Thursday, July 28, 2011

Stu's List of Shame: Music Edition

(Ed. note: sorry for my latest delay— I’ve been having issues with my laptop these last few weeks, and I’m on the brink of replacing the damn thing. Please excuse this and any future protractions.)

For nearly three years now, I've dedicated the last blog of the month to a particular year in music. As you've probably assumed by now, what had started off as a lark has turned into a time-consuming, long-term project. Though I have not officially said anything until this point, about two years ago I determined that I would cover every year of music from 1963 onwards, not in chronological order by any means but by jumping between years and eras in any given month. Since Autumn 2008, I have only taken one month off, and that was to write about Christmas music last November. Daunting as it might've been, I've had a lot of fun writing these monthly music blogs, and I will feel a weird emptiness when I wrap up the project sometime in late 2012. What I will do with these critical mini-analyses remains to be seen.

Now that I've explained my true motive, I'm taking one more breather before I gradually finish this project. When writing my "guilty pleasures" blog two weeks ago, it dawned on me that are a number of genuinely mediocre songs over the past five decades or so that I simply can't resist. If they play on the radio, I'll crank them up and sing along. Admitting to liking the songs below required a massive blow to my ego.

I have whittled down my musical guilty pleasures to nine songs:

"Surfin' Bird," The Trashmen. Like its contemporary "Louie Louie," this early-60s surf-rock hit is just as famous for its frenetic hook as its indecipherable, vaguely perverse lyrics. A quintet from the surf-friendly state of Minnesota, they cracked the Billboard Top Five in 1963 with “Surfin’ Bird,” also known in some circles “Bob the Bird.” It’s unfair to call them a one-hit wonder —they had several charting singles afterward, just nothing matching that song’s success— though their other work just hasn’t stood the test of time. To my generation, it’s hard to hear this song and not picture Peter Griffin dancing frenetically.

“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” The Silkie. Another one-hit wonder in the US, this British quartet was arguably Devon’s answer to Peter, Paul, & Mary. It’s hard to make Beatles cover a your own, but The Silkie did it in the best AND worst way possible. Simply put, the falsetto on the second verse is supposed to be lilting and pleasant, it comes off as mildly disturbing. Strangely enough, three-quarters of the Fab Four helped out in the recording of this bizarre single: John produced, Paul played guitar, and George sat in on tambourine. Considering that both acts were managed by Brian Epstein, maybe they were obligated to chip in.

"The Night Chicago Died," Paper Lace. When I wrote my 1974 blog a while back, I singled out this one-hit wonder as a "so bad, it's good" selection. What I said nearly two years ago still applies.

“Fool for the City,” Foghat. I am by no means a Foghat fan, but for some inexplicable reason I love this song. I think it’s that opening guitar riff…

"Ca Plane Pour Moi," Plastic Bertrand. Just as much an influential early new-wave single as it was a novelty hit in the UK, “Ca Plane Pour Moi” (“The Life For Me”) is probably the only song sung in French to generate any attention stateside that wasn’t belted out by a group of nuns. When you translate the lyrics it makes absolutely no sense, but Bertrand’s voice and bravado makes that Gaulic twaddle oddly compelling.

"Thunder Island," Jay Ferguson. Nowadays he’s better known for composing the theme song to the American version of “The Office”; however, in the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s Ferguson was a respectable singer-songwriter. Better known for his work in the bands Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne than as a solo artist, Ferguson had a fluke top ten hit in 1978 with “Island.” It’s not hard to learn or memorize the lyrics, as 80% of the song is Ferguson and three female backup singers going “do do do do, do do do, do do do, do do do do dooooo…” Like the other selections here, it’s just too catchy to ignore.

"Your Love," The Outfield. The band itself is a conundrum: they're British and admittedly know little about baseball, yet their name is distinctly American. Alas, they were a trio so they went with a name that symbolized that number, and they probably found "outfield" in a dictionary. (In retrospect, “Triple Play” and/or “Triple Crown” might’ve also worked.) That would be like an American band calling itself “Yellowcard.” The song itself is pure ‘80s cheese, best devoured on a power-pop wheat cracker.

"Show Stopper," Danity Kane. I don't particularly care for Sean "Diddy" Combs. To me Puffy is a third-tier rapper, an unbelievely lazy and self-involved deliettante who rose to fame and forture riding the coattails of others. At his creative peak in the mid-90s, the former Puff Daddy was serviceable at best. To his credit, Combs was funny in the movie "Get Him To The Greek," a bravura performance if playing a minor variation of yourself is considered acting. Of all his vanity projects and money-making opportunities, nothing reaked of more ego than his hijacking of "Making The Band" in the mid-2000s. Gobbling up a mostly forgotten reality show that aired on ABC for two years, MTB went from middling docu-series about the formation of a boy band to a middling docu-series about the formation of a singing group starring Diddy.

