Thursday, September 29, 2005

Orpheus and Narcissus in one neat package.

Pod People

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, September 29, 2005:
“Dear Mark,” I wrote to my son, recently packed off to Bowdoin College in Maine, “I’ve been thinking about the new iPod nano as a Christmas gift for you. The technology is dazzling (here I referred him to David Pogue’s glowing review in the New York Times), but still the phenomenon worries me. While the nano would be fine for listening to music while you’re in your dorm room, so as not to disturb your mates, headphones accomplish the same end. And I am concerned that so many young people walk around listening to music of their own prior selection, creating a pre-packaged though personalized environment that excludes all possibility of calm, simple reflection and sensory and cognitive receptivity. How does inspiration enter when the door is closed and a ‘Keep Out’ sign is posted?

“What do you think? Am I missing something? Or am I hopelessly twentieth-century?”

Before he replied I allowed my mind to descend into a whirlpool of rumination and rant into which I now invite you. Step into my Jacuzzi of jeremiad, folks. This is the future of civilization we’re talking about.

Marshall McLuhan promised us a global village interconnected by electronic media. But he also stated, famously, that “the medium is the message.” And boy, does the iPod ever send a passel of messages while ostensibly providing musical enjoyment for only its user/listener/wearer. The fact that we can’t even be certain what we should call the iPod sherpa is illustrative. The iPod is about technology, it is about fashion, and it is about individual character, social class, community values, and the perils of conformity. It is a class mark, a tattoo, a sign of have status among have-nots, even though the poor may, in our Sam’s Club Society, buy Godiva or Calvin or any damn thing they please, though it won’t get them past the gate of inherited wealth and its presumption of Good Taste.

Oh yeah, and the iPod plays music too.

For those who have been asleep this century, the iPod is manufactured by Apple, the company that 20 years ago revolutionized desktop computing with the Macintosh. As its computers declined in market share and its stock price dipped toward the vanishing point, Apple reinvented itself by coming up with an accessory product that has become an international star; thanks to the iPod, the company’s computers now form a secondary line of business and Apple stock is trading at robust levels. The market response to Apple’s staggering revenue increase is predictably, in some measure, “yes, but let’s see you do it again — you can’t sustain an explosive rate of growth based on a single product” … to which Apple has responded with the nano, which threatens to repeal the earnings law of gravity.

The iPod is a sleek, compact, lightweight successor to the SONY Discman. Both may be said to belong to a category in which many others claim to play — including Rio and Philips and a few cellphone companies like Motorola — which is known as Digital Audio Players, or DAPs, and all play music compressed in the MP3 format. But iPod owns this category, and to call any other player the second most popular is to work a powerful deception.

Do you recall reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World back in high school? Remember soma, that opiate of the masses that, like the opiate of Karl Marx’s day, religion, assured societal calm and productivity despite rampant disregard for individual rights? Television has served us nicely in that way for more than half a century now, and government bennies — to individuals, communities, and corporations — have quelled disquiet that in other lands and other times has led to revolt. I view the Valium effect of television and handouts with more bemusement than consternation, let alone outrage.

But the iPod! This, this brings my blood to a boil. Trendy folk turn up their snouts at “Lite Rock,” Muzak, and other lounge-lizard music designed to soothe the savage breast and keep activity in the workplace flowing, or calm rage among phone callers on hold. Yet the iPod-people are piping into their own noggins music they have chosen for precisely its soothing, pacifying, elevator-music character: even if it’s the White Stripes or Henry Rollins or Ja Rule, not necessarily easy on one’s eardrums, the music selections are designed to soothe the listener in the certitude of his or her world-view.

Are iPods about music at all? Yes, I suppose so, even if they more resemble self-medication. Turned on, tuned in, dropped out, iPodsters are not creating community via their vast numbers. They are not joining the global village but narcissistically withdrawing from it as they traverse the planet with their portable backdrops. (George Carlin used to say about the formerly unseen but now ubiquitous water bottle: “Since when did people become so thirsty?”) The earbuds and lanyard of the iPod form an electronic leash, not to Big Brother via GPRS tracking systems, as some nuts claim, but to their own youth, for iPod people old enough to know better, or, for the authentically young, to their own less developed selves.

