Saturday, December 18, 2010

2010 Year In Music

Let me just be clear at the outset: the following list is not meant to represent the best of 2010's music in any kind of remotely "objective" sense. This is my list. It represents my year in music. My musical tastes tend toward the rootsy, the groovy and the nostalgic. I prefer simple, but well-constructed, lyrically-driven songs-- "three chords and a sad story" kind of stuff, mostly. So those of you who don't like that stuff won't like this list, which is heavily weighted toward the Dylan-esque. I've restricted myself here to albums (no singles) that were released in 2010 (even though some of the late-2009 albums got a lot of play for me this year). Finally, there are a few albums released in the last month or so (e.g., Jazmine Sullivan's Love Me Back) or that I just need to listen to more (e.g., The Black Keys' Brothers and Mumford & Sons Sigh No More), which could have been real contenders and only just missed making the list.

Like a lot of music lovers these days, I am often drawn to an album or artist on the basis of some "hit" single. But I try, as much as possible, to stock my music library with complete albums. I still believe in the idea of an "album," disappearing though it may be, and I like to think that the hit singles-- no matter how good they are on their own-- are just a piece of a larger work of art. Of course, keeping whole albums means that I have a lot of mediocre songs in my files, but it also means that I stumble across a lot of great ones. For me, the mark of a good album is if, after one listen, I remember tracks on it that I didn't already know. All of the following albums from 2010 met-- and exceeded-- that criterion.

Jakob Dylan's Women and Country
This is hands-down my favorite album of 2010. There is not a single track on Women and Country that I don't absolutely love. It's brooding, soulful, reflective, sad-- with some of the most compelling lyrical storytelling I've heard in a long, long time. Women and Country also has the distinction of having been produced by one of the best in the music business, T-Bone Burnett, who has a way of making everything sound haunting and beautiful. The title of the album is no lie, either, as Dylan chose two of country music's best young female vocalists (Neko Case and Kelly Hogan) to provide backup harmonies. And Dylan himself is in top songwriting form, from the straightfoward promises of "Nothing But The Whole Wide World" to the ironic resignation of "Smile When You Call Me That" to the resilient hopefulness of "Holy Rollers For Love." Not quite country, not quite blues, not quite pop and not quite gospel, Women and Country is a whole lot of all of those... which makes it one of the best "rootsy" albums I've ever heard.

John Mellencamp's No Better Than This
Also produced by T-Bone Burnett, and partly recorded in Memphis' own Sun Studio, Mellencamp's No Better Than This is an homage to roots music from a man best known for asking the quintessential folk question "ain't that America?." In addition to Sun Studio, Mellencamp laid down tracks at other iconic/historic locations, including the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia and the Sherton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio (where blues legend Robert Johnson recorded "Cross Road Blues"). Story has it that No Better Than This was recorded in mono, using a single microphone, in the manner of classic folk and blues from the 1930's and 40's, which gives it a scratchy, nostaligia-laden sound. All that is to say, Mellencamo obviously took "authenticity" very seriously with this project. None of that would really matter if the songs weren't good, though... but they ARE good. They're so very simple, so very true, that each one sounds immediately familiar. Even the track titles-- "Don't Forget About Me" and "Clumsy Ol' World" and "Thinking About You"-- are so simple and true that you can practically anticipate the lyrics in advance. I had the good fortune to see Mellencamp live back in August, and his performance of "Save Some Time To Dream" from this album was enough to almost silence the entire audience at an outdoor summer concert. It was awed and inspired silence, the kind that makes you think to yourself (like the title of the album says): there's just "no better than this."

Bruno Mars' Doo-Wops & Hooligans
Here's an example of an album I bought only after being hooked by a single... a single, it turns out, that wasn't even on this album! The initial hook for me was Bruno Mars and Travis McCoy's catchy rap-and-reggae single "Billionaire" --so I downloaded Doo-Wops & Hooligans without checking the tracklist first. Lucky me. Interestingly, Bruno Mars' album is the opposite of Dylan's and Mellencamp's in almost every way. It's light and airy, with a lot of vocals and instrumentation (and emotions) in the high registers, and it's got enough of that 70's soul sound to give it an almost "disco" feel. The hit track off this album is "Just The Way You Are," a poppy, skippy, shinyhappy love song. Same goes for the track "Marry You." Doo-Wops & Hooligans stops just this side of the teen/pre-adolescent line, by which I mean that it's cheesy and sweet without being nauseating or corny. "The Other Side" (featuring Cee-Lo Green and B.o.B) may seem a little out of place on the album with its more straightforward contemporary R&B sound, but it fits right into the whole roll-down-the-windows in your car and play-it-loud vibe of the rest of the album. Even though Doo-Wops & Hooligans was released in October, this is definitely a warm-weather record. Can't wait to see what it sounds like in the summertime.

Cee Lo Green's The Lady Killer
Green's is another album that hooked me with a single-- the best single of 2010-- a Motown & Stax inspired breakup song irreverently titled "F**k You." This year's The Lady Killer has a little bit of funk ("Bright Lights Bigger City"), a little bit of classic soul ("I Want You"), a little bit of contemporary R&B ("Satisfied"), and a bigger-than-life personality driving it all forward. I'd recommend this album for the horns alone. Cee Lo Green is as smooth as Al Green (no relation), as soulful as Solomon Burke, as funky as James Brown, as sultry as Luther Vandross, and as badass as Isaac Hayes. He's voice is just pure butter: smooth and delicious and definitely bad for you. Green somehow managed to fly below the radar with his first two albums, so I'm glad to see him getting his due with The Lady Killer. (Even in spite of the unconscionable mangling of his hit song this year on "Glee," in which they purged it of its profanities and, consequently, of all its charm.) This is easily the best 14-track party released all year. And if you can somehow manage the fortitude to remain standing still through the swelling bridge in the last 45 seconds or so of "F**k You," then you should check to see if you have a pulse.

