Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I Don't Know How to React to This

Every day I read a Blog called TVTattle.com, which is a list of links that relate to television. Yesterday I came across a link that said, "Gwyneth Paltrow raps 'Straight Outta Compton'" and I have no idea what to think of this.

Twenty years ago, I would have been pissed. I'd get all self-righteous and wonder how an ultra privileged woman born with a silver spoon jammed in every orifice (she is the the daughter of actress Blythe Danner and film and television director and producer Bruce Paltrow) could identify with NWA and their message. I would drone on and on about how while Paltrow may have lived in Los Angeles, there is no way that she came close to Compton nor did she understand the racial and socioeconomic struggles that the group was talking about. On and on I would go about the obnoxiousness of this woman and how fake she was and how it was just all bullshit.

I'd probably even think that NWA sucked because they were reaching "this type" of audience of faux hipsters with fake English affectations whose only worry is whether to spend the summer in the Hamptons or traipse around Europe.

And here's the thing, not only would I be 100% wrong but my diatribe and outrage would be boring.

Who am I to tell anyone what music they can listen to? If Gwyneth Paltrow digs on NWA, then fuck it, she should listen to NWA. And it's not like I'm a product of the ghetto. I explain my background with NWA here. Aside from the bank account and the looks, I'm really not that different from Paltrow.

NWA wasn't speaking to me anymore than they were speaking to Paltrow. We just happened to come across the transmission and at the very least, enjoyed it and at the most were moved by the rhymes that we heard. And that's the job of music.

Bringing the reaction to the present, it's a funny clip. Paltrow gets the name of the song incorrect--it's not "Straight Outta Compton" it's "Gangsta, Gangsta", but it's a goofy minute of TV. That's all it really is. I don't think that it means that Paltrow was a secret Black Panther and her PC-ness shined through when she wouldn't say the n-word*, however it actually showed me a glimmer of humanness that is buried under the veneer of press clipping, PR statements and the careful speech of Paltrow.

* I'm not saying it wasn't a smart move on her part. You say that word, it gets taken out of context and the next thing you know your career is in the toilet. I have much, much less to lose than she does and I referred to it as the "n-word".

What it all comes down to is that at one point NWA was considered the most dangerous, most scary band in America. They really weren't. While they had a lot of truth in their raps, ultimately they are just another in a long line of musicians that made an indelible mark in American popular culture.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kill Your Leaders?

Currently I’m reading a book called “Why Rome Fell” which details the reasons why we don’t solely speak Latin any more and don’t care for Italians—other than every four years when the World Cup comes around. It’s a pretty good book, a little dry in some parts, but filled with some interesting tidbits about Roman Republic’s lesser known emperors who make Nero look like Mr. Rogers.

What I find most fascinating is that the way that most of these emperors came to power is through a brutal and always violent power grab. The would-be emperor was either a general or a senator who had the backing of the army who decided that they wanted to rule Rome*. They’d then kill the existing emperor and after a song-and-dance with the Senate (“No, no. I couldn’t accept this crown? Oh, alright. I’ll do it.” It reminded me of Tenacious D’s “City Hall”.) would accept the crown. Normally within nine months or fiveyears later, the cycle would repeat itself.

Power was transferred like this for a couple of hundred years and the people of the republic seemed okay with the way things went down. They just went on living and paying tribute to whomever was running the show.

* An interesting story that exemplifies the treachery of the age was of Emperor Valerian and his co-ruler who happened to be his son, Gallienus. Valerian was taken prisoner by Persian King Shapur after he tried invading Persia. Shapur didn’t just throw Valerian in a prison and let him rot. The story was that he used Valerian to make him get on his knees so that Shapur could mount his horse, essentially turning him into a step stool. Once Shapur died, the Persians skinned Valerian alive, painted him red and hung him in a temple as a trophy. Gallienus didn’t even try to rescue his father, he was having too much fun being the sole emperor.

At some point in history, the act of overthrowing an unpopular ruler by brazenly murdering him and then taking over his rival’s position lost a bit of favor with civilization as a whole. The answers are obvious to us why this isn’t a good idea and to be truthful, I’m not even sure why someone would want to be ruler of Rome if they know how the story is going to end.

