Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Track Tales Tuesday: New Year's Day and Negative Pop Punk

Most people probably haven't heard of the short-lived pop punk band 5 Days Ahead. Hailing from Pennsylvania, they released one EP and one album, in 2001 and 2002 respectively. Those years were the first in my college days, which weren't exactly easy for me, and near the beginning of the mainstream success of the genre. 5 Days Ahead fit nicely in that niche. Their music was aggressive and energetic, and their lyrics and vocalist channeled the emo influence that was huge at the time. They were honest, passionate...and negative.

In my younger years, negativity wasn't a big deal to me. It was something I lived with. I'm not sure if it was due to the culture I grew up in, my upbringing, my experiences, or the ideas I held. Likely it's a combination of all of those factors. Still, the older I get, the less I'm able to deal with negativity, especially in the arts. 

5 Days Ahead are a memory of a time where I couldn't find a way around the obstacles in front of me or any hope that I'd ever find that way. The songs I remember by them all fit that theme. Some are linked with holidays. One is titled "Valentine" and features the lyrics:
It makes no sense to tell someone you love them
just because it's Valentine's Day.
I'd rather hang out with my friends
and bomb couples with chiclets till they run away.
Not exactly the model of happiness or a well-adjust psyche. Other songs such as "Another Wasted Year" show other manifestations of their perspective. I turn to this song on New Year's Eve because it's about the holiday and the pain of looking back, two things I am dealing with very immediately. However, I don't agree with the band's conclusion in their lyrical culmination: "It's just not worth it/It was all just a waste of time."

As is often the case in pop punk, this track is about heartbreak and dealing with the pain that accompanies it. After starting by setting the scene with "Toast your glass up high to the new year/I'll pray for better days," the singer pours his heart out, almost quite literally:
12 months, a crush I couldn't kill
I said one thing now I'm wiping tears from my eyes
You're damn right I feel stupid
Retarded schoolboy crush
Dreaming about you every night
Though unrequited love is admittedly painful, spending any amount of time loving or admiring someone is not a waste. By doing so you are admitting, whether intentionally or not, that you identify good in that person. That identification is a celebration of life, as it is, as you see it, as you want it to be. That positivity is impossible to escape in pop punk. The problem occurs, in this song, in the genre, and in life, when it is coupled with a focus on the feeling of hopelessness.
What should i say?
It doesn't matter anymore it all faded away
I'll tape up my heart
One minute, you didn't care and ripped it all apart
 I know it's been said a billion times before. I'm still going to say it again. Never let one person (other than yourself) affect your sense of self worth so greatly, no matter how well you think of him or her. It can take less than a minute for things to get, let's say, wacky and him or her to reveal a new side you haven't seen. More importantly, if the person isn't going to show you the same reverence back, why do you want him or her to be a part of your life, even if just as a motivating idea?

I'm going to stop for a minute here to clarify something. I'm not writing only about romantic love or love in general. What I'm discussing applies to any situation where you deal with other people--family, work, school, in the store, performers you enjoy. Each of us decides who we let become a part of our life, from a thought in our head to a spot in our bed. It's just as important to make that choice responsibly as any other.

Over the coming year, but especially the next month of Track Tale Tuesdays, you're going to see a focus on positivity become a theme in The Midside. I understand the focus on a feeling of hopelessness. It's why I've been able to stomach that side of my favorite genre for so long. I just can't dwell on it any longer. Those bands and songs bore me now, bringing a sluggishness to my brain and a soreness to my brawn.  Those pains are no longer ones I care to suffer.

As long as I'm breathing, nothing is a waste of time as long as I know why I chose it.

Happy New Year!

Upcoming Track Tales
A Perfect Storm of Self-Satisfaction by The Good Fight
So Positive by Down With Webster
Dreamcatcher by Set It Off

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Family Man: Growing Good

Every once and awhile I can annoy one of my friends enough that he'll watch a show a movie I've been raving about. The past couple of weeks has been one of those victories, as my friend finally binge-watched The Walking Dead and texted me his thoughts. He was most impressed with Shane and The Governor, the two main villains of the series so far, summarizing his thoughts:
"Contemporary media is so much better at portraying evil than it is at portraying good."
The observation is astute. As a culture, we're kind of obsessed with evil characters, at least on television. A few recent villain-cum protagonists are Dexter's Dexter, House of Card's Francis Underwood, and, of course, Breaking Bad's Walter White. They share similar personalities and plots, and viewers rally around them for some reason, hoping for their redemption. The question is why? Why are we, as a culture, so good at portraying evil and so ready to embrace evil characters? It's a topic so worth of heavy consideration that I intended to sit on for awhile.

Then I saw Nicolas Cage's 2000 Christmas drama The Family Man. The story of Cage's every-man Jack Campbell is nearly the same as Bryan Cranston's White, right down to the cynicism towards American empire-building, Capitalism, and living to maximize your own talents and desires. The similarities between the two made my viewing of the movie equally as uncomfortable as my viewing of the show--and revealed the answer to my friend's question.

