The Same Old Song

Music is supposed to be the language of peace and brotherhood, a force that can bring the world together in harmony. But is it any freer from politics as anything else in our lives?

Just look at the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest. The musical competition has taken place since 1956, produced under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The event is broadcast in 43 countries; the residents of each country call in to vote for the entry of any country other than their own. The EBU is a global association of national broadcasters; it has nothing to do with the European Union, which is why there were entries from Israel and Russia.

As an American, I’d never seen the Eurovision contest before, but I had always had the impression that it only generated mediocre pop songs, light and insubstantial in nature. But on a recent trip to London, I ran across the live broadcast on my hotel TV and I was excited about getting a first-hand look.

Venerable British television personality Sir Terry Wogan narrated the official broadcast from Belgrade. I was surprised at the overall quality of the entries – not great, but no worse than your average run-of-the-mill pop. The musical numbers had a greater range than I had expected. Spain’s “Baila El Chiki Chiki” was a silly dance number with less substance than your average cell ringtone. Latvia’s number looked like pirates run amok. Finland’s entry was heavy metal. Turkey and Azerbaijan entered rock songs. Sebastian Tellier‘s entry for France was clearly inspired by the Beach Boys.

Tellier’s song, like most of the others, featured lyrics sung in English (Apparently this caused a stir with French conservatives). Almost the entire international broadcast took place in English.

I was a little surprised by the narration by play-by-play announcer Wogan, who has done the British broadcast for decades. There were moments of gentle irony and sardonicism, but also hints of real bitterness. He predicted that blocs of countries would all vote for each, such as the Baltic nations. He predicted that the Russians had it in the bag.

After the performance portion ended, the call-in voting began. Fifteen minutes later, the voting results started to trickle in, as each country announced their results in turn. In addition to a series of points from one to seven from the phone calls, each country could award 8, 10 & 12 points each to three deserving countries.

Russia started dominating early. Greece and Ukraine also pulled ahead. Former Soviet Republics all voted for Russia and each other. The Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, etc.) all voted for each other. England came in dead last.

It took a long time for the votes to be reported. During this lengthy slog, Terry Wogan kept getting progressively more bitter. He expressed the notion that no one will support “us” – in other words, England – and it felt to me like he wasn’t just talking about the Eurovision Song Contest. Towards the end of the broadcast, he threatened to never do the show again.

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A Revolutionary Soundtrack

The connection between contemporary pop music and politics tends to be quite prickly. There’s a lot of power available any time a pol can make a link to popular culture. Witness Walter Mondale’s use of the phrase “Where’s the beef?” in 1984 or Hillary Clinton’s Sopranos video last year.

But the connection is often made gingerly. As evidence, check out some examples of politicians answering the softball “What’s on your iPod?” question and you’ll see nothing but caution and calculation.

Once upon a time, about the best example of a joint venture between pop music and politics was the infamous meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon in 1970. But since Elvis was trying to become a “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, it’s not a very rock ‘n’ roll moment. In the collision between pop music and politics, the former has to bend to the latter. For example, consider James Brown’s endorsement of Hupert Humphrey in 1968. I don’t think Humphrey displayed the slightest bit of soul in response.

More successfully, in 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign used Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit “Don’t Stop” as a kind of theme song. Fleetwood Mac (at least the mid Seventies version) was a pretty soft-rock sort of band. That song’s lyrics are uplifting, not rebellious or anti-authoritarian. Recall that Bill Clinton’s campaign had briefly used Jesus Jones’ song “Right Here’ Right Now” and that Fleetwood Mac ended up re-uniting (once again) and playing live at Clinton’s inaugural ball. The first Baby Boomer Presidential candidate rode to victory (in part) on the back of a Baby Boomer hit single.

And what did Hillary end up selecting as her campaign theme song? As previously discussed: Celine Dion’s “You and I.” Now, there’s a tune that says “experience” and “moderate.”

That means we have to look at Barack Obama to break the mold. After all, he’s the candidate who keeps promising he’s not going to do things in the traditional Washington fashion. He’s the guy who’s supposedly captured the youth vote and the progressive vote. But has he done so?

