Sunday, May 03, 2015

sad but true

She said to me once upon a time that the Metallica song that best described her life was "Sad But True". We laughed when she said that. By that time we'd been married for six months, meaning I'd known her a grand total of twelve months-- a year, give or take a week. It seemed like longer, of course. Not because it was an intolerable thing. Rather, it was quite nice, being married and all. We hadn't had the baby yet, she wasn't anywhere near pregnant.

We were standing outside in the alley behind a bar in Hollywood known for its margaritas. May have even been in the name of the venue, the Something Margarita or a similar name. We were smoking and drinking, and we'd been together for some time and she was talking to me...

Oh wait, maybe we weren't married yet. Maybe I got it all wrong. Maybe this was the courtship part, where we had the attraction but not anything moving it forward. My memories are beginning to get nebulous as I try to retrace the moment, so rather than beat it to death I will just say that we were still getting to know each other, and our fate was that we were either married with no kids or we were about to be married with a kid.

I forgot what my answer was. Probably something well-calculated, an attempt to be hip and with-it even as we were discussing Metallica, a band that had long ago lost a great deal of credibility. It wasn't hip to like Metallica, so my answer would be in vain regardless. And yet there we were, talking about it... we both liked the band. We knew that it was the early stuff-- who doesn't? Every band is great in the beginning, every band starts off strong and then goes insanely wrong.

A lot of marriages do too. Especially the ones that begin so fast and burn so bright.

For the sake of continuing I will just put it out there that my pick was "Dyers Eve". A song about Christian Scientist parents, an angry scream backed by muscular metal guitar riffing and breakneck speed drumming, an adolescent temper tantrum committed to reel-to-reel tape, mixed down muddily (and yet with no bass!) and transmitted directly into the Walkman of a pimply, long-haired loner with glasses as thick as steel welders and and chip even thicker weighing down his shoulder. I can see myself saying that it was the song that described my life, even if my parents weren't exactly Christian Scientists. They were religious but not that religious.

My answer was not remarkable, which is why I don't remember it. But her pick... that was memorable. And funny. Even if she wasn't joking, it was memorable. I remember so many things about her that fit that description as well. Her choice of song colored my view of her probably from that moment on. After that, everything about her seemed sad but true. I wonder if she even thought twice about my choice. If I asked her, she might remember... but her memory isn't all that reliable anyway. She might say something really far out, like my song was "Sanitarium (Welcome Home)" or something along those lines. For that matter, she may not even remember what her own answer was, and that would not be shocking or terrible.

It'd be sad but true. That's what it would be. Sad but true.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

i was dreaming when i wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray

So, I've been on a much-needed Prince binge lately, mostly due to news that he's suing all these bootleggers for uploading live footage of his concerts. (I won't post a link to the article because I'm afraid His Royal Badness will sue me) Also I've been following his Twitter account (3RD EYE GIRL) and watching the free vids he's been posting... what a contradiction that man is. But he's a Gemini, what can you do?

Anyway, so I've been tracking down old videos of Prince's early hits. No use going to You Tube for that, but other sites have 'em. I'm talking all the hits from the first four albums, mind you: For You didn't have any videos, as far as I know, and only had one single, "Soft And Wet"; The self-titled second album had at least two videos for its accompanying singles; Dirty Mind and Controversy had videos as well, although the only real single was the title cut of the latter.

Watching these videos has made me realize something: Up until 1999 came out and "Little Red Corvette" was released as a single, Prince couldn't dance!

I'm not gonna post links to the videos, you can find them yourself if you really want. But look up the videos for "I Wanna Be Your Lover", "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?", "Dirty Mind", "Controversy" and especially "Sexuality". The Purple One is doing plenty of cock-rock moves, guitar preening, and microphone handling... he certainly had charisma as a rock frontman... but compared to the smooth moves he is capable of cutting from "Little Red Corvette" onward, dude is a spazz!

