Sunday, March 31, 2013

Is McIlroy another Duval?

After another unimpressive performance at the  Shell Houston Open by Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy—the PGA’s latest Great White Hope/Dope—Tiger Woods has for the time being reclaimed his rightful position at the top of the golf world. How could he not when we’ve seen this all before? Remember David Duvall? He had a run at Tiger from 1997 to 1999, briefly claiming that Number One position in 1998. But Duvall was already going downhill fast when he won his only major championship, the 2001 British Open; if fact, since that highpoint of his career, Duvall has gone winless on the PGA Tour. Others, like Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson, hung around the fringes for awhile; but despite  impressive win totals,  they never really seriously threatened Woods’ perch for long. 

And now we have the new Golden Boy, and largely by default since the competition was largely comprised of pretenders. McIlroy wasn’t exactly lightening up the world on the European tour anyways; through 2012 he started 115 tournaments, and won a grand total of five. He has had relatively better success on the PGA tour—with six wins in 54 starts through 2012. But 2013 has not been kind to him; although not terrible, he has not been in contention in any of his PGA tournament appearances, and the #1 ranking he briefly held has melted away and disappeared; all it took was a few huffs and puffs from a revitalized Tiger to blow that media-created house of cards down.  

Since he was the anointed the “heir apparent” by golf commentators and fans eager to write Tiger off since his “troubles” dating from November 2009, there has been repeated efforts to artificially puff-up McIlroy, even after it has become clear that he is a head case who might not be psychologically ready to maintain the steely determination needed to dominate an individual sport the way Tiger has done for over a decade. Here is to hoping that Tiger makes golf “fans” who always begrudged his success wait a few years longer—by which time McIlroy may very well be just another barely-recalled pretender.

I’ve seen a video of a two-year-old Tiger Woods carrying his little golf bag with its plastic golf clubs on the set of the Mike Douglas Show; guest James Stewart was predictably game, but Bob Hope just stood there with his hands in his pocket, as if thinking to himself “Do I really have to waste my time watching this little black boy pretend to be a golfer?” Douglas had a bucket of balls ready, thinking this tiny tot might need more than one try; instead, Tiger nailed the first shot, to the awe of the audience. The down-to-earth Stewart actually picked up the tee that flown off, but Hope still just stood there, hands in pocket, with a patronizing look on his face, unimpressed. Little Tiger didn’t seem much impressed either with himself either, as if this was as natural to him as breathing.

Is Matt Flynn's long and winding road to a starting job near its final destination?

I don’t think much about the quality of play in women’s basketball, but hang me if those morons in stripes called a foul on Baylor’s Brittney Griner—the most dominant player in the women’s college basketball game and should in the pro game, provided the WNBA doesn’t suffer a probably deserved mercy killing—with 2 seconds remaining after leading her team back from a double-digit deficit against Louisville, allowing some nobody to make two free throws and score the upset. In the men’s game, the officials never would have called such a pissy-ant foul to decide a game--especially for a team that had wasted such a big lead. 

But that’s not the sports topic for today. It seems that Matt Flynn’s long and winding road is heading toward Oakland. Of course, since Flynn is not a “proven” commodity (neither was Russell Wilson, but he passed over Flynn because he was so “exciting” to watch for the little kid in Pete Carroll), there are still some variables to work out.  These include what to do with Carson Palmer—who put-up big numbers but was largely ineffective in making them translate into victory on the field—and whether Flynn will accept a contract restructuring. The fascinating aspect about all of this is that the teams that have a expressed interest in acquiring Flynn (including Jacksonville) all have ties to Green Bay when Flynn was drafted. Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie—like Seattle’s John Schneider—all believe that Flynn is a potential diamond-in-the-rough who only needs a deserved opportunity; Schneider knows that he let Flynn down by giving him the impression that Carroll was “onboard” with his acquisition, when in fact this was not the case at all. 

