Category Archives: Culture

Budweiser and America

Budweiser America

This looks like it should be some edgy high-schooler’s culturejamming photoshop – but it isn’t, it’s official, and it’s apparently sincere. Budweiser is changing its name to America.

Get ready to enjoy America-battered onion rings, and making late-night America runs before the liquor store closes. You can’t buy America on Sundays, after all.

Remember, you have to be a certain age before you can legally enjoy America. But being allowed to buy America is one of the last milestones of adulthood. That’s how you know you’re not a child anymore: when you can gulp down the cold, bitter contents of America and at least pretend to like it.

But if you spend your young years looking forward to that night when you’ll be able to sit down, an adult among adults, and appreciate America, you may actually be disappointed. People don’t like to admit it, but America is an acquired taste. You especially don’t want to admit it to your loud uncle who likes to get really drunk on America. You really have to take in a lot of America for it to start making you feel much different, though – it’s not as strong as you’d think. Even after just a little America, though, some people start coming up with excuses to act selfishly or irrationally. Like your uncle, who loves America so much that he even sips a few road Americas while he’s driving around in his Mustang. The more America he has, the better he feels about that decision.

Also, there’s a sense in which your masculinity is tied in to how much America you can stomach before you want to throw up. It doesn’t matter if the flavor of it is just not to your liking – America isn’t one of those girly drinks that’s all about tasting nice! Oooh, look at them, all fancy with their sugared rims and their little umbrellas! Sure, so just one of those drinks might actually be more effective than three Americas put together, and it might be sweet instead of bitter, but you can’t even acknowledge those facts as relevant. Or acknowledge those drinks as real drinks! They’re not AMERICA!

You’ve got to buy into this idea of America – this idea of spending a summer afternoon kicking back to watch multimillion-dollar sports teams moving balls around in a stadium your tax dollars helped build – a stadium that reeks of America. Or the idea of coming in after a hard day’s work and having your wife deliver all the goodness of America to you while you watch TV until she’s done with dinner – you earned it! Or the idea of standing around in your party of choice, trying to have fun and relate to people around you, and trying to make sure you look like you’re enjoying America enough. Get a little more America in you, and it’ll come more naturally.

How can you tell if your party is a good one? Just look at how much America it’s used up and thrown away. But you can also look at how many America runs people have made. The people who are the least drunk on America are the ones who have to go get more America for everybody else. The more America they’ve brought to everybody else, though, the less likely those guys are to remember to pay them back. They’ll probably have to buy a lot of the America with their own money, which they know is a little backwards, but everyone else will make good on it, right?

Okaaaay, so what actually happens is that, the more America they bring, the more the drunkest people keep drinking. And those drunk people get angry when someone takes THEIR America. If you want in on America, you need to go get it yourself – nevermind that you have been, all night, but you’re just not being allowed to keep much America for yourself. You’ve got to keep acting like you’re enjoying the party, though. Even though you sorta think a nice sweet cocktail would be nice instead, with a small group of friends – or just a nice cup of tea all by yourself somewhere.

But you know that’s un-American. It’s not what the party’s all about. If nothing else, you still think that you’ll get paid back someday for all that you’ve invested in America. Maybe the drunkest people – who, of course, don’t think they’re that drunk – will finally get SO drunk on America that they fall down. And maybe you and the other runners will be the ones sober enough to roll them into the backyard and keep the party going – maybe a little more mellow of a party, though, with a little less yelling and groping and trying to break things? (Yeah, yeah, you know – they’d just feel like it was THEIR turn to get sloppy drunk and let somebody else do the work, and the same things would happen all over again.)

America can make you a little dizzy, a little nauseous, a little impulsive and thoughtless. But that’s what America’s all about! What’s liberty if not a lack of inhibition? What’s justice if not the sorts of judgments we all agree make sense when we’re thoroughly immersed in America? And it’s for everyone – except for young people, or old people, or people taking certain medications, and we still sorta look at women funny when they want one.

But this is America. Drink up.

 

 

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Overanalyze ALL The Things: Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared – The Title

Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared (frequently abbreviated DHMIS) is a surrealist vision of children’s educational content. In each episode, didactic felt puppets employ catchy music and cheery animations to teach a lesson about a specific subject, creating surface similarities to media like Sesame Street or Schoolhouse Rock.  In DHMIS, however, the lessons are disjointed and incorrect, the rules being taught are arbitrary, and things often take a turn for the grotesque and overwhelming.  At its (glittery, raw) heart, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared evokes the dangers of submission to authority via parallels with the helpless horror of childhood.

I’d originally hoped to do a shot-by-shot analysis of at least the first episode – ideally the whole series.  While there’s certainly enough to read in to every shot — isn’t there always? — that’s not going to be sustainable for the entire set of essays.  Instead, this first entry will cover the title card and the silent establishing shots shown before the song begins.

Before there’s the first bit of action or dialogue, and even before the characters are first seen, these shots help set the viewer’s expectations – and already begin to subvert them.

In fact, in the title placard alone, there’s incongruity, ambiguity, and the establishment of the entire series’ atmosphere of cheerful malevolence.

The background is a placid and pastel blue-green color – not entirely blue, not entirely green – festooned with cheerful confetti drawn in reds, oranges, yellows, greens, and pinks.  This is already a bit of a contrast between peacefulness and festiveness, but the real contrast is with the text: over this background, stark white sans-serif text proclaims DON’T HUG ME I’M SCARED.

The fact that the title is in the first person is already rather unconventional, as titles are often abstract – and often aren’t full sentences at all.  The title is not “Don’t Hug The Scared,” or “Why You Shouldn’t Hug The Scared,” or”Don’t Hug Them, They’re Scared,” or “Hugging The Scared: A Recipe For Tragedy.”  It’s personal.

Though I’m frankly not well-versed enough in linguistics to explain how this works, the use of the first person in a title isn’t just a summation of the overall theme of the series, as most titles are – it’s a speech act being made by the protagonist.  Whether it’s “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang” or “I Accuse My Parents,” “I Shot Andy Warhol” or “I Was A Teenage Werewolf,” we expect that “I” to be the subject of the story.  But who is the protagonist saying this title statement to?

I’d argue that it isn’t actually the viewer: it’s more like a statement in a journal.  It’s a statement that person is making about their identity or their actions or some other aspect of their life. It reads more like a line from the protagonist’s own private diary – something personal and reflective and confessional for them, so much so that reading it as an outsider seems pulpy, sensational, and even invasive.

But in the title “Don’t hug me I’m scared,” there’s an understood “you.”  It’s not just a declarative statement, it’s an imperative. That “Don’t” is a command being levied at somebody.  As a result, teading the title “Don’t hug me I’m scared” is less like reading a line from a character’s diary page, and more like overhearing a sentence of their conversation with somebody else.

Making this assumption, we can analyze this speech even further to attempt to figure out who the protagonist is speaking to, what they mean, and what significance it bears.

Semantically, “Don’t hug me I’m scared” means the protagonist is expressing fear and vulnerability, and it acts to refuse an offer of – or attempt at – a hug.

Pragmatically, though, “Don’t hug me I’m scared” is a fairly complex speech act.  It cannot be uttered in a meaningful way without a significant amount of awareness, confidence, and assertiveness from the speaker.

The vulnerability is established by the sentence “I’m Scared” – something has happened to put the speaker in fear.  On its own, “I’m scared” may be a declarative statement of fact.  But, much as saying “I’m cold” may have an illocutionary force – may act as a request for someone to close an open window or turn up the heat – saying “I’m scared” may have an illocutionary force of requesting the hearer to help the speaker stop or escape the frightening stimulus.

The first half of the sentence “Don’t hug me I’m scared” may be far more telling.

First, we have to step away from linguistics and into non-verbal communication for a moment.  A hug isn’t just any wrapping-of-arms-around-another-body.  If you bump into someone on the train and your arms end up encircling them, that’s not really a hug.  Rather, a hug is a physical act of affection.  At the very least, it’s an act of rapport.

When a person being hugged is frightened, however, the dynamic is different.  The hug is less an act of equitable rapport, appreciation, or affection, and more an act of comfort and support — therefore, it’s an act that establishes the hugger as a protective figure.  The person being hugged is experiencing some form of emotional upset; the person hugging is less affected by that fear and may be trying to allay it. In short: the person being hugged is vulnerable, the person hugging is powerful.

A hug also necessarily involves one person entering the other’s intimate personal space, a reaction zone generally reserved for close and trusted friends or family.  The more frightened or vulnerable a person is, the more anxious, fearful, or otherwise upset they’d likely be at the prospect of being hugged by someone who is not so close — or not so trusted.

Assuming that the relationship dynamics and interpersonal boundaries are equitable between the speaker and the spoken-to, “Don’t hug me, I’m scared” sounds almost like a contradiction: a scared person should want to be hugged, because A) hugs are comforting gestures and B) hugs are only performed by someone close enough, trusted enough, to be permitted inside that intimate reaction zone in the first place.  What scared person wouldn’t want a hug?  What kind of person would try to hug someone if they had the slightest thought that the hug would not be welcome?

