ABBA Reconsidered

Growing up in the 70’s, I heard my fair share of pop music, mostly as I dawdled over a bowl of cereal while our local AM radio station spun tunes in between news updates and weather forecasts. WIMA programmed an adult contemporary playlist that was as digestible at the breakfast table as it was suitable for dentists’ offices. Songs like Feelings, Tie A Yellow Ribbon, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head and Music Box Dancer were mixed with country crossover hits such as The Devil Went Down to Georgia and Southern Nights, all topped off with a liberal sprinkling of Bee Gees hits. From the dawn of disco to its twilight and shortly thereafter, WIMA also kept ABBA in heavy rotation.

I was familiar with ABBA because of their inclusion among the small stack of 45’s I had inherited from my siblings. Brownsville Station’s Smokin’ in the Boys Room. Clint Holmes’ Playground in My Mind. The Night Chicago Died by Paper Lace. Something had to go under the needle of my very first record player, and whatever I found around the house was added to the playlist. I still remember the red and black Atlantic Records label revolving as the low-fidelity strains of Waterloo warbled from built-in speakers. It was a happy and infectious tune, and although I had no idea what the song was about, I knew I liked the music. Like most of the ABBA hits that were destined to dominate the airwaves, Waterloo was so catchy that it was hard to forget. Hear it once, and you know it. Hear it twice, and it’s stuck in your head. Read More

Best Picture

What do Brad Pitt, Viola Davis, John Goodman and Jessica Chastain have in common? Each of them appears in two of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture of 2011 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Four of the films include French settings or characters, three of them use World Wars I or II as plot elements, and two of them feature a boy trying to strengthen ties to his late father by solving the mystery of a missing lock or key. Aside from all that and a pervading air of nostalgia, the field of nominees is most notable for its diversity. Good luck to the Academy trying to sort it all out, because these nine films are nearly incomparable.

The Artist may appear to casual moviegoers as the oddball of the bunch. After all, it’s a silent movie shot in black and white. This does not, however, signal pretentiousness. On the contrary, it’s a very accessible, entertaining film that’s bound to charm anyone who gives it a chance. Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin and Best Supporting Actress nominee Berenice Bejo are magnetically charismatic as falling and rising stars at the dawn of the talkies. Those with a fondness for silent cinema will enjoy the evocation of that era, but it’s not necessary to be a film buff to like The Artist. It’s a lightweight yet engaging romance, a rare crowd-pleaser that does not pander to its audience. Read More

That’s Entertainment

The PTL Club: One of the funniest shows ever? Mark certainly thought so.

John Cleese tells a story about the early days of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, when the fledgling series was difficult to catch due to its erratic broadcast schedule. A friend of his from Newcastle managed to tune in one night and laughed at a long and rambling introduction featuring a boring documentarian droning on about Newcastle’s ancient monuments. Only after twenty minutes of the program had elapsed did the friend realize that he wasn’t watching Python. He had been laughing hysterically at a straight documentary feature.

That incident occurred over forty years ago, yet it illustrates a strange duality that persists in our media-saturated culture. Only a small percentage of all programming appeals to any particular viewer as genuinely entertaining, a perception that leads us to bemoan the paltry amount of worthwhile broadcasts among an ever-increasing buffet of cable channels. Yes, you really can have 100 channels and nothing to watch. But that is true only if we demand to enjoy shows as they are intended by their creators to be enjoyed. The dichotomy of modern television is that a large portion of it is unintentionally entertaining. Read More


Encamped at opposite poles of the English-speaking world are extremists whose habits annoy the general population. At one end are those who are either profoundly ignorant of correct usage or completely indifferent to it. Tell one of them that he just misused the possessive your in place of the contraction you’re, and he may clap a palm to his forehead and exclaim, “I should of known!” Less forgivable is the tendency of their nemeses, the strict grammarians, to point out linguistic transgressions at every opportunity. They’re the ones who won’t let this whole lie versus lay business lie. Or lay. Whatever.

