Celebrating Mediocrity

January 30, 2009

mcdonalds-coffee

My brother commented on one of my articles recently suggesting I make a list of hit films, books and songs that, although very popular, are not good in the artistic or critical sense; in other words, what’s my top ten hit media items that I feel are really just crap?

Well, this isn’t really that. This isn’t a countdown of what’s the worst popular junk in systematic dissection, this is more an article about the enthusiasm for mediocrity as a whole.

There’s a recent TV commercial for McDonald’s, a company I loathe almost as much as Wal Mart. In the commercial two young guys are in a traditionally “trendy” looking coffee shop. Both are wearing glasses, one is reading a book. Both speak in low, stereotypical “pretentious” voices. One says to the other “did you know McDonald’s sells coffee now?” The other says “well what are we doing here then?” He whips his glasses off saying he doesn’t really need them. He says he’s tired of sitting in coffee shops and talking about “films” and that he really just enjoys “sitting and watching football.” The other agrees but concedes he actually does need his glasses.

So really, this commercial is showing that there is no need to go to a trendy independent coffee shop where poetry readings and acoustic open mic sessions are  held and where people discuss art, film and philosophy. No, now you can go to McDonald’s and get a dollar cappuccino and take it home to sit on your couch and watch football till your brain drips out your ear from the numbness of average, ordinary mediocrity.

I’m not going to get into a criticism of football. I’ve written about baseball often on this site, if you click on “baseball” at the bottom of the page and read back at all of my baseball articles from last year you’ll even see at least two that comment on why I feel baseball is a superior sport to football on various levels. That’s not something to get into yet again here. I don’t loath football, I’m just not a fan. Perhaps it’s somewhat silly for me to equate baseball as a symbol of positive American values and football as a symbol of negative American values, but it’s mainly just for fun in my case. No, I’ve been known to watch a super bowl occasionally (I’ll definitely tune in to the halftime show this year because Bruce Springsteen is my favorite musician of all time). Not everyone who watches football is a symbol of mediocrity, but the idea that there’s nothing better for the average guy than to sit on his couch and watch football all day, possibly eating fast-food, is a bit of mediocrity celebration.

On a smaller scale, much of what is incredibly popular is insanely mediocre. Your typical active rock radio station plays the most uninspiring new rock imaginable (Nickleback anyone?). Hip Hop stations play the same club jam and pop rap hit like “Live Your Live,” “Apple Bottom Jeans” (Re-Remix), or a mash up between Justin Timberlake, Akon and Bow Wow. Country stations wallow in mediocrity. Alt-country, classic country or even slightly edgy country will not be on the radio–instead get ready for Toby Keith, Big & Rich or any number of other brain numbing works. A slew of mediocre books were turned into mediocre films over the past months ( Marley and Me, He’s Just Not That Into You, Confessions of a Shopaholic). I’ve mentioned authors that churn out sub-par work on a regular basis that manage to sell truckloads worth of books (James Patterson post-the first five Cross novels, Nicholas Sparks, many would say “Twilight” ).

The point is, quite often very unintelligent, unoriginal, and utterly crappy material becomes very successful, be it music, movie or book. I can list a lot but there’s really no point. Why do such things appeal to so many people? Many would say that they are safe, middle of the road affairs that appeal to the lowest common denominator so that they can reach the widest group of people. Typically such things don’t require too much thought, too much absorption and concentration or any measure of taste cultivation. Really, the best of any medium quite often requires the reader, listener or viewer to participate in the process a bit by thinking, involving themselves in the field to better understand the author or artist. So what makes this troublesome is not that people like “crap.” People are different, they can like anything they want to. What’s problematic is that the better work is too often buried underneath mediocrity, pushed out of stores to make room for the top selling garbage, and ignored by the radio stations, TV stations and book stores.

