Posts Tagged ‘music

09
May
09

Adam Lambert, J.J. Abrams, and Mystery

As previously mentioned here, I have occasionally found myself part of the conglomerate of Americans that weekly find themselves lingering on the every word of the well-groomed and omnipresent alien being that refers to itself as Ryan J. Seacrest.  And as an American Idol viewer, I am keenly aware of the three contestants remaining in this year’s contest, and have formed my own personal opinions about the outcome of the competition.

For the uninformed, here is the general rundown of the three gentlemen who have yet to be eliminated from the program: (since there are only three contestants remaining, it should be assumed that all are talented vocalists, which they are.  If we assume the playing field is even in the talent department, then the contest will be determined, as it typically is, by the persona each contestant has created, the demographics they appeal to, and the way they style their hair rather than pure musical giftedness.  This will be a discussion about those particular nonmusical qualities.) Danny Gokey is the odds-on, overwhelming favorite, as long as the only people you’re asking are white, Christian, and middle class.  He’s a church worship leader, he wears trendy glasses, and he’s a widow, which in an eerily morbid way, makes him more likeable.  Kris Allen is a guitar-strummin’, aww-gee-shucks southern heartthrob, and his style lies somewhere between Jason Mraz and John Mayer.  Whenever Ryan Seacrest says Kris’ name, hundreds of pubescent girls scream like his last name was Jonas and hold up signs that say “Marry Me Kris,” while Kris’ clearly visible wife smiles on adoringly.  And then there’s Adam Lambert.

Adam Lambert, in many ways, defies description.  He wears eyeliner and lots of jewelry and leather, and has a vocal range that would make Steve Perry wet himself with jealousy.  The only thing the public really knows about Adam Lambert is that he’s a theater kid, and was in the Los Angeles cast of Wicked before he became a contestant on the show.  We don’t really know where he came from, we don’t know anything about his family, we don’t know who taught him to sing like that, and we never know what he’s going to do next.  Moreso than anything else, however, we don’t know whether or not Adam Lambert is gay.  And that’s where J.J. Abrams comes in.

J.J. Abrams is the man behind such T.V. shows as Alias, Fringe, and Lost, and movies like Star Trek and Cloverfield.  J.J. Abrams knows the power of an unanswered question, as evidenced through this article he wrote in Wired Magazine, or his Ted Talk here.  He has revitalized suspense in a way we haven’t seen probably since Alfred Hitchcock.  What J.J. Abrams knows is that an integral part of human nature is our inquisitiveness.  Going all the way back to Socrates, we have been a society that questions. As humans, we seek truth, it’s just part of who we are.  What happens after we die, who would make the best president, and what the hell is that smoke monster thing, and why did it kill Mr. Eko?  And now, added to that list of unanswered questions is the question on every American Idol fan’s mind: is Adam Lambert gay?

I think I know what J.J. Abrams would answer if you asked him whether or not Adam Lambert was gay.  I think J.J. Abrams would probably say, if we knew, wouldn’t that just make it less exciting?  The truth is, if Adam Lambert told America he was gay, it wouldn’t change the fact that he’s still a talented singer, and I don’t think it would change anyone’s vote for or against him.  The kind of person who would only vote for Adam Lambert if he wasn’t gay is likely already casting their vote for Danny or Kris.  If Adam Lambert told America he was gay, the only thing he’d be changing is the mystery that surrounds him, and that might just be the reason we don’t know yet.  The reason people keep watching Lost week after week is because they expect that eventually, all their questions will be answered (even if forty-seven new questions show up every time you answer one).  Isn’t it possible that, aside from his obvious talent, Adam Lambert is still on American Idol for the same reason?  We figure if we keep watching, if we keep voting him to the next week and the week after that, he might just answer some of those pesky questions.

I’m not saying Adam Lambert left his sexuality in question intentionally, but he might have.  If he didn’t, he’s probably realized by now that he’s stumbled into something that’s keeping the public’s attention, which is why he hasn’t just flat-out said anything about it yet.  As Abrams points out in the Wired article I linked to earlier, we live in an age of immediacy, where the answer to literally any question we may have is only a mouse click away, and that truth has enhanced the way we look at questions that don’t seem to have obvious or easy answers.  In other words, in a world where we can have all the answers, we’re intrigued only by the ones we don’t have.

