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May 29, 2015 / Ben

Adventures in Pop Music #5: Getting Weird with Infinite Recursion

American Hunk

American Poet

Surely at least 90% of all songs ever made make no reference to themselves or to the quality of their singer (not talking about musical influences or sampling). I am also fairly confident that the rise of egocentric rap and hip-hop (not saying they aren’t well-crafted) is responsible for the drop from 100%. Before the advent of rap and hip-hop in pop music, songs pretty much existed in their own universes, i.e. a song was a device for describing things in real life with total lack of awareness for self, singer, and other songs because it is the only song in existence (if the song was written in first person, the singer is only a character who could easily be someone else listening to the song). To put it simply, most songs have something of a fourth wall.

But consider these common levels of meta in the pop music world:

(1) A rapper rapping about how good he raps or lives, e.g. Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” (“Take heed, ’cause I’m a lyrical poet”) and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” (“Sitting courtside Knicks and Nets give me high fives”).

(2) A singer sings references to another or several other songs e.g. Better than Ezra’s “A Lifetime” (“and that REM song was playing in my mind”) and Jason Derulo’s “Trumpets” (all of the song).

Lately, however, two power pop songstresses have taken the meta to a whole new level. Pop legend Kelly Clarkson and upstart Rachel Platten have both recently released singles featuring thumping backbeats, uplifting chord progressions, and vicariously inspirational lyrics. In high school English, I recall learning to never ever use the word “this” without a proceeding noun. Of course, there are times when it is useful, especially when the ‘this’ is clearly referencing some item or thing. However, Clarkson and Platten both blow this rule out of the water in “Heartbeat Song” and “Fight Song,” respectively. What song is Clarkson singing about when she sings “This is my heartbeat song?” And what song is Platten singing about when she sings, “This is my fight song?” Surely, they are singing about the very songs they are singing, which means they are singing about the song they are singing about the song they are singing. And so forth. Or maybe they really are just singing about some other song that really gets them going.

But what is a song, if not just a fun-size package of ideas, feelings, and the collaborative interplay between them? In this case, perhaps the word ‘song’ is being used as a metonymical device, merely representing the philosophical and affective states summoned by the performers as they sing. Yeah, totally.

 

January 25, 2015 / Ben

Flight: An Uncomprehensive Review

I recently suffered through a bout of flying on planes. Fortunately, some of the most interesting stories can come from those a shoulder’s width away. On one of my flights, I sat next to an elderly (must have been around 90) black woman on her very first ever airplane trip. But I digress…

Shortly into my flight from Tel Aviv to Moscow, the woman next to me put on her headphones and began to play a movie on her laptop. I haphazardly watched along with her for bits of the movie while attempting to read or doze off during other bits. The following is a short synopsis and my critique of the movie Flight.

FlightDenzel

Oh Denzel.

 

Synopsis:
An undressed Mystery Woman engages in a romantic activity. (Surely not- we’re on a plane!) An airplane in the midst of flight encounters extreme turbulence. The pilots, through sheer will and wrist strength, rescue the plane from an unfortunate demise. (Surely not- we’re on a plane!!!!)

Mystery Woman, now dressed, happens upon previously tucked away pills. A hidden desire pulls her toward them and she proceeds to abandon her better judgment. She overdoses, collapsing to the floor. (Who is this woman? What does she have to do with the airplane? Is she related to one of the pilots? Does she represent the airplane? Is she a metaphor for the plot??? Is the plane bit over? I think I liked that bit the most :( )

To the pilots and passengers’ chagrin, the airplane is once again on the verge of doom. Pilots Denzel Washington and Mustachioed Gentleman struggle desperately for control. The plane rolls severely. Incredibly, DW and MG maintain stability by flying the plane upside-down (!!) as passengers and flight attendants are strewn about. Eventually, DW and MG manage to finagle the plane right-side-up. A church and large field appear in front of the plane as it rapidly descends. Monks bathing in a fountain run for their lives. DW and MG do their best to glide the plane softly down, but ultimately it slams hard into the ground. Both pilots bang their heads into the dashboard. MG is dead. DW is pulled out of the wreckage in a state of haze.

