Thursday, September 25, 2008

$tarbucks: Your Community Coffee Store!

STARBUCKS HAS CHUTZPAH. Fashioning a warm-and-cozy, earth-toned, earth-friendly, feel-good glow around itself is a Starbucks specialty. Its use of art is a case in point. You go into one of their stores and you see art on the walls that fits in with the rootsy, funky, artsy vibe they fervently try to create (and then replicate exactly across nine kajillion locations). You look at it, or perhaps just unconsciously take it in via peripheral vision, and it feels nice, it feels warm, it feels soothing.

It's also glibly self-promoting. As it turns out, the art is actually a subtle image ad for Starbucks itself. Take, for instance, the piece that pictures a tree of words -- words such as "coffee," "love," "passion," "place," "community," "people." And various inspirational sayings, or presumable comments from satisfied Starbucks customers. The piece is captioned: "The Deeper the ROOTS, the Higher the Reach." What is that supposed to mean? Nothing, really. Like an Obama campaign speech, it has no meaning; it's about how they'd like you to feel about the brand.

Generally, the faker and more uncaring and more remote a huge corporate business is, the more it has to advertise to us about how real and caring and community-focused it really is. While I don't know the hearts of the folks behind Starbucks, it's not really about their conscious intent; it's about the system, and system logic inevitably drives out diversity and individuality.

The irony is that one block away from the local Starbucks store where I first saw the "tree" piece was the former location of an actual community coffeehouse -- founded by a guy I went to high school with -- that this Starbucks had helped kill off. In a Starbucks world, "community" is marketing copy and corporate art emanating from a headquarters hundreds of miles away. The people you live with? Ha, screw 'em -- they're just a revenue stream.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

New old posts!

THESE ARE POSTS I meant to finish up and add long ago but just recently got around to doing so.

Actually, I prefer nonduality : (skeptical take on Eastern mysticism and "enlightenment")

"When we're not on, we're not watching either": not-really-that-juicy gossip on local TV news folk

Bringing stars back down to earth: the one redeeming thing about celebreality TV

Siamese Band Names: I've added some new ones.

Jen, Jane -- whatever: A synchronicitous meetup with a onetime date who actually may be my cousin.

Bright, happy, and deadly : selling birth control pills like candy

Top 10 worst pop music trends of the last 10 years

LAST TIME I POSTED about the MTV Video Music Awards. More than any other force, the music video is responsible for shrinking pop music from an art in its own right, into mere background material for dazzling imagery and fancy filmwork. Accordingly, the VMAs provide an annual snapshot of the decline of pop music, largely since the late '90s. Some of the worst trends in our video-driven pop culture, in my book:

10) Timbaland, Neptunes, and Lil Jon producing everything

9) Reggaeton

8) Simpering whiny-boy vocals in R & B

7) Female artists obliged to sing angry-bitch man-dissing songs

6) Every R &B single using the same drum sounds and synths borrowed from trance music

5) Hip-hop replaced by snap rap

4) Abandonment of chords and chord progressions (this was actually deteriorating in the mid-90s but has really hit rock bottom in the last 10 years)

3) Abandonment of melody (Covering a 2-or 3-note range in an entire song barely qualifies as melody.)

2) The loudness wars, -- leading to fatiguing all-loud-all-the-time recordings, lacking space and dynamic and emotional range. *

1) Autotune

* I mean, have you listened to anything on vinyl lately? Check out anything from the '60s, '70s, '80s, even '90s, and compare with stuff released in the last decade. This digitally laser-polished, glossy-finished, over-compressed, up-in-your face, all-loud-all-the-way-through sound that's been going on in pop and rock music for the last several years is nice as an occasional effect to signal "this is some extreme shit -- check it out." But any extreme effect used all the time becomes fatiguing. Especially when it's on every fricking song.

The other day I was listening to Frankie Valli's "Grease" and some '70s Hall & Oates stuff, like "Bigger Than Both of Us." What a reminder of how refreshing it was when recordings allowed space -- space for loud and quiet, for surprises. You remember how good the sizzle of a high hat sounds against a mellow background that's not all up in your face. You know. Percussion? Remember that?

