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Saying Goodbye to Whitney February 12, 2012

Posted by Skippy in Music, Observations.
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Yesterday, Whitney Houston died. When I found out, I was shocked—even more so than when I found out about Michael Jackson or Amy Winehouse’s deaths. Both of those singers’ untimely deaths were shocking and saddening. However, they didn’t hit me the way Whitney’s passing did. I followed the news and the tributes springing up on my Facebook newsfeed, and over the course of the evening, I grew sadder and sadder, feeling as though I had lost a loved one. It might seem strange to say this, but I felt like a part of my childhood had died. That’s a rather hoary cliché, but I think it’s quite apropos.

Growing up a black, poor, gay, socially awkward nerd in a place like Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1980s was difficult–at best. At worst, it was occasionally unbearable. The only awareness about homosexuality came via Reagan’s America: in other words, we were vectors of plague and immorality. To be sure, I was a good church boy, a good son, and a good student—it was what was expected of me. But I felt lonely, isolated—like an outcast. There was this part of me that I couldn’t really define or understand. From every angle, I was told that I wasn’t even supposed to like that part of me; and, like a good churchgoing son and student, I didn’t. This was before YouTube and “It Gets Better” and Gay-Straight Alliances. There were no advocates for gay and lesbian youth in the Tulsa Public School system in the 1980s. And there was no advocate for gays in either the church or my home or in the impoverished neighborhood that surrounded me.

I had probably heard Whitney’s first two singles, but paid them little attention; however, it was her cover of “The Greatest Love of All” that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. It was a song that got into my bones. The lyrics and the passion with which Whitney sang them made me think that I could eventually love myself. To be sure, there wasn’t anything in the song that explicitly affirmed being gay. However, it really spoke to my sense of estrangement and alienation and, in a way, told me that things do get better—if I trusted myself. It would take a while longer for me to actually internalize that message, but I think that hearing this song was a start. Because “secular” music was forbidden at home, I would wait until my mother had gone to sleep so I could watch a music video program in hopes of catching the video for the song. The video itself was a visual representation of what I hoped would be a life beyond those present circumstances.

Soon enough, I got out of the ‘hood, went to college, and eventually came out. I was still a big fan of Whitney’s, but “The Greatest Love of All” receded into the background, replaced by deep house music and acid jazz and neo-soul R&B. Her newer material didn’t move me the way her earlier work had. In the meantime, Whitney had become a punchline, a sad joke in the wake of her drug use, tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown, and declining career. People like Kelly Price, Faith Evans, and Mariah Carey had supplanted Whitney. And then there was Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and current mega-star Beyoncé Knowles. I’d lament the loss of the old Whitney—or, as I would call her, “pre-crack Whitney.” I’d put Whitney’s songs on my iPod and iPhone, but as part of a “Very Best of” playlist. I’d play “Saving All My Love” and “You Give Good Love,” but hardly ever play “The Greatest Love of All.”

Now, she’s gone. And for the first time in a long, long while, I put the song on. I had forgotten what that song meant to me—it was an anthem of self-affirmation, perseverance, and survival. And it reminded me of why I love music. Songs like this spoke to me in a way that few other things in my life did. And I thought about the person I think I’ve become and how, when I’d listen to the song or see the video, I hoped to be the kind of person who could rely on himself and “never walk in anyone’s shadow.” I think I have become that—and the tears I shed today were for that past that Whitney’s version of “The Greatest Love of All” got me through.

So today, I am mourning Whitney Houston’s death. I am mourning the loss of such a phenomenal voice that could turn ordinary lyrics into classics. I feel like Whitney’s death signaled the death of another part of my past—and while I’m glad that I am the person I want to be, part of me will always miss that past when Whitney’s songs were new and fresh and her voice harbored the promise of better tomorrows.


Rest in peace, Whitney.

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Skippy Goes To The Movies!: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” July 15, 2011

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Verdict: Suitably entertaining, but not a home run.

Writing a review of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” is a bit difficult for me. For one, I think that Part 1 has to be taken into account. As the second part of a movie, I think it functions quite well. It doesn’t require the viewer to catch up…too much. Of course, if you’ve never seen any of the other movies or read the books, you’ll be lost—that should go without saying at this point.

