Friday, November 28, 2008

Life is full of Gutter Balls


This is just wrong.

Bowling Alleys with bumpers so that kids no longer have to endure the painful humiliation of gutter balls? Please.

This is just another example of coddling children and succumbing to our spoiled culture of immediate gratification. I don't mean to sound cranky (or worse, like Andy Rooney) but how does this "everybody's a winner" nonsense prepare kids for life? What happened to perseverence? To practice? To learning to overcome failure?

I say, take a lesson instead from Barack Obama. His pathetic gutter balls probably cost him Pennsylvania in the Democratic Primary.

He bounced back. Your kids can too.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Top Singers of All Time?


I’m a sucker for lists.

Recently, Rolling Stone magazine featured its top 100 singers of all time.

I’m especially drawn to these sort of lists – the ones that rank music and art based on purely subjective criteria. These lists are always absurd and often terrible but they’re also a lot of fun. The value of them isn’t in the ranking but in the arguments they generate and what they reveal about your own tastes and preferences (and of course the inferior tastes and preferences of your friends, not to mention the so-called rock journalists who arbitrate such matters). And once you get past the spirit of competition, these sort of lists can be appreciated as a celebration of all those great artists. And when a magazine features a well-written tribute (like Bono writing about Bob Dylan) you might even be reminded of what was once worthwhile about such magazines and music journalism in the first place.

To be sure, any list of singers that features Bob Dylan at number seven tells you something about the criteria. We are not talking about technical ability or the beauty of a voice, and certainly not any classical or conventional measure of what constitutes great singing. Clearly, we are looking at other factors: A measure of singer’s influence on culture or other musicians? A unique vocal style? Some intangible quality that speaks to emotion? Or touches the soul? Or tells the truth? I suppose it’s any or all of the above. (The judges consisted mostly of rock musicians and journalists with some industry big-wigs thrown in for good measure).

Within the pages of the magazine, Jonathan Lethem eloquently defends the subjective and unconventional nature of the criteria:

For me, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, just to mention two, are superb singers by an measure I could ever care about – expressivity, surprise, soul, grain, interpretive wit, angle of vision.

Amen. But now it’s time to tear into this crazy list because there’s so much wrong with it:

• No Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday etc. This isn’t necessarily a criticism given that the Rolling Stone's focus is on the “Rock Era” but still, there is something arbitrary about such designations. If the list includes country legends Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and George Jones, why not Sinatra?

• No Chrissy Hynde! For me, this is the most glaring of all the omissions. Absolutely unconscionable.

• Generational Bias. Rolling Stone, as ever, is a magazine by Baby Boomers and for Baby Boomers. The list features only a handful of artists who emerged within the last 20 years: Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley, Thom Yorke and Bjork. I would add Eddie Vedder for certain. Less famous but also up there in my book are Layne Staley, Alison Krauss, Greg Dulli, and Mark Lanegan.

• I don’t care how good Patti Labelle may have been once or what kind of other-worldly pipes she possesses. Her destruction of the National Anthem before Game Four of the World Series this year should automatically disqualify her.

• Other noteworthy omissions: Michael Stipe, K.D. Lang, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and Eva Cassidy.

At some point, I’ll include my own list. In the meantime, something to think about:

What makes a great singer?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Why Hillary is the Wrong Choice for Secretary of State


I don’t mean to dwell on the negative.

After all, these are heady times for liberals. Obama supporters are still marveling at the historical magnitude of what transpired on November 4th even as we embrace the promise of change. So a certain degree of generosity is to be expected as we follow Obama's lead in healing divisions and moving toward a new administration. But I don’t like the choice of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

It’s easy enough to appreciate the logic and the politics behind the choice. This part of the agument is compelling. Hillary is smart, tough, and well-connected. She’s also an influential and groundbreaking politician, the Democratic runner-up and, lest we forget, a Clinton. It is prudent that Obama reach an acceptable accommodation with her if he is to govern effectively.

But is she right for the job? What particular expertise or experience in foreign relations does she bring to the table? Whatever Hillary’s merits, doesn’t it make more sense to appoint a seasoned diplomat to the post, someone with actual hands-on foreign policy experience - someone like Richard Holbrooke? Hillary’s foreign policy experience is limited and it comes from her role as First Lady and from her time in the Senate. It also might be argued that the institution of the U.S. Senate is already overrepresented within the Obama administration – starting with Obama himself and Joe Biden. Senators tend to be, by necessity, generalists. There are more focused avenues of expertise within DC and expertise is what is needed here, probably more so than name recognition. Even among the big names that were considered, both John Kerry and Bill Richardson have more extensive and more relevant foreign policy experience.

And finally, and there is no escaping this: Hillary is an inherently divisive figure. This is not merely how she is perceived, it is how she operates. I don't mean to pick at old wounds, but Hillary ran an election campaign that was both stupid and nasty. Her attempts to exploit racial division in America were disgusting – as bad, if not worse, than any smears that emerged from the McCain/Palin mudfest. Ah but all of that is over now, insist the Hillary defenders. Isn’t Obama’s decision to elevate his former rival, a clever and magnanimous display of leadership? (Assuming one regards a move from the Senate to the Cabinet as an elevation. Presumably, Hillary does.) And, some have noted, if Hillary possesses a Machiavellian streak, is that really such a bad quality in a Secretary of State who will be sitting across the table from the likes of Vladimir Putin? But most importantly, isn’t it time to let bygones be bygones and find a way for Americans to set aside their differences and to work together?

Well, sure. But my objections to Hillary aren’t rooted in vindictiveness over the kind of campaign she ran. The point is that the kind of campaign she ran revealed some alarming deficiencies in her judgment – a deafness of tone and a lack of emotional intelligence. Her choice of staff, her frequent condescension and her inability to measure the consequences of her words and tactics should give us pause. A Secretary of State must not merely be smart, tough and have an extensive rolodex – she must be adroit at sizing up situations, forging alliances and seizing opportunities to win friends. In short, the post calls for a uniter, not a divider.

None of this has dampened my enthusiasm for Obama and for the most part, his cabinet seems to be shaping up nicely. Other Obama supporters remind me that Obama is a pretty smart fellow and that we should trust his judgment and his leadership which, so far, has been impressive. And I agree that it has. But it’s not lack of trust in Obama’s leadership that motivates me to write on matters such as this. I admire Obama’s qualities of leadership but I’m also aware that the truth of this nation applies to even our strongest and greatest leaders. My support for Barack Obama, as sincere and wholehearted as it is, does not move me to silent obedience - I do not work for him. Beginning on January 20, 2009, he works for me. For all of us.