Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best Albums of 2011

Four years is a long time. High school lasts four years. College allegedly lasts four years, although that’s rare these days. Most people go through at least three cell phones over a four year period. Emile Hirsch’s career lasted about four years before he disappeared. And I can only hope my first marriage lasts four years.

With that said, this is the fourth year I have written my Top 10 Albums list, and it’s back again for two reasons: it is always one of my most highly read and circulated posts every year (which I appreciate), and more importantly, I enjoy writing it. If anything, it gives me an opportunity and excuse to listen to and ponder over all of my favorite music from the past 12 months before heading back to school and starting classes again. Oh, and the chicks totally dig it.

As I’ve said every year: this list is simply my favorite albums of the year – not necessarily the most popular or most musically accomplished. By no means am I an elite music critic or anything like that, but I listen to a lot of music and feel I have a decent enough taste to select a list of albums that, at the very least, is acceptable. Maybe you’ll even discover a new band or artist that you hadn’t checked out before. Maybe you’ll have some suggestions to send my way (I welcome them). Nevertheless, it is simply my arbitrary judgment. (JUSTIN BIEBER!!!!!)

Without further ado, here are my Top Ten Albums of 2011 (with a few extras), courtesy of a 22-year-old with no real music education and little love for the country music genre (I’ve tried, I promise). Let the accolades begin.

  • Close Only Counts in Horse Shoes and Hand Grenades
Slow Club – Paradise; The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart; Drake – Take Care; Augustana – Augustana; Blind Pilot – We Are the Tide; Wild  Flag – Wild Flag; Bon Iver – Bon Iver

  • The Honor Roll
Foo Fighters – Wasting  Light
The most recent release by Dave Grohl and the boys was a strong one, but this makes my Honor Roll list largely because “Walk” was my favorite song of the year. I’m always a sucker for rock stars getting nostalgic and recognizing their own mortality, and on this song (and album), Grohl does it as well as anyone.

The Weeknd – House of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes of Silence
Abel Tesfaye – AKA: The Weeknd – dropped a trilogy of albums/mixtapes this year, all of which were released online for free…which was probably a mistake, because all of them are worth paying for. The sound is creative yet simplified for R&B, but also falls nicely into the new trend of smooth and melodic trumping flow and power.

  • The Top 10
10. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Probably not the best listen if you are trying to cheer yourself up, but Annie Clark puts her heart and soul into this album, embracing her inner darkness. The intensity and honesty is refreshing, and you’ll come away assuming that Clark is simultaneously crazier and more brilliant than you could ever hope to be. Kind of like Claire Danes’ character in Homeland. And yes, that’s a compliment.

9. White Denim – D
Like a jam band on speed, White Denim plays around with blues, prog and punk on their fourth album. They sound somewhat like a hipster, indie-pop manifestation of Buffalo Springfield. Or maybe it’s a southern rock, Tex-Mex evolution of Phoenix. Either way, they made the leap on this release from versatile, innovative garage rockers to…professionally versatile, successfully innovative garage rockers.

8. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
For some reason I will more than likely never be able to explain, I’m always intrigued by indie/alternative bands that feature females on lead vocals. More often than not, I really enjoy the layer or stratification that I naturally assume is attached to it, and The Joy Formidable definitely fit into that category. I probably hyperbolize the true impact that these front-women have, but that doesn’t take away from the edgy, on-the-verge sound that this band displays on its first LP. I constantly feel like they are on the cusp of something bigger while listening, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that eventually proves to be the case.

7. Telekinesis – 12 Desperate Straight Lines
This is one of those albums where you will discover a new song you like best with each listen, before finally settling on the fact that they are all great, all complement each other well, and all sound similar-but-just-dissimilar enough to fit perfectly into one cohesive piece of work. I’m fascinated when bands can articulate an event or emotion (in this case, a break-up) with a sound, rhythm, or identity different than what you would typically expect, and yet still have it make perfect sense. On this album, Telekinesis did that a heck of a lot better than most.

6. Deer Tick – Divine Providence
Deer Tick cranked up the volume and pumped up the urgency compared to 2009’s Born on Flag Day, but it works just as well. It kind of sounds like the whole band just got hammered and started churning out a bunch of killer songs about living young, wild and free (as Wiz Khalifa might say). If you go to college anywhere in the Midwest (or America, really), I suggest putting this album in heavy rotation. “We’re full grown men, but we act like kids / We’ll face the music, next time we roll in.

5. Wilco – The Whole Love
Jeff Tweedy and Company’s newest work of art sounds very much like an album I will be listening to for years to come. Tweedy finally seems to be at peace with himself and his music, something quite far removed from the band’s efforts in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. They can still oscillate from down-home saloon/pick-up truck cruising to backyard strumming and jamming, but their overall focus seems to be just that – focused. The band is clearly at ease, and while it might not be their best or most accomplished album (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), I often find myself wondering if it’s the album Tweedy is most proud of.

4. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne
It’s brash. It’s loud. It’s powerful. It’s arrogant. It’s ridiculous. And it’s brilliant. Somehow, “ball so hard” and “that shit cray” have become regular and acceptable phrases in our culture’s vocabulary. Sound clips from a very average Will Ferrell movie make sudden and yet seamless appearances. Kanye somehow makes himself more likeable and understandable, simply by being a narcissistic douche. Jay-Z makes himself even cooler and more endearing by constantly reminding us that he is a former-drug-dealer-turned-mogul/icon who also happens to be married to Beyonce. It is an album that every hip-hop artist wishes they could make, despite the fact that none of them would even consider trying. I can’t explain it. You are now watching the throne.

3. Black Keys – El Camino
The Black Keys – right now, in their prime – are the best band in the world. No, that’s not a bold statement.  And no, I don’t care if you disagree, because you’d be wrong. El Camino is so good that it actually made me reconsider the extent to which I was impressed by the equally-impressive-if-not-better releases of Brothers (my #1 in 2010) and Attack & Release (my #2 in 2008). I had become almost numb to their prowess until realizing they were competing largely with themselves, as all three albums were better than the vast majority of their competition. The album is a musical recognition of how far the band has come, how accomplished they have proven to be, while still showing off all the skill, passion and fervent it took to reach this very point. For what it’s worth (and it ain’t worth much), as long as the Black Keys keep making albums, I’ll keep putting them in my Top 10 lists. And when everyone else finally recognizes just how freaking good the fusion of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney is, I hope they all enjoy their heaping plate of crow.

2. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Sophomore slump be damned, the Fleet Foxes take a turn for beautiful, soulful, folky nostalgia on their second full-length release. They embody Americana, embrace maturity and transform the spirit of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” into an entire album’s worth of smooth, psychedelic reflection and contemplation. If Simon & Garfunkel had ever decided to hole up out in the country somewhere with the Beach Boys, smoke a bunch of narcotics, and then collaborate on an album, they would have ultimately been striving for the sound and splendor of Helplessness Blues.

1. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
I often struggle over which album I will choose for the top spot on this list each year. Even after selecting it, I will usually look back after a few weeks or months and question whether or not I made the right decision. I don’t exactly lose any sleep over it, but I think about it. That will not be the case for 2011. The Decemberists released their sixth album on January 14, some 50 weeks ago, and yet even then a part of me knew that I was listening to what would not only be my favorite record of the year, but one that would enter my pantheon and impact me for years to come. “Walk” by the Foo Fighters was the song I enjoyed most in 2011, but “January Hymn” from The King is Dead is one of those pieces that will have a lasting and noticeable influence on me as an individual, up there with Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” and The Bright Eyes’ “Bowl of Oranges.” The album is a masterpiece from beginning to end, a poppier and punkier change of pace from the folkier narratives of The Crane Wife or Hazards of Love, but leaving the listener with that same feeling of fully realized fruition. I’m certainly not one for sentimental self-reflection or tear filled moments of recognized enlightenment, but this album puts me as close as I’ve ever been to knocking on those doors. Every damn time.

Big things on the horizon in 2012. Screw the Mayans.

PS – For whatever reason, December 2011 was a record-breaking month in terms of visitors and page views for Arbitrary JudgEment (something in the ballpark of 145 million). I more or less write the blog for my own personal journalistic expression, but that it no way diminishes how appreciative I am of the friends, family and readers at-large that check in with the blog a few times each month. Your loyalty does not go unnoticed, and I am genuinely grateful. So for the last time in 2011…

Thanks for reading

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ignoring Ignorance

My omniscience is boundless. My premonitions are endless. I am a pop culture god. And, more than likely, so are you.

Ask me about David Fincher’s upcoming blockbuster film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It hasn't been released in theaters yet, but I already know it’s great. No, I haven’t seen it. But it currently sits at a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ website. Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A.” The Guardian gave it 4 out of 5 stars. It’s not too surprising either; Fincher is a great director, and the book was very, very good. And no, I haven’t read it.

Ask me about El Camino, the new album by the Black Keys. It came out on December 6th, but I knew around Thanksgiving that it sounded amazing. Metacritic gave it 85 out of 100. Rolling Stone gave it 4 out of 5 stars. Spin gave it an 8 out 10. It didn’t really matter that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it once it was released. I already knew how I was going to feel.

