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Thursday, May 15, 2014

What is "celebrity"?

The stars of film and music, known as "celebrities" and "rockstars", as well as professional athletes or basically anyone in the media spotlight, start and finish their day like everyone else.  When the final score is on the board and cameras are off and the encore is over they're just people; parents, husbands and wives, siblings, family and friends like the rest of us.  This seemingly moot observation is surprisingly hard for some people to grasp, thanks to the glamorization provided by media outlets working tirelessly to keep us "connected" to them.  Paparazzi lurk behind every corner to capture the next headline-grabbing image of these everyday people, thanks to the demand and fascination of those who perpetuate the "line in the sand" that separates the stars from their followers.
This is the so-called "price of fame", the irrational movement that prevents celebrities and public figures from being able to live their life as a person but rather as a character or persona.  Their ability to manage the moments when their person and professional life overlap determines how they're viewed or judged.  For the average person, this would be like leaving work to go home and being followed by everyone who is affected by your work one way or another, expecting some kind of unwarranted interaction as if you owe them a moment of your personal time; the undisclosed cost of your career choice.  Grammy-winning, multi-platinum selling Rap icon Eminem has mentioned the cost of fame in his song "The Way I Am" with the following lyrics...

But at least have the decency in you
To leave me alone, when you freaks see me out
In the streets when I'm eating or feeding my daughter
Do not come and speak to me...
I don't know you and no,
I don't owe you a motherf***ing thing

What are "celebrities" really?  In most cases, they're just uniquely talented people who followed their dream and achieved success in any industry that's followed by media.  Professional athletes are just the kids on the playground who had a special gift which helped them to excel in their favorite sport; with hard work and determination they earned the right to play professionally and make a living doing what they love.  Our favorite movie stars were just kids who were starstruck by the people in their favorite movies and aspired to do the same, and their talent was developed and recognized so they could live their dream.  Rockstars were kids who grew up with posters on their walls of their favorite artists and bands, whose vocal or musical talents caught the attention of people in the business and they became the faces on the wall of the next generation.  In other cases, they're merely people who ended up in the spotlight through the fame or attention of others and remained a public figure, or became famous from a single headline-grabbing event.  There are "good" and "bad" figures in the public spotlight, some of whom become unwilling role models when their actions inspire bad behavior or they are blamed or criticized for what they do in their personal life.

Dave Grohl, founding frontman of his post-Nirvana band Foo Fighters, urges the next generation of dreamers to cross that line in the sand and his message makes the impossible dream seem perfectly within reach for anyone.  During a passionate and inspiring keynote speech at 2013's SXSW Music Festival, he walked the crowd through his own personal journey from hearing a simple guitar riff to joining an underground culture of musicians who managed all aspects of their career while working to become signed artists.  During Nirvana's recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction Grohl took advantage of another opportunity to blur the lines by telling the crowd

"...You look up to your heroes and you shouldn’t be intimidated by them; you should be inspired by them. Don’t look up at the poster on your wall and think, "Fuck, I can never do that." Look at the poster on your wall and think, "Fuck, I’m going to do that!" 

In all corners of the entertainment industry, there are people like Dave who haven't forgotten where they came from and stay connected to their humble beginnings, and then there are those who abuse the fame and fortune they have and choose to dig that line in the sand deeper.  Sadly, the spotlight seems to aim more at the latter because it sells more magazines and generates more Internet traffic.  For those who appreciate Dave's advice and approach and choose to be inspired by your favorite stars, choose wisely so you're among those who work to inspire and erase the lines because they only exist as long as we allow ourselves to be intimidated by those we look up to or admire.

Monday, May 5, 2014

"Better To Burn Out Than Fade Away"

For the fans, bandmates, and families of iconic Seattle-based Rock band Nirvana, the year 2014 presented the perfect convergence of events to celebrate their music and remember frontman Kurt Cobain on the 20th anniversary of his death.  The timeline almost makes their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (in the first year of eligibility) seem suspiciously opportunistic, but occasionally it's perfectly acceptable to accept such timing as fate.

Not only has the anniversary of Kurt's death and their induction re-ignited the passion of Nirvana's fanbase, but also refueled rumors of foul play surrounding his death, ruled a homicide by Seattle PD following a very short and flawed investigation.  For 20 years, fans, conspiracy theorists and detectives have challenged the investigation and conclusion, insisting on foul play and almost universally pointing the finger at Kurt's widow Courtney Love.  This movement has increased with the recent release of images from rolls of film that were undeveloped until now, as well as an additional note written by Cobain which was logged but never released.  The note, mocking his vows to Courtney Love, paints a far different portrayal of their marriage than what was written on the note found near his body on April 8th, 1994.