Whereas White turns himself from a family man into the king of a meth empire, Campbell starts at the top of the finance mountain and works his way down it. He's the president of a company who lives in a Penthouse on Wall Street and thinks he has everything he needs. The only "problem," according to the movie's universe, is that he lives alone and is so wrapped up with work that he calls for an emergency strategy meeting for a $130 billion merger on Christmas Day. One chance meeting with a magical Don Cheadle and Campbell finds himself where White was in the first episode of Breaking Bad (minus the cancer).

In the suburbs of New Jersey, Campbell wakes up on Christmas morning in bed with his college sweetheart and current wife Kate, a character so close to Skyler (White's wife), I would've thought she was ripoff if not for the fact that this movie was released nearly a decade before the series about meth-making. Lacking memories of his marriage and the two children that came as a result of it, Campbell rushes into the city to return to the life he knows, only to be thrown out of his apartment and office buildings because the doorman don't recognize him. Magic Cheadle confronts him again, telling him he must accept his situation and learn from it.

What Campbell learns from the situation is what makes the movie so disturbing. The difference between his lives is extreme. His neatly organized and modern penthouse has been replaced with a messy, chaotic suburban home. His challenging and exhilarating job has been replaced with a retail sales position at Kate's father's tire and auto-parts store. His free time is spent participating in a sport he hates, bowling. This issue isn't of kind, it's of quality. If the movie portrayed a man learning the values in a different type of life (which it may have been trying to), it'd likely be enjoyable. Instead it portrays a man learning to accept a life well below what he desires in exchange for love.

The most revealing scene in the movie follows Campbell's hard-fought effort to regain elements of his empire-conquering life. His other-life-boss randomly ends up in the tire shop and Campbell sweet talks his way into a job. He then brings Kate to the city and reveals his plan to move there, double both their incomes, and send their children to private schools where they'll receive a better education--a completely reasonable proposition. The family would stay together and have an improved quality of life.

Kate doesn't respond as if it is reasonable at all. In true Skyler style, she hysterically objects to Campbell's plea, demanding he explain why he'd want to rip their daughter from the school she loves and doesn't care that she pictured them growing old in that house in New Jersey together. Campbell attempts to argue, but eventually acquiesces for some reason I forget.

The rest of the movie progresses predictably. Campbell comes to love his family and  realize he's lonely, wakes up in his real life, and rushes to pursue a still-single Kate. It's all lovey-dovey rom-commie (pun intended) and meant to demonstrate that the character has finally become good. In fact, he even spurns the emergency strategy meeting (and trip to Aspen to woo the merge partner) to reveal his loneliness to the love-of-his life. At this point the plot is propelling purely on emotion because if you stopped and examined Campbell's situation, you'd realize that he's throwing away a life that stimulates and challenges him in favor of the life that literally destroys everything he prides himself on (unnecessarily!) in favor of someone else's (namely Kate's) happiness.

That realization reveals a hidden definition of "good:" suffering for the sake of the people you love--and no one with an ounce of self-respect would enjoy watching a character who allows himself to suffer unnecessarily. The Family Man likely only survived on the fumes of love and the Christmas spirit of giving, two things which can be enjoyed without harming yourself. Breaking Bad thrived on White's self-empowerment. Though it was ultimately used to kill and corrupt in a misguided quest for wealth and power, viewers witnessed a defeated man attempting to break free of the straps his wife (and other circumstances) had tied him with. In that sense, White's end was much more victorious than Campbell's.

The reason contemporary media can't portray their definition of good is no one would watch. Watching someone intentionally lose is too painful and depressing of an experience. Imagine a Die Hard where John McLane has to sacrifice his life at the end to prove to his wife he's not a jerk, a 300 where Leonidas agrees to kneel to Xerxes to stop the bloodshed, and a Man of Steel where Superman gives himself over to Zod for the greater good of the Kryptonian people. If any of these heroes did as I described, they'd be throwing away what they think is right in favor of someone else's worldview.

I'm not suggesting what makes a character good is sticking to his ideas no matter what. That stubbornness can quickly turn any hero into a villain. Rather, sticking to the right ideas no matter what makes a character good. McClane refuses to die because doing so would see the elitist robbers get away with the money, Leonidas won't kneel because doing so would mean accepting an oppressive dictatorship, and Superman won't surrender to Zod because doing so would mean the end of a world and culture based on self-determination and freedom.

In Breaking Bad, White turns evil because his bitterness towards to the world causes him to embrace an any mean's necessary approach in building a meth empire. In The Family Man, Campbell turns "good" because his newly found loneliness causes him to embrace an any mean's necessary approach (which includes flouting the empire he built) in pursuing Kate.

Like Two-Face, these characters two sides to the same coin, and if we flip it, there's no real difference. Either way, we lose.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Track Tales Tuesday: What are your Blank Pages?

