Saturday, August 25, 2007

Requiem for a "Newspaper"

About a year and a half ago, while perusing publications at a supermarket, I encountered one in particular item that left me stunned. I briefly questioned whether I had entered a time warp. It was a baseball magazine, which consisted almost solely of statistics. Lacking articles or analysis, it was nothing more than tables upon tables of stats. When I was a kid, I would have spent hours with this-- and as a kid I checked out the behemoth Baseball Encyclopedia from the public library on many occasions. However, both the magazine and that great tome have been rendered completely obsolete by websites such as this.

While I don't regret my curiosity toward the existence of the baseball magazine, it is only in hindsight that I realize how strange it was that the same supermarket most likely carried the Weekly World News. Not that anyone was buying it. Circulation of the WWN in 2006 was 83,000. [citation]. That is absurdly low for a paper that had as many distribution points as it did, which is why it is discontinuing publication.

Yet it wasn't always like that. During the late 1980s circulation was over 1.2 million. What caused a 93% reduction in sales?

Some claim that new ownership didn't "get" the publication, that they tried too hard for humor. A Washington Post article posited that real life has gotten so absurd that it is hard for the publication to keep up.

My argument is that the paper has never been all that entertaining. I should immediately qualify my statement by pointing out that I've never read it. The headlines and the front page photos are mildly amusing, but what could the articles really add that was worth paying for? The Onion manages to avoid the same pratfalls on four levels. One, their writers know (for the most part) how to avoid overkill. They'll include clever headlines without the need to write full length articles. Two, their AV section is good. Three, they appeal to a sophisticated demographic by intentionally writing satire. They are subtle where the WWN bludgeons. Fourth, and far and away most importantly, they don't charge money (in most markets).

So if the WWN has always been a poor return of the entertainment dollar, how did their circulation ever top one million? The high number confirm what everyone who grew up in the 1980s suspects deep down inside. It was a terrible era for entertainment. Granted three to four TV channels were more than people of the 19th Century ever had, but the 1980s were a weird bubble between eras. In the rear view mirror was a time when people didn't have a lot of free time and disposable income, but when they did they were more imaginative about how to spend it. In the future was digital cable and the world wide web. In between was a time with eight bit video game systems, original TV movies of the week that got high ratings, and pre-CGI movies. It was just enough to suck people into a vortex of ennui. In such an era, The Weekly World News could only flourish. What is remarkable isn't that it is going out of business, but that it lasted so long into the new era. And a glance around the world wide web will indicate that though the WWN is now dead, the content that it packaged as entertainment lives on. The difference is that now it is free. And that thought gives one pause, and makes one wonder if the 80s weren't so bad after all. After all, you could get baseball stats at the supermarket.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Why Elvis Endures

The 30th anniversary of Elvis's death has resulted in over 6,000 news stories in the last week, according to Google news. To put that in perspective, that is on the bottom rung of a ladder that has Britney Spears at over 7,000 stories, Paris Hilton over 8K, and Lindsay Lohan more than 9,000.

Of course, the latter three have the advantage of still making what passes for news, while Elvis totally reliant on others to do that for him. The question about what makes Elvis an icon now seems trite after so many years, but has it ever been truly answered to any one's satisfaction?

In a culture that worships celebrity, there must be some gold standard, some enduring archetype of what celebrity means, which enables us to put in perspective the paparazzi-imbued flavor of the moment. In other words, the myth of Elvis, not so much Elvis himself, fulfills a cultural need.

So why is it that he ascended to the metaphorical crown which we have bestowed upon him? I think an easy but correct hypothesis would be the "all things to all people" theory, as I saw summed up in a USA Today cover story:
"He was sexual, a rebel, a gospel singer, a Vegas showman, a B-movie actor," says Erika Doss, author of Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith and Image. "Elvis' enduring presence is due to his many images. When people look at him, they all find exactly what they want to see."
Like Johnny Cash or even an early Britney Spears, post-mortem Elvis has indeed succeeded in somehow straddling the red state-blue state divide. For all the attention young Elvis got as a revolutionary, older Elvis can be seen as a bastion of conservatism. He released a gospel album in the summer of love, after all.

Yet for all of Ms. Doss's observations above, one element is glaringly missing: any sense of Elvis as intellectual. Elvis isn't given any credit for being the brains behind his own status. Col. Tom Parker and Priscilla are often assigned archetypal roles as the intellectual caretakers of Elvis's persona, with the singer himself regarded as some kind of enfant terrible, incapable of grasping tasks that call for anything beyond showmanship, and later, self-parody.

Bruce Springsteen contributed to this perception when he said at Bob Dylan's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction: "Elvis freed your body and Dylan freed your mind." In one fell swoop, Springsteen captured one of the fundamental precepts of Western philosophy (a duality in which the body and spirit/mind are separated), while positioning two great rock icons as avatars for each (while ingeniously subtly insinuating himself as a synthesis of this dialectic).

