Friday, December 16, 2011

a christmas story

When I was seven or eight years old, me and all my friends wanted G.I. Joes for Christmas. Joe was a toy soldier doll—the one I wanted was black with black fuzz on his head that was supposed to be hair. And on Christmas morning, when we opened our presents, there he was—my new G.I. Joe.

But the real Christmas day toy soldier action was up the street. My friend Keith was probably the loudest boy in the neighborhood. Whenever he opened his mouth, a shout came out. And Keith had a peculiar way of playing with his G.I. Joes. He would pour gasoline on them, set them on fire and then throw them into the air as high as he could.

One Christmas, his parents gave Keith an entire battalion of G.I Joes: not just the dolls, but also G.I. Joe jeeps and tanks and ships. This was a mistake. And by noon on the 25th, Keith had burned, exploded, melted or otherwise destroyed his entire G.I. Joe army. What a show.

I haven’t spoken to Keith in years, but I’ve heard that when he grew up, he joined the navy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Baby It's You (part 2)

(The second part of my latest piece for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung)

Lady Gaga and company exhibit a particularly American perspective: each of them assures their listeners that they are all superstars, gangstas, or in Perry’s case, explosions. Many Americans go through life certain that one day, they will be rich, or famous, or both. For us, being “okay” means being “super.” Normal, unremarkable self-esteem is-- like leaving Afghanistan-- not an option. Put another way, American self-worth is worth more.

Speaking of money, might it be that all of these pop odes to empowerment have something to do with the fact that the US economy is in the toilet, and Americans are feeling, well, a little weak? In desperate times, pop culture often morphs into something more escapist or consoling—think about The Wizard of Oz (1939), or Star Wars (1977). As if in response to the mere suggestion that the dollar is down, Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” practically pole-vaults out of radios, televisions and computer screens, and roars, “We will never be, never be, anything but loud.” To underscore the idea that the USA is back and better than ever, the video clip for the song features images of both Uncle Sam and Rosie the Riveter, the WWII American factory heroine. At times, “Raise Your Glass” seems to be addressed to some sort of outcast “you,” a rebellious, marginalized “nitty, gritty, dirty little freak,” but then Pink, like Ke$ha, switches to the royal “we.” So this, at last, is what truly underlies empowerment pop: Narcissus.

Last April, Dr. Nathan DeWall, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, published the results of a computer analysis of pop music lyrics from 1980 to 2007 which claims to show that the narcissism (and anger) of the form has significantly increased in the last thirty years. Two of the study’s co-authors had already beat him to the punch by publishing the 2009 book, The Narcissism Epidemic. Is it foolhardy to draw generational conclusions from a study of the wit and wisdom of Beyonce, Eminem and the Pussycat Dolls? Yes. Yes, it is. But do take a look at Pink’s video for her second (!) recent empowerment anthem, “Fucking Perfect.” In the last scene, a once-troubled woman tucks her younger self into bed, and gives her a tender kiss on the forehead. The singer intends this to be a song to oneself, a kind of message from the future, when everything will be Okay, Pink pretty, pretty promises.

In one of the few essays to explore why Pink et. al. seem to be hitting the same note, Pitchfork pop critic Tom Ewing made a surprising connection to the recent rise of social media. While search engines like Google can make you feel overwhelmed and lost in a universe of information, Facebook and Twitter make you feel special, unique, even Important. These days, he writes, “We are all born superstars: permanently consulted, endlessly special, but perpetually vanishing into the datamass too.”

This is not a particularly American quandary, but imagine what must run through a poor little pop singer’s head these days when she sits down to write, or in Ke$ha’s case, to text her next song. “How can I please my audience, please myself, and continue to make tons of money?” Which brings us back to that US flag dress she wears in the video for “We R Who We R.” As my Austrian wife is fond of reminding me, Americans are some of the only people in the world who signal their national identity with the word “we.” We Americans do love a good flag dress. In fact, it may be that for us, the only thing more empowering than empowerment is patriotism.

This year, the insightful US journalist and computer programmer Paul Ford published an essay entitled The Web Is a Customer Service Medium. Empowerment pop may only be a sign that popular music is no longer a medium of guitars, slick production and catchy lyrics, but instead, simply a matter of customer satisfaction.

By the way, thank you for your attention. You’ve all been absolutely perfect readers.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Baby, It’s You

(I'm posting the first half of my latest assemblage of potshots and half-baked notions for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. As a subject, especially for US readers who have had to suffer through many, many playbacks of Katy Perry's "Firework," it may seem late. But they say that the best place to watch a parade is from the front and from the rear.)