As a genre, Nerdcore is usually pigeonholed. The most frequent culprit is, unfortunately, the artists who identify with and accept the label. Their songs tend to be: video game, movie, television, video game, etc. Or, as intellectual-diss rapper Kabuto the Python spits in his song "Reference Desk:"
"Refer to shit that nerds like and you're the best in they mind
so the references are effortlessly peppered in mine." 
While Buto's outlook may be cynical, it's also true, and he manages to do something in those two lines that the large majority of nerdcore artists fail to do--fill the trappings they repeat with meaning.

Creating on a high-level requires more than outlines and mimicry. To a certain extent, what's inside the lines is what's lost in our culture. Nerdcore is just another form of this issue. Most people can roll with references, quoting lines and sometimes seeing parallels to their everyday life. Very few can understand what those quotes or parallels mean. It's the difference between Family Guy and American Dad. While both can be deathly amusing, American Dad is consistently funnier because the references add depth to their conflict. In contrast, Family Guy seems as random as manatees and beach balls.

Due to this tension, the more talented nerdcore artists are sometimes at odds with their ascribed label. Voice artist and rapper mc chris once created a controversy for trying to distance himself from the genre. Stanford graduate and nationally recognized MC Lars stirred another by declaring "Nerdcore Died." Beefyness, the self-declared crown prince of Nerdcore, questioned whether the genre was worth defending. The most recent artist to join this list is San Diego resident Dr. Awkward.

Like most nerdcore debuts, Doc's first album Unlimited featured video game reference after video game reference. One song was about meeting a girl at a LAN party, another was a love-song ode to three female Final Fantasy characters. While the album was enjoyable and had some shining moments (such as Timid and Geekquilibrium), it mainly felt like the labor of a quest for approval--the key word being labor. Since that album, Awkward has gained a loyal following, shed a record label, and re-evaluated his reasons for writing raps.

Blank Pages is the title track off of Dr. Awkward's second album. While the album still contains songs about cartoons, Star Wars, and superheroes, it also has songs about the difficulties of expressing love, the power of forgiveness, and yearning for a better world. Through it all, Awkward exposes the irony of his first album's title--"Joshua [his given name], truly you are limitless." On display is a man's fight to live the life he wants. He opens the song:
I feel this isn’t who I’m supposed to be
According to expectations of those close to me
This isn’t how I make the most of me
The man in the mirror is nothing but the ghost of me
Nerdcore carries with it a host of expectations. Awkward is talking about much more than that label however. In the first verse he delves into the expectations we place on ourselves due to family, culture and society, "Go to college, get a wife, and live the bored life." He ends the verse by turning to blank pages as the escape from that formula. The hook then declares that he's "breaking free of who he's supposed to be."

The second verse is a mediation on how to find direction when you're staring at nothingness. Cleverly he points out that there's no use in considering yourself as lost because happiness isn't a destination. He follows it up "Don’t have to search for happiness, it’s born of your creation." Part of the reason what's inside the lines is lost in our culture is we accept that the lines themselves have already been defined by other people. Doc is challenging that assumption, and us, when he ends the verse, "Don't let those be your blank pages."

The final verse, split in two by repetition of "I'm looking to these blank pages," is a declaration of motivation and passion. In it, Awkward lays out in a few lines what can only be truly understood through the process of constantly creating:
Take what you want this life is for the livin’
It won’t be handed to you, only death is givin’
Shake it off, shake it off, self-pitying is useless
There’s no endgame in your excuse
If you want something, it is you who must create it
Mimicking, repeating, referencing, these tactics can only get you so far--where everyone has already been. Don't misunderstand my point. I'm as big of a fan of a references as anyone. I love integrating them into my work. I do so though mainly as a source of humor, to point out the absurd parallels in our lives. Ultimately, despite all our similarities, we're each unique, so the lives we want and need haven't been lived or written out before us. That fact means we have to create our own paths.

With his second album Blank Page and its title track, Dr. Awkward is declaring "these are mine." He's proudly and admirably making the album he wants to, as he recently revealed, "I love everything on Blank Pages because it represents my life now wonderfully."

With the statement, he's also challenging his listeners: What are your Blank Pages?

Call Me Casual (Not an Apostle of Tyson)

Survivor: Blood vs Water threw me for a loop. The season was the tale of the pain brought about by bringing deeply personal relationships into the game. The players who suffered the most became the focus of the story, yet the player who turned his pain into the fuel for victory was relegated to a footnote, especially in the finale.

Each episode was "these two are struggling because of their love #bigbadwolf." Yes, #bigbadwolf was an actual Twitter hashtag the editors put on screen. If you used and followed that hashtag, you would've been right in the middle of a conversation about how great of a game eventual winner Tyson Apostol was playing. Yes, it's almost like they were leveraging the "superfan" community to write that part of the story.

Or were they letting them write their own?