And that’s why I think Adam Lambert is going to win American Idol this year.  Or, if he doesn’t win, he’ll end up more successful than whoever does.  It’s apparent from the itty-bitty-nobody-to-all-powerful-cultural-icon path of previous Idol winners like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson that twelve weeks of being on that show is the equivalent of an upper division master class in becoming a celebrity.  And judging by the way in which he has captured the public’s attention (he hasn’t even won yet, and he’s already on the cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly), it’s clear that Adam Lambert is at the top of that class for this year.  Whether or not they deserve the attention they get, (and that’s another story entirely) the celebrities that capture the public’s attention do so by utilizing Mr. Abrams’ favorite concept of mystery.  Who are they dating, where are they going, what will they do next, and yes, are they gay?

And that’s why Adam’s going to win.  Like all the contestants, he’s got the talent to deserve the spotlight, and perhaps more importantly, he’s got the mystery to maintain it.  And as long as he keeps America guessing, he’ll be at the forefront of the public eye, and he’ll preserve our attention.  That is, until some bigger mystery comes along to distract us.

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28
Sep
08

The Classics

What’s the difference between Ringo Starr, Jabba the Hut, and Bart Simpson? (Hint: the answer is not ‘lipstick’.  That’s another joke entirely, and a poor one, at that.)  The truth is, depending on how you look at it, not much.  Let me explain:

Recently, as I was working in the music and DVD section of my local neighborhood mega-bookstore, a young gentleman came up to me and placed a copy of V For Vendetta on the counter.

“Wow, great choice,” I said.

“Yeah, it’s a classic,” he replied.

I finished ringing him up and sent him on his way only to later start to think about what it was that he said.  Once I did, I came to realize that he had just made a claim that was— in every possible way— dead wrong.  I know that it was, in all likelihood, simply a throwaway line, something to say to the guy at the checkout counter to be friendly, as opposed to staring at me blankly and ignoring me altogether.  But consider that statement:

“It’s a classic.”

First of all, V For Vendetta only came out in 2005.  That’s entirely too soon for something to be called classic.  But that wasn’t even the main problem I had with his statement.  The main problem was that V For Vendetta will never be a classic— ever.  I could be having the same insignificant conversation with him forty years from now, and people could still like V For Vendetta just as much as they do now, and he’d still be just as wrong as he was just a few days ago.

Don’t get me wrong.  V For Vendetta is a completely acceptable movie.  A good movie, in fact.  I’m not downplaying its quality, rather I’m defending the definition of the term ‘classic’.  If you ask me, as far as pop culture is concerned, nothing that we’ve seen since Star Wars can be considered classic, and not just because it isn’t old enough yet.  What I’m saying is that nothing that we’ve seen since Star Wars will ever be classic at all (although even Star Wars may not last if George Lucas can’t quit trying to mess it up with more prequels, cartoons and all that other ridiculous and tarnishing garbage).  This doesn’t mean Star Wars is the only classic cultural icon, it just means it’s the last one, for reasons I’ll soon get to.

Despite how definitive a statement I’m making, it’s important to know that I wholeheartedly accept that it may prove false.  It’s slightly possible that The Simpsons may one day be a classic.  American Idol may have a shot, too.  But we won’t know unless they are able to stand the test of time, and since they haven’t left the pop cultural landscape yet, there’s no way to tell if they will remain in the general public consciousness for the coming decades.  But aside from those two things, there’s nothing else we’re currently witnessing that I believe will last much longer than the time it takes to exit the pop cultural stage.  That means Britney Spears, Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings movies— none of these will ever become classic cultural icons.

The main reason this will prove true can be summed up in one word: choice.  As long as our culture continues to produce the same general thing over and over and over, there will never be anything that’s truly as universally accepted by all of society as iconic in the same way that something like Star Wars was.

Britney Spears?  “Yeah, well Christina Aguilera was more talented…” Harry Potter?  “You probably never read the Narnia books…”

These will be the conversations people will have twenty years from now.  But Star Wars?  It’s universally accepted as being without peer, and much of that had to do with it being the only one of its kind.  Even people who don’t like Star Wars will accept that the movies played an important role in our culture in the way no other film had ever done before.  So how does this all work?  How is it that Star Wars just might become the last true classic that American pop culture ever sees?  To understand that, you have to unpack the definition of what it really means to be a classic.