DW lays in a hospital bed while G-Men (including Don Cheadle) explain to him what happened while news of the crash plays on a television in the room. On his road to recovery, DW becomes addicted to painkillers. Eventually he seeks professional help. At a group therapy session he meets Mystery Woman. Late one night they remain in each other’s company. DW and MW talk about life while MW tenderly and suggestively massages DW’s wounds from the crash.

John Goodman makes an appearance and does something.

DW confronts his previous lover (and flight attendant seen earlier in the crash sequence) over his new lover. He explains to her that his new partner is the only one who can truly understand him. DW testifies in court regarding the plane crash. The verdict finds DW guilty and he is sentenced to prison. After many years in prison, DW’s estranged son visits him and the two hug, a final triumph of love and kindness before DW must face his capital punishment.

Review:
While the plot is a bit extreme and outlandish, the characters tell a real story of human fallibility and suffering. The juxtaposition between horrific, public disaster with personal, private downfall forces the viewer to question the moral failings of society and where they originate. Yet, ultimately, Flight concludes that reliance on the human heart alone allows us to overcome the deficits of the human condition. In other words, all of this is review is highly contrived bullshit.

Stars:
Flight: 3 stars
Watching Flight on an airplane: 1 star.

December 2, 2014 / Ben

Adventures in Popular Music #4: Hey! Hey! Hey!

In that famous musical era of 2011-2012, the bands Of Monsters and Men and The Lumineers invaded the pop airwaves of America with infectiously positive folk jam sounds of their hit songs, respectively, “Little Talks” and “Ho Hey.” Both these singles served as the flagship for an interested new (at the time) development in popular music: percussive chanting. This phenomenon is well documented and discussed by Steve Johnson in a Chicago Tribune article.

Curiously, to a casual observer such as myself, this musical device has recently exploded into a slightly different usage in a very different genre of music: the actual beats in hip-hop/hip-hop-leaning pop songs. Weirdly, the same sounding chant appears to be passing around music producers like the flu. To me it sounds like exactly the same dudes, but at varying tempos. I am imaging a group of young men trapped in a dungeon in the basement of Def Jam Records, yelling “Hey!” for water and scraps. Is this a new Wilhelm scream?

Exhibit A: Iggy Azalea was the first that I had heard with it. I thought it was neat and catchy. I am guess it’s not original, though.

Exhibit B: Fergie

Exhibit C: Jeremih

I’ve said before I am not a sophisticated music-listener. I see and hear people complain all the time about pop music without understanding why they have to be so negative. But to me, this “hey! hey!” chanting sticks out like a sore thumb. Its uniformity makes it rather boring and gives off an impression of laziness when heard in multiple songs. Besides hating on it, I am also quite amused by this whole thing. It will be interesting to see how the evolution of “hey! hey! hey!” continues.

November 24, 2014 / Ben

Which MLB Team Has Gone the Longest without Finishing Last in their Division?

As my Atlanta Braves appear to be pondering actually folding the next couple of seasons until they open their new, shiny ballpark (that I pray isn’t boring generic crap, but no doubt will be) in 2017, I and many of my fellow Braves fans find themselves grappling with a scary unfamiliarity. As a 26-year old, the Braves have been generally good and sometimes great for the whole of my sentient life. There were a couple dreadful years, particularly the playoff-less era of 2006-2009, but they never plumbed the deepest of divisional depths to finish in last place. In 1990, the Braves finished last in their (West) division. In 1991, they won the National League pennant, going “worst-to-first.” But the Braves didn’t just do that. They went “worst-to-never-worst-again.” It has been nearly a quarter century since the Braves finished with the worst record in their division.

Going to “First” in 1991.

 

This got me thinking about the longest streaks of sustained not-losing-terribly-badly. In recent years both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals broke historic streaks of awfulness encompassing 20 years or more, to the enjoyment of genuine baseball fans. But what about a kind of inverse of these streaks? Which teams have gone the longest without finishing at the bottom of the pack?  Sure, not finishing at the cellar can take some luck, perhaps benefiting from the saving graces of a team having a particularly bad, but fluky year. But there must be something to be said for never being that particular terrible team yourself. Finishing 2nd or 3rd to last doesn’t diminish the fan’s psyche as much as outright placing last. I decided to research which team is the ultimate Not-Losing Champion by combing through all applicable MLB standings through expansion teams, divisional changes, and league realignments. The results may surprise you.

