Thursday, August 26, 2010

Prison Break Season 2: Sequel

I offer another personal blog entry, since the personal will impact the future, less-personal reportage you'll find here.

My mind is in two places. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, if anybody really does*, that neither of those places is Atlanta, the city where my body shuffles around while its owner drifts along in a perpetual dream state.

One place I find my mind is in the past--way in the past--researching the 1890-1910 period of American history. I might make some sort of a book out of all that research one day, or maybe not, but I'm smitten by the period and am trying to absorb everything I can about it.

The second place I find my mind is the future, contemplating and laying a tentative foundation for a return to Europe, which may or may not happen (in case anyone from my office is worrying about making a contingency plan). This will, by extension, mean a return to the sorts of blog entries you read here from January to April, which was really what this blog was all about in the first place. As I strove to do on that earlier trip, I hope to keep the "travel blog" tone to a minimum and focus more on reporting specifically on the things I see, particularly as related to the European pop and dance music scenes.

The most appealing plan so far looks to be the Baltic states first, followed by a dive down through Belarus, then Ukraine, then Romania, then Bulgaria, then Turkey, then up and around to Georgia (since the Armenian-Turkish border remains closed), and then down to Armenia. Fortunately, I have contacts in many of these places. But I also want to visit friends in the Balkans, which is the one drawback to this currently Balkanless plan, so it will likely be revised (of course, some revision will occur at the spur of the moment).

As for the present, I'm just a body earning money at his job right now. If I return to Europe I will have to quit the job, which is why earning money now is of paramount importance. Not that I'm quitting my job. Just saying these are all the angles I am looking at right now.

* You don't.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Epically Flawed Analogies

For the benefit of those not living in the United States, I will explain that there is a proposal to build a Muslim cultural center two blocks from the "Ground Zero" site of the 11 September attacks. Those opposed to the center say that it is insensitive to build anything related to Islam near Ground Zero. Others argue that opposition to the construction of the center demonstrates an abandonment of our constitutional values.

It's worth writing about on this blog, since many of the analogies used by opponents to the plan focus on events that transpired in recent European history.

In making their arguments, opponents of the so-called "mosque" (actually, it sounds more like a mall) often talk about the "misappropriating" of a tragic historical event, but then misappropriate other historic tragedies to draw analogies to support their position.

I have noticed that all the analogies brought up by opponents to the plan fail on exactly the same point. Here are some the comparisons that have been made and why they all fail in the same way.

1) "Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington." -- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
Analogy: Muslims = Nazis, NYC = Holocaust Museum.
Fail: Nazis as a political entity planned and orchestrated the slaughter of Jews, whereas Muslims as a whole did not plan and orchestrate the 9/11 attacks.

2) "We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor." -- Newt Gingrich, again
Analogy: Muslims = Japan, NYC = Pearl Harbor.
Fail: Japan as a political entity planned and orchestrated the attack on Pearl Harbor, whereas Muslims as a whole did not plan and orchestrate the 9/11 attacks.

3) "The Atlantic's Michael Kinsley was typical in arguing that the only possible grounds for opposing the Ground Zero mosque are bigotry or demagoguery. Well then, what about Pope John Paul II's ordering the closing of the Carmelite convent just outside Auschwitz? (Surely there can be no one more innocent of that crime than those devout nuns.)" -- Charles Krauthammer, conservative columnist
Analogy: Muslims = The Catholic Church, NYC = Auschwitz.
Fail: The Catholic Church (a religious and, effectively, a political entity [both in method of operation and in the Vatican's sovereignty]), was complicit in the destruction of the Jews during World War II, whereas Muslims as a whole did not plan and orchestrate the 9/11 attacks.

4) “9/11 mosque=act of fitna, “equivalent to bldg Serbian Orthodox church@Srebrenica killing fields where Muslims were slaughtered” -- Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and former Republican vice presidential candidate
Analogy: Muslims = Serbian Orthodox Church, NYC = Srebrenica.
Fail: The Serbian Orthodox church as a religious entity prominently and directly supported the Serbian government's actions during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, whereas Muslims as a whole did not plan and orchestrate the 9/11 attacks.

