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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

American Idol

Posted By on Wed, Apr 30, 2008 at 1:17 PM

For the most part, Neil Diamond Night gave me more entertainment coming up with the Worst Neil Diamond Song ever – so many to choose from! We argued all night! – than listening the Idolettes plow through 10 of them.

Once again, it seems like we're at the point in the season when we ask: How did these five end up as the final five? The Big David and Little David make sense, but how can the rest of American endure Brooke and Jordan week after week? (Syesha, to me, is simply forgettable.)

My otherwise busy schedule kept me from weighing in on last week's hilarious show with that Botoxed troll Andrew Lloyd Weber as mentor. I consider his sort of musicals torture, but I'll give him props as one of the few mentors who dared to suggest that these kids couldn't sing his songs properly. (It was all couched in that peculiar sort of British polite phrasing, but the digs were there.)

The meetings-with-Neil bits looked hastily shoehorned in, as if they've taken up less than an hour in their entirety. And in the opening pimp-reel for Diamond we hear of his "performance artistry," while, apparently without irony, we see footage of a middle-aged man clumping around stage in a low-cut shirt with sparkly arm-fringe. Art.

Like I said, I found all the performances uninspiring, and not just because nobody did "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show."

Jordan: Wow, this guy just truly doesn't seem to give a shit about sounding good. It might be kinda cool, if I knew the right snark or bad attitude was behind it. 

Brooke: Go. Away. And her home-state switch-up on NYC vs. L.A. "I Am ... I Said" made zero sense. 

Big David: I didn't know either of these songs. Liked the first one better, since it had a hook; the second one sounded like all those other post-grunge dirge tunes you hear on "alternative" radio stations. (Why didn't he rip-off Urge Overkill's version of the creepy "Girl, You'll be a Woman Soon"?)

Little David: The bloom is off this kid. He can sing, but he's not getting more star-like. And I cringed during "America" -- I think he made it sound even more cheesy than Diamond's version. ("Today!') A little leering, hip-grinding "Cherry, Cherry" would have made my night, and had the tweener babies shrieking.

Syesha: Treading water. She can't win, so it's just a matter of when does she lose. All I can hope is she bests Brooke. 

Of course, the highlight of the show was the disaster that was the double-judging. How hard can it be? Contestants will sing two songs; judges will issue comments once.

 But at the end of the first round, Ryan called for comments and Paula melted down like a bad robot, babbling her usual inanities before plowing into a garbled analysis of Jordan's second song ... while everybody else on the planet scratched their heads, knowing that Jordan had only sung one song.

Ryan gamely went for the save -- "Paula's in the future" -- but the malfunctioning Robo-Paula just babbled on. Seriously, the only bright spot in a dull show, and Simon was crass enough to say as much.

My guess for no more "Beautiful Noise": Syesha or Jordan.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Interview: Sasha Frere-Jones, part 3

Posted By on Tue, Apr 29, 2008 at 11:45 AM

Note: This concludes my three-part discussion with pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones.

CP: One of the most well-known and controversial pieces you've written recently was last fall's "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which generated a lot of talk.

SFJ: Yeah, it comes up.

CP: There was a lot of internet backlash. Did you anticipate that, and was it warranted?

SFJ: I knew people were going to get heated up about it. I didn't make up the title or the subtitle – I thought the title was clever enough, but I hated the subtitle, "Indie rock loses its soul." It's just not what I said or what the piece is about. I think that created problems for me and it's not said anywhere in the piece.

The problem with the piece – I mean, I have my own problems with it, though I largely think it's right, which is why I wrote it – the ending was a bit rushed because of logistical reasons. These tiny things end up being life-changing, like you're building, and you run out of money so you skimp on fireproofing and your entire building burns down. That's sort of overstated. But the ending – the timeline was sort of messed up; the piece is really mostly about the '90s and the very early '00s, because I think the current indie situation is much more schizophrenic and changed.

I kind of wanted it to be a little bit of a . . . maybe a smaller I.E.D., not a huge explosion – but I wanted it to get at people and I wanted it to be accessible, and I didn't want it to be too insidery so it had to have some heat to it. But some of the criticisms were just bonkers, like that I'm a racist or that it's too essentialist. It's a piece that's very specific about music. If you go back, you will not find any generalizations about people in it. Because I wasn't generalizing about people, I was trying to theorize about what happened to – a really simple way of putting the question is, why is indie rock called indie rock? What is it? People seem to know what it means; it's one of the vaguer terms, it's not the greatest one, so wide right now, but it became a thing, and it became clear over time that what it was was music that had subtracted . . . the shortest way to say it is, the blues, and everything that came out of the blues: soul and funk and so on.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing, maybe it seems in the piece like I think it's a bad thing because my preferences run toward the African-American musical tradition, but I was really more fascinated that it had happened. I thought people would get the opening, which was, I chose a band [The Arcade Fire] that I had just written a very positive piece about, and it's still there in the writing for me but it didn't work for a lot of people – I found myself thinking, here's a band I like, but their musical composition is so different from the version of this band I would've seen 20 or 30 years ago. Something has really changed, almost in the physical composition, almost like examining a plant and saying, "Oh my god, the soil no longer has zinc in it, look at this plant."