With the way pop culture is covered today, in terms of music, movies and television, it is nearly impossible to consume or experience anything without entering into it with very strong and pre-determined opinions. Everything is reviewed and judged by critics and professionals before the general public has access to it. Everything is already digested for me before it even reaches my plate. It’s one thing to assume that I will like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because I’ve liked Fincher’s past productions, or to get excited for the new Black Keys album because I was such a big fan of their previous releases. Nowadays, my own preconceived notions are essentially worthless. I might as well just adopt those of someone else, smarter and more informed than I am. What I think is no longer as important as what I know.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not condemning critics or journalists or reporters of that ilk. They are simply doing their job. Heck, I might even be doing that job someday. But it’s all just indicative of a culture in which people seem to react to things based more on what they are told than on what they actually experience for themselves, if only because being told happens faster. I’m just as much a product of this as anyone. I could avoid reviews and reactions to all of these mediums fairly easily if I wanted to. I could remain skeptical to any word-of-mouth or advising from others until I saw the movie or television show or listened to the album for myself. I could relish in my own ignorance and rely solely on my own responses, and it wouldn’t be all that difficult. I just choose not to.

It is often said in the “internet/social media/24-hour news cycle” of today that things are chewed up and spit out the moment they occur. But with things like movies, TV and music, it might be more accurate to say that things are chewed up and spit out before they even occur. My level of excitement toward an upcoming episode of “Modern Family” is contingent to some extent on what the TV critics I follow on Twitter are saying about it during the days leading up to air. My anticipation for a new album is influenced not just by my musical affinities, but by what the reviews are saying about it. Two months ago, I would have openly admitted that seeing the upcoming Sherlock Holmes movie was far more enticing than checking out the impending Mission Impossible chapter, based purely on my own feelings toward the previous installments I had seen. But after checking out the critics’ takes? I think my feelings have changed. It’s oddly fascinating, in a twisted, Orwell-ian sort of way.

I’m not just a vessel – some empty, vapid, pop culture consumer that can only recite or communicate what others have told me.  I’m not the pony-tailed, sweater wearing chump from Good Will Hunting that Matt Damon verbally undresses in the Harvard bar (pronounced “Aahhhvaahhd baaahhh”) because all I do is adopt and regurgitate the opinions of respected voices. I have my own thoughts and outlooks and reactions to the culture I consume…but I can’t help but wonder how much I’m influenced by media and critical responses. Yes, I really like the new Black Keys album, and I would happily share my thoughts and offer it as a recommendation to peers and colleagues. But would I feel differently about it if the exact same record had received mixed or negative reviews? And yes, I actually found Friends with Benefits to be one of the more enjoyable and entertaining romantic comedies of recent years. But did I think that because it was more witty and funny than mushy and idealistic (while also allowing me to stare at Mila Kunis for two hours), or was it because I knew going in that Rotten Tomatoes had given it a 71% rating, when most movies from that genre are lucky to break 20%? It is undoubtedly a combination of the two, I’m just not entirely sure which is weighted more heavily. True, it’s idiotic to base your opinions only on what those “in the know” have bestowed upon us, but it’s naïve to pretend the impact is insignificant.

I suppose all of this is part of the reason why I (and countless others) find sports to be so intriguing. No matter how much we analyze or predict what will happen in each game, tournament, or event, the outcome happens live for everyone at the exact same time. There is no way to know for sure what will occur until it actually takes place, consumable to everyone in a solitary moment. The smartest college basketball analyst in the world was just as shocked as I was that Butler made two NCAA Championship games in a row. My mom and Lee Corso were more or less equals when Michigan State upset Wisconsin in football this season on a last-second Hail Mary. No one predicted the Packers to go undefeated this year, but it could very well end up that way. (Ed's Note: Guess not...) In sports, the element of surprise is always possible. Ignorance is a constant. Few other things within today’s entertainment culture can make that claim.

Critical reception within pop culture is not all bad. I would have never watched the new show Homeland on Showtime (which I really enjoy) without the hype that was surrounding it in the critical community. And I can even stomach sitting through something like the movie Greenberg (which sucked) simply because it received good reviews. But what’s missing is that feeling of uncertainty, of judging something based solely on my reaction as opposed to how I think I should react, or how I’ve been told I should react. That independence is both enlightening and captivating, and yet I strive to attain it far too rarely.

Case in point: the movie Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. Released in September, critics were raving about it from the start. Its score on Rotten Tomatoes was hovering close to 95% and people like Peter Travers of Rolling Stone were pegging it as a possibility for “best movie of the year” (a status which Travers just recently bequeathed upon it). I was very much looking forward to seeing it at the time, until a few of my friends and family had a chance to check it out. People that I considered to be smart, pragmatic movie watchers (including my father, who I generally trust in situations such as these) were telling me how awful and terrible the movie was. I was hearing two very different interpretations of the film. I had no idea what to think. So I had to decide for myself.

Upon going to see the movie, I had no assumptions or preconceived notions, as everything I had heard previously was too disjointed to take a stance on. And after seeing the movie, I realized that how I felt was more or less entirely separate and unique from what I had been told. I liked it a lot better than my dad, but certainly not as much as Peter Travers. I thought it was smart and understated, but a tad too artsy-fartsy to deem “great.”

And what made it different was the fact that my feelings toward the film were entirely my own. It was a singular feeling that I rather enjoyed – unencumbered by outside authorities – and one I hope to encounter far more frequently in the future.

Unless, of course, somebody suggests otherwise.

Thanks for reading

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Brokeback Ontogeny

I assume that one of the more intriguing (and often overlooked) aspects of adulthood is the ability to watch others grow up. I mean this in a literal sense just as much as I do in a figurative sense. Obtaining and understanding a 401k also falls under this “adulthood” umbrella, but that’s a completely different matter.

Being able to fully grasp and analyze another’s maturation process is distinct only to adulthood and subjects other than yourself. You could never accurately evaluate your own life from birth to adulthood, for obvious reasons. It is also basically impossible to do this with anyone else’s life while you are growing up, regardless of whether this other person is older or younger than you; your outlook changes far too drastically and frequently during your developmental years to comprehend someone else going through those same stages. But when you’re a fully materialized adult (generally 35+), you essentially are what you are (and are going to be), in spite of whether it’s good or bad. You seem to vary as an individual much less from the ages of 35-55 than you do from 11-27.

As an adult, you can watch others develop and mature from infant to grown-up with your same personal perspective and understanding of life, throughout the entire process. You can recognize whether an 11-year-old is actually funny or simply believes he/she is funny. You can see just how snooty and deplorable the popular high school girl is, or how little the college student is appreciating his ability to get tanked, talk to random girls, jump off a frat house into a swimming pool, and yet still be able to wake up for his 8 a.m. class the next day, integrity still intact. I view people, events and surroundings entirely different as a 22-year-old than I did as a middle schooler or high schooler, and I’m sure I’ll see those same things differently still in five years and ten years. But as an adult, this often isn’t the case. You can see things with a balanced and actualized eye, even if that view is right or wrong or different overall than how the next adult might see it. Your perception is more or less static, which makes the focus much easier to grasp. Your personal awareness has peaked.

This realization became evident to me on two occasions, in spite of the fact that I’ve not yet reached full adulthood. The first occasion was when I turned 22, and I realized that it is the earliest moment attained in one’s life in which you actually want to be younger. When you’re 17 (or so), you know everything and want only to be older – to grow up. When you’re 22, you discover that how much you know is trivial, because you’d much rather go back to being a day over 21 and would prefer to know nothing at all. To contemplate this concept further, listen to Face’s (or more simply, Rod Stewart’s) song “Ooh La La.” Oh, and my second encounter with this revelation came while watching Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie Source Code.

None of this recognition actually has anything to do with the plot of the film, but simply what it represents or says about Jake Gyllenhaal and his career maturation. It seems to me that Gyllenhaal’s acting résumé is the perfect representation of human development and maturation. I can’t know this for sure, partly because I am not yet a fully developed adult (skewering my perspective) and partly because Gyllenhaal’s own professional development is incomplete. Even still, it seems apparent to me that Jake’s track record is some type of microcosm for everything I’ve discussed, if only because the analysis of celebrities isn’t quite as convoluted as that of actual people.

Gyllenhaal has been acting on the big-screen since he was 10, but it wasn’t until October Sky in 1999 that he made a name for himself and truly began the maturity process (an actor’s development starts later than basic human development, a statement which is pretty obvious when you think about it). October Sky showed (or represented) the infinite potential Jake had. This was followed by Donnie Darko (2001), which at the time mirrored that weird, angsty teenage phase everyone kind of goes through, and in retrospect is more influential and coherent than initially assumed. Bubble Boy (2001) was evocative of those idiotic high school-ish years, in which they are funny and enjoyable in the moment, embarrassing and stupid immediately afterwards, and then looked back upon somewhere down the road as simultaneously funny and enjoyable while also slightly embarrassing.

