Five to one, and one in five …

No meme here gets out alive.

Especially one that requires tagging five people. Geez, do I even know five bloggers who’ll do this? Sure, Corndog does, but he’s a popular musician. I’m a lame journalist.

Anyway, here goes:

Remove the blog in the top spot from the following list and bump everyone up one place. Then add your blog to the bottom slot, like so.

1) Overread
2) BrightStar
3) dr four eyes
4) corndog
5) Mostly Modern Media

Next select five people to tag

1) Chip
2) Neel
3) Michael
4) Yeah, I really don’t know many more people who don’t stick to issues of journalism, technology or theology. The priest at my church has a great blog, and he’s an amazing classical guitarist, but I don’t think I should send this his way.

What were you doing 10 years ago?

January 1996: Yikes. I had just moved in with someone. It didn’t go well, for a number of reasons. I was still working on a copy desk and fiddling with HTML in my spare time.

What were you doing 1 year ago?

January 2005: Shoveling snow, adjusting to life in the new house, taking MMM Jr. to the pre-toddler room.

Five snacks you enjoy:

A. Goldfish, preferably parmesan
B. Ruffles Natural. Slightly less unhealthy than regular Ruffles, so I eat twice as many
C. Popcorn. Not particular, so I lean toward healthier options
D. Cheese and crackers
E. Moon Pie, stuck in the microwave for two 10-second blasts. Not 20 seconds. Two 10-second blasts. You have to let the marshmallow contract a bit, or else you’re just going to be scraping Moon Pie off your microwave for days.

Five songs you know all the words to:

Just five? And will there be a quiz? If I had to do this a capella, I might freeze like an American Idol contestant.

A. Overkill – Men At Work
B. I Am Henry The Eighth, I Am – Herman’s Hermits (it helps that the second verse is the same as the first)
C. Middle of the Road – Pretenders
D. The Old Apartment – Barenaked Ladies
E. I’m Keeping Your Poop – Hayseed Dixie

Five things you would do if you were a millionaire:

A. Finish MMM Jr.’s college fund
B. Go on my own health care, quit work and write books. At least for a year or two
C. Buy some exercise equipment
D. Remodel the house
E. Give a ton of it to Jimmy Carter

Five bad habits:

A. Thinking depressing thoughts
B. Pointless Internet arguments
C. Coca-Cola, the best drink ever invented
D. Wasting time on IMDB wondering just what happened to, say, the voice of Marie on The Aristocats
E. Correcting people

Five things you enjoy doing:

A. Bicycling downhill or on level ground
B. Playing with dogs and children
C. Daydreaming, as long as it’s relatively positive
D. Solving problems
E. Watching NewsRadio, Scrubs, Monty Python, The Young Ones, The Simpsons and Spinal Tap

Five things you would never wear again:

A. My marching band uniform
B. My Husker Du T-shirt. I liked it, I’ll just never be that thin again
C. Hairspray
D. Black shoes with white socks
E. A turtleneck two sizes too small

Five favorite toys:

A. Sony Vaio
B. Ibanez … not quite a Stratocaster
C. Anything resembling drums
D. Crock Pot
E. Soccer ball


Things I recall from watching The Muppet Movie with my mom back when I was a kid:

  1. I was surprised it had a G rating. I mean, Miss Piggy and Kermit almost kissed!
  2. When Animal grew to enormous size, I loudly reminded Mom that he had taken a bunch of the growth pills that Dr. Bunsen Honeydew had developed. In retrospect, she probably knew that.
  3. She probably also knew that Max had been on Kermit’s side for much of the movie, but I reminded her of that as well.

Do lyrics matter?

Well, of COURSE they matter, you say. Come on, MMM, as an admitted music snob grounded in notions of modern (not postmodern) thought, you can’t be going anywhere with this.

Maybe not. But I need to respond somehow to a couple of valid criticisms of music I enjoy. The first is one we’ve discussed before (see “music snob” post linked above) from NYT critic Jon Pareles, who said Coldplay “came up with more of its grand, chiming, would-be anthems, only to ruin them with lyrics unworthy of the music’s splendors.” I enjoyed Michael’s shredding of the Pareles pooh-poohing of the year in music, but that point is hard to dismiss. I’ve gone so far as to think of ways I would rewrite Fix You, but I’ve only managed to replace “I will try to fix you” with “I’ll provide the tissue.”

