Tag Archives: sincerity

Where’d I put my brick wall?

29 Mar

I go through these weird periods of obsession. Just various and sundry odd things that I think about constantly for about six months at a time and then move on to the next. It’s one of my less charming quirks. Lately I’ve been kind of preoccupied with comedy. Which felt new and exciting and different until I realized that this has happened before. It’s not amnesia or anything. I mean, I hope not. If I’ve got selective cultural amnesia, you’d think I would at least do myself the courtesy of forgetting about the Bush administration. Or Chumbawamba.

When I was a kid, it was the 1980’s. Which, in America, was the heart of the standup comedy boom, back before all those folks got their own sitcoms. My family’s somewhat musically inclined, so when we got cable we watched a lot of VH1 (which, if you’ll recall your prehistory, actually stands for Video Hits One, from those dinosaur days of honest-to-God music videos, or short films set to music for those of you who really don’t know). VH1 had a lot of standup stuff in their lineup back in the day, and aired a lot of weird comedy shows. This is before reality television, you understand. Also, HBO had a shit ton of comedy going on back then. Whole marathons of one-hour standup specials on the weekends. So, there was comedy in my house, whether I was paying it much attention or not.

Around about high school I started listening to comedy albums pretty heavily. I had Steve Martin and George Carlin on vinyl. Although, to my discredit, that was probably just because I really love vinyl. And then came Bill Hicks. Oh, how I fell ass-over-teakettle in love with Bill Hicks. I can recite his Philosophy album word for word. When you’re that age, you tend to glom on to people who express ideas that are similar to your own, especially when your ideas are what make you feel really out of place in your community. You know, like how it feels being smart and skeptical in a small, Christian, southern town. I also had a pretty intense love for Janeane Garofalo. Smart, snarky, pretty brunette with glasses and a successful career telling people exactly what she thought? That is definitely role model material. Also Daria. I think I may actually be Daria. But I’m not sure. There was some other weird comedy shit going on in the 90’s, too, though I don’t think I was quite old enough to have a lot of it on my radar. The State, Kids in the Hall, Mad TV, Mr. Show. That transition from traditional standup to alternative comedy was a strange time. (If I were just a couple of years older, I’d be a much cooler person. I got the ass end of the 90’s, honestly.)

Fast forward to this winter, when I was trapped indoors and decided to start this blog just to get the writery demons out of my head. Through a weird chain of events and link-clicking on the interwebs, I found myself listening to a lot of comedy again. Obviously my tastes have changed since my high school comedy obsession period. But why? That’s what’s been tickling the old brain buttons lately. And now I’m trapped in this hideous tangle of existential comedy questions. What is funny? Why is it funny? And why are things that I found funny fifteen years ago not funny anymore (putting aside the obvious fact that teenagers are sociopaths)?

It’s so subjective and weird, the idea of comedy. The things that I find funny are exactly the kinds of things that shouldn’t be funny. Religion, politics, human behavior. These are heavy, heady issues, right? I’m not making that up, am I? To be able to take those things and our psychological or cultural reactions to them, turn them over, show us how they work and why they’re fucked up, and then laugh about it – I’m not sure that normal humans do that. But through some mutation in the awesome gland we’ve evolved to a point as a species where we have comics to show us how. And thank the giggle gods, because if you can’t laugh at yourself you’re fucking useless, frankly. I do this whole tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecation thing because I have low self-esteem due to years of systematic bullying and social isolation. And as fun as that is, it’s not turned itself into a marketable skill. Comedians are ninjas at exactly that, at analyzing their own behavior and the foibles of others. Really neurotic mirrors for society, these people. The good ones, at least.

Alright, alright, that’s not true. Let’s not be one-sided here. I guess this is still America. You’ve got to pander to the masses. Which is how that collection of redneck-exploiting idiots made a bajillion dollars off of “Git ‘er done” and other cerebral quips, and that racist jackass with the puppets is still going strong. Representing the majority is important, too. How else are most of these people supposed to make any money? Comedy is hard. It’s a stupid hard life that they choose for themselves, living out of a suitcase for the sake of inviting rejection from strangers night after night. I salute the balls it takes to do that, for real. I just think that a lot of it is not funny. That’s kind of my point. I don’t think fart jokes are funny, either. Or slapstick. But somebody does, which is why that shit still gets made. Contrarily, when comedians from the other end of the spectrum get close to some touchy subject like God or abortion or (every few years) an election they get told by the vast majority that they’re going to burn in some special hell for commie pinko atheist scum (what does “pinko” even mean, you guys, seriously?). The American masses are so easily offended when you try to pet their sacred cows. It’s like (in comedy as well as every other arena) there are two Americas: a smaller one living in the huge, overarching shadow of the other, struggling to get by with just our logic and secular humanism. And down here in the Neverwhere gloom we few still think Bill Hicks is a goddamned genius. Bring on the hatemail, I’m totally ready.

