Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Go Away!

Namely, to my new blog.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Experts Say

A story in Wednesday's Chicago Tribune appears to rip its lead right from a summary of the Pew Research Center study on which it's based. Or is it just sloppy?

Trib's lead:

Cheating on your income taxes is almost as bad as cheating on your mate, and smoking pot isn't as bad as drinking to excess.

Pew's lead:

Cheating on your taxes is almost as bad as cheating on your spouse.

Drinking excessively is worse than smoking marijuana.

The writer could have easily avoided this by leading with the finding he deems most interesting: That college graduates are more likely than less-educated people to find certain behaviors morally acceptable. Such behaviors include having an abortion, getting drunk, homosexual behavior, gambling, fornicating, smoking pot and lying to spare someone's feelings.

But he can't lead with that because he doesn't try to explain it in the rest of the story.

I don't want to blame this on the individual reporter, Charles Madigan, especially as he is busy as sin, running the Trib's 24-hour online news desk, writing a column and covering other stories. I think the problem here is that newspapers treat these studies as forgettable hard news. To cover these studies in any useful way, editors should change their place in the news cycle.

If you want a timely news item, run a brief and an online link to the study page, which explains it just as well as the story, and tease to a Sunday-paper, magazine-style feature that questions and explores the study. Or even a brief with an infograph like the one that ran with this story. Why run a bulky, perfunctory rewrite? Recognize the source for its real value--a starting point for reporting that reveals something the source itself doesn't. That eventually serves the reader much better than feeding the information to the infernal news beast.

Good model for immediate reporting on a study: Gallup Poll Podcasts. Very short, to the point, and sometimes witty.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Let's Rock for a Multilateral Foreign Policy!

And unlike many of their peers, !!! have politics.

That's a line from Allmusic's review of !!!'s most recent album. I liked this album; what bothers me is the idea that the band's politics somehow add to its value. When a band or artist has a political opinion, it becomes a point of awe for music writers.

This kind of fawning also encourages musicians to confuse their shows with MoveOn rallies. I remember Ted Leo saying, before playing "I'm a Ghost" at a show at U of C last year: "This song is about this haunted house...no. It's actually about alienation from the political process." Luckily, the song isn't as stunted with self-righteousness as that intro would suggest. A lot of the artists I like will wank on and on about their politics in interviews, but what really matters is that, thank fuck, they're better at writing their songs than at rattling off New Left screeds.

Sure, you can claim that politics fuel a band's energy, but if the music is good, the politics are incidental. When Ted Leo plays "I'm a Ghost," I don't experience his pacifist vegan fury. I experience something that I can apply to whatever I want, because it's abstract enough to let me do that. He doesn't cram in a bunch of clunky allusions to the butterfly ballot or whatever--just enough hints that you could guess that maybe that's what it's about (and maybe even that's wrong). Ted Leo's political opinions, if you crunch them down, probably are not all that original. So the only things that really matter is that he writes good songs and plays them well, whether he's driven by political conviction or a voracious love of cupcakes.

Not that audiences aren't buying into this stuff. During his set at Lollapalooza last year, Les Claypool said, "I'm scared of this administration" and got a fucking roar of applause. That's right. Those people gave a fuck what Les Claypool--a guy who looks like a child molester with a six-string bass--thought about poltiics. Knocking Bush is an easy crowd-stinger, like screaming out "Good to be in (insert tour stop here)!" or "I love you all!"

Or this Pitchfork headline: "Radiohead Announce Euro Tour, Yorke Disses Blair"--who gives a shit (about the second part)? Why treat is as news? What's really stupid, though, is apparently the AP put it on the wire after reading about it in NME. From Britain's batshit music press to Ye Olde backbone of world news.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Democracy and its Insatiable Vermin

I have tried to ignore the letter-to-the-editor writer/comment poster as much as possible so far, but this particular species is pretty fascinating to me.

And I am not talking about people who write stimulating letters that are worth publishing because they present new angles on stories or opinions. I am talking about a horde of gibbering maggots governed by an arbitrary set of compulsions: "If it's in print, I must take it seriously and I must tell everybody exactly how I feel about it and exactly who I am."

The letter-writer feels only the illusory coke-rush of civic engagement. He doesn't sense that he's one of a malignant, annoying species or that his voice just adds static to debates already overloaded with redundancy.

My interest in it began in high school, when a math teacher wrote a letter rebuking a column in which I called Jeb Bush on having a big fat face, a hilarious family and a lousy education policy. I'm not sure if this teacher meant to scold an inflammatory student or stand up for Jeb in a public forum, but under his signature he fussily noted that he was a member of some academic organizations and a former member of a few others. This on top of being a grown man who actually got ruffled by something he read in a high-school newspaper.

For example, this past month, a Holocaust-denying physics professor published a guest column in The Daily Northwestern (I worked there as an undergrad but graduated before the column was published). As far as I can tell the original column has disappeared from the Daily's Web site. Anyways, it prompted follow-up columns, stories, editorials and letters. But I'm going to skip the letters and note the deluge of online comments readers posted. We're talking hundreds of people, many of them not even college students, executing a vast and brain-pulverizing display of triteness. This column, it was clear, did not provoke innovative responses; it just allowed people to barf out their convictions (in this case: Holocaust deniers are anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers deserve academic freedom, the wicked Jews control everything including this student newspaper) with refreshed impunity.

So thanks to the Internet, especially blogs, a new subspecies of letter-writer has evolved. It attacks in greater numbers and has more incentive to do so because it's easier to get published on an online comments page than on a printed editorial page.

