Saturday, January 31, 2009

Friends in high places

A common sight in major cities like New Orleans, Chicago, and New York is carriages full of camera-toting touristas being towed by sad-looking horses that never get to move at more than a slow gait. (WB admits to being pulled around the French Quarter by a pizza-eating mule named Louis who ran several red lights, but that's a separate story for another day.) Another common sight is people dressed in rags and sleeping on steam grates, inside ATM booths and bus shelters, and begging for quarters outside Walgreen stores — you know, those wretched bums who ruin a perfectly fun time by imposing their poverty onto an otherwise idyllic scene.

Horses, people. Which ones get the celebrity spokespeople?

According to the Times Online, the horses of NYC have not one celebrity champion, but three. Chrissy Hynde of the Pretenders has led the PETA petition asking the city to ban its iconic tourist buggies around Central Park, even though they've appeared in hundreds of movies and travelers from around the globe come into town to relive those cinematic moments for themselves, and even though Hynde herself was married in one of those same horse carriages. Taking the other side is Liam Neeson, who we know from the trailer for Taken is prone to speechifying, and who is "deeply disturbed" by the potential ban and urges the NYC City Council to reconsider this "unnecessary and misguided political and extreme rhetoric.” Enter Alec Baldwin, who supports Hyde's/PETA's position and says the horses will be happier not lugging tourists, which technically puts the animals on the unemployment line... where, coincidentally, all of the people are who have no celebrity advocates.

Oh, and the Wall Street parasites who crashed the world economy have given themselves billion dollar bonuses, and the new superhero president of the U.S. says that's "shameful," but the bonuses will still stick, and next week there'll be a new story to make that one fade, and no celebrity voices will take up this cause, either.

Priorities. Fascinating studies in abnormal psychology.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Girls and guys for guys and... guys?

February marks the beginning of spring break for thousands of college students, and Girls Gone Wild is just one of the things that go hand in hand with spring break. It’s the time when girls let their bikini strings loose, get drunk, and make out with other girls, all of it captured on camera. Some guys love the films, while many girls think it’s demeaning and degrading (even the ones on the camera, after they sober up, of course).

The Girls Gone Wild industry has been around and popular for over a decade, even after creator Joseph R. Francis was arrested and pleaded guilty to federal charges of failing to document the ages of women engaging in the sexual acts in the videos. Francis’ company, Mantra Films Inc., paid $1.6 million in fines for that charge, and, according to the Associated Press, the judge ordered Francis, his company president, general counsel, and chief financial officer to each perform eight hours of community service every month for 30 months. The company was also charged with tax evasion, racketeering, drug trafficking, and child pornography, landing Francis 339 days in jail and $60,000 more in fines.

This criminality surrounding the videos doesn’t stop the flow of cash to Francis’ pocket, however, or those of his 400 plus employees. According to U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak, the $1.6 million paid by Mantra Films Inc. in 2006 represents less than three percent of Mantra’s profits from 2002 to the time of the charges.

But it’s not just Girls Gone Wild that’s helping with these profits. Guys Gone Wild has been around since 2004 (about eight years after Girls Gone Wild began), and retails for the same price as the Girls Gone Wild videos. While some people may be aware of these CDs, they are not nearly as well known as Girls Gone Wild. Why is this? Well, partly because Girls Gone Wild is in the news, women are usually the ones driving the sex industry, and sex has a strong emotional attachment associated with it for most women, and considering that the Guys DVDs don’t come with flowers and “after viewing cuddling,” it’s probably a long shot to market them strictly toward women. However, the main reason these videos are not as well-known is because Guys Gone Wild is geared toward a “niche market” of gay men.

Since the main audience for Girls Gone Wild is heterosexual men, Guys Gone Wild may suggest the intended viewing audience is heterosexual women. However, the double standard that is gender in America tells a different story. In the same way that a man is “cool” to some for sleeping around, while a girl may be labeled a “whore,” homosexual women versus homosexual men has its own problem. While no double standard defines everyone’s opinion on an issue, the majority of men watching Girls Gone Wild do so not just because of nudity, but also because of “lesbian” interaction among the women in the videos. To many men, the act of two women together is stimulating, while most straight men would be turned off by the idea of two men behaving the same way.

Because of this common double standard, Mantra Films Inc. realized Guys Gone Wild would not sell to straight men the way Girls Gone Wild had. Next step? To also realize that men probably watch more porn than women. One episode of the television show Friends, “The One with the Free Porn,” predicts this same logic. In the episode, Chandler and Joey discover that there is free porn on their television. They watch it as long as they can and refuse to turn off the TV just in case they can’t get it back, while the girls in the apartment are disgusted with their obsession.

Of course, women can be seen in the back rooms at video stores as well, but, because of the way men are perceived in society, many people believe it’s only men keeping the industry alive. As a result, even if women are watching just as much porn as men, we’d never guess, and certainly wouldn’t market videos just to them.

With the economy looking bleak, Mantra Films joined Hustler’s Larry Flynt in asking Congress for a $5 billion bailout for the porn industry. They didn’t get it. So now we’re waiting for Francis to convince every office in America to have “make out, film it, sell it” parties in an attempt to make sure no more people are laid off. Workers Gone Wild could possibly be the newest endeavor in the series… but don’t count on it being made for women.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Getting more from games

The problem with games is that they have this annoying tendency to end. So if gamers want more, they have limited options. One, of course, is to buy more games, but that can get pretty costly over time, especially at a $50-$75 price tag per. Piracy works, but not for the morally sound gamer. Besides, what’s the best way to extend the life of a good game? Mods, expansions, and downloadable content (DLC), that’s how.

