Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Post Game

As I write this post on the eve of the Super Bowl, I have managed to avoid most of the media hype over the past couple of weeks. However, I did waste twenty minutes of my life watching Bruce Springsteen's press conference on-line, which was almost as banal as a typical Bill Belicheck press conference. I'll admit that it was mildly amusing seeing sportswriters shoehorn their typical questions into a musical context. Someone asked The Boss if he considered whether his performance would lift the world's spirits, a variation on the "sports are an escape from the world's problems" recitation. The splendidly named Les Grobstein asked a variation on the infamous "Where does this rank?" question by asking Bruce to compare playing at the Super Bowl with being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

At least the media participants were mostly deferential at the Springsteen event, in contrast to Super Bowl Media Day, which every year now follows the predictable script of mainstream journalists reporting on the antics of fringe journalists. (This year's headline: "Salsa Dancing at Media Day"). The media then is all too happy to report on the ridiculousness of the event (in observance of the general rule that the media is highly critical of "The Media").

You could say that Super Bowl Media Day actually helps to demystify and de-mythologize the pretensions of sports journalism, that it helps to make apparent the shallowness and vapidity that typifies most exchanges between interviewer and athlete. Yet we continue to suffer a holding pattern, with the same trite questions asked year after year. In the spirit of Joe Namath, I guarantee that several players on the winning team Super Bowl Sunday will be asked how it feels to be a champion, how it compares to other events in their life, and what was going through their mind when a key play occurred. And I guarantee that the answers will be anything but memorable. So what needs to happen to help us emerge from this vicious routine?

I can foresee a solution. What we need is a truly great world class athlete, a Michael Jordan type, to only use poetic non sequiturs when speaking publicly. The absurdity of Super Bowl Media Day must be fully realized and personified in the form of a jive-talking superstar. When asked how it feels to win a game, my chosen one would reply "The lady in the smokestack uttered a rejoinder. The crowd felt the radiance in waves. And the rooster would remain motionless no more."

Of course, this tactic would make the superstar athlete an even greater sensation, as the sheer novelty of his communication style would endear him to the media and in turn the nation. And this would result in lots of money for said athlete. Other athletes would see this and attempt to cash in themselves, and the existing vocabulary of media-athlete interchanges would be overwritten. Athletes would understand that their role as entertainers can extend beyond the playing field. Instead of plotting ways to avoid microphones and cameras, they would embrace them. Any given player would begin to understand that they could be a "brand," that their performance on the field is but one small part of an overall cultural performance they can carefully cultivate.

...And at that point, we would all long for the days when athletes would speak of playing "one game at a time." So perhaps when it comes to post-game interviews, we are actually living in the "Glory Days."

Saturday, January 24, 2009

35 Words of Nothing

As any longtime reader of this blog would know, I love to ruminate about hypothetical scenarios, and the more unlikely the scenario the more likely I will devote mental energy to thinking about it. Years before Chuck Klosterman posed the question about whether a genetically-engineered "super gorilla" would be allowed to play in the NFL, I grilled my poor father about whether he would hire a gorilla to fix cars in his transmission repair shop (even going into areas such as human/gorilla relations, asking questions about how he would solve problems that might arise between the gorilla and his human employees). I have also given some thought to whether a gorilla that engages in guerrilla warfare would be called a gorilla guerrilla or a guerrilla gorilla.

But anyway, this week afforded me the opportunity to think more about another hypothetical scenario. I was predictably fascinated by the "oath flub" that occurred between John Roberts and Barack Obama, and even more fascinated by the idea that these two men, presumably quite busy, would feel the need to re-convene and re-do it. The oath, most of us have learned this week, is required by the Constitution. But what if, for whatever reason, a president chose not to take it?

I could foresee a scenario where a president, following a strict interpretation of The Bible, would choose to forgo the oath for religious reasons. Perhaps hypothetical candidate would choose not to discuss the matter during the course of the campaign, but after being elected, inform the inaugural committee, "Oh yeah, about that oath I'm supposed to take..." I suppose it's for this reason that the Constitution actually provides for the possibility of substituting the word "affirm" for the word "swear," and Franklin Pierce apparently availed himself of this option. But let's say that our hypothetical president-elect doesn't want any part of affirming or swearing. What then?

