“space station docking” – alex north/jerry goldsmith & the national philharmonic orchestra (1993)

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Last week, I had the privilege of seeing a really interesting screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.  Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic sci-film came into my life in high school when I bought a retrospective box set of the director’s work starting with 1962’s Lolita and ending with 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut.  Kubrick became my favorite filmmaker and 2001 was a point of fascination even though I was at an age where I didn’t fully understand what it meant.  It is a work of art the reveals more to you as you grow older and see it from a unique perspective.

For years, I was satisfied with my DVD copy that would I watch on my 27” tube television.  I was satisfied because that was all I had.  Theaters where I lived didn’t play old movies let alone films like 2001.  I wouldn’t have a theater like that until I moved to Chicago in 2011 and discovered the Music Box.

The screening I went to last week was my third time seeing 2001 in a theater.  The previous two times were also at the Music Box.  The Music Box is one of very few movie theaters that can screen 70mm film.  The first two times seeing 2001 were in 70mm.  In fact, they were original 70mm prints.  Of course, seeing a film like 2001 is better in a theater on 70mm than on a 27” television.  No doubt about it.  And it is kind of cool to say that I’ve seen the film on an original print.  However, those prints aren’t that great.  Over the course of 50 years, the prints have been screened hundreds of time and they accumulate scratches and dirt.  It is still a great visual experience, but you still see the age.  However, last week’s screening was on a whole different level.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the classic film.  To mark the occasion, filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Dunkirk) embarked on a project to create new 70mm prints from the original film negatives.  He produced five prints and debuted the first one at the Cannes Film Festival.

What is an important distinction about these prints is that they are not restorations.  Nolan and his team didn’t take an existing print and clean it up.  Newly minted prints were created and showcased.  When I saw one of these prints on Friday, it was quite gorgeous and the experience felt like I was watching the film for the first time.  The print also included a proper overture and intermission.  The experience was designed to recreate how one would’ve seen 2001 when it first premiered in 1968.  And to top it all off, the screening I went to was screening the print for the first time ever.  Perfect timing.

As always, every time I revisit a film I love, I find new things I missed.  I pick up visual or narrative details that I was unaware of or had entirely forgotten.  And these details matter.  Kubrick didn’t just put things in his film haphazardly.  Everything had a role, purpose, or subtle meaning that contributed to the film. Nothing was accidental.

Or that is at least the legend that is associated with Kubrick.  Now, don’t get me wrong. He was a masterful filmmaker who made his films deliberately and meticulously.  That isn’t up for debate.  However, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t open to changes in his film.  The final product of one of his movies isn’t a 100% genuine reflection of his initial concepts.  While Kubrick made sure he got an image the way he wanted (even if it meant crafting huge sets, buying outrageously expensive lenses, or performing over a hundred takes), there was times where a film was improved by happy accident.

Even if you haven’t seen 2001, the film’s use of music and imagery is so ubiquitous in our society and we’ve seen it parodied or referenced hundreds of time.  It is impossible to hear “Also sprach Zarathustra” without thinking about early man throwing a bone in the air or to not imagine spaceships sailing through space as part of a cosmic ballet when one hears “The Blue Danube.”  Those visual and aural associations are so ingrained in our consciousness that one cannot use those musical pieces without the Kubrick association.

The use of music is perfect in both its execution and the pieces selected.  They fit so well and act as their own character that drives the narrative.  There has been so much to say about the music that I wonder what, if anything at all, can I possibly contribute.  However, it is mind-boggling to find out that 2001’s iconic music was almost not used.

Alex North is a notable Hollywood composer who had worked with Kubrick before when writing the score for Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove.  North was commissioned to create a score for 2001.  Kubrick, during the production, had provided North whole sequences to provide a visualization to help him craft a score.  These sequences had “guide pieces” that acted as filler to provide an aesthetic reference point for North to compose an original score.

North composed the score and sent it to Kubrick.  When the film premiered, North attended and then found out that not one piece of his music was used.  During post-production, Kubrick trashed everything North had sent him and used the guide pieces from his earlier cuts.  These guide pieces were the Strauss pieces that have garnered legendary status.

North was devastated, but there was nothing he could do.  All he had left from his work was a cassette containing the score.  He had only played it for his friend and fellow composer Jerry Goldsmith.  Then, somehow, the tape was lost.

In 1993, Jerry Goldsmith finally recorded the original score that North provided him.  The missing cassette miraculously resurfaced one week before the recording and was used to help Goldsmith match tempos and dynamics based on North’s original intentions.  Performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the album was released as Alex North’s 2001 (The Legendary Original Score – World Premiere Recording).  This would be the first time the public would hear the original score since the release of 2001 in theaters 25 years prior.

It is a strange experience to listen to Alex North’s original 2001 score.  Primarily because I am so used to the music that appeared in the final cut and it’s influence on our culture.  Not only that, but the music sounds more Hollywood.  And that makes sense because that was what North was best at.  When I think of 2001, I think of Strauss.  Everyone thinks of Strauss.  We’re meant to think of Strauss.  So, North’s score becomes an interesting film score footnote and a curiosity for those who think about how different things would be if 2001 was scored differently.

Take “Space Station Docking” from Alex North’s 2001 as an example.  The final cut used “The Blue Danube” which is such a classic waltz and evokes elegance.  Watching the spaceship dock with the station in the final cut feels graceful like a ballet.  Alex North’s “Space Station Docking,” intended for the same scene, is graceful and elegant as well.  However, you can tell that it is a derivative piece.  North saw early cuts with Strauss’ classic work and tried to emulate the same feelings.  However, North’s score sounds dated.  It sounds like a typical film score from that cinematic era.  It evokes sense of being good enough, but not great.  “The Blue Danube” is timeless.  “Space Station Docking” is a score reflective of its own time regardless how much North tried to recreate Strauss with a futuristic flare.

I know I’m being harsh here.  North didn’t choose for his music to be discarded from the film.  So, I can’t hold it against him.  However, what I’m speaking more to is Kubrick’s creative intent.  He made the right call.  His original plan may have been to use Straus as reference points.  That is the process a filmmaker goes through to get where they want to go.  However, it takes a genius to make the call to keep that guide music.  His original intent wasn’t to use Strauss but rather North.  The ability to change direction and be open to new ideas is essential.  And it works.  It worked so well that it is out of this world.

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“this is america” – childish gambino (2018)

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Donald Glover is having his moment in the sun and I am all for it.  This month, he released the groundbreaking video for his single “This Is America” and is starring in the Star Wars spin-off Solo: A Star Wars Story.  After seeing “This Is America” on repeat a few dozen times, I reflected on the earliest memories I have of Donald Glover and when his career first started.

Donald Glover came onto my radar when I was in college.  He was one third of an Internet sketch comedy group called Derrick Comedy.  Joined by DC Pierson and Dominic Dierkes, the trio made these visually poor, but hilarious, comedy videos that were just absurd and wonderful.  Classic bits like “Bro Rape,” “New Bike,” and “Spelling Bee” were shared over social media with friends and became some of our earliest introductions to the concept of viral videos.

I actually got to see Derrick Comedy perform live in New York City.  I was sent to NYC to attend a conference with some colleagues from my college radio station.  After long, boring days of panels and discussions, we explored the city.  I don’t remember much of the live sketch comedy I saw Derrick Comedy perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, but I had a great time.

When Derrick Comedy released a well-produced feature-length film in 2009 called Mystery Team, I was excited to rent it from the local Blockbuster Video.  It was fine enough, but it seemed like the Derrick Comedy trio milked this sketch group as much as they could.  Where could Derrick Comedy go from there?  Book deals?  Television show on Comedy Central?  I had no idea, but it all started to seem played out and their best material being their early viral videos on YouTube.