Mods have been around for a long time, almost as long as games have existed on the PC. The earliest recorded game mod appeared in 1983, with a fan-made version of Wolfenstein replacing the Nazis, items, and areas with Smurf themes.

Ever since, devoted players, designers, and other sorts of geeks have been making new content to revive old games. Everything exists for games these days; new textures for walls, new weapons, new allies or monsters. Even new modes of gameplay entirely, like the Invasion mod for Unreal Tournament, which changes a deathmatch free-for-all into a co-op monster defense. Some mods are even official; companies like Bethesda releasing expansion packs for their popular games, such as Shivering Isles for Oblivion and the upcoming Operation: Anchorage for Fallout 3.

Then, game consoles found this new invention they could connect to and use: the internet. With the inclusion of hard drives in the new generation consoles, the ability to deliver patches and mods to console games was suddenly available. One of the worst possible things that could happen to a console game was the inclusion of a critical flaw that made the game easily broken, easily abused, or in the worst case, completely unplayable. But patches available over the internet made it possible to fix issues and, more importantly, add content to games already on the market.

While PC games have been doing this for years, consoles get the cream of the crop. Anyone can create mods for PC games, and this results in a flooded market of free downloads, the majority of which often suck. Some are poor quality graphically, and many are unbalanced and break the game. On the consoles, only the best mods are allowed on the market and sanctioned for distribution.

Of course, there’s always the issue of cost. Almost always, console expansions cost money. For instance, the upcoming Operation: Anchorage for Fallout 3 costs 800 Microsoft Points, which is $10. Similar expansions for the PC can cost as much as $30.

On the other hand, the majority of the PC mods available are free. This means it’s easy to trick out a game and add hours of content without paying a dime. Again, though, you have to be careful or else you end up with a bunch of conflicting mods, or terrible mods, or mods that break the balance of the game.

So what’s the benefit of console DLC? Games. Not just expansions and mods, but whole extra games can be bought and downloaded no other way. Games like Braid, which has yet to be released for the PC, and which WB will write about later. Meanwhile, DLC and mods are the Web2.0 of gaming: user-generated content distributed to everyone through the medium of the Internet.

Welcome, our new downloadable overlords.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Get in, sit down, hang on

Rusty Wright Band, Playin' With Fire (Sadson Music, January 2009)

A long time ago that wasn't all that long ago, when Maxell made cassette tapes instead of burnable CDs, the company ran a print ad campaign that became an icon. Black and white and with minimal visual props, it showed a guy in shades sitting low in his chair, a martini set next to him and a stereo speaker in front of him as he was literally blown away by the awesome sound from that speaker.

That sort of comes close to the experience of listening to the Rusty Wright Band's new CD, Playin' With Fire, being released by the end of this month. Imagine a sonic suitcase filled with the best of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, Bonnie Raitt, and a little Fabulous Thunderbirds, shaken and stirred so that all of them become the foundation for a whole new sound to be built upon. Open the suitcase and then stand back, because that sound, its range, and the wallop it packs will blow you away.

RWB (from left): Eddie Lester, Dave Brahce, Rusty Wright,
Laurie LaCross-Wright, Andy Barancik, Pete Haist

The main feature on RWB's new disc, as the cover might indicate, is guitar virtuosity. The opening chords of both the title track and "What A Ride" will pin your ears back, while the emotional "Lost Souls" slows things down to offer a mix of Robin Trower-esque booming bass notes during intro and interludes and mellow jazz chords under the main verses. Combined with the warm breath of Dave Brahce's B-3 organ, Rusty Wright's leads on Fender and Gibson and Laurie LaCross-Wright's steady rhythm guitar carry every song on the new CD into new territory from the track before.

"It's a really mixed bag of stuff," Laurie says. "Most albums you hear today are so formulaic. You listen to the first song and you know exactly how the rest of the CD is going to sound. We hate that. While we were recording we talked a lot about the albums we grew up with and how labels used to give bands the freedom to experiment with songs and sounds. That's the vibe we aimed for."

The aim hit its target. In addition to the range of guitar styles and intensities, the new disc also glows with the quality of its varied vocal tracks, with Rusty's rich tenor and Laurie's velvet alto exchanging lead duties on some songs and harmonizing flawlessly on nearly all of them. Supporting the guitar and vocal artistry is a rock-solid rhythm section with Andy Barancik on bass and Pete Haist on drums, and on tracks like "Pretty Little Lies," RWB's own Clarence Clemons, southern blues veteran Eddie Lester, interjects saxophone riffs to bounce off more of Rusty's blazing guitar solos.

For half a second at the beginning of this disc's title song, there's the ominous sound of raw power humming through an amplifier before the song explodes into a roaring eight-note introduction. Although the track comes last on the CD, don't think of it as the finale; rather, consider it the beginning of a long and successful run by a band whose time to shine is now.