Big Papi won't get to hold this belt.

Big Papi won’t get to hold this belt.

The Not-Even-Close Group

2014- Bos, Min, Tex, Phi, ChC, Ari

2013- Tor, ChW, Hou, Mia, Col

2012- Sea

Six teams had to finish last this year. Most of these teams have no hope for short-term success, which makes sense given that teams that lose tend to not be good.

The Mostly Former Losers

2011- Bal, SD

2010- KC, Was, Pit,

2009- Oak

2008- Det

2007- TB, SF

Memories of losing have since dissipated for most of these teams, with only the San Diego Padres having yet to taste the playoffs since their most recent nadirs. In fact, each of these years features a team that made the playoffs this year. Interestingly, all of 2010’s teams somehow made them.

The How-Did-They-Get-Down-There Clubs

2004- Mil

2003- NYM

I’ve always associated the Milwaukee Brewers with awful pitching and the New York Mets with nothing special, except for that David Wright guy. These teams have shown us a different strategy to not sucking for more than a decade: stabilized mediocrity.

It's okay Mr. Met, you had a good run.

Let it all out, Mr. Met.

The Los Angeleses

1999- LAA

1992- LAD

I can’t resist coupling together the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Los Angeles Dodgers, even if their lowest points were seven years apart. Crazy to think that no baseball team from LA has finished last in their division in the 21st century. Wait, that’s not crazy at all. Los Angeles is made of stacks of cash.

The Clevelands

1991- Cle

Cleveland is almost like the opposite of Los Angeles. My narrative is falling apart!

Being okay rocks!

Being okay rocks!

The Blue Chip Trio

1990- NYY, Atl, StL

Amazingly, these three modern day playoff mainstays all finished last in their division in the same year. These teams give credence to the idea that to win frequently, you must frequently not suck.

The Champion

1983- Cin

Wait… Whaaaaat??? What is going on in Ohio?? In my lifetime I have never seen a great Reds team. Yet, the Cincinnati Reds haven’t finished in last place in 31 years!! The last year the Reds were last:

  • The last episode of MASH aired
  • Grenada was invaded
  • Michael Jackson introduced the Moonwalk
  • McDonald’s introduced the McNugget

There you have it. The Cincinnati Reds amazingly come out on top by a whopping seven years! They are they worst losers. They are the Champions.

Mr. Redlegs knows the Reds are number 1 in all our hearts.

Mr. Redlegs knows the Reds are number 1 in all our hearts.

November 11, 2014 / Ben

Cool and the Cubs

This does not look right at all.

This does not look right at all.

Joe Maddon is cool. The Chicago Cubs aren’t really “cool,” but that’s what makes them cool. They are cool in grungy, nostalgic, steampunk kind of way. They don’t win and that makes them likable. America loves an underdog and you won’t find an underdog more perpetual than the Cubs. “Cool” is a winning team from a winning city, aka, New York City, Boston, or Los Angeles. If you go to a non-American country and someone is wearing an American sports cap, it will most likely feature a juxtaposed N and Y or a gold basketball backdropped onto purple.

The Cubs are old school scholars of the sordid act of losing. Manager Joe Maddon is a new school cat with a California coolness. (Coming to a television near you, April 6, 2015.) Much praise has been heaped upon the Cubs for swooping in on Maddon after he surprisingly declined his option with the Tampa Rays. One problem: the Cubs already had a perfectly fine manager in Rick Renteria, the generally acknowledged good guy who replaced the tough-loving Dale Sveum who never  had a chance to win and who was chosen over Ryne Sandberg who is a Cubs legend, Hall of Famer, and another all around good guy. Most said it was tough break for Renteria with the consolation that Maddon is a truly nonpareil manager in today’s game.

On the flip side, Joe Maddon left his plummeting Rays for greener ivy-covered pastures. It is difficult to be mad at Maddon, because let’s face it, the Rays play in one of the dreariest venues in baseball. And they attract small crowds due to their horrible geographical placement. It is probably a lot easier to handle the bleak with the sunshine of winning, something the Rays have forgotten as of late. Of course, Maddon will most likely be getting more than a 100% pay raise from his previous $2 million per year. However, Maddon’s move of jumping from fading franchise to already-set-for-future-success club leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Plus, he had to have known he was going to displace Renteria.