What kind of person, indeed.

Clearly, the relationship between speaker and spoken-to, attempted-hugger and prospective-hug-recipient, is not equitable: permission to enter that intimate reaction zone is being refused – and it’s specifically because the speaker is scared.

“Don’t hug me I’m scared” is grammatically incorrect, technically speaking.  They’re two separate sentences: “Don’t hug me” and “I’m scared.”  Conventionally, a semicolon is used when two sentences are so closely related to each other, often causally, that the writer wants to be sure the relation is evident.  While the same title could have been grammatically rendered as “Don’t Hug Me; I’m Scared”, “Don’t Hug Me. I’m Scared.”,  “Don’t Hug Me. I’m Scared!”, “Don’t Hug Me! I’m Scared.”, or “Don’t Hug Me! I’m Scared!”,  all but the first would allow for the interpretation that the speaker’s fear and the speaker’s refusal of the hug are two separate statements with two separate causes.  Instead, however, the choice was made not to render it as two separate sentences, and not to render it as one sentence with its parts separated by a semicolon, but as one single sentence.  Arguably, this is not a grammar error but a stylistic and creative choice: the authors are trying to make it abundantly clear, from the very first image of the very first episode, that the expression of fear and the refusal of the hug are absolutely, breathlessly linked.

The speaker is scared of the person attempting the hug.

However, the sentence does more than express that fear.  “Don’t hug me I’m scared” is an imperative sentence. The speaker isn’t saying “Could you not hug me, I’m scared,” or even “I’d rather you didn’t hug me.” It’s a command.  It isn’t simply evocative of the unequal relationship between a powerful figure and a vulnerable figure, it’s a recognition by the speaker of that vulnerability, of that inequality — and, critically, it’s an attempt by the vulnerable person to shift the balance of power.

In order to meaningfully say “Don’t hug me, I’m scared,” the speaker has to:

◊ Be aware enough of their surroundings to perceive that they’re in danger
◊ Be aware enough of their own feelings to recognize vulnerability and fear
◊ Feel confident enough in the accuracy of their perception to risk making an assertion about that danger
◊ Feel assertive enough to admit that they’re scared and expect the listener to care
◊ Be aware enough of their feelings to recognize when they don’t want to be hugged
◊ Refuse to dismiss, ignore, or otherwise deny those feelings
◊ Feel confident enough in the validity of their feelings – or feel threatened enough by the hug-attempter – that they dare to refuse the hug
◊ Feel strong enough to face whatever negative consequences may result from this refusal

And, most crucially:

◊ Value their safety (or mere preferences) so much more than they value the attempted-hugger’s preferences that they’d issue a direct command and attempt to impose their will on the listener.

It sounds simple.

For victims of abuse, it’s not.

Through tactics like operant conditioning, authoritarian abusers can impel their victims to struggle to act upon – or even admit to themselves – their rights, their agency, their will, their preferences, their beliefs, or even their most fundamental feelings. It may even become difficult to assert objective facts about the world, for fear the abuser has a different belief: the abuser’s personal opinions are paramount, and disagreement is seen as defiance and disrespect.

That the statement “Don’t hug me, I’m scared” would be uttered by the protagonist (The Yellow Guy, hereinafter “Yellow”) at all – and that it would be the title of the entire series – foreshadows that the overall narrative arc will involve Yellow’s recognition that he’s been isolated, manipulated, gaslighted, and abused by his authoritarian father figure, Roy, under the pretense of education; his refusal to keep accepting this treatment or “education;” and his ultimate revocation of Roy’s status as a loved and trusted person who’s permitted to be close to him in any way.
Next Entry: Silently Setting And Subverting Expectations

 

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Day 21 – a song from your favourite movie

And now I have to figure out my favorite movie!  Gracious.

As certain long-suffering friends of mine could attest, movies have not played a central role in my life.  Going to the movies was a once- or twice-a-year treat, and, those rare times I got to rent a movie, I tended to stick with my standards.  As a result, there are many classics I’ve never seen, or never saw until far, far later than you’d expect.  I never saw The Wizard of Oz until I was in 8th grade; I never saw The Goonies until I’d already graduated from college.  Of the AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list, I’ve seen a whopping 21.  That’s almost a quarter, hey?

In the past few years, I’ve been seeing more movies, for certain – though not exactly any more of the classics.  I haven’t seen Citizen Kane, but I have seen DEATH BED: The Bed That Eats!  (Somewhere, a cinephile wicks an unbidden tear from his eye.)

So picking a sincere favorite film is… tough.  I can’t even read films very well, honestly, which makes even the best film hard to appreciate.  The bigger the cast, the more similar the characters, the more lost I am.  (The Godfather is the story of a whole bunch of indistinguishable black-haired guys in suits who kill each other for, probably, reasons.)  As with everything else on this list, I gall at picking a “best” anything – I don’t know enough about film to make that determination.  But when it comes to a subjective favorite… yeah, I’m still not sure..

In terms of the films I’ve simply watched more than anything else, I’d say it probably comes down to Star Wars or, possibly, HELP!  The one is a used-future modernization of the classic Monomyth.  The other is two or so hours of The Beatles being ridiculous.  But both of them are… comforting, in some way.  No matter what sort of mood I’m in, I’ll probably enjoy watching either one, and my mood will be all the better for having watched it by the time the credits roll.

Star Wars is… well, it’s Star Wars.  For all that it’s yet another riff on that same old Monomyth structure, it still feels so much like a glimpse into other worlds.  So many great aliens and robots and languages and technologies!  And, yes, so much great music.  I still remember being amazed to realize that different characters had different songs!  There was the Imperial March, obviously, but there were other bits of soundtrack that related to specific characters, varying a bit depending on what was happening!  Amazing!  It felt like a secret code somehow, a whole extra layer of information hiding in plain sight.  Not to mention that it was just plain beautiful.

Of course, I love the main theme and the Imperial March.  And if ever I fail to have chills on the Binary Sunset scene, just go ahead and put a tag on my toe.

But, much as I may love that one… I think The Throne Room / End Title are even better.  Bittersweet, of course, because it means the movie’s over.  But triumphant nevertheless, and carrying all the pride and weariness and relief without a single word being said.  Well, besides [assorted beeps] and [roar].

Not that I’m ever going to get married, but if I were, this is what I’d be playing when I went back up the aisle.

That’s right.  Eat a bag of ’em, Mendelssohn.

And what of HELP!, you may ask?  It’s a tough call there, as well, given that the entire movie is basically an excuse for The Beatles to lark around in the Alps and the Bahamas, playing music all the while.  And given that I’m being pressed to pick a favorite Beatles song, and that’s just onerous.

But the one that I like most today, at least, is probably “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.”  The slow jangling strumming, Ringo’s despondent tambourine-playing, the unexpected bits of classical flute… just plain lovely.

In fact, it was the first song I ever sang at karaoke. And, no, you don’t get to hear that.

I feel somewhat bad about this post, because I feel I should have something more to say.  But I don’t really have anything complex or profound to say about the songs themselves, or the movies themselves.  They are what they are!  Much as I may love analyzing things to death and back, some things are somewhat monolithic in my mind, and Star Wars and The Beatles are among them.  I’ll savor the minutia I pick up on, but I don’t always try to pick everything apart, weigh it, qualify it, justify it.  I allow it, and my enjoyment of it, to exist unquestioned.  And there are bits that make me grin, if not laugh, every single time, no matter how many times it’s been.  I’m glad enough of that; I’d hate to kill the jokes for good and all.

But I can question why I have that approach, of course!  And my best guess is not just that I was entranced by Star Wars, growing up, or that I also grew up feasting on a rich and steady diet of oldies (including an acceptable parts per million of Beatles.)  But it’s also that both movies gave me some small, scrabbling fingernailhold on social relevance, back in the dark days of late elementary school and junior high.  They gave me some common ground with friends, or at least with people that I hoped I could get away with calling “friends.” (I was used to social interactions that were asymmetrical, to say the least.)  But those movies were somewhat off the radar, at the time.  It was still shameful to be too much a nerd, back then; there weren’t many who’d openly admit to liking Star Wars, Star Trek, or anything else old or uncool.  Sharing an open fondness for these things created a camaraderie, a sense of being brothers in (pasty, noodly) arms.  A social… not relevance, really; perhaps mere presence, which was otherwise unattainable.  I had Things In Common with people, and they would actually talk to me about those Things!  It was a whole new world, I tell you.

Though these movies and these songs are still nearly timeless presences in my life, there is still some sense in which they’re never as vibrant as they’d been back then, back when it was us against the world — or, well, me and those people that acknowledged me against the world, not exactly like a team or anything, but, you know, headed the same general direction, coincidentally, for now.

Indeed, “for then,” for the most part; the last I’d heard, one of them became a real estate agent and the other joined the Peace Corps, and both are somehow married, and the world still seems a little upside-down for it, because apparently they figured out how to stop being awkward adolescent nerdlingers, and here I am in my underwear watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and eating a Christmas Tree Cake that had fallen behind the microwave.