Previews of all songs on the disc are available here, and the band's blog is here. Catch them if you can, and mark your calendar for first thing in February to grab a copy of the new album.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Score one for the common people

Stanley Fish is a giant among English professors, and possibly one of the smartest people on the planet. He's taught rhetoric and literature at Duke, UC-Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Illinois/Chicago. And now he writes a blog for the New York Times.

On Thursday this week, Mr. Fish wrote an analysis of Barack Obama's inaugural speech, introducing his (Fish's) readers to the terms parataxis and hypotaxis — explained here — but more importantly, citing one newspaper as making a contribution to the world of literature and belles lettres.

Now, it'd make sense if that newspaper was the New York Times, since that's the pulpit from which Professor Fish delivered this sermon. But it wasn't the venerable NYT. Nor was it the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, or the Chicago Tribune, all close runners-up to the title "national newspaper of record."

It was USA Today. Yep, the newspaper that was launched to give common people a quick and easy read through the most important details of the most important stories of the day, and no more. (The same principle is at work on the newspaper's web site.) The paper that used lots of graphics in place of words. The paper that avoided jumps (e.g. "continued on page A9") and brought full color to newspaper photographs, a stark contrast to the NYT's "gray lady" appearance.

USA Today was quickly judged as "journalism lite" by most college English professors, many of whom banned its name from appearing in the Works Cited pages of their students' research papers. USA Today wasn't a real newspaper; it was a collection of headlines and stories that were little more than blurbs; it was "airport reading."

Boo. Bad.

So what does Stanley Fish say at the end of his analysis of President Obama's speech? This:

"One day after the occasion, USA Today offered as an analysis of the speech a list of the words most frequently used, words like America, common, generation, nation, people, today, world. This is exactly the right kind of analysis to perform, for it identifies the location of the speech’s energy in the repetition of key words and the associations forged among them by virtue of that repetition. In the years to come, what USA Today has begun will be expanded and elaborated in a thousand classrooms. Canonization has already arrived."

Score one for the common people — and another to the New York Times for being gracious enough to concede the point.

We knew it!

To the left, Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life — villainous, dastardly, corrupt, mean-spirited, soulless, secretive, conniving destroyer of all that is good and decent in Bedford Falls.

To the right, former VPOTUS Dick Cheney, brought low by a "moving accident" and confined to a wheelchair during the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Coincidence? We hardly think so.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The really sad part is, they're totally serious.

Okay, so Apple has this great piece of software called GarageBand, which lets musicians of any skill level record and mix some pretty impressive songs. With a MIDI keyboard and a basic grasp of music theory, you can, for example, become Rick Wright of Pink Floyd:

Part of Apple's iLife software suite, GarageBand gets better every year. The 2008 version nudged closer to being equal with Apple's professional-level Logic recording app, and now the 2009 update includes amplifier cabinets and stomp boxes that take GB into Amplitube and Guitar Rig territory.

And what has rival Microsoft been up to over the years since GarageBand debuted? Before we answer that question, we strongly suggest that you go to the kitchen for a medium-sized brown bag, write "For Vomit" on the side, and then return to your computer.

Microsoft, you see, has been hard at work creating something called Songsmith. And you really owe it to yourself to watch the entire promo for the new app — no cheating by only going 20 seconds in. Be brave. You have your brown bag, so it'll be okay.

Oh, and that nice silver laptop with the strategically-placed stickers on its lid? The one that's running this stunning piece of Microsoft ingenuity?

It's an Apple MacBook Pro. And we suspect the computer is really, really glad that its apple logo is covered up.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Farewell, so long, auf wiedersehen, goodbye.

A photo and a lyrical tribute for the Crawford Cowboy, now shufflin' off to the dustbin of history, a place of his own choosing.

You suck my blood like a leech
You break the law and you preach
Screw my brain till it hurts
You've taken all my money
And you want more
Misguided old mule
With your pigheaded rules
With your narrow-minded cronies
Who are fools of the first division...
Bad guy
Big talking
Small fry...
Is your conscience all right?
Does it plague you at night?
Do you feel good?

You talk like a big business tycoon
You're just a hot air balloon
So no one gives you a damn
You're just an overgrown schoolboy...
A dog with disease
You're the king of the sleaze
Should be put inside
You're a sewer rat
Decaying in a cesspool of pride
Should be made unemployed
Make yourself null and void
Make me feel good
I feel good.

- Queen, "Death On Two Legs"

And how about a nice video retrospective, narrated by Rachel Maddow?

And finally, a song from the aptly named All American Rejects:

So long, George.

Don't let the door hit you on the way out.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Seven times is a conspiracy

So the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, disregarding some pretty strong campaigning by other musicians including Madonna, has snubbed Iggy and the Stooges from membership among the pantheon of rock immortals. Again.

Well, screw the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Stooges — Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton, and Dave Alexander, with credit also going to guitarist James Williamson and piano player Scott Thurston — are already rock immortals, and have been long before the RRHOF was even formed, and definitely before its gleaming, antiseptic museum was built on the lakeshore in Cleveland. You say the name "Iggy Pop" just as you'd say "Lou Reed," another rock giant who, like Iggy, should have died from drugs and hard living decades ago but was too bulletproof to do that. Now 62, Iggy is a god to punk rockers everywhere, recently headlined at Lollapalooza, and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

Unfortunately, founding guitarist Ron Asheton didn't share the same genetic invincibility, and was found dead in his Ann Arbor home just over a week ago. That makes the RRHOF's announcement of inductees this week, and its glaring omission of the name, "The Stooges," doubly crappy. Not only are the 600 voters who decide these things overlooking — no, more like actively dismissing — one of the most influential rock and roll bands of the crucial psychelic-60s-become-the-punk-70s turn, but they're also telling all of Asheton's friends and family that the instantly-recognizable opening chords to "Now I Wanna Be Your Dog" are no more important than the first few notes of the Gummy Bears theme song.

