Thursday, July 29, 2010

In Praise of Paisley, New Yorker

I don’t know why the New Yorker is suddenly doing anthropological research on red-state America … but as this week’s profile of Brad Paisley reveals, it’s not bad research.
Staff writer Kelefa Sanneh, who once penned reviews for the New York Times, contributes a thoughtful piece on Paisley, whom the author describes as “by some counts, the best-selling singer in American history.”
Maybe it’s the persistent popularity of red-state institutions like country music and NASCAR (racetrack star Danica Patrick was also the subject of a recent New Yorker profile) that makes them so intriguing to the magazine staff … none of whom, presumably, would ask their colleagues, “Hey, did you see the ACM’s last night?” or, “Did you watch the Daytona 500?”
Which is what makes it so welcome when the magazine uses its resources to examine aspects of American pop culture that the intelligentsia often ignores. The magazine ventures outside its traditional world of sipping lattes at Starbucks, browsing Proust at the Strand and watching Audrey Hepburn at Film Forum. The results make for entertaining prose. Paisley, Sanneh reveals, disdains agave syrup and venerates Andy Griffith, whose show’s “balance of wry humor and old-fashioned decency has become a touchstone for (Paisley’s) life, and for his career,” Sanneh writes.
When Sanneh goes beyond the external details, however, the results are intriguing. Sanneh has chosen a good subject to reveal the complexity of country music today. Paisley occasionally sings about topics that both blue-state and red-state audiences might find interesting. For instance, his song “American Saturday Night” evokes terms incorporated from other countries to show us how the melting pot works (“Spanish moss, Italian ice, French kissing in the moonlight … Just another American Saturday Night.”) It’s hard to imagine Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer groovin’ to that song.
Sanneh finds Paisley similarly thoughtful on the issue of race. While the author claims that country music, while “not strictly rural music” and “not strictly Southern … remains white music, by and for white people,” this is challenged by Paisley’s song “Welcome to the Future,” which honors the work of advocates for equality such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and denounces the Ku Klux Klan for its racial-intimidation tactics. Sanneh notes that African-American Darius Rucker is now a country star, and observes that Tim McGraw evokes “a multiracial form of Southern pride” in his song “Southern Voice,” which also mentions Parks and Dr. King.
Songs such as “American Saturday Night” and “Welcome to the Future” helped endear Paisley to yours truly. When first listening to him on WKLB-FM (102.5) in the Boston area, I found little to distinguish one of his songs from another. Toby Keith had his brash conservative politics (even if I disagreed with them, I found them entertaining), Garth Brooks had his lyricism, Martina McBride mixed toughness with sensitivity. It was only when Paisley started doing the same thing the New Yorker did -- exploring the wider story of America -- that he began appealing to me.
So let’s appreciate Paisley as he is: an entertaining, sometimes thoughtful guy who makes good music. And let’s appreciate Sanneh and the New Yorker for a thoughtful profile.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clinton, Palin: The Members of the Wedding

Clinton-Palin Wedding Cartoon, originally uploaded by rbtenorio.

Two of our most prominent politicians, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, will be real-life “Members of the Wedding.” (Apologies to Carson McCullers.) Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, will marry longtime boyfriend Marc Mezvinsky in Rhinebeck, N.Y., Saturday … while Palin’s daughter, Bristol, has announced her engagement to on-again, off-again boyfriend Levi Johnston. Yet do Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have more on their agenda than upcoming nuptials? Read more in the latest episode of “The Devil Made Me Blog It” … and congratulations to the happy couples!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Foul Weather, Fair Result for Gulf?

