Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Quick book review, kid music comment and media business rant

Book review: I enjoyed an old Dave Barry book, Dave Barry's Guide to Guys. In other hands, this would be ... well, The Man Show. In Barry's hands, it's an effective satire showing how men make a mess of things. He doesn't apologize for it. He just makes fun of it.

I have indeed met Dave Barry. I was in line at the McDonald's snack stand in the Media Center for the 2002 Olympics. I idly glanced at the media credentials of the people around me and noticed "Knight Ridder Newspapers: Barry, David." Took me a second for that to sink in. But yes, it was him. All I could think to ask him was how he got the day off from curling.

Kid music: The little one has a new favorite song, and it doesn't have any Dr. Seuss characters in it. It doesn't even have any words. You guessed it -- Frankenstein.

Media business rant: Funny how people see declining profits at news companies and scream that the whole industry is going under. Ford recently laid off 372,018,794,183 people in 49 states (sorry, the Dave Barry exagggggeration thing is stuck in my head), and we're not seeing "Cars -- Are They Still Relevant In The Craiglist Era?" headlines.

And a bonus: I didn't see it on Comedy Central's site, but if you get a chance to see Jon Stewart's take on the Oprah takedown of James Frey, please do. The contrast of Oprah making Frey squirm alongside fawning questions of various political figures is classic. Basically, the point is that we're demanding more accountability of our memoir/fantasy writers than we do of our politicians. And it's a good point.

Frey's blog, by the way, is curiously silent.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Five to one, and one in five ...

No meme here gets out alive.

Especially one that requires tagging five people. Geez, do I even know five bloggers who'll do this? Sure, Corndog does, but he's a popular musician. I'm a lame journalist.

Anyway, here goes:

Remove the blog in the top spot from the following list and bump everyone up one place. Then add your blog to the bottom slot, like so.

1) Overread
2) BrightStar
3) dr four eyes
4) corndog
5) Mostly Modern Media

Next select five people to tag

1) Chip
2) Neel
3) Michael
4) Yeah, I really don't know many more people who don't stick to issues of journalism, technology or theology. The priest at my church has a great blog, and he's an amazing classical guitarist, but I don't think I should send this his way.

What were you doing 10 years ago?

January 1996: Yikes. I had just moved in with someone. It didn't go well, for a number of reasons. I was still working on a copy desk and fiddling with HTML in my spare time.

What were you doing 1 year ago?

January 2005: Shoveling snow, adjusting to life in the new house, taking MMM Jr. to the pre-toddler room.

Five snacks you enjoy:

A. Goldfish, preferably parmesan
B. Ruffles Natural. Slightly less unhealthy than regular Ruffles, so I eat twice as many
C. Popcorn. Not particular, so I lean toward healthier options
D. Cheese and crackers
E. Moon Pie, stuck in the microwave for two 10-second blasts. Not 20 seconds. Two 10-second blasts. You have to let the marshmallow contract a bit, or else you're just going to be scraping Moon Pie off your microwave for days.

Five songs you know all the words to:

Just five? And will there be a quiz? If I had to do this a capella, I might freeze like an American Idol contestant.

A. Overkill - Men At Work
B. I Am Henry The Eighth, I Am - Herman's Hermits (it helps that the second verse is the same as the first)
C. Middle of the Road - Pretenders
D. The Old Apartment - Barenaked Ladies
E. I'm Keeping Your Poop - Hayseed Dixie

Five things you would do if you were a millionaire:

A. Finish MMM Jr.'s college fund
B. Go on my own health care, quit work and write books. At least for a year or two
C. Buy some exercise equipment
D. Remodel the house
E. Give a ton of it to Jimmy Carter

Five bad habits:

A. Thinking depressing thoughts
B. Pointless Internet arguments
C. Coca-Cola, the best drink ever invented
D. Wasting time on IMDB wondering just what happened to, say, the voice of Marie on The Aristocats
E. Correcting people

Five things you enjoy doing:

A. Bicycling downhill or on level ground
B. Playing with dogs and children
C. Daydreaming, as long as it's relatively positive
D. Solving problems
E. Watching NewsRadio, Scrubs, Monty Python, The Young Ones, The Simpsons and Spinal Tap

Five things you would never wear again:

A. My marching band uniform
B. My Husker Du T-shirt. I liked it, I'll just never be that thin again
C. Hairspray
D. Black shoes with white socks
E. A turtleneck two sizes too small

Five favorite toys:

A. Sony Vaio
B. Ibanez ... not quite a Stratocaster
C. Anything resembling drums
D. Crock Pot
E. Soccer ball

Sunday, January 29, 2006


Things I recall from watching The Muppet Movie with my mom back when I was a kid:
  1. I was surprised it had a G rating. I mean, Miss Piggy and Kermit almost kissed!
  2. When Animal grew to enormous size, I loudly reminded Mom that he had taken a bunch of the growth pills that Dr. Bunsen Honeydew had developed. In retrospect, she probably knew that.
  3. She probably also knew that Max had been on Kermit's side for much of the movie, but I reminded her of that as well.