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Philosophy has always fascinated me and the fact that I am now interested in pursuing a life and career more focused on World Religion, Theology and Social Work doesn’t change that. It’s no different from the fact that even though I am now an Episcopal I still read things pertaining to the history and beliefs of other denominations, or that though I am a Christian I read and study Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Taoism. So even though I read primarily Religious works in that regard now where when I was a philosophy student I eschewed the “other end of the hall” where the religion students resided (literally–Philosophy classes were at the opposite end of the same floor from where the Religion classes were when I did my undergraduate work), I still read philosophy work that falls far outside of the “Christian” or even “Religious” label.
I say this as a preamble to mentioning atheist and secular humanism philosophies. See, I never got riled up at such things as a philosophy student. I’m not so much angry now as flabbergasted at philosophers and social critics that narrow their viewpoint so much that they totally miss the point. What I’m referring to are the Fundamentalist Atheists, what progressive Christian writers like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg refer to as “Fact Fundamentalists.” For these type of folks, like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, if you can’t scientifically measure, label and mathematically define something it isn’t real and therefore is useless if not an outright dangerous delusion.
Hitchens leans toward the vehemently mean end, proselytizing his version of Atheism as loudly as any fire breathing evangelical does their version of Christianity. Hitchens insists that it is dangerous to believe in any religion, that religion is the primary cause of every horrible thing in the world today, and that when a person of faith educates their children in that faith they are committing child abuse. Less hostile in this camp is the scientist Dawkins, who is brilliant in his own field yet misguided in others. He’s a proud sponsor of a campaign that advertises a slogan on city buses in London that proclaims that “There’s probably no God, so relax and enjoy life.” Even eminent and historical philosophers like Bertrand Russell were seriously guilty of missing the point, as was the case in his work “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Russell rejected the Christian faith for a few specific reasons and stated that although many of the primary tenants of the faith were admirable, ultimately he had to reject it because he felt Jesus expected the end of the world in a mere few years and was wrong, and Jesus believed in Hell and thus lacked compassion among other similar reasons.
The problem I have with the work of the above people is not that they are not Christian nor is it because they speak out against Christianity and the Church. Russell was very right in stating that most of the people he ran into declaring themselves Christian behaved and believed nothing like the historical Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels for many reasons, not the least of which that in their pursuit of capitalism they were in direct opposition to much of Jesus’ more socialistic statements. Russell ended his life with a biography that embraced most of the important aspects of progressive Christian without explicitly realizing it, from the support of pacifism to the hope that he had done all he could in his life to spread peace, justice, love and wisdom. I can even acknowledge Hitchens assertion in the sense that fundamentalist religion is the cause of much (but not all) of the worlds biggest evils. I nod with Dawkins that people should quite often “relax and enjoy life.” My major problem with these folks is that they blanket all of religion with legalism, fundamentalism and narrow-mindedness. Even scholars like George H. Smith, who wrote the modern textbook for Atheism, “The Case Against God,” seem to assume that right wing religion is all religion. Every serious work of Atheism seems to attack the scientific or ethical arguments and “proofs” of God (such as the ontological argument) and each author seems to assume that by disproving such arguments they prove God does not exist. This is what I take most issue with. Any logician, philosopher, lawyer or scientist can disprove any “proof” of God that has been laid out in an argument by Augustine, Aquinas, Kant or the modern religious right with proper argument and work, but they cannot disprove God–merely the arguments that philosophers have assumed proved God’s existence beyond the shadow of a doubt. But they have nothing to combat progressive, modern, liberal Christian faith. They really have nothing with which to combat traditional faith with either . When it comes to faith, you can’t prove or disprove it. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but rather certainty. When you jump from doubt to certainty you don’t need faith because you know the object or your prior faith with absolution…in a way your faith is then dead. So there are two true, viable forms faith can take that no fundamentalist atheism can touch. A Kierkegarrdian “leap of faith” into doubt and trust can’t be dismantled through argument and neither can a modern liberal faith in which the believer brings all of his doubts to the table and constantly reevaluates his/her faith in light of history, progress, culture and personal revelation. Modern Anglican inspired liberals from Spong to Borg and Crossan have stated that were the bones of Jesus to be discovered their faith wouldn’t be wavered because their perception of the resurrection was metaphorical and yet still miraculous, and they know Jesus from how he has expressed himself to them in their personal lives and his historical earthly teachings live on in those that truly hold to them and seek to follow them to bring about his vision of peace through justice in the ever-present kingdom of God.
My point is that Atheism is as prone to fundamentalism as Christianity or Islam. When it steps out from being a personal philosophy in which the believer holds to its tenants yet keeps his/her mind open to possibility and becomes a dogmatic and systemized system in which anything that cannot be measured and labeled is unacceptable and in which the believer holds with utter disdain anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their same beliefs, when Atheists begin to campaign with advertising slogans and use slurs to describe non-atheists, guess what? They become fundamentalists.
There is room for all faiths and all non-faiths and there can be dialogue between all believers and non-believers if all keep their minds open to further revelations, new possibilities, new evidence and alternative concepts. Real faith is life-changing and evolutionary, all doubts must be brought to the table so that they can aid in new growth. Any faith that leads toward peace, acceptance, mutuality and love can’t be all bad.

Gene Robinson’s Prayer

January 20, 2009

robinson

Well, I ran to the back of my workplace to catch portions of the inauguration, including Obama’s speech, and I noticed Robinson wasn’t present. I had thought he and Warren were to pray before the inauguration but I just learned that Robinson actually prayed before the concert on Sunday on HBO…and due to a timing error it wasn’t even broad-casted. It’s posted around the web a bit but I’ll do my part to spread it more since I have a great amount of respect for Robinson and feel his prayer was insightful, eloquent and timely.

“O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will bless us with tears — tears for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women in many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless this nation with anger — anger at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

Bless us with discomfort at the easy, simplistic answers we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth about ourselves and our world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be fixed anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility, open to understanding that our own needs as a nation must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance, replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.

Bless us with compassion and generosity, remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable.

And God, we give you thanks for your child, Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

Give him wisdom beyond his years, inspire him with President Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for all people.

Give him a quiet heart, for our ship of state needs a steady, calm captain.

Give him stirring words; We will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

Give him strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking far too much of this one. We implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand, that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity, and peace. Amen.”

As a follow up to my article on rap music’s journey from subversive to reinforcing, I now turn to another maligned sub-genre of music: emo. At its core, emo is punk music laced with pop melodies containing diary-level personal and emotional lyrics, hence “emo,” short for “emotional.” Emo emerged from the remnants of various underground hardcore scenes when several punk bands began to experiment with writing convincing, authentic, personal lyrics. Punk and Hardcore has always been focused on authenticity; it was an anti-mainstream posture and attitude held by musicians who felt radio and commercial music was bland, uninspired, calculated and fake. Emo emerged as a subgenre of that, maintaining the position that mainstream wasn’t “real enough,” yet adding introspection, reflection, and commentary on personal relationships and feelings to their lyrics. Early bands like Fugazi, Sunny Day Real Estate and the “Zen Arcade” album by Husker Du laid the groundwork for this scene, and mainstream acts like Weezer inspired the generation that would propel emo into the spotlight. Weezer released the perfect pop punk album with their “Blue Album” debut “ which showcased the style that would define next generation emo: ‘50s influenced rock harmonies, punk riffs, indie cred and nerd sensibilities. The initially commercial flop follow up “Pinkerton” brought the sort of lyrics that cemented the following generation’s modus operandi: Weezer singer Rivers Cuomo during a depression spell in which he had to walk with a cane and spent much time in seclusion (as a twenty-something pop star this had to make it even more difficult) and churned out lyrics about being “tired of sex” sick of “feeling like an old man,” etc.