While some sports commentators in Seattle grudgingly assumed Flynn would start, there was little in the way of enthusiasm for this prospect. Even Flynn’s huge day that previous New Year’s Day did not compute in the minds of most. The assumptions remained such until Wilson was drafted, and suddenly people remembered how impressed they were at Wilson’s performance at the NFL combine, as well as  with his “winning” personality. It was all over for Flynn after that; the tepid “enthusiasm” became a “why him when we got this other guy we just love to pieces”? Yes, Wilson was exciting to watch as a rookie who took unprepared defenses by “storm.” But I still believe that Wilson is one hit to the knee away from being at best a hit-or-miss proposition like Michael Vick, or a liability on the field like Robert Griffin III was in that playoff game against Seattle last season. 

This lack of enthusiasm for Flynn apparently travels well. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson told John Clayton that it would be a “mistake” for the Raiders to trade draft picks for Flynn, because Flynn is still an “unknown” commodity. That’s what they said before that New England game, and they were still saying it months after Flynn tossed for nearly 500 yards and six touchdown passes against a Detroit team that was playing right to the very end for playoff position. I’m tired of hearing this garbage; Flynn may not turn out to be what some of us are  convinced he can become, but we won’t know for “certain” unless he is given a fair chance. No one knew who Kurt Warner was until he literally came out of nowhere at the age of 28, years after no team drafted him, and led St. Louis to a Super Bowl victory; the level of “shock” by Warner’s unexpected success was illustrated by the Sports Illustrated cover story “Who is this Guy”? All he needed was a chance. The only difference between the two cases is that Warner had the benefit of an outstanding receiving corps coming in, and Flynn in Oakland may not have the benefit of such. 

The reaction locally to a likely trade of Flynn seems to be mostly one of relief. Most commentators are comforting themselves with the notion that all they need is a retread veteran who can win the team a couple of games if necessary, or draft one; all they ask otherwise is that they not threaten Wilson’s position. Admittedly there are one or two people have a somewhat belated understanding of Flynn’s talents, enunciating concern of why trade Flynn when the possibility of Wilson going down is perhaps greater than most due to his “style” of play. On the other hand, one has the suspicion that others simply don’t want Flynn around because he might repeat the kind of performances he had against Detroit and on the road against New England, and fans might feel more comfortable with someone who plays more like Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers than Wilson. 

In the final analysis, this is a town where politics is important, so Flynn had to go. Here is one Green Bay Packer fan who hopes that Flynn will finally get his chance, if not in Oakland then elsewhere; as for Seattle, I think I’ve made my views sufficiently transparent.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Seattle Times once more shows its anti-Latino bias

David Neiwert, author of a number of books on far-right extremism, has just published a new tome entitled And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border, which chronicles the murder of a Mexican immigrant and his 9-year-old daughter by a gang of nativists led by Shawna Forde—a “star” of the “Minuteman” movement who learned the creed of race hatred in the state of Washington. Neiwert points out something that some of us have known for a long time—that the issue of illegal immigration provides a cover for many to act out on their racist inclinations, and sometimes those inclinations entertain violence. 

Of course, the media has done its best to poison the atmosphere, especially cable news and right-wing talk radio. One might expect print journalism to take the time to uncover facts rather than further excite the darkest recesses of the human mind, but this is seldom the case. Take the Seattle Times, for example. It is perhaps not surprising that the Times has a decidedly insensitive posture toward Latinos, as does the city in general; by last count the newspaper had exactly two people with Spanish surnames working in the vicinity of  its newsroom, and they are probably “white” in any case and clearly have no influence on how the Times—save perhaps a negative one—portrays Latinos on its pages. The Times certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as a “progressive” newspaper in a “progressive” city; oh, it satisfies the narcissistic gender politics and victimology crowd, and recently ran outraged headline stories concerning the Justice Department’s investigation into why black students have a far higher school suspension rate than other demographics. But it habitually throws Latino-tinged red-meat to its right-wing and “populist” readers to satiate their need to find scapegoats.