Well, yes and no. Obama’s campaign rallies never shied away from music others might consider controversial. Have a look at this playlist from a San Francisco rally last fall. When he gave his concession on Tuesday from Indiana, after losing the Pennsylvania primary, Obama’s speech was followed by “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” as the song’s author John Mellencamp stepped forward to shake the candidate’s hand in congratulations. That’s a photo-op, but not much of a rock ‘n’ roll revolution.

But let’s go back a few days earlier. On April 16, the last Democratic debate was held and moderators George Stephanopolis and Charlie Gibson raked Obama over the coals pretty well. Hillary Clinton got one hit on her account of a Bosnia trip, but Obama took a barrage of blows. Does Jeremiah Wright loves this country? Do you? How come you don’t love the flag? How come you don’t love white people? Aren’t we loveable enough for you? Left, right, left, right – BAM! Upper cut to the jaw.

Two days later, Obama referred to this pounding during a speech. He acknowledged the incident, classified it as politics, tried to move past it. Then came the bold move: He said, “You’ve just got to…” And he flipped his hand with a dismissive gesture, as if brushing a little lint of his shoulder. This wasn’t arrogance, at least not the garden variety sort. He stole that damn move right out of the Jay-Z playbook.

The rapper’s song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is the typical theme of Me-Against-the-World, but the chorus offers advice that if you are “feelin’ like a pimp,” then you ought to “go and brush your shoulders off.” Jay-Z clarifies that “Ladies is pimps, too,” and they should likewise “brush your shoulders off.” The message pumps louder: “You gotta get / that / dirt off your shoulder.”

There’s a reason the rock/politics equation usually doesn’t work. Rock is often loud, rude, chaotic, antiauthoritarian. If that’s true, hip-hop is that same attitude cranked up to 11. But in this instance, hip-hop didn’t conform to politics. Obama stepped over to hip-hop and borrowed the attitude unadulterated.

Despite the fact that hip-hop has been continuously under attack as an artform over the last 30-plus years; despite the sexism, homophobia, violence, and materialism often found in hip-hop; despite Jay-Z’s own controversial nature and his use of “pimp” and the N-word in this song – despite all that, Obama was trying to communicate a response to an attack with a move that was (in many ways) rude, rebellious and anti-authoritarian.

To really appreciate this event, you need to see the video version that showed up quickly on YouTube. Set to the beats of Jay-Z, you see Hillary Clinton hammering away at him on numerous occasions; Stephanopolis and Gibson take their turns. Then Obama speaks and little cartoon heads of his attackers pop up on his shoulder – he brushes them off. They pop up on the other shoulder and are brushed off again. Finally, a little kitchen sink is thrown at him, to no avail.

There is a danger of embracing hip-hop. It’s an undeniably controversial form, with sex, drugs, violence, and race. Any sane politician would keep this stuff at arm’s length. And yet, for one moment, danger was embraced: A perfect marriage of pop culture and politics.

The Real Deal

Of course, our focus on authenticity in our popular culture is flawed. Gangsta rap and punk are supposed to be authentic, but bubble gum pop and teeny boppers are fake. There are music fans that don’t care, listening to whatever strikes their fancy, and I suppose you could charge that they are lacking in artistic values. But you could just as easily charge certain discriminating hipsters and intellectuals as being snobs.

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Days of Wine and Roses

There’s no denying that there’s a relationship between performers and audience, on and off-stage. Performers give us enjoyment, insight, entertainment, enlightenment. We give them financial rewards, adulation, the pleasures of someone who will listen. But what do they owe us and what is our responsibility to them?

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Santa’s Little Enablers

Western culture seems to have had some sort of Christmastime festivities going back centuries. The Winter Solstice has long been a time for celebration. If you’re a farmer, by December, the agricultural cycle has ended. The working aspects of the farm have closed down. The beer and wine is ready for consumption. The weather becomes cool enough to slaughter animals, but it’s before the deep freeze of winter. It’s time to kick back and have a party.