The Good Girl (2002) – which at the time was Gyllenhaal’s most well-rounded, professional, and mature role – is when that potential of his was truly tapped into for the first time as a young adult, when the first significant steps are made. This was followed immediately – and not surprisingly – by a stint of egotism and bravado (something that would naturally result from sleeping with Jennifer Anniston…in The Good Girl, not real life…although you never know); it’s represented in Jake’s career by the blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow (2004). In real life, this stage of audacity is defined by the binge drinking, frat-house-pool-jumping and random-girl-flirting discussed earlier. In Gyllenhaal’s film life, however, this stage is defined by outrunning a preposterous tidal wave that happens to be gushing through the streets of New York City.

Next up is a return to that potential, a much deeper and perceptible step into self-actualization and maturity. The moment is defining, not so much because it is the best or most successful, but because it is the most glaring and recognizable. For most people, it generally occurs late in college or early in their career path. For Gyllenhaal, this moment was 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. This particular film appears so clearly to be that significant occurrence for Jake, simply because of how different I personally view it now than I did when I was 16, and the fact that I’ll undoubtedly view it different yet again at some point. Also, there’s the fact that the movie and role evoke an immediate and identical labeling by those watching the entire process…regardless of how odd it is for that labeling to be “gay cowboys.”

The aftermath of Brokeback allowed for a continuation of more mature, idiosyncratic and challenging roles by Mr. Gyllenhaal, such as his parts in Jarhead (2005) and Zodiac (2007). This was followed by exploration of varying paths and emotions, whether it be dramatic (Brothers in 2009), self-indulgent unintentional comedy (Prince of Persia in 2010) or romance (Love and Other Drugs in 2010). And all of this leads us to Source Code, a film that establishes the role Gyllenhaal will probably be playing for the next few years of his life, embodying his acting maturation from youngster to adult.

Chances are that Gyllenhaal’s character in Source Code is basically the character he will be portraying over the course of the next decade or so. It’s a role we’ve seen many times before, and yet multi-faceted enough to allow for a talented actor like Jake to showcase the many layers of his onion. He gets to be a dramatic/charming/witty/funny action star all at once. He can still show off those emotional chops, while at the same time tossing in pithy or comedic dialogue and flashing his irresistible smile and/or abs at whichever bombshell they decide to complement him with. He has reached a distinct and more fixed level of maturation.

Sure, he may peel off into a few indie films to keep things interesting and explore his artistic side, and at some point he will probably deal with his mid-life crisis by completely transforming himself into the personification of another person, like Christian Bale did in The Fighter or Leo DiCaprio did for J. Edgar. But ultimately, each stop along the way for Gyllenhaal has served to develop him into what he has become. He is not just funny, or just dramatic, or just introverted, or just romantic, or just handsome, or just self-indulgent; he is not simply one-dimensional, just as very few actual people are simply one-dimensional. He is little bits and pieces of each of those things, a transformation that took place much like the growth and development of you and I.

Just as actor development starts a bit later than human development, it ends a bit later as well. Gyllenhaal is in his early 30s, meaning he will have at least one more significant developmental stage as an actor. He won’t be able to rely on this “good looks” or “action hero” phase forever, which is when those witty/dramatic capabilities will start to take over.

It is then that his career will be able to be viewed and analyzed as a whole, and done so more accurately by people slightly older (and pop culture-versed) than me. Jake Gyllenhaal will probably have a slightly better understanding of his own self (or his actor self) at that time too. He’ll finally be able to look back on those Donnie Darko days, The Good Girl days, The Day After Tomorrow days and the Brokeback Mountain days. And whether or not he recalls those moments as good or bad, successes or failures, you can pretty safely assume that Jake will wish he knew then all that he knows now…just like the rest of us.

Ooh la la.

Thanks for reading

Friday, November 18, 2011

Vacating Morality

Oh but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” 
                                               – Bob Dylan

As a society, with the way today’s 24/7 media coverage works, we tend to overanalyze and pile on things. If Tim Tebow had played quarterback in 1987, he might have been an interesting topic, but there certainly wouldn’t be endless segments on Sportscenter where a bunch of dudes just sit around and argue about him for five minutes. And that’s just one example. A lot of things are that way. Everything is that way. Until something drags you back to reality.

College sports are a fascinating subject. Interest is high, passion is fervent, coverage is limitless and scandals are rampant. Investigating top-tier college football and basketball programs is a bit like doing a kitchen inspection at your favorite restaurant: if you look long and hard enough, you’re probably going to find something you don’t particularly like. And in recent years, it’s been more like doing an inspection of that small, poorly lit Chinese restaurant down the road from your house. You know, the one that has all those stray cats hanging around out back.

Just in the past few years, we have seen colleges exposed for providing improper benefits to student-athletes, whether it be providing funds or accessories for the kids and their families, giving the kids more money than they actually deserve for a fake job, or simply handing them envelopes of cash. We’ve heard of team members getting in trouble for selling their own jerseys and memorabilia, booster members throwing ridiculous parties or providing lavish gifts to players, and coaches getting in trouble for calling a player too many times, sending text messages at the “wrong” time, or picking up the tab on a recruit’s dinner.

We condemn these acts, condemn the kids, condemn the coaches, condemn the system. We argue over whether or not student-athletes should be paid, whether that would solve the problems or simply make them worse. We balance getting free tuition and education against players being a slave to money-hungry schools, conferences, championships, bowl games and sponsors; “why isn’t a free education enough?” vs “why don’t they deserve a cut of all the money they bring in?”. We tear down the secrecy, greed and under-the-table deals as if the entire structure were the most despicable and wicked institution in existence.

And then Penn State happens.

Consider the Ohio State football situation. I live in Cincinnati, go to school at Ohio University in Athens, and have a roommate whose brother plays for the Buckeyes, so I’m more than aware of all that has gone on there in the past year at OSU, and yet removed enough to have a somewhat objective opinion on it. Essentially, star quarterback Terrelle Pryor and a few other players (some more notable than others) got busted for exchanging autographs and memorabilia for free/discounted tattoos, and probably some cash or other benefits (although to be fair, we can’t know for sure). Pryor was also seen driving numerous nice cars around campus, something of which you can probably draw your own conclusions on.

Anyways, Ohio State was practically crucified for these transgressions. Head coach Jim Tressel was fired, players were suspended, a few left the program, and one of the top teams in the country came out the other side with a far inferior squad and one heck of a black eye. Shambles. Complete and utter shambles.

And then Penn State happens.

It’s early enough in the Penn State process that we can’t say for sure what has happened, as nothing has gone to trial. But because you’d have to be a hermit (or Aston Kutcher) to not know about the situation, here’s the short version: a PSU assistant coach has allegedly been molesting and sexually abusing young boys over the past few decades, largely using his position with Penn State to commit these acts. He was apparently questioned about it very quietly in-house in the ‘90s (with no public punishment or acknowledgment), and was then allegedly caught by another assistant coach while raping a 10-year-old boy in the locker room shower in 2002. This coach, after seeing this take place, allegedly told (legendary) head coach Joe Paterno about the situation, who allegedly reported it to his “superiors,” who then allegedly handled the situation very quietly (again) without taking any legal action (again). And in the past few weeks, all of this information came gushing out. As a result, just about everyone involved with the university and program that supposedly had knowledge or a hand in the situation has been fired or put on administrative leave. Once more, I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new here. But what stands out (aside from the horrible accusations of this case, which have been covered at length by reporters that are far more competent than I) is how stark the contrasts are between this situation and the other so-called “scandals” surrounding college sports.

I’m not condoning the acceptance of improper benefits. I’m not suggesting coaches should be able to take whatever measures they please when recruiting potential student-athletes. I’m not even sure where I stand on the whole “should college players be paid/compensated” argument, because I feel like there are legitimate points for each side. But I do know that, retrospectively, it feels pretty stupid raising such a big stink about free tattoos or illegal text messages when children are possibly being raped and molested, and then coaches and administrations are spending eight or nine years keeping quiet about it. What Jim Tressel did (or didn’t do, in terms of reporting his team’s violations) was wrong. But when thinking back to how his character and integrity were questioned and vilified, and then comparing it to what  Paterno did (or didn’t do, in terms of taking further actions with the rape/molestation charges), it kind of makes you sick to your stomach.

Oddly enough, Paterno saw an outpouring of support from Penn State football fans through this whole ordeal. Now I understand what JoePa has meant to that program over the years, and no, Paterno isn’t even the main villain here. But he’s one of them. Jerry Sandusky, the assistant coach accused of committing these crimes, is obviously the biggest offender. And yet that doesn’t change the fact that all of those involved were clearly in the wrong. Jerry Sandusky not only committed alleged morally offensive and reprehensible acts (I think child molestation is one of those few universal “wrongs,” regardless of one’s belief or culture), but he allegedly committed crimes – serious crimes – that could hold some serious punishments. At the very least, they deserve to be investigated. Paterno and the rest of the Penn State administrators that knew of these things prevented those investigations from happening for almost a decade. Sandusky will have to answer (and pay) for these allegations, one way or another. You can be sure of that. It just shouldn’t have taken this long to start the process.