Monday, September 08, 2008

VMAs: Very Much Annoying

WHAT CAN YOU SAY about the MTV Video Music Awards? It is what it is, and everybody (except, perhaps, its key target audience) knows what it is: a big-production parade of factory-made corporate music performed and produced by hard-working, expert performerbots and crack technical crews, with absolutely no soul or feeling. (Every once in a while, however, a genuine performance manages to slip in unnoticed.) Generally the VMAs induce a sense of despair and malaise in me -- I skipped the show last year -- but I watched it this year, figuring it'd at least be fun to ridicule.

* The only thing more disgusting than the Bush administration is some prancing, preening Brit mincing in on a high horse and telling Americans how they ought to feel about the Bush administration. We'll figure that out ourselves, thank you very much, Mr. Russell Brand. Also pretty disgusting: tasteless jokes about deflowering the Jonas Bros. and slamming them for their chastity pledges.

* The best way to view Rihanna doing "Disturbia" -- her zombies-with-lightsticks-"Thriller 2008"-filtered-through-"Dirty"-era-Christina-Aguilera number -- was with the volume down and, preferably, to avoid viewing her face. (She made that part easy, though, what with the thigh-high boots and fishnets.)

* Katy-come-lately Perry: "I Kissed a Girl"? Hey, nice original song title! And what a refreshingly subversive, "dangerous" concept: lite bisexual experimentation! Wow, we're really shocking the bourgiousie now.

* Pink is hard to categorize. She's clearly kinda punk in her origins and attitudes, so I wanna like her. Yet the vehicle she's chosen to ride to the top is pure glossy, gimmicky pop in the worst way. She lets just enough of her punky persona shine through -- in fact, she has to dial it up to overdrive just to overcome the sheer shiny plasticness of the music underneath it all. I've heard just about all of her hit singles, but I can't remember a single one, except the one that's out now -- again, disturbingly slick in its production, disturbingly like everything else out there, but at least I like the galloping beat (cribbed from Gary Glitter) and the Irish-jig "na na na" hook -- that's a little different.

* Kanye? Kanye, you out there? Look, you're from my hometown, I got mad respect for your story and your achievements an all ... but come on. Does the world really need another rapper trying to Auto-Tune himself into a singer?

For all you rappers who wants to sing, do like Kid Rock did and actually learn how. Drop some of that cash you're stackin' and get a respectable voice teacher. L.A. is crawling with them.

* Speaking of Kid Rock, he provided one of the best and realest performances of the night. (The rap by Lil Wayne: totally superfluous. And speaking of Lil Wayne: will someone please kill him already?)

* And last but not least: I think I have watched about one episode of American Idol, total. So I had no idea who Jordin Sparks was until I saw her on Larry King Live a couple years ago. And I thought: Wow, she's an amazing singer (though she deserves better material) and she's gorgeous and she's intelligent. What? Seventeen?

She carried herself and spoke with a maturity and charisma far beyond most 17-year-old girls. I mean, I don't go ga-ga over stars and I generally haven't been attracted to teen-agers since I was one, okay? Yet I found myself getting a mini-crush on this girl. But then, "girl" is not the word. As I watched and listened to her, the only comparison I could make was to some Christian homeschooled young adults I've known: they stick out like neon signs, since they tend to act and speak more like, well, adults than like the typical silly kids their age. As it turns out, Sparks actually was homeschooled, for a few years at least. And from K-8 she attended a Christian school.

So it's no surprise she showed the courage to slap back at VMA host Brand for his desperate, leering jokes about sex with the Jonas Bros. and crude putdowns of their chastity pledges. Sparks, who has pledged herself to premarital chastity as well, stepped up and reminded the world that "not everybody ... wants to be a slut." Good for you, Jordin. Keep being beautiful and talented and mature beyond your years and non-slutty.