Tag Archives: music

Saturday Night Ramblings

I feel a cultural movement brewing.  For a few decades now, all of our music, books, and movies have been controlled by corporations more concerned with marketing and bottom-line profits than quality.  Much of my generation was locked out, not because we didn’t have the talent but because we didn’t fit into tidy marketing pigeonholes, and we languished for years, wondering if we’d ever get our shot.  Meanwhile, a new generation moved onto the scene, and many of us felt as if our moment had passed.  All our study, all our hours of practice, all of our passion, all of our dreams seemed wasted.  Some grew bitter and drifted away.  Some became consumed by demons and succumbed to addictions.  Some trudged onward.  Some of us did all of the above.

But something amazing happened with the burgeoning of the internet and computers.  Suddenly, we no longer needed New York and LA to pursue our dreams.  Suddenly, the corporations could no longer lock us out because as long as we had internet access we had a potential audience of millions, so many of us started our own labels, presses, and production companies.  Sure, at first we struggled.  As we wobbled on unsure legs, our early efforts might have seemed like bad parodies, but we learned from our mistakes and pressed onward.  We polished our chops, grew our networks, and expanded our base.  We survived our early stumbles and the Great Recession.  We banded together.  On our own, we created new channels to reach more people and studied online marketing trends.  We learned and grew and shared information and encouraged each other.  Most of all, we survived.

Today, the movement of independents gathers momentum every day.  We’ve gained market share and established our reputations as serious artists in our given fields.  Through efforts of arduous determination, we’ve moved the mountain enough to be noticed by major media outlets as a legitimate force.  The amazing thing about this movement is that most of us are over the age of 35, and we’ve done this while juggling jobs and families and lives.  We’ve endured sacrifices corporate executives can never fathom, just to pursue our passion, just to chase our dream, and while we may not be there yet, we’re making great strides to that destination.

The cultural movement of the independents is upon us, and we’re here for the long-haul.

Friday Morning Ramblings

Caution:  Contents may offend self-indulgent precious snowflakes

Driving to work this morning, I was listening to PRX on Sirius XM.  It’s a newish public radio forum that plays only interviews, stories, Ted Talks, and other similar material.  I enjoy it for the most part because the station plays a fairly broad range of stuff, from Nobel Laureate scientists to street junkies, so I get to absorb a lot of material for future writings.  Normally, I just listen and enjoy.  Today, however, two pieces came on back to back that got my butt cheeks clenching, so I’ve scrapped the entry that came to me last night in favor of this one.

The first piece was a young scholar discussing the history of and debate over the “unreliable narrator” in literature.  Like all good scholars, he quoted the top experts in the field and laid out the major legitimate points of both sides of the debate.  As I listened to these quotations from highly regarded critics, I was reminded of why I despise literary criticism.  While all of them were intelligent, obviously highly well-read, and thorough in their reasoning, not a single one of them actually said anything of any value regarding anything substantive.  All of it was mental masturbation, reasoning for the sake of reasoning, debating for the sake of debate.  I’d also be willing to wager that not a single one of them could actually write a work of fiction worth reading either, but that’s another matter.  The whole thing struck me as highly self-indulgent, which has always been my problem with the upper echelons of academia.

There’s rarely if ever any practical application to real world dilemmas from the scholarly work of the humanities.  We live in an age when declining literacy is a real and serious issue that threatens the foundation of our democratic republic, yet these scholars are playing pin the tail on the donkey with abstract concepts that do nothing to promote literacy as a fun, engaging, accessible activity.  It seems to me an exceptional waste of finite time, resources, and brain power.  Instead of debating whether or not the “unreliable narrator” is a valid concept or even actually exists, why aren’t these highly intelligent people putting their efforts into developing curriculum or reading lists for disenfranchised children?  That’s just one example.  I’d be much more impressed by their work if they were doing anything that didn’t seem so damned self-indulgent at a time when people are really suffering.  In short, we have much bigger issues than the tuning of your fiddle, Emperor Nero.

The second piece was about “artistic” bands seeking corporate sponsorship for their bands.  Apparently, this is the newest trend in music to help independent musicians survive until they’ve built a following.  Maybe I’m just old and out of touch, but all of the music the piece sampled from these bands was pure shit.  I’m no expert, but I know good music when I hear it.  Also, each of the musicians interviewed went on and on about the “artistic” nature of their work.  If artistic has devolved into a synonym for “shitty,” I guess I missed the memo.  Much like the scholarly debate over the unreliable narrator, paying unskilled musicians to continue their craft seems like a frivolous waste of precious resources.  I don’t claim to be the gatekeeper for all things music related, and it’s not my money the corporations are giving away, but to me, this money would be much better spent on middle and high school musical education courses that actually teach people how to play an instrument.  Again, the whole thing strikes me as rather self-indulgent, both by the “artists” and the companies.

