Tuesday, May 31, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1998

From a rock perspective, 1998 was a time of transition. The majority of the artists that made the '90s "alt" scene what it was were either breaking up, past their prime, or entering the woods for an extended period of time. Perhaps it seems fitting that the two best rock albums of that year didn't belong to that scene; one was a spacey magnum opus by a pair of French kids with a love for Pink Floyd and Brian Eno, the other a delightfully weird indie-rock sound project that wasn't "discovered" or appreciated until midway through the next decade.

On the flip side of the music spectrum, '98 was a watershed year for hip-hop, with several core rappers and rhymers of the late '90s/early '00s delivering their strongest efforts to date. It was at this point 13 years ago that hip-hop started to blur with CHR and pop radio, and the likes of Lauryn Hill, Big Pun, and Jay-Z were inexplicably being played alongside harmless bubble-gum acts such as Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls. Rock radio, on the other hand was a smorgasbord of post-grunge acts of varying quality (Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind, Goo Goo Dolls), the aforementioned aging early '90s acts (Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam), blatant one-hit wonders (Eagle Eye Cherry, Natalie Imbruglia), and dilligent punk-pop (Green Day, The Offspring).

As a middle-schooler in 1998 I was more interested in classic rock, and I do not regret disliking what was on Top 40 around that time. One of my most vivid memories from that year was my nine-year-old sister blasting SpiceWorld from her bedroom while I was struggling with math and science homework. On the other hand, this was the year that I first heard Revolver and Sgt. Peppers' and went on an extended Beatles kick. This is not the greatest year of music in the '90s --I'll be covering that 12-month span later in 2011-- but it's certainly far from uninteresting.

1. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel. Is Jeff Magnum an absolute genius or borderline schizoid? His decision to give up music after recording Aeroplane and his reputation as a sullen recluse would suggest the latter, but maybe in his heart Magnum knew he couldn't top this effort. Fittingly described by AllMusic.com as the sound of a marching band on acid, Aeroplane is a ramshackle mess of spiritual epiphany ("King of Carrot Flowers"), sexual anxiety ("Two-Headed Boy"), and tragedy ("Holland, 1945"). The only question here is what Magnum is trying to express, and whatever your theory might be it's totally correct.
2. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill. Equally adept at R&B and hip-hop, the prettiest Fugee's first solo album --and not counting an unfocused session on "MTV Unplugged," only solo album-- is the smoothest fusion of these two disparate genres anyone's ever heard. Sexual without being ribald or carnal, Lauryn teases on tracks like "Nothing Else Matters" and "I Used To Love Him." At the same time, Hill battles her spirituality on "Final Hour" and "Forgive Them, Father." Like Jeff Magnum, Hill was (is?) a one-of-a-kind talent that laid out all her chips upfront, knew when to fold, than walked away from the table.
3. Moon Safari, Air. Not to be confused with the avant-garde jazz trio of the same name, this electronica duo is one of the few non-Anglophone rock artists to ever make a dent in American pop culture. Fusing the songcraft of Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson with the mood and textures of Can and early-70s Pink Floyd, Moon Safari is exactly what you'd expect: the most laid-back exploration of the cosmos this side of Carl Sagan.
4. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams
5. Aquemini, OutKast
6. Mezzanine, Massive Attack
7. Hello Nasty, Beastie Boys
8. Volume 2... Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z
9. The Boy With The Arab Strap, Belle & Sebastian
10. Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front, Busta Rhymes. After two commercially successful and critically adored solo albums, Busta dropped ELE as a newly minted superstar. Luckily, fame didn't go to his head; building upon his yen for apocalyptic imagery, beefy beats, weird samples, and brilliant rhymping, the Brooklyn-born rapper is stealthly planting earwigs all over middle America. The only hiccup here is "This Means War!!!", a pointless rewrite of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" with a half-hearted cameo by Ozzy himself.