The other is from Corndog, whose second-by-second undressing of Styx’s Come Sail Away is a great read even if you don’t quite agree with him. You can be a Styx fan and still cringe at the way the ever-pompous Dennis DeYoung intones, “On board I’m the captain, so climb aboard.” (For the record, Corndog, my biggest disagreement with this post is that you’re way too harsh on the late John Panozzo, whose playing was a bit less sloppy than Keith Moon’s. But if you really don’t like his playing, maybe you’d prefer their current drummer, who’s been in the band for several years now. I happen to work with his brother, oddly enough.)

So the question is this: Can you enjoy a song while finding the lyrics flawed or perhaps bewildering?

In the case of Fix You, I’ve already said yes. I certainly enjoy my share of bewildering lyrics as well, as the Throwing Muses and Tori Amos selections in my CD library and iPod will attest.

The beauty of song lyrics, though, is that they’re malleable. The music and the vocal delivery are part of the message. And the listener adds his or her interpretations as well.

Basically, this is why people fill arenas to hear U2 while poets need academic posts to have enough time to draw 30 people to a coffeehouse to hear their latest. (No offense to the one real-life poet I know. How’s grad school?)

It’s also why music can elicit strong reactions even if we have, at best, an indirect reaction to the lyrics.

Rewind to Friday morning, when I was in the gym at work. I’m always a little out of place there, surrounded by guys who work out roughly four times a day and spend their weeks scaling mountains or, for a light workout, biking the length of the W&OD trail at speeds exceeded only by actual members of the Discovery Channel team. They also embrace life and work in ways that I don’t. (“Man, I wish I could get back to Iraq to do some more reporting, but they’ve got me chained to the desk. At least the kids are happy to see me.”)

Me? I’m a flabby guy charting his 19th year of athletic decline since his high school cross-country days. I’m about to spend almost three weeks in Torino doing something I love, but I’m dreading it because I’ll miss the missus and the little guy. And I don’t mind saying I was a little depressed.

I got on the bike and flipped through my iPod choices, finally landing on U2’s Bad (live version, of course). I recall some critical naysaying of U2’s lyrics — why a “silken sky and burning flag”? Supposedly it’s about recovering from addiction, which doesn’t directly apply to me unless there’s such a thing as addiction to journalism.

And yet, it was exactly the song I needed to hear. Not for anything tangible in the lyrics. Just for the overall effect. Somehow, with some simple melodic lines and abstract lyrics, U2 is able to convey a sense of spiritual renewal.

The critics may say the lyrics are too muddled, the bass line is too simple or the guitar too repetitive. In my high school days, I might have agreed. But some musicians are able to do more with less, and that’s frankly a more impressive skill (a rarer skill) than playing a thousand notes a minute. I’m as much of a Geddy Lee fan as any Rush listener, but I’ve grown to respect Adam Clayton’s willingness to play four-note bass lines when it suits the song.

So I closed my eyes, pedaled steadily and listened. Near the end of the song, I opened my eyes and checked my bike telemetry. I was pushing a consistent 95-100 RPM. Ordinarily, that would push my heart rate up to about 140. This time, it was 124. I don’t think that’s coincidence. I felt calmer than I’d felt in a week. This was better than meditation.

Oddly enough, the next song was The Weapon, a relative obscurity from Rush’s back catalog. Their 1982 album Signals was the first after their blockbuster Moving Pictures (you know, Tom Sawyer, YYZ, Limelight – admit it, you know all those songs), and it was the first in a series of synthesizer-heavy releases that sound dated today. The Weapon is one of the better songs, a meditation on the way the powers that be use fear as a way of controlling all of us, and it’s one of the best examples of guitarist Alex Lifeson’s intelligent riffing against the droning synthesizers.

Strange combination of songs, definitely, but it worked. Bad reset my mood. The Weapon helped me process all the things that had disturbed me in the past week — the usual concern that the Middle East and environmental neglect are leading us all to ruin, dread over the long plane flights ahead, the usual major-project catastrophes at work.

As I finished the brief workout, I listened to Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet and marveled at the way Mark Knopfler says so much more with his guitar than he does with his voice. (I love the Indigo Girls, but they did a wretched cover of this on the otherwise excellent Rites of Passage, apparently not noticing the importance of Knopfler’s understated delivery.)

I left the gym feeling much better. Granted, I only needed a couple of meetings to get back in the doldrums, but it was reassuring to know these things must pass.

And aside from a couple of tangentially related lines in The Weapon, I can’t point to anything in these lyrics that made me feel better.

