Sunday, December 9, 2012

Great Covers of Bad 70s Songs

I consider it an accident of birth that I came to musical consciousness during the early 70s. And because my parents bought me a (red!) Radio Shack handheld transistor AM radio (it looked exactly like this, swear to god) when I was in fourth grade or so, that musical consciousness was moreover shaped largely by the popular songs playing on local southeast Florida stations.

It wasn't until 7th grade that we all discovered FM radio, and it wasn't until high school that we began to realize what utter crap most popular 70s music was. But by then, the damage was done. Vast portions of my brain had been deeply and indelibly marked by the sounds of Sonny and Cher, Tony DeFranco (remember "Heartbeat (It's a Lovebeat)"?), the Carpenters, and Bread, and by songs like "Kung Fu Fighting," "Disco Duck" (people, this actually became a #1 hit) and "Car Wash Song" (and I'm talking about the Rose Royce song, not the Jim Croce one, although the fact that there were two really popular songs about working at a car wash in the 70s should tell you all you need to know).

Friday, December 7, 2012

Mansplaining the Meltdown

The weirdest moment in HBO’s 2011 film Too Big to Fail is undoubtedly the one when Michele Davis, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury (played by Cynthia Nixon), suddenly announces that she doesn’t know how she’s going to explain the looming financial meltdown to the public. In response, three Treasury Department men protectively gather on chairs and sofas around her to patiently describe just how this shitstorm happened and what it means.
This might be a good moment to point out that Davis is the only woman in the entire film who isn’t a wife or a secretary. This might also be a good moment to point out that Davis’s job was to handle public relations for the Treasury department, meaning that her job description was to explain to the public what was going on in the economy. That she probably didn’t need to ask for help about how to do this, and that Paulson (played by William Hurt) was reportedly in the habit of asking her for such advice, rather than vice versa, is conveniently left out of the film. This is a textbook example of what has since come to be called mansplaining, the term coined to describe when men patronizingly explain things to women that they already understand, often better than the men attempting to explain it to them.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Gettysburg, Monticello, Homeland

It's hard to decide whether Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson is generating more public discussion this week. Lincoln, of course, because of Lincoln, a film about the sixteenth president and the Civil War that has left historians and others debating its accuracy and wondering how it manages to leave black people out of the story altogether. And Jefferson because of Henry Wiencek's recently released book Master of the Mountain--which according to some misrepresents the third president as a monster and according to others doesn't go nearly far enough in acknowledging his monstrosity. In both cases, it's pretty clear that American audiences prefer to continue revering our past presidents as mythological political heroes, figures we can turn to for stories about American moral and ideological purity, bereft of any complicating details that might taint or compromise that fantasy.

But if you ask me, the most compelling readings of both Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson this week were on Showtime's television series Homeland. I'll admit to being a bit behind on my viewing of the series (and those who are keeping up may by now have little interest in my take on what happened several episodes ago), but the show seems to me to be offering a sustained reflection on why it's a mistake to fetishize America's political figures.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Binders Full of Trolls

If you’ve been on the internet at all today, you’ve been bombarded by two relentless story threads: Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” and Michael Brutsch’s outing as Reddit’s notorious commenter Violentacrez. Question of the day: what do these two events have in common? Answer: troll politics.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Repetitive Debt Concussion Syndrome

In an effort to maintain some semblance of an exercise regimen, I try to run several times a week along the San Tomas Aquino Creek trail that starts a few blocks from my home and ends 5 miles or so later at the swamps and marshes of the Baylands. The trail is used at nearly every hour of the day by bicyclists and joggers, by families on weekends and by office workers at lunchtime, by parents pushing strollers and by high school cross-country teams. The creek alongside the trail is filled with tall grasses and ground squirrels, families of brown ducks, and a number of long-necked, white-plumed birds. But elements of the densely suburban and industrial landscape through which the trail winds also define the scenery: you pass beneath a series of busy roadways, including the six lanes of the 101 Freeway and the elevated tracks along which commuter trains periodically shriek; and an inverted shopping cart, backpack, or errant piece of discarded furniture sometimes shows up in the creek among the birds and grasses. All in all, though, the STAC trail is a pretty fabulous public works project: it promotes healthy living and exercise, family and neighborhood engagement, and is accessible to everyone at no cost.

About halfway down, the trail passes alongside what may well be its absolute antithesis: the construction site of the new 49ers stadium.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Gothic Murder Ballads

This week, I've decided to squander time by compiling a list of gothic murder ballads. I'm casting the net widely, and any musical genre and subgenre counts (though I'm partial to the epic storytelling of the ballad, and to the dark mood of the gothic).

Here, in no particular order, is the list so far (with thanks to friends and family who've sent suggestions):

Friday, August 24, 2012

How To Do Things With Numbers

Even if you leave the Lance Armstrong news out of it, this has been a tough week for the truth. Newsweek was caught lying, or at least allowing writer and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson to use numbers in the news magazine’s cover story in such a way to make it appear that President Obama has failed in ways that he actually hasn’t. Senate candidate (and poor excuse for a human being) Todd Akin was also caught lying, or at least repeating biological hogwash in order to make it appear that women's bodies work in a way they categorically do not. Even Emory University officials were caught lying, or at least misreporting data about admissions in order to make it appear that their incoming classes have more impressive scores and grades than they actually do. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Breaking Bad’s Suburban Shock Doctrine

In season four of AMC's Breaking Bad, fast food store manager-drug kingpin Gus Fring smoothly offers a first and only piece of personal history in response to DEA agent Hank’s probing questions: there is no record of him in his home country of Chile because he escaped during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, whose regime kept notoriously bad records. This detail and Gus’s (real or invented) history is never mentioned again, and by the season finale, Gus is dead anyway. But this quick and easily dismissed reference to Pinochet’s Chile may just have everything to do with the entire plot and trajectory of the series—not so much in Gus’s story, however, as in Walt’s.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey: It's Financial BDSM

In all the press generated by the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, three statements consistently recur: 1) the books are making a crapload of money; 2) the books are filled with crappy writing; and 3) these crappy books can only be making craploads of money because they’re about sex. The problem, though, is that the “sex sells” formula really doesn’t really explain the trilogy’s extraordinary, almost unbelievable, popularity. As others have observed, there is a surplus of similar erotica, much of it better written (at least if you believe the assessments of online romance fiction fans) and almost all of it cheaper (in fact, most of it completely free and anonymously available online). So what is it about this particular novel? Why Fifty Shades of Grey? And perhaps even more to the point, why now?