Or it could have been the fact Donald Glover joined a television show called Community.  I never watched Community, but I had friends who did and I was aware that the show had a big cult following.  When that show premiered in 2009, I was more focused on my last year of college.  I had an internship at Country Music Television in Nashville during my first semester and my second semester was spent finishing my capstone project and focusing on finding a job.  I didn’t have time to catch up on the latest pop culture trends at the end of the aughts, so Donald Glover faded from my radar.

Until 2013, I had totally forgotten about Donald Glover.  That was the year he released his studio rap album Because the Internet.  I heard some snippets from it, but I wasn’t impressed.  It didn’t really speak to me.  Kudos to Glover for expanding his horizon as a performer, but I remember a lot of people being confused by this direction he was taking because it conflicted with the comedic image he cultivated for himself during his career so far.  So, like before, he just fell off my radar.

So, imagine my surprise when Disney announced the casting for their Han Solo Star Wars spin-off and Glover was casted as a young Lando Calrissian.  I was really skeptical because I only knew him from his sketch comedy work and his foray into hip-hop.  But when Disney dropped the first teaser trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story and you got a first glimpse as Glover as Lando, I was already sold. Without even hearing him utter a single word, I could see he was born for that part.

I took some time to look back at Glover’s career over the last few years.  The only thing I had heard he was in was Community and that was cancelled.  I then became aware of his show Atlanta which premiered in 2016 and has earned Glover a ton of critical praise.  Friends have also told me to watch that show because of how well-crafted and surreal the show is.  I intend to, but I couldn’t believe how far Glover had gone over the last few years.  Besides his work on Community and Atlanta, Glover has only had bit and supporting parts here and there.  It is quite a big jump to go from viral Internet video to being in a Star Wars film within one decade.

Not only is Glover making serious moves in the world of television and film, he has significant praise for his music as well.  On May 5th, Donald Glover performed as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live has his rap persona Childish Gambino.  During the show, he performed “This Is America” which is a new single from a yet unnamed forthcoming album.  While the performance was fine, the music video for the song was uploaded on YouTube simultaneously and quickly became viral and studied.

The music video is a visual masterpiece that cleverly addresses the issues of gun violence and black deaths at the hands of police and white supremacists.  What makes the music video for “This Is America” work so well is the depth of composition.  The video contains several layers of meaning which require multiple viewings in order to catch everything.  While you’re focusing on something in the foreground, things are taking place in the background or in the periphery that either contribute to or contradict the scene you’re focused on.  There are a lot of visual elements in the video and it is mesmerizing.

In addition to the composition of the video and all the moving elements inherent in it, the video also works because of the deep symbolism throughout which has sparked much discussion and debate as viewers continue to dissect every frame.  For example, Childish Gambino walks and moves in a stance that is similar to the Jim Crow caricature that fueled racism in its time.  Performing as this racist caricature, Childish Gambino shoots a man in the back of the head and guns down a church choir with an automatic weapon.  Both acts are powerful statements about the culture of gun violence in America (the church choir murder referencing Dylann Roof’s murder of nine worshipers in a church in South Carolina), but they hold deeper meanings.  After each shooting, Childish Gambino gently places the weapons in silk to be cared for while the black bodies are hauled away in dehumanizing fashion (and if you missed it, Death comes in a pale horse on the extreme left followed by a police car).  In the end, Childish Gambino runs towards the camera with police chasing after him.

“This Is America” is a powerful cultural and political statement.  However, much of that statement is made with the video.  The song on its own is just ok.  Musically, it feels like a standard trap song.  While the lyrics do address gun violence in America, they are fairly basic and don’t pack the emotional punch as the music video does.

Donald Glover knows how to make a great video.  He is a talented artist who is adept at various mediums.  And the great thing about him is that he continues to grow.  Since the release of “This Is America,” he is being talked about all over the Internet.  While the song alone wouldn’t generate that kind of buzz, he set against a medium that would convey his message in a way that is shocking and memorable.  Since Donald Glover isn’t just a musician, his art relies on blending mediums to achieve the intended impact.  With the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, Glover will reach an even bigger audience that Disney can attract.  For someone who I largely ignored (forgotten about really) for a long time, I am excited in seeing how far he’ll go and how he’ll continue to challenge his audience.

“superstar” – carl anderson (1973)

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Last week, I had the opportunity to see the latest production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  I was excited to see this musical at such a prestigious cultural venue.  I even got tickets in the fourth row so I could close to the action.

The Lyric Opera’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar was stunning.  The staging was clever in its use of a giant cross to serve as an entry point from offstage, a performance space, and even with its use to block the actor to recreate The Last Supper.  There were so many dancers depicting followers of Jesus Christ and they made great use of what little room they had and were dancing so intensely and close to the edge of the stage that I thought someone would fall off.  And the glitter!  90 pounds of glitter per show.  That’s a lot of glitter.

The last time a production of Jesus Christ Superstar toured in the United States was in 2006.  At that time, I was entering my freshman year of college and didn’t appreciate musicals as much as I do now.  Plus, being a freshman in college, my financial situation wouldn’t allow me to see musicals anyway.  Tat more was meant for beer and late-night Waffle House runs.

As I progressed through my collegiate career, the scope of my musical interests continued to expand.  When I wasn’t hearing new stuff while DJing at my college radio station, I went to the campus library to check out and rip CDs from various artists throughout the decades.  If I had heard of someone’s name before or liked the cover, I would check it out, listen to it, and maybe even go back to it.  This was how I was introduced to artists that I still hold near and dear to my heart.  For a kid with little money and no car to go to real record stores in Nashville, this was the best I could do.

At the campus library, I checked out a copy of the soundtrack for the 1973 film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar.  The music was pretty cool, but I didn’t really get the overall context of the album.  It is essentially a Passion Play and I know the basics of that story, but having a visual reference would help.  So, I checked out a copy of the film.

When I watched it, I enjoyed it.  I wasn’t too huge on it at the time.  I had seen a few rock operas at that point, so I appreciated the form on some level.  While it was entertaining, I didn’t really grasp the underlying message of it.  It wouldn’t be until much later that I began to understand and appreciate the subtleties of Judas and his relationship with Jesus.

I have returned to the soundtrack a few times since then and continue to find more about it that I appreciate and fascinates me.  I imagine for many people, the appeal of the musical is based on a religious interest.  For that kind of audience, the story is about the events to led to Christ’s crucifixion and is modern way of telling that story to reaffirm one’s faith in Christ.  For me, it isn’t like that.  I’m not a really a religious or spiritual person.  However, I enjoy a good story.  And when I listen to the soundtrack or watch the film, I’m more focused on Judas’ arc and the internal conflicts he is faced with that would secure his legacy in history.  The heart of the musical is Judas and his changing relationship with Jesus.  While a lot of the characters, Jesus included, are fairly one-dimensional, it is Judas who actually is developed throughout the story.  He adds a level of narrative complexity to a story that many only see on Easter and induce feelings of guilt.

I think Jesus Christ Superstar is underappreciated because I feel that many people unfamiliar with the musical just see it as another Passion Play.  They are too focused on the Jesus aspect and thus impacts their interest in actually checking it out.  When I meet someone like that, I tell them the heart of the story is about the friendship between two men, the internal struggles one faces when tempted, and philosophical overview of Jesus as a person instead of as a religious figure.

The whole musical is philosophical and no track better represents that than “Superstar.”  As one of the final songs of the musical, Judas performs and airs out his frustrations with Jesus after he is crucified.  Even after death, Judas is still left with burning questions that this Song of God hasn’t answered for him.  Did Jesus mean to be crucified?  Was all of this intended?  Are Buddha and Muhammad the real deal like you?  Why did you decide to share this message when you could’ve reached more people in the age of mass communication?  Judas asks these questions not because he doubts his friend was the Song of God, but rather because he wants to believe in the man he followed and once called his friend.  Even after Jesus’ death, Judas struggles with his own sense of guilt and place in history.