I'm not a fan of Tyson. It's nothing personal. I don't know the guy, only his edited character on television. I've followed him on Twitter since Heroes vs Villains and felt the same way about most of his tweets that I've felt about his confessionals. Every once in awhile I chuckle, usually I shake my head and appreciate the intent.

As a communicator, the way Tyson says things intrigues me. He works hard to create an ethos of nonchalant investment through subtly deriding some absurdity of what he's doing or likes. His favorite target of these quips is himself. The day of the finale he tweeted, "Pretty sick on the day of the #Survivor finale. Similar, I would suspect, to Michael Jordan during the '96 NBA finals." Surely it's meant to be taken in jest because there's no way he'd be calling himself the Michael Jordan of Survivor...except he is calling himself the Michael Jordan of Survivor. Saying it in jest makes it easier for the audience to accept it. It's a clever approach that I enjoy a lot more than the content inside of it.

My favorite moment from the finale was when Tyson broke down and cried after the vote reading. Most winners whoop and jump around. The moment is the realization of a joy they knew was possible and made happen. For Tyson it seemed more like a release. He openly admitted at the Final Tribal Council that he didn't think he had a chance at winning at the start. Many of his confessionals echoed that belief, as he discussed the game getting away from him in previous seasons. As he wept, he seemed to let go of all the frustrations and apprehension that I'm accustomed to seeing from him. I enjoyed the moment because I finally understood and appreciated what the victory meant to him, I just wish that I was told the story of him building to that release.

The story I was told was a Culpepper sandwich with the Morretts and Baskaukases between the bread. Early on, we saw Brad Culpepper struggle to become the shield he promised Monica he would be (and surely has been during their entire marriage). His aggressive play and claim on a leadership position thrust Monica into the spotlight until he left. Similarly, Vytas Baskaukas excelled in letting others take the spotlight and the axe but it was his brother Aras' strong leadership skills and history of success in the game that did him in. Post-merge, Laura Morrett saw her game end when her daughter Ciera decided she couldn't win as long as her mother was there attracting attention to the two of them.

At the end of their games, each pair was given a catharsis by the editors. The Brothers Baskaukas seem to have worked through their rivalry to a new found respect. Laura witnessed her daughter blossoming into an independent and confident woman. What happened to the Culpeppers? Their dynamic became the subject of the finale.

As the numbers whittled down, Monica became the swing vote and only player who could possibly stop the Big Bad Wolf from blowing houses down. Over and over she asserted that she was playing for Monica, sometimes following up that claim with a contradictory assertion of selflessness. All her posturing culminated at the Final Tribal Council when the jury forcefully confronted her with a seemingly basic question, "Who is Monica?" In her own way, Monica admitted that she didn't know. It was truly compelling, and sometimes difficult, to watch.

I completely felt for Monica. I wanted the jury to lay off of her. I didn't understand what more Laura wanted when she asked for "vulnerability" after Monica had just bared her soul about her role in her husband and son's lives. I was relieved when Hayden had the class to explain to Monica what they were all confused about (and pained when Monica took it as another attack when it wasn't). At the end of it all, I wanted Monica to win so she could have the title of Sole Survivor to start building her independent identity on, but she was never going to. Regardless of my feelings on Tyson, this season was his and the story should've been his too.

Many of the "superfans" (a self-ascribed label that seems to mean a much-deeper-than-typical engagement with the show) did see the story as being Tyson's from early on. Similarly, they saw One World's story being about Kim and Redemption Island's story being about Andrea early on. Two out of three times now, they've correctly uncovered the winner. Zero times have they done it by taking the show as it is.

Tyson's win, like Cochran's the season before, is a superfan's dream come true. The game has had a huge impact on his life yet he never thought he'd win it. Hell, host Jeff Probst never thought Tyson would win it. He said as much pre-game, asserting people wouldn't respect Tyson enough because he is mainly about having fun. That persona is exactly what he cultivates to belie what it all means to him.

Just like superfans, Survivor means more to Tyson than I suspect we'll ever know or understand. It's why they wanted him to win. Before this season, he wasn't a historic Survivor legend like Boston Rob Mariano. His inclusion in his second season Heroes vs Villains was curious and his performance in it short lived. Now after his third season, he is a legend and a victor--and it took him one less season than Rob to become the latter. That fact is what the superfans will remember this season for.

Me? I'll remember Aras and Vytas' parallels with Jacob and the Man in Black on LOST, Laura's struggle to balance her desire to win with her desire to see her daughter win, and Monica's tears that came with her fight to assert herself. All of it taught me what helped Tyson win--you have to make sure your relationships in life fuel you, not cause you anguish.

That was the story of Blood vs Water. Maybe I'm a superfan for analyzing the editing on such an in-depth level to uncover themes (and for meeting players like the tall-as-fuck Aras). Maybe that means I'm supposed to be happy Tyson won. Though I tip my hat to and congratulate him on the feat, I'm still glad I'm not glad. Maybe that means you'll call me a casual derisively under your breath (or in secret Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms groups).