I began listening to a bit of emo with Weezer and second generation emo: Taking Back Sunday, Thursday, Dashboard Confessional, Fall Out Boy, Matchbook Romance, Bayside, From Autumn to Ashes, and the like. This second generation of emo, (at least everything that was commonly labeled emo when I was into the stuff) took on a few forms: at one extreme end leaning towards the pop-punk side, at the other reverting back vocally to the barking screams of its hardcore roots (kind of ironic, considering one of the things that provoked the birth of emo was the experimentation in vocal harmonies)– the more scream oriented emo bands are referred to as “screamo.” The vast majority of this wave of bands fell between the screamo and pop-punk varieties. Typically they wielded dual lead guitar punk riffs and two vocalists (one typically handled the screams, the other the more tuneful singing). All of these bands drew heavily on The Cure, Weezer and the early hardcore, punk and emo scene-setters.

Today, most of this has become a caricature, as any musical movement does when it gets too mainstream, repetitive and outstays its welcome. It’s usually at this point it draws it’s sharpest criticism if its controversial at all. After its ceased to be relevant and creative, it becomes mundane and standard and more widespread. The typical conservative social critic, preacher, teacher or parent, if they know anything at all about emo’s existence, think of it in terms of cutters, manic depressive teens, the goofy haircut that emo “poseurs” sport in which one bang hangs low to cover one eye, etc. This is the third generation emo scene, and most of these kids fail to realize the scene is over and they miss the point of what it was about in the first place. I don’t mean to negate or trivialize teenage depression or cutting. Those are entirely serious issues that this article does not seek to address. I do disparage against any teens who pretend to be depressed or cut simply to fit into a subgenre of “emo kids.”

My point isn’t really a defense of the genre in the sense that I think that it’s some sort of excellent, defining music. I really enjoyed it for a span of about two years and a few of those bands have carried over with me and other pieces of it are still occasionally enjoyable in the nostalgic sense. But for me, that music and the scene around it was helpful and positive at a particular point in my life. Several years ago I went through a phase in which a difficult break-up worked as a somewhat catalyst and “excuse” for dealing with issues that had laid dormant and bothersome in me for quite some time. The music was perfect for me at then, the guitars and noise combined with searching, sad, wanting, reflective lyrics pitched out in emotionally charged ways fit right in. I can’t listen to music I don’t feel, so upbeat, fully positive or party music wasn’t hitting the right nerve for me then. The concerts for these bands were perfect, venting, charged times of mental release. The lyrics became scripture and the venues a sanctuary. I saw Taking Back Sunday when they were on a short list of my most listened to bands, and the mosh pit at that show exemplified how such a thing should be—not violent or aggressive, just passionate and affirming. Jumping around, slamming into fellow fans, and if anyone ever fell there was always someone to help them up and pat them on the back before going back at it. Everyone knew all the lyrics, all the solos, everything . I’ve been to shows where the mosh pit was a frightening and stupid thing-roundhouse kicks, punches thrown, everyone fighting. Not really a positive outlet—but a good hardcore emo show always had upbeat and welcoming mosh pits, full of like minded fans just looking for a night out in which the singer echoed their feelings and the music worked as catharsis.
I saw Fall Out Boy long before they were releasing platinum albums and being on the cover of Rolling Stoner, back when they could barely play their instruments yet still managed to put on fun shows. I saw Thursday in a gravel pit and from the moment they kicked off their first song the entire crowd was jumping up and down…I crawled up the hill out of the pit covered in dust to go catch the Cure play a set. I saw the Used at a hardcore festival, and after 3 hours of aggressive political music The Used brought things down to a personal level and amped up the emotion in an amazing way.
The point of this is that far from being music that furthered my depression or caused me to cut myself and wear a trendy haircut, this music and these concerts focused, refreshed, entertained, consoled and elevated me. I did a bit of potentially destructive and stupid things during my year or so of depression, and I kept a lot to myself. While at a show and on the way to a show I was always focused on the music, I never wanted to mess up the experience I was going to have by doing something stupid, it gave me leverage and focus. While I was into the music, I was safe from worse activities.
Recently I was listening to a priest friend of mine give a lecture to teenagers and he spoke of everyone having a spirituality and a fire whether they recognize it or not. I grew up with spirituality in a sense, but dismantled it intentionally and unintentionally during my youth. It has taken me time to grow and find a realistic and viable sense of spirituality in my adulthood, and looking back I see that back then my spirituality lay in the music and the drive therein; perhaps it wasn’t the best place to put it, and it certainly didn’t totally fulfill or give personal purpose or complete peace, but it served as a bridge to get me through and for that I’ll never totally write it off.

hiphop

Art is always a reflection of the culture from which it emerges, as either a reinforcement of the values and perceptions of the culture that birthed it or as a refutation and rejection of those values, traditions and perceptions.