In “Superstar,” the real heart and message of the musical comes front and center.  Judas is asking Jesus if he thinks he is what his followers and critics say he is?  It is that rhetorical approach that elevates Jesus Christ Superstar as being more than just another Passion Play.  It is a great musical that shouldn’t be avoided just because it is about Christ.  That type of cynicism is just lazy.

The version of “Superstar” I love most is the film version as performed by Carl Anderson.  Listening to the original version by Murray Head, I feel it is just ok.  Anderson adds so much emotion and intensity to the performance that it makes Judas’ crisis very believable.  I’ve heard Brandon Dixon’s portrayal as Judas in the live NBC version is great, but I haven’t check it out yet.  Seeing Judas in the Lyric Opera production, the role was performed well also.  However, Anderson’s performance continues to be my favorite.

The musical isn’t perfect in any form.  There are some lacking performances in the original cast recording and film.  I, for one, cannot stand the film rendition of “King Herod’s Song” because I don’t believe the anger and mockery the actor conveys (this song was saved for me by the performance in the Lyric Opera production that managed to make the number menacing and frightening).  However, the film remains to be my favorite because of Carl Anderson.  If you get a chance to see the movie you should.  And given the rarity of productions for this show, see it live as well.

“harper valley p.t.a.” – jeannie c. riley (1968)

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I was a senior in high school when Stephen Colbert performed at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.  His show, The Colbert Report, had premiered the year prior and was a much-needed satirical partner to balance The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s liberal stranglehold on the fake news circuit.  Colbert, a former Daily Show alum, played the character of a conservative blowhard television pundit (based on Bill O’Reilly) who would defend George W. Bush’s presidency by misappropriating facts to fit his own narrative and bias.  The character of Stephen Colbert was created as a satirical reflection of the rise of political punditry that presented opinion as facts and furthered uninformed partisanship that has continued to divide us over a decade later.

In 2006, Stephen Colbert wasn’t a household name yet.  So, not everyone was in on the joke yet.  Colbert was invited to perform that year by Mark Smith, the current president of the White House Press Corps Association, though Smith was admittedly unfamiliar with the comedian’s work.  While comedians have spoken or performed at the dinner since 1983, Colbert’s turn was the first time that a comedian spoke truth to power in their performance.

As with his television show, Colbert performed in character.  Colbert’s character is designed to sound like he is complimenting or praising you, but each comment is actually a criticism that exposes some negative quality about that person.  Nothing personal or superficial, but rather critiques on their lack of honesty, poor character, or penchant for hypocrisy.

At that dinner, Colbert feigned mock defense of Bush’s mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, passing tax cuts that only benefitted the rich, and the lies that led us into the war in Iraq.  President Bush wasn’t the only target that night.  Colbert lampooned John McCain, Antonin Scalia, Jesse Jackson, and others in attendance as well.  While some of these jokes were taken with good humor, Colbert’s performance was met with a chilly reception with several of Bush’s aides walking out during the speech.  Colbert looked back on the event noting that “not a lot of people laughed in the front row” and that “no one was even making eye contact with me.”  The only person who approached Colbert to praise his performance was Justice Scalia.

The press heavily analyzed Colbert’s performance.  Many outlets called Colbert rude, unfunny, and that he was a bully bombed badly.  Others praised him for not pandering to insiders by doing insider jokes.  For the first time since 1983, the media coverage of the dinner was more focused on the comedian’s speech than the president.

While there was an alleged media blackout during the live airing of Colbert’s speech, it gained widespread popularity on the Internet.  Now, the whole world could see Colbert speak “truthiness to power” as many times as they wanted.  At a time when the American people were becoming increasingly disillusioned by their leaders in Washington for engaging in needless wars based on misinformation and lies, Colbert holding a mirror to those responsible for those lies was necessary, relevant, and a reinforcement of the American people to hold our leaders accountable.  This was the First Amendment in action and it was beautiful.

Twelve years later, in 2018, Michelle Wolf finds herself in the same situation Colbert did when she decided to use the White House Correspondent’s Dinner to speak truth to power and blast the lies and hypocrisy plaguing our country coming from the Trump White House and fueled by our media outlets.  In just under twenty minutes, Wolf tore into everyone in the room.  She called out members of the Trump administration for outright lying to the American people and criticized news outlets for putting Trump in power in pursuit of profits.

Wolf did what she was supposed as a comedian.  She told jokes.  However, she used the platform to criticize the institutions responsible for dividing the American public and furthering the delegitimization of our Republic.  Wolf called out Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the current White House Press Secretary, for lying to the media and the public.  She called out Ivanka Trump for furthering her own business interests at expense of women.  She called out President Trump for his sexist comments and assault allegations.  She called out members of the press for using their outlets to profit from the chaos generated from the Trump administration.  In other words, she did everything right.

Since her speech at the dinner, Wolf has faced heavy criticism for her performance.  While there are journalists, entertainers, and fans who praise Wolf’s performance, the negative reactions are overwhelming the positive ones.  Margaret Talev, the president of the White House Press Association, said the “program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people.  Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”

Like Colbert did in 2006, Wolf was relying on her skills as a comedian to use the platform to make statements that needed to be heard.  While many may say her speech was rude, bullying, and inappropriate, I say that Wolf’s comments were relevant, necessary, and truthful.  This wasn’t just another comedian who was going make some jokes and take home a paycheck.  Wolf had something to say and her message was on point.

Naturally, the Trump administration and his supporters were outraged by Wolf’s comments.  Trump slammed the organization and tweeted that the dinner is “DEAD as we know it. This was a total disaster and an embarrassment to our great Country and all that it stands for.”  Conservative pundits hit social media and news talk shows to decry Wolf’s statements and shame liberals and Democrats for their alleged elitism.  Trump and his supporters like to pivot themselves as iconoclasts who don’t play the Washington game but rather fight for the working class and Wolf, an elitist liberal, was only there to be mean-spirited.

I am not surprised by the hypocrisy displayed by these conservative pundits and members of the Trump administration.  The Trump campaign was built on lies and hypocrisy.  Trump, during the campaign, suggested that Russia hack his opponent, advocated for the imprisonment of his opponent, threatened violence against protestors, verbally expressed he sexually assaulted women, and countless other things that illustrate that he, and his supporters, are unstable and dangerous.  For a political base that likes to deride their opponents as being “snowflakes” who can’t take a joke or the slightest bit of criticism, the conservatives are sure acting like a bunch of snowflakes over Wolf’s speech and they voted for the biggest snowflake of them all (Trump has skipped the dinner twice and is the first president to do so since Reagan was shot in 1981, but at least the Gipper called in).

I have no issues with any of the comments Wolf made during her speech.  Every comment was based on facts and were made against people in the public eye for legitimate reasons.  This was Wolf speaking truth to power and holding our political and media institutions accountable for creating the mess we currently find ourselves in.

Written by Tom T. Hall and originally record by Margie Singleton, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” became a huge hit for Jeannie C. Riley in 1968.  In the song, Riley tells the story of Mrs. Johnson who is a widowed woman with a teenage daughter.  One day, Mrs. Johnson’s daughter comes home with a note from the Harper Valley P.T.A. suggesting that Mrs. Johnson’s behavior and lifestyle is scandalous.  She’s accused of wearing miniskirts, drinking too much, and running around with men. So, what does Mrs. Johnson do?  She goes to the next P.T.A. meeting which is happening that very night.