But I do still keep in touch with the other of that strange small crowd, who’s in much the same odd boat, and who’s proved a more genuine and longstanding friend than any I’ve had.  There’s a delightful sense in which we’ve just been having the same single, sprawling conversation for a couple decades now, with occasional brief interruptions to go to the bathroom or go to bed or have a shitty relationship for a few years.  But the conversation always picks up again later, no need for “Hello” or “How are you,” just back into the swing of discussing whatever bits of music or movie or TV or life we care to discuss.

Like those movies themselves, it’s a comforting, familiar presence that can improve any sort of day, one which always elicits a grin at the least, which I enjoy just as it is, and which I don’t tend to question.  Is that profound, or just really myopic?  I don’t know.  (Third base.)

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Day 20 – a song that you thought was sung by a female but was actually sung by a male (or vice versa)

From “Describe your personality in a song” to this.  Huh.

To be honest, I don’t really mind a small break from the intense introspection.  At best, I’ll be able to summon up an anecdote or two!  Hooray, you’re spared!

When it comes to the phenomenon of Dude Sounds Like A Lady, there’s one person who comes to mind.  Nope, despite a childhood chock full o’ oldies, it’s not Frankie Valli.  I always knew him for a guy.  Rather, it’s a singer from a couple decades later, whose high-pitched vocals I heard, if but rarely, on the hometown classic rock stations.  A singer with a strange, antiquated sounding name.  An old lady name.  As Lottie was to Charlotte, as Dottie was to Dorothy, as Hattie was to Harriet, so this name must have been to Gertrude.

I spent perhaps half a decade of pre-Internet life foursquare convinced that the lead singer of Rush was a woman named Gettie Leigh.

As for a song that I thought was sung by a lady, but wasn’t…

There was a strange rumor going around my school in the early 90s.  Supposedly, the tall, glamorous lady who sang “Supermodel” was secretly a boy.   The common reactions were like the reactions to any other urban legend: flat denial, laughter, or belief undercut with horror.  Yes, the idea that a boy might dress in girl clothes was right up there with Bloody Mary or the pop-rocks-and-Coke death of Mikey from the Life cereal commercials.

Me, I didn’t think RuPaul was a boy.  Sure, as classmates pointed out, the name had Paul right in it.  But I had some male classmates named Jamie, after all.  And that little girl from E.T. was named Drew!

Besides, she was doing all those things that girls got to do – or, more accurately, had to do – when they grew up.  Wearing dresses.  Walking in heels.  Wearing lots of jewelry. Doing her hair.   Putting on tons of makeup.   I was certain that nobody would spend all that time and money unless they had to.

I had an older sister, one already into her teenage years by this time.  I’d been dragged on more shopping trips than I could count.  I’d boggled at the array of products she needed for her hair alone: Aqua Net and LA Looks mousse and Dep gel.  And then the perfumes, like the everpresent bottle of Exclamation! And all the hues of lipstick, lipgloss, lipliner, eyeshadow, eyeliner, eyebrow pencil, mascara, blush, nail polish, topcoat… not to mention necklaces and bracelets and earrings (through HOLES stabbed through your dang EARS)… it seemed to go on forever. And so did the process of putting it on.  Even half an hour feels like a long time when you’re under 10, and somehow my sister could spend an hour – or more! – getting ready for even the most prosaic occasion.  And gods forbid that it should rain, or that she’d break a nail or get a run in her hose, because all of that work would be for nothing.

I absolutely couldn’t fathom getting all gussied up for any outing that didn’t involve a formal invitation.

“Oh, that will change,” I was assured.

It didn’t.

However, as a kid, whenever I was dragged along on those interminable mall trips – which always spent so much time in LS Ayers but so little time in the pet shop or Kay-Bee Toys – I secretly hoped to go to the Glamour Shots someday.  I had this occasional daydream that they’d put makeup on me in just the right ways, and do my hair, and take a really elegant photo, and everyone I knew would be amazed.  All the people who’d made fun of me would scuff their sneakered feet and apologize, and the ones I liked would realize they liked me, and nobody would ever call me ugly or worthless again.

But I realized before long that nothing would really work that way.  It didn’t matter what I looked like, because no matter how pretty I made myself, everyone around me had already decided I was, and always would be, disgusting.  Just like how I was always decreed a retard, no matter how objectively I surpassed them in schoolwork, or how I was somehow both scrawny and a fat cow, regardless of how much or little I weighed, I was ugly by consensus.

Fiat ugly.

Still, I was a little curious about makeup just because I wasn’t allowed to wear it until I was old enough, and nothing sparks curiosity like something disallowed.  Even then, I never did come to care that much about any of it. Blame stubbornness if you like, or uncoordination, or lack of money, or a general belief that any attempt to beautify myself was akin to polishing a Dumpster.  Regardless, I just rarely felt inclined.  Once in a while, I’d put some eyeshadow on, or wear some lipstick.  Once in a wider while, both.  If I was feeling REALLY exciting, there might even be mascara.  But it wasn’t a daily thing.  It was more like deciding to wear my favorite shirt, just for fun.  “Say, I’m in a good mood today, or perhaps just aesthetically inclined!  I think I’ll put some art onto my facemeat.”  Even then, it was done more for contrast purposes: clomping around with my black ankle stompyboots, my trenchcoat, my pocketwatch, and PURPLE SPARKLY GLITTER EYESHADOW.  And maybe even some of that glitter lotion that was ubiquitous at the time.

Even now, I only own a small amount of makeup, almost all of which, I realize, should probably be thrown away because it’s got to be at least two years old.  Ew.  I still figure that making myself look particularly aesthetic is a lost cause.  Sure, in idle curiosity, I wonder how I’d look with different makeup styles.  But there’s no way in any number of hells that I care enough to by all those supplies and spend all that time trying things out.  I just cannot compel myself to care.

And it’s interesting, I’ve found, that my disinclination to play the Pretty Princess Dress-Up Game of female adulthood seems to make me default to “masculine” in some eyes.  Yes, yes, this is where I could spout off some more noise about gender being a performance, and of the masculine being considered normative, and of how weird it is that guys get to fuck around with their gender expression by wearing a whole shopping cart full of stuff, whereas a girl can get mistaken for a dude or lesbian just because she *doesn’t* wear a lot of products or show off her figure.  It’s the very exaggeration of the hair / makeup / nails / perfume / jewelry rigamarole of womanhood that makes drag the statement that it is.  We have all these products, all these procedures, all this focus on aesthetics… and it’s only for girls.  Dudes don’t have to – or get to – be pretty.  And when they try, apparently it’s weird! Somehow, a guy who dresses in drag and constructs an exaggerated representation of femininity is seen as slightly strange, but biological females construct a less extreme sort of beauty carapace every day from age 13 to death, and that is totally copacetic.  I’ve known girls who put a full suite of makeup on to go hiking.  I’ve known guys who had terribly chapped lips, but refused to wear any chap-stick because that would be girly or gay.  And I’ve known people, both girls and guys, who don’t see either of those behaviors as remotely irrational.

I could go on about that… but I’d rather not.  Because, in the end, it’s just how things are, at present, in our society.  Is anything about gender identity or expression really that black and white?  Nope, but we’ve got this binary concept anyway.  And it’s somehow seen as more sensible and appropriate for a whole bunch of people to spend at least some part of their lives freaking out that they – or others – are Too Masculine or Too Feminine or Not Feminine Enough or Not Masculine Enough… than it is to let people wear and do the things that make them feel awesome, whatever they are.  Idealistic claptrap, that, apparently. The society around us has made up its mind about what we’re supposed to do and be and look like, and we must attend.  Ours not to reason why, ours but to hairdo and dye.

Besides, no amount of words I wrote could be as effective or cutting an indictment as a single sashay of RuPaul.

Work.

And now, I must get some beauty sleep.

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Day 19 – A Song That Describes You / Your Personality

I’ve written at least two drafts of this post, then scrapped them.

Like everything else in this 30 Days (hah!) of Songs prompt, this just wants an example of a song that reflects some facet of your life. But ye gods and little fishes, “A Song That Describes You / Your Personality?!”

First, I tried to describe myself and define my personality, which involved trying to break myself down into each of the so-called five factors: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism.  Of course, having broken things down so particularly, it only made it more difficult to find songs that described each element.

Then I tried to think of songs I’ve ever considered anthemic.  Which seemed promising, right up until I realized that many of the songs that were anthems at some point just aren’t so relevant anymore.  They describe me-as-I-was-at-a-time, but that isn’t the me that I am now.  It’s not as if those elements aren’t part of my life at all anymore.  They’re just… not at the forefront.  I hate to call them smaller or quieter, in case they’re truly just as large, possibly even bigger, only appearing so small because of foreshortening.  Perspective is a killer.  Still, the fact that they aren’t first and foremost in my self-identification… that’s something.

In short, my personality just isn’t quite what it used to be.

