One among the musically challenged

When it came time for Caitlin’s birthday, I remembered something she’d mentioned on Twitter (I think) about the inherent romance to be found in making someone a mixed tape.

I, of course, fancy myself a romantic and have a goal of being the best boyfriend ever, and thus immediately set about making such a tape.

I stared taking notes as I listened to my iPod, cataloguing songs I thought would be great for a compilation that could explain how I feel and pretty much be an amazing gift. I got together a pretty decent list over the next two or three months, then went about figuring out just how the tape would be laid out.

Not long before I got close to thinking about the final product (and procuring the many implements necessary for recording  a cassette tape in the age of the mp3), Caitlin and I had a conversation about music. More than one of the songs I’d chosen for the list (of which Caitlin was completely unaware) came up in the conversation. And of course, it was a conversation about crappy music.

Music comes up as a topic of conversation a lot in our relationship. This is something I really like. Caitlin is incredibly well-educated when it comes to Rock and Roll, specifically classic rock, and she can speak intelligently about all manner of bands, topics, songs, movements and genres. She knows a ton and we talk about it a lot.

Comparatively, I know almost nothing about music. Where Caitlin’s upbringing included tons of music – the movements of the ’90s coupled with extensive time spent listening to classic rock in the cars of  her parents, afternoons in front of record players and digging through vinyl collections belonging to her parents and the parents of her friends – I was subjected to bad late-’80s, early ’90s pop.

My musical education was as such: Top 40 hits that sucked on the easy listening stations that populate Detroit, thrust upon me in my mom’s car. When I was with my dad, despite his being a musician, I had little exposure to anything noteworthy. I remember a lot of Van Halen – not much else.

I spent a long time struggling with music in my youth. I was late to the party on bands, radio stations, MTV, and owning and operating CDs, to the point of it actually affecting my identity. After all, I didn’t do well as a kid as far as self-esteem, and here was yet another way in which I was inadequate, uneducated, and completely uncool.

People would ask me things like “What do you listen to?” and “What’s your favorite band?” and I had no answer to give them. In a lot of ways, that was really tough. When you struggle to interact with other people your age and can’t even connect on ground so common as music (and for a seriously long time – I was probably 12 or 13 before I bought my first CD and by then it was a survival necessity), every time someone asks you something stupid and simple like that, you wince.

When I was really young, I owned a total of maybe three cassettes. One was “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Coming Out of Their Shells,” one was Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” (which my dad had a copy of by coincidence and gave to me), and one was “Dookie” by Green Day, which I lost or otherwise destroyed. Green Day would later become one of my favorite all-time bands, but there was a long gap between those first tapes and figuring out a musical identity.

It’s worth noting that you get this impression of being a freak if you don’t know anything about music. It wasn’t that I’d never listened to music – it’s that I spent so much of my life hating the music to which I was forced to listen. I spent so much time reading and watching movies and playing video games that the music I really liked was stuff by John Williams and, later, Japanese composers responsible for game soundtracks. I found myself hating Billy Idol and Paula Abdul and similar pop garbage.

So whenever anyone brought up music, I had nothing to say, and worse, when I was directly questioned I had no answers.

Ever known anyone who can’t say, “Yes, this is the kind of music I like?” Or who didn’t even know what the kinds of music were?

I started to grab hold of and hold tightly to whatever bands I could. This way I had: 1. Something to listen to and become familiar with, which meant being able to speak in a (somewhat) educated way about at least something, and 2. Something to point to in order to prove I wasn’t some kind of freak/diminish my status as a nerd-dork.

When I found a copy of Aerosmith’s greatest hits CD, “Big Ones,” among my parents’ albums, I grabbed it. I listened to it like crazy. Aerosmith was a respectable band, right? They had a fairly modern sound, one which people wouldn’t fault me for liking, right? It wasn’t about what the music sounded like – it was hitting a mark so that I could survive socially. Later, I saw Bush play “Swallow” on “Saturday Night Live,” and thusly picked up “Razorblade Suitcase” and started telling people how Bush was now my favorite band. Again – modern sound, cool guys that other people knew, who filled a social need and not much else.

It wasn’t until much later that I actually started to learn something about music. It was considered “cool” to watch MTV in the middle school era, and I tried that for a while, but I really found the station irritating. So eventually I stopped playing that game. I got further into the pop punk movement from friends, and before long I was just keeping up with them. In sixth grade I snagged a CD of “Dookie,” I stole from my dad’s CD collection, and I started burning CDs from other people.