Also, I think that, like the “Lord of the Rings” movies, one has to consider how this movie functions as part of a larger narrative. As part of the entire Harry Potter franchise, this movie acquits itself well. It hits all the high points and strikes most of the right chords—however, there just seemed to be something missing. It seemed as though getting to those chords and moments felt rushed. Having read the final book, I knew there were two scenes that I wanted to see (Molly Weasley’s confrontation with Bellatrix Lestrange and Neville Longbottom being the hero of the day)—and while I did see them, they weren’t nearly as satisfying as they were in the book. I will say that the development of Snape’s character was as powerful as it was long overdue and served to be the strongest part of the movie.

Oddly enough, I found myself far less interested in Ron, Hermione and Harry and more interested in the other characters—I can’t say that this is a fault of the movie, however. It was a reaction I had when reading the Deathly Hallows as well. That said, Harry as a character has finally grown up. We see that he has learned the lessons taught to him in the seven previous movies (and six books), and frankly, it’s a good thing. I was getting a little tired of the last couple of movies’ penchant for turning into a Harry Potter Mopes About extravaganza. In this movie, Harry is determined, focused, and yes, grown-up.

I think that, like the aforementioned “Lord of the Rings” movies, it is necessary to evaluate this movie as ending a particular phase in popular culture and entertainment. Frankly, I think that that last consideration is far more interesting than the first two points. As such, I don’t really think of this as a movie review. I think of this as more of a reflection on the passage of time and our investment in sagas.

Ten years ago, two movie events happened that I had absolutely zero interest in. My friends dragged me to both “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” If memory serves me, “Sorcerer’s Stone” came out before “Fellowship.” After the Harry Potter movie, I thought, “Well, that was nice. Cute.” After “Fellowship of the Ring,” I couldn’t shut up about how much I loved it; after dinner, I raced to Borders (amazing what changes in ten years, right?) and bought the books as well as Howard Shore’s score. I devoured the books in the span of about a month and spent the next three years writing my dissertation to the music from the LOTR movies. I was as much a fan of the LOTR movies as my friends were of the Harry Potter books and movies and while Harry Potter didn’t “do it” for me the way the LOTR books/movies did, I understand what was happening. You see, both of these fantasy books and movies came and went during a time of great change. Obviously, we all know that during the latter part of 2001, the United States was dealing with the terrible events of September 11. I think that both “Fellowship of the Ring” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” came along when people needed a simple yet fantastical narrative to take their minds off of the shock, the grief, and the anger.

When I say that the Harry Potter movies are fairly simple, it’s not an insult. These movies and the books upon which they’re based address simple themes of love, good versus evil, and loyalty. Further, I think they serve as a form of wish-fulfillment. We watch these movies and we the viewer begin to inhabit the stories presented. For me, I could relate to LOTR and often characterized graduate school as “bearing the One Ring” or “going to Mount Doom.” Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, has to learn how to be a decent human being—certainly, the world of Harry Potter is a world of magic, but it is still a world to which we can relate. His story is the story that we all think we’re in, especially as we grow up and—as in the case of 9/11—are forced to deal with a radically changed and frighteningly uncertain world. While I may not have thought this finale to be as emotionally satisfying as the end of the Lord of the Rings movies, I do understand that for millions of people, this finale represents the end of an era.

Lame. November 16, 2010

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Yesterday, Apple posted an enigmatic announcement concerning iTunes:

Fig. 1: Free songs? Porn? Sparkles? Is it sparkles?

Nope. The “unforgettable announcement” was that—wait for it—no, seriously, are you sitting down?—they were going to have The Beatles catalogue available on iTunes.

Pardon me for not giving a flying crap.

I know Steve Jobs isn’t necessarily the most hip cat out there, but if he and his yes-persons at Apple think that everyone still thinks The Beatles are the end-all, be-all of popular music, then he clearly hasn’t been bothering to see what sells on iTunes. As a commenter on AppleInsider said, “This is the most important music news of 2003.”

Edit: Oh, and I know that The Beatles are the biggest selling group of All Time and heaven and earth bow at their feet and baby boomers still scream their name during Cialis-induced sex and what not, but I still don’t care. When Apple says that there’s going to be some game-changing announcement, I expect a bit more than…The Beatles. Just sayin’.

On Gospel Music August 5, 2010

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The other day, I was thinking about crap that I have to do. Being the procrastinator that I am, I said to myself, “Oh, this can wait till tomorrow.” And then, the old Winans song “Tomorrow” popped into my head.