Not that I’m complaining at all. It’s just… strange, I suppose, to realize how inverted everything has become.

I’d been so introverted before, with no sense of will, no sense of agency, and not even much sense of identity. It’s inaccurate to say that there was a certain sort of person that I aspired to be – aspiration was selfish and the idea of being anything was hubris. But there was a certain sort of person that I felt intense guilt about not being able to be. There were things that I couldn’t really *want* at the time, but could regret not having. Feelings that I couldn’t precisely wish I could feel, but could acknowledge the feeling-shaped holes where they… not “should have been,” not even “could have been,” but a neutral, non-presumptuous “might have possibly fit, in a way that provided utility.”

On a really good day, I could write something creative, make a clever photoshop of some kind, have the wherewithal to do practical things, feel okay about going out in public, and even feel various emotions.  Excitement, goofiness, affection, awe, and possibly something that couldn’t really be considered “optimism,” but an absence of foreboding.  Something that couldn’t be called “pride,” but a temporary failure to acknowledge shame.  It’s not like I suddenly thought I was an okay person who had any sort of potential.  I just managed to not notice or care about how awful everything was for a while.  I’d even have conversations with a friend or two online, and we’d make each other laugh.  On a really good day, I might actually spend time with someone in person, going to get coffee or lunch.

Of course, the next day – or later that same day – perspective would come crashing back with a vengeance, and I’d think of all the time and energy I’d wasted, and what an absolute moron I looked like, and how much more likely it was that people were going to use my every action as fodder for mockery and mistreatment.  For many, many years, whenever I’d displayed any sort of satisfaction, enjoyment, or even minor interest, it was used against me, after all.  Switching off seemed like the best method of self-defense.

So, on an average day, I just tried to do as little as possible, to feel as little as possible, to exist as little as possible, generally trying to keep under life’s radar.  I did the things that were expected, or that I was told to do, or that would make my life blatantly and abundantly worse if I didn’t do them – if just because I was trying to have as completely non-remarkable an existence as possible.  It wasn’t laziness that made me such a doormat, it was my absolute conviction that, if I had the audacity to think or feel or do or want anything for myself, something absolutely horrible would be done to me or the people I cared about.  Because, as I absolutely knew at my core, I didn’t deserve to be happy, I didn’t deserve to be comfortable, I didn’t deserve to feel safe or wanted or welcome or acceptable, and even existing was only acceptable to the degree that it was more convenient for everyone than the alternative.

I had a vague concept that I could somehow earn the right to happiness if I did… something.  If I graduated, if I got a job, if I kept a certain amount of money in my account, if I had a relationship, if my body looked acceptable, if my grades were within certain parameters.  If I failed at those obvious, attainable tasks, how could I expect to earn something so nebulous as “happiness” or “value” or “worth?”  It couldn’t just come out of nowhere; I couldn’t just decide that I was enough.  But no matter how close I got to any of those things, no matter if I actually surpassed them, it wasn’t enough.  It proved nothing.  Nothing I could ever do would overcome the fact that it was me doing it.  Every single accomplishment I achieved inherently meant less – for me and for everyone around me – because I accomplished it.  Nothing I could do could bring me up; I could only drag things down to my level.  And so there was no way to get from where I was to where I thought I might sort of like to be, because no matter what I did, how hard I tried, or even if I succeeded, I’d still be me.

And now…

In the past week alone, I’ve had a meeting for the upcoming RPG for which I’m the editor, I’ve completed my first commissioned writing work, I’ve done my day job, I’ve cooked some dinners, coordinated an event, made its poster, filed my taxes, filled out loan repayment paperwork, spent time in person with my best friend, played a tabletop RPG, made plans to go visit another friend, DJ’d, gone shopping, and spent time with my significant otter.

Very few of these things were even conceivable fifteen years ago.  Or even ten.  Or five.

I interact with more people.  I’m more open to people.  I take more initiative.  I doubt less.  I worry less.  I panic less about making mistakes: I’ve made enough that haven’t ended the world, and I’ve even made some that led to positive things.  I’ve realized that no matter how much I plan or predict, I won’t get everything right: I’ll still mess things up, nothing will ever be absolutely perfect, and everything could always have been better.  But I’ve come to realize that, sometimes, something is better than nothing.  That it’s better to put something into the world, even if it’s not perfect, even if it could never be perfect, than to just sit on your hands and wish it were possible.

How did I get to the point where I was doing all these things?  Really, it’s because I started small.  Taking those tiny steps that seemed so completely insurmountable.  Knowing I wasn’t ready, and would NEVER feel ready, and just doing it anyway.  Deciding to be bold and dumb and stupid, to make ridiculous mistakes. If I started panicking and regretting everything and telling myself I Should Not Have Done This, This Was A Terrible Mistake, I made myself punch through it.  No ragequitting, no ha-ha-only-kidding, no sour grapes.  Just doing the thing, and if I didn’t like how well I did that thing, if I didn’t think I did a good enough job at that thing, if I was embarrassed to exist because of the thing, then I made myself do the thing again next time.  Either I’d improve, or the novelty would wear off, or it would become normalized, but either way, the panic would subside and I would be doing a thing I hadn’t done before.

As a dear friend once put to me, in his blunt but effective way, nobody really cares about these things but me.  That didn’t mean I shouldn’t care, or that my worry was invalid, or that my anxiety – by existing alone – had already made me fail.  And that didn’t mean that anything could take away the past: everything that happened, happened, and he held no expectation that I should change what I felt about it.   The only thing that could influence anything, from that point forward, was what I did next.  I could bail, hide my head, and resolve to never make the mistake of trying something new ever again.  And that would be fine.  Nobody would judge that. In all likelihood, nobody would even notice, and in time, nobody would even remember my attempt.  That’s the option that played to all my instincts.  But, as he said, in a way that somehow made it sound logical for the first time in my life, I could try again.  It wouldn’t take away what happened the first time.  But, assuming anyone noticed at all, they’d have noticed that I kept trying.

And I did.  And because I did, an unfathomable chain of events unfolded, over the course of years.  Uncountable small steps, some broader strides than others, some veering or stumbling.  But, in time… I’ve become who I am in the place that I am and in the condition that I’m in.

In short, I’ve slowly stepped out of the Spotlight Effect.  I’m not actually so magically horrible that average people notice or care. It doesn’t radiate off of me.  I don’t have a universal reputation as something worthless.  Nor am I somehow dutybound to express all misgivings about my worth, lest someone make the mistake of thinking I’m an okay thing.   At some point in the not-so-very-distant past, I came to realize that more people were neutral toward me than antagonistic, and that a surprising number of people were actually benevolent.  I still don’t really know that I deserve that degree of kindness, but it appears to be there whether I deserve it or not, because the kinds of people I’ve surrounded myself with are truly just that incredible.

I still worry that I’ve become selfish, of course.  Doing things, calling attention to myself, taking the initiative to make things happen just because I think that other people might like them.  Upsetting applecarts left, right, and centre.  But I’ve received so much positive feedback that it’s reinforced me to continue doing these things that I happen to like and want, and that other people happen to like and want even more.

And yet there’s an inherent hypocrisy to it.  I can’t believe that everyone who ever said anything awful to me was wrong, but everyone who ever says anything kind to me is correct.  Granted, there’s quite a gulf of years between the times of greatest awful and the times of greatest kind.   The criticisms of the past may feel like they hold true, but perhaps they don’t anymore.  The commendations of the present may ring hollow in the empty halls of that past, but perhaps they are relevant now.  This is the downside of isolation: you lack an outsider’s perspective on who you are and what you’re like.  Have I changed to become worthy of pleasant things somehow?  Was I always so? Am I actually mistaken and selfish, somehow blind to how terrible I am (despite how, by almost all objective metrics, I’ve undeniably worsened in every regard?)  Have I let myself be fooled by everyone else’s kindness, fooled into believing I’m a more worthwhile person than I actually am?  Am I just always going to feel worthless when I’m actually all right, and feel worthwhile when I’m actually a walking ruin?  Which is more ignoble?

I don’t think I have any answers.   But I think that’s okay.

All of that having been said, I’m still not sure there’s any one song that best describes me or my personality.  But this song resonates with me quite a lot lately, and once I actually took the time to look into the lyrics, I think it can be representative of this entire transition.

It sings of the constant clawing of regrets and the clangor of judgment. It sings of recognizing the depth of the dark and having no firm faith that anything will lead to light. Of questioning oneself constantly, forever beating a dead horse, never able to resolve anything.  Of a life confined and constrained, surrounded by dangers personal and impersonal and random, past and present and future.  But, above all else, it sings of an acceptance of that past, and even an acceptance of hope, and, with that acceptance, a shedding of old skins.  It sings of a life confined that moves forward not with great bravery, not with confidence, and not in pursuit of something sure and good and light – but, rather, by accepting that something awful could very well happen, that it could all be a terrible mistake, and Doing It Anyway.

The song that best describes the arc of my personality over the past few years is “Shake It Out” by Florence + The Machine.