The Seattle Times behavior is hardly the exception in print media. In a post last year, I mentioned a report sponsored by the Pew Foundation concerning the way Latinos—who make-up over 16 percent of the population—are reported in the media; it found that  “From Feb. 9 to Aug. 9, 2009, only a fraction of all news stories studied contained substantial references to Hispanics -- just 645 out of 34,452. And only a tiny number, 57 stories, focused directly on the lives of Hispanics in the U.S.” That tiny number could even be said to be “inflated,” because 40 percent of those stories were concerning Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. In general, most stories in regard to Latinos are in reference to Latin America, immigration and the drug war. The personal experiences of Latinos in this country are generally of little interest to the mainstream media.

However, one would expect a “liberal” newspaper in a “progressive” city to buck the tide? How many examples have I given that demonstrate that precisely the opposite is true? This is a city where certain groups jealously guard their “victim” status, and it certainly has no room for Latinos, no matter how much prejudice and discrimination is in evidence; I recall former P-I columnist Robert Jamieson writing of his “surprise” at the ugly, racist comments about Latinos he heard when he attended a community meeting concerning the placement of day labor center in a mostly black neighborhood. Jamieson was honestly reporting the situation; you won’t get that kind of honesty from the Times. Instead, you get the negative slant on a story that puts Latinos in worst possible light.

For example, illegal immigration stories always focus on “law-breaking,” the “theft” of jobs and the “cost” to taxpayers. Nothing about the motivations, struggles or desires of the “illegals”—which are no different from the European masses who arrived here, who before the 1924 immigration law needed only the price of ship fare and a stop at Ellis Island and an examination for communicable diseases to be declared “legal.”  Few in this country seems to have any understanding of the fact that there is a huge difference between crossing an ocean and  a river to come into this country—and that has been the reality for thousands of years before Caucasians ever came to this land. 

Not only that, but the U.S. and Mexico are so closely tied to each other economically that the U.S.’ discriminatory immigration policies makes no sense whatever. Of the one million H1-B visas issued each year, only a tiny fraction are issued to Latin American immigrant workers doing seasonal labor; it is as if U.S. policy makers are willing to allow just enough illegal immigrants in to fill the labor needs, while making the usual public show to satisfy the anti-immigrant crowd. The irony, of course, is that the vast majority of visas go to immigrant workers with high-level skills for which there is allegedly a shortage of natives with the requisite skills. Whether this is a critique of the state of education in this country, the shortage of college students earning  degrees in STEM fields, or employers merely wishing to hire transitory labor at the cheapest rate, the fact that xenophobes (in or outside the media) are focusing all their energy on people who have far less effect on the natives’ standard of living and opportunities demonstrates just how much race and racism is the factor that Neiwert charges it is in his new book. 

Immigration isn’t the only topic where the side of the story that deliberately puts Latinos in the worst light is usually the one highlighted. Drug violence in Mexico is typically used to show a country which is dangerous even to walk outside in the morning. Yet the reason why drug violence is at the state it is in is because of the competition to supply the U.S.’ insatiable appetite for illegal drugs.We also recently encountered a story concerning Boeing being criticized for “encouraging” its suppliers to purchase parts for the 787 from Mexico, which amounts to little more than nuts and bolts. Yet why is this so much worse that whole sections of the 787 being built in Europe and Asia? There’s been little more than whimper about that. 

And just the other day a story appeared in the Times concerning used lead acid batteries being shipped to Mexico for recycling. As usual, the accusation is that American jobs at U.S. recycling plants are being “stolen” by Mexico, because the country has the bad manners to have much more lax regulations than the U.S.; there is even a map provided showing the “illegal” route where these batteries are being shipped out of the country. And Mexicans are only too "happy" to have this “lucrative” traffic. 

