on fire, and someone with the necessary surgical skills to disable your eardrums for about eighteen hours.

But, sometimes, it can admittedly be fun. Live performances differ dramatically from the studio-produced albums, so many individuals are willing to pay much, much more to see a two-hour show for their favorite performers. Very few artists, alas, fit this particular threshold for myself, since as a general rule all forms of music stopped being produced approximately in 1978 or so, and most of those artists have found some way to make themselves unavailable for a performance, usually via a combination of pharmaceuticals and distilled spirits. A few have managed to escape this rule, though, and one of those particular bands is They Might Be Giants.

The last concert I had gone to also happened to be They Might Be Giants, which was approximately six thousand years ago. Back then, I was still in high school and, standing in the amphitheater, was deceptively bewildered. TMBG was a known, if not particularly famous, quantity, and there were enough people multiplying the sum total of enthusiasm in the world there to be aware that we were participating in something that was much more than a simple music concert, something that was destined to be an event greater than ourselves. We were there to witness the glory for all that is good and significant in the world—we saw, live and in person, a decidedly phoned-in performance by the individuals eventually responsible for composing the theme song to “Malcolm in the Middle.”

Though, to be fair, accusing the Johns of not giving their all for that concert is an unfair assessment. As my first concert, I deduced that the best thing for me to do would be to stand approximately two nautical miles from the stage and spend most of the time making sure we weren’t going to be assaulted by college punks who I was certain were eyeing us all up as girlfriend-impressing beat-up targets. So perhaps I was too preoccupied to be making such judgments at the time, though to be fair I had more than adequate facilities to make a judgment call, as I was able to reduce the amount of my brain that was concentrating exclusively on women to about 95%.

Fast forward a few generations later, and one of my friends presented me with an opportunity to see them again. They Might Be Giants’s popularity never waned with me, though I honestly only thought about them when they had a new album released, which seemed to come along about once every Supreme Court retirement. So when I realized that this would be a good opportunity to do something I haven’t done in quite some time, I was first in line to buy a ticket, and by “first in line” I mean “spent fourty-five seconds of my life purchasing a ticket off of the internet.”

The venue of choice was Mr. Smalls Funhouse in Pittsburgh—specifically Millvale, a small, rather ordinary former industrial town known primarily for having the highest Family-Dollar-To-Population ratio in America. Mr. Smalls, itself, is a rather notable choice for a venue, as it boasts two particularly striking features: it used to be a church, and when at full capacity has the ability to reach an interior temperature of a thousand degrees Kelvin with 100% humidity. To say that Mr. Smalls is somewhat poorly ventilated is like saying that Mountain Dew is a somewhat inadequate source of nutrition. And, gratefully, the smoking ban in Allegheny County was conveniently lifted merely seconds before all the ticket-holders passed through the now-desecrated cathedral doors, producing an atmosphere that, had any secret agents decided to construct any elaborate laser-based traps to thwart the plans of independently-labeled prank rock bands from putting on a show, they would have not been successful.

The most startling thing that occurred as the concert began was how quickly it made me feel old. Granted, most things make me feel old, such as watching television or reading US magazine, or the dawning realization that I no longer choose the line at the grocery store by the size of the checkout girl’s bust line but on how fast they can get me through so I can beat the rush at the gas station. But in this case, as I watched the fans stroll into line, I realized that They Might Be Giants’s target demographic was based primarily on fourteen year old girls and fat, lazy middle-aged guys, with an approximate ratio of everyone else to me.

But then the show started, and any apprehension of John Linnell and John Flansburg’s abilities for live performance were quickly put to rest. They blew the roof off the dump—though, in reality, I wish they really would have, since it would have injected some oxygen into the place. They rocked harder than Kansas. And they were just the same as they were years ago, Flansburg strutting about the stage with that rather awkward guitar-playing stance, and Linnell’s head rocking back and forth like one of those oiled castors you find primary in Soviet industrial films. The remaining members of the band were a rather energetic lot who I am convinced were all actually the same person. They placated the crowds with quite a few classics, gave us all a preview of their upcoming album, and did one thing that no one, including most Popes, were unable to do: get me to dance.

Hopefully, I didn’t dance much. Or at least I didn’t mean to—there were friends of friends there, friends who may someday be on my jury. And I certainly didn’t dance as much or as intently as this fellow in front of us, whose level of enthusiastic passion roughly equaled that of the Battle of Britain. And watching me dance is like watching Uncle Mike hit on the flower girl at the wedding reception: embarrassing, astonishing in his lack of self-awareness, and something everyone agrees should never have happened and no one will ever speak of again.

And it’s not like They Might Be Giants is a noted producer of dance music. Getting down with, say, “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is like eating pudding with a fork. And yet there’s something oddly electrifying about a live performance that makes you realize that this is fundamentally different that shouting out the lyrics when listening to it in the car and stifling your mouth movements at traffic lights so other drivers don’t notice you sing. And so I was moved to clap, sway, and move jerkingly about in what can only be described as “stroke-like.”

