Wednesday, January 30, 2019

An Odd, Obscure Singer I Liked 15-20 Years Ago is Now a Pop Star.

I don't follow pop music. I have no idea whatsoever who is making hits today. I generally don't care much for today's pop. It's probably a function of age, right? I just learned that an obscure singer-songwriter I really liked 15-20 years ago is now a mega pop star. Who knew?

I do like some singer-songwriters who do things that are different, either musically or lyrically or in the way they use their instruments and/or voice. If you know the music of Toni Childs think of the odd, affected style of singing which worked so well on the album Union (1988) and briefly made her a star.

Another singer like that, though with a very different quality to her voice, is Sia Furler. Pardon me, she's now just known as Sia and she tops charts regularly. Meh. What she does now is boring pop. Oh, I'd heard her #1 song "Cheap Thrills". I just didn't associate it with the artist or the music I knew. She has an interesting shtick these days, not showing her face to her audience. OK, whatever.

Once upon at time Sia used to write hits for other people. In 2004 her own songs were sad, slow ballads for the most part that exposed raw feelings. They often had cryptic lyrics and she often did odd things with her voice, whispering or letting it break or mumbling. Those things fit the songs but sometimes made it hard to follow the lyrics. Some of those lyrics, once I did know them, could make me cry they were so sad. It's what she did.

Back then Sia had a little success in her native Australia. Here? Not so much. Nothing she did ever landed on any chart. She had a cult following who liked an odd singer who did strange things with her voice. She had some brilliant albums: one was called Healing is Difficult back in 2001. Another was Colour the Small One, my favorite from 2004. Her live disc was Lady Croissant (2007). To most people those names mean nothing. She was talented and creative and interesting but hopelessly obscure. For me that's where it ended. I may have heard Some People Have Real Problems (2008) where she began her transition to upbeat pop. Yeah, meh. I lost interest.

Since I'm oblivious to most of pop culture I had no idea that Sia had a number one album in 2014. I had no idea that her commercial breakthrough was another song where she dealt with her own demons. If I heard "Chandelier" or anything else from the album it didn't register in my consciousness in any way. The other day when a friend mentioned 1000 Forms of Fear to me I had no idea who or what she was talking about. She shared two songs. One was a live performance of "Breathe Me" from Colour the Small One and suddenly the light went on. Yes, I knew the artist. Yes, I really liked Sia once upon a time. That one live version of the once obscure song has 41 million views on YouTube. 41 million? When did that happen? The other song was "Chandelier". I don't honestly know if I ever heard it before but, yes, I like it. I'm glad all those angst and pain filled songs finally paid off for her. "Chandelier" also touched a very raw nerve in me, one that hadn't been disturbed in a very long time.

Today I listened to Sia's 2016 concert in Tel Aviv. She still has a great voice. I'm still not into today's pop. Those old songs, though... First, read the lyrics to "Breathe Me" if you don't know it:
I have done it again
I have been here many times before
Hurt myself again today
And the worst part is there's no one else to blame

Be my friend
Hold me, wrap me up
Enfold me, I am small
And needy, warm me up
And breathe me

Ouch, I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah, I think that I might break
Lost myself again and I feel unsafe

Here are two versions, that viral live version from 2014 and the original video from 2004 so you can hear how she sang it originally.
Since everybody in the world except me knows "Chandelier" I picked the first version I found that had that expressiveness, that ability to make you feel her pain that permeated her early albums. This song would have fit just fine on an album from 2004. I also, unfortunately, can relate to going through a trauma and trying to lose oneself. She had her battles with alcoholism and drug addiction after losing someone she loved.
A very few people know what happened to me roughly 30 years ago and my own battles. I think that's why I'm glad I finally heard this song and why it touched me. Oh, and Dave S, if by some miracle you run into this blog post I have two things I should have said then. The first is simply "thank you". Man, you saved my life not once but twice. The second thing is "I'm sorry". I was a total asshole to you then. I didn't appreciate what you did. I wanted to die and you wouldn't let me. You were a much better friend than I deserved.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

It's Past Time I Became An Activist Again

I had a bad night last night. My sleep was interrupted by nightmares about the near future. That is how worried I am about the outcome of today's election and what it means for our country and our democracy. I woke up early, made some pumpkin spice coffee (love the stuff), and resolved two things regardless of the outcome of today's voting. First, I'm going to change my voter registration from unaffiliated to Democratic. I've been a Democrat before, mainly because I wanted to vote in Democratic primaries. I've also been a Republican and was during the 2016 presidential primaries supporting Governor John Kasich. I left the party when Donald Trump won the nomination.

