Thursday, March 19, 2009

That slippery A

I was reading an interesting article about Dracula today*, when this sentence popped out at me:

How can we have sympathy for the Devil and still regard him as the Devil? That question seems to have occurred to Stephenie Meyer, who is a Mormon.

What's interesting to me is not that Meyer is Mormon, which accounts for the non-consummated nature of the vampiric relationship as Acocella points out--once again proving that consummation is nowhere near as dramatically interesting as anticipation, but that she uses an article, changing her from a person to a specific thing. By identifying her as "a Mormon", rather than "Mormon", Meyer is wholly identified by her faith. As opposed to being someone whose faith is an aspect of her being, the way someone might be broodish or chipper, it's the defining aspect of her being; the descriptor. And for some reason that bugged me. Or perhaps my reaction bugged me--that it was like hearing "this very successful novel written by a cult member whose dearest desire is to inculturate you into her coven" as opposed to "the book written by that woman who goes to a temple in Salt Lake and writes about vampires as well."

That "A" is slippery. It's used ironically with gay now, as in "he is a gay" or "The gay" (Thank You, Kathy Griffin), which does the same thing. As a person who knows that gay is much more than sexuality, and probably does go a long way in defining much of my sensibility and how I look at the world, it is by no means all of it. Nor is just a modifier, which some suggest, as innocuous as whether I like cheese or not. I'm Jewish, too, by birth, but I don't know that I'd call myself a Jew. I probably wouldn't, and I'd more than likely find it reductive if someone else did, though I am fiercely proud of my heritage.

No answers in this, but it did make me wonder more how categorizing works, and how that little article becomes something much bigger than just quantification, at least in this context. So I guess it's something to watch out for, and watch how I use. Language is sharp and sticky at the same time.

*I once again need to tell you how much I love the New Yorker for interesting articles about things you don't really need to know but are beyond glad you did. And I love that they call Acocella a "Critic at Large". Look out! She might attack! She's still at large!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

American Idol

It’s country week on American Idol, and nothing can show up the judges to be as completely unhinged, inarticulate, and clueless as a genre they don’t know and have all kinds of assumptions about. Namely, country.

I will go on record here as saying that I am an unabashed lover of country music. Yes, its politics at times make me change the station, or get annoyed at the artist (I’m talking to you Toby Keith, Aaron Tippen, Lee Greenwood and Darryl Worley), but then, like an annoying relative, you can’t really dislike them totally because there’s always something you do they like. For me, country is about stories, voices, and harmony. And it’s pretty catchy. So yeah, I consider myself an aficionado.

But when country week rolls around, it’s like listening to bakers talk about making missiles, because those judges just flip over themselves to sound like they know what they’re talking about. And between their assumptions about what country stands for, what each contestant “is”, it’s more fun than the rodeo.

My tipping point came this week when Adam Lambert sang “Ring of Fire”. I’d already been primed by Michael Sarver’s downright shaky bordering on bad rendition of “Ain’t goin’ down til the sun comes up”, where he tried to excuse himself by saying “it’s fun, it’s country” as if that excused him from any kind of breathing, phrasing, or even staying on pitch. And Kara, she of seemingly no knowledge of country music at all, more or less agreed. (!). But what got me was the thing that always does with this show—the judges ask for something—this time, originality—and when they get it, they hate it. No sooner had the last contestant performed and been told that he had to be more “original” and himself than Adam Lambert came on and completely blew everyone away with a re-imagined version of “Ring of Fire” that completely suited him. And of course—he was criticized – I love this--for being weird, by Kara, and was insulted by Simon. Because what the judges mean by “different” is “same as what’s on the radio right now” and “put your spin on it” means “make it sound like what’s on the radio right now as you would sound doing it”. God forbid anyone like Lucinda Williams, John Prine, or Steve Earle would have to stand up in front of Kara or Simon.

Case in point, Matt Giruad. Nice, not earth shattering, and very contemporary. But it got one of the best responses of the night. I know this is not new to this show. What the judges are figuring out how to do is encourage these people to figure out who they are while at the same time remaining a salable commodity--not an easy task (and they did earn some respect for calling out the over-sung version of Jolene, which Alexis Grace wielded like a baseball bat and thwacked it against a wall a few times, and then was told by Kara that she lost her edge and should sing one of two Carrie Underwood songs). It really gets my hackles, up, though, when someone goes out on a limb artistically and gets called weird and strange. ESPECIALLY on a Johnny Cash song. He friggin’ covered nine inch nails! And even more, Adam kind of nailed it. If there’s anyone who probably would’ve appreciated that version, it’s Johnny Cash. And to lambaste someone for doing what you’ve asked, mainly stay true to himself and his sound, well, that’s just not country. Be original, but please, don’t do anything we haven’t seen before.