Honorable Mentions: Mutations, Beck; Moment of Truth, Gang Starr; XO, Elliott Smith; Up, R.E.M.

"Flagpole Sitta," Harvey Danger
"The Way," Fastball
"Ava Adore," Smashing Pumpkins
"Push It," Garbage
"Inside Out," Eve 6
"One Week," Barenaked Ladies
"Sex and Candy," Marcy Playground
"Torn," Natalie Imbruglia
"Ray of Light," Madonna
"Rockafeller Skank," Fatboy Slim

1. "Closing Time," Semisonic. Split-screens were all the rage in '98, and nobody took advantage of the fad like these two-hit wonders from Minneapolis. Talk about running on parallel lines...
2. "Doo Wop (That Thing)," Lauryn Hill. Split-screen madness, part 2: Hill channels '60s soul and late '90s funk similtaneously in this "Total Request Live" favorite.
3. "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See," Busta Rhymes. Culled from Busta's previous album, 1997's When Disaster Strikes..., Busta takes a cue from Missy Elliot and embraces the magic of fish-eye lens.
4. "My Hero," Foo Fighters. Ever the renaissance man, Foo frontman Dave Grohl made his directorial debut in this "long take" clip about the solitude of heroism.
5. "Gone Till November," Wyclef Jean. Speaking of Fugees, Wyclef's first solo disc included this airbourne MTV hit, featuring the most unlikely of musical cameos.

Honorable Mentions: "Intergalactic," Beastie Boys; "Bitter Sweet Symphony," The Verve.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sonic Blast

Earlier tonight was Game 4 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, pitting the star-studded, narcissistic Miami Heat against the gritty, well-rounded Chicago Bulls. This is the Bulls' first conference final appearance since 1998, when Michael Jordan willed the oldest team in the NBA to a sixth and final title. Admittedly, if you're a sports fan and came of age in Chicago in the 1990s, chances are you were spoiled by the Bulls' dynasty. Admittedly, I almost completely missed out.

You see, by the time the Bulls were on the road to their third three-peat, I had actually grown tired of their constant winning. The 1995-96 season, in which the Bulls set the single-season record for wins, was both an exciting and tedious experience. On one hand, the level of talent on their roster was incomparable, and they'd run laps against the most of their opponents. However, nearly every win was a blowout, and half the time there was no point in watching beyond the second quarter.

Between Jordan's first retirement and comeback, I had grown a soft spot for the Seattle Supersonics. The roster they had at the time --Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, and so forth-- was a tad topheavy but had all the qualities of a contender. I owned a Sonics cap with the classic green and yellow skyline logo and a T-shirt with the slightly less memorable red-and-green icon they wore in the second half of the '90s.

With my noted fanship of the Sonics, imagine the conflict of interest that arose when the Bulls faced Seattle in the 1996 NBA Finals. On the day after the Western Conference Finals ended, I wore my Kemp jersey to school with all the pride and hubris an 11-year-old could muster. At lunchtime, a girl in my fifth-grade class* sat across from me, and without ever taking her eyes off my jersey she started talking smack about "my" Sonics. I was a fairly sensitive kid, and I already had a reputation for outbursts that irked most of my peers, but that didn't really hinder them from teasing or making passive-aggressive comments.

So naturally, I had to defend my honor the only way I knew how: by screaming at the girl to knock it off, than go on a crying jag. One of the volunteer "lunch moms" had to walk me out of the gymnasium/assembly hall/cafeteria so I could cool off. Alas, the damage had been done: word of the incident spread throughout the school, and as the Bulls manhandled the Sonics en route to their fourth title, my last two weeks of fifth grade bordered on excrusiating. The teasing was almost constant.

As the 1996-97 school year began, the tension between me and my classmates was down to a simmer, but now I was known for being "anti-Bulls." I still wasn't rooting for them, but I never hated them per se, yet my shame kept me from discussing hoops at length. There were brief perks of derision when Chicago faced the Utah Jazz in the '97 and '98 Finals, but nothing at the level of what happened when the Bulls faced Seattle. Even though John Stockton had been one of my favorite players for the longest time, I made sure to keep my mouth shut.