When did this practice stop? What prompted the ruling hierarchy to figure out that this wasn’t a good solution to replacing leaders. Remember, this didn’t happen over a decade or two, the activity of murdering the emperor occurred over centuries. At some point the light must have gone off in someone’s head and it was decided that this wasn’t a good way of doing things. This moment of clarity represents an evolution in the modern human brain. Or it at least represents some foresight and the ability to understand history.

What if this practice came back into vogue? All of a sudden being the President really became a life threatening job that usually ended in a grizzly death? And not only was the assassination by someone that you trusted, but it would be one that virtually no one would mourn. Even when shitty presidents die, it’s a pretty big deal in America. But if this was Rome and a shitty emperor like Georgius Bushian II died, he’d be thrown onto a pile with the rest of the plagued and war-torn bodies. It would barely register a mention in any of the public records.

I’m obviously not advocating for a return to regularly-scheduled regicides*, but I would imagine that after a few of them went down in quick succession, we’d have the same blasé reaction to them as our Roman ancestors did. Remember, much like the United States, at one time Rome was the crowning achievement of civilization and if their economy and their ways of life were able to exist and thrive with their leaders getting snuffed out every few months, I’m sure that the American people could eventually handle it too.

* I know that this is the Latin word for an assassination of a monarch, but I’m not sure what the Latin term is for the assassination of a president. I tried looking it up on Google, but couldn’t find anything.

In any event, those years before deciding that our leader’s lives were worthless would descend into complete and utter chaos. In other words, it would suck. Thank god for the anonymous cabal that controls and runs our world.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Constant Quest for Coolness

BTW, this picture was the first one listed when I typed the word "cool" into a Google Image search. There were a lot of LL Cool J pictures, but he's no Millhouse.

I am 36-years-old. I’m married with two children. I own a home in the suburbs, I work a normal 9-to-5 job and every day I drive one of two Hondas that are parked in my driveway. I am not part of any family feuds or dramas, I like my wife’s family a lot and get along well with 99% of people I know. Aside from going out to dinner with my wife, most weekend nights involve me hanging out with my family and watching a movie.* During the entire weekend, I may consume six beers; if I drink more than two I get sleepy. I am thoroughly and completely in the most stable period of my life and I love it, I have no reason to try to be cool or impress anyone.

Yet I rewrote this opening paragraph at least three times because it didn’t convey the “right” message.

* I can honestly argue about the plot lines and discrepancies of any of the three Tinkerbelle movies and could probably quote entire scenes on request. This is just what happens when you have a three-year-old daughter.

My generation is the first generation that constantly seeks validation from others that they’re cool. Not that they’re good people, or that they live a virtuous life; but that they’re cool. And it’s not going to matter how old we get, we’re always going to wonder if what we’re doing is cool. I don’t think that it’s something that we can ever stop either, because since we were babies we have been exposed to a daily dose of what cool is.

I was born in 1974 and one of the first memories I have is of my Star Wars pillow case and a plastic “Happy Days” cup that I drank my milk from daily. The pillow case had the entire cast of characters, but aside from Darth Vader’s gigantic head looming as a scary moon, the most prominent character was Han Solo. My beloved “Happy Days” mug didn’t have a group shot of Richie, Ralph, Potsie and the gang; it was just a picture of Fonzi taken from the shoulders up against the backdrop of a brick wall. His expression was a bit different than his outer space compatriot. While Han Solo’s likeness was all action: gun drawn and about to leap from the canvas. Fonzi’ expression was one of utter indifference, it looked as if he just got done with the Aloha Pussycats and was exhaling his trademark, “Ayyyyyyyyyy!”

Both of these cultural touchstones were at the peak of their popularity during the late 1970s, the number one movie event of all time paired with the number one TV show in the land. And both had charismatic anti-heroes who looked similar (Harrison Ford and Henry Winkler shared a similar coif and facial structure ), who dress alike (black jacket/vest with exposed white TV shirt), who had the same mission in life (shepherd a nerds to the promised land – getting girls or blowing up the Death Star), who didn’t talk much (men of action, mostly), both drove iconic vehicles (the Millennium Falcon or a motorcycle) and both got the girls at the end of the day.