It's really, really funny to see him do the Eddie Murphy white person dance from Raw, which he does in several of the aforementioned clips. But before you think I'm taking cheap potshots at one of my favorite performing artists of all time (and as a fan I feel that I am qualified to do so, unlike the millions of Prince haters out there who have even less of a sense of humor about the man as they accuse him of having) I want to make it clear that all of this has led me to wonder one question: Who was Prince's choreographer on "Little Red Corvette"? Because in that video, Prince does a little dance during the first instrumental break, busting moves that almost resemble breakdancing of the era... and he pulls it off well. It's the first time Prince ever showcases his dancing in a video (it also says a lot that "Corvette" is shot on film, not cheap video) and after that Prince's dance moves-- on stage, in videos, in the movie Purple Rain, in general --get better and better.

Nowadays dancing is de rigeur at a Prince show. He spends the whole show dancing, doing incredible moves and showing amazing dexterity for a man in his Fifties. True, the hip surgeries have limited his jaw-dropping ability to do the splits in high heels, but other than that he is in fine form. At the peak of his powers, though, only a few performers were able to match him in this department: Michael Jackson and Hammer come to mind. So I guess what I a really getting at is this: Prince's best-ever career move was hiring a choreographer to help him get that brief "Corvette" routine down to a science. It radically changed the scope of his appeal to the masses. I doubt Purple Rain would have been as big if Prince had just stuck to the guitar-hero posturing and microphone shenanigans.

So kudos to whomever was the one who gave Prince his groove. I'm sure in dancing circles this name is well-known (my guess is someone like Michael "Boogaloo Shrimp" Chambers, the same guy who taught Michael how to moonwalk) but they don't get any credit for turning Prince into the phenomenal performer he is today. Without the dancing, Prince would still be a genius... but there's plenty of geniuses out there who will never get noticed because they can't cut a rug.

Prince was smart enough to make the leap into the star arena, and driven enough to improve upon it in order to secure the fame he now enjoys. That makes it all worthwhile, and the best part is that we still have the videos that show the progress in all their hilarious glory. Maybe that's why Prince sues so many people: somewhere out there, someone has a tape of that first choreography session, and it's probably more than a little embarrassing.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Men Who Are Mad

Watching "Mad Men" Season 6 on DVD, I can't help but compare the character of Don Draper to a role that the late Peter Sellers played at the end of his career, for which he was nominated for an Oscar: Chance the Gardener aka Chauncey Gardiner from the movie "Being There" directed by Hal Ashby.

The comparison came to mind while watching one of the Season 6 episodes. In one of them, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) comments that men make their own luck. This is completely in line with the character's ambition: Don Draper used to be Dick Whitman, an uneducated orphan who was raised by his uncle and aunt in a whorehouse. Whitman steals another man's identity during the Korean War and becomes Don Draper. He goes on to unbelievable success in the advertising business and is also successful in every other aspect of his life, especially with women. He is the quintessential self-made man, but his secret past is a constant threat to his carefully crafted persona.

The irony and tragedy of Don Draper is that his new life is entirely hinged upon an almost random twist of fate, an accident that was caused by Whitman that cost the real Don Draper his life. Whitman's only act of determinism was to be shrewd enough to switch dog tags with Draper, and it can be argued that it was less opportunism on Whitman's part than a desperate self-hatred that led him to assume Draper's identity.

Contrast with Chance the Gardener: a middle-aged idiot who has lived his whole life as a servant and whose entire knowledge off the outside world comes from what he has watched on television, Chance is a creature of random luck-- his name even implies this. One day his boss and benefactor simply dies, and Chance is free to leave the manor in which he was raised. Chance becomes Chauncey Gardiner through sheer misunderstanding: he is coughing when he explains to the wife of a businessman who he is, so she hears the name "Chauncey Gardiner" instead of "Chance the Gardener". Oblivious to everything around him, his foolishness is seen as Zen wisdom to nearly everyone he encounters, which leads Chance up the ladder of success, eventually brushing shoulders with Washington D.C.'s political elite.

The two characters have a lot in common: simple-minded common men who somehow transcend their lowly status in America's de facto caste system to become extremely powerful. But the comparison ends there, for while Don Draper mistakenly believes that he is the master of his own destiny, Chance is under no such illusions.

"Mad Men" is set in the past and has a certain level of realism that cedes to a loopy surrealism every now and then as a counter-point, mostly when dealing with the psychedelic cultural transitions occurring in the historical background of the Sixties. "Being There" is supposed to be contemporary and is more satirical than realistic, proudly promoting its absurdist POV up to the very last scene, and yet the film (in light of this day and age's modern cult of personality) seems prescient and relevant.

