I Don’t Think You’re Ready For This Player

How the book Ready Player Two could be a teachable moment for the internet.

At least Demi Adejuyigbe managed to channel his disappointment into a song.

The sequel to the book Ready Player One has apparently been released, which is news I’ve been told repeatedly for some reason. It’s a book that I’ve now read several passages from, despite having no interest in reading any of it.

Not long after the first book was released, I got a copy of it (and the audiobook!) based on the hype around it. But I realized it was not for me — or more accurately, it was 100,000% “for” me, but I didn’t want it — as soon as I’d read an excerpt from the first chapter. In a correctly-functioning universe, that should’ve been the beginning and end of my awareness of this series and the works of Ernest Cline in general.

But I haven’t been able to escape the new book. Not because of a marketing blitz, but because I can’t turn around on the internet without running into someone eager to dunk on it. And the same people who spend most of their time saying “just let people enjoy things” are now double plus eager to show how funny their snarky comments are.1For all I know, maybe that is part of the marketing blitz? Are publishers cynical enough these days to be investing in hate-reading campaigns?

Don’t we have better things to do? I mean, I recognize the irony in writing a blog post to say how much I don’t care about something, but I’m not convinced that everyone is self-aware enough to really understand the irony. And while it’d be a lot simpler just to say “That’s stupid, stop doing it,” followed immediately by deleting my Twitter account for good, this seems like a perfect opportunity to ask people to just try and be better.

Continue reading “I Don’t Think You’re Ready For This Player”

Tuesday Tune Two-fer: Jeremy Blake (Red Means Recording)

Two tunes from an artist who showed what you can do with synthesizers and gave me calm when I needed it

Jeremy Blake is the musician behind (or maybe just slightly underneath) the brilliant YouTube channel Red Means Recording. He does really clever tutorials for various synthesizers and other musical instruments, predominantly the Teenage Engineering OP-1, along with their Pocket Operators. I imagine he’s tricked a ton of people into buying an OP-1, because he always makes it look like it’s easy to just sit down and get a fantastic track of out of the device every time.

He’s got a new album out called Hindsight, along with a great music video for the title track that combines footage from the Black Lives Matter protests with stock footage he didn’t pay for. It’s an ingenious trick to use humor to make the horror stand out; the super-heightened vapidity of stock footage contrasted against the surreal footage of police brutality that we’ve been seeing.

In March of last year he made a video called Opulent Polished Zircon, one of two videos demonstrating the capabilities of the Teenage Engineering OP-Z. It’s pretty great. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole 50-minute set, my favorite part is at the 27:50 mark. (It’s also available on Apple Music, where my favorite is the track titled “Oh, Luck”).

It’s unlikely to have the same impact on you as it did on me, but that’s for the best. I listened to it back in early February, at the lowest point of the worst year, when I was having to fly back to California on my own. Listening to this with headphones let me just get completely lost in the music. A wave of calm washed over me. It was a reminder that I could still enjoy something, and I was going to go on discovering new things to enjoy. I could see a glimmer of optimism again.

And then the pandemic started a few weeks later. But for a while there, I was hopeful, and I’ll always appreciate this track for it.

The Mandalorian Was Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience

Episode 12 of The Mandalorian, “The Siege,” was episodic TV Star Wars, and proved the rest of the series isn’t really that

I keep saying that The Mandalorian is what I always wanted to see as a kid in the early 1980s: an episodic Star Wars television series. This week’s episode 12, “The Siege,” was as close to what I would’ve imagined in 1983 as the series has come so far… and proves that I’ve been wrong about the series this whole time.

This was my least favorite episode of the series so far.1Not that anyone asked, but my previous least favorite was “The Gunslinger” from Season 1. It says a lot about how much I love this show that being “least favorite” isn’t really a knock against the episode; I liked it a lot. But it shows that there’s been a lot more going on with this series than has been apparent on the surface. It’s seemed like such simple, straightforward, storytelling that it’s easy to neglect just how sophisticated it is in style, character, visuals, and music.