When I was a political activist and a party loyalist back in the 1980s I was a Republican. I worked in several campaigns, both as a paid staffer and as a volunteer. I briefly was a lobbyist at the state level. I wrote position papers on foreign policy (an area where I am conservative) for a U.S. Senate candidate.

Today's racist, white supremacist GOP has no relation to the GOP of Reagan and Bush which I supported and worked in. Not that long ago when I quoted Ronald Reagan on economic inequality I was called a socialist and a Communist. President Reagan was for and signed immigration reform that included amnesty for people who were here a long time. Being a fiscal conservative like President Reagan meant living within our means, not record deficits and debt. We didn't mortgage our grandchildren's future to give huge breaks to big business and the wealthy. Look up what the top tax rate was during the Reagan years. You are in for a surprise. President George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" included passing a prescription drug benefit for Medicare. Now the GOP at the national level wants to dismantle Medicaid and Medicare. Like I said, not the same party at all.

My views have not changed much over the years. Back then I was considered a moderate: conservative on foreign policy, moderate to conservative on economics, liberal on social issues and the environment. Today the same views are either liberal or progressive. I didn't leave the Republican Party. It left me, both on the state and federal level. Now I am resolved to work for the other party and do whatever I can to elect Democrats in 2020.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The S Word Revisited

Back in early 2010 I wrote a post about the ludicrous way some on the political right use the word socialism as if it were a four letter word, a curse. What I said then was that these people either lack the slightest clue about what socialism really is, what the word means, and how much socialism we have in the American economy today or else they really do know but assume their audience is ignorant. Instead they equate small s socialism with communism or the Soviet Union. Now, as then, I ended up making essentially the same points to a Republican stalwart on social media. He finished his rant with, "If you support Socialism you don't belong in America." What follows, with minor editing, are my responses to him.

Oh for crying out loud. I support socialism, you know, like Social Security, public schools, public libraries, law enforcement by government rather than private security firms, Medicare, Medicaid, my local fire department... all good, common sense socialism. I am a former Republican. Liberals or moderates like me are not "anti-America".

Every successful Western economy is a mixture of socialism and capitalism, including the United States. All the items I mentioned as common sense socialism are just that even if you don't see it. If you're against public schools, law enforcement, fire protection, roads, etc... then you are off in the far right fringe. I'll add that Israel is a much more socialist country than we are. They have universal healthcare. The fact that we are the only developed country that does not is shameful.

Medicare and Social Security as not entitlements. We pay for them out of each and every paycheck we earn. If you are self-employed you pay it quarterly. Either way, cutting those is stealing money that people paid in all their lives for their retirement. Social Security is running at a surplus. The only reason it runs short on money is that Congress (both parties) keep raiding the trust fund to pay for other things. Al Gore was laughed at when he called for putting social security in a lock box. He was right.

Finally, the older I get the more liberal I become. I have learned that what the Trump GOP calls conservatism is all about making the rich richer and the poor poorer and to hell with the middle class. I cannot support a political party that will steal my retirement money to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy. Thanks but no thanks.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

I Really Don't Like Westerns. Here's One Worth Watching.

I don't like westerns. Bonanza and Gunsmoke had no appeal to me when I was growing up and they still don't. Please don't get me started on the treatment of Native Americans in most westerns. The portrayal in movies and on most television programs was severely whitewashed to say the least. In recent years westerns were almost completely out of favor which is fine with me.

Despite this I recently watched a short lived western TV series which was made in Canada and aired in 2014-2015 called Strange Empire. Not only that, I'm trying to convince my best friend (who also dislikes westerns) to check it out. Yes, it's that good. There are only 13 episodes because ratings were microscopic in both the U.S. and Canada. Most people I know have never heard of it. Forget what you think you know about westerns. This isn't anything like that.

I originally became interested because it stars Cara Gee who currently plays Camina Drummer on The Expanse. I love her portrayal of the character and the strength she brings to the role. Strange Empire was her role before that, and from what I read her performance in the series directly lead to not only her casting on The Expanse, but a newly expanded character for Drummer, which is actually a composite of several characters in the books.

Then there is the little fact that Cara Gee's heritage/ethnicity is Ojibwe. I expected the treatment of First Nations/native people had to be different from the old time westerns. There is also a transgendered character, though he is never called that because 1869. One of the main characters is autistic, though she is never called that because 1869. OK, so I was curious, at least curious enough to try it. It's currently available on Amazon Video or on DVD.

There is no whitewash in Strange Empire. The show is the darkest, most incredibly grim thing I have ever watched. In the probably realistic portrayal of life in Montana and Alberta in 1869 we see rampant racism, theft, murder, rape, oh, and yes, a bit of the genocide of native people. If you don't have a strong stomach you may not want to watch it. The body count in most episodes is horrendous. Despite all of the horror that would normally have me reaching or even running for the remote to turn it off the story is compelling. It draws you in and doesn't let go.