Dressed in a miniskirt a the P.T.A. meeting, Mrs. Johnson puts everyone there on blast.  She calls out Bobby Taylor for begging her for dates, Mr. Baker for his secretary leaving town, Shirley Thompson for her gin-soaked breath, and others for engaging in the very same behaviors they accuse Mrs. Johnson of.  She declares the whole lot as hypocrites which they certainly are.

“Harper Valley P.T.A.” is a feminist anthem about calling truth to power against authority figures who don’t live by the same standards they demand from others.  Like Mrs. Johnson, Michelle Wolf put everyone on blast. Wolf even continues doing so.  When members of the press call her uncivil but don’t put the president on blast for sexist comments, they’re just living in a little Peyton Place and they’re all Washington hypocrites.

Of all the criticism I have read about Wolf’s performance, I am most disappointed by the negative reactions from members of our press.  Especially, from members of the liberal press.  While Trump’s reactions were expected, seeing Wolf by journalists has dangerous effects on our First Amendment right to free speech.  Talev’s statement that the statement is meant to unify suggests that the American people cannot hold our press to the same standards that press holds for our political leaders.  Our press demands a commitment to integrity from our leaders.  However, when a comedian is invited to give a speech to a bunch of insiders and doesn’t play ball the way they want her to, suddenly that demand for integrity goes out the window.

Wolf is right that the press helped elevate Trump to the presidency and has since been complicit in the problems our countries face due to partisan vitriol.  Wolf used her platform to hold them accountable and they just couldn’t take it.  When I read statements from journalists from NBC, MSNBC, The New York Times, and CNN reduce Wolf’s statements to uncivil insults, it is hypocrisy at its purest.  These journalists demand integrity and transparency, but refuse to give the same when there are legitimate reasons to do so.  When the journalists fail to respect the First Amendment, that is when we start to lose it. So, I congratulate Michelle Wolf for socking it to the WHCA.

“the great circus train wreck of 1918” – the residents (2017)

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Last week, I had the privilege of seeing The Residents perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  It was the loudest show I had ever seen at that venue and was a mesmerizing spectacle to watch.  This was my first time seeing the legendary multimedia avant-garde group live and it was not a show to miss.

For those unfamiliar with The Residents, their story and image outside of their music is also a point of fascination.  They are an American art collective that have been active since 1969.  They combine avant-garde music with multimedia presentations as part of their performances.  These pieces come together to create a sonic and visual aesthetic that puts the audience in a strange dreamscape.

Since the release of their first album Meet the Residents in 1974, they have developed a cult following over the last five decades.  In addition to the strange art music they compose, part of the band’s appeal concerns the mystery that surrounds the group.   The members of the group operate through a management team named the Cryptic Corporation which allows them to maintain a certain level of anonymity.  While the members of the band have changed over the years, very little is known about them.  Early in their career, rumors circulated that the band members were actually the Beatles since Meet the Residents parodied the album cover for Meet the Beatles!

In addition to hiding behind a management company designed to protect their identities, The Residents also wear elaborate costumes that simultaneously protect their identity as well as enhance the visual aspect of the show.  Most famously, the band wears a costume featuring a large eyeball helmet, top hats, and tuxedo; an image that has become iconic for the band.  Their costumes frequently vary, but they are all elaborate and the right amount of creepy.

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At the show at Old Town, they stayed true to their signature aesthetic.  The stage featured a large blue and white checkered backdrop with their iconic eyeball breaking up the pattern every so often.  There was also a large giant ball that was used as a screen to project animated videos of people reciting dreams.  On this ball, John Wayne talked about his nightmare of a disappearing ballerina, Mother Theresa shared her dream about a train wreck, a scary clown dreamt about being a cowboy, and Richard Nixon professes his dream of being a blues singer.  These unsettling animated videos appeared after three or four songs and evenly broke up the set.

I had never seen The Residents live before, but I am a little familiar with their music after being turned onto them by a college roommate.  What I expected was what I heard on records before.  I expected strange, high-pitched vocals with various rhythmic noises that sounded like they belonged in a circus (“Constantinople” for example).  However, what I got was much different but incredibly exciting.

Since I had never seen the band before, I didn’t know how faithful they were to the source material.  Based on this performance, I would say rarely.  The show I saw at Old Town was droning, industrial noise rock.  I find that music to be really cool, but this was so unexpected.  I watched each member of the band closely and was amazed by their level of skill and mastery of electronics.  The guitarist was stunning and perhaps one of the best guitarists I have ever seen live.  He style was a progressive rock vibe on par with performers like Frank Zappa or King Crimson.  The guy behind the synthesizer played these great droning pieces that really laid down a template for the show and where the others in the band could start from.

The drum, however, was my favorite.  He played on a small electric kit, but had various sequencers and programming tools that really made his sound bigger than it appeared.  He made sounds and rhythms that suggested he was supported by a larger group of musicians.  I watched him the most because I wanted to discern what sounds he contributed and how he did it.  When he hit a pad and a cymbal noise in reverse played, I was losing it.

The leader singer, an older gentleman and original member, had this great sinister vibe going on.  He would lurch around on stage and appear menacingly as he growled lyrics like Tom Waits.  And for a man his age, he sure had a set of pipes on him as demonstrated by various screams and yells that sounded like he was unleashing hell hounds.

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The costumes were excellent as well and added a surreal vibe to a darkly energetic show.  The intimidating lead singer wore a silly cow costume and fake cow nose, but it didn’t detract from his performance.  On the contrary, it elevated it.  The other members were dressed in suits with the same blue and white checkered backdrop.  However, they also wore plague doctor masks, dark lenses, and white bowler hats that added a level of black humor to the whole experience.

The show was absolutely wonderful even if I didn’t recognize most songs.  Turns out that some of the songs are preview tracks for an upcoming blues album.  The album also performed industrial covers of Elvis Presley’s ”(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” “Six More Miles (to the Graveyard)”, and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

In 2017, The Residents released their 43rd studio album The Ghost of Hope.  While none of the songs from the album were performed at this show, one of the tracks has callbacks to the Mother Theresa train wreck dream.  “The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918” is a seven-minute nightmare with drawling vocals, synthesized organ music, and a droning backdrop that sounds ghostly and sinister. In the song, the lead singer is a clown that is having an emotional breakdown following the circus train wreck and reminisces about the funeral the day after the show.  While Mother Theresa’s dream varied slightly in details and delivery, the vibe is similar.  “The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918” is an uncomfortable, but entrancing listening experience that is not unlike Tom Waits’ spoken interludes like “What’s He Building?” from 1999’s Mule Variations.

The Residents are not for everyone.  It is a strange and polarizing band that is very confusing and sometimes frightening.  However, if you want an unforgettable concert experience, check them out as soon as you can.

“humble.” – kendrick lamar (2017)

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This week, Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize in their music category.  This came as a shock for two reasons.  First, Lamar is the first nonclassical or jazz performer to win the music prize.  Second, a lot of people on social media had no idea that there was a Pulitzer category for music (myself included).  Lamar’s Pulitzer win signifies a sea change for the award committee that elevates popular music, but specifically hip-hop, on the same level as classical and jazz music; two genres associated with snobbery and elitism.  However, Lamar’s win represents a lot more than impacting the award committee of a particular organization.

Lamar’s Pulitzer win is for his 2017 album DAMN.  That release, critically praised by critics and a commercial success, was snubbed at this year’s Grammy awards with the top prize going to Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic.  For years, the Recording Academy has been criticized for neglecting to recognize critically-acclaimed albums in favor of albums that have sold very well.  That isn’t always the case, but there are more examples of this scenario playing out than there are examples where it doesn’t happen.