We face real issues today.  Inflation, living wages, energy, waste, education, healthcare, and fiscal sustainability are just some of them.  Our nation is crumbling around us.  The very fabric of our society seems to be fraying apart.  Today, we should be seeking solutions to these very real, very substantial, very important problems.  Today is not the time for self-indulgence and mental masturbation.  Sorry, but if you’re a shitty musician who plays avant-garde drivel, you don’t really deserve to earn a living when police officers, firefighters, and teachers, people who add real value to society, have to work second jobs to afford their mortgages.  If you’re a scholar wasting your intellect on ridiculous flights of fancy, please stop wasting taxpayer money.  Please, set down your fiddle, look up at the burning buildings, and do something to help put out the fires.

Thursday Morning Ramblings

I only speak for myself and don’t purport to know the motivations and aspirations of the protesters at Wall Street, but if I were among their ranks, the following would be my clearly stated goals of the protest:

I want to live in a nation that respects and rewards a person’s contribution to society fairly and justly.  I would like to earn enough money to pay off my student loan debt, save for retirement, have access to adequate healthcare, and send my children to college, not feel at the end of the month as if I have to choose between food and gas.  I would like to know that my contribution as a professional educator is respected and appreciated, not just by my students and colleagues, but by society as a whole.

I want to live in a nation that holds corporations and CEO’s accountable for moving jobs overseas and hiding billions in profits offshore to avoid paying taxes.  I’d like to see CEO’s punished for bankrupting companies, not compensated with multi-million dollar severance packages.  I want companies to be held accountable if they poison our water supply, make our air unbreathable, taint our children’s toys with lead paint, contaminate our food supply with lethal bacteria, or in any other way recklessly endanger our lives in the name of profit.

I want to live in a nation that once again embraces innovation and ingenuity and doesn’t allow other countries to outpace us in technological advancement.

I want to live in a nation that respects all people who are willing to work full-time, regardless of occupation.  There is dignity and honor in contributing to society, whether that be as white collar, blue collar, or red collar.  All jobs are important, and anyone who is willing to work and be productive should be viewed, not with cynicism and disdain, but with appreciation and admiration.

I want to live in a nation that embraces diversity and respects everyone’s rights to freedom.  Liberty is our birthright, guaranteed by our Constitution, and these freedoms are granted to all citizens of this country regardless of sex, race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or any other artificial stratification created to keep us divided and bickering.  We are all American citizens, born with certain unalienable rights.

I want to live in a nation that celebrates and aspires to greatness, not promotes and rewards mediocrity.  Not so long ago, our music, our movies, our books were the best in the world.  Today, we create paper-thin melodies with no soul, recycle worn-out franchises, and cheer poorly written, cliche-riddled narratives.  We have half-baked reality shows rewarding talent-less jackasses and washed up celebrities.  We promote buffoonery and incivility, while creative geniuses play street corners for handouts.

I want to live in the America I was promised as a child, a land of freedom and opportunity, a place where if you built a better mouse-trap, the world would beat a path to your door.  Today, if you build a better mouse-trap, Corporate America and government bureaucracy will trample your aspirations with a myriad of confusing regulations and a maze of overbearing documentation, stifling your innovation in name of preserving the status quo.

Those would be my goals for the protests.

Wednesday Afternoon Ramblings

I’ve been thinking a lot about the song “Live and Let Die” lately.  Until just recently, I’m not sure I really understood it.  Sure, on an abstract level it made sense, but now, I get it.  This is the point I’ve reached in my life:

“When you were young
And your heart was an open book
You used to say
Live and let live.

You know you did
You know you did
You know you did

But if this ever changing world
In which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die
Live and let die
Live and let die
Live and let die

What does it matter to ya
When you’ve gotta job to do
You’ve got to do it well
You gotta give the other fella hell

You used to say
Live and let live

You know you did
You know you did
You know you did

But if this ever changing world
In which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die
Live and let die
Live and let die
Live and let die”

That’s how I feel about our country and this insane, Bizarro World direction we’re heading.  I really can’t say it much better than that.