In between is the vast spectrum of English users and abusers, each of us harboring a unique sense of that which is laudable, that which is permissible, and that which must be condemned. To trample over one of our beloved conventions is to commit a heresy. Conversely, correcting any of our colorful colloquialisms is boorish dogmatism. That is the crux of the problem with grammatical debate. It’s impossible to define a universally appealing set of standards. Read More

Between The Lines

If the mixture of articles selected for inclusion in this weekend’s USA Today meaningfully reflects a diverse population’s collective interests, then ours is a nation of strange priorities. The current issue runs an unusually hefty 54 pages, thanks to a special section highlighting Super Bowl XLVI. The 14-page supplement, longer than any one of the self-billed Nation’s Newspaper‘s customary News, Money, Sports, and Life sections, includes detailed analyses of the upcoming game, in-depth profiles of players, and even a cutaway diagram of host venue Lucas Oil Stadium. As hyped as the Super Bowl is, it’s an understandable – and I imagine rather profitable – editorial concession.

But the spotlight on Super Bowl Sunday is not contained within its designated section. A quarter of the Sports section provides further insights, including Madonna’s tantalizing comments on the nature of her highly anticipated halftime performance. A lead article on the relationship of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady dominates the front of the News section and continues over the whole of page two. The Money Section boasts a cover story about Super Bowl advertising, accompanied by a look at related smart-phone promotions and some insights on the rising popularity of chicken wings as a game day staple. Even the Life section is not exempt, lest a lightweight patron of the arts somehow miss the news that there is a very important football game this Sunday. There in the Travel subsection is a list of Larry Bird’s favorite haunts in Indianapolis, which, by the way, just happens to be hosting the Super Bowl this weekend. Read More

Wherefore Endorphins?

Creativity is an enticingly rewarding yet elusive pursuit. It seems to spring into existence like a strange and wondrous flowering plant, popping up in our gardens now and then regardless of whether or not we attempt to cultivate it. Those of us who appreciate the blooming presence of creative inspiration do all that we can to nurture it, to keep it alive and thriving for as long as possible. Despite our efforts, creativity withers, dies, and springs anew according to its own natural laws, an unfathomable set of principles that we sense yet cannot know. How is it that one can be all fired up to create something one day yet utterly unmotivated and bereft of ideas the next? The answer is as difficult to grasp as the creative muse itself.

While I cannot pin down the cause of creativity, I can vouch for its beneficial effect on my psyche:  creating something (almost anything) simply makes me feel better. Conversely, enduring a period of creative stagnation makes me feel worse. As this correlation has gradually become apparent to me over the years, I have concluded that there is a physiological basis for it, hence the tagline for my blog: Stories. Commentary. Endorphins. Endorphins are naturally occurring substances that are released by the brain. They are known to deaden sensations of pain and are thought to produce feelings of well-being. Some people think endorphins foster creativity, but I suspect it also works in the opposite direction. I know that I need to be in a good frame of mind in order to write well, yet I also know that I always feel better after I write well than I did before I started. So, Stories. Commentary. Endorphins. The stories and commentary are for you, and the endorphins are for me. Read More

Pulling The Plug

The news came while I was at work, courtesy of a text message from my wife. It was not unexpected. We had been discussing the issue for months, but it took a surprising amount of courage to see our decision through to its implementation. Staring at my phone, I sighed with the knowledge that what was done was done, and life would never be quite the same. “It’s official,” read the message. “Our land line is no more!”

Maintaining a phone line into our home was costing us $420 a year, an expense that was hard to justify now that everyone in our family of four carries a dedicated cell phone. There were few advantages to keeping things as they were. We did liked the peace of mind that came with communication redundancy, the smug assurance that should sun spots interfere with satellites and cell towers, we still had a sure-fire means of making and receiving calls. Also, it was easier to have someone just pick up an extension rather than engineering a three-way cell phone call. And it’s nice to hear the phone ringing throughout the house and be able to answer it quickly without being tethered to a device. But $420 for such luxuries? We realized that never would we have taken on the expense as a new expenditure, and it became clear that we were keeping a land line mostly because we had always had one. Not much of a rationale for spending money that could be better used elsewhere.