The Times treated this story as if it was the latest “exposĂ©” of devious, American-job killing dealings south of the border. But this story isn’t “new.” In December, 2011 the New York Times reported how many American auto parts and battery manufacturing companies were attempting to skirt tougher lead recycling regulations by shipping batteries to Mexico; some of these companies were actually building and running their own plants in that country. But the New York version of the Times didn’t stop there; there were, after all, real people in Mexico where these facilities were built. The Times reported that 

Mexican environmental officials acknowledge that they lack the money, manpower and technical capacity to police a fast-growing industry now operating in many parts of the country, often in dilapidated neighborhoods…But for much of the past decade, at the vast recycling compound of Industrial Mondelo here (30 miles north of Mexico City), batteries have been dismantled by men wielding hammers, and their lead melted in furnaces whose smokestacks vent to the air outside, where lead particles can settle everywhere from schoolyards to food carts. Officials of the plant, has been given more than a dozen citations and fines for lead emissions and improper storage of dangerous materialsThe recycling factory has put a neighborhood of children at serious risk of lead exposure, said Marisa Jacott, director of Fronteras Comunes, an environmental group in Mexico City. Ms. Jacott wants to test young residents living near the plant but lacks the money to do so. The town’s elementary school is on the same block as the recycling plant, which recently moved the bulk of its operations to a larger facility elsewhere. Lead pollution remains in the ground for decades.

There was nothing in the Seattle Times story that even intimated what is happening to people and communities in Mexico—and nothing about how, as one observer put it, “We’re shipping hazardous waste to a neighbor ill equipped to process it and we’re doing it legally, turning our heads, and pretending it’s not a problem.”   The New York Times story, on the other hand, charged that while “American vigilance focuses on drugs and illegal immigrants, there is little effort to stanch the flow, with the Customs and Border Protection agency dealing ‘mostly with imports,’” according to an agency spokeswoman. In fact, while the U.S. border agents largely ignore the “export” of hazardous waste into Mexico, Mexican border agents have their hands full preventing this U.S. “immigration” problem. The New York version of the Times also accused U.S.-based “middlemen” of greed in the process, maximizing their profit margins by legally shipping—or illegally smuggling—lead to low-cost recycling plants in Mexico.

Thus there are two sides to every story, and the fact is that “other” side of story is often much more disturbing than the one media like cable news outlets and newspapers like the Seattle Times chooses to report. The only explanation for this is that bigotry against Latinos “sells” better than the more disturbing truth.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A musical interlude

At the Grammy Awards last month, two vaguely “retro” songs received top honors; Record of Year—which takes into account writing, producing and performance—went to Goyte’s “Someone I Used to Know,” while Song of the Year—which recognizes the quality of the composition itself—went to Fun’s “We Are Young.” I have to confess that I recognized neither one of these songs, which I assumed was due to not receiving much airplay on what passes for Seattle’s “top-40” radio stations, still dominated by rap, hip-hop and other urban “music.” It pains my ears to think that this is what succeeded the sweet sounds of Motown of the Sixties and Philly Soul of the Seventies, and  barely kept on life support by Lionel Ritchie in the Eighties; those days are long gone, and it will be the misfortune of many a generation that it is likely never to return. There has been a few instances where today’s “artists” have “covered” old tunes with proper song structure that didn’t require electronically-altered vocals or bizarre singing gymnastics to call attention to the narcissistic “artist” rather than the song; unfortunately, there is no evidence that the great songs they cover have any influence on them creatively; the old chestnuts are merely rendered unrecognizable and incomprehensible. More usually, we have Beyonce—who can’t hold a candle to Diana Ross, the vocal prowess of whom made a great song greater—whose theatrics makes the mediocre songs she sings as substantial as a tasteless soufflĂ© in comparison.

Anyways, on principle I don’t usually watch the Grammy’s anymore because I just don’t care about what I see or hear. But in the quest of a topic I long wanted to address—the constant recycling of the same dozen songs on the “hits” radio stations for months at a time—I decided to check out last year’s number one hits on the Billboard’s principle Hot 100 chart and see just how ossified the “pop” music scene had become. I decided to give a listen to a half-dozen songs—the abovementioned pair, Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” Maroon 5’s “One More Night” and Katy Perry’s “Part of Me.” I chose these songs not merely because they were chart-toppers, but being a fair-minded kind of guy, they offered the best chance of capturing my ear. 