The Pulitzer Prizes, established in 1917, praised DAMN. as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”  Lamar is an ambitious artist who started life as a black kid in the ghetto and has since struggled with this as he uses music as a platform to address key social and racial issues systemic in our society.  While the Pulitzers have honored black artists and artists with similar messages in the past, honoring a dynamic hip-hop artist that continues to redefine the genre with complexity and commercial appeal is long overdue.

While the Pulitzers deserve praise and kudos for this decision, a lot of work still must be done to fairly recognize and honor artists of color that put out magnificent work.  Artists that are disruptive in their genres are only recognized much later and long after their commercial and creative appeal has since waned.  There are active artists of color working today and struggling to get attention because of a lack of access to resources that would make them commercially viable and profitable.  Additionally, Lamar’s win isn’t just a win for hip-hop.  It is also a win for people are actively working as pop artists who are in demand and profitable.

However, relevance can be a quality that is detrimental to one’s recognition as a genius in their craft.  The Pulitzers have been praised for recognizing an artist as relevant as Lamar, but just boxing Lamar into a category based on their relevancy diminishes his accomplishments and mastery of his craft.  Merely honoring someone based on their relevancy ignores artists with less pop and commercial appeal.  This is why the Grammys have been criticized for as long as they have.  A winner-take-all culture is a by product of a society that values the democratization of culture and information where only the most popular or accessible figures are lauded.  This comment is not meant to diminish Lamar’s work on DAMN. because it is a rich piece of art.  However, the virtue of him being a popular artist and winning such an award puts him at the center of this discussion.

While many praise the Pulitzers for this decision, there is also some healthy criticism as well.  Primarily, critics of this decision feel that this award serves as a platform that can boost the career of someone less commercially viable and accessible.  The purpose of awards like this are meant to be based on merit as opposed to sales and popularity.  Though, you can have artists that fit into both categories of crafting something worthy of merit that also sells well.  The notion that we only award less commercially established artists is almost as absurd as only awarding artists that have sold a ton of albums.

Much of the debate surrounding Lamar’s win is very similar to the debate surrounding Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.  In Dylan’s case, many critics felt that Dylan’s work was misunderstood or mischaracterized as being literature.  The question of whether or not song lyrics, outside a musical context, could be considered literature was hotly debated by critics and supporters of Dylan’s Nobel win.

However, Dylan’s win was also criticized for the same reason as Lamar’s Pulitzer win.  Should Dylan’s Nobel Prize have gone to someone not as established as Dylan thus providing them a platform to be recognized and see a boost in their appeal and sales?  Again, this doesn’t serve the notion that awards are supposed to be based on merit.  However, do people conflate the concepts of commercial appeal and artistic merit?  Are sales a metric of an artist that is a master of their craft?  Is something critically praised relevant if it doesn’t sell well?  These questions are objective and open to discussion and debate.  However, the idea that a commercially successful artist cannot also be a genius is false and without merit.  And the concept of “relevancy” is an intellectually limiting term designed to fit a complex figure into a small categorical box which can be dismissive of established artists.

The first single from DAMN., “Humble” (stylized as “HUMBLE.”) became Lamar’s first as a lead artist and one three Grammy awards; “Best Rap Performance,” “Best Rap Song,” and “Best Music Video”).  Not the strongest track on DAMN., it is a catchy song that is a statement about Lamar’s inner conflicts between his past life and current success.  The music video is brilliant and highly stylized as Lamar is dressed like the pope and plays out scenes resembling Leonard da Vinci’s The Last Supper.  The video represents irony and is deeply symbolic reinforcing the powerful lyrics of the track.

DAMN. is a hip-hop milestone worthy of praise.  Lamar is a genius and master of his craft who has continued to create stunning music (his latest work for the soundtrack for Black Panther illustrates his continued success).  While his Pulitzer win is well-deserved, it also represents the idea that we still have a long way to go in recognizing artists of color.  Healthy debate regarding the merit of Lamar’s win is fine, but let’s get distracted with vague concepts of relevancy or the democratization of our culture.  Regardless if an artist is popular and commercially successfully, we should be honoring works on their own merit.  Blindly awarding people based on lack of popularity diminishes the work of artists who have worked hard to achieve they success they have.  And exclusively relying on relevancy to determine value also diminishes the ongoing work many established artists continue to create.

Whether an artist is successful or popular should be wholly unimportant when breaking down a work of art.  We have a long way to go regarding this inclusivity in our awards, but democratizing the process does no one any good.  I know it can appear that we tend to only award a handful artists and when someone wins something then they win everything else.  The solution, however, is not to exclusively adhere to the antithesis of that and ignore established artists in favor of those with less commercial appeal.  It is quite reactionary.  Good art is good art is good art.  Regardless of where it comes from.

“hasta siempre, comandante” – carlos puebla (1965)

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I recently returned from spending a week in Cuba.  There, I was completely off the grid and without cellular and internet access.  This gave me ample time and opportunity to explore as much as I could about the Socialist Caribbean island and clear up any misunderstanding many Americans have about the country.  I will be writing about this experience in detail at a later date for my community radio station’s blog.  However, in the meantime, I wanted to share something I found that was incredibly interesting on its own.

On my second day in Havana, I came across a small market near La Habana Vieja (Old Havana).  In the market, Cubans were selling various items to tourists.  Some of these items included books, posters of Cuban movies, collectible cigar wrappers, coins, and various other items one would typically see at an open-air flea market.

I wasn’t interested in much of what I was seeing.  I was looking mainly out of curiosity.  In the back of my mind, I was looking for gifts and souvenirs for friends and family.  However, I wasn’t searching for anything specific and no one I knew would have much interest in what was being sold in this market.  Sure, books about how the CIA waged several attacks against Cuba during the 1960s is interesting in its own right, but I didn’t feel compelled to buy a torn Spanish copy of such a book as a gift for anyone.

I treated the experience more like walking through a museum exhibit.  I was interested in looking at everything and thinking about their historical or cultural significance, but they were still so alien and impractical to me.  Unlike a museum, however, you have the merchants pushing items on you very hard with some even putting things in your hand and asking for money for it.  These people live in poverty and this is their means of survival, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend money just to appease them.  Cuba is a difficult country for Americans financially because the embargo restricts us from accessing our funds.  In a situation like that, it becomes easy to not spend money on things that don’t particularly strike you.  So, being firm is key to not going broke.

However, I didn’t leave the market empty-handed though.  As I perused the various wares merchants were selling, I kept seeing this one particular book.  Each copy I saw varied in its condition quality, but it kept catching my eye.  The first few times, I would walk by and think that it looked neat.  Then, as I saw more copies, I would stop and page through it.  And, finally, at the last stall in the market, I found a decent copy and felt compelled to by it.

The book was Álbum de la Revolución Cubana.  Since the government is responsible for the country’s education, they must find ways to educate the populace.  For children, who represent the next generation of Cubans, the key to educating them is to make the experience fun.  This is where this book comes in.

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Álbum de la Revolución Cubana, first published in the 1960s, is a comic book that tells the story of the Cuban Revolution.  Not only is that concept interesting on the surface, but the execution had an interesting novelty factor.  The book, when initially issued, is blank.  The goal was for students to fill in the blanks with corresponding cards (not unlike baseball cards) that contained a panel of the comic book.  The more cards you collected or traded with your friends, the closer you came to completely filling out the book.  The cards were included in packages of a canned good product that the Cubans would by.  It was fascinating to me that that Cuban government created this interactive experience that both educated the public on the revolution as well generated revenue by requiring the purchase of a canned good product.

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I bought a copy and not only was it in great condition, but it was complete.  Every card was there.  I wondered how long it took a Cuban child to completely fill out the book and how many of this specific canned good one would have to buy to accomplish that.

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As I carried my bag around, a few Cubans I met would ask what kind of music I had in my plastic bag.  When I would pull out the book and show them, you could see the joy fill their faces as the nostalgia washed over them.  They would tell me they remembered that book and it was very important during their childhood.  This was an exciting find.