This is from a review of the first episode:
"Set in 1869 along the Montana/Alberta border, Strange Empire starts with two dead babies and a graveside wedding...

A fun romp this is not, but it is a rich exploration of a time and place we think we’re familiar with — our own country, our own history. We’re wrong.

Some of the preliminary publicity said the men have disappeared, leaving the women to fight for survival. This is true in the sense that the cult members of Jonestown disappeared, or the Donner party got a little peckish, or the dog of your childhood went to live on a farm. Some of the men survived, some have not yet been found, but most are quite dead."
Dark doesn't even begin to describe it. I won't share more because spoilers are no fun. I know most anyone who reads this probably hasn't seen the series.

The crazy thing is that the many science fiction fans among my friends will recognize a lot of the cast. Melissa Farman (Lost) and Tattiawna Jones (The Handmaid's Tale) are Cara Gee's costars. Terry Chen (The Expanse, Continuum) and Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica, Continuum, Dollhouse) both have regular roles. Oh, and did I mention that a lot of the show is set in Janestown? No relation to Jaynestown in Firefly.

Here is a trailer:

Monday, September 25, 2017

A Divisive and Self-Defeating Protest

Over the last couple of days I’ve found myself in a few debates on social media over the protest by professional athletes, primarily NFL football players, who have “taken a knee,” stayed off the field or sat during the national anthem. I’ve outraged some of my more liberal or leftist online friends for not following the popular, politically correct line of supporting the players. Before I launch into that let me start with the points where I agree with those to my political left:
  • Racism is a problem in the United States. It always has been.
  • President Trump’s 2016 campaign exploited the many divisions in our country including the racial divide. His statements and tweets as President have continued to sew division.
  • Right wing extremists, including white supremacists, have taken the election of President Trump as vindication and justification of their racist views. Racism has become socially acceptable again after decades where that wasn’t true. The racism was always there. Now it’s out in the open again.
  • Law enforcement and the criminal justice system, like any other large group of people, have proverbial bad apples among them including racists. African-Americans suffer mistreatment at the hands of police in disproportionate numbers. This includes black people who have been killed and clearly should not have been.
Colin Kaepernick’s original protest, when he was the first to “take a knee” as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, was a protest against what he sees as unjustified police shootings and killings of African-Americans. People in the black community and most on the political left support him. Many on the right were and are outraged. Kaepernick found himself without a contract this year. An NPR News story put it this way:
"This season, no team has signed him, and some supporters believe NFL owners are avoiding him because of the controversy."
In football terms this is the equivalent of being fired, which is what President Trump, during a speech in Alabama and in subsequent tweets, suggested should happen to all athletes who are disrespectful of the flag and the national anthem. I’ll admit freely that I thought precisely the same thing even before he said it. The difference is that I am not the President of the United States and my impact when I do speak out is minimal. President Trump’s statements once again exploited and expanded on the deep divisions in our country in a way almost nobody else can.

Most Americans take great pride in this country. Those who do, myself included, see the symbols of this nation, our flag and our national anthem included, as almost sacred. That sort of nationalism or patriotism is a positive thing. For me it’s part of my gratitude for the opportunities my parents, both legal immigrants, both Holocaust survivors, were given here. Their life story is an example of the American dream. They came here with next to nothing, worked hard, were successful, and built a very good life for themselves and their children. Very few countries in the world offer that level of opportunity. So, yes, when the country as a whole is disrespected it bothers me no end.

Let’s also take a look at the protesters. Professional athletes earn hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars a year. They are highly privileged individuals regardless of the color of their skin. They are wealthy and successful in ways most Americans can only dream about. Yes, that includes most white Americans. These are not victims of oppression. Is it any wonder both the style of protest and who the protesters are breeds resentment?

For my part daring to speak out against these protests has led to accusations of racism on my part. I’ve been told I would not have supported Rosa Parks because she offended the segregationists of the day. In addition to being incredibly insulting it’s a ridiculous statement. Rosa Parks’ act of peaceful civil disobedience struck directly at segregation and the racism behind it.

The Jim Crow laws, including the one Rosa Parks protested, no longer exist. At least in law, and to some significant degree in daily life, the civil rights protests of the 1950s through the 1970s were successful. We are not the same country today. Yet some on the left insist we are still a “white supremacist country” and act like no progress was made. Didn’t we have an African-American President for eight years?

50-75 years ago the opportunities that the NFL players and other athletes have were closed off to African-Americans. They were excluded. American professional sports before Jackie Robinson was a whites only affair. These protests would have been impossible. They are possible today precisely because of the successes of the civil rights movement.