The RRHOF, begun by Rolling Stone founder Jan Wenner and Atlantic Records' founder Ahmet Ertegun, after whom the main exhibit hall of the Cleveland museum is named, began with good intentions — to preserve and promote a form of music that was coming up on age 50. Along the way, "rock" went on to suck up everything that had come before it and run alongside it, with blues, folk, jazz, MotownPhilly, hip-hop, disco, punk, and (very little) metal all scooped into a giant rock bucket and set out on the lakeshore for tourists to gawk at. But turning a band as important and influential as The Stooges into rock's version of soap opera's Susan Lucci, nominated for an Emmy Award 21 times before she finally won, is just wrong. The Sex Pistols were inducted in 2006, and they loathed the whole idea. Brenda Lee was inducted in 2002, and you're thinking, Brenda who?, and plugging the name into Wikipedia.

So, WTF RRHOF? You wanna induct Metallica for 2009, but not the Stooges? Good choice; the Hetfield/Ulrich crew can perform a rousing rendition of "The Unforgiven" — and aim it straight at you.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Metallica live: the thrash is back.

Metallica, Death Magnetic Tour, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, January 13:
Before we talk about The Biggest Band on the Planet, let's start with the two opening acts, The Sword and Machine Head.

The Sword:

Clack clack clack.

Clack clack clack.

BLAM! Clack
BLAM! Clack
(Muffled singing; hair swinging in slo-mo headbanging motions.)
"Thank you, goodnight."

Nice kids, very sincere, playing to a house of maybe 4,000 people, getting warm but perfunctory applause between songs.

Exit stage left.
House lights.
Set change.
Lights down.

Machine Head:

(Guitar solo)
(Barrage of F-bombs)
(Iron Maiden cover song)
"Thank you! Goodnight!"

The metal version of a warm-up comedian before a TV talk show audience, these guys appear to have been hired to make sure the crowd, now roughly double what The Sword played to, has its headbanging and Raarrgghh! shouting skills warmed up for the main act.

Exit stage left, house lights up — "Metallica will take the stage at precisely 8:55," the radio DJ said while the WB entourage sat in a traffic jam at the freeway exit earlier. But 8:55 comes and goes. Men in gray suitcoats and black trousers, looking a lot like Secret Service guys except for being partially MIG instead of all MIB, move in and out of the tunnel leading backstage.

9:05. The crowd, at nearly-full capacity of 20,000 people now, starts a dammit-let's-get-started cheer, sustains it for a minute or so, loses it. The MIGs move in and out of the tunnel some more. A few of them talk into two-ways and look around the arena, importantly, checking stuff.

9:15. The crowd starts its fourth WTF!? cheer, clearly impatient now. Commotion at the tunnel entrance is picking up noticeably, with dozens of people exiting from backstage and taking positions on the floor.

9:18 — a roadie runs out of the tunnel with a bass guitar in hand, dashes it across the stage, parks it in the guitar cabinet, runs back. The crowd, sensing impending action, roars.

Seconds later, the lights go out; the opening bell chime of Ennio Morricone's "Ecstasy of Gold" rings from the loudspeakers; the crowd is instantly on its feet and screaming. WB has a fleeting thought — all that wait for one stupid bass guitar? — but is enthralled and adrenaline-rushed by the majestic, stirring spectacle of ten thousand lighters burning in the darkness as the volume and intensity of the Morricone piece builds to its high-note finale.

And then the stage explodes in a laser light show so utterly awesome that there's an audible Whoa! (pronounced ho-ly shit!) from 20,000 astonished mouths simultaneously, as the opening crunch chords of "That Was Just Your Life" erupt, and the Metal Masters of the Universe suddenly appear under four spotlights on a huge play-all-four-sides stage set up with eight microphones, a revolving drum riser, and a pyrotechnic system that will burn blue, pink, white, green, and intensely hot orange through the two-hour set list that follows.

That set list will be heavy with tracks from Death Magnetic and Master of Puppets, two albums that prove this band's supremacy at writing songs of complex structure and blazing-fast delivery. Unfortunately, the sound quality at this show, keeping with the trend with most concerts in general, will be essentially horrible (regardless of the claims of excellence made in Mix magazine by Metallica's sound engineers). Every slide on the mixing board is pushed to MAXIMUM, knocking out most of the music spectrum and leaving no difference between bass and drums, drums and lead guitar, lead guitar and vocals. Everything's set to eleven, and the arena is filled with a music-killing decibel overkill rate approaching white noise. (And Mix knows that this is a problem, too. Now, when will its readers — i.e. professional sound engineers — pay attention?) The sound quality for the headliners, of course, is generally better than what it was for the two opening acts, but that's not saying a lot — where Machine Head was all bass, Metallica is all treble.