And I think the reason that a lot of people were confused is that I also had a lot of my preferences in the piece and I think it just got reduced to "You just want there to be black music in everything!" I can understand why people think that, I take most of the blame myself – I'm not really worried about it, if people think certain things about me that's fine, it doesn't bother me, but I might've been a little more surgical about separating – here's the progression I saw, this music progressed and seemed to be losing this musical strain.

People say crazy shit about it – that I was accusing indie rockers of being racist, when I was if anything accusing them of quite the opposite, of being so conscious of racial issues because of the political mode of the '80s that kids – and I think this is true – didn't want to risk doing anything that was even remotely racist. So it's easier to not engage. It's a guess but I think it's true, so it's the opposite of me thinking everyone is racist. And it was interesting because indie rockers had to find other stuff to draw on. But one thing that I'm happy to lean on, or draw from, is that if you're going to play popular music in this day and age in America, kind of a lot of the best stuff – young black folks made that stuff up. And if you're really, intentionally or unintentionally, avoiding that entire chunk of material, you're gonna have to be really really good, because . . . it's good to fall back on a few tricks that have been around for a long time.

And there's been a proliferation of bands that in some ways were just trying to reinvent the wheel in a way that I find utterly annoying. The sort of incredible swarm of Beach Boys-derived, harmony-crazy, post-Sufjan people, which is a hard thing to do because you have to be really fucking good with harmony and melody. First of all, you have to sing well, which is really fucking hard to do. It's not enough to rely on a firm, simple backbeat unless you're a fucking genius. Sufjan can get away with it because – I'm not a huge fan, but he has a real gift for vocal arranging and singing, and that stuff is really pretty. It's not really my bag, but he certainly pulls it off. But I'm getting pretty far afield here.

I would've changed a couple of bits and made it a bit clearer that you can do interesting things that have nothing to do with black music, and black music itself went off in some pretty wack directions. It was really more – the thing that started the whole rock'n roll party, in this particular population was now gone. And that's strange. Or it's just notable. And I could have kept my preferences out of it entirely, and I wouldn't have had much trouble. There was a way to write that piece that nobody would've been bothered, but it would've been weaker, and it's not such a bad thing that so many people got angry, and I don't mind that they got angry at me. It foregrounded the issue, and that's cool.

I don't love getting literally 1300 angry emails. Though I got tons – and still do – of really positive responses. And a lot of the people who disagreed had incredibly interesting things to say. It's really only the people who lost their minds who make you feel kinda bad during the day. But the majority of what happened was that people had a lot to say. And a lot of it I thought was fascinating and people got engaged and I thought that was exciting.

CP: Was that part of what you were hoping to accomplish with the piece?

SFJ: Yeah, there's even a blog post on my personal site – I knew people were gonna trip. Because every time you mention race, people trip. There are still people who think – insanely – that there's no such thing as black and white music now. Okay, that would mean something if there were no such thing as black and white people. But the semantics, the symbolism – and it's just real that certain people invented certain things. There are some things that it's harder to attribute authorship to and there are some things that it's not hard to. We're talking about a relatively young art form, with a few exceptions this is almost all recorded music. It's a much easier thing to talk about, popular music, as opposed to say, Renaissance drama, where are the people are dead and there are huge missing pieces. We're talking about stuff that's all documented. It's all recordings, it's all documents. We can figure this shit out.

But no, I don't like people hating on me. As much as it's nice to have a big discussion, I didn't go for that.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Interview: Sasha Frere-Jones (part 2)

Posted By on Mon, Apr 28, 2008 at 12:20 PM

Note: This is part two of my discussion with Sasha Frere-Jones. Part three will be posted tomorrow.

CP: You keep two blogs, one for the New Yorker and one – I'm saying this as if you didn't know it . . .

SFJ: You know, it's actually possible that I wouldn't realize that. I could easily have forgotten.

CP: There's been a lot of backlash and writing recently about music blogging having a negative affect on people's listening and buying habits because people blogging piggyback off of one another and end up hyping things that might not deserve the hype that they get – then that band will get big for a short time then disappear again. I wonder whether you'd agree that with them that's a trend in fact, and that that's a negative trend.

SFJ: My sort of disappointing answer would be that I don't really care. I don't know. Bands getting hyped is really far down my list of things I care about.

Hype is sort of fun. It's like Bob Christgau said, and I think it's totally true – if you read too many blogs, you're going to get annoyed, but there's a really simple cure and that's just don't read them. Probably kids now who are checking into blogs every day are going to get really weird headaches because there just isn't that much to talk about.

