Tuesday, October 26, 2010

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1985

The excesses of Reagan-era pop culture hit a high point in 1985. In general, it was a year of songs that were insanely catchly though not very trying on the ol' noggin. New Wave was over, and the more organic college-rock sound of the late '80s was slowly taking form. In the underground, the Bauhaus-inspired "goth" sound of The Cure, The Cult, and The Sisters of Mercy was fleshing out quite well. On the radio, synthesizers were so de rigueur it bordered on cliché; it was becoming harder to find actual instruments behind the domineering vocals and slick production values. Surprisingly, a lot of that pop piffle has aged pretty well, largely because they sound ready-made for karaoke and drunken sing-alongs. Without deviating from the point, 1985 was also a big year for movies (Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, The Goonies) but that's a blog for another time.


1. Rain Dogs, Tom Waits. If there's an artist that doesn't fit into any of the above categories, that would be Tom Waits. His sudden dabbles into avant-garde --a metamorphosis that began with Swordfishtrombones two years earlier-- hits its highest creative plateau on Waits' ninth album. The selling point is the odd instrumentation; marimbas and accordions are just as cognative to this album as the familiar piano and upright bass. "Downtown Train" is the hit here, so to speak; a ramshackle ballad towards the end of side two, it later became a top 10 hit for Rod Stewart. A cacophonus delight.

2. Tim, The Replacements. Irked by distribution problems on the indie Twin/Tone label, Paul Westerberg et al. jumped to the big leagues --while keeping one foot planted in the woods of Minnesota-- on their best album, Tim. With an expanded budget and very limited meddling from their new label, Sire, and the guidance of Tommy Ramone as producer, The Replacements trade their raw DIY sound for something big and roomy. Westerberg the songwriter was never more confessional than on Tim, as evidenced by "Kiss Me on the Bus" and "Swingin' Party."

3. Hounds of Love, Kate Bush. A highly literate singer-songwriter with a distinctive coloratura soprano voice, Bush spent most of the late '70s and early '80s as Britain's best-kept secret but a mere cult favorite in the states. Hounds was not only her American breakthrough but a career peak of sorts. The video for "Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)" garnered some MTV play, and rightfully so; it was both the obvious single and an excellent gateway to one of her most ambitious, complex efforts on disc.

4. Brothers In Arms, Dire Straits
5. The Head on the Door, The Cure
6. Psychocandy, The Jesus and Mary Chain
7. Fables Of The Reconstruction, R.E.M.
8. Fegmania!, Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians
9. Black Codes (From The Underground), Wynton Marsalis

10. Little Creatures, Talking Heads. Known mostly to fans as "the pop album," David Byrne and the other Heads aim for songcraft here and mostly succeed. Where earlier efforts emphasized improvised melodies and lyrics, the intent here is ear candy. This may sound like the Heads were selling out, catering to an expanding audience and such, but the general creativity of their previous work is still very much intact.

Honorable Mentions: Scarecrow, John Cougar Mellencamp; King of Rock, RUN-DMC; Together, Emily Remler and Larry Coryell; No Jacket Required, Phil Collins; First and Last and Always, The Sisters of Mercy; This Is The Sea, The Waterboys.


"Like A Virgin," Madonna
"Broken Wings," Mr. Mister
"Don't You (Forget About Me)," Simple Minds
"Life in a Northern Town," Dream Academy
"She Sells Sanctuary," The Cult
"Summer of '69," Bryan Adams
"Your Love," The Outfield
"Would I Lie To You?," Eurythmics
"Obsession," Animotion
"Everybody Wants To Rule the World," Tears For Fears

Outstanding Achievement in Awfulness: "We Built This City," Starship. A quarter-century on, it's a wonder why this song even exists, much less became an international #1 hit. It still merits radio play on oldies stations, though no song from '85 was an instant period piece quite like "We Built This City." Everything about the song is either half-hearted or synthetic; the city in particular is vaguely defined (there are equal allusions to LA and San Francisco), anti-commercialism is implied but never practiced, and 46-year-old Grace Slick tries way too hard to sing like a teenage girl. Inexplicably, the song was co-written by Bernie Taupin and Peter Wolf. WTF?


1. "Money For Nothing," Dire Straits. One year before Pixar made their first animated short --and ten years before "Toy Story"-- the bar for computerized animation was set with this groundbreaking video. No wonder it was the first song to ever air on MTV Europe.

2. "Don't Come Around Here No More," Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Lewis Carroll meets Jean Arp in this surrealist-revisionist take on the Mad Hatter sequence from "Lewis in Wonderland."

3. "Take On Me," A-ha. Animation and live action mesh together seemlessly in this iconic, almost heartbreaking clip.