About that time I got heavily into video game music and instrumental/classical type stuff. I still knew absolutely nothing about rock, but I was finding that I wasn’t really into the music available to me on the radio. At least I was finally starting to pay attention: By high school, I was building what I thought was a diverse, eclectic music collection that spanned genres and periods, leaning more and more heavily on classic rock.

Still, I struggled to talk to people about music. A friend of mine on CMU’s Ultimate Frisbee team was driving us to a tournament my freshman year. He asked me what music I liked, fumbling and stuttering I said “punk,” and then immediately afterward realized I didn’t mean punk, but the shitty modern iteration pop punk, and this kid was a real punk guy and knew what he was talking about. He asked about The Clash. I responded sheepishly about Green Day and The Offspring. We didn’t talk about music again.

But by the end of college I’d created what I thought was a decent musical identity, and I had a distinctive taste, and I knew what sounded good even if I didn’t know the history of it, and I could say definitively what was bad.

Then I met Caitlin M. Foyt. Then I started trying to make a mix tape that would both be a physical manifestation of my feelings for her and a tape to which she’d actually want to listen.

I started panicking.

My list sucked, I decided, and it was extremely obvious that Caitlin’s taste far outpaced my own. Often when we drive together, listening to my iPod, she blasts past numerous songs on which I would have lingered, finding more obscure things, or songs from genres I’m not used to and bands with which I’m less familiar. She’s usually, if not always, right when it comes to musical taste – but I’m painfully aware that what I might choose is stuff she’s been into, listened to extensively, learned about, and subsequently moved beyond.

Four or five nights I stared at the list for four or five hours each. I spent two whole nights going through all 4,600 or so songs in my iTunes arsenal, trying to decide what should go on the list. I ended up with a vat of more than 100 songs from which to choose.

Next I polled people I knew. Musically, Nick Hurwitch for a long time has been my touchstone, so I went to him. Courtney, Caitlin’s sister, knows her better than anyone, so I asked what she thought. Both sent me in directions that really helped.

But what changed the project and made it work was realigning my perception. There were some things I had to consider: First, that I’d likely never come up with a decent enough list to really impress Caitlin, because I simply didn’t know what I was doing; Second, that the tape could still be a success if it became more than just a simple mix.

The tape needed to tell a story.

It made a lot of sense. I’m worthless as a musician or music critic – but as a writer, I could potentially create something Caitlin could appreciate on a level beyond the weakness of my taste and understanding.

Suddenly I wasn’t picking songs based on how good they were, but whether I thought she would like them, and more importantly, on how well they interacted with one another.

The story I came up with is sort of strange. The tools at my disposal – other people’s creative work cobbled together in a short list of 17 songs – are blunt as hell. And it’s not our story (although that’s what I’d originally hoped for), because, again, I just didn’t have the tools.

But it’s a story close to our story. It’s similar to ours, it hits a lot of the right notes (so to speak), and that’s definitely the inspiration. It’s more fiction than not, unfortunately, but it’s a love story, and I think it’s a powerful one.

I haven’t given Caitlin the tape yet. I’m writing this the  morning of her big surprise birthday celebration, planning to post it Sunday, so I don’t know how she’ll react. But I feel good about it.

The whole experience opened my eyes to some things that I’d never really thought consciously about (now documented at length, as you’ve just read): Basically, how little an impact music has had on me as a person – a case that seems to be really at odds with most people my age, and most people in general. While I was reading and extensively watching movies and television shows, all of which had extensive impact on crafting my personality, other people were being angstily shaped by the things they were hearing.

I never got there, and I’ve come to realize – that’s weird. Which is why I like the conversations Caitlin and I have together, even though she often gets self-conscious because she feels like she’s talking at me. Really, it’s because I sit quietly and take in everything she has to say, and not because I don’t like the topic.

It feels like I’ve come a long way in musical development in the last nine months: further, likely, than in the last nine years. It’s one of the many bonuses of dating Caitlin. The test, I guess, will be her reaction to the mix tape. Regardless, her passion for music (and a lot of other things) is rubbing off. I love being in a relationship in which I’m always learning.

For anyone interested, here’s the playlist. Some of it’s a little weird, as it’s kind of a big inside joke, with much of it pertaining to us only.