The latest concern over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is that Tropical Storm Bonnie, currently near the Bahamas, could approach. It is already making BP nervous and cautious.
"The work on permanently stopping the oil will be delayed," the BBC reported Friday. "But vessels were being positioned in a way that would allow crews 'to promptly re-start oil mitigation efforts as soon as the storm passes', (Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal) added."
This is probably the last thing BP wants to hear after eight days of successfully capping the oil well that started this disaster over three months ago. But if history is any guide, Bonnie might actually be a boon for the oil spill.
In 1979, National Geographic noted, "winds from Hurricane Henri scoured clean most of the Mexican beaches stained by the Gulf of Mexico's Ixtoc oil spill." (What the magazine did not mention was that the Ixtoc spill, and not the BP one, is arguably the biggest ever in the Gulf.) Perhaps a tropical storm could have a similarly beneficial effect.
The magazine cautioned that storms have negative effects on oil spill cleanup efforts, too, such as pushing oil inland, where it can contaminate wildlife habitats like marshes.
Still, maybe "My Bonnie Lies Over the Oil Spill" could ultimately be a happy tune for BP.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Divine Intervention in the Gulf?

God Gulf Cartoon, originally uploaded by rbtenorio.

After three long months, it seems that the BP oil spill has finally been contained. Was there a little bit of divine intervention in solving the problem? God guest-stars in the latest episode of "The Devil Made Me Blog It"!

Friday, July 16, 2010

The World Cup and Walmart

World Cup-Walmart Cartoon, originally uploaded by rbtenorio.

If you're a left-winger in the United States like me, chances are you're familiar with the lofty arguments our side makes about why more Americans should like soccer -- arguments that have been raised quite a bit during the World Cup. And yet I can't see the Left employing the same reasoning -- that we should shed our stubbornness and accept something that millions of others already enjoy -- in favor of another institution -- Walmart -- as it tries to enter the Chicago market. Satan ponders this paradox while flaunting his fancy footwork in the latest episode of "The Devil Made Me Blog It"!

PS - Congratulations to Spain for its first-ever World Cup win!

Monday, July 12, 2010

'Johnny Baseball' studies Red Sox sins, successes

Saturday afternoon, my muse and I went to the American Repertory Theater in Brattle Square, Cambridge, to see "Johnny Baseball," the ART's attempt to combine Boston baseball with Broadway showtunes ... and a social conscience, too. Based on the entertaining and thought-provoking show that followed, I would say the ART succeeded in its effort.
If you’re a Boston Red Sox fan, chances are you know that the club went a remarkable 86 years between World Series championships -- from 1918 to 2004 -- a dry spell attributed by some to owner Harry Frazee sending Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920. The lyrics of “Johnny Baseball” ask us whether the Curse was rooted in something more heinous.
The Red Sox were the last major-league team to integrate -- in 1959, over a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. They also passed up chances to integrate in 1945 (when Robinson participated in a dubious tryout for the Sox) and in later years, when future star Willie Mays played on a Boston minor-league team but was not picked up by the big club. This, “Johnny Baseball” argues, and not getting rid of Ruth, is the true source of shame for the Sox.
The play makes its case in the story of its three main characters: Johnny O’Brien, a white fictional Sox pitcher in the late nineteen-teens; Daisy Wyatt, an African-American nightclub singer; and Tim Wyatt O’Brien, their African-American son. All three characters experience the sting of racism in Boston -- most poignantly when Tim, a promising minor-league pitcher, and Mays participate in a sham tryout for the Red Sox … and Johnny shows his frustration at the team’s racism by punching GM Joe Cronin, who subsequently says that Tim will never pitch in the big leagues. This leads Tim to disown his father and place a curse on the Sox.
This revisiting of history, and the subsequent redemption for both Tim and the Sox, help us see America’s game of baseball as both a symptom of and cure for America’s sin of racism. By 2004, as a young Fenway fan tells an older Tim, the Sox are a team that reflects the diversity of the United States, with players who are white, Latin American and African-American. It is time to lift the Curse … which, as we all know, the Sox did that year.
History, of course, is much more nuanced. Although the Sox were the last to integrate, once they did, fans soon became familiar with a diverse constellation of stars, such as the Cuban pitcher Luis Tiant and the African-American right fielder Jim Rice in the 1970s. Yes, racial problems persisted, such as in the Winter Haven, Fla., spring training troubles, but the increasing diversification of their roster and coaching staff (Rice became a hitting coach after his playing days ended) shows that the Sox did try, however imperfectly, to redeem the sins of their prejudiced past.
We should also ask whether baseball’s present is as upbeat as the finale of the musical. Members of the media have noted a declining African-American participation in baseball in general, not only on the Red Sox. It would be sad to see the efforts of the Robinsons and Rices go in vain. And yet on this year’s Sox, the team has seen several African-American players play notable roles, such as Darnell McDonald and Bill Hall. In baseball, as well as on stage, the hard work of redemption and reconciliation evoked by “Johnny Baseball” continues.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Clintons Cause Colorado Conundrum?