The American pop star Ke$ha has been called many things, but “smart” is not one of them. Nevertheless, one of her recent videos features a revealing scene, wherein the singer, a fabulous disaster of glittery rags and mis-applied mascara, stops dancing long enough to change into a flimsy US flag “dress.” She then bleats the title lyric to “We R Who We R,” and … jumps off a tall building. It may be the most idiotic fusion of self-affirmation and self-destruction in a music video, ever. Or it may be something else.

Upon first listen, Ke$ha’s song appears to be a hymn to unashamed individuality, to the joy of being young, dumb and quite pleased with yourself. Despite her use of the first person plural, “We R Who We R” is just one in a remarkable string of recent US hit singles which all seem to say to the listener, “You are a beautiful, perfect superstar, everyday, in every way.” From Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” to Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way,” US artists have been injecting so much empowerment into the airwaves, it’s a wonder the whole planet isn’t hugging each other. This isn’t entirely unprecedented—who could forget Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All?”--but why is American pop music so decidedly encouraging at this moment in time?

For an answer, we should start with the songs and the singers themselves. And I have to admit that, although I like the way she looks in a cupcake bikini, Katy Perry’s “Firework” is easily the most annoying song in this wave of feel-good schmaltz. Her stut-ut-uttering delivery of the lyric, which builds to a bellow as the synthetic strings soar into the Fourth-of-July sky, is slightly more pleasant than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Ms. Perry has explained the song by saying that, “Everybody can be a firework, it’s just all about you igniting the spark inside of you.” Fine. Why does this sound so much like a cheerleader stooping to reassure all of the unpopular kids that they can, one day, be just like her?

“Firework” is fascinating musically, too, if only because it’s so difficult to discern exactly what is making the sounds we’re hearing—was there an actual guitar, piano or snare drum involved in the production? This is both typical and ironic: almost all of these pop songs about being yourself are—texturally—quite synthetic. The message is, ‘You are a unique human.’ The medium is uniquely inhuman.

Within the micro-genre of empowerment pop, as she does elsewhere, Lady Gaga tries to top everyone. “Born This Way” not only plagiarizes Madonna, it super-sizes her. The song isn’t just unapologetically disco, it’s indestructible-motivational-gay-pride-rainbow super-disco. It could be interpreted as a response to a recent wave of tragic suicides by gay Americans. But although it instructs the listener to “love yourself,” Ms. Gaga has never sounded more like someone else. Which doesn’t mean “Born This Way” isn’t a great song.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Okay I’ve Become That Parent

(Last Thursday, before Anette came home from the hospital, Adinah and V. got into another World War 4. After I waded in and disarmed the insurgents, we sat at the breakfast table and I brokered a treaty. I asked the two of ‘em, “What rules can we have in this house to make things better?” Then I wrote down what they said, and made them both sign it. I signed the damn thing as well. V. decorated the rules with little stickers of panda bears and surfing lizards. Adinah translated the document into German, then made a big sign that reads “Unser Regeln (Our Rules).” We taped the entire declaration up on the refrigerator door. Here are our Rules.)

1) We can be more quiet when Mom is asleep.

2) We can ask Mom what she wants (to do, to eat, etc.)

3) We can clean our room when Mom or Papa asks us to.

4) We will not be screaming at Mom (or Papa) (at bedtime or any other time.)

5) We can disagree, but we can solve our problems by talking about them.

6) We need to be gentle with each other.

7) We will listen to each other better.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Another Exotic Saturday

I dropped by Prosi, Vienna's best international grocery, to buy some taco shells and refried beans on Saturday. The street outside had been blocked off and a stage set up for the Prosi Strassenfest Exotic Festival. I scanned the stands selling food from Zambia and Ecuador, coffee and tea from Ethiopia, and cookies from, um, Poland. I had formed my plan for the day.

I took the subway home, picked the kids up, and got back there as fast as I could.

Just as we arrived, a tiny Indian dancer swept onstage, twirling around in a classical style mixed with a few Bollywood moves and yoga poses. "Watch her hands," I said as I squatted next to Adinah and V. She spun and fluttered them like she was letting loose magic birds.

In short order, we saw a demonstration of a homegrown fusion of African and Shri Lankan dance, then a Viennese Samba troupe, and then a batch of belly dancers with huge, Theda Bara-style capes. V. loved all this boogie. Soon she was swiveling her hips, grabbing her crotch, and giving the world her best Johnny Rotten sneer. This is how V. rocks out. One day, she will be onstage with Justin Timberlake or Lady Gaga, whichever lasts longer.

For about the fortieth time, I asked the girls if they were hungry yet. Adinah gave me a barely enthusiastic, 'Yeah,' and we were off! I steered the posse to the nearest stall, which turned out to be Tanzanian. Adinah is usually a pasta-bread-rice gal, but she surprised me by asking for a spicy beef turnover. I snapped up a roasted chicken drumstick. V. just wanted the sweet vanilla fritters. Uh uh, real food first, I insisted.