Monday Morning Ramblings

First, congratulations to the Green Bay Packers.  They simply beat us and deserve to be champs.  It was a good game, and we had our chances to win it but just didn’t make the necessary plays.  Losing sucks, and I’m not going to pretend like it doesn’t sting, but life goes on.  I’m just as big of a Steelers fan today as I was yesterday.  We’ll be back in the big game soon, and we will bring home number seven.

That’s enough about the game.  What I really want to write about today is that god-awful excuse for a halftime show.  Five Finger Freddy, or whatever the hell his name is, said that the Black Eyed Peas were going to take it to the next level.  Well, if that’s the best you got, you are a terrible excuse for an entertainer.  That show was pathetic.  Sure, there were lots of flashing lights and cool effects, but the “music” was beyond lame.  I would’ve rather watched Milli Vanilli lip-sync their way through twenty minutes of their crap than watch those four no-talent jerk-offs stand around like statues and mumble their songs out of tune, out of tempo, and out of harmony.

That show confirmed so much of what I believe about what hippity-hoppity has done to the music industry.  I prefer my music sung by people who understand harmonics and key changes and well, singing.  Hippity-hoppity has become a terrible parody of itself, much like Air Supply and Journey were a terrible parody of real rock.  Real musicians hold up live, regardless of the venue.  That steaming pile of horse dung that Sam I Am, or whatever the hell his name is, and the others left in the middle of Cowboys Stadium shows just how thin and weak the music industry has become.  Real musicians, who can play real instruments and create beautiful songs, can’t break into the industry, while talentless hacks get to play the Super Bowl.  I mean, they were so bad they made Slash, one of the greatest guitar legends of all-time, sound lifeless and bland.

Part of me looks at the music industry as a perfect metaphor for where we are as a nation.  Sixty years ago, our nation created some of the most powerful and amazing music in the world, and that music inspired the world to follow it.  Musicians like Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Elvis Presley had real talent and honed skill.  At that same time, our nation was revolutionizing technology and industry and leading the world into the future.  Today, our country produces mediocre garbage that couldn’t inspire a pig to root in crap.  Our masses still lap it up, however, because we’ve become so accustomed to mediocrity that most of us can’t appreciate real music and real talent.  At the same time, we have lost our innovative edge and have fallen hopelessly far behind in education.  We stand around bragging about how great we are, while the rest of world blazes by us.

Please, America, please, wake up and realize that when you settle for mediocre crap, you become mediocre crap.

Saturday Evening Ramblings

I’ve been thinking about our culture and some of the obstacles we face for the future, and one thing that strikes me is our rabid need for the next big thing.  It permeates every facet of every part of our society.  Movie studios are striving for the next Star Wars.  The music industry is still trying to replicate the successes of  Elvis and The Beatles.  Video games are always about the next hot game.  Sports are always over-hyping young athletes well before they’ve earned the accolades and then lambasting them when they don’t live up to expectations.  When the focus is always on the next thing and then the next and then the next, what becomes lost is the past and the lessons it can teach.  Obviously the purpose of this is to sell things–tickets, products, magazines, advertising, but am I alone in feeling like this system is simply unsustainable?

Hollywood has been bankrupt of ideas for years and is left recycling scripts and franchises.  The music industry sucks and has for quite a while.  Mainstream music is more about style and image than music.  Video games haven’t hit the wall yet, but give it time.  Both MLB and the NBA have been in decline for a couple of decades because the leagues focus more on their major markets than on overall competition.  And there is a serious disconnect between the upcoming generation and anything related to the past.  My nieces had no idea who Willie Nelson is, and one of them likes country music.  My girlfriend’s son had never heard of Ronnie Lott, yet he aspires to play defensive back.  I could cite many more examples of this disconnect, but you get the point.

I’m not saying we should live in the past solely.  That would be just as foolish and would resemble the Classic Rock stations that have been playing the same fifty songs for thirty years.  What I do believe is that if we as a nation are ever to get back to anything resembling quality, we need to stop seeking the next big thing and find some balance between attachment to the past and movement to the future.  We achieve this by celebrating the greatness that has come before as much as we hype the new.  Whatever we do, we have to find a way to connect this generation to reality more so than they are now.  Otherwise, we aren’t going to have a culture to worry about.


Remembering Kurt Cobain

Remembering Kurt Cobain

I was on a blind date when I first heard the news.  We were in a Cajun restaurant in Memphis, eating peel and eat shrimp and trying to break the ice.  Over Debbie’s shoulder on the Television that was tuned to MTV, I saw the words: “Kurt Cobain Found Dead”.  I was astonished and told my date what I had just seen.  At first, she thought that I was pulling some weird joke, a lame attempt to shock her, but unfortunately for everyone who loved his music, Kurt Cobain was gone.