But more importantly, the evolution of the two characters stem from a mysterious reinvention that occurs for both, what none other than Bob Dylan recently described in an interview with Mikal Gilmore as "transfiguration".

In the September 27 2012 issue of  Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan elaborates on his "transfiguration" in relation to something he read in a book by former Hells Angel President Sonny Barger. Bob Dylan's words are in italics, Mikal Gilmore's words are in bold italics:

See this book? Ever heard of this guy? [Shows me Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club, by Sonny Barger.]
Yeah, sure.
He's a Hell's Angel.
He was "the" Hell's Angel.
Look who wrote this book. [Points at coauthors' names, Keith Zimmerman and Kent Zimmerman.] Do those names ring a bell? Do they look familiar? Do they? You wonder, "What's that got to do with me?" But they do look familiar, don't they? And there's two of them there. Aren't there two? One's not enough? Right? [Dylan's now seated, smiling.]
I'm going to refer to this place here. [Opens the book to a dog-eared page.] Read it out loud here. Just read it out loud into your tape recorder.
"One of the early presidents of the Berdoo Hell's Angels was Bobby Zimmerman. On our way home from the 1964 Bass Lake Run, Bobby was riding in his customary spot – front left – when his muffler fell off his bike. Thinking he could go back and retrieve it, Bobby whipped a quick U-turn from the front of the pack. At that same moment, a Richmond Hell's Angel named Jack Egan was hauling ass from the back of the pack toward the front. Egan was on the wrong side of the road, passing a long line of speeding bikes, just as Bobby whipped his U-turn. Jack broadsided poor Bobby and instantly killed him. We dragged Bobby's lifeless body to the side of the road. There was nothing we could do but to send somebody on to town for help." Poor Bobby.
Yeah, poor Bobby. You know what this is called? It's called transfiguration. Have you ever heard of it?
Well, you're looking at somebody.
That . . . has been transfigured?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm not like you, am I? I'm not like him, either. I'm not like too many others. I'm only like another person who's been transfigured. How many people like that or like me do you know?
By transfiguration, you mean it in the sense of being transformed? Or do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?
Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966.1 already explained to you about new and old. Right? Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go and learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it's a real concept. It's happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it's happened to, or why. But you get real proof of it here and there. It's not like something you can dream up and think. It's not like conjuring up a reality or like reincarnation – or like when you might think you're somebody from the past but have no proof. It's not anything to do with the past or the future.
So when you ask some of your questions, you're asking them to a person who's long dead. You're asking them to a person that doesn't exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. I've lived through a lot. Have you ever heard of a book called No Man Knows My History? It's about Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. The title could refer to me.
Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That's how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving.
When you say I'm talking to a person that's dead, do you mean the motorcyclist Bobby Zimmerman, or do you mean Bob Dylan?
Bob Dylan's here! You're talking to him.
Then your transfiguration is . . . 
It is whatever it is. I couldn't go back and find Bobby in a million years. Neither could you or anybody else on the face of the Earth. He's gone. If I could, I would go back. I'd like to go back. At this point in time, I would love to go back and find him, put out my hand. And tell him he's got a friend. But I can't. He's gone. He doesn't exist.
OK, so when you speak of transfiguration . . . 
I only know what I told you. You'll have to go and do the work yourself to find out what it's about.
I'm trying to determine whom you've been transfigured from, or as.
I just showed you. Go read the book.
That's who you have in mind? What could the connection to that Bobby Zimmerman be other than name?
I don't have it in mind. I didn't write that book. I didn't make it up. I didn't dream that. I'm not telling you I had a dream last night. Remember the song "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream"? I didn't write that, either.
I'm showing you a book that's been written and published. I mean, look at all the connecting things: motorcycles, Bobby Zimmerman, Keith and Kent Zimmerman, 1964, 1966. And there's more to it than even that. If you went to find this guy's family, you'd find a whole bunch more that connected. I'm just explaining it to you. Go to the grave site.

Whether it is properly called "transfiguration" or "transmigration", one thing is clear: Bob Dylan firmly believes that he switched identities (and perhaps souls) with another person with a similar name, and it saved his life.

With all this on my mind, I also began to read The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band, written by the members of Mötley Crüe and former Rolling Stone writer Neil Strauss. As a fan of rock biographies I must admit that, 50 pages in, the Crüe's exploits have already hooked me in a disarming manner. 