One thing that hype does is that it's sort of like Hamburger Helper – it sort of extends the conversation. It's like when you're IMing and you're reduced to saying shit like, "Wow, are you watching that video?" You're just sort of filling up the space because you have a blog. I have nothing against the places that post 97 times a day like Brooklyn Vegan or Stereogum or whatever, but they made the decision to post 97 times a day, and they're going to sort of be simulating newsiness, and there's going to be this feedback loop of, like, "I'm sick of Yeasayer! What's the deal with Deerhunter?" and that's because they're people who just stare at the computer all day long and – or Vampire Weekend or whatever. These things do shake themselves out pretty easily in the marketplace when people start recording and touring, they last or they don't last.

But again, hype is fun. It's fun to get excited about a thing. And I don't know what could be harmed. It's sort of like Napster. The guy from Offspring, or maybe Rancid, his line on it, back when Dr. Dre and Metallica were like "We're gonna sue because we need to be, like, more millionaire-ish!" and the guy from the Offspring, or Rancid, I can't remember which, said, to me it's very simple – more fans is better. That's how I feel about all this.

When people start complaining about blogging, or some kind of meta- like, the new world isn't good, I think – the rules haven't changed. Good writing is good writing and there isn't going to be a lot of it. If people are exchanging mp3's and into music and talking about it, that's only good. Really terrible blogs just don't last. They just don't. The democracy of the web is really great – like, this guy who writes fourfour, Rich, who now has a lot of real writing gigs –he only got popular because he was so good ,and he was just a blogger but he rose above the other nine million blogs because he was so funny and put unbelievable amounts of time into these crazy video things. And that's awesome. And there are obviously bloggers who are 20 times smarter than people who have some newspaper gigs.

And the idea of being put out of business – I think some music magazines have been put out of business by the internet, but that's the way it goes. The internet has not put, say, restaurants out of business because they're not doing the same thing. That's an obvious thing to say, but if history replaces you, that's harsh, but that's the way it goes.

CP: The incident a month or two ago with the notorious Maxim review of the Black Crowes album --

SFJ: Yes, that was me.

CP: Right, so I thought. Some people were up in arms – this represents the degradation of music criticism as a practice – do you see it as an isolated thing or represents a larger trend toward laziness in criticism?

SFJ: Well, there's sort of no way for me to answer that question because I only know what I do. I know that I listen to records about a gabillion times before I write about them, but that's just me. That is what most good critics do. I mean, I can't really figure anything out, because I have such a shitty memory, unless I listen a billion times. And it takes me a long time to figure out what I think.

I don't like quick turnaround time. That's one reason I like this job, though we do occasionally come out with something right on top of the record release. But one of my favorite columns I've done lately was the Mariah Carey piece [anthologized in DaCapo's Best Music Writing 2007), which came out close to a year after the album came out. And I think there should be more of that in criticism in general.

Bob Christgau again, and not to keep talking about Bob, but I did notice growing up that he was one of the few cats who would sort of be quiet about a record, and you wondered where he went, then after everyone else had had their turn, he would weigh in, and he had figured out what he thought.

It matters with things like theater because it's a limited run, and art, and it even kind of matters with cinema because movies go out of the theater, but with records it only sort of matters. Bands don't tour, usually, until a few months after the record comes out. Although I suppose you can wait so long, the band breaks up. All this is not the answer to your question.

It's hard, you can't write about a record you haven't heard. Ironically, there are probably records that don't even deserve to be listened to all the way through, and the Black Crowes thing – the funny thing is, the joke is that it probably was a pretty accurate review. I don't know that writer but I'm going to assume that he probably doesn't do that all the time. I read somewhere on a blog that he didn't think it was going to be a full review, and it was run as a full review, which could be true, I have no reason not to believe that.

If you're being paid very little and you're being pushed to do little hundred-word blurb reviews, you've got a lot of people who are probably listening to five songs and then writing the review. And how much do those blurby reviews matter to people? I don't know. I've never really liked them and I don't read them and I never did, though I did end up writing them for a while. I always liked essays more.

Especially picking up a magazine where I don't know the writers – three or four or five stars is kind of meaningless because I didn't know who they were. It was really critics that I could establish a relationship with that I would read, and those would be people in places like the Voice and Artforum and the Times, where they got to work in a longer format, and you could get to know them over time. But people I guess love those little squibbly reviews because you see Blender and EQ or whatever, the other one, Uncut, "With 270 reviews!" But people also seem to love lists, which have taken over. I used to really like lists but they've been ruined for me. How many times are we going to read about the hundred greatest albums of the '80s? It was really fun the first time but now it just makes me want to start writing lists that don't mean anything.

