Category Archives: Music

Reading Holy Books and Mourning David Bowie

I used to teach a class on Middle Eastern history. The director of the program wanted me include the Qur’an among the recommended readings. I was against it, but I relented. So I turned its inclusion into a teaching point.  As an exercise for the class, I asked students what books they would recommend to people from the Middle East for an American history course. Some mentioned DeToqueville or Thomas Paine, some mentioned the Bible. If the student did mention one of those, I’d ask if they  themselves had read those books. The discussion went from there.

This brings me to the passing of David Bowie. Social media exploded this week with professions of love for Bowie, heartfelt comments on his influence and the like. There is no doubt that David Bowie was an interesting and influential artist, a compelling personality, and a commercially successful musician. He was not, however, my type of music, though I really enjoyed “Heroes” and “Changes.” Was I being left out? Judging by social media yesterday, I was in the minority in my ambivalence towards the Thin White Duke.


I don’t think that reading the Qur’an is useful for a Middle Eastern history class for three reasons. First, the Qur’an is a contradictory, vague and very long read. Second, reading a text from a millennium and a half ago to understand current events is insulting to the people in the region, as if they stopped thinking in the 7th century. But never mind those two, because my main argument was this: is it worth reading something to understand people that most of them probably haven’t read themselves?  I would guess that, people being people, most folks either read something about the Qur’an or have it explained to them by someone else. They know the big teachings, the declaration of faith, and the proper celebration of the major holidays

I guess this because of my personal experience as an American. If students suggested the Bible, I asked if they’d actually read it. Most hadn’t. They also hadn’t read DeToqueville or Paine, or any of the other important works they’d recommended.  They’d read things about those books or had the key points of the books explained to them. I would then turn to the books Americans actually read. To judge by the best-seller lists, these are  diet and self-help books, genre fiction, and celebrity memoirs. Things that are much easier and more enjoyable to read than the Bible or the books you skipped the first time in Political Science 101.

If we want to understand America, should we read the books Americans want us to read about themselves, or what they actually read? I vote for the latter, but I’m not certain that I’m right. Your own opinion will vary depending on whether you want to understand people as they are, or as they want to be.

Many people clearly have a deep connection to David Bowie. In addition to admiring his persona and his music, he had a significant influence on popular music. If we wanted someone to understand the popular music of the late 20th century, I suppose you would include his works as a necessary part of the canon. But very few people actually listen to David Bowie. Not one of his albums is featured on the Billboard Greatest 200 Albums of All Time, which measures album sales since 1958. He’s also not on the Top 200 Artists of All Time, also based on sales. He doesn’t warrant inclusion into the BMI 100 Songs of the Century, which is based on radio airplay. When given the choice, we Americans actually listen to things like Journey, Bob Seger, and Toby Keith (nos. 58, 75, and 79 on the Billboard list), the checkout lane genre fiction of music.

You could take this to a very cynical conclusion, which would be that social media is full of people hoping you’ll think of them as having carefully considered musical taste, while they are actually listening to dreck like Rascal Flatts and “Don’t Stop Believin‘.” America is a nation spending a fortune on diet books and exercise wear while we sit at home marbling our hams with Stouffer’s Cheesy Colon Packer Deluxe. We’re lying to ourselves and everyone else.

I’m more positive than that. We all want to put their best self out there in the world.  The self that likes unique art, idiosyncratic personalities, and difficult music. We should like music like Bowie’s, even if our Spotify playlists are pockmarked with Sam Smith and Walk the Moon. More importantly, we aspire to be part of a community that does as well. A newsfeed full of David Bowie is comforting. Trapped in the Trump Nadir, we can be part of a community of taste. We can be people who value art, people who celebrate individuality, and  people who enjoy important music. At least, as Bowie would have it, we could be them – just for one day.



Toby Keith and the Changing Nature of Ass-based Violence

Toby-Keith4It’s probably been some time since you thought about the song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” by country music star and last man in America to wear a ‘do rag, Toby Keith. For a song that Keith allegedly wrote in 20 minutes, it was a huge hit – it went platinum and reached #1 on the country charts in 2002. It also sparked a feud between Keith and Peter Jennings and Keith and the Dixie Chicks, as well as between Toby Keith and people who like good songs.

The video for the song features Keith with the four Gs of a patriotic country song: goatee, guitar, gun, and grotesquely oversized cargo pants. With those locked down, the video was given a “Flameworthy” award by Country Music Television in 2003. When this was first pointed out to me, I honestly thought it meant that people wanted to set fire to it. That’s still more understandable than the truth, which is that there remain enough people carrying cigarette lighters that waving them around at concerts is something that is done.

I was thinking of this song recently, and not because I spend a lot of time thinking about terrible jingoistic country songs with lyrics a first grader could compose. I was thinking specifically of the climax of the song, where Keith sings “…you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A / ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way.” Watch that moment in the video, at about 2:07:

Keith gives a little smirk as he gets to the line, then pauses just before delivering it. The soldiers in the video go crazy. And not the kind of crazy you might go knowing that you just invaded Iraq on behalf of an Administration that has no idea what to do next, is going to send you on multiple tours to secure the same place, and then screw you on benefits. That’s bad crazy. This is good crazy. Good, patriotic, high-fiving, fist-pumping crazy. Coming so soon after 9/11, it’s hard to resist the sentiment. It’s simple, forceful, and very American. The song makes me want to load up an F-350 dualie with apple pie, baseballs, and AR-15s and go invade somewhere myself.

