My Favorite Albums – Part 1

January 22, 2013

As a good, regular writing excercise I hope to write one post per week about a music album that has special importance to myself or the history of music in general. Please excuse me if I start to sound like a Bret Easton-Ellis character.

Now this may seem like an odd place to start given that Rubber Soul isn’t anyone’s favorite Beatles album (myself included) but I don’t think the album’s importance in the history of 20th Century American music can be overstated. Rubber Soul represented a massive leap for the Beatles musically and redefined the band’s career ambitions.

By December 1965, when Rubber Soul was released, the Beatles already had five enormously successful albums in just over 30 months. However, up until Help! the Beatles seemed to be largely content to be simply another popular band writing fairly straight-forward songs about love (actualized and unrequited) and doing Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly covers – which is not surprising given that they were all still fairly young at this point (Starr and Lennon were 25, McCartney was 23, and Harrison was 22). Rubber Soul represented the group’s attempt to step away from the teen pop genre and attain that ultimate combination: popularity and relevance. The Beatles’ lyrics would continue to address romantic love, however, in a more sophisticated and nuanced fashion. Furthermore, more philosophical themes became fair game (see “Nowhere Man“).

Musically, the Beatles extended their instrumental resources including the sitar, fuzz box bass, harpsichord, and  alternate guitar tunings not typically employed in popular music. Listening to certain tracks (“Norwegian Wood“, “Michelle“, and “Girl” standout) the album almost has an international feel, though remains primarily a popular folk album. The listener also gets the first hints of the Beatles forays into soul and psychedelia, experiments that would influence countless musicians (for better and for worse) in the decade that would follow, and come to in a way consume their own work as they became an increasingly fractured studio band working as individuals rather than collectively, slipping toward self-indulgence in their music and eventual dissolution.

But the new creativity exhibited by the Beatles on Rubber Soul was not without inspiration itself.

In fact, in a lot of ways the Beatles were behind the times before Rubber Soul was released. The Rolling Stones were growing from being simply a cover band to the forefront of new rock and roll with the release of “The Last Time” in February 1965 and “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction” in the summer. The Who were set to release their first album at the same time and had “My Generation” out as a single by November with their first studio album to follow shortly. The Byrds were dominating folk rock (and befriending George Harrison). And, most importantly, Bob Dylan was dropping his folk song roots and receiving massive acclaim for Highway 61 Revisited. Rubber Soul was almost catch-up for the Beatles as well as an acknowledgment that musicians, not matter how many albums they’ve sold in the past, need to remain at the forefront of a movement or risk irrelevance. Of course when you’re playing catchup you are starting from behind, and a lot of Rubber Soul‘s contents (particularly John Lennon’s songs) owe a considerable debt to Bob Dylan, so much so that Dylan sent a (possibly) playful warning to Lennon with “4th Time Around” on Blonde on Blonde, a clear response to Rubber Soul’s best song “Norwegian Wood”, mimicking the song’s melody, song structure, and subject matter. That Dylan ended “4th Time Around” with “I never asked for your crutch, now don’t ask for mine” either scared the shit out of Lennon or made him smile, depending on whose account you hear.

(Dylan may also had a influence on the Beatles adopting a chemical component to fuel their creativity. It’s alleged that he led the group to try marijuana, which they smoked habitually by the recording of Help!. Also, some of them were regular LSD connoisseurs by late 1965 (no fault of Lennon’s, this was actually due to an odd, enterprising doctor who dosed Lennon and Harrison). As Ringo said: “There was a lot of experimentation on Rubber Soul influenced, I think, by the substances.”)

Either way Dylan’s imprint could be strongly felt on Rubber Soul from Lennon’s aforementioned witty and vengeful “Norwegian Wood” to Harrison’s anti-government “Think for Yourself“., and the post-romance “I’m Looking Through You” by McCartney. Even the emotional reminiscence of “In My Life” arguably Rubber Soul’s most enduring track, owes some debt to outside influences like Dylan. The Byrds can be felt on “If I Needed Someone” (also by Harrison) and the odd “Drive My Car“.