Fig. 1: Do you love Jesus yet? Well?? DO YOU?!?

The more I thought about the lyrics, the more I realized that gospel music has some insane lyrics. I mean, the song starts off sweet enough, I guess. But then it goes into full-on passive aggressive threat mode. Give your life to Jesus…OR ELSE.

Gospel music functions on some shared assumptions—one of which being that the listener will know what “choosing the Lord” means. The other assumption is that the Christian God pretty much can choose to kill you at a whim. At the same time, another shared assumption is that “He” loves you!

The more I thought about the song “Tomorrow” (should’ve been called “And I Am Telling You: The Church Version”) and how creeptastic it is, I realized that pretty much all gospel music from about the late 70s onward can be categorized according to specific themes of varying creepiness/horror/morbid fascination:

Jesus Makes Me HAPPY!(Kinda Like Drugs, But With More Snare Drum!)

This song is the wheelhouse of people like Shirley Caesar or Vicky Winans. It’s usually about five minutes of foot-stomping, tambourine slangin’ happiness about how Jesus really makes you HAPPY. It demands the vocal talents of a person like Patti LaBelle or Shirley Caesar. If you can’t scream, you can’t do this kind of song. It doesn’t really have to make much sense, so long as you get the idea across that Jesus really, really makes you HAPPY. It’s the church equivalent of house music. Go to any bapticostal/Church of God Holiness Sanctified and Fire Baptized Apostolic Word of Sanctified Faith church and you will spend a good thirty minutes wondering if you walked into a church…or a gay club. The music is somewhat indistinguishable…probably because the choir director is also the DJ at the gay club. Just sayin’—think about it: how easy was it for DJs to take Shirley Caesar’s “Hold My Mule” and turn it into a gay anthem? VERY easy.

Give Your Life To Jesus…OR ELSE.

This is a Guilt Trip Par Excellence. This song is designed specifically to make you feel like a total and complete shit. Usually, the lyrics are outright accusatory. You (Sinner!) are bopping along, doing sinnery stuff like getting gay married, having babies out of wedlock and getting sloppy lacefront weaves. But woe be unto you! For Jesus—you know, the guy you were totally supposed to love—is gonna come back and kick! your! ass! (i.e., kill you…or a loved one) Now whattya have to say? Huh? Huh?! Now, while the lyrics may be aggressive and accusatory, gospel music producers know that this song doesn’t go over well if it has a snappy beat. No, this kind of song is decidedly downbeat. It’s slow, moody, and sung by a woman or a man with a deep alto or tenor. The choir comes in to reinforce the Guilt Trip with wonderful harmonies.

If the song has done its job and has indeed made you feel like a total and complete shit, you should be sobbing uncontrollably and running down to the altar of Mt. Pisgah First United Baptist Church of Salvation and Sanctification to give your life to Jesus.

Thanks, Jesus/Sucks To Be You
You’ll often hear this song during a “praise and worship” session at your local predominantly black megachurch. When paired with the Jesus Makes Me HAPPY song, one should not plan on seeing hearth and home again for quite a while, as the “praise and worship” session can, at times, overwhelm the rest of the proceedings.

This is usually also upbeat and bears many resemblances to the Jesus Makes Me HAPPY song. However, there’s one major difference: this song pretty much shits on everyone that Jesus didn’t make happy. It is kind of a “Neener, neener, sucks to be you!” song. I mean, you’re thanking Jesus for food and clothing and “being in your right mind”(even though one has to wonder what you were thinking wearing that outfit to church), but what about all the people who don’t have food or clothing or sanity?

Fig. 2: Sorry kid; Jesus loves you, but not enough to give you dinner.
This type of song reminds me of the people who drive cars they can barely afford yet have the temerity to put “Blessed” vanity plates on the car. It’s a damn car, not the lottery. Unless your particular car literally materialized out of thin air into your driveway and you never had a car note and don’t have to change the oil, you’re not any more “blessed” than anyone else who drives a car.

I Was An Axe Murderer…Until I Met Jesus
Usually paired with a Give Your Life To Jesus…OR ELSE song. This song is also like the Thanks, Jesus/Sucks To Be You Song, but is much more “revelatory.” In other words, the writer/singer uses worn out cliches to tell the audience that he/she used to be a Total Shit, but now Jesus forgives them for having been a Total Shit and now, when they act like a Total Shit, it’s okay, because Jesus loves them. This song has two functions:
1. To make the listener feel like a Total Shit.
2. To brag show the world how fucking wonderful they are how much they’ve changed.