Nirvana was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame on April 10, 2014 by R.E.M frontman Michael Stipe.  After their acceptance, drummer Dave Grohl, bassist Krist Novoselic (on accordion), and guitarist Pat Smear played a 4-song set of Nirvana tracks featuring an all-female cast of guest vocalists, accomplishing the same kind of uniquely unorthodox result they had achieved with their appearance on MTV's "Unplugged" series.  Among the highlights of their induction was a gesture given during Courtney's speech as she hugged Krist and Dave, ceremoniously ending their headline-grabbing public feud.  Following their induction, the same lineup performed a secret invitation-only 16-song set at Brooklyn's Saint Vitus club.

As a fan of the "Big 4" from the Seattle music scene of the early 1990's (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains), I recognized and followed them all, but my allegiance weighed most heavily towards Pearl Jam.  That's not to say that I didn't recognize the impact that Nirvana's massive breakout album "Nevermind" had as its early buzz quickly escalated to a thunderous ripple in the musical landscape.  The success of the album occurred so quickly that the band was still driving a van with a U-Haul trailer on tour as the album reached Gold status.  Their 3rd album "In Utero" was released in September 2013, followed closely by their acclaimed performance on "Unplugged", which has become one of the most highly regarded of the series.  At the peak of their career, Kurt was found dead in his home by an electrician, after leaving rehab early and flying home alone about a month after Nirvana's final show as a band.

Kurt's contempt for the fame and business associated with the music he made, likely exacerbated by his heroin addiction, was highlighted in the original note he left.  The line in his note "better to burn out than fade away", borrowed from a Neil Young lyric, offered a glimpse into his struggle with the trappings of success and how it left him disenchanted and unable to enjoy or appreciate the connection his music made with fans.  Neil has said that seeing his lyric associated with Kurt's death affected him deeply, and that he had attempted to reach out to Kurt to offer some advice.  There's no telling to what level Kurt had wanted to achieve success (or fame, if any) but when it comes at such an accelerated pace, along with the other stressors in his life, it certainly had him existing in a very unhealthy frame of mind in his final days, regardless of the true circumstances of his untimely death.  

There are several cliched phrases which can be attributed to that feeling of finally appreciating Nirvana as they bask in the afterglow of their induction and enjoy this renewed attention.  While I wasn't among their biggest fans, I certainly enjoyed their music but somehow never embraced it quite as much as I have in the past few weeks while re-visiting their catalog, mostly the Unplugged album.  There is no doubt that Nirvana's music will capture future generations with no end in sight.  Whether the recently released new evidence
changes anything about the the circumstances of his death, this year will prove to be monumental for celebrating and appreciating the magnitude of Nirvana's impact.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Downfall (and Potential Revitalization) of the Music "Industry"

Since the dawn of the Digital era, the mp3 has been the scapegoat for many problems related to the downfall of the music "industry", at least from a financial perspective.  
To those who purchase music, whether in physical form (CD's, vinyl) or through online retailers like iTunes and Amazon, the mp3 is simply the method for enjoying music while mobile.  The blame for the massive shift in the business model that has made platinum-selling albums a rarity cannot be placed on a medium, but rather the people who use it irresponsibly and don't support artists or the facets of the industry that are vital to its longevity.  Today's musical landscape is a mixed bag filled with the artists of previous generations fighting to protect their legacy against a never-ending barrage of new artists who gain popularity with the power of the Internet at their disposal and the technology to help some of them achieve undeserved success.

The dying concept of the album is a far more accurate gauge of how the mp3 and digital sales have played a direct role in changing the way listeners and artists connect.  Buyers have the option to not only pick apart new releases with their ears but with their wallets,  which could mean nothing more than a motivational challenge for bands who were still striving to make their best album.  However, illegal downloading can understandably hinder any artist’s desire to pour their soul into crafting an album knowing it will either become listener road kill or be stolen entirely via online piracy.  Even before illegal downloading became a sales-shattering epidemic, record labels started the trend of pushing "singles" to create an early demand for new releases which led to huge sales, sometimes record-breaking.  Adversely, it also conditioned casual listeners to stop focusing on the album as a whole by only spotlighting the more radio-friendly songs, ignoring the "deep cuts" which typically showcase more depth and musicianship from the artist.  These are not to be mistaken for the "filler" tracks which do nothing more than spotlight an artist or group's focus on quantity over quality.

Meanwhile, the once beloved "record store" has become an underdog as retailers like Target, Walmart and Best Buy (to name a few) have cut into the business by selling a variety of music at prices that independent stores can't compete with as foot traffic is diluted to hardcore fans and audiophiles.  This can be viewed as a theoretical parallel to the evolution of recording music as it transitioned from analog to digital.  There is an integrity that resides in the old ways of recording on analog, as documented in Dave Grohl's "Sound City" film, and the same idea can be applied to the independent stores that stand as the last hope for reviving this horribly hobbled art form.  Back before online purchasing and downloading, the local record store was the place everyone flocked to every Tuesday to pick up the highly anticipated new releases without the early overexposure of Social Media.  Although California-based Tower Records met its end at the hand of price wars many years ago (as well as many others), there are still independent record stores and chains in existence, and they hold the key to exposing fans to better music, and reviving the slumped sales model.