Do lyrics matter?

Well, of COURSE they matter, you say. Come on, MMM, as an admitted music snob grounded in notions of modern (not postmodern) thought, you can't be going anywhere with this.

Maybe not. But I need to respond somehow to a couple of valid criticisms of music I enjoy. The first is one we've discussed before (see "music snob" post linked above) from NYT critic Jon Pareles, who said Coldplay "came up with more of its grand, chiming, would-be anthems, only to ruin them with lyrics unworthy of the music's splendors." I enjoyed Michael's shredding of the Pareles pooh-poohing of the year in music, but that point is hard to dismiss. I've gone so far as to think of ways I would rewrite Fix You, but I've only managed to replace "I will try to fix you" with "I'll provide the tissue."

The other is from Corndog, whose second-by-second undressing of Styx's Come Sail Away is a great read even if you don't quite agree with him. You can be a Styx fan and still cringe at the way the ever-pompous Dennis DeYoung intones, "On board I'm the captain, so climb aboard." (For the record, Corndog, my biggest disagreement with this post is that you're way too harsh on the late John Panozzo, whose playing was a bit less sloppy than Keith Moon's. But if you really don't like his playing, maybe you'd prefer their current drummer, who's been in the band for several years now. I happen to work with his brother, oddly enough.)

So the question is this: Can you enjoy a song while finding the lyrics flawed or perhaps bewildering?

In the case of Fix You, I've already said yes. I certainly enjoy my share of bewildering lyrics as well, as the Throwing Muses and Tori Amos selections in my CD library and iPod will attest.

The beauty of song lyrics, though, is that they're malleable. The music and the vocal delivery are part of the message. And the listener adds his or her interpretations as well.

Basically, this is why people fill arenas to hear U2 while poets need academic posts to have enough time to draw 30 people to a coffeehouse to hear their latest. (No offense to the one real-life poet I know. How's grad school?)

It's also why music can elicit strong reactions even if we have, at best, an indirect reaction to the lyrics.

Rewind to Friday morning, when I was in the gym at work. I'm always a little out of place there, surrounded by guys who work out roughly four times a day and spend their weeks scaling mountains or, for a light workout, biking the length of the W&OD trail at speeds exceeded only by actual members of the Discovery Channel team. They also embrace life and work in ways that I don't. ("Man, I wish I could get back to Iraq to do some more reporting, but they've got me chained to the desk. At least the kids are happy to see me.")

Me? I'm a flabby guy charting his 19th year of athletic decline since his high school cross-country days. I'm about to spend almost three weeks in Torino doing something I love, but I'm dreading it because I'll miss the missus and the little guy. And I don't mind saying I was a little depressed.

I got on the bike and flipped through my iPod choices, finally landing on U2's Bad (live version, of course). I recall some critical naysaying of U2's lyrics -- why a "silken sky and burning flag"? Supposedly it's about recovering from addiction, which doesn't directly apply to me unless there's such a thing as addiction to journalism.

And yet, it was exactly the song I needed to hear. Not for anything tangible in the lyrics. Just for the overall effect. Somehow, with some simple melodic lines and abstract lyrics, U2 is able to convey a sense of spiritual renewal.

The critics may say the lyrics are too muddled, the bass line is too simple or the guitar too repetitive. In my high school days, I might have agreed. But some musicians are able to do more with less, and that's frankly a more impressive skill (a rarer skill) than playing a thousand notes a minute. I'm as much of a Geddy Lee fan as any Rush listener, but I've grown to respect Adam Clayton's willingness to play four-note bass lines when it suits the song.

So I closed my eyes, pedaled steadily and listened. Near the end of the song, I opened my eyes and checked my bike telemetry. I was pushing a consistent 95-100 RPM. Ordinarily, that would push my heart rate up to about 140. This time, it was 124. I don't think that's coincidence. I felt calmer than I'd felt in a week. This was better than meditation.

Oddly enough, the next song was The Weapon, a relative obscurity from Rush's back catalog. Their 1982 album Signals was the first after their blockbuster Moving Pictures (you know, Tom Sawyer, YYZ, Limelight - admit it, you know all those songs), and it was the first in a series of synthesizer-heavy releases that sound dated today. The Weapon is one of the better songs, a meditation on the way the powers that be use fear as a way of controlling all of us, and it's one of the best examples of guitarist Alex Lifeson's intelligent riffing against the droning synthesizers.

Strange combination of songs, definitely, but it worked. Bad reset my mood. The Weapon helped me process all the things that had disturbed me in the past week -- the usual concern that the Middle East and environmental neglect are leading us all to ruin, dread over the long plane flights ahead, the usual major-project catastrophes at work.