But before we get to that, a clarifying point.  Before you get yourself all in a huff and start whining about how your favorite movie or band or show should be considered a classic, consider this: in all likelihood, whatever it is you’re thinking of could very well be seen as classic within your particular circle.  By that I mean that certain things (Fight Club, Saved By The Bell, Nirvana, etc.) might very well be classic, but they will never be universally classic for the reasons I’m about to point out.  They will be classic to those people who experienced them firsthand, but to someone who knows nothing about it, they have no significance whatsoever.  That is not the case with Star Wars, Elvis, or Catcher in the Rye.  Your grandma likely doesn’t have a clue who Tyler Durden is, but she probably recognizes the name Luke Skywalker.

I touched on one of the features of a true classic earlier.  True classics stand the test of time.  But this isn’t an honest-to-goodness characteristic of a classic, rather, this is one of the things that happens to something once it already is a classic.  It is a result of being a classic, it doesn’t make a classic.  In the same vein, some may argue that having a large following of dedicated supporters (like Star Wars) may make something a classic.  Again, this is a result, not a cause.  Same thing goes for accessibility— something does not become classic simply because it is widespread.  If you have basic cable, chances are on one of your channels right now is a re-run of Friends.  This doesn’t mean that Friends is a classic, it just means it’s everywhere.

So what are the causes?  I’ve come up with four of them, and you must possess all four to truly become a classic.  First, for something to become a classic, it must have a certain level of universal relatability— that is, people need to be able to understand it on at least one level, preferably more than one.  There’s only a select few people who know what it’s like to fly through outer space, and there ain’t nobody who knows what it’s like to be friends with a wookie, but people can relate to a strained relationship with their father (Steven Spielberg knows this, and that’s why it’s a central plot point in 90% of his movies).  People also can relate to the struggle between making the right choice and falling into temptation, and even some people (creepy as they may be) know what it’s like to have a crush on your sister.

Secondly, there must be a level of depth or a history that goes along with something for it to be classic.  This is where people can get confused and say that classics must stand the test of time, but there’s a distinct difference between standing the test of time and having what it takes to deserve to stand the test of time.  Things like Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings books fulfill this requirement by being stories of tremendous depth— going so far as to invent layers upon layers of detail that aren’t at all necessary to appreciate the story, but add to its overall weight as a cultural event.  Elvis or the Beatles accomplished this by changing and transitioning into different characterizations of themselves over time, all the while still retaining the original quality that made them recognizable in the first place.  That is, we watched the concept of ‘The Beatles’ go through many different stages, (‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ vs. ‘Revolver’ vs. ‘The White Album’ vs. everything in between) and even though they showed many sides of themselves, the whole time they were essentially the same thing, that being the most important rock band ever.

Thirdly, and perhaps this is obvious, but there must be a level of creativity that goes into something before it can become a classic.  It must be the kind of idea or concept you couldn’t have thought up sitting on the floor of your basement, throwing back a couple beers with some friends.  Only that which is truly creative can fulfill our need for original stories as a culture and reach that same part of our brain that’s forever been triggered by fairy tales, ghost stories, or Mark Twain.  It is that inventiveness, or rather the basic creative idea behind a concept or person or story that has the ability to grab our attention and let us know that what we are witnessing is something truly special.

The last characteristic is where everything that comes after Star Wars falls out of the race.  A classic must be one of a kind— the only one of its kind.  Because of the current state of greed in our culture, nothing that’s successful will ever remain uncopied, and I would also argue that because of that greed no one who is capable of creating something truly original is willing to let it stand alone (see: The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride).  And even though those copies or sequels rarely match up to the original, they still take away from the original’s overall impact.  American Idol is a hit, so why not America’s Got Talent or Last Comic StandingThe Simpsons is successful, so bring on South Park and Family Guy (and The Simpsons Movie, to a lesser extent).  With so much capitalization on every single successful concept that comes along these days, it’s far too easy for that original idea to get bogged down and scarred by all the other things that try to fit in its same niche and steal its impact.