Overcanonization – there's a crosstalk that cancels everything out. If everything is the greatest album ever, then you begin to lose perspective. But that's the casualty of the age where you can't stop people from having a million lists. We have lost consensus and there are bigger things to worry about than whether there's a clear consensus about bands. I think that's one reason I'm not particularly worried about hype.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Interview: Sasha Frere-Jones (part 1)

Posted By on Thu, Apr 24, 2008 at 10:02 AM

Note: this is the first of a three-part series that will document my talk with New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, who appears at Carnegie Mellon University on Tuesday, March 29.

CP: The first thing I wanted to talk about was a little bit about how you got into music writing – I know you were in a band for a long time –

SFJ: Kind of by accident. Well, that's kind of stretching it. It was certainly not a plan. I mean, I didn't accidentally write something, I obviously wrote something intentionally. Yeah, I was – I mean, I am a musician, altho I haven't really honestly done anything htat real in a few years. It was – '94, and I was definitely concentrating on my band Ui, and there was a writer for the Village Voice named Ann Marlowe and she came to an Ui show, and our drummer knew her, and I loved her writing, and I said, will you review us or something like that, and she said, "No, I don't like your band." And I said "Oh, great." And she said "But, I'd like you to write something for me," and I said "What are you talking about?" and she said "Well, I'm starting a fanzine." And I said "Oh, how do you know I write?" And she said, "Well, you just look like you write."

Okay, you've insulted me twice in like 3 minutes. Which is really Ann, she's the most direct person.

She had a zine called Pretty Decorating, and I wrote a few pieces [fot it]. The first piece I wrote was sort of a rant about indie rock, which seems to be what I do. So I started this dumb career by slogging on indie rock.

I was sitting with my friend Andy Hawkins, who's a musician that I played with sometimes who is in this great band called Blind Idiot God, and we were sitting there grousing, in that annoying way that people do, about, I think, Guided By Voices and poorly recorded rock and we were like, "Why don't people just record their shit properly? Like, you gotta save up and do it right." And she said "Write down that thing you just ranted and rant that for me."

And that's what I did, and I wrote a few pieces and everything after that was an invitation. The most significant exchange was with Simon Reynolds, the critic – in a way it's more his fault than anyone's. He wrote a piece, ironically saying basically that American bands suck, Britain has this great new thing called post-rock. I mean, it's ironic because the bands he mentioned all suck. Bands that were supposed to be interesting for five minutes and really never were. And then my band ended up being called post-rock, and I wrote a piece back saying, no, American bands suck, it wasn't that great an exchange really, I'm sure it wasn't his best piece and it wasn't my best piece, but then the Voice asked me, we're going to do a post-rock section and you're in one of these bands, will you write something for it, and then that's what got it going, writing that first Voice piece.

They asked me to write more, then I had a column in the New York Post, which no one really remembers, probably because it's not on Nexis but also because no one really reads the Post. It's amazing that you can actually be in a newspaper with huge circulation and no one you know reads it. If you want to find out if there's really such thing as class, and divisions, get a column in the Post. Literally, no one will ever say, "Hey, I read your column!" I felt like I was writing for a fanzine, it didn't matter what I said – I don't think record labels cared that much. Who the fuck reads the pop criticism in the New York Post? Anyway, it just went from there. And I had day jobs and I always thought I was in a band. That's who I thought I was. But the writing started to take up more and more of my time, and it got to be something of an occupation, it ramped up when Slate asked me to write a column, then I got the call from The New Yorker about a year after that. But I hadn't really accepted it as a reality until recently. If you had asked me, I would've said I'm a musician, but, the last four years . . . . my first column was March of 2004. So I guess it's been four years.

CP: Talking about considering yourself to be a musician – how do you feel being a musician plays into your writing? Do you think that's something that's really important, or essential, for a music critic?

SFJ: No, I don't. I think the gig is largely about writing. That seems like an unbelievably tautological and dumb thing to say. But it's not, because I think it's much more important as a critic to be a thinker and a writer. Being a musician has given me a way to figure out certain things when I'm listening, but I think largely – my favorite critics are often not practitioners. I mean, there are a few musicians who are great critics; I think John Darnielle is a great critic, but Darnielle is really just a great writer, he'd be interesting about anything.

CP: He's kind of a nut.

SFJ: He's a nut, and he's interesting, and has an awful lot of energy.

I don't know, people tell me – they point out things that seem to maybe derive from being a musician but I don't know. My favorite critics are not musicians, generally.

CP: I've written about music and I've played music and I'd say my writing about music is probably a bit better . . .

SFJ: Also because music itself uses so much muscle memory and feels so involuntary, like eating or sleeping or whatever, physical things. Writing criticism, you have to do a lot of thinking and rethinking and stepping outside of yourself.