As I finished the brief workout, I listened to Dire Straits' Romeo and Juliet and marveled at the way Mark Knopfler says so much more with his guitar than he does with his voice. (I love the Indigo Girls, but they did a wretched cover of this on the otherwise excellent Rites of Passage, apparently not noticing the importance of Knopfler's understated delivery.)

I left the gym feeling much better. Granted, I only needed a couple of meetings to get back in the doldrums, but it was reassuring to know these things must pass.

And aside from a couple of tangentially related lines in The Weapon, I can't point to anything in these lyrics that made me feel better.

Back in my music-major days, I used to tell all my classmates -- all more acquainted with Stravinsky and Mahler than with Billy Joel and Husker Du -- about an interview I read with Miles Davis in which he said he could cope with personal tragedy by going to the piano and playing a B-flat major seventh. I managed to work that chord into a lot of my theory exercises for my classmates' amusement. After a while, it loses its impact, but I still love the concept.

Best kids-movie soundtrack ever ...

... it's still The Muppet Movie.

(Now if only we could find it on CD for less than $65. Or perhaps at iTunes.)

Funny exchange with MMM Jr. tonight:

MMMJ: "We watch Dinosaurs? Watch Dinosaurs?"

Mrs. MMM: "No, we're watching The Muppet Movie."

MMMJ: "Dinosaurs?!"

Me: "You know, when I was your age, my dad made me watch Hee Haw."

MMMJ: "NO Hee Haw. DInosaurs!"

If Dinosaurs weren't the dreariest kids film I've ever run across, I'd say I admire his taste.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Small town?

Attention, American Idol: The Greensboro-High Point metro area is up over 650,000 people. The Coliseum is huge -- it had NHL hockey for a couple of years, and it frequently hosts the ACC Tournament. It's not New York, but it's not Mebane. (Look it up.)

I'm just thankful they didn't have some stereotypical hick parade. Some decent singers, and some of the usual self-delusional people. In fact, I would've been disappointed if we hadn't had a couple of good freaky Southerners representing.

Here's what I want to see: A "Where Are They Now?" on all the contestants who walk out insisting that they're going to be bigger than anyone else on this show, that they don't need this show, that they're going to be sorry, blah blah. I'd imagine most of them have learned their lessons, but it'd be fun to see the ones who talk about their "careers" at, oh, Macaroni Grill.

I just wish Sheriff Hege could've been around to arrest Ryan Secrest.

Confessions of a music snob

Over at Down With Snark, Michael sometimes fights snark with snark, especially when he takes on NYT music critic Jon Pareles. Oh, sorry -- let's get the full title out there: "Jon Pareles, Indie Rockist Moron of the Year."

I like DWS in part because Michael, like Steven Johnson, is one of those guys I can read even when I disagree with him. In this case, I'm still deciding whether I agree with him. In fact, Michael has forced me to confront my own inner musical snob. More on that in a minute.

Pareles deserves the takedown, no doubt about it. He writes the typical "woe is me, I'm too intelligent for this year's music" piece that makes a good-hearted reader hate him even when he has a point. It's all too easy to picture him in some coffeehouse listening to some fourth-rate Paul Westerberg thrash through some boring set.

In fact, let's stick with Westerberg for a second, since rock critics of a certain age fawn over him like Academy Award winners fawning over their agents and lawyers. He and the Replacements were OK, nothing ... nothing ... more. Dyslexic Heart is fine and peppy in the context of the excellent film Singles, but "my heart could use some glasses" isn't much of a line if you don't happen to be staring at Bridget Fonda. In fact, glasses can't actually cure dyslexia, so what's the point? Nothing, but it didn't stop the critics.

So when Pareles extols the virtue of Kanye West and calls us all idiots for listening to Coldplay,
it's easy to drift off. We all know these people. They're the ones who tell us Saturday Night Live hasn't been good since Belushi left, etc. etc. He's me in high school, insisting that Rush or any other band full of virtuosos was necessarily superior to all other musicians. (Later, I discovered that writing a good pop hook is actually tougher than the bass solo from YYZ.)

Yet Pareles does have a bit of a point. We're in the biggest period of social upheaval since the late '60s, and though there was more pop fluff in that period than the rock historians care to admit, we had plenty of groundbreaking music. Creedence Clearwater Revival was a mainstream rock band, but Who'll Stop the Rain is one of the greatest understated protest songs ever. We don't have that today.

And while it's a bit unfair to compare Fallout Boy to Green Day, for reasons Michael spells out very well, it's valid for Pareles to ask if anyone did anything comparable to American Idiot or the recent U2 catalog. My favorites at the moment are Stereophonics and Carbon Leaf, both great and unique in their own way but not new entries into the rock canon.