“Chosen Carefully,” Caitlin’s birthday mix tape
1. “Who Will Comfort Me,” Melody Gardot
2. “Scattered,” Green Day
3. “Wish You Were Here,” Pink Floyd
4. “Molina,” Creedence Clearwater Revival
5. “Lips Like Sugar,” Echo & The Bunnymen
6. “Magic Dance,” David Bowie
7. “Anti-Gravity Love Song,” Incubus
8. “Stuck In the Middle With You,” Stealers Wheel
9. “Bad Things,” Jace Everett
10. “Just Like Heaven,” The Cure
11. “In Your Honor,” Foo Fighters
12. “The Perfect Drug,” Nine Inch Nails
13. “Please Read the Letter,” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
14. “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough,” Cyndi Lauper
15. “Love You Madly,” Cake
16. “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” Death Cab for Cutie
17. “Sure As Shit,” Kathleen Edwards

‘Whip It’ excels through phenomenal casting, and a ‘Paranormal Activity’ review too

11874295_gal Two words elevate “Whip It” from predictable teen angst-underdog sports movie to a fun and funny roller-derby hit: Ellen Page.

Actually, that’s simplifying things a bit. It’s the entire cast, led by the capable Page who hits her tried-and-true off-beat irritated teen mark. But among the ranks are Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Alia Shawkat, and even Juliette Lewis (who I normally kind of hate), all of whom do well to take this movie up a notch and bring the audience into the roller derby scene much more than if the roles had been filled by less-memorable players.

Bliss (Page) floats through her tiny Texas town life being mostly miserable. At 17, she bounces from being dragged to beauty pageants by her mother, being outcast in her high school, and being stiffed for tips at her waitress gig.

Then she happens to witness a few roller derby players dropping off fliers in a head shop/shoe store in nearby Austin. Bliss grabs a flier, sneaks off to the event, decides to try out – joins the losingest team in the league, becomes a breakout success, and so on.

All these things are the standard fare in movies such as this, and director Barrymore doesn’t do much that’s exactly out-of-the-box. What she does, however, is give her ensemble room to breathe and to have a ton of fun with the film.

First, “Whip It” is populated with some funny people. Shawkat did a hysterical turn on the now-defunct “Arrested Development,” and Wiig is a “Saturday Night Live” alumna who has been doing small and varied character parts in most of the big comedy movies of late, including “Extract,” “Knocked Up,” “Adventureland,” and “Walk Hard.”

Lewis is a more-than-capable superbitch and even Jimmy Fallon, the league’s game announcer, manages to maintain his funny (even though he comes dangerously close to losing it because Barrymore gives him much more screen time than he deserves, or maybe can handle). Smaller roles are played just as well, and all the roller derby teams are populated by actresses that look mean, run with the roles and pass their good times onto the audience.

Then there’s Page. As in “Juno,” she nails it, bringing her usual power and pain to moments of teenage hardship and triumph. You’re right there with her as she struggles to make her parents happy and balance her own needs and wants. Her emotions bleed through at all points, whether she’s crying with her mother, angrily confronting her parents, or wailing around the roller rink, equal parts excited and terrified.

The rest of the movie may be fairly standard, but it’s a testament to its direction and its cast that “Whip It” still works exceedingly well. It’s not the deepest film ever made, but it’s plenty fun.

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Scares and atmosphere plentiful in hyper-hyped “Paranormal Activity”

12269069_gal The theater experience is pretty essential to enjoying “Paranormal Activity.”

It’s an extremely simple movie. One camera. Two actors, three tops in any given scene. One set – the interior of a house, including living room, kitchen, bedroom and attic. That’s all.

But what could be relatively low-key and unimpressive in “Paranormal” is extremely elevated by experiencing it in a packed theater full of screaming, gasping patrons. Everyone else jumping right along with you brings up the scare factor by quite a few degrees.

Which is why the marketing for the film is almost as good as the film itself. Limiting the release, gathering attention via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and giving potential audiences the option to “demand” the film in their town serve to keep most showings sold out. The one I attended in Ann Arbor had people lined up down the block – on a Thursday. In its second week.

The premise of the movie is simple, and not all that new. Borrowing from “The Blair Witch Project,” the movie’s principal actors, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, hang around their house and hear creepy things. Katie’s been more or less “haunted” all her life, and after moving in with Micah, things have gotten a little creepier than usual.

So the couple decides to keep a camera running to capture the handiwork of the apparent ghost. At first it’s minor things: Keys jump off a counter in the middle of the night and unexplained footsteps sound through the house. Nothing too strange.