Say what you will. I love the balance I've found. Twice a year I'm told a story that enriches my life on a professional and personal level--a story that shows me what it truly means to survive.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

There's Something Wrong with Donald Glover, and That's OK.

I listened to Donald Glover's new Childish Gambino album "Because The Internet" yesterday. There's some stuff I really liked. There's some stuff I didn't. I'm not going to attempt to judge whether I think it's good or not because I got the impression he didn't make it for us. He made it for himself.

The album is constructed almost like a bunch of EPs strung together, each having its own tone and topics. As you progress deeper into the tracklist, the mood becomes darker and the verses shorter. For me it felt less like a man trying to create for the audience's enjoyment and more like a man trying to capture his emotions in music. A lot of people may not say there's a difference between those two things, but there is. The creation of art is necessarily a self-aware process. You are creating it to be consumed. You just have to decide who your audience is.

I still think we're Glover's audience on this album. He's just not trying to entertain us. He's trying to connect with us. As he's always done, he's using his abilities with music and the written word to reach, he's just doing so on a different level than before because of how his life has changed.

It's well known that he left his beloved role as Troy Barnes on "Community." It's an action that's confusing from a distance, but makes more sense upon a detailed look. Recently, Glover released pictures of a series of handwritten notes on Instagram. Some of his statements are pretty innocuous. Others are revealing.
I didn't leave Community to rap. I don't wanna rap. I wanted to be on my own. 
I've been sick this year. I've seen a bunch of people die this year. This is the first time I've felt helpless. But I'm not on that.
I feel like I'm letting everyone down.
I'm afraid people hate who I really am.
I'm afraid I hate who I really am.
 And (underline his)
I got really lost last year.
But I can't be lonely tho.
Cause we're all here.
We're all stuck here.
I wanted to make something that says, no matter how bad you fuck up, or mistakes you've made during the year, your life, your eternity. You're always allowed to be better. You're always allowed to grow up. If you want.
These admissions, mixed in with insecurities about his parents, relationship, and future, point to a deep-seated loneliness that stems from feeling unimportant/invisible. I know because I've been there. I struggle with it every day. The first excerpt reveals what triggered these feelings. The second demonstrates how he's taking them out on himself. The third reveals why he's taking them out on himself. He doesn't think he has a right to say there's something wrong with him because "we're all the same."

Unfortunately, the feedback Glover is receiving is only going to reinforce this idea he holds. The first comment on the article I linked to has 56 likes and normalizes Glover's experiences:
This is heartbreaking. If it's possible though, I love and respect Donald Glover even more because of it. He has written down and shared things that most of us are afraid to even admit to ourselves.
The older I become the more I hesitate to say what I feel and go through is what most people feel and go through. I'm not in other people's heads. I have no way of knowing their experiences. I'm sure other people have similar experiences to mine or Glover's, but I've learned the more I said they did, the more harm I caused to myself.

By repeating these are the "things most of us are afraid to even admit to ourselves," I made myself feel as if I didn't have a right to complain that I felt invisible, which made me feel even more invisible.

Random commenters on the internet certainly aren't the only people trumpeting this normalization either. ThinkProgress has an article titled "Is Donald Glover Cracking Up? Or Having A Normal Reaction To The Pressures Of Fame And Being 30?" The author writes:
But what’s struck me most about the messages that he posted isn’t anything Glover is feeling in particular. It’s how confusing it is to watch a star act like an actual person in public.
We’ve become so used to unnaturalness, or to a studied facade of naturalness, that when we encounter the real thing in all of its contradictory insecurity, we mistake it for evidence of serious problems, rather than a healthy processing of legitimately complex emotions.
No wonder Glover’s openness is so confusing. But as he put it to People, “If I’m depressed, everybody’s depressed. I don’t think those feelings are that different from what everybody’s feeling. Most people just don’t tell everybody.” The real difference is that most of us don’t have so many people to tell, and so little expectation of being rationally understood.
The Glover quote the author uses further reinforce his unwillingness to assert his unique life experience. The unspoken conclusion in it is "these depressed feelings are normal, this is what the human condition is." This notion comes from a culture that says what Glover is feeling and doing is "acting like an actual person" and "a healthy processing of legitimately complex emotions."

The problem, as the author suggests, isn't that people are telling him he has a serious problem. It's that they're telling him he doesn't have one so he isn't actually "processing...legitimately complex emotions" in a healthy way. That message is why he has "so little expectation of being rationally understood." He's repeatedly being told what he's feeling isn't a big deal to the point that his only choice is to attempt to rationalize it away as "normal" by saying things like "I can't be lonely tho. Cause we're all here."

We're not all there. Even though there's overlap between what I've experienced and he's experienced, I'm not even there. I identify with him to a degree, which is how I know and accept he's struggling with something unique that runs deeper than this past year.