While the movies and TV show weren’t especially targeted towards kids my age, the duo were so gigantic that they eventually filtered down to my age group. And what was the message? Being cool was the ultimate and it trumped everything. Fonzi’s pal Richie Cunningham was a decent athlete who received high marks through high school and college and Solo’s buddy Luke Skywalker had the Force and was on his way to being a Jedi Knight. But Fonzie and Han Solo were the breakout stars of their medium and the “main” stars were often relegated to the background when Fonzie and Solo shared space with them. They were who everyone wanted to be because they were effortlessly cool.

Being cool didn’t stop when the popularity of “Star Wars” and “Happy Days” waned. As the 1970s bled into the 1980s more and more TV shows had at least one character whose job it was was to be cool. On shows that were targeted to tweens (we weren’t called this then) like “Diff’rent Strokes” it was Willis and on “Silver Spoons” it was Rick Stratton. As we got older, the shows changed but the attitude stayed the same: the entire premise of “Miami Vice” was two cool cops fighting crime.

And it worked in reverse as TV series that ran prior to the hay day of “Star Wars” and “Happy Days” retroactively made their characters seem cool; with ubiquitous reruns showing Greg Brady, JJ Evans and Keith Partridge cooling it up in their seemingly daily adventures.

The tempo changed was amped up in the 1990s as shows geared towards teenagers and stoned 20-somethings (“Beverly Hills 90210” and “Saved by the Bell”) dumped the one-cool, rest nerds formula of the 1970s and 1980s and replaced it with an entire group of cool kids and one nerd to provide contrast (David Silver and Screech for 90210 and SBtB).* Even shows geared towards adults, like “Freinds” or “Seinfeld” were about what happened once the cool table moved from the high school cafeteria to Manhattan—just edging out Seattle as the ultimate cool city in the 90s. The entire philosophy of the FOX network was that they were cooler than the other three networks.

And it wasn't just television, if you boil down a lot of movies from this time, it's really just about trying to be cool. "Pulp Fiction", "Clerks", "Swingers", "Clueless" were, at their cores, movies about the main characters trying to be or keep some semblance of coolness. These movies wouldn't have worked in the 1980s as audiences weren't prepared to see adults try to be cool.

* The one thing that’s odd about coolness in pop culture is that it is always evolving. If you jammed Fonzi in a sitcom today, he wouldn’t be cool because mores have grown and changed. However, the nerd or uncool character never changes. Potsie could change places with Urkel who could exchange roles with David Silver who could have been Will Smith’s dorky cousin on “Fresh Prince of Bel Aire” all of whom could be uncool character X on the latest FOX sitcom. Since the dawn of time, the nerd has stayed constant. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy for a person to be an outcast. Being cool is hard and an always-evolving role, being uncool is easy in comparison.

Suddenly it wasn’t fashionable to be the cool fish in a pond of dorks. Each cool person needed to find other cool people in which to hang out. As we grew up, we were completely and totally immersed Alex DeLarge-style in this never-ending, never-blinking loop of what cool is. It wasn’t just kosher to be cool, we had to be part of a cool subset too. Because of this maturation of coolness, we subconsciously learned that being cool is the only thing that really matters.

And this is why I wear a Public Enemy t-shirt, with blue adidas Gazelles and a throw-back baseball cap. It’s why my friends, most of whom are approaching 40, still play in a band, or will scour the Internet for the latest underground band or watch Adult Swim or stay up until 3 am drinking beer and playing video games and then drag their asses to work the following day. Because all of those things are pretty cool things to do.

I think back to my father and members of his generation. None of them wore sneakers and band t-shirts, hell, none of the ever wore t-shirts at all—if it was a weekend, it was polo shirt time. None of them were in a band or knew anything about the latest music or even knew how to turn on an Atari. And while I can blame this on the perspective of being young, most of the adults that I knew were responsible. Yes, there were a couple that were completely irresponsible, but even in that fashion, they were irresponsible in an adult way.

Why is that? Because while coolness was a factor when they were teens, it never seeped down to their days of impressionable youth. The line delineating entertainment for older and younger kids was clearly marked. If you were born in the mid to late 40s, you watched “The Mickey Mouse Club” or “Howdy Doody” and aside from Annette Funicello’s tits, there wasn’t anything cool about either show. They starred a bunch of dorky white kids doing dorky white stuff. At the same time Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean, the Rat Pack and tons of jazz and blues heroes were emerging and taking coolness to a new height, but rarely did that move into the collective subconscious of this generation.