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If you get addicted, it’s not my fault.

15 Mar

I suck at science. Ok, that’s not true. I suck at math, which in turn makes it difficult for me to do science-type stuff. But I like science. I just don’t get a lot of the technical how-to-get-shit-done bits. Sometimes I wish I understood it more so I didn’t feel like people have to dumb it down to talk to me about cool science stuff, especially when it’s something I think is really interesting. I hate that feeling. That being-the-reason-that-the-conversation-is-being-reduced-to-the-lowest-common-denominator kind of feeling. But it’s necessary in this case, in this realm. I know that’s a bit of a contradiction, but still. It is what it is.

Which is why I’m a huge Radiolab fan. If you don’t know Radiolab, unearth your NPR love from wherever it’s been hiding and go look that shit up because it’s freaking awesome. And then come back and read the rest of this. I’ll wait here.

Doo doo dooo…(That’s my “waiting patiently” whistle. Didn’t really come across, did it? Gotta work on that one. )

Freaking awesome, right? For those of you not playing along: Radiolab is a badass radio show out of New York (WNYC) hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. (They’ve got a sort of good cop/bad cop, deadpan guy/fall guy dynamic dynamic going on. Superfun.) Did I build it up enough at the beginning for you to know it’s about science? Because it’s about science. But they never say that it’s about science. I mean, you could say it’s about anything, really: philosophy, language, storytelling, the human experience, blah blah blah. But at the bottom of it all, it’s a show about the science that backs all those other things up. Which is odd, but I give them props for not being too niche or pigeonholey. Basically it’s radio theater (or theatre, if you prefer) meets documentary journalism. It sounds weird, I know. Hear me out.

On the show they take an interesting question or concept and look at it from a couple of different angles, not so much through technical bullshit (although there is a little of that just to get the listener up to speed), but through good storytelling. It’s the best possible way to get into the guts of these ideas, especially for laypeople, which I assume most listeners are. Because this stuff is really cool. And I wouldn’t have ever heard about it otherwise. If it were just people talking and oversimplifying it would sound like every other boring documentary out there. But I’m big enough to admit that when I don’t know much about something, making it fun makes it way more interesting. On a similar note, every episode of Radiolab gives me like ten more books to add to my list (which is a monstrous thing of OCD spreadsheet beauty, let me tell you).

Besides the happyfun learning time you get, Radiolab is extremely joyful to the earholes. Jad Abumrad is a musician, so there’s a sort of symphonic, through-composed feel to every episode (he’s also a winner of last year’s MacArthur Genius Grant – major street cred). Like I said, it’s basically radio theater. Little one-act plays, full to brimming with fantastic sound production – cool loopy stuff, great music, voice effects, etc. Supremely listenable. There’s definitely something to be said for relying on both economy of language and auditory artistry to get a point across (“auditory artistry” sounds like a horrible dubstep band, by the way, so if your horrible dubstep band needs a name please feel free to use that one). I think this combo is becoming a lost art in some ways. Besides your standard NPR fare (Prarie Home Companion, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, This American Life) and all those hateful political talk shows, there’s not much going on in the radiosphere these days. I will say as a caveat to that point, though, that there are some cool kind of retro-radio-show-style things happening on some fun podcasts that I’ve discovered lately (i.e., The Thrilling Adventure Hour). So maybe just the delivery mechanism for listeney awesomeness is changing, not the desire to make it.

Still, you’ve got to admit that it’s pretty ballsy to dedicate one’s self to radio at this point in the culture game. Before television ruined us as a nation, we could listen to a good old fashioned story and think up good old fashioned pictures in our good old fashioned brains. And so it was for a thousand thousand years. Now it’s almost gone. We live in a Twitter society, you know? Tiny bits of mental effluvium leak out of us all the time and we’re obsessed with absorbing the brain dribbles of others. Our attention span is about 140 characters. Which is sick and sad, but I feel like it’s an inevitable evil at this point, so just hang on tight to the sides of the handbasket and enjoy the ride to intellectual hell, ok?