 

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Day 18 – A Song By A Band/Artist You Wish To See Live

I’ve actually been struggling with this prompt.  Live music has never been a big priority in my life.  To be in the presence of the artist and hearing That Music played by Those Instruments held by Those Guys would be amazing, certainly.  But, with all those other people around – all the shouting and shoving and smoking – it becomes less appealing.  Though, then again, this prompt doesn’t say anything about a concert – just that I want to see them live.  So, why not assume ideal conditions – a private concert, just for me and select other awesomepersons – and go from there?

As for a living and, well, together artist… my first thoughts lean toward the mashup artists I like and share with others.  DJ Schmolli, Mashup-Germany, etc.  I have the occasional daydream of renting out a big warehouse, inviting all my far-flung friends, and getting one of those guys to DJ the event.  Although, given how many of my friends are musicians of some stripe anyway, just gathering them together would let me see a lot of artists I’d love to see live.

Of all the mashups I’ve ever played to those friends and others, I think the most consistently mindblowing one – and the one for which I’ve become most infamous – is probably DJ Schmolli’s “In The Mood For Some Killing.”  So, how ’bout that.

Hm.  Not exactly a deep and intriguing response so far. The prompt goes on to say that this band or artist can be “living, dead, together, broken-up, or fictional.”  So, why not one of each?

As for more conventional concerts or bands… would it undermine my credibility too much if I were to say Jimmy Buffett?  As the past entries have noted, that music was a big part of my childhood.  Sure, there are bands I enjoy more deeply, concerts that might be a more artistic experience.  I’ve heard that anyone who’s the least bit fond of Tool absolutely owes it to themselves to attend one of their shows, for example – and surely they’ll go on tour when they release that new album.  You know, the one that will seriously finally come out this year hopefully, right?  …Right?  Sigh.  Negativland just came out with a new album last year, as well, their first since 2008 – and I will forever kick myself for not having gone to see them perform when they were in town.  At, of all places, the Alamo Drafthouse.  So much kicking forever.

But, honestly.  I really don’t go to many concerts, and I really don’t expect that to change, so if somebody offered me tickets to any show I wanted… I’d probably have to go with the concert I’d been wanting to go to since I was in third grade.  Even if I don’t want to see him as badly now as I did then, the fact I’ve had at least some inclination for so dang long makes it a little more persuasive.  It’s compound interest, you could say.

I also feel I owe it to that younger self to see Paul McCartney or Ringo in concert someday – but I couldn’t give that as my answer for the living band or artist. Not when there’s a “dead” category.  I don’t care if it’s cliche, I’d love to see a Beatles concert.  Their music has wallpapered my childhood as well, though John was gone before I was even born.  So give me a time machine, give me some sort of wild gravitational lens. Let me peer through spacetime at the Cavern Club in February 1961.  Let me peek at the Prince of Wales Theatre in November 1964, and hear John ask the nobs to rattle their jewelry.  Hell, I’d even settle for watching the rooftop concert, knowing it was the end of it all.

Although, come to think of it… there must have been a first band.  Even if it was just a bunch of Neanderthals slapping their knees and singing.  Sometime in history, there was the first drumming, the first song, the first harmony.  Now that would be a dead band to see.  Not to mention the reactions of others.  Was there panic?  Confusion?  Did they get their heads caved in by rocks, the survivors ignoring it, maybe even forgetting about it for a few more generations, until people happened to do it again?  It would be beyond wonderful to hear the first “true” human (or hominid) song, for… whatever value of “true” that I don’t particularly feel like explicating right now.  Heh.

As for bands that have broken up… perhaps Pink Floyd.  They aren’t now anything like they’d been, and, again, I’m no die-hard fan.  But I’ve long wondered what it would be like to hear some of these things live and in ear-blistering Marshall-stack sound.  I honestly can’t think of any other defunct band I’d particularly like to see where most of the members are still… y’know, alive.

Fictional bands, though… good question.  I have a deep and poetic fondness for the reification of fictional things.  If just because it’s also a reminder that, no matter how real and famous and influential something cultural may be, it was fictional once.

It’s a bit of a tangent, but it’s a fascinating tangent: have you ever stepped back a moment and realized how all our cultural musical cues were, at some point, nonexistent?   The “du nuh… du nuh… dunuh dunuh dunuh” of Jaws, now a shorthand for suspense, once denoted nothing.  There was a time before the “dooDOOdoodoo” of The Twilight Zone’s theme became a wordless evocation of the eerie.  Elevators existed long before anyone wrote “The Girl From Ipanema!”   But now they’re in popular culture, propagating memetically even to people who’ve never seen the source.  I’ve absolutely gone “dunuh dunuh dunuh” while jokingly sneaking up on someone – but I’ve never seen Jaws nor even that full scene.  I bet there are kids now who use the Twilight Zone theme to code for spookiness, without even knowing what it’s from. What songs or themes will be hummed on schoolyards in a dozen years or so, and what meanings will they convey?

No matter how famous a song is, there was a time when it didn’t exist, and there was a time when it didn’t quite exist.  When the artist had something, and knew it was going to be a song, but just didn’t have it finished yet.  The meter wasn’t quite right yet, the lyrics not set.  It didn’t even exist as itself yet, much less as a meme.  For a time, then, you could say that finished song was fictional.

And then there are the songs inspired by dreams.  Like when Paul played the melody he’d heard in the night before’s dream, giving it the placeholder lyrics of “Scrambled Eggs” before, eventually, fleshing it out into “Yesterday.”  For weeks he played that melody to others in the industry, because he was sure he must have heard it before.  It didn’t feel like a thing constructed, but like a thing that simply existed already.

There’s a sense in which all art is about taking the fictional – the imagined world – and making it exist in some way. Transmitting a concept, emotion, etc. from one brain into another brain by manipulating elements of the physical world.  Which is absurd and wonderful.

So, out of all the fictional music, what would I most like to see or here in the real world?

I’m rather pleased that “Game of Thrones” is already giving sound to “The Rains of Castamere” and other such fictional songs. So that, delightfully, is rather less fictional than it used to be!

The first thing that comes to mind is just about anything performed by Kvothe from The Name of the Wind.  The fictions within fictions make that book, and that world, so wonderful.  Stories interwoven with other stories, references made to folk music and other languages and etymologies and, of course, the secret names of all things – names that bear actual power.  Far from being overcomplicated, it’s just so natural to read of characters referring to other characters, other stories, other songs, as they’re powerful parts of their culture.  It makes the world seem bigger, older, richer.  So I’d love to hear “The Lay of Sir Savien Traliard” in all its complexity and lamentation.  Or just to hear all the verses of “Tinker, Tanner,” including whatever ones Kvothe would be making up there and then.

Perhaps any of the bands from Terry Pratchett’s “Soul Music,” if just to make real another bit of the Discworld. (Though the Discworld Emporium does a painfully fantastic job of that in a non-musical way, as well, and if I had the disposable income, I’d surely buy at least one of everything.)  I’ve heard there’s a somewhat wince-inducing animated version, but I haven’t seen it yet, and can’t find any of the songs in isolation. So.

While I might once have been interested in hearing The Weird Sisters from Harry Potter… based on the film depiction in Goblet of Fire, their lyrics stink on ice.  You coulda done better than that, Jarvis; c’mon.  Those are lyrics for kindergarteners.

Still, I might rather see them than Dragon Sound.

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Day 11 – A Song By An Artist / Band You Wish Everyone Knew About

Yes, this is meant to be 30 Days of Songs.  Yes, I started it a full year ago.  Yes, the fact that I haven’t finished it yet is also part of what’s been making me sit on my hands and not post much on this blog.  But let’s pick up Day 11 on the 11th, shall we, and see if I can’t just manage to do 30 Days of Songs in less than a year.

This is an interesting question, really.  A band I wish everyone knew about?  Everyone?  A band whose music I wished to inflict on absolutely every human on Earth?  Surely not:  no matter how much I loved any given group, no matter how meritorious I thought one of their songs might be, there’s no way it could successfully cross all the cultural gaps and somehow be worth everyone’s time, right?

So I’m going to scale this question back a little, at least to start, and I’m going to be ethnocentric about it: by “everyone,” I’m just going to assume it means “everyone in my culture.”  Which is still more nebulously defined, but it’s at least more approachable than the freaking Voyager Golden Record task of thinking of some song I would want to share with an entire planet. Maybe whatever I figure out will work more universally, but I’ve gotta start small-scale.

Even when it’s scaled back like this, though, it’s still a pretty weighty question.  Should I pick a group that’s very well-known already, but that deserves being even more well-known?  Or should I pick something that’s obscure?  Should I pick something I actually think everyone would like, something I think they’re missing out on?  Should I pick something that’s so different, so avant-garde, that it would be shocking — but would be incredibly inspiring for the fraction of people who operate on a similar wavelength?  Perhaps I can narrow it down.