How to say this simply? Life is not IN there, between your ears; it is OUT there, in what you have yet to experience. Pythagoras and his followers thought that music was everywhere, but hidden from view as numbers … not as numbers on playlists. Some websites now devote themselves entirely to analyzing celebrity playlists, from quarterback Tom Brady to quarterback George Bush, as if we could learn more about their true selves this way than in seeing what choices they make in a pinch. “Bush bares soul with ‘iPod One,’” read a headline on CNN’s site; forget Iraq or Katrina, or Rovegate or an Alice in Wonderland tax policy; if you wish to know who W is when he’s kickin’ back, here y’are:

W’s Playlist:
1. Centerfield, John Fogerty
2. New Biography, Van Morrison
3. Brown Eyed Girl, Van Morrison
4. Circle Back, John Hiatt
5. Castanets, Alejandro Escovedo
6. (You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care, Joni Mitchell
7. El Paso, The Gourds
8. The House is Rockin', Stevie Ray Vaughan
9. Swinging From the Chains of Love, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings
10. Say It Ain't So, The Thrills
11. My Sharona, The Knack
12. Alan Jackson
13. George Jones

I leave the analysis to you; I don’t care. As to squeaky-clean neat-o Tom Brady’s playlist, I can attest that as a music aficionado he is a mighty fine quarterback.

Brady’s Playlist:
1. Dream On, Aerosmith
2. Lose Yourself, Eminem
3. Possum Kingdom, The Toadies
4. If I Can't, 50 Cent
5. Fell on Black Days, Soundgarden
6. Bittersweet Symphony, The Verve
7. Award Tour, A Tribe Called Quest
8. Mysterious Ways, U2
9. I Can, Nas
10. Shiver, Coldplay
11. My Name Is, Eminem
12. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, U2
13. Jesus Walks, Kanye West
14. Beast of Burden, The Rolling Stones
15. Wonderwall (Live), Oasis
16. Black, Pearl Jam
17. Sunday Bloody Sunday, U2
18. Encore, Jay-Z

Composer Philip Glass, in an interview featured as an extra on the Koyaanisqatsi DVD, spoke to the importance of silence and space, equally to the artist and to his audience, to the effect that “People hate commercials, even though some win prizes, because they pile things on top of one another so fast that there is no space between the pop of the can of soda or beer and the voice telling you something. They [deliberately] leave no space for you to enter and evaluate their claim — that’s the propaganda characteristic.” The iPod is not unlike an adman’s pitch in that its messages shield the listener against unmanufactured feelings.

Like a gated community, the iPod aids in keeping the outsiders out and the insiders in. That’s arguably no way to run a democracy, and it ought to be no part of a life still in formation. The folks at Apple would have us believe, with their commercials of young women dancin’ up a storm in their minds while plugged into an appliance, that this money machine of theirs is hip, it’s young, it brings people together.

Smile when you say that, podner.

--John Thorn

Friday, September 09, 2005

The fleur de lis will have to take root on the road this year.

Will the Saints Go Marchin’ In?

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, September 8, 2005:
As father and son the two of us are accustomed to arguing, and seldom as heatedly as when we make our annual preseason picks for NFL supremacy. This year the volume level is turned way down ... who can work up a snit when New Orleans is under water? And yet life goes on, and all of us — even those who live along our Gulf Coast — may need the national passion play of armored superheroes, now more than ever. Wouldn’t it be great if the New Orleans Saints, never having made it beyond the second round of the playoffs, were to become, as the Nomads, champions for their besieged city?

One of us roots for the Cincinnati Bengals, the other for the Giants and Jets; this year we’re both New Orleans fans. But in the divisional listings below, ordered from first to last, sentiment is checked at the door.


New England Patriots: A few key losses here, a few signings there — it doesn’t matter. Go with the Pats. Lost in the constant praise given to Brady for his “intangibles” is the fact that he throws the best deep ball in the league. Look for Corey Dillon to have another solid year. They may struggle to hold off the Jets in the division race but nobody comes into Foxboro and wins once the snow starts coming down.

New York Jets: They ended their season with a bad taste in their mouths but they became a playoff-caliber defensive team ... and behind a line that now can stop the run, Ty Law’s presence will make an impact. A new offensive coordinator will see to it that the tight ends catch three passes a game and prodigal son Laveranues Coles will go over the middle, which the scrawny Santana Moss would not do. Chad Pennington seems restored to health. Curtis Martin? Just wind him up and write in 1400 yards.

Buffalo Bills: This team is certainly on the rise, and a lucky injury scenario within the division might be enough to give the forlorn Bills a wild-card spot. Without Travis Henry (and the headache over how to split time at running back), Willis McGahee will need to carry more of a load. Lee Evans will have a breakout year, and Takeo Spikes will continue to develop as an elite linebacker. But can quarterback JP Losman rein in the wild and reckless style he displayed at Tulane?