Check out all the full-length episodes and a metric ton of short podcastlets at radiolab.org. You will not regret it.

Nerd music (and a bad haiku)

2 Feb

I was trying to write a blog about nerdy music. It was really hard.

That was almost a haiku. Let’s try again.

 

I was trying to

write a blog about nerdy

music. It was hard.

 

That was the worst haiku ever.

Wow, I’m really easily distracted these days. Um, anyway. So I was thinking about nerdy music. And I ran into an unanticipated logistical problem. What’s the difference between the music that nerds listen to, music that is played by nerds, and music that is inherently, intrinsically nerdy? It’s tough.

For the most part, the nerds I hang out with (you know who you are) have really great taste in music. But that’s totally biased, isn’t it? Because I listen to the same stuff. This is not a legitimate control group. We’re metalheads from the grunge era. With a penchant for ska an d classic rock. On the other hand, I love Beethoven and The Smiths in equal measure. There are all these bands that, for no good reason, I lump together in my head as being nerdy. Stuff like Neutral Milk Hotel and The Decemberists. And if I’m being honest, most of the people I know who like them are actually hipsters (sorry, guys). There’s no way to judge the nerdiness of music by the people who love it. It’s just not possible.

Then there are a bunch of 90’s bands that stick out as having nerdy musicians. They Might Be Giants, Weezer. They came around at the beginning of geek chic, or maybe they were the beginning of geek chic. These glasses I wear? Pure Rivers Cuomo. Weird Al comes immediately to mind. But is his music nerdy? Not all of it. Or is he just a tremendous nerd? Definitely. But you’ve got to be kind of a genius to do what Weird Al does, frankly. And a lot of the music he spoofs is mainstream and not nerdy at all. But there’s an air of nerdiness about him and his music that’s kind of undeniable, you know? Dude plays the accordion, for fuck’s sake. It’s one of those “you know it when you see it” situations.

There are all kinds of weird crossover conundrums (conundra?), as well. There’s that one line about ringwraiths in The Battle of Evermore. Ok, I’m kidding about that last one. Not really. But sort of. See? This is really hard.

So then I got to the hard bit of trying to figure out if there actually is anything that stands on its own as nerdy music. Lyrically speaking. I figured I would just begin at the beginning and, being true to my generation, ask the interwebs. And let me tell you, our technological overlords were super helpful. Things I found, in no particular order of ridiculousness:

Nerdcore – hip hop with scifi/comic book/pop culture themes – way more awesome if you listen to it for the lyrics and don’t try to judge it by mainstream hip hop standards

Geeksta rap – like nerdcore, but more about serious science, chemistry, math, computers

Filk – scifi/fantasy fan folk (that is hard to say out loud…really, go ahead, try it) – lots of balladic, medievalish, LARPer stuff, think lutes and lyres and songs about Hobbits

Nintendocore – heavy metal plus video game sound effects – sounds like Russian techno, but good in a thrashy kind of way

Wizard rock – Harry Potter metal. Oh, yes. But only Harry Potter. No other wizards allowed.

Chap hop (my personal favorite, just because of the silliness of it all) – Steampunk rap. Seriously. No, no, let it sink in for a second. I said: Steampunk. Rap. And really, what more can you say?

These are just some teensy snippets from my first eighttenfourteen hours with Google and Youtube. I encourage you to look it up because, man oh man, there is a lot of stuff out there. To a certain degree, which of these you actually like depends on your particular flavor of nerd. But come on: a song about Marvel vs. DC? A song about Neville Longbottom being the real chosen one? A whole album about Firefly? I can dig it. My Spotify runneth over. I’ve been glued to my computer for like two weeks, just eating this stuff up. And some of it’s really great and some of it’s really awful and some of it’s just so fucking weird I listen to it over and over just to see if I’ll eventually understand it. I will say this: I’ve got a whole new and exciting list of references I didn’t understand. Score. New blog topics.

Here’s the bottom line. I’m so happy about this stuff, good or bad, because these people are just singing and making music about what they love. And fuck the mainstream for trying to delineate what is cool or nerdy or whatever. Fuck the mainstream for saying what will or won’t work on the radio, or make money, or find a fanbase. If the musicians are passionate and the fans are passionate, they’ll seek each other out. That’s all that matters, really. Sincerity. Honesty. Earnestness. They’re what music should be about.

Also, while we’re on the subject, I’m learning to play the Tetris theme on the ukulele. I’ll let you know how it goes.