(Music doesn't have to have a message to be groundbreaking. I'd quibble with Michael over Madonna -- you don't hear much dance music with the melodic twists of Ray of Light, and you have to respect the way she re-invents herself every couple of years.)

Deep down, we're all music snobs. I'm broadened my tastes since high school, though I still like Rush. But perhaps there's nothing wrong with demanding more out of our musicians. Pareles, at this point in his career, is simply the wrong messenger.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Truth: Stranger than Spinal Tap?

So you may have known that Stonehenge was a real-life song and concert disaster by Black Sabbath during the brief tenure of former and future Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan. (I actually didn't.)

What you may not have known was that Spinal Tap was too kind. Gillan, in a terrific deadpan, tells the story here.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Book review: Everything Bad is Good For You

Since we live in a postmodern age that treasures irony, here's one for you: Everything Bad is Good For You, which argues that today's popular culture is actually making us smarter, is a great example of the thoughtful, intellectually honest discourse that is sadly absent from today's society.

After spending countless hours on the Internet watching "arguments" degenerate into shouted slogans, reading Steven Johnson's well-reasoned book was refreshing, even if I don't completely agree. His argument is compelling -- for all the fuss over the supposed depravity and idiocy in today's entertainment (TV, video games, etc.), the complexity of that content is making us smarter.

The premise itself is intriguing, and his case is convincing. Today's entertainment is indeed complex -- we have TV shows with many intertwining plots, video games that ... well, befuddle aging computer jockeys like me, and the Internet is still on computers, no matter how much they dress it up.

Johnson even does the courtesy of addressing legit counterarguments. Through most of the book, I was thinking, "Sure, we're better at thinking complex thoughts, but are we losing the ability to think in linear terms?" Then he addressed it, saying that's where schools come in. I didn't think that was quite sufficient, but at least he addressed it.

So here's my problem: Kids today can think through complex video games and TV shows, but they can't understand a simple reading passage. And we still want some things simple -- otherwise, wouldn't Arrested Development be a hit?

Also notable: He claims the Internet is pulling us together because we can interact on it, which is impossible on TV. Fair point, but I'd offer two counterpoints. First, we have a drive to be sociable for which some have found the Net to be a cheap substitute -- instead of socializing with our neighbors, we're conversing only with people exactly like us on the Net. Second, TV once offered us some common threads on which to build our culture.

Also, I don't think it's quite fair to say that sitting in front of TV is less of a social activity just because we can't talk back. On the Net, many talk, but few listen.

As far as the historical comparison goes, Johnson is treating video games and so forth as an swap for passive TV viewing. But many people did much more than snooze in front of the tube. They read, they went out to museums, etc. Before WWII, they listened to radio, which required listener concentration and imagination to fill in the gaps. And plenty of kids my age were noodling around on guitars and so forth.

(Do kids still do that? It never ceases to amaze me that people who weren't that good in school can pick up a guitar or a pair of drumsticks and perform feats of mental agility that Ph.D.s couldn't comprehend. There are stoners who can play Rush songs, for crying out loud.)

So the argument has flaws. But it's still a pretty good argument, and he's aware of its limitations. In today's "for us or against us" world, that's pretty nice.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Monday, January 16, 2006

From today's listening

1. Something that still haunts me to this day -- am I the only one who realizes how much Peter Gabriel borrowed from Superstition when he recorded Sledgehammer?

2. Of all the tangled band histories I keep in my head, one of the least sensical is Concrete Blonde's. The deep, dark voice of a female bassist-singer backed by one guy who used to be in Sparks and another from Roxy Music? That would be like forming a new supergroup with Fiona Apple, Greg Lake and ... I don't know, Andrew Ridgley?

3. Speaking of Fiona Apple, I'm going to start keeping an ear out for Rachael Yamagata, who sounds an awful lot like her but seems to rock ever so slightly more. I caught 1963 on XM's The Loft today, and that led me to her site. She's apparently a local of sorts (born in Arlington).

4. There's really a band called Morningwood? Seriously? I guess Beavis and Butthead were more influential than we all realized.

5. Early contender for MMM Band of the Year in 2006 is Carbon Leaf. I haven't dug into the back catalog yet, but I'm not sure these guys are capable of doing a bad song. They have a fun site as well -- I know one lurker in these parts will enjoy reading about their gear. And you have to love a band so obviously serious about their music but still light-hearted to the point of making a video featuring a tumbleweed.

Realism in animation

Upon seeing Madagascar for perhaps the 15th time, I found one thing that seems unrealistic.

The animals all communicating? The hippo picking up wayyyy too much stereotypical street slang? Penguins who can somehow overthrow the human crew of a trans-Atlantic cargo ship and learn global navigation? Andy Richter as a baby lemur (yes, Mrs. MMM, I looked it up)? No, those are all fine. Especially the penguins.

The basic problem -- I don't buy the concept of a lion as the star attraction of a zoo.