Hip Hop is a fully American born art form. America in the past few hundred years produced the Constitution, Baseball, Jazz, Rock and Roll and Hip Hop. Very few other countries have effectively appropriated Hip Hop, and those that have only very recently. Hip Hop began as a subversive rejection of the way things are, but not in an abrasive or confrontational way. In its very early days, emerging in Harlem, it was a mixture of (1)rap music, rhymes recited over beats, and (2)the beats themselves constructed by “scratching,” DJs breaking down the beats of popular songs to their danciest and most potent parts, (3)graffiti, which was art by any means necessary-murals and designs, sprayed meticulously on subway cars and building walls, and (4) break-dancing,-joyful competitive dance that accompanied the rapping and scratching. Thematically, early on lyrics weren’t too far from disco. It was positive, party music to physically and mentally elevate the community that was closed off into poverty and surrounded by decay, violence and ignored by politicians and the world. The music, art and dance spoke loudly that “we are here,” for the people making it. The music was their escape from their harsh reality. It wasn’t long until the music made the jump to socially conscious. Kurtis Blow and other early rappers spoke through songs like “White Lines” to their community and to the world at large about the problems in their community. In this form hip hop was poised to be its most relevant and important. It shared with punk the concept of nonconformity and outsider status as well as its rejection of a political, economic and social system that neglected and abused its core audience. It shared in dance, disco and reggae a vibrant and tuneful sound. It opened the door for competition and lyrical evolution, as rhyme schemes began to become more and more complex, vocabulary became a positive focus and showmanship made it like a sport.

The socially consciousness of the music and culture influenced later hip hop acts: Public Enemy the notable example in the ‘80s. Into the ‘90s with acts like Dead Prez and merging with rock with acts like Rage Against the Machine, and into the millennium those like Lupe Fiasco. This type of rap became more of a subgenre though. Political Rap, and/or indie/underground rap. Another subgenre of hip hop emerged in the ‘80s: gangsta rap, and this quickly went from subgenre to the primary focus of the entire genre. This is what propelled rap music into the negative limelight and criticism that has plagued it ever since. Initially, with a group like NWA, the idea that this type of music was merely reporting to the world what was going on in the ghetto was fairly acceptable. NWA shocked listeners with graphic (especially for that time) tales of violence, gangs, sex, drugs, police brutality and poverty in rhymes peppered with a fair amount of profanity and the group carried themselves like gun-toting, dope dealing caricatures of gangsta’s.
Chuck D, though against much of the content and wording groups like NWA employed, spoke of rap as “The Black CNN” at this time. Gangsta rap music spread quickly and settled into the suburbs, blasted by white teenagers who wanted to piss their parents off and pretend they were gangstas themselves (see my article “The Wanksta Subculture on this same site, back a few pages for more on this). So those that viewed gangsta rap as a way of opening the eyes of the general public to the horrors of the inner city (displayed as a sort of American socio-economic apartheid) through exaggerated and tongue in cheek rap songs whether or not the suburban middle class teens were taking it that way or were simply celebrating the violence, sex and “toughness” of the personas in the songs. Stylized violence is not a new thing, and teens have loved the bad guy, the rebel, the outsider from James Dean to Scarface. But this element exacerbated in gangsta rap. As the next generation of rappers came around, the violence and language had to grow more shocking than the previous generation to remain as titillating. At which point did and with which rappers did the “ghetto reporting” morph into thug perpetuation and reinforcement of negative stereotypes by rappers competing in “keeping it real” to outdo each other? As the nineties came about, there were a few curious examples of this fine balance. Tupac (2pac) Shakur began very politically and socially conscientious through his early albums. After signing to Death Row Records, he followed his second stage of recording which had become more menacing and confrontational in the “ground level reporting” sense with a self fulfilling prophecy of thug music and persona in which rap battles became real battles, reporting of the crime around him became real arrests (“I never had a record (police record) till I made a record (rap album),” Shakur once said. Headline grabbing became a day to day part of being a rap star, as the notorious example of Shakur stopping to aid motorists in a car that he thought were being hassled by police. The cops turned out to be off duty, Shakur exchanged shots with them, wounding them and left the scene. Later he was acquitted of all charges that resulted from the incident. “He was like a super-hero Malcolm X,” one teenager commented at the time.
This all ended tragically with the east and west war, and by the time the 90s drew to a close, the “ice age” had descended and the focus of almost all hip hop was primarily concerned with raps about “what I got,” “my car, my jewels, my clothes, my watch, my record label, my brand of champagne.” Hip hop at this point became a very reflection of the nation that produced it. It mirrored the mindset that Washington and Wall Street wanted you to follow: mindless consumerism, zero personal financial accountability, nonstop spending. “Money is the fuel that runs the beast,” is a sentiment a band like Rage invokes, using great rhymes to do so. That type of outlook is buried under the avalanche of club hits and MTV jams that push purchasing power. The sole mainstream rapper to speak out against the ice fad was DMX who uttered threats like “don’t they know that around me talking about what you got will get you shot?” and “You’ve been
eatin’ long enough now, stop being greedy. Keep it real, partner, give to the needy.”

As the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close, hip hop is still tainted by a mixture of ice age and gansta. Novelty cornball rap also made a comeback with kids like Souljah Boy. Veterans produced compelling work that walked that fine line between socially conscientious/political and fun/provocative: Jay Z with “American Gangster,” Nas with “Hip Hop is Dead” and “untitled.” Indie bubbled to mainstream somewhat with Lupe Fiasco’s two terrific albums. The Roots hold down the fort with playing their own instruments and writing politically charged lyrics.

