Wednesday, August 24, 2011

shootin' straight

From Straight Shooting (John Ford, 1917)


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wow Cliffs Notes (sic) really were godawful

Remember Cliffs Notes (or, as Wiki states, "CliffsNotes, formerly Cliffs Notes, originally Cliff's Notes and often, erroneously, CliffNotes"), those yellowjacketed study guides of great literature for lazy high schoolers? They were supposed to be the bane of our teachers' existence because...well, why really? Because they invited the student to avoid the hard work of actually reading Jude the Obscure or whatever? Big deal. Although I do recall several English teachers warning us to avoid Cliff and His Notes and even promising to fail us if the slim volumes were ever found on our person, never once did they suggest to run screaming from them because the analyses within were so godawful.

Cleaning out thirty-plus years of accumulation from my bedroom recently, I came across the Cliffs Notes for The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire or, to honor the exact title, Cliffs Notes on Williams' Glass Menagerie & Streetcar Named Desire. Apparently conjunctions and even titles require summary (no time for articles [indefinite or otherwise] in the world of too much/not enough). Written by one James L. Roberts, Ph.D. (whose name is prudently left off the cover), this entry contains myriad howlers with respect to the ambient sexuality in Williams' hothouse universe:

"Williams is overly fond of using Freudian sexual symbols. The reader should be aware of these and choose his own response. Aside from the use of raw meat, he uses the bowling balls and pins, and the columns of the Belle Reve plantation home as obvious overt phallic and sexual symbols. The fact that Stanley bowls suggests symbolically his characteristic of summing everything up in terms of sexuality." (41)

"Note the symbolic use of names throughout the play. Blanche DuBois means white of the woods. The white is a play on Blanche's supposed innocence and the woods are used as another Freudian phallic symbol." (42)

I'll let you choose your own response. As for why I had CliffsNotes in the first place, I worshipped Tennessee Williams in junior high and read all of his plays countless times. And I mean, all (I had to special order his relatively obscure 1980 play Clothes for a Summer Hotel from B. Dalton's. The two female employees told my mother and I that they had seen the play and were excited that someone special ordered it. But they seemed both stunned and disappointed to discover it was a 12-year-old boy.) So I picked up the CliffsNotes for some insight my pubescent mind wasn't grasping. But even back then, I knew the analyses were eye-rolling stuff.

And it wasn't just that volume. I also recall the author of the Hamlet Cliffs claiming there was only one way to play The Great Dane's first soliloquy (I think) and that John Barrymore had interpreted it incorrectly whereas so-and-so did it right blah blah blah. I much preferred Hamlet in Everyday English because at the very least it inspired me to rewrite the entire play in my own 1980s slang (true story).

According to this appropriately snarky article, CliffsNotes were the brainchild of one Clifton Hillegass who went on to reap $14 million from these things. I have no clue how widely they circulate today but this article claims that John Wiley and Sons, current owners of the franchise, have partnered with Mark Burnett to produce one-minute video distillations of CliffNotes' already distilled takes on the canon. That may not be as bad as it initially sounds. A minute doesn't give one much time to indulge in the claptrap quoted above. And maybe they can pare it down even further, summarizing A Streetcar Named Desire with a belch so we can move on as quickly as possible to something of value.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Newsflash: Radio Playlists Are Small

One of the most insightful sentences in all of rockwrite comes early in Simon Frith’s Sound Effects: “The pop song banalities people pick up on are, in general, not illuminating but encouraging” (38). This is a crucial idea for pop music inquisitors because the inclination to remain at a distance from our shiny, happy objects of inquiry can only go so far. Frith’s quote reminds us that mastery over a pop text largely concerns a receptivity to how it masters you. No matter how coldly, confidently intellectual we get, we all need some encouragement now and then.

Like, for instance, on a 16-hour, two-day drive in a ten-foot truck moving to the next chapter of my life. Ten feet might seem small potatoes to all you 10-4 good buddies out there. But for someone like me who hasn’t driven in a year and doesn’t have much experience with anything bigger than an SUV, the prospect gave me heart palpitations.

But as soon as I drove the little beast out of the rental shack, there were pop song banalities encouraging me from the radio: Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Pat Benatar’s best shot “Shadows of the Night,” the like. Jon told me “we got each other.” Pat implored “we got nobody else.” They let me know that we’re in this together and with the clarion call production of Bruce’s “Glory Days” assuring me I wouldn’t wind up like one of his nostalgia-soaked characters, I knew pop radio would help me through this trip.

That didn’t happen. The 44 in Missouri is all twists, turns, and dissected plateaux feeding into my terror that this truck was going to tip over. Hitting it at night was moronic too. Add some hideous rain (it’s amazing how efficiently you can molest the steering wheel to find the windshield wipers in a panic) with a few 18-wheeled jerks tailgating (!) and you have the makings of a state of non-receptivity to pop song banalities. Screaming at the serpentine topography, I craved something more antisocial than the radio was ever going to offer, The Angelic Process perhaps. Or something that transformed me into a warrior to compete with the real truckers. I needed Motörhead: “Snaggletooth” as much as bottled water and primo gas station cappuccinos. For the first time in my life, I glimpsed what it must feel like to exist in such a misanthropic state 24/7. Is this how Bloody Panda have fans?

Even worse for a poptimist like me, heavy rotation turned those pop song banalities into boldfaced lies. It wasn’t long before “Livin’ on a Prayer” came on again and this time, Jon sounded like a loan shark. Then it came on again and now he was a guilty murderer who repeats his story over and over to avoid telling the truth. I knew playlists were restrictive even for oldies. But actually experiencing it was far more oppressive than encouraging.

And it kept happening. With “We Are Family.” With “Gypsy.” With “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart).” With freakin’ “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.” All snake oil dripping from the FM. As I crept farther south, I expected country to offer a respite. But so much of it now gives off an anonymous hard rock blare that the choruses especially sounded like Incubus or whoever. And I quickly got sick of Dierks Bentley asking “Am I The Only One?” (Yeah, sorry Dierks, you’ll have to party all by your lonesome you. I need to get this rig in before sunset.) I admit that if Missouri had one (1) mile of straight and narrow highway, I wouldn’t have been so closed off. But how great of a mood does one have to be in to adore the same banalities repeated several times in one road trip?

Not that it was all bad. I never tired of the latest chart toppers because they haven’t worn out their welcomes yet; their promises still seem genuine. Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory,” Nicki Minaj’s sunbursting “Super Bass” (always knew it was no “bonus cut”), Adam “Maroon 5” Levine’s “Moves Like Jagger,” oh this must be the new Adele, etc. all sounded fresh on their sixth, seventh go arounds if only in the chutzpah of their airwave saturation. But the only peace I made with the dial came late in the trip when I happened upon a really oldies station playing Sinatra, The McGuire Sisters, and Jack Jones whose pre-rock smoothness calmed my frayed nerves.

Unsurprisingly, when I was on my feet and starting to get back on track (after dealing with apartment snafus, evil cable companies, a looooooong foray into car purchasing, an unfortunate sojourn to Walmart, etc.), I reached for music that mirrored my burgeoning confidence like Gang of Four’s “Ether.” Now that I was a tough guy again, I could navigate its every off-kilter rhythm. But in retrospect, my enslavement to radio was illuminating, a reminder that pop encouragement is always contextual, provisional, and subject to the demands of record promotion. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to being my own DJ again as I unpack boxes and boxes of musical information.