“Courtesy” and that line in particular make me a little nostalgic for the clarity of purpose and muscular patriotism we shared in the aftermath of September 11th. It all eroded some time ago, and the last remnants were surely swept away last week with the publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture. We were once the country that, if messed with, would put a boot in your ass. Yeah! That’s what tough guys do! And the reality? Well, according to page 115 of the report’s executive summary:

Majid Khan’s ‘lunch tray,’ consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins, was ‘pureed’
and rectally infused. Additional sessions of rectal feeding and hydration followed”

How did we go from a country that assaults the behinds of our enemies with leather clad feet to one that commits these assaults by “get(ting) a tube up as far as you can, then open the IV wide. No need to squeeze the bag – let gravity do the work” (p. 100).  This is some sick, depraved stuff. When Toby Keith was singing about the “whole wide world raining down on you,” I can’t imagine he was thinking about rectal rehydration. Would Keith change his tune if he knew what “Mother Freedom” was doing in his name? Probably not. He posted this image to his Twitter account on July 4th:


But back to the point. What if the CIA had only been kicking America’s enemies, as Keith’s lyrics suggest they should? Funny thing. In June of 2013, CIA director Michael Hayden said that the use of punches and kicks were not authorized. And yet, the report cites internal CIA records finding that CIA officers punched and kicked a detainee repeatedly. A detainee who was of course naked and bound with Mylar tape (p.489). What’s great about the CIA is that it has to take even run of the mill brutality and make it sick and weird.

With the release of the report, the country seems to be debating not whether or not these acts constitute torture, but if the torture is justified. Survey data actually shows that Americans are growing more supportive of torture, which is encouraging. Whatever terrible things the CIA is doing to people now won’t require them wasting so much time obstructing oversight by the Executive Branch, Congress, and its own inspector general. Checks and balances and accountability? Boring. We’ll put a tube in your ass – it’s the American way!

I think that anyone surprised by public support of torture against our enemies wasn’t paying enough attention to Toby Keith in 2002-03. Peter Jennings and the Dixie Chicks criticized “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” for its simpleminded advocacy of violence. That’s not all Keith was advocating for back then. In 2003, he released the song “Beer for my Horses,” which some suggested was pro-lynching. Toby Keith sharply pointed out that nowhere in the lines “Find a tall oak tree, round up all of them bad boys/ Hang them high in the street for all the people to see that” does it say the word “lynching.” He’s right. The song isn’t justifying lynching. It’s justifying extra-judicial executions and mob violence. Eleven years ago, Toby Keith knew just where we would be in 2014.

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Waiting: The Hardest Part? Evaluating the Assertions of Petty, et al

Last week, I returned to Six Flags’ Great America with my children and their friend. The kids had once again earned “free” passes by completing a reading program at school, and we felt compelled to go by the perceived “value” of only having to pay just  $60 for my admission and another $60 for food. As with my visit last year, I thought about the cultural absurdities the park is peddling, as well as the amusement park’s role as a luxury destination for (what I perceived to be) low income families. But mostly, I thought about the lines. The ridiculous lines. The staring at the operators who moved like slowly rusting robots between rides, the inventory of garbage in the holding pools, and my constant threats of bodily harm to my sons if they didn’t keep their hands to themselves. But mostly, I thought of the work of the American philosopher poet, Tom Petty, and his major work “The Waiting.”

Tom Petty and his collaborators (Lynch, Campbell, and Tench, referred to herein as “The Heartbreakers”) assert in the chorus that waiting is “the hardest part.” But is it? For this, I turned to the abundant research on waiting. Did you know there was abundant research on this? I did, because I have unlimited access to the world’s 9th largest research library. Janakiraman, et al (2011) point out that the longer you wait in line, the more likely you are to focus on “forgone benefits of alternative activities, experience boredom, or suffer from heightened feelings of anxiety and stress.” In layman’s terms, I could be thinking about how punching myself in the face would be more exciting, counting the people in line I’d sleep with in a pinch, or helping my children envision a life free of electronic media if they don’t shut up.  Maister (2005) describes a number of general propositions about waiting, including: occupied time feels shorter; uncertain, unexplained, and unfair waits seem longer; and waiting by yourself feels longer.

Whatever the reason you’re waiting, the hardest part is the psychological stress you endure, say, as your son only stops talking long enough to put his mouth on the guardrail recently touched by the 95% of people who don’t wash their hands correctly. According Janakiraman (2011) people don’t make rational decisions about waiting – stressing themselves out as they “balance two competing psychic forces: a growing disutility for waiting that induces a desire to abandon queues…versus a growing commitment to seeing waits through to their end as the time until likely conclusion shrinks.” Here, the authors are reasserting the paradox first described by Strummer, et al (1981) wherein one debates the merits of staying versus going based on the knowledge that persisting will result in trouble (n), while departure will increase said trouble exponentially (2n). Such indecision will bug you, and may inexplicably result in people yelling things in Spanish.