As the baby boomers grew older the hip touchstones began: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and what signified cool became more and more defined. As that was taking shape, the lines of what was suitable for young kids were being erased. The second decade of television brought with it a familiarity so strong the TV set wasn’t considered immovable furniture—like a kitchen table—anymore. As technology improved, mobility improved too and now one could roll the TV into the kiddies’ room and you could have a baby sitter for the afternoon.

It’s this constant exposure to mass media that causes a 36-year-old to look in a mirror and ask, “Does this look cool?” when there is no one to impress. And these questions of coolness inhibit our interactions with other people. The other day I was walking to the cafeteria for lunch and I saw a coworker walking through the foyer wearing a bright blue shirt. Emblazoned on that shirt was about 30 different Marvel Comics characters. If you’ve ever read this Blog, you know that I dabble in comics, but my first thought was, “Jesus, what’s wrong with this guy?”

The lesson in this story wasn’t that I was being a judgmental prick because obviously, I was.* But the lesson was much like I was when I was a teenager, I’m still conditioned to make instant generalizations on people that I don’t know solely based on how they dressed. And while I take no solace in knowing that I’m not the only Generation Xer that does it, I have to wonder when will it end.

* I mean seriously, I wear a Public Enemy t-shirt—when will the revolution be televised, Gramps? And on that particular day I was wearing a t-shirted version of a 1970 Houston Astros baseball shirt.

Is there ever going to be a day where I don’t give a shit about what someone’s wearing, watching on TV, listening to, driving around in or talking about? Because really, when it comes down to it, who gives a shit? Haven’t I learned from shows like “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” and the myriad of Paul Fieg/Judd Apatow movies that the cool kids are usually the most shallow, the most insincere, the most boring?

Why would I want to be like that? Especially now.

Friday, May 06, 2011

My Weekly War with the New Yorker

This entry isn’t so much about my problem with the periodical the New Yorker, it’s mostly about the Mexican standoff between me, laziness and free-time. Usually laziness and me gang-up and kick the crap out of free-time, but there are times when laziness and free-team turn the tables on yours truly. In any event, the New Yorker is a perfect conduit for this standoff that happens every day.

In my opinion, the New Yorker is probably the best magazine being printed today. It’s smart, it’s timely, it’s funny, it has cartoons, most of today’s top writers would give their thumbs to appear in its pages. And the best thing--the length of the articles--are ironically what’s kicking my ass on a daily basis*.

They’re too interesting and too long—and trust me, I will expound on this insanely whiny reason after this Posterisk because I sound like a world-class steakhead with the first six-and-a-half words of this sentence.

* Whenever I complain about the downfall of Sports Illustrated, I always crab about the length of the articles; mainly they’re too short. Usually, I’ll say that when the story really starts to get going, you see that little box at the end of the page and you know that you’re done. I’ll prattle on (I'm a hit at parties) that when I was a kid, the articles were “much more in-depth” and it was a “more satisfying read” when I was younger. Yes, the articles are a bit shorter than 20 years ago, however what I really mean is that SI seems to know that I don’t have the time to read long articles, so they’ve made them shorter. This in turn, pisses me off because subconsciously, I know that I don’t have the amount of free time that I used to but I'm not ready to lose that battle yet.

Since I was in my mid-20s, I’ve always wanted a subscription to the New Yorker. Not because it’s the quintessential “adult” magazine, but because I found each issue packed with interesting articles and thought that if I read them I’d become a more well-rounded, educated person. And while that certainly was a reason, I also harbored thoughts of where I'd read the articles that would make me a hit at any cocktail party. There I'd be in front of a roaring fire, in a high-backed leather chair that is part of an immense home library where I’d be in a velvet smoking jacket, a snifter of brandy at my right hand and that week’s New Yorker in my left paw. Oh, I’d chuckle at the issue’s bon mots, nod approvingly or shake my head with consternation when reading articles about foreign policy, maybe even shed a tear or two when reading a piece about some ravaged far away land.