Somebody recently said to me that criticism should be about enthusing, and I don't really agree. I think that enthusing is fun, I like enthusing but I think a lot of what criticism is best at doing is putting it into context, doing aesthetic thinking.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More of the same, please: PA primary wrap-up

Posted By on Wed, Apr 23, 2008 at 7:03 AM

Well, the results of the primary are in … and at least one thing is certain: People really are sick of Len Bodack.

The big story last night, of course, is that Hillary Clinton took Pennsylvania by 10 percentage points. That's no surprise: This space, for example, predicted nearly a month ago that Clinton would win by 7 to 10 points -- half the margin most polls were calling for. But the airwaves this morning are full of talk about how the outcome proves Obama is "not a closer." Clinton's 10-point win meets -- just barely -- the "double-digit margin of victory" standard that, somehow or other, was set as the bar she had to reach in order to remain viable.

So as this campaign limps out of Pennsylvania, then, the picture is every bit as muddled as it was coming in. Both candidates are claiming victory (Obama because Clinton had been up by 20 points, and Clinton because Pennsylvania is a big swing state, which are the only kind her campaign wants to count). After six long weeks, all Pennsylvania accomplished was prolonging the agony for everyone else.

Good work, voters!

The county-by-county results are what you'd expect. Obama won by two-to-one margins in Philly, and took some of the surrounding area as well. But Clinton narrowly won in the key battleground of Montgomery County, and trounced Obama throughout most of the western and rural central areas of the state. Earlier in the campaign, Gov. Ed Rendell made waves for suggesting that some rural Pennsylvanians wouldn't support a black candidate … I have a feeling some Obama supporters who denounced that assertion will strike a similar note today. Those supporters might also wish to revisit their hope that Sen. Bob Casey's support of Obama would help in the northeast part of the state. Clinton won every county in that corner of Pennsylvania, by margins of two- and three-to-one.

Identity politics and name recognition only went so far last night. In the closely watched 18th congressional district, Monroeville businessman Steve O'Donnell beat Beth Hafer, daughter of Barbara Hafer, a well-known former state official. If Hafer was hoping this would be the year of the woman, she was disappointed. In Allegheny County, voters in the 18th district went for Clinton by a 63-37 margin. But O'Donnell, who like Clinton had the county Democratic endorsement, beat Hafer by roughly 4,000 votes -- enough to deliver the district, which stretches over several southwestern counties.

I'm tempted to chalk Hafer's loss up to a generally lacklustre presentation and the party endorsement. Like her mother, Hafer had a reputation for party-swapping, and O'Donnell used her stint as a Republican committeewoman to good effect in campaign literature. While a moderate face might have helped Hafer in the general election, area Democrats were apparently not forgiving.

Then again, party endorsements also only went so far. Last night's biggest surprise was in state House district 21, where Len Bodack's loss to Dom Costa in a three-person race also featured Brenda Frazier. The conventional wisdom was that the race was Bodack's to lose, since he had the Democratic endorsement and some $60,000 to campaign with at the beginning of the year. If you bought that premise, it seemed likely that Costa and Frazier would split the anti-Bodack vote and send him to Harrisburg.

Instead, Bodack nearly finished last. Costa won with 4,940 votes, whereas Bodack's total of 4,703 edged out Frazier by just over 100 votes. Costa is an affable candidate, but the temptation is to chalk this up to name recognition -- he was one of three Costas with winning positions on the ballot last night -- and perhaps to an anti-Frazier campaign launched by restaurant owners upset about her support of the drink tax. In any case Bodack's loss offers conclusive proof, if any were still needed after he lost his city council seat last year, that he is an indifferent campaigner for anything other than the party's endorsement. You might want to retake that career aptitude test, Len.

What makes Bodack's loss all the more damning is that nearby state House races went as expected. The winners were incumbents or endorsed Democrats: Jake Wheatley trounced Deidra Washington in District 19. Joe Preston beat his nearest challenger, Lucille Prater-Holliday, by three-to-one margins in District 24. (Keep your eye on Prater-Holliday, though. This was only her first run for office, but she has a certain presence, and her background includes work for the community activist group ACORN. I'm guessing we hearing from her again.) And Bodack's former council colleague, Dan Deasy, won a three-way contest down in district 27.

So what does it all mean? What overarching message can we take from the races up and down the ballot? I'm willing to say just this: In a year where candidates have been campaigning on promises of change, area voters responded largely by asking for more of the same.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

MP3 Monday -- April 21

Posted By on Mon, Apr 21, 2008 at 4:48 PM

Local 17-year-old pop-country singer Sarah Marince has a new single out, called "Just Look At Me." She's an accomplished vocalist, a senior at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, and plans to attend Point Park this fall. But most Pittsburghers are probably already familiar with Marince's voice, not from getting spins on FROGGY, but from a the "Place for Smiles" jingle she's recently recorded for Pittsburgh institution Eat'n Park. (Or, as one friend with a fondness for a post-booze blitz on the all-night breakfast buffet calls it, "Park'n Barf.")