Álbum de la Revolución Cubana has been since discontinued, but I don’t know when.  Instead, a different comic book has been published in its place that looks and feels more like a typical comic book.  Interesting in the sense that it is a colorful tool of communist propaganda, but nowhere near as impressive as its predecessor.

In 2000, by Cuba Soul, a music album tie-in to the book was released.  Containing fifteen songs, the album featured various propaganda songs important to the Cuban people and their culture.  I was not able to find a copy of this propaganda CD, but I was made aware of one specific song that is featured on the album.

When I was walking through this market, I did find some vinyl records.  Coming across records in Cuba was rare and, unfortunately, nearly everything was inadequate quality.  Either the sleeves were soft and damaged, or the record was unplayable.  When I was looking through the records at this market, the vendor was trying very hard to have me buy some.  We showed me various rhumba and salsa records of famous Cuban musicians that I was unaware of.  I wasn’t interested, but he kept going through his collection showing me more and hoping I would by some.

One of the records he showed me was by a Cuban guitarist named Carlos Puebla.  Though briefly explained to me at that time, I would later find out how important Puebla was (and still is) in Cuba’s music history.  Born into a modest family, Puebla spent his early life as a carpenter, mechanic, and sugarcane worker.  He began composing in the 1930s and became a regular performer in Old Havana by the 1960s.

He was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro even before the 1959 revolution.  He became politically active and was able to share his message more broadly in concerts during the 1950s and 1960s.  Puebla passed away in 1989 and he has since become a cultural legend in Cuba.

In 1965, Puebla wrote and recorded his most famous song.  “Hasta Siempre, Comandante” was written by Puebla following Castro’s speech that Che Guevara would depart from the Cuban government and return to South America to lead his revolutionaries.  This song is Puebla’s tribute to Che and showcases his passion for Che and his message.

In the song, Puebla sings that the Cuban people learned to love Che from the historical heights where the sun of his bravery laid siege to death.  Che’s transparency and gloriously strong hand made him a beloved figure and that hi revolutionary love inspires the Cuban people to continue to carry on the way they had followed him before.  The song ends with Fidel declaring to Che “Until forever, Commander!” The song became iconic after Che’s death and has been covered over 200 times.

The record I was shown with the song on it was in such poor quality and would’ve been cumbersome to bring back to the United States.  However, I would’ve loved to have found a copy of the Álbum de la Revolución Cubana CD even if it would be overpriced because I was a foreigner.  Cuba is a fascinating country and I cannot wait to elaborate on more detail about my trip there.  However, Álbum de la Revolución Cubana is a little piece of the island that was too good not to share.  It is my favorite thing I brought back from the country and is a unique look into a world that continues to be intentionally misunderstood by the United States.

“are you lost in the world like me?” – moby & the void pacific choir (2016)

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On Saturday, I went to the Music Box Theatre in Chicago to check out the 70mm presentation of Ready Player One. Based on Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel, legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg brings Cline’s nostalgia-driven techno dystopia world to life. In the story, Wade Watts is a teenage kid who lives in a ravaged future version of Columbus, Ohio in 2045. The world really sucks as constant wars, economic fallouts, and environmental disasters have turned society into a near-apocalyptic nightmare. However, there is an escape for those who can afford it. The Oasis, a virtual reality game where players can fully immerse themselves in worlds or scenarios within the limits of their imagination, offers a reprieve from the harshness of reality. As long as you got the funds, you can stay in the Oasis forever as you can do everything there with the exception of sleeping, eating, and using the restroom.

The Oasis was the brainchild of James Halliday, a brilliant and eccentric computer programming geek. The Oasis was his brainchild for those who wanted to be around the things they loved all the time and within their own terms. Halliday grew up in the 1980s and remained obsessed with 80s pop culture and chic through the end of his life. Prior to his death, he hid three Easter eggs (secret items) in the game. If you found all three of the Easter eggs, you inherited his entire fortune and full control of the Oasis. With the real world being so awful, it is easy to see how appealing the Oasis can be. Depending on your intentions, you can try to profit off your endeavors or you can just keep playing to avoid the drudgery of everyday life. Either way, it is extremely popular.

With all the random pop culture throwbacks to various film, music, and video game intellectual properties from the 1980s, it easy to forget just how depressing the world Wade Watts lives in. Watts, and those around him, live in a dystopian nightmare where people don’t engage with each other in reality. They prefer contact and connection in the Oasis where they can adopt new looks and personalities that better fit who they think they are or whatever they’re trying to convey. Not only is the world of the Oasis not real, neither are the people from a certain point of view. You don’t know if the avatar you’re looking at is an attractive woman or some fat guy living in his mom’s basement.

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In the world of Ready Player One, the real human connection is a lost art form. When Watts finds all three of the Easter eggs and gains control of the Oasis, he makes the decision as its new owner to shut it down a few days of the week so people can log off and enjoy each other in reality. Watts does this so he can spend time making out with the girl he met in the Oasis, but his intentions of elevating societal realities is pure at heart.

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We don’t live in the same world as Watts quite yet. We have video games, virtual reality, and other technocratic distractions that don’t require other human beings in the flesh. However, we still live in a society that has an ever-increasing reliance on technology that distracts us and mediates our interactions with people. And our inability to control that has adverse effects on our lives on an individual and communal basis

Social media has done more to increase the physical distance between people in their everyday lives than any other technological platform. It creates a convenient area where one can keep up with the lives of their friends and family without leaving their home. Social media has been around for a little over a decade, but we don’t fully realize the effects it has on our psychology.

I’m not someone who is against social media and advocates it as an evil. I use social media for personal and business reasons. It is a tool and source of entertainment for me. While I am an active user, I still can recognize the problems it causing in our society.

On a macro level, social media has created recent problems in our society. The United States presidential election was inarguably tampered with by a foreign agent using social media. And they succeeded. Nearly two years on and our government is still trying to fully assess what happened and how to prevent the undermining of our democracy from happening again.

Specifically, in recent news, Facebook has been under fire. Facebook is the largest social media platform and one of the biggest tech companies in the world. Facebook had provided data on millions of its users to Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting company that uses data mining to influence strategic communication, under the assumption that the company would delete the data. They did not and the information was used to elevate Donald Trump’s election campaign.

While the recent data mining news has been troubling, social media has been criticized for devaluing human interaction for years. People are just glued to their phones too much. I hate situations where I’m having a conversation with someone and they look at their phone without warning. And when I was single, going out to bars was terrible. You couldn’t meet a stranger in an organic setting because everyone just sits there and stares at their phone. It is kind of maddening.

Social media does a lot of good though. As mentioned, I use it for various purposes. I promote events or projects I’m working on. I live in a city where I don’t have any family, so it is nice to see family post pictures of what is going on in their lives. I have friends I see frequently in person, but we’ll also stay in touch virtually. And for those who date, social media like Tinder is a great way to maintain control NS filter people who don’t set off red flags for you.

However, social media can be an outright obsession for some people. For some, the number of likes, comments, and clicks their posts get is somehow an indicator of their own worth. These addicts will post and share hoping to get enough likes to feel validated. It happens to everyone. I’ll be surprised when a particular post gets an unusual amount of attention and it gets exciting to see how many likes you can get. I recently posted a picture of a dog I saw to a dog group and it got over 1,800 likes because it was funny. Admittedly, while exciting, I also kept checking my phone too much because this was such a rare occurrence.

I do think I look at my phone too much. However, I don’t believe it keeps me from enjoying my life and reality. I read physical books, I see friends in person, and I maintain hobbies that keep me away from my phone. I’m not disconnected from reality so I don’t fear living in a world where something like the Oasis can happen.

