Thursday, April 30, 2015

For Love or Money?

(I actually started writing this post about a month ago, so please forgive the outdated reference to the time change.)

I feel a little melancholy this morning. One reason may be that it's a gray, misty morning the second day into Daylight Savings Time. But the thing that really seemed to trigger my melancholy was seeing a new email message pop up in my account, one from the Avett Brothers. I joked with myself - "Oh, they are sending me a message!"- though I knew very well it was a message alerting me to a pre-sale for tickets to concerts in my area.

It wasn't until a little later, when I was driving to work in the gray, misty morning that the melancholy really set in, when a sort of melancholy song by the Avett Brothers ("All My Mistakes") came on. And it occurred to me that the band whose music I so love has become a commodity, a brand, sending marketing emails just like Best Buy and Hancock Fabrics.

Now don't get me wrong - I totally understand why it has happened. The music is how these guys make a living and support their families, and I don't begrudge them being able to do that. I also realize that if not for commodification, I would never have discovered these guys and had all the pleasure their music has brought me. So I feel a bit like a hypocrite to even start to analyze their "brand" (but I'm going to do it, anyway, ha ha).

I show a PBS Frontline video called The Merchants of Cool in some of my classes. One of the points made in the video is that popular culture is always on the hunt for something "cool," which generally (to me) seems to come down to something authentic, something that hasn't been packaged by the big companies and sold to us as "cool." The video points out that while a lot of us are satisfied with the "cool" sold to us, sometimes we hunger for real "cool," something that hasn't yet been touched by the finger of corporate America.

The career path of the Avett Brothers could be a case study for an updated version of this video. The band started with two brothers playing acoustic music as a side project to their main gig of being in a rock band. You can't get much more authentic than that - brothers sneaking off to play the music they love, not the music that will "sell." The story gets even better - they met and auditioned their bass player in a parking lot. That was followed by years of building audiences for their music, one concert at a time. They earned a reputation for themselves as having a killer live show, and they put out five studio albums, three live albums, and two EPs on the independent record label Ramseur Records before their album Emotionalism caught the eye (ear?) of mega-producer Rick Rubin. To make a long story shorter, they signed with Rubin and since then have put out three major-label albums.They now play to audiences in the thousands and are one of the top draws at the big music festivals like Bonnaroo. They are going to be musical guests on one of David Letterman's final shows. Their story is the dream for anyone who aspires to be a performer.

Yet, I fear that success has come at a cost. One of the songs from an early Avett Brothers album articulated what some view as the band's mission statement:
They may pay us off in fame
But that is not why we came
And if it compromises truth, then we will go
As far as I can tell, the brothers have tried to stay true to their pledge to present truth as they see it; some of the songs on their last album, like "Good to You" and "Part from Me," are almost painfully honest glimpses into the cost chasing success can take on a relationship. I believe the band also tries to be true to their roots in their live shows. I went to a concert back in September of last year, and the impression that stuck with me is that those guys worked HARD for two and a half hours to entertain the crowd. They sang 27 songs, including five or six encores, and there was no "dead" time or dull "let us catch our breath" moments; they were "on" in every way for the whole show.

And yet....I sense commodification is weaving its fingers around them, insidiously, of course. For a few days after the concert, I had withdrawals (ha ha), so I tried hunting up footage on YouTube (the band has also been very smart in their generous use of online video). As I found concert footage, I began to notice some of the moments from the show I saw live were also reappearing in videos taken at other shows. Seth doing the solo at the end of "Kick Drum Heart" and throwing his arm into the air dramatically following a hard chord. Scott running/skipping around the stage during that same solo and coming up to give Seth a chop-massage on the back while Seth was shredding. A lineup of the band members doing a little waltzing sway to "Down with the Shine."

Why should that bother me? Hey, as a teacher, I have certain little gimmick phrases I use in the lecture on a particular topic semester after semester - if something works, keep it. But I couldn't help feeling a little - I don't know, taken for a ride, maybe? - to find out what I thought was the enthusiasm of the moment in the concert was more like a script. And now I'm getting marketing messages in my email.

I suppose what makes me melancholy is something else from The Merchants of Cool. The narrator makes the point that once marketers find something genuinely "cool," they exploit it, mass-produce it, sell it, until they kill it and it's no longer "cool." Then they move on to the next "cool" thing. One of the Avett Brothers' songs, "Famous Flower of Manhattan," has what I consider the perfect line to describe this:
And people don't ever let you down
Forever find a way to kill whatever life they've found
I guess that's what I'm afraid of - that the merchants of cool will take these brothers and their sincere, honest songs and use them up until nothing real is left and they are just a brand. I've seen it happen to other artists - I used to love Brad Paisley's music, and now I can't stand to listen to his recent stuff because it just seems to be more of the same old "popular" crap that is country music these days. I can't stand it to think that might happen to my precious Brothers.

It's not inevitable, I remind myself. There are artists who have been part of the big music machine and yet stayed true to themselves, and these brothers seem to be pretty grounded. And, darn it, I don't have to be such a rhetorical critic, reading deep meanings into every little thing (ha ha). I'm going tomorrow night to do some more field research - the band is going to be within three hours of home, so I'm bookending this hard year on the job with a concert in September and one in May. I'll see what I can observe, and maybe I'll report back. In the meantime, here's the song that got me started on all this:

When Does Violence Go "Too Far"?