Despite these influences Rubber Soul remains a Beatles album, led by one of the greatest voices in music history (Lennon), a top-tier guitarist (Harrison), a multi-instrumental genius (McCartney), and oh, Ringo was there too. In December 1965 the Beatles’ importance would begin to match their popularity, and they would change the face of American music onwards.


Zero Dark Thirty and the Torture Debate

January 18, 2013

The new Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal collaboration, Zero Dark Thirty, a dramatic depiction of the 10 year hunt for Osama bin Laden has been subject to considerable controversy in recent weeks, primarily due to its depictions of torture of suspected al Qaeda operatives at the hands of the CIA and American allies. Critics have claimed that the film tacitly endorses the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, intimidation, and physical violence, through a) the unrepentant practice of those “techniques” by several key characters; and b) the role intelligence extracted through torture influences the (eventually) successful elimination of Osama bin Laden.

Let’s consider the first criticism, the willingness of the characters in Zero Dark Thirty to participate in torture and their unapologetic stance throughout the movie. The first sequence in the film depicts in graffic detail the waterboarding, restricted confinement, prolonged shackling in stress positions, and abject humiliation of an already severely beaten al Qaeda facilitator by a CIA agent/contractor named “Dan”. Dan is a serial torturer who repeats these tactics on several individuals throughout the film and at times laments the public and political outrage associated with the revelation of these acts as a constraint on a “necessary tool”. Dan quickly leads the squeamish protagonist “Maya” (Jessica Chastain) another CIA analyst and the key figure (she’s actually a composite of several individuals) in the search for Osama bin Laden, away from the sidelines into active participation in torture. While Maya never seems completely comfortable with torturing her detainees, her willingness to continue employing such tactics even in Dan’s absence does put the movie into somewhat of a moral grey area. Kathryn Bigelow creates a strong suggestion that Maya sees the use of “enhanced interrogation” as an unpleasant necessity in her increasingly obsessive quest to find bin Laden, which could easily be read as a tacit endorsement of the Bush administration’s torture regime. Add to that Dan is portrayed more as the comic relief in the movie than a menacing monster (he returns state-side because he’s seen “too many naked guys” – men he’s sought to break by humiliating them) and you have the potential for a toxic concoction. Bigelow is aware of this and has defended herself on the merits of artistic license:

“Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no film-maker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time… This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds …”

And Bigelow isn’t wrong. It isn’t unfair to assume that those CIA agents or contractors that participated in the torture of al Qaeda subjects whether in Bagram, Gitmo, or some black site probably remain remorseless to this day. Whether they should be wracked with guilt for the remainder of their lives is perhaps beyond the scope of this movie, and Bigelow isn’t necessarily required to add that epilogue. This is especially true given that there have been ZERO legal ramifications for those who orchestrated and perpetrated this systematic and unquestionable crime against humanity. People do not operate in a moral vacuum. In the real world people are morally flawed, and one of the key requirements of film is to accurately depict the human condition. I believe that Zero Dark Thirty does that. That isn’t necessarily a commentary from Bigelow on whether justice should be done in the real world.

The second criticism deals with the role played by intelligence gathered through torture in locating Osama bin Laden. This criticism, explored from the affirmative (Glenn Greenwald) and the negative (Andrew Sullivan), focuses on the permissibility of torture based on its efficacy. The argument goes that torture should not be used as an intelligence tool due to its inability to provide reliable actionable intelligence. Critics of the movie, including Greenwald, and the more eloquent Steve Coll, argue that Zero Dark Thirty creates a dangerous narrative by suggesting that the key piece of intelligence that eventually led to the location of Osama bin Laden came via the torture of one of his adherents. Personally I can’t see how anyone would disagree with Greenwald or Coll’s take that vital intelligence, the naming of bin Laden’s key courier who is hunted by Maya through the remainder of the movie, is depicted as having been derived (even if not directly) via torture. While Greenwald, Coll, and even Sullivan strongly disagree with the veracity of this narrative (they are joined by Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain who claimed the movies’ depiction of events is “grossly inaccurate”) the bigger question is whether that should matter. If torture did prove crucial in finding bin Laden, or even more broadly, could be found to be a reliable intelligence source in any situation, would Greenwald, Coll, and Sullivan still disapprove of its use? Should the key determinant of whether we employ torture be its efficacy? When the debate over the crimes committed in the name of the “war on terror” is framed primarily in this light it seems to me that a number of individuals who appear to be unwavering opponents of what were clearly crimes against humanity seem to be creating a bit of daylight in their otherwise steadfast positions – this is troublesome.