On his 2011 album Camp, he included a a spoken word story following the last track on the album "That Power."  In it he recounts being 13 and revealing his feelings to a girl on the bus ride back from camp. He mistakenly says the word "destiny" and falls asleep. When he wakes, the girl is gone. Some other girls are laughing. One comes up to him and says "destiny." Obviously, he's hurt. What's revealing though is how he copes with the pain.
This isn’t a story about how girls are evil or how love is bad, this is a story about how I learned something and I’m not saying this thing is true or not, I’m just saying it’s what I learned. I told you something. It was just for you and you told everybody. So I learned cut out the middle man, make it all for everybody, always. Everybody can’t turn around and tell everybody, everybody already knows, I told them.
While there's a logic in his attempt at self-protection, there's also a much more damaging flaw. Glover has taken away his own right to an identity. Rather than saying he made a mistake in trusting the girl and would choose who he trusted more carefully in the future, he decided he was just going to tell everyone about himself always, basically blurring any line between "me" and "them" in his mind.

Basically, he decided the way to make sure he never felt that pain again was to make his private self belong to the public. Except the self isn't a public property. Trying to make the choices that are necessarily yours belong to everyone else only denies the self, harms it, and distances it from everyone else--bringing about feelings of invisibility and loneliness. I know.

The bus story resonated with me deeply. I too was publicly made to feel ashamed and embarrassed for liking girls in Middle School, as if I had no choice in who I liked and would one day end up with. The difference is, I retreated inward, denying other people the chance to know me--the opposite of his choice, though no less lonely.

Glover concludes the story with an even more revealing admission about the source of his pain:
I wish I could say this was a story about how I got on the bus a boy and got off a man more cynical, hardened, and mature and shit. But that’s not true. The truth is I got on the bus a boy. And I never got off the bus. I still haven’t.
I speak from personal experience when I say, let's not underplay and marginalize this man's struggles as if they're fine. There's something wrong with Donald Glover, and that's OK because he 's finally starting to accept it and try to get off the bus.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Track Tales Tuesday: The Dark Side

If City Light's first album "In It To Win It" is an exercise in youthful hope, then their followup "The Way Things Should Be" is an ode to the determination that comes with a sense of identity. Picking one song off of the latter, which was released today, to highlight is a difficult task. Each features a number of lyrics that inspires the band's determination in the listener and are perfectly complimented by their beats and breakdowns. Still, the strength of one song soars above.

My dislike of Star Wars is no secret. It'll probably come back to haunt me at some point in my life. I'd never heard a good argument for the ideas in the films...until I heard "The Dark Side" by City Lights. Perhaps predictably, the infamous Yoda quote from The Phantom Menace is included:
I sense great fear in you
and that could only mean one thing
Fear leads to anger
and anger to hate
and this is why darkness surrounds your fate
That quote is an example of my biggest problem with Star Wars. It's underdeveloped. Yoda tacks on "hate to suffering" to create a nice sounding platitude, but none of it explains why fear leads to anger and anger to hate and hate to suffering. Even more importantly, the source of fear is never mentioned.

Maybe the ultimate issue that Yoda is ignoring is the young padawan feels alone in dealing with something which makes him feels afraid. Yoda's silence on the matter would then only increase the fear, which makes me wonder something else. Is suffering the result of Yoda's progression or the start of it?

City Lights answers all these questions by adding psychological depth around the reference. They open the song:
Everyone you hold close
is poison to your mind
Be mindful of your feelings
they may pull you from the light
Immediately the role you allow other people into your life is brought into question as well as how you treat your own feelings. There is no advocating for emotionalism here. You have to be critical of what you're feeling and consider how it's affecting you. In the chorus, the band paints a picture of this solitude:
The voices in your head
Don't listen to what they say
Just keep doing what you do
When you're doubting yourself
and it's clouding your mind
stay away from the dark side 
You must fight to endure
Fear is a disease
and hope is the only cure
Unlike Yoda, City Lights shows an understanding of what leads to fear--the negativity in your head, concretized in "the voices" of people who haven't believed in you (a running theme on the album) leading to doubt. They then go on to provide an antidote to this poison--hope.

How do you find hope? Part of the answer to that question is in the chorus--doing. Do what you want and believe is right. Actions in reality trump words, especially words in your head. The rest of the song provides the other part of the answer. After dispensing some more platitudes in the second verse, the band hits the nail on the head in the bridge:
The universe can make you feel invisible
so don't forget about your principles
Keep your friends close
and your demons at bay
An underlying theme in all of pop punk is feeling like you're fighting the world on your own. Strangely, or maybe appropriately, it's only recently that bands have started to really celebrate exactly how important independence is. As a young band, City Lights is an example of this development. Another example was With the Punches, one of my all time favorite bands who recently broke up or went on hiatus or whatever they're calling it these days.

Both bands focus on internal improvements turning into external actions. They discuss developing your principles so that your definition of "friend" isn't arbitrary and so you can take action with a surety of purpose. That surety, as well as the positivity from your true friends, is what keeps your demons at bay, gives you hope, and keeps you away from the dark side.