The fourth series of the MTB franchise found Diddy looking to create an all-girl singing group that he could domineer and micromanage. After an exhausting “talent” search, a group of 12 finalists were whittled down to the quintet Danity Kane. As stunningly beautiful as they were devoid of any personality, DK released two albums before disintegrating in 2009. In their short lifespan they had three singles in the Top 40, including “Show Stopper,” a overproduced Frankenstein’s monster of an R&B song. In the first ten seconds of the song they lure you into the club, but once you enter you can never leave…

"Temperature," Sean Paul. I don’t really have a dance jam so to speak, but this song comes fairly close. The fifth single from Paul’s third album The Trinity was omnipresent on the Illinois State campus —or at Z106, anyway— during my final semester in Fall 2007. Never mind that the album was released in 2005 and the single in early 2006, it was just oddly inescapable during that particular four-month span. My theory is that the earworm essence of “Temperature” was a slow burn in this region of the country, that it found its audience in a slow series of waves. Either that, or I went to too many keggers.

So ladies and germs, this is my mix CD of the damned. Judge me if you want, but I will only come out of this bolder and stronger. Next month I’ll be covering the year in music that was 1991, a particular 12-month span I’ve looking forward to for quite a while. Near as I can tell, I shouldn’t be forced to defend any of those picks.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Radio Dazed

Since I last unloaded my thoughts on current events, an already tense summer has boiled over into a tumbleweed of controversies. The acquital of Casey Anthony and the reduced charges on Dominique Strauss-Kahn have made observers ponder how the media determines and goads one's guilt before the accused faces a jury. In turn, the phone-tapping scandal that has rocked the Scotland Yard, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, and nearly every level of the British government has stirred a debate about the right to privacy and the limits of gathering information. ("Vast left-wing conspiracy" my fanny.) However, there's a third prong to this communication pitchfork that pricks too close to my comfort.

On Thursday July 14th, the on-air personalities of WKQX 101.1 FM in Chicago signed off for the last time. WKQX, known more commonly as Q101, and its sister station WLUP 97.9 FM "The Loop" were sold by its parent company to Randy Michaels' upstart Merlin Media in early June. Michaels, a man celebrated by the Chicago media for his strides in female enpowerment, bought the two struggling stations with the intent to convert at least one signal into a news/talk format. Even though The Loop --a station whose once-stalwart '70s/'80s hard rock format has seen better days-- seemed far more vulnerable, Michaels' henchman dropped the ax on Q101.

The last alt-rock station in the market, Q101 was a brand that had annihilated every direct competitor it had faced in its 19-year existence. Alas, since the economic downturn three years ago ad revenue had plummeted and never quite recovered. My friends and peers here in Chicago grew up with Q101, the "cool" station that mixed '90s grunge with today's alternative rock; the whole format was a thumb at the nose at other CHR stations that played increasingly samey hip-hop and autotuned, overproduced pop songs. In the last five years of Q101's run, their on-air staff had neither overpaid local luminaries nor canned voiceovers from LA, but a group of dilligent, serviceable, locally bred DJs that knew how to connect with an audience. They were one of us.

Well before Randy Michaels (real name: Ben Homel) was creating overtime opportunities for his female underlings, he was a highly controversial and much-derided figure in Chicago radio. His first stint here in the early '90s is the stuff of legend. When billionaire Sam Zell saved the Tribune Company from bankrupcy in 2007, he appointed his golf buddy Michaels to run broadcast operations, which included flagship WGN 720 AM. In promising a "fun, nonlinear creative environment," Michaels proceeded to run a station of immense history, pride, and tradition into the ground. Like a South American revolutionary Michaels went from savior to totalitarian overnight, firing top personnel and longtime on-air talent at WGN with cronies, hacks, and brown-nosers. When he was finally axed late last year, it seemed like Michaels' days in the Windy City were at long last over. Now he's back for a third spin.

Upon making the switch official, the competition jumped into action. WBBM 780 AM, the longtime alpha dog of Chicago news/talk, announced that their struggling sister station, WCFS 105.9 "Fresh FM," would drop its lite-rock format to become a Newsradio 780 similcast effective August 1st. It was a chess-like strategic move first and a cutting of losses second. It also meant that two music-format FM stations were kaput and over a hundred people were out of jobs. Sadly, this trend is not limited to Chicago; in the advent of mp3 players and iPods, the younger demographic has grown bored with listening to music that they can't personalize; no matter how broad a programming director can cast that big net, the kids are tuning out. As a result, music radio formats are dying and talk formats --politically biased manna for middle-aged reactionaries-- are rising. The impact in which a radio determines a hit song is at an all-time low. At this rate, I almost feel like I'll be forced into buying an iPod just so I don't have to choose between Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, or Rachel Maddow during drive time.