This was frankly a deprived lot to choose from. The reason why the “hits” of today have such a long shelf-life is simply because the pool to choose from is so light. Hits of the past did typically have a short “shelf-life,” but that was because there were dozens of other potential hits waiting in line. Consider: In the 104-week span that encompassed the years 1974 and 1975, there were 70 Number One hits. Of course, there are those who question the validity of chart equations from that time, but to my ear almost every song of the pre-Soundscan era that topped the charts was legit. 1974 and 1976 were my favorite years for hit songs, and the year-end Top-100 countdowns left out many a big hit. One of my favorite songs of 1974—Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love”—was a number one hit, yet it failed to make the top 100 hits of the year (on the other hand, his “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up” did make the chart, even though it “only” peaked at number 4). 

The decline of the top-40 began in the 1980s, although at first it wasn’t noticeable when listening to radio airplay. But the weekly AT-40 saw an undeniable trend: The obvious hits quickly advanced into the top-ten, while it was a rare commercially-viable song that populated 11 through 40, unless it was song on its way up or down, or a song from an establishment star going out of style but still having a loyal fan base (like Elton John). This was in stark contrast to the Seventies. I have the original broadcast of the AT-40 countdown of March 3, 1974 on mp3; I have a very selective ear, but there is not a single moment where I feel the need to fast forward. Even songs I dislike on principle, like Tom T. Hall’s “I Love”—“I love music, when it’s good” my ass—at least offers a curious contrast when side-by-side a truly sublime song like the Moments’ “Sexy Mama.” The eclecticism inherent of the era was present—Gordon Sinclair’s spoken-word “The Americans” was an improbable “hit,” and  the novelty song “Spiders and Snakes” displayed a sense of humor that is entirely absent from today’s music, where the self-pitying dreck of Adele (that decent James Bond theme excepted) has its multitude of adherents and critical acclaim (which says a great deal about the society we live in now);  maybe it is something like the Mad magazine caricature I recall, that suggested that anyone with a British accent can sell you a bag of dog doo. 

Even the “instrumental” was still going as strong as it had during the previous two decades of the so-called “Rock Era,” with the Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love’s Theme” having topped the chart three weeks prior;  the fact that the pop instrumental has been dead for at least two decades demonstrates the lack of attention to musical production and musicianship generally. There were of course some minor hiccups in the downward trend that began in the Eighties, but my favorite record of that decade is The Essential Bangles compilation—mainly because the Bangles’ "retro" sound had very little to do with the Eighties. 

By the 1990s the advent of the new Soundscan system turned everything on its ear—especially when Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind—from which there was not even one crossover single—debuted at Number One on the pop album chart and stayed there for 18 weeks. While the Soundscan method might more accurately reflect sales, it has also acted to close-off “alternative” styles before they have a chance to become commercially viable. Some music critics have decried the fact that the music industry—by “milking” dry the commercial “appeal” of a limited number of songs and styles—has kept opposing styles out of the mainstream and thus limiting their potential to encourage a major shift away from the urban “music” which seems to have continued virtually unchanged for almost 20 years, and thus discouraging artistic development. It would appear to me that Grammy voters recognized this when they gave “We Are Young” and “Someone I Used to Know” top honors, and they wanted to encourage a “change” in direction. In the past, black music was the mover and shaker; now the arbiters of musical direction seem incapable of movement.  The failure of “hit” radio to supply an eclectic variety of music means that young listeners are not being exposed to different potential influences. 

But I digress. That usually happens when I talk about a topic that is such an important part of my existence. I don’t generally discriminate against musical genres; that a song is tight and tuneful is all that matters. Remember the character of Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather? He was played by Al Martino, and I have several of his songs on my mp3 player, and how could I ignore songs by  rock and roll haters like Frank Sinatra (“That’s Life”) and Dean Martin (“Everybody Loves Somebody,” used in those Western Union commercials from the 90s). I also have room for such “lowbrow” fare as Spike Jones’ 1942 “Der Fuhrer’s Face.”