I do think it would be best to pick something obscure.  Even though that itself is vague; almost everything is obscure to somebody.  Okay, maybe not The Beatles.  Or maybe so The Beatles; I really do wonder how aware my niece’s generation is of their music.  Back when I was in elementary school, there was only a small knot of people — many of them not even in my grade, but a year behind me — who had any real cognizance of oldies or classic rock.  Even in junior high, there was still that sense of discovery, hilarious in hindsight:  “Dude, have you ever heard of this ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ thing?”  “Yeah man, that’s trippy stuff!  But here, you’ve gotta check this out — it’s a Led Zeppelin CD, but its name is all symbols, so I dunno what it’s even called.”  “Whoa.”

Now that more time has passed, and the Internet has made discovering new music so easy it’s rather overwhelming, that sense of discovery is both heightened and defused.  Heightened, yes, because it’s so much more likely that you and your friends are stumbling across some band or artist that very few people know… yet defused because it’s so much less likely that you’ll meet anyone else who’s a similar fan.  When you’re in school, you’re a captive audience to commercial culture.  Your personal preferences outside of school may be whatever they are, but for eight hours a day, you’re still going to see your peers wearing certain shirts, making references to certain artists, listening to certain bands.  If you take the bus, you’ll probably hear the Top 40 hits — which is usually more like the same ten songs, over and over.  Whether you’re actually caught up in it or not, you’re still in sight of the mainstream, and it becomes part of that ambient culture of your generation.  Even though high school subcultures could practically be defined by their music preferences — the Rapper Kids, the Goth Kids, the Stoner Kids, the Punk Kids, the Christian Rock Kids, the Country Kids.

By the time you’re out of school, however, and no longer in forced proximity to people in your same age range, you have the latitude to choose what sorts of people you hang out with, where you go, what you do, what you listen to.  It’s easy to break away from the mainstream entirely, and to drift off into a little eddy of your own — ideally no stagnant pool, but still much more selective.   Commercial culture isn’t marketing to your peer group anymore, and so you have to make a point of seeking out the trends to see what today’s hip, happenin’ teenagers are listening to.

What you grew up on is obscure to them.  What they’re immersed in now is obscure to you. Everything’s alien to someone.

But I’ve shared enough music with enough people to know how truly wonderful it is to watch someone discover something and fall in love with it.  To go from complete unawareness of the song’s existence, assuming themselves pretty content with their lives, to hearing that song, and feeling such great affinity for it that their brains are simply swimming in endorphins.  It was no part of their life before, but after hearing it, they’re happier!  Amazing!

Oddly enough, it’s that exact thing that makes me lean away from picking something… safe.  Yes, I could try to pick a song that I thought a lot of people might like, based on all the other things that they hear and like.  But that’s the same path to madness taken by everyone who designs art by committee.  Seeking mass approval at all costs, creating only some thin and tasteless gruel that everyone finds equally inoffensive, but few people really love.  This is why I don’t believe in “giving the people what they want.”  I don’t think the people know what they want.  I think that the most amazing things, the most beloved things, the most exciting and interesting and influential things, are by definition the things that nobody quite saw coming.  They’re logical progressions from previous genres, sure; it’s no musica ex machina.  But nobody asked for rock and roll.  Punk was not approved by a focus group.  Rap was not born in a boardroom.  When they bubbled up into mainstream awareness, they were controversial.

And that’s good.

I think we need that again.  I think we need a new artist, a new genre, that gets parents and preachers upset.  Something that makes old people a little bit scared, because it’s nothing remotely familiar. I’m not sure if we have one right now.

Well, besides dubstep, perhaps.  Though it’s already fallen well out of vogue, from what I can tell.  Still, it was a common target of mockery as it rose from obscurity and mutated from its roots.  It was decried as noise and garbage, as the sound of broken robots arguing in a blender.  It seemed to make some people outright angry.  It’s no surprise that we burn out on things faster than we used to; it no longer takes nearly as long for an artist or genre to become incredibly well known, so it also doesn’t take nearly as long for people to get utterly sick of hearing it.   Trap seems to be rising as a successor, but it doesn’t seem to have the same shock-your-parents level of strangeness to it, and I’m not sure that it could.  It’s derived so clearly from rap and from other EDM that it’s not really all that alien.

Obviously, if I were prescient enough to know what the next new, weird, shocking, game-changing musical genre would be, I wouldn’t be sitting here blogging in my pajamas and eating lukewarm leftovers.

But the point still stands: I wouldn’t want to take my captive audience and share something I already knew everyone would like. I’m not ClearChannel.  IHeartMedia.  An asshole.

No, I wouldn’t necessarily want to everyone to smile afterward and thank me.  Forget just sharing a different band that I thought needs more love, a band that does a standard rock / pop / whatever thing, and does it very well, but hasn’t hit the big time though it deserves to.  Sorry.  I’d rather share something that is, in some way, unlike anything most people have heard before.  Something that takes the familiar and the comfortable and renders it unfamiliar: that recontextualizes it, restructures it, deconstructing and reassembling it in new ways.   Something that grows music in what seems a fallow field.

There are a few options for that sort of thing, Negativland perhaps foremost among them.  After all, they invented the term “culture jamming.” If anything, remixing and recontextualizing is only more relevant now than it was at the beginning of Negativland’s tenure, and the aims of culture jamming all the more important.  Still, their work might be – dare I admit – too different?  Not quite approachable?  Hard to appreciate without a lot more context.  That, I think, is the core.  It’s hard to just take a single one of their pieces and understand what they’re doing, what they’re using, and why they’re doing it – if just because most of their work is, well, older, sampling commercials and songs and speech that have already been defused by time itself.  (I haven’t listened to their newest album, It’s All In Your Head, yet, though; it may have more current stuff.) And it’s not as if their past work doesn’t still make relevant commentary about consumerism, war, and religion, obviously.  But unless one were alive cotemporaneously, the references used to make those points just won’t have the same impact.  It won’t be turning the familiar on its ear, because it won’t be the familiar.

So.  Scale back a bit again.  Something less avant-garde, but with similar workings.  Mashups?  Those work best, by far, when someone is already familiar with both sources, and I’m not sure of anything that could be so broadly known. They, more than anything else, seem to blow the minds of people who hear them – but only if they already have that cultural context to really appreciate the juxtaposition.  Anyone else would just hear some backing tracks, and some vocals, and might have no reason to believe they were originally from different songs.  Which is delightful, of course, but it also means it doesn’t carry as much meaning, and it’s not as much fun.

The Evolution Control Committee?  Similar issue: not everything they’re sampling is “the familiar.”  Their work tends to be more fun, though, and not always as expressly political (though the whole sound collage / plagiarhythm genre inherently makes a statement about culture by appropriating it.  …Though, well, what doesn’t.)

Other cut-ups, then?  Rx’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” built from Bush speeches is still a pretty amazing thing, and is even melodious, but has the same issue: interesting in its mechanics, but no longer timely. Much more timely is Diran Lyons’ parody of Jay Z’s “99 Problems” constructed from Obama speeches.  Timely, yes… but not as smooth and fluid or melodious, and hard to even follow the lyrics without reading them at the same time.

Schmoyoho, and Songify nee Auto-Tune The News?  Closer: it’s certainly more approachable, more upbeat, more melodious, less charged.  Auto-Tune, like dubstep, is mercifully less of A Thing now, or at least isn’t being used so blatantly.  But it still exists to take something mundane and pedestrian and weave music out of it.  Creating something often beautiful out of something boring.

Who else makes music of the mundane?  The Sursiks: their entire album I Didn’t Know I Was Singing takes answering machine messages and creates music based on the tempo and melody of casual human speech!   The instruments are played well, the music is catchy, and it really makes the listener aware of how musical “non-music” can really be.    So I think that’s my final answer:

“Sister!” by The Sursiks is something that everyone ought to know about.

It’s not on YouTube, so I can’t link to the song that way, but it is indeed listenable, in full, under that link.  Purchasable, as well!

Why that one?  Well, there are no swears, and only the mildest of potty humor.  Is there a great and compelling artistic message to it?  Nope.  It’s a message left from one sister to another, relating one of the little agonies of daily life – and remembering a similar incident from childhood.  It’s just a bit of spoken language.  But David Minnick and company flesh it out into a full and proper song, with expert instrumentation, catchy syncopation, and general improvement of everything the original source was.

That song, and that group, possibly more than any other, might serve as reminders that there’s music everywhere.  Not just if you’re talented enough or rhythmic enough, as with STOMP’s stuff.  But that the natural intonation of your natural voice may very well be someone’s song.

 

 

 

 

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Day 01 – A Song From One Of Your Favorite Albums

And it begins!

This is a tricky question for me, mostly because I’ve rarely listened to albums straight through.  I’m one of those heathens who always listened to the radio more than anything else.  I was fortunate enough to live within broadcast distance of my state’s capital city, so despite the paucity of other entertainment options in my small town — pre-Internet, no cable,  under half a dozen broadcast channels (and two of them were preacher stations, which don’t count) — I  still got to pick up a variety of music over the airwaves.  However, I mostly kept to the Oldies stations as a kid.

