Friday, June 26, 2009

"The Man in the (Rear-View) Mirror" or "World Without Glove"

I’m feeling a little left out of the whole Michael Jackson mourning process. Much like Kurt Cobain, Jackson never really impacted my life the way I’m told he was supposed to.

A lot of that has to do with my upbringing. Where pop culture was concerned, the ‘80s hardly even happened in my neck of Wisconsin. During Jackson’s peak years of media dominance, the majority of music being played in the Brooker household fell into either the Contemporary Christian or Oldies genre. My main exposure to the King of Pop came via jokes in Bloom County strips and the Z93 DJs who yammered away during my morning school bus commutes. The former taught me that he was a creepy freak straight out of some macabre children’s book. The latter made him emblematic of the depravity, decadence and unbearable annoyance I came to associate with Top 40 radio.

I was familiar with some of his songs, sure. Half the girls in my fourth grade class were enamored of him (really not that impressive a feat, as there were 12 students total in my fourth grade class). I really didn’t have much of an opinion on his music, but my inborn contrarian streak made me dis him at every opportunity, to the chagrin of the young ladies of Leon Elementary. I specifically recall Katie Pottinger getting rather upset with me for insisting that there would not be any Michael Jackson songs played at my wedding. (For the record, there were not.)

When I reached my twenties, I started piecing together my Lost Decade by listening to some of the music I’d ignored at the time. Compared to a lot of other musical decades, I still find the ‘80s pretty lackluster, but there’s a lot of greatness there. Digging into the archives led me to quite a few amazing artists, from Talking Heads to Kurtis Blow to Laurie Anderson, not to mention a mighty impressive string of one-hit wonders (one area where the ‘80s truly dominated).

And eventually, I even got around to exploring the works of the Great Gloved One. Listening to Michael Jackson 15 to 20 years after the fact was a peculiar experience. There was no denying the man had recorded some great songs – “Billie Jean,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Black and White,” just to name a few. There was also no denying he’d recorded a lot of saccharine dreck full of subpar lyrics and ostentatious chirping. Taken as a whole, though, the Michael Jackson oeuvre really made me appreciate the vision, drive and dedication of a deeply troubled, endlessly electrifying musical genius. A genius named Prince.

To me, Michael Jackson’s most important musical legacy is inspiring Prince to spend more than a decade soundly and consistently kicking his ass. Accounts vary on whether their rivalry was friendly or bitter (my absolute favorite Prince and MJ anecdote suggests some acrimony), but there’s no question that each man pushed the other to greater heights. In my estimation, Prince’s heights soared far, far higher than Michael’s. Jackson dominated headlines and ruled the charts, but Prince’s output was more prolific, his skill set more versatile and his sound more timeless (Batman not withstanding). When Jackson started making revolutionary music videos, Prince went ahead and made a groundbreaking feature film. And Thriller may be the all-time best seller, but Purple Rain is a perfect album.

In my mind, it’s clear that Prince wins this contest, but I also doubt he would have reached those peaks if he hadn’t been constantly glancing at Michael Jackson in his rear-view mirror. I know that Jackson deserves plenty of credit in his own right – heck, his Jackson Five vocals alone would earn him a place among the greats – but where my own personal musical education is concerned, I’ll think of him most fondly as a supporting player on the path to Sign o’ the Times.

- Ira Brooker

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Kanye the Barbarian" or "Kanye West doesn't care about book people"

As he is apt to do, Kanye West raised quite the kerfuffle last week when he declared himself a “proud non-reader of books” (while promoting his own ludicrously slim book, no less). Kanye went on to say, “Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed… I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book’s autograph.”

The outcry from the writerly community has been predictable, with a lot of righteous fulmination on our culture of ignorance and the unforgivable arrogance of Kanye West. Say what you will about Kanye. Personally, I think he’s an excellent producer and decent rapper who’s adopted a manufactured messiah complex as a means of keeping his name in the headlines (The line about not wanting a book’s autograph is just too over-the-top not to be performance art), but I get why so many people have come to hate him.