Should Paterno’s slate be washed clean simply because he fulfilled the duties of his job description by notifying his superiors? Hell no. What about his duties as a citizen, as a human being? How can he be trusted or qualified to lead young men if (as the record currently states) he had at least some knowledge of Sandusky’s actions and did nothing to protect those young boys? Reporting to your superiors really doesn’t hold much clout if you see them on a daily basis for the next handful of years and never once bring up the accusations again or do anything about it on your own. If what we know now is in any way true, then Sandusky’s crimes are gross and obvious. But so are Paterno’s (and everyone else’s involved).

JoePa wasn’t fired for “lack of morality,” although in this case, those grounds probably would have been justified, as slippery a slope as that may be. But he was fired for the crimes and misdeeds that his “lack of morality” allowed to take place, unpunished and unbeknownst to the public or proper authorities. Don’t let his career wins or the fact that he “fulfilled his duties” let you think otherwise.

I generally refrain from delving into such deep or controversial topics on this blog, mainly because I don’t really think this is the proper venue for that. But I found it striking how harsh we as a society judge college sports, and how fundamentally it all seemed to change with the allegations at Penn State. Even as I type this, an investigation is being launched regarding a longtime assistant basketball coach for Syracuse and allegations of child abuse and molestation in the 1980s. One accuser has pointed to the Penn State situation as motivation for him to come forward in the Syracuse case. It pretty much puts everything into perspective, huh?

Again, I’m not condoning what took place at Ohio State or any other university that has faced punishment or allegations. What I can tell you is that if I were a 20-year-old dumbass college athlete (as opposed to the 22-year-old dumbass college student I am now), and someone was trying to give me cash or cars or whatever simply because I was good at sports, I would have had one heck of time wrestling with myself over whether to accept those things or not. And if I was that athlete, and knew that one of my teammates was accepting benefits or one of my coaches was using some fishy recruiting methods, I probably wouldn’t say anything. That doesn’t make it right, but it’s just the truth. If most people were being honest, they’d probably tell you the exact same thing. But if it were a Penn State situation? If cars and cash became child abuse? Yeah, that changes everything. And I think that says something, if the difference wasn’t already obvious enough.

I’m a big  fan and follower of college sports, and as a potential (and hopeful) journalist, it is part of my job to know and report and possibly hold opinions on these types of subjects, just as it is for others in the field and profession and society. And the next time a big-name collegiate athlete gets caught taking some cash or driving a car he didn’t pay for, or a coach gets busted for recruiting violations, you can probably assume that it will be looked upon a little differently by those parties. It doesn’t make it less wrong, but it’s certainly not the same either. We now know too much. We’ve seen the darkest of the dark side.

College sports can be a seedy, disturbing and scandalous business. And that was before Penn State happened.

Oh but we were so much older then…

Thanks for reading

Thursday, October 27, 2011

No Success Like Failure

Mick Jagger was right: you can’t always get what you want. For years now, all I’ve wanted is a football franchise that wasn’t weighed down by endless mounds of futility. All I’ve wanted is a front office that wasn’t constantly striving for mediocrity. All I’ve wanted is an owner that would toss his stubbornness and egotism aside for two freaking minutes, just long enough to realize that he needs to hire a general manager, a man proficient enough to avoid spinning his wheels for nearly two decades of agonizingly frustrating football. All I’ve wanted is a collection of players that weren’t defined by a select few goofballs and chowder heads in love with their own reflection. All I’ve wanted is a quarterback that was willing to stick with it through the thin times, that looked off receivers, played with more animated facial expressions than Simon Cowell and didn’t grab his ball and stomp home the first time someone gave him a rough time for sucking. All I want is some competence.

But if you try sometimes…

Don’t worry – I’m not overreacting. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the Cincinnati Bengals are playoff bound, that Andy Dalton is the red-headed reincarnation of Jesus Christ, that A.J. Green should be fast-tracked to the Hall of Fame, and that if this team’s defense would have been stationed in Poland in the 1940s, WWII would have never happened. Those things would be ridiculous. I won’t even say that this year’s Bengals squad (which currently stands at 4-2) is really even that good. They’re probably just a lot better than anyone thought they would be (ditto for Dalton, Green, and the defense) and have been aided early on by an easy schedule. And I won’t say that the recent trade of Carson Palmer to the Oakland Raiders makes up for the infinite displays of ineptitude and stupidity by Mike Brown during almost 20 years at the helm. But it’s nice to change up the status quo. It’s nice to have a group of excited young players encouraged by early success. And it’s nice when Mike Brown finally gets something right.

I’d rather not discuss at great length how I feel about the whole Carson Palmer situation. In fact, I’ve made a concerted effort to avoid delving in to the whole ordeal…so I’ll just keep it short. Yes, I can completely understand why coming and working for the Brown regime everyday might drive a player away. And yeah, I can respect to a certain degree the idea that Carson felt his relationship with the team had played itself out in Cincinnati. And true, hearing Mike Brown lecture someone about commitment and responsibility is like the Jersey Shore cast teaching a calculus class. But it doesn’t make what Carson did ok. It doesn’t change the fact that he quit, walked away, and (quietly) whined about his current state of affairs. It doesn’t change the fact that he did sign a contract and did commit to the team for millions of dollars over the next few seasons. Brown warrants heaps of criticism for his track record, but to his credit, he’s taken that in full. Carson now deserves some, too. That’s why I was basically on Mike Brown’s side through this saga. If Palmer wanted to sit home and pout, fine. Go for it. We have a new quarterback. We have football. We have a team. You can have your fancy house in Southern California and a giant pacifier. You weren’t that good anymore anyways. No one suffers from you walking away except you. Stick to your guns Mike Brown. For once, be yourself.

Is that slightly childish on my part? Wouldn’t it be smarter to just get rid of a player we didn’t want and who wasn’t going to play for something that could help the team? Wasn’t this all a little too “cut off your nose to spite your face?” Yeah…but I didn’t care. I catch enough flack for being a Bengals fans from the rest of the world. I don’t need it from the guys on my (yeah, I said it – my) team. But then something happened. Raiders QB Jason Campbell busted up his shoulder, just as Oakland was shaping into a pretty good squad. Chalking up the season to an injured quarterback wasn’t an option, so the Raiders grew antsy, hasty, maybe even certifiably insane. They called up the Bengals – who remained adamant about not trading Carson – and offered a first round pick and a second-round-could-be-first-round pick for the same guy that slings interceptions like a baker flinging pastry. Mike Brown may be dumb, but no one is dumb enough to turn that down.

It was a weird feeling. I’ve certainly agreed with a few Mike Brown decisions over the years (signings or draft picks) and have even been relatively happy with him at times (’05, ’09), but I’ve never been simultaneously as shocked and proud as I was with the Carson trade. I was in Brown’s corner to begin with, but when word started trickling out what he was reportedly swindling from Oakland, I had two thoughts, in this order: first, I thought someone was holding a gun to his head and this was his way of signaling us; then, when things became too definite to be ransom-driven, I actually – for a few fleeting moments – wondered if Brown was some evil genius. I know, but it’s true. How had he done it? Did the Raiders have no game tape on Palmer after 2006? Was Carson holding a gun to their head? Mike Brown robbed the Raiders like he was Jesse James on a train car. I was confounded, flabbergasted, flummoxed, and dumbfounded. I still am.

On the surface, it was a win-win. Carson got the trade he had been pining for, and even to a west coast team like we all knew he wanted. The Bengals (and more importantly, Brown) made the fans happy by unloading Palmer’s distraction riddled persona, fat/stagnant contract and carcass of a throwing arm (all of which were providing no benefit to the team) for two top-end draft picks (both of which afford endless potential to benefit the team). Hell, even the Raiders and their fans were excited, making it a win-win-win…at least for a few days.

Which leads us to Sunday, October 23, 2011 – a day I will forever remember quite fondly. Palmer didn’t arrive in Oakland for practice until mid-week, forcing the Raiders to start Kyle Boller in Week 7. But after Boller turned in what could only be described as a pathetic half of football, Palmer got tossed in during the third quarter, facing a 21-point deficit. Now I would never wish any harmful or malicious ill will on another human being (or at least this is what I tell myself), and I would never want Palmer to suffer another terrible injury or somehow hinder his chances of living a successful life away from the game. And yet, I wanted nothing more than for him to crash and burn. I wanted everyone else to see what I had seen, what other Bengals fans had seen for the past few years, even if it took us all a while to admit it. I actually wanted people to realize and praise Mike Brown for what a brilliant move he had made. And you thought I was being childish before?

Lo and behold, some otherworldly force out there felt the same way I did. Carson Palmer threw three interceptions in the second half, only one of which wasn’t a completely vomit-inducing pass. The first – a quintessential Carson Palmer pick-six – was telegraphed so blatantly that everyone in the universe saw it coming, except Palmer himself. My granny could have nabbed it and taken it to paydirt. And as Carson was jogging after a wide-eyed defender and his clear path to the endzone, I couldn’t contain the grin that spread across my face. It stayed there the rest of the game, and I have a feeling that Mike Brown was feeling the exact same way. Which is good. For once, he deserved a moment like that. I hope it’s not the last.