And it’s not like I was physically able to dance all that much, since by this time I had sweated out about twelve bottles of Evian and my oxygen intake had roughly been reduced to moon-landing quantities. And it didn’t help that some moron beside us decided to pull the old hold-the-lighter-up trick after a song. All I wanted to do was tackle him to the ground and shout “You’re sucking up all the precious, precious air!” Thankfully the performers, perhaps sensing my violent intentions, distracted me by playing a particularly impressive version of “James K. Polk.”

But, alas, all things good must soon come to an end, and the mighty show descended quietly to an adequately inspiring conclusion. As we filtered out of the theater, taking in acres of cool, fresh air as it came to us and watching sweaty teenagers wander deliriously to their cars, I slowly worked my way home (or, more accurately, to the grocery store—a hard-fought concert is not complete until you have to stop at the 24 hour market on the way home to get a pint of sour cream and some milk). Hopefully, by the time I see them again, there will be more songs to dance to, better oxygen-distribution systems developed, and a whole new generation of fans to make me feel even older than I do right now.


Road to the Winehouse

May 6, 2007

We don’t do too many personal endorsements here at American Lament. I have a rather personal belief that there is a certain level of subjectivity that affronts all forms of media entertainment, and making such judgments often will elicit equal parts praise and condemnation, and my self-esteem just can’t handle that 50/50 split. But there’s one thing that I’m rather certain about, and that’s the fact that if listening to Amy Winehouse doesn’t cause you to wet your pants with any of the three eligible methods, you are clinically a jackass.

It’s not that Amy Winehouse is a household name in the states. And it’s a bit surprising that I’ve fallen madly and deeply in love with her, since her demographics and genre normally don’t fit into my tastes. As a general rule, anything written, recorded, or produced after approximately 1975 has to meet the increasingly demanding threshold of a J-curve of rockability. And unless a female artist 1) makes me cry, 2) is unafraid of massive displays of cleavage, or, preferably, 3) both, it’s highly doubtful I’m all that interested. And once instruments that require you blow into them to make the appropriate noise required in the song are introduced, there’d better be a color guard unit or a Mexican chain restaurant commercial handy, else I’m gonna be pissed.

And yet Amy Winehouse stands tall and firm atop the crushed skulls of those she has defeated for my heart. Winehouse would hardly fit into my CD collection, which a gay observer once described as “really gay.” I got my first exhilarating taste of Winehouse whilst riding in the car with one of my friends, when the intimately replayable “Rehab” came on. I was transfixed by the throaty vocals, the almost deceptively childish lyrics, and the aggressively forceful meter (or, perhaps, metre).

It was a rather odd thing for me to perk my ears up at. I mean, the songs I usually enjoy listening to involve the inability to receive satisfaction in a sufficient manner or how you cannot change those birds that have had that glorious opportunity to be free. And here it is, emitting through the airwaves, a rather blatant harkening to the days of Phil-Spector-produced manufactured oldies, before he started killing B-movie actresses and using microwaved crude oil as hair gel.

It wasn’t long until I learned a little bit more about her biography. As is the wont for pretty much every rock star ever in the entire course of all of history, she has had repeated issues with drugs and alcohol, often showing up at awards shows and bat mitzvahs for rich professionals either lit up or thumbing rides on passing kites. While she claims that she’s lost weight by hitting the gym more frequently as an alternative to smoking pot (if only!), many assume that repeated offhand comments by catty columnists about her weight tapped into some sort of long-suppressed anorexic and/or bulimic impulse. And she has occasionally reacted violently in embarrassingly public forums, such as heckling Bono and suckerpunching grateful fans. In one fell swoop, then, she has tapped into the angst of elderly African-American blues artists, young blonde starlets, and Madonna ex-husbands all at once.

The most important thing to remember is that Winehouse is attempting to infuse a little bit of originality into the modern music scene. Granted, she’s just kind of ripping off every single girl band from the years 1962-1965, but what form of music isn’t an unashamed plagiarism of style of a form of music that became popular when whites performed it about ten years after blacks perfected it? And the music today, it’s probably yet another boy band or sluttily dressed preteens belting out studio-corrected vaguely defined prevarications about “being together forever” or “living life to the fullest” and spelling words in their song titles like they’re sending a telegram that costs by the syllable. The jazz-inspired songs of Winehouse are a fusion of many of these things, but with the attitude of not wanting to sound like everybody else. While this hasn’t necessarily translated into commercial success, of course—and, let’s face it, it never does—it’s caught the critics’ eyes and has made her a remarkably prescient music entity in the Commonwealth.

Still, one can only hope that this errant strain of creativity will continue to produce ever-increasing results. Listening to one of Amy Winehouse’s full albums, alas, makes one wonder if her drum machine is rented by the bridge, and the smooth, tender vocals make you eventually believe that significantly more depressants might actually make her sound much brighter. One suspects that if things don’t become a bit more diverse by the third album, she’ll be relegated to coffee shop muzak and a coaching slot on American Idol 14. Still, rumor has it she’s one of the select few to be chosen to compose a James Bond title track, so she’ll always have that. At least in the context of a second-rate moderately successful artist with more exposure on British late-night tabloid shows than on the actual live radio or album sales, if you’re a Jewish British faux-little-l-lesbian jazz artist, you can make it big in this world.