But things escalate, mostly due, it’s assumed, to Micah’s cavalier attitude about the ghost (he’s all like, “This is so cool,” much to Katie’s chagrin). The creepiness increases, mostly while the couple sleeps.

The methodology of the movie lends it a lot of support. Shot on that one hand-held, we get the impression of reality even though we’re likely dealing with many standard camera tricks. That said, the leads know how to sell what we’re seeing. They do a phenomenal job of interacting with each other, freaking out steadily and increasingly, and bringing back levity to the situation during the daylight hours. Tension is released slightly, but only as a contrast to an ever-growing plight that takes place when darkness falls.

“Paranormal” expertly builds this tension. The slow-burn of weirder and weirder things happening is just enough to keep audiences worried, and as I mentioned above, the shared excitement of a packed house only heightens the experience.

The movie also chooses its moments well. It speeds through hours of footage of the couple sleeping to reach the juicy parts, but even this speed-up tactic brings its own sense of anxiety. We know when the film slows down to normal speed at 3:14 a.m., not only is something about to happen, but the characters still have another three or four hours to sit in the dark and deal with it. And occasionally, the time-lapse shows us just how frightening and how extensive the paranormal activities can be.

Meantime, daylight scenes are filled with just enough exposition about the ghost, its origins, and what to do about it that the story is pushed forward without the audience being overburdened. Movies like this have a tendency to lay things out like a blueprint: It’s a poltergeist, a specter or a demon; here’s what it’s after, here are its powers, here’s how to get rid of it. Call this number, bless this room, sprinkle this dust, say these prayers.

“Paranormal” gives the characters enough to do so that they’re working against the … activity, so to speak, without handing them a surefire method of exorcising the evil. All these choices lend to the dread that builds steadily over the course of the film to its understated, well-designed climax.

If you have the opportunity to see “Paranormal” in a theater, even with the high degree of annoyance that accompanies large crowds of freaking moviegoers, I highly recommend checking it out. For all the hype this film has received, it deserves most of it and it will scare you. Especially in a room of 100 other scared people.

Creating the journalism Spam State

I’m working on a diatribe about journalism in general, but I need to temper and hone my argument better before I post it here. In the meantime, I’ll comment on a smaller portion of the evolving journalism industry: Citizen journalism.

Everyone’s got an opinion as to the evolution of the industry right now, but the ones that drive me the most crazy are these advocates of citizen journalism. Not only as a working journalist, but as a member of this society, I feel like full-scale citizen journalism will be a horrible development.

I’ve spoken at length with Caitlin M. Foyt about this idea. She likes the idea of citizen journalism in a lot of ways – instead of one perspective on events, you get many. You get eye-witness accounts of said events, and different people’s first-hand knowledge of what happened, from diverse voices.

It sounds great, and in certain instances and under certain circumstances, it is. Crowd-sourced news can be great.

Provided there’s a filter.

But often there isn’t. The idea that any clown from any place can write any thing on the Internet and not only are we going to believe it, but we’re going to encourage it, scares the hell out of me. I went to school to do this; if we educate people to do it, probably there’s something important to learn about doing it.

The consideration of ethics, of what’s fit to print and what should be held back, about doing harm when harm is unnecessary or mitigating collateral damage against the innocent, were all major subjects of study during my time at Central Michigan University.

Citizen journalists have no concept of ethics. There are plenty of things that most people don’t think about until after the fact – like the publishing of names of accused people, for example, or of photos showing people in compromised situations. Like at the moment of their deaths.

Not to mention that there’s nothing stopping all these random contributors from just posting whatever they want. Just because you have the name of someone who’s been arrested, or a rape victim, or whatever, doesn’t mean it should be public information.

There’s also nothing stopping these people from running rampant and publishing anything they want, true or not, verified or not. Or pushing their agendas and sculpting the news to fit their world views. All these things, all these biases, are supposed to be avoided by professional journalists. While this doesn’t always happen the way we’d like, at least we all recognize that we’re supposed to try to practice journalistic ethics.

Yes, citizen journalism can be extremely useful in certain situations. My favorite example is a car crash. Lots of eye-witness perspectives of people who happen to be there can bring clear focus to an event that has the potential to be confusing after-the-fact. In that regard, I like citizen journalism, because many accounts mean more of the picture is revealed.