Marc Cohn's Listening Booth, 1970
Most people, if they know him at all, know Marc Cohn by way of his hit "Walking in Memphis," from his self-titled album of 1991. That album came out the same year that I graduated high school, and to this day is still one of my all-time favorites. So, I was excited to see Cohn releasing another album in 2010. Listening Booth, 1970 is exactly what the title suggests: a compilation of hit pop songs from 1970. Cohn covers Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed," Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown," and Bread's "Make It With You" among others, and he stamps each of those songs with the quiet emotional power that characterized so much of his first album. He's rustled up some excellent background vocals for this album as well, including India.Arie and Aimee Mann. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this album is the fact that all of the original songs were released in the same year. 1970 was a few years before my birth, but these are songs beloved by and familiar to everyone, and Marc Cohn does them all justice.

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs' God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise
I was a latecomer to Ray LaMontagne's music, but I went from aquaintance to devotee in practically no time flat. I'll be honest, LaMontagne reminds me a lot of Ryan Adams, and I'm positive that my affection for the scratchy, soulful, Americana sound of both artists is of a kind. For those who love that kind, God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise will not disappoint. LaMontagne is joined here by his new band, the Pariah Dogs, which gives him more of a rough-and-rocking sound, but he's still got that intimate and solitary feel in all of his songs with the band. If I'm being honest, I'd have to say that I don't love this album as much as LaMontagne's others (Trouble, Til the Sun Turns Black, and Gossip in the Grain), but it's still one of the best of 2010. There's a kind of brutal honesty to LaMontagne's songwriting, featured especially on the tracks "New York City's Killing Me," "Are We Really Through" and "This Love Is Over" from this album. It's a great rainy day listen, full of all the existential angst that makes life and love so very song-worthy. It's also got one of my favorite song titles of 2010: "The Devil's in the Jukebox." So very true.

Shelby Lynne's Tears, Lies and Alibis
Shelby Lynne is the sole female representative on my list this year, a fact that surprises even me. I was a big fan of her breakout album I Am Shelby Lynne, but that came out almost a decade ago now, and I've been underimpressed with what she's put out since. (Except for that great album she did of Dusty Springfield covers, Just A Little Lovin'.) So, I couldn't have been happier to hear that this year's Tears, Lies and Alibis was going to be Lynne's first self-produced and self-released album, featuring a rootsy, country sound. Shelby Lynne is not the kind of artist who is going to be on the Hit Singles chart, regrettably, but I am absolutely positive that I could sell this album to almost anyone by playing only one track: "Old #7." Here's a video of a live performance of that song, which she introduces by saying "I'm gonna play this song for all my brown-liquor-drinkin' friends." That song is just the very best of what country music has to offer. It could've been sung by Loretta Lynn or Patsy Cline, and it hearkens back to the pre-pop era of country music when women were tragic but strong, reserved but resilient, both the heartbeat and the backbone of America. And oh mercy how that pedal-steel whines! Trust me, Shelby Lynne's whole album is as good as that song.

Jack Johnson's To The Sea
Jack Johnson's music is what my mom would call "elevator music," by which she doesn't mean Muzak but rather music that is best suited in the background, music that you could listen to while doing other things. I'd probably give Jack Johnson a little more credit than that, but I basically agree with Mom that he's the kind of singer-songwriter that is very easy to listen to (without being "easy listening"). And, the truth is, I probably "heard" his album To The Sea in 2010 more often than I really "listened" to it. I don't want to damn this record with faint praise, though, because if you do take the time to listen, you'll find that it's full of carefully constructed, cleverly narrated, and sparsely orchestrated songs. Particularly noteworthy is "The Upsetter" (a quiet ballad of reassurance), "Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology" (a groovy, rhythmic regret song) and "Pictures of People Taking Pictures" (which has a pop sound vaguely reminiscent of the Beatles circa Sgt. Peppers). My guess is that Jack Johnson has a million of these songs waiting in reserve; the ease with which they are delivered sounds effortless. And it doesn't hurt that his whispery baritone is so intuitively trustworthy, especially when he sings things like "I can tell you anything but the truth."

Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses' Junky Star
If you're planning anytime soon to saddle up a horse and ride the lonely trail, or hop a train and watch the countryside whiz by from an open boxcar door, or hitchhike your way through the heartland of America, you should go ahead and purchase Ryan Bingham's Junky Star for your trip. It's full of travelling song, outlaw songs, brokenhearted songs, trying-to-be-good but still-doing-wrong songs. This album is like aural amor fati. Bingham has a voice that sounds like its already drunk and smoked too much, slept too little, shouted and cried too often. In "Self-Righteous Wall" (also a contender for best song title of 2010), Bingham sings "you're telling me I've lost it all/ you're telling me I've hit the wall" while at the same time flipping a lyrical finger at the world for the rest of the song, almost as if compelled to prove true its judgment of him. I love the rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet defiance of Bingham on this album, cranked up a notch from his previous (and also excellent) album Mescalito. I don't think a lot of people know much about Ryan Bingham, and that's a shame. Somehow, I doubt he cares.

Michael Jackson's Michael
Seriously, is it even necessary to "recommend" Michael Jackson? When The King of Pop died two years ago, I (like many people) worried that we'd never again hear anything new from him. Michael, released just last week, is a collection of 10 previously-unreleased songs that Jackson recorded in the months before his tragic death. Even if every song on this album sucked-- which, of course, they don't and which would never happen anyway-- I'd still put it on my list. There are some really interesting pairings here, with 50 Cent, Akon and Lenny Kravitz joining Micheal on three of the tracks. But a good part of the album is still classic Michael Jackson, especially "Best of Joy" and "Keep Your Head Up." For posterity, I'm glad that "Behind the Mask" is also included here, which gives us another glimpse into the mystery that will always be Michael Jackson. My favorite track is the last one ("Much Too Soon"), which features a tender-hearted Michael sweetly pining "I guess I learned my lesson much too soon." So true, Michael. So true.

Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street (2010 Deluxe Version) [Remastered]
I know it's a little bit cheating to include a re-release on this year's list, but this is not just any old re-release. It's the Rolling Stones' classic 1972 album Exile on Main Street, which many people consider one of the greatest rock albums of all time. There are some previously-unreleased studio outtakes on the "Deluxe" version, along with new videos and vintage photos, but all those extras are really just gravy. I didn't really need all of the bonus material of this re-relaease-- I was just happy to be reminded to put Exile back on regular rotation. Exile is just as good in 2010 as it was in 1972, which is yet another testament to the band that time doesn't seem to touch. Back in May, music mag No Depression hosted a contest they called the "Exile on Main Street vs. White Album Smackdown" which generated an impassioned, informed and thoroughly entertaining debate between Stones and Beatles lovers everywhere. I came down on the side of the Stones in that contest, and I explained why in a post on this blog titled "Why Exile on Main Street Gets My Rocks Off." I'll go on the record as predicting that none of the other entries on this list will make it to 2048 and still get people's rocks off like Exile does now.

That's it for my 2010 Year in Music. I'm sure I missed some good stuff-- and I'm always looking for new music-- so if you know of something that really should have made it on this list, let me know in the comments section.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

2010 Year In Pop Culture

Right out of the gate, 2010 looked to be a very promising pop culture year. Back in January, at one of the early American Idol auditions, we were introduced to aspiring contestant General Larry Platt, who regaled the judges with his seemingly-improvised yet totally-infectious original composition "Pants on the Ground." Before America's favorite non-plussed judge Simon Cowell could say "I have a horrible feeling that could be a hit," pretty much the whole country was on board with General Platt's effort to dis all those people with gold in their mouths, their hats turned sideways, looking like a fool with their pants on the ground. (Jimmy Fallon did a great "Pants on the Ground" version as Neil Young.) That is just to say, the Crazy Bar was set high early on in the year. Thankfully, this is America, and we can always go crazier.

The "pop culture" list is a difficult one to compose, as there is so much mutual contamination between pop culture, politics, arts and letters, sports and other "real" news. I mean, who would've thought that one of the biggest political events this year (the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear) would also be such a big music concert, slang-and-slogan-generator, television phenomenon and pop culture celebrity-fest? Popular culture is a funny thing-- quite often, a hilariously funny thing-- and it is shaped and reshaped at light speed. Here's a look back at what flashed in the pan in 2010:

Tiny Little Thumb Judges The World
We might as well begin with that ubiquitous little icon that has come to serve as the New Millennial's Ballot Box. Back in April when Facebook decided to wean its 500 million users off of the "Become a Fan" button, they replaced it with a little thumbs-up icon called the "Like" button. Almost immediately-- because, as we all know, the Facebook method of "weaning" is to yank the bottle away and destroy it-- it became possible to "like" (but never to "dislike," though one can "unlike") practically everything, from movies and music and actors to hobbies and cities and snarks (e.g., "if you don't want a sarcastic answer, then don't ask a stupid question"). The Like button is a strange, but immensely influential, experiment in direct democracy. It's everywhere now, and has come to function as the pictorial shorthand for positivity (whether genuine or ironic). More than any poll or survey, Facebook's little thumb is the thing to consult if you want to meaure the pulse of popular culture. Oh, and by the way, you can even "like" this blog!

Facebook Founder Doesn't "Like" Facebook Movie
Since we're on the topic of Facebook, 2010 also gave us the blockbuster film ("The Social Network") about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's meteoric rise to wealth and influence. The basic premise of the biopic was that Zuckerberg, who invented the world's first and largest "social network," was himself a bit socially retarded, if not outright antisocial. Now, if you've ever actually met one of those college IT-geeks who thinks staying up all night writing code or playing video games is the greatest thing ever, you may not have found "The Social Network" to be all that world-shattering. I'm guessing just about anyone would be a little miffed if they were caricatured on screen like Zuckerberg was in this film... but, hey, those are the breaks when, at a mere 25 years old, you've already risen to a level of influence that commands a cinematic rendering. Although he had nothing to do with the film's creation and initially swore off seeing it, Zuckerberg admitted in his most recent "60 Minutes" interview that he had changed his mind and accompanied the entire Facebook staff to see "The Social Network." I saw the movie, too, and I thought it was facinating-- not so much for the totally unsurprising expose of Zuckerberg as for the story of Facebook itself. With a half-BILLION people logging into the same social network every day (multiple times a day for most of them), I think Facebook belongs up there with the printing press and penicillin for Inventions that Most Dramatically Changed Human Life. So, who cares if the boy-genius behind it all doesn't blink and is a little weird? Tiny little thumbs-up for this movie. I *LIKE.*

G.T.L. (Gym, Tanning, Laundry)
The most unlikely rise to pop culture stardom this year came to the cast of MTV's reality show "Jersey Shore," which chronicled the drinking, the smushing, the fist-pumping, the dancing, the eating, the fighting and the making-up of a bunch of 20-somethings who were sooo stereotypical "Jersey" that you just knew they had to be real. There was the drop-dead handsome DJ with the immovable gelled hair, Pauly D. The fiery vixen but loyal friend JWOW. The star-crossed smushers, meathead Ronnie and his sweet on-again/off-again girlfriend Sammi. The endearing and lovable trainwreck Snooki. And watching over them all-- cooking the meals, negotiating the arguments, managing the household, enforcing the GTL routine-- was Mr. Six-Pack Abs himself, Mike "The Situation." This year was the second season of "Jersey Shore," but I've been watching it from the beginning. It's really, really good. Critics find the show très gauche-- full of undereducated, oversexed, alcoholic misfits-- but what they miss (I think) is the way those misfits manage to take their collective dysfunction and fashion something like a functional family out of it. Looking beautiful and partying hard are certainly top priorities for this crew, but even those are in the end subordinate to friendship and loyalty. These are young people with good hearts, even in their most directionless moments. "Jersey Shore" is fresh to death.