Online or not, the letter-writer thinks longer equals smarter. The comment I got on my recent essay in NUviews is just short of 400 words long. That's not especially verbose, but most of this guy's word count is a waste. He makes the common letter-writer mistake of bringing up a point the writer has already acknowledged and trying to use it to rebuke the writer. For example, he says:

I think that reasonble people that publish this kind of stuff are simply uneducated as to how offensive the material is to Islam.

In the essay, I argue that, given that the Muhammad cartoons are offensive to Muslims, they should still be published. And so on.

And the pedantry of this guy!

Agree they can say or show what they want without saying or showing the unreasonable material would, I think, be the reasonable course Aristotle would advise.

So on and so forth. What it really reveals is that it's not hard to participate in a discussion and sound a little educated. It's just that the letter-writer is so thrilled to be doing this at all that he never wonders how to do it effectively.

Friday, March 10, 2006

It's Only Divine Right

(Belle & Sebastian w/ New Pornographers at Riviera Theatre)

I had every reason to enjoy Belle & Sebastian's set last night. They played plenty of my favorite tracks from Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister. The vocals were clear and articulate, and the arrangements came together smoothly. I figured out it was the crowd that put me off--that smug show-kid crowd that wants more than anything to be deliriously pleased with itself at every second of its overdressed little life. It didn't bother me that the set plonked along in a predictable way; it did bother me that it seemed to meet everyone's gold standard, including the band's.

As long as they keep getting what they expect to get from B&S, the show kids will keep on adoring them. I'm not saying these people don't have preferences. They just have unconditional love for the band at the same time. That's how music fanatics are. They judge their favorite bands the way reasonable Catholics judge the Pope. They can choose to disagree with their idols, but ultimately the idols can do no wrong.

Belle & Sebastian might as well be infallible. They're a Godlike beacon of hope for every kid who fetishises indie rock and/or overdecorated thrift-store wardrobes. They can't blow it now unless they start breathing fire and playing Kiss covers. And even that might go over with the show kids. Rock music exists to squander itself and preserve itself all at once, and with so many coy layers of irony to look through, it's hard to tell the difference between the two, or whether that difference really matters.

With that attitude spreading among their fans, why shouldn't B&S be satisfied with competently delivering more of the same with every album and every show? The band just didn't seem to get that excited about its songs. That was the audience's job. Stuart Murdoch is an understated singer to begin with, so nobody expects him to go apeshit on stage. They just overreact whenever he does anything remotely physical. When will rock audiences realize that standing on top of a stage monitor is not a stunning acrobatic feat? How come a singer only has to cue fans to clap along to get them convulsing with excitement?

The familiar is usually good enough for a talented band like B&S. But to go through the motions, and try to re-heat them with some easy crowd-pleasing antics, just kills the fun that drew me to B&S in the first place.


The New Pornographers still seemed to be working for the adulation. They played an opening set, minus Neko Case and Dan Bejar. The Riviera has the acoustics of a (gilded, purple) cardboard box, so the guitars, bass and keyboards got pulverized into an audio chum slick. Unlike B&S, the Pornos don't really try to reproduce their clean studio sound live, even though the arrangements don't really change at all.

Kathryn Calder and Nora O'Connor took over Neko Case's vocal parts. That was OK, except that they tried to sound just like Neko Case, which really only works if you're Neko Case. Not that they didn't sing well; they just don't have that rich droning quality that makes Case's vocals, especially on "The Bleeding Heart Show," so huge and majestic.

I'm not one of those jackass fans who think they have a right to hear all their favorite songs played live just-so. I like it when a band changes its shit around. Even though Neko was awesome when I saw her with the Pornos at the Metro last year, her absence is an opportunity to try new arrangements of the songs she sings on. So why not play around with it a bit? The songs are strong enough in themselves to withstand some arrangement changes. When A.C. Newman sang Dan Bejar's "Testament to Youth in Verse," he didn't try to sound like Bejar. It was like hearing a really well-played cover. A band that's already energetic and fun live doesn't really help itself by sticking too close to its recordings. Like I said, the Pornos don't change their arrangements live; they just make the arrangements seem as loose and effortless as three-chord power-trio rock. But that starts to grate a little when a band tries too hard to stick to the recorded formula.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Dear Potbelly Sandwich Works:

Why do you think it's cool, nifty or at all enjoyable to do live music the way you do live music? You're practically asking for the crap of the crap, especially in your hometown, Chicago, and the surrounding suburbs, which already have more than enough venues for all the good musicians.

Hence, when I go to your Evanston location, I'm assaulted and oppressed by what sounds and looks like the mutant love child of Dashboard Confessional, Dave Matthews, and Xiu Xiu. That's right, three parents. That's how much of an aberration your guitar-slinging moaner is.

Not only was he an annoyance in general, he butchered "Paint It Black," which doesn't exactly feed off the Potbelly-type mood.

People do not come to the sandwich shop to get that excruciating open-mic-at-the-coffee-shop feel. Especially people who like to talk during a meal. Until this menace is crushed, I shall boycott your delicious and cheap sandwiches. I'd rather have just one good thing than one good thing and one crappy thing.

Just stick to your usual bearably uneven music mix, because I've noticed that it includes a Who song here and there.

I urge you, ridiculously, to value my patronage over your business model and stop trying too hard to be fun.



Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Just for the Record of Utterly Useless Info

I'm channel-flipping, and I landed for a second on E!'s Fashion Police coverage of the Oscars--just in time for the decisive best-and-worst bit. I'd just like to point out that it led with Philip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy. Yep, two homely, wonderful, character actors, not even A-cups!