Sunday, March 27, 2011

Friday and Other Bad Songs

(News-Herald, March 24) Perhaps you don’t spend much time on the interwebs and so missed the latest contribution to American culture.
A thirteen-year-old named Rebecca Black received a special present from her folks—a two thousand dollar session with a production company that helped her create and produce a hit-ready pop song with accompanying video. The video was, of course, posted on youtube, where it had at first a few hundred hits, then several thousand, then a gazillion as carbon based life forms all over the earth lined up to experience what has already been called one of the worst songs ever. (To be accurate, as of Tuesday, March 22, Black’s video had 33 million views after less than two weeks. For comparison, Lady Gaga’s most recent hit video was up to just under 26 million views.)
Was the song that bad? Has it, as one iTunes reviewer claims, “ruined the meaning of music forever”? Hyperbole, perhaps, but, yes, the song is pretty bad. Black’s vocals are auto-tuned well beyond the range of robot singing, but there are far more famous singers doing the same. What sets the hit “Friday” apart is its special lyrical flair.
First, our young heroine wakes up and goes downstairs to eat a bowl of cereal (“Gotta have my bowl, gotta have my cereal, seein’ everything, the time is goin’”). By the second verse, she is at the bus stop where the approach of her friends in a car raises a more stirring dilemma: “Kickin’ in the front seat, sittin’ in the back, gotta make my mind up, which seat can I take?” Eventually she arrives at the climactic section in which she observes that yesterday was Thursday, today is Friday, tomorrow is Saturday and after that comes Sunday.
All indications are that this is entirely serious, but you can be forgiven for suspecting it’s a giant goof, because Rebecca Black’s “Friday” belongs to a special category of bad song. People have been trying to parody this insta-hit, but it’s simply not possible because the song is already its own parody, a song so dumb that nobody could possibly make it more ridiculous.
Not every bad song can achieve such invulnerability. “Achy Breaky Heart” may be an awful, awful song, but it is totally vulnerable to mockery (eg “Don’t play that song, that achy breaky song…”)
To mock something one must take its most notable characteristics and exaggerate them until they become silly. An unmockable song has been pre-ridiculified. Take “MacArthur Park”—what can anyone do to worsen a lyric like “Someone left the cake out in the rain, and I don’t think that I can take it, ‘cause it took so long to make it, and I’ll never have the recipe again.” (Plus, for good measure, “Oh noooooooooooo!”) And “Stairway to Heaven”—“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now”??
The first time I heard “Wanna put my tender heart in a blender, watch it spin around to a beautiful oblivion,” I actually laughed aloud because I thought someone had written a hilarious parody of overwrought emo-boy angstiness. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that “Inside Out” was a real song and a real hit.
Neil Diamond could be accused of having a parody-proof style, but that might not be fair. Still, I defy any Diamond fan to defend the lyrics of “I Am” in which our highly emotive singer declares his deepest feelings and moans that “no one heard at all, not even the chair.” Could anybody possibly make that any sillier? (Maybe, but “ottoman” wouldn’t fit in the line.)
(We could argue that nearly the entire output of the disco era is too ridiculous to be mockable, and I might have trotted out examples except that I don’t really want to revisit disco. Living through it once was sufficient.)
But before curmudgeonly elders start the old, “They don’t write songs like they used to,” I should point out that ridiculously bad songs have always been with us. Practically everything Mantovani recorded makes me suspect that he was giggling at the massive joke he was playing on the music biz. And for fans of the big band era, all I have to say is, “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamsy divies.”
Even the classical music whiz Handel calls on a chorus to declare with great stentorian seriousness, “We like sheep.” So don’t feel bad for Miss Black. She has lots of company. Also, her song is making her about 24 thousand dollars a week.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rex Mitchell