Even after Jordan retired for the second time and Bulls GM Jerry Krause gutted the roster for salary cap space, the resentment lingered. The stigma of anti-fanship didn't really die out until 2000 or so, when Krause finally traded away Toni Kukoc and Dickey Simpkins, the last remnants of those championship teams. I shifted my focus to baseball and hockey, and whatever taunting I went through during the '96 Finals was either forgotten or dismissed as juvenilia. I went from a small, close-knit grammar school where I finished 6th grade with 29 other kids, to a high school where I graduated with 499 of my peers, and maybe a handful were semi-aware of my odd fanship. When the Sonics closed up shop and moved nearly 1,600 miles in 2008, I barely batted an eyelash.

So do I support the Bulls now? Yes, though not with the same passion I display for the Royals or Blackhawks. Watching this potential new dynasty blossom has been both a relief after years of losing, but also an opportunity to look back at my awkward childhood and the mistakes I might've made. In the wake of "The Decision," LeBron James and company have become the supposed villains of the NBA, which only makes this Bulls team all the easier to root for. As such, I'm also disappointed that Miami has now taken a near-insurmountable 3 games to 1 lead. If Miami wins Game 5, I'll shift my fairweather support to whoever wins the west, whether that'd be the Dallas Mavericks or the OKC Thunder... formerly known, of course as the Seattle Supersonics.

Next Week: the year in music, 1998.

*This girl came from a family of athletes, so she knew her stuff. She was later the captain of the varsity volleyball team in high school, and her older brother was a low-level draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2001.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My Sixth Annual Fantasy Emmy Ballot

With the 2010-11 TV season winding down, speculation is already simmering for the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards, even though the ceremony is 3 1/2 months from now. Therefore, it must be time for my sixth annual fantasy ballot. Originally conceived in June 2006 as a ripoff of Michael Ausiello's annual feature at tvguide.com, my imaginary Emmy ballot mixes should-be nominees with likely nods and other deserving stars and shows. With "Lost," "24," and "Damages" no longer of the running, it should be a wide-open year for drama nominees; the comedy and variety categories should have fewer surprises.

Writing in a Variety/Comedy/Music Series: (name listed is head writer) Barry Julien, The Colbert Report; Mike Sweeney, Conan; Steve Bodow, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; Bill Maher, Real Time with Bill Maher; and Seth Meyers, Saturday Night Live.
Outstanding Variety/Comedy/Music Series: "The Colbert Report," Comedy Central; "Conan," TBS; "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Comedy Central; "Late Show with David Letterman," CBS; and "Saturday Night Live," NBC.

Supporting Actress in a Drama: Christine Baranski, The Good Wife; Sarah Wayne Callies, The Walking Dead; Sharon Gless, Burn Notice; Christina Hendricks, Mad Men; Archie Punjabi, The Good Wife; Chandra Wilson, Grey's Anatomy.
Supporting Actor in a Drama: Alan Cumming, The Good Wife; Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones; Jack Huston, Boardwalk Empire; Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad; Michael Shannon, Boardwalk Empire; John Slattery, Mad Men.
Supporting Actress in a Comedy: Julie Bowen, Modern Family; Yvette Nicole Brown, Community; Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock; Jane Lynch, Glee; Holland Taylor, Two and a Half Men; Sofia Vergara, Modern Family.
Supporting Actor in a Comedy: Ty Burrell, Modern Family; Chris Coifer, Glee; Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men; Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother; Nick Offerman, Parks & Recreation; Danny Pudi, Community.