I won’t go so far as to say Kanye has a point here. I don’t think he’s even trying to make a point, beyond proving that he can generate controversy by making controversial statements. But he does open the door for what I think is a long overdue conversation. Simply put, I think readers have a tendency to overvalue what they do.

Don’t get me wrong – I love reading, I love writing and I love books. In fact, I freely admit to being a literary snob. But I’m snobbish about what I read; my problem is with people who are snobbish about the very act of reading. There seems to be a prevailing idea that being a regular reader affords one a certain superiority over less bookish types. Even though I usually love any opportunity to indulge a false sense of superiority, I’m afraid I can’t completely agree.

My favorite bookstore in the world, Maple Street Book Shop in New Orleans, sells a popular bumper sticker emblazoned with the slogan “Fight the Stupids.” Much as I love the shop, I really dislike the implication that people who don’t read a lot are stupid. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for not reading much, from learning disabilities to time constraints to a basic lack of interest. Just as I know many exceptional writers who can’t spell to save their lives, I know plenty of well-rounded, intelligent people who seldom crack a book. It’s a matter of personal preference and learning style, and it’s nobody’s place to think himself better or worse because of it.

I think that strain of snobbery has hurt the institution of reading as much as any video game system or prime time reality show. The idea that books are only for nerds and eggheads was born out of centuries-old class struggles that carry on to this day. It’s perfectly natural for readers to have a defensive reaction when someone bashes books, but that shouldn’t manifest itself in disdain for those who don’t know David Foster Wallace from David Alan Grier. It’s something of a tyranny of the minority: a relatively small population of voracious readers has long convinced the world that those who don’t care for books are illiterate morons, and that’s too bad. In my experience, heaping shame on people for what they’re not is one of the least effective methods of changing their opinions.

Of course, I don’t believe that not reading is anything to be proud of. If I thought Kanye was doing anything but playing a role, I’d agree that he deserves chastisement for that part of his statement. But think of it another way – if Kanye had called himself a “proud non-watcher of television,” would it have generated the same kind of backlash? I strongly doubt it. In fact, he’d probably have been heralded as a positive influence by the “Kill your television” contingent.

I’ve never understood the knee-jerk “books good, TV bad” mindset. I’ve had intense, life-enriching experiences while enthralled by books, TV shows, movies, albums, paintings, graffiti tags, what-have-you. I’ve also been repulsed and scarred by all of the above. It’s all art, and none of it is inherently better or worse than the rest. Scrolling through any given New York Times best-seller list will reveal a slew of books that I’d consider far less life-enriching than most of what I watch on TV.

Would the “television rots your mind” set really try to tell me that my brain cells would be better served by reading Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (#4 in paperback nonfiction this week) or Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (#1 in hardcover advice) than by engaging the brilliant screenwriting of shows like The Wire or The Venture Bros? And even beyond disposable volumes like Max’s and Harvey’s, there’s some truth to Kanye’s statement: plenty of roundly acclaimed authors really do be so wordy and self-absorbed (I’m looking at you, John Irving). Television at its best is just as valid and worthwhile as any literary format, but somehow bashing TV is seen as meritorious, while dismissing books approaches heresy.

At the bottom of it all, I’m sort of glad to see that comments like Kanye’s can still spark such a vehement response. I’m a great supporter of the written word, and it’s nice to see that so many people still defend literature with such gusto. That gives me hope for the days when my own books finally see print. At the same time, I think we could all stand to chill out and take stuff like this a tad less seriously. The world already looks at the literati as a bunch of uptight blowhards. Looking down our noses at non-readers and whipping up tempests in every passing teacup does little to combat that image.

But don't get me started on Kanye's off-hand dismissal of Twitter. Them's fightin' words!

- Ira Brooker