I recently found a copy of Nirvana’s Unplugged album.  I hadn’t listened to them in several years and had, quite honestly, forgotten just how much they had influenced me as a high school and college student.  Now, I do not purport to speak for my generation.  First of all, I’m not famous and don’t have a faithful following of people who agree with every word I utter; it would be pompous and pretentious of me to believe that I speak for anyone but myself.  Second, my generation and this country are so fragmented and divided, there is absolutely no way that one person could adequately represent all of our views and beliefs.  However, I do believe that on April 5, 1994, my generation lost one of its most powerful voices.

Kurt Cobain spoke to me like very few artists have.  In short, only the novelist Harry Crews and musician Chris Whitley have made me feel quite so connected to something worthwhile.  When I listened to Cobain’s lyrics – the ones I could understand and decipher – I knew that someone else in the world felt the same as I did.  He despaired for humanity’s condition, mocked stupidity, loathed cruelty, and longed for a better world.  His vision was at the same time immensely depressed and wondrously beautiful.  His voice was weak, limited in range, and chaotic but also voluminous, melodic, and controlled.  He was an enigmatic paradox who dared us to make sense of him.

I cannot believe that sixteen years have passed since he died.  Since then, I have matured quite a bit, I think, and no longer view the world in the right-or-wrong, good-or-bad, simplistic views of adolescence.  The world is much too complex, too full of compromise and shades of gray for anything to be as simple as right or wrong, and in these years, I’ve learned that Kurt Cobain understood too much about life too early.  Perhaps, his knowledge of the world and his hard-earned wisdom are what led to his early death.  Perhaps, drugs just suck.  I don’t know.  But I wish Kurt Cobain was still alive and making music.

A friend used to argue that Cobain was not passionate, that he was so distraught and depressed and horrified by the world all he could do was mumble.  I didn’t agree with her then and, after listening again to the Unplugged album, still don’t now.  While many of his lyrics were mumbled, his music contained both passion and some sense of hope, and the mumbling was a convention used to make us listen more closely, make us tune in to the music more than just casually.  He had the level of genius to do something like that.

Nirvana reached an immense audience, touched more people from more backgrounds than any other band I can remember.  I’ve known high school dropouts, graduate students, jocks, nerds, revolutionaries, fraternity boys, lesbians, gay men, good old boys, urbanites, and suburbanites who all loved them.  Their music may have come from a Punk, underground scene and may have been born from antisocial sentiments, but it certainly became much more.  For those of us who watched it live, the performance on Unplugged was a profound event.  We didn’t have many cultural/social/spiritual events in the 80’s and 90’s, and there are even fewer today.  On December 14, 1993, I was moved deeply by the performance, and even now, seventeen years later, I still get goosebumps when I hear tracks from that set.

I’ve always believed that a sign of greatness is when people have to have an extreme feeling about somebody, either good or bad, and Cobain fit this criterion nicely.   Those who loved him and his music revered him.  A writer friend of mine believed he was our generation’s prophet.  The people who dislike his music despise it passionately.  One heavy-metal musician said that he believed Nirvana should have won a new award for “Least Talented Band To Sell The Most Albums.” Other friends of mine hold similar views about Cobain and Nirvana, but one fact remains true: they all feel an extreme emotion about the music.  Mediocrity usually doesn’t breed this level of passion.

It’s tragic that Kurt Cobain left us so early.  Even if his music hadn’t continued to evolve, it would have been nice to see if his angst could have grown into spiritual serenity.  If he had retired young, it would have been nice to have seen the comeback tour.  Instead, we are left with conspiracy freaks with websites about “The Murder of Kurt Cobain,” a plethora of copycat artists with music that doesn’t quite measure up, but also a legacy of music that will hopefully remind my generation of how we used to view the world when we were young enough to see things as right or wrong.

My closest friend in college used to say that she believed Kurt Cobain’s death would be remembered as one of the saddest events of our generation.  Since then, Oklahoma City, Columbine, and 9/11 have certainly annihilated that theory, but the spirit of her thought still has merit.  Even in death, Cobain is an icon of our time, a symbol of wasted talent and the bullshit of drugs.  But in his life and in his music, he moved me and many others.  He was a powerful voice in a crowded din, and he was one of my biggest artistic influences.