The utility of intelligence derived from torture should never determine whether the practice is accepted. Even beginning that debate seems to me to detract from the rudimentary reason for opposing torture in all its forms: it is morally reprehensible. A society built on the premise of the fundamental importance of legal and political equality cannot condone inhumane practices, whether performed on citizens or foreign enemies. Permitting its use in any situation creates a slippery slope that is difficult to retreat from. Some might counter that president Obama’s repudiation of Bush II’s torture regime is proof-positive that torture can be employed in exceptional circumstances without any long-term negative impact. Maybe at first glance this appears true given Obama’s strong rhetoric about the subject, however, if we look beyond the narrow frame of “torture” we know this to be false. The extension of executive power under Bush II has clearly proven tantalizing to even a “principled” man like Obama, who has continued Bush’s policy of indefinite detention without charge, and even extended executive power to the extraordinary policy of legalized extrajudicial killings of American citizens. Decisions were made after September 11 that have had an immeasurable impact on the freedoms we enjoyed, maybe even took for granted, and I expect that we’ll be living under these unique circumstances until those responsible for throwing our legal traditions out the window in the name of security are brought to account in a legal setting.

But I digress.

The overall point is that whether Zero Dark Thirty shows torture to be effective or not, and the veracity of the film’s claims are beside the point when we consider whether we as a society should endorse torture. Those who have framed the debate as such have maybe missed a larger point. The real danger in Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture’s utility and the callousness of the film’s characters towards its (in)human effects isn’t so much how it reflects Katherine Bigelow and Mark Boal’s attitudes towards torture, but how such simplistic presentations will influence public opinion. The only proper way to counter this is through a difficult moral debate.

Going Deep

January 7, 2013

Anyone who knows me is well aware of my love of Italian food. The combination of meat, cheese and sauce that is typical in Italian cooking  is all I need for a great meal. So it goes without saying that I have a particular weakness for that staple of Italian cuisine: pizza. That penchant for  Italian flatbread turned into a full-on addiction with my trip to Chicago in September 2011.

My four-day stay in America’s Second City was to focus around three key Chicago attractions: the Cubs, the Art Institute of Chicago, and deep dish pizza. The experience at Wrigley Field was exactly as it was billed – an endearing record of baseball (and America’s) long and fascinating history. The Art Institute of Chicago allowed me to see first-hand Seurat’s breathtaking La Grande Jatte, one of the most important pieces bridging the gap between the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist schools of painting.

What has stuck with me most, however, was the deep dish pizza. Call me shallow. Call me a glutton. I don’t care. Yes, this is the confession of an unrepentent deep dish pizza junky. You won’t understand my love affair with Chicago-style deep dish pizza until you’ve ventured a taste yourself. And should you find yourself in the enviable position to sample this mid-Western delicacy, I hope you deal with the withdrawal better than I, cause I’ve been searching for a comparable pie, slice, anything, ever since.

Which brings me to Trevor Kitchen & Bar in the Saint Lawrence Market area of Toronto. Trevor Bar is the only establishment in Toronto offering true Chicago-style deep dish pizza. The rapidly growing slice-chain Pizziaolo has offered a so-called “deep dish” slice called the “Godfather” for some time, but I’m sorry to break it to you Pizzaiolo, a thick crust does not equal Chicago-style deep dish pizza no matter what label you throw on it. So, given the dearth of options around and my year-and-a-half itch for real deep dish, I ventured to Trevor Bar on Friday night.