To let the singer/songwriter tell it, they were the worst person on the planet next to Charles Manson. Of course, “bad” here is relative. Didn’t go to church regularly? Maybe you told a few lies here and there? Sex before marriage? Well, you suck—and will continue to suck until you invite Jesus into your blood pumping organ immediately!

Here’s the kicker: with just a few changes in words, almost any gospel song can become an R&B song. Both have a subject on whom the singer fixates; frankly, from most of the gospel lyrics I’ve ever heard, I want to ask the singer if Jesus hasn’t taken out a temporary restraining order against them. Either that, or Jesus gets off on the weird fixations of his followers—which, y’know, makes Jesus and the singer kinda creepy.

Fig. 3: Gospel music in a nutshell.

Old School Tuesday: The Doobie Brothers, “What A Fool Believes” (Live) August 3, 2010

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This one’s for you, Andrew Cohen!

The Dead Have Arisen: Lauryn Hill Has A New Single! July 28, 2010

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All I have to say is…

THANK YOU JAYZUS!!

Ok, I’m not one given to such expressions…except when I hear Good Music. See, when “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” came out, it was an instant classic. Frankly, I would rank this up there with “Songs In The Key Of Life.” This album had a profound effect—for young black women, Lauryn represented a strong, black woman (not the cliche that you see in Tyler Perry films) who wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable. Her music wasn’t about “droppin’ it like it’s hot” or name-dropping shit you can’t afford. But she wasn’t trying to be pretentious either—her songs were about living life in the real world, not some tarted up, clichéd fantasy world where people sing crap about swimming over seven seas and giving you the moon and the Orion Nebula.

Honestly, had she not gone…well, through whatever changes she was going through, and had she put out at least one more album, I would say she would be on her way to being spoken of in the same breath as Stevie Wonder. I really don’t think that’s hyperbole; listening to “Miseducation” immediately makes me think of Stevie and his more introspective or socially-conscious work. Again, think “Songs in the Key of Life.”

I really hope this is the return of the Lauryn Hill who isn’t this:

but is this:

Shut Up, Prince. July 6, 2010

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Read this bit of foolishness uttered by Prince:

He says, “The Internet’s completely over. I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can’t get it.

“The Internet’s like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you.”

Source

Keep in mind that this is the same fool who, when he got pissed off with Warner Brothers, decided to change his name, scrawl the word “SLAVE” on his cheek and stop performing the songs for which he became famous at his concerts. Let me be clear: I haven’t gotten over the fact that I paid sixty good dollars to go see his Purpleness when he played in Atlanta back in 1997…and all he played was shit from that shitty “Crystal Ball” three CD crap set. The closest he came to “Adore” or “Scandalous” or “Purple Rain” was a fucking medley. So, yeah. Sixty dollars down the drain because of his fucking ego and irritation with a system that had worked pretty damn well for him previously.

Also, this is the same fool who once described his marriage to Mayte as a “spiritual union” and then later became freakin’ Jehovah’s Witness.

So children, you can imagine how I take The Artist Once Again Known as Prince’s pronouncements about, well, anything.

Let’s examine his Purpleness’s comments about the Internet, shall we? First, he compares the Internet—the World Wide Web, that entity that billions of people use to communicate, conduct business transactions, do research, etc.—to MTV. I’m ignoring his first sentence, because it’s basically him whining about money. Millions of people whine about money. While his comments about iTunes are…whatever, they’re not full of STUPID, unlike his comparison of the Internet to a television station. Yes, he’s right; MTV has totally lost relevance, but when was the last time anyone used MTV to blog? To communicate with family and friends? To watch a movie? To conduct scholarly research and register for academic conferences?

Oh, yeah, that’s right. MTV WAS NEVER MORE THAN JUST A TV STATION, you old fucking fossil! Yes, the Internet will probably fade into the background condition of our lives—it certainly won’t be “revolutionary” or “new,” but it, like the telephone and the television, will pretty much be around for a very, very long time, Prince. Besides, Prince, it’s usually illogical to compare a utility to a television station. I guess you didn’t do too well on the analogies portion of the SATs.