Ever seen a lion in a zoo? Ever seen a lion do anything in a zoo? No. If you've seen a picture of a lion, you've seen a lion in a zoo.

You go to a zoo to see the giraffe lope along. Maybe an elephant sighting. And little ferret-type things running around in tubes. Then you cram onto a platform like a rush-hour commuter just to catch a glimpse of the panda.

The lion? Yawn. Literally.

By the way, I strongly disagree with the "OK, but Shrek and Toy Story 2 are better" reviews. Shrek, I'm sorry, is overrated. The Toy Story films have never been able to hold my interest. Madagascar has inspired vocal performances throughout (the dynamic between lemur leaders Sacha Baron Cohen and Cedric the Entertainer makes repeat viewings survivable), a benign "fish out of water" plot and plenty of good absurdist humor. (Again, the penguins. Best cartoon characters since Road Runner and Wile E.) It's got its share of flaws -- the four "star" animals overdo the New York chatter, and I'd like to know where the monkeys were hiding during the penguin mutiny -- but I've seen it more than 10 times now, and it doesn't kill me. I'm sure I won't be able to say that about every DVD our little guy gets.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Not-so-Super Size Me

Finally got around to watching at least part of Super Size Me. I'm quite disappointed.

Morgan Spurlock had a brilliant idea, and he deserves full credit for following through. For those who missed all the hype, he went on an all-McDonald's diet and significantly cut his exercise. The rapid weight gain and onset of other medical symptoms is staggering. He takes his camera into the physicals he takes during his month of gluttony, and the reaction of the doctors -- who are actually surprised at the severity of his problems -- is some of the best "reality" programming you'll ever see. That part of the film is terrific, as are some of the general points he makes about the toll of obesity. (Warning: Look away during the surgery scene.)

Unfortunately, he broadens the scope, and in doing so, he undermines his point. Seen as an example of what happens when someone makes poor diet and exercise decisions, it's a solid piece of work. Seen as a broadside against McDonald's, soda commercials and school lunches, it's a strident, misleading political film that confirms all the worst stereotypes of the Left.

It's all too easy to go Mystery Science Theater 3000 on this film when he's doing anything other than following his own descent into blobness. He goes into a McDonald's and has difficulty locating the nutritional information, which will ring false to anyone who spends any time in Mickey D's. His bit on school lunches reminded me of the overbearing documentary maker in Beavis and Butt-head, who was hell-bent on showing a generation in crisis no matter how long he had to follow around our favorite teen wastrels. And yeah, we get it, more kids recognize Ronald McDonald than whichever dead president Spurlock decides to show them.

The part that made me put on the headphones and crank some Afro Celt Sound System was his exposition on calories. It started as a fun bit in which all his "man on the street" interviewees didn't know what a "calorie" actually is. He then offers up an expert to define it -- the amount of energy needed to heat a kilogram of water by 1 degree. OK, smirk, smirk, smirk. Now could you explain why that's significant? Why a cyclist or swimmer may eat 2-3 times as many calories as someone who only gets mild exercise? Anyone?

In other words, he complains that no one knows what a calorie is, and then he offers only the irrelevant part of the answer. Morgan, this -- not the soda machines -- is why our schools suck. We think kids are smart because they can raise their hands and give utterly trivial regurgitated answers. (Yeah, it worked for me when I was applying to college, but ...)

The easiest criticism of the film is that Spurlock takes the diet to the extreme. He eats way more than he's supposed to, and he cuts out the exercise. He responds at the end of the film that there are indeed people who eat and (don't) exercise that way. Fair point. But when so many other scenes in the film are snide comments about McDonald's itself, it's easy to read it as "McDonald's sucks" rather than "Hey, go easy on the fries and do some power walking, dude."

The goal, of course, should be moderation. That'll help anyone's diet, and it would've helped the film. Instead, it's too easily derided as a shrill, anti-capitalist rant. (If you read that sentence and think, "Hey, that's the big problem with Michael Moore, too," I'll take your word for it. I wasn't interested in seeing Fahrenheit 9/11 because documentary footage of Bush putting on makeup -- as if that made him any different from any president of the television era -- didn't appeal to me.)

The reaction I've seen to the film generally misses the boat as well. Wikipedia's contributors dutifully compiled a list of "rebuttal experiments" showing you can lose weight by eating only at McDonald's. Sure, if you make careful choices and eat only 2,000 calories a day, fine. They're essentially arguing personal responsibility, which is Spurlock's penultimate point. (Again, he leaves himself open for such criticism by making his final point a Ronald McDonald tombstone.)

McDonald's UK operations came up with a clever response, and they wisely start by conceding that the Spurlock diet would be bloody awful. They also tout their healthier options, some of which have come about quite recently. Unfortunately, their "true-false" quiz (hint: check "false" over and over) inaccurately implies that Spurlock made the "true" points, and the "balanced diet" they offer sounds terrible. If you want to go to McDonald's each day and eat nothing but fruit and lettuce, more power to you.