A couple years ago Dylan received attention for his autobiography, Chronicles, which devoted large sections to his discomfort with fame. Yet was it fame itself that Dylan was uncomfortable with? Cross-reference with what he said in an interview at the time:

I never wanted to be a prophet or a savior. Elvis maybe. I could see myself becoming him. But prophet? No.
So for all of Dylan's discomfort with being made into a living icon, he wouldn't have minded being Elvis, an even more famous icon, whose personal struggles with fame were even greater than Dylan's. Yet, precisely because he was an intellectual, Dylan cut himself off from the path of Elvis. He may be venerated today by the cognoscenti, but he would never attain the status of one who eschewed the things of the mind, and gave people what they really wanted: a freedom of the body. Whether that freedom is represented through giving license to lust or gluttony, most people prefer a hunk of something rather than the intangibility of something blowing in the wind.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Trip Through My Bookshelf

I had some free time this week, so I signed up for myspace and facebook accounts. One of the things that amused me upon perusing others' profiles is the category "favorite books." Without casting too broad of a stereotype, I think it is fair to say that the typical social networker doesn't have a huge interest in reading. I've already written extensively in the past about the topic of literacy, or lack thereof, in our culture. However, in addition to all the valid (but perhaps tired) reasons why one should indulge in reading, another, more subtle reason occurred to me this week.

Having recently moved, I decided to literally dust off my book collection. As I carefully handled each title, I was transported to a specific time and place in my life. Songs are notoriously capable of doing this, but I think the medium of the book is even more capable of helping one to re-live past experience. While reading, a person is ideally immersed in another world, concurrent to the one they are already in. And unlike the brief experiences offered by a song, television show, or movie, one can exist in this alternative world for a relatively long period of time. And from my experience, immersion in multiple worlds, rather than resulting in some kind of fractured existence, somehow heightens sensitivity to all the simultaneous existences.

Picking a bookshelf at random, here are some of the books I encounter and what I was experiencing while reading them, along with a few notes about the book itself:

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott: Read this one while living in Hartford and working at 100X. I particularly remember sitting on the couch and reading it one Saturday. I couldn't believe the special guest character that showed up. It was almost like reading a Superman comic and Batman unexpectedly shows up, with the exception that Scott's guest star is completely unexpected.

The Book of Sports Lists : My friend Mike Westphal gave this to me in elementary school when I stayed overnight at his house and showed an unhealthy interest in it. I think he did it so I would play with him, knowing I didn't have to read the book in one night. I remember playing croquet at the time as well.

Mustang Man by Louis L'Amour: My Uncle Steve was also my godfather, so he always gave me more stuff than his other nephews. He gave me pack of six L'Amour westerns for Christmas in 7th grade. Louis L'Amour defined the second semester of my seventh grade year.

The Seven Per-Cent Solution: A non-Doyle Sherlock Holmes novel. No idea how I got it, but I remember having it for years without reading it. Probably got it at a rummage sale, as I frequented several during the summer months of my elementary school years and often picked up random books. I got around to reading it while staying home sick my freshman year in high school. I remember the Grass Roots' "Midnight Confessions" playing on the radio during a climactic scene. This book introduced me to Sigmund Freud, who teamed up with Holmes, and helped cure him of his cocaine addiction.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse: I read this during Christmas break my sophomore year of college (along with Moby Dick). I got it because Hesse also wrote Steppenwolf, and I liked "Born to be Wild." This is also a book Phil Jackson tried to get Kobe Bryant to read. I loved it when Siddhartha would say to people, "I can do three things. I can think, I can fast, and I can wait." I am pretty good at two out of the three, myself.

Vertical Limit, novel based on the movie: Despite the fact that I haven't read this book, it definitely evokes a Tuesday night class from my second semester of my fifth year of college. Possibly the class I blew off the most in my life, and my only "C" in college. However, I did have one accomplishment in that class. Every week the teacher would read for an awkward ten minutes from a classic novel, then tell everyone to write down what they thought the novel was. She never told us. At the end of the semester, she said she'd have a prize for the person who guessed the most. Of course, this contest was designed for me, so I dominated easily. On the two or so occasions I didn't know the novel, I amused myself my guessing Naked Lunch. So my prize for winning? The Vertical Limit novelization, of course. Still cracks me up. I'll never get rid of this book. Might even read it one day.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: Read this one spring semester, sophomore year of college. I had to read it for a political science class. We had the choice of reading this, or Walden Two by B.F. Skinner. I read Huxley for class, but bought Skinner anyway and read it over the summer, most memorably at a Ted Nugent concert.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: I never got around to reading this until a class in grad school. I was annoyed by how everyone in the class wanted to excuse the monster's murders, just because he had bad parenting. It killed a little girl, for goodness sake. I was most fascinated how Shelley used the envelope format to package, at one point, a story within a story within a story within a story. Only Henry James can touch that.