To me, reasonable hatred (e.g., our feelings toward the 9/11 plotters and executors) evolves into unforgivable racism when one impresses one's negative impressions about a few individuals upon a much larger number of people (I suppose this is a wordy way of describing negative stereotyping). The analogies above all attempt to pull off this trick, attempting in each instance to equate 1.5 billion Muslim people to various political and religious entities who, either generally or, in the cases of the specific injustices cited, are worthy of censure. This is why the Atlantic writer Mr. Krauthammer attempts to refute was right all along: "the only possible grounds for opposing the Ground Zero mosque are bigotry or demagoguery."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Europe and America

Began writing this five months ago somewhere between visiting Croatia and Slovenia. Tweaked it a few times since. It probably isn't going to get any better, so I am giving up, posting it, and walking away! :-D

Europe, a continent the size of the United States, boasts myriad languages, faiths, and cultures. Some countries there were fighting wars with one another as recently as the 1990s, and other forms of cultural wars continue to divide Europeans today. Thus, it would be silly to generalize about Europeans as a whole. But I'm silly, so let's do it!

Europeans seem to be more pragmatic and susceptible to logic than Americans, perhaps to a fault, as pragmatism sometimes leads to pessimism, and pessimism leads to inaction ("The odds are I will fail, so I will not attempt"). But I can relate better to this form of logic than to American optimism, and the longer this economy drags the more American realists I think there will be.

Europe contends with a Babel effect; even with English as a fallback business language there is a large, disenfranchised portion of the population that cannot so easily participate in the international market. America is fortunate in that its citizens by and large speak the same language.

The Muslim issue seems to be roiling Europe, whereas America's analogous Mexican immigrant issue is not so big a deal (the U.S. immigration debate does not represent an all-out "culture war" on a par with Europe's Muslim one; and regarding our own recent Muslim issue, the "Ground Zero" "Mosque" [both terms need to be scare-quoted], this appears to be a trifle compared to the all-out European cultural battle).

Europe has a deserved reputation for paying more attention to detail, and generally is known to produce a higher quality of product (from clothes to furniture to cars to women*) than Americans, though sometimes at unreasonable cost.

Even if we are to trust the gloomy international standardized test scores, the United States' 300 million-strong population guarantees that a large number of smart and clever people will continue to drive the markets and innovation. Lack of hyper-pragmatism means greater ingenuity and innovation--the best entrepreneurs expect to fail sometimes and are not easily dissuaded by failure. That means we sometimes fail epically, but we also enjoy epic success (McDonald's, Microsoft, etc.).

All that said, I often think I would rather live in Europe. I identify more with its culture and lifestyle. America can become great, but if my life isn't, then why stick around cheerleading the richest 1%? There are plenty of European democracies I could choose to live in. And did I mention the girls?

* ;-D

Monday, August 9, 2010

Something iTunes Does That is Probably Illegal

For years iTunes begs me to update it, and afterward, if I see any change at all, it seems all I can do is flip through my album covers in some new way. More substantive, logical suggestions for improving iTunes have been ignored for years, so today it's still too easy to accidentally delete a playlist, the program cannot automatically find de-linked songs, and (despite there being simple freeware programs that can do it with mp3s) no BPM calculator has been installed.

But that's nothing compared to iTunes' most glaring flaw, which probably breaks the law. iTunes needs to introduce an option to view album covers and liner notes in greater detail.

Last Friday, my friend Goce Alice recommended a 1969 musical starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. I said, "a musical starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood." It's called Paint Your Wagon, and those tough guys, God bless them, did their own singing. How awesome is that?

Goce steered me to this YouTube clip, which features a marvelous rendition of the song "Wan'drin' Star" by Lee Marvin (whose deep and gravely voice recalls Leonard Cohen's).

I rushed to iTunes in order to buy the song, but a few Paint Your Wagon soundtracks exist on iTunes, all of them suspect. I tried to study the fine print in order to pick out the correct one, but there was no reading of fine print. That's because iTunes doesn't allow one to study the album sleeves closely. Album covers are reproduced at a size of about 175 x 175 pixels, which is pretty tiny. Clicking such an image does not take you to a larger version.