The first thing to note, Trevor Bar is exactly what its name says: a bar (and a high-end one at that). There is a restaurant portion attached to the main bar, however, if you want deep dish, you need to eat at the counter. The pizza itself is offered by a side project called Parlour, started by the bar’s owner and executive chef Trevor Wilkinson. Parlour offered their deep dish pizzas, by delivery only, for a period in 2011 as a means of testing the grounds for a full restaurant.

Like Parlour, Trevor Kitchen & Bar only offers three varieties of pizza: the Classic (sausage, tomato sauce, mozzarella), Chicken (smoked chicken and goat cheese), and the Vegetarian (eggplant, peppers, mushrooms, and cheddar). Each goes for $25 which is a tad pricey for a pie that will feed two at best. Wanting a level playing field with my Chicago experience I insisted on a sausage-infused pie for my pizza-tasting partner (a deep dish virgin) and I, though the thought of piles of goat cheese did cause me to pause.

The pizza came hot from the oven about 20-25 minutes after placing our order. On first look I was quite impressed. The crust had  the true depth one would expect from a deep dish pizza. The pizza itself was a little asymmetrical as a result of being removed from the pan and served to us on a plate – an understandable decision given that we were being served on an expensive looking bar counter-top, though uncommon given my experiences as Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s East, and Giordano’s in Chicago. Part of me was disappointed to not have seen the pan it was cooked in, a minor quibble no doubt, but one that was there nonetheless.

The Crust

As for taste, the first thing I noticed was the crust. A deep dish pizza requires a crust that is relatively thin, yet can handle the weight of all the toppings piled on top of its frame. Trevor Bar’s contribution had a very solid, flaky crust that did a good job keeping the slice intact. The crust was crisp, though I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it pejoratively as hard. Like many fine deep dish pizza purveyor’s, Trevor Bar’s crust served its utilitarian purpose of holding the slice together without being a detriment to the rich taste of the toppings. Should Trevor Bar seek to go beyond the utilitarian and develop a crust that truly compliments the remaining components of a great deep dish slice, they should look to Lou Malnati’s butter crust, a flavorful, though heart-attack inducing, addition that could only help.

The Meat

Besting the sausage offered by a city that built its reputation on the basis of its role of butcher to America is by no means an easy task, though if any city in Canada is up to it, Hogtown should be the place. And, surprisingly, Trevor Bar’s deep dish concoction fairs very well in this area. The chunks of sausage are massive, perhaps the biggest I’ve seen on any deep dish offering, and offer a flavor that doesn’t attempt to overpower the sauce and cheese elements of this holy triumvirate. I was quite impressed!

The Sauce

While a good pizza will have a solid balance in the volume of meat, sauce, and cheese on a pizza, I tend to feel that too much sauce is always better than too little, and Trevor Bar falls well into the former category than the latter, which is definitely not a knock. What Trevor Bar’s sauce lacks is zest. I found the sauce to be fairly bland, adding little to the experience. Trevor Bar needs to take a cue from Gino’s East and add a bit more garlic and seasoning (some balance of black pepper, basil, and sugar) to bring their sauce up to snuff. The sauce they offer isn’t necessarily bad – it doesn’t hurt the pizza. But it doesn’t help it either.

The Cheese

Anyone who’s had real Chicago deep dish pizza knows that you almost need an electric carving knife to cut through the cheese. Typically a thick layer of cheese is placed over the pizza’s crust, with an additional layer of cheese placed on top to help hold all the toppings together. Why Trevor bar decided to forgo that initial layer beats me, though it may have something to do with the inferior cheese they seem to be peddling. Mozzarella is a very neutral cheese that should have a slightly milky taste. Mozzarella is meant to add texture to food, not overpower the other flavors it’s paired with. Unfortunately, in Trevor Bar’s deep dish the mozzarella has the aftertaste of a Burgundian cheese which is detrimental to the entire pie, almost unforgivably so.