Well, technically, according to the Constitution, he or she can't be president. But I doubt that would be the end of it. We'd probably see a series of legal challenges which would most likely end long after the president has left office. Some of the president's enemies would perhaps seize upon the issue as a pretext, but I doubt that anyone would be too concerned that the president is secretly intent on not faithfully executing the office of the presidency.

So this is all a long way of saying what we probably already knew, that the practice of taking a presidential oath, though technically a legal mandate, carries no weight of substance. To say the promises made while taking the oath are vague would be an understatement. What does it mean to "faithfully execute" the presidency? What does it mean to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution, when we have an entire branch of government devoted to figuring out what the Constitution means?

Some may point to the importance of maintaining continuity through administrations. They might say that there is something comforting in the admission that each new president promises to play by the same set of rules as each of the previous 40-some and counting executives. But given that the rules do in fact change, that the Constitution that Barack Obama just promised to defend is a decidedly different one than the one that George Washington swore to defend, how valid is this?

Others may argue that there is something to be said for making public pronouncements, that vows made in a solemn and formal occasion are more likely to be fulfilled than vows made informally. This is probably why we have wedding vows. To that, I say, "O.K.!" But let's be consistent. In contrast to the vagueness of a presidential oath, wedding vows are usually quite explicit; everybody knows what is being promised. And it is becoming a more acceptable practice to write one's own wedding vows. As the 44th President himself said moments after taking the oath, "It is time to put away childish things." Let's dispense with an oath that means nothing, and allow each presidential candidate to write their own oath of office, which would be made public during the course of a campaign.

What are the advantages of this? We'd be able to better judge how serious candidates are about their campaign promises, based on their willingness to include it in their presidential oath. After they leave office we would be able to judge how well they did their job by assessing how well they fulfilled their oath. The only disadvantage? Taxpayers would have to pay for a teleprompter for John Roberts.

Now I need to go think about what an oath of office would look like for a gorilla...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Fascinating: Old and Young

Every year Barbara Walters gets a fair amount of attention for her list of the "Ten Most Fascinating People." Though I discount out of hand any list which regards Miley Cyrus as "fascinating" (even if the phenomenon surrounding her might qualify), I like the concept. The idea of identifying, examining, and if possible, interviewing fascinating people is a good one.

But what makes someone fascinating? As I get older, I'm less likely to be fascinated by anybody. When I was younger and more impressionable I was apt to find anybody slightly eccentric, or anybody exhibiting any degree of nonconformity, to be fascinating (Dennis Rodman, for example). Likewise, anybody who exhibited excellence in any given field was a fascination of sorts (continuing the NBA theme, my generation seemed to hold a fascination for Michael Jordan). But once you've lived through Rodman's shtick, the likes of a Chad Ocho Cinco holds less fascination. If you've seen Jordan in his prime, you aren't as likely to hold fascination (admiration, but not fascination) for Kobe or Lebron. Heck, if you've lived through the ascendancy of NKOTB, Hammer Time, Hanson, the Backstreet Boys, N Sync, Britney, and Christina, you aren't going to be fascinated by Miley and the Jonas Brothers (much less if you've lived through Donny Osmond, Leif Garret, the Beatles, Elvis, Rickey Nelson, etc).

So who do I find fascinating? I am fascinated by people who have achieved a great deal of success in two or more fields, especially if the fields are unrelated. But as I wrote about some time ago, polymaths aren't really in evidence anymore. Yet there is still hope for a non-polymath to make my list of most fascinating people. But it's not easy. You must, in your chosen field, keep up with your cultural milieu over generations. The work you produce must be reflective of the world you live in, even as that world changes. You can reject the nouveau if you choose, but you have to demonstrate you know what it is you are rejecting. You must be just as relevant in your old age as you were in your youth.

Of course, this means that you have to be old in order to be fascinating. But that certainly isn't to imply that anyone who is still going strong at an advanced age is automatically fascinating. The Rolling Stones are worthy of admiration for what they continue to do, but they are certainly not fascinating. Brian Wilson is worthy of honors and plaudits galore, but his genius is of a particular time and place, and therefore he is ultimately not fascinating.

