Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Classic Music Videos: Olivia Newton-John "Physical"

This was the first music video that I ever saw, which is a scary thing to contemplate, since I was six years old.  The context was memorable, since my mom had dropped me off at a friend's place to be babysat, and I am not sure exactly of the reason why, but I think it had to do with my infant little sister being ill and my mom needing to be able to give her total attention.  Anyway, this friend had a new invention I'd never seen before: a VCR.  (This was circa 1981-1982.)  She put on the original Superman film from 1978, taped off of NBC, so the video for "Physical" must have been put on the tape after the movie.  I thought it was amusing, totally unaware of the video's sexual content.

I don't think I ever saw it again until I was in college in the 1990s and was spending some lazy time watching Vh1's Pop-Up Video.  By that time I was easily able to see the over-the-top homoeroticism of the muscular men in speedos at the beginning and end, and the shots of overweight men trying to exercise as grotesque and demeaning rather than funny.  I also realized that the song was not about working out in the gym, but in the bedroom.

I watch it now and see a perfect document of the early 1980s.  Newton-John's leotard and sweatbands practically defined the era, where the crunchier aesthetic of the seventies gave way to the idealization hard bodies and hard business practices.  The narcissism of 70s self-actualization thus gave way to the 80s narcissism of pure pleasure and profit.  The sex described in the song seems as robotic and lifeless as a Bowflex machine.  The music contains a similar feeling, seemingly bereft of any distinctive sound.  The instruments sound muted and mechanical beneath the singer's jaded, bored come-ons.  It has a vaguely funky groove, like disco with all the joy and fun drained out leaving a non-descript musical husk.  These days I wonder if the song and video were meant to be a parody of the culture of narcissism reigning at the time.  Whether intended or not, that's how I look at this odd artifact today.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Democrats' Cycle of Failure

I'm hearing predictions from Nate Silver types of the Republican Party taking the Senate.  According to today's edition of the Times, not only will Republicans maintain the House, its members will likely be even more conservative than they are now.  Evidently shutting down the government to push tax cuts was too moderate for them.  All of this is predicted despite extremely low approval ratings for the same inactive Congress crippled by Republican obstructionism.


There's the usual difficulties of the president's party in a second term midterm election, of course, but that's not all.  With low turnout in the midterms, each party needs to turn out its base to win.  The Democrats do okay in presidential elections because moderate voters are more in play, and they are less likely to vote for a party that has become the captive pawn of the radical conservative movement.  In midterms the Republicans ride their base to victory, with the "shellacking" of 2010 after the mobilization of the Tea Party a case in point.  The GOP is aware enough of the power of the base that they do whatever they can to drive Democratic turnout down, from ending early voting to voter ID laws.

The Democrats have responded to this Republican strategy by trying to appease moderates (who are rare in the midterms) by shitting all over their base, instead of courting it. Take immigration reform, which the president decided to delay until after the election so as to not alienate bigots in redder states.  In doing so he broke an implicit promise with a group (Latinos) who helped put him in the White House.  After that do you think anyone who cares about immigration reform is going to rush to the polls to vote Democrat?  Or take the Kentucky election for Senate, where the Democratic candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes has spent as much time as she can bashing president Obama.  This despite the fact that Obamacare has been a huge success story in the state.  Essentially the Democratic candidate for the Senate is trashing the person responsible for improving the lives of millions of her constituents, and he's in her own party.  If your choice is between Republican and Republican Lite, why would you vote for the watered-down version?  Better yet, why would you vote for a party that doesn't even stand by its own policies, no matter how successful?

There's plenty more examples of Democrats shitting on their base, then coming around with the begging bowl and pleas to go to the polls.  Plenty of Democrats have jumped on the "education reform" bandwagon, which is really a ploy to destroy teachers unions, a group that has historically been an important and loyal supporter of the Democrats.  African Americans vote Democratic in overwhelming numbers, yet the president was slow to discuss Ferguson, and has been called out for engaging in a kind of respectability politics that skirts structural poverty.  Obama ran twice against fighting 'stupid wars," but now has decided that getting involved in a brand new stupid war is just fine.