The unfriendly confines of the Tropicana Dome.

The unfriendly confines of the Tropicana Dome.

But what makes a good manager? For me, it all comes down to interpersonal skills with a little bit of understanding of the game. Managers have minimal impact on a team’s performance over the course of a year. But all managers have a basic understanding of the game and a person with great interpersonal skills can only be marginally better than a person with great interpersonal skills.

In summary:

Cool: the Cubs, Joe Maddon, winning

Not cool: firing a successful person, taking his spot before he was fired, changing an already fine team identity, sacrificing for marginal (if any) improvement, literally showing your players that success may not be rewarded in kind and that even when things are going smoothly you’re never safe

As a member of the dissenting minority I could see this move going completely wrong. I hope it won’t. Although I kind of do… Regardless, it will be very interesting watching the narrative of the Cubs continue to unfold.

WrigleyWall

Tony Campana makes the play?

October 15, 2014 / Ben

Predicting the World Series

I usually dislike sports personalities predicting winners and losers. If it has to be done, I prefer as little time as possible spent on it. Sports prognosticating rarely offers insight and does nothing to change upcoming events. Maybe other people remember who their favorite or least favorite commentators have chosen, but I never do, because why should I? It’s boring. It is a pointless task meant to fill up idle time. All this being said, I would like to introduce my 2014 World Series predictions.

Playing for the right to get potentially humiliated

Playing for the right to get potentially humiliated.

I was going to make this article about how upstart teams never win the World Series, but then I realized the last decade in baseball has completely jaded me. I was going to say how everything goes all well and hunky-dory for upstart teams until they run into the buzz-saw that is their blue chip World Series opponent.

But, the following list changed my mind. It is a list of (in my opinion) all the likable, legitimate underdogs from the most recent World Series. These teams must have had surprisingly successful seasons, not have won the World Series in many years, and/or not have had both a dominating rotation and lineup throughout the regular season of that year.

  • 2010 Texas Rangers (lost 4-1 to San Francisco)
  • 2008 Tampa Bay Rays (lost 4-1 to Philadelphia)
  • 2007 Colorado Rockies (lost 4-0 to Boston)
  • 2006 Detroit Tigers (lost 4-1 to St. Louis)
  • 2005 Houston Astros (lost 4-0 to Chicago AL)
  • *2005 Chicago White Sox (won 4-0 vs Houston)
  • *2004 Boston Red Sox (won 4-0 vs St. Louis)
  • *2003 Florida Marlins (won 4-2 vs New York AL)
  • *2001 Arizona Diamondbacks (won 4-3 vs New York AL)
  • *1997 Florida Marlins (won 4-3 vs Cleveland)

*won the World Series

Going back further, things get hazy for me. But I’ve heard the 1969 Miracle Mets weren’t called that for nothing.

There is a peculiar division in fate, pre-2005 and post-2005. It is almost as if two completely different authors were writing the script: one adhering to traditional story archetypal development and one dedicated to cynical fatalism. Recently, upstart teams haven’t just lost; they’ve lost badly. 2005 was a special case. One of them had to win and the White Sox broke their neat little 88 year old skid while it was also the first instance of  the Astros even playing in the World Series. 2004 everyone saw coming after the Red Sox came back from 3-0 down in the epic ALCS. Nothing was going to stop them on their own quest to break their own 86 year old “curse.”

Both teams in the 2014 ALCS are likable underdogs without much recent success. As of now, Kansas City is already up 3 games to none over Baltimore and, thus, much more likely to advance to the Series. Either way, the American League pennant winner will be seen as an extreme underdog compared to the established and venerable baseball institutions that are San Francisco and St. Louis. Based on recent history, I am cynical toward any chance of either AL side making an impact in the World Series. But, upon writing this post, I am reminded of the magic of the early 2000s and late 1990s. I am even more hopeful than before that is is possible for the Orioles or Royals to be crowned as Champions. However, I won’t be the least surprised when either team loses the World Series to the Giants or Cardinals in 4 or 5 games.

The last swing of 2001.

The last swing of 2001- a beauty.