When it comes to the Bengals, I’ve wanted a lot of different things for a long, long time. There have been fleeting instances here and there, and at least for right now, I’m stuck right in the middle of one yet again. I have no clue how long it will last this time around, but I’d be a fool to start worrying about that. Instead, I’ll embrace the fact that I finally got what I want, if only for a moment.

Carson got what he wanted, too, and I hope it’s everything he dreamed it would be. So far, it sure as heck has been for me.

Thanks for reading

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Only God Can Make a Tree

The air is still, somehow eerie and calming all at the same time, the sky a soft shade of indigo that I’ve never noticed it to be before. The sun is far enough submerged that nothing else is illuminated, just outlines and shadows waiting to be exposed. Leaves rustle and drop from the trees as my eyes adjust to the early morning dawn. I am as removed from modern society as I can ever remember being in my lifetime.

I was attending a camping trip for my Recreation 100 class – Wilderness Living Skills. The course required very little effort or attendance, save for a weekend camping trip, Friday through Sunday. I was immediately hooked. The appeal of minimal effort in an elective course and a few days outside in the midst of fall felt like a fair exchange for college credit. What I didn’t originally realize, of course, was how intense this “camping trip” would actually be.

First of all, it was a hiking trip, not a camping trip. “Camping” was what occurred when it got too dark to hike, or we grew tired of carrying a 50 lb backpack through the wilderness. And it wasn’t exactly “make s’mores and chug PBRs with your buds before dozing off in your car” camping. It was “pitch a tent and crap in a hole in the ground” camping. No toilets. No trash cans. No iPods or cell phones or bags of Doritos. I’m not entirely sure what it means to be roughing it, but if this wasn’t it, it was certainly as close as I have ever been. I assume it was very similar to how the Kardashians react when they lose phone service while driving through a tunnel.

From a distance, the experience overall wasn’t really too shabby. I like being outdoors. I enjoy the physical challenge of hiking and camping and self-preservation. Nature is cool, bro. But I’d take 24 hours of lounging and college football over a 10 mile hike up and down muddy hills in rain soaked clothes every freaking day of the week. No, that doesn’t exactly make me a thrill seeking outdoorsman, and it won’t get my face on a roll of paper towels. But when you have a 55 inch HD TV and indoor plumbing, it also doesn’t make you a fool.

It would be wrong, however, to claim that I gained nothing from the experience. I suppose it was more aggravating than entertaining, more laborious than educational. But under the circumstances, it allowed for plenty of contemplative thought – which, to be honest, is not something I generally spend much time on. (I figure that’s pretty obvious by now.)

I thought about what the future might possibly hold for me, and how I want to approach it. I thought about talent and direction and fate. I thought about how much control I have over my outlook, and whether that control is a good thing. I thought about letting that control go, be it out of carefree conviction or a spiritual leap of faith. I thought about Justin Timberlake, and about staying your lane.

I’m not sure why Justin Timberlake was the most readily available pop culture reference point, but it resonated most with me somewhere out in the forests of Appalachian Ohio. It’s probably because Timberlake is everywhere, but only when he wants to be. And it’s probably also because Timberlake gave up on the one thing that he knew would bring him steady fame, income, and deification: music. For whatever reason, Timberlake decided he’d rather be an actor, using his talents to portray fictitious suave and charming characters that every girl fawns over, as opposed to a personified suave and charming characterization that every girl fawns over.

Timberlake is admittedly a bit of a different breed, as he clearly possesses enough charisma and magnetism to simply trade one career of fame and fortune for another…but the principle remains the same. His future success was more guaranteed as a singer/entertainer, if only because history had proven how successful that lifestyle could be for him. So far, I wouldn’t say that he has failed as an actor (by any means), and he clearly will have the opportunities to get better. But did he make the best decision? Should he really have crossed platforms? Will it eventually come back to haunt him after a string of bombed films and failed attempt at a comeback album?

For whatever reason, being outdoors – specifically in the woods during the fall – always reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken. It most certainly has something to do with the imagery, but it could also be my overall lack of poetry knowledge, as well as the fact that my 8th grade English teacher required us to memorize the whole thing. The message of the poem is all about a man faced with a decision, and ultimately deciding to take “the road less traveled by,” which in the end is what makes all the difference in his life. I’m not entirely sure how I initially interpreted this poem (or if I even did at all), but I eventually came to the realization that he chooses the road less traveled by – partly to challenge himself, partly to enrich his life – but also because it’s the path he wanted to choose. The other might have offered an easier road or a more definite outcome, but deep down, the uncharted territory drew the narrator in. Uncertainty, anxiety, potential failure – none of it was strong enough to deter him. He wanted to choose the less ventured road; had to choose the less ventured road. It wasn’t the ending that appealed to him. It was the journey of getting there. Or at least that’s how I’ve come to interpret it. And oddly enough, I think Justin Timberlake probably feels the same way.

Standing in that clearing, the frost of the morning air blanketing me as the sky slowly transforms from smooth indigo to uneven amber, these are things I’m thinking about. And as we begin the last portion of our hike, back to normalcy and civilization, I suddenly come to this enlightening realization about which lane to stay in, which path to travel. Walking amongst the silence and serenity of God’s great creation, I recognize that I’m surrounded by what could very well be the purest and most beautiful scene I’ve ever personally laid eyes on…and I hate it. I absolutely hate it.

The sound of car wheels on pavement as we approach our destination is empowering. I want nothing more than to shower, drink Mountain Dew, and regain cell service on my Blackberry. I can’t wait to check Twitter and update my Fantasy Football roster. I want to eat something that would never be able to survive in a drenched canvass backpack for three days. And most importantly, I want to start moving forward on my own path. I want to choose my own course of action. I want to do what Justin Timberlake would do.

I’m completely unsure where this path ends. I’m not even assured of where it actually begins. But the rest will figure itself out; the revelation will eventually be seen. For now, I know merely what direction to turn, a slight chill on my breath the only indication as to where I am going.

Thanks for reading

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sofia Vergara's VORP

The word “overrated” has far too negative of a connotation. By designating something as overrated, you aren’t saying that it is terrible or awful or completely worthless – and yet this often seems to be the stigma attached to it. For example, if I were to say that I thought the band Radiohead was a little overrated, I’m not at all saying they suck. I don’t think they suck. I think they are good – even really good. I just feel that the overall, general sentiment of the band’s greatness is a tad higher than it should be.

In order to be overrated, the matter at hand must retain some amount of skill or accomplishment to begin with. And while it isn’t a good label to have, it certainly isn’t as dreadful or concluding as people make it out to be. (I’d be honored, for instance, if someone thought this blog was overrated). It is with this accurate definition that I have come to define the phenomenon of sabermetrics… and Modern Family.

It’s hard to say when exactly sabermetrics was invented (sometime in the early 1970s) or who exactly started the trend (although Bill James is generally credited), but the uptick in popularity within the past 10 years is obvious. Sure, everyone knows about Moneyball or has heard the term “inside baseball.” But the sabermetric explosion is a relatively recent and modern fascination; its mainstream status is a 21st Century occurrence. Thanks to undertakings such as Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Reference, and the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), sabermetric stats are readily and easily available to any fan of baseball (and even other sports) in print or digital form, 24/7. Things like OPS (on-base plus slugging), VORP (value over replacement player) and WAR (wins above replacement) have completely reformed how baseball and athletes are evaluated. In fact, without at least a peripheral knowledge of how these stats work, one probably can’t be much more than a casual fan. Saberemetrics have become ingratiated into the game of baseball…a little too much, in my opinion.

For the sake of a good rivalry, pundits perpetuate the idea that there are two camps: those that embrace sabermetrics (the contemporary, smart, nerdy, new-age crowd) and those that dismiss it (the old-school, gritty, archaic, no-blood-no-foul crowd). And while both of these subsets certainly have plenty in each corner, there are some that find usefulness in both. Nevertheless, the current “hipster” persona out there is that sabermetrics is the future, and everything (and everyone) else will just be left in the past. If you don’t embrace the statistics, you’re as good as the dinosaurs. If you honestly believe that desire, mentality, experience, toughness and brawn can override experimental and practical data, then you probably enjoy eating pre-packaged bologna and listening to Nickelback…or something like that.

Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t the two sides mesh together? Why can’t stats and feel for the game each fit into the same make-up of sports and athletes? I agree that flippantly ignoring sabermetrics is dumb. But swearing by them and nothing else is stupid, too. Sports are far too arbitrary and unpredictable, which is why sabermetrics are just bit overrated.

Somehow, I feel exactly the same way about the television show Modern Family. The program just started its third season on the air, impressively winning the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in each of its first two years. The show is abounding with great comedic actors and characters, and the unique structure of the family (if you haven’t seen it, it’d take too long to explain) always makes for interesting plot lines. With that said, the show isn’t as great as public opinion makes it out to be, by my judgment.  It relies far too often on ridiculous misunderstandings or obvious sitcom ploys in order to get laughs, and the majority of the characters are a little too one dimensional…but I still find the show funny.