But then, he plunges headlong in to WTFuckery with his next statement: “Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you.”

Um.

No. SRSLY.

Children, I have no words. I’d like to try to break down that foolishness, but it is so illogical, so full of utter and complete FAIL, no sense can be made of what he said. None whatsoever.

Old School Tuesday: Stephanie Mills, “If I Were Your Woman” (1987) June 29, 2010

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Children, for some inexplicable reason, I have had this song stuck in my head for two days now. I cannot explain my brain sometimes—this is a song that has been pretty far down in my Old School playlist (Atlantic Starr has been dominating that for months now), but just the other day, I started singing it to myself. Then I pulled up iTunes and put it on repeat, thinking that would fix it. No such luck. Oh, well, I suppose there are worse things to get stuck in my brain…

OMG! Lady Gaga Haz A Nu Video! June 9, 2010

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…and it’s derivative and boring.


Fig. 1: I liked this better when it was called “Express Yourself.”

Children, I never got on board the Lady Gaga hype. Frankly, I think she’s a Madonna-knock off. She’s a well-produced knock-off, but a knock-off nonetheless.

And this video—-really? Does she think that just slapping together a bunch of flashy images, latex bondage, cheap religious iconography, and hot video boys constitutes a “good” video? Yes, all of these elements are present in any number of Madonna’s videos. However, there’s a difference: Madonna gave the viewer a narrative structure. Look at “Human Nature” or “Express Yourself” or “Like a Prayer”; when Madonna gave you a video, she gave you a story—-not a discombobulated conglomeration of allegedly shocking images that had little if anything to do to the underlying song.

Speaking of the song, listen to Gaga’s “Alejandro.” My god, could a song be less interesting? The song itself sounds like it was lifted in parts from an Ace of Base song. It’s repetitive and boring. No wonder the video can’t take us anywhere; the song itself has nothing on which to hold on to. I guess she’s singing about someone calling her Alejandro? Or Roberto? It is astounding to me that people repeatedly compare others to Gaga, when it’s so clear that she herself is a whack derivative of Madonna. She’s copied all of Madonna’s stylistic moves, but hasn’t bothered to understand the contexts in which Madonna made those moves. Trying to transport Madonna’s late 20th century “feminist”(I’m not saying Madonna is a feminist) moves into an early 21st century “post-feminist” context just doesn’t work. It’s as though she has no idea who Lady Gaga is—-what is Lady Gaga trying to say? What is she commenting on? I mean, “Poker Face,” “Telephone” and “Alejandro” sound like merely disposable club songs—-frankly, anybody could “sing” those songs. And anybody could put together a long-form video with slick images and hot go-go boys. Making the two work together is altogether different.

And here, I have to come back to the images slapped together in Gaga’s video. I do not understand what the religious imagery in this video is supposed to do. Is it supposed to be “shocking”? “Provocative”? Sadly, those images are neither. Frankly, they come off as pedantic and trite. A supposed “nun” swallowing the rosary isn’t interesting if there’s no narrative structure in which the viewer can make sense of such an action. Is Gaga swallowing the rosary…in protest? By the four-minute mark, the viewer begins to lose interest in the video, because the images themselves become repetitive, just like the song itself. If you can make it halfway through the video, you’ve seen the rest of the video. The allegedly androgynous go-go boys all have Three Stooges haircuts which is somewhat distracting—-why are they wearing those haircuts? Again, you stop caring; it’s not like you get an answer anyway.

Further, I think that the presence of the go-go boys are there to distract from Gaga herself. Despite the fact that she’s paler than a ghost and has the distinctive blonde hair, her presence in the video isn’t powerful. She doesn’t command attention—-again, not in the way that Madonna does in her videos. Watching “Alejandro,” I couldn’t help but wonder if Gaga doesn’t have a particular lack of confidence in her “Gaga-ness.” I wonder if she uses all these derivative images in order to distract the viewer from her rather less-than-striking self. I certainly could be wrong here; I base this assessment on my own observation that Gaga is far less…”attractive” than Madonna, a clearly subjective assertion.

Sadly, all watching this video did was make me go on YouTube to find all of Madonna’s older videos.

Old School Tuesday: Earth, Wind, and Fire, “Boogie Wonderland” (1979) May 18, 2010

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