Jessica Can Do Anything Good
The viral video "Jessica's Daily Affirmation" is my hands-down favorite of this year's pop culture phenomena. In it, a little girl climbs up on her bathroom counter and excitedly shouts a list of everything that she likes about her little life. And it's a pretty impressive list. Jessica likes her school, her haircut, her pajamas, her WHOLE HOUSE! When she's done, she climbs down from the counter, mumbling to herself "I can do anything good. Better than anyone." Yes, of course, Jessica is irresistably "cute"... but she's also strong and enthusiastic and fearless and bold. There's just nothing about her impromptu Manifesto that doesn't warm your heart. After viewing her performance a few months ago, I was so taken with it that I wrote an "Open Letter to Little Jessica" on this blog in response. Jessica is 12-yrs-old now (and was interviewed about her reactions to the video going viral), but for everyone who saw this video in 2010, she'll always the 4 or 5-yr-old standing over the bathroom sink in her eminently likable pajamas. Here's hoping that more kids grow up in a world where they are moved to shout like little Jessica!

It Gets Better
Unfortunately, not every kid does grow up in a world like little Jessica's, a sad fact that we were all reminded of this year when several suicides by LGBT teens made headlines. As the rest of the country debated gay marriage and DADT (the still-in-effect "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"policy of the United States military), a lot of young queer people suffered the ostracism and harrassment that is too often passively permitted to torture the psyches of gay youth. In September, syndicated columnist Dan Savage started the It Gets Better Project, designed to provide some encouragement to young people struggling with their LGBT identities. The idea was simple: let young LGBT kids know that they are not alone, they have support, and no matter how hard their situations are now, it will get better. Dan Savage and his partner Terry posted the first video, but it has since been followed by similar messages from Tim Gunn (from "Project Runway"), pop star Adam Lambert, comedienne Kathy Griffin, Presdent Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chris Colfer (from "Glee"), a bunch of Google employees and Facebook employees, Bishop Gene Robinson, and even Kermit the Frog. At first I was a bit torn about this project, because the truth is that for a lot of people, it doesn't get better... you just get stronger. But the more videos I've seen, the more I think this might be one of the greatest projects ever. It's important, timely, community-building, educational and, hopefully, life-saving.

iPad iPositively iPleases iPeople
Steve Jobs (again) gave us the Grown-Up Toy of the Year in 2010 with his introduction of the iPad. And as much as I am loathe to condone the further Applefication of our lives, this is a pretty cool toy. It's a half-inch thin, less than 2lbs, the size of a standard sheet of paper... and it can do almost everything that a regular laptop can do. Like its cousin the iPod, it's a product for sophisticated media and graphics connoisseurs. And like its other cousin the iPhone, it is largely "apps"-driven. The only drawback? The iPad comes with a pretty hefty $500-$900 price tag. (But, hey, Macintosh has built it's entire business around the "pay for convenience, for convenience pays" principle.) From the people that I know who have gone iPad already, the news is almost entirely positive. There's just no denying that in 2010, whipping an iPad out of your purse or bag was the indicator of cool, hip and connected. Even still, I want to register AGAIN my (increasingly tired and mostly ignored) complaint about devotees to the so-called "Mac community": People, it's a product, not an identity.

Professorate Ironically Fights Battle With Hoi Polloi Using Snarky Cartoons
[Full disclosure: before I begin my snarky comments about this, I have to admit that I also created one of these cartoons several months ago, before this thing got huge.] Leave it to academics to take something fun on the internet (like the text-to-movie app created by Xtranormal), go all OCD with the thing, and start fighting a million petty office squabbles with it. These videos had been popping up intermittently for a while when, all of the sudden a couple of months ago, they literally exploded. It's hard to locate the exact tipping point, but I think it came with the "So You Want To Get A PhD in the Humanities?" video, in which an idealistic (but naive) undergraduate is mercilessly ridiculed (ahem, "advised") by her sober-minded and realistic (but jaded) professor. Once that cartoon went viral, the gloves were off. Other disciplines joined in with their own variations-- Political Science, Physics, Economics, Business, Law, Film-- each involving a little more cathexis than the one before, each a little more littered with "inside" professional jokes, each just as snarky, ironic and depressing. It's like the entire United States professorate had a really bad case of gas, and it just belched it all out at once. Still, it was funny and probably more than a bit therapeutic. (If you want to read a smart and interesting analysis of the whole phenomenon, I recommend my friend Theory Teacher's blog posts about it here and here.) The story-behind-the-story is, of course, that higher education-- especially the humanities-- was allegedly "in crisis" in 2010. I think the jury's still out on that one, but don't be surprised to see it on the list next year. Sigh.

Make-a My Dreams Come True
Despite all the hype about Twighlight: Eclipse, I think the Movie of the Year was Christopher Nolan's Inception. I saw the movie when it came out, and I posted my review of it on this blog already, so let me try to say something different here. I think Inception, which was just an "okay" movie as far as content goes, was one of the most visually stunning films I've ever seen. (I didn't see Avatar.) And Christopher Nolan can always be counted on to make the movies that people keep talking about afterwards. So, it's no surprise that this CGI-fest about dreams and dreams-within-a-dream and dreams-within-dreams-within-a-dream-- with a little conspiracy, intrigue, romance, and familial tragedy thrown in for good measure-- was what moviegoers were talking about for a lot of 2010. Like Memento and The Matrix and Waking Life and other quasi-philosophical films, Inception forced people to stretch their minds a bit and ask some big questions. Can someone plant an idea in my mind so deep that I think it's my own? Can I tell the difference between dream and reality? Do I have a moral obligation to truth? Those are big questions, good questions, that everyone should ask. Still, the best comment I heard about Inception (posted in the comments section to my review of it) was: "if one goes to all the trouble to make a machine that can put you in other peoples' dreams, one might as well make it wireless. I'm just sayin'." Now, THAT's deep, man.

The Girl Who I Don't Know Anything About
Not since the Harry Potter series have I felt so completely out-of-the-loop in terms of literary fads. In 2010, it seemed as if practically everyone (other than me) had read or was reading Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, a series of crime novels that includes The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. And also not since Harry Potter have I seen a literary series so quickly made into films. Alas, I haven't read the books and I haven't seen the movies, so all I can do here is acknowledge from the sidelines that Larsson and his Girl were definitely pop-culure phenoms in 2010. Well, maybe that's not all I can do. I do have a very smart friend (Dr. Trott) whose literary taste I trust who did a series of blog posts about Larsson's Millenium Trilogy. So, um, go check that out, I guess. Sorry I can't be of more assistance on this one.