If you want to download a commercial to you iPod, or "Just Look At Me," they're available on the Eat'n Park website here.

But what's much more interesting is the "Place for Smiles" video, which shows the perky Marince recording the track. It's remarkable for three reasons, some snarky and some surreal. First, there's Marince's remarkable ability to maintain an ear-splitting grin throughout the performance (does she have "extra" teeth?), and secondly, the uneasy tension that builds up during the instrumental break, before it's all sunny-side-up smiles again. And finally, it's a little glimpse into what local country- and jingle-writer Bob Corbin's been up to since the demise of the PovertyNeck Hillbillies, who he produced and wrote with. That would be him behind the mixing desk, not looking all that smiley, if you ask me.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Beyond Debate

Posted By on Thu, Apr 17, 2008 at 10:47 AM

After watching last night's insipid debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (see transcript here), I've decided that, yes, the media really IS helping Obama.

Just not in the way Clinton supporters think. 

Predictably, moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson focused on such gripping issues as whether Obama was sorry for suggesting Pennsylvanians were "bitter," and whether anyone could trust Clinton after her Bosnia sniper story proved false. So far, reporters seem more consumed with this stuff than anyone else, but they keep pushing it anyway -- all while asking whether the candidates are "out of touch." 

But either way, I think these questions help Obama -- even when they are directed squarely at him.

Let's take a look at this exchange from last night, which followed Clinton being grilled about "Snipergate":

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Obama, your campaign has sent out a cascade of e-mails just about every day, questioning Senator Clinton's credibility.... Do you believe that Senator Clinton has been fully truthful about her past?

OBAMA: Well, look, I think that Senator Clinton has a strong record to run on. She wouldn't be here if she didn't.

And, you know, I haven't commented on the issue of Bosnia. You know, I ...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Your campaign has.

OBAMA: Of course. But the -- because we're asked about it.

From there, Obama urged that we not get "obsessed with gaffes" and instead deal with real substance.

Sadly, there isn't much truth to Obama's pose of becoming reluctance. I certainly never asked about Clinton's Bosnia remarks, and yet the Obama campaign sent me an e-mail about it anyway. It began thusly:

"The Clinton campaign claimed today that Senator Clinton 'misspoke' when she described a supposedly harrowing landing in Tuzla, Bosnia as First Lady in 1996 -- despite the fact that the claim appeared in her prepared remarks. The Tuzla story, now thoroughly debunked, joins a growing list of instances in which Senator Clinton has exaggerated her role in foreign and domestic policymaking."

This isn't how a candidate reluctantly answers a question; it's how he eagerly tries to raise one.

But I'm not saying that Obama bullshits to score political points. I'm saying that Obama takes the bullshit to a higher level ... and that in this campaign, the media's focus on bullshit issues makes it easier. 

Much of Obama's appeal, after all, is his pledge to transcend politics-as-usual. He talks a lot about unifying red states and blue, rejecting partisan distinctions, and so on. Frankly, I find a lot of that rhetoric naive and even somewhat disingenuous. But at least one thing really does unite us: Just about everyone hates the media, and at least claims to despise its focus on "gotcha" moments rather than issues of substance.

One legacy of the Clinton years, in fact, is that many liberals now hate the media as much as conservatives always have. And there's good reason for that resentment, as the inane performance of Gibson and Stephanopoulos last night demonstrates.

Still, as shoddy as the moderating was, I think it helped Obama ... because Obama does a better job than Clinton of rising above the attacks everyone professes to hate.

Clinton too objects to sniping (sorry) press coverage ... but her complaints always make you think she just wants reporters to pick on her rivals. She doesn't seem to mind the style of the attacks; she just wants someone else to be the target. 

Compare, for example, the following passage to the one quoted above. The moderators had just grilled Obama on -- surprise! -- the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's bombastic sermons. After Obama addressed the topic for the thousandth time, Gibson gave Clinton a change to change the subject. Predictably, she declined. 

GIBSON: I'm getting a little out of balance here. Do you want to take a few seconds or do you want to go to the next question?

CLINTON: I think in addition to the questions about Reverend Wright and what he said and when he said it, and for whatever reason he might have said these things, there were so many different variations on the explanations that we heard.

And it is something that I think deserves further exploration ...

And so on. Instead of taking the high ground, she insisted that "further exploration" should be given to a topic everyone is already sick of.  

Politicians have always complained about media coverage, and Clinton does it as much as anyone. And yet there is actually a kind of sympathy between Clinton and the press. Both are treating this 2008 campaign like it was 1996. The Clintons may have lamented the "politics of personal destruction" back then, but it's pretty clear they still think it's a viable tactic now. Like generals in the Pentagon, they are still fighting the last war.

