Thursday, March 11, 2010

American Idol: Bowersox Wins

Cancel the season, the contest is over.

Give the prize to Crystal Bowersox and let us go back to our Netflix queues. Her performances on American Idol are so much better than everyone else’s, it’s like Shawn White at the Olympics – amazing and bizarre and finally exhilarating. You sit up the first time you hear her and think “Oh yeah – this is a talent contest!” Someone with actual talent is so rare you almost don’t recognize it. She has a gorgeous voice, she can really play guitar and her innate musicality makes the karaoke singers around her look puny and forlorn. She sings Fogerty better than Fogerty; she sings Tracy Chapman and it sounds like she wrote the song herself. Apparently she writes her own songs. I hope she gets to sing one.

Early in the season, Simon disparagingly called her a ‘busker’ – he should pay attention to those buskers, strumming outside the tube stations. A lot of them are good, some of them are great and apparently one of them was Crystal Bowersox.

During season 7, Carrie Underwood was so far ahead of everyone else in the voting that the producers were terrified that the numbers would leak and the suspense would fizzle. I suspect the same thing may happen this year, but I’m not sure. Bowersox is too odd – a little over weight, messy, with a missing tooth. And yet she’s beautiful in a strange way and mysterious, she doesn’t preen for the camera or play to it. She accepts the judge’s praise quietly. She keeps her thoughts to herself. Her attitude of calm self-certainty might alienate the fourteen-year-old girls in Boise and Dubuque, but I like it. She doesn’t really seem a part of the show: she’s from a different, tougher world. David Cook had something like this distance two years ago, but he was a humble fellow, in his talent and his personality – he tried out by accident, after tagging along with his brother, and never seemed convinced by his own success. He was charmingly small. Bowersox is big – a commanding presence, Janis Joplin with a guitar and by now her career is assured no matter what happens in the next month or two.

I’ve already downloaded two songs, which I’ve never done before. I may even cross over to the dark side this season and vote.

I just have to learn how to text first.

"Juliet, Naked": Three Writing Lessons From Nick Hornby

I received Juliet, Naked as a Valentine’s Day present, and it turned out to be a perfect one. This is the old Nick Hornby, writing about the things he loves as much as I do: music and relationships and life in small sea-side towns. Writing a book myself, I devised a brief curriculum in creative writing from the sheer delight that reading this novel gave me.

First: Do the work necessary to make your writing seem effortless.

This means avoiding clich├ęs and finding fresh ways to tell your story. Take this random paragraph for instance:

Duncan had fallen asleep quickly, but she had lain awake, listening to him snoring and not liking him. Everyone disliked their partners at some time or another, she knew that. But she’d spent her hours in the dark wondering whether she’d ever liked him. Would it really have been so much worse to spend those years alone? Why did there have to be someone else in the room while she was eating, watching TV, sleeping? A partner was supposed to be some mark of success: anyone who shared a bed with someone on a nightly basis had proved herself capable in some way, no? Of something? But her relationship now seemed to her to betoken failure, not success. She and Duncan had ended up together because they were the last two people to be picked for a sports team, and she felt she was better at sports than that.

Duncan is obsessed with reclusive rocker Tucker Crowe, whose 20-year silence has just been broken with an album of demo versions of the songs on his classic heartbreak record Juliet. Duncan loves the unadorned ‘naked’ songs, and writes a paean to them on his Tucker Crowe website. Annie disagrees and writes a sharp little essay laying out the reasons, which boil down to -- finished songs are better than half-baked early versions, and these early stumbling efforts are really none of anyone’s business. Duncan is furious. But Tucker Crowe (who keeps up with his scattered internet fan base) loves it, and e-mails her to tell her so. Thus begins a courtship by mail and eventually a full-blown romance.

Here’s another grace note, with Annie thinking about Tucker, invoking jigsaw puzzles without ever mentioning them:

She told herself not to ask too many questions, even though there was so much she wanted to know about him. She liked to think she was curious about people, but her hunger for information went beyond curiosity: she wanted to piece the entirety of his adult life together, and she seemed to be lacking even the straight edges that would get her started.

That brings me to the next lesson:

Give your readers what they want. But still surprise them,

The premise of any book implies certain events and complications, certain moments we can’t help anticipating. In this book, we want Annie and Tucker to meet, we want them to fall in love, we want Tucker to sort out his complicated family (Five children by three wives). We want his son Jackson to like Annie and her dinky little sea-side village. We want Duncan to realize that his ex-girlfriend is entertaining the object of his decades-long monomania … in her small-town kitchen. We want Tucker and his greatest fan to meet. We want Tucker to take Annie away from the damp boredom of her provincial life and we want her to inspire new music from her aging paramour.