But what really got me is the revelation that Nikki Sixx, born Frank Feranna and named after his father, had his name changed after a falling out with his old man. He claims in the book that there was a musician from Indiana who went by the name Nykki Syxx, and that he basically stole the name and went so far as to legally change it to Nikki Sixx. (He wanted to be Nikki Nine but his musical peers told him that Nine sounded too "new wave" and that Sixx would be more "metal") 

Years later, after Mötley Crüe became world famous, Nikki was channel-surfing in a hotel when he came across a Christian television show that was decrying rock music as Satanism; of course, the Crüe was mentioned because of all the pentagrams and lyrics about the Devil, so he kept watching. Suddenly, the musician formerly known as Nykki Syxx (now known only as "John") is on the TV talking about how Nikki Sixx stole the name and used it to spread the word of Satan. 

Transmigration? Transfiguration? Or an escape from a desolate existence? Only a few pages earlier, Nikki Sixx dished the dirt on his dysfunctional childhood: absentee father, free-spirited mother, little adult supervision, constant traveling and moving, instilling the young Frank Feranna with a restlessness and an uprooted sense of self, and an early predilection for drugs, petty crime, and delinquency.

In short, Nikki Sixx is the rock and roll Don Draper. 

In "Mad Men" Draper is portrayed as suave, clean, well-dressed, attractive... but he's also a huge square. He is not a hippie, a rebel, or even a beatnik-- he is the The Man, he is The Establishment, he is a Class A conformist. He may seem glamorous but he is not cool. In fact, he is the type of person who would disown his own son for wearing eyeliner, lipstick, teased hair and singing songs about decadence. He represents everything that punk, metal, and hip-hop later came to destroy.

But the fictional Don Draper and the very-much-real likes of Bob Dylan and Nikki Sixx have something in common: they all reinvented themselves in some way or another, in a calculated attempt to erase the past. Unlike the fictional Chance the Gardener, however, they are painfully self-conscious of this, and in some way feel that their fate is out of their hands, even as they struggle vainly to assert control. (for all his rock posturing and chaotic pandering, Nikki Sixx comes off in The Dirt as an enormous control freak) 

And if someone like Chance really existed, it would create a cognitive dissonance in the minds of men like Dylan, Sixx, and the Don Drapers of the world that could unravel the handiwork of even the most ambitious status-climber. 

I choose to believe that men like Chance the Gardener exist. And if I may be so bold, I think there are more of them in the world than there are Don Drapers. Not that Don Draper isn't a fascinating character. But he isn't very happy either, and that's because he's had to work so hard for everything in life. Whereas Chance aka Chauncey Gardiner is blissfully unaware that he doesn't fit in, and manages to cruise through this world without a care.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Last Great American Whale

I was channeling Lou Reed this week.

It actually started a month ago with a book on the Velvet Underground at my work, a complete discography of the group plus their solo output and all that. I read that thing during my lunch breaks an pretty soon I was feeling like I hadn't indulged in their music for a spell, so I browsed through the DVDs and found a live concert performance of Berlin directed by Julian Schabel. I took it home with me but hadn't opened it to watch it until a few days ago. As I watched it, I realized how unfamiliar I was with this album, so I looked up a review of it in my own Lou Reed/VU bio book. I got the lowdown on it: underappreciated masterpiece, scorned when first released but cult status has grown with time... the same thing with lots of Reed's music. Probably will happen for Lulu in about five or ten years...

Back at work the next day, I remembered that I had a vinyl copy of Berlin on my stash shelf, so I bought it. Took it home but didn't give it a spin, because I wanted to watch the rest of the DVD. Kept reading my Reed bio book and thinking about the collection of songs I'm finally getting around to releasing and how much debt I owed to Reed.

Then, on a train ride in Noblesville, my wife gasped aloud. She was checking her e-mail via her smart phone when she got the news about Lou Reed's death. My wife became a huge fan when we made the cross-country drive to Indianapolis; Lou Reed was her John Lennon, as she put it. I was in a state of shock, so much so that even our son got the hint when I told him to be quiet.