The world adds a lot of noise to all of our heads. Developing the principles to properly sort through it is a necessity. Without them, you suffer. What Yoda didn't realize is, it's not a progression, it's a cycle--suffering leads to fear which leads to anger which leads to hate which leads to more suffering. When you're already in the cycle, one of the worst things someone can tell you is it's all your fault. While you do have a level of personal responsibility for your feelings, being told so in such a manner makes you feel even more alone.

City Lights breaks down the noise in a way Yoda couldn't. Oh well, at least the little green guy tried, right?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

For Hershel

Being on the run
for too long
plays tricks on the mind.
Dull gray walls
rusted metal bars
and leaning fences
transform safety into comfort
under the guise of life.

Too little growth
leads to stagnation,
a coffin for the soul.
and accepting,
desires disappear
and trifles turn trivial.

We were too far gone.

Now, so are you.
We’ll mourn
in the morning.

We all have jobs to do.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Track Tales Tuesday: Nothing for Christmas

Believe it or not, it's Christmas again. Every year the holiday season and it's cultural overhaul seems to appear fast and disappear even faster. It's like New Found Glory says on their song Nothing for Christmas, "December comes in a flash then it's gone."

Perhaps the most controversial part of the culture of Christmas is the music. When's too early to start hearing it? What versions of the classic songs are the best? Hell, what are the classic songs? It seems right to start playing Christmas songs right after Thanksgiving, maybe even after Santa's sleigh slides by at the end of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Pressing play then would only give you about 30 days or so with the unique set of songs though. Of course, many people would say 30 days is too many with such an annoying playlist.

I'm not one of the people who finds Christmas music annoying, though I understand the objection. Something about the style is so inoffensive and indifferent. There is almost always a lack of passion in songs that purport to portray the heartbeat of the average American. It's one of the main reasons I prefer pop punk to plain pop. Predictably, I feel the same way during the holiday season.

Nothing for Christmas by New Found Glory is the lead track on Fearless Record's latest installment of their Punk Goes... compilation, Punk Goes Christmas, and captures everything I feel about the holiday and how it fits into life in general. New Found Glory is my favorite band for a reason. Their unabashed enjoyment of life and their genre is at the forefront of their music which carries the lyrical undertone of fighting for belonging in friendships and romantic entanglements. Their song on this compilation is no different. In the second verse they pinpoint the underlying yearning of the season:
I think back to when I was younger
when everyone's together and I want you more now than ever
to not think about our troubles
No matter where you're living, you're supposed to return "home for the holidays." It's a season built on the concept of togetherness. You're not really going home though. You're chasing the feelings you associated with home when growing up. If you live somewhere for 11 months and 26 days a year, that place is home, not where you go to eat a feast, unwrap some presents, and reconnect with loved ones. I'm not saying there is no value to Christmas visits. There is and I don't know what exactly that value  is for you because I don't know what feelings you associate with the place you grew up. I only know what feelings I associate and that's what New Found Glory gets.

This year is the first I won't be going back to Massachusetts for Christmas. For the first time in 30 years, I won't be spending the holiday with my parents. If you step back and think about it for a second, it should be pretty disconcerting to do something 29 years in a row and then stop on the 30th. While I don't remember a lot from being really young, I still remember most of those 29 years. They were a lot different than I know the next 29 are going to be.
And I think back through fall, and the summer
and how it changed everything.
Let's walk through snow in the winter
and forget about our troubles
Snow not withstanding because I live in Southern California these days, I've changed a lot over the summer and fall. My brother who's a year younger than me got married in August. It was basically a big family reunion which allowed me to step back and look at my place in it in a way I never have before. This Fall I've come to realize I've never felt that togetherness. I'm not saying that I've been a perpetual outsider in my family, just that I've felt that way. It's surely why New Found Glory's music resonates with me so strongly, as their chorus on this song does:
Christmas is coming, so don't buy me nothing.
I got what I wanted, I got what I needed.
And Christmas is coming, so don't buy me anything.
I got what I wanted, I got what I needed, it's you, it's you, it's you.
When I heard that hook for the first time I immediately thought of my girlfriend and how I asked her not to buy me anything for Christmas. In lieu of spending the holiday with our families, we're taking a trip to Las Vegas to spend time away from everyone else and with each other. I asked her not to buy anything because things aren't what I want or need right now. Her money would be better spent on herself. What I want, I need, is to be here with her focusing on enjoying myself and figuring out where to go next. That's what Christmas means to me this year. That's what New Found Glory gets.

For the first time in my adult life I'm starting to feel present, and that's the only present I need.

(Punk Goes Christmas features songs from All Time Low, one of the most underrated bands in the world, genre up-and-comers Man Overboard and Real Friends, and veterans Yellowcard. Most of the songs hit the perfect balance of pop punk and Christmas.)

Monday, December 2, 2013

The (s)Words of Antonio Smith and The Governor

(Note: This article contains spoilers for Seasons 3 and 4 of AMC's The Walking Dead.)