The reason why I think I look at my phone too much is that, sometimes, I’ll get caught up in the negative aspects of social media. I love seeing what my friends and family are up to. However, the whole experience can be extremely isolating. Whenever I see my friend count go down, I spend too much time thinking about who it was and why. Did I do something to offend them? Do they not like me anymore? Did someone actually defriend me or did they just delete it (given the Cambridge Analytica news, some people are quitting Facebook in protest)?

I want to know and I feel like I need to know. Everyone likes to be liked and I’m no different. Sure, I don’t give a shit if certain people don’t like me. But everyone, on a general level, wants to be liked. It is a really silly situation and I feel silly for thinking that way. A lot of people do feel that way, though. You can curate and build your own world on social media. You can filter what you want, achieve confirmation bias, and be reassured through the site’s analytics that what you think matters and you’ll be affirmed by people who love you. The tools inherent in these systems force us to care what people think about us because if a negative piece of information gets through, it is jarring and we have to regain control.

I don’t think how much people use social media is the problem. I think it is what they do with it that is. It is a great tool to stay in touch with the world around you. I get urges to quit all the time. It can be an energy drainer and just something to do when you’re bored. For me, I have offline activities I can engage with but those came from a specific effort to find those. For those who don’t put forth that effort, social media can be a black hole of wasted time.

Whenever I think about quitting, I realize it is a silly thing to do. Just as I like to keep up with friends and family, my friends and family want to keep up with me. They care about me and want to engage with some aspect of my life if they can’t be physically present. That’s the beauty of connectivity that social media offers and quitting because I allow myself to feel bad due is just kind of ridiculous.

While quitting under those circumstances (doing so due to data mining is another issue) doesn’t solve the root cause, I do believe resets are important. Like what Watts did with the Oasis, not engaging once in a while can be mentally, physically and psychologically healthy.

In 2016, Moby addresses smartphone and social media addiction with the single “Are You Lost In The World Like Me?” Joined by the Void Pacific Choir for the studio album These Systems Are Failing, Moby pontificates if the person he is seeing to is free or if they are lost when the systems fail. Lyrically, the song is just ok. However, the video is striking and reinforces the song’s narrative. Animated by Steve Cutts, this Max Fleischer-inspired animation starkly depicts a world where people are hypnotized by their smartphone and because oblivious of the world around them. Though quite an extreme metaphor, it does speak some truth.

I’m leaving for a trip tomorrow where I will have zero cellular and web access. It is a little concerning because of how much I rely on technology in my own life (map for example). However, being disconnected from social media pressures and not having wireless signals bounce all over me will be good for me. I’m using this as an opportunity to start seriously changing how I interact and use social media. I want to still use those platforms, but not do so in a way that makes me feel bad about myself. It can get too easy to look up or engage with toxic people or become too focused on why your friend list went from 836 to 835.

I do remember life before social media, but it has been a huge influence on my world. Within a few years, I’ll get to a point where social media will have been present in half my life. It isn’t going anywhere. It is a burden on younger generations who don’t have much, or zero, frame of reference of life without it there. I can’t quit using it because there is value there, but I can change how it uses me. Periodic resets will be great until I can learn not to put so much stock in it. Life is great and I don’t need that validated for me in the form of an emoji. I’m ready for an Internet cleanse.

 

“radio free europe (hib-tone version)” – r.e.m. (1981)

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Music is a constant in my life.  Not only do I listen to it for pleasure, but it also permeates through my life in other areas.  My hobbies are also musical as well.  I volunteer for two non-profits that are focused one music; one being a community radio station and the other a music school.  I even take classes at the music school where I volunteer.  Friends and I will even meet at a local pub to discuss albums for fun.  Music is a big part of my life and identity.

However, there is just so much music out there.  I feel like I know quite a bit about it until I meet someone else who, by comparison, is a complete encyclopedia.  When I was younger, I always found that kind of intimidating and a subject of awe for me.  I wanted to be the person with all this vast knowledge.  They just seemed cool because they had awareness, even access, to sounds that were cooler than anything I had ever known.

Over the years, my musical knowledge has expanded and changed.  There are bands I once listened to non-stop that I haven’t revisited in years and there are genres I now love that I previously never would have thought I would ever get into.  My tastes and interests are in flux.  Bands or albums that were once meaningless to me will find significance later on.  It just happens.

R.E.M. is one of those bands.  For nearly four decades, R.E.M. has been one of the most inspirational and famous bands to come out of the early 1980s alternative music scene.  Though they broke up in 2011, they’ve outlived most of their contemporaries from that era.  They’re signature sound is instantly recognizable.  They are band that has our culture in significant ways.  However, for years, I just couldn’t give a shit.

I was born in the 1980s and I don’t own a single R.E.M. release.  I feel like everyone else who was born in the 1980s has at least one R.E.M. album or compilation in their collection.  But, not me.  And especially considering that I have a deep appreciation for early 1980s alternative rock, it might even sound stranger that I just never really cared about R.E.M.  Sure, I knew some of their most recognizable songs.  And I even liked some of them.  But whenever I considered R.E.M. as a whole, I’ve always just thought they were just OK.

That started to change recently.  I’ve been listening to more R.E.M.  It began a few months back when I rewatched Man on the Moon, Miloš Forman’s 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic with Jim Carrey playing the polarizing comedic figure.  I remember when that film came out.  I saw it a few years after it was released and I remembered enjoying it.  However, after seeing it listed on HBO, I thought I would rewatch it to see if it held up.

R.E.M. wrote the soundtrack for the album and recorded original music for it.  The title for the film, however, came from a song of the same name that was released on their 1992 studio album Automatic for the People.  That song, “Man on the Moon,” was all over the promotional material as it played in the trailer and on television commercial spots. It made sense to use it.
The soundtrack also featured a bunch of instrumental tracks that scored the film.  However, the other memorable song on the album besides the inclusion of “Man on the Moon” was an original soundtrack contribution called “The Great Beyond.”  The music video featured the band with footage of Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman, but the video was later edited to include archival footage of the real Andy Kaufman instead of Carrey’s performance.  Upon rewatching that film, I listened “The Great Beyond” a lot.  I didn’t remember the song when it came out, but I loved listening to it now.

A few months later, R.E.M. entered my life in a more direct way.  For the last few years, I had listened to a podcast called R U Talkin’ U2 2 Me?  The podcast was hosted by Scott Aukerman (of Comedy Bang Bang) and Adam Scott (of Parks & Recreation).  The premise of the podcast was that these two comedians who were lifelong fans of the band U2 would go through each of the band’s albums in-depth that were released at that point.  Billed as an “encyclopedic compendium of all things U2,” the podcast is just two guys bullshitting and joking for an hour before breaking down their thoughts on an album track by track.  I absolutely loved it because it was incredibly funny and seemingly random.  Other U2 fans, according to the fan message boards I frequented, hated it because of all the inane bullshit.  They just didn’t get.

The podcast got bigger than Aukerman or Scott ever anticipated.  U2 appeared on an episode and conducted interviews.  And the podcast was the first place you could have an exclusive listen of their 2017 studio album Songs of Experience.  So, where do you go from there?

A few weeks ago, I see that the RSS feed for the podcast changed.  Everything changed.  The logo, description, and even the title was different.  Now, it was R.E.M.’s turn to get the Aukerman and Scott treatment.

R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? Is setting out to do for R.E.M. what the original podcast did for U2.  As with U2, Aukerman and Scott were lifelong fans of R.E.M. and needed something to do since they were all caught up with U2’s discography.