There Goes Another Candidate: The Adjective Form of “Obama” Edition

May 3, 2007

Presidential primaries are notoriously difficult things to predict; the things start earlier than preteens girls drinking tap water. It’s easier to forecast, say, the standard deviation of my golf score in May (hint: look up to see if there’s anything higher than “triple bogey.”) The campaign for the 2008 presidential election, for instance, started in the spring of 1984. Thankfully, the media does a fairly good job of choosing the candidates for us without such inconvenient necessities as voting, and they’ve already picked a front-runner, Barack Obama. Obama is a senator and, not inconsequently, an African-American. And that’s the true question that needs to be answered up front. Are Americans truly, finally open-minded and progressive enough to elect an Illinois lawyer to the Presidency?

Right now, Obama is riding high on a wave of positive publicity. He’s appeared on the cover of Newsweek, a grand accomplishment in and of itself had it not been for the fact that last week’s cover story was how the computer was going to change the workplace for the better. (With Newsweek’s penchant for prescience, Obama will be elected president in 1952.) He’s written a best selling book, The Audacity of Hope, an uplifting tale of how a gawky kid with a funny name can rise to be a U.S. senator with only a few dashes of hope, optimism, pride in oneself, and having your opponent resign after a newspaper shamelessly crowbarred a court order to release the details of a divorce agreement that both husband and wife wanted kept sealed and is replaced by a candidate who didn’t live in your state prior to his announcement of running against you and has gone on record in stating that the U.N. is putting saltpeter in the water towers of most red states to eventually reduce the population where the black helicopters and blue helmets can take over the White House, MoMA, and the editorial desk of the New York Times, two of the three which have, notably, already been accomplished..

Obama’s upbringing seems tailor-made for a seven-minute soft-lens biography to be played at, oh, I don’t know, perhaps the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver. Born in Hawaii, his parents (his mother was white, his father, from Kenya) divorced when he was at the laughably inexperienced age of two and whose only claim to fame up to that point was only being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize six times. His childhood, of course, was not without the normal pressures of teenagers everywhere; drug use and violence occasionally peppers his otherwise white, middle class environment. (Midnight trips to Taco Bell and buying Foreigner CDs aren’t mentioned in his memoirs, but can be safely assumed.) His father moved back to Africa and was killed in a tragic accident when Obama was 21. He eventually ended up at Harvard, becoming a lawyer and a professor before being elected to the state senate.

His big-S Senate race in 2004 was largely a blowout. Obama won this race with 70% of the vote, an astounding number even if one removes all of the Chicagoans who voted five or more times. While Obama was a skilled campaigner, most will credit a good dose of luck; his first opponent resigned, and the second one came in late from Maryland, a state not heretofore known as being part of Illinois. Illinois also has a slight tradition of electing African Americans to the Senate; of the grand total of five African Americans who have been elected to the Senate, two come from Illinois. Though it should be also pointed out that two of them were elected in that glowing twilight of our history known as Reconstruction, when senators were elected by Thomas Nast caricatures representing the Sugar Trust.

The Democrats weren’t going to let a charismatic, minority candidate flounder in the obscures of an ornery Midwestern state. They chose him as the keynote speaker for their 2004 convention as the hoped-for future of the Democratic party—a magnetic, reasoned voice who seemed casually nonplussed about his ethnicity. The Republicans, for their part, chose as his counterpart the indefatigable Zell Miller, who delivered a speech calling for the beheading of several federal judges and a constitutional amendment requiring the destruction by arson of most of the eastern seaboard plus San Francisco.

How Obama handles his infant candidacy remains, of course, to be seen. The biggest hurdle to overcome is the fact that he’s only been a Senator for two years, and will not have completed a full term by 2008. Even Jack Kennedy, the low-water mark for inexperienced Senators running for President, was re-elected at least once. He also needs to fight his way through a crowded field of candidates, last counted to be approximately 18,000 former Representatives. He has yet to propose or publicize any large issues that would placate the liberal wing of the party (such as giving all illegal immigrants perpetual tax-free status upon arrival to the nation in exchange for fealty to the Democratic Party or union membership or, most certainly, both) while simultaneously endorsing those things to appease the population at large (such as shooting illegal immigrants on sight). Plus his middle name is Hussein, something I’m sure will make the required campaign visit to Dearborn, Michigan all the less awkward.

Still, there is great hope in many circles that Barack Obama’s incredible combination of charisma, accomplishment, biography, and checked boxes in the Democratic Historical Guilt Equivalency Survey will make him an incredibly attractive candidate. And yet there’s still much work to be done. In a nation still divided by region, values, history, and the degree of devotion to specific flags of dubious historical importance, there is one obstacle Obama has yet to overcome. She’s from New York.