And too often, that's all our played-out national media is capable of. Of the people in the spotlight last evening, only Obama seems to realize how weary people are of the media's role in facilitating a bankrupt politics. Which is why he repeatedly denounced "the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with."

The media's "gotcha" games are part of what he is running against. Gibson and Stephanopoulos may have thought they were giving Obama a hard time last night, but they just ended up acting as foils for Obama's claims of political virtue. 

Of course, Obama may be a hypocrite -- denouncing such attacks in person while pouncing on them in campaign e-mails. But if he's hypocritical about the politics he claims to want, I'm not sure he's alone.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

American Idol

Posted By on Wed, Apr 16, 2008 at 2:18 PM

I groaned when I heard it was Mariah Carey night. I'm not sure I know one of her songs, even though apparently she has racked up more No. 1 songs than Elvis. And anything I have heard -- most probably on American Idol -- are the sort of soft-to-bombast formulaic pop songs I can't stand and thus, have little authority to judge.

And, if the judges bleat mightily every time some contestant tries to do a song by Mariah (or her sisters-in-power-ballads Whitney or Celine), why organize an all-Mariah night?

Well, it wasn't a total disaster, though I found it incredibly dull. I only recognized two songs -- "Hero" and "Without You," which got filed under "Mariah song" by the show as if Nilsson never wrote it or had a major hit with it back when Miss Mimi was crawling around in diapers.

Not knowing the songs made it tough to judge these performances – like I said, all these sorts of songs sound the same to me.

Poor Carly – somehow she just can't get it right. "Without You" is pure guilty-pleasure cheese, but you gotta sell the anguish to make it tasty, and she just couldn't.

The very presence of Brooke continues to grate, so there was no hope for me and the Stepford Folkie. Plus any grown woman who actually sticks out her lower lip in an exaggerated pout when receiving criticism will never get my vote.

In a charitable mood, I must say, all the women looked nice last night, all prettied up.

Randy called it: The "boys" brought it to the "girl" songs, though far be it from me to categorize pop pabulum by gender.

Once again David Cook went kooky, and I guess it worked. I liked the end of the song best, and wonder if the whole tune couldn't have been delivered full-throttle, rather than sticking to the formula of quiet-quiet-bridge-blast-off.

Paula never said a truer word when she declared that Cook's version "could be on a movie soundtrack." That's exactly the kind of music I hear all day long in my other capacity as film reviewer.

But if Cook's singing didn't nail him a spot in next week's show, then his post-judging tears did. Mister Hard Rocker has an embarrassed sensitive side? Awwwwww.

Waving bye-bye tonight? Odds favor Carly or Syesha. I think the boys are safe, especially since we've already netted this season's Shocker Exit.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Down the Rabbit Hole on the Wecht case

Posted By on Tue, Apr 15, 2008 at 4:22 PM

When I first heard that the FBI was contacting the jurors who deadlocked in the trial of Cyril Wecht, I wasn't much surprised. It's not illegal, and when a jury deadlocks, lawyers on both sides often want to talk to jurors before another trial. Getting the Federal Bureau of Investi-freakin'-gation to set up a routine meeting seems a bit heavy-handed ... and maybe not the best use of law-enforcement resources. But we're used to that from US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan by now. This entire fiasco has been overblown, literally making a federal case out of the fact that Wecht (for example) sometimes used a government fax machine for private business. Horrors!

The FBI visits were a bit ironic, though. You may recall that before the trial began, the prosecution and Judge Arthur Schwab's sought to keep the jurors' identities secret. Prosecutors argued that conealing their identities would prevent Wecht from trying to intimidate jurors. Wecht has a habit of sending letters to people he disagrees with. Still, if jurors scared that easily, you'd think the feds would want to protect them from the trauma of being contacted by federal law-enforcement agents. Apparently, you would be wrong. 

And now, I'm wondering if more than hypocrisy is at work here.

What's prompting my doubts is a P-G piece today by the talented and lovely Jonathan Silver. In it, Silver suggests the feds might try to seek an out-of-town jury for a second Wecht trial. Prosecutors haven't formally made the request, Silver notes, and only raise the possibility in a footnote. But in a legal filing, the prosecution suggests that Wecht has engaged in a "campaign to generate prejudicial pretrial publicity over the past week" -- a campaign that could "make it difficult to empanel a jury" from Pittsburgh. What was really out of bounds, the filing said, was "the Wecht team's fierce criticism [of the prosecution], widely reported by local media."

Yeah, who do Wecht's lawyers think they are, criticizing the people who are trying to put him in prison?

But here's the thing. One of the actions Wecht's team and the media have criticized is ... the use of FBI agents to contact jurors. And you have to assume that even before she called out the agents, Buchanan knew doing so would make waves. As she knows better than anyone by now, this is one of the most closely watched trials in local history, with one of the most media-savvy defendants in town.