I liked the randomness of it, of never knowing what you’d hear.  The way that hearing your favorite song always felt like some divine blessing — music-manna falling from the sky, just for you.   Putting in an album and listening to it straight through never had that same thrll, even if you knew your favorite song was on there.  It was so controlled, compared to the roulette wheel of the radio dial.  You spins the knob and you takes yer chances.

So I never had a very big budget for CDs, and it wasn’t a high priority.  Which was just as well, because the local Kmart didn’t have a very big selection.  Really, the only reason I had CDs at all was that my parents had signed up for the Columbia Record Club, and if you didn’t buy a gross of CDs every month, they’d send someone to break your kneecaps.

Still, at some point late in elementary school, I rediscovered The Beatles.  I’d heard them on the Oldies station, sure, but they tended to keep to the safer tracks.  “She Loves You” and “Penny Lane” and “Hard Day’s Night.” None of the more psychedelic, avant-garde stuff; you’d never hear “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “I Am The Walrus.”   “Helter Skelter,” certainly not.  “Revolution 9” was right out.  And even “Strawberry Fields Forever” was, apparently, too trippy.   So, as I was experiencing some pre-teen rebellion and my father was a rather conservative man with a strong distaste for all things Hippie, some of these albums became like forbidden fruit.

Which, of course, meant that I had to get my hands on one.

I couldn’t just circle Sgt. Pepper in the Columbia Record Club booklet, convinced as I was that my father would kick me right out of the house.  And I didn’t have the means to go buy the CD myself.  Fortunately, despite all assertions that Home Taping Was Killing Music, my grade-school peers and I had a reasonably thriving subculture of mixtapes and bootlegs.

And so it was that, one day, I smuggled home a cassette of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, courtesy of an even-more-Beatlemanic friend.

My first challenge was getting the tape into my room at all.  I always just abandoned my backpack on the couch, so the obvious method of taking it into my room would be nothing but suspicious.  Instead, I had to wait until nobody was looking, then transfer the cassette from pack-pocket to pants pocket, then dash from the living room to my room.  It seemed a lot more daring at the time.  However, that act of subterfuge had only been the first hurdle.    I couldn’t just put it on the stereo — my parents would hear.  If they even found me listening to the stereo with headphones on, they’d surely ask what I was listening to.  Clearly, I thought, the only safe way to listen was to pop it in my Walkman, then hide under the covers, disguising myself as the usual lumpy bundle of bedsheets and pillows.

Brilliant.

So I huddled down, flimsy headphones on my ears, the old Walkman in my hand, thinking about the strange and transgressive music I was about to hear, the album I knew was famous, but otherwise knew nothing about.  I pushed down the Play button, which made that satisfying mechanical CLUNK.

However, instead of the innocuous orchestral tuning noises and hushed audience chatter, instead of the bouncy strum of the bass and the vaguely metal-prefacing screech of the guitars…

The tuning sounds sounded like alien instruments being dumped into a cave.  The mutterings were bizarre chants.  The bouncy strum became a low funereal dirge, and the guitar didn’t screech, but drone.  I had no way to know something was wrong at the time.  I had no frame of reference.

And so, for a good twenty minutes, I was convinced that Sgt. Pepper was an atonal, experimental album — probably designed to represent the feeling of being on drugs.

No wonder it was famous!

When the music slowed and slowed and finally stopped, and I opened up the blanket-fort enough to let in a sliver of light, I saw that it was no pregnant pause in a song — the batteries had died.  They’d been dying all along.

Feeling somewhat like a heel, I quickly found some replacements, rewound the tape, and tried again.

I didn’t dislike it, by any means.  And it did still seem fairly far-out.  “Lucy in the Sky” was as wild as I’d anticipated, and “Within You Without You” even moreso.  “Good Morning Good Morning” was a catchy but brutal ode to suburbia that, decades after it came out, I could still relate to.  “She’s Leaving Home” was rather depressing, and “A Day In The Life” was even more forlorn, but ended with such a nervy, cacophonous buildup, that, for a long time, I couldn’t listen to it all the way through, But none of it was anywhere near as strange as I’d thought it was during that brief bubble of time, hidden beneath the blankets.

Still, the more I listened to the album for what it was, the more I enjoyed it for what it was.  I had wondered before whether I’d have appreciated The Beatles as much if I’d grown up with them.  If I’d have dismissed them as firmly as I dismissed things like the Backstreet Boys.  But, hearing Sgt. Pepper, I realized that The Beatles really were more than pop stars, more than a manufactured boy band.  Maybe it wasn’t as avant-garde as I’d originally misheard it, but the album actually was experimental, throwing in sound effects and sitars and whole orchestras playing fierce non-music crescendos.  The Beatles used their power as the biggest pop stars around to get away with breaking that very mold.

In later years, I found different albums to sneak into my room, everything from Nirvana to Pink Floyd to Ozzy Osbourne to David Bowie to Marilyn Manson.  In hindsight, I don’t think my parents cared what music I listened to, at least not by the time I was in my teens.  But there was something about the sneakiness that made them all sound a little better.  Sitting on the bedroom carpet, door closed, headphones on, volume low in case the cord popped out, doing nothing else but listening with studious intensity.  Trying to think of everything on its own merits, and also in the context of everything that had come before it and everything that came after, as if trying to put together a map of pop culture itself, of Coolness itself.  Hoping I might, at last, figure out where I was — and how to get somewhere else.

Of all the songs on Sgt. Pepper, the reprise has always hit home most.  It is, itself, a different version of a song already heard.  Its grinding and screeching guitars seem to carry echoes of hard rock and heavy metal music still to come.   The alter-ego band motif calls to mind all my unanswerable questions — what if The Beatles never became famous?  What about the parallel universes where John never met Paul, or where Richard Starkey died of his childhood illnesses, never living to become Ringo Starr?   What about the one where John never met Yoko, and The Beatles were playing that very night in Branson?    Somewhere, maybe Sgt. Pepper really was released as half-speed avant-garde art piece.  Maybe that had a different effect on that otherwise-identical culture — or maybe it made The Beatles a footnote.

So it reminds me that music can matter.  It can be the soundtrack to someone’s personal life, or the soundtrack to a cultural revolution.  It can become so iconic that millions know it by heart, even though thousands discover it anew every year.   And yet, in the end, it’s rather arbitrary. Things could always have been different.  But no matter how a work IS, the way we actually perceive it  — the way we perceive anything — is informed as much by our expectations as by the work itself.    I certainly had strange expectations of Sgt. Pepper – and a still-stranger first experience.  It truly felt like music that fell out of a wormhole somewhere, and wasn’t meant for this culture at all.  How could I not be a little let down to realize that it was all so much more mundane?  And yet, how ridiculous would it be to scorn that album, or any album, or anything, for not living up to my incorrect assumptions or out-of-context first impressions?  I’ve tried to keep that in mind ever since, whenever I encounter something new.  Take it as it is, and in its proper context — not as I mistakenly thought it should have been.

But there’s another part to the story.  A part that I never knew until maybe a decade after this incident.  A deeply subjective part that, truth be told, might be the biggest factor in why I like the album so much.  Not just because it makes me think about my expectations, or transgressive media, or the cycles of teenage rebellion, or relationship between art and culture, or the way everyone has some sort of baggage or priming that disposes them to perceive things differently.   Rather, just because it reminds me that the world is very weird.

You see, I was in my late teens, visiting a friend’s house to help her and her family prepare to move away.  She had only come to the state a few years previously, so we had never known of each other until we were in high school.  But those few years we got to hang out in person were marked by ridiculous weirdness of only the highest caliber.   We were taking a break from the housework efforts, discussing our usual melange of whatever was interesting at the time.  And I told her this very story.

She blinked in surprise.  “That actually happened?”

I swore on a stack of moose.

She, too, had smuggled home a bootleg tape of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

She, too, was in grade school at the time.

She, too, listened to it in secret — and for the very same reasons.

She, too, had even hidden under the sheets.

And yes, she, too, thought it was one of the strangest, most avant-garde albums she’d ever heard.

But hers played back at double-speed.

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Preface to a Series of Rants

When I started this blog, I didn’t have any particular idea for what it would be.  Slice-of-life?  News commentary?  A place to share new music I found?  Somewhere to trepidatiously dispense fiction or – dare I suggest – poetry?    Over time, it’s ended up as more of the second.  I’ll read some news article that pisses me right off, and as my main response to that is to vent my frustrations in word-form, this blog bore the brunt.

Although I appreciate having a space for that, and although news topics are Important, it’s really not my favorite sort of rant.  Gender matters, political matters, economic matters… they do matter, and the emotional investment can drive some strong and stirring prose.  However, it’s just a loud yell in an echo chamber.  The more Important something is, the less attention anyone pays to the writing itself, the reasoning itself.   People tend not to respond to the argument itself, but rather to whatever they think the argument is — which is usually based more on their pre-existing views on the subject.  If they pay attention to the writing at all, often it’s little more than the first paragraph, or perhaps just the title.