Miami Dolphins: This team isn’t going anywhere until Ricky Williams comes back from his Rastaman Suspension and then gets traded. The Dolphin defenders will play stoutly as always, and watch as the horrible offense comes up with new and unexpected ways to lose. It is hard to argue that it’s wiser to have a protracted QB battle between a has-been and a never-was than to sign Vinny Testaverde and let him run the show. Too late now. Potential star receiver Chris Chambers is gnashing his teeth.


Cincinnati Bengals: Chad Johnson put it best when he said he should be called “7-11” because he’s always open. And he’s happy because Carson Palmer is the real deal—no more wounded-duck passes like Jon Kitna’s in years past. This offensive unit, with receivers TJ Houshmanzadeh and Kelley Washington, is going to blow a lot of teams out. The defense, while still prone to lapses, will do enough for Marvin Lewis to get this team into the playoffs for the first time since the days of Ickey Woods.

Baltimore Ravens: On paper, they’re stacked. In Madden, they’ll be really tough to score on. In real life, Kyle Boller’s painstakingly slow development will continue to be a drag on the Ravens. Jamal Lewis, a healthy Todd Heap, and that sick defense will get these guys into the playoffs, but Boller will make sure they don’t stay there long.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger’s luck will run cold this year, and the banged-up Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis will run less effectively. This team had a lot of fortunate breaks in close games last year. They were like the NFL’s Washington Nationals. Although Plaxico Burress didn’t get a lot of balls thrown his way, his departure will enable teams to focus more on Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El. Like the Chargers, this team performed over its head last year, and payback will be hell.

Cleveland Browns: Charlie Frye should be the QB. Trent Dilfer’s a nice guy and all, but this team is going nowhere, so building chemistry between Braylon Edwards and the guy who will be there in the future makes more sense. Reuben Droughns will have an Olandis Gary in Detroit type of year, reinforcing the idea that running backs all rush for 1,000 yards if they play in Denver. Kellen Winslow ... doh. Wherefore art thou, Romeo Crennel? In the crapper.


Indianapolis Colts: Same old. No matter how gaudy the offense, this defensive unit isn’t going to make it to the Super Bowl. Corey Simon isn’t going to be enough to put this team over the top, and chemistry issues may arise with Edgerrin James before it’s all said and done.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Byron Leftwich will likely put together another solid year. If this team can pry Ricky Williams from the Dolphins in the narrow window between the end of his suspension and the trading deadline, the Jags could be way steadier than they will be when Fred Taylor suffers his yearly serious injury.

Houston Texans: This team mirrors Jacksonville, in that they’re on the rise. Andre Johnson is going to be a stat stuffer for years to come. But QB David Carr needs a more dynamic secondary receiver than Jabar Gaffney. At best an 8-8 team.

Tennessee Titans: If only Kevin Dyson been able to Go-Go Gadget that pigskin another yard ... wake up, Jeff Fisher. This is 2005. Since Super Bowl XXXIV Steve McNair has been steadily rubbed into the ground. Pacman Jones’s on- and off-field issues weren’t what this team was looking to add in the draft.


Kansas City Chiefs: The defensive improvements here — Patrick Surtain, Kendrell Bell — will be enough to propel them back into the playoffs. The backfield combination of Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes is going to put up bigger numbers than some of your friends’ fantasy backs.

Denver Broncos: This will be the year Jake Plummer pulls it all together. Rod Smith will have another solid campaign, and the other receivers are good enough that Jerry Rice couldn’t play. This team could contend for the top spot.

Oakland Raiders: While the additions of Randy Moss and Lamont Jordan will make this team interesting to watch at times, Kerry Collins won’t get it done. The defense is lackluster, and Norv Turner will be playing kindergarten kop as much as head coach. Much as we love the Al Davis and Sid Gillman vertical approach to the passing game, “Frankenteam” won’t work.

San Diego Chargers: Drew Brees is talented, but Eric Parker and the aged Keenan McCardell aren’t exactly top-notch receivers. Antonio Gates is a distraction, but the real killer is the schedule, not the cakewalk of last year. Visits to New England, Philadelphia, and Indianapolis will break this team’s back, no matter how great LaDainian Tomlinson is.



Dallas Cowboys: Drew Bledsoe and Bill Parcells will likely get the majority of the acclaim if this team does as well as we think they will, but Julius Jones is the one that’s going to make it happen. Jones is a more talented Dave Meggett, the type of back Parcells knows how to use as a receiver expertly. Peerless Price will resurrect his career here, and the ’boys will perform like the Steelers of last year.