4. "Bastards of Young," The Replacements. And then, there was the anti-video. For all intents and purposes, this clip is nothing more than a static shot of some guy's stereo system. According to legend, the director was given $1000 to shot this video and only spent $75. Money well spent.

5. "Road To Nowhere," Talking Heads. The album-closer from Little Creatures is a thoughtful rumination on life and death and everything in between, with a kalideoscope of carefully chosen images prancing upon David Byrne's yearning lyrics.

Honorable Mention: "Lonely Ol' Night," John Cougar Mellencamp.
Before I ask for your thoughts, I just want to remind everyone to please vote next Tuesday. Regardless of your political affiliation, America's short-term and long-term future in your hands.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Would You Like Some Kool-Aid With Your Tea?

Okay, so I might've underestimated the appeal of the Tea Party. Their anti-incumbent, non-insider fervor seemed to invigorate the Republican Party during the primaries, though their odds of victory in the 2010 midterms are still up for debate. Of the 70-odd handchosen "Teabaggers" that represent the GOP on ballots across the country, a curious bell curve has developed. About one-quarter of candidates have sizable leads in the polls, an equally sized minority are trailing by at least 10%, but half of them are in close races. In most of the districts where far-right candidates are leading, the majority of registered voters define themselves as conservative anyway, and have been represented by Republicans for most of the past 50 years. So much for crossover appeal.

As a caustic observer with moderate-left leanings, I still feel deeply concerned about the near-future of American government. The greatest drawback to a GOP takeover of either house of congress is that whatever progress was made in the last four years will be erased immediately. If the Democrats do lose both houses, we could probably pin the blame on health care reform; though the sweaping changes were intended to be very gradual, the fact that the health care debate raged on for over a year without any bipartian support might've alienated some moderates and centrists. One would argue that health care reform overshadowed other major issues, like climate change and economic reform. Though I can't say I was ever a big fan of Nancy Pelosi --a career politico that will probably lose her Speaker of the House position, regardless of what happens in two weeks-- I admire her support of PAYGO. Democrats and Republicans have been financing various expenditures with money that doesn't exist for as long as anyone can remember, so to hear that Pelosi backs the concept of "pay as you go" is weirdly encouraging. Sadly, that one sliver of common sense doesn't go a long way.

I will attest that there is a reason to be angry and frustrated now, but the Tea Party doesn't represent all Americans. Not by a long shot. They can't be called populist because they're too polarized and exclusive; they don't fight for a common cause so much as they fight for themselves and a very particular agenda. The Teabaggers claim that they oppose the lackadaisical mainstream GOP, but these two factions do have one similar bond: they both seek a level of power and political sway that they don't fully understand and may ultimately squander. On one hand, the current GOP collectively said "no" and fought Obama's policies with stubborn inertia; on the other hand, Tea Party Republicans will still say "no" but attack with blunt force.

The so-called GOP "Class of '94" was intent on impeaching President Clinton on trumped-up allegations long before the Monica Lewinsky mess, and they lost a great amount of credibility in doing so. The Tea Party candidates want to handcuff President Obama in a similar fashion. They will not respect the opinions and platforms of their political opponents because they refuse to understand them. If the Teabaggers have their say, Medicare, Social Security, and unemployment programs across the country will eventually be drained; they will argue that it'll save money for the US in the long run, but in reality they have no idea how each program works or how they impact our nation's elderly, disabled, and jobless. Whatever regulations were passed to prevent Wall Street from enabling another global financial disaster akin to the Panic of 2008 will be defanged, too. Our government was established in the US Constitution --to a paraphrase Abe Lincoln-- for the people and by the people; sadly, this grass-roots movement run amok have proven themselves to be the wrong people.

Next week: the year in music, 1985.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bully For You

When I graduated from Downers Grove North High School in 2003, 15 of my former classmates came out. A few of my peers had been subject to gay rumors for years, others dropped hints but never specified their sexual orientation, but a few guys jumped out of the closet to virtually everyone's surprise. It was kind of unusual to see so many people come out en masse, but I was glad that they could finally be honest about themselves. I was friends with them before graduation and I'm still in contact with several of them via Facebook.

Coming from a predominately white, upper-middle-class, moderate-conservative high school, I understand why so many of my high school buddies kept the closet door shut until they left. Downers North at the time was not very gay-friendly --in fact, there was no organized LGBT student group until midway through my senior year-- and the few students that came out beforehand were treated like pariahs. I remember getting into an argument with a fellow classmate because it annoyed him that a boy we knew would regularly go to school wearing glittery makeup and women's blouses. My classmate knew nothing about the guy; his presence simply aggravated him.