In 25 years of teaching speech, there have been only two speeches that I wish I hadn't heard, not because the speeches were all that bad, but because the subject matter really disturbed me. In both cases, the problem was violence. The first speech was a detailed discussion of different methods of torture throughout history, and the second was a persuasive speech against wearing fur in which the student used a video of small animals being skinned alive because it's easier to skin them when they are struggling. (Still haunts me....) I don't know if I'm hyper-sensitive to violence because I have such an empathetic mind (I think I talked about that in a recent post), but certain types of violence really, really bother me.

I came across a couple of passages of such violence while reading Nancy Dane's latest novel, A Reasonable Doubt, over the weekend. The novel is a continuation of Dane's series about the Civil War in Arkansas; this book picks up the lives of the characters several years later, during the period of Reconstruction. It's a violent period of time. Government is corrupt, especially local government, and tempers flare over injustice. Local officials are murdered in both Johnson County (the setting for the story) and Pope County (the neighboring county). Ms. Dane does meticulous research for her novels, so I'm sure these murders happened, along with the popular designation of "bloody Clarksville" for the town in the novel. The defeated former Confederate soldiers are frustrated in their efforts to have any measure of control in politics or business, and frequently, that frustration boils to the surface in violence of some kind - whether it is simply threatening someone or actually shooting and killing someone.

But there were two specific acts of violence in the story that disturbed me. (SPOILER ALERT!!!) The first is when two very corrupt officials come out to levy an exorbitant tax on Bill Tanner's (the hero of the story) sawmill operation. Bill is understandably upset, and he attacks one of the officials, knocking him to the ground and beating/kicking him. (I hope I have those details right; I've loaned my copy of the novel to a friend who is reading them aloud to her husband.) The other official pulls out a derringer and grazes Bill's arm. What comes next is the part that bothers me. Bill grabs the official, pulls him over to the fire, and brands him with the poker. Then, for good measure, he also brands the other official (the one he had beaten/kicked before - named Harvey, for later reference).

The second incident comes at the end of the book. Abigail (Bill's love interest) is being threatened by Harvey, who also claims to have kidnapped her son. Harvey wants Bill's stash of money from the sawmill business, and it's clear he is a pretty nasty character who will do whatever it takes to get the money. After a bit of a chase scene, Abigail and Harvey end up by the chopping block, where Abigail grabs the axe and disables Harvey with a couple of chops to his arm and leg. He's not really a threat to her at that point, but Abigail raises the axe again, and as Harvey is pleading for his life, sinks it into his skull.

OK. Both of those acts are pretty high on the "bother me" scale, I guess because the victim of the violence is suffering and pleading. But what really bothered me, more than the violence itself, was the attitude of the characters toward committing the violence. Keep in mind that the two characters who did the branding (Bill) and the skull-smashing (Abigail) are the protagonists of the story. Those acts are pretty despicable things for protagonists to have done, even to nasty antagonists. When I read the scene about the branding, I expected Bill to be somewhat remorseful after the fact, realizing that his temper and his frustration got the best of him and that he needed to listen to his better nature and keep his violent tendencies in check. But that's not what happened. Instead, Bill tells Abigail he should have killed Harvey instead of simply branding him. Bill's attitude is that the best way to deal with a problem like Harvey is the "final solution" - to eliminate the problem by ensuring Harvey can never bother him again. At no point does Bill show any remorse. Even when he's on trial for assaulting Harvey, Bill isn't sorry for what he's done, only that he may have to go to jail for what he's done. In Dane's earlier novels, I liked Bill. I don't think I like him very much anymore.

Bill's attitude rubs off on Abigail. When she witnesses the branding incident from the kitchen window, she is appalled and for some time resists her growing attraction to Bill. How can she love a man who is so readily and easily so violent? But when her own "moment of truth" comes and she's standing over a wounded man who is pleading for his life, she adopts Bill's solution to the problem - she brings the axe down so Harvey will no longer be a threat.

Sure, Harvey is a nasty character who kidnapped and threatened Abigail and her son and who was trying to steal Bill's hard-earned money. Did he deserve what he got? Maybe. Probably. But I just find it hard to relate to protagonists who choose to view and dispense violence as the best solution to their problems.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A "Theme Poem" - Doesn't Everyone Have One?

Photo credit: Mayfly1963
It's National Poetry Month, and one of the items on my reading challenge list is a book of poetry. So I went to the shelf of books from my good ole' days as an English major and pulled down the thinnest volume, 100 selected poems by e.e. cummings. I've been reading four or five of them each night. At first, I was maintaining good "English major" form, trying to analyze the figurative language and appreciate the depth of allusions and analogies, and so forth. But honestly, I'm kind of tired at the end of the day, and that kind of analysis takes a lot of mental energy. So the last few nights, I've just been reading the poems and letting them say whatever they will to me, whether it is "deep" or not.

One thing I've noticed is that these poems mean things that are entirely different than they did 30 years ago, ha ha. That in itself has made the experience worthwhile, and it actually makes me motivated to go get the fat yellow Norton Anthology of Poetry off the shelf and revisit some of my favorite poems now that I actually have some life experience.

The other night, I decided to look at poem #53 in cummings' collection, since I'm going to be 53 years old this summer. "It will be my theme poem for the year," I told myself as I flipped to the page. And here it is:
may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it's sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there's never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile
Not bad, eh? I think I will make that my theme poem for the coming year.

Note: The beautiful bird picture above is from my sister's Flickr stream. She has posted many, many lovely pictures of things we sometimes take for granted, like insects and wildflowers, as well as birds. You should visit it!