Luckily, with Metallica, it's not the music; it's the event — the act of experiencing a primal celebration of, well, Raarrgghh! — as part of a giant pulsing organism that knows exactly when to pump its fists, chant, clap, and sing... or something like singing. It's the lighting, the stagecraft, the banter between songs and James Hetfield talking about everyone present being members of "the Metallica family."

All around the Internet, the tawdry and tedious melodrama still unfolds about the many perceived anti-metal crimes Metallica has committed: the radio-friendly short songs on the Black Album, the MTV videos, the testimony against Napster, the simultaneous haircuts, and worst of all, the St. Anger (a.k.a. "Got Pro Tools?") album. But this is a band too big to care about any of that stuff anymore. Metallica does what it wants to do, and you can come along for the ride and enjoy watching four multi-millionaires bashing out your favorite songs, or you can stay home and post to discussion boards about how angry you still are over the Bob Seger cover and the fact that Jason Newsted quit.

Yes, it sure looks like Lars Ulrich is working much harder than he used to at the drum kit, especially with so many of the fast songs coming back to back to back. (A couple of times he appeared to fall behind the timing pretty noticeably.) And while Hetfield rocks a blond mohawk these days, he also has a beard that's snow white. Kirk Hammett (left) is Kirk Hammett, looking how he's always looked and jaunting around the stage as he's always jaunted. And Rob Trujillo is a prowling, lumbering lunatic on the bass, at one point holding the instrument out at arm's length and spinning himself around so many times that the audience got dizzy watching him. Four massive caskets, taken from the Death Magnetic cover, hang over the stage to function as giant lighting rigs, sometimes descending, then tipping, rotating, upending — maybe as a reminder of creeping mortality and advancing age, or maybe just as a reminder to buy the album if you haven't already.

Either way, the Four Horsemen proved to the Motor City that memorable songs are way more than just guttural howls and thumping power chords, and that if you want to hear the great old songs — and the great new songs played in the old style — your best bet is to call in the old guys. Even if they hold up their show over a stupid bass guitar.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Crazy is as crazy writes — except when it's not

Normally, Carrie Fisher's works of fiction are scathing, biting and hilarious looks at life in Hollywood, a life that often (strangely) resembles her own. With Wishful Drinking, Fisher drops the pretense of fiction and goes with an actual memoir that (sort of) focuses on her fight with mental illness, among other things.

Sadly, Fisher is more cloying than caustic, which quickly became tiresome and a major disappointment. The book completely lacks structure and this came off as a calculated and pretentious move on Fisher's part, as if a book on being bipolar must be scattered and, well, manic. This made the writing feel forced, draining most of the entertainment value from her personal anecedotes about her mother, her father, Gary Grant and George Lucas, among others.

The cover is hilarious and readers will find a few flashes of the wit and bons mots that spilled forth from her earlier works like Postcards from the Edge. But ultimately, this book reads like an attention-seeking, "look-at-me-I'm-crazy!" plea from a fading star who still has the capacity to shine much more brightly than this memoir indicates.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A note about notes

When it comes to music, there are three basic groups of people. For the first group, song lyrics are mere sounds, and music, i.e. sound, is mere background. It's a "good beat easy to dance to"
American Bandstand kind of appreciation; the kind that, when a certain performer or song title is mentioned, will get a nod and a Yeah, I think I like that one.

For the second group, lyrics are discernible and have meaning, in the sense that they flow in something like forward syntax that sounds like a series of statements. There might be recognition of breaks between intro and verse, verse and bridge, bridge and chorus; the components might even be whistled on demand. The technicality of a composition can be admired; the notes are well arranged. Things are becoming more...
musical for this group.

"Sama Guent Guii," Youssou N'Dour

But for people in the third group, music is the essence of human experience. A single strategically-placed note, perfectly sustained, is more devastating than all of Shakespeare's tragedies combined. A sudden minor chord shift instantly becomes a memory of great loss; were the musician to dwell on the notes too long, the pain would become unbearable. The listening body itself becomes an instrument, with each note reverberating through a separate channel of nerves. A main melody goes A-C-E, A-C-E, A-C-E, lulling listeners into a comfortable, familiar place — and then, for only a brief moment, becomes A-C-F, changing the whole narrative, re-setting the tone, dissolving any prior comfort and replacing it with something like fear mixed with anticipation. A-C-E, A-C-E... anticipation becomes longing. And then, at the precise moment when longing turns to despair, there it is: A-C-Ftwice.

"Song for Bob," Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

Nick Cave's soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford works like this. Tangerine Dream's soundtrack to The Keep does, too. The last eight notes of Apocalyptica's "Farewell," the soaring string interlude in Rammstein's "Ohne Dich," the muted guitar trills in Youssou N'Dour's "Sama Guent Guii," the collision of minor notes from Djivan Gasparyan's masterful duduk in "Moon Shines at Night" — all are musical passages that act like razors across the wrist, arrows into the heart. And we won't even talk about Slash's wrenching guitar solos in Guns N' Roses' "November Rain."

A zillion years ago, Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey tried to describe the dynamic in "Pure and Easy":

There once was a note, pure and easy
Playing so free, like a breath rippling by
The note is eternal, I hear it, it sees me
Forever we blend it, forever we die
I listened and I heard music in a word
And words when you played your guitar
The noise that I was hearing was a million people cheering
And a child flew past me riding in a star.

