Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A few unpopular opinions

If you know me, you know that I've never been a "mainstream culture" kind of person. And I'm not a "counter-culture" person, either. I try and evaluate things based on their own merit (in economist terms, on their utility to me) and not on what somebody thinks their utility to me should be. Exempli gratia, I don't listen to the rap flavor of the month, or to its indie equivalent. I don't pay attention to fashion, because fashion does not get me anywhere--this implies that I don't purposely wear what's popular only because it's popular, but on the other hand, I don't purposely avoid what's popular only because it's popular. And there are a few phenomena that are exceedingly popular that I just don't much agree with.

That is to say, I don't like Family Guy, and I don't like Halo.

If you don't know Family Guy, there are two relevant pieces of information related to it. First, it is a television show in the mold of The Simpsons or South Park, all of which are ultimately more funny for their references to other media than for their own content. I've got no problem with that in general (see the Kingdom of Loathing). Second, it is the singular most popular television show among college students (and among a lot of high school sutdents as well). If you poke around a little in Facebook--probably the best barometer of college trends that we have--you will find that at the very top of the TV shows list in the nation sits Family Guy. So long story short, Family Guy is very popular.

I have no idea why.

My argument against the show has two main points: first, the references are too obscure to be funny; and secondly (and more importantly) the insertion of the references are utterly nonsensical. Case study: one particular episode of the show that centered around "Asiantown." At first, I thought "great, ethnic jokes, that's right up my alley!" The first external reference in the show occurred when one of the characters went to a grocery store and reached for a carton of orange juice. Inexplicably, he was then in the middle of a black and white line drawn auto race. It had to be explained to me that this was a really good parody of a 1980s music video. A while later in the episode, another character (Peter) wasn't doing anything but sitting "up in the attic, reading his book." Then, Peter is shown riding on top of a pterodactyl. Again, this reference had to be explained to me--it turned out this was a depiction of Never-Ending Story.

Now, if you're an expert on 1980s-early 1990s pop culture, those are probably really funny references. I am not. And I have a problem believing that a significant portion of college students are. Given that they're not, I don't see how any college student finds as much humor in this show as most of them seem to. But if you did understand these references, then the show would be amazingly hilarious, right? I'm skeptical of that as well.

The reason why is because the insertion of all those references does not add anything to the show. They simply do not make sense. The aforementioned episode dealt with Asiantown, but neither the 80s music video reference nor the pterodactyl clip had anything at all to do with the plot of the episode. This has the unfortunate effect of making this (and in fact every) episode seem discontinuous and jarring. All of this isn't to say that the show is uniformly uninteresting: to its credit, the Asiantown episode did include an acceptably high number of ethnic jokes. The show is often amusing one minute and mind-bogglingly obscure the next, with no relational or topical tie from the generally humorous plot to the arcane reference. Therefore, with all of the interruptions and non sequntur, this show is slightly humorous at best and irritatingly disjoint at worst.

As for Halo... ah, Halo. You'd think this game were the Holy Grail and the Philosopher's Stone rolled into one. Anywhere one goes at a college (and I'd have to guess, particularly here at Tech), you can always see at least someone playing Halo. A few of my friends on my floor are particularly into it; one of them predicted "When Halo 3 comes out, GPAs at Tech are going to drop." I don't doubt this at all.

Those unfamiliar with the game are probably wondering "so what's the big deal about it?" I've played the game, and I'm wondering that too. It's a multiplayer first-person shooter in the vein of Perfect Dark and Goldeneye from the N64 glory days, but with better graphics... that's about all I can say of Halo. Seriously, I can't for the life of me figure out what all the buzz is about. Yes, it's a decent game. Yes, it can be fun to play. And yes, I think Microsoft has done a good job being the black monolith that's guiding the evolution of console video games toward online play. Besides the online capabilities, though, I don't see a great deal of innovation from Halo. Nor is there anything special about the game at all.

But the game does have its detractors. Namely, the game is way too hard to learn. First off, the controls are dismayingly complex. I guess I'm into old-school multiplayer games; take Mario Kart. In Mario Kart, there are 5 buttons plus the control stick that have an important function in the game. In Halo, you've got 9 plus two control sticks. Minor point, but it does make the game a bit overwhelming. Another factor that makes the game hard to learn is the vast number of rules that may or may not be present at any given time. Sometimes the radar works, sometimes it does not. Sometimes you can get awesome weapons, sometimes you get pistols. Sometimes players are invisible, sometimes you can fall off the level, and sometimes you can drive vehicles or shoot turrets. The worst part? Everyone who likes to play this game is already really, really good at it. Starting out, you're thrust into a level that everyone knows but you, and everyone but you is running around with some idea of how to kill people. And because everyone is so concerned with getting points for themselves, nobody is really willing to teach you.