I settled on an album that read, "Music from the Paramount Motion Picture." I am shrewd enough to know that this might have just been a very lawyerly way of saying that, while the record featured performances of songs "from the movie," the songs in fact were not the original movie versions, but rather versions by "sound alike" artists. But really, would the people behind this be such pricks?* It did not escape my notice that iTunes credited the singing to the "Rita Williams Singers." But maybe the Rita Williams Singers did the majority of the movie performances, and Lee and Clint stepped in now and then to accompany them. Who knows? It was the best I could come up with.

I bought "Wand'rin' Star" played it, and sure enough I'd been had. I felt stupid and ashamed, like you do when a con man successfully extracts a dollar from you. In fact, the original movie soundtrack version is not available on iTunes at all. Once again, they wonder why we file share.

Had I been more patient, I might have gone to and found this much larger version of the album cover, which made it clear via the absence of Lee Marvin's and Clint Eastwood's names that this was a "Countdown Singers" sort of affair. Oh well.

We all know it's ethically wrong to do shit like this. Nobody wants a sound-alike cover of an original song, and nobody who buys the version of "Wand'rin' Star" that I did does so for any reason other than having been tricked. Nobody. Adding the words "Music from the Paramount Motion Picture" to the album cover deliberately creates this confusion.

There is a special place in hell for the geniuses behind this. But the practice is not illegal. No doubt, the lawyers signed off on everything and Paramount was happy to collect licensing fees.

Where I think iTunes is breaking a law, however, returns us to the issue of the album cover. Back when the lawyers signed off on the original Paint Your Wagon arrangements, nobody at Paramount would have actually wanted somebody to hand money over to the sound-alike band instead of spending that money on Paramount's own "Original Motion Picture Soundtrack" version. It would be logical to assume that the lawyers for Paramount therefore demanded that information be present on the copy-cat's album cover in order to make it clear to the consumer that the record in hand was not the real version.

But in the iTunes world I cannot hold that record in hand and study its fine print. Not only is the cover shrunk down to an unreadable size, but no back cover is provided at all. This cannot have been what the lawyers for Paramount intended.

Even more amazing is the lack of data provided on iTunes m4a music files regarding engineers' names, session musicians, and producer credits. How would one know about David Gilmour's backing vocals on Kate Bush's "Pull Out the Pin"? What of Kate Bush's backing vocals on Peter Gabriel's "No Self Control"? What of Peter Gabriel's lead vocals for Lamb Lies Down on Broadway-era Genesis? Do we get any of that information from iTunes? It does not appear so, judging from what little I find when I click the "Get Info" option on my iTunes m4as. You wouldn't be able to learn from an iTunes m4a that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were in Led Zeppelin; that John Lennon once sang for a band called The Beatles; that--good God--Justin Timberlake was once in 'N-sync!

Is this why so many hip-hop producers are nowadays into the irritating habit of yelling out their names throughout the songs they produce, like paranoid dogs marking their territory? In light of this, it seems they have a point; so forgive me, Jay-Z and Timbaland, for criticizing you for employing this practice. In the future, perhaps all the session musicians will get to do a self-promotional shout-out on every track as well. Songs can just be shouted out lists of names.

So keep your stagecoach clear of them sound-alike varmints, aided and abetted by iTunes' current policies. In the United States the only place you can hear Lee Marvin croaking the original version of "Wand'rin' Star" (outside of renting the poorly-reviewed movie) is by moseying on over to that YouTube clip--at least until Paramount's lawyers have it taken down, which will probably be soon. Then we'll all forget that Lee Marvin's unusual performance ever happened. That's 21st century entertainment law for you.

* Oh God why do I even ask anymore?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Gay or Eurotrash: Thoughts on Disco After the Proposition 8 Overturn

Here in the United States, the ban on gay marriage has been ruled unconstitutional once again, and so the long debate continues--astonishingly, since the arguments against gay marriage are among the most irrational, illogical, and (despite arguers' insistence to the contrary) obviously bigoted I have ever seen in print.

Of course, there has been a long and sorry tradition of homophobia in America. One aspect of that worth exploring is the relationship between gay and dance music culture.

Over the last year or two, the BPMs of American R&B have risen. This might be the result of a larger cycle; R&B and hip-hop beats were faster in the mid-to-late 1980s, then slowed down to appropriately dirge-like rhythms during the depressing 1990s when MCs were getting killed left and right. Lady Gaga's success with her Euro-influenced pop-dance sound deserves some credit for encouraging Americans to hit the dancefloor, but the growth of U.S. Latin culture over the last decade is perhaps of more significance (Hispanics became America's largest minority in 2003, and faster dance beats have long been a part of Latin pop music tradition).