Spoilers ahead: it all happens.

But not quite as you expect, which brings me to the third lesson:

Be kind to your characters. Let them shine.

Even Duncan. Duncan could have been the book’s comic relief, the obsessive stalking admirer, who’d break into the house of the woman who inspired his idol’s greatest music, just to snoop in the closets; the fanboy who takes any disagreement about cultural trivia as a romantic deal-breaker. When he finally meets Tucker Crowe you fully expect him to make a fool out of himself. And he does – up to a point. He knows too much trivia, most of it false. He insists on Tucker showing him a passport to prove his identity, and he's as officious as a customs agent as he inspects the picture ID. But there’s more to Duncan than abstract, gossip-grinding adoration. There’s a kind of tough-minded purity to his admiration. Listen:

“All I can say in my defense is that … well, you asked us to listen. And some of us listened a little too hard. This will probably sound silly and not what you want to hear. But I’m not the only person who thinks you’re a genius. And while you might think we’re … we’re inadequate as people, we’re not necessarily the worst judges in the world. We read and watch movies and think, and … I probably blew it as far as you’re concerned with my silly Naked review, which was written at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons. But the original album … Do you even know how dense that was? I still haven’t peeled it all away, I don’t think, after all this time. I don’t pretend to understand what those songs meant to you, but it’s the forms of expression you chose, the allusions, the musical references. That’s what makes it art. To my mind. And … sorry, sorry, one last thing. I don’t think people with talent necessarily value it, because it all comes so easy to them., and we never value things that come easy to us. But I value what you did on that album more highly, I think, than anything else I’ve heard. So thank you. And now I think I should leave. But I couldn’t meet you without telling you all that

And you can’t help thinking – "All right! Go, Duncan." We all have someone, some artist, we want to make this speech to. I actually said something like it to John Fowles, after searching him out in Lyme Regis during the summer of 1972. Duncan rose to the occasion much better than I did, and Hornby uses the moment to engage us with Duncan, and make us respect him and even love him a little, just as Annie does. The speech affects Tucker also:

It had never occurred to him that his work was redeemable, or that he was redeemable through his work. But as he listened that afternoon to an articulate, nerdy man tell him over and over again why he was a genius, he could feel himself hoping that it might actually be true.

So Hornby teaches by example: he lets his characters shine, gives us what we want but still surprises us, in a meticulously crafted but apparently effortless novel that keeps us giddy with the pleasures of literature from the first page to the last. Now all I have to do is apply those lessons to my own book. A daunting task. Maybe I’ll re-read Juliet, Naked again, first.

And take better notes this time.

Play it Forward: Keeping the Music Alive

I ran into a man, while walking my pug yesterday, and he told me a peculiarly sad story. He had just taken his twenty-year old son to a Buddy Holly tribute band concert. The kid had to be dragged to the event, but wound up loving the music (it’s Buddy Holly – who wouldn’t?). The sad part? It occurred to me even as he was speaking, and in my usual manner, I just blurted it out. “You blew it, man,” I said. “How did your kid get to be twenty without ever hearing Buddy Holly? You’re a parent -- passing that music along is your job.”

I guess I sounded a little harsh, but it was true and the other side of the story – he spent a few minutes describing his futile efforts to enjoy a Kings of Leon album his son wanted him to hear – was just as demoralizing. He owed it to himself and his son to try a little harder. Apart from anything else, Kings of Leon rock. The point is, music stays alive through the proselytizing and cajoling, the commerce and community of families. Things vanish if they’re not appreciated. I think of the ruins in that Borges story which only existed because of one bird visiting on its yearly migrations, because one consciousness valued it. When that bird died, the crumbling old structure simply disappeared. But it’s not just fanciful Argentine metaphors I’m talking about – pieces of history can vanish as well. A Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles had been run by generations of women, with the recipes handed down from mother to daughter, but never transcribed. The system worked perfectly well until the first all-male generation. No one thought to teach the little boys the recipes and when the last old lady who knew them died, a whole subspecies of Mexican cuisine died with her. That’s a cautionary tale about unexamined sexism of course, but it’s also a warning about the fragility of the culture that sustains us.