Philadelphia Eagles: The defense is still suspect and Terrell Owens is a time bomb. Correll Buckhalter’s out all year again, and with Todd Pinkston also suffering a season-ending injury (not that he was that good in the first place), this team is primed to disappoint.

New York Giants: Eli Manning will continue to develop into a competent if dull NFL QB if his line will permit him to stand up. Tiki Barber shouldn’t be expected to be Superman again. Jeremy Shockey will have another subpar year unless Coach Coughlin stops ignoring his unique skills. Plaxico Burress will do well for the Giants, but they still don’t have a tackle-breaking, game-shaping WR. This will be another long season for Big Blue.

Washington Redskins: Daniel Snyder has a knack for hiring coaches who simply don’t get along with the players. There’s a lot of talent on the roster, but Clinton Portis isn’t suited to Joe Gibbs’s between-the-tackles running attack. Maybe John Riggins can suit up? We don’t see this team doing anything for some time.


Minnesota Vikings: Dante Culpepper is blessed to be rid of Moss. Onterrio Smith’s suspension will keep this team from going deep in the playoffs. We like the players they’ve added, and this is a weak division so they will top it ... but they’re still a cardboard team for the playoffs.

Detroit Lions: Jeff Garcia’s broken leg is a blessing in disguise. Obviously Steve Mariucci brought Garcia in to take Joey Harrington’s job, but without the ordained claimant lurking on the periphery, Joey Heisman will get it together. This team has so many weapons offensively, they’ll make the playoffs as a wild card. Marcus Pollard will help a lot and it says here that Mike Williams will be Rookie of the Year.

Green Bay Packers: Brett Favre’s back, and that means he’ll be chuckin’ it with reckless abandon, but to less effect than ever before. This team will continue to be plagued by Ahman Green’s fumbles, and a horrible defense made more so by the trade of Mike McKenzie. Look to a lot of lean years in Green Bay.

Chicago Bears: Sure they’ll be awful, but kudos for starting Kyle Orton. He’s the only chance they have. Cedric Benson’s carries will be held down by the Muensters of the Midway being behind 21 at halftime.


Carolina Panthers: This team is loaded. Steve Smith, Stephen Davis, and D’Shaun Foster all missed a lot of time last year, and they still almost made the playoffs. Julius Peppers is Lawrence Taylor with a clear head. Jake Delhomme is a Bobby Layne type of QB who doesn’t look like a winner but is.

New Orleans Saints: Look for the Saints to rally around their city (and vice versa) and make the playoffs even if they play all their games on the road. We really like Az Zahir Hakim as the slot receiver. Donte Stallworth, Joe Horn, and Deuce McAcllister are going to send this team to the playoffs. Aaron Brooks plays QB with a high emotion that in this sad season is welcome.

Atlanta Falcons: Michael Vick will continue to excite crowds, alienate teammates with his spotlight hogging, and pass for 140 yards per game. Defenses have taken note of Coach Mora’s gameplan with Vick, and they will pay dearly for it this year. It’s not just that we hate how many bandwagon fans the Falcons have; we hate one-man football. This team is very limited on both sides of the ball, but its defense is the better half.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs are on the rise, which is about all you can say of a bad, bad team, but they are still a long ways from breakeven. Finding out what Chris Simms can do is the highest priority: here’s a left-handed quarterback who doesn’t rely on his legs, and thus has a chance.


Seattle Seahawks: Sure-handed Joe Jurevicius is just what QB Matt Hasselbeck needs. Koren Robinson’s gone, which is addition by subtraction. Peter Warrick, if healthy, will resurrect his career here. Shaun Alexander is ticked off about his contract situation, and will play his way to stellar numbers (even for him) in his Seattle Swan Song. This team is ready to fulfill on its potential and make up for its failures of the past.

St. Louis Rams: This team is as solid as people think, and not as good as fans of high-flying pass offense want them to be. Marshall Faulk has had a great career but he’s a situational back now. Defense remains unpredictable, but spot in standings isn’t: out of the playoffs.

Arizona Cardinals: The receiving corps is extremely talented, and Kurt Warner is still good enough to get them the ball, but not from the seat of his pants. This team has no fans, no following, and no future as long as the Bidwells own it. This team, not the Saints, should be playing all its games on the road.

San Francisco 49ers: They don’t look so stupid for jettisoning TO now, do they? Alex Smith could turn out to be fabulous (though we don’t think so) and it still wouldn’t matter. They’ll be lucky to win three.


--John Thorn & Isaac Thorn