Then there's Spurlock Watch, which is the typical self-congratulating libertarian bullshit that made you lock your dorm's resident drunk out of the building back in college. Among the clunkers here: "And as regular readers of my blog know by now, today's adolescent or teen is still 200-700 times more likely to have anorexia or bulimia than to have Type II Diabetes. So all of this focus on weight and food with respect to kids is probably doing a hell of a lot more harm than good."

Riiiight. We don't want to push Dylan and Madison off the self-esteem cliff into bulimia, so let's run into McDonald's and shred all those mean old nutritional guides. If they think the Big Mac diet is good for them, well, they can't handle the truth.

My advice: Record or rent Super Size Me and just fast-forward or zone out through the pontificating. And switch to the small fries.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Death of the rock canon

David Yaffe asks (er ... make that asked, since this is actually a month old) a provocative question in Slate: Is there anything left to say about the Beatles?

It's funny timing on a personal standpoint because I've been running into all sorts of new Beatles material, including a BBC piece on producer George Martin that I thoroughly enjoyed. I've also subscribed to the "Beatles minute" podcast. And Slate linked back to an intriguing piece on the lack of qualify in Beatles solo albums, defending the psychological theory that all humans should strive for the mix of personalities offered in the four Beatless.

Perhaps we keep analyzing the Beatles because there's nothing to analyze in today's music. Maybe that's been true for a couple of decades -- as wonderful as some '80s music was, there aren't that many interesting questions about the creative process that weren't answered by Behind the Music. (I would like to see a retrospective on the early days of music video, but MTV and VH1 might realize that today's slickly packaged videos are creatively inferior to the charming efforts of '80s. There's no soul in that CGI.)

The other issue is that music has become increasingly disposable as we've moved from album to CD to iPod. Sgt. Pepper's really isn't the best Beatles album, but it's usually seen as the album that made an "album" more than a collection of songs, a belief that drove rock music through the '70s and most of the '80s. The CD era encouraged bands to record 20 minutes of decent material and 40 minutes of hit-or-miss stuff, rarely recording anything worth checking out all the way through. Now we're in an era of 99-cent singles.

Convenient, yes, but now it's tougher to use albums as landmarks in a musician's progress. And a single just doesn't have the same artistic impact as, say, U2's The Joshua Tree. In another era, we might gather to assess a wonderful CD like Carbon Leaf's Indian Summer -- perhaps not the best CD to enter my collection in the past five years, but perhaps the most consistently excellent.

I think we're losing something as pop/rock music loses its artistic pretensions and becomes a 99-cent-per-riff medium. Not that I have any idea what to do about it.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

A writer's plummet

Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager reading every issue of Rolling Stone, my favorite writer was P.J. O'Rourke. As with some of today's best satirists and commentators (Jon Stewart, The Simpsons staff), there was a brutal honesty beneath his savage wit. He saw plenty in the world worth deriding, but he saw beauty as well. He saved some of his most devastating quips for the people so hung up on themselves that they were oblivious to that beauty.

Today, P.J. O'Rourke is a tool.

P.J. had usually cast himself as the funny Republican, the guy at the party who liked to argue and pontificate but did so with a raise of the glass and a wink. As the country developed a partisan punditocracy, he sold out. The guy who had written GOP-friendly material for Rolling Stone suddenly launched into the requisite insults of everyone left of center. I recall the intro to the last book of his I attempted -- he said something along the lines of "I prefer conservatives to lefty weenie drivel-brains because they're above name-calling."

And so today, he's slipped all the way into the harrumphing old fart who "reviews" something by admitting (even feigning) ignorance on such a trivial topic and dropping a lot of big words into the mix as if to reinforce the notion that all such things are beneath him, as if he only wrote the review for sport.

The review in question in this case concerns that new book by former Wonkette blogger Ana Marie Cox. I'm not a political gossip fan, so I probably won't read this, but I've found the mixed verdict interesting. Of course, the "cute and smart, yet vulnerable and subject to undue criticism" mugshot of Cox that everyone's using might make us all a little more likely to jump to her defense. Especially when the former "Washingtonienne," Jessica Cutler (remember her?), gets all snippy about her shoes. Yeah. Jessica, sweetheart, you may have been hot stuff when you were exposing Capitol Hill's perverse sexual practices in bipartisan fashion, but now your face and your prose are just worn down from the ennui of overindulgence.

Such a topic would have been perfect for P.J. -- 20 years ago.

Can I upload this to Jay Leno?

I can't simply link to it because online ads rotate in and out, so you probably won't see the same thing. So behold the first picture on Mostly Modern Media, showing an unfortunate ad juxtaposition on a Post.com story about Lindsay Lohan's Vanity Fair interview:

But it worked, I suppose. I wound up looking up the play, and it sounds interesting.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Quick hits on radio, Lohan, computer crashes, etc.