It all starts with the listener, and with a promise to support not only the artists whose music enriches our lives but the record stores that play a vital role in the musical eco-system by keeping us connected with our favorite bands while helping us discover new music as intended.  This cannot be achieved when you toss today's new release into a cart filled with discounted clothing, pantry staples and household items, just as the quality of music will never improve nor will the concept of the album return if we don't show artists that we want to hear all they have to offer, not just what radio will play.  Buy the album, not just the song, and even if you buy your music digitally visit a record store once in a while.  Most stores (like Dimple Records in Sacramento) do a great job to promote new and noteworthy music with a "staff picks" section, and by playing those "deep cuts" that you won't hear on the radio they may turn you on to an artist or album you may never have considered before.

The music business model changed in order to adapt to the available technology, and unfortunately a lot of people took advantage in negative ways.  Real fans have the power to restore the business, and as an extension the industry, to what it once was by supporting artists and the local record stores that promote great music, and by inspiring others to do the same.  As Zack De La Rocha from Rage Against The Machine shouts on the track of the same name, "Take the Power Back!".

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"They're baaaaack!"

"Could you please get your head out of your ass? It's not a hat!"

Sorry, that wasn't directed at you, unless of course you don't already have all of Season 1's episodes of the Tales From The Crate podcast downloaded, and already tuning in to Season 2!

They're also on iTunes and spent some time during Season 1 in the New And Noteworthy section!  Here's the description:

Tales From the Crate is a weekly show born from the acclaimed ConcertDaze podcast. Each week hosts Tony and Jeremy discuss fun music news, review albums and spin vinyl tracks from their collections. The show is heavy on comedy and beer and takes the listener back to a time when you would hang out around the HiFi throwing a few back and discussing great music. Join us each Mondays for your weekly fix.

The reviews speak for themselves, this show is great, these guys play great music, sample great beer, and love fan interaction.  Sign up at the Groovepods link to interact with them and post in the comments of each episode or the forums...pick their next topic, give 'em hell, or just thank them for being awesome!  I love watching That Metal Show on VH1 Classic, and I thoroughly enjoy the TFTC podcast and I'd be willing to bet that if Eddie Trunk himself downloaded a few episodes, it wouldn't be long before you'd see him driving around with a TFTC bumper sticker on his car right next to his TMS sticker!  Turn it up to 11, grab a beer, and join the fun!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Moment to impress

It's been expressed in song and literature numerous times with slight variation, but the message is clear and profound when considered; our entire existence is nothing more than a moment in time.  Even for those who are blessed with good health that carries us into our 90's, or even 100 years of age, when examined against the timeline of everything we know our opportunity to leave a mark is a grain of sand in an hourglass, metaphorically speaking.  Meanwhile, in the dating world it's said that we get one chance to make a first impression.  If you merge the two concepts it creates the standard we should all be measured do you make the right impression to represent your microscopic moment?

While considering how minuscule our window of time is, especially within the context of an era such as the 20th century (arguably the most significant period of time in terms of progress), we should be more focused on what constitutes a worthwhile mark to leave behind.  In today's society, with most of America's attention focused on Popular Culture rather than current events, the honor associated with being recognized as an icon has been greatly, and sadly, compromised.  Fame and fortune, or in some cases nothing more than undeserved media attention alone, has become the fast lane to making a name for yourself and even being dubbed an "icon", but is such a title always deserved?  After all, the icons of history like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and more recently Steve Jobs, will eventually share their place in time with so-called icons like Miley Cyrus, or even Justin Bieber who has used fame and fortune to break the law and become a public nuisance, but will someone like Felix Baumgartner* be remembered?

*For those who had to look that name up, my comment about America's poorly focused attention was just confirmed.  Felix did not sell a million records or tour the world or make millions of dollars, but he did create his own moment in time in a single feat that lasted less than 5 minutes, earning his rightful place in history.

Gene Simmons, co-founder of the rock band KISS, will soon be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is also considered an icon, having achieved monumental success as well as fame and fortune far beyond the wildest dreams of many.  Meanwhile, he's spent several years attempting to discredit the contributions of his former bandmates, even calling them a "Cancer", making the wrong kind of impression to represent his moment.

John Lennon, arguably among the biggest icons of all time, asked us all to "Imagine" a different world, and perhaps his vision consisted of people who put more thought into the kind of mark they want to leave in their moment, regardless of fortune and fame.  I don't find it hard to imagine that kind of world, especially if more people were focused on making the best impression they can and striving to be their own icon in their moment so that word can mean something again.

In closing, I'd like to share a phrase penned by a 19th century British Prime Minister most people have never heard of, who I feel is far more deserving of the title "icon" than some of today's entertainment headliners, as he made a much better impression to represent his moment.

"We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace." - William Gladstone (1809-1898)

Now, what impression will you make with what's left of your moment?