In summary, I could learn how to play the game, but it would take a lot of effort. And because I really don't see what's so great about the game in the first place, I'm not sure that much effort would be worth it.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Irrational Exuberance

The weather gods made a big mistake today. A dusting of snow? In Atlanta? Now, if you're reading this, I'm going to go ahead and assume that you're at least somewhat familiar with Atlanta. If not, or if you've never had the excellent fortune to be here when that magical quarter inch of frozen white stuff falls from the sky, it should be mentioned that a dusting of snow is a signal for "act like a complete moron." (Anything more than an inch of the frozen white stuff is a signal for "rush to the grocery store and buy all the bread and milk you can, and assume that public school will be cancelled the next day." I'm not kidding.) How do the inhabitants of this fine city act like complete morons? Forgetting how to drive is a popular method.

Apparently, so is running around screaming at 3 in the morning and scraping snow off cars to have a snowball fight. This actually happened. Granted, maybe a handful of these people have never seen snow before. I can understand how that might be exciting. But that does not justify waking up people who are trying to get a bit of sleep because you're outside screaming. Nor does it justify running down the halls of the dorm and pounding on doors.

This is a few weeks late, but while we're on the topic, the Daily Show's Irrationally Exuberant Tribute to Alan Greenspan was one of the funnist things I've seen since "Lazy Sunday." You might know how adoring a fan of good Mr. Greenspan that I am, so I certainly appreciated this effort to memorialize his financial greatness. If you didn't see this, try and catch some Daily Show reruns, because how else will the wonderful and storied Chairman of the Federal Reserve live on in your heart?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Any reactions to the Super Bowl?

Because I sure don't have any.

Generally speaking, people don't watch the World Series if they don't care about either of the teams in it. I'm a pretty big Braves fan, and I follow some baseball outside of my home team, but if the Series features say the Astros against the Mariners, there's no way I'm going to watch it. It's interesting to know who ends up winning it, but besides that, I don't really care to watch all of it unless a team I have an interest in is competing. This follows with most everyone: people are interested in the World Series, but don't schedule massive events around it. The NBA championship, the Stanley Cup, etc. are the same way.

The Super Bowl has somehow diverged from that and distinguished itself. It's not merely a sporting event; it's a cultural event. My theory on this is its solitarity; where the World Series represents seven of the best baseball games of the year, the Super Bowl is supposed to be the single best football game of the year. That's its widespread appeal. So, watching it, one expects an exceedingly good football game.

We didn't get one this year.

The game was, in a word, sloppy. And in two words, it was sloppy and uninteresting. There were a few great plays (the Seahawks' interception in the second half was excellent) but I've seen more spectacular plays watching college games (viz. all four of the BCS games, every year). Heck, I've been more impressed watching the good old Yellow Jackets (when Reggie Ball Type A shows up). The two most exciting parts of the night were the hot wings that Woodruff Dining Hall served, and talking D&D with Andrew. This was a run-of-the-mill football game, nothing more. No hugely athletic plays, no down-to-the-wire suspense, and no tactical mastery that makes a great football game into a memorable one.

In short, the game was in no way deserving of the cultural gravity that's associated with it.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

More songs to listen to (Part II of II)

6) “The Infanta” by the Decemberists

I promise, this is my last foray into the realm of “indie rock.” But the Decemberists clearly deserve a mention here, mostly because they’re able to make good music about things other than love gone wrong. They have their share of those songs (which, by the way, are far more sincere than most), but a band’s musical greatness can truly shine when one of their best songs is about… an African child-queen? Calling an album Picaresque invites that sort of thing, but the Decemberists actually go through with it, and they do it spectacularly. This song has a colossal vocabulary, which is immediately attractive, and the Decemberists weave that vocabulary into a masterpiece. Don’t listen to this song once, because you’re almost certain to miss some of the remarkable uses of words the first three runs through. The result is something straight out of a Neal Stephenson novel, something more suited to a traveling minstrel or bard than a modern rock band. And that is by no means a bad thing.