But for a crime? For a government meeting, or a new bill going through the state senate, or anything concerning the rights of the accused, or corporate malfeasance, or any number of other things that newspapers and journalists are supposed to cover and cover well – no, thank you. No citizen journalists can handle things like that.

For one, they don’t know how. Two, they don’t know, or don’t care, that everyone is entitled to certain rights and that you protect those rights. Accused criminals are innocent until proven guilty, even if they’re accused of molesting children or murdering grandmas and puppies. But blogs and Internet comments ALREADY are rife with people leaping to conclusions, convicting people because they’ve been arrested, calling for public executions (really – that happens on newspaper comments all the time). These are the people I’m supposed to trust to give me the truth?

And that’s the other thing: What truth is there when there’s no one looking over your shoulder, making sure you get it right? The best part of the journalism industry is that reporters can’t just make things up (usually). They can’t just put together a story with only one side of things told. Because there are laws. There are editors. There are people who know better reading things over and saying, “You haven’t done a good enough job of meeting our standards.”

One of my major problems with journalism today is that these standards have become far too lax, but they still exist – unless you’re talking about a blog, or a citizen journalist, who not only doesn’t have these rules and this oversight, but has no idea what these journalists and editors are even looking for.

Any reporter will tell you, people are routinely trying to push their story ahead of everyone else’s. Even sources don’t recognize the need for fairness. How can people who write the news fairly when working part-time, for free, without education?

So I’m supposed to read these stories written by untrained, uneducated citizen journalists and find what in them – truth? Trust? Facts? How is it better to let people who have not only no financial stake in the story, but any number of conflicts of interest because they are NOT WORKING JOURNALISTS, create the news? What we’re giving people at random is the power of the press without any of the responsibility or preparation, and we’re pretending like it’ll be better for the country.

If a story is written about the impropriety of a used car dealership by someone else in the used car industry, how is that proper? A former employee – do we trust that? What about a competitor? At what line do we decide that no, your work is not to be trusted, but yes, this guy’s is? And how do we check random people out? If a story comes from random citizen, how do we know that his or her sister-in-law isn’t the owner of a dealership, or friends with someone who was fired, or even just a customer who got taken for a ride? How do you cleanse the news of all these agendas when ANYONE is allowed to push their stories like they’re fact?

Crowd-sourcing and citizen journalism have their place – as a supplement to the work of reporters. As a watchdog effect in which citizens, who SHOULD be gathering their own information, both add those perspectives to and call out reporters on the information they’ve found. But those facts contributed by anyone off the street must be checked out.

A journalist friend of mine mentioned on Twitter the other day what a source of citizen journalism the 10-million-plus user network Facebook could become. He suggested using its college network setup to create huge, crowd-sourced outlets for campus news.

On its face, it could be a good idea, but to me, that’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever heard of. Most of the people I know on Facebook can barely put together two sentences. Ten million idiots throwing content at the wall and calling it news? It’ll be an inundation of unsubstantiated mud-slinging, name-calling, and agenda-pushing. You’ll be getting the Dennis Lennoxes of the world spreading lies, propaganda, and defamation, coupled with the sorority clones and fraternity clowns making sure everyone knows about their philanthropy, fundraiser and party this weekend. And that’s just some of the b.s. that will populate a crowd-sourced Facebook news program.

What you’ll barely hear about, if at all, are the things that matter – tuition raises, actions of campus police, crime, security, administrative moves, changes in classes. And even if you do, how will you be able to find them, read them, and believe them in the face of all the garbage you’ll have to wade through? And what will these news stories be, except people bitching about paying more with “I’m not happy about this because it effects me” mentality?

You’re creating a spam state of journalism.

And there’
s just too much at risk. The power of the press is too great to try to create the news out of a compilation of random bits of information contributed from people with no filter. And no amount of seminars, workshops, or three-hour training sessions with real journalists is going to create journalists out of random people. They need real schooling.

I’ve been learning and practicing good journalism for the last eight years of my life. That’s why I’m qualified to write a news story – and editors will still read it over, make sure it’s true, and hold me accountable for every word that story says. Is that really something we want to surrender to the Internet just because it’s more convenient to let Bob, Jim, Sandy and Marsha write down what they see?

It’s a bad idea because journalism is no longer about the quantity of news produced, or the speed at which that news is found – it’s now about quality.

We’re going to figure that out real soon if we keep ignoring the fact that trained journalists know how to write stories that are good in favor of something that’s cheaper, faster, and above all, less trustworthy.