Overall, with a change in the type and quantity of mozzarella used, Trevor Kitchen & Bar would have a fine deep dish pizza – a methadone that might keep the affects of my unrelenting deep dish pizza cravings at bay for at least a while longer. Until then, and until Trevor Wilkinson or some other entrepreneur decides to step up with a restaurant devoted to offering Chicago-style deep dish pizza full-time there will be a dearth of deep dish purveyors in the GTA. And this is a true missed opportunity. The expansion of gourmet Neapolitan pizza establishments such as Pizzeria Libretto and Famoso show that there’s a market for high-end options along with the traditional chains and local mom & pop take-outs. For the sake of my taste buds and those of all Torontonians, this needs to happen.*

* please note: if anyone, after reading this post, is involved with the establishment of a restaurant serving deep dish pizza in the GTA,  I will sue you for a million fucking dollars.

Top Albums of 2012

December 29, 2012

It’s been a while and I figured the best way to get started writing again would be to focus on something light: pop culture.

So, here’s a look at my favorite albums of 2012 (in no particular order).

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

Frank Ocean already established himself as someone to watch with “Novacane” and providing the hook on last year’s “No Church in the Wild“. With Channel Orange he’s cemented himself as the future of R&B. Ocean has deep production behind his interesting story-telling style of delivery. In “Bad Religion”, compares unrequited love (“a one man cult”) to monotheism, both being one-way streets except that religion is driven in the car pool lane. These aren’t schlocky retread sentiments, nor are they solipsistic observations. Frank Ocean has created an album we will gladly revisit over and over again.

Beach House – Bloom

Bloom sounds like Sigur Ros in English – which isn’t a bad thing. The lead track “Myth” has a tranquil, dream pop sound that’s perfect for late-night listening.

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

Fucking odd music videos, impossibly full lips, and an incredible vocal range that she might not be able to replicate live (see her performance on SNL and you’ll know what I mean). “Video Games” gives a good sense of her almost amotional monotone voice with sudden changes into her Marilyn Monroe-influenced airy/flirty voice. This is a woman with a difficult past and it shines through in her songs, and (more uncomfortably), in her music videos.

Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music

While I can’t go quite as far as Killer Mike in my dislike of Reagan (the man, not the song), the man can rhyme. This is an outstanding mid-career effort from the 37-year-old rapper. Few tracks soar, but the album remains consistently good from 1 to 12. Most hip hop artists peak by their second or third album, R.A.P. Music is Mike’s 6th (!!!) and it feels like he’s just getting started.

Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

If there was a more eclectic album this year I didn’t hear it. Honestly, I don’t even know how to classify them. There’s no one word to describe this album or the Dirty Projectors in general beyond “varied”. Try the whole spectrum from “Offspring are Blank” (an absolute microcosm of the entire album in its changes of pace, volume and intensity) to “Dance for You” to “Unto Caesar” and everything in between. Then do it again. Odd. Lovely. Unpredictable.

Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, M.A.A.d. City

With everything from horrorcore to nerd rap already covered over the preceding two decades there isn’t much new ground for anyone entering the rap game so far as subject matter is concerned. Luckily Kendrick Lamar is able to repackage old themes in a new, interesting, and entertaining way. Plus, for his older (ahem) audience, any song that molds the production from classic g-funk with second-wave Wu is good in my books.

The xx – Coexist

Hushed vocals, minimalistic production – stripped down pop rarely sounds this good. The trouble is we heard this on their last album. The remixes should be interesting.

Grizzly Bear – Shields

Yet Again” is a marvelous track, but I have to temper my praise of Grizzly Bear. I’m not sure that my like (not love) of them is erroneously influenced by the fact that Ed Droste’s songs feel like they came from Thom Yorke, and Daniel Rossen‘s sound like Win Butler. Ahh, this speaks volumes. 2012 wasn’t a terribly strong year for music.

Honorable mentions: Metz – Self Titled Album, The Weeknd – Trilogy (this is cheating, I know), Crocodiles – Endless Flowers,  The Luyas – Animator, Toy – Toy, The Shins – Port of Morrow, Nas – Life is Good, Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls, Grimes – Visions, Liars – WIXIW,  Roc Marciano – Reloaded, Tame Impala – Lonerism, Japandroids – Celebration Rock

Deja Vu… all over again

October 19, 2011

A lot has been written in the past few days about Occupy Wall Street and the nascent Occupy Toronto movement – most of it negative. To be fair the coverage isn’t overly critical. Outside of the Toronto Sun’s typical lack of nuance in labeling each and every participant or sympathizer a “Marxist”, the common narrative, conversely, is that the biggest weakness of the Occupy movement is that it is in fact not a monolith.