7) “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers soundtrack

Broadway shows can be called “daring,” “shocking,” and a variety of other adjectives that only the Village Voice could think up, but a show with a song called “Springtime for Hitler” as its huge show-stopping number can only be called “gutsy.” If you don’t know the play’s story, this is parody—no, I’m not advising anyone to go and listen to a song that praises the Fuhrer. Try this: think of comedic rhyming phrases that could possibly be used to describe the Third Reich. Difficult? Not for the comedic genius Mel Brooks and the rest of the writers and actors behind this theatrical tour de force. Nazi Germany used to be one of those “untouchable” entities that nobody dared parody, but The Producers destroyed that taboo. When listening to this song, keep in mind that the flamingly gay Roger De Bris is portraying Hitler (rumored to be gay himself), a role originally cast for the actual Nazi Franz Liebkind, all within the play in a play that’s central to The Producers. Then, lines like “Deutschland is happy and gay” are all the more hilarious.

8) “25 Or 6 To 4” by Chicago

Chicago’s reputation has changed a lot over the years. What started out as a Midwest rock band with a unique sound started down the power ballad route, eventually becoming political. And today? Chicago fits into the Rolling Stones “old guys who still give a great concert” archetype. A lot of fans consider the earliest music (actually written and played in the Windy City) to be its best, and “25 Or 6 To 4” is a distinguished example of that. “25 Or 6 To 4” is on Chicago’s second album, which is called Chicago, but then about twenty of the band’s albums are called Chicago. As a matter of convention, the name Chicago II has been bestowed upon this album, and it contains three of Chicago’s best known songs. As I’ve stated before, songs about love (e.g. “Color My World” and “Make Me Smile”, both also on Chicago II) are fine and good, but when a song is about something else entirely yet still manages to be great music, the listening public can truly know the band that wrote the song is great. “25 Or 6 To 4” is certainly not a song about love; much more creatively, it is a song about someone who can’t figure out what to write a song about. It is probably Chicago’s hardest rock of any of their songs, features some of its best brass work, and remains popular even thirty-five years after its release.

9) “Longing” from the Hero soundtrack

Contemporary classical music on a whole doesn’t do it for me. Minimalism, atonality, and lack of a tonal structure do not make your music bold and original; they do not make it complex and intricate; they simply make it bad. One review of this type of music I read described it as “throwing a musical brick at the audience.” Tan Dun, however, has distinguished himself from the brick-throwers of the modern orchestral era by integrating Chinese folk themes into his compositions. This lends itself particularly well to movie soundtracks like Hero’s. Now, maybe you’ve seen Hero. Hopefully you liked it as much as I did. Maybe you even noticed that its soundtrack was pretty good. But even if you saw the movie and thought its music added something to it, you probably don’t know “Longing” in particular. I have to say that this is probably the most obscure song on this list. I didn’t even know of the song until an English teacher had us listen to pieces of music and write our reactions to them as short prose or poetry pieces. “Longing” was one of the selections, and the remarkable thing (about not only this piece, but Tan’s music in general) is that everyone can have a wildly different reaction to the piece, but somehow it’s still right. In one piece, using no words and about four instruments, Tan manages to convey more emotion, more imagery, and more significance than any songwriter could ever hope for.

10) “Bamboleo” by the Gipsy Kings

Chances are good that you’ve heard the song “Bamboleo.” You may not know it by name; heck, you might not even know who the heck the Gipsy Kings are. But “Bamboleo” is practically ubiquitous. And it represents the reason I like the Gipsy Kings: you can become a well-known and well-liked band without being able to sing. Of course, the Gipsy Kings have good musicianship. Their lyrics could be amazing (Mae-quality) or atrocious (Eminem-quality) and I’d have no idea either way because they’re all in Spanish. And the best part is, they can’t sing to save their lives. “Bamboleo” is featured on both a self-titled Gipsy Kings album as well as no less than three “Greatest Hits” compilations, and deservedly so. Despite the fact that their singing is certainly nothing to write home about and the lyrics are incomprehensible to a non-Spanish speaker, “Bamboleo” (like the rest of the Gipsy Kings’ songs) comes out passionate, musical, and incredibly fun to listen to.

If you have not heard these songs... (Part I of II)

...listen to them right now. I'm not saying that these are the best songs ever or anything, merely that I like them.