And after all this, the Democrats expect their base to meekly fall in line, and that somewhere, somehow down the road their demands will be listened to, rather than ignored.  Honestly, as far as this voter is concerned, why bother?  Until the Democrats actually do the bidding of their supporters, there's no reason to vote for them.  If enough of us withhold our votes, these thickheaded, mendacious cowards might just do the right thing, even if it's out of fear of losing power.  Whatever works, because the status quo is untenable.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Track of the Week: U2 "Bad"

Recently U2 engaged in a blunder of colossal proportions, giving away its album to millions of iPhone users who didn't want it.  One wag compared their new record to the CDs of free internet minutes that America Online used to bombard us with a decade ago.  This hubris and marketing behind this decision, as well as the not bad but not good music on Songs of Innocence, are indicative of a band that has been in a holding pattern since the start of the new century.  Once a great band, they've now been reduced to a punchline.

However, we should not led U2's current irrelevance overshadow the accomplishments of its glory days.  When they put everything together, their songs had a kind of magic to them, capable of hitting on deep emotions in ways other pop music artists could only dream of.  That ability became much sharper on The Unforgettable Fire, when Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois became the band's house producers and de facto silent members.  Their added sense of atmosphere and ambience gave U2's songs a new, deeper resonance.

That impact is best heard on "Bad," which starts with a minimalist figure, just Edge's ringing guitar and a starkly postpunk tamborine before Bono's voice comes in.  He's never been a traditionally great singer, but on this song he shows off his unique emotional belting, which just keeps building and building to the scream of "I'm wide awake!"  After this spookily spare beginning, the rhythm section comes in with the signature pounding thrum of Mullen and Clayton.  My God it is a beautiful thing to hear, slowly building in intensity before the dam breaks and Bono throws all he's got into the mic before dropping to the low "I'm not dreaming" after the unhinged shout of "I'm wide awake!"

I dare you to listen to this song and not be affected. "Bad" hits a kind of frequency in my soul where I MUST listen to it.  It can never be musical wallpaper, the emotional intensity simply can't be ignored.  It's a far cry from a band that now literally can't give away its newest album.  

Thursday, September 25, 2014

An Ode To Paul Konerko

There's been a crazy level of hype and discussion this season about the impending retirement of Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.  (I am pretty much in agreement with Keith Olbermann on the need to tone it down.)  I'm more interested in the retirement of a very good but less well-known player: Paul Konerko.

Paulie (as he's known to my fellow White Sox fans) has been the team's offensive rock for over a decade,  a steady influence in the clubhouse, and the kind of player who people already assume will be a manager.  Unlike Jeter, however, Konerko will not be going to the Hall of Fame.  He is one of those stellar players good enough to hit 400 home runs and go to six All-Star games, but never lead the league in anything.  As far as the non-ChiSox baseball world is concerned, Konerko is an easy inductee into the Hall of Very Good a la Tommy John and Tony Oliva, and they leave it at that.

It's different for us White Sox fans.  Other mainstays like Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, and Mark Buehrle left through trade and free agency, but Paulie has been on the team since 1999.  His grand slam  in game 2 of the 2005 World Series might be the greatest moment in team history since the days of straw boaters and spats.  He is in top three all time for the White Sox in hits, home runs, and RBI.  I can't think of another player on the team more loved and respected by the fans.

That Konerko is taking his bow in the shadow Jeter is about the most White Sox thing he could have done.  The team has built its identity around being overlooked and contrarian.  They play in a newer yet plain ballpark that is neither the multipurpose ashtray of the past, nor the retrofied amusement park of the present. White Sox fans are constantly aware that their team is second fiddle in the Windy City to the Cubs, even though the Sox have won a recent World Series and have generally been the better team over the last three decades.  When the Sox won their title in 2005, it was their first since 1917, and their first World Series appearance since 1959.  However, the magic of breaking that losing streak did not become a national story and obsession, since the Red Sox had broken their curse the season before.  In any case, the White Sox did not have some kind of colorful "Curse of the Bambino" schtick.  Whereas the 2004 Red Sox win was treated like a historical event, the 2005 White Sox victory was just another World Series win like all the rest.