My mother’s father was a prominent theatrical press agent, a Damon Runyan-esque character who did publicity for the likes of Hoagy Carmichael and Fats Waller, and he exposed her to the great Broadway talent of the twenties and thirties; she married a playwright and continued her intimacy with the stage (Guys and Dolls was playing across the street from my Dad’s first produced play all through the fall of 1952). I grew up saturated with the show tunes she loved, and learned to love the composers who wrote those tunes – George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, among others. They took their place with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky in our household (“Tchaikovsky wrote hit tunes,” she used to exult) Mom could be making breakfast singing “Adelaide’s Lament” from Frank Loesser’s masterpiece (“We get on the train to Niagra, you can hear church bells chime; the compartment is air-conditioned and the mood’s sublime – then we get off at Saratoga, for the fourteenth time), or some ditty from a Mozart opera -- anything was possible. We always had Milton Cross hosting the quiz during the intermission of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts; and I went to sleep every night with the second movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik introducing the late night show on WQXR.

I passed all this on to my kids – along with the music I grew up with … the Beatles, The Stones, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, The Who, Neil Young, Elton John. My kids were the first ones in their elementary school to discover the Beatles, and I was happy so see a small island version of Beatle-mania spread through the ten-year-old Nantucket community faster than a flu bug, They moved on -- to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, The Clash, Nirvana and beyond. Now I’m reaping the benefits, as I discover groups as diverse as The Postal Service The Shins, The Killers, Belle and Sebastian, Vampire Weekend, The Mountain Goats … and yes, Kings of Leon.

How would I have ever discovered this music, without my children? And how would they have discovered it themselves, if they hadn’t grown up in the music-rich environment my wife and I provided? They have taste, and we’re at least partly responsible. It all comes around in giant elegant circles. When my Mom was in the hospital this summer she wanted to hear some ‘new music’- she wanted to know what my kids were listening to. I played her John Darnielle’s Cotton and her face lit up, just as mine had the first time Nick played it for me, three generations connected by the harsh, elegiac spell of a beautiful song.

I can’t wait to hear the music my grandchildren will bring to me, in exchange for “You’re the Top”, “The Pretender” and “Cotton.” It’s how we keep the music alive. But it’s more than that. It’s how we keep each other alive, too.

That’s what I wanted to tell the old man I met on my dog walk. Maybe I’ll make him a mix-tape. He’s going to love Kings of Leon, if he just gives them a chance.

A New Low for American Idol

I know that's an ambiguous headline. I could be talking about the hightened tapioca inanity of the judges' comments last night (Simon excepted), which kind of boil down to "You were bad but you could be good and you're cute but you chose the wrong song and you deserve to be here but you don't, because if we admitted how bad you really were we'd have to admit we blew it. I mean -- we picked you out of hundreds of thousand of singers. And an epic fail like that doesn't exactly boost ratings."

I could also be talking about last night's guys, who with one exception were flat, boring, soulless and out of tune. It would make sense, since I can't remember a more dismal group.

But that's not what I'm talking about and neither are the grating re-cycled "this is my dream" sound-bites that precede every clunking performance. Pick a better dream dude.

Or better yet -- wake up.

No, I'm talking about one performance in particular, and the judges' response to it. The culprit is John Park, a nice looking but talentless young man who chose to perform one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century (and I mean all the arts -- stack it in there with Christo's wrapped cathedral and Guernica and Death of a Salesman; with Falling Water and Top Hat and The Great Gatsby) I'm talking about Billy Holiday's searing anthem to self-reliance, "God Bless the Child".

There was so much wrong with that segment, it's hard to know where to start. The kid had no business even trying to scale that mountain. He sang it with no heart, no feeling, no sense tht he'd ever had to take the left-overs from a rich relative's table -- and, like so many of the other boys -- with no rhythm and no tune. The song was barely recognizable ... that may have been the best thing about John Park's performance.

But it got worse. None of the judge's mentioned Billie Holiday. I found this particularly offensive since one of the standard critical tropes since the beginning of American Idol has been for the panel to say stuff like "That's a Mariah Carey song. You got to bring it when you try a song that big. That's a lot to live up to, dog" and "All I could hear was Celine Dion, honey. She owns that song" or "That sounded like a karoake version of Whitney Houston. You brought nothing of your own to it."(For extra points, guess the judges)

But when it's a Billie Holiday song, the greatest singer in Jazz history, who makes Whitney Houston (Or Diana Ross who attempted to play her in the execrable biopic) sound like big-throated school girls taking a solo at the chorus concert, no one says a word. Maybe Billie Holiday doesn't register with those people, maybe they don't care.

But I do, and this was the moment where American Idol jumped the shark for me. I don't think I'll be watching it any more. Instead, I think I'll take out my 1937 Count Basie recordings and check out Lester Young making some real music with Lady Day.

That's a lot to live up to, dog.

Killer Whale: "I've Had It."

an 'animal expert' on one of the network morning shows expressing bafflement at the tragic Killer Whale incident at Sea World yesterday. They really can't figure it out? Is that possible? Can they really be so dense and solipsistic?

