Thursday, July 30, 2015

It's Been a Grim Few Days

Friends, it's been a grim few days. Let's smile a little.

This always makes me smile. Enjoy.

That Stupid Zeppelin vs. Minaj Meme

I've seen this meme floating around my social media feeds recently, and it really gets under my skin. I wouldn't necessarily argue that Nicki Minaj is some intellectual paragon of our modern era, but I've frequently seen her boiled down as vapid, and used as a sign of the decline of our intelligence, which is unfair and reductive.

On the one hand, comparing Nicki Minaj to Led Zeppelin is unfair due to the differences in their statuses in our culture. She is, after all, only a pop artist, whereas Led Zeppelin has been elevated since the 70's to iconic status. It's sort of like comparing some boring, butt rock band like Nickelback or Creed to Frank Sinatra.

It's not just comparing what could be a simple pop fad to musical icons that's unfair, though. The musical styles aren't really comparable in a "better vs worse" kind of way. Rap and rock are pretty substantially different genres.

Also, comparing Minaj to Zeppelin ignores the almost assuredly stupid and/or vapid stuff that was popular in the '70s that was forgotten because it wasn't interesting or good enough to keep around taking up pop-culture space. (I can't verify anything about "Thank You"'s placement in the music charts. I'm not sure it was released as a single? The only reference to it as a single that I can find is on Wikipedia, which is noted with a "citation needed," so...less than useful.)

And on yet another hand (so many hands!), using "You a Stupid Hoe"'s chorus is cherry picking the least representative song from her catalog. She's certainly written other stuff that's pretty deep:

"I look beyond what people sayin', and I see intent
Then I just sit back and decipher, what they really meant
Cherish these nights, cherish these people
Life is a movie, but there will never be a sequel
And I'm good with that, as long as I'm peaceful
As long as 7 years from now, I'm taking my daughter to preschool
Cherish these days, man do they go quick
Just yesterday, I swear it was o' six
Ten years ago, that's when you proposed
I look down, yes I suppose" -- "All Things Go"

"I fly with the stars in the skies
I am no longer trying to survive
I believe that life is a prize
But to live doesn't mean you're alive
Don't worry 'bout me and who I fire
I get what I desire, it's my empire
And yes I call the shots, I am the umpire
I sprinkle holy water upon the vampire
In this very moment I'm king
In this very moment I slay Goliath with a sling
In this very moment I bring, put it on everything
That I will retire with the ring" -- "Moment 4 Life"

It's a common thing I've seen among people (especially certain corners of the internet) to try to use rap as some kind of example of our stumble toward IDIOCRACY, but excepting African-American Vernacular, a lot of the stuff people wind up talking about is stuff that's always true in music, but doesn't usually become a problem until black people and/or women do it.

Just as an example, I've seen people pearl clutch because rap is often very frank and open about drug use and sex, often intertwining the two. However, drugs and sex have been referenced in music since the stone age (the time period, not the queens of).

“Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg" - Robert Johnson (1937)

"She take you down easy
Going down to her knees
Going down to the devil
Down down at ninety degrees" AC/DC "Giving the Dog a Bone

Particularly in the 60's and 70's, when our culture was having a pretty strong love-affair with this stuff, it made its way into music as well as basically all other aspects of art--books, poetry, paintings, movies, etc. While the rest of the country has moved on, drugs stick around in poor communities, and given various economic issues, the black population is overwhelmingly poor--especially when compared to whites. So, of course people coming from those communities will write about that stuff. That's where the phrase "write what you know" comes from. That isn't to say all black folks come from poor or high crime areas, but redlining, white flight to the suburbs, and other types of racist housing segregation have had their effect in some areas.

And sex, because we're all living in the shadow of the Victorian era, even still, is often dealt with in a humorous way because it still makes us a bit uncomfortable, and humor is how we deal with uncomfortable things. "Anaconda" is a silly song. Just like the song it's sampling, "Baby Got Back" was silly. And just like "Giving the Dog A Bone" and "Big Balls" by AC/DC are silly, and "Big Ten Inch Record" by Aerosmith is silly.

And as for silly, nonsensical lyrics being a problem:

"Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower
Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna
Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe" -- "I Am the Walrus" - The Beatles

"Here come old flattop, he come grooving up slowly
He got joo-joo eyeball, he one holy roller" -- "Come Together" - The Beatles

Again, I'm not claiming Minaj is the intellectual voice of our generation. But it's easy to cherry pick lines from a few well-known and silly songs and point to those as examples that Minaj is some dim-witted know-nothing when she can, in fact, write interesting and probing stuff.