(Warning: long post)

1) The Everglow by Mae

Not the song “The Everglow” (though it is very good). I mean the entire CD. Yes, this is cheating just a bit, but listening to just one of the songs from The Everglow is like reading one chapter from Huck Finn by itself. The songs in this CD go together, and you really need to listen to them all. At this point you’re probably thinking “A concept album? What kind of pretentious crap is that?” A concept album, yes, but only in the very loosest sense. And not pretentious in the least, but everything that music should be. The Everglow is emotional without losing sincerity; it gives a message that has been told before but in an entirely new light. The most remarkable thing about Mae’s music is that the vocals actually integrate themselves into the music; it’s as if the singing is another instrument. This music has the tendency to be classified as “emo” or “indie” but I think it transcends genres into just “music.” “We’re So Far Away” is one of the most poetically beautiful songs I’ve ever heard; “The Ocean” is emotional, sincere, and moving, and “Suspension” is near-perfect musically and gives the best sense of Mae’s music in a single song, if you’re only going to listen to a single song. But don’t, because that would be doing injustice to what I truly believe to be one of the greatest albums ever.

2) “IV: Allegro Con Fuoco” from Symphony No. 9: From the New World by Antonin Dvorak

People who are not fans of classical music especially need to listen to this piece. Too many people are content to listen to what’s contemporary and think “So what? What’s the big deal about classical music anyway?” The fourth movement from From the New World gives the listener a very good idea of what the big deal about classical music is. Technically, Dvorak’s music is from the Romantic/Nationalist era, which comes later than the “classical” period of classical music, but that’s not particularly relevant. Suffice it to say that Dvorak is one of the greatest masters ever to compose for the orchestra, using each instrument to its fullest potential. One caveat here: Dvorak is particularly adept at interweaving themes throughout movements, so listening to the finale to Dvorak’s Ninth by itself will cause you to miss out on a few of those masterful strokes. But in a single movement, Dvorak gives very powerful meaning to the symphonic composition. If you’ve heard the cliché that something is “like a symphony” and did not know what it meant, Dvorak’s From the New World can give you a very good idea.

3) “Penny Lane” by the Beatles

There are people who give the Beatles credit for revolutionizing music, for reinventing the American (maybe the world) music scene, for writing some of the very best popular music of the 20th century. I tend to agree with that estimation. So there was no question in my mind that a Beatles song was going on this list; the question was merely “which one?”. While Revolver was probably the greatest rock band ever’s greatest album, Magical Mystery Tour (besides being steeped in drug allusion) was the one that really made people sit up and think “There is something out there besides Frank Sinatra and Elvis.” And “Penny Lane” is an integral part of that. Some people like the Beatles because of their originality, some for their simple yet image-rich themes, some for their musical imagination, like incorporating orchestral instruments. Penny Lane” is quintessential Beatles: musical ingenuity and depiction of a British suburban lifestyle flawlessly integrate, and a piccolo trumpet solo and rich vocal imagery complete the artistry.

4) Overture from Music for the Royal Fireworks by George Frideric Handel

As a whole, my favorite genre of music is baroque. That’s a subcategory of the choking morass known as “classical,” in much the same way something might be rock, but also “alternative” or “metal.” (On a side note, if anyone can tell me what “alternative” means, specifically what it is an alternative to, I’ll pay you five bucks.) Basically, ask someone with a respectable amount of knowledge about baroque to name a baroque composer, and you’ll get Vivaldi, Handel, or Bach. Ask someone with a great deal of musical knowledge the same question, and you’ll get Telemann, Albioni, or worse, just so he or she can prove that great deal of musical knowledge. Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach are all very good (see also Brandenburg Concertos by Bach and The Four Seasons by Vivaldi), but I think Handel’s music is more interesting than Bach’s and more varied than Vivaldi’s. And Handel is best known for The Messiah, but I think he deserves as much credit for Music for the Royal Fireworks. The Overture, specifically, is artistic and embellished, majestic and dignified, structured but not predictable, and tonal but not uniform: it is baroque in a nutshell.

5) “Bohemian Like You” by the Dandy Warhols

Given my love of satire, it’s entirely appropriate that a satiric song should make its way onto the list. “Bohemian Like You,” like the rest of Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, is experimental and much more complex than it first appears. The lyrics in this song are musical genius, completely skewering an “idealistic” lifestyle that desperately needed a bit of skewering. From vegetarianism to the “starving artist” mentality, nothing is safe from the Dandy Warhols’ barbed wit. You’ll laugh probably harder than you’ve ever laughed at a rock song and appreciate the musical talent that this band clearly possesses while you’re listening to this song, and you’ll be unconsciously humming the song’s upbeat and carefree (dare I say… Bohemian?) chorus once it’s finished.

More to come later.