I watch every week, and usually laugh out loud at least twice an episode. I love everything Ty Burrell does as Phil Dunphy (despite the fact that he is a member of those largely one dimensional characters I mentioned previously), and I don’t think Julie Bowen gets enough credit for her role (or at least I didn’t, up until she just won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy, which I agree is deserved). Bowen as Claire Dunphy is easily the most well-rounded, challenging character to play on the show. Other than that, you can pretty much guess what each character will be like in each show, and can recognize pretty quick what shenanigans will cause the storyline to spin out of control (in a generally funny and enjoyable manner). So no, I don’t necessarily think Modern Family deserved to win an Emmy two years in a row. And no, I don’t think the show quite lives up to the hype. The innovative and creative family setup and notable actors give the program a big boost of excitement and potential, which I feel isn’t always substantiated or fully realized. But it gets close, and the show is good. Overrated, yes, but still good.

It’s interesting how popular society frames different things. Deeming something overrated is kind of a backhanded compliment, downplaying an entity that has reached a certain level of popularity. Instead, overrated has come to define incompetence or failure. I don’t think VORP is worthless. I just feel that too much importance or trust is placed in statistics. And I don’t think Sofia Vergara is a terrible actress or completely and utterly unfunny. I just feel her character relies too often on her foreign accent and ignorance of American life. There’s a sizeable chasm between these two characterizations.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal opinion. I allege that sabermetrics and Modern Family are overrated, but there clearly has to be an opposition in order for my claims to even make sense. Whether or not they have merit is the part that’s up for discussion.

If only there were some in-depth, empirical way in which we could figure all this out…

Thanks for reading

Monday, September 12, 2011

I Ain't Changed, but I Know I Ain't the Same

Next Sunday, September 18th, is the date of the 63rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. To those interested and involved in the television or entertainment world, the Emmys are a pretty big deal, the Oscars of the “small screen.” Winners and nominations alike carry notable amounts of prestige and honor, and the awards are obviously important...unless, of course, they are not.

Year after year, it never fails that the Emmys (the actual nominations and winners) will be simultaneously lauded and disputed – praised for the rewarding of deserved selections, or condemned for the arbitrary nature of the vapid process.

It’s really interesting. For a show or actor that is popular among TV critics and others in the television industry, Emmy wins and nominations are pointed at as justified penance for a job well done (ex: Mad Men winning Best Drama last year; Bryan Cranston winning Best Actor in a Drama Series). But for shows and actors that are often viewed as overrated by the general public or are partial to Emmy voters and officials, those very same wins and nominations are discredited as favoritism and ignorance (ex: Entourage nominated for Best Comedy from ’07-’09; CSI nominated as Best Drama from ’02-‘04).

How does this make sense? Why do critics shout with glee when a show like Parks and Recreation gets nominated, but dismiss a Kathy Bates selection as if chosen at a grade school talent show? The Office has one Emmy win for Best Comedy Series in seven seasons, while Modern Family won the award in its first season, and has a good chance of winning for the second year in a row. To entertainment analysts, this would probably be used as evidence that The Office (a show with a longer and more impressive résumé) is underrated and undervalued, while Modern Family is a good show with a lot of hype and mainstream popularity. Both have the same Emmy credentials (in terms of wins), but the records would be used in completely different contexts when related to the particular shows. No, the Academy Awards aren’t on point 100% of the time, but they seem to hold a lot more clout and credibility. There is no quantifiable or measurable gauge for judging Emmys on a consistent basis. It is completely random and subjective to one’s specific opinion on each specific show/actor.

Interestingly enough, the Emmys aren’t the only thing that function this way. All-Star Games in the major professional sports are incredibly similar. In most cases, fans vote on who starts the game each year, with players and coaches then selecting the alternates. So not only are the starters selected by popularity among fans (Yao Ming was once selected as a starter for the NBA All-Star Game, despite having yet to play a game that season), but the alternates are picked based on popularity among the peers. PLUS, so many players elect to sit out the games in order to nurse injuries or have extra time off, forcing those that are less and less deserving to step up and fill the spots. Yes, ostensibly, All-Star appearances are reserved for the sport’s top players in each individual season. But more often than not, the openings go to the best players that are willing to actually play, which is rarely (if ever) the true top echelon of competitors.

How then should the honor be judged? When listing the accolades of a player – in relation to their overall legacy within the sport – number of All-Star selections is always brought up, and almost immediately. Scott Rolen, for example, will be a player that is most likely on the cusp of a Hall of Fame election once his career comes to end. He was a 1997 NL Rookie of the Year, 2002 Silver Slugger Award winner, World Series Champ, eight-time Gold Glove Award winner, and seven-time All-Star. His stats and honors are (almost eerily) parallel to Andre Dawson’s, who was elected to Cooperstown in 2010. Nevertheless, Rolen’s All-Star selection this year (2011) came about completely because about 5 or 6 guys “ahead” of him dropped out. He really had a rather poor first-half of the season (.241 BA, .276 OBP), making it into the mid-summer classic by default and necessity, which was widely evident and acknowledged at the time. But when it comes time to make the case for his Hall of Fame credentials in a few years, you can be guaranteed that his seven All-Star appearances will be prominently featured, despite (at least) one of them being completely unwarranted. How does that make sense?

There isn’t exactly a TV Hall of Fame per se, but there are certainly analogous situations when looking at the overall legacy of specific actors/characters. Steve Carell, who has portrayed Michael Scott on The Office, is leaving the show after seven seasons. He has been nominated for an “Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series” six times (including this year), but has never won. He has a shot at winning this season, but some will probably argue that even if he does, it will be partly as a reward for the previous seasons he went home fruitless. To the majority of TV critics (and fans), this lack of recognition (or lack of wins) is a travesty, a situation in which Emmys are pointed at as an institution of ineptitude, an overblown charade with terrible judgment. Alec Baldwin, however, has won two Emmys for his portrayal of Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock. Most “in the know” would probably label Michael Scott as the better comedic character (despite the lack of Emmy hardware), but Donaghy would undoubtedly have plenty in his corner. Regardless, any conversation revolving around the merit of Baldwin-as-Donaghy would of course be centered on the back-to-back wins he secured in ’08 and ’09 – the very same awards that would be flippantly dismissed by the very same types of people in relation to Carell-as-Scott. So which is it?

The Wire – constantly mentioned as one of the best and most groundbreaking shows of the past decade among entertainment analysts – was nominated for two (minor) Emmys throughout its run, receiving zero wins. Two and a Half Men – the omnipresent go-to for TV critics as a show with much greater popularity and admiration in the mainstream sphere – has been nominated for nearly 40 Emmys, winning five. Should Two and a Half Men get more credit? Should The Wire get less? Is this an indictment on the Emmys? Or are the entertainment critics just too pompous and removed from the masses?

So many things in today’s society are completely subjective and arbitrary. But in the case of Emmys and All-Stars, it’s the inconsistency surrounding the capriciousness that makes it all so friggin’ confusing. Are they important or trivial? I mean, they obviously have to mean something. Otherwise, there would be no point to the existence of these things or the hoopla surrounding them. And if they do in fact mean something, then I suspect one can pretty safely assume they are representative of some semblance of importance…

Unless, of course, they are not.

Thanks for reading

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Thinking Literally

There is a reason “Do you like music?” is often considered the lamest pick-up line on the planet. Of course people like music. Imagine how bitter and twisted one would have to be in order to honestly answer that question “No.” And the reason for this, of course, is because of how diverse and varied music is. The amount of genres, sounds, artists, etc. is so infinite, that two people can be total opposites with completely different personal tastes and opinions, and it won’t matter. The appeal is collective. It’s like oxygen and cable TV – everyone is a fan.

The distinctions between artists and musical styles are what lend to different followings among different crowds. Music has become one of the initial and most basic ways in which we define and classify people. Whether someone prefers Lil Wayne, Mastadon, Beyonce, The Byrds, My Morning Jacket, or Bullet for My Valentine (or some combination of all of those), it gives a quick glance into their personality. I’m not saying a person’s musical affinities will tell you everything you need to know about them, but it certainly tells you something. It is for all of these reasons why I am never surprised by anyone that comes to fame through music, be it Rebecca Black, Justin Beiber, or LMFAO. There is something for everyone. It’s why I’m also not surprised that Bruno Mars has become so prominent in recent months.

It’s obvious when listening to Bruno Mars that he has talent for both singing and song structure, even if you aren’t a big fan of his music overall (which I’m really not). But what I find interesting about Mars is how he has become famous by writing and performing songs that are completely straightforward, obvious, simple and literal. His words are shrouded in absolutely zero mystery. Initially, this might strike you as a bad thing, a knock against his credibility as an artist. I admittedly felt that way too.

Mars, along with the other members of his R&B writing/production trio (The Smeezingtons) have assisted artists in the music-making process since 2008. Mars gained personal notoriety over the next couple years for writing some major pop singles, and even appearing on a few notable songs. This led to his first (and currently lone) full-length album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, dropping in October of 2010. It
has featured three top-5 singles to this point (two at #1), all of which can be accurately summed up by their title: “Just the Way You Are” is about a girl being perfect just the way she is; “Grenade” is about a guy who would literally do anything for this girl, including literally catching a literal grenade for her; “The Lazy Song” is about a guy being lazy, and all the mundane day-to-day things he doesn’t want to do. Even the hits that Mars has simply been featured on (B.o.B’s “Nothin’ on You”, Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”, Bad Meets Evil’s “Lighters”) are all pretty simplistic and basic from a narrative songwriting point of view.