The waiting is also the hardest part because people are generally terrible at accounting for their time. Soman (2001) demonstrates that we’re more concerned about the time we piss away when we assign it a monetary value – though the argument is that this irrational since pissed away time is a sunk cost, just like the money you wasted on the new kitchen for that place in Las Vegas that you’re never going to be able to sell for what you paid. Speaking of irrationality, it’s apparently pretty easy to trick us into not realizing how long we’ve been waiting. In a relevant example to my own experience, Nie (2000) points out that people regularly endured a 90 minute wait for an 3 minute ride at Disney World because they were given some sort of treasure map to figure out while they waited. Dupes, right? Nie also points out that busy restaurants make sure to put menus in your hands fast so it feels like you’re being served, even when you aren’t. Mark van Hagen and his co-authors (2009) support this research: “infotainment” and blinky signs make people less upset about waiting around for trains and such. And these are Dutch people, who stand in line while wearing wooden shoes and eating hard pretzels.

Petty reminds us that “every day you see one more card/get one more yard. ” Thus, the illusion of progress is important to the perception of waiting. Again, Professor Nie’s finding support Petty’s instinctive assertions.  “…If the line is arranged with a zigzag of five aisles, it does not seem hopelessly long.” What Petty calls getting one more yard, Nie calls “managing the perception of distance.” Apparently, theme park lines are arranged in long, twisting paths because it screws with our perceptions — furthered by the fact that you usually can’t see the end of the line, so that you can figure out just how long the line is. We’re being tricked all of the time. Thanks, Professor Nie, for point out that we’re so easily duped.


In the course of my research, I learned that there is one party for whom the waiting is not the hardest part: the operators of the amusement park. Reza Ahmadi (1997) includes the fascinating insight that people have a 12 ride “threshold value,” which is the number of rides they want to go on to feel as though they got their money’s worth. On a crowded day, people end up staying in the park longer to reach that threshold value. Ahmadi tells us that “operating profits are positively correlated with the duration of visitors’ in-park stay.” Longer waits for rides = more money for Six Flags. Which is good, because the rest of the company’s strategy is based mostly on being a little cheaper than Disney World.

But let us return again to the words of Tom Petty:

Well yeah i might have chased a couple women around
All it ever got me was down
Then there were those that made me feel good
But never as good as I’m feeling right now
Baby you’re the only one that’s ever known how
To make me wanna live like I wanna live now

I believe that what Petty and the Heartbreakers are saying here is that though waiting is generally a negative experience, a positive conclusion makes it worthwhile. Again, Petty’s insight is supported by careful experimental design. Ahmadi (1997), states that “waiting may contribute to the experience…low waiting times tend to have a negative impact as well.” The implication is clear: just as Tom Petty would not feel as good as he feels having endured the wait for the right woman, all those people waiting in line for two hours to ride Goliath at Great America might have found the ride less thrilling if they hadn’t had time to let their anticipation build, and assigned value to the ride based on the visible demand for it. I think those people are nuts, because I don’t particularly enjoy roller coasters or anything that makes my stomach drop (I’ve passed out twice on airplanes, which is another story). Miller, et al (2007) find another time when long waits are beneficial: when you’re waiting for a negative experience. A longer wait time may help you develop a coping strategy – like, say, enduring the flume ride your sons want to go on so they can then go to the kiddie rides and you can stay on the ground. Ground that doesn’t whip, spin, drop, or turn upside down. I love the ground.

So, is waiting the hardest part? Standing in line at Great America, it certainly feels that way to me, but obviously not to everyone.  America apparently loves waiting. Consider another important research finding: the average NFL broadcast is 174 minutes long. Can you guess how many minutes actually show action on the field? Eleven. In this way, amusement parks and football are exactly like porno movies: based on juvenile fantasies with dumb, tacked on plots, featuring dumb characters with inhuman physiques setting up for a quick climax. When it’s over, you feel some guilt for having wasted all that time. And you desperately need to wash your hands.*

*you know, because you ate all those Doritos watching the Superbowl.


Managing Capacity and Flow at Theme Parks
 Reza H. Ahmadi
Operations Research, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Jan. – Feb., 1997), pp. 1-13
Published by: INFORMS
A Further Extension of Osuna’s Model for Psychological Stress
Henryk Gzyl and Edgar Elias Osuna
International Journal of Contemporary Mathematical Sciences, Vol. 8, No. 17 (2013), pp. 801-814
Published by: Hikari, Ltd.
The Psychology of Decisions to Abandon Waits for Service
Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 48, No. 6 (December 2011), pp. 970-984
The Psychology of Waiting in Lines
David Maister, 1985
Accessed at:
Consumer Wait Management Strategies for Negative Service Events: A Coping Approach
 Elizabeth Gelfand Miller, Barbara E. Kahn, and Mary Frances Luce
Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 34, No. 5 (February 2008), pp. 635-648
Article DOI: 10.1086/521899
Waiting: Integrating Social and Psychological Perspectives in Operations Management
Winter Nie
Omega, the International Journal of Management Science,  Vol. 28 (January 2000), pp. 611-629
Published by: Elsevier
For further insights into the major works of Petty, et al, this is an excellent starting point.
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Please Stop Believin’