Other notes:

+ The ongoing budget wars have been both compelling and difficult to watch at the same time. What happens now is more than just capping the national debt, it's a make-or-break moment not only for President Obama but the credibility of the "Tea Party" congress. Public opinion has a tendency to shift with mercurial abandon --hey, remember when Obama kinda-sorta killed bin Laden?-- and the budget breakdown could be either a watershed moment or the end of at least one young, promising political career. The partisan war on the economy will be the topic that tilts the 2012 elections, and the budget battle is Fort Sumter. Sadly, no compromise will satisfy everyone and more people will come out losing no matter what happens between now and next week.

+ This past weekend marked my completion of the iO writing program. I held a reading of the final draft of my sitcom pilot "Pushing Air" Sunday afternoon at the theater, and I thought it went pretty well. (Why yes, it is a satire about the radio industry-- how'd you guess?) On the improv side of things, my team Ladies & Lumberjacks has four shows down and three to go, and personally I think we've hit our stride. We have collectively grown so much over the past 15 months. Maybe I'm speaking too soon, but when all is said and done I will genuinely miss working with these people.

Next week: when bad songs happen to good people (i.e. yours truly).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Stu's List of Shame

I like the idea of guilty pleasures. Not of a carnal kind, but the temptations of pop culture's bottom rungs: the unhip, the widely derided, the acquired tastes of the world. Everybody has something stashed in their mental closets that they won't share with anyone else, and I'm no exception. In the opinions that I've made in six-plus years of writing this blog, there may have been times where I might have come off as elitist or picky or snobby, but rest assured I don't ignore trash culture altogether.

What that said, here are five things I'm ashamed to admit I like:

The Police Academy movies. As odd as it sounds, in the mid-1980s Steve Guttenberg was deemed a bankable movie star, and ex-Colts defensive end Bubba Smith was considered an "actor." I caught onto the series fairly late in the game, when I rented the first movie from Blockbuster on a lark and discovered what I thought was a comedy goldmine. (To be fair, I was also seven years old.) Are these movies chock full of corny dialogue, dumb slapstick, and moments that most credited thespians would consider career lows? Yes. It is also a randomly sentimental memory of my childhood? Yes. Will I stop in my tracks if one of the sequels airs on basic cable? Sure, for a few minutes.

Funky Winkerbean. In a parallel world where Julius Dithers has been harassing Dagwood Bumstead for eight decades and the Apartment 3G girls shamelessly attempt to marry for money, Funky trumps both of those irrelevant relics as the most depressing comic strip currently in syndication. Originally a flyweight but amiable cartoon about high school life, the primary characters earned their diplomas in the late '80s. Since then, the gang has largely aged in real time, and the lighthearted laughs gave away to maudlin, will-it-ever-end storylines about suicide, alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder and most infamously, cancer. Funky was dropped by my local paper nearly 15 years ago, but I still read it online almost strictly out of habit. The only strip that comes close in matching Winkerbean's cold grasp on mortality is Crankshaft, an equally bipolar, dry as a soupbone, lighthearted/sobering look at the elderly's role in society... that was spun off from Batiuk's strip in 1986.

Billy Joel. The hipsters of my generation have given the musical dreck of years past a renewed relevance. After a 20-year lull Barry Manilow is packing houses coast-to-coast again, The Monkees are on yet another (likely profitable) reunion tour, and Parrothead Nation has never quite turned away from Jimmy Buffett. So where does the Piano Man play in all this? A respectable singer-songwriter in the '70s, Joel's musical output has been lambasted by critics and historical revisionists alike. Too cliche, too trend-hopping, too saccharine, the haters cry. Granted, a fair percentage of Joel's work is pure cheese, but his best songs --"She's Got a Way," "Goodnight Saigon," the entire Turnstiles and Stranger albums-- do have a certain emotional resonance.

The Drew Carey Show. I'm not sure if this counts as a guilty pleasure or not, though there is much for people to dislike. Once touted by TV Guide as "'Friends,' but with ugly people," the Cleveland-based sitcom's first five years were actually pretty decent. However, when the show traded script quality and character development for wacky stunts and unnecessary surrealism, fans tuned out in droves. ABC renewed the show through its ninth season, a long-term deal it quickly regretted, and the sorry corpse of a once-serviceable comedy was burned off as time filler during the summer. When you see a TDCS repeat nowadays, there's a 44% chance that episode will be awful. As a fan, this is a great example of when good shows should quit when they're ahead.

White Castle. It occured to me last weekend that since I started going to my trainer, I haven't devoured in Slyder in about 2 1/2 months. I've had fast food in that time, but in small morsels: a snack wrap at McDonald's here, a Burger King Tendercrisp there, but I'm practically on a first-name basis with Subway and Jamba Juice nowadays. I miss "The Crave" dearly, but what hasn't killed me has only made me stronger. WC might be the only restaurant on the planet that can make grade-B burger meat seem appetizing, and their fries are a last vestige for trans fats. Maybe it's the deceptively small portions, who knows? Personally, I have a weak spot for their chicken rings, which are just as questionable in nutritional value yet I could probably polish off a dozen of 'um in less than five minutes.