“The Siege” is like Carl Weathers interviewed me as a 12-year-old in 1983 and made a checklist of everything I’d want to see in a Star Wars TV series:

  • Jetpacks
  • Speeder bikes
  • Those acrylic star map things
  • Insane jump tricks in an Imperial transport
  • Assault on an Imperial base
  • Lava
  • TIE Fighters where the wings fold up and then they fly off and shoot at the good guys who are racing away
  • Hallways full of sinister experiments
  • Macarons

But there’s something almost indefinable missing, the heart and soul of this series, the thing that makes it feel more like “classic” storytelling than “scoped down a bit” storytelling. To jump to a different franchise: it’s what separates Mad Max: Fury Road from what I’d imagined Max Max: Fury Road was going to be like before I saw it. This was an action-heavy and plot-heavy episode that was still extremely entertaining, even if it didn’t resonate with me the way the others have.

In this review on Screen Crush2Which is also where I stole the title image from, Ryan Arey makes an interesting point that hadn’t occurred to me: if the characters hadn’t been so suspicious of authority and the New Republic at the end of this episode, Baby Yoda would’ve been safely united with Luke Skywalker, and the series would be over. Depending on how deep Moff Gideon’s conspiracy goes, it might’ve even prevented the sequel trilogy before it could start. So maybe the show needs an 80s TV-style catch phrase: Thanks for nothin’, Greef Karga!

Semi-New Song Sunday: First Aid Kit

Hearing First Aid Kit for the first time makes me wish I’d grown up in their version of the 1970s, instead of the real one

In a rare victory for the YouTube algorithm, it recommended out of the blue the beautiful “Come Give Me Love” by First Aid Kit. The song is a cover of a Swedish pop song from 1973 by Ted Gärdestad. I’d never heard of the song or the artist, or First Aid Kit, for that matter, but they’re quoted describing why the song is significant to them in a post from Clash magazine1(Which I also have never heard of):

Ted Gärdestad is a Swedish national treasure. Just like us he started his music career when he was only a teenager and wrote songs with his older brother Kenneth. […] The original track was produced by none other than Björn and Benny from ABBA, with ABBA on backing vocals. We are huge fans of the original production and wanted to stay close to that 70s folky sound. This is an homage to that time period and recording style.

When I first saw their other videos, I got a heavy Heart vibe, but as I watch more, I realize it’s more like “What if Ann and Nancy Wilson had grown up in Sweden instead of Seattle, and instead of Led Zeppelin they’d really gotten into Simon & Garfunkel and Emmylou Harris?” At which point I’m probably stretching the comparison too far, but I still like it.

I often feel like my generation and the one immediately after are responsible for so much pointless disdain and negativity, getting all worked up about “authenticity” and “appropriation,” which is really nothing but self-righteous ignorance about how culture actually works. It makes me extremely happy to see examples of artists who don’t waste any time worrying about that nonsense, and just celebrate the stuff they love.

First Aid Kit’s songs and videos — hell, even their typography — are homages to the 1970s, and 1970s America in particular, that aren’t tainted by the self-awareness of nostalgia. So they’re allowed to be purely enthusiastic celebrations of the aesthetic itself. Too often when people try to make an homage to the 70s or 80s (or now, I guess, 90s and 2000s), they include all the artifacts like scan lines, film grain, and record hiss: implicit acknowledgements that they’re calling back to something that’s now quaint and dated. But when you present it in high resolution and high fidelity, it’s an admission that “No, I just genuinely love this stuff. And I want to present it the same way they would have, if they’d had easy access to the technology we’ve got.”

Another really nice video is “It’s a Shame”, which has a similar feel to Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water,” but its gimmick is the much simpler “one of these sisters is having a much better night than the other.” It’s also just a really great song.

My Possession

The latest Dirty Projectors song seems as close as 2020 is going to let us get to a collective exhale.

Still no plans to switch over full-time to a Dirty Projectors fanpage, but I was happy to see that their final EP of 2020, Ring Road, came out today, along with a video for “My Possession.”