In the end, that suited the perennially overlooked White Sox team and their fans' mentality to a tee.  Maybe more than any other fan base, White Sox fans are level-headed and realistic.  They knew the reasons their team sucked for so long were pretty mundane, and not supernatural.  When their team stinks, they don't blow their money on tickets, they want to force the ownership to do better.  They can often be very demanding of their managers and star players; even during the championship run in 2005 manager Ozzie Guillen spent plenty of time on the hot seat.

In many respects, Konerko is the perfect fit for the White Sox.  He has steadily put up good numbers over the years, plugging away and able to turn in one of his best seasons while he was in his middle thirties.  Konerko has done this, and lead the team, with quiet consistency.  I first made the fateful decision to be a White Sox fan in 1999, having moved to Chicago (the first major league city I'd ever resided in) in the fall of 1998.  The Cubs seemed like more fun, and Sosa was in the midst of his glory years, but being a bit of a crank and contrarian (and living on the South Side at the time), I realized that the White Sox were really more my style.  That year also happened to be Paulie's first for the team, when I looked at him skeptically, wondering if his impressive AAA numbers would translate to the bigs.  Sixteen years later, it is hard to imagine what it will be like to see my favorite team take the field in the spring without him.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

War Without End

I first started blogging back in 2004, motivated by the apparent political insanity of the Bush administration.  Its ability to start a disastrous war based on lies without facing political consequences depressed me to no end.  When Barack Obama was elected, I figured that the neo-conservative obsession with "pre-emptive war" would be over.  Turns out that the joke was on me the whole time.

As the war drums beat in 2003, I attended anti-war protests.  I remember talking to a woman who figured that war in Syria would follow one in Iraq, all part of the Bush administration's crusade to remake the Middle East in the American image.  Turns out that war with Syria actually was on the horizon, but under a Democratic president.  Back then Obama was a local politician in the state where I lived (Illinois), and I appreciated him speaking out against the war.  So it goes.

We are hearing the familiar bromides while the bombs are falling this time.  America is supporting "moderates" in Syria, who will somehow magically defeat both ISIS and the Assad regime with a little know-how and  military support.  Considering how a similarly America-molded government in Iraq had totally failed against ISIS attacks, I doubt that the moderates in Syria will gain any more legitimacy than the Diem regime did in Vietnam, the Contras in Nicaragua, Hamid Karzai in Aghanistan or Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq.  The dangerous illusion that America can intervene in complex civil conflicts abroad and control the political process there by remote control just refuses to die.

By my reckoning, America has been engaged in war and occupation in the Middle East almost continuously since 1987, when the navy was sent to the Persian Gulf to escort Kuwaiti tankers during the Iran-Iraq War.  During this now forgotten action lasting into 1988, the US accidentally shot down an Iranian air liner (similar to the sad fate of the Malaysian flight over the Ukraine this summer.)  Less than two years later the American army flooded into Saudi Arabia after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.  Since then we've seen the Gulf War, the enforcement of No-Fly Zones, sanctions, the second invasion in 2003, a resulting guerrilla war, and now an intervention in the uprising by ISIS.  You could maybe even argue that America has been on a war footing in the region since 1983, when Reagan sent the marines to Beirut.  Although he sent them home after a horrific attack, he also simultaneously supported Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, and supplied missiles to Iran in return for hostages.

Basically, the American government has been heavily involved in the Middle East for thirty years, with several interventions by ground troops and many more bombings and drone strikes.  After all of this, what's been accomplished?  ISIS taking down Iraq's government is the worst case scenario, and it looks like that just might happen.  I wonder why our foreign policy mavens haven't figured out after three decades of intervention in the Middle East that they simply aren't capable of bending the region to their will.  When will they stop?  Until there is a truly final moment, like the fall of Saigon, which capped off another thirty year failed American intervention, it will be war without end.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Track of the Week: Danger Doom featuring Talib Kweli "Old School"

Nowadays almost all the television I watch (apart from sports, news and the programming my kids demand) is viewed via streaming services.  I'm not complaining, since any time I spend in front of the tube is spent watching stuff I like instead of flipping channels in despair.  That said, I sometimes get sentimental for how I experienced TV as a child.  Back then I had to make time for my favorite shows, or else not see them.  It's a little embarrassing to admit, but I hated the fact that my martial arts classes as a kid conflicted with Alf.