Rather than spit out several posts while watching The Office (back to the U.S. version, in which I'm still rooting for Jim and Pam to get married and move in next door so we can all hang out), I'm wrapping up everything in my brain (minus things possibly deemed obscene) in one post:

My radio presets needed a bit of an edit this week. Sure, I've been relying on my iPod for my commutes recently, but now I feel vaguely guilty. Should I be listening to good radio stations before they all go belly-up? Z104 was one of the stations that did it right -- good mix of music, not completely predictable. It was a bit poppier than the old alternative stations that didn't last more than a decade (WHFS was an exception, but it's also gone now), but that was OK. Now I've got a classic rock station clinging to dear life, a likable pop/AC station from the mountains, another "mix" station and some oddball choices.

The oldies station, which usurped my No. 1 preset, might be the most interesting option now that it's branched out from its surf-rock mainstays into funky '70s stuff like Sugarloaf's Don't Call Us, We'll Call You. (Note that Sugarloaf followed up this tale of breaking through the barriers in the music industry by ... breaking up.)

XM and my iPod are great, but I'm worried that we're losing something without local radio. The conglomerates and the egotistical DJs they hire have been poor custodians of the tradition, but there's still something about hearing the local traffic guy work "Occoquan" into every single report (even though it's miles from nowhere) that says "home" to me in ways that my 50th playing of High on the Ceiling just can't.

Speaking of my iPod, I'm writing tonight from a new laptop. The old laptop celebrated the new year by crashing hard. I blame Google Earth, which was a bit much for my 256K RAM / 16K graphics card system to handle. I also found out today, by a coincidence that would make Pat Robertson claim divine inspiration, that Toshiba is settling a class-action suit on hard drives and other components on my now deceased laptop.

Why mention the iPod? Because Apple makes it remarkably difficult to transport music from a hard drive gone kaput. I managed to retrieve a few documents before things would completely awry, but I haven't been able to get enough life out of the Toshiba to follow the prescribed iPod formula for music transfer:

  1. Convert the iPod to "hard disk" use.
  2. Copy music from your computer to the iPod.
  3. Upload to another computer.
If your iPod and iTunes are already synced up for listening purposes rather than simply having music in two places, that won't work. You can't just take your iPod and upload to iTunes.

I understand the reasoning. Apple has to do something to discourage piracy in an age that encourages 13-year-old cynics to have no respect for copyright or basic economic sense.

But here's the funny thing: Under this system, you can transfer music between two working computers, but you can't use your iPod to restore the music you lost when the Toshiba went poof.

Fortunately, there are some apparently reputable programs that use a few tricks to circumvent the process. They don't tell you how to get your iPod working again after you've done so, but I figured it out with a bit of nervy trial and error.

F*** ER and its anti-child plotlines. I've already reproduced, motherf***er -- you're not going to scare me off with your distorted reality in which everyone who dies is either under 25 or the parent of a little kid. (Or a distorted reality in which every ... single ... pregnancy is unplanned. Except the one with the lesbian parents.)

Goran Visnijc, Maura Tierney and the rest of the talented cast should storm the production offices with rib spreaders.

Why does Norton Internet Security give me alerts like "Microsoft Internet Explorer is attempting to access the Internet?"

The scariest thing about Lindsay Lohan is that, at age 19, she used to be pretty. I don't say that to be snarky -- I say it because it's sad. That said, she might bounce back from her years of drugs, bulimia and dating Wilmer Valderrama.* Drew Barrymore was a mess in her late teens, and she's adorable now.

* - (Why doesn't anyone demand an explanation from Fes as to how an underage woman with whom he was consorting got so messed up? Oh yeah -- the double standard, I forgot.)

Holy crap, what an amazing Rose Bowl. I won't argue against a college football playoff, but I hope all those ex-jocks who rip the BCS realize that the old system would've forced USC to face Penn State, leaving us to argue for the rest of our lives instead of seeing that game.

I resolve to be kinder in my next post. I just needed to purge.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

In 2006, I will ...

  1. Be a good father.
  2. Write a book.
  3. Read some books.
  4. Walk around my town and neighborhood more often.
  5. Waste less time online.
  6. Waste more time outside.
  7. Come up with a plan for remodeling our house.
  8. Do a reasonable amount of yard work without becoming obsessive.
  9. Talk less and listen more.
  10. Give four or five more pints of blood, depending on what the Red Cross will allow. (I think my lifetime total is around 25.)
  11. Learn more about the charities I support and perhaps blog about them.
  12. Eat pizza.


I've always considered myself a fan of the Kevin Smith film Dogma, with my enjoyment hindered only by one small fact -- I hadn't actually seen it.

That changed last night. Most people might find a funny but provocative movie a little less than exciting for New Year's Eve, but Mrs. MMM and I specialize in offbeat calendar celebrations.