When I was a teen, rap was everywhere. As I’ve mentioned in my article “The Wanksta Subculture,” teens in the nineties and early ‘00s were surrounded and influenced by it whether they were fans or not. Conservative teachers and preachers, politicians like Delores Tucker and Tipper Gore and celebrities like Bill Cosby have railed against hip hop and the negative stereotypes and perceptions it reinforces for going on three decades now. Most worried about the language, the violence, the sex, the use of the “n” word and sexism. The language is a moot point. Words are words, they mean nothing but what we attach to them. They can build up or destroy, but based only on how they are used and how they are absorbed; very few words are “evil” in their very essence.” A rap song can drop the “F” bomb two dozen times in a 3 minute song and all it’s going to do is lose impact and cease to be shocking. Violence? Violence is everywhere. In the wars our country wages, in the cities where minorities of any kind are discriminated against, in many of the sports humans play. Violence in entertainment typically reflects violence in the real world rather than influencing it. The sexism and racism wouldn’t be expressed in song if they didn’t occur in the real world (which doesn’t excuse them). What remains as evidence here, is that what was subversive and had a chance to effectively criticize the norm has evolved into a system that affirms the norm. It affirms the violence that goes on in our nation without a sense of shock and disappointment. It has echoed the economic advice to define yourself by what you buy, drink and wear. The goal of most rappers seems to be to become a successful part of the system, thereby growing rich off of the very system that has oppressed you and will continue to oppress your former neighbors. Therefore they propagate the system rather than rail against it, reinforce it rather than educated others about alternative viewpoints and lifestyles. So criticize away, America. You’re only criticizing yourselves.

stephen_king-3
Stephen King released “Just After Sunset” this past year, his latest collection of short stories. It’s a mature, literate work. King is a master of introducing characters so viable that you are able to care about them within a page or so in a short story, care enough to involve yourself in the dilemma that awaits them over the span of 10 to 30 pages. Much different from King’s first such collection, 1979s “Night Shift.” “Night Shift” was macabre, gory borderline shock horror. Here, the tension and terror is often more subdued or realistic. When supernatural territory is approached it’s not always in the horror sense, such as the ghosts that inhabit “Willa” and “The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” Rather than a scary experience, although there are moments of terror (the psycho chase through “The Gingerbread Girl” or the OCD Lovecraftian monsters of “N.”

I took quite a few creative writing and literature classes in my early college years and I usually found that the professors of such courses typically viewed Mr. King with disdain. Some of this I attribute to personal jealousy, in that many of these professors were aspiring writers themselves. But I think a lot of it goes along with the idea most critics hold, be they informed, balanced reviewers or snobs, and that is that someone who sells so many books can’t be technically or artistically great. It’s the literary equivalent of a middle of the road multi-platinum crap band, like Creed or Nicleback. Sure they sell millions of records and concert tickets, but anyone with real taste or knowledge of music rarely thinks they’re a very talented, bold, artistic or serious band. It’s somewhat understandable, judging by other millions-selling authors—James Patterson, Danielle Steele, Nicholas Sparks, and other like minded novelists who sell boatloads of books featuring recycled characters, inane dialogue, bad prose and predictable plots. Such books are pop fiction that fail to resonate critically or artistically. But, simply because a novelist writes pop fiction or sells millions of books doesn’t automatically place them in the same category as the prior mentioned writers. The same goes for music or any other medium. The Beatles may be one of the few music groups that managed to simultaneously be the best at what they do and the most popular in their field, but later artists managed to balance popularity that resulted in sold out shows and platinum record sells with artistic credibility and critical approval: Springsteen, U2, Outkast. In literature, what was pop fiction in its day enjoyed by the general reading public was later considered classic literature: Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, “The Lord of the Flies,” etc.
Which brings me to Stephen King. He deserves to be considered one of the preeminent popular authors of the 20th century (and he’s still writing into the 21st!). He’s written an avalanche of novels, most of which have sold millions of copies as well as have received pages of praise from diverse publications. Just a list of solid, entertaining and well received novels he’s produced in his career are worth noting: Carrie, Christine, The Shining, Pet Sematary, Misery, Cujo, Hearts in Atlantis, The Tommyknockers.

Above and beyond those solid novels are the examples of books he’s released that have transcended genre and can hold their own in a list of best novels of the 20th century.
“The Stand” is King’s crowning achievement. The best apocalyptic multi-genre epic modern popular fiction has to offer. Large in scope, full of entertaining characters readers grow attached to and it stands up to multiple readings.
“IT” was rightfully called “The Moby Dick of horror novels.” For a novel that sticks to the horror genre very closely “IT’ still opens itself up to great characters and large scope. It’s the best and scariest strictly horror novel King has ever written, possibly one of the best horror novels of all time in its own right.

”The Dark Tower” series that has consumed King for most of his career is the best epic fantasy series since “Lord of the Rings.” Ranging from western to crime, horror to sci-fi, romance to comedy and breaching into meta-fiction by introducing King as a character himself in the later volumes, The Dark Tower series is a bold, creative and uncompromising work that is a joy to read. All seven volumes add up to make this a multiple thousand page adventure, and none of it is wasted. For die-hard fans, an added plus was always that many of the non-Dark Tower novels and short stories that King wrote during the years he was working on the series included references to and nods to the Dark Tower series. So that even one of the only novels that has ever really “flopped” as far as ambition and creative success for King, “Insomnia,” is much more appreciated when read by a Dark Tower fan.
In his later years, King has produced many books outside of the normal area he typically has covered. “Dolores Claiborne,” “Hearts in Atlantis,” “Lisey’s Story,” “Rose Madder,” and “Bag of Bones” all are emotionally deep novels that, although some do possess supernatural aspects, do not rely on the fantastic to resonate with meaning and capture attention. They are simply mature, developed novels.

In addition to novels and short stories, and screenplays, two notable nonfiction books have been written by King: “Danse Macabre,” a great nonfiction overview of the horror genre covering excellent books and films and personal anecdotes in their regards, was released fairly early in Kings career. “On Writing” is a terrific book that’s part autobiography and part guide for new fiction writers. Both are classic works in their respective focus.