I first encountered Dr. Mitchell when I was in seventh grade at Junior High District Band. He was the guest conductor, and while our home directors regularly made their peace with the motley assortment of musical abilities they faced, he was not so interested in compromise.
Most of us had never encountered someone who was so serious about music who wasn’t our regular teacher. It wasn’t that he treated making music as grim or joyless, but he treated it like it was something important. We played one of his newer compositions in that concert. It was “Song for the Young,” and like many of his pieces it became a popular standard of programming in the band world. For the next fifteen years I think I played “Song for the Young,” somewhere, every year.
Rex was not afraid of a tough crowd. He did guest conducting gigs, which have to be the toughest in the band director world. You walk into a building and for a few days take over a group of teenagers, many of whom are fiercely loyal to their regular director and his way of doing things, and who spend much of their rehearsal time thinking about lunch, homework, and that cute member of the opposite gender sitting over there.
Rex had to know all that—he had teenagers of his own—but he didn’t approach young musicians with the faintest hint of “Well, you’re only high school kids.”
Instead it was the students who asked (quietly, indirectly), “What do you want from us? We’re just kids!”
Rex’s reply (quietly, indirectly) was, “I want you to play as well as you possibly can, because it matters.”
Dr. Mitchell’s musical fingerprints are all over this region. For many years you couldn’t swing a western Pennsylvanian cat without hitting a band or choir director that he had trained. They were not only strong and talented educators, but also a network, like a group of people who had belonged to a select fraternity, a kind of Mitchell mafia. For years many of the players who had first worked together in his seminal Lab Jazz Band at Clarion continued to work together as a grown up dance band.
He was a talented performer in a small town setting, which meant that he could find himself working with other musicians well below his ability. He once hired three of us who were core members of a local Dixie band to work with him for a party at Rockmere. He told us to just use our usual arrangements and he would try to fit in, and then proceeded to play rings around us. He could have been a diva, and he could have shamed us by musically upstaging us, but he was gracious and classy. What could have been scary or intimidating for us ended up being a great deal of fun.
He was a solid composer of works for band—not an easy field to make a mark in. In 1971 he composed “The Silver Cornets” march for the Franklin town band. We still play it at our concerts every summer, and so do many other bands across the country.
And if none of that had been true, he still would have been the man who put together the Venango Chorus and the jazz band concerts in Justus Park. The chorus has given a great outlet to so many area singers. And very few people could put together a band of that caliber; very few performing groups could fill that park with so many appreciative audience members.
Venangoland is not always a nurturing environment for the arts. Some folks would rather take a football to the gut than sit through a concert or walk through an art exhibit. And even some of the same people who will sit and applaud a concert will go home and call the arts an unnecessary frill.
But men like Rex Mitchell (and Bruno Woloszyn and Ed Frye and Carl Brozeski and Bob English) single handedly improve the quality of life here for all of us. Rex gave us the beauty and energy and joy of his own music, and his energy and passion in energized others. His gift helped elevate the gifts of others, both musicians and listeners. We are poorer for his passing, but richer for his time here. He has left his community a legacy of music and musicians, and we will all reap the benefits for years to come.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Corbett's Budget Message to Teachers

(News-Herald, March 10) My kids hate it when I write about politics. But Governor Corbett’s budget address this week hits too close to home for me to ignore.
Much of his speech I applaud. The Commonwealth has been cobbling together odd patches of federal handouts and stimulus money tacked onto one of the worst business and corporate tax structures in the country. PA taxes have managed to be both oppressive and ineffective, squeezing the blood out of some enterprises while other major corporations manage to profit from the pockets of Pennsylvania consumers without returning a single cent to running the state.
Pennsylvania needs to live within its means, and has needed to for a while. It also needs to stop nickel and diming its people into oblivion with new hair-brained schemes like turning I-80 into a toll road.
Some of his speech reads like same old, same old politics. A lot of the money doled out to various local projects has been cut and compressed, the wide and varied plethora of granting bodies trimmed down. Corbett says under the new system, “Instead of individual favors we're trying a market approach. Economic development agencies and providers will compete for taxpayer dollars. If you have a winning idea -- you'll win our backing.”
To which I say, “Um, yes, right, sure. ‘Winning idea’ is a completely objective measure, and I’m sure it will be judged on a completely level playing field. I’m sure places like Venango County will have just as good a shot as Philadelphia.” Corbett’s budget talk did not at all address the balance between rural Pennsylvania and the Big Two, the process by which Pittsburgh and Philadelphia regularly suck the blood from the rest of us. That was a little discouraging.
But nothing was as discouraging as Corbett’s prolonged swipe at teachers. I’m not exactly sure when in the past few weeks that teacher-hatred became the flavor of month; I’m pretty sure that only Charlie Sheen has kept it from the very top of the news cycle.
I absolutely agree that teachers should not be exempt from the sacrifices faced by most Americans (that is, those that are not filthy rich bankers and CEOs). But the sacrifices proposed for education are not on that order; they are proposals for gutting teaching as a profession and with it, public education.
The bill currently making its way through Harrisburg (HB 855) proposes the end of tenure and seniority. Under this proposal, school districts may declare themselves financially strapped. They don’t have to prove it, and they don’t have to make any other efforts to trim their budgets—just have a public meeting at which they declare their financial distress. Then they may fire whichever teachers they wish to fire.
Under these rules, people considering a teaching career face one of two possible trajectories. Either they will work for a few years and then be fired out of the profession, or they can work a full career at wage levels that won’t support a family. How many people qualified to do anything else will choose teaching as a career if it is, as budget mavens like to say, unsustainable? It is theoretically possible that school districts will say, “Damn the cost—we want to compete for the best teaching staff around,” but I wouldn’t bet my career on it.
Yes, others are struggling. But making more people struggle doesn’t build prosperity.
Corbett says the school system’s obligation is to child, parent and teacher—in that order. His answer is correct but incomplete. Once again, we’re discussing public education as if the public are not stakeholders. But even people without school age children have a need to live surrounded by, working with, and dealing with well-educated people. Public education is not a public-funded private school system run for parents; its benefits are as widespread and universal as roads. Corbett would like to see vouchers, further guaranteeing non-parents no educational voice.
Why the selective application of sound economic principles? Corbett is right to believe that businessmen and corporations will not do what they do if the state makes it economically useless and difficult to do it. How is that different for teachers? Teaching remains one of the best jobs in the world. If I won the lottery this weekend, I would still be in my classroom on Monday, but you can’t feed and clothe a family with job satisfaction. I hope that one day I’ll be replaced by someone who would also like to make it his life. It will be sad if nobody with real passion or ability can afford to do that.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Venangoland Politics On Line