For this film, it was just as well that we watched it over a holiday, because it's just like a big Christmas dinner -- it takes a while to digest.

It wasn't quite what I expected. The buzz about this film suggests an intelligent comedy, which it is. But the plot was more intense -- and a little less satisfying -- than I anticipated. The central threat in the movie is that existence will go extinct if Ben Affleck and Matt Damon go through the gates and "prove" God is fallible. That premise is at odds with the rest of Smith's apparent theology -- no simple rule could govern so much -- and it's plain throughout the film that Smith's "God" is absolutely fallible.

Fortunately, this isn't a fatal flaw. Look past the premise, and Smith has several theological arguments far better than anything you're likely to hear in church or news coverage. Even Beliefnet would struggle to come up with anything this intriguing -- or this complex.

Smith doesn't show sympathy for the devil, but we sympathize with the fallen angels (Affleck and Damon), who take turns as the greater of two evils in some of the better dramatic moments of the film. Even the evil puppetmaster, Azrael (Jason Lee), has an argument to make.

The comic hook is that the good guys aren't traditional good guys. That's how the film was advertised -- Jay and Silent Bob, plus Chris Rock as a wise-cracking apostle. Lots of "f" bombs. Some of the critics fault Smith for this. Check the comments at IMDB, and you'll see plenty of people who dismiss the whole film because he makes fart jokes.

Again, it's not that simple. The characters are transformed as they wrestle with their consciences. Linda Fiorentino does a brilliant job expressing Bethany's desire to do the right thing even as she's skeptical and reluctant in her mission. Jay and Silent Bob, far less grating here than they are in other films, do more than get high and fart. Rock and Alan Rickman, the resonant voice of God, never pretend that the messages they're conveying are simple.

From a theological standpoint, Smith isn't as predictable as you would've thought. (Well, as predictable as I thought -- and I knew I'd like the film.) Sure, he expounds on the expected themes -- the injustice of killing in God's name, the hypocrisy of most organized religions, loving God in spite of his ... er, her ... followers. Those themes may anger some hard-core Vatican types, but they sit well in the Gen X/Gen Y postmodern skepticism crowd. But Smith goes beyond all that. He ponders the very nature of faith and belief. (And, bless his heart, he rips on the utter crapfest of a movie called Con Air.)

For the first hour and change, the tension in the plot kept me from fully enjoying it. I was anxious, and I'm well past the point in my life in which I like to be kept in suspense. (Maybe it's a midlife crisis, but I'm starting to think life is too short to wait for outcomes.) One pivotal scene won me over and ensured that, no matter how many flaws I saw in the film, I would defend it against its critics.

Rickman and Rock have called Fiorentino to intervene and stop Affleck and Damon, and she doesn't understand why. She has to be talked through each stage of her journey. Finally, as the crew is camping out, she's had it. "I'm tired of all this cryptic bullshit!"

Rock tells her something I won't spoil here, but suffice to say it makes her upset. She winds up splashing in some water, only to encounter Rickman. In the most moving part of the film, Rickman tells her that he was the one who had to tell the 12-year-old Jesus that he wasn't going to have a nice normal life. He says Jesus begged him to change reality. It's heartwrenching, and it fits another of Smith's major themes: Being called as a force of good means enduring sacrifice and struggle. (I'd argue Smith accidentally proved his point by enduring nasty criticism from zealots after -- even before -- this film's release.)

Even as this scene pays tribute to self-sacrificing heroes, it lays bare the problem many of us have with religion -- cryptic bullshit. Some may like to argue otherwise, but the Bible isn't a simple instruction manual. Moral choices are hard, and too many people try to influence those choices with disingenuous arguments. And spiritual choices are even harder, as we struggle to reconcile the notion of an all-knowing, all-loving God with all the suffering in the world.

The anxiety I felt in the movie mirrors the anxiety of spiritual and moral life. Who wouldn't love to yell "cut the cryptic bullshit" and have all truth revealed to the whole world? Wouldn't it be great to learn what it all means? If there's some plan for each of us, wouldn't we all like to know?

As I tried to absorb everything in the film, I flipped through a few reviews. The best two were at DVDJournal and Reel.com. At the latter, Jeffrey Wachs nails it: "Though there are well-aimed jabs at the Church, it is clear that Smith embraces the Catholicism he's satirizing." The former points out several of Smith's directorial flaws -- all of which are fair criticisms -- while embracing its strengths, including the unlikely casting of Alanis Morissette as God. (Seriously, she's good, showing off a gift of physical expression no one could have expected.)

Oh, and it's funny, too. Very funny. I'm sure it'll be even funnier when I watch it the second time. Even in the powerful climax, Jay delivers an f-bomb rant that is a perfect reaction to what's gone on. If you don't care about spirituality and feel nothing for the characters, just see it for the jokes.