All in all, I just realize that despite mainstream popularity and a fair amount of critical snobbery, Stephen King may very well be looked back on as a classic writer someday. As my home library grows in the size of nonfiction and reference works that I keep on hand I’ve begun to downsize much of my fiction. Typically I get most books from the library if I can find them there. If it’s a nonfiction book that I find will take me awhile to fully absorb or one I will need to re-read and reference in the future, I make a note to own a copy, but most fiction is unnecessary to own. I like nice editions of graphic novels, nice copies of classic novels and personal favorites, but most modern authors don’t produce novels I feel the urge to own nice copies of and return to for further readings in the future. There are a few exceptions: John Irving, Dennis Lehane, Sinclair Lewis, and especially Stephen King. I’ve read King since I was 13 years old, and it’s nice to revisit his books occasionally, and the more I downsize my fiction collection, I always find room for his work.

What follows is a cleaned-up version of a response I gave to another persons blog.  It will be the last note on this subject I will post for awhile.
*I feel it the gay rights struggle is the civil rights struggle of our time. I know there are some minorities who don’t like to equate it as such, but groups that have been persecuted do sometimes pass that persecution on to another denigrated group once their group is a bit more accepted. Not all of them, and many of the ones that do don’t always do it consciously, but it does happen. Spike Lee’s excellent “Do the Right Thing” explored how minorities fall back on the ignorance that is prejudice just like the majorities do. But the fact remains–people are born colors other than white. Somewhere in the vicinity of 10 percent of the populations is born gay. Neither those of various skin colors nor those with homosexual orientation are less, bad, wrong, sick, sinful or damaged due to their “differences.”

*Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. He did disparage heterosexual divorce and he did always speak up for the outsiders, the downtrodden and the “minorities.” Now, admittedly just because he didn’t mention the issue doesn’t mean he necessarily approved of it. But it is safe to say that homosexuality didn’t reach the top of the sins Christ considered the worst. As for Christianity’s founder, Paul, many scholars claim his message to be one of equality and progress, and those same scholars claim later letters attributed to Paul were really written by people trying to subvert the subversive back into traditionalism. Most of us have heard the debates regarding the particular Bible verses that concern homosexuality so I won’t rehash those here, but I will say that the Bible was written at a time and in a place that did not understand the cause of homosexuality. Today every medical, sociological and psychological expert will tell you homosexuality is natural, at least somewhat heavily influenced by biology, and dangerous to try and “cure.” The people in Biblical times generally only saw/heard of homosexuality in regards to a power issue (soldiers raping the conquered as a sign of superiority), lewd orgies, and temple prostitution. Real, monogamous, faithful “out of the closet” relationships weren’t the norm, were not common and even where they were in the spotlight they were part of a “lax” sexual philosophy.

*In progressive evangelical’s somewhat spokesperson Tony Campalo’s chapter on homosexuality in “Adventures in Missing the Point,” he recounts a childhood incident in which he didn’t help a gay classmate when that classmate was beaten and urinated on. That boy later committed suicide and Compalo says he is still devastated to this day that he did not speak up or help the boy. He goes on to say it is Christian’s jobs to love and help gays, to be nice and work for their safety and care. He says he believes homosexuality is not a choice. He goes on to say that since orientation is not a choice, acting on such urges is and suggests that evangelical gays practice celibacy. He even suggests partnerships in which gays live together and share in relationships minus the sex and physicality, or in groups that strengthen to fight each others urges. Now, up to that he had me. But is it fair to insist all Christian gays fight their natural sexual desires their entire adult lives and never have a committed monogamous relationship? Why can’t homosexual relationships be judged by the same standards that heterosexual relationships are judged by?

*To sum it up:
What kind of God would create ten percent of the population to be by their very nature something that is sinful? What kind of God would add that much baggage to a person, so that for the rest of their lives if they want to be holy they have to strip themselves of all of their biological urges? The answer: a somewhat sadistic God. I believe in a loving, compassionate, life affirming and transcendent God who views us all with equality and compassion, who seeks to instill in us a desire to transform the darkness into light and to bring about justice and usher in the kingdom of God in our lives and in others. I do not think homosexuality can be fairly or accurately compared to bestiality, child molestation or drug addiction (all things that people can be predisposed to). Those activities are far rarer and far more dangerous. Those activities involve hurt, harm and denigration (of animals, children, etc). Those activities have much more an element of choice in them (whether to initially start using drugs, etc.). Homosexuality is NOT the same. By continuing to view homosexuality as a “lifestyle of sin,” many churches effectively close their doors to an entire group of people, many of whom want a relationship with God, want to work in positive service, want the fellowship church has to offer. By saying they must change who they are in their very essence excludes them and Christ and the Kingdom of God is all about inclusion. Furthermore, by barring Gay marriage we deny a group of people access to one of the highest and holiest sacraments the church has to offer as well as the best way to bind a loving couple in monogamy.
As discussed when I was speaking with a Priest friend of mine, he pointed out that my generation doesn’t have the same hang-ups and double feelings on this issue as previous one. I feel the change will come about when my and the following few generations stand up and do something about it and the older generations phase out. We’ve all grown up knowing openly gay people, and we know they’re just like the rest of us–some good, some not so nice. Some faithful and sexually conservative, some promiscuous. Change will come, someday.
My two cents.

*Coming up:  An article on Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing” as part of “10 Great Examples of Comic Literature” and an article about Stephen King‘s new “Just After Sunset” collection as well as his entire career.