"Community" Meta-Television
The NBC program "Community" started to creep its way into our pop-culture hearts last year, when it introduced us to Greendale Community College's bunch of ne'er-do-wells and their wacky Spanish professor Señor Chang (seriously, one of the most hilarious television characters EVER). The show was consistently original and smart in its first season last year, but this year creator Dan Harmon took it to a whole new level. "Community" now joins "30 Rock" in the category of "meta-sitcom," trading in meta-humor with almost endless (though often cleverly disguised) television, film and pop-culture references. "Community" still incorporates all of the slapstick and caricature that make a sitcom a sitcom-- it never meta gag it didn't like!-- but it's just soooo much more intelligent than the other stuff out there. This is definitely a show for television connoisseurs-- or, uh, nerds-- and I'm confident that some of its characters (Abed and Troy, for example) will go down in TV history as truly memorable.

And, finally, what would a 2010 Pop Culture list be without...

Stewart and Colbert Are Seriously Funny
Thank goodness Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert aren't completely serious. And thank goodness they're not totally kidding, either. This October, the nation's two Satirists-in-Chief combined forces to organize the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC, which they endlessly pitched and lampooned in the months leading up to it on their shows, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. A quarter-million people showed up. That's right, a QUARTER-MILLION PEOPLE showed up to an anti-politics political rally organized by two talk show hosts from Comedy Central. As John Mellencamp would say, ain't that America? The truth is, Stewart and Colbert rank right up there with the Facebook "Like" button as the most reliable gauges of pop culture. If you don't know what they're saying about something-- politics, economics, celebrity, science, law, entertainment, and who is or isn't a Nazi-- you don't know sh*t. If America ever deigned to compare itself to France, we'd have to acknowledge that Stewart is our Sartre, Colbert our Molière. They've been holding strong to their prominent pop culture spots for many years now... but 2010 was the first year, I think, that we saw so much of the gravity that lies beneath their clowning.

If anything happens in the next couple of weeks, I'll amend this list. But, for now, that's Dr. J's 2010 Year in Pop Culture.

Monday, December 13, 2010

2010 Year In Sports

There are still a few weeks left in 2010-- and who knows what else may happen... or, ahem, be "leaked"?-- so in advance of posting my comprehensive "Year In Review" list, I thought I'd do a few specialized lists. Since the last few weeks of the year are mostly holding-pattern time in sports, it's the least likely that something game-changing will happen there. So, first up in my series of 2010 lists is the Year in Sports.

On balance, there was more to cheer than to moan about for sports fans this year, though the lows were particularly moan-worthy. (I'm looking at YOU, Brett Favre and Tiger Woods, among others.) We were fortunate this year to be blessed with the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, which gave us a whole extra month of sports excitement, not to mention an only once-every-four-years chance to relax our American Sports Solipsism and share the love of the Beautiful Game with the rest of the world. As happens more and more these days, there was as much sports news OFF the field/court/pitch/course/track than there was on it, but the very best of this year's sports was far better than the very worst of this years sports news. Best of all, 2010 quite literally showered us with every true sports fan's most beloved phenomenon of all-- the come-from-behind, odds-are-against-them, let's-make-a-movie-about it, paint-my-face-and-torso-with-love-for-them, bursting-with-hustle-and-heart UNDERDOGS-- which leads me, despite all the other stories that are (or could be) on this list, to christen 2010 "The Year of the Underdog" in sport.

Here are my picks for the year-end headlines:

Oh Yes, I Want To Be In That Number...
... when the New Orleans Saints go marching in!! I find it hard to believe that anyone with a beating human heart wasn't rooting for the underdog Saints to win Super Bowl XLIV against the Indianapolis Colts. (And I'm a Colts fan!) New Orleans, which had more credit on its karmic balance than just about any other place in the country, finally cashed in by bringing home NOLA's first ever Super Bowl trophy to its abidingly loyal fans. And they did so by soundly defeating one of the NFL's perennial favorites. The game itself was great, but not nearly as great as the clips from back home in New Orleans, where fans flooded the streets of the French Quarter and celebrated with brass bands, shouting the famous "Who Dat?" slogan that came to define civic pride in New Orleans. It's always hard to say in advance of a game who "deserves" to win... but not this time. The winners of Super Bowl XLIV, and every single citizen of Who Dat Nation, deserved this victory. Way to go, Saints.

Cinderella Dances Big
For the first couple of months of 2010, the New Orleans Saints were the odds-on favorite for Underdog of the Year status... until, that is, March Madness came along. Without question, this year gave us the greatest, most exciting, most heartbreaking, heartwarming, and bracket-busting Big Dance in college basketball history. It would take too much space to recount here all of the nuances and number-crunching of Big Dance bracketology, but it suffices to say that last year's Final Four teams (with a #1 seed, a #2 seed, and TWO #5 seeds) were not only unpredicted, but almost unpredictable. One of those #5 seeds was the practically-unheard-of Butler Bulldogs, who miraculously made it to the Final Game against a team with a long and illustrious history of NCAA victories, the Duke Blue Devils. What's more, Butler almost won. The Cinderella team was just slipping its toes into the Championship glass slipper when their last-second, potentially game-winning shot from mid-court goes up in the air, straight toward the basket, off the backboard and... OH THE HUMANITY!... bounces off the rim for a 59-61 loss. If you can stand it, watch the last minute and a half of the game again. That's how dreams are crushed, and fans are born.