The movement has been criticized for being leaderless, and thus no more than a weak alliance of specialized (or if you want to be pejorative: myopic) protest groups whose goals span the spectrum of the political left (and right) from anti-globalization to animal rights to supporters of indigionous people. Sprinkle in a few bored 20-somethings looking for some greater sense of purpose (and maybe a girl or guy to meet) and you get a disorganized group tied together by nothing more than a general sense of anxiety about the status quo.

These are fair criticisms, ones that can be thrown at any organized protest movement, not just Occupy Toronto. But does that take anything away from the ultimate purpose that brought these people together? It seems that by asserting there is no commonality between these activists, by calling them hypocrites (how can someone criticize corporations while using an iphone, many have asked), by their failure to clearly and coherently state their demands, that there must be no problem. Only look around you and you know it isn’t so.

What is the impetus of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its North American wide offshoots? Mind numbing and infuriating examples of corporate greed seem so commonplace that the next incident to grab headlines is only a week away. What is it about this very moment that has everyone so up in arms? Adbusters, the anti-consumerist magazine who floated the idea in the first place explained their decision as having stemmed from a lack of action on the part of the Obama administration to criminally prosecute any of the main actors behind 2008’s global financial crisis. But why this sense of urgency three years after the fact?

I believe that many people understand that we stand on the doorstep of a similar meltdown, one brought on for many of the same reasons, hell even by some of the same actors who chiseled us and set our economy back a decade, three autumns ago.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: a number of very large financial institutions desperate to receive obscene interest payments off of some poor sucker- I mean client, cook the books so that they can procure unnecessarily large loans for that same client, knowing full well that there is an incredibly large measure of risk (and suggesting they didn’t know their client would ever go under is generous!) that the payments will one day stop. But the money (your money!) has been moved in such large amounts (a necessary step to make money on the low interest rates) that the collapse of the Western world’s entire financial system is at stake if these loans are not repaid. Facing economic ruin and all that comes with it (high unemployment, currency not worth the paper its printed on, the elimination of the social safety net) should the client default, Western governments (taxpayers) are forced to bailout the irresponsible client to pay off the financial institutions.  Add to this recipe the machinations of others who are in on the fix and stand to profit from the client’s default and voila, you have Fall 2008 redux. And we’ll pay for it again – both literally and figuratively.

Imagine placing other people’s money on bets you know to be wreckless, even stupid, with the ace up your sleeve that should the shit hit the fan, those same people have no choice but to cut their losses and bail you out so that they are subject to partial rather than absolute ruin. This is happening every day. The game is fixed in everyone’s favor but our’s. It’s like that Mad Magazine cover with the revolver held directly to the bewildered dog’s head: “If you don’t buy this magazine we’ll kill this dog”. We’re the dog and Goldman Sachs is holding the gun. We’re reliving the grand larceny of 2008 solely because we failed to remove the pistol from the extortionist’s hand these past three years. This is the true cause of the Occupy movement.

And we shouldn’t ignore those who wish to point that out just because their message can’t be codified in a soundbyte or slogan. Sure the explanations we hear are seemingly disparate, contradictory, even derivative. We live in a complex world, and few causes can be summed up so succinctly. And this is not one of them.

Yes - we're the dog

The Death of Rap Part I: It ain’t Coolio

October 18, 2011

I can almost pinpoint to the day when rap almost lost me for good.  It was the first week of December 1995, or somewhere thereabouts. The Billboard Awards had been on just the night before and one particular performance was causing a lot of buzz among my friends. Coolio and L.V. had performed their huge hit “Gangsta’s Paradise” with Stevie Wonder (to whom’s “Pastime Paradise” the duo owed the instrumental portion of their song) AND, wait for it…

… an orchestra of 10 year olds!!