When the podcast premiered, I wasn’t too enthusiastic.  I told myself I would give it a listen when I had some downtime at work.  I eventually did listen and the format is exactly the same as their U2 podcast.  Like before, the goal was to break down each album in the band’s discography and provide their thoughts.  They even reuse skits and gags that made the U2 podcast a lot of fun.  For all intents and purposes, it was the same.

Though I wasn’t a fan of R.E.M. or that enthusiast about the podcast update, I listened to the first few episodes.  I thoroughly enjoyed all the memorable jokes and bits from before. It all felt incredibly familiar to me.  The new aspect would be the album breakdown.  Besides a few of their biggest songs, I didn’t know a lot about the band’s music.

When Aukerman and Scott go through the album, they play segments from songs (can’t play too much due to fair use laws) and then talk about it.  For someone completely unfamiliar with most of these songs, not hearing the entire song doesn’t give me a complete context but I hear enough to get the point.  The hosts then share their thoughts on when they first heard these songs and how things have changed for them in 2018.

I always enjoyed that discussion on the U2 podcast.  Primarily because I knew the song’s context.  With R.E.M., I have to trust the hosts more than I have before and really rely on their levels of enthusiasm.  I have found, since listening, their critiques are honest and forthright and when they hear something they really enjoy, I love the enthusiasm they convey for the songs.  They’re excited and it gets me excited.  I wanna know what all the fuss is about.

Just recently, I listened to my first R.E.M. album in its entirety.  The album discussion group I participate in every other week is meeting this weekend to discuss their 1983 debut studio album Murmur.  Prior to this, I have never listened to an R.E.M. album in its entirety.  I will share my thoughts about the record and its signature blend of jangly guitar and indecipherable lyrics with the rest of the group during the meetup.  However, my introduction to R.E.M. continues as I listen to more episodes of the podcast.

The opening track on Murmur is “Radio Free Europe.”  That is one of their songs I had known previously and did enjoy.  However, listening to the podcast, I learned that it was a rerecording done for I.R.S. Records.  Two years prior, in 1981, R.E.M. recorded a rougher and faster version for the short-lived label Hib-Tone as their first official single.

I really love the original version of “Radio Free Europe” because it is so rough.  It is a demo that is good enough for an actual record.  That really spoke to me.  Usually, demos are poorly done but show off enough of the band for you to get the point.  Demos aren’t usually polished and fully realized.  While the I.R.S. version is better produced and more polished, the Hib-Tone original really speaks to the band’s musicianship.  If they could record a demo as good as this, I feel that signifies they truly have something special.

I recently listened to the podcast episode on their third album Fables of the Reconstruction and I was impressed with the different direction they took for their third album which I have come to learn is a polarizing record in their discography and not one of their more well-known.  Still, Murmur is the only full album I have listened to.  Based on how much of the podcast I’ve covered, I’m still behind on properly listening to Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction.  While I have really enjoyed what I have heard so far, I’m still not calling myself an R.E.M. convert yet.  I’m not sold on them quite yet, but still curious enough to keep exploring.  While this a is a band that everyone else my age or in my circles loves, I’m a little behind. However, I’m giving it an honest try because I like being open to new things and expanding, or even changing, my music habits and tastes.

“grazing in the grass” – hugh masekela (1968)

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Today is the spring equinox, colloquially known as the first day of spring, in this part of the world.  Though our calendar officially recognizes the seasonal change, it sure doesn’t feel like it in Chicago.  Currently, it is hovering around freezing and expected to snow later in the week.  To call this spring, especially after such long winters in Chicago, it can be seen as some cruel joke for some, but I don’t mind it.  Spring will come.

March can be such a strange month for weather.  One day, it can be bright, sunny, and warm enough to leave the jacket at home.  The next day, you’re bundled up in your scarf, hat, and mittens.  I was standing on the train platform this morning during my morning commute thinking about the lovely weather we had this weekend.

It was St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago which, depending on the area, can be a chaotic mess.  A friend of mine and I chose to head out of the city to see Asian orchid flower displays at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  There were lovely displays of orchids and all their bright, shimmering glory with warm welcoming hues of purple and yellow and red.  The flowers were displayed along the walls with a quiet water fixture in the middle.  It was incredibly calming and peaceful.

It was also very sunny out and warmer than had been during the week.  Last St. Patrick’s Day, it was miserably cold.  I remember standing in a courtyard at the base of Trump Tower looking at the river and waiting for it to turn green.  It wasn’t the coldest day of winter, but it was sure one of the coldest days.  SO much trouble to stand amongst drunk suburbanites and college students waiting to see a dirty river change colors.  As festive as I can be, I wanted no part of it this year.

Not only were the orchid displays gorgeous, it was also a really lovely day.  The sun was out and the temperature has risen enough to where I could comfortably walk around without my jacket.  And it kept getting nicer as the day progressed.  Later that day, I was sitting on a Metra platform, reading a book and my bare arms were exposed.  I marveled at how warm and inviting everything felt.  It only got better the next day with more sun and even warmer temperatures.  One of my purest joys in life is the first day I can comfortably wear short sleeves all day.  I got to experience that on Sunday and that is when I’m officially over winter.  Just a little taste of spring and I have to have it all.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.  I was reminded just how unpredictably March in Chicago can be as I was shivering on the train platform.  I may not have actually been that cold.  It may have been an unconscious reaction considering the delightful weather I just experienced over the weekend.  Like an addict going cold turkey, I was shaking all over.  I need another hit of that spring awakening.

As I wait for Chicago to make up its mind and fully commit to spring, I ease the transition by listening to music that, for me, evokes fun in the sun.  Not quite the fun you find when its time to hit the beach, but the kind of fun where you can walk through parks without splashing around in dirty slush or slipping on the sidewalks.  I’m talking about the fun in the sun where you can go for a run, practice for your upcoming softball league, or maybe even grab a delicious treat from any of the fro-yo shops that are beginning to bloom.

Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” is the perfect song for such an occasion.  “Grazing in the Grass” was composed by Philemon Hou and recorded by Masekela in 1968.  Most people are more familiar with the 1969 cover by the Friends of Distinction with the added lyrics, but Masekela’s original evokes a more calm and casual feeling.

The song was inspired by “Mr. Bull No. 5,” a novelty record that Masekela had heard in Zambia earlier.  In fact, “Grazing in the Grass” almost wasn’t released.  Masekela was working on his 1968 The Promise of a Future, but was short by three minutes.  At the record company’ suggestion, Masekela recorded the song along with Philemon Hou, also in the studio, who wrote a new melody.

Masekela’s signature trumpet sound on the track, just like spring, is gorgeous and not overbearing.  I just feel really good listening to it because it is simultaneously calming and motivating.  It makes me want to get out, move, and just enjoy the world around me.  This year, Masekela’s recordings was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Sadly, Masekela passed away earlier this year.  As one of South Africa’s best musicians, he championed anti-apartheid sentiments in his compositions.  Much of his work closely reflected his experiences growing up in segregated townships.  During the 1950s and 1960s in South Africa, Masekela faced extreme racism and exploitation under apartheid.  He managed to channel this into his revolutionary music that protested government-mandated violence and slavery.

While “Grazing in the Grass” may not have the same political furor as “Bring Him Back Home” or “Soweto Blues,” the song is powerful in its own right.  The power the song has comes from it evoking happiness and peace.  Amidst all the suffering and violence black South Africans faced from their oppressors, there was still a desire and yearning for joy.  Walking peacefully through the grass may not seem a revolutionary act to most people, but the drive to live a life where you can do what you please is one.

I understand that bracing one’s self against Chicago winters and institutionalized slavery are not the same things. However, my experience with this track is different than the context with which it was composed and recorded.  Back then, it is a yearning and declaration for one’s own sense of peace from oppression.  For me, right now, it means happiness on a smaller scale.  In the end, its all happiness and, baby, I can dig it.