Colorado Cartoon, originally uploaded by rbtenorio.

So what are we to make of the dueling endorsements from President Obama and ex-President Clinton in Colorado? If we are to believe the odious former Clintonista Dick Morris, they may signify a challenge from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the president in 2012. Read more in the latest episode of "The Devil Made Me Blog It"!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Toby Keith Takes Over Boston

We got cowboys … We got truckers …
Broken-hearted fools and suckers …

~Toby Keith, “I Love This Bar”

Now, it seems, Toby Keith has added Bostonians to his camp.
Keith played Boston on the Fourth of July, and while he’s one of my favorites, it wasn’t the right move for the city.
First, some background: With his strong voice and inspired lyrics, Keith is one of country’s biggest contemporary stars, right up there with Garth Brooks and Martina McBride. Unlike Garth or Martina, T.K. revels in being edgy (one of his albums: “White Trash With Money”) and is sometimes prone to stupid statements when he talks politics. Yet he also seems like a guy with a big heart. He regularly visits US servicemembers stationed overseas, including in war-torn countries like Iraq. He also dedicated a moving tribute to the late jazz/basketball star Wayman Tisdale.
With all that going for him -- and the fact that I own his last three albums, plus two greatest-hits compilations -- you’d think I’d give the decision for him to play Boston on the Fourth two thumbs up, right? Wrong. This is the latest example of corporate America dictating to everyone else how things will run. Reminds me of another far-off power writing rules for the little people … the British Parliament of the 1770s.
Back then, we had taxation without representation. Now we have celebration without representation. T.K.’s lyrics are enjoyable, but they have nothing to do with Boston. Texas, yes. Oklahoma, yes. Arkansas, yes. Even New York. But no Massachusetts and no Boston.
I’m guessing that selecting T.K. had little to do with an understanding of or interest in Bostonians’ musical tastes and everything to do with marketing the Fourth to a national audience, many of whose members might find Keith more palatable. (Who do you care about more, the 500K watching on the Esplanade or the six million tuning in on CBS?) Thus the grand traditions of Arthur Fiedler decay into televised tripe where the locals get dissed in favor of people in other states … and, of course, the advertisers.
The organizers of Boston’s Fourth used to show an interest in the music preferences of the host city, bringing in Aerosmith not long ago. But they’re also reaching out to performers with audiences based in other regions -- like Keith’s country contemporary Rascal Flatts. I will admit that country music does have a following in Massachusetts; I regularly listen to it on WKLB-FM (102.5) and, with my muse, attended a packed Keith concert at the Tweeter Center in 2007. But on the big occasions like the Fourth, you should bring in the big guns to represent the host city. If Aerosmith was unavailable, what about Bruce Springsteen, the man who’s played both Fenway Park and the Zakim Bridge? And if they wanted a country star, why not Kenny Chesney (who’s actually performed a song about Boston)?
I didn’t go to the Fourth in Boston this year … I was in New Jersey, enjoying an inspired game of Scrabble with my muse and her family (including a fellow T.K. fan … thanks for the CDs!). I’m glad I missed the Fourth in Boston, too. The city that once resisted the tyranny of the Crown now seems all too willing to accept the tyranny of Big Business.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Too Much Construction in Massachusetts