So what does this mean? Does it truly matter how proficient a songwriter Mars is? Should we look at him differently because his music is straightforward and one-dimensional? Should it all count against him?

Songwriting is given quite a bit of respect in the field of music. A guy like Connor Oberst will forever and always receive more critical and artistic respect than someone like Jack Johnson, if only because Oberst is perceived as the superior songwriter. When you mention people like Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, or Neil Young, their penning prowess is generally the first merit mentioned about them. Naturally, people like Bruno Mars, whose songwriting is basic and somewhat elementary, will often be given less critical or artist respect for the same reasons. But how important is this? I most certainly agree that those who excel in that area should be given due admiration and deference, but should others be penalized for the contrary?

It seems to be the case that one will be chided for songwriting only if it is suspect, as opposed to being absent or abetted. Elton John doesn’t really take heat for the fact that he collaborates with Bernie Taupin when writing songs. Same goes for Eric Clapton, who hasn’t written a sizeable portion of his songbook. Instead, these guys are lauded (and rightfully so) for their other musical talents. The same would undoubtedly be the case for Mars (albeit on a lesser scale) if he didn’t write his music. But he does, which in some ways has to change how he is received…right?

Bruno Mars has reached a level of fame and stardom that most in the music industry can only dream of. He presumably has enough money to last him multiple lifetimes, and is publicly adored for his talents in the entertainment industry. Do you think he really cares how his songwriting is perceived? Do his listeners and fans care? Country is arguably the healthiest genre of music right now, in terms of how the artists do in relation to radio stations/play, album sales, and concert revenue. Country fans are loyal, passionate, and willing to pay money for the music and musicians they like, which can’t be said of all areas of the art. Nevertheless, country singers/bands are often tagged with the same obvious-simple-literal songwriting tag placed on Bruno Mars, and yet it hasn’t managed to diminish their status either. Sure, maybe it has in a critical sense.  But is hipster respect that much more important than popular success? Honestly? Wouldn’t The Joy Formidable much rather move the amount of albums Tim McGraw does?

I in no way intend to diminish or degrade lyrical songwriting and the regard with which it is held in musical society. I just wonder if we (myself included) place too much importance on it – or perhaps more accurately – look down too harshly on those who may be below average. In an ideal world, inspired songwriting would be praised among those who exceed, not bemoaned among those who falter. I feel the same way about how women view men with big muscles.

Bob Dylan wrote songs that could mean many different things to many different people. The Doors wrote songs that were tough to understand (cognitively). Pearl Jam sang songs that no one could understand (phonetically). The Beatles, early in their career, wrote very simple and basic songs (at least from a lyrical standpoint), before moving on to a collection of other things. And in the end, each of these artists has achieved impressive levels of respect and popularity. Someday, Bruno Mars will fall in line somewhere behind all of them (ok, waaayyy behind all of them), singing his way to stardom in a clear and literal manner nonetheless. Maybe it will ultimately impact his respect and legacy, but it doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting his popularity.

And if that proves to be the case, I’m sure there must be a deeper, more profound reasoning behind the whole “songwriting debate,” and where its importance should truly rank. I just wish the answer was a little more obvious.

Thanks for reading

Saturday, August 13, 2011

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

One of the things I find most interesting and intriguing about pop culture is how important and necessary it is on a societal level, and yet how overblown and mis-prioritized it is on an individual level.

Popular culture is certainly significant in a broad sense, by the manner in which it serves as a representation of life over distinct periods of time.  For example, one can gain a pretty descriptive and accurate understanding of American existence simply by looking at which things comprised and defined pop culture (or whatever it may have been called in the 19th century) at various moments in history. It serves as the constant pulse of a population, ranging from the hippest trends to matters of genuine importance. Barack Obama is just as much a part of pop culture as he is any other societal classification, even though it puts him in the company of Twilight movies and planking. All told, popular culture has true legitimacy within civilization.

Nevertheless, pop culture’s magnitude on an individual, person-to-person basis is terribly excessive, with people placing ridiculous amounts of attention on things that are ultimately trivial or inevitably ephemeral. I happen to be a perfect example of this. I commit pretty much every functioning brain cell I have to stuff like sports, music, and Seinfeld re-runs, when I could instead focus my time and energy on things of actual value and essentiality (assuming those things are out there, because how would I know?). The juxtaposition is weird: on a macro level, pop culture is indispensable and vital, while on a micro level, it’s over-hyped and somewhat immature. I’m sure there is a “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” saying that could have described all of that more succinctly, but I probably would have screwed up the wording.

In any event, I’ve told you all of this in order to evaluate one Paul McCartney, and how my own personal interaction with him is simultaneously overstated yet fundamentally momentous. Just reading or hearing the name Paul McCartney surely brings a basic understanding to everyone’s mind, no doubt relating to the Beatles or rock ‘n’ roll music. But it also brings with it an immediate and almost instinctive reaction, in which people collectively and justifiably assign greater influence and importance to Paul (or the Beatles) than we would to someone like, I don’t know, Peter Gabriel. Paul was a freakin’ Beatle! He’s a rock icon, but he’s also a cultural icon. His name means something, and we all know that, even if we can’t exactly put into words what that something is.

August 4, 2011 will forever be the day that I saw McCartney in concert at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, in what will presumably prove to be his last performance ever in the Queen City. I attended the event with nearly 42,000 other fans, including my parents and my girlfriend (who from now on, I shall refer to as the JudgEmentress, at least until she dumps me). The age demographic ranged from grade school kids to crypt keepers, who all deemed it necessary to catch Sir Paul in action. I was definitely of the same mindset. And the reason why it was important for me to see McCartney in concert (which could be argued as slightly overblown) is completely correlated to why McCartney himself is important from a cultural and historical standpoint (which can’t be questioned by anyone with half a brain), in a way validating (on a macro level) and discrediting (on a micro level) my feelings about the overall experience.

Let’s begin with why Paul McCartney, the person, is important. The Beatles changed music, in America and across the globe. Their influence on the art is still quite evident today. They made rock music popular to the masses (pop music), and opened the door for the infinite genre variations that rock ‘n’ roll would come to encompass (from soft rock to gangsta rap and everything between). True, guys like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, and others before the Beatles were actually responsible for launching rock ‘n’ roll, but the Beatles gave it clout. We could get all “inside baseball” and discuss why the Fab Four’s production, sound, rhythm, and style made them so influential and momentous, but is that really necessary? At this point in our planet’s existence, do we really need evidence or explanation as to what makes the Beatles who they are? I don’t think so. It’s unarguable at this point. The band’s influence can be seen in every marginally significant rock/pop artist thereafter, whether it’s Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Kanye West, or Lady Gaga. In fact, the Beatles being labeled the greatest band/musical artists of all time is one of the most widely accepted “objective truths” ever, so much so that it is essentially an unopposed scientific fact in today’s world.

And what made the Beatles intrinsically great, by and large, was the beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime fusion of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. I certainly don’t want to demean or devalue what George Harrison or Ringo Starr contributed, but it was Lennon and McCartney’s genius that came to define the group. This in turn makes McCartney an essential piece of the greatest and most influential musical ensemble in the history of mankind. So, in case you were unsure, that’s why he’s important.

On the other hand, the reasons why it was important – to me as an individual – to see McCartney in concert, are probably a tad ridiculous and inflated. I wanted to see Paul because I love music and I love the Beatles. I wanted to see Paul because he is 69 years old, and probably doesn’t have too many performances left in him.  I wanted to see Paul because the chances of him coming through Cincinnati again (or any major, multi-city US tour altogether) are slim to none. I wanted to see Paul because I could go with my father, the man who introduced me to the Beatles. I wanted to see Paul because, like most people, I place far too much importance on things like sports, music, and pop culture. Ostensibly, the concert wouldn’t have changed my life in any profound way, whether I was able to attend or not. And yet, I would have paid or done just about anything to attend, because I somehow felt it was imperative.

Even now, after everything I’ve written and the mis-prioritization I’ve acknowledged, I don’t think my original inclinations were wrong or ridiculous. I have been fortunate enough to see quite a few concerts in my life, ranging from acts like Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton all the way to Chester French or Animal Liberation Orchestra. None of them lived up to McCartney (which is really saying something, as big a fan as I am of Dylan). I’m not sure any came that close. Admittedly, some of that is because the McCartney show was just a great concert. He played for 3 hours straight, on a huge stage at a great outdoor venue. He has an enormous songbook and a ton of hits, many of which he performed, and all of which sounded brilliant. But it was more than that. He could have stumbled onstage, droned through “Silly Love Songs” and then stumbled off, and I still would have held the performance in high regard. I wouldn’t have been too happy, but the event and the moment would still hold a special place for me. When you combine those aspects together, topping that particular concert will be a tall feat in my opinion.