Donovan Makes Shot Heard Round The World
I'll admit it. I was one of those Americans who basically didn't know anything about the most popular sports game in the world: football (or futball, or soccer). As much as I am embarrassed to admit it now, in early June 2010, I didn't even know that the FIFA World Cup was happening this year, or that it was a big deal. Luckily for me, my good friend Petya Kirilova-Grady and her husband took it upon themselves to disabuse me of my ignorance... which means among other things that we spent part of our vacation in New Orleans this summer traipsing around desparately looking for seats in a bar that was showing the USA vs. England match. (Not easy to find, fyi.) Once they saw that I was hooked, they also took it upon themselves over the next month to wake me up (at 8am some mornings) and accompany me to our local pub to watch soccer. (Did I mention the 8am part?) Truth is, though, I've never felt so patriotic as I did when Landon Donovan made the game-winning goal (aka, "The Shot Heard Round The World") against Algeria. USA! USA! USA! Of course, our national team didn't make it much further, but I definitly caught the soccer bug and watched the rest of the World Cup like a real fan. Can't wait til 2014 in Brazil, when I'll be setting my own alarm.

Lebron James Breaks Up With Cleveland Via ESPN
Everyone knows that you just don't break up with somebody over the phone. Or by text message. Or Facebook. Or, for that matter, ESPN. Well, everybody but "King" Lebron James knows that. Sure, he's probably one of the greatest players to ever set foot on the hardwood, having made good many times over on the promise he exhibited as a straight-out-of-high-school draft pick. And, okay, we can't reasonably expect an athlete of his talent to waste away his years in dedication to a city that will likely never give him a champioship ring. And, yes, no self-respecting NBA fan wants to pass up the chance to see a dream team consisting of Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh play ball. But King James' opting to annouce "The Decision" to leave Cleveland and "take his talents to South Beach" on a prime-time, hour-long ESPN special was a bit... well, classless. I mean, the Governor of Ohio got all those people together and recorded a song begging you to stay, Lebron, would it have been too much to just give them a call ahead of time and let them know that they were about to get the shaft?

Crappy-Conference Teams Continue To Complain Too Much
The BCS (Bowl Champoinship Series), which determines the teams that will play in college football's post-season "bowl" games, is an imperfect system. It's an imperfect system that replaced a previous imperfect system and, if it is itself replaced, will be replaced by another imperfect system. Why? Two simple reasons: (1) because as long as we consider college football players to be primarily "student-athletes," a multi-week playoff system will never work, and (2) because college football fans are hard-wired to gripe and complain about their team not getting enough respect in every single year that their team doesn't win the National Championship. The perennial gripers come from non-AQ (automatic qualifying) conferences, which pretty much need an undefeated season in order to make it into one of the BCS bowl games. (Chief among the non-AQ complainers are Boise State, TCU, Utah and Brigham Young University.) As someone who has no qualms about pointing out the TOTALLY OBVIOUS FACT that NONE of those teams could survive even a HALF-season (even in a BAD year) undefeated in the Southeastern Conference-- a conference, by the way, that has sent a team to 5 out of the last 6 National Chamopnship games-- let me just go on record as saying I'm sick of all the whining. This year's matchup (Auburn v. Oregon) features two teams that without a doubt would trounce all other contenders. I long for the days when we made meaningful and significant complaints, like why oh why can't we go back to calling Bowl games by their non-coroporate-sponsor names?! Seriously, sports fans, R-E-S-P-E-C-T the S-E-C.

NFL Cries "Uncle!"
Professional football is a hard-hitting game. The men who play it are scientific specimens of human speed, strength and agility. The game itself is intricate and complex, and the sophistication of its players and coaches has grown at light-speed in the last decade. (Some experts, rightly in my mind, blame this on-- or credit it to-- the Madden NFL video game, which almost every player entering the league these days has already studied for over a decade.) It used to be the case that speed and smarts were found on the offensive side of the ball, while power and brute strength were found on the defensive side. But nowadays, defenses are a lot faster, a whole lot smarter, and just as strong. The result? Those occasional skull-rattling, clock-cleaning, bell-ringing hits that would make the highlights reel are so very, very common now that they're not even highlight-worthy. As are all the devastating injuries that come with those hits. So, finally -- much too late, really-- the NFL has decided to crack down on what they call "devastating hits." They're passing out fines and suspensions to some of the most egregious offenders, promising to do the same to first-time offenders. In my view, this is a LONG OVERDUE move, and I congratulate the NFL for not cowering to the meatheads who want to say that this kind of hard-hitting is just "part of the game." It's not part of the game. It's at the very least seriously injurious, and at the very worst lethal. We'll have to wait and see how the crack-down goes over with fans. (Watch an excellent and expert conversation about it here.) But at least the warning is out there: helmet-to-helmet hits are going to cost you, linebackers.

San Francisco Makes Giant Dreams Come True
Like I said before, this was definitely the Year of the Underdog. To the New Orleans Saints and the Butler Bulldogs, add the 2010 San Francisco Giants-- who won their first World Series ever by defeating the Texas Rangers this year. I really have to hand it to baseball fans, not only because they have the longest season and most intricately-structured playoff battles to withstand, but also for all of the doom and shame that has beset their otherwise glorious pasttime in the last decade. (See: steroids, asterisks) And Giants fans rank right up there with Cubs fans and (until just a few years ago) Red Sox fans as contendors for baseball's Wretched of the Earth title. But when it comes down to it, baseball is really the game where hope happens, after all. It's only in baseball that you find the most endearingly corny demonstrations (like this) by fans who have hardly ever been given a reason to remain fans. Prior to this year's victory, the Giants' unofficial team motto was "Giants baseball: Torture." So, congrats to another team of underdogs. As someone who grew up loving baseball, I found myself growing more and more disillusioned with the game by the mid-90's. Thank you, Giants and Giants fans, for reminding me what there is to love about the game. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.