What a betrayal!! How could a “loc’ed out gangster, set-tripping banger” have any affinity for kids? Coolio was nothing but a fraud, a fake, a phony. Nothing that he said from then on could be taken seriously. With this one act he had completely discredited himself.

Or at least that’s how my friends, and many others like them, felt.

I had missed Coolio’s performance and even if I had seen it I can’t imagine feeling any differently than I did – which is to say that I wasn’t terribly bothered by Coolio’s supposed “betrayal”. What puzzled me was that people ever took what Coolio, or any other rapper, said as literal truth to begin with. To think that a large segment of the population, including some of my closest friends, believed in the authenticity of the music industry, rap in particular, was a shock to me, and I began my move away from most music.

Let’s take a step back.

“44 reasons come to mind”

My earliest exposure to rap music came from snippets of Run-D.M.C., Salt-N-Pepa, Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer (if he even counts) and Partners in Kryme (T-U-R-T-L-E POWER!). It was all fun, poppy and safe. It was also a nice departure from the rest of my musical experience which, without a Walkman or radio, was dictated by my mother’s musical tastes (think Billy Ocean, Robert Palmer, Phil Collins, Michael Bolton and other sappy 80s pop stars). Thankfully my captivity to the world of “adult contemporary” music was limited to long drives to the grandparent’s, and was gleefully interrupted by that oasis known as the Sunday Night Oldies. What little rap I did listen to served as a nice reminder that there is more to music than Lionel Ritchie. It also gave me a sense of existence autonomous from my mother.

“I got the cultivating music that be captivating he, who listens”

A much larger departure began in 1993. I “graduated” onto junior high school and a world of lockers, shop class and puberty, and started to develop a growing sense of independence and “maturity” to match my new scholastic confines. Of course my musical tastes developed a rougher edge, so naturally I gravitated towards gangster rap in the form of the classic “The Chronic” released in December 1992, as well as “Doggystyle” released shortly thereafter. Both albums were produced by ex-NWA (I had no idea who they were at the time) beat artist Dr. Dre and featured a fast-paced, laid back rapper named Snoop Dogg. The music was unlike anything I had heard before, serving as a gateway into my personal musical maturity. I may not have completely understood it at the time but The Chronic, along with Nevermind, In Utero, Smash, Dookie, The Blue Album and The Downward Spiral would frame my musical tastes from then on (1994’s Pulp Fiction would serve as the movie equivalent). But The Chronic held a special place. It was raw, bass heavy, filthy and… funny.

“With a drink in my cup and a strap in my lap”

Part of the appeal of both The Chronic and Doggystle might have been my juvenile sense of humor (afterall I was 12) and the new discovery of sex jokes (Doggystyle introduced me to the idea that there was more than one position) , but there was more than that – otherwise I wouldn’t still find them funny today (that’s assuming I’ve matured over the last 20 years).

“The Chronic” and “Doggystyle” are unquestionably over the top in describing a gangster lifestyle that involved drinking, dealing, and fucking, with minor pauses for gun fights. 12 year old me never believed that such a lifestyle could possibly exist. Not for high-profile artists like Dr. Dre or Snoop, nor for any person hoping to live for more than a month without being shot, arrested or contracting AIDS (which was dominating headlines at the time). The sentiment of both albums was that a large portion of Americans lived lives that were very different from the mainstream, and that this cleavage was race-based, something that I began to understand more and more. But it was presented in such a comic way that I never believed that either Dre or Snoop should be taken literally.

“And then when I’m through with it there’s nothin else to do with it…”

Which is exactly why I was mystified by everyone being so offended that Coolio had gone “pop”, turning his back on the gangster lifestyle he lyrically lamented. I never assumed that Coolio was speaking about his own life. “Gangsta’s Paradise” was meant to act as (an exaggerated) description of the lifestyle of urban Americans living on the periphery. Even if he used “I’s and my’s” Coolio was simply assuming the role of a character describing his life – he wasn’t actually talking about his own life. There was nothing to betray cause the song wasn’t meant to be taken literally. People were confusing the authenticity of a song’s performer with its message.