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Do Writers Still Matter?

There are many ways of examining the Writer’s Guild strike as it heads into its second month. You could examine some of the business issues – do the studios have any credibility in claiming that new media holds no profit for the foreseeable future? Or you could look at the power of American labor and ask if the idea of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work still means anything in the global economy. Or you could take the flippant approach and assume that the writers are simply another overpaid sector of the entertainment industry asking for even more money.

But there’s a theme bubbling under the surface here, a belief that the impact of professional writers in today’s media environment has been lessened. The suggestion is that much of today’s entertainment either isn’t written at all or is nothing more than the re-writing of old ideas – shows and movies from Hollywood’s glory days – and thus not a truly creative product. There’s also that buried assumption that these so-called “writers” are already paid so much that it’s simply selfish to ask for more.

You could find some of these attitudes in stories in the media, such as the one about the “good news” of the strike: newsmagazine shows might benefit. Peter Chernin, president of News Corp., crowed about how good the strike would be for Fox, saving money on cancelled deals and unshot pilots, while allowing the network to make money on American Idol and other reality fare. A reluctantly striking writer sent an e-mail to The National Review, claiming that with “football, The Next Iron Chef, and Law and Order re-runs” who needs writers? (This attitude – ironically, from a Guild member – ignores the fact that fictional fare has long competed with sports and that the heart of the strike is precisely about residuals from repeats and new platforms.)

But while so-called “reality” shows offer competitions, game shows and human train wrecks, giving you the sense that it’s all just unspooling before the cameras, the truth is that almost nothing you see on television is presented in a raw, unedited form (And the writers employed by reality shows are not covered by the Guild, an issue which has come up in the current negotiations). Beyond the reality genre, it’s possible in the face of YouTube and other amateur online video sources to assume that craft is no longer required to create content.

But that assumption is incorrect.

Within the entertainment industry, writing is simultaneously the most and least valued aspect of the process. Since just about anybody can operate a pen or keyboard, there is often the perception that anyone can write. Whether your favorite show is a sit-com, a reality show or even a YouTube video, somebody sat down and had to figure out, “What’s going to happen this week?”

Content doesn’t happen by accident. It happens as a result of determining what kind of things will happen, who will be doing those things and what they will say as they do those things. And while it’s possible for talent and creativity to come from anywhere, online video (which is getting better all the time) has yet to produce a consistent stream of content as good as The Simpsons or Lost. While the studios may think the answer is that they can make money off of amateur online videos, saving themselves some production costs, they shouldn’t forget that the writers could also ditch the studios and head straight for the Internet.

Whether you call it content or story or anything else, it’s a skill to create it. And whether you’re J.K. Rowling or a guy with a webcam, it’s the same set of creative muscles that are flexed. The writer’s strike is about the value we place on that effort. The answer to my question ought to be that writers will always matter as long as people want to be amused and excited. We ought to acknowledge that writing is embedded throughout our daily consumption of entertainment and information, regardless of the media platform.

Once that premise is accepted, then the studios and the writers can figure out the fair compensation. But let’s not pretend the craft of writing no longer matters.

Happily Ever After, In The Real World

As the father of two young women, let me go on the record: Not a fan of princesses. But I am crazy for a new Disney movie about a fairytale princess because it illuminates what’s so wrong with the enduringly popular Princess mythology.

Enchanted is a new film that builds on the popularity of Princess movies, but it also subtly undermines their foundation, suggesting that real life is preferable to living in a myth. I’m sure there are fans of the hit movie that don’t see that subtext, but I found it a delightful antidote to the Princess Myth, a mythology filled with True Love, but based on simplistic notions of relationships.

Now, my problem isn’t with actual princesses, although I’m not convinced of the symbolic worth of a monarchy to a democratic nation. I also don’t have a problem with the original fairytales from which the classic princesses come from – such as those of the Brothers Grimm – since those stories are very much rooted in their time and are filled with historical details. My beef is with the modern Princess Myth as it’s exemplified by those princesses and princess-wannabes found in American film, including such Disney classics as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid and the plucky characters found in movies like Pretty Woman and The Prince and Me.