My Last 2008 Best-Of

January 8, 2009

al_green_lay_it_down

2008 is over, so I’ll issue my one last best of ‘08 recap and move one. I’ve perused AMG, Rolling Stone and NPR’s best of music recaps and found some overlap and similarity to my personal picks and some differences. Once I see Paste and Mojo’s choices I’ll be done with that. As for films, I’m holding out for the Oscars to see how they fall in (I tend to completely overlook People’s Choice and Golden Globes).

Anyway, there are three close runner ups to my music list that I‘ve gotten since I posted my list. All three I heard after my final selections had been made and all three are excellent. I stand my by top ten though, but these three come close:

1)Al Green: Lay it Down
This is the best soul record I’ve heard in years. The only modern soul singer that holds a candle to Mr. Green is Anthony Hamilton but Green surpasses him in sheer maturity and range. Ahmir “?Love” Thompson of the Roots aided in production of this disc but he in no way infuses hip hop into it. He encourages Green’s natural talents and sensibilities and the overall sheen is retro pop perfection. The few folks who aid in the songs vocally, with duets and background vocals are Anthony Hamilton, Corrina Bailie Rae and John Legend, and all are at the top of their game. “Lay it Down” is best in one long, hour dose. Though it’s also good song by song,, it’s the sum of those parts working together that most effectively showcase the last living soul great’s artistry.

2) Vampire Weekend :

This album was the hipster buzz album of the year, preceded by a year’s worth of hype and internet chatter. The reason it’s so buzzed about and critically raved this year, I think, is because it sounds like nothing else. The music is a mixture of classical (seriously, violins, orchestra style classical) and Afro pop. The vocals are pure indie rock, the backing vocals are post punk. The lyrics are collegiate. It all blends together in an artsy, thinking, dancey way and it’s never quite pretentious. Each song is memorable.

3) Jenny Lewis: Acid Tongue
Jenny Lewis has, as many have noted, gone from the alt country/indie pop hybrid lead singer of Rilo Kiley to Costello influenced alt indie on “Rabbit Fur Coat” to this, a lady of laurel canyon folk singer. She’s even moved to the canyon and been involved in starting a music scene there again. Acid Tongue is a great album, full of shining moments. The shifting and three tiered eight minute “Next Messiah,” the Costello duet “Carpetbagger,” and everything else here is fun and unique.

Okay, so my Best Films 08 list was listed in no particular order, completely unranked. I’ve seen a few of the films I was holding out for, but have still not seen “Doubt,” “Benjamin Button,” “Frost/Nixon,” or “Gran Torino,” all look terrific. So what follows is my ranking of the films I enjoyed the most from the 08 release year. Some important and relevant, some merely entertaining.
10-Zack and Miri Make a Porno
9- Forgetting Sarah Marshall
8-Hulk
7- Iron Man
6-Shine a Light
5-Bolt
4- W
3-Changeling
2-The Dark Knight
1-Milk

Finally, some notable events of ‘08 that weren’t negative.
· The 2008 Baseball season-
A)the longest all star game ever with a pre-show featuring Yogi Berra, etc.
B)the road to the world series, which was constantly surprising
C)The World Series, featuring last years last ranked team actually competing for the title. A full, long Series full of fun.

· SNL this year featured some of its best political satire, entertaining musical performances and weekend updates. Poehler’s last year was great and Fey’s constant cameos as Palin were spot on.

– The election. Hopefully progressive politics take hold and work effectively now.

That’s it for 2008 articles. 2009 is here, which means new music, new movies, new events. Articles that are upcoming include the last few book reviews that tie in with “10 Examples of Comic Literature,” articles involving the “Kingdom of God,” and various other theology articles, etc. Stop back by!

The Kingdom of God

January 6, 2009

This will be quick and to the point, and I’m not really going to take time to cite the specifics for much of what I’m writing about, I’ll save those for upcoming articles that tie in with this. Just consider this a brief overview, a brief into to a new thread of articles that will appear sporadically over the next month or so.
I’ll admit up front I’m very liberal on many, if not most, issues. I’ll also state that I’ve felt for years, much prior to my recent immersion into Theology and World Religion literature and scripture, that capitalism in its present American form was contrary to ethical and compassionate behavior.

The Kingdom of God. It keeps coming up in every bit of Christian Theology I read, from Wright to Crossan to Borg even to evangelicals like Campalo. It’s not talking about heaven. Kingdom of God does not refer to the global Christian church either, at least not in the way I feel most scholars refer to it in how Jesus spoke of it. The Kingdom of God is something Christ pointed to and proclaimed to be at hand, right here in the now. It’s something those that follow Christ and hope to become like Christ strive to bring about in their own lives and in the world around them.  I feel that this term refers to a path, a lifestyle, a state of being as well as an economic, political and human state. It is a world in which people reach out to help those that are suffering. It is a world in which there is voluntary, inspired redistribution of wealth, in which people don’t live in McMansions and throw money away in obscene and uninspired ways but rather give some to those that have not. It’s a world of universal health care, total human equality, peace and justice. It’s a path of humility, humbleness, love, forgiveness and compassion. Jesus rarely spoke of life after death. When he said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, he wasn’t talking about heaven. He was talking about this struggle and lifestyle that aims to liberate the oppressed, and transform the darkness into light through compassion. I highly doubt that Jesus pictured all of those that are wealthy being shut out of paradise in the heaven sense. I do think he was referring to the fact that if you have too much, if you are overcome with wealth you often tend to lose perspective and you may find it difficult to view the oppressed and the poor with total compassion– you may find yourself justifying your wealth, status and position and claim that if the poor only wanted to be like you they could through hard work. I myself am a collector of things (be it affordably collectable things at this point) , and like to keep quite a few certain possessions, and although I’m far from wealthy I understand that there has to be a bit of restraint and composure. I don’t think that were I middle class I would have to give up all but the bear necessity, but I do think if I were wealthy I should take stock of what I really need and what I really should use for better means. Our modern consumer culture doesn’t see room for restraint or taking stock of what we need or what we should maybe use to help others. Our system tells us to define ourselves by what we have and what we can purchase, what item of clothing or jewelry we can wear that costs more than some make in a month of work. That’s the lie of capitalism. I do not believe in a mixture of church and state, I’ve seen too many cranked out conservatives that wish to control government. I do however think that if you truly follow any major spiritual guide, be it Jesus or Buddha or Allah you will find yourself motivated to support politics that seek to transform poverty and aid in equality. Religious people may disagree about the particular moral and ethical issues but they should never disagree about issues of equality, fairness, justice and compassion if they open themselves up to truth.
That said, it’s illogical for someone to call themselves Christian and proclaim their Nationalism to be merely Patriotism and to equate that feeling with Christianity itself. It’s illogical to view the modern system of Capitalism as a righteous system.
Tirade over, specific articles that tie in with this overview to come at a later date. Thanks for reading. Feel free to disagree.