And an Idol PS from Yahoo:
Paula Abdul had six #1 hits between 1989 and 1991, when she vied with Madonna and Janet Jackson as the hottest female singer in the business. That means that Abdul has had as many #1 singles all by herself as every Idol contestant who has ever competed on the show, combined. Think of that the next time someone (Simon Cowell, perhaps) suggests she's an airhead.

Who knew?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Stop Making Sense

Last night some friend hosted a screening of Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. I was blown away. It's a great film. Taut, exciting. I'd never seen it before. And, I think until last night, I'd never got the brilliance of Talking Heads. I liked some of their stuff, but I really didn't connect with it on a deep enough level to go out and buy it or go deeply into it. After seeing this film, I feel like I not only get Talking Heads, but get what's compelling about David Byrne aside from his quirkiness (which I'd missed), and finally, if you can believe it, post-modernism.

I should probably explain that last one. I've spent a fair amount of time in performance theory classes, semiotics seminars, and seeing a lot of non-mainstream performance. Post-modernism is one of those terms that's bandied about, but just seems to be this big umbrella encompassing anything that happened after, say, 1975. I never was clear on what it meant, but I felt it really coalesced sometime in the mid-early 80's, and people like Robert Wilson and the Wooster Group were at it's center. The thing I always took away was the idea of fragmentation. But for some reason, even after seeing show after show in living rooms, stores, theaters, garages, parks and subway stations, I never really felt it. Until this film. And what I got was actually kind of simple, so I'm probably overdoing it here, but it was such an "AHA!" moment, and when we have felt moments like that they seem kind of large. Can you tell that I'm procrastinating writing this, because I think you're going to read it and say, "Well, duh."?

There is a song, and I'm not sure which one, where there is a screen at the back of the stage that is divided into three sections, each displaying a unrelated different word, e.g. onion, sand, ground. This happens a few times--they flash every 15 seconds or so, maybe less. Then the screen changes to blue and the the screens are three words that make up a familiar phrase--the one I'm remembering is Look At Me. And then the nickel dropped, and the record played. Oh! I get it! All this stuff that I've studied and worked with made, for want of a better word, emotional sense for the first time. Words, or phrases, or whatever, are made strange in their regular context by the knowledge of what they are singularly. They're made foreign or strange, sometimes by their context, and sometimes in their context by what they are place against. So having random, unrelated words in groups of three flashed over and over makes the relation of the three were used to seeing, "look at me" in this example" strange. You think, Why are these particular words together? What is their meaning? Do they have meaning alone? Do they have meaning beyond what I take for granted, in fact, have I been missing the meaning altogether?

Well, duh. You'd think having seen this technique so much I might have felt it at least once. But I never did. At least not that i remember. So I'm writing it down lest I forget again.

And songs like "Once in a Lifetime", which was ubiquitous growing up so I didn't really think much about the meaning, take on whole new meanings. The song is about waking up and not recognizing your life, and possibly the chance that chasm offers. The whole film is brilliant in this, or actually the show--building the band one piece at a time, having a travelling light on the stage, people running in place, Byrne's oversize suit--everything pulls us away and and asks us to rethink what we take for granted in perception. The title itself, if an imperative, is an exhortation to this: Stop Making Sense!

I loved it. And unlike dada, which I should probably look at more but seems to me the art equivalent of typing monkeys, this actually looks to find more meaning by pulling things apart. I kind of see dada as just saying "it's all gibberish, so let's just be silly" whereas this deconstruction is saying "maybe we can pull apart our expectations and find something rich and rewarding".
And I kind of love David Byrne now, and before he almost actively annoyed me. So that's a win.

Aretha is singing "Ain't no Way" in the Starbucks here, so I've lost all train of thought and can only sit here and listen.

WI FI!!!

Wow. I am amazed at technology. I just got a new laptop yesterday with airport for the first time, a new mac book. ANd here I am at a Starbucks writing this! On the internet! I knew it could happen, but it's happening to me! So thrilling! Are the !!! telling the story? I know this old news to everyone, but if I can write without having to worry about cleaning my apartment, the world will open up. HOURS of enjoyment. Virtual hours. So thrilling.

Monday, March 02, 2009


Since I'm on a jag here, and posting poetry, and thirsting for words lately like a shady, cool outdoor shower on a dusty, hot day, here's one from our new, 16th Poet Laureate. Enjoy yourself.

by Kay Ryan

Patience is
wider than one
once envisioned,
with ribbons
of rivers
and distant
ranges and
tasks undertaken
and finished
with modest
relish by
natives in their
native dress.
Who would
have guessed
it possible
that waiting
is sustainable—
a place with
its own harvests.
Or that in
time's fullness
the diamonds
of patience
couldn't be
from the genuine
in brilliance
or hardness.