Which makes you think: What if Buchanan called out the FBI precisely because she knew Wecht would complain about it? Under other circumstances a prosecutor might try to keep a lower profile ... but what if Buchanan has decided that, since that's impossible anyway, she will try to cause as much furor as possible? If she wants an out-of-town jury, any additional outrage will become another exhibit for the allegation that coverage of Wecht's complaints have poisoned too many local minds. 

See where I'm headed with this? Buchanan could be using one hamfisted tactic as an excuse for getting away with another one -- taking the unusual step of getting an out-of-town jury. 

In fact, if Wecht wants to keep the jury local, complaints about Buchanan's tactics could backfire on him. The P-G's coverage about the FBI visits, for example, includes a quote from Michigan Congressman John Conyers, who frets that "such contacts can have a chilling effect on future juries in this and other cases." Imagine how easy it would be for prosecutors to turn that allegation against Wecht. If such complaints are valid, they could argue, then the best way to avoid that "chilling effect" is to get a jurors from someplace less likely to have heard them. And if Wecht's complaints aren't valid, they would say, well ... then prosecutors have a right to find jurors who haven't been tainted by such scurrilous accusations. Heads I win, tails you lose. 

Of course, it's quite possible that I've simply become deranged in trying to figure out a logical justification -- any justification -- for why this idiotic trial lingers on. The dizziest conspiracy theory makes more sense than the prospect of another trial. In today's filing, prosecutors complain of a "parallel fictional universe created by defendant and amplified by the media"; perhaps I've fallen through the rabbit hole, just like the prosecution suggests, by trying to find an explanation for their behavior? 

Then again: What if I'm right? What if Buchanan is counting on people like me to raise sinister accusations about her behavior, so she can achieve the truly sinister goal of getting a jury from elsewhere? That would mean I've become part of the conspiracy to get Wecht, without even knowing it. Worse, I'd become part of the conspiracy merely by pointing the conspiracy out

This blog post is my only hope of escaping the trap. Judging from comments posted on previous entries, hardly anyone in Pittsburgh bothers to read this blog ... but Clintonistas and Obamaniacs from across the country can't get enough. So what better place to thwart Bucahan's efforts?

This post will either notify the rest of the world of Buchanan's secret agenda OR expose it to my deranged imaginings. Either way, potential jurors from all over the country will be tainted by what I have written. The local jury pool, meanwhile, will remain in blissful ignorance of what I have said here. Pittsburgh will be the one place where Wecht can be tried. 

And justice will, at last, have been served.  

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Battlestar Galactica: Which Way Earth?

Posted By on Tue, Apr 15, 2008 at 3:02 PM

Short wrap-up and ponderings here: Episode 2 was a big ol' bowl of lining up the plots and players for this final season.

Hands down, though, my favorite scene owed everything to the past and all we've learned about Adm. Adama and Roslin.

It's one thing for buds Adama and Roslin to disagree about which survival strategy might be best, but after a couple drinks the other night, it seems neither was above bringing out the heavy-duty personal ammo. Roslin, coddled but deluded prophet; Adama, sentimental but deluded daddy figure. Ouch.

Also, feeling nostalgic: The farewell between Starbuck and Lee had a certain finality. It would make total sense that Starbuck for some reason is never coming back -- though of course, that's extra-narrative. For Lee, he was just leaving Galactica and the pilot milieu. But, perhaps, a heartfelt farewell between the sparring pair for viewers who've been privy all along ... 

But most of other scenes served to set up new threads:

* Tory taking one for the New Four Cylon team by cozying up to Baltar, who has another new buddy, Imaginary Baltar.

* Starbuck and Helo, off to find Earth her way. Seriously, did Adama just send her so everybody would be spared her "we're going the wronnnnnnnnnnnggggggggg waaaayyyy!" meltdowns? Put her back in the air – good move.

* A lot of trouble aboard the Cylon HQ. One batch of skinjobs is lobotomizing raiders (aren't there zillions of these?); the others have upped the thought mechanisms on a bunch of angry centurions. It was kinda shocking when the centurions unloaded into the dissenting Cylons, but how dead are they? And won't they resurrect even madder? A lot of the Cylon stuff feels rushed and confusing – why can't Cylons consider the Final Five? Why is there dissent among numbers, per Boomer? Free thinking is breaking out all over! I anticipate (and hope) the Cylon dramas will sort out into logical threads that will alos likely involve Galactica folks and/or the New Four.

* What about the raider that won't shoot Sam and called off the attack? There is still a war on – it was a quick throwaway but 600 people on one ship were vaporized at the start of Episode 1.

* Lee's off to law. This is something a stretch for me – plus, don't they need pilots more than attorneys? -- but presumably some as-yet-revealed legal or political battle will absorb him. Maybe the rebelling Cylons need a mouthpiece? Or the New Four?

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