(News-Herald, March 3) Like many fans of local politics, I’ve been surfing on over to the to see what the new political website has to offer to the local internet landscape.
One of the most basic purposes of the internet is to provide people with an opportunity to say things anonymously that they would never say openly (because doing so would probably get them punched in the nose). This site manages that quite well, though the mastermind behind the site backed off the more obvious slander and libel once he (or she) was called on it. But it still showcases a nice big pile of axes and a thick stone to grind them on.
There’s a type of poster that one finds all over the internet—let’s call him the Righteous Crusader. The not-brave-enough-to-state-his-name operator of VP fits the profile. Righteous Crusaders see themselves as being practically the only people wise enough to see the Truth, and they act a little paranoid about being hunted down by murky mysterious opponents. Mr. VP duly notes that there are people who probably won’t like what he has to say, and ominously reminds us that The Media isn’t telling us The Whole Truth. Mr. VP expects all submissions to come with a name and phone number attached. Mr/Mrs VP’s identity remains shrouded in mystery, though the drumbeat that is raised on the site is a familiar one that gives even the casual student of Venangoland politics a good idea of who is on the short list of authorial candidates.
There’s a place for folks to chime in; the first few posts there are to point out inaccuracies in the municipal information listed, some comment on the value of the site itself, and a few make observations (featuring random spelling) about local politics. So far only one of the 146 people running for County Commissioner has posted his info, but others may yet emerge. And so far VP has delivered its promise of weekly articles. The current one about the county pension fund is reasonably well-researched, if not particularly well-reasoned.
There are what supposed to be connections to local political groups on line, but these are exceptionally sketchy. In this, Ms VP is blameless, because Venango County political groups remain blissfully oblivious to the internet.
Venango County Republicans have a multipage site (, including a calendar of useful information about the election season. For 2010. The site has no actual content to speak of; certainly nothing that would pass for a statement of what local Republicans see as issues or proposed responses to them. The site itself has a cobbled-together look, perhaps because it appears to have been assembled on, a set of free website-building tools popular with many teenagers.
It could be worse. I was going to make a joke about Venangoland Democrats being so out-of-touch that their only web presence was an ugly old empty MySpace page. Then I went looking for them on line and found nothing but… an ugly old empty MySpace page. The Venango Young Democrats have a facebook page with no information and three “likes.”
In other words, in an age that gives organizations an unparalleled opportunity to communicate their message to the people, an historic chance to let voters know what they stand for, the two major parties in the county have used that tool only just enough to embarrass themselves.
The Libertarian and Green Parties—those great RC Colas of the American political grocery—provide nationally based web tools on which to hang local groups. And of course you know who is head and shoulders above the whole pack when it comes to making use of the web to get message out—the Tea Party Patriots of Venango County. If I were suddenly wanted to check out local politics, see whose views I sympathized with, and find a way to become involved, only the Tea Party Patriots provide any useful information at all, and what they provide is fairly thorough.
So while remains the biased and fuzzy-headed product of someone who hasn’t the guts to sign his/her work, I give it a big round of applause for trying to start the kind of open(ish) conversation about local politics that the major parties are completely failing to engage in.
If there’s something solid on line from the two majors that I’ve somehow missed, I welcome the opportunity to stand corrected. In the meantime, to Republicans and Democrats, shame on both of you.

From my Flickr