Lead Actress in a Drama: Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights; Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: SVU; Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife; Kelly Macdonald, Boardwalk Empire; Elizabeth Moss, Mad Men; and Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer.
Lead Actor in a Drama: Sean Bean, Game of Thrones; Kyle Chandler, Fright Night Lights; Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad; Michael C. Hall, Dexter; Jon Hamm, Mad Men; and Hugh Laurie, House.
Lead Actress in a Comedy: Toni Collette, United States of Tara; Courtney Cox, Cougar Town; Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie; Tina Fey, 30 Rock; Lea Michele, Glee; and Amy Poehler, Parks & Recreation.
Lead Actor in a Comedy: Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock; Steve Carell, The Office; Joel McHale, Community; Matthew Morrison, Glee; Ed O'Neill, Modern Family; and Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory.

Outstanding Drama Series: "Breaking Bad," AMC; "Dexter," Showtime; "The Good Wife," CBS; "In Treatment," HBO; "Mad Men," AMC; "The Walking Dead," AMC.
Outstanding Comedy Series: "30 Rock," NBC; "The Big Bang Theory," CBS; "Community," NBC; "How I Met Your Mother," CBS; "Modern Family," ABC; "Parks & Recreation," NBC.

Let the debate begin!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My Promotion Commotion

April 30th marked one year of unemployment (or underemployment, depending on how you look at it) for yours truly. It has been a year of perpetual struggle, of peaks and valleys, and above all pondering the direction of my life and whether I've made the right career choice. Typically when I write my blog, I try to shy away from my personal problems. I focus upon current events, sports, and music not only as a pleasant distraction, but also to keep my skills sharp. It was my intent to share my story after I had found steady employment again, but my anxiety and frustration could no longer let me supress my viewpoint for much longer.

It all started in mid-January, 2010. I had been the traffic assistant at the station for nearly two years, and as the result of budget cuts, I had also been the receptionist for about 14 months. I was initially hired to be part-time, five hours a day, 25 hours a week. It was on this average January weekday that my boss and our business manager/HR director sat me down to explain that my position was finally being expanded to full-time. However, because the company was an equal-opportunity employer, I had to reapply for my own job. A job listing was posted on a prominent industry web site for anyone to apply.

When I was first hired by Salem in May 2008, I sighed with relief. Upon graduating from college, I had submitted my resume and audio samples (both DJ airchecks and production) to nearly forty radio clusters --few stations are by themselves nowadays, it all depends on who owns them-- and they were only my second interview. After two wonderfully informative sitdowns, I was hired. Though traffic wasn't my first choice and my prior credentials were minimal, I was glad to be back in the radio industry. My first two weeks at the office were predominately spent training; though I felt like got off to a slow start, by the first month I had found my rhythm and developed a great rapport with my direct superior, the traffic manager. Every day was a new challenge, and even though it was tricky meeting daily deadlines I always made a conscious effort. The workload was heavy, but manageable. I was convinced that I had a future with this company... or so I thought.

In my first six months there was a signifigant regime change in our branch. The HR director that was partially responsible for bringing me aboard retired on account of her near-crippling arthritis. Her chosen replacement was for all intents and purposes her complete opposite; where the previous director was a self-deprecating mother figure, the new one was a deadly serious, business-oriented pragmatist. On top of that, where I was on friendly terms with HR director #1, her replacement made absolutely no attempt to get acquainted with anyone besides her boss and the other station management. Worse yet, director #2 had repeatedly called me out for mistakes at the front desk that were relatively minor and easily rectified. With time, it became quite clear that she didn't particularly like me, and that I would have to make an exorbatant effort to save my job.

As requested, I e-mailed my updated resume and references to the HR director, and we arranged to have my interview on the morning of Monday, February 8th. I spent the night before mentally preparing myself for the sitdown, partially out of determination but also out of shear nerve. As the sitting traffic assistant/receptionist, I was the first of six or seven candidates to walk into the conference room. Human resources asked the questions and my boss sat sliently, taking notes. The interview itself went okay; though I felt like I was stumped by a question or two, I felt confident regardless. After the interview, the HR director stated that she'd make a decision within two weeks. And two weeks later... nothing happened.