I realized how much Reed had been in the air this past week: I'd hear mentions of his name or hear someone covering a song of his (David Bowie doing "I'm Waiting For My Man" over the speakers at work) or see him on the TV (a special feature on the Berlin DVD included an episode of that Elvis Costello program-- Spectacle, I think it's called --with Reed and Julian Schnabel; I wanted to hear Lou speak but Schnabel just wasted all their time with his drivel, and you could see on Lou's face how bored he was with the director. Just because the guy loved the Berlin album enough to make it into a movie doesn't mean that Lou has to put up with his pretentious grandstanding.

I also realized that, with the exception of Prince, I own more Lou Reed/Velvet Underground albums and books and DVDs than anything else. I've had more Velvets/Reed stuff on my stash shelf at work than anything else (even prince, mostly because I already own a lot of hiss stuff) and never put any of it back when it came time to make purchases.

I remembered how my parents gave me such a small allowance that I could only afford clearance/marked down music at The Wherehouse store. All the stuff that eventually turned out to be the best stuff anyway-- Velvet Underground, Stooges, New York Dolls --was cheaper than the rest, so I bought them. That's how I got into that kind of music: economics. My personal situation dictated my tastes, so thank God for poverty!

But there was no poverty of taste when it came to Lou Reed. I can understand if people don't like his music or don't "get" what it's about. That's fine. But I instantly get suspicious of anyone who isn't hip to what he was about, because they tend to not like a lot of other good things and also tend to embrace flashes-in-the-pan regularly. And so far, in this life, that's been a great indicator of who to avoid or not take too seriously.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Reflections On The Insurance Wars

I remember when I was 19 and spent my first Fourth of July away from our traditional family routine. Normally we'd stay at home, watch the "Twilight Zone" marathon on TV, barbecue, and let off fireworks in the alley behind our house or in the back yard. I don't think I ever left the house for a single Fourth of July in all the years leading up to 1993.

Needless to say, I thought everyone did what we did for the holiday. So imagine my shock when I was in my friend's car, driving to a spot to watch a fireworks display... and I saw rows and rows of people out on their front lawns, watching fireworks in the sky from nearby locations. It really blew my mind to realize that all these years the rest of the city participated in something that I had no clue about, due to the insular nature of my annual celebrations with the family.

So it is with health insurance. I've always known that people buy health insurance, but because I always got my insurance through my job I never really put two-and-two together: in a strange way, I kind of assumed that everyone got health insurance through their job, and that when you lost your job your only recourse was to pay into COBRA (which was never an alternative for someone such as myself, who has never been rich and could not see myself paying $200 to extend my benefits when I needed that money to survive if my search for a new job took longer than expected). Thanks to my solipsism, I never realized until recently how many people pay for health insurance outside of their profession.

This made me realize that, although I've been insured over the years through various employers, I actually belong in the demographic of people who have never had their own health plans. When I was unemployed for nearly two years, I didn't have any health insurance. My son was covered by Medi-Cal (back when we lived in California) and my wife had benefits through her job, but I had nothing. Zilch. Nada. If I'd had any of the maladies I am experiencing now (diabetes, sleep apnea) during that time, how screwed would I be?

There was once a time when I didn't pay car insurance either. Why? Because I didn't have a car... or a license. I didn't take my driver test until I was 19 (a lot happened to me that year) and even then I didn't own a car that worked until I was in my mid-twenties. So paying car insurance was something I never thought about. Now I take it for granted, but for a time it was a new world and things were different back then.

Living in the Midwest now, I pay about a third of what I used to pay in California. Of course, I have never owned or leased a new car, and I have a better driving record here than back home, but even when I was at my safest in the Golden State the lowest I ever paid for insurance was probably double what I pay now, which is less than $50 a month. I can definitely live with that. I am not a rich man, but I think even if I were homeless and living out of my car, paying $50 a month to insure my vehicle is a deal.

Of course, the new Affordable Care Act is not car insurance: for example, you can get away with being a scofflaw and not paying for car insurance (albeit for a limited time, and with much paranoia whenever you get behind the wheel) but apparently you get penalized for not paying into the health care system. However, I lived for a great deal of time in Los Angeles without a car, and therefore I didn't need to pay for insurance during that time. I can't see how I can do the same with health insurance-- it would be impossible, to say the least. Unless you're a zombie (and these days so many people aspire to be) it is a useless solution.