A Million Angry Bees Proclaim Love for The Beautiful Game
The World Cup really deserves a second mention in this list for contributing one of the most unlikely, virally infectious, pop-culture references of the year: the vuvuzela. If you watched the tournament, you probably still have that sound of a million angry bees buzzing in your head. If you didn't watch, the vuvuzela sounds like this. Yes, it was loud and annoying, even maddening, but what about sports fandom isn't? I have to end this Year in Sports list with the vuvuzela because you know, for all its faults, love it or hate it, the vuvuzela brought the world together for one whole month last summer. (For the record, it was really difficult to choose between the vuvuzela and the other awesomely-weird World Cup story "Paul the Octopus." Sadly, Paul died recently, so I went with the vuvuzela.) With all of the different languages and cultures and nationalities and races to negotiate, soccer fans needed something in common that could bridge those differences. Nothing like a cheap, obnoxiously loud, plastic horn to do it. As a long time fan of the air-horn, I really do hope that vuvuzelas come to take its place as the ultimate Inappropriate Thing To Bring To A Public Event.

And there it is. Dr. J's 2010 Year in Sports. Next up: the 2010 Year in Pop Culture.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 7

You may not recognize the reference in the title to this post above . It's a reference to the the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (a.k.a., "The Logical-Philosophical Treatise"), the only book ever written by eminently influential philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Tractatus consists of seven philosophical propositions, the seventh of which reads:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Excellent advice, which I'll return to shortly.

My guess is that if you're younger than 30, you may not recognize the image in the upper-left, either. It's from the film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, a mostly-dopey but totally endearing time-travel film from 1989 in which a couple of hapless "dudes" transport themselves through the last two millenia collecting famous people (Socrates, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud et al) to aid them in their upcoming presentation for a high school History class. They accomplish this supernatural feat via a magical telephone booth-- again, if you're under 30, you may not know what that is, but it looks like this-- and our young heroes learn a few lessons about History and humanity along the way. Chief among those lessons: "Be excellent to each other" and "Party on, dudes." (Bill and Ted were kind of like my generation's Harold and Kumar, I suppose, only instead of actually getting stoned all the time, they just acted as if they were.) Anyway, I digress...

The video below made the viral rounds a few weeks ago. It's from a PBS children's television program called "Martha Speaks" and it's intended to introduce children to "philosophy." This should have NEVER been made.

Just in case you didn't catch all of it, here are the lyrics to the "Philosophy" song:
Philosophy. What's your philosophy?
It needn't be Greek to be, or even deep to be, important or true.
Philosophy. Your philosophy
is what you believe to be, or perceive to be, important for you.
[Philosophers are people who try to figure out what life is all about,
But EVERYONE can have HIS OR HER OWN philosophy!]
Philosophy. What's your philosophy?
You don't have to cogitate, or ruminate, calculate or speculate,
combinate or postulate until its getting very late
to have a philosophy.

And then, of course, the dog says "I think, therefore I'm hungry."


So, what does this have to do with Bill, Ted and Wittgenstein? As the latter of those, the astute Viennese philosopher Wittgenstein, rightly warned: if you don't know what you're talking about, you should shut the hell up. (Not in those exact words, but more or less.) In the film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the premise is that these two high school kids had basically blown off their History class all year and were going to fail. They didn't know anything about history, so they had to travel back in time and speak to actual historical figures to say anything about it at all. No one, I hope, really watches Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure to learn about Genghis Khan or Socrates or Freud, and although the movie doesn't provide anything close to a comprehensive report on those figures, it at least doesn't provide misinformation.

The "Martha Speaks" segment, on the other hand, is not just inadequately informing children about Philosophy, it's giving them WRONG information. Like, really, really, REALLY wrong information. Now, I'm not sure that I could do a great job of explaining Philosophy to 8-year-olds if I were charged with such a task, but at the very least it might occur to me to check in with actual philosophers (or, I don't know, read the Wikipedia page on "philosophy") before writing a catchy little ditty about it. And, if I did actually bother to do either of those practically-effortless background checks, I most certainly NEVER would have included a boneheaded lyrical claim like "Philosophy is what you believe to be, or perceive to be, important for you," nor would I have hoodwinked the poor children with an almost inconceivably stupid (though rhyme-y) assertion that suggests one doesn't need to THINK (i.e., cogitate, ruminate, calculate, speculate, postulate) to have a philosophy.

There's a great (and brilliantly deadpan) rebuttal by a real philosopher to the "Martha Speaks" segment that would be hilariously funny if it weren't so tragically necessary. (Still, it's pretty funny.) I agree with everything Professor Slave One says here in his reluctant, though nonplussed, point-by-point refutation of the "philosophy song." Every word of it. And so I'm going to re-post it here, to save myself having to use foul language:

Of course, I'm not 8-years-old nor am I the parent of an 8-year-old, so my objection to this probably insignificant video is on principle alone. It's all about the kids here. Ergo, from this blog to PBS, let me just say:

Hey, PBS: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 7.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Why I Chose Memphis: Anna Marie Hartman Birkedahl

Most Memphians will know our next contributor to the Why I Chose Memphis series as "Anna Marie Hartman," the confident and beautiful anchorwoman for WMC Channel 5 News. What you may not know, however, is that when she's not reporting on the best and worst of Memphis, she's also a talented singer in The Burnin' Love Band with her husband, Brad Birkedahl (formerly of rockabilly trio-- and movie stars-- The Dempseys). If you haven't been down to Blues City Cafe on Beale Street to check out Anna in her "other" job, you should make a point to do so! I had the good fortune to end up in my neighbor's living room with Anna, Brad, a couple of other people and several guitars, where we all sat back and did some picking and singing one night. Nights like those, where music lovers share songs and stories for no audience other than themselves, are some of the very best that Memphis has to offer. I was happy to make a couple of new friends in Anna and Brad, who are not only stunningly talented musicians, but genuinely great people. Here's her story:

"I didn't choose Memphis. Memphis chose me and I'm so glad! My now ex-husband and I were living in Atlanta where he worked at the corporate offices of Ford Motor Company and I worked for Georgia Public Broadcasting and WSB Radio. He was transferred to Memphis in 1995. I was resistant to the move at first. Begrudgingly I started looking for a job. Luckily the owner of WMC at the time (Bert Ellis) was based in Atlanta and he was familiar with my work on radio and television there. I landed the gig at WMC. I had no idea that I was entering into the number one news organization in town. With a long legacy and a fantastic group of famous personalities! It wasn't long before Memphis felt like home. Having a musical background I was in awe of its rich musical history. My marriage didn't last but my love for Memphis has only grown stronger year after year. I went on to find the man of my dreams and I'm living my dream. Telling stories on TV by day and singing them on stage at night. Funny thing is, the guy who brought me here moved away years ago...and me....I'm still here!"