Back in my music-major days, I used to tell all my classmates — all more acquainted with Stravinsky and Mahler than with Billy Joel and Husker Du — about an interview I read with Miles Davis in which he said he could cope with personal tragedy by going to the piano and playing a B-flat major seventh. I managed to work that chord into a lot of my theory exercises for my classmates’ amusement. After a while, it loses its impact, but I still love the concept.

Best kids-movie soundtrack ever …

… it’s still The Muppet Movie.

(Now if only we could find it on CD for less than $65. Or perhaps at iTunes.)

Funny exchange with MMM Jr. tonight:

MMMJ: “We watch Dinosaurs? Watch Dinosaurs?”

Mrs. MMM: “No, we’re watching The Muppet Movie.

MMMJ: “Dinosaurs?!”

Me: “You know, when I was your age, my dad made me watch Hee Haw.”

MMMJ: “NO Hee Haw. DInosaurs!

If Dinosaurs weren’t the dreariest kids film I’ve ever run across, I’d say I admire his taste.

Small town?

Attention, American Idol: The Greensboro-High Point metro area is up over 650,000 people. The Coliseum is huge — it had NHL hockey for a couple of years, and it frequently hosts the ACC Tournament. It’s not New York, but it’s not Mebane. (Look it up.)

I’m just thankful they didn’t have some stereotypical hick parade. Some decent singers, and some of the usual self-delusional people. In fact, I would’ve been disappointed if we hadn’t had a couple of good freaky Southerners representing.

Here’s what I want to see: A “Where Are They Now?” on all the contestants who walk out insisting that they’re going to be bigger than anyone else on this show, that they don’t need this show, that they’re going to be sorry, blah blah. I’d imagine most of them have learned their lessons, but it’d be fun to see the ones who talk about their “careers” at, oh, Macaroni Grill.

I just wish Sheriff Hege could’ve been around to arrest Ryan Secrest.

Confessions of a music snob

Over at Down With Snark, Michael sometimes fights snark with snark, especially when he takes on NYT music critic Jon Pareles. Oh, sorry — let’s get the full title out there: “Jon Pareles, Indie Rockist Moron of the Year.”

I like DWS in part because Michael, like Steven Johnson, is one of those guys I can read even when I disagree with him. In this case, I’m still deciding whether I agree with him. In fact, Michael has forced me to confront my own inner musical snob. More on that in a minute.

Pareles deserves the takedown, no doubt about it. He writes the typical “woe is me, I’m too intelligent for this year’s music” piece that makes a good-hearted reader hate him even when he has a point. It’s all too easy to picture him in some coffeehouse listening to some fourth-rate Paul Westerberg thrash through some boring set.

In fact, let’s stick with Westerberg for a second, since rock critics of a certain age fawn over him like Academy Award winners fawning over their agents and lawyers. He and the Replacements were OK, nothing … nothing … more. Dyslexic Heart is fine and peppy in the context of the excellent film Singles, but “my heart could use some glasses” isn’t much of a line if you don’t happen to be staring at Bridget Fonda. In fact, glasses can’t actually cure dyslexia, so what’s the point? Nothing, but it didn’t stop the critics.

So when Pareles extols the virtue of Kanye West and calls us all idiots for listening to Coldplay,
it’s easy to drift off. We all know these people. They’re the ones who tell us Saturday Night Live hasn’t been good since Belushi left, etc. etc. He’s me in high school, insisting that Rush or any other band full of virtuosos was necessarily superior to all other musicians. (Later, I discovered that writing a good pop hook is actually tougher than the bass solo from YYZ.)

Yet Pareles does have a bit of a point. We’re in the biggest period of social upheaval since the late ’60s, and though there was more pop fluff in that period than the rock historians care to admit, we had plenty of groundbreaking music. Creedence Clearwater Revival was a mainstream rock band, but Who’ll Stop the Rain is one of the greatest understated protest songs ever. We don’t have that today.

And while it’s a bit unfair to compare Fallout Boy to Green Day, for reasons Michael spells out very well, it’s valid for Pareles to ask if anyone did anything comparable to American Idiot or the recent U2 catalog. My favorites at the moment are Stereophonics and Carbon Leaf, both great and unique in their own way but not new entries into the rock canon.

(Music doesn’t have to have a message to be groundbreaking. I’d quibble with Michael over Madonna — you don’t hear much dance music with the melodic twists of Ray of Light, and you have to respect the way she re-invents herself every couple of years.)

Deep down, we’re all music snobs. I’m broadened my tastes since high school, though I still like Rush. But perhaps there’s nothing wrong with demanding more out of our musicians. Pareles, at this point in his career, is simply the wrong messenger.