Whatever the causes, it seems we are becoming a dance nation at last. Our new-found fondness for the 130 BPM song is the latest in a long line of Euro-pop-culture injections that (like the reality TV shows we have cloned from Dutch, Swedish, and UK ones) have taken hold of America over the last decade.

It's about time. After all, Americans invented disco, house, and techno music. But as soon as disco took off we crowned a European champion: Giorgio Moroder, the "Munich Machine" who produced all of Donna Summer's 1970s hits. Ever since, dance music has traditionally enjoyed a far higher level of popularity in Europe, both chart-wise and culturally, than it has in the United States.

Why? Well, you know why, because you know I began this essay with the subject of homophobia.

Disco music emerged from America's gay club scene. "During the late 1960s various male counterculture groups, most notably gay, but also heterosexual black and Latino, created an alternative to rock'n'roll, which was dominated by white — and presumably heterosexual — men. This alternative was disco," states Kelly Boyer Sager's in her general treatment of The 1970s. And so in its very conception disco was associated with sexual, as well as ethnic, minorities. And while a perhaps overly self-aware straightness prevailed over the popular 1977 movie hit Saturday Night Fever, that film explored a minority scene of its own--New York City's Italian-American culture, as the New York magazine article the film was inspired by demonstrates.

So despite its general popularity, disco remained a scene strongly associated with gays (Village People), gay blacks (Sylvester), Italian-Americans (Saturday Night Fever), and other American minority groups.

In 1979, a "Disco Demolition Night" was hosted by a radio station at Chicago's Comiskey Park during a baseball game. The publicity stunt called for disgruntled rock fans to bring disco records to the stadium; the records were to be blown up on the field. A crowd chant of "disco sucks" led up to the explosion. Afterward, rock fans took to the field and a surreal riot (of sorts; no one was injured) followed.

Wrote the New York Times in a reflective piece, "[Chicago DJ Steve Dahl] and his followers resented how disco threatened rock ’n’ roll." That thought is left undeveloped. How did disco in any way threaten rock 'n' roll? How does any genre of music threaten another? Craig Werner, in his book A Change is Gonna Come (as quoted in this Independent article) summed it up: "The Anti-disco movement represented an unholy alliance of funkateers and feminists, progressives and puritans, rockers and reactionaries. None the less, the attacks on disco gave respectable voice to the ugliest kinds of unacknowledged racism, sexism and homophobia."

In other words, disco was logically as much a threat to rock 'n' roll as gay marriage is a threat to the institution of marriage.

Disco remained popular for a few more years in Europe before it gave way to other sub genres of electronic dance music. But in America, the stigma of disco as a gay- and other minority-based counter-cultural movement warped and distorted white America's perception of the club sound for three decades. While America's gay scene rallied around house music, and more underground-minded sorts sniffed out warehouse raves, average Americans missed out on a lot of the fun enjoyed in the UK--no acid house summers of love, no sight of worried television reporters bemoaning the dangers of the drug-infused hardcore techno rave scene, no Gatecrasher style Euro-trance explosion in 1999. But if the latest crop of U.S. dance pop singles are any indication, perhaps we are finally putting that bigotry behind us. Put on your dancing shoes, America.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Vote for DJ King Pigeon

Voting has opened for the DJ Magazine top DJs poll. Please vote for me, DJ King Pigeon.

I certainly need more help than DJ "I'm not Dead" Tiƫsto does. But neediness is not a good enough reason to solicit your support, so let me do something novel and list my qualifications:

1) Ambitious mixes like this one, which promote the whole of the European music scene (and beyond).

2) Articles written to draw attention to music acts that rarely receive English-language promotion, such as this one and this one.

3) A decade-long history of supporting and spreading the word about under-represented music scenes through blogs, parties, and social networking websites.

4) I'm kinda cute. I mean, check out my beautiful red eyes in the picture above.

I don't have the impeccable fashion sense, the globe-trotting lifestyle, or the fancy cars enjoyed by the top DJs, but isn't that really the point in voting for me? It's time to upset the status quo!

Vote for DJ King Pigeon. :-)