"Farewell," Apocalyptica

Problem is, people from the third group can't communicate anything about this with people in the first group. And people in the second group might smile politely, maybe even nod in agreement, because they understand that such a response to music is, technically, possible. But it's not a shared experience. Meanwhile, people in the third group sit in solitary corners with their iPod headphones, occasionally wincing and clutching their chests when a series of notes comes around to stab them in the soul.

Gortoz A Ran-J'Attends," Danez Prigent & Lisa Gerrard

Friday, January 9, 2009

Now that's what we call influence

When the iTunes Music Store went live in April 2003, it offered 200,000 songs and hoped to help create an iPod Nation where everyone wore white earbuds. Today, with six million songs in its catalog and four billion songs sold, the iTMS is the #1 music retailer in the United States — oh, and the earbud thing came true, too.

One by one, major labels and major acts have signed agreements with the iTMS, knowing that something doesn't grow from zero to four billion unless a whole lot of people are flipping the switches. But Detroit's own American badass, Kid Rock, is a notable exception to the steamroller that so many other major music acts have climbed aboard. According to Rock, the iTMS monster doesn't give musicians rides, it only flattens them.

Metallica made this argument for quite a while as well, claiming that albums were meant to be heard as, well, albums, and that letting listeners buy single songs corrupted the artistic integrity and vision behind the album tracklists. But now, even the mighty Met has listened to its management and put its songs up for sale at iTMS for fans to buy however they choose.

Kid Rock's management advised the Romeo, Michigan native to cooperate with the iTMS machine too, or else watch his last album, Rock and Roll Jesus, vanish into the sea of obscurity shortly after its release. With a cry of "viva la resistance" and an eye on the $9 - $20 CD full price, Kid refused — and the album went platinum. It took over a year, but it happened. The little guy had proved his point; Steve Jobs and the hegemony of Apple Music (the other one) had lost.

The iTunes Music Store has been blamed for the demise of the Album, as both idea and reality, by more than just Kid Rock and the Hetfield/Ulrich team. But an album is just a title reflecting a particular collection of songs, and songs are just conceptual labels we give to the digital collections of zeroes and ones called data files on our hard drives. If we want to download a story from an online magazine, we don't grab the whole site; why buy a whole album just to own one "song"?

The argument's well known. But iTunes didn't kill the radio star; ripping single songs out of their album contexts happened decades before the iTMS was even an apple seed in Steve Jobs's eye. Anyone who's ever been in a Best Buy store in the past decade is familiar with the Now That's What I Call Music! series — which on Volume One gave us the Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, and Hanson on the same disc as Radiohead — an unspeakable affront to artistic and aesthetic sensibilities everywhere. The Now franchise — essentially a mix tape with corporate backing — has somehow managed to keep slogging on in the digital age, presumably thanks to an army of Wal-Mart shoppers still resisting those computer things, but even the Now series (currently up to collection #29) had a predecessor: K-Tel Records.

K-Tel commercials had a style all their own, as any greatest-hits SNL parody from the 1970s shows. With a male announcer's echo-chamber voice verging just this side of hysteria, the roll call of artists commenced over the cheesiest TV "psychedelia" effects possible at the time. Then a number flashed on the screen for easy ordering, but so did a list of brick-and-mortar retailers, like E.J. Korvette and Montgomery Ward, where the collection could be purchased.

Today, K-Tel is a company in transition, with a web site claiming that lots of exciting changes are on the way, but not a lot of evidence other than logos and song titles. The greatest hits compilation task has passed along to Rhino Records, where the Have A Nice Day series of 1970s hits gave us 25 discs worth of lovable schlock and schmaltz, but where some of the most important archival and restoration work is happening for preserving and re-sharing music from germinal groups and albums (think Sex Pistols and The Stains) obscurities (England Dan and John Ford Coley) and artists given box sets (Joy Division) that would otherwise never see the light of day. (Rhino also has a great eclectic podcast.)

Meanwhile, an underground collection also using the title Now That's What I Call Music has been going around the Pirate Bay/RapidShare circuits for years, and Kid Rock's "All Summer Long," from Rock and Roll Jesus, is a notable inclusion in collection #71. Net profit for the Kid: zero dollars. But since he's all down with illegal downloading anyway, there's not a problem, right?

Apple and iTunes aren't the villains in the ongoing "music is information and information wants to be free" melodrama. Neither are Pirate Bay and RapidShare. But K-Tel is. And mix tapes are. And top-40 radio is, and radio programmers are. Teenage garage bands playing cover songs for the neighbors, too.

Sometimes, as Antonio Gramsci told us, top-level hegemony takes shape through manipulation and consent forming at ground level. Kid Rock isn't an example of resistance to hegemony, because he is it. He didn't withhold consent from the iTunes State Apparatus — he simply bypassed it and set up his own profit-making system. To think there was any real rebellion taking place is just smoke and mirrors.

If you want to find the Ur-source of the end of albums and a reconception of music, think really, really, really low tech.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Doctor is in

If you’ve lived within range of popular media within the past 50 or so years, you’ve probably heard of Doctor Who. If not, you might fall for the most common joke about the nameless protagonist of the series, and ask: Doctor who? That was a question many were asking over the last couple of months.