In my extended time of waiting, I wasn't sure what to assume. Was the decision taking longer than usual, or was I a dead man walking? After the 14-day "deadline" had passed, I reluctantly started glancing at radio jobs online. To my astonishment, our HR director had reposted the same job opening from the month before. I came to work pretending as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, and though I put on a brave face and a focused effort on my work, on the inside I was panicking. Even though I trusted my boss, I was too nervous to ask about the re-posting or the second round of interviews. Knowing of my duress, my co-workers would walk past the front desk and ask how I was doing; their moral support was fleeting, but noble in the attempt.

By late April, my worst fears were all but confirmed. Rumors were beginning to swirl around the office, and I gave my best non-answer to their prying questions. During the third and fourth cattle calls, the HR director conducted the conferences herself, without my boss' input. One candidate that walked in had garnered a second interview, a sit-in with the general manager that I'd never had. My boss would occasionally go into the HR director's office to vent, and one day during that week she was in the business manager's office for a longer period of time than usual. Glancing past the window, I could tell my boss was tearing up and that the HR director was being her usual hardheaded self.

On April 30th, I was asked to step into the HR office. As I sat next to the traffic director, I learned my fate: the search had come down to two candidates, the aforementioned ringer and myself, and they went with the new guy. Her words were polite, but her eyes had a certain resignation, a strangely gleeful glimmer. The director even tried to smirk, but my boss' repressed tears came from a more honest emotion. There was so much I wanted to say; I had an irresistable urge to call this cipher out for being secretive, elusive, and above all dishonest. Instead I clenched my teeth, cleaned out my desk, and tried to look professional and graceful in my departure.

In my HR director's eyes I was a borderline-incompetant milquetoast, and her cold smile and sudden, abrupt attempt at compassion couldn't hide the fact that she had been gunning after me. Altogether, this HR director made me sit on my hands for 3 1/2 months, Was I fired, forced out, or replaced? I'd like to think I was a combination of the three. As I drove home, I was overwhelmed by a singular emptiness. Even though this was the first time I'd ever been sacked --an experience that everyone will eventually go through-- I still felt screwed over. Part of me is still convinced that human resources overrode any feedback that my boss would've had in this whole process, and that she'd further consolidated her power in the office. In short, I had no leverage, and all my energies were for naught.

In the meantime, I've been trying to give myself a clean slate, not out of willingness but because of necessity. Attempts to reconnect with former co-workers at Salem have been ignored or rebuffed. As such, I don't think anyone in my old office is aware of the existence of this blog. I've had text conversations with my ex-boss, but they've been short and stilted. I'd also found out through the grapevine that my position was redefined in that the receptionist reported to the HR director and not the traffic director. Apparently, he also assumed a different set of responsibilites, which meant my former boss was (is?) now doing the work of two people. Concurrently, I've been intermittently temping and substitute teaching, but mostly I've been ekeing out a living on unemployment benefits.

I have written this blog entry for the sake of catharsis, and not to attack, vilify, or exact revenge. I was very tempted to call out the offending party by name, but that would be industry suicide. For the last 12 1/2 months, I've been penting up my rage and alienation to the extent that I had release my demons the only way I can. Counting high school, I had played the radio game for eleven years, and now I'm further away from my dream job than I've ever been. I've had one radio-related interview in the past year, but nothing came out of it. On one hand, I've been thinking outside the box and pooling my skills into a variety of other possibilities; on the other hand, I don't want to give up on a dream I've been building on for so long. Blind optimism is what keeps me going. Inexorably, I feel like a burden has been lifted off my back, and that I'm ready to clear whatever future hurdles come my way.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Birther, A Death Wish, A Wedding? That's Nice

This has been such a crazy week in the news, I'm not sure where to start:

With the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate last week, one must hope that the conspiracy theorists will shut the hell up once and for all. In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the "birthers" continued to nag to the media, derailing common sense in some hairbrained attempt to defame the president or remove him from office. There is no doubt in my mind that the birthers' intent was drenched in prejudice and light on patriotic duty, and that Obama was essentially bullied to prove his citizenship. I'm ready to move beyond all this silliness as soon as everyone else is.