I remember a story about the great dolphin researcher John Lilly -- he set his study animals free because they were mocking the tests he gave them and it became clear to him that they were just as smart as he was. Ultimately he couldn't justify holding intelligent animals captive.

Sea World has no such scruples.

The spokespeople talk about the 'love' between the whales and the trainers, the 'joy' and 'play'. But if the tanks were connected with the open water and the whales could come and go as they pleased, I know and you know and the corporate shills at Sea World know just as well as we do, that those whales would be gone in one flick of a tail, never to be seen again.

They're prisoners. They live in cages, forced to perform grotesque antics for our amusement. There were about a dozen Twilight Zone episodes where humans wound up in alien zoos -- a chilling thought. If puny venal arrogant creatures abducted you from your world and stuck you in a 'familiar environment' (Complete with cable TV and frozen dinners, while making you dance and juggle, feeding you chunks of meat when you cooperated, you might get a little pissed off, yourself. The thought of some opportune pay-back might cross your mind. After all, what would you have to lose?

This isn't the first time a whale has attacked. It won't be the last. Sea World's whale show is closed down for the moment, and they should keep it that way. They claim to love the whales. If so they should follow the advice of everyone from Richard Bach to Sting:

If you love them, set them free.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Democratic Conspiracies Revealed

Yes, now it can be told!

Those bumbling contentious disorganized democrats are in fact Machiavellian geniuses, hatching plot after plot designed to bring down the Republican party, assure Democratic victory in 2010 and guarantee President Obama a second term in 2012.

Who are the masterminds behind these intricate, devious schemes? Rahm Emmanuel? Eric Holder? Joe Biden? Barack Obama himself? Michelle? Perhaps they’re all part of the secret cabal currently scheming the downfall of the GOP. We know this much – no one could have conjured these strategies alone. This magnitude of cunning requires a virtual Manhattan Project of political hatchet men and tacticians.

Starting with the simplest of the three plans we know about, the Obama administration may have planted a mole in the inner circles of Dick Cheney’s private life. Somehow, they have convinced him to go on the air, to speak at CPAC conventions, to write articles, to make himself as conspicuous as possible speaking the idiotic partisan rhetoric which -- this is the master stroke – he actually believes himself, gradually corroding any credibility his administration might have possessed and turning thousands if not millions of undecided voters to the Progressive cause in what can only be called a fugue state of contempt and disgust.

Electing Scott Brown was a far trickier proposition – yet crucial, in order to shake up the party and push health Care legislation toward Reconciliation vote in the Senate. Only a ‘catastrophe’ of this magnitude could goad the Democratic majority into such a bold response. But that meant choosing the democratic candidate most likely to lose the election and once the cabal did the due diligence on Martha Coakley, they saw the opportunity. Here was a woman who scorned shaking hands with the electorate, who took her election as a foregone conclusion and who added the special gift of zero charisma to the mix of snobbery, entitlement and standard “democratic” muddle-headed foolishness. It seemed like a long shot – this was Kennedy’s seat after all – but they knew they had picked a horse who could lose big-time and there’s a rumor going around the West Wing that Kennedy himself had endorsed this last ditch end run around the Republican filibuster.

I save the most brilliant design for the last.

The problem was a basic one: how to split the Republican Party, as Perot did in 1992 – and as Nader had split the Democrats in 2000. There’s no more certain route to victory, and the best part is you can mask your power-grab in a swath of approved rhetoric about the value of third party candidates, inclusive democracy and the voice of the people. Someone in the White house must have been watching Glenn Beck, and that’s where the inspiration came from: foment a whole super-conservative ‘anti-tax’ ‘grass roots’ movement. The fuse was there – it just needed the right undercover Democratic operatives to light it. Which Democratic Karl Rove came up with term “tea bagger’ we may never know, but it was a flash of genius. Now Republican candidates have the Hobson’s choice of appeasing the Tea bag movement and alienating their base, or spurning them and looking like liberals in disguise. When a tea-bag candidate in the 2012 election finally appears (Palin is on the short list, we know that), the Republican vote will be fragmented, torn apart by its own partisan fault lines, arguing about tax relief and abortion while a true Democratic majority with a victorious Democratic president in the White House steers the country back onto a course of compassion, fairness and sanity.


Well, of course this whole idea is absurd. The Democrats coluldn't organize a pie fight in a bakery. They’re the Bay of Pigs People, the Iran rescue mission people the "Oops-I-left-a-stain-on-the-dress"people. They couldn’t plan a surprise party for an Alzheimer’s victim.

But a boy can always dream.