But first, some history. Doctor Who is a British television program listed in the Guinness Book as the longest-running science fiction program in the world. Created in 1963 as an educational program, using far-off settings in time and space to give people a lesson in history, science, or politics, it initially ran until 1989. During that time, it firmly embedded itself as an aspect of British culture that runs deep even today. Set up a locked blue police call box in London and you’d see. It’s his space ship.

In 2005 production for the series resumed and new episodes began to air, to high acclaim. It has since gained popularity in America on the SciFi Channel. So, with such a long-running series, there have to be changes that throw off the audience, right? It’s hard to find a show these days that isn’t plagued by changes in staff, producers, or even actors.

But Doctor Who is almost magical for its ability to adapt. Adaptation is actually one of the foremost aspects of the Doctor himself. He is a Time Lord, a race of exceptionally long-lived humanoids who have the power to Regenerate when they die, coming back to life in a new body. This is how the lead actor of the series can change over the show’s lifetime, yet it still holds mass appeal. Each new actor brings something new to it, simply adding to the mythos and culture surrounding the story.

Throughout the show’s history, there have been a total of ten different actors to play significant parts as the Doctor. William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann were the early series stars, and each is important in their own ways to the formation of the current Doctor character — but that’s all history. What about the future?

Christopher Eccleston took the role of the Doctor in the 2005 restart of the series, and while his time there wasn’t long compared to others (Chris only starred as the doctor for 2005, compared to Tom Baker’s seven year run), Eccleston paved the way for the current Doctor, David Tennant. Tennant fit the bill perfectly and to many, he has all the charm and charisma to keep the old Doctor alive.

A pity, then, that he’s leaving. As he announced in 2008, after the four specials in 2009, he would no longer be the Doctor. And so the guessing game began. Who would replace Tennant as the Doctor? The answer, as they revealed in the UK on great outdoor TVs and BBC1, is this guy:

Matt Smith is a relative unknown to, well, most everyone. He’s young, he’s British, and he’s the eleventh Doctor. Frankly, the announcement was frightening. At first glance, Smith doesn’t fit any of the core aspects the Doctor holds. He looks a bit gloomy, for one. And that hair! (Hopefully at least he combs the wing.)

Still, our shining ray of hope that Matt will turn out all right is Steven Moffat, who is the other big change to the cast and crew of Doctor Who. A writer for the show, Moffat is taking over the role once held by Russell T Davies, that of lead writer and producer. Moffat wrote some of the best episodes of the revived series, including "Blink" and "The Empty Child," both of which won Hugo awards. And he himself picked Matt Smith for the role, saying, "The Doctor is a very special part, and it takes a very special actor to play him. You need to be old and young at the same time, a boffin and an action hero, a cheeky schoolboy and the wise old man of the universe. As soon as Matt walked through the door, and blew us away with a bold and brand new take on the Time Lord, we knew we had our man."

The general consensus is that Moffat knows what he’s doing. So, will Matt Smith do the Doctor justice, or will his era mark the decline of the series once again? Stay tuned, but don’t hold your breath; the series is on semi-hiatus, having only four specials, including the 2009 and 2010 Christmas specials. Matt Smith becomes the Doctor in 2010, giving him plenty of time to learn the part and get a trim around the ears.

Monday, January 5, 2009

When toys attack

Over the holidays WB did a bit of channel cruising to escape insanely fluctuating temperatures and head-numbing winds. Ironically, sitting immobile and avoiding the outdoors was exactly what led to finding VH-1's marathon of I Love Toys, a nostalgic look back at some of the greatest kiddie amusements in the last 50 years.

All of the usual suspects made it into the countdown of top toys — GI Joe, Cabbage Patch Kids, Easy-Bake Ovens, et al. — but one toy was glaringly left out of the discussion and even now is absent from the network's list of faves: Clackers.

Or, if you prefer, Kabongers. Or maybe Knockers, Klik-Klaks, Clikkers, Poppers, or a few hundred other variations on the theme. But no matter what they were called, these things represented the zenith of toy design at a time when toys still had the potential to kill and maim — and everybody knew that, but bought them anyway. Whacking a set of these colorful acrylic balls together could easily:

- develop such force that one or both balls would whack into a kid's forearm and leave a bruise for weeks

- forget about mere bruising and instead smash into a kid's wrist and fracture it

- forget about fracturing bones and instead shatter the acrylic into tiny shards that went into a kid's eye(s)

In addition to these enjoyable and memorable functions, Clackers could also be used as weapons if a kid bypassed the center ring on the connecting rope and instead used one ball as a handle to swing or throw the other at a despised opponent. (This toy's design was taken from the South American bola, a throwing weapon.) But maybe because this was the 1970s, when people still understood that just about anything can be used as a weapon — e.g. a steel buckle swinging from the end of an undone leather belt in a schoolyard fight — "outrage" over Clackers focused more on the insanity-inducing noise they made by knocking together than on the bruises, arm casts, and eye patches they could leave behind.

This was, after all, the era when Vietnam and its real-life horror shows were grinding to a close, and a few hundred toy-battered kids were lost in the enormity of 50,000 older American kids having been killed in that pointless quagmire. And maybe because of the reality of war — with its dead, disfigured, scarred, amputated, burned, and decomposed bodies guest-starring nightly in living rooms throughout the country and around the world — people tolerated "common sense" injuries from toys in a way that seems unimaginable today.