In my mind, this non-controversy plays out like a standard episode of "South Park." For the uninitiated, two of the main characters are Stan, a sensible everyman and Cartman, an overweight, blustery bigot. One of the standard story arcs involves Cartman tinkering with some asinine conspiracy or scam that he's dreamed up in his head, and Stan has to play the voice of reason. Cartman calls Stan a pussy and a coward until Stan lets himself get dragged into his obese friend's latest mess. Ultimately, Stan uses reverse psychology to make Cartman look like an idiot, pretending to play along with Cartman's stupid little game until the conspiracy or scam collapses on its own weight. As you might've guessed, the birthers in my parable are Cartman and Obama is Stan.

So naturally, this brings me to the other major news story of the past week. I was watching an episode of "The Simpsons" on the DVR in my bedroom when I heard my parents raise the volume on the living room set. When I saw the caption on CBS News read "Osama bin Laden Dead," I could barely form a sentence. Like any American, I was absolutely ecstatic; this is a signifigant moment for our lifetimes, I thought, an event that many of us never expected to happen. Like President Obama said, justice will always and inevitably be served, and bin Laden's death --the apparent result of a rain of bullets in a Navy SEAL commando strike-- was well worth the wait. (If I may ask, where were you guys when you first heard the news?)

Nearly 48 hours later, I have mixed emotions. When I first saw news coverage of the various riots and celebrations across the country --including one outside my old dorm at Illinois State University-- I smiled and wished I was there high-fiving and fist-pumping. When I woke up Monday morning, it occured to me that this was the exact same way our nation's enemies reacted on September 11th. This momentous occasion also had a sad feeling of irony; did America finally find closure, or did bin Laden nab the martyrdom he desperately craved? What is more important to us as a nation, seeking unity or pausing to reflect? Plus, there's also the big picture to look at: Osama's death does not automatically end the War on Terror. The head is chopped off, but the snake continues to aimlessly slither. We are now fighting a war with no face, no borders, and fewer tangibles. We need the protection of our military now more than ever, because retaliation seems to be a perpetual option.

Given that, I tip my hat and owe an immense debt to everyone involved in the operation, from President Obama (who greenlit the mission) and Gen. David Petraeus (the soon-to-be head of the CIA), all the way down to the intricately assembled "Team 6" and their seemingly superhuman feats. Long- or short-term, this was the morale booster our country needed.

Other notes:

+ Yes, the media coverage of the royal wedding was a tad over the top. You could even argue that it bordered on obsessive. However, with all the crap going on in the world, maybe we needed that pleasant distraction. Alas, Time magazine rushed out their May 16th issue to present up-to-the-minute coverage of the ceremony. Does that mean the inevitable "bin Laden caricature under a red painted X" cover will have to wait another two weeks?

+ Fantasy Update: one month into the season, both of my teams are just barely over .500. In the wake of several crippling injuries (Ryan Zimmerman, Josh Hamilton, Pablo "Panda" Sandoval) I overhauled the roster of my TV.com team. I suppose it could be worse; though I have Juan Pierre in platoon, at least I'm not the guy that drafted Adam Dunn or Edwin Jackson.

+ Improv Update: last week I began Level 5B at iO, and this week I start Writing 4 with Nate Herman. This is the last class for both programs, so by mid-June I'm practically done. With the last level of improv, our class is split up in two and performs as teams of ten for an eight-week run Sunday nights beginning June 19th. As for writing, this particular level covers scripting an original pilot, and without being too toward I'm already dreaming up ideas.

+ Finally, to appease several comments made on last week's 1976 blog, here is my official honorable mention for the best music video of that particular year. Bismillah, they will not let this go... ;)