I’m not savvy enough to recognize whether the beginning is a Google promotion, or just a gag about how some of us have been listening to “Overlord” non-stop since we first heard it. Either way, it’s a nice acknowledgement of late November 2020, setting aside a lovely song about fascism in favor of gentle harmonies about letting go of self-destructive obsession, complete with references to The Exorcist.

P.S. My favorite song from the last EP is still “Searching Spirit.”

The October Country

Ray Bradbury’s The October Country is something I should’ve read a long, long time ago.

I finished reading Ray Bradbury’s short story collection The October Country in November 2020, which feels like I was too late by one month and about 30 years.

Some of the stories have a sense of familiarity that suggests I’ve read them in a long-forgotten English course, or maybe reprinted in a magazine. But overall, this book felt like a startling shift in perception. It’s made me reconsider the vague assumptions I’ve always made not just about Ray Bradbury’s work, but pretty much the entire state of popular culture before Stephen King.

Incidentally: for a clear indication of just how long this story collection has been in print (and by inference, how influential it’s been), check out a Google Image Search to see the history of book covers. It’s remarkable for two reasons: first, to see in a grid how many immediately-recognizable eras the book has persisted through. Second, to see how the varying selection of cover images suggests that the stories within transcend (or at least straddle) multiple decades and multiple genres.

Continue reading “The October Country”

Tuesday Tune Twofer: Songs for my Mother

Remembering the early 1970s, and two songs my mother liked to sing when I was a kid.

My friend Chris just commented that his daughter liked a song I’d included in a post, which made me wonder if this blog might be a bad influence on children, which made me think of the songs I remember liking when I was little. I loved ABBA, but the first song I clearly remember loving was “Top of the World” by The Carpenters.

Really, I remember a medley of songs, including “Close to You” and “Sing.” But “On Top of the World” was my favorite, and I still can’t think about it — even the Me First and the Gimme Gimmes version — without thinking of my mother singing it.

She also liked to tell a story over and over — that I don’t remember at all — of my getting out a portable microphone and sitting on a stool and singing “Sing” while crossing my leg and turning to face a non-existent camera, like I’d probably seen somebody do on the Mike Douglas show. In retrospect, I realize that that story, plus my love of ABBA, make it seem like I should’ve recognized some things about myself before I turned 33, but I’ll just say the 70s were a simpler time.

My mother also loved Neil Diamond, and eight times out of ten, you could find her either playing or singing “Sweet Caroline,” “I’m a Believer,” “America,” “Song Sung Blue,” or the one I remember her singing the most often: “Cracklin Rosie.Everybody knows the “Bom! Bom! Bom” from “Sweet Caroline,” but only the true fans could be found walking through the kitchen, seemingly at random, singing “Say it now! Say it now! Say it now!”

Also: that version of “Sing” I linked to above is one I’d never seen before, with Karen Carpenter and a small chorus of children singing the song in Japanese. Which is so rad that I’m going to include it as a unprecedented third song for Tuesday Twofer.

Semi-New Song Sundays: Nada Surf

Nada Surf is new to me but is still making me nostalgic for my college years.

I’ve heard of Nada Surf before, but to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never actually heard any of their songs. “Song for Congress” is from their 2020 album Never Not Together, and even though it’s not at all subtle, it’s pretty nice. Vocals that vaguely remind me of 60s British pop, jangly guitars, and some nice string arrangements: I’ll allow it.

Probably appropriate for a band that formed in the 1990s, this sounds like exactly the kind of music that was ubiquitous in my college years. Or probably more accurately, during my first job immediately after college, listening to Atlanta “alternative” radio on my commute to work. It would’ve played in between Luscious Jackson, Veruca Salt, and the Crash Test Dummies.

I don’t think I’m going to rush out to get one of their records. If I’m being honest, the reason their music sounds so familiar could very well be because I’ve heard them before and found it completely forgettable. But right now, there’s something comforting seeing a guy who’s grayed almost as much as I have, still making music that immediately takes me back to a better time. The biggest difference is back then, a lot of us were fooled into thinking the Clinton Administration had our best interests at heart, so there were fewer somber pop songs about the leadership vacuum.