When President Obama announced his stimulus plans for the US economy, he might have envisioned himself as a 21st-century FDR, buffering employment through a modern-day Works Progress Administration of federal and state government projects.
Yet there is a hidden cost to such laudable efforts … the cost of annoyance to the state residents who actually have to put up with so much construction.
My home state of Massachusetts, for example, has become a cesspool of construction jobs big and small. In the morning, North Cambridge residents wake up to the soothing sound of jackhammers as workers tear up city streets. Afternoon dog-walkers must hurry past huge clouds of dust forming near Route 16 and pass unsightly views of uprooted trees near the Alewife T station. Police cruisers and construction vehicles make major highways (95 South, for instance) seem like Dante’s Inferno with their blinding lights and Cerberus-like presence at night.
I will admit that there is a place for construction. Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel taught me this as a kid. And as someone who’s been in cars on potholed streets in other countries (such as, I must admit, in my father’s native city of San Luis Potosi, Mexico), I know how bad it is to leave public property in poor condition. Yet Massachusetts is overdoing it. It seems that everywhere you look, you see an orange-and-white construction drum, an orange cone, and the flashing lights of police cruisers.
It is time for Gov. Deval Patrick to curtail the construction. It adds to noise pollution, it represents a distraction for drivers, and as those who watched the Big Dig slouch towards completion, it will never end, not so long as there are patronage positions to fill. Patrick made a courageous stand against one segment of the Augean stables when he took on police details, despite resistance by the political machine. Now, for the sake of state residents, he needs to try again.
History has too often celebrated people who like to build things … King Hezekiah erecting walls around Jerusalem … the Romans with their highways, baths and aqueducts … Baron Haussmann spreading out the streets of Paris for Napoleon III. Obama may want to join that lustrous list and stand up for those who are out of work, but Patrick should stand up for an equally deserving constituency -- those who have to deal with the inconvenience of such work -- and cut down the construction projects. I hear those casinos and wind farms could offer some nice employment alternatives.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Farewell to the Boston Accent

When Boston was still revered as the “Athens of America,” a popular ditty spread about the capital of Massachusetts being “The home of the bean and the cod,/Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots/And the Cabots talk only to God.”
Times have changed since those halcyon days. In recent decades, if the Cabots, the Lowells, and the Deity were to converse, they’d staht talkin’ with the dropped ahz and gees that so cleahly mahk the Bostin accent. It is this more contemporary cadence, not the eloquence of Emerson or Amory, that has characterized the city.
Now that, too, is changing. In all walks of life in Boston, the accent seems to be slowly decreasing from the parlance of citizens. The wait staff at restaurants … people you meet while dog-walking … the folks at the laundromat. They talk just like regular Americans do.
This represents a dramatic change. In its 20th-century political past, Boston was characterized by the distinctive discourse of its prominent public officials such as the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. And indeed, visitors to Boston’s Logan International Airport will still be greeted by the equally memorable voice of Mayor Thomas M. “Mumbles” Menino on the public-address system. Yet the new political stars of the city are often eschewing the accent, such as Sen. Scott Brown, who won Kennedy’s old seat in a Senate surprise this year. While Brown has emphasized his working-class background, his rhetoric shows that he has toned down the accent.
Perhaps we’re now pronouncing our r’s and g’s out of sudden self-consciousness. The rest of the country has noticed the Boston accent, but its reaction has evolved. At first our fellow Americans thought it was cool, given the positive response to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in “Good Will Hunting” at the end of the past century. Now, it seems, our fellow Americans view it as over-the-top. Witness the marketing minds of MTV determined to recreate the success of “Jersey Shore” with a Boston version.
Maybe the disappearance of the accent is also related to the growth of immigrant communities in Massachusetts who do not absorb the townie inflections when learning English. Perhaps it’s connected to the college kids from out-of-state who stay in Boston after graduation and keep their Ivy League speaking style.
While I applaud and encourage the linguistic diversity Boston now enjoys, however, I can’t help but hope that the accent stays in some form or another. In a nation homogenized by chain stores and conglomerates, it would add insult to injury if all Americans started speaking the same, too. Accents are one way regions can preserve their uniqueness. May the Boston accent, even with a reduced usage, live long and prospah.