I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Sometimes it doesn't matter what you do. No amount of hard work or time investment can make you a success. Well, let me be a bit more precise. You can reach your goals and produce your desired results. Some people will just attempt to undermine, deride, and nullify you with one simple statement because they want what you have, are unable to earn it themselves, and are unable to accept that you have it.

In case you ever want to employ this tactic against the New England Patriots, the keyword to use is "spy." Houston Texans safety Antonio Smith provided a perfect example of how-to following his team's 34-31 loss to the Patriots on Sunday. "Either teams are spying on us or scouting on us," he said in a post-game interview. Why does he think that? It seems the Texans used tactics that they hadn't in their previous 11 games yet somehow the Patriots were still able to cope with them well enough to win. Smith summarized:
"I'm very suspicious. I just think it will be a big coincidence if that just happened by chance. I don't know for sure, but I just know it was something that we practiced this week."
In Smith's mind the Texan's new tactics were so powerful they could only be combated by two methods: cheating or chance. The reality of his team being 2-9, riddled with injuries, and starting an inexperienced quarterback against an 8-3 team starting a future hall of fame quarterback and coached by a future hall of famer known for his ability to out-scheme his opponents, an ability most recently put on display the previous week when his team came back to win from a 24-0 deficit doesn't matter to him. Smith believes he deserved to win and since he didn't, he's going to find a way to say the loss doesn't actually count.

In 2007 the Patriots were the center of a huge NFL scandal called Spygate. You may have heard of it. You may have also seen the South Park episode where Bill Belichick, their coach, was mocked as a cheater. Even though most people have little to no knowledge of the details of the Spygate incident, our cultural acceptance of the Patriots as cheaters because "they spied on other teams" makes it easy for anyone to undermine their accomplishments. Smith demonstrated just how easy when speaking to reporters. By merely saying "spying," he brought the legitimacy of the Patriots victory into question. In essence, he played a trump card so he didn't have to accept what actually happened.

The Walking Dead episode "Too Far Gone" saw the series most recent and ruthless villain Phillip Blake use the exact same strategy. The tyrannical Governor of Woodbury in the post-apocalyptic world, Blake saw his small town crumble and subjects escape when he encountered the show's protagonists and their community-in-a-prison. Six months later, he had seemingly come to terms with the defeat and possessed new subjects and a tank. The prison (and victory) would be his because it was the best place to survive...if he could only convince his followers that they had the right to take what belonged to other people.

In the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead, people are much looser with their morals. Killing becomes an everyday occurrence. Mainly it's zombies that have to be dealt with. Sometimes though other people are so dangerous that killing in self defense is socially acceptable to such an extent that Stand Your Ground laws seem mild. In spite of this moral leniency, the one rule most characters can agree upon is you do not kill people without good warrant. Thus it's easy to see how labeling someone as a "killer" could give you justification to kill them and take their stuff--a dangerous thought if someone has stuff you want or need...like a well-fortified place to live.

"The people in this prison, not all of them are bad, but most of them are thieves, murders," the Governor tells his new followers, "Now why should people like that have peace of mind when we're burying our own just about every day?" This argument convinces even the weakest-stomached member of his ground, a young woman who pretended she was ex-military when they first met. It's completely understandable why too. When other people are bad and you're good, why do they deserve to have better stuff, a better life, than you? The problem is, that specious argument is almost exclusively used by people who don't deserve what they're trying to take.

The young woman watched as the Governor revealed his true character--and that he hadn't gotten over the loss of Woodbury and the power he had there. Our protagonists in the prison offered to share their residence, suggesting they live in separate cell blocks until the two groups learned to co-exist. The Governor refused in horrific fashion sending the standoff into an unnecessary blood bath. The young woman crawled away from the battle saying, "We're not supposed to be doing this." When her girlfriend reinforced that they were, she replied, "He chopped a guy's head off with a sword." The Governor, unlike the protagonists and their peaceable offer, was too far gone. He didn't want the prison. He wanted to punish the people in it. They refused to live in line with the fantasies he tried to force on them whether by word or by sword.

Accepting defeat is often the most difficult process in life. It's also the most humbling. It allows you to honestly assess your mistakes and what went wrong. Denial, worse yet denial at the word of another person, only avoids the issue and prolongs suffering. When someone quickly dismisses another person, you have to ask yourself why it's so easy for him to do so. Why was it so easy for the Governor to call the protagonists in the prison killers? Why was it so easy for Smith to say the Patriots spied?

Smith probably thinks he's right about the Patriots and now so do many football fans looking to nullify the team's continued success. What they're avoiding, however, is the simple obvious fact that ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith yelled on First Take, "You don't have to cheat to beat the Texans." I'm not sorry to be the bearer of that bad news, and I'm not going to listen to someone looking for excuses to pretend otherwise. You shouldn't either.

People like that are too far gone.