“The Diana
Chronicles”

There are two halves to the appeal of the Princess Myth, one classic and one contemporary. The older half is the image despaired by feminists for years: Our young heroine sits around, looking pretty and doing little more than longing for happiness until Prince Charming swoops in and saves her, presumably then taking her off to a castle where she will spend the rest of her days doing little more than looking pretty and being happy. While the notion that a man “saves” a woman is still around, there’s also the more material modern half to the myth: Oh My God, wouldn’t it be cool to have all those clothes and live in a fancy house and have butlers and stuff?

In this version of the myth, women can have their cake and eat it too. You can be free-thinking and independent and all that good stuff, but still benefit from having a Prince who supplies that American Express Black Card (annual spending required: $250,000) you need to complete your life.


The
Princess
Bride

I’m convinced this is an essential part of the huge appeal of Princess Diana, a fandom that approached hysteria upon her death. There is an element to Diana’s celebrity that relies on her fans believing an inaccurate but basic message: “She was one of us and she made it. She achieved the dream.” Yes, the dream every woman has of being in line to ascend the throne, having your husband cheat on you and dying in a fiery crash in Paris. The stuff of the Brothers Grimm. And, of course, Diane was part of a line of distinguished English aristocrats, the Spencers, who can trace their lineage (and land holdings) back to the 17th century. She was hardly starting life with little more than the rags on her back.

In Enchanted, Amy Adams plays Giselle, a classic Princess type. In the initial animated sequence, which perfectly nails both the classic Disney films of the Forties, as well as those of the Nineties, Giselle sings and plays with her animal friends, while waiting for her Prince to come along, whereupon the pair will instantly fall in love and live happily ever after. The happy couple is split asunder when the evil Queen throws Giselle into the real world of Manhattan, where she must try to make her way in a world of diminished expectations.

But it’s interesting how things wind up (here come the blessed spoilers). At some point, Giselle begins to prefer the real world. While she’s dismayed to discover the concept of divorce – she hooks up with a divorce attorney, played by Patrick Dempsey – there’s also a delightful scene where she discovers the emotion of anger, a completely foreign concept to her.

Even though she finally is rescued by her handsome Prince, who follows her to the real world, Giselle finds she is unsatisfied. Her Prince loves her utterly and without reservation, but Giselle has also discovered the concept of the “date,” of going out to talk and getting to know the other person. Why is it those animated heroines always seemed to love their dashing Princes at first sight, almost never knowing much about them?

Giselle battles the wicked Queen and saves her love. She chooses to stay in New York and open a business. She becomes a step-mother to a young girl. She elects to live in the real world, a place where things don’t always work out. Another New Yorker in the film, a rival female character, does choose the fairy tale and heads off for her happily-ever-after with the Prince. But which of these two women has found real happiness?

Editor’s note: P.J. Rodriguez isn’t the only Spot-on writer who’s not a fan of the princess phenomenon. Deborah Klosky’s taken a look at the “real” life version of this story in this post “Princesses are Us.”

Stephen Colbert’s Truthy Reality

Just imagine if Colbert actually got enough votes to become a spoiler. If that happens, Colbert will have made a very important point: A vote for his bombastic, insensitive, over-the-top moronic egotist is a entertaining way for voters to say “none of the above,”

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Pretty Please, Vote For Me.

There’s something really fascinating about watching children engage in adult pursuits, to see what they do differently and what they do exactly the same – horrifyingly, the same

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Tornante, Indeed

There are young people who don’t know a world without color television, remote controls, digital cable, the Internet, high-speed data, personal computers, and so on. Prensky argues that these younger people “think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors,” because they were born into the Digital World and are native speakers of its inherent language…. She said the Old Media had Attention Deficit Disorder, covering flashy stories and then quickly moving on. She spoke about new forms of journalism that shattered the old model of the men and women covering political campaigns “on the bus,” spouting conventional wisdom while caught in the echo chamber.

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