Another track from their new album is “Something I Should Do”, which is even more the kind of song that seemed to playing constantly somewhere in Athens, sometimes following you from store to store. Based on the older songs I’ve heard, I’m guessing that the spoken-word-verse — which for “alternative rock” seems to date it to the 1990s as much as if they were making Martin references — is a recurring thing with the band. This time it’s about finding unity in a year with so much deep division. It makes me miss the days when bands could be unapologetically earnest, back before a D-list TV host could demand to see a President’s birth certificate and the people who voted him into office would act aghast that you’d insinuate that they’re racist.

Tuesday Tune Two-fer: Music to Feel Bad To

Today’s theme is feeling gross and going back to bed

I woke up around five am feeling lousy, fitfully slept for a couple more hours and felt even worse, and then over the course of the afternoon felt it turn into a massive headache. I’ve gone back to bed, but I still can’t let an early attempt at blog continuity die so soon.

Thankfully I’ve been having much fewer headaches in 2020 than I did in 20191Turns out allergy medicine does work after all, as long as I take it daily, so I’ve been hearing a lot less of Frank Black’s song in my head. I’ve liked the song ever since I first heard it, and I especially love the video which I somehow don’t remember ever seeing before, but it’s not a great one to have going on a constant loop in your brain when it feels like it’s swollen up and trying to burst through cracks in your skull.

Another video I’d never seen before today is the alternate video to Bruno Mars’s “The Lazy Song.” Bruno Mars songs already seem catchy but completely empty; I feel like he’s a genius pop musician who could be making incredibly memorable songs (but likely incredibly less money) if he’d team up with a lyricist who aimed for more weight. “The Lazy Song” has always felt twee to the point of being insufferable, probably because I can’t hear it without seeing that stupid video with all the monkey masks. It’s so much better paired with this alternate version, where the meaningless catchiness of the song is paired with Leonard Nimoy just no longer giving a shit.

Speaking of not giving a shit: I’ll try to come up with some better songs next week.

Good Bones

Thoughts on pledging to be better, and giving up on the idea that people are basically good, which was kind of a lousy idea anyway.

There’s been an excellent poem going around the internet over the past week: it’s called Good Bones. It was written by Maggie Smith as a response to the disillusionment and despair many of us felt in 2016. It’s really wonderful, easily my favorite poem containing the phrase “a real shithole.”

I can imagine how it would’ve resonated if I’d seen it in 2016 — an acknowledgement that the world can be a hateful place, but with a faint glimmer of indefatigable hope still left at the end. Now in November of 2020, its tone has shifted. Of course we know that “the world is at least fifty percent terrible,” because we’ve been reminded of it multiple times a day, ceaselessly. The end no longer feels like a faint glimmer but a determined resolve to make it beautiful wherever and however we can.

I’m not just writing about it to unnecessarily over-explain it, though: I just wanted to add a personal note to say I’m grateful for it, not just for bringing a bit of light to the despair of the past week, but for reminding me just how hard my parents and brother worked to shield me from that 50% Terrible for as long as they could. I think they did a pretty amazing job, considering that I almost made it to 50 years old before I finally gave up on the idea that people are basically good.

I don’t think it’s naive to believe that; I just think it’s the product of being blessed enough to live most of your life surrounded by good and kind people. And I don’t believe it’s sad or cynical to abandon the idea, either. If you cling to the belief that people are basically good, then you’re unintentionally undermining all of the hard work that good people do every day. It’s much more inspiring to realize that people are basically neutral, so the heroes that manage to radiate kindness and hope aren’t just staying true to their natures, but are putting in the effort to make things better.

It’s aspirational. I’m feeling exhausted from having to hold onto so much anger, suspicion, and resentment all the time. I’d rather work on repaying all the kindnesses and generosity that people have shown me over the years. This has been such a tough year, and some of the things we’ve all lost and that I’ve lost are gone forever. But instead of concentrating on what’s lost, I’d rather try and help make this place beautiful.