Creepy Crawlers, for example, were made from plastic forms melted on a 300-degree hot plate. Kids got badly burned if they touched the hot plate while it was making bugs. Parents warned, "Don't touch it," and if that wasn't enough, one contact experience between kidflesh and scalding steel would pretty much take care of preventing any future repeats.

During the same lethal-toy epoch, grown-ups were playing a fun, wholesome outdoor game called Jarts, where spike-tipped airborne missiles sailed toward plastic rings on the lawn. Or at least that was the plan. Something as simple as a sweaty hand (and this was a summertime game) could send a Jart veering wildly off course. Even so, parents warned, "Stand back," and that was that, except when the victim of a Jart-tip through the skull was an innocent toddler who didn't understand, and the launcher of the wayward missile was a beer-impaired family member who didn't know where the kid was in the first place.

Two quick points about Jarts. First, they might seem to be just a lethal alternative to horseshoes, an American backyard favorite. But anyone — whether a player or a spectator sitting what was thought to be a safe distance away — who's been zonked in the shin, or kneecapped by a badly thrown U-shaped piece of steel rolling end over end past the sand pit and then taking a bad bounce, knows that horseshoes are already plenty dangerous without a plastic "alternative." (Still, Jarts did allow for quick and easy setup without digging pits in the yard and measuring out the NHPA-required distances between and beyond them.)

Second, Jarts were "missiles." That's what the box said. They actually had nothing to do with horseshoes, but everything to do with the Cold War that had until just recently seen the Soviet Union and the United States aiming their full arsenals of nukes at each other in a testosterone-driven staredown. The plastic circles were targets, and the missiles could nail those targets dead on or else land close enough (within the length of one Jart) outside the target to still inflict heavy damage, i.e. a scoring point. In other words, Jarts were an opportunity to play Dr. Strangelove with the aroma of summer barbecue in the background.

Estimates are that nearly seven thousand people were injured and four were killed by spike-tipped yard missiles before Jarts were banned. But nearly seven billion people could be incinerated by the 11,000 nuke-tipped missiles that are still poised to unleash hell on the planet.

Good thing there's someone watching over us to protect us from dangerous toys.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Come on, feel the noise.

WB recently had a chance to eat "road food" for several days in Chicago. Three of those meals were at restaurants that offered dim lights, soft music overhead, and $100 wine lists — the strongest possible cues that diners should relax, slow down, and speak quietly over their dinners. A fourth meal was at Subway, where lights blazed harshly, a staff of seven worked behind a busy counter unseparated from the "dining" area, and $2 drinks came from bottles in a cooler by the cash register.

Of the four, the Subway experience was the most peaceful and relaxing.

Even Amtrak, that hulking, greasy, clacking monster of mass transportation, understands that there are still some people who enjoy quiet. For the past ten years the railroad has offered a Quiet Car on many of its northeast corridor trains, and frequent commuters who know about it cherish the chance to travel without having to hear every cellphone detail about the lives of other passengers, the loud public corrections of kids by parents who wouldn't be yelling if they knew what they were doing, and a soundtrack of a dozen competing laptops blaring separate DVDs without headphones.

Of course, not everyone agrees that Quiet Cars are a good idea. And fewer and fewer of us appear to agree that a quiet meal at a quiet restaurant is a good thing, either. The demise of quiet is directly connected to the demise of privacy — the antiquated notion that we're entitled to keep certain information about ourselves to ourselves — and the result is a fascinating study in pathological conflict. We spend hundreds of dollars on computer software to protect our identities, then use the computers to splash those identities all over the Internet on Myface/Spacebook. We get up in arms when the government wants to know where we are and what we're doing, then update Twitter and our AIM status messages a dozen times a day to let everyone else know the same thing. We build houses with tiny entrances in front but massive decks out back so that the neighbors won't get into our business at home, then conduct our business publicly via bluetooth everywhere else.

All of the hyperconnectedness is accompanied by a steady slide into visual illiteracy when we no longer recognize or understand the signs — semiotic or linguistic — hinting at how we should comport ourselves. A candle-lit restaurant table is taken as a sign to talk at twice the volume to make up for the darkness; a sign saying "Quiet Please" somehow indicates that whoever put it there is a jerk and that all objections to it should be registered at top volume.

WB saw an estimate recently that world population probably reached seven billion some time around New Year's Day, 2009 — a couple of days ago. Things are definitely getting crowded now as the locusts steadily chomp their way through the last of the crop fields. But at least Subway offers some sanctuary from all the noise.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Without whom, not

2008 saw some major withdrawals made from the pop culture savings account; 2009 is sure to do the same. Here, a list of some of the losses — and the new deposits they made to the general fund while they were with us.

Bernie Mac (Cedric the Entertainer)

Tim Russert (Chris Matthews)

Charlton Heston (David Caruso)

Heath Ledger (Shia LaBeouf)

Michael Crichton (John Grisham)

Arthur C. Clarke (Michael Crichton)

Studs Terkel (Ira Glass)

Mr. Blackwell (What Not To Wear)

Estelle Getty (Bea Arthur)

Bo Diddley (George Thorogood)

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (The Love Guru)

Sir Edmund Hillary (Jon Krakauer)

George Carlin (Chris Rock)

Isaac Hayes (South Park)

Bettie Page (Pamela Anderson)

Paul Newman (Brad Pitt)

David Foster Wallace (Matt Taibbi)