Color Purple by Alice Walker: Read this for fun my first year in Elizabethtown. I remember reading it one weekend at Freeman Lake Park. Overly sentimental book, but I dug it.

Divine Comedy by Dante: When I worked in radio, the guys on-air used to make fun of my high brow reading tastes. One day, a game I was supposed to broadcast was cancelled, and my boss asked me what I would do with my night off. I told him I was going to read Dante, and he was dumbfounded. He thought they were kidding when they talked about the stuff I read.

All right, I have another twenty titles on that particular shelf, and I'm growing weary, but I trust I've made my point. I pity those who rely on Spice Girls songs to invoke nostalgia.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Why B.A. can't stand Murdock: An Explanation

I was pleased to recently discover several A-Team episodes on youtube. I became a huge fan of the A-Team back in the summer of 1993, as I watched syndicated episodes every day. I loved everything from the theme song (which I superimposed with lyrics...I would sing the words "A-Team" to the melody, only to radically switch to singing the character names when they would appear on screen. It is surprisingly fun) to the daytime commercials for law firms and ITT Tech that would air constantly.

I caught a few more episodes on TV Land back in college, saw a few more on DVD last Christmas, and have seen a few on youtube recently. I appreciate the fact that every episode is pretty much the same thing, which only variations on the theme. I also love the cookie cutter one-dimensional villains. They are a real hoot.

Given the cheesiness and the simplicity of the series, I can certainly see how and why critics lambasted it. On the other hand, I've detected an undercurrent of complexity and interesting subtexts (naturally). A recent trend in academic analysis of narratives is interest in the concept of "passing," or characters from oppressed groups who go in disguise or intentionally take on characteristics of more privileged groups. Three members of the A-Team are, befitting fugitive status, constantly "passing."

John Smith thinks of himself as an actor, and has no shortage of disguises or personas at his disposal (though many of them involve cowboy hats are comically over the top). Templeton Peck is a proud con-man. The interchange of these characters by military designations or nicknames ("Hannibal" and "Face") also indicates a fluidity to their identities.

However, the multiple personas of these two characters pale in the face of the complexity exhibited by Captain Jack "Howling Mad" Murdock. Whereas Smith and Peck's alternate identities are transparent to the viewer, greater decoding is necessary to understand that Murdock is even playing a game. His identity as a madman is so convincing, that only in seeing his consistent level-headedness in life threatening situations is one aware that his character is a constructed charade.

To what end does Murdock play such games? After all, as the only non-fugitive in the group, he would seem most free to be "himself." But that, interestingly enough, also empowers him the most to make a game of his identity. The French "deconstructionist" philosophers often spoke of taking a joy in "decentering" and "deconstructing" existing identities and institutions. However, such play is often available only to those who are in a position of power in society. As a non-fugitive white male, Murdock has freedom to play with his identity--creating alternate and multiple identities (fascinatingly seen in "The Taxicab Wars"). One of his other favorite tricks is to imbue significance onto the insignificant--another favorite trick of post-structuralist types. An example would be his pet plant, which was stolen along with B.A. Baracus's van in "Chopping Spree."

B.A., unlike Murdock, doesn't artificially bestow significance on much. His van is precious to him as a symbol of perhaps the one thing in the world that he can manipulate and control, as well as a symbol of power. The other symbolic gesture B.A. makes is intertwined with his character's actor, Mr. T., who told an interviewer that his chains symbolized his ancestor's history as slaves, while the fact that they are gold indicates that he still thinks of himself as a slave, only with a higher price. (It is fascinating how a multi-racial team of heroes who fight for the oppressed never seem to encounter charged racial situations. Does anyone know an episode where race plays a factor?) For B.A., then, context is important, symbolism is rooted in ideology, and meaning is hardly negotiable. He is not a character prone to rumination, but makes cut and dried pronouncements. In some ways, he is also the most idealistic member of the cast, quick with a word of encouragement for the downtrodden.

For Murdock, decontextualization is something to revel in. His ideology is also never verbally expressed, but his persistent encounters with death and danger are re-invented in a milieu of the comical and carnevelesque. His encounters with B.A., while played as a constant source of comic relief for the audience, are at the same time a natural outgrowth of their different outlooks. For me, though, even more amusing than Murdock's interacting with B.A is Murdock's interaction with the villains. It reminds me a bit of the way that Spider-Man traditionally befuddles villains with clever wordplay. However, Murdock combines his unpredictable verbal expressions with shifting personality. The result is that, rather than fueling righteous indignation as with B.A., he leaves villains literally speechless. It's fascinating to me that in a show where guns are constantly used as a way for people to gain power over one another, that postmodernism can sometimes be the A-Team's most potent weapon.