There is hope, however.  Occasionally being one of a kind can be supplanted by being the first of its kind, and that’s why there’s hope for The Simpsons or American IdolThe Simpsons isn’t the only adult-oriented animated sitcom about a dysfunctional family, but it was the first, and it certainly has lasted the longest, thanks to its quality.  American Idol isn’t the only show to pluck regular people out of obscurity and give them a forum to express their talents, but it certainly is the most successful (it wasn’t the first, however, which is why it has less of a chance than The Simpsons does.  And by the way, I’m certainly not saying Star Search is anywhere near becoming a classic).

So what does this all mean?  Nothing, really.  It’s simply another way in which our culture is broadening and our world is changing.  You would think with improved communication and the advances of the internet, more and more people would be able to connect themselves through common forms of entertainment, but I would submit it’s exactly the opposite.  The more effective ways we have to communicate, the more highways there are for numerous new forms of entertainment.  The world may be smaller, but the forum for entertainment won’t ever stop growing, and that means finding quality among all the muck becomes that much more difficult.

26
Feb
08

¡Los Candidatos Musicales!

While I can’t take credit for finding this on my own, it’s just too good to pass up. In the ultimate example of the great (and sometimes downright odd) lengths that politicians will go to in order to get you to vote for them, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have released their own catchy theme songs.

…In Spanish.

Here’s Hillary’s, and Barack’s can be found here.

09
Nov
07

No way you’re never gonna shake me

Here’s how it happened:

You know how sometimes you can have a dream where something in that dream is so realistic that it actually wakes you up? That happened this morning. I don’t even remember the dream. I just remember that at some point in the dream, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket, and it woke me up. It jolted me up, actually. I checked my alarm and realized that it was about twenty or so minutes before it was set to go off, so instead of going back to sleep, I just kind of sat there for a while, thinking. That’s when it hit.

“Doo doo doop, dum, doo doo doop da doop da daaauwm…”

You know how sometimes a song can just pop into your head unannounced and stick there for the entire day? Here I am, minding my own business, sitting in the comfort of my own bed when Mariah Carey decides she needs to start belting out “Always Be My Baby” in my head at 7:00 in the morning. Completely unrequested. So I did what anyone would do if faced with that situation. I reached for my iPod to play it out. For me, it’s the only thing that works. If I wanted to get rid of that song, I was going to have to ride that wave till it broke on the shore.

So I’m sitting upright in my bed, bouncing my head and tapping my feet under the covers to one of 1996’s great pop tunes, thinking that once it was over, I’d be free to go about my day as usual, no big deal. Then came the second wave.

See, as I was scrolling through my iPod to get to Mariah Carey, I noticed something else that I have on it. Something that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to get rid of. It’s something I try to stay away from, but once in a while, it rears its ugly head at me, and tempts me into playing it. It’s something that I’m kind of ashamed of, simply because there’s a lot of people out there that sort of look down upon it, or think that it’s not so good. Not too many people know I have this on my iPod (not too many people know I have Mariah Carey on my iPod either, but those who know me well could probably guess) and I’d kind of like to keep it that way.

So to continue the metaphor, here comes this big ol’ wave, and I’m nipples deep in the water, trying to decide what to do about it.

“Just play it,” I say to myself. “There’s nothing that wrong with it, in fact, there are people out there that like it.”

“Yeah, crazy people,” I thought, and I hopped out of bed. But it kept plaguing me. There I was, standing in the shower, and all I could think about was this one thing. “It’s not right,” I thought. “Not now. I shouldn’t even have it on my iPod anyway.”

“C’mon, it’s not that bad,” I say. “Just do it. That’s the only way it’ll go away.”

“If it wasn’t for that stupid Mariah Carey song,” I think, “I wouldn’t even have this problem in the first place.” I’m torn. I knew it wasn’t going to go away on its own, that eventually I was going to have to play it out anyway, and that soon enough, it was going to be inescapable. I also knew that once I started, it was going to be really hard to stop, which is what made my situation so difficult.

While I was walking to work, I did it. I scrolled right back there, and I pushed play. It was inevitable, and even though it may not have been “right,” once I actually did it, I’m ashamed to say I felt pretty good. Who knows, maybe by the end of the day I’d even be happy I did it. Either way, I decided that, just like with Mariah, I’d ride the wave.

And that’s how I started listening to Christmas music this year.