You’d think I was being hyperbolic, but some commenters on an old entry proved otherwise.  They were absolutely certain that they knew what the post was about better than I did, and asserted that i was really writing about one specific case — despite the clear thesis statement to the contrary, despite the fact that 90% of the article was an exploration of that thesis, despite the clear disclaimer that most of the facts of that specific case were unknown.  It didn’t matter how clearly I indicated that the post was distanced from that matter — was, in fact, a response to the type of response one individual had, not only to that case but to all others like it.  It didn’t matter that this individual’s reaction wasn’t even unique to him, that it was held by many people who heard about that case and all others like it.  No matter how clearly I indicated that the post was a general exploration of the phenomenon at large, nothing more specific than a template — these commenters could not acknowledge it.   They knew what they wanted the post to be about — and nothing, not even the post itself, could dissuade them.

That’s the peril of writing about anything “sensitive” or “political” or “controversial.”  Despite how important it is, despite the greater need for empathy and understanding others’ perspectives, those are the very issues about which we’re most unwilling — perhaps even incapable — of changing our minds.  Blame self-delusions, or logical fallacies.  Blame being human.

But it might be another fallacy to believe that only these Important Issues are, in fact, important.  That, so long as there’s still injustice and stupidity in the world, it’s horrible to use any media platform to talk about anything else.  Because somewhere, people are being persecuted, tortured, killed, and you’re going to write about MUSIC?

Yup.

Is it a harsh and sudden gearshift, given the rest of these posts’ blatherings about Important Social Matters and Important-To-Me Coping Matters?  Rather; thus this bit of buffer.

But I had intended this to be a place where I could write whatever I damn well wanted to write, this time in a place where people might actually find it and read it.  I’m no great communicator; I’ve got no pretensions of changing the world, or even changing one single mind.  I am not Batman, nor The Night; my only purposes in writing are not to A) punish evildoers and B) brood.

All I want of this place is to be a petri dish, a neutral setting in which my amoeboid thought-processes can envelop and digest whatever morsel of information drops onto the agar.  And I’ve fed my thoughts too long on a diet of Things That Make Me Go HNNNNNNNG,

Moreover, since November seems to be the month for writing challenges, this will give me some vague semblance of direction — and might even have me in here posting something every day.  How ’bout that.

So, I’ll be taking the easy route:  I’ll be doing a 30 Days of Music prompt, one of those semi-memetic things that bounce around social networks sometimes, as they used to migrate through email address lists of yore.  A series of lowballs?  Perhaps — but they still might have the potential for interesting tangents and blatherings.

And, if I happen across any compelling writing prompts — or, yes, any particularly rage-inducing news I need to froth about — that will likely happen as well.

For anyone who’d like to play the home game, here’s the list of prompts I’ll be using.  I’ll try to get caught up to the present day.

Day 01 – a song from one of your favourite albums
Day 02 – a song you would sing in public/at karaoke
Day 03 – a song you know is horrible but love anyway
Day 04 – a song that reminds you or your dad/mom/childhood
Day 05 – a song you like more because of the video than the actual song
Day 06 – a song that makes you sad
Day 07 – a song you wanna dance to
Day 08 – a song you enjoy but don’t understand (foreign language, singer mumbles, historical context)
Day 09 – a song that gets you ‘hot’
Day 10 – a song you listen to/sing on the way to school/work
Day 11 – a song by an artist/band you wish everyone knew about
Day 12 – a song you know every word to
Day 13 – a cover song that is better than the original
Day 14 – a song from the first album you ever purchased
Day 15 – a song from the last album/the last song you actually paid for
Day 16 – a song you need to listen to again right after it’s finished
Day 17 – a song by the first band/artist you saw live
Day 18 – a song by a band/artist you wish to see live (living/dead/together/broken-up/fictional)
Day 19 – a song that describes you/your personality
Day 20 – a song that you thought was sung by a female but was actually sung by a male (or vice versa)
Day 21 – a song from your favourite movie
Day 22 – a song that energizes you
Day 23 – a song by an artist/band that you have no idea why people like
Day 24 – a song that describes your job/how you feel about it
Day 25 – your favourite/the most tolerable musical number (movie/tv/theatre)
Day 26 – a song that tells a great story
Day 27 – a song you think can save the world
Day 28 – a song you’re embarrassed to tell other people you think is good
Day 29 – the theme song for your life if it were a sit-com (doesn’t have to be a tv theme song)
Day 30 – the last song you’d want to hear before you die

 

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C Is For Combat Fatigue

Over a year ago, some unknown cleverperson posted a video of Cookie Monster clips — synched perfectly to Tom Waits’ “God’s Away On Business.”   The similarity in voice and the contrast in content was striking, but hilarious.

The same person has finally made another one:


The first one was funny and well-executed.  This one, though… this is quite a few steps beyond.It’s not as funny as the first, in my opinion — possibly because, having seen the first one already, the surface juxtaposition has been defused.  It’s not as weird the second time around, when you know what you’re expecting. Or when you think you do.

I think it’s even more ripe for analysis — and that it quite possibly makes a compelling statement in its own right.

This song, for one, is different.  Unlike “God’s Away On Business,” it’s not just about the rank and seedy underbelly of society, the damaged demimonde that we can almost romanticize for its foreignness, its abandon, its exultance in its own dissolution.  It’s not about a sort of person or lifestyle we probably don’t know and likely can’t relate to.  It’s about a soldier — and, nowadays, everyone knows a soldier.  It’s about war, which we all know about, which many of us support to some degree.  And, though the horrors of war are usually romanticized and draped in ideals of valor and patriotism, this song strips it away to reveal the mangled and all-too-human face under it.

And here it is, juxtaposed with innocuous clips from a children’s show.

There’s Cookie Monster, demonstrating left, right, left just as he normally would.  Singing nursery rhymes, as well.  Only the rhymes are about body bags, and about leaving the security of childhood, of good homes, of one’s mother, for this Hell.

Another viewing and you notice the little things.

The brief clips at 1:15 and 3:00 where you can see a placard behind him, with a bitterly simple list of how to tell if something is alive.

Telling Kermit, the reporter, of how Hell broke Luce, of how he wept at the death of his buddy, how he left his arm in his coat.

The confusion on the first “left, left, right;” the way that even with clear orders, clear “left, right, left,” the four monsters at 1:24 still can’t all follow the command.

The way the “body bag’s full” line is backed by a clip from an uptempo disco song — one that mourned the loss of a cookie with more pathos and personalization than the Waits song gives to a dead man. It’s not described as a person wrapped in a bag, but as the bag itself simply being full.

Then it cuts to a clip originally from a skit about doing one’s duty, about trying to get “through, through, through” adversity — and the temptation to use the disaster as a justification to fulfill yourself at others’ expense. It cuts off right before the shots of the avalanche, which were (at least to my young mind) some of the scariest moments in all of Sesame Street.  (Also noteable: A familiar viewer might remember that the only way Cookie Monster’s Casey McPhee got through the disaster was by eating all the “snow.”)

His looking left, right, left — sitting quietly at home, and searching for the source of gunfire, his puzzlement at an explosion — mimicking the way battles are no longer on vast battlefields but now tend to scythe through residential areas, where people still try to live.  The way the explosion is followed by a scene with debris and animals flying through the air; the way the disco dance scene seems to celebrate the body horror.

The way C is not for Cookie, it’s for a real bad Cough — and he celebrates eating a goat instead.

And, in the end, “what is next?”  Cookie Monster and all his buddies lying down and fading to black.

Watching it, I was struck by the realization that a great number of the soldiers in combat zones right now — and a great number of soldiers over the past couple of decades — grew up watching Cookie Monster.  That each one of them was a child once, perhaps just 15 years ago, and would have watched Sesame Street like almost every other toddler, learning about shapes and directions and letters and numbers, about how to be polite, how to  share.  How to deal with your feelings when you’re scared, or when things change that you can’t control, all without hurting other people.

Now they’ve been wrapped up in a war.  A mandate to hurt other people, to watch as their own people are hurt. No safety, no security, no certainty.

Death is not a strange and sudden diversion from the usual comfort and happiness.  Death happens because it’s the entire point — to cause enough death that the other side gives up.  Death isn’t Mr. Hooper’s heart attack.  It was Big Bird who learned to cope in that scene — but Cookie Monster, of all the characters, knows most about how utterly gone things are after they’ve been destroyed.  Death is not a passive absence that you can try to understand. Death is blown-off heads and entire bodies ripped apart in front of you.   With the death of war, you know they’re gone and never coming back – you know because you watched them go, or maybe made it happen.  You know that the lucky ones just lose their limbs, their hearing, their sight, their minds.

But there’s no circle of adults who can help you make it make sense.  Because it doesn’t make sense.  There’s nothing that can help you cope but gallows humor and a dose of a drug.  There’s nothing you can do but keep destroying things, because that’s what you’re there to do.  It’s your entire purpose.

There’s still not one good reason why it has to be this way.

There’s only “Just because.”

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