People often mock the way hip-hop approaches subjects, frequently bluntly. That's how you get lines like:

"Now that bang bang bang,
I let him hit it 'cause he slang Cocaine
He toss my salad like his name Romaine
And when we done, I make him buy me Balmain
I'm on some dumb shit" -- Nicki Minaj - "Anaconda"

But if you look at the context of "Anaconda," cocaine has made Minaj's beau of the verse extremely wealthy, and sex is how she gets and keeps herself in that wealth. Sex is her currency.

There's, like, 50 conversations we could have about just that part alone: women pop artists being forced to adopt sexualized personas to succeed, black women in hip hop being pushed out of the genre by men and being similarly forced into mostly sexual personas and song subjects, the oversexualization of black women and the role of the market in boxing women into those roles, women using sexuality as a tool to attempt to balance the inequalities in a patriarchal system, the bias against African-American vernacular for sounding "unintelligent" and how that can be reflective of white colonial ideals, and several others.

Men historically have basically never been forced into a situation where sex is their only recourse to try to navigate and succeed in the world, and as such, men are almost never depicted as having to resort to such strategies in fiction or pop culture. The only example of such that I can think of played straight is Finn in Catching Fire. Any time men get put in feminized and emasculated situations like that, it's played as a joke, like "Boy Named Sue," or even how people treat Oprah's partner, Stedman.

Another thing that bothers me about this comparison: Minaj is no Kendrick Lamar or even Queen Latifah, but comparing her act to Led Zeppelin's is unfair because they're two different types of performances. If you wanted to compare Minaj to an iconic act, a more apt comparison would be Madonna. Both Minaj and Madonna are celebrations of sexuality and femininity. Their acts are meant to be cheesy and sexual and flashy. (Or, if you want to stay more "rock" than "pop," she's kinda sorta similar to Twisted Sister and KISS, two bands that aren't really meant to be deep, but rather silly fun.)

One more thing: these types of posts assume that boring and/or repetitive lyrics, isolated from the context of the song, is representative of the song as a whole. This isn't exactly fair. "You a Stupid Hoe" is not only those four words repeated throughout the whole song. In fact, doing some research into the meaning of the song, "You a Stupid Hoe" has an interesting history. It's apparently a reply to woman rap star Lil Kim, who claimed that Minaj was stealing her act--i.e. being sexy. The song disses her like crazy, and the chorus is repetitive and irritating because it is a taunt. It's Minaj saying "Nanny nanny, boo boo" to Lil Kim, challenging her. Which is, at the very least, interesting if it doesn't fully succeed. I feel the same way about "Anaconda"--interesting if not totally successful.

The thing is, if you want an example of the sign of our boring-ass lyrical times, you can look to the reductive-gender-politics mess that is Meghan Trainor's "Dear Future Husband," or the blatant attempt to lazily coast on previous success that was Green Day's "Know Your Enemy" (as well as the entirety of 20th Century Breakdown...zzzzzz).

It's weird to be arguing so hard for Minaj when I have listened to very little of her stuff--although I've been tempted to start since she's one of the only successful female rappers in the game right, which I feel deserves attention. But whenever I see this meme passed around, I get uncomfortable.

I'm not saying folks can't dislike the song, or think the lyrics are lazy, repetitive, stupid, boring, whatever. But sometimes people just mean "lololol, dumb lyrics." Which, maybe they are. But sometimes it's clear that the lyrics are being used as a smokescreen to piss all over hip hop as a musical style at least and often black culture as a whole. And I think taking a moment to really consider what you think and why you think it can be a useful exercise.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Stephen King Movies Ranked

Photo Credit Michael Tackett/CBS
Because why not?

I grabbed most of this list from the Wikipedia article "List of adaptations of works by Stephen King."
I've removed the TV series and TV episodes. Movies, both theatrical and TV, are included, and I've decided miniseries count as super-long TV movies. Leaving off miniseries would leave off things like It, which is, y'know, iconic at this point, if only for Tim Curry as Pennywise.

My ranking of "best movies" may differ from yours. This is arranged somewhat by technical quality and somewhat by level of enjoyment. I'm able to forgive some flaws--technical, story, effects--if there are good performances.

I divided my list into categories:

The Great - movies that are classics or should be classics.
The Good - movies that I feel hold up pretty well (although from about Firestarter on, the films become less "really good" and more "okay").
The Dumb But Fun - movies that I can't really make the argument are good, but are certainly fun to watch in different way--stupid plot, overacting, cheesy effects, or just sheer lunacy.
The Bad - it should go without saying that this is the dreck.
The Unseen - movies that I haven't seen yet for whatever reason.