In my mind’s eye, I was more erudite than Mr. Howell (this reference should have been my first clue that this was a complete fantasy) and more worldly than Uncle Traveling Matt (and there’s my second clue) and judging from the home library and smoking jacket, richer than Scrooge McDuck.

As I’ve come to find out, future events that happen in your mind never coincide with what happens in real life. In reality, there are a few places where I read the New Yorker:

1. When I’m on the couch and my wife is watching a show that I hate
2. During the 45 minutes that I carve out for lunch at my desk. Of course, I’m not really concentrating too much on the written page because I also have to keep one eye on my email inbox.
3. While I’m on one of the cardio machines in the gym. And if you've seen my waist line recently, that hasn’t happen in about six months.

Deep down I knew that I was never going to get the immense home library or high-backed leather chairs or the velvet smoking jacket. But it would still be nice to really concentrate on a truly great magazine.

About 10 different magazines arrive in our mailbox every month (the New Yorker is a weekly) and I rarely read any of them.

A few years ago I subscribed to Esquire because one of my favorite authors, Chuck Klosterman, wrote a pop culture column every month. Two months after I subscribed, he stopped writing for the magazine. In recent years, Esquire has turned into a bossier version of Maxim and is filled with mindless articles on “manly” celebrities (like Vince Vaughn) who are pushing their next mindless movie that I’ll never see. Every two or three months they have an article that I may want to read, but I have to wade through so many perfume and designer ads that by the time I get to the article, I smell like the first floor of Macy’s and I’m concerned that I'm under dressed to read the piece. I have two years left on my subscription.

We also get ESPN the Magazine, but I only subscribed to it so that I can get the Insider columns on ESPN.com. I rarely even crack open this literary abortion, but when I do it looks like it was written by ADHD chimps who have been raised to think that AXE Body Spray and Mountain Dew advertisements are the pinnacle of page design and literary achievement. I know that I sound like an old man trying to figure out these damn video games that the kids play these days, but on the occasions when I do peruse this magazine it’s actually difficult to know where to begin reading. ESPN the Magazine gives me the literary version of an ice cream headache.

Entertainment Weekly comes to our home too and most of the time, it’s not worth the $6 I pay for the yearly subscription. However there are times when it doesn't disappoint and the way I look it is if I get one or two issues that touch on something that I enjoy, then it almost pays for itself.

Aside from the New Yorker, the other magazine that we get (and that I like) is Boston Magazine. But I like this for reasons other than the New Yorker; I like to read it because they review restaurants and places that I may have been to. I sit there and say, “Aly, remember we went there?” or “Aly what did we eat there? It was pretty good, right?” I’m sure my wife hates Boston Magazine day at our house. They also have some pretty breezy articles that are enjoyable to read.

The rest of the magazines that come to my house are food magazines. Those are for my wife and she enjoys them. I think.

The difference between the New Yorker and the rest of these magazines is that it’s not written for a person with a third-grade education. The writers don’t dumb down their articles, it’s the responsibility of the reader to fill in the blanks if they don’t understand a topic. And while that’s an admirable quantity, it also one of the things that makes it tougher to read. Any of the magazines I’ve listed above, I can buzz through in about an hour (ESPN the Magazine and Entertainment Weekly, 10 minutes tops). And this isn’t a humblebrag, there just isn’t a lot of substance to these weekly/monthly reads.

But the New Yorker is prestigious, even the cartoons have some sort of gravitas—and I am not ashamed to admit that one of the main reasons why I originally subscribed to the New Yorker is because of the cartoons. Both the subject and the art are better than you’re going to find in the daily newspapers. They aren't all gems though.*

* One of the most famous episodes of “Seinfeld” is when Elaine couldn’t understand a New Yorker cartoon, so she confronted the editor of the magazine and walked away with a cartooning gig. Not surprisingly, it’s one of my favorite episodes of that TV show. And the fact that her published cartoon was a rip-off of Ziggy is even better.

While the New Yorker is a weekly, humbling experience it’s subscription is still something that I’m going to continue. Some of my brightest friends subscribe to the magazine and I've found that they’re just like me, they have dozens of issues scattered around their house dog-eared and worn pages with titles circled—indicating that these are articles that will be read later.

It seems to me that we’re all fighting the laziness/free-time battle with ourselves. I guess that we’ll get around to reading all of this stuff when we retire—what age is that again?