Twelve year old me didn’t get how people didn’t understand that. The fact that people couldn’t accept one half of the equation  (the quality of the music) without the other (the authenticity of its performer) seemed idiotic, and, maybe worse, shallow.

That people couldn’t separate posturing and a deliberately crafted image from reality and still see some value in the song itself made me question music as a whole. Maybe we wanted to believe so badly that there was some semblance of authenticity in music to make up for the insincere and derivative pop tones that dominated the 1980s. People forgot that every musician of even moderate fame carefully manages their image, whether it be of a positive, negative or neutral/apathetic nature (yeah, those guys do it too). If fans were so easily misled, and let’s face it, stupid, than what did that say about the music industry? Like wrestling, I had assumed the music industry was an open joke that everyone was in on. I felt fine going along with it so long as there was that figurative wink to go with it. When I realized there wasn’t and that we were being played like the gullible saps we are, I didn’t want to bother with it anymore. Right or wrong, benefit or none, I just didn’t appreciate being treated like a sap.

And that was just the first step of the descent of rap in my eyes. The next phase, which essentially put the nail in the coffin for the better part of a decade followed when rapper’s began to forget their role in the joke, and started taking themselves as seriously as their fans, leading to tragic results.

Some Questions about Greece

October 10, 2011

This whole Greece debt default situation is very puzzling. Report after report from reputable sources almost insist that we stand on the precipice of another recession that will, at a minimum, rival 2008 – the worst economic contraction since World War Two. Now generally I’m not terribly interested in economic issues as they seem to require understanding of esoteric concepts that are simply above me. Plus, it is boring. But when the livelihood of hundreds of millions (if not billions) of people hangs in the balance, it tends to peak my interest – and it should your’s as well.

What is puzzling me about this whole situation are two things: first, given the severity of the alleged consequences of Greece defaulting on its debts, it seems odd that the crisis is being framed in an almost tragi-comic light. The narrative spun by most journalists has focused on anecdotal evidence of their fiscal laxity and corruption and how both are quintessentially (and charmingly) part of the Greek national character. Michael Lewis (author of Liar’s Poker, Trail Fever, Moneyball, and Blindside), one of the most-read financial journalists follows just such a trope in a recent piece for Vanity Fair, not so cleverly titled “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds“. To be fair the article is well researched and well written, laying out how Greece got into its current predicament, but it barely investigates the most pressing questions we should have about the current crisis: one, how do we get out of this mess? Two, why does Greece matter?

Looking at the second question, consider the following: according to the IMF’s figures, Greece had only the 12th largest economy of all European Union members in 2010, valued at $305 billion, just behind Denmark and ahead of Finland, countries whose populations are HALF that of Greece. Given those figures, Greece’s economy is a 1/10th the size of Germany’s and represents only 2% of the total EU common market GDP. Those are hardly the numbers of an economic super power. The fact is that Greece’s economic troubles should have little bearing on the health of the Europe, much less the world. If Greece reverted into a third-world country tomorrow, why should that affect us?

I don’t mean to be so cavalier about Greece’s financial woes. Obviously the country is headed toward a very dark period bailout or no bailout. What I don’t understand is how the mismanagement of an economic lightweight should bring down the entire global economy, subjecting the rest of us to similar misery?

Is it a question of confidence in country’s with similarly fragile economies (namely Spain) that when in trouble the EU will come to the aid of its fallen brethren?

Is it a case of financial institutions adopting a sceptical view that low-interest loans for dependent economies (which since 2008 is virtually all given the revenue shortfalls affecting the Western world) are a smart investment, causing interest rates to rise (which will inturn cause budget deficits to increase)?

Where does predatory lending and the interests of foreign (German and American) firms that have banked more than $400 billion in Greece fit with the pressure to bail the country out (thus receiving a return on their possibly known bad investment) at tax-payer expense? And why am I having a tough time finding material on that angle?

Shades of 2008 all over again. We may have a new setting but the antagonists appear to be the same.If (ha!) this happens again, will we be outraged enough to do something about it? I hope so, but we have to pay attention first.