I’m not “above” the classics either—Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” the third movement from Rachmaninoff’s piano Concerto No. 2, and Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from the Nutcracker Suite all occupy some precious space on my $15 USB device. I didn’t listen to this stuff when I was a kid; I can only explain it by the fact that much of Seventies’ music utilized lush orchestration that had much in common with classical forbearers, and some artists were more overt in their reverence to classicism; in 1972 the group Apollo had a top-ten hit with “Joy” which was direct from Bach, while the Walter Murphy Band did a disco take on the “Fifth of Beethoven,” and Eric Carmen “borrowed” from the second movement of the aforementioned piano concerto in “All By Myself”—although the song’s finale almost certainly is copped from the third movement rather than the second. 

Alright, now back to the issue at hand.  Taylor Swift is supposed to be a country “artist”—“country” meaning a “final” bastion of “traditional” music? I don't think so. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”—her first number one hit on the mainstream chart—has that electronically-altered vocal I despise so much. Swift writes some of her own material, I understand (and not necessarily with 15 other “writers” on the same song), and while the title of the song might seem to fit right in the Country Canon, it is unfortunately about teenage angst and self-involvement, and has nothing to do with about real-life experience or self-examination. Having achieved success at an early age—meaning she didn’t “pay her dues”—anything Swift has to “say” is lacking in credibility and has nothing to do with Country music’s traditions, which spoke to difficulties in just getting by in love and life. 

Rihanna’s “Diamonds” is supposedly influenced by Soul and Eighties music. Sorry, I was there when the “soul” era peaked in the Seventies, as well as being quite familiar with the Eighties’ “Me Generation” pretensions. “Soul” was a musical form that had emotional integrity, and was often propelled by lush string arrangements.  Rihanna’s singing on “Diamonds”, as is typical of contemporary artists when they make feeble attempts to bottle the magic of the past in a new formula, is monotonous and emotionally uninvolving—made worse by a one-note drum track that betrays the absence of “rhythm” and a barely-there music track. 

 I will simply say about Maroon 5’s “One More Night” is that it represents the final nail in the coffin of the group’s abandonment of the pop melodies of its debut album Songs about Jane. As for Katy Perry’s “Part of Me,” I’ve said in the past that I actually like a couple of her songs, but not this bone-dull tune, which seems to be this narcissist’s critique of her equally narcissistic ex-husband. Perry’s fans might take offense at my calling her a narcissist; after all, she has only released four-count-them-four DVDs with the following titles: The Outrageous World of Katy Perry—The Story of Katy Perry; Katy Perry - Good Girl Gone Bad; Katy Perry: The Girl Who Ran Away; and the latest, Katy Perry The Movie: Part of Me. Are you kidding me? And none of these are actual concert videos—that is the only “part” of her I'm interested in.

That leaves the two songs that received the top honors at the Grammys. “Somebody I Used to Know” is composed by the Belgian-Australian musician Goyte, and sung by him and someone who calls herself Kimbra.  The song has a certain lightweight poignancy, something about a man who thought he was in a relationship “right” for him, but which turned out to be a fraud. But the song itself doesn’t “stick.” The instrumental track is minimal, with only a quirky xylophone adding any texture to the musical background; thus such lazy lines as “And that feels so rough” and “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over” become doubly awkward and cringe-inducing. 

That leaves Fun’s “We Are Young.” Now this song sounded promising; it has an irresistible “hook” and the power-pop vocal is propelled by it, rather than trying “create” something out of nothing. Even the keyboardist is given something to do on the musical track; Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis would be appreciative even with this tepid effort. However, I don’t recall ever hearing this on the contemporary hits radio stations; if I had, I certainly would have remembered it. There is no doubt that this is so far afield from rap and hip-hop that holds sway on those stations that you can only find “alternatives” on outlying “alternative” radio; but the song’s success is demonstrative of the fact that there is an audience that hungers for “alternatives,” and while I don’t see this in any way an indication that a new musical era is right around the corner, the fact that even Grammy voters appear to want a change from same monotonous sound year after year suggests that traditional song structure, melody and singing is not completely dead, and still has a waiting audience.