October 13, 2014 / Ben

My Backlogged World Cup Blog: Bonus Ball: Revisiting Klinsmann’s Decision

Captain America

In late May of this year manager Jurgen Klinsmann infamously dropped American soccer hero Landon Donovan off the United States Men’s National Team roster. Cuts had to be made… but Landon Donovan? Critics were split on the decision. Those agreeing placed their trust in Klinsmann, who claimed Donovan just wasn’t as good as he once was and others had surpassed him. Those in disagreement were not about to let themselves be swayed from the recency bias of Donovan’s 2010 heroics. Thus began a war of words and sentiment between Klinsmann, Donovan, and, unlikely enough, Kobe Bryant.

Jurgen Klinsmann, Landon Donovan

Clearly in sync

After the initial statements from Donovan and Klinsmann reflected calm disappointment and acknowledgement of the difficulty of the choice, respectively, many were quick to declare this harsh cut the result of friction between the two, originating from philosophical differences. Donovan has been portrayed as sometimes not giving 100%, something his sabbatical in 2013 did not help, and Klinsmann has been portrayed as disdainful toward any apparent lack of heart. Feeling the backlash from his decision, Klinsmann hit back with an interesting analogy:

This always happens in America. Kobe Bryant, for example — why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?[1]

A short while later, Bryant responded:

“I thought it was pretty funny,” Bryant said in Brazil, where he’s taking in three World Cup matches. “I thought it was pretty comical, actually. I see his perspective. But the one perspective that he’s missing from an ownership point of view is that you want to be part of an ownership group that is rewarding its players for what they’ve done, while balancing the team going forward. If you’re another player in the future and you’re looking at the Lakers organization, you want to be a part of an organization that takes care of its players while at the same time, planning for the future.”[2]

Enter Kobe

Frankly, both comments miss the mark. Klinsmann’s comments betray his bitterness and Bryant’s comments betray his naiveté (while also throwing his fellow LA-based superstar athlete under the bus, missing a great PR opportunity to back up his homeboy). How can Klinsmann say that past performance is not an indicator of future success? How can Bryant possibly believe a reason that players sign for a given team is that they see how they treat their legends? The latter sound incredibly silly, although I could imagine the Lakers’ front office telling him that and, evidently, convincing him. I am fairly certain Bryant was overpaid because his team’s ownership recognizes the fact that past success brings future success and thought he would still be great/good (also I’m sure they didn’t want to lose him for sake of the brand). Suddenly, the ideas connecting Klinsmann, Donovan, and Bryant reemerge as two sides of the same coin, but not in the way Klinsmann was thinking.

Given how many soccer players in Europe fail to make an impression, despite impressive levels of talent, it is shocking to me for Klinsmann to completely dismiss past accomplishments as meaningless. Is it not possible that Donovan becomes a better player in situations of elevated importance? Is it not possible that this motivation manifests itself in knowing where to be, more so than any other player (see his 2010 goal against Algeria)? Landon Donovan not only deserved to play in the 2014 World Cup solely because he carried the US on his back in 2010, but because he has already proven his capability on the world stage. If companies disregarded past accomplishments in favor of raw talent, this world would be a strange place and I would probably have a job right out of college. Past success is a clear indicator of future success. No, it’s not a guarantor, but it is something. This principle seems to me out of a Leadership 101 class.

Furthermore, Klinsmann’s dig at America comes off completely ignorant and extremely defensive. Rewards such as extended contracts are usually based on projected performance which just happens to be based on previous performance. Seems smart and logical to me. If that phenomenon is only specific to America, well then I am proud to be an American! Of course, it isn’t. I am fairly certain (at least I hope) all important economic decisions made today factor in historical performances and trends. Yes, players often get horribly expensive contracts based on track record, but those usually are a result of overestimating projections, rather than overestimating past accomplishments. He may be a tactical genius (which I didn’t particularly see in the Cup), but I’m not sure how much one can trust in Klinsmann with this team going forward.

 

 


 

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/early-lead/wp/2014/06/04/world-cup-coach-jurgen-klinsmann-knocks-kobe-bryant-to-explain-why-he-left-landon-donovan-off-the-team/

[2] http://espn.go.com/los-angeles/nba/story/_/id/11096347/kobe-bryant-agree-jurgen-klinsmann-comments-us-sports-teams

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