Monday, March 8, 2010

Being a fan of assholes

This is more properly the area of someone else I know quite well, but Migs's post about the awesome:douche ratio brings up the question of what it means to be a fan. We're all fans of all sorts of people who have Awesome qualities and Douche qualities. Three examples from my own fandom set: Kobe Bryant raped a woman and paid her to keep quiet about it, but is one of the most interesting and talented basketball players ever; Magic Johnson cheated on his wife hundreds, maybe thousands, of times, but broke the mold for the point guard position and provided an example for the world that AIDS can be lived with (if you happen to be extraordinarily wealthy, of course); Eminem uses every misogynist and homophobic slur in the book, but is the most technically talented mainstream rapper of his day.

These three examples aren't exactly of a piece, and the distinctions are important. Kobe and Magic's excellences are entirely unrelated to their off-court shenanigans. (Obviously we can speculate about whether the same personality traits that drive them to be great basketball players also drive them to do the bad things they do, but not only is that pure guesswork, it's also still different from the case of Eminem.) Eminem, by contrast, raps about killing his wife. It's not like he's a singer who uses "faggot" in interviews, thus allowing us to try drawing lines between his music and his personality. We have to take the whole him when we listen to his songs.

For the ladies

The case of Kobe, Magic, or John Mayer is complicated by the fact that there could plausibly be some people who don't know about their outside work, as it were. Imagine a seven-year-old Lakers fan who just loves Kobe Bryant. That child was a tiny baby when the rape happened, and you could understand it if the parents are reluctant to get into the concept of sexual assault with their seven-year-old. (And if that seven-year-old read Mayer's Playboy interview, something's wrong.)

Of course, I'm not seven. What does it say about me that I'm a fan of Kobe Bryant, that I root for him almost without thinking about this dark side? I try to comfort myself with the idea that I'm hardly unique in this. After all, Kobe didn't even lose his Nike endorsement in the fallout from the sexual assault. Obviously Nike didn't feel that people would care enough, and they apparently do not. Kobe's jersey continues to sell at the top of the heap.

The nature of "rooting for laundry" also complicates the question. You can have guys you like more or less on a team, but in general, if you root for a team, you support the players on that team. If John Mayer's antics start to annoy you, you can just drop him. No such luck with Kobe. I would almost certainly hate him if he were on any other team in the league, and I might actually wish him bodily harm if he were a Celtic. But he wears the "right" colors, so all his faults, small and large, get thrown out the window.

There are a million places this topic could go: the role of the media in showing us these bad sides (did people know Mickey Mantle was a drunk?); the chicken-egg question of whether good or bad character leads us to choose things to root for in the first place; the difference between actors, musicians, athletes, and others on the question of how much character matters; etc. This post is getting longish, though, so let's see what happens as a multiple-post matter.

Friday, March 5, 2010

John Mayer and the Awesome:Douche Ratio

[Author's Note: This is the corrected version of this post. The previous version was an accidentally published draft.]

I spent last Thursday and Friday night at Madison Square Garden (the World's Most Famous Arena!) to take in two sold out shows by John Mayer, pop-rock's most quotable guitar God. Why two nights in a row? Mayer is an artist that's worth going back for. Over the course of two nights, not only will he play different setlists, but the songs he does repeat will be played differently. Gravity was a 15 minute epic on night one, with pieces of Otis Redding's "Dreams to Remember" and Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" worked in, while night two was more subdued; Half of my Heart featured an extended monologue on both nights. I can honestly recommend few concert experiences as highly as the John Mayer one (and I see a lot of concerts).

If John Mayer did nothing but write thoughtful, introspective songs and play kick-ass guitar solos, it would be pretty easy to tell people that I was a fan of his. But I face a couple of impediments. The first has happened to many artists in the past - his most prominent singles don't represent his best work. "Your Body is a Wonderland" is a saccharine guitar pop song, pleasant to listen to but something he's moved far beyond as a songwriter and guitar player. "Daughters" sounds like a damn Hallmark card, even if it is about having trouble dating girls with Daddy issues (true story). But I'm fine telling people that they need to listen to his last two albums, Continuum in particular, which blend his blues and pop sensibilities.