So who is fascinating? Well, as I said before, I'm hard pressed to find anybody fascinating. As we have gone through the past few years celebrating the 40th anniversaries of the tumultuous years of 1967, 1968, now 1969, it is apparent how few figures from those culturally watershed years carried relevance through the subsequent years, much less hold relevance today. Bob Dylan is of course fascinating. But Dylan is not known for engaging culture, and his reference points are not the present, or even his past, but the distant past. Even as he was making history singing about the times a-changin', he was drawing his energy from the Dust Bowl and the Civil War. His work today is relevant because it is a stubborn defiance of the a la mode that channels not his own rich and varied history, but the rich and varied history of his land.

So does that leave anyone who can claim to be fascinating on the basis of inhabiting both the past and the present? Pete Townshend comes close, but he is not prolific enough. Yet there is one hope, a man who has literal dual citizenship (as a Canadian and an American), and a figurative dual citizenship as an inhabitant of multiple generations. That man is the aptly named Neil Young.

Young has never been as widely cast as the "voice of the generation" as Dylan has, perhaps ironically because Young is more articulate. Whereas Dylan often demurs and lets people project things onto him, the garrulous Young exhausts those who would listen to him. Yet Young is every bit the master of re-invention that Dylan is and has the same proclivity for writing songs that resonate deeply with a zeitgeist. If someone wishes to understand how rock and politics intersected for the hippie generation, they need look no further than Young's "Ohio." If they want to understand the post-Woodstock ennui that generation faced, they need only listen to "Heart of Gold."

Yet rather than get bogged down in that ennui, Young kept on going, changing with the times because he comprehended the times. Out of all the performers at Woodstock, who but Neil would go on to name check Johnny Rotten in a song? And then he cut a couple of electronica albums...when Moby was still in a punk band. And the main who wrote "Ohio" would go on to write "Rockin' in the Free World," the only canonized rock song to reference an initiative (the thousand points of light) of the first Bush administration. And then in the 90s came the whole "Godfather of Grunge" era and a tour with the then-red hot Pearl Jam. And in recent years he has kept up with current events, writing songs about 9/11 and the Iraq War.

But that's all backdrop. It wasn't until recently that I became ready to bestow Shakey with the title "fascinating." First, there is the whole Linc-Volt project, in which Neil and a Kansas engineer are attempting to do no less than revolutionize the auto industry. Even if he is not successful, the mere fact that he has such high ambitions out of his original field is enough to make him fascinating. But this last week, he has done something else to satisfy my other criteria for being considered "fascinating." He did something musically that demonstrates that he is still as relevant to this era as he was 40 years ago.

If a musician from 1969 were cryogenically frozen, and thawed out today, they would probably be less surprised by the changes to music than the changes in the music industry. They would be shocked at the ease with which a musician could self-distribute their product through the Internet, even if that product is shockingly mediocre. You don't need to press a vinyl record and find avenues of distribution. You can write a song off the cuff, shoot a low-res video, and make it accessible worldwide. And now there are millions of low-res mediocre music videos on the Internet. And this week, Neil Young made the quintessential low-res mediocre music video, loading it with highly topical references. He was perfectly of his time almost 40 years ago:

And he is perfectly of his time today:

I would totally watch a Barbara Walters interview with Neil Young.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A New New City Upon a Hill

London, Paris, New York, Moscow, Tokyo, Chicago, Rome. What do these locales have in common? Of course they are regarded as "great cities of the world," but how did they get that way? While separate books can and have been written detailing the diverse stories of each of these and other metropolitan areas, I'd say the common thread is that they developed moreso through a series of happy accidents than through any geopolitical inevitability. Certain conditions needed to be in place, of course, such as proximity to water and navigational accessibility . New York wouldn't be the cultural center it is today if it didn't border the Atlantic Ocean. Yet Dover, Delaware also borders the Atlantic. Is there a parallel universe in which Dover became a more important trading port for British merchants and consequently today is considered The Capital of the World?

If it were possible in bygone eras for a great city to simply be willed into existence, Jamestown, Virginia or St. Augustine, Florida today would be booming metropolitan areas. Historically, great cities have arisen more through messy evolution than through intelligent design. But is there any reason that this historical precedent need be adhered to anymore?