Without further ado.

The Great

1. The Shining (1980)
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
3. Misery (1990)
4. The Dead Zone (1983)
5. The Mist (2007)
6. Hearts in Atlantis (2001) (based on the novella Low Men In Yellow Coats from 1999)
7. Carrie (1976)
8. 1408 (2007)
9. Stand By Me (1986) (based on the novella The Body from 1982)
10. The Green Mile (1999)

The Good

11. The Dark Half (1993)
12. Cujo (1983)
13. Pet Sematary (1989)
14. Secret Window (2004) (based on the novella Secret Window, Secret Garden from 1990)
15. Creepshow (1982)
16. Christine (1983)
17. Salem's Lot (1979)
18. Storm of the Century (1999)
19. Rose Red (2002)
20. It (1990)
21. Children of the Corn (1984)
22. Carrie (2013)
23. Thinner (1996)
24. Desperation (2006)
25. Firestarter (1984)
26. The Stand (1994)
27. The Shining (1997)
28. Needful Things (1993)
29. Bag of Bones (2011)
30. Creepshow 2 (1987)

The Dumb but Fun

31. Silver Bullet (1985) (based on the novella Cycle of the Werewolf from 1983)
32. Maximum Overdrive (1986) (based on the short story "Trucks" from 1973)
33. The Mangler (1995)
34. The Running Man (1987)
35. The Tommyknockers (1993)
36. The Langoliers (1995)
37. Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
38. Quicksilver Highway (1997)

The Bad

There's really no point to ranking these because they're all pretty bad to atrocious.
  • Dreamcatcher (2003)
  • The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer (2003)
  • Pet Sematary Two (1992)
  • Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1993)
  • Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)
  • Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996)
  • Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)
  • Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (1999) 
  • The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999)
  • Carrie (2002)
  • Salem's Lot (2004)
  • Sometimes They Come Back...Again (1996)
  • Riding the Bullet (2004)
  • The Lawnmower Man (1992)*
  • The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (1996)*
*These two are of particular note because, as bad as some adaptations of King's work have been, The Lawnmower Man was so bad, and so far removed from the story King wrote, he actually successfully sued to have his name removed from the movie. The sequel isn't even listed on the "adaptations of Stephen King" article on Wikipedia--the rationale for which appears to be that the sequel wasn't based on any Stephen King story, which would be fine, except for all of the Children of the Corn sequels and the Sometimes They Come Back sequels.

You probably noticed that none of the miniseries made it into the "great" category. That's for a number of reasons. Even the best miniseries were constrained by what could be shown on television, which often meant cheap effects, weaker scares, and sometimes some pretty hammy acting. And because these miniseries were much longer, often to stay truer to the actual plot of the book, the pacing is a bit all over the place even in the best ones.

The Unseen
  • 1985 Cat's Eye
  • 1987 A Return to Salem's Lot
  • 1990 Graveyard Shift
  • 1991 Golden Years
  • 1992 Sleepwalkers
  • 1995 Dolores Claiborne
  • 1997 Trucks
  • 1997 The Night Flier
  • 1998 Apt Pupil
  • 2001 Children of the Corn: Revelation
  • 2001 The Mangler 2
  • 2002 Firestarter 2: Rekindled
  • 2005 The Mangler Reborn
  • 2007 Creepshow III (Unofficial sequel to the 1987 film. King wasn't involved.)
  • 2007 No Smoking (Indian film) (based on the short story Quitters Inc.)
  • 2009 Dolan's Cadillac
  • 2009 Children of the Corn
  • 2011 Children of the Corn: Genesis (sequel to the 2001 film)
  • 2014 Big Driver
  • 2014 A Good Marriage (based on the 2010 novella. Screenplay by Stephen King)
  • 2014 Mercy (based on the short story "Gramma" from King's 1985 collection Skeleton Crew)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Yet Another Shooting in the US
Oh look. Another one.

It's a frustrating and repulsive reality that, when discussing shootings with my friends, we often have to ask each other "which one?" for clarification. That's fucked up. But that's the reality we live in.

There's this fucked up cycle in the US. Every shooting follows the same pattern. Everyone is always outraged at the shooting. Then when someone tries to talk about introducing new gun laws or revamping our old ones, someone else gets pissed off that "responsible gun owners" are getting punished. Someone else throws out mental illness like a shiny ball to distract from the gun issue for a while. Eventually all the in-fighting peters out, we go back to our lives of talking about Ariana Grande licking a goddamned donut, and then another shooting happens and the same bullshit loops on into infinity.