There's a bigger problem, though. People think I'm a fan of a douchebag.

I can see where they're coming from.

Dating actresses and pop tarts like Jessica Simpson started him on that path. Talking openly about his breakup with Jennifer Aniston to paparazzi really got the ball moving. The trips to Vegas didn't help either. While some found the irreverent Twitter account fun and a mild diversion, some found that he was turning up the douche factor. (Example here.) And I'm pretty sure some people just didn't like his hair cuts.

Then he did a couple of interviews you may have heard about. They've been recapped in plenty of places, so I won't do a full discussion, but if you care Google "John Mayer" and "Rolling Stone" or "Playboy" and then add "n-word", "masturbation", or everyone's favorite, "sexual napalm."

Sexual Napalm.

There's a few questions that result from all this:

1) Is he a douchebag?

Maybe. Even his staunchest defenders have to concede that he made some douchy comments (particularly in talking about the Aniston break up in the press - that was not cool). Being open about his personal life and his opinions makes Mayer an interesting interview, but as someone who's as connected to social media as he is, he had to know that any nuanced comments he made would quickly be broken down to 140 characters. I think that makes him at times thoughtless- I don't know if that alone qualifies him as a douche.

He's also self-centered, for sure, but Mayer's self-centeredness isn't the typical meathead type showcased on Hot Chicks With Douchebags. He's self-centered because he's neurotic; he thinks a lot about how he's living his life, how he deals with other people, and what he's trying to accomplish in life. He's fascinated by himself. Again, I'm not sure that in and of itself qualifies him as a douche, but you could argue that it manifests itself in douchy ways.

But this argument is almost besides the point. None of us actually know John Mayer. We can't really comment on how he treats people, which is generally the mark of a true douche. Let's assume he is one for the sake of argument, which leads to question two.

2) If he's a douche, why am I still a fan?

I'm a bigger believer in something that I'll call the Awesome:Douche ratio. This is an important thing to monitor for any entertainer who you might have to support with your money. I really don't need to care if Bret Michaels is a douche: Rock of Love comes to me as part of my cable subscription, and my decision to watch the show doesn't indicate a particular level of support. But if I'm going to pay for a concert, I'm directly supporting someone's lifestyle. I'm saying that I've enjoyed their music enough that I want them to be monetarily rewarded for it, and I'll use my own wad of cash to do it. So if someone is a douche, their music better be really awesome for me to see a show. I first had to make this decision as my Oasis fandom developed in my teen years. Any rational person probably wants to punch Liam Gallagher in the face. But have you heard Morning Glory? It's one of my top 5 albums of the 90s. Plus, they put on a super show. I decided that I didn't care enough about the band being assholes to deprive myself of their excellent music.

I was on the fence a bit with John Mayer late last year. Initially, I didn't take too well to his most recent album. And defending myself as a John Mayer fan was getting annoying. But then I went to see his show at the Beacon Theater in November, and you know what? He's still got it. Songs I didn't love on his new record blossomed when performed live, and hearing the material from Continuum again reminded me just how much I love that album.

Moreover, the self-centeredness I discussed above is the key to Mayer's songwriting: even if he isn't always the best guy, he thinks a lot about how to go about living as a younger adult male. This makes the songs resonate and become useful as a springboard for the listener to reflect on their own life. At that point, it doesn't really matter if the guy singing is "living it right" (to steal a line), as long as it helps the listener do so.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

It is a little weird that non-American Asians seem to have had so little penetration in the American pop music market. Migs asked me the other day, while preparing for his post, if I could name any Asian pop or rock stars. The only person I could come up with was James Iha, who (a) is an American of Japanese descent; (b) was in Smashing Pumpkins, but was not the frontman. I later remembered that there's also Cibo Matto, founded by Japanese expatriates in America (and apparently only popular in the states) and Shonen Knife, off the top of my head.