Summer is almost upon us, and with it, lots of outdoor activities. Sports, block parties, festivals, and other places that require people and upbeat music for those people to (allegedly) enjoy. “Music” that for some reason always includes Journey’s 1981 abomination, “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

I hate this song. If my hate for this song took corporeal form, it would look like the child of Saddam Hussein and the Green River Killer. Only angrier, because it can’t escape the ubiquity of this terrible power-pop aural assault. “Don’t Stop”  was used as the theme song to the White Sox’s World Series run in 2005. It was featured in Monster, the last episode of The Sopranos, and spawned a hit as a cover after it was used on Glee. Needless to say, it was also featured on Family Guy, because the show’s lazy writers will eventually use every pop-culture reference from 1978 through 1999. I wouldn’t know just how much the song has been used, except for the fact that every time people hear this song, they go out and BUY IT, generating news stories about its status as one of the the best selling digital singles of all time.
Don't_Stop_Believin'Why on earth would anyone pay money for “Don’t Stop Believin’?” I don’t believe anyone really likes this song at this point, they’re just paying ninety-nine cents for nostalgia. Or worse, their parents’ nostalgia. If you suddenly find yourself with the need to hear it, stand in a public place and wait a few minutes. And then wait a bit more after it starts, because the idiotic chorus isn’t until the end of the song. Getting to the arm-waving, eyes-closed affirmation requires a full three minutes of  wading through the banal dreck of this dumb, dumb, song. And not gleefully dumb, like the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feelin” or “My Humps,” or “Let’s Get Retarded” or…well, the Black Eyed Peas in general. It’s also not intentionally dumb like Beck’s “Loser” or Phish. Just dumb, like the things that a person with low intelligence would say. A person like Steve Perry, who stopped believin’ himself, when he quit Journey – twice. Perry wrote and sang the song and only later figured out that the city boy wasn’t raised in south Detroit, but in Windsor, Canada. Look at a map. The area south of downtown Detroit isn’t in the United States. The song that is now synonymous with American celebrations is about a Canadian, the very people who believe in five down football, the metric system, and red money.

In an interview, Perry said that the song is about “looking for that emotion hiding somewhere in the dark that we’re all looking for.” That’s a great summary, given that it’s exactly what he says in the goddamned song. I never thought I’d say this, but if we’re going to go gaga over songs from the early 80s about boys, girls, and their dreams, John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” is a much better song. It’s clear that with references to Tastee Freeze and Boobie Brooks, Mellencamp is writing about what he knows. He wasn’t going to find out later he was singing about Canada. Is it possible that people in the early 80s were smarter than we were? Say what you will about parachute pants, permanent waves, or One Day at a Time,  but “Jack and Diane” was number one for four weeks in 1982, “Don’t Stop Believin'” never made it past number 9. People in the 80s — people who elected a President based on the hokey positivity of “it’s morning in America” – didn’t make the song ubiquitous, we did. So the lyrics for “Jack and Diane” don’t ring the same inspirational bell.  But I think “life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” would be a great lyric to play at Wrigley Field, especially from August on. 

Is anyone really inspired by this song or is it just a Pavlovian response? People tell me it’s catchy. So is herpes. Would herpes be something you could enjoy in public if it were accompanied by a hummable keyboard intro?  While we’re at it, should we change it a cuter spelling, like “herpeez?” That’s beside the point. What’s really pernicious about “Don’t Stop Believin'” is that it  suggests that in the face of evil street lights and nasty people, listeners shouldn’t stop believing. In doing so, it becomes the theme song for all the positive thinking nonsense that’s been spreading like blistering sores around the mouth of our culture. The infection is everywhere, from giant hoaxes and cheats like “The Secret,” Prosperity Gospel and Lance Armstrong, to research that shows all this positivity might make you feel worse, leaving you with nothing but burned feet and unprepared for setbacks. Barbara Ehrenreich even makes a compelling argument that positive thinking led to the economy tanking. (Follow the links. They’re hilarious).

So don’t stop believin’ if you don’t want. Keep company with cheats and hucksters and their hoaxes, make yourself feel worse, and cost America jobs. Why don’t you hold on to that feelin’?

But do it in private. Because the song really sucks.











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Help the Ravinia Festival Choose Its Music!

Every summer, the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL attracts about 600,000 listeners to some 120 to 150 events that span all genres from classical music to jazz. We’re pleased to announce our 2014 schedule. Now we need YOU! We’re looking for people to help us choose artists for our popular music performances – simply answer the ten questions below to see if YOU qualify to be part of our team!