I mention this because the human interest topic du jour has been anti-gay bullying. In the wake of that terrible suicide at Georgetown University, a spotlight has been thrown on utter disregard for students of alternative lifestyles in high schools and colleges all across the country. Even for those of you that are on the fence for LGBT rights, there's also the legal quagmire of harassment, freedom of speech, and invasion of privacy. What transpired in Tyler Clementi's dorm room last month and its tragic aftermath could be debated in court for years to come.

One would argue that bullying in our nation's schools is just as rampant as it was 50 years ago, but you could also argue that the ramifications of bullying have increased exponentially. It's not just about bigger kids beating you for milk money anymore; social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have become new grounds for potential tormenters to run loose, in some cases anonymously. The daily beatdown in the schoolyard has been eclipsed by threatening texts, slanderous wall posts, and in this case, some asshole with a hidden webcam.

I'm only a straight ally, but I know what it's like to be bullied and this absolutely has to stop. The Clementi tragedy is only one of several gay suicides nationwide that have occured in the past few months. In most cases, the tormentor is compensating for their own unhappy life and takes it out on someone that can't or will not retaliate. This subconscious anger can lead to a wall of ignorance and prejudice that is hard to unravel, and in turn inflict psychological damage this is equally difficult to unwind. My classmates at DGN stayed in the closet until they were 18 out of fear of being hurt or humiliated. The religious right can call this opportunistic manipulation all they want, yet they're missing the forest for the trees. This is still bullying.

Other notes:

+ In light of my fantasy baseball success, my two roto football teams are struggling. My TV.com team is 1-4 entering Week 6, keeping a loose grip on 7th place in a league of eight teams. Not realizing that all my running backs have byes this weekend, I dumped Tim Hightower and picked up Giants standout Ahmad Bradshaw. My "other" team is 2-3, tied for 5th place out of 10, and holding steady after a weak start.

+ After going 2-2 in the divisional series, I'm picking the Rangers to beat New York in 7 and the Phillies to nail San Fran in 5. In the end, it truly depends on who has the more dominant pitching.

+ On the improv scene, I finished Improv Level 3 at IO last weekend and I start Level 4 on Sunday. My last Writing 1 session with Nate Herman ends next Monday, with Writing 2 beginning the week after. Still no word on my next show, though.

+ Last Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 11,000 for the first time since May 2010. "That's awesome," said a cancer patient with no health insurance. ;)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Falling Back Into Things

As some of you have noticed, I've been posting my weekly dispatch a bit later than usual. Now that I'm commuting to the city twice a week, I have much time to write during the week (save for homework) and until now I didn't have the foresight to work on the blog ahead of time. In the five-plus years that I've writing this blog, the posting time has alternated between Tuesday morning, afternoon, and evening, and for the time being my latest missive will probably be posted sometime after 9pm Central time. I do apologize for any inconvinience.

I think it's time for some random notes:

+ Two weeks ago, I commented on liberal and conservative anti-Semitism during my rant on the Park 51 controversy. That was some curious foresight on my part, as CNN talking head/professional Twitter creeper Rick Sanchez pretty much confirmed the unfortunate virility of that theory. Luckily, when Jon Stewart --the target of the rant-- addressed Sanchez's firing on "The Daily Show" earlier this week he took the high road rather than predictably vilify the blowhard. This particular controversy will die down, but the ignorance lingers.

+ How's mom? As it turns out, she's made a full recovery. Though the doctors wouldn't say for certain, my family is convinced that her hepatitis treatment caused the stroke. Her physician dropped the treatment in late August after she went cold turkey for three weeks, and she has not shown any stroke-type symptoms since then. Otherwise, she's back to her normal self.

+ Another year, another fantasy baseball title. Though my TV.com team foundered during the stretch, my other team steamrolled to a championship for the second year in a row. I picked up Bruce Chen for my "good" team on the third-to-last day of the season, a strange but justifiable move. Firstly, I wanted to erase Brett Myers' terrible outing on Thursday night. Secondly, I was losing in the ERA category and tied in strikeouts, and I needed a dark horse pitcher who'd been hot in the past month. Thirdly, I could brag that I won my title with three Kansas City Royals on my roster (the others being Butler and Greinke). As it turned out, Chen threw a complete game two-hitter against the typically feast-or-famine Tampa Bay Rays; I had more Ks than my opponent in the matchup but lost ERA by a quarter of a run.

+ Speaking of baseball, here are my divisional round picks: Twins in 5, Rangers in 5, Braves in 5, Phillies in 4. Sure, Yanks-Rays would get boffo ratings, but it'll be nice to see some fresh faces in the league championships. ;)