A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

Monthly Archives: March 2011

Rebecca Black

Rebecca Black is a student at my son’s school, and by all accounts she is a pleasant, down-to-earth teenage girl who made a video for her own amusement, which turned out to be the pop anthem of March 2011. It’s a nice story actually, a “Hey, would you like to be in movies?” chance encounter with success. We used to love those stories. But something about this song rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

Initial reports–by Forbes no less–claimed that she had sold nearly 2 million songs, but Forbes has since retracted that statement, and the figure is actually a bit closer to earth. According to Glenn Peoples over at Billboard, as of March 22nd, Ms. Black had sold somewhere around 43,000 songs, which means that she’s doing quite well, but is no millionaire–though her recent record deal with the Napoleonic Ryan Seacrest might change that.

The interesting thing is, the inflated dollar figures only financed people’s derision. Take a moment to google her, if you haven’t already, and you’ll have no difficulty finding a long list of stories skewering her, the song and the sheep-like public that drove it to the top. You’d think the song was a jeremiad rather than a stick of bubble gum. The song is certainly vapid; there’s no arguing that. But its biggest musical sin, as my music-teaching-Molly pointed out, is the prechoral’s climactic refrain to seat selection. Normally such high points are reserved for things like “getting parties started,” being “touched like a virgin,” hoping “to celebrate tonight,” and other such transcendental insights into the human condition.

The songs celebration of “Friday” is certainly no different than the Black Eyed Peas’ paean, “tonight’s gonna be a good night,” whose ridiculous refrain is repeated so many times that any given night could reasonably file a restraining order against the band for harassment. Saying it over and over again doesn’t make it so, no matter what Tony Robbins tells you. I would even go so far as to say that The Beatles’ “Eight Days A Week” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” aren’t making it too far up the steps of whichever heaven houses immortal ballads. Lennon definitely wasn’t hangin’ with the muses when he turned “peace” into a six-syllable word, and asked everyone to imagine flower-power unto death. And whichever enthusiast in the fab-four who thought an extra day in the week wouldn’t lead to blue-collar workers getting paid less for more toil deserved to be worked over by an untrained rectal technician.

Pop music’s reliance on a basic three-chord progression and lollipop lyrics is nothing new. Breaking new ground, Justin Timberlake is not. If you want to be stirred spiritually, read a Buddhist sutra or the Bible; listen to Beethoven; hang out with Walt Whitman or James Baldwin, but don’t turn to Ryan Seacrest or the Beatles. Entertainment is occasionally enlightening, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. Music can be transcendent, but it can also be silly, aggressive, sexually provocative and as banal as a teenager’s text exchange.

What upsets most people about Rebecca Black is that someone was elected to stardom without a proper sacrifice. That’s why so many jumped on the inflated figures–because they each had their own get-rich-quick-scheme secreting about their brain. They had hoped to crack fame’s cipher with as little effort as Ms. Black, and are angry they didn’t. Was she lucky? Yep. Absolutely. And so what?

Of course, there’s a whole angle to this story I haven’t ribbed, and that’s the racial and economic component. Obviously, this story plays out differently if it’s about a non-white girl without means; in fact, so differently that it becomes a fantasy not even BET would air. Indeed, the ease with which success has set up shop inside Rebecca’s Barbie Dream House is probably only possible for white girls and Sims characters. But we know how that story ends–with Tea Parties and birth certificates–so forgive me if I leave that tale behind for today.

So people can bark as much as they like, but the song is a success because of Rebecca Black. It was the video that catapulted her, not the song; she is photogenic and likable, and looks like she might be future president of her high school’s Key Club. Are there a million girls just as deserving? Absolutely. In fact, that’s the point: she isn’t deserving. Does anyone ever deserve to stand so far apart? Deserve to be caught in an earthquake, or a motorcycle accident? Does anyone deserve to be born into poverty or blindness? But, there again, maybe some of us just tuned into the show and missed the episode which featured life’s unfairness, and if that’s the case, SPOILER ALERT–unfairness wins. In fact, life’s so far from fair that if it turns out this whole show isn’t some divine comedy routine, I’m gonna throw my lot in with the atheists and decompose forever, rather than kick around in eternity with such a colossal asshole.

But, until then, when someone is lifted out of the crowd and launched to stardom, I’ll celebrate–even more so if it was chance that set the fuse.

Remember when we used to love those stories, because I’m trying hard not to forget.

Samuel Johnson – Overdue

On occasion I have mentioned in passing my indebtedness to Samuel Johnson for his invention, but up until now never paid him proper homage. The Rambler was among the first magazines in the English language, and thus one of the first in the world. It ran from 1750 until 1752, and was never well loved.Continue Reading

Midnight America

We are a late-arriving generation. Too young for the ignobility of Vietnam, and not even a thought in the mind of our noble forebearers who stormed European beaches and proved that American ingenuity could reduce the enemy to shadows and ash. Those of us born in the 1970′s and after arrived in time for theContinue Reading

Tsunamis

Mountains are on the move. The oceans are growing. Vast shelves of ice are phase shifting. The world is unstable, and has always been, but for thousands of years it did not appear so to us. We’ve come of age in the relatively stable Holocene era, roughly equivalent to the last 12,000 years. We wereContinue Reading

Today at My House

It’s one of those days where I’d rather play horseshoes with hand grenades than write something that will be read by other people. Uninspired: check. Driving down a bumpy road in a cart with a bum wheel and a squeaky axle: check. Sloshing around my house in the backed-up sewage resulting from a clogged septicContinue Reading

God Is What God Isn’t

Something isn’t quite right—something amiss. All of the world’s great stories begin with this fundamental sensitivity to disquiet and loss, cast from the garden, the savior gone, the Dharma lost, our ancestors split in twain. This loss spurs the telling of stories, stories that make sense of the nearly unbearable grief of divine absence, thatContinue Reading

No Cabin in the Woods

“The morning brings back the heroic ages,” at least, that’s what Thoreau said. I’ve always agreed in principle, even though in practice, mornings make me feel more fugitive than hero. The thing is, I readily assume the hero’s survey of the world–a relatively easy task given my gender, color and class–but never the hero’s purpose.Continue Reading

One-dimensional Man

It is impossible to approach, even remotely, a full accounting of the world’s great books. Of course, most of what gets published is pablum, but that’s okay, since most of life is pap too. Even the much reviled Bloom has something like 1,500 books on his Western Canon list. Honestly, I’ve never really disliked Bloom’sContinue Reading

Martial Arts

Like every scrawny overly sensitive boy, I loved the martial arts. I often fantasized about turning the tables on bullies and behemoths with my superior skill and mystical insights into human frailty. From the ages of six to nine, I spent my Saturday mornings watching USA Network’s Kung Fu Theater, leaping over sofa cushions withContinue Reading

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