Want to share your Why I Chose Memphis story? Send it to me .

Friday, December 03, 2010

Groovy, Man

ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore just passed 70,000 hits!

Again, a big THANK YOU to all the readers who keep coming back. Especially those of you who have contributed to the recent Why I Chose Memphis series, which prompted an interview by the Memphis Flyer that I gave today and which will appear in print soon. (Keep those stories coming!) I was born in the 70's and I have a soft spot for most things 70's-- clothing, music, film, philosophy and politics. So, in proper 70's fasion, we'll try to keep the content here groovy, eclectic and socially aware over the coming months.

You know, there's no way that we could have gotten to 70,000 without visits from a lot of you who read but never say anything. If you're one of those quiet strangers, I'd really like to know who you are. So, please take a second and become a "Follower" of this blog. Just scroll down the sidebar on your right and click "Follow"-- it's that easy! And if you're really feeling the love, you can also "like" this blog on Facebook. Of course, you can still watch what goes on here without joining in-- though I wish you would join in-- but I'd sure appreciate being able to put a name (or pseudonym) and a face (or image) to more of you!

In the meantime, take it easy, dudes. The blog abides.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Entre Nous?: The Merits (and Demerits) of Gossip

Let me begin by illuminating the obvious: we live in a gossip-obsessed culture.

You don't even have to make all that much of an effort to find yourself more intimately familiar with the very personal details of celebrities, politicians, athletes and other real(ity) pop-culture figures' lives than you are with those of your own friends and family. Breakups and makeups, engagements, weddings and affairs, stints in rehabs, arrests, poorly-worded letters and emails and voicemails, and all the minutiae of people's food/music/cinematic/literary (and sexual) preferences are about as easily accessible as the World Wide GossipNet... er, I mean, Web. Most of us, myself included, have willingly subjected ourselves to the vagaries of Big Brotherhood, what with all our blogging and Facebooking and Tweeting. Sure, some folks try to plaster themselves all over the place under the cover of anonymity, but anonymous or pseudonymous identities are neither harmless nor immune to the harm of almost-unrestricted accessibility. (Google yourself much?) The truth is, we looooove to talk about people-- and as much as we might want people in general to be good as a principle, we sooooo prefer to talk about them when they're bad.

The recent Wikileaks scandal has given me pause, and occasion to reflect upon the merits and demerits of gossip. (Btw, "gossip" is not always, necessarily, "untrue." In fact, the very best kind of gossip is almost always either totally true or has enough of a hint of truth to it.) Here's a bit of gossip: I have a friend (who will remain unnamed, but some of you will know who I'm talking about, winkwink) who always prefaces the most salacious stories with the whispered caveat "This is, of course, entre nous." There's no doubt something about the "between-us" framing of a story that makes it more illicit, more cloak-and-dagger, more recondite, more concupiscent and, consequently, more desirable-to-know than your average run-of-the-mill gossip. But, nevertheless, what should bother any recipient of such entre nous disclosures is the suspiciousness of one's warranting the privilege of that disclosure in the first place. As everyone with a blabber-mouth gossipy friend knows, if s/he is talking to you about others, odds are that s/he is talking to others about you. It's kind of like they say about cheaters: if they'll cheat WITH you, they'll cheat ON you.

I wish I could say that I wasn't a gossip... but, to me, that would be like saying I'm some kind of magical-superhero-fairy, utterly immune to the influences of my culture's endemic prejudices and practices, and I'm too much of a Foucaultian to say that. (For the record, that's the same reason I am reluctant to say "I'm not a racist.") There are, of course, some benefits to gossip, even above and beyond finding-out-the-truth-that-you're-being-screwed. Gossip is like a micro-communal glue: it binds together groups by way of monitoring access to whatever is perceived to be privileged information. (Find me a group that doesn't gossip, and I'll show you a bunch of strangers.) For all of the other things that bind communities together-- shared likes and dislikes, agreed-upon procedures, principled commitments, conventional practices, prevailing sentiments-- there is none, in this day and age, that trumps shared information. And, as we all learned in kindergarten, sharing is a good thing. That's how we make friends, that's how we find cheap living arrangements, that's how we get jobs, that's how we find out who our enemies are, that's how we figure out the restaurants to go to and the ones not to go to, that's how we protect our relationships/friends/homes/reputations, that's basically how we insert ourselves into the fabric of otherwise-exclusive information networks.

So what about those things that we're really not meant to know? Like the stuff that Wikileaks leaked? If your're interested in hearing from the horse's mouth, you should check out Julian Assange's (founder of Wikileaks) own stated motives for doing what his site does. Assange basically views the U.S. government as depending upon secrecy and the (secret) integrity of its communications to function. That is, Assange views the entire U.S. governmental infrastructure as a kind of "Mean Girls" clique that keeps secrets from us, not primarily for our own good, but rather for their own protection. So, for Assange et al, gossiping (aka, "leaking") is not so much in the interest of establishing and maintaining a covert community as it is for disrupting the very principle that establishes "communities" as covert. In that sense, Wikileaks (gossipy that it is) is kind of like the Form of an Anti-Gossip site.

Let me just go on the record as supporting Wikileaks' recent disclosures. Of course, I hate that those revelations will ineviatbly stunt U.S. diplomatic relations, but I am inclined to favor truth over diplomacy in this instance. The Wikileaks "scandal," in my view, demonstrates the best of both the merits and demerits of gossip. That is to say, it disrupts the ideal of the "covert community" while at the same time reinforcing the principle that any community is what it is by virtue of shared access to information. As any real connoisseur of gossip will readily attest, the very best gossip is the gossip that is undeniably true, and which makes people reevaluate whatever actions made thems gossip-worthy in the first place.