Common sense would ask, “So what?” Plenty of other performers have and will play to crowds of bigger than 42,000 people. Plenty of performers in plenty of different genres will put on amazing shows, the theatrics and details of which will rival McCartney’s in Cincinnati. I mean, I was probably a good 500 feet from the man while he was on stage; it’s not like he came and did a personal show at my house, and then hung out and talked with me for a few hours afterward. I am one person out of the billions that have seen him live, at one show out of the thousands he has done over his career. All of those things paint the importance I placed on the concert in a pretty ridiculous and exaggerated light. This, I realize.

But some day, years in the future, this will happen: I’ll be talking with a peer or colleague, or maybe someone from a younger generation, like my kid or grandkid or the neighborhood boy from down the street. And it will somehow come up in a conversation that I saw Paul McCartney in concert, the once-and-always Beatle live and in the flesh. And the look on the face of the person I’m speaking with – the mixture of amazement and interest and jealousy over a moment and event I experienced – will be evidence enough to validate my feelings.

That is why the concert was important. And that is what makes the name “Paul McCartney” mean something, even if we can’t exactly put into words what that something is.

Thanks for reading

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Gaga For Gays

About a month ago, I went away on a week-long family vacation (Cabo!!!...or not).  One night, a few of us were sitting around talking, and my cousin wondered what I thought of Lady Gaga. I already had an opinion on her (which I briefly discussed on this site), being that I originally (and incorrectly) thought she was a typical pop artist that had risen on the wave of a couple hit songs and would be largely irrelevant in a few years.

As it turns out, I hadn’t realized (or even really considered) the degree to which a kitschy, contrived pop singer with catchy dance tunes would be able to both amass and activate such a devoted audience. Yeah, she knows how to write singles that people will like and will get air time, but that is only part of what has propelled her to stardom. What has kept her there is a combination of her (self-actualized) weirdness and the mobilization of her audience, especially among those in the teen/young-adult homosexual community. Lady Gaga is a global icon because she knows how to write pop songs, wear weird outfits, and most importantly, appeal to her “Little Monsters.” But it is the inherent dissidence of these “Little Monsters” that make Gaga’s mainstream success so intriguing.

Ever since Lady Gaga established just how powerful an entity she is (and presumably will be) in the realm of popular culture, her reverence in the gay community has been her strongest and most obvious support system. The manner in which she has embraced individuality and self-expression endeared her to that faction of people immediately, and it has yet to ebb. However, what makes Gaga’s popularity so remarkable (and what I just recently realized) is that the voice and support of this counterculture is what largely vaulted and sustained Lady Gaga’s fame in popular culture. The top catalyst for Gaga-palooza has been the voice of a subculture mired in decades of stifled distinctiveness and notable subjugation, and for the longest time, I didn’t even realize how shocking this truly is. And I suspect that probably says a lot more about the current state of society than it does about the singer of “Alejandro.”

Please understand, the purpose of this piece is not to examine the morality or treatment of homosexuals. It is simply to recognize how implausible it is that a community representative of gays  and gay culture has had such a sizeable mainstream impact, and what that means for Lady Gaga and pop music, both historically and moving  forward. In terms of Gaga, part of the sensation surrounding her and the strength of her audience is due to some great timing. She has risen to fame (to a significant extent) on the back of her homosexual fan base and the support she has continually shown to it, all during a time when the counterculture gay community has become much more vocal and accepted within pop culture. Things like Glee, the “It Gets Better” campaign, Ellen Degeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, those commercials with Hilary Duff and Wanda Sykes that warn against using the word “gay” in a pejorative manner – all of these and more have either contributed to or are a byproduct of the changing tide of how homosexuality is viewed in the mainstream media, and Lady Gaga is certainly in that mix. Yes, it is without a doubt still a counter-and-sub-culture, but the general reaction to alternative lifestyles has become more receptive, with Gaga enjoying a mutually beneficial relationship. She is both an initiator and beneficiary of that new direction.

(Side note: Since the program’s inception, I always assumed “Rizzoli & Isles” was a show about lesbians. I’ve never seen a single episode, but I just figured that the two girls were lesbian detectives that had to balance their work of solving crimes with their personal lives. Needless to say, I was shocked to recently discover this was in no way even close to being true.)

In a historical sense, Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters” share similarities with the Grateful Dead’s “Deadheads.” The timing factor for the “Deadheads” is evocative of Gaga’s fan base, with the explosion of hippie culture and free love deeming the Dead both initiators and beneficiaries in their era of popular society. Furthermore, the dedication and (extreme) loyalty that Gaga’s “Little Monsters” have exhibited in recent years is in many ways comparable to that of the “Deadheads,” other than the hardcore Dead fans being more mellowed out, what with the LSD and all. Despite how popular or well-known a musical act or artist becomes, very few ever accrue an audience as intense as the “Little Monsters” or “Deadheads,” which is as much a testament to the fans as it is to the artist(s).

One thing that makes Lady Gaga’s popularity different from that of the Grateful Dead, though, is the gap between the so-called “diehard” fans and the so-called “casual” fans. Lady Gaga has a lot of casual, mainstream fans, many of which can name and sing-along with her hit songs. The divide between those conventional fans and the “Little Monsters” is much smaller than the one between mainstream Dead fans and the “Deadheads.”

For instance, Rolling Stone ranked the Grateful Dead as #57 on its list of Top 100 Artists of All Time back in ’04-’05. When you look at some of the list’s comparable artists of similar ranking (Aerosmith at #59, Clapton at #55, Queen at #52), it is obvious that those bands/musicians have a much bigger presence and following among mainstream music listeners than the Dead do, and yet I don’t think any of those bands/artists have a faction of their audience as loyal or passionate as the “Deadheads.” And in turn, this is yet another thing that makes Lady Gaga’s popularity so impressive. She has managed to gain a casual following on par with a band like Aerosmith or an artist like Clapton, and yet the zeal of her “Little Monsters” is analogous to that of the legendary “Deadheads.” The burgeoning gay culture has somehow managed to make Gaga both a cult hero and popular superstar, all at the same time.

(Another side note: If you in any way think that I am equating the musical accomplishments and significance of Lady Gaga to Clapton, or even Queen and Aerosmith for that matter, then you obviously don’t know a damn thing about me.)

But as much as I am shocked at how popular and prominent Gaga has become – thanks in large part to her “Little Monsters” and the mainstream heights to which they have lifted her – I can’t help wondering if this is actually the best thing for Gaga and her music. At this early stage in her career, Gaga has only released two full-length studio albums (The Fame and Born This Way) as well as one highly successful EP (The Fame Monster). Her popularity, success, and branding as a voice for the young, alternative-lifestyle community manifested with The Fame and was well established by the time of The Fame Monster. This all became clearly obvious with the release of Born This Way, which Gaga has admitted as having the subject of sexuality as a key theme. Just listening through the album, it's apparent how much of an impact the topic of personal lifestyle and homosexuality had on many of the different songs, most notably the title track. The whole record kind of plays like the soundtrack for a drag show or something, and while it is certainly not a terrible album, it isn’t as cohesive or impressive as the other two I’ve mentioned. It all leads me to contemplate if Gaga’s music is suffering at the hands of her attempt to be this representative and spokesperson for the gay society that has so strongly supported her.

There are countless examples of artists making albums entirely based around a specific message or cause. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of Born This Way, it’s not that I necessarily think it doesn’t work at all, but just that it isn’t on the level of Gaga’s previous efforts. Her music suffered a bit on this most recent album, seemingly as a result of her trying too hard to represent this enormous gay voice that has been so steadfast in making her what she is today. And I can’t help but ponder whether this will continue for the rest of her career, or whether it’s simply a phase, a one-time venture to (in some way) repay her gay and alternative sexuality fans for all they have done for her.

Will Lady Gaga be pigeon-holed as this gay rights activist that can only write songs with a specific message – the Yusuf Islam of homosexuality? And if it isn’t just a one-time thing, will it really be that bad for Gaga? The album received good reviews, spawned a couple hit songs, has already had three or four singles get radio play, and has sold 5 million copies in only a couple months’ time. Plus, the release was lauded in circles for the awareness it brought to the gay community and how favorably it represented that faction of people, a great deal of which make up Gaga’s most boisterous fans.  So if she’s still going to sell a bunch of records, continue to receive critical acclaim (even if it’s less than before), have a few hit songs, remain incredibly relevant and popular, and further endear herself to her most loyal fans – a collection of people who have long felt oppressed and discriminated against  – why would she change anything? Why should she?

The lore of Lady Gaga is very intriguing. Her pop culture status was achieved thanks to a counterculture voice; her mainstream popularity is indebted to her subculture deification. One would think that she now has to appease both sides, remaining an ambassador for the “Little Monsters” while also maintaining her mainstream clout. But maybe not. Maybe the two sides are no longer as separated and divided as they once were. Maybe the homosexual counterculture that helped propel Gaga to stardom was simultaneously propelling itself into conventional acceptance.

That future path remains to be seen, as does hers. In the meantime, we should recognize what has taken place, and how incredibly rare it is on a societal level. Musical preferences and personal convictions aside, the popularity and sensation that is Lady Gaga is impressive, shocking, confusing, remarkable, groundbreaking, and historical. It’s also pretty gay.

Thanks for reading