Of course, as with anything, there is a niche culture -- there are American "J-pop" fans, just like there are American fans of Afrobeat, Norwegian black metal, Mexican rap, and French house. I'm confident saying, though, that I've read far more reviews in mainstream American music magazines discussing albums by and influenced by the above four genres than any mentioning Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Korean music.

But that's only half the question, and in some ways it's the less interesting half, because there are lots of countries and cultures that haven't exported pop music to America. The other half is "where are all the Asian-Americans?" Black Americans, of course, are a significant part of the American music scene, even in areas that aren't traditionally "Black music". There are plenty of Latino American rappers (Pitbull, Lloyd Banks, Jim Jones), pop singers (Christina Aguilera, David Archuleta, Jennifer Lopez), rock musicians (Los Lobos, Zach de la Rocha, Dave Navarro, Robert Trujillo from Metallica), and other (Joan Baez).


That said, Wikipedia tells me that Amerie's mother is Korean, Ne-Yo's mother is of Chinese and African descent, Tony Kanal from No Doubt is Indian-American, and Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park is of Japanese descent. And then how could I have forgetten Jin! Wikipedia also points to a number of musicians with Filipino roots, including Joey Santiago and Nicole Scherzinger.

What jumps out at me from this list is a perception issue, partly arising from people of mixed race not carrying the Asian parent's name and partly from the fact that "Asian" is a remarkably diverse category in terms of cultures, languages, and physical characteristics. That is, the typical American picture of a Latino, while not always terribly accurate (blond-haired, blue-eyed Argentians might confound people), is probably more accurate than the typical picture of Asians, which I'd guess is based mostly on Chinese, Japanese, and Korean immigrants. Hell, even as to the idea of "Chinese", our picture is not very accurate -- China has a lot of ethnic groups that are not accounted for by our standard picture.

So maybe, in particular relative to population size, Asian-American representation in American pop music is completely normal.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Great Korean Hope

One week into American Idol watching, Big Mike is still in it, and I'm already annoyed by about half the contestants. And I know which ones will be most annoying - the ones who aren't all that good, but who are cute and popular. This is the nature of the game - it's a popularity contest, and being a talented or interesting performer isn't the only way to be popular. Some of the guys are popular because they're cute. Big Mike's popularity in part stems from his inspirational story. And John Park is trying to do something unprecedented.

Based on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter followers, John Park is the 2nd most popular performer. He's cute for sure, but he's also attempting to become the first Asian-American pop star (well, male pop star if you count the Singaporean Tila Tequila as a pop star, but she falls more into the famous for being famous genre). It's hard to figure out why this is. The major Asian countries are huge music markets (Uncle Jesse's band on Full House was legendarily "big in Japan," as was Cheap Trick). The Asian-American population is large, particularly in New York and California, and they love music too. Heck, they invented karaoke! Who doesn't love karaoke?

So, why is there this lack? Perhaps because, unlike Latin music, Asian pop isn't a distinct musical style from American pop. But it's surprising that the music industry hasn't attempted to pander to this market. That's the void that John Park appears to be stepping right into.

As I type this, he's doing what is, to my ears, a pretty mediocre version of John Mayer's Gravity. SEGUE~! - tomorrow I'll be talking about the John Mayer live experience, and the douche:awesome ratio.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Generic Pop Stars and American Idol

Sadly, I can't follow up on Migs's American Idol post by saying "I've never seen the show". I saw a lot of whichever season it was that had John Stevens, which I think might've been the Ruben-Clay season, but don't hold me to that.

Look, it's Pink!

Stevens is an interesting data point on this idea that Idol is a great way to create boring pop stars, because he was absolutely the least boring contestant his year, while also having absolutely no chance of winning. Stevens, as some of you will recall (but Migs will not), was a Sinatra/Dino/Bobby Darin kind of singer. This was, of course, fascinating in a pop landscape where memories tend to stretch back only about as far as Madonna and Michael Jackson. You can see, though, how Stevens wasn't going to do so well with, say, "Latin Week" (which was, according to Wikipedia, the week he was voted off).