I’ll agree when people say that the struggle for civil rights is not over. I’ll agree if they say more needs to be done. We are nowhere near reaching racial equality as a society. What I will not agree with is the hyperbole of the left that condemns the country as a whole as racist. I also will not agree with protests that attack the institutions and symbols of our country, in effect attacking the country as a whole.

As NPR reported NFL players are anything but unified on this. While most of the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in their clubhouse during the anthem one,
“Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva, ventured out of the tunnel and placed his hand over his heart during the singing of the anthem.”
From what I am seeing online veterans and those serving in the armed forces are among those who are most offended by these protests.

My point, which my friends on the left entirely miss, is that most of the country is moderate in their views. Most people really aren’t hateful racists. A protest, no matter how well justified, won’t make haters stop hating. However, a protest that offends many who don’t hate will drive natural allies and supporters away. I’m not opposed to peaceful protest in any way. The athletes certainly have a First Amendment right to speak out. That isn’t in question. The problem is that this particular protest offends many of the very people that need to be reached to bring about change. This particular set of protests is self-defeating.

These protests do nothing to help raise awareness of a real issue which exists in law enforcement which needs to be addressed. They do nothing to rally support for changes which are needed. They do not open much needed dialogue. They do not promote racial justice in any way. Rather, these protests damage the chances for real change and real reform. They deepen divisions. The protests buttresses President Trump and those like him who seek to exploit the racial divide in this country.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Viva Digital Music Old and New

I've been a fan of CDs from the very beginning. I hate surface noise, pops, scratches and the like, none of which are an issue on any form of digital media. When CDs first appeared in the U.S. classical music enthusiasts were the early adopters, In the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida area an almost exclusively classical CD only shop opened bringing in imported classical recordings. It was funny because while some audiophiles were (and still are) attacking the sound of CDs and claiming vinyl is forever superior the most demanding music fans in terms of sound quality were the ones adopting digital technologies early on. The same thing happened when MiniDiscs appeared in the early 1990s. A classical station in the area even did a special program dedicated to playing classical releases on MD. Somehow, though, vinyl is hip again. I really don't get that at all.

Today's file based equivalents are lossless digital modes, most especially FLAC (Free Audio Lossless Codec), which is an Open Source and works on almost any computer and a growing number of portable devices. FLAC won't displace lossy MP3 files until higher capacity SSD storage devices become both very small and very cheap. MP3s take up far less storage space and sound good enough to a lot of people. FLAC players have been on the market for home stereo systems for a few years now but they are still very much a specialty item. Some units from China with built in amplifiers are really inexpensive these days.

Getting back to CDs, which young people often dismiss as old tech: sales are way down and both used copies of albums and new multidisc sets have become very inexpensive. It's often cheaper to buy the physical disc and rip the music yourself than to buy a digital download of the same music. You then have the original source as a backup in case your favorite music playing device or hard drive dies. It's the best of both worlds: old school physical releases with artwork and often extensive information and the convenience of file based music.

Anyway, those are my ramblings from a discussion on Facebook about digital vs. analog media for music. For me its digital over analog every time.

Monday, February 15, 2016

An Open Letter To Senate Republicans

Dear Honorable Senators:

I'm a registered Republican in North Carolina. In light of the current threats our nation faces and what I view as the failure of President Obama's foreign policy I had planned to vote Republican this year in the presidential, senate and congressional races in my state and district. The reaction by many of you, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is causing me to rethink the wisdom of such votes.

Our Constitution gives the duty of nominating justices to the Supreme Court to the President. It doesn't say anything about suspending that duty when elections are almost a year away. It doesn't say anything about the political party or ideology of the President having to match that of a majority in the Senate. Your duty, as senators, is to advise and consent, one would assume based on the merits of a particular nominee. To make a statement that no nominee will be considered for nearly a full year to give our party a chance to capture the White House first is not only an unprecedented action in our history, but I firmly believe it subverts our system of checks and balances. It subverts the Constitution you are sworn to uphold.

I am still very cognizant of the uniquely dangerous external threats our nation now faces. However, I see your proposed action as an internal threat to our system of government and our democracy. Those supporting the idea of blocking any nomination for the next year claim they are waiting to allow the people to decide. The people did decide by electing President Obama not once but twice, and by a sizable margin each time. His term is not up. Justice Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in 1988, an election year, and by a 97-0 vote.

If you choose to carry out your threat I honestly feel I have no choice but to vote Democratic in November, and to do all I can to explain why I, a moderate Republican, have made that choice. I would have no choice but to do everything in my power to persuade others to do the same. I am hoping that, in your wisdom, you decide that the best course of action is to give whomever President Obama nominates a fair confirmation hearing and a vote based on qualifications, not an ideological litmus test, as has been done in the past.

Caitlyn M. Martin
Eden, NC