1. In your opinion, what is the purpose of live music?

A. Soothing background noise by which to enjoy with friends 365 Brand Soy Crispettes with Sea Salt on a Williams-Sonoma picnic blanket.
B.  Soothing background noise by which to enjoy with friends Trader Joe’s Ruggedly Awesome Cowboy Bark served from Sur La Table picnicware
C. Soothing background noise by which to discuss with friends the advantages of housekeepers from Guatemala over housekeepers from Slovenia.
D. All of the Above

2. What is the tagline of your favorite music radio station?

A. Good Times, Great Oldies
B. Feel Good Hits of the 70s
C. Traffic and Weather Together on the 10s
D. None of the Above / all my music comes from cassettes purchased at Sam Goody’s in Northbrook Court

3. Toto is playing on Friday, August 29th. What year was their breakthrough album Toto VI released?

A. 1982, when you were 26
B. 1982, when you were 37
C. 1982, when you were 50
D. 2006, year that President Niyazov die and glorious American music was come to Turkmenistan

4. Chicago has been a key location in the development of which types of music?

A. Blues
B. House
C. Post-punk
E. What’s Chicago?

5. Darius Rucker is playing on Saturday, June 28th. for the second year in a row. How many members of the program committee do you guess the former Hootie and the Blowfish front man have to sleep with for these gigs?

A. All of them, twice.
B. All of them, but only once.
C. Only one, but he threatened to tell everyone
D. None. It was mostly just oral.

6. The Moody Blues are playing on September 4th and again on September 5th. What explains the enduring popularity of this band among Baby Boomers?

A. The single “Nights in White Satin” came out in 1967, the year they first tried dope
B. The single “Tuesday Afternoon” came out in 1968, the year they first tried acid
C. The single “Gemini Dream” came out in 1981, the year they first became Republican
D. The reunion single “December Snow” came out in 2003, the year they first tried Cialis

7. Hall and Oates are playing on Sunday, June 22. Which one is Hall and which one is Oates?

A. Hall is the guitarist with long blonde hair and Oates is the bassist with black curly hair.
B. Oates is the guitarist with long blonde hair and Hall is the bassist with black curly hair.
C. Trick question: as men in their late 60s, they simply switch hairpieces every night.
D. Wait, which is the one that had the porn star ‘stache?

8. Match the artist with the US overseas detention center in which they were played as part of an  “enhanced interrogation:”

A. Toad the Wet Sprocket (July 14)                                                        1. Abu Ghraib, Iraq
B. Train (August 22, 23)                                                                           2. Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
C. Michael McDonald (August 29)                                                         3. Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti
D. ZZTop (August 28)                                                                               4. Diego Garcia, Indian Ocean
E. Jeff Beck (August 28)                                                                           5. Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan

9. James Taylor is playing on June 26th and 27th. Why is “You’ve Got A Friend” your favorite song?

A. It was playing when you danced with your mom at your Bar Mitzvah
B. It was playing when you danced with your dad at your Bat Mitzvah
C. It was playing when you danced with your cousin at prom
D. It was hummed by the mohel after you converted for your darling Rivka

10. Ravinia is accessible by car and public transportation. What is the best way to get there?

A. Drive, and park in one of the pay lots.
B. Drive, park in a remote lot and use the convenient shuttle service
C. Take the Metra Union Pacific North Line right to the front gate
D. Take your medicine, stop talking to your dead husband, and enjoy  the ride in the home’s van.

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2013: My Year in Music That Was Better Than Yours

About a year ago, I discovered an alarming conversational trend: I spent an awful lot of time talking to other parents about Costco and the deals and products found therein. I’d formed very strong opinions on the merits of the boneless skinless chicken breasts in the meat section versus the individually quick frozen breasts in the freezer section. In one particular conversation, I tried to change topics and mentioned some concert tickets I just bought. “Ugh,” one mom said, “we’re just too old to go to concerts anymore.” Others nodded. I felt as if she’d hit me with her giant mom purse, the full weight of the goldfish crackers and Purell smacking me in the face. There I was, in the tail end of my 30s and discovering that my friends were giving up. I drove home in my four cylinder brown Honda with little footprints on the seatbacks feeling very depressed.

I’ve had these moments of realizing how pathetic I’d become before; most recently when it occurred to me in quick succession that buying “dry scalp” shampoo and “relaxed fit” jeans was letting marketing folks make me feel better about being fat and having dandruff. There was also the time my wife told me I was barrel chested then swore she meant it as compliment. And this had nothing to do with the time she came back from getting her hair done and I told her she looked like Cheetara from Thundercats.

One day last year, I was really enjoying Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On” and I realized it came out in 2005. Not coincidentally, my oldest son was born in 2005. I’d thought I still had relevant and interesting taste in music. I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t one of those parents who hadn’t noticed that Sting became a punchline in the mid 90s at the same time that U2 became a mediocre U2 cover band.  I was wrong. I’d noticed that U2 became a cover band, but then failed to notice that Wilco hadn’t been a scrappy underdog Chicago band in an entire decade. Some folks are trapped in the musical world of their college years, and I was trapped in the musical world of pre-children. That’s not better.

While I can’t help getting up at 6:30 on a Saturday or having to command another human to urinate, my waning musical relevance was something I could change. I dug out my headphones, subscribed to some podcasts, and started actively seeking out concerts. Just not ones that took place on school nights. Or might not have a place to sit, or featured too many kids dancing, or started after 9pm. But then, all I needed was a babysitter, earplugs, shoes with good ankle support, convenient parking, and a low calorie beverage and I was ready to rock.