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One More Endless Summer

Ready to “Do It Again”? Beach Boys Wilson, Marks, Johnston, Jardine and Love

Christmas has apparently come early for music lovers in the form of last week’s announcement that all of the surviving Beach Boys intend to reunite for a 50-city world tour next summer in recognition of the legendary band’s 50th anniversary. That would be founding members Brian Wilson, Mike Love, and Al Jardine, along with Wilson’s longtime road replacement Brian Johnston and early Beach Boy David Marks (the one who thought he stood a better chance at success by forming his own band, David and the Marksmen, surely one of the most tragic career missteps in the annals of popular music). The quartet are to be supported by Wilson’s backing band, according to Love, who acknowledged that his cousin Brian has vacillated on his commitment to the tour. “He has his moods,” said Love, “no doubt about it.” All of which means that we can only buy our tickets and keep our fingers crossed.

There was a time when the prospect of a Beach Boys reunion would not have excited me at all. I grew up dismissing them with a dose of contempt, an arrogance born of ignorance along with the fact that I became musically conscious around the same time that the band was hitting its nadir. All that I could discern was a long list of vacuous hits about cars, surfing, and girls. To me, the Beach Boys were the vanilla ice cream in the Baskin-Robbins of pop music. They were a K-tel collection. What a shame that the people who made such a substantial contribution to American music should have seemed frivolous and inconsequential to a young person a mere decade after their prime. But there was a bearded Mike Love prancing about onstage in a stocking cap and bathrobe, and I could not conclude otherwise. Read More

I Wanted My MTV

When was the last time you could honestly describe a 600-page nonfiction book as a thoroughly absorbing page-turner? Such length is usually the province of academic works requiring an investment of patience and concentration from the reader. Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (Dutton, 2011) makes no such demands, at least not if you are of the generation that witnessed the rise and fall of Music Television. You  will recognize the names of the artists, videos, and VJs, and you may find yourself as riveted to this sizable oral history as you once were captivated by untold hours of MTV.

Like its subject – the first decade of MTV – Marks and Tannenbaum’s weighty tome unfolds as a series of easily digestible segments. The authors eschew editorializing in favor of letting people speak for themselves. Each of its 53 chapters begins with a brief introduction followed by artfully intercut interview transcriptions. The effect echoes the pace of vintage MTV, when the fledgling network actually aired music videos and the mesmerizing imagery turned over with the regularity of a kaleidoscope. Read More

It’s Been Sounding For Weeks A Lot Like Christmas

December has barely begun, yet it already feels as though we have been subjected to Christmas music for an entire holiday season. Familiar tunes have permeated retail environments for weeks now, and commercial television has been hijacked by the relentless yuletide promotions of jewelers and department stores. The frenzied songfest will only intensify as the Last Shopping Day approaches.

For those with an insatiable appetite for perennial holiday favorites, it’s a golden time. Personally, I find a few Christmas songs in the week leading up to December 25 to be sufficient, but I’ve usually had more than my fill by then. When it comes to Christmas music, I prefer be selective, which means embracing the recordings I appreciate while avoiding the ones I hate. The latter effort, however, can be quite difficult.

Of the traditional carols and hymns, the one song that I truly loathe is The Little Drummer Boy. What don’t I like about it? Everything. Its worst offense is what may be the dullest refrain ever penned: pa rum pum pum pum. This is a fatal flaw, as the annoying phrase is repeated incessantly. All that remains is a monotonous melody with a lyrical narrative that drives me up the wall. All my life, even when I was a child myself, I’ve wanted to grab that kid by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. “Listen, drummer boy,” I’d snarl menacingly, “the newborn king doesn’t give two figs whether or not you have a gift for him, and he sure as heck isn’t going to be pleased by some ankle-biter beating away on a snare drum!” I don’t care if it’s meant to be taken metaphorically. It’s a stupid analogy. Read More

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