So those are my guilty pleasures. On a semi-related note, it appears that six-plus years of hard work has paid off. The Weekly Updates has finally made's list of blogs they love. Never mind that forum traffic is at a record low tide, this belated honor totally made my day. :)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Education Enigma

About a month ago, I was skimming the headlines on Fark and encountered a peculiar story about college enrollment. I read it, found it bemusing, and moved on. Strangely, in the time since I've felt more compelled to do some further research on the topic and I arrived at some discomforting conclusions.

Many of you have probably noticed the uptick in undergraduates in the past few decades. Nowadays, you can't even find a decent job without a bachelor's degree; unless you've picked up a trade, even an associates doesn't cut it anymore. This is mostly attributed to a study suggesting that public universities are more accommodating than ever. As the United States has distanced itself from being an agricultural society with a rural-based economy to something more urban and sophisticated, so have skills and career choices. The problem is, college is so readily accessible that the meaning of a higher education has been undermined, almost trivialized.

Why has the credibility of a bachelor's degree has deteriorated in the last decade or so? Simple: just about anybody can get one. According to a June 2011 article in The New Yorker, public colleges enrolled fifteen million students in the past school year, private colleges just under six million. In 1950, there were 1.14 million undergrads in the US combined. Maybe I'm being elitist, but I'd like to think that a college education should be a consideration for the best and brightest high school students, not an obligation for the slow, the average, or the apathetic. Widening the pool doesn't catch the best fish. To imply that college is for everyone, regardless of whether it helps you land a better career, is a lie.

Let me use a personal example. When I was approaching high school graduation eight-plus years ago, I had my heart set on North Central College, a private university in Naperville, IL. My parents didn't have money to put me straight into a four-year school, so I went to community college first and my mass comm/broadcasting degree was put on hold. During my time at College of DuPage, I realized that Illinois State University offered the exact same program I was seeking but for less tuition than NCC. I applied at ISU in the summer of '05, and I was thrilled to be accepted by my "new" first choice of school. Looking back, that feeling may not have been as special as I once thought. A school not unlike Illinois State can have an acceptance rate hovering around 95%, which is absurd but in this day and age seems to be the status quo.

Back to the controversial article, which first found via and was copied and quoted elsewhere. The article suggested that to boost admission, state schools are accepting students that may not have the skill set to handle higher learning. The mindset seems to be, who cares about your standardized math and reading results, we need headcount; a larger student body means more alumni donations. To some degree, four-year universities are accepting special-needs students when they don't have the time, energy, or resources to properly educate them. The handful of remedial programs set up for students on the left end of the bell curve have proven inadequate and useless. Basically, it waters down the process for everyone.

Luckily, this is not the case for all four-year universities. Ivy League schools like Yale and Harvard are just as exclusive as they've ever been, though they too have evolved. Between the two schools their admission rate is below 10%, and most of the incoming freshmen are from overseas. Schools of similar prestige like Northwestern or University of Chicago accept 25% or so and also mostly attract international hopefuls. In an era of widespread standardized testing, being the offspring of an alum or donor does not guarantee admission, which is fair. On the flip side, that child of pedigree will attend a second-choice school, where they will likely advance their education with students that don't merit being there. Yes, the margin of error is that high.

I cherish my bachelor's degree from Illinois State University more than anything, though it bothers me how it carries far less weight in the eyes of potential employers than a school like Northwestern or U of C. Earning a masters or a doctorate would work wonders if the average post-grad could actually afford a fifth or sixth year of school, and most of the scholarships offered are mere drops in the bucket. Because of this flawed, watered-down system a bachelor's is the new high school diploma and a masters is the new bachelor's. Economy notwithstanding, a large percentage of my contemporaries with similar educational backgrounds are making just over minimum wage, if employed at all. You don't need a diploma to see the pretzel logic behind collegiate over-accommodation.

Other notes:

Fitness Update: Since May 1st I've lost 11 pounds. I bottomed at a loss of 12 pounds, but if I stay below 155 I'm content. I'm starting yet another new temp job on Thursday, so my twice-weekly training schedule is up in the air for the time being.

Fantasy Update: Both teams are still hovering around .500; one is three over, the other is five under. Why it took me this long to realize Ryan Zimmerman has been the albatross around my neck, I'll never know.

Improv Update: Two shows down, five to go. My class/team "Ladies & Lumberjacks" is midway through their graduate performance run at iO, and I couldn't be prouder enough of how we've done. It has been a long, wonderful journey and I look forward to working with everyone for the next few weeks and again in the near future.