Other first world countries don't have this problem. But we refuse to see that.

We love to cast judgement on other countries for their radical, violent offenders, but we refuse to see the same problems in our own country.

We have a gun culture problem. And yet, I can't help feeling pessimistic about the whole ordeal. Not just heartbroken that yet more people have died. Heartbroken that more people have died and we refused to do ANYTHING to stop it. Again. But after 20 children are murdered while they're at school, what hope do I have that any other new shooting is going to change it? When 20 kids children die and nothing changes, what other atrocity can happen that could possibly push the needle any further? At this point, each shooting is just one more statistic to add to the column.

I'm sorry if I'm coming across negative and pissing in your Cheerios. I'm just so tired of having the same conversations and watching the same things happen.
I have no desire to debate anybody this time. If you suddenly get a rageboner about my pissing on your gun rights, go wank it somewhere else, okay? I'm out of spoons for this one.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jeb Bush Says Americans Should Work Longer Hours to Fix Economy

Some rights reserved by World Affairs Council of Philadelphia
Jeb Bush did an interview a few days ago in which he argued that Americans need to work more hours for the country's economy to improve. From ABC News, quoting him, emphasis mine:
“My aspiration for the country and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That's the only way we're going to get out of this rut that we're in.”
Less than half of Americans report working 40 hours a week. Half or more report working 50 hours a week. The weekly work hours for the average American is 46.7 hours per week. If people are already working MORE than full time, and many poor Americans are working extra jobs, how can working class Americans possibly do more to pull the country out of a rut?

I get that people don't want to unfairly tax the rich. Some people feel that rich people earned that money, and that it would be unfair to take that money away from them to help lazy people that aren't willing to work.

But that's not going on here. What we have here are politicians keeping wages low then demanding Americans work longer hours to pick up the slack. The brunt of this country's well-being is being heaped on the backs of those with the least amount of money. 

If kept up for inflation, minimum wage should be around $22 per hour. It's currently $7.25 per hour. According to this map, there is not a state in the country that someone can live by themselves and rent a 2-bedroom apartment on that wage.

Americans are not a lazy people, in spite of the stereotypes. We work harder than any other industrialized country, but appear to be reaping fewer of the rewards. 1% of the nation's people are taking in 25% of the nation's income. And yet...working class Americans are expected to work more hours?

Historically, in situations where so much of the wealth is held by so few people, the situation does not end well for those among the "haves."

It's hilarious that the Jebster says Americans need to work MORE to keep the country afloat while he makes more for one speech than I made at my job in a year.

This is why, when I hear "fiscal conservatives" talk about personal responsibility, I want to tear my hair out.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Debate Over the Confederacy Distracts From the Better Conversation

Some rights reserved by Clinton Steeds
The ubiquitousness of the Confederate flag in the southern United States--and monuments to the Confederacy in various forms--is a problem.

Part of this problem stems from the fact that the South has lied about why it went to war since almost immediately after the war ended. This was made possible in part because the South was a vital and vocal voting block in the US. It's why FDR, in drafting the New Deal, specifically made changes that would prevent black people from gaining any of the benefits, while protecting things that were of interest to the South.

There are some facts that should not be up for debate: 1) the South seceded because of growing abolitionist support in the North, 2) the Civil War was, in a large part, about slavery, 3) the Confederate flag symbolizes racism and slavery because that is what the South stood for at the time. That was, literally, the hill the South was willing to die on, 4) that symbolic meaning did not change with time and distance from the Civil War since the reemergence of the flag was in response and a backlash to the growing support of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's.

It's the last part I want to address somewhat. The backlash to the Civil Rights movement included not just white supremacists bringing the Confederate flag back, but it spurned many Confederate monuments being constructed all over the South.

These are facts. They should not be debated. This is what happened.

What's especially frustrating about the miseducation, misinformation, and willful misunderstanding of these facts is how it ensures we keep having to go through this conversation again and again--the debate about facts that should already be established.

This prevents us from the much more interesting and much more useful conversation:

What do we DO with all of this Confederate memorabilia? Should state governments fly the Confederate flag? Should they still feature monuments to Confederate soldiers, victories, and other similar things? If not, what should we DO with them? After all, they already exist. Do we get rid of them en masse? Is that basically sweeping our Confederate wanking under the rug so we can play dumb about it later? Should we add plaques to the monuments providing context to them?

This, in my opinion, is the much more interesting conversation. But it would require accepting that the South has done and been party to some horrible things in the past. And there are far too many people that are still unwilling to do that.