So I'm glad to pay into the mandate system, but I don't have to because my employer has me covered and their plan is not changing. It is nice to know, however, that if I lost my job I could now play Big Spender like all my richer-than-thou friends and actually buy my own plan if need be, and that it may be cheaper than paying into COBRA. I could even decide to go rogue and buy outside my job coverage, if I so desired. This is a luxury I never allowed myself nor thought possible. And when I say 'luxury' I mean it as it stands: some people have never had any health insurance ever, and trips to the ER were their version of affordable care.

I mean, the bottom line is this: we all know that ALL insurance is a big scam. But if I have to pay for insurance, at least it should cover me in case I get sick.

One last thing: recently I was trying to renew my car insurance but ran into some red tape because I had never filled out an exclusion form for my wife on my truck. She never drives it anyway, but the agent insisted I needed to fill it out in order to renew. He kept e-mailing it to me but I never received it. I found out on the last day of the month (and also the last day of my policy) that they were sending it to my old e-mail address. So I printed it, had her sign it, then sent it via e-mail to my agent, but on the first of the next month I called the agency and my policy had not been renewed.

Not wanting to drive even one day without being insured, I immediately found another agency and received a policy that was only a few dollars more than my last policy (and given that I had a speeding ticket last year, it made sense that my new policy would be slightly more expensive). Of course, this resulted in endless appeals from other insurers who wanted my business over the following three days. I appreciated the concern, but that's the price of doing business: you can only give your money to one company.

A week later, I received a letter from my old insurer. They had renewed my policy after all, and had my insurance card and everything ready to go. I had to politely decline because I didn't need two policies for the same truck, but it was amusing to me that they wanted my business that badly... and maybe they will get it, if they can beat the cost I'm paying right now.

I predict that this is how it will be one day with Obamacare: lots of competition, plenty of insurers vying for your business, falling over each other just to sign you up. This is not a bad thing-- you just have to give it time to work, something that government shutdowns and partisan politics will not permit.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Sinead vs. Miley

First of all, Sinead is right. Just like she was right about The Pope, she is also right about Miley. Her open letter was brutal and frank but not mean, and I admire it because (1) Sinead knows the music business and is not lying or exaggerating about what it has done to people and what it will continue to do to people so long as they allow it to continue, and (2) even though there is a maternal tone to the letter, Sinead is actually treating Miley like an adult. Some people have expressed that her letter is condescending but I don't think it is at all-- I think Sinead is offering advice, and for Miley the adult thing to do would've been to reply with an open letter and politely decline the offer.

Instead, what does Miley do? Re-post tweets that detail Sinead's troubles in the past. So in other words, Sinead was wrong about one thing: Miley Cyrus is not mature enough to be treated as an equal in an open letter.

And this is what it's all about, by the way: maturity. Not slut shaming, not raunchy musical numbers, not risque videos or tongue wagging... the bottom line is, Miley's new makeover is her attempt to shed her kid image and show she's an adult. But she's not. She may be on the verge of 21, but she is actually less mature than most girls her age. And the proof is in her actions and statements.

Let's get the "slut shaming" issue out of the way once and for all by comparing Miley to someone who has provoked similar controversies: Madonna. Back when Madonna was Miley's age, she was hanging out with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fab Five Freddy, dabbling in the New York art/punk/music scenes. By the time she became world-famous, Madonna was firmly in control of her image: she told her stylists how to dress her, she told her make-up people and hair people how to do her up, she told her PR people what was cool and what sucked, and she owned her image. It was never foisted upon her, and when labeled a 'slut' or a 'tramp' she was able to defend herself or (better yet) ignore the accusations and move on. Madonna, moreover, never seemed desperate for approval-- she couldn't give a fuck what anyone thought... just ask Kevin Costner!

Miley, by comparison, grew up with Billy Ray Cyrus as a dad. The closest she has gotten to rubbing elbows with the cool and edgy was when her dad was cast in a David Lynch movie. Otherwise, she has been handled for most of her life by people who work for a cartoon mouse. She has no style of her own, so all this recent mish-mash is her attempt to create her own style. Of course, it's as authentic as a pair of pleather pants, but her handlers insist it's what hot this year so it must be cool!