If American Idol were actually intended to create genuine pop stars (rather than simply being a money machine for Fox, which it is), the producers would recognize that even the broadest of pop music is targeted, niched in a certain way. Name some platinum-selling artist and I'll tell you some other platinum-selling artist's catalog that they'd be completely unable to handle. Getting back to Madonna and Michael -- they couldn't have done each other's songs (even accounting for gender differences). Pink and Britney Spears and Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera are/were not interchangeable.

The format of Idol, though, requires the winner to finish not-last in each week. If you're middle-of-the-pack at every possible song style there is, you'll do very well on Idol, and you may get lucky enough to win. If you're excellent at some things and terrible at others (as most genuine pop stars probably are), you're probably going home early because you'll have a disastrous performance during, say, Country Week.

This isn't groundbreaking stuff, but it's basically by way of explanation of my lack of interest in the program. It's not the only reason, of course (overly bombastic singing, the judges saying the same things over and over ("a little pitchy, dawg"), too many theme weeks I just don't care about, too much puff in between performances), but if I genuinely thought the next Ke$ha or Pink or Gaga was coming out of this show, I'd watch it, even with Randy Jackson at the end of the table.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Watching American Idol

Not as exciting as Wojo's pictures, I know.

Before I discuss watching American Idol for the first time, have people seen these McDonald's ads with the coach telling the kids they can "eat like Olympians" and then taking them to McDonald's? This is an homage to the Little Chocolate Donuts SNL parody, right?

So after 8 years of avoiding American Idol, I've relented and am watching my first full episode as I write this. I enjoy music a lot. I enjoyed the show Rock Star (sadly, that Tommy Lee band from season 2 did not last). So why not Idol? I tend to avoid things that everyone likes which also seem dumb to me. And Idol always struck me as a way to create mediocre pop stars. Did you ever listen to that album Kelly Clarkson wrote herself? Neither did anyone else. Although she can sing a song written by hook-loving Swedes.

Why am I doing this?

Home bar pride. The lead singer of one of my favorite local bar bands, East Coast (no, not the most original name) tried out for Idol... and made it onto the initial show... and made through all the preliminary rounds... and tomorrow, dude performs live on national TV. He's the one they call Big Mike. I want him to succeed, and I care just enough to actually watch and probably even vote.

This will be a bit of a social experiment. Sort of like that guy who hasn't seen Lost watching the last season of Lost. So far, my thoughts? Many of these people are not very talented, and almost all of them are boring. I generally find myself agreeing with Simon.

Also, does Ellen know she looks like an elf? She could do a production of Peter Pan tomorrow.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Our Gossipy Society and Tiger's Statement

I'm interested in the point Jason made about how many people's interest in gossip is driven by their friends' interest. Following gossip is worthwhile if it means not getting left out of the conversation. Our friend Pam quipped that perhaps we should find friends who talk about more interesting things, and while I agree philosophically, it feels like more of my friends talk about celebrity gossip than before. But why?

Other than our culture getting more vapid (a possibility), I think it has to be the ease of doing it. It used to be that to follow the stories, you needed to buy a magazine weekly. Now, TMZ and Perez Hilton and all the others are free, and offer news faster. Moreover, the increasing number of people doing it has decreased the stigma of doing so. Jason referred to sneaking a purchase of US Weekly at the supermarket, but now friends will regularly send me links to gossip. And I need to read them because... well, how else would I follow important sports stories?

I swear, I only watch Keeping up with the Kardashians to inform Wojo of how Lamar Odom is doing.

I haven't watched the Tiger Woods press conference yet, but after reading reports, I'm still pretty disappointed that he hasn't put on the proverbial black hat (funny, since he wears a literal one all the time) and just admit that he's not really sorry for what he did, and that he's going to go out and kick some puritan golf ass. Reading the clearly manufactured statements about being sorry and wanting to be a better person is just... well, boring. If I wanted boring, I'd watch golf.