milk

“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

“I know that we cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you, gotta give’em hope.”

I finally discovered the one theater within a 4 hour radius showing “Milk.” I now think I have to bump “The Dark Knight” back to the 2nd slot for best 2008 films—Milk is just too good; important, relevant, inspiring, tragic, hopeful, and excellently acted. The entire cast knocks their respective roles out of the park. Sean Penn delivers a performance that matches and at moments surpasses his classic “Dead Man Walking” and “Mystic River” performances. Josh Brolin delivers his other great 08 performance (in addition to “W”). While watching it and reflecting on what I had seen it became obvious that I felt “Milk” to belong with the best and most important and inspiring biopics ever made—”King,” “Malcolm X” and “Gandhi.” The sheer scope of humanity depicted. The eagerness and earnestness, the drive and conviction that Penn’s Harvey Milk possesses. He states repeatedly that it’s not about him or any personal agenda. It’s about the cause, about the movement. He felt thrust into the role he was in–the right person for the job who had to work hard to advance the cause for a better tomorrow. As he spoke near the end of the film (to paraphrase), it’s not just about gays– but blacks, Latinos, senior citizens; all the “us’s” out there that find themselves outside of the mainstream without anyone looking after their best interest.
It’s strange and sad how relevant the same cause is today; in the 70s Milk and his supporters sought to defeat Prop 6, a California ballot initiative that aimed at allowing school teachers to be fired for being gay and of their fellow teachers that supported them to be fired as well. 2008s “Prop 8” is the next round in the same fight, but this time it passed, making all marriages previously legal now illegal in CA. Anita Bryant and her “moral” supporters waged war on homosexual rights in the 70s; today you can catch newer Anita’s waging the same war. Everything old is new; and the same civil rights war is being fought.

Anyway, it’s a remarkable film. Seeing it ties in a lot with a few things I’ve been reading and writing which I’ll post at a later date. Here a bit of these thoughts came out as a response to a friend’s blog on the debate regarding Rick Warren’s selection as minister for the inauguration (for the record I think it’s fine for Warren to pray there, Obama would be hard-pressed to find a minister that would please all of us).

As I’ve pretty much told you when speaking with you, I really do think it’s ignorant to do as Hitchens does and say that a Christian who believes salvation lies in Christ aloe is a bigot. I myself as a Christian do feel that Christ is the way for me and that he is my I AM, my entrance to positive global service that those raised in the Eastern World might find in Buddha or Allah. I do not however feel that thinking Christ alone is the way makes one a bigot. I respect Warren for his poverty stance, his call to a stronger and more proactive church. I do, though, feel that he is missing the point in his stance on homosexuality. I feel that the gay rights movement is our civil rights movement today. I feel we must evolve beyond our current church perceptions to a more inclusive and loving manner–I feel that homosexual relationships should be morally judged on the same level that heterosexual relationships are judged–on monogamy, honesty and equality. That’s why this issue is so touchy. To deny that it is as important as the civil rights movement is to view it with blinders on-religious, social or hereditary blinders. Scripture was misused to condemn minorities, interracial marriage, and to promote slavery. Scripture was used to keep “women in their place” and was misused in highly misogynistic ways. Police have beat blacks just for being black and gays just for being gay. Racists have screamed “Nigger” at blacks and homophobes have screamed “Faggot” at gays to equal hatred. The truth is, I believe Christ would love all gays and urge them to follow him along the same path he urges straight folks. I think he would criticize laws and practices that denigrate homosexuals. I feel he would unconditionally love them and hope they could follow the same moral code he asks all of us to follow. Jesus was a devout Jew who memorized the Torah but sifted it and shed it of its baggage, emphasizing its most important aspects. He gave no indication as to indicate he ever intended any new scripture to replace its holy writings, yet he showed the path through his life and action that brought it into the light. Since the Christian church did add new scripture, should we not today, since we are to be as Christ was, not be able to sift the early church’s scripture to emphasize its most important aspects? Christ subverted traditional wisdom and replaced it with the rule of compassion. He summed up the law with one simple rule: love your god with all your heart, and love your neighbor.” That rule tells me my gay brothers have every right I have. So, those that flinch at Warren’s attitude do so only because they feel he is doing like the otherwise good and moral folks who used inadequate religion to subjugate the African Americans. Christianity must evolve, change and take into account History, Culture, Time and Place.