When accused of being a 'slut' or whatever, Miley needs to be defended by others. She cannot defend herself, or rather, she can't defend herself coherently. And doesn't that defeat the purpose of stepping out into the limelight as a quote-unquote adult? The fact is, if she's all grown up now then no one needs to defend Miley and no one should defend her. So why is everyone trying to spin it like Miley is some innovator when she is actually a huge poseur?

Yes, that's right-- she's a poseur. She's that girl who goes away to college and one day shows up wearing a Pixies T-shirt and claiming she has always loved Sinead O'Connor, even though every single thing she's done up until that point contradicts this information. Maybe Miley really is a closet indie-rock fan, and maybe she did discover Sinead O'Connor all by herself while listening to Juicy J's rough mixes of her newest album. But her career up until this point has never betrayed that, and so we must ask: is this latest persona just an act too?

If it is, then that's cool. Madonna, Britney Spears, David Bowie, Prince... the music world is made up of performers who shed their images like snake skins. But the difference is, none of them looked like they were going to fall over because they can't  walk in heels. Not that Miley doesn't look comfortable in heels-- that's a metaphor I used to describe what I see is happening: Miley wants to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to be a big girl but she hasn't earned it yet. I mean, even Britney had the sense to release a song like "I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman" before she jumped into "I'm A Slave 4 U"...

Another thing: Amanda Palmer from The Dresden Dolls is not one to take Sinead O'Connor to task for her open letter to Miley. I think her letter was weird in its defense of Miley, and besides-- who asked for her opinion anyway, even if it was an open letter? Didn't Ms. Palmer & Margaret Cho lampoon Katy Perry for her song "I Kissed A Girl" a few years back? Talk about slut shaming. I guess if it gets approval from the LGBT community then it's OK to bash a vacant pop star for trying to be edgy.

And along with maturity, it boils down to edginess: so many pop stars these days have no edge. If Miley thinks her VMA performance was edgy, she needs to find tapes in the MTV archives of presentations that were ten times edgier than what she did. If she had come out the gate doing Wendy O. Williams of The Plasmatics, then I would've given her props for being edgy. Instead, she came off as a little girl playing dress up (or dress down, if you prefer) and managed to make something that could've been playful and sexy into an embarrassment.

So, to recap: Miley is a poseur. A girl who's had everything handed to her all her life now wants the one thing that money can't buy: credibility. It has nothing to do with sex, celebrity, or fame. It has everything to do with a 20 year-old with more money than all the people in her age group put together trying to act like she is older and more mature than she is, and not understanding the difference between actual haters and people who want to lend a loving but firm hand.

Perhaps right now as we speak, Miley is pretending that she has always loved the music of Bob Dylan. And maybe she will hear his song "Just Like A Woman" and maybe the chorus will resonate with her, not as an opportunity to seem cool and edgy but as a true reflection of where she is right now.

I don't dislike Miley Cyrus-- I just wish she would be more honest. But that's hard to do when you're a child of privilege trying to negotiate new terrain in a world full of critics and big meanies. And professing to love an artist whose last hit came out before you were even born then turning around and dissing her when she makes an overture is as intellectually dishonest as it gets.

I always say, you gotta take anything a person in their 20's says with a grain of salt. I didn't start saying that, of course, until recently. I'm almost 40, and I look back on my thoughts and actions back in my heyday and shudder. I thought I knew it all, and hell-- maybe I did know a lot. But I didn't know it all, and I'm still learning. But I would've never admitted it when I was 20, and I don't expect Miley Cyrus to admit it either.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Sellout Standard

One of the many things I love about rap music is that the definition of what it is to 'sell out' is clearly defined: Since it started off as (and is mostly still) a black medium, selling out means being an Uncle Tom and not 'keeping it real' and being a shill for The Man.

But it doesn't include getting paid. That's because historically black entertainers have routinely been shafted when it comes to their paper. So when rap started to gain a foothold in pop culture, there was nothing wrong with an MC rapping about making money. If the MC came from the ghetto and was born and raised poor, then making money was a GOOD thing. As long as he didn't have to simp and shoe-shuffle for his pay, he was doing fine. And since most major labels weren't touching rap music with ten-foot poles back then, there was no fear of being seen as the House Negro.