We spun over to the Indian booth, and Adinah got her (curried) rice with chapati, which V. also nibbled. I got the spicy chicken and lemon pickles. Ouch. Then V. got those fritters at last.

Then it was henna tattoo time. At that stand, the girl in the sari, who looked like a member of the Upper Austria caste, explained that if she put a design on the girls' hands, they'd have to keep their hands still for two hours. HA HA HA! Also, she only had a dark brown henna, which didn't look like it would be visible on Adinah's chocolate skin. We did it anyway. And just as Ms. Sari finished up with them, it started raining.

We were afraid the rain would wash off the dye, so both girls covered their tattoos as we ran for the subway. Two hours later, Adinah and I scratched the henna off her hand. Underneath was a pretty brown rose.

Then we giggled as we climbed into V.'s bed, where she was already sawing zzzzz's. We scratched off her henna--somehow she'd kept it basically intact--and now she had a nice new rose, too.

It was a nice day.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Top Ten Cures for What Ails ye

(in no particular order)

1) Tenderness

2) Chocolate ice cream, preferably something of comparable potency with Ben and Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk or Chocolate Fudge Brownie.

3) A good comedy (I'm partial to Austin Powers I, Midnight Run and anything by Charlie Chaplin.)

4) Sea air

5) A walk around the block (or over to the barn, depending on your circumstances.)

6) Talking to a friend (with or without alcohol.)

7) Writing it all down in your journal

8) Music (sad, happy, loud, floatey, whatever you got)

9) Making something: a photograph, a cookie, a baby

10) Understanding

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

No Guilt Allmans

(This is a guest cross-post I wrote for Vampire Blues, a blog which my friend Steve also sometimes writes for. Thank you very much.)

I was a teenage stoner metalhead, and I was a Texas country punk devotee. I’d even listened to a Willie Nelson record or two, but I was never an Allman Brothers fan. No. Hippies with muttonchops “jamming” with the blues was a bridge too far.

Then I met Her. She was a Marxist history major with a bitchin’ bod. When she strapped on more than one gin martini, she was trouble. But before she left me to become a lesbian, she hipped me to the wonder and beauty of the Allman’s “Blue Skies.”

“Blue Skies” is basically two long guitar solos pasted together, with a Walt Disney-damaged lyrical chaser. Duane Allman’s playing would pierce the heart of a goddamn Republican. It is a gorgeous, utterly perfect piece of music.

And for many years after Her, I had no interest in hearing anything else by the Brothers.

Last summer, I was stealing some music from an old Austin punk rock friend, and some Allmans ended up on my iPod. My friend swore it wasn’t his, and blamed a mutual acquaintance who is a New York journalist and jam rock apologist. (I have heard that upstate New Yorkers love Southern rock in general, and the Allmans in particular.) Nevertheless, I vowed to give the muttonchops one more chance.

First I listened to Eat a Peach. I liked it! (Except for the nearly forty-minute “Mountain Jam.” ) I had always heard that this album was the Allman’s masterpiece. I had heard wrong. Peach was actually a stopgap odds and sods collection, released just after Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident as the rest of the band was still reeling from the loss. But it has “Blue Skies,” and it has “Ain’t Wasting Time No More,” one of the best songs ever about not feeling sorry for yourself. Also, Gregg Allman seems to be singing around a mouthful of chewing tobaccey. Somehow this pleases me.

I wanted more, so I got Beginnings, which is notable for being a repackage of two albums with really terrible cover art. The cover of Beginnings is even worse. But the music!

It’s a surprising set, if only in the way the songs shift between breezy and boozy. What really gets me are the headbanging moments, especially two spots where the Band seems to be literally nailing the groove to the inside of your brain pan. The first comes at the climax of “It’s not my Cross to Bear,” and the second, even more nailingly, at the climax of “Whipping Post.” These climaxes build and build until they overwhelm—two piercing, fuck-you-up guitars, two drummers wailing, the notes getting higher and higher. It’s no less slamming than certain Daft Punk tracks—the Allmans just kill with different tools.

As a matter of fact, you’ll probably find the sounds at the end of “Whipping Post”—and that feeling of something that is spiraling ever upward—in plenty of other, very different kinds of music. But I also like the fact that these are songs with a real End. “Whipping Post” climaxes like a Hitchcock film. Sure, non-narrative, ultra-abstract contemporary music with guitars, or electronics, can be good. But in these less-than-narrative times, the climax of “Whipping Post” is deeply satisfying.

“Dreams” is also really, really nice. Like a very hot summer afternoon. Put it on. Grow your own muttonchops.