In the kid world, no television time mattered more than Saturday morning.  It was given over to cartoons, and all three major networks (that's all we had back then, and we liked it, goddammit!) were, for a few glorious hours, taken over by the kingdom of kid-dom.  I would often wake up so early that I was greeted by a test pattern (I'll explain what that is some other time, children), but it was worth a little boredom to see all the cartoons and shows from beginning to end.

This experience gets a proper musical tribute on the track "Old School" on The Mouse and the Mask, a collaboration between genius producer Danger Mouse and avant garde rapper MF Doom that involved appearances by several Cartoon Network stars, including Space Ghost, who I used to watch on Saturday morning in his more serious incarnation.  Things got real meta on "Old School," which references watching Saturday morning cartoons, along with some prescient observations about rap music's power before gangsta.  The song mirrors the lyrics, incorporating the appropriately 70s-tastic "funky fanfare." Nostalgia never sounded this good.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Thoughts on Jodorowsky's Dune

Last week I finally saw Jodorowsky's Dune, a documentary I had desperately wanted to see when it hit the art house theaters before the demands of parenting interceded.  It was everything I had hoped it to be, a rare experience these days.

In case you don't know, it is a film about a failed film.  In the mid-1970s, Mexican surrealist/psychedelic/totally whacko director Alessandro Jodorowski decided to adapt Frank Herbert's iconic novel Dune for the silver screen.  (This was a decade before David Lynch's ill-fated version.)  He did not merely want to make a film, he wanted to produce a spiritual experience that would raise the consciousness of the world.  He managed to assemble a world-beating team of design and effects mavens, including HR Giger and Dan O'Bannon, who would later go on to work together on Alien.  Jodorowsky also got commitments from Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali to appear in it.  He needed to get some additional funding to get it made, but none of the Hollywood studios bit, and the film never got made.

In order to better solicit funds from the studios, Jodorowsky's team of what he termed "spiritual warriors" storyboarded the entire film, and put the results in book form.  The images from that book are breath-taking and intriguing, and inevitably inspire deep thoughts about what might could have been.  The vision behind the film is so vast and impossible for the time that it's hard to believe such a film had any chance of getting made.  If it had, the course of cinematic history would have been vastly altered.

Dune would have appeared in 1975, two years before Star Wars rewrote the rules for science fiction and space adventure.  As much as I truly love Star Wars, it is hard to love its unintended consequences.  For one, "hard" science fiction rarely appears on film (the recent Snowpiercer is an exception.)  Sci-fi tends to be of the action-adventure variety, such as the (nevertheless) stellar Guardians of the Galaxy.  It became the ultimate crowd-pleasing genre, one where the complex ideas and social critique so common to literary sci-fi were conspicuously absent.  Jodorowsky's film may have given birth to a science fiction tradition in film of a more intellectual bent.  As insane and detached from reality as Jodorowsky often seems, at least he was really trying to do something revolutionary.  Most of what lands in the multiplexes these days bearing the title of "science fiction" is bereft of any traces of artistic or intellectual depth.

It is also obvious that while Jodorowsky's magnum opus never saw the light of day, his concepts and those storyboards did not go unnoticed.  StarWars had its own spiritual addition to science fiction, in the form of The Force.  The creative team he put together did manage to make a film together, on 1979's Alien, but without Jodorowsky.  That fact is a little depressing, since it seems that pathbreaking ideas in cinema only reach the public after they have been mediated and made safe by popularizers.  Truly original cinematic visions are awful hard to come by, and Jodorowsky's Dune is an irresistable look at one of the last great attempts to make something truly new under the sun.