My taste in music comes with a big caveat: I just don’t care how sad some twentysomething with a Pennsylvania Dutch beard is about losing his girlfriend. For God’s sake, Bon Iver – you’ll meet 11078973093_5f21c16648_osomeone else. I can’t understand what you’re so upset about. And if I want music I can’t understand, I want it to be because I don’t speak Tamasheq. Or French. For that, there was the best concert I saw all year – Bombino at Martyrs‘. His guitar spoke to me. It said “hold onto your pants, because I’m trying to rock them off.” Luckily for other people in the audience, I could execute arrhythmic knee bends in my comfort-waisted jeans without them dropping. Probably because of this great elastic belt I got at Target. Rock on!

If Bombino was the show of the year, my song of the year might have been Parquet Courts’ “Master of My Craft.” My sons heard the title as “Master of Minecraft,” which meant they thought it was a pretty great song, too. “Master” has all of the key elements of a great rock song: barely intelligible yet catchy lyrics, a driving guitar, and a singer of exceedingly limited range. If you want beautiful singing, get a canary. This song makes me want to engage in some full-out erratic and awkward dancing, which I would do but for the fear of a witness calling an ambulance and looking for one of those defibrillator kits.

“Master of My Craft” was rivalled in play by “Rouse Yourself” by JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound.  In food culture, the locavore movement is all about showing how connected you are to the earth and your community by buying crappy chard at prices that no one else on earth or in your community can afford.  Thankfully, there’s no equivalent in music – the local stuff is great, and costs the same as the GMO frankentunes Big Music is trying to shove down our gullets. JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound is a killer Chicago band on Bloodshot Records, a label that is a block from my house. How’s that for local, you foodie mope? This is what going local is all about: feeling superior to everyone else — and I just put my carbon footprint on your ass.

I further burnished my locavore cred when I caught the great Chicagoan Mavis Staples at the Hideout Block Party. You really can’t feel old or slow when the 74 year old performer on stage is openly joking about this being the first concert since her knee replacement surgery. I worry that my hairline is beating a hasty retreat to my ears, and Mavis is belting out both classic and new songs with her grandkids in the wings. Following her resurgence in the last couple of years has been inspirational.

Speaking of inspirational – as is well documented, I am not a fan of God. No one should spend a significant portion of their weekend praising such a petty, mean-spirited, and vengeful deity — much less writing songs to and about him. Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers are the big exception to this. Even their most downbeat songs are optimistic, and the upbeat ones are ecstatic. It makes me wonder why anyone would listen to sappy heavy handed Christian “rock” when there’s still gospel music in the world. (Side note: the best cover song I discovered last year was the Staple Singers doing Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.”)

When I went back and reviewed my purchase history, I noticed that I only bought about a dozen new albums during all of last year, and went to a similar number of shows. Not all of those were new – I drag my wife to Steve Earle and Amadou and Maryam whenever they’re in town, and I bought Neko Case’s and the Arcade Fire’s new albums. But I did get to take my kids to a couple of shows, in the hope that someday they’ll have their own years in music that’ll be better than mine. And in 2014, I’m going to do better. I also just bought two pairs of regular fit jeans.

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Pop Music is Undermining Your Feminist Parenting

All of your efforts to raise your kids to believe that boys and girls are on equal footing and equally capable of anything is being screwed up by letting your kids listen to Katy Perry. Well, not just Katy Perry. Pretty much any pop music, but especially recent pop music and especially pop music sung by women. Sure, pop music has always been treacherous for shaping the identity of young girls. It’s an industry and audience dominated by men. And there’s a whole history of parents lamenting – like I am – that their kids are listening to lyrically vapid, formulaic, auto-tuned and cliched commercial product.  As if music intended to entertain young people at parties and old people at Zumba classes should be anything else.

It’s also too easy to say that pop music is terrible for girls in particular because it shows them that their path to success is via their bodies. That’s true for a lot of entertainment and has probably always been true for pop. Less true for other music, I suppose. Where do I submit the suggestion that the euphemism”she has a great personality” be replaced with “she has a body for folk music?”

Anyway, I’m sure looks have mattered more as YouTube videos and reality competitions become a bigger deal in the success of female pop stars. One day, I’d like to sit down with my nieces and show them pictures of Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Mary Robinson and tell them “it’s entirely likely you will grow up to look like one of these women. They ran entire countries! Commanded armies! Changed the world! Theirs are names that will be known for generations!  And they had wholly unremarkable boobs!” (Note to my sisters-in-law: I will not actually do this).

What’s especially curious about this is how pop completely undermines the other forms of entertainment we feed our kids. At one point during a recent movie night, my older son (7) stood up, threw down his arms and said “why does every movie have one character telling another character they just have to believe in themselves?!” We told him to sit down and be quiet. Adversity is going to have build his character if the movies aren’t.

There is almost nothing in print or film that we share with our kids that isn’t a moralistic cascade of encouragement and empowerment. It cracks me up that the creators of the godawful Veggie Tales think that they need to anchor their products in religion to “teach meaningful life lessons.” Have they seen any animated movie in the last twenty years? Who needs God when you have a sassy animal sidekick who tells you what’s what in a delightful and idiosyncratic Afro-American dialect? It’s not just the movies. Read any Little Critter or Berenstein Bears? The Bible barely registers on the Didact-o-Tron compared to those books. And Sister Bear isn’t just moral — she’s tough.  All of the Disney Princesses are moral and tough, too. The little girl in Brave was so tough that the Walt Disney Co. didn’t think they could sell her as a doll without cheek implants and an eye lift.