I got to thinking about this while reading about the increasing dollar amounts being bandied about in the discussions about the proposed federal economic stimulus package. There seems to be a strong sentiment for devoting much of the money for infrastructure. I proposed some time ago that since infrastructure is crumbling, it might be time to build new rather than rebuild old. And I wonder if it is a totally crazy idea to suggest that rather than invest completely in our existing metropolises, we could consider building new ones. In most areas of human endeavor, we invariably discard an old model as obsolete, taking what we have learned from it, and then building a 2.0 version. What if we could do this with something as fundamental as a city?

I realize that we can't invoke manifest destiny and annex untrodden land (as there isn't any left to the best of my knowledge) and I'm not talking about building space colonies. But I wonder if we can take cities like, well, Dover, and make them into New Yorks. Because we live in a fundamentally different world than the one that created the likes of New York, Paris, London, etc..., I see no reason why we can't now have a place like Valley City, North Dakota be transformed into the new City Upon a Hill. If we could get everyone to agree on the place (maybe a high stakes reality show competition?), I'm guessing that "if you build it, they will come."

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Predictions for 2009

I've never been one to make New Year's predictions, but given the uncertainties we seem to be facing as we enter 2009, I thought it'd be fun to try my hand at recognizing and projecting salient trends. I think this game largely involves interpreting the implications of economic recession. At the risk of oversimplification, but according to conventional wisdom, there are two facts in play that can form the basis of anyone's conjectures: 1) People have less discretionary income and 2) They are less willing to spend that which they have. With that in mind, what alterations to the status quo can we expect? Here's one person's list:

1) The end of the era of "hidden fees." The most notorious example of this is the extra charges appended to a concert or event ticket. People have complained about it for years. After Pearl Jam famously tried to singlehandedly end the practice before unconditionally capitulating, most people thought that never again would the face value of a ticket represent the actual price paid. But now it appears that Ticketmaster is considering giving in. I don't expect this to mean that overall prices are going to be coming down, but in an era where every last dollar will be scrutinized, I think companies are wisely recognizing that it is time to be upfront about charges.

2) Part of the reason Ticketmaster might be coming around is because they might have some competition now that the company Live Nation is getting into ticket distribution. For years they were a monopoly. But even without the threat of Live Nation, you could make the case that Ticketmaster is no longer a monopoly. When staying home and not paying anything is as viable of an option as buying a concert ticket, it can be said that Ticketmaster has competition. From this perspective, I predict that entertainment venues will make an effort to decrease costs that don't provide immediate tangible satisfaction to the consumer. The most obvious example is the parking fee. I anticipate businesses picking up more of the cost of parking, and overall parking charges to decrease (though this might not hold true for public facilities, if shortsighted officials determine that increased parking fees might help with budgets).

3) Reversing a decades-long trend, I see products valued more for durability than for convenience. Even if it costs more, I think people are psychologically more willing to invest in something that will be perceived as long-lasting. If there were any way to access data, I would love to see candy sales. I think hard candy sales will be up in 2009 and chocolate will be down. If movie theaters are smart, they will bring back the double feature.

4) Speaking of movie theaters, I'm always interested in how narratives reflect culture, or what we can learn about ourselves by the types of stories that we tell ourselves. I predict, towards the end of 2009 into 2010 (assuming we don't have an actors strike), a rise in stories about valiant mothers and fathers protecting their families from various threats (be they political, economic, environmental, or psychotic killers). People's instincts will become more insular, and barring any unforeseen foreign developments, our concerns will be less about saving the world and more about saving those close to us. And we might see a trend toward entertainment appealing to an older demographic, as the youth market, already terribly fragmented by technology, becomes further diluted by lack of discretionary income.

5) Less obesity. I think the number one contributor to our nation's weight problem is the size of food portions. As people eat out less, they will get used to eating less at a time. (Caveat: I speak of general trends, and make no such promises for myself).

6) More people will buy second-hand clothes, such as from (You're welcome).

7) And unrelated to the economy, I predict that more than 303 people (the band's current friend total on Myspace) will realize that John Fogerty's two children have a pretty good band, Steamtrain Mary. And on the subject of unsigned artists, I think more than 2800 people will discover that a 20-year-old college student named Reina del Cid is better than anyone you will see on American Idol.

8) Finally, although I make no guarantees for quality and I offer no refunds, I predict that I will post 52 blog entries in 2009.