Of course, for rappers money had other downsides: Jealous peers in the ghetto who make a living robbing folks might decide that it's MC Flossalot's turn to get stripped for his garments, for example. But the proverbial MC Flossalot won't be considered a sellout until he has a white bitch on his arm and starts rapping about trivial BS.

Contrast that definition of selling out with the hardcore punk scene, which often gets compared to early hip-hop. To a hardcore punk rocker, selling out is anything that makes your band look like greedy corporate whores. That can mean anything from expensive T-shirts/merchandise to slower tempo songs with better production to jumping to a major label... the list goes on, really. Maybe because punk has roots in white lower-class neighborhoods, the standard is much stricter. At the end of the day, being white and lower-class has many more advantages than being poor and black. And so in order to prove that their commitment to the underground is paramount, hardcore punks have to present a much starker vision of life below the mainstream dividing line.

The D.C. hardcore scene instantly springs to mind, simply because they invented the idea of 'straight-edge' and bands like Fugazi later created the template on how to operate within the music industry with their souls intact. (The answer: all ages shows, no merch, no corporate sponsors) But this idea that you were not a good band if more than a small handful of in-the-know music lovers knew who you were spread from beyond the confines of all the local hardcore scenes and became a national phenomenon by the time the music biz decided that 'grunge' from Seattle was The Next Big Thing in the 1990s.

It was no coincidence that the year Nirvana got big was the year that Punk finally became a commodity worth trading. Since its inception, punk has been marketed for consumers. (Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, anyone?) Along the way, various attempts were made to co-opt the trend: New Wave was the first attempt, followed by all sorts of lunacy (seeing an episode of "CHiPs where a punk band named Pain committed crimes against gridlock) and endless variations on the same thing. But we have Mr. Cobain to thank for the Final Bastardization, and as much as he pretended he didn't want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, we all know by now that being famous was something he wanted almost as bad as Courtney Love.

Now you see kids who were BORN in 1991 wearing Misfits tees-- I confess that our son (whose middle name is Ramone, with an 'e') wore a onesy with the Ramones logo on them. The fact that he also had a Wu-Tang bib goes without comment or outrage, while some punks might be angry about the onesy, even if it was a gift and not bought with our own money. ("You should've returned it" is how I suppose the hardest core of punks would reply to that)

All of this only leads me to conclude that the whole hardcore punk notion of 'selling out' does no one any good and is, in fact, a danger to creativity.


I love De La Soul. Their first three albums fit the criterion for classic status. They are intelligent hip-hop, rap music for people who remember the promise and potential it had in the late '80s.

Each album they put out sells less than the last. Nicki Minaj has probably sold more albums in her short 15 minutes than De La has sold in their entire 20+ year career. (I like Nicki, but she has yet to produce anything as awesome as 3 Feet High & Rising) In a just world they should be in the Top 10 while rappers like Drake and Lil' Wayne should be the ones struggling to find an outlet. But things are different now, and De La's fortunes are waning as time goes on.

I can't really blame the market, though. If anything is to blame for De La's lack of popularity, it's the idea of 'selling out' that came not from hip-hop circles but from hardcore punk circles. And since De La were (and still are) the biggest proclaimers of this sellout standard in the rap game, the blame lies squarely on them. After all, they are the ones who titled their second album De La Soul Is Dead.

One factor that may explain why a group like De La is much harsher about selling out stems from their roots: middle-class, not the ghetto, not even white lower-class. They aren't punks nor are they ghetto children. They're black, but not militant. There's a rejection of privilege going on that they subscribe to, and if they were white it would not be a mysterious matter.

Unlike The Ramones, who toiled away and actually wanted to make money off their music (since they were never hardcore, even when their music got grittier and faster), De La Soul seems to be resisting the Top 40. They see the danger there. As black middle-class performers, they know that The Man and The Machine that runs entertainment will not be merciful to them. As middle-class rappers, they are anomalies... they would have a better chance at acceptance these days if they were white and poor, like Eminem.

Nevertheless, I think it's a shame that De La Soul is essentially shooting themselves in the foot because of their principles. Because as awesome as it is that they have consciences, it doesn't make up for the criminal neglect of their artistry. I really wish they'd subscribe to their genre's definitions of selling out. But if they won't, and if they're willing to stand their ground, then in the end they will be recognized as the pioneers and exemplars that they are. I just hope they are around to receive that love when its due.