So like a good liberal progressive second-wave feminist, you show your little girl Mulan or Brave and let her read The Hunger Games and then completely undermine all that by letting her listen to music that:

A. Fails the Bechdel test. This was originally intended for film, and tests whether a piece of fiction features two or more women talking directly to each other about something other than a man. In pop music, you can’t chart if your song isn’t about of loving a boy, leaving a boy, having a boy leave you, or the imminent onset of one of these three states. Through careful research on YouTube (which involved closing my door, turning off the lights and putting on headphones so no one could hear) , I learned that sometimes the songs are also about parties. Parties at which you will have a good time, presumably by meeting a boy, loving a boy, leaving a boy, etc. etc. Did you teach your daughter to be her own person with Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed only to have her find out a few years later that her world, her happiness, and her self-image should revolve around boys?

B. Teaches her that success is about fate and/or luck. Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks, Carly Rae Jepsen, and a bunch of other pop stars owe their success to winning talent contests on TV. Jepsen hit the lottery twice, by winning Canadian Idol and then having her song go viral on YouTube. Don’t let your daughter read The Miracle Worker. And A Bug’s Life is a stupid movie to show kids. What kind of chump makes friends and allies, is inventive, and works hard against adversity? I’m going to tell my nieces that they have one shot at greatness and everything depends on it. And if they blow it when the big chance comes, there’s always drugs and hooking (see note to sisters-in-law, above).

C. Has nothing positive to say about life for the 60 or so years after she turns 30. You know what’s weird about Carrie Underwood? She actually went to and completed college. Of course, it was in Oklahoma, so there was no science, but still. Lady Gaga dropped out of college. Carly Rae Jepsen never went.  Beyonce just got her GED last year.  Across the country, we’re throwing money at any organization that promises to teach little girls STEM skills and then showing them women who will need to rely on others to keep them solvent once their boobs and bank accounts shrivel and dry up. Look at the bios on Wikipedia for all of these singers. They note their vast range of skills by pointing out that they’re singers AND models AND fashion designers. That’s ALL THE SAME THING! Beyonce, when your shimmering voice and lustrous thighs are gone, what do you know how to do ASIDE from being Mrs. Jay-Z? I would love for one or all of my nieces to become successful artists. But I would also love that they learn a few other skills so that  they have a source of income and good insurance when they need their first procedure at 47. (note to sisters-in-law: it will be a low-risk outpatient sort of thing. Promise.)

I started thinking about this after two conversations in twenty four hours with friends whose daughters were listening to Katy Perry. I haven’t been so depressed about what we’re doing to young girls since I read this article about the marketing of Bratz dolls in the New Yorker a few years ago. Thank God I have boys. They’re still too young to pay attention to pop music, and most of their pop culture is about superheroes, whether Percy Jackson or Batman. To them, being an adult male means having yourself physically altered by a supernatural force or psychologically destroyed by unspeakable tragedy.

So that’s positive.


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A Brief Treatise on the Major Works of Robert Seger and his Contemporaries

I went to a family bar mitzvah in Phoenix a month or so ago. Though it would be easy, this is not a post about the dessicated exurban hellscape that is Phoenix in the last days of its pre-Thunderdome epoch.

This is about the music at the reception. Specifically, Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.”  A song that was already a cliche when I was on the bar mitzvah circuit in 1986-88. Yet here we are in 2013 – a glorious era of self parking cars, Google Glass, bagels with the apple-cinnamon cream cheese already inside, and basically unlimited musical horizons available on the intertubes. Worse than even hearing the song was having burned in my ocular nerves the image of my 15 year old cousin sitting across the room pumping her fist while in the foreground, my dad bopped his head to the same song. This brings me to a simple test I’ve devised for teenage girls to evaluate their musical choices:

A. Do you currently find yourself rocking out to the same song as your 67 year old great-uncle?

B. The last time you heard said song on the radio, did it fade out into a commercial for Flomax?

C. Are you currently listening to, or soon to be in danger of listening to, Pink Floyd?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, you are making terrible choices.

I can understand why my dad likes “Old Time Rock and Roll”. It expresses the confusion and frustration of the late 70s, punk, disco, and the custard fluck that was the Carter administration. The song was released as a single in 1979,  when Baby Boomers were on the cusp of a decade that would find them permed, fat, divorced, living in the suburbs and voting for Reagan – all things they’d never thought would happen a decade earlier, and they’ve been besotted by nostalgia ever since. But the song is now 35 years old! Listening to it isn’t sharing in Seger’s nostalgia – it’s engaging in nostalgia for the nostalgia of the late 70s!  “Old Time Rock and Roll” is now ACTUALLY old time rock  and roll and nostalgia, after all,  is never as good as it used to be.

What I can’t understand is why my teen-aged cousin – with neither primary or secondary nostalgia -would like it. Does she know that by dancing to OTR&R, she’s participating in the Boomer delusion that subsequent generations will recognize their music as the pinnacle of the form? I’m speaking, of course, of Risky Business, a film made by Baby Boomers indulging a fantasy about how their children – Tom Cruise and the guy from Perfect Strangers – could still have lives of sex and exhilarating danger in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Ironically, actual Boomers moved to the suburbs specifically to get away from sex, danger, or anything remotely exhilarating, but this was lost on audiences of the time. Early in the film, the most rebellious thing a home-alone teenage Tom Cruise can come up with is cranking his dad’s stereo and famously dancing to “Old Time Rock and Roll.” There Cruise is, pre-Operating Thetan, pantslessly sliding across the floor into cinematic history, wiggling his tighty-whitied ass on the couch three whole years before it was lovingly fondled by Val Kilmer in that deleted scene from Top Gun (available on the extended cut in my mind).

Following some careful Wikipedia-based research, I stumbled upon an alarming fact: when Bob Seger recorded OTR&R in 1978, he was 33.  Six years younger than I am now. At 33, he was giving up. What kind of sad sack would accept being called old fashioned or over the hill at 33?  Since he didn’t have the good sense to take the Joplin/Hendrix Early Death Express, Seger is now in his late 60s, and he must be absolutely miserable to be around. “Hey Dad, you wanna go out?” “No way! I’m not going to no disco!” “Dad, no one goes to a disco anymore.” “You’ll never even get me out on the floor!” “Not an issue, Dad. We’re going to Olive Garden, ok?” “Fine. But their meatballs taste like a rock. Like a rock. We’ve got tonight, son, why don’t we stay…in?”

Given some of the music Baby Boomers inflicted on civilization, Seger’s hatred of disco surprises me. Oh, but it’s the Boomer delusion again: “the only good rock and roll is our rock and roll, the stuff we listened to when we changed the world by stopping Vietnam after seven years and letting Nixon get elected twice!” So let us engage in a brief comparison of the Boomer icon “Light My Fire,” (which came out when Seger was a presumably less cranky 21) and a hated disco song which presumably motivated Bob to record the song: Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” which came out the year before OTR&R:

“Light My Fire” is an alleged poet moaning in his crank caller voice through four stanzas of terrible sixth grade rhymes begging someone to engage in intercourse with him.  After this lowlight of the Western poetic tradition finally runs out of words that rhyme with “fire,” another guy jumps in with four excruciating minutes of senseless diddling on a keyboard. Ugh.  In “I Feel Love,” someone has clearly already lit Donna Summer’s fire, possibly multiple times. She might even be having her fire lit while she’s singing, as she seems a little short of breath and at a loss for words. There’s not much poetry, but there’s also no GODDAMNED FOUR MINUTE KEYBOARD SOLO. Plus – you can sort of dance to it, and not the twirling Tyrannosaur arm dance that trustafarian hippies have been doing for 40 years.  As a musician or a sexual partner, I would take Donna Summer over Jim Morrison any day – without even accounting for having to clean up my tub after he dies in it.

After Seger knocks on disco, he calls out the tango – of all things – for special opprobrium. You won’t go to hear ’em play a tango? Oh really, Bob Seger? Good thing you stood your ground there. God knows it was better to be safe than sorry what with all the tango-based assaults that were taking place in the US in the late 70s. Lanky Latino men grabbing you tightly and spitting roses into your mouth. Or maybe there was really some risk that you would find yourself in Buenos Aires in 1978? Were you and the Silver Bullet Band going to go down and sample some delicious asado with los gauchos? Because if not, while we all appreciate your bold ultimatum in objection to Latin-infused ballroom dance, I think you’re just creating a straw man so you can keep your pervert-bearded self home in the Detroit suburbs.

Also, Bob Seger, If you’d rather hear some blues or funky old soul, then WHY THE HELL AREN’T YOU PLAYING ANY? You have a band! They play instruments! They’re standing right there behind you, playing 124 metronomic beats per minute of four on the floor Rust Belt Rock!

OTR&R has mysteriously survived where similar songs have faded. I’m thinking of former hits like “Summer of ’69” or “R.O.C.K. in the USA,” the latter by John Mellencamp, who tore off one of Bob Seger’s muttonchops during the Rust Belt Rock Riots in Indianapolis in 1986. I was going to lump in “Glory Days” or “Born in the USA” with those, but both of those songs are overtly darker and sadder – even if no one bothered to tell the Reagan Campaign.  Maybe this is why Springsteen is still a major touring act – he can live off his previous reputation for authenticity even as he records dreck like “Queen of the Supermarket,” where the multi-zillionaire falls in love with a grocery worker stocking shelves in aisle two. Never mind the fact that Springsteen hasn’t had to shop for his own food since the time his butler went on strike after Bruce made him put on a flight suit so they could play “Maverick & Iceman” in his bedroom.

Look, it’s not just me that doesn’t want to hear “OTR&R” anymore. BOB SEGER doesn’t want to hear it, either. He cashed out with those Chevy commercials years ago and now lives in retired Baby Boomer